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File 137868073486.jpg - (209.83KB, 700x1000, 9bea0912c971f483728ef31cdd29f8ff.jpg) [iqdb]
1188
Veterans, your stories go here. See the rules thread at >>/gensokyo/11756
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1202
You lay in your warm, soft, safe bed, content and happy. After a long, hard day you're ready to just relax and drift off to dream-time. Hopefully, you won't have any dreams about your personal slice of hell, that small figure which has been following you around, stalking you, for... how long has it been now? Weeks? Months? It feels like an eternity.

It shouldn't have come to this. All you ever did was try to be friendly. One day, you were at the market and saw this tiny, confused figure flitting around with a list of groceries in her tiny hand. Taking pity on her, you helped the adorable little figure find her groceries and saw her on her way, pleased at how you were able to do a good deed.

It should have ended there. It didn't.

She started showing up everywhere you went. Just watching you. Staring at you. Staring endlessly with those dead eyes. And every day, she got a little bit closer.

And then things started to happen.

If you talked to a pretty girl? Something bad happened to her, like the time that Mystia lady's hair got lit on fire almost right after you left her stall. You were just flirting a little bit, enjoying each other's company. Then you turned to leave, and got about ten feet away when you heard her screaming. Mystia wound up in the Eientei clinic for days. But what you remember most was that little figure, its head just peeking over the top of Mystia's stall. Staring at you. And then it raised a little blowtorch in one hand.

Only you know what really happened that day.

Then there was the time that someone bumped into you on the street and swore at you before walking away. You glowered at the asshole before brushing it off and heading on home. There were just people like that in the world, right? Minutes later, you came running at the sound of blood-curdling screams, rushing to find the same man clutching at a shattered knee. He didn't know what had happened. No one did.

But you knew. You knew as soon as you saw it, blowing a loving kiss your way that chilled you to the bone and made your blood run cold. You didn't even need to see the club it grasped.

And then there were the presents. Photographs. Tiny undergarments. Mementos from the people who had wronged you. Terrifying letters that made it quite clear that you would be together some day. You WOULD be together.

But how could you ever tell anyone that you were frightened of a cute little doll? How could you convey the sheer terror that those empty eyes gave you whenever you looked into them? No one would believe you when you tried to tell them. And so, you've been alone in your suffering.

But here, at least, you are safe. Here, the tiny terror refuses to enter. Some sort of prohibition against entering a house uninvited? You don't know. You don't care. All you know is that here, in your warm, comfy bed, you are safe. That is all that matters to you.

And so, you close your eyes and begin to drift off to sleep, luxuriating in the softness of your lovely bed. After so many stressful days, you've come to appreciate the simple pleasure of a good night's sleep.

A tiny hand gently strokes your cheek.

Your eyes shoot open. No. No. Please, no. Not here. Not in the sanctuary that is your house. Is nowhere safe?! Knowing that there is no hope, knowing that you are doomed, you slowly turn your head to the side, dreading to see what you know awaits you.

Framed by blonde hair, dead blue eyes stare back at you, unblinking, as a jointed hand strokes your face lovingly before reaching out to you with a grasping motion.

With a decidedly unmasculine scream, you vault out of bed, scrambling towards the far wall. "Wh-what the hell are you doing in my room?!" You shout at the tiny figure.

The doll sits up in bed and stares at you with its usual blank silence. It almost seems to ask you what all of the fuss is about, as though a stranger showing up in your bed wasn't cause for alarm. Even when that stranger is a goddamned animate doll!

The doll simply cocks its head at you and pats the space where you were just resting. At the frantic shaking of your head, it seems to huff in annoyance and then... wait, where did that pen and piece of paper come from? It just pulled them out of nowhere, and now the thing is writing a message, which it turns to show you:

DARLING, COME BACK TO BED.

"You gotta be kidding me!" You choke out.

COME BACK TO BED. YOU NEED YOUR REST, MY SWEET LOVE. COME BACK HERE, WITH ME.

You shake your head frantically, and the doll stands up placing one hand daintily on a hip. Wait, is it... is it wearing miniature lingerie?!

COME BACK TO BED, SO THAT I CAN TAKE CARE OF YOU. I CAN MAKE YOU FEEL SO GOOD, MY LOVE. COME BACK TO ME. NOW.

The doll holds a hand out expectantly. You don't move. You can't move. It's painful just to stand there, wondering what the little creature will do next. After a moment of stillness, the doll's hand closes into a fist and it straches out a new message furiously.

COME BACK TO BED. NOW.

Those horrifyingly still eyes don't move away from you. Trembling with fear now, you back away slowly, towards the door to your bedroom. Those eyes follow, betraying no emotion. You open the door, and back out. In a flash, the tiny monster launches itself at you, arms outstretched, hands curled into claws.

GET BACK HERE.

You slam the door behind you, and stand there, panting heavily, as something smacks into it with a satisfying sound. Brief relief shifts immediately into horror as the doorknob begins to turn, and you grasp it desperately to keep the door from opening. After a few frantic moments where you to keep the knob from turning, the doll on the other side goes back to pounding on the door with what has to be its entire body. You can almost sense its rage, its fury...

And then, silence. There is no sound other than that of your own terrified breathing. Has... has it given up.

You are answered by the sight of a huge knife stabbing through the door and beginning to cut through the wood with insane strength. Shouting in horror, you spin away and sprint through the house towards the front door. Never mind that you're in your pajamas, you have to get out of here! Get to somewhere public, wait out the night, and then throw as much money as you need to at the shrine maiden for her to get this thing away from you! Making your way to the door, your grasp the knob, throw back the lock, and-

Nothing.

The door refuses to open.

Oh gods, you're locked in here with that thing!

Quiet footsteps sound behind you, and you turn slowly to see the doll sauntering towards you with obscenely lifelike motions, dead eyes locked on your own, her every movement meant to heighten her artificial charms. It is appalling, watching as the ball joints shift in a twisted parody of sexuality.

I SEALED THE DOOR SO NO-ONE WOULD DISTURB US, her card reads. More come, being written and tossed to the side as she continues to write, never taking her gaze off of you. IT'S JUST YOU AND ME. NOBODY WILL DISTURB US. WE HAVE ALL NIGHT. NOW COME BACK TO BED. OR I WILL MAKE YOU COME BACK. The last card is thrown to the ground with a sharp smack that makes you jump in your skin. Her eyes don't convey anger. They don't convey anything. They're just there, empty circles that stare at you uselessly.

How could anyone have made such a horror?!

The doll is nearly at your feet. It's carrying... a needle and thread?

I'LL SEW YOU INTO BED IF I HAVE TO. THAT WAY YOU'LL NEVER GET AWAY. EVER. WE WILL ALWAYS BE TOGETHER, NO MATTER WHAT.

You whimper and creep away from the terrifying, tiny figure that relentlessly pursues you.

HAVEN'T I ALWAYS BEEN THERE FOR YOU? I'VE WATCHED YOU WHILE YOU SLEEP. I KNOW ALL OF YOUR DEEPEST SECRETS. ALL OF YOUR FANTASIES. I GOT RID OF EVERY WHORE WHO WOULD DARE COME BETWEEN US. CRIPPLED ANY LOUT WHO WOULD DARE TRY TO HARM YOU. AND YOUR BOSS, THE ONE WHO WAS SO HARSH TO YOU?

The doll starts to hover in the air.

NO ONE WILL EVER SEE HIM AGAIN. THIS IS WHAT I DID FOR YOU. NOW. RETURN MY FEELINGS. LOVE ME.

Shouting in a panic, you turn and run away. There has to be a way out... you have to get away! A glance over your shoulder reveals that the doll is now flying towards you as quick as deadly wind. A single sign is clutched in its hand.

LOVE ME. YOU WILL LOVE ME. I WILL MAKE YOU LOVE ME.

You charge into the study and slam the door behind you, immediately barricading it as best as you can. A frantic, enraged pounding comes from the other side as your pursuer tries to break through. you have to move more over the doorway! That sturdy bookshelf, the chair, the desk... anything to keep it out!

Finally, your labor is done and you step back to survey your work. There. Now, there's no chance that the little horror will break in. You should be safe until dawn, and then you need to get some help. Sighing, you turn to dig out the spare futon from the closet.

The window. There are dolls outside the window. So many dolls, all staring at you with their dead eyes. All identical, all staring, and there are just so many...

Is one of them working on the latch with a piece of wire?

It is. And with a quiet click, the mechanism is sprung, and the dolls begin to float into the room. Lead by one familiar doll in particular, wearing a miniature wedding gown, its cold, fake eyes never leaving yours. Behind it, more dolls follow, carrying needle and thread, lengths of ribbon, and... a tuxedo.

DARLING. YOU MAKE ME SO SAD BY RUNNING AWAY. The doll gets closer. BUT I KNOW WHAT TO DO. I HAVE TO SHOW YOU HOW MUCH I LOVE YOU. Closer now. The dolls are everywhere. There's nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. WITH MY SISTERS AS WITNESSES, I WILL BECOME YOUR BRIDE. AND LIKE A GOOD WIFE, I WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU.

The tuxedo comes closer. A tuxedo whose limbs have been sewn together, preventing the wearer from ever moving.

AND ONE DAY, WHEN YOU LOVE ME BACK, I'LL LET YOU MOVE AGAIN.

The dolls move forward to dress you, and bind you, while another dressed up as a priestess begins to leaf through a book of prayers while you whimper helplessly.

FROM NOW ON, WE WILL BE TOGETHER.

FOREVER.

You open your mouth to scream, but it is far, far too late.
I shivered. Good work.

>>1202 Alice is wondering which one will go first. Your sanity or your will.
File 13793935158.jpg - (168.45KB, 850x991, are you my prince.jpg) [iqdb]
1211
The gentle winds of autumn blow the stray hairs off of Yukari’s somber face. The forest is alive in its death, crickets chirping in the afternoon and leaves changing color in their demise. A yellow sun, balancing on the edge of the horizon, dips under the ground. The daisies, dahlias all fall limp and await their slumber. The colors that were vivid from months past are now a dull sheen of what used to be. The trees, stripped of their leaves, are bare; naked.

Almost as naked as the youkai crawling out of the brush, throwing out her wild yellow hair. Two fluffy tails are all that covers her body, though not by much. The bush rustles as she kicks off the stray leaves that cling to her feet. “Hello.” She cheerfully chirps, waving at Yukari with no sense of shame. “Have you come to visit me?”

Yukari quizzically raises an eyebrow at the strange fox-girl. “Fox, by what basis would you even think that I came here for you? We’ve known each other for about a minute now.”

The fox youkai tilts her head at Yukari, her yellow eyes tracing over her new acquaintance. “You are here, and I am here. I think by that reasoning alone would be sufficient enough.”

Yukari is both entranced and annoyed by this whimsical girl. The more Yukari wants to know, the more irritated she feels. “So,” the Manipulator of Borders asks, “Are you a friend or an enemy?”

The Tricky Fox Girl quips, “Neither. I don’t even know you.” She grins cheerily.

“But you said that you thought I was coming to visit you!” Yukari impatiently huffs at the fox.

The young youkai claps enthusiastically. “Yes! That is absolutely correct!” She beams with childish energy, tiptoeing to directly look into Yukari’s eyes. “But I don’t know you yet. Yet being the key word~”

“Has anybody ever told you that you’re a troublesome brat?” Yukari icily utters.

“No, never!” The fox responds with a bright smile. “It’s because I’m all here alone, by myself! You’re actually the first person I met.” She puffs out her chest proudly, but all it does is flaunt her exposed body. Yukari’s expression of doubt prompts her to reply again. “Honest! All the other foxes never spoke for some reason. Probably because they were just foxes, most definitely not as clever as I!” She puffs out her chest again.

The border youkai opens a gap in the dimension, pulling out a white dress with a blue print in the front. “Alright, okay. I understand. But cover yourself up already! I don’t need you flailing your naked body towards me.” She throws the dress, draping the fox youkai entirely with the garment. “It’s one of my old ones, but you can have it.”

“An old what?” The fox speaks underneath the dress, muffling the voice. “I don’t know what this thing is.”

“For gods’ sake!” Yukari grabs the dress abruptly, throwing it over the fox. Unkempt yellow hair pops out of the head-hole. Golden eyes shine eagerly at the border youkai.

“What’s this, what’s this?” She bounces up and down. Her arms don’t fit through the sleeves, so it drags down with the rest of the dress. “Is it a new kind of cage? Are you going to eat me?” She giddily questions, not in the least bit worried at her well-being.

“No, no, no, no!” Yukari shakes her head with more conviction for every “no” she yells. “It’s clothes, honey. It’s a gift.”

The fox creeps closer to Yukari. “A gift!” She clasps her hands in embarrassment, blushing. “I’ve never gotten a gift before! This is very exciting!” She does a little twirl, making the dress swoosh in the wind. The now-red sun gives the fox youkai a luminescent glow.

“Beautiful, but don’t do that.” Yukari pulls the dress down for the girl.

“Ah. I realize now that we’re already at touching distance.” She takes a minute to think, sitting very still. Then her curious, round eyes light up. “I understand now! You want to tame me.”

Yukari crosses her arms in confusion. “Tame? What do you mean?”

“Domesticate, cooperate, make contact and then a contract~♫” She recites this by song. “To tame is to establish ties.” She reiterates with a goofy smile.

“Establish ties?” Yukari asks, intrigued by the discussion.

“Yes indeed~” she nods. “A wise fox once said that, which passed on for generations!”

“I see.” Yukari broods, tracing the fox’s face with her fingertips. The girl complies, but fidgets during the process. “But why tame?”

“Because! You’re nothing to me.” She mentions coolly. “You’re nothing more than another resident of Gensokyo. I don’t need you; I don’t even need to talk to you! Nor do you have the right to care about me. And I, you.” The fox’s eyes glint in the setting sun. “But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. We’ll care for each other. Then you’ll be my master, and I’ll be your loyal companion. I will live for you, and you will support me. We will depend on each other.”

“Clever fox, you. Have you always been a charming one?”

“Nope! Before, I’ve always been a fox! Only recently have I become what I am now! Whatever it is.” The girl looks up at Yukari with expectant eyes. “I’m very useless right now! Between being a fox and a not-fox, I don’t know how to hunt and I fear I may die of starvation soon! It’s been a couple of days~”

“Attacking me with my sympathy, aren’t you? Are you doing this on purpose?”

The golden eyes greet Yukari again. “Doing what?”

“Never mind. I will tame you.”

“Yay~” The fox jumps up and down unsteadily.

She is tamed.

“You are tamed.” Yukari declares. “Do you have a name?”

“No, but you’ll give me one~” The fox says.

The border youkai pauses, thinking of a suitable name for the fox. “Ran.” She unsteadily pauses. “Ran Yakumo. I’ll bestow you my family name as well. You are Ran Yakumo, companion of Yukari Yakumo.”

“Ran. I am Ran~” The fox, Ran, cheers her own name.

The sun, now completely below the horizon, disappears and lets the dark of the night take over. “It is night. I shall take my leave.”

“I will cry when you depart, my most cherished Yukari.” Ran looks toward Yukari. Small tears line the fox’s eyes.

“Why should you cry, fox?” Yukari asks Ran.

“Because I am tamed and my master must leave.” Ran answers Yukari.

“Even though you said I should tame you?”

“Yes.”

“Then why did you ask me to tame you?”

“Because I care for you.”

“But you didn’t before.”

“I do now.”

“Then why?”

“It’s worth it.”

“Is it?”

“You run the risk of crying if you let yourself be tamed, but you also run the risk of finding happiness.”

“Dear Ran, what if I said you can come along with me?”

The fox’s eyes shimmer in the darkness. “I would come along!”

“Then come along.”

“Remember this truth, then!” Ran Yakumo, companion of Yukari Yakumo, announces. She tags along behind her master. “You are responsible for what you have tamed. Be it good or bad, you are now responsible for your fox~”

Yukari scoffs and grabs the young Ran’s hand. The fox in turn squeezes back tightly, walking closer to the border youkai. A gap opens, but the girl does not jump back in fear. Her master is with her. Yet she sniffles a little.

“What is wrong, dear fox?” Yukari soothes her companion.

“I am happy,” replies Ran Yakumo.

“Ah, I see,” replies Yukari Yakumo.

They enter the gap. In the cold wind of autumn night, the forest was quiet in its death, not one cricket chirping. The blue moon draws attention to the silence of the trees. The daisies, dahlias disappear in the black night.

“Emotions are truly mysterious.”
File 137941049625.jpg - (22.54KB, 240x320, spelunking.jpg) [iqdb]
1213
"Exterminate a yōkai, one that has committed terrible offenses against man, and only then will you be a true Hunter."

Those words echo in my head as I hike through the forest, golden sunlight my only companion.

I stop in front of a rocky crag, a large hole on its side leading into pitch-blackness. I can feel the unnatural taint exuding from the gaping mouth, like cold slime oozing down my back. A knife slips into my white-knuckle grip, six inches of Hakurei-blessed steel my only protection in the hunt I am about to undertake.

It feels painfully inadequate.

I look at the surrounding forest one last time, savoring what will be my last taste of fresh air for some time. The lantern in my off-hand provides me with flickering illumination when I enter the cave, casting deep shadows across the stone. Hardly twenty paces in, I come up against another hole. Peering through it reveals a stone staircase, going down as far as I can see.

I speak a silent prayer to any god who will take it before I descend the uneven steps, forced to take it slowly unless I'm of a mind to trip. My lantern provides enough light to see far down, but if anything waits at the bottom, it will assuredly see me first. My hackles raise at the thought, and I stop, listening closely for anything that might betray another's presence.

Nothing.

The lack of noise does little to soothe my anxiety, but I force myself to press on regardless. The earthen walls grow almost suffocatingly close as I go on, and the air itself chills, only serving to remind me of how far I am from the safety of the surface.

When I finally reach the bottom, another hole opens up into a moderately-sized chamber, and I blanch at the rotten stench that assails me once I step inside. The walls have been painstakingly smoothed, decorated by indecipherable glyphs. A single large hole in the middle leads further into the cave's depths. I cautiously move through it, past twists and turns aplenty, and the rotting air takes on an almost tangible quality, growing worse with every step forward.

My feet stop of their own accord when I round the last corner, the seemingly-endless cavern ahead shocking me into numb silence.

Human bones carpet the ground as far as I can see, far too many of them small, each and every last one marred by jagged teeth-marks. Tiny skulls stare blankly at me, crushed and shredded. Dried blood coats the walls, flaking off in droves and filling the room with a nauseating metallic odor.

How many have died to satisfy this beast's hunger?

Suppressing the urge to gag, I walk into the seemingly endless field that stretches before me, every step crunching bone underfoot. After a solid minute of walking, I set the lamp down and steady my footing.

"Yōkai! I have come for you! Show yourself!"

My voice echoes through the chamber, bouncing off the walls and far distant ceiling. It dies slowly, leaving me shrouded in oppressive silence.

Seconds tick by.

There is a low, throaty rumble behind me, and hot breath brushes against the back of my neck, standing my hair on end.

"You smell delicious."

I spin around, knife darting out, and cleave nothing but air. The only sign that anything was ever behind me are the bones freshly crushed into powder at my feet.

A deep, rasping laugh echoes throughout the chamber.

"Pathetic girl." It says, voice smooth as silk. "I will pick my teeth with your ribs."

Droplets of sweat roll down my forehead, and I take a deep, shuddering breath to steady myself. "Your crimes are many, monster, and your punishment is long overdue."

It laughs once again. "Of all your kind who have perished here, you believe you are somehow different? That you will be the one to end me?"

I glare into the inky dark, righteous indignation overcoming my fear. "Gods willing."

As if to punish my choice of words, something slams into my side hard enough to send me flying. I land in blackness, hitting the ground hard and rolling to a halt, bones crackling underneath me as I go.

"Foolish child of the sun, your gods cannot help you here."

I pull myself to my feet just in time for the beast to smash into my groaning ribs yet again, and this time something cracks. Pain, pure and blinding, hits me with all the force of a falling tree, and I cry out as I tumble through the air. The landing is worse this time, every bump as I roll along garnering another gasp. My hand comes back slick with blood when I touch the wound, and I blink away unbidden tears.

"You are already broken, little one." It says, sick glee coloring its voice. "Grovel at my feet, and I may yet consider letting you live to spread the tale of your defeat."

I defiantly rise to shaky feet, doing my best to ignore how badly I'm hurting. My eyes fall on the distant lantern, and I'm grimly certain that I'd never make it back to the light if I ran.

"Your arrogance offends me." I say, every word painful to force out. "The only way this ends is with your death."

Air whistles as it comes for me, silhouette flashing in front of the lantern's light.

This time, I am ready.

My steel flashes out, a spray of scarlet flying as it strikes true; the chamber echoes with a wordless, inhuman roar as the beast's arm catches alight from the divine power imbued within the blade. I can make out few details of the creature's appearance, save for how it resembles a distorted, pale mockery of a man, gangly limbs stretched out and twisting at sharp angles.

I sprint as it desperately tries to beat the holy flames into submission, but once it becomes clear that its current efforts are inadequate, it arrests the rapid spread of fire by wrenching the offending arm off, golden ichor spraying out of the wound as if fired from a hose. Manifold red eyes focus on me as I thrust directly at its belly; its remaining arm intercepts my hand at the wrist, gripping me with bone-crackling force. I yelp as it tightens its hold, lifting me up and dangling me close enough that I can look it right in the eye.

It bares jagged, blackened teeth in a rictus smile.

"You will suffer for this, girl."

My wrist snaps underneath the pressure, and I can't help but shriek in pain.

"When you lie shattered at my feet, every passing moment an eternity of agony, only then I shall leave you here to rot."

It swings me overhead, and my knife flies from slack fingers just before I smash into the floor. I black out on impact, consciousness returning just in time for me to feel the full brunt of the second slam. The third crushing blow leaves me flat on my face, my entire body shrieking with pain.

The creature releases me, its joyous laughter ringing in my ears as I crawl away as fast as I can, tears stinging at my eyes. My breathing is shallow, ragged, choked by the coppery blood filling my mouth. The creature's footsteps crunch bone behind me as I keep crawling, thick coils of dread settling in my stomach.

I don't want to die.

I really don't want to die!

God!

Anyone!

Help me!

Please!


Something wooden pokes at my hand in my desperate scramble, and I grip it tightly. The touch of cool metal as I slide my thumb further up is enough for me to realize that, whether by divine providence or sheer dumb luck, I've managed to crawl across my knife, and the terror enveloping me is tempered by newfound hope.

I lie still, hiding my potential salvation within the folds of my dress.

The crackling footsteps cease directly in front of me.

"Finished already? You disappoint me, child."

A claw wraps around my head, digging in hard enough to draw blood, and hoists me upwards until I hang limply in the air, nose-to-nose with the grinning abomination, its breath burning my eyes.

"Only now, at the end, do you realize-"

I jam the knife into the side of its neck with as much force as I can muster, terminally interrupting whatever else it planned to say. It stumbles back, roaring wordlessly as flames spread across its body. Its hand on my skull tightens into a vice-grip, trying to crack my head like an eggshell.

"Burn!" I say, stabbing again and again and again and again and again. Its grip falters, dropping me to the ground with the blade still stuck in its throat; it screeches as it beats at the purging fire. I crawl away as fast as my body allows, its screams echoing behind me and intermingling with the crackling of burning flesh, until all sound abruptly ceases.

When I look back, there is nothing left but my blade atop a pile of ashes.

I... I did it?

Gods above, I did it!

I can't help but weakly laugh in relief, despite the pain coursing through every inch of my body. I'll be able see my family again, watch another sunrise, and live.

Above all else, I can hold my head high when I return, able to boast of a feat few can compare.

I am now a Hunter, one of mankind's stalwart protectors, and I am proud.
>>1213
Horray!
File 137981492824.jpg - (511.73KB, 840x800, Zero_dogs_involved.jpg) [iqdb]
1217
Sakuya Izayoi stands before you, her body ready to jump into action as she awaits your next move. You still haven't managed to land a single hit on her, not in this fight nor in any of your earlier ones. She's just too damn fast and nimble. Every swing of your sword finds nothing but air as she perfectly predicts your every move and jumps away, occasionally followed by a quick counterattack. At least her famous time stopping powers seem to be limited – she doesn't seem to be able to stop time instantly, and has never once used it to escape your sword.

You take the opportunity from the brief lull in the battle to catch your breath and let your wounds heal. She should be in worse shape, being a frail human, but you can't see any signs of fatigue on her. She is definitely an exceptional human, so maybe she simply has enough stamina to fight a heated battle for thirty minutes without issue. In any event, she does nothing to press the encounter and simply stands there, knife in hand.

A quarter minute of rest is all it takes for your wounds to stop aching. Her knives are dulled, as per the rules of danmaku combat, but still more than enough to tear through your clothes and bruise your skin. You can deflect her knives with your sword or block with your shield, but she throws so many so quickly that it's impossible to stop them all. That's how the fights always go – she throws an endless torrent of knives and slowly wears you down, then finishes you off once your wounds become too severe.

“Oh? Are you down to a single knife, Izayoi?”

She smirks slightly at your comment, mocking how you've apparently revealed your ignorance. “Oh? Have you forgotten that I can just pick up more, Inubashiri?” True to her word, a slight flick of her wrist reveals four more knives already in her hand, hidden behind the first. While her ability would explain how she never runs out of knives, you've never actually noticed any disappearing from the ground. Granted, you've always been a bit preoccupied during your fights, but it still seems odd that you'd never actually see them vanish from the ground. Is she just always running to some storage to pick up “fresh” knives?

The fight resumes with Izayoi throwing the set of five knives at you. Your sword is faster than your feet, so you move your arm to bring your sword into position. They're spaced out too far for your shield to reflect more than one, but the length of your sword will let you block two or three, easily. One knife is headed for your right thigh, while two are aimed for your chest. The other two will miss if you simply stand still, and were thrown simply to prevent dod – No. The fourth knife will strike your right elbow if you move your arm to block the two aimed for your chest. You almost fell for her trap, but you can block that with your shield. Or can you? Will the fifth knife strike your left arm, or will it simply graze your side? You think it's safe, but she is a master of trickery. Are you simply miscalculating? But you have no choice – you must block the chest knives, and you must also block the elbow knife. You'll just have to suffer through the impact to your thigh.

A burst of pain from your shin knocks you off balance. Another knife?! You never saw her throw that! The pain is bearable, but enough to make you lose your concentration for a precious second, stopping you from blocking all of the other knives. Your shield luckily catches one that was aimed for your chest, but you still suffer blows to your chest, thigh, and elbow. You howl from the agony of the dull knives driving into your flesh and bouncing off onto the ground. Far preferable to “real” sharp knives, but it's still an extremely quick moving bar of solid metal.

And the fight ends. Unable to defend yourself due to the pain, Izayoi takes the opportunity to charge you and deliver a solid flying kick to your chest. She doesn't weigh that much, but her strong legs aided by her powers of flight allow her to kick hard. The blow knocks you off your feet and onto your back, causing you to lose your grip on your sword and shield and drop them to the floor.

Another loss.

“That makes another victory for me, Inubashiri. I remain undefeated in our little skirmishes.” She's probably curtseying right now, but you're too busy groaning to watch. “Do you require Meiling's assistance? Shall I help you up?”

“Ugh... Yeah. Thank you.” You open your eyes and look at her again, fully calm and composed now that she's not in the middle of a fight. Her hand is extended in aid; you take it and pull yourself up. She's not very strong, but it's still better than nothing, and the gesture is certainly appreciated. You've already recovered a bit, and there certainly wasn't any permanent damage, so you don't need to see Miss Meiling, but you wouldn't mind chatting with her anyway.

“Do you need me to guide you, or can you walk on your own now?”

“Ah, no. I'm fine. Thanks for the offer. Oh.” You give her a quick bow, and continue. “And thank you for the match, Miss Izayoi.”

She curtseys again. “You are welcome, Miss Inubashiri. I look forward to our next match.” You turn around and walk away towards the gate, leaving the maid to resume her other duties.

Miss Meiling is standing in front of the gate with a small company of fairies. She notices you immediately and gives you a cheerful wave as she walks towards you. You're probably a scruffed up mess after your fight, but Miss Meiling is used to seeing you like this by now.

“Evening, Momiji. Lose another one?”

“Yeah. She's just too fast. I had her on the run for a while, but she just kept wearing me down with those knives.”

“How many is that now? Thirty? Forty? More?”

“Ugh. I don't even want to think about it. Far too many. I just want to defeat her once. She's just a human! I'm a white wolf tengu, and yet I can't defeat her! It's infuriating!”

“Well, she's not just a human. She's the chief maid of the mansion. But for now, we need to get your wounds cleaned.” With that, you take your shirt off and fully expose your numerous bruises. They've mostly healed by now, but Miss Meiling does have very useful ancient Chinese remedies to eliminate the pain and reduce scarring. She can't do anything about the numerous tears in your clothes, but you can just take those to a seamstress in the mountain, and send Aya the bill. It's her damn fault you're in this situation in the first place.

Some months ago, Aya had run out of material for articles and decided to generate her own. By assaulting the Scarlet Devil Mansion. She pulled rank and forced you to come along; her plan was to get you inside and take wonderful action shots of your glorious victory, painful defeat, or brilliant stalemate with the vampire master, Remilia Scarlet. After literally blowing Miss Meiling aside with her fan, she followed you inside the mansion until you were stopped by your soon-to-be nemesis and Chief Maid of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, Sakuya Izayoi. The plan was to simply brush the human aside with your superior youkai strength, and maybe Aya would add her in as footnote to the article.

Except that didn't happen. Instead, the human maid easily defeated you and ended your “assault” in less than five minutes. You underestimated her, certainly, but in your mind it was simply impossible for you to lose to any human, save for the invincible shrine maiden of paradise. Aya didn't care and was happy with the material, right up until Miss Izayoi started making comments about “fried crow.” Aya left you behind as she ran away, but you didn't care – you wanted a rematch, right away. And then you lost again, but at least fared slightly better. As the days passed, you returned to the mansion frequently and challenged her over and over again, losing every single time and usually needing Miss Meiling to help patch you up. Aya didn't care after the first match, but you did. Your pride is on the line with each confrontation – and each loss makes defeat that much more humiliating.

“There! All done!” You sit up and put your clothes back on, now that Miss Meiling has finished. You really need to take her out drinking some day to repay her kindness. Preferably once you finally defeat Miss Izayoi. You thank her and head back to the mountain. Your current approach isn't working, so you need to sit and think about how best to attack that maid. Fighting her always seems odd – she should be able to defeat you much more easily than she normally does. Dragging a battle out for even fifteen minutes should give you the advantage, due to your superior stamina. And yet, she always chooses to wear you down gradually, no matter how long it takes. She should be powerful enough to simply crush you, thanks to her timestop, but she never fully utilizes it. Hmm.

-----------------------------------

You return to the mansion a week later. Meiling greets you as you approach the gate, and you give her a quick cordial response, but you're here for a purpose. She's a warrior too, so she understands if you aren't interesting in making any small talk. Once inside the mansion, you quickly track down your target.

“Izayoi!” you shout as you draw your sword, “I am here for our rematch!” Most of the nearby fairies flee from the sound of your voice, helping to clear the arena for your upcoming fight.

She turns and stares at you for a few seconds now that you've interrupted her work. Not that she minds; you're pretty sure she enjoys the break, and has never once turned you down.

“Good evening, Miss Inubashiri,” she says with a curtsy. Hmm? She usually drops the formalities immediately. “I will fight you in a minute. The mistress has requested that she be notified of all of your appearances from now on, so that she may witness our fights if she so chooses. Please wait here while I inform her.”

Without giving you any chance to respond, she slowly walks away towards one of the many hallways connected to the foyer. That's the closest to a rejection you've gotten, putting you at a loss as to what to do now. All you can think to do is just lean against the wall and wait for her return.

She's certainly taking her time. Ten minutes pass without any word from Miss Izayoi, or even any of the random fairies fluttering by to apologize for the delay. Then the mistress of the mansion enters the room with your opponent following close behind. Miss Scarlet says nothing to you and simply stands at the side, watching you. You don't really mind having a spectator, even if it is someone as imposing as Remilia Scarlet, but you weren't planning on having an orthodox fight today.

Izayoi walks towards the center of the foyer and readies her knives, standing about 40 feet away from you. You ready your sword and shield and step sideways, the two of you slowly circling one another. The two of you have fought so many times that you both already know how this will go: You will charge in and go for a quick win, while she will endlessly drag out the fight and slowly wear you down with her knives. But not today.

Nothing happens for a full minute. You continue just walking around, each of you waiting for the other to move. Miss Scarlet might be thinking that the tension is a wonderful sight... but it's far more likely that she's bored out of her mind. Her presence might be useful – you want Izayoi to move first, and her desire to please her mistress might force her to act sooner.

After another fifteen seconds, she finally makes her move. She charges towards you, quickly throwing two volleys of four knives each to lead her advance. You stay defensive and easily deflect the first with your sword and block the second with your shield. The knives were close together, and just intended to distract you – there was no chance they'd break through your guard. Izayoi already has a new set of knives ready: four in her left hand, but only one in her right. She tosses another easily-blocked volley immediately before entering melee range, then immediately opens with a flurry of blows from the knife in her right hand.

Her footwork is impressive, as always. She presses forward, aiming her knife for your extremities while keeping her balance to allow her to flee from your attacks – not that they ever come. You dodge most of her swings easily now that you aren't attacking, as she typically lands blows while your forward momentum prevents free movement.

A burst of pain shoots out from your hand as her blade lands a lucky strike on the back of your left wrist. Izayoi glides the dulled knife along the length of your arm down to the elbow, taking full advantage of the opportunity. It hurts, but shouldn't prevent you from using your shield. She tries to press forward, reversing the grip on her knife and preparing to stab your chest, but you manage to bring your sword up in a quick slash aimed at her back. It's a clumsy stroke, as her proximity makes the angle awkward, but the pain from the blow will at least stun her, if not knock her unconscious immediately.

She escapes, however. She somehow manages to cancel her forward momentum and duck out of the way of your blade, then jumps backwards to distance herself from you. You narrowly stop your blade before it slashes your own chest. Izayoi has already returned to a fighting stance with another set of knives readied in each hand and throws them at you immediately. They're close together and thus easy to avoid, so you take a quick step to the right to escape one volley and block the other with your shield. Another set is already flying at you by the time you lower your shield. And she's reaching around her back to pick up another set with her empty hands already. You've never been able to tell where exactly she hides those knives in that uniform of hers, but it's clear that she does have a place.

You jump aside to avoid the knives. Another set is already aimed for you before you even land – this time the eight knives are spread out more, making it impossible to simply block them. One will miss, three can be deflected by your sword, and two more by your shield. Upper body or lower body. You decide moments before impact to take the inescapable knives to your upper body, and quickly deflect the five that you can. The metal of her knives sink into your skin momentarily before bouncing off and bruising your chest. The pain is bearable, but still makes you wince for a fraction of a second – long enough for Izayoi to launch another volley of spread knives.

There's no way you can keep this up. You were hoping to stay defensive for longer, but the pressure from her knives is simply too much. Your own danmaku is too ineffective against her mobility, and you've always preferred melee attacks anyway. The only option you have to stop her knives is to charge.

You wait for her to throw another set of knives and run towards her, side stepping to the left to avoid the incoming barrage, then greet her with a sideways slash of your sword. She nimbly backsteps away, precisely far enough to avoid being touched by your blade, then counter strikes as soon as it passes by her. Taking advantage of your momentary helplessness, she drives her knife into your upper body, tearing the skin, then runs the blade diagonally down your chest. The agony almost wakes you flinch, but you manage to persevere through it and attempt to smash her with your shield. She escapes, once again, but at least she's off of you.

That last attack really hurt. A thick stream of blood is pouring down your chest and is staining your shirt red. It'll heal, but the damage is already making it harder to breathe and will surely slow you down even further. You were careless. Izayoi usually can't hit you that hard. The swing was too wide, giving her plenty of time to harm you. But still, the event was informative, and that's what you're really after. She is exceptionally skilled at exploiting your weaknesses, but still relies upon doing so.

There's still no options but to attack, despite your wounds. If given the chance, she will surely keep her distance from you and throw her endless supply of knives, and with your wounds you won't have a chance of stopping them all. Constantly pressuring her with light attacks should prevent her from attacking on her own and not invite any counterattacks. The best defense is a good offense.

You charge towards Izayoi and open with an angled vertical slash. She dodges it easily, but you follow it up with a upwards slash and then a quick horizontal strike. The attacks are too shallow for her to slip past and too quick for her to parry. Unfortunately, as you are not following through, there is also no chance whatsoever that any of them will ever connect. They force her to dodge, but her movements are effortless. Still, it works as a delaying tactic, and your wound is already starting to close up.

Another vertical swing. Izayoi's movements are always amazingly precise, allowing her to dodge while using as little of her stamina as possible. She still can't keep this up forever, though, and your superior physique should let you outlast her even with your wounds. Horizontal slice. She steps back with her left foot and lets the blade fly past her chest, just barely not cutting her apron.

And then she strikes. A knife appears in her left hand with a flick of her wrist and she throws it at your right ankle before you can react. It hits you and cuts the skin without doing any other real damage, but the pain is enough to leave you wide open for a second – and that's all she needs. She charges in with another knife in her right hand and tries to stab you in the stomach. You manage to move slightly to avoid the worst of her attack, but she still lands a solid hit on your right side. The pain makes you want to drop to the floor and just let it end, but you fight through it and bring your shield up to bash her. She jumps aside a little too slowly to avoid getting hit, but blocks the impact with her elbow. It might sting a bit, but since she was moving backwards it couldn't have hit her hard enough to even inconvenience her.

Izayoi still got a hit in, even while you were attacking defensively. Should you go back to just dodging? You won't win if you don't attack, but you aren't concerned with winning this time. And yet, if you stop attacking, you're positive she'll just throw her endless knives again. That's not useful, so you might as well just attack.

You charge towards Izayoi and lead into a wide diagonal swing. She backsteps, nimbly avoiding it, but you lead into a second, shallower horizontal slash to keep her from closing in again.

Which she parries. With a second knife in her left hand that you hadn't noticed earlier, she pushes the blade upward and slips in underneath, using the momentum and your helplessness to drive the knife in her right hand into your right thigh. The pain is excruciating and causes you to lose your balance and drop your sword. She ends the fight by simply pushing against your chest, knocking you down onto your back.

You lie still for a few seconds before sitting up and groaning. She really beat you down hard this time.

“Did you enjoy the fight, mistress?”

“Humph. Rather dull, honestly. I wasn't expecting it to be so one sided.”

“My apologies, mistress. She usually does better.”

“Hah! Don't get so cocky, Izayoi! I've finally figured out you. Next time! Next time, I will be the victor!”

“Oh dear, did you hurt your head when you fell?” Izayoi walks towards you and into your vision, then crouches down in front of you and holds up three fingers. “What is your name? Do you know where you are right now? How many fingers am I holding up? Can you answer these questions?”

“Three fingers. I'm fine, dammit. And I'm going to defeat you, Sakuya Izayoi. Me, Momiji Inubashiri. Here at the Scarlet Devil Mansion!”

“It would seem that you are indeed fine. Do you need help standing up?”

“...Yes. Thank you.” You take her hand and pull yourself up, then slowly make your way back to Miss Meiling's cabin. Miss Scarlet didn't say anything to you; you imagine you aren't nearly fancy enough for her to bother talking to, but you did notice that she was smiling as you left.

-----------------------------------

You return to the mansion after two weeks have passed. Your duties with the border patrol preempted you from being able to return as soon as your wounds fully healed. The delay was unfortunate, but will serve to make Miss Izayoi's inevitable defeat so much sweeter. You walk past the gate, quickly greet Miss Meiling, and step into the mansion.

Miss Izayoi and Miss Scarlet are already waiting for you in the foyer. Your opponent is standing in the middle of the almost empty room, while her mistress is seated near a corner, giving you plenty of room. There aren't any fairies around.

“Are you ready to lose, Izayoi? This will be our final match.”

“I am always ready to lose, even if I never do. But you are aware that the score will still be dozens to one, correct? Assuming you do somehow defeat me.”

“That's fine. Beating you once is enough. Shall we begin?”

Izayoi answers by readying her knives with a flick of her wrist. You ready your sword and charge towards her, trying to stop her from throwing her knives. She still gets one volley off, but you easily block it with your shield. It didn't even slow you down.

You attack with quick, shallow strikes and force her to spend all of her time dodging. Now that you've finally seen through her ruse, it's a simple matter of wearing her down and not giving her any opportunities to counter your blows. She has extraordinary stamina for a human, but she's still just a human. There's nothing for you to fear, so you can attack without concern.

Izayoi nimbly dodges all of your blows, twisting and turning her body with exquisite footwork. Only rarely does she raise her knife to deflect your blows; you're putting enough strength into each swing that deflecting it with a tiny knife is simply infeasible. She can't pull off a parry like this, and your strikes are too quick for her to slip past. It's also extremely tiring, but she should make a mistake before you need to stop.

“So, what, is this your brilliant strategy? Just an all out attack?” Strange that she would choose to speak now. Even during your previous matches, both of you would mostly stay quiet to conserve breath. Is she just doing it to taunt you, to gloat that you won't be able to tire her out?

“Yep. I've figured it out. You can't stop time at all.” She remains unfazed as you expose her secret, and continues to dodge your attacks with ease. “It's all a giant deception. You tell everyone you can stop time and show off a few parlor tricks to prove it, like how you hide your knives up your sleeves. But it's all fake. And that means I can beat you.”

She doesn't respond for a good ten seconds, and just continues dodging your increasingly swift attacks. You were hoping that the big reveal would cause her to falter and give you a quick win. Unfortunately, it seems you'll still need to wear her down in order to win.

“So. You finally figured it out, huh? No one else has ever realized that.” She's grinning. This is the first time you ever seen her smile like this. Is she proud of you for uncovering her secret? “There's just one problem with this, Inubashiri. You still can't beat me.”

And then she vanishes. She was right there in front of you, about to sidestep a vertical slash, and then she disappeared. There's no way she could move that fast – even Aya can't move fast enough to escape your eyes. But she did. You quickly scan the room, looking for her, but all you see is Miss Scarlet off in the corner, grinning madly while she watches you intently. Izayoi is nowhere in the room, not above you, where is she?!

Just as suddenly, she appears in front of you, mid curtsy. Except she's not alone.

Your entire field of vision is filled with metal. Everywhere you can see is a thousand knives, suspended in midair, pointed directly at you.

“I actually can stop time.”

The knives move. There's no time to get out of way, and even if there was time, where would you go? In a split second they hit you, piercing your flesh a thousand times. They're dull, like all her other knives, but when being pricked on every point of your body all at once, it stops mattering. The pain and noise of a thousand impacts is too much, and for the first time in all your fights, you lose consciousness and drop to the floor.

-----------------------------------

“Ughhh.” You sit up and groan. Your head is a mess after that beating, although strangely your body doesn't seem to hurt nearly as much as it should. “...How long was I out for?”

“Only about twenty minutes, my dear.” You panic at the sound of the voice – that wasn't Miss Izayoi. That was Miss Scarlet. “I had Patchy come in and heal you. You should be able to stand.”

That would explain why your body isn't aching. You get up off and floor and give yourself a quick examination. Your clothes are completely tattered, but you probably need to thank this Patchy that your skin isn't in the same shape. There's no way to save this outfit; you'll just need to get it replaced completely. Miss Izayoi isn't anywhere in the room, and the huge pile of knives that should be all around you is almost entirely gone.

“Um, thank you for your hospitality, and, um, allowing me to selfishly borrow your maid for the sake of my pride, and healing me, um -”

“Please, think nothing of it, my dear.” Miss Scarlet cuts you off before you can continue. “It was a marvelous fight. Good entertainment is so hard to come by these days. Sakuya was deceiving you with regards to her true power, yes, but she was still using her powers subtly throughout the fight. Besides the obvious of pulling knives from her storage shed when she ran out, she was also using it to perfect her movements and reaction time. She's a very tricky girl, and sadly I must say that you never stood a chance against her.”

You had realized that yourself as soon as that wall of knives appeared in front of you. Even if she is invincible, how did that shrine maiden manage to beat Miss Izayoi? Maybe you'll ask her next time you go drinking with her.

“I imagine that you'll want to return to your home soon, but there is something I'd like to show you first. If you'd just follow me, please.” Miss Scarlet walks towards the corner she was sitting in as she watched your last fight. There's some other piece of mostly-white furniture that you can't immediately recognize set up near the chair. Her slow, elegant pace paired with her naturally short stature makes the trip irritatingly slow. Once you make it to the chair, she guides you towards the front of the other furniture. “Well? What do you think?”

It's... you? The front is a beautiful painting depicting your fight with Miss Izayoi. She must have been painting while you were engrossed in combat and then while you were unconscious. You're certainly no expert with the arts, especially this more Western composition, but even you can tell that it's masterfully done. There's still a few blank spots, and it's clear that this was done quickly, but the level of detail for something that couldn't have taken longer than half a hour is amazing.

You're standing in the center of the foyer, facing down Miss Izayoi, who is about a foot away from you. There's a slight blur around your sword, which gives the impression that you're in the middle of attacking, while Miss Izayoi is expertly shifting her balance to avoid your blade. It truly is an amazing action shot.

“Yeah! I mean, yes, I love it, it is simply fantastic. But, um, is it really alright to draw this? I mean, it looks like I'm winning.

The biggest change from reality would be Miss Izayoi's expression. Simply put, she looks terrified. Your own expression is essentially a snarl with your fangs visible – normally unsightly, but Miss Scarlet managed to render it elegantly and make it appear dignified. The result is a scene of a noble white wolf tengu warrior chasing down a cowardly dagger-wielding maid (or possibly an assassin dressed as a maid) as she flees from the aggressor's righteous fury. Almost the exact opposite of how every fight actually went.

“Certainly. It's not as far from the truth as you might think. Sakuya's expression, for example. Do you really think she wasn't scared at all during your fights? She is an exquisite human being and is in full control of her emotions, but she is still human. You, however, are a powerful youkai, skilled with the sword and shield. What do you think would've happened if you managed to hit her, even once? The fight would've ended immediately. A single mistake is all it would've taken for you to have claimed victory over her. I assure you: she was scared.”

You don't respond, and simply admire the painting. It truly is amazing, even if you can't accept Miss Scarlet's explanation. You honestly can't see Miss Izayoi ever making a mistake, even without taking the time stop abilities into consideration.

“Would you like a copy? I do insist upon keeping the original for myself, but Patchy's magic can make a suitable duplicate for your home.”

“Eh? Yes! I'd love one! Thank you, thank you so much!”

“You are welcome. There are a few finishing touches I'd like to add. I'll have it delivered when your copy is ready. Thank you, Momiji, and you are always welcome to return at any time as my guest.”
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Deep underground lays a city that never sleeps. The inhabitants are always busy fighting, drinking, or both. But it’s not all fun and games down there, someone has to lay down the law when things get out of hand. Originally, the Four Devas kept the Oni in line. But now only one remains in the city. Yuugi Hoshiguma, the de-facto leader of the Oni, has decided to a small vacation leaving the city in the hands of her subordinates.

She couldn’t exactly go to the surface, and going deeper in the hells wasn’t the best idea, even for her. So she decided to go on an extended camping trip. No one would bother her and she would have time to gather her thoughts. A lot of things weighed on her consciousness and she regretted the things that led her to the underground.

After walking for a few hours she came to the bridge that she walked across all those years ago. The city was already standing, but the previous inhabitants had all been relocated years prior to the Oni moving in. She only knows of two other settlements down here, the residents of the Palace of the Earth Spirits and the Earth Spider village. So her surprise to see someone standing on the bridge is only natural.

The woman on the bride has medium length blonde hair and striking green eyes. Her pale skin shows that she doesn’t see the sun much. Yuugi tosses her bags down on the ground just before the bridge and approaches the young woman. Another thing that surprises the Oni is the smaller blondes ruined clothes. What used to be vibrant colors have faded and are caked with blood and mud. There is no doubt that she would be a beauty if she cleaned herself up.

“Hey, you there!” Yuugi calls out to her. The blonde doesn’t look at her, nor does she even blink. The Oni started to reach out to her but stopped when she noticed the large scar on her throat. It looks self-inflicted, but to leave a scar like that would be impossible. “Hey, are you okay?”

The shorter blonde frowns as a single tear rolls down her face. “No,” she says, her voice cold and empty.

“Want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“Well then, do you want a drink?”

The smaller blonde looks at the Oni incredulously. “Why would I have a drink with a total stranger?”

“It’s tradition down here to share a drink with a new acquaintance,” Yuugi says smiling. “Stay right there!” She shouts as she retrieves one of her bags. In it is some of the strongest alcohol the Oni have to offer. She pulls out a couple bottles and hands one to her new acquaintance. “So, what brings you to the underground? You don’t really look like you belong here.”

The stranger bites her lip for a moment before saying, “I have nowhere else to go.”

“Well, allow me to be the first one to welcome you to where outcasts go!” The Oni cheers.

Yuugi spent the rest of the day drinking and telling the newcomer about the points of interest down there. The Oni City, the Palace of the Earth Spirits, and the Earth Spider village are the only places people live in, but there are still places like the magma falls and the Oni Burial ground.

The passage of time in the underground is hard to tell, but Yuugi explains it to the increasingly annoyed newcomer. “You see the crystals up on the surface of the cavern?” Her companion nods. “Well, those are actually a type of magic crystal that are hollowed out. They fill with magma and as the day goes on they solidify it and drain the heat energy from it. When it is glowing blue, like it is now, we call it night time. It’s usually about twelve or so hours for it to absorb all the energy, so it’s a good representation of time for us.”

After a couple hours of explaining how the underground society works, Oni on top and Earth Spiders subservient to them, Yuugi grabs her sleeping bag and hands it to the green eyed woman. “What’s this?” She asks eyeing the bag suspiciously.

“It’s a sleeping bag. You unroll it and sleep in it. If you don’t you’re likely to get sick or just be extremely uncomfortable.”

“Why do you care?”

Yuugi shrugs. “I don’t know, but, I you look like you’ve had it rough. I have no idea why you’re down here, but I want to help make your stay as comfortable as possible.”

The short blonde looks to be about to say something, but is interrupted by a man calling out. “Hoshiguma! Where are you? Hoshiguma!?”

“I’m sorry,” Yuugi apologizes, “It looks like things already went to Hell back home.” She starts to walk away. “I’ll come back and keep you company some time!”

As she’s walking away the quiet one calls out one word. “Parsee!” Yuugi turns around and smiles at her.

“Okay, Parsee, I’ll see you around!”
**********
The very next day Yuugi went to the Earth Spider village and met a young seamstress by the name of Kurodani who she hired to make an entire wardrobe for Parsee. She also ordered the Oni to construct a small house for Parsee to live in near the bridge. Her kindness threw the newly dubbed bridge guardian for a loop.
**********

After a few months she finally opened up to Yuugi and explained her circumstances. “I was part of an arranged marriage with a man I grew to love. But, he didn’t love me.” She is fighting back tears as she telss her story. “I would be so jealous of the women he looked at, thinking they were better than me. He would sleep with them and tell me that it was never going to happen again, and I believed him. One day, he got married to another woman. I, I, I couldn’t take it anymore! I killed him and his new bride moments after they fell asleep! I ran away and tried to hide, but everywhere I went they found me! Their ghosts were haunting me. In the end, I couldn’t take it anymore. So, I took the same knife I used on them and,” she simply gestures to her own throat. “When I woke up again, I was like this. I felt more powerful, but so empty. When I see other people, I can’t help but be jealous of them for things they have that I don’t! Like you!” She thrusts her finger in Yuugi’s direction. “You have large breasts and beautiful hair! You give orders to all the Oni and they respect you! Yamame too! She’s so talented, just look at what she made me!” It is an amazing outfit. A black top that covers her breasts, a brown robe-like jacket with a split in the center that is trimmed with blue pieces of fabric and white zigzagged lines that also are on the end of her short sleeves. The jacket is held closed with a simple white sash wrapped around her waist and her skirt is a dark blue with red wire-like webbing coming from the bottom of it.

“Parsee,” Yuugi says wrapping her arms around the bridge keeper. “I’m jealous of you know what? I’m jealous of you!

“W-why?”

“You’re so cute. You have freedom to do whatever you want, but you choose to stay here. I wish I could be like that.”

“Hoshiguma! We need you! Nanaki has set fire the council room and it spread to the nearby buildings!”

“You see,” she says with a sigh, “I’m stuck here because they need me. If I tried to leave, they wouldn’t last long. They need someone to lay down the law, and even if it means I have to work day in and day out, then so be it!” She slowly walks to the door. “But, I don’t really mind that. As long as I can come see you and forget about my problems and have fun, it’s worth it.” She leaves the house leaving behind a smiling Parsee.
**********
It would take even longer for Parsee to accept any of Yuugi’s offers to go drinking with her in the city, but one day she agreed. Since then the two of them are often seen drinking together, despite Parsee insisting that it is against her will. Everyone knows better now, she just feels the need to keep up appearances.

To this day, you can find Parsee and Yuugi at one of the bars in the city or the spider village. Kurodani joins them every so often and has become great friends with the two of them.
**********
After another long night of drinking, in moderation, Parsee lies down on Yuugi’s couch, too exhausted to return home. The couch has sort of become her second bed, and Yamame’s couch her third. “I never thought I’d have friends like them,” she mumbles as she lays a pillow across her face. “I thought I’d come down here to atone for my sins, but here I am, having fun and living a normal life. Well, what counts for normal down here at least.” She sluggishly pulls a blanket over herself and whispers one last thing before she falls asleep. “I’m jealous of them, but they’re jealous too. So it’s okay, right?” Once, she was plagued by nightmares of her late husband and his new wife, now she is granted peaceful dreams of her friends. Sure, life isn’t all fun and games for her. Like when that Miko and witch came down and beat her up for doing her job.

As much as she enjoys her life, she wonders, what if Yuugi hadn’t found her? What would she have done then? She would probably still be bitter and cold. And what of Yuugi? Would she have found a friend she could talk to after a bad day keeping the peace? Would she just go day to day gradually becoming more depressed? Parsee doesn’t know the answers to these questions, and neither does Yuugi. But, in all honesty? They don’t really care. They are happy as they are. And that is all that matters.
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1222
Dusk had always been one of Mokou's favorite times of day, at least in this subsequent period of her life. It was the point at which the weariness and bustle of day merged smoothly into the euphoria and subdued fête of night. The last several hours had been processed with repeated strolls through the same boundless stalks of bamboo she had taken on as her new home, occasionally finding a little kid whose instincts for route mapping were a fraction the width of a hair strand in comparison to her numerous years of honed study. Naturally she led the child amid green poles that seemed to repeat after every few jou, the boy or girl wondering whether progress was actually being made after some time, but all doubts squashed a few minutes later, when the densest of shoots parted to a dirt clearing that eventually made way to the expanding flatland beyond and the human village following a short walk.

It felt good to serve the locals like this, and though she had not been born in the region Mokou had ultimately come to think of the sleepy valley as home. She couldn't bring herself to interact with most of the villagers, for then that led to complications in the long run better left prevented via inaction, but at least serving as the forest's mysterious guide gave her a sense of belonging.

The mental strain did take its toll, so she was thankful for the colors the setting sun brought. Hues in pink, orange and yellow bounced off the tops of distant mountains, hazy and murky with a sense of protection. It made her think of a bonfire in the sky, and for a moment she wondered how the spectacle must appear to someone living in the heavens. Not that she wasn't capable of finding out on her own, but flight did require an ample amount of energy for a human to use. Sure, a human could take the time to learn the practice, but in comparison with the average youkai most of its life expectancy would have passed by once the skill came close to equaling a creature born with it organically.

That problem was a non-issue for an exception like her, though every now and again she could make out a slight wooziness from overexertion and needed a brief rest.

She remained grounded for that reason, walking about the vegetation in the direction that led to her shack. Well, no, that wasn't the only reason. The other reason was that flying at night smelt of downright stupidity. Fairies and other annoyances easily spotted unobstructed beings in the sky, and those nitwits made for wonderful moving targets to the eager intruders. Crazy as it sounded, staying close to the surface gave one the option of cover, and if one happened to be particularly quick-footed would lose and aggravate any pursuers in the nearby area. Having a location such as here may as well be a bonus.

So Mokou moved along, hands deep in the pockets of her red pants—gripping gently on several slips of paper—enjoying the peace of the forest in all its earthy scents and distant, chirping bugs. A ready calmness blanketed her, vying to simply appreciate the twilight surroundings of encapsulation, but also maintain a conscious awareness to danger. The bamboo forest did not belong solely to her; Mokou was quite familiar with another group of people who had broken camp here a long time ago. Sure, it might be a large mansion and some additional ground where the rabbits pounded away constantly—making their specialty mochi—but it was merely a lavish and ornamental encampment. Full of pizzazz and no substance, much like its inhabitants…

Immediately, Mokou lowered her head and mouthed a grunt. No, don’t think about that. Just enjoy the moment while you can. It was a far more appealing choice, after all.

Having paused to dispel the brief moment of anger, the woman with the bow in her long, white hair resumed her former pace; walking was one of the few leisures she could depend on to clear out her mind, bring her back to the usual distant demeanor most strangers met her with.

The important part, however, was keeping check of her surroundings and watching out for suspicious movement. None of the rabbits would be out milling in this darkness, tucked away in their concealed manor. Any perceived shifts in the shadows thus would be scrutinized with the utmost security—

Like right there!

Off to her left, faded by a thick stalk that leaned so far over one would wonder why the plant hadn't already tumbled, was a figure in a dress. Her eyesight surpassed most people, but it was still a human's vision, so Mokou couldn't tell precisely who the figure was. Whoever it might be, it was likely a woman, as the tail end of lengthy hair floated around in the shadows. She did know of some male nomads who had grown their locks out during a period of wandering the wilderness, but would be quite surprised if any of them suddenly showed up.

One thing was for sure, though. Anybody who felt the urge to go hiking through the bamboo at this time of day had some type of vendetta against life, and there was only one person with long hair in that style who lived out here.

So, she got the itch to confront me head-on for once? Mokou thought. Well, it wasn't what she wanted, but it would be interesting to face the moon prude rather than maintain the constant circuits she had strode for endless hours. Dealing with the trouble now also meant returning to the sight of the glowing sky sooner, so that was something to look forward to.

Odd though, as it didn't match that hag's typical modus operandi. Typically, the irritant would put her on the receiving end of some vague message she was supposed to decode, but never did, either out of spite or simply not caring enough to pay it attention. Actually meeting in person? That seemed fishy, and not the good kind that went into a delicious ikameshi.

Readying up an aura for protection, Mokou called out to the figure, “Well now, have ye gotten—”

Apparently, the woman hadn't been expecting to be directly addressed, or perhaps had taken her attention away to something else momentarily. Either explanation suited, as she had been obviously spooked. Her reflexes sprung to assistance, helpfully lobbing hundreds of shining, blue orbs toward the red-clad loner.

She twitched, but recovered to roll out of the way, finding herself on one knee and one hand shoved deep into her pocket, debating whether or not to go with the heavy line of defense. The aggressor made no attempt to hide, floating out from the stalks into the narrow clearing. Even with the fading day, Mokou could tell with ease this was nowhere close to the person she'd been pondering.

For one thing, her hair was shorter, stopping at a reasonable length past the shoulders, and tinted with a red characteristic of auburn. Far more telling happened to be the different head shape and tanner skin, clothed on a plain white dress, distinguished mainly by black trimming and equally black cuffs on the sleeves. Around her neck hung a red pendant framed in gold, glowing with dim power, much as her eyes had gone dead and her face predatory. Not the time for conversation, then.

“Well, if I’d known you were that eager, I wouldn’t have tried formalities,” Mokou rose as she spoke, a familiar weightlessness overcoming her body as a burning intensity overtook sense. All attention was fixed onto the strange woman, ideas of sunset left far behind. “Now, d’ya like to resume your statement, or may I have permission to ignite counterattack?”

The response was immediate, with more of the blue orbs flying out, now joined by an equal mixture of similar red spheres, moving at insane velocity. An amateur would have been petrified surveying the wall of death closing in on his body, unable to react before it was well past too late.

Mokou, for all intents and purposes, was not an amateur.

Displaying the grace and speed that only comes with years of training, the white-haired drifter floated higher, avoiding the bright balls with ease, and began focusing energy to her hands. Silk warmth flowed between her fingers, shining brighter until the light broke up into separate waves of power, and reached the apex of containment. Brilliant streaks of red, blue, and purple erupted out in a sphere, coating the ground in a light show. The attacker carefully surmised the flying charms, the edges creating glare marks in the sides of her eyes. She dodged the continuous projectiles, meantime ramping up her own attack.

These patterns went on for a minute more, both combatants sending the visualization of their emotions toward the other, and subsequently darting the bullets where there was empty space. Talented though she proved to be, Mokou sensed the other woman already growing worn, the most probable reason not having experience in danmaku warfare.

Let’s put an end to this, she decided, drawing a slip of paper from her pocket. She eyed the kanji at the top, checking it was the correct phrase. But of course, when she wanted a particular spell, it more often than not gravitated to her hand with no problem. Her confident gaze of the artifact ignored the barrage that her body continued to avoid, and once she had an opening arm with slip in hand shot up straight, and a roaring voice that must belong to her declared, “Deathless, ⌠Xu Fu’s Dimension⌡!”

Such an odd statement caused the attacker to cease, and stare at the white-haired girl with befuddlement. Most certainly not familiar with this new style of attack, as two columns of charms flew out from Mokou’s body, one above and the other below. They each performed a ninety-degree angle after going a distance, two more strands shooting out on a different plane, once more toward opposite directions. Soon, the trail of seals was uncountable, shuffling through and over itself, creeping outward with each successive pair of paper amulets, and the woman in the white dress realized a dread had overtaken all other emotion.
But still, this was nothing that a casual observer couldn't handle. Memorizing the overall pattern of the trails, she elegantly wedged into the empty spaces left by each paper square. Seeing the ease that her trick was being dealt with, Mokou fired several swarms of smaller, more oval-shaped bullet. These proved somewhat of a challenge to navigate, but in the end severed as a mild inconvenience. Then, just as soon as the onslaught had begun, the energy of the spell was used up and the charms vanished at once. Both fighters still flew in the forest of the lost.

For her part, Mokou felt her mouth open slightly, unsure of what had just happened. That one card usually was enough to send off pests who forced the issue. Having it dodged for the entirety of activation…she couldn't recall that happening in any of her previous duels, save for the ones against that person, and those frequently descended into outright brawls with blood being drawn.

Her thoughts were cut short by a piercing shadow of blue light, forming from the position of the auburn girl. Deep, pulsating lines of light strengthened, merging into one another before separating and connecting into a solid frame, hued in the coolness of the midnight color of which it was comprised. Where previously a single girl had floated, now a snarling dog's head made from pure blue magic thrashed violently toward Mokou, a trail of well-sized circles left behind in its path. Not quite fearing for her life, but still startled by the aggressive tactic, the solitary woman turned tail and made to fly off through the foliage. A snarl bellowed past her, and once where there was clearing, exploding stars of violet and magenta energy surrounded her.

A diversion? She thought in astonishment. So perhaps her opponent was tiring out, but she was still dangerous to deal with, more so if this was the type of pattern she would throw out when weakened.

The funny thing was, it didn't look like a standard "shoot bullets in a creative template" model. This appeared to be the basis for a spellcard, but the woman hadn't declared such. It was probable she knew about danmaku and its useful applications, Mokou reasoned, but wasn't aware of the evolving nature of the game, which was understandable as the spellcard system was only beginning to gain traction from the powers of the valley. Most people didn't keep up-to-date with such matters, and she herself only knew because of secondhand information.

Furthermore, it was easier to focus the real delicate and complex formations when their cast signs were written down and memorized. Going the so-called "manual" route simply used too much of the fighter's inner magic stock, and before long even the most stamina trained individuals would collapse, risking death if they pushed themselves further.

Mokou did not want an innocent's blood on her hands, even if that innocent had been the one to attack her initially. This scuffle needed to come to an end, but that was easier said than done with the howling dogface and the star-style blasts coming from everywhere. She dedicated effort to weaving through the bamboo stalks, most projectiles hitting the fiber surface and fading from existence soon afterward. The plan seemed to be working, for the woman found it harder to fly and leave a sphere signature when so little space remained.

A smirk found its way onto Mokou's lips. This has to be it; we’ll be here all night otherwise.

She started mentally preparing, somersaulting around the burning pellets all the while with a grace she reserved solely for this line of work. At last her chance came, when the concentration of her foe broke by crashing into a slim, almost forgettable branch of leaves. The ghostly image dissolved around her, leaving only the woman to be flung by her own momentum. The pendant caught on the limb, a tiny metallic snap accompanying its separation from owner, and with no closed loop to hold it to the plant tumbled down to the wilderness below.

After regaining her orientation, the woman saw Mokou's bobbing outline above, and a snarl of rage permeated her face. She grabbed at the gem hanging to her frame…and quickly realized the amount of trouble she was in. Shrunk eyeballs gazed in distress at the figure beginning to glow, a knowing smirk witnessing the calm before everything went to hell, hand in pocket pulling out another of those unknown paper slips.

With a war cry that matched the brightening intensity eating up her body, three ominous words were yelled: “Everlasting, ⌠Phoenix’s Tail⌡!

A searing heat detonated the air, and from the back of the white-haired girl a pair of silky, magnificent wings sprouted, flames flicking off with each slight movement. Then she raised both arms, as if a child imitating the average bird, the plumage mimicking her actions, and brought them down in a gale that caused the auburn woman to shield her eyes from drying out due to the impact. When she looked up again, her sunken heart began drilling through the ocean floor.

A blanket of embers trickled down in gentle freefall, thousands of them choking out her peripheral vision upward. It was clear the assailant was still up there, for her flapping conjured another layer to follow the first, speeding the initial volley with a gust of hot wind. This was something she did not expect to see, having to fight actual fire, and with it eating up all the open space, she needed to think fast.

She steeled her nerves, source of magic power gone or not, and floated nearer the burning sheet, senses desperate to pick out somewhere to move…
That proved pointless when a large, crimson sphere, as big as she was tall, emerged from the falling inferno, plowing in a direct path toward her body. Moments gave her time to process the object, but nothing else, and the ball of fury smacked into her. It popped out of reality with a sizzle, leaving a scorching sensation that evenly covered all exposed skin, and some that sneaked into the crevices of her clothes.

Too much for the woman to take in, she hurtled to the ground, barely aware of anything else. Mokou watched the figure descend, satisfied things had ended in such a manner, and dissipated the wings. She took a moment to observe the surrounding plants, but nothing more than a few char marks on the tough fiber could be seen, negligible damage that didn't harm anything.

Comfort in hand, she lowered to the surface of the forest. Her aggressor had remained in sight, and was on her back, hands next to her head, shallow breath working its way in and out of her mouth. Still awake at the least, which was a good thing for reasoning and getting explanations. Landing on tiptoes and reaffirming her normal relationship with gravity, Mokou resumed her causal walking posture in the direction of the girl. When she determined to be in hearing proximity, she stated, “Have to say, that was the finest danmaku battle I’ve enjoyed in a long time. Normally the chump just crumples after my first spellcard, but surviving two? When you don’t seem to have any yourself? Consider me impressed.”

The tired girl's chest rose and fell with each shallow breath. She seemed unsure what to make of the praise. Maybe she didn't know it was suppose to be praise?

Mokou was about to clarify her meaning, but a flash to the side captured her attention. One of the last embers from her spell glided to the earth, its reflection attained in the sparkle of a cut red stone, framed in gold, resting on a pile of dead twigs. She trotted over to the gem and picked it up, wiping some stuck soil off with her fingers. This object meant a lot to that woman, didn't it? The way it seemed an extension of the wearer's energy, with that unsettling dim light illuminating earlier, it must have. Not one for material possessions, she returned to the still ragged woman and plopped the mineral down on her torso.

“Here. Jewelry can be pretty finicky during battle. I recommend attaching it to your outfit securely, like a brooch, so that doesn’t happen again, or just do without it entirely. Looking fashionable is one thing, but letting that get in the way of victory s’only a loss for you.”

A fraction of the anger from before started to leak back into the woman's face. “Go…away.”

“Nah, not gonna happen,” Mokou leaned down to address the girl, “Don’t you know this is your annual checkup to make sure you aren’t too terribly hurt to function?”

“I’ll be fine in a few minutes,” the exhausted lady countered, “You’d just better hope you aren’t around when I…when I get my revenge.”

That word baffled Mokou, whose eyebrow rose in response. “Revenge for what? I don’t recall ever doing anything to do.”

“You…you were in my forest. You posed a threat. Had…to neutralize.”

The seriousness of her delivery put Mokou into a deep thought. This materialized by appearing as a blank stare, giving the impression of gauging the idiocy of what had formed from this lady's mouth. And then the moment passed, a grin and a case of guffaws rising from the squatter's throat. “Me? A threat?” She took an extra second to loosen the final chortles, before managing, “Okay, tell me, lady? How long have you been settled here?”

The woman leered at the ground, frustration evident on her face.

“C’mon, you can tell me. I’m not gonna do anything to evict you.”

“…Less than a month,” she relented, the frustration changing into something resembling sadness.

“Right.” Mokou stood up and stretched her legs, examining the now night sky. Had the fight lasted that long? Or perhaps the sun was farther below the horizon than she originally estimated. Damn mountains distorting everything. “So, let me tell you something before you start assuming the wrong ideas. First off, this is not solely your forest. There are other freaks that hide themselves from civilization around here besides you.” She looked down at the girl and smiled in self-loathing. “You’ve just met one of ‘em. And we don't particularly want to be nuisances to each other, as we feel compelled to respect one another’s boundaries. So the best way to go about maintaining harmony and not attract attention from the village or any of the other folks ‘round here is to ignore it. Pay no mind to anything that doesn’t immediately concern you, and you alone. ‘Don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you,’ as the old credo goes.” Then, having had her say, she brought her hand down.

The woman on the ground narrowed her eyes somewhat, an incredulous glare hooked upon the gesture. But she realized the time for hostility was over. It was her loss, and now she moved on. Might as well act friendly for this person. “Thanks for the advice, I guess,” she murmured, taking Mokou's hand and pulling herself upright, the pendant secure in the other hand.

“Hey, I understand. We all start fresh at some point.” The woman in suspenders rubbed the back of her neck, hand disappearing in the waterfall that was her hair. “Though I gotta ask—was it really necessary to shoot at me like that?”

Despite what she'd felt about this person in the recent past, the auburn girl couldn't resist a smile. “You startled me. I was only acting out of self-defense. You know, in case I got maimed. Besides, isn’t that how most people in Gensokyo greet each other?”

Now it was Mokou's turn to chuckle. “You may wanna work on your initial greeting a little more.”

“I’m happy to learn from anyone who knows the language.”

Above them, the wind picked up slightly. A pack of fireflies traveled overhead, the multicolored swarm blotting the individuals in an array of emotions. In that instant, the two strangers exchanged more understanding and experience than mere words could express: a familiar, companionable resonance rare between people nowadays. But the bugs flew on, in search of a warm location to make their magic in the dark, and with them the situation went.

Mokou cleared her throat and stared in the direction she knew her shack to be. “Well, it’s been a treat, gal, but I’ve got to be on my way. You take care of yourself.” She walked past the woman and involuntarily patted her on the back, adding, “If you ever come across some spellcards, think about remembering that dog head pattern of yours, hear?”

The woman in the white dress opened her mouth, not believing her fellow forester was walking away into the thicket. But she looked behind and saw, sure enough, that was indeed the case. “Wait!” she called out, “aren’t we going to exchange names?”

“Names don’t mean much in the wilderness. You either do or you don’t.” She didn't bother turning around or halting.

That wouldn't do it for the other girl. Just as defiant as she had been on the battlefield, ignoring the risk of defeat to survive for another few minutes, if it could buy here time to create a new strategy, she steeled her nerves and cried out to the waning figure, “My name is Imaizumi Kagerou! Won’t you tell me yours?”

The fleeter stopped at this. An audible sigh came from the woman, dropping and shaking her head. It almost seemed she wouldn't respond, and Kagerou considered forgetting the subject, when her ears perked up. “Some people call me Mokou. The ones who ever see me again.” She offered no further elaboration, and was soon out of sight, the memories of the occasion taking place remaining known only to a woman holding a necklace with a ruined chain in the middle of an abandoned bamboo field.

She smiled forlornly. Thank you, Mokou.
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1223
The clear river water flowed passed the bank at a mild pace, reflecting everything there was to see, the majority of viewable objects being the tips of the bamboo plants. For a moment, another object cast a reflection, blurring by in a downward arc until it broke the surface of the water, ripples breaking out and creating a brief shiny effect in the expanding waves from the overhead sun.

On the embankment, sitting in the available shade of a thick stalk, a woman in a white dress with black trim, cuffs, and collar looked out into the stream to see whether the cast had attracted any visible bodies. No far nothing, so she leaned back into her chair and sighed. It was a durable chair, made from the resources of the forest, and left in this spot so she could do her daily chore of making sure she had dinner every evening. There wasn't much variety in the aquatic life of the river, but it sustained her, which was all she cared about. Going to the village and bartering for produce was not an option for her yet, but then, when would it be?

She readjusted her sunhat and waited. It was always a waiting game, regardless of the activity she partook in. Waiting for heads to turn, keeping out of the line of sight, grabbing what she could carry, and then hightailing it in the stealthiest manner possible back to her home. Life was like that for a creature of the dark. Kagerou didn't classify herself as human, though she fit the terminology. But it was more than mere definitions that described people; everybody has something to hide, and she was no exception.

The line tugged, and she pulled it in without second thought. The scaled being flew out of the water, droplets splashing in all directions. Her bored eyes locked in on the fish, and just as it appeared to be flying over her head, slamming into the bamboo pole and sliding down with a slimy thud, her arm extended outward and snagged the creature single-handed. It squirmed about, the mucus oozing out between her fingers while she laid it down into her catch crate, filled with several specimens caught earlier in the day.

The ritual continued a few more times, then deciding she had enough to last the week, Kagerou stood up and attached the lid to the crate, slipping the carry straps over her shoulders and taking her rod in a free hand. The pack proved quite heavy, but manageable, and the auburn-haired girl took her mind off the load by observing the dense forest while she walked. It was all bamboo, but even one plant could be diverse in the individual sprouts. Some shoots were skinny as walking sticks, and some fatter than the biggest tree trunk she remembered beholding. Some were only starting to grow, yet others had been around a while, perhaps years. A few plants had no branches extending from the main stalk, but most had several stems, the tips of which had the characteristic spear-shaped leaves moving around in the breeze.

She took it in as long as she could bear, then decided to test another of her senses. Her hearing wasn't currently at its peak capacity, but she still made out more than the average villager, noting the many unique sounds of birds high up in the canopy, insects buzzing in the distance, the still nearby river unwavering in its lazy flow, the mush mush noise of footsteps accompanied by informal banter…

Wait.

All of her attention shifted to the side. Someone was approaching, and Kagerou felt her body tense up. Instinctively, she grabbed the portion of collar where her amulet rested and rubbed it in her fist. No need to go hostile so soon, she reasoned. Just watch from a hidden spot and see whether or not the random got any funny ideas about harming the forest.

Her forest.

She knew she wasn't the only misfit who'd made dwelling within the maze, but she had never gone out of her way to really know those denizens better. Meeting people led to developing relationships with said people, who would learn more about a tainted soul like hers as the months went by, and before long tears would fly and accusations of a betrayal of trust ensued. How she read that novel all too well.

Thus, keeping to herself helped mature her appreciation for these surroundings. It was a place of peace to take refuge in. If anybody dared upset that balance, she'd take it on her shoulders to make the offender's life a living hell.

Altering to sneak mode, Kagerou adjusted the straps of the carry crate, moving to reduce the noise the flopping fish created. From her vantage, the words were growing louder, and it was obvious more than one person was drawing near. To her luck, a relatively clear pathway had been cut in this section of woodland, packed with dirt to be higher than the rest of the forest in case the river flooded. She could get a good position to duck and listen, reducing the likelihood of catching their attention and triggering the need to peer into the trench underneath.

So she came to a rest against the wall, and heard the voices gradually become coherent, forming into an understandable conversation:

“—an keep holding off forever. Sooner or later, people will be questioning their motives and wondering how sincere those promises of guaranteed faith are.”

“Yeah, and it isn’t like that Reimu girl is more reliable on the faith front, is she?”

Kagerou had to hold a gasp in. That second voice…she had heard that speaker before, years ago. On a dark, summer evening…

The first woman—she could tell it was a woman speaking—took an irritated tone to this response. “Mokou, I’m being serious. The Hakurei shrine has served the people of Gensokyo for dozens of generations, more than I can memorize. While our current representative might not have the swift call-to-action stance of her predecessor, she is as capable of handling an incident as any woman I’ve seen in the job. And now this second shrine suddenly appears on the mountain, claiming to be in dire need of faith…” The voice let out some sort of grumble before concluding the statement, “I’m not trying to say their account isn’t true, but we don’t have a precedent for this type of occurrence. What if they’re running a scam, or looking to profit on the technology of the kappa? The sooner somebody from the inside can vouch their credibility and commitment, the better.”

“Right,” Mokou—could it really be? Kagerou had committed the name to memory, but never run into that particular person again—uttered in an uninterested tone, “and you think the best way of solving the mystery is me going up there as a scout to make friendly with ‘em?”

“Nobody in the village has the clearance to go past the tengu encampment, and I’m swamped with preparing tests and grading papers at the moment. You always complain to me about not getting any excitement from your regular job, so I thought doing reconnaissance would lift your spirits. Or was I wrong to think that?”

“Nah, I’ll do it,” Mokou sighed, “So after I do or don’t confirm those outsiders are operating a shady business, you’ll be informing the rest of the village how?”

“Post a bulletin in the court square. It’d be a strange sight for a thirty-something looking woman to bellow out her findings over and over, now wouldn’t it?”

A pause, then the fire wielder laughed. “I suppose it would be, and it’d cut down on the media coverage. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy the sight of you becoming a spectacle for free.”

The other woman contributed her own chuckle, “Now you’re just being a boob.”

“‘Ey, if I’m a boob, and you’re my second-in-command, what do ya think that says?”

The two women laughed some more. They had stopped moving to focus on the seriousness of their topic, it seemed, which had been close enough to make out the entirety of the discussion. Now they were in motion again, and Kagerou followed behind, a wicked grin plastered to her face. The irony of their dialogue about preparing for a spy gig struck her square on, and it took all the physical control in her body to not break into a giggling fit. The majority of what was being said didn't make much sense, but sufficient material had been gathered. These two were a danger all right—to her sides!

Still, within the joviality of the surface message, Kagerou had picked up a quiet vibration that she did not understand at first. Now that the duo was in motion, she could wander a little further from the elevated path to sneak a glimpse. One of the people walking was indeed Mokou whom Kagerou had dueled with some years ago, and she didn't look a day older from the experience. Nice to see you again, dear stranger, she happily thought.

The woman walking alongside Mokou was unfamiliar. From the rear, all she could see was a blue dress obscured at the top by straight, silver hair shining faint streaks of crystal blue. Atop her head sat an interesting hat, a miniature scale model of a house painted the same shade as her dress. Certainly an eccentric person at glance, but something else about her attracted Kagerou's attention. A signature on another plane of consciousness, unnoticed to most humans, but clear as day for a demon to trace. It was the scent that bound two unrelated women together tighter than rope, and closer than blood.

It was a decision that could ruin her meal plans for the week, but she didn't want to lose these two women now that their paths intersected. So she shadowed them all the way, listening to conversations about this and that, signs that the two of them were close friends knowledgeable of each other for a long time. Her knees tired out from crouch walking, and the heavy fish crate was a constant reminder of why her back grew sore. It would be worth it, she told herself, because at the end of this path lied answers.

After several more minutes of walking—the chatting has dried up after some time—the two women reached a section of woods that had been carefully cleared out, the soil lopsided all over to remove every last indication of bamboo root. In a portion of the clearing next to some dug out rocks sat a small shack, large enough for perhaps three rooms but still only inhabitable by one person. Its lack of exterior organization suggested a construction job by a single individual, but it still appeared solid enough to last the winter, so must have been painstakingly built over the course of years. Into this house Mokou and her friend entered, the door sliding closed with a thud.

Kagerou seized the opening and rushed to the wall opposite the entryway. She removed the carry crate, placing it on the ground beside her. Then she worked out a long sigh of relief, sliding down the wall into a sitting position. The chance to relax after sending all her muscles into overdrive was a godsend. Gradually she began the process of loosening her tendons, first rolling her neck around and allowing the vertebrae to pop if they could. Then she massaged her legs, lifting her dress up enough to rub down her hamstrings, then once those felt better moved on to her calves, before concluding by slipping her geta off and kneading the undersides of the feet.

Some sense of relief restored to her leg sockets, the night prowler took a more investigative overview of where she stood goal wise. The two targets of her curiosity were inside the building she sat behind. It was not known at what point either of them would exit again. But she did possess diligence. However long she needed to wait, she would find something to occupy the time. So she used her waiting period in the most productive manner she could think of imaginable: composing haiku.

It was actually very easy to get a rhythm going when she made a list of topics to contemplate. Such trivial subjects as croquet, boiling water, woodcutting, coin collecting, sowing farmland, sport hunting, meditation, and applying makeup came to her before she moved on to another form of entertainment, this time reciting nursery stories from her childhood.

Once an hour had passed and Kagerou had thoroughly analyzed the intricacies of Urashima Tarou and his cursed box for the third time, she heard the door slide open from the front. Creeping to the edge of the corner, she could hear the mumbled sounds of conversation, too quiet and distant to be anything else. A few more minutes past in earnest until the door slid shut, and the woman with the interesting hat made her way back down path she'd come. Kagerou retrieved the fish carton and gave it a sniff. Still not spoiled. Satisfied, she looped the straps on her shoulders and turned back to the trail.

The woman was no longer walking there. Alarmed, she examined closer to see if a body had been obscured by any of the far-off bamboo sprouts. Then a flapping blue shape caught her notice, and she was amazed to find the silver-haired lady flying upward, above the plant life. Well, of course that should be expected. She believed the two of them to share certain abilities. Not wanting to lose sight, Kagerou hopped into the air as well, and followed from a distance.

Now on the prowl, slightly lower in altitude to her subject, she began formulating how she would go about asking Hat Lady, and what she'd be asking. It would do no good to simply tail her all the way back to the village. That option was right out, so there would need to be some sort of way to monitor her from a distance. In that regard, she was on good terms with some of the kappa, in debt to them for the construction of her own abode on the outskirts of the forest. She could ask for some sort of tracking device, know in what areas of the village this woman spent most of her time, and then regulate the information to estimate on which day of the week she would be in so-and-so building at this precise hour. Of course, going to the kappa meant losing the scent she had working at the moment, and she wouldn't know if it were possible to pick up the track again any time soon. The mechanics of her predicament were far more challenging than she had anticipated, and she didn't know if her intelligence would be strong enough to power through all the variations required to pinpoint the exact method for keeping tabs on her prey. Sometimes she could truly feel like a stupid wo—

A hand placed itself on her shoulder, bringing her to a stop in the sky. “It isn’t smart to daydream while flying, you know.”

Kagerou blinked. There shouldn't be anyone behind her. After all, she was keeping close tabs on the Hat Lady who was no longer far ahead of her and she turned her head to see the Hat Lady there with her hand on Kagerou's shoulder.

“Hello there,” the woman in the blue dress said in a polite manner, “My name is Kamishirasawa Keine, and I am aware you’ve been watching me.”

Well, this was awkward. It wasn't often that the duper ended up becoming the dupee, but in Kagerou's case, she was beginning to think those rules didn't apply to her so much.

The role reversal still caught her off guard, and for a second all the noise she could think to make composed of, “Uh, I…”

The hat l—no, Keine—smiled as if she was speaking with a small child. “It must have been quite the peculiar dream for you to still be so out of rhythm.”
“No, I…was in deep thought,” she managed. Sure, the inevitable confrontation might have been bumped up far sooner than she expected, but that was no excuse to lose her composure! This was the time to push the advantage! Make the other side squirm! She had seniority in the forest over this newcomer, and Kagerou was determined to put her in the rightful hierarchy of things. “I am a guardian of this land, and saw an intruder entering without proper consent. You must leave now or suffer the wrath of—”

“I was already on my way out of the forest,” Keine interrupted, flashing a smile that made her look younger than her indicated age. “And if you were really so concerned with identifying potential hooligans to wreck carnage, I am certain you would have confronted me the moment you noticed my presence, rather than follow me and my friend in secret because you picked up a shared genetic link of therianthropism between our two spirits, correct?”

Every drop of rage-induced self-defense built up in the auburn girl's body has frozen and shattered into millions of pieces. She had no well thought comeback to counter what had just been said to her, for this woman with her odd choice of headwear had totally scanned her in and out. Her limbs went limp with the revelation, and she could only hear the last thing she had been told.

“Wait, so does that mean you are also…?”

Keine nodded before Kagerou had to get her whole question out. “Kept it a secret for many years, and I only recently went public with my identity.”

“Huh. And you knew I was following you?”

“Ever since I crossed the bridge over the river. Both of us knew you were there, actually, but neither of us had the heart to spoil your fun.” So it was almost from the beginning. She could feel her every aspect growing more crestfallen by the second. “Now now, don’t act like that,” the smiling woman encouraged, “The only reason we knew you were there was the aforementioned genetic link. We would have been quite oblivious otherwise!”

Kagerou took some comfort hearing that. At least her sneaking skills weren't getting rusty, and she had to deal with an obstacle in the middle of it all. “So that woman you were with…is she a human too?”

She received a brief stare from Keine, before the woman laughed and answered, “I understand where you would be in doubt, but yes, Mokou is a human like the two of us. Although sometimes she acts more human than she’s willing to admit.” A knowing glimmer shone in her eyes for a split-second, before the proper, instructive appearance resumed the gape. “You two have a history, as I understand it?”

Kagerou glanced to the world below, feeling a blush form. That night wasn't a memory she kept on constant standby, but with the past few hours it had reasserted a large place in her brain, and she wished it would inflate like a balloon and float off into the sunset. “Yeah…”

“Hmm, we discussed that while you were waiting outside Mokou’s home. She’s not very good with names but she can distinguish a unique face from a crowd. And you did happen to leave an impression on her…Kagora?” She scrunched her face hoping for the lucky first go. When she was corrected, she sighed and swung her arm in a "strikeout" motion. “Almost had it. She said something about you not only looking like someone she knows, but also having a similar sounding name. Granted, that’s a bit of a rough point…”

Kagerou nodded with the statement as far as possible, before interfering, “Yes, that’s very nice. Um, Ms. Keine? Do you mind if we kept talking back down on the ground? It’s difficult to maintain my flight when the moon isn’t out.”

And rather than continue talking up a storm, as she expected, Keine paused to study the anxiety in the other woman. The headmaster who was so accurate at finding corner-cutters and bullshitters in the essays of her pupils appeared for that necessary moment, and could tell in a heartbeat what Kagerou meant. She sent out her warmest understanding smile—which made Kagerou's face heat up, for some unknown reason—and nodded, taking the other girl's hand without saying another word and dropping back down into the bamboo cluster, landing on a relatively recognizable plot of road.

They walked in silence for a bit, the woman in the blue dress giving time to the younger girl in the white dress, allowing for the solidification of the message she wanted to get out. Once Keine felt there was enough preparation, she spoke slowly, “Something you witnessed in me and Mokou today has woken up something inside of you.”

“Yes, it has,” came the simple response.

The taller woman—even without her hat adding centimeters—stopped and showed an expectant face.

Kagerou stood as well, breathing in and out, making a conscious effort to not grab the sides of her dress. When she deemed herself calmer, she spoke unwavering, “I would appreciate it if you and your friend, Mokou, were to join me for a night of bonding.”


“I see, and how would we go about doing that?”

“We could chat around a campfire, talk about the things that differentiate us from normal humans.”

Keine mulled the idea over, and nodded, “Yes, that sounds like a pleasant experience. I know Mokou is capable of bringing firewood, but do you have a spot picked out?”

“Just meet me at the gravel path before the entrance of the forest. This forest,” she clarified, aware there were other, inferior forests spread out through Gensokyo, filled with their deciduous trees that decayed in the wintertime and looked like jagged, gray pincushions from a distance. “I’ll lead you to the area.”

A chuckle. “Well, what other forest would suit our needs?” Keine asked rhetorically, “And the date?”

“The night before the next full moon.”

A frown formed on the self-proclaimed thirty-something woman's lips. “That’s a week and a half from now. Are you sure you wouldn't prefer sometime sooner?”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Kagerou explained, shaking her head, “From what I remember, Mokou is pretty difficult to reason with. But you know her well. You could give her the circumstances of my proposal, let her think it over for a few days, because I’ve got a hunch she will think it over, and come around to accepting in time. Besides, if our group happened to stay longer than the mandatory limit, we could potentially view and compare our respective transformations, couldn’t we?”

She put a finger to her chin, pondering. That was a novel concept, for Keine had always assumed she was alone with her curse. But having a partner to share in that misery, to search for all the alterations of their bodies, minuscule and colossal…the thought proved to be a very powerful kink for her, and she could sense her intakes of air growing haggard. “All right,” she decided before becoming completely unresponsive, “I’ll hold you to that deal. Why don’t you make sure the food on your back doesn’t go bad?”

Kagerou started, realizing she had lost her sense of time, and laughed in embarrassment for getting caught up in the joy she now embraced. Yet she didn't let herself feel guilt over that fact. “Sure thing. Thank you, Ms. Keine.”

***

All the way home, the skip in her step wouldn't falter, and Kagerou felt for the first time in what seemed a long time true contentment. The way the schoolteacher—if what she'd overheard was correct—continued asking for details regarding her camping suggestion allowed her to become more daring in the recommendation. The chance for bonding, once so far away over the hills, appeared nearer and more realistic than it'd ever been. Not even the stocky crate bouncing against her back like palms on an ashiko could conspire to extinguish her mood.

The week and days past faster than she'd ever felt them go, and finally she stood on the outskirts of the bamboo plants, swaying in the gentle breeze like bars that guarded the most hidden hoard, and a meadow that ran for miles, the fuzzy image of tall pagodas and a log-stacked wall being the only indication of a village in the distance.

From this mirage, two silhouettes emerged, until a point came they were no longer silhouettes, but a pair of women traveling along the road. Soon the duo was in speaking range, and the outlines of Mokou and Keine drew clear, the former pulling a hand wagon loaded with chopped bundles of wood, the latter lugging a purse, forked poles in another hand. She greeted the two, exchanging the usual pleasantries with an enthusiastic Keine, before turning to Mokou.

The white-haired woman in red suspenders sported a cautious look, but not threatening. She curled her lips into a pudgy smile, deep dimples punctuating the ends of the line. “Hey,” she murmured, grabbing the base of her discolored shirt's collar and wiggling it, “glad to see you took my advice. Looks nice.”

It took a second for Kagerou to register what that meant, until she touched the secured pendant in her own collar. “Oh, thank you!” Her eyes closed and a luminescence appeared in her cheeks. “Gave me an excuse to sow on a proper collar, at least.”

They continued trading small talk, Kagerou escorting the other girls around the edge of the forest. All conversation evaporated after a while, as they took in the splendor of their surroundings. There would be plenty of time to chat after they reached the campsite, so the only further sound made aside from the ambience was some light whistling from Mokou, which the auburn woman complimented.

The site itself was modest, some bamboo chairs huddled in an arch around a stone ring, no more than ten meters out from the dug-in abode that was Kagerou's home. The three of them set up a triangular pile with several smaller logs place vertical in the center hole. While Kagerou went into her home to collect food for frying, Mokou sparked the wood with a literal snap of her fingers.

The evening past by, the path of the sun gradually diminishing the light viewable from the sky until none was left. In the course of these facts, the three girls swapped stories, among them Keine's recollection of meeting Mokou, how Kagerou had come to enter Gensokyo—and subsequently, the forest itself—Mokou's retelling of her duel with Kagerou, and memories from the Sealed Moon event, after which they cooked a meal of delicious meats and vegetables using the available fire.

Once the meals had settled in their guts, Keine took the metal prongs she had leaned against her seat and past one out to each of the other girls. She explained they were going to roast "marshmallows." Not knowing the term, Kagerou saw the woman pull a bag out of her purse, and produced a white, uneven cylinder, which she was handed. She chewed the thing, noticing the powdery yet fluffy texture in her mouth.

They all took turns roasting the sugar chunks, gossiping further still as the night wore on and throwing another log into the pit when the flames stop whipping. Deep into the night, the brightness of the near full moon blocked by cloud cover, Kagerou turned her head, and asked, “Keine?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you for joining me out here tonight, both of you.” She looked to the slumbering fire user, slouched in her chair.

The silver-haired woman smiled tenderly, flickers of light shining off her brown eyes. “It’s our pleasure. Thank you for inviting us to partake in this experience.” Her eyelids dimmed as she inspected the fire. “We should do this again sometime.”

“Yeah, we should.”

And no more conversation happened that night. Both of the still awake girls drifted off into slumber, tucked in the chair prodding against their backs. The last thing Kagerou would remember was the dancing bends of the bonfire, the glow pouring out into the darkness where they met at a balanced border. It reminded her of the colors of a sunset at dusk.

Or perhaps, a sunrise at dawn.
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A shotgun blast to the chin had whisked him into Gensokyo.

However, he wasn't like the usual 'arrivals' Mokou would find herself stepping over--the angle of the wound didn't suggest a suicide--a fair share of those found their way into the Bamboo Forest, which she assumed served to keep the feral youkai fat and happy and not clawing down the Human village palisades. No, this fellow was tall, strangely clothed, and currently, pantomiming for her to hand him his bag. She'd had stranger Mondays.

The gore took care of itself before long, his face knitting itself back together up the middle like an obscene zipper. For his part, the stranger ignored both the wound and its slow, steady closure, instead focusing on withdrawing something from his bag without dribbling fluids into it. He produced some kind of fragrant, spiced dried herbs in a pouch, and a small sheaf of what looked like papers, tapping a little of the sweet-smelling brown mixture onto the paper in a rough line. Once it was loaded and carefully neatened, he carefully rolled it up and brought the loose end to his tongue, only to discover he still lacked one. Looking up again, almost chagrined, he held the thing out to her.

She shrugged. "Can I have one?" He nodded. "Then sure." She took it and sealed the paper like one of those envelopes Keine favored as the man made another.

Before long he had enough of a semblance of a mouth to gabble a 'thanks' at her as he produced a tinderbox and sparked it off, puffing on the end as he lit the end of his stick on fire. Oh, so like a pipe, then. She held up a hand when he offered the box to her, instead letting a flame ignite on her fingertip as she lit her own.

She hadn't smoked in a few centuries, but she remembered the ritual well enough. Suck in air (though she slobbered on the end a little more than she'd meant to), let the smoke linger, and then breathe it in. Strange, it almost felt cold hitting her lungs, reminding her of the roaring kiln in her chest. She managed not to cough--she'd choked on far worse things than smoke since that kiln had been stoked.

Hands, rope, blades, ash, all of them had tried to part her spirit from her body, and all of them had failed. Which made this character even stranger--stocky-shouldered and, now that it wasn't matted down with black blood, a tangle of unkempt red hair, burning almost as bright as the ends of their sticks. He was wearing some kind of armor--leather she recognized, but not the form or the process that had made it. A sword's hilt poked out of his rucksack, left half-open once his tobacco was scrounged out--from what she could tell, one of the western ones, with a straight blade.

"Thanks," he said again, somewhat more eloquently than the first time. "I was sitting there for about six hours. All I could think about was a smoke."

That left her vaguely curious--did his healing pick up when got close, or was there some other carnage that he had already recovered from before she got there? "No problem. Your Japanese is good, but I can't place the accent. Where're you from?"

"Wallachia," he replied around the tip of his smoke with practiced ease, "Name's Wilhelm."

"Wilhelm, from Wallachia," Mokou suppressed a snicker. "Got it. Call me Fujiwara. So, tobacco?"

"My own blend," he nodded. "Like it?"

"It's kind of spicy. What is that?"

He cleared a spot in the brush with his foot and tapped the ash off onto it, stubbing it with his thumb. "A few things. What you're tasting is clove."

"It's pretty nice," she admitted. "I could get used to it."

"Heh, don't I know it. I can already feel myself getting hooked again."

She raised an eyebrow at that, but said nothing. Truth be told, she was probably just as strange as he was--thin, emaciated, with long, bone-white hair she couldn't be assed to cut. And yet, here they were, two immortals--it seemed, anyway--unconcerned about anything as they shared a smoke.

"We should probably move," Mokou noted. "It's getting late, and all that blood you're sitting in is going to attract things."

"Probably," he agreed. Neither got up. Heh.

"So that was a pretty good one," she noted, gesturing at his jaw with her smoke.

"I know, I was there," he replied, amused. "I think I still feel a lead ball rattling around in my nose. This one time, though, I caught it in the head, right through the skull." He tapped his temple. "Of course the first thing that grows back is the ability to feel pain."

"Hah! Ever frozen to death?"

He looked at her interestedly. "Yeah, have you?"

"Twice. I was stuck on a stake for the second one, too."

He grinned, pulling up his tunic to present a long, jagged scar across the belly. "Fell into a punji pit. I was stuck, alive, for three weeks."

Mokou rolled up her sleeve in response, refusing to be outdone. "Torn off in a scrap with a youkai, bled out, woke up in his den missing the other ones."

It became a game, showing off their war wounds. A criss-crosed scar from a sword here, that time he burned to death there, a lance through the thigh, decapitation, shooting, stabbing, drowning. Mokou felt dizzy--she hadn't eaten anything in months (not that she'd tell Keine that), and he warned her around the time she asked him for a second that cloves have a bit of a kick. It wasn't until she stood up to hitch up her shirt ("tree branch, right through the heart") that she stumbled from the heady smoke of these 'cigarettes' and tumbled ungracefully into his lap, their clothes half-strewn and their scars shining.

"So, uh," she muttered thickly, looking up at him as she felt a longing she hadn't felt in a hundred years, "These things take a while to smoke down, huh?"

Their lips touched, the pungent smell of smoke clinging to the both of them in the dark.

----

"So why'd you do it?" Mokou asked, casting about for her discarded trousers.

"Do what?" Wilhelm asked, tossing them to her gracelessly.

"Take the elixir. Become immortal."

"I didn't," he shrugged. "Just died one day, then woke up the next."

"Huh. Takes all kinds, I guess."

"Yeah. Couldn't tell you why, started heading out thisaway in the hopes that maybe someone around here had an answer. Been dying my way across the world for--a while."

"At least you die less the longer you go, right?"

"Honestly, no," he grinned. "I'm pretty sure it's these things, after a few decades I start coughing up blood and keel over, then wake up fresh again later." Mokou reappraised the stubbed cigarettes in the small clearing they'd made (and rolled over) the night before, until Wilhelm spoke up again. "What about you?"

"Eh? Oh, the elixir?" She frowned, thinking about it. Her father--she could still remember his voice, but not his face--masked under tears of grief and impotent rage--and then that face, that smirking face underneath her glorified bowl cut. "Just something stupid I can barely remember any more."

"Fair enough," he shrugged, content to let it lie.

"So what's your plan?" she asked. "You got here, what now?"

"Don't know," he said. "Figured I'd wander. Unless..." He paused. "Nah."

Mokou didn't pursue it. "Good luck, then. Oh, wait. Your tobacco."

"Keep it," he said. "I can make more." He hitched his pack again. "I guess that's that. So long, Fujiwara."

For a moment, she almost told him 'Mokou,' but it was just that--a moment. One moment in a long string of them, two immortals chancing into each other on a sea of eternity. "Take it easy, Wilhelm," she called, and the strange man turned and went.
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There was an old legend about bathing in the blood of youkai.

I never paid it any heed, of course. I was too worried about keeping clothes on my back and food in my stomach. I learned my father’s trade, as much as he had hoped otherwise – “it’s no work for a young girl with hopes and dreams,” he said, “you should learn a proper craft if you’re not going to get married,” he said, “you’ll never get any respect,” he said, “feast or famine like this is no way to live,” he said – and I stuck with it, because someone had to do it.

There was an old legend about bathing in the blood of youkai, and my father always tried to avoid the… suspicious work because of it. He said you could never be too sure with legends, especially ones that were as vague as that one. Said to be careful who I worked with.

I never paid it any heed, of course. Grave digging is an awful job with awful pay, but it needs to be done. You leave a corpse around, and all sorts of bad gathers around it. The spirit stews in anger, the meat attracts flies and disease, the bones attract lower-class youkai. Soon, one or the other of those winds up leading to more corpses.

So I raised my shovel up, and brought it back down, and stomped and levered and did it over and over and over again. Tiny sums for manual labor, of course, because anyone could do it. Never mind that nobody would. Never mind that they called me an unclean thing, wouldn’t let me take any other work, left me to hunt and scavenge in the places where nobody went just to stave off the hunger. There was always a digger, so why should they worry themselves if I could barely afford to avoid going naked? Concern was for – excuse me while I gag – “clean, honest people”.

It didn’t matter how thankless it was. I dug out those long, thin holes, and I dumped in what went in, and I turned around and scooped the dead earth back in. For peasants or soldiers or hunters or lords, it didn’t matter. The work needed to be done. For the people who needed cleaner, safer lives.

For that same miserable pittance of coins.

There was an old legend about bathing in the blood of youkai. I never paid it any heed, of course. Man, magician, or beast, tengu or kappa or even stranger things yet – every last one of the dead needed to be interred. When ravenous monsters preyed upon humans, when humans rose up to strike down the monsters, and every time the cycle repeated afterwards, I was there. There to lift and drop the earth, and be scorned for it. I stopped caring after a while; the living were scum in any case, so why should I give a damn if they stop being that way?

On and on, more of the same monotony, and finally I came across the leftovers of a great battle. The lords’ bodies had been borne away to be planted in the gardens of the quote-unquote noble dead, and the common soldiers left to rot. There was only one other digger to get there, somehow, and that meant plenty of abandoned coin purses. In good time, too – my clothes were reaching the point where I had to patch the patches on the patches.

I went into town with the other digger, after the day was done. We found a tailor and got new clothes, the good rugged stuff that lasts for an eternity of hard work. We found a tavern and bought meals, real meals, not the stuff you eat when the only way to stay fed is to take a knife to the hares and foxes and stranger things in the wild places. We pooled our money – not because we needed to split it, but because one room was cheaper than two and we both wanted to have as much left over as possible – and we slept under a roof, a roof, with walls and proper thatching that kept the rain out.

And then when we woke up, there were extremely unpleasant-looking armed men surrounding us.

The town guard, you see, they were a greedy lot who enjoyed… let’s call it selective enforcement. And this time, they selected to enforce an age-old regulation about stealing from graves. Never mind that we didn’t take out anything we had put in already. Never mind that they couldn’t have been assed if it had been the local bandits who got there first.

There was an old legend about bathing in the blood of youkai. I never paid it any heed, of course, but then…

You see, when they tossed his corpse aside and put my neck on that chopping block, I discovered the rules of the legend first hand. You don’t need to make the youkai bleed yourself; it might make it easier, but magic is magic, and it takes root wherever it can. You don’t need to literally bathe in it; just a little bit of contact will do. It doesn’t need to be fresh; dried scabs will add the same little incremental droplet of magic that the hot, fresh stuff does.

And if you only have the blood of one more youkai to come into contact with before you reach a thousand? Well, your own dying pulse is close enough, as long as the blood gets shed instead of staying on the inside.

That town hasn’t had guards for a long time now, I hear.

Plenty happened since then - a decade or two of aimless wandering, a job offer from a roadside shrine, a whole new monotonous job that at least pays better and involves more respect - but none of it is really that important.

So anyways, that’s why I look so familiar to you. Now, where the hell were you those last few centuries between them slicing your neck and me picking you up for this lovely ferry ride?
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Hello. You may not know me, but I know you.

Well, okay, honestly, I don't know you. Not really. I don't know why I said that. I've seen you, though! Not that seeing you means that I know you, but, AH! This must be sounding so weird, like I'm some kind of stalker or something! Which I'm not! Honestly! I just happened to see you, this one time, but you didn't see me because OH no no no no no! This is coming out all wrong!

Okay, I'll start again.

Hello! Do you remember me? I waved at you last week, but you might not have noticed. Unless you did notice, and were simply ignoring me just like everybody else who has ever AHH! That sounds so pitiful, doesn't it? It really, truly does, doesn't it?

I'm sorry, it's just, this is so hard for me. I'm not used to this sort of thing, and this wasn't even my idea, but SOMEONE keeps telling me to do this so I'm doing it so maybe they'll stop snickering over it like they do every time I try to talk to them about this, even though I never laugh at her whenever she comes by to complain about her so-called “bad hair days”! It's not even during the day when it happens, so why

Ahhhh! Alright, okay, I'm fine. I can do this. I'll just, I don't know, start over?

All right. Here I go. Ahem!

Hi. It's me. The girl who waved at you last week. Remember, last week? At the lake? I waved at you, but you must not have noticed. I'm used to that, though. Not being noticed, I mean. I don't exactly try to stand out, most of the time, and anyone who comes around usually has more important things to worry about than paying any attention to someone like me.

“Someone like me” makes it sound as if there's something wrong with me, doesn't it? Although, in a way, that might actually be a little true. I don't like causing trouble, or going to parties, or fighting, drinking, or anything like that. I mean, it's not as if I couldn't possibly enjoy any of those things, but it's just that, well, nobody ever really aaaaAAAAAAAAA! I really do sound pitiful, don't I?! I do! I am! I'm pitiful! I'm a sad, pitiful, lonely little thing that nobody cares enough to even look at!

I mean, why should they? What do I have, really? I sing to myself and collect pretty stones I find laying around. That's it! I like to sing and collect rocks! I can't do any special tricks, or throw fancy parties, or dance, or anything like anyone else can. I don't have any spectacular abilities, or a fancy mansion with servants, or anything that my neighbors have. Compared to them, what have I got? How could I ever possibly measure up to any of them?

That's the reason, isn't it? That's why nobody ever pays any attention to me, because they are just that much better than I am. Next to them, I may as well be invisible! If it's not the vampire, it's the maid, or that sickly girl, or even the gatekeeper. There's always someone or something there that's caught the eye of anyone who comes here. I mean, the witch and the shrine maiden? I can understand. The vampire is causing a ruckus, and its their job to put a stop to it. But the men?

Honestly, I've lost count of all the guys I've seen come and go from that place. Some of them haven't even come back out since they went in! All these years, and all those men, and the closest any of them have ever gotten to me is when they've jumped into my home to commit suicide! Suicide! This is my HOME they're hopping into, and yet all they see is a handy place to end it all!

It's just, well, I'm tired of things being like this. I want more. Is that so wrong? Is it so wrong to want a guy to come by the lake to see ME, for a change? To have someone to sing to, or even with? To show them my collection and not have them laugh at it, or think it's silly? To have someone to hold me and not mind getting a little damp? To have someone to talk to who doesn't complain about how much I smell like fish, as if damp fur smells any better? I don't even smell like fish! I just, you know, AHHHH! I don't know what I'm saying anymore!

It's just, I thought, well, it would be nice. It would be nice to have something like that, for once, and that's why I waved to you. I mean, if none of that was going to happen, anyway, that's fine. I would understand, really. But, it would have been nice to at least have some sort of response, you know? I don't think that's too much to ask for, and yet nobody ever does, and I'm just so lonely, and I know I shouldn't get upset over this but I can't help it!

What does it take to get noticed around here? Does it really take going on a rampage to make everyone notice you, and take you seriously? Because I don't really want to do that, that's not who I am, and yet...

I think I do.

I mean, I shouldn't. I know I shouldn't, but the more I think about it, the more upset I get, and I just feel like I need to do something. Anything! It's all just so frustrating, and I hate being like this, but if this is what it takes, then what else can I do?

Maybe the others are right, after all. Maybe it's time. Time to stand up, and make everyone take us seriously. MAKE everyone notice us. Will that do it? Will things change, then? I want to think so, but, I don't know what to think anymore. I don't want to do this, but I do, but I don't, but if I don't then nothing will ever change, and the more I think about that, the more I hate it, and, and AHHHHHHHH!

FINE! I'LL DO IT! If this is what it takes, then I'll do I!

Do you hear me? You will! And when you do, you won't be able to ignore me anymore! You won't be able to just walk on by as if I don't exist! As if I was never there! Not you, or the witch, or shrine maiden, or anyone, ever again!

So come down to the lake. Come down to see the vampire and her mansion and her maids and all of her fancy, pretty things. Come on down, and you'll see something else. You'll see me. You'll see me because you will have no choice. I will not give you a choice. You will see me. You will hear me. And when I speak, you WILL listen. And when I speak, if there is anything you know, it will be this:


MY NAME IS WAKASAGI-FUCKING-HIME, I'M MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!
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“Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate's life for me!” The girl whirls around to face me, cutlass in hand, long black coat billowing with the sudden movement, all in time with her long blue hair. “Avast, you scurvy dog!” as she points her cutlass directly at my face.

I push it out of the way. “Tenshi, you know nobody actually talks like that, right? And you're not even a pirate.”

She frowns at me, huffs, and puts her hands on her hips. “I'm the caption of this here ship, Iku!”

“Captain.”

“That's what I said! Now, I'm the captain of the Peequod, and I am so a pirate! Are our holds not full of booty?”

“They're full of booty, yes,” I say. Her face turns into a triumphant gloat, but I continue. “Booty that you paid for, and are planning to smuggle into the next port. You're not a pirate, you're a smuggler.”

“Hey! We took down a merchant ship that one time!”

“Tenshi, I keep telling you this, but that was a fishing trawler that you demanded we run down.”

“And we took all of her fish!” She frowns. “She didn't know anything about it, though...”

I cross my arms. “What did you do with the girl on the fishing boat, anyway? I thought you were gonna make her walk the plank.”

Tenshi points skyward, to the top of the mast, where a human form is tied to the top, black hair all askew. “I tied her up there to the crow's nest. Heh. Crow's nest. Get it? It's because she's a crow tengu, and now she's-”

“I get it, I get it.” I shake my head. “Look, I've told you that haring off after this... this thing won't do you any favors. You got lucky to get away how you did, and you should be happy with that.”

“No!” Tenshi shouts, as she stomps across the deck. “No! I will not let that bastard get away with it! He took my hat. I'll take his life, if it's the last thing I do!” She stops and crosses her arms, and glares at me. “Besides, I left the Sword of Hisou in his ugly-ass face. You know how cross Father will be if I come back without it.”

“You have six more at home!”

“And it would take me a whole goddamn week to make another one, Iku! I can't not have seven! Who ever heard of six being a lucky number!” She stops to glare at me. “I'm going back to my cabin, First Mate Iku. You have the watch.” She departs in a huff, leather boots tattooing out a rhythm of anger and revenge upon the oak of the Peequod.

Fine, we'll play that game. “Oi, Aya!” I shout up to the crow tied to the crow's nest. “You seen anything?”

Let me down from here! Your captain is a crazy bitch!” she shouts back.

O Captain, my Captain, I'm getting real sick of your shit. You'd risk everyone here just to pursue the White Catfish because it stole your goddamn hat. Seriously, I told you, we could get another. “Aye, she is. But she's my captain, Aya. If you want down, you're gonna have to help me out here. You seen anything?”

“I ain't seen shit! You're a crazy bitch too!”

“And here I was, about to climb the rigging and let you down. I suppose I'll let you bake up there for another hour or two.” Bake is the right word- it's a hot day here in Caribbean Gensokyo. She can't be comfortable up there- Tenshi had to have her tied up there early this morning, before I got up for my watch. And it only promises to get hotter.

I gesture to our cabin girl to come to me, as I sit upon the side of one of the boats. She hurries over, silver braids fluttering in the salty wind. “The boats are ready, correct, Sakuya?”

“Aye, First Mate,” she affirms. “The harpooneers are ready as well.”

“Good.” The last time the Peequod dropped boats and set out ended up being for an enormous tire- the largest I've ever seen in your life. It wasn't even white, or able to spout at all. How our lookout confused that for the White Catfish is beyond me.

“Miss Iku, if I may ask you a question?” Sakuya says.

“Go ahead.”

“Why are we hunting Hisou Tensoku?”

Because Tenshi is a crazy bitch and I'm stuck babysitting her until she gets bored and heads back up to Heaven. “Because the Captain wishes it to be so.”

Sakuya is silent for a while, fiddling with the hem of her blouse. “...The Captain is insane, isn't she?”

“Nah,” I respond. “Just revenge-crazed. It's like a step below insane.”

Our conversation is interrupted by laughter from up above. “Thar she blows, bitches! Your precious White Catfish has come to finish the job!”

“Oh, great,” I begin. But before I can continue, Tenshi bursts out of her cabin, swift and terrible as the divine wind.

“The White Catfish?!” Her face twists into an expression of horrifying glee. “So, we're going to go another round. Ha. Hahahaha. Hahaahahahahaha.” Tenshi ends up wracked with manic laughter. “Round two! DING DING, MOTHERFUCKER!

“Harpooneers to your station!” I shout. The whole ship is stirred into action by Aya's call from up above, and her continued stream of expletives afterward is drowned out by the pound of feet on oak, the sound of rope being drawn taut, and the shouting of crewmembers.

I hop into Tenshi's boat. She's already in the front of the boat, boot braced on the throwing block, hand on her first harpoon. I'm in the back, one hand on the tiller, one on the reserve harpoons. Our rowers, Yuugi and Suika, the two strongest in our crew, hop into our boat. Within the minute, we're lowering to the froth and waves of the sea, as though the ocean itself is stirred by Tenshi's passion. The four noodling boats dash out from the Peequod- but ours is in the front, Tenshi's rage driving through the waves as though it were a material thing. “Damn the torpedoes! I will not be beaten to Hisou Tensoku!” She turns her glare to our rowers. “If we should not be first, I'll have you both walk the plank!” Suika and Yuugi blanch.

They row faster.

“Oi, Captain!” I say.

“What is it now?!” Tenshi replies, exasperated.

“Ain't no goddamn torpedoes, Tenshi. This would be a lot easier if there were.”

Tenshi looks at me blankly for a moment, and then swears. “Fuck, you're right! It'd have been much easier to take the Nautiless!” She looks forward at the growing image of the White Catfish. “Fuck, seriously, we could have just torpedoed him! Shit!” She grasps her harpoon and readies to throw. “Seriously, goddamnit, why didn't you just tell me earlier? Fuckin' Iku,” she grumbles. “Always ruining the moment.”

I smile to myself. Making the voyage worth it, one Tenshi at a time.

We carve through the waves, as though Moses was among us, kicking up a large wake behind us. The other three boats have dropped behind. We're almost in throwing range as Tenshi stands, braced on the throwing block. “Almost there,” she says under her breath. “I'm going to get my hat back, over your dead body.”

She hurls the first harpoon at the very edge of her range. It falls just short. “Damn! Next harpoon!” I hand her the second harpoon, and make busy fastening the end of the first harpoon's rope to the first eyelet, designed so as to be able to retrieve missed harpoons.

The second harpoon hits its mark, however, sailing into the great side of the White Catfish, and dark red blood spurts from the impact. Tenshi shouts with glee, and Hisou Tensoku dives.

Now, a catfish diving is a threat to be feared when one is out noodling. If it dives too far, too fast, the whole boat could be swept under, and the whole boat's crew consigned to Davy Jones' Locker if the ship can't rescue them in time, or if someone should be tangled in the lines.

The rope draws taut, and the boat is dragged along at incredible speed, as the oars are torn from the hands of Yuugi and Suika. “Run, you bastard!” Tenshi shouts. “I've got you now!” She grabs a third harpoon and readies to throw again.

And then the line suddenly goes slack.

Erupting from the water in front of us, mouth agape, eyes red with the fury only a beast made entirely of hatred could harbor, Hisou Tensoku rushes the boat. Tenshi hurls the third harpoon, hitting just above the eye, right next to the Sword of Hisou still lodged in the beast's hide.

Yuugi and Suika are shouting from fear of death.

Tenshi is shouting with rage as she grabs the line, and jumps straight at the White Catfish, using it as a means to climb aboard the beast.

I am shouting at Tenshi for being such a dumbass.

She dives onto the White Catfish, as it crashes into our boat, tipping the three of us left in the boat overboard. In the whirling catastrophe that follows, I manage to grab onto the boat and pull my head back above water, to see Tenshi shouting and waving the Sword of Hisou from atop the White Catfish's head. “Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering catfish; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.” She always was one for overwrought melodrama.

And she plunges the sword squarely between the beast's eyes. It lets out an earth-shattering bellow, and in its frenzy, thrashes about, dashing the boat on its monstrous tale, and flinging me away, clutching to a piece of driftwood for dear life. Alas, dear listener, I wish I could tell you more of this moment. But it is at this point that I pass out.

When next I awake, I am upon the deck of the Peequod, Captain Tenshi standing above me. Behind her is the great mass of the White Catfish, slain, and hoist upon the deck.

She leans down very close to my face. “Iku,” she whispers into my ear, the ragged breath of adrenaline and exertion not completely gone from her voice, “I'm having me a fish fry. And!” she shouts, straightening up, and frowning in disappointment, “I never found my goddamn hat!”
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Grass.

Roots. Leaves.

Bushes.

Dirt. Trees.

All the same.

All different.

Large rock. Turn around.

Worn tree. Head left.

This forest isn’t home. All foreign, unfamiliar. Not supposed to be a place for you.

     Don’t worry Chiko, we’re only exploring a bit!

You trudge on.

Landscape difficult, unknown. Faint memories, old instincts, guide you.

You aren’t afraid. Forest doesn’t scare you. Rumors from the village mean nothing.

Crunch.

Crunch.

Fallen leaves? Something else? You pause.

Monsters. Horrible, vicious monsters that spit fire and leave trails of acid. Tall tales told by your family, of horrible animals and plants that eat things like you for breakfast.

You bolt down the path.

     Don’t you guys think it’s getting kind of dark?

You slow, look around.

No monster behind you.

Shadows are shadows.

The path is still there, your prints in the dirt.

Home is far away.

No, home is gone.

There is no home. Home was with your family, but they don’t want you any longer.

You failed them, after all.

     Hey, everybody? Can we go home now?

You imagine the others.

You remember standing by her side, the boys running around.

They spoke to her, mocked her, partly play. No respect for a female. She was the way she was.

Above you, through the canopy, the light of the sun dims.

You’ve been wandering for too long.

But, you aren’t afraid of the dark.

     Ah! What was that?

Something moves.

You stop, listening for anything out of place.

You watch the trees, quick movements drawing your eye.

Leaves, kicked up by the wind.

Tiny birds, foraging for food.

You begin to walk faster, taking less and less time to inspect your surroundings.

Only moss. Only mushrooms.

Nothing hiding behind the trees, in the branches, under the ground.

Nothing.

There’s no reason to panic like a pack of children, suddenly hyper aware of the stories and warnings about humans traveling into the forest alone.

     It’s a monster! It’s a monster!

You feel yourself speeding up. You pad along quicker and quicker.

You aren’t afraid.

You deviate from the dirt path and leap over a fallen log.

Running along the road leads back to the village. It leads to a big house, warm fires, swathes of blankets. You want nothing more than to run along it and go back to the place you know.

You could, but you can’t. That place isn’t home.

Just like in the past, you rush through the woods. But this time you’re alone, without a friend to follow.

     Come on Chiko, this way!

You slow down.

Forest all around you.

Bushes rustle. Grass depresses.

Is there danger?

Crackle.

You yelp and dash out of the way.

Crash!

The old wood tree explodes into splinters.

You shake your head, dislodging bits of tree bark.

Nothing to worry about. It was coincidence. No monster trying to crush you.

You pass by the fallen tree with a sense of dread. It’s large and appears to be the perfect hiding spot for a young girl.

     I-I think we’re s-safe here…

You want to stop, to rest, but you refuse to sit still in this forest.

Not safe.

More crashing!

You dash through the trees without a care.

It’s behind you, in front of you, all around you. You can hear it, the constant snapping of branches and crushing of underbrush It’s back it’s there it’s here!

You snarl as you run, the terror slowly morphing into a determined sense of fury.

     No! Ch-chiko! Help!

Cries of pain are mixed in with guttural bellows.

A massive bird crashes down from the canopy above.

You dive to the side, catching the dust the bird kicks up.

The smell of blood is overwhelming.

The creature is dead, massive gouges ripped into its body.

The youkai clinging to the top of the bird, tearing into it with sharpened claws, is grinning ferociously.

You begin to back away, but the movement attracts the monster’s attention.

It looks at you with beady eyes and slowly dismounts from its meal.

You’ll kill it.

You’ll fight it.

You’ll…try…

You…you can’t do a thing. You couldn’t. You were no more menacing than a flea. You-

     R-Run…a-away…Chiko…

You turn tail and flee.

Away away away!

It isn’t safe!

You can hear the predator behind you. It’s loud, noisy, big.

Ba-bump. Ba-bump.

You jump over logs and dive through bushes to try and get away, numerous small cuts streaking across your body.

Not enough! It’s behind you, drawing closer and closer.

You run and leap and bound, choosing directions wildly, at random, on instinct, to get away!

No.

That’s not true.

It isn’t random.

You have a path to follow.

You have a scent to follow.

     Oh dear, what happened here?

The one scent so subtle that permeates everything in the village, in the fields, in this forest.

The scent of that woman, the one who didn’t run. The one who drove the monster away when all you did was run and double-back in guilt.

Now the scent is getting stronger.

You can smell it all around you. Something, perhaps, only you can smell.

The predator behind you roars and lunges. You jaunt out of the way just in time, not stopping to see how quickly it can recover.

That smell. It’s close. Very, so very close!

You jump through one last bush and skid to a halt.

     I’m sorry I cannot save you.

“What was that?” The source of the smell hears you crashing into the clearing and turns around.

The source of the smell, this woman, looks down at you. “Huh? Oh, weren’t you…weren’t you with that girl? What are you doing here?”

Now that you’ve found it, you don’t want to approach.

Because of that smell.

That scent is wrong.

It’s terrible.

All of your instincts tell you to keep away from that scent.

Your memories disagree.

You couldn’t protect her. And yet-

You yelp when you’re thrown to the side. You curl up in pain, the fire along your sides burning.

The monster is there, looming over you, the horrible smelling concoction of blood and sweat dripping from it. It prepares to jump on you, to rend you limb from limb like its other prey.

Then it’s sent sprawling on its side, just like you.

“I don’t think this is where you belong,” the woman tells the predator, a globe of light suspended in her hand.

The snarling youkai glares at the woman and bares its teeth. “Are you talking to me?” it hisses. “Go back to whatever shadow you sit in all day, curse bitch.”

The predator lunges at the woman, claws outstretched.

The woman spins away and lets the light go. The projectile slams into the predator and sends it flying, but not before some of her hair is shorn away by its claws.

You watch the growing fight between woman and predator while you struggle to your feet, the pain from the injury already blurry and non-distinct.

You aren’t large. You aren’t big or old or tough. But you wish you were. If you were, you could have protected her or at least protected yourself.

You think back to the few memories of your mother that you have, of how imposing and regal she could appear, how aggressive she was yet how kind she could be. She could discern any strange scent and fight anybody.

You didn’t have those traits. That’s why your family could adopt you. You were a runt, unsuitable to be a true guardian that could stare down any supernatural threat.

She didn’t care.

She only wanted to play with you, to have fun.

She cared about you.

And you failed her.

You growl, frustration welling up inside you. You don’t want to feel useless, to be protected, ever again.

You launch yourself at the back of the predator. With all of its focus on the woman, it doesn’t notice you until your nails are digging into its back and your teeth are clamped firmly on its shoulder.

The predator’s putrid blood fills your mouth, coating your teeth and running down your throat.

You bite harder.

The predator hollers and flails its arms, sending its claws lashing backwards at you. You wince with every blow but don’t let go. You won’t let yourself be shaken off.

Your prey hollers and screams until another blast of energy smashes into its head. You leap away then and slide to a halt. Your legs give way soon after, leaving you in an undignified heap.

You’re smiling, though.

On the other side of the clearing, you watch the predator slam into a tree. The predator rises slowly, shouting its rage…until the tree cracks and falls.

The possibly centuries old tree causes the earth to tremble when it lands.

“That was rather unlucky for him,” the woman says.

You whimper and stand up. It takes most of your concentration to keep your wobbly legs under you.

You look back at the dead predator, the monster, the wild youkai that so threatened other life. It wasn’t, you’re sure, the one who killed your girl.

That one lurks, stalks, hunts, somewhere else.

Your escape means nothing. You couldn’t protect her.

“This place isn’t safe for you.”

You look up at the woman.

It’s her, the source of that terrible scent. It’s thick in the air, worse than any cloud of perfume human females so love. It’s the smell of your failure, of the figure that appeared after you failed.

The woman walks toward you, grass flattened underfoot. She kneels down, bringing her face close to yours. She doesn’t look at all like the girl you failed.

Is this what she saw as she laid bleeding? A depressed, smiling face trying to cheer her up?

     Get away from her you cursed monster!

You remember her standing abruptly, flaming torches and sharpened swords waved about. Her lights and scent were scarier, stronger, than any flaming torch or sharpened sword.

But she ran like you had.

Why do they all hate this woman? Fear her? Her scent is strange, but you don’t think they can smell that.

“You should return home to where you belong.”

Kindness. More than anything, you feel her care. The same attention she gave your girl in her final moments, she gives to you.

She’s alone, in an unwelcoming forest. She doesn’t have a group of friends dragging her into danger. She doesn’t have a village to search for her. She doesn’t have a family, grieving over her loss and lashing out at those involved.

She has no one.

“Didn’t you hear me? It’s isn’t safe-”

You lick the woman’s face.

“Hey, stop it. Stop!” she cries, giggling in between gasps.

You lick her again.

“No, no, that’s not allowed!” she giggles. The woman falls onto her butt and rests a hand on your head.

You let her scratch behind your ears before walking closer to her. The scent is sickeningly strong, coating her legs and waist. You sniff further up, along her chest and neck, her odor just as thick.

It’s bad, but it isn’t.

She uses both her hands to rub your back and sides. “It really is dangerous here,” she whispers.

The woman picks you up by the waist.

This hasn’t happened in a while.

“Do you understand me?” she asks.

Of course you do.

     You’re the smartest ever, Chiko!

She nods at your response. She slowly spins around once, twice, thrice before putting you down. “I’m glad to see you’re safe, at least,” she says. Then she turns away and begins to walk into the forest.

Her scent is not so bad. You’re already getting used to it. Maybe it’s not wrong? Just…not so liked?

The woman stops and looks behind her, down at you.

Then she starts walking again.

She is really nice. She pets you softly, not like those smelly drunkken humans or the young young ones.

The woman stops again. This time, she turns around fully. “You can’t follow me. Go home!”

You stare up at her.

“You said you understood me?”

You bark once.

“If you do, then go home.”

You take a few steps forward and then jump up, bracing against the woman’s legs with your forepaws.

“Home! Not me!”

You bark again.

The woman growls in frustration before picking you up once more.

You lick her face.

“No!” she yelps before turning you around. Her arms wrap around your stomach, your back held firmly against her chest. “We’re going to your home, okay?”

You lick her exposed hand before settling down.

The woman continues to talk to you, to tell you about how you should listen to her and how your owners must be worried sick. You listen to her, lending an ear even if you don’t understand everything she’s saying.

Forked tree. Turn right.

Paw rock. Continue forward.

Easy enough to find your way back.

Perhaps, this time, you can protect her. Protect her in the way you’re best suited for.
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Many good epics and legends start with a question, an enigma that drives the hero to move heaven and earth to find the answer. The protagonist of this one, however, is certainly no heroine, and she didn't try too hard to search for the solution of her query. In fact, she isn't the protagonist of the story. Moreover, this story is not an epic nor a legend. Okay, let's be honest, some people argue this isn't even a good story in the first place.

It all started when one unfateful day, Flandre Scarlet, with all the innocence of a psychotic loli vampire, asked Patchouli the most feared question by parents all over the world:

"How is babby formed?"

The poor librarian, surprised, forgot to correct little Flandre's grammatical and spelling errors, very common between 495 years old children. The centuries she had spent studying in her library didn't prepare Knowledge for the talk, even though she had a whole shelf dedicated exclusively to the erotica at Voile. The talk is something life teaches to parents when the time is right, and if there was something Patchouli lacked besides good health, it was life experience.

What she did, then, was telling Flandre the pure, unadulterated truth. Of course, in terms the little vampire could understand:

"Look, Flandre, because your mommy and your daddy loved each other very much, daddy gave mommy a little seed he had. That seed sprouted, grew up, and nine months later it became a beautiful cabbage where the stork from Paris left you."

"But Patchouli, that just raises further questions!" Complained the vampire, but she was promptly ignored by the librarian, who conveniently 'remembered' she had to do stuff and things.

Later that day, at dinner, Flandre took the chance to ask the question that had been burning in her mind to Sakuya. Unfortunately, the normally perfect and elegant maid had had a particularly stressful day, and if there was something Sakuya lacked besides a bountiful chest, it was time.

"Look, Flandre, if you don't eat your soup, I'm going to call the boogeyman," she said, hoping to divert the little vampire's attention back to the table.

But children always need to be told the truth. They mustn't be scared with boogeymen, sandmen, bugbears, or other imaginary creatures, even if the child in question happens to be one of them. They will only be convinced when they are told of more realistic beings, like wolves, spiders, snakes, good old Nyarlathotep, and so on. The children will naively believe everything, and if they are fed that kind of lies, like the maid did to Flandre, they will always counter with an even more improbable comeback:

"But Sakuya, what if the boogeyman also doesn't want to eat the soup?"

"Then I'll just throw knives at him until he does," the maid replied, trying to avoid further explanations. "Now be a good girl and eat your soup already."

Grave mistake Sakuya did, for her evasive verbal maneuver only served to further stroke Flandre's curiosity. After that, the little vampire began to suspect they were all hiding something from her, and she wouldn't be satisfied until someone gave her the answers she was looking for.

And so she went to her big sister and pestered her for hours, trying to divert her attention from the book of Tepes' biography she was leisurely not reading. However, Remilia did not see it in herself to spend time with her beloved sister she had imprisoned at the basement for about five hundred years, and if there was something Remilia lacked besides humility, it was patience.

"Look, Flandre, it's five in the morning, right?" She asked, looking at the clock.

"Yeah."

"It's a bit late, right, and the sun is about to go up."

"Yeah."

"And tomorrow we all have to get up early. Do you remember we have to get up early tomorrow?"

"Um... Yeah?"

"Of course! Tomorrow we have to get up early again, because you have to study with Patchouli, Sakuya needs to clean the mansion, I need to plot another incident... Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"I guess?"

"What I'm saying is, my little sister, is that if you don't go back to bed right now, I'll spank you with my Gungir!"

And so, under the threat of being impaled with extreme prejudice, Flandre fled the room and went back to bed. But to the chagrin of everybody at the Scarlet Devil Mansion, the little vampire's curiosity wouldn't be appeased that easily. For the following weeks, Flandre went on pestering all the residents, asking them questions about the process of making offsprings with a particularly botchered grammar. Her constant, twenty four-seven nagging drove many of the fairies even more insane than they already were, but none could avoid and ignore the pint sized loli powerhouse of destruction asking about babbies, storks and boogeymen.

It dawned on Remilia, Sakuya and Patchouli that the current situation couldn't go on any longer.

"This needs to end!" Complained the vampire. "My sister's been asking me questions non-stop, and my head's going to explode at this rate. Can't you do something about it, Patchouli?"

"I cannot teach the unwilling," explained the librarian. "Your sister has the patience of a short fuse burning, and she would rather have someone answer her questions immediatly than think and search for herself. In that regard, no different from you, Remilia."

"I least I had good teachers to tend to my- Ah, that's it!" Remilia snapped her fingers. "What Flandre needs is a tutor!"

"That didn't work out well last time, remember?" retorted Patchouli, grimacing at the less than pretty mental image of the aftermath.

"I know," the vampire said, remembering the dreadful incident as well. "We should search for someone who can handle himself in a fight to avoid that kind of mess again."

"Intelligent and strong, hm? There aren't many who meet those requirements," mused the librarian, deep in thought. "Most people either won't hold long against Flandre, or are too afraid to get in the same room with her willingly. And those who do are probably too stupid to teach her anything useful anyway."

"Too bad her reputation has spread all over Gensokyo..." Remilia let out a weary sigh. "No smart person wants to teach my little psychotic sister, I fear. Well, they fear. Heheh."

"Actually..."

Both Remilia and Patchouli turned their heads in surprise when Sakuya raised her voice, who had been silent until then.

"I believe there's one such person who is smart, strong and probably hasn't heard of Flandre's... tendencies," the maid explained.

"Excellent!" Remilia clapped in victorious relief. "Sakuya, bring that clueless loon here as soon as you can, by any means necessary."

The maid bowed, and in a split second, her figure flicked and vanished.

"You don't even know who he or she is! Are you sure?" exclaimed Patchouli seconds after.

"If he can manage to keep Flandre entertained even for a day, I don't care. And if he doesn't live up to her billing, at least he'll make a good meal. I mean, for a good meal," the vampire chuckled at her own joke. "It's win-win for us both ways."

"Alright, whatever," the librarian, resigned, threw her arms in the air. "Well, I'll be locking myself up in the library for the week. I don't want to be near the disaster when it all blows up."

"Oh, don't be a sissy! That won't happen! I have faith in Sakuya's choice, and you should too."

"Keep telling yourself that. Just don't blame me like you always do."

After delivering her warnings and disposing of any responsibility like any good lawyer, Patchouli kept her words and locked herself and her assistant inside Voile, as she preferred to trust her own anti-crazed vampire magic barriers surrounding the library rather than betting on her friend's less than smart pick. On her part, Remilia was really confident her maid would manage to convince that poor sod to withstand Flandre's ceaseless volley of questions. She even had that feeling in her gut that always told her things were going to work out just fine.

Little did she know that those butterflies in her stomach were nothing more than an indigestion due to tea overdose, and that those things would work out anyway but fine.


------------------------------------------


Many good epics and legends have the hero climb up a perilous mountain to reach the antagonist's castle, weaving through a furious storm casted by the evil guy's powers, until he reaches the top that serves as the dramatic setting for the final fight. The heroine of this one, however, didn't have to climb any mountain, because the antagonist's castle was just at the other side of a fairly plain lake. Moreso, the bad guy's lair wasn't exactly a castle, but a mansion. And the aforementioned storm was brought by none other than the heroine herself. To top it off, she wasn't going to fight any evil person or monster; instead, she was hired to babysit her.

Raiko Horikawa was beginning to wonder if she was mistaken about who was the hero and who was the antagonist, or if she was starring the wrong kind of story in the first place. The storm that was mercilessly pouring torrents of water over her head was a faithful reflection of her frame of mind. In the most literal sense, for her bad mood and her powers over lightning were actually the direct cause of the bad weather.

Her two companions, lacking control over the thunders like her boss, had to make do with much more conventional ways of displaying their dissatisfaction with their current situation. Namely, the older and well-behaved sister Benben discretely kicked every small peeble her rainboots stumbled upon, and the younger and hot-blooded Yatsuhashi settled for mumbling expletives under her teeth, putting into words the thoughts of the whole band.

"Babysitting a little girl. What a wonderful way to start our professional career as a band," the koto tsukumogami grumbled, sarcasm distilling from her tongue like the rain on her coat. "I don't mind working at early morning for a crappy pay, but babysiting a little girl!? I mean, come on, this is ridiculous!"

"Well, we all have to start somewhere, right?" said Benben. "No music group has become rich and famous overnight, especially with all the competition around here. We need to start with small jobs like this one to build a reputation."

"Benben's right," Raiko nodded. "Having our name spread out mouth by mouth is the first step towards having a fanbase. And I heard this Remilia person is a very influential person in Gensokyo. If we do this job right, she'll recommend us to more important people out there. After that, our next jobs will be better and have greater rewards."

However, Yatsuhashi wasn't deceived by the drummer's feigned enthusiasm. Those words of encouragement were not only to cheer her two companions up, but herself as well. And it wasn't working very well, going by how the storm Raiko was inadvertently producing didn't show any signs of abating. It was clear the boss didn't believe in her own excuses.

"That, if there is a next job," Yatsuhashi answered bitterly. "Did you see how that gateguard was eyeing us? That was the look of a person watching cattle going to the slaughterhouse," The biwa youkai pointed at the chinese woman periodically sneaking glances at them from her post.

"Still, we've got so far we cannot back down now, sister, you know that," sighed Benben.

"And whatever lies behind these doors, it beats getting turned into a human pincushion by a crazy maid, that's for sure," said Raiko.

Yatsuhashi opened her mouth to retort, but at that moment the doors of the mansion began to creak and open. Behind them stood a tall, elegant woman of silver hair, dressed in a polished maid outfit. She had the expressionless face every maid and butler need to have all the time, but to the band's further annoyment, they could see a tiny glimpse of a mocking smirk forming in the corner of her lips. However, they did not forget she was the sole reason they were there, so they quickly swallowed their complaints and put on their best game faces as well.

"Speaking of the devil..." the drummer said, straightening her tie.

"Welcome to the Scarlet Devil Mansion," Sakuya bowed to the visitors. "We've been expecting you. Please follow me."



---------------------------------------------



"This is a very large mansion," commented Yatsuhashi, tedium evident in her tone.

Sakuya had led the band to the enormous living room and asked them to wait until the mistress was ready to recieve them. After ten minutes, Raiko Horikawa was beginning to wonder if there was something more in the job description the maid didn't bother to tell her, or if they were doing any job to begin with and it was all a practical joke. The constant, repetitive pealing of the raindrops on the large windows was a faithful reflection of her frame of mind, and it reflected on the monotonous improvisided melody the group were playing in their respective instruments to kill the time. In the most literal sense, for the three tsukumogami had powers that allowed them to unleash magical bullets with sounds, and they were having less than friendly thought about the time-stopping maid.

"I still can't get over the fact that this is a very large mansion," repeated the biwa youkai.

"Yeah, we already got that the first fifteen times, Yatsu," Benben groaned, hitting a dissonant note on her magically constructed koto.

"We've been waiting for ten minutes now, what else do you want me to say?"

"How about you stop acting like a broken record and wait patiently like the rest of us?" Another annoyingly out-of-place note sprung from the chords of Benben's instrument. "Get a grip and act professional"

"How about you shut up? You've broken my focus," Yatsuhashi returned to improvising the melody, but after several tries she gave up and sighed. "Argh, I definitely lost it. Thank you, sis."

"Boohoo, see how much I don't care," Benben stopped playing as well and outstretched her arms, encompassing the whole room. "About as much as the size of this mansion!"

"Are you making fun of me?"

"You bet your sweet derrière I am!"

"What does that even mean!?"

At that moment, a cymbal loudly crashed, interrupting the siblings' bickering. Raiko had stepped in, sensing the sisterly belligerence was growing out of control.

"How about you two stop fighting and calm down?" She pointed Don't you see this is what they want? To lose our patience and give up?"

"I thought the whole tardiness thing was us musicians' business, not the audience's," said Yatsuhashi, returning to her usual sarcasm.

"What would they gain with this, anyway?" asked Benben. "Is it some kind of hidden test or something?"

"Most probably," the drummer nodded. "That's why we gotta keep it cool and not give in, becuase if we don't-"

Before Raiko completed her sentence, an extremely loud and close thunder interrupted her, making the three tsukumogami jolt in surprise. Then, all of a sudden, all the lights went off at the same time, leaving the whole room in darkness save for the unnatural moonlight seeping from the windows.

"H-hey, Raiko, cut it out with the dramatic thunders already," stuttered Benben.

"It stopped being funny a while ago," added her sister. "No, scratch that, it was never funny to begin with."

"Girls..." the drummer gulped audibly. "That wasn't me."

"Ehhhhhhh?"
"What do you mean?"

"It means what it means! I didn't do tha-"

Another thunder, even louder than the last one, interrupted the taiko tsukumogami a second time. But that time, for a split second, it left the flash of an impossibly long and thin shadow, standing menacingly in front of the band. Then, as the light went off, the figure faded away in the darkness, as if it was never there. But the image had already burned itself on the three musicians' eyes.

"Oh god, did you see that!?" Raiko was visibly worked up, except for the fact that in the dark she wasn't visible in any way.

"You bet your sweet derrière I did!" Benben exclaimed, equally surprised.

"I-i-i am not scared! I'm not scared at all!" Yatsuhashi was doing her earnest to not look as terrified or more than her two companions, but she was betrayed by her quavering voice and by how strongly she was gripping her sister's arm.

"Saying it twice gives the totally opposite impression, sis," Benben helpfully pointed out.

"Then what if I say it a third time? I'm not scared at aAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

When the lights went back without warning, they returned with the menacing silhouette, this time in full color and splendor. The figure was covered in a scarlet cape, and her bat wings were fully stretched, giving the caped woman a much more imposing first impression than her low height and definitely childish face told at a second, more thorough look. But what she lacked in adult features, the vampire made up with charisma in spades. The red big spear she was holding in her hands also helped, though.

"Be welcomed, my dear guests!" the vampire girl waved her cape dramatically and gave the trio a smile that displayed her prominent and sharp fangs. "I am Remilia Scarlet, the last descendant of Vlad Tepes."

The two sisters stood there frozen for a couple of seconds, incapable of finding any words. They turned on Raiko with pleading eyes, silently begging her to say something. Luckily for them, the drummer wasn't fazed in the slightest, because she knew exactly how to deal with that kind of people. What she didn't know is that she was completely mistaken about the kind of people Remilia really was.

The redhead cleared her throat, approached Remilia with a confident stride, and petted the child vampire's head.

"Hi there, Remi! I'm Raiko, and I'm going to be your mommy for tonight."

A stunned silence filled the room for the next five seconds or so, made worse by the clueless Raiko, who didn't stop petting Remilia even when the vampire was giving her the death glare. Luckily for the drummer, her two companions managed to catch the embarrasing mistake and drag their boss away from Remilia before she retaliated for the humiliation.

"We're terribly sorry! This was a big misunderstanding!" Benben quickly apologized.

"Our stupid dolt here thought you were the girl we had to babysit and, well... Raiko, you say sorry too, dammit!" Yatsuhashi took her boss from the shoulder and forcibly made her bow.

"I-i-i'm sorry...?" But the boss had still no idea what she did wrong.

"Sakuya spoke very well of you. Apparently she was wrong for a change," Remilia dusted her cap off, as if Raiko's petting sullied it. "But I'll let it slide this time, because I'm magnanimous. It’s not frequent we recieve musicians here, much less willing to offer their services for so little."

The younger sarcastic sister couldn't help but scoff at the vampire's last statement, which prompted a swift kick to the shinbone by the older.

"It is an honor to perform for you, Lady Scarlet," said Benben, ignoring Yatsuhashi's whimpers. "But may I ask what exactly do you want us to do? Your maid wasn't very clear about that."

"I'll get to it in a minute. But first..." Her grin slowly went from smug and confident to ominous. "You're musicians, right? What type?"

"Type? Well, we mostly play traditional Japanese music. You know, with koto, biwa, taiko, shamisen, that kind of instruments," Raiko explained. "But we can adapt to your preferences, if you want."

"Oh, no no no no no, that's not it. I meant what blood type you have..."

The three musicians' false smiles froze in their faces, and they couldn't move a finger when Remilia strolled slowly towards them and began sniffing their necks.

"Let’s see…" she started with Yatsuhashi, who was as pale as a ghost. "Yes, yes, you are an A negative," then she went on to Benben, who was trying to play it cool in vain. "O positive? My, young woman, you are a universal donor! I congratulate you for your generosity! And you…" When she went to Raiko, her predatory face turned into a disgusted frown. "You smell like cheap liquor, miss."

"Not really. It was nine hundred yen the can of beer," the drummer corrected. "That's outright thievery if you ask me."

Yatsuhashi and Benben resisted the urge to facepalm right there and then.

"What kind of musician shows up drunk to the job?" the vampire asked.

"The genius kind. Like that Kannushi guy. He writes all his songs drunker than an oni, yet they're awesome! Seriously, check him out."

"But I bet he doesn't go to meetings inebriated."

"Oh yes he does."

"Really?"

"Can we just get to business already? Please?" Yatsuhashi stepped in.

"Agreed. We're derailing the topic," Remilia ran her hand down her face in exasperation. "Sakuya!"

The vampire called for her maid and clapped her hands. In an instant, Sakuya materialized at her side, posing a curtesy bow as usual. Even though it wasn't the first time the trio had seen the maid's time-stopping teleportation for the first time, it was as impressive as always for them.

"Sakuya, take the numbers for these three ladies."

"Yes, mistress."

Thereupon, the maid appeared at Yatsuhashi's side, and with a tape measure she began measuring her height and width.

"Um, what is-?"

"Shush, don't move, or you'll ruin the measurement," Remilia hushed Yatsuhashi. "Now, the main topic. Have you ever given a child the... um, the talk?"

"The talk?" asked Raiko.

"Yes, the talk. You know, the seed you plant, where babies come from?"

The drummer arched her eyebrow in confusion.

"The stork from Paris that leaves babies on cabbages?" insisted the vampire.

Raiko's expression remained unchanged.

"The birds and the bees?"

"Uh, you lost me," Raiko shook her head.

"Sex! I'm talking about sex and making babies, that kind of talk! Sheesh!" the vampire had already lost her short patience.

"Ahhhhhh, that talk!" The taiko tsukumogami finally wised up.

"About time you realized..." muttered Yatsuhashi.

"There's so damn many of those 'little talks' parents have to have with their kids these days," the drummer rubbed her neck apologetically. "I mean, if they aren't smoking, they're drinking. If they aren't drinking, it's drugs. If they aren't doing drugs it's that cheap 'business man' at the corner passing out STDs like-"

"Enough! That's enough!"

The vampire was already tired of dealing with Raiko; in fact, she was beginning to wonder if the remedy Sakuya recommended was worse than the proverbial illness. Remilia considered kicking the obfuscating band out of her house, or even shut them up permanently with her Gungir. But she ultimately decided to withstand Raiko's stupidity for a bit longer, if that meant they would quell Flandre's insatiable curiosity. What she had seen and heard, however, didn't give her much confidence in the band's ability to do so, but Remilia was willing to trust her maid's judgement.

"Sakuya, are you done measuring them up?" she asked.

"Yes, mistress," the maid, already finished with the three, rolled the measure tape and put it in one of her many pockets.

"Then take our.. 'esteemed' guests to Flandre's room and out of my sight at once," the vampire waved her hand. "And bring me painkillers on your way back."

"Understood," the maid turned around and signaled the trio to follow her with an elegant wave of the arm.

"Oh, and Sakuya?"

Before they exited the large room, Remilia called the maid to her side once again. Then she spoke to her in quiet hushes, hoping the trio wouldn't hear them. However, she underestimated the fine hearing of three trained musicians:

"Those measures you took of them, I want you to bring them to that carpenter at the Youkai Mountain."

A not-so-discreet mocking grin appeared in Sakuya's face; the one she'd been holding all the time.

"The one who makes those black coffins you like?"

"The same. I suspect we'll be needing them soon," Remilia's smirk was even more conspicuous if possible.

"As you say, mistress."

Needless to say, the expressions of shock and horror the tsukumogami band had painted in their faces was worthy of a picture. Sakuya, never showing any kind of emotion while in the job, led the three terrified tsukumogami through the stairs leading down to the basement. Mentally, she wished she had one of those things the tengu reporters have.
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In contrast with the fairly dark and spacious rooms of the habitable rooms, the basement corridors of the Scarlet Devil Mansion were fairly dark and narrow, as per the tradition goes about evil monsters' lairs. However, its intricate, confusing stairs, full of climbs, descents and sudden turns, gave those not used to the labyrinthine layout the feeling that it was much, much bigger than the house itself. This only served to make Raiko and Benben even more scared, and to reinforce Yatsuhashi's bafflement about the size of the mansion.

"Honestly, I wasn't expecting you to act so obfuscatingly stupid, Miss Horikawa."

Sakuya's voice yanked the drummer out from her reverie and back to reality.

"Huh?"

"I was wondering that too," said Yatsuhashi. "I always knew you could be a bit of a dork sometimes, but that took the cake."

"Yeah, why, Raiko? That just wasn't you! You used to be cool!" Benben joined in as well.

Many good epics and legends have the hero realize his wrong-doings after a big screw-up, admit his faults, and work his flaws with the help of his friends. The protagonist of this one, however, didn't know exactly what her faults were, and she didn't feel quite ready to confess her flaws in front of her colleagues - even if they knew already. In fact, Raiko wasn't sure Sakuya really counted as a friend in the first place. But if there was a time that called for an epiphany, it was then and there.

The taiko youkai looked down to the floor and took a breath. The truth was, not even she knew exactly why did she decide to put Remilia on her nerves and risk losing their first real job, when she herself told her two companions how important it was. It was true she wasn't exactly sober, but she had a feeling the stern Sakuya wouldn't accept being slightly drunk as an excuse. Rather, the alcohol was only a means to let out the steam she had accumulated inside, like the inclement storm outside.

"Hell, I dunno..." Raiko sighed, rubbing her neck. "A lot of things, I guess? I just... I just wanted out, you know? I thought 'screw this! I am a proud musician, not a babysitter singing nursery rhymes to little babies!' So I hoped that if I acted like a moron, Remi would kick us out and we would be free from the job. I don't like being forced to do a job I don't like."

"Nobody ever does," said Sakuya. "But that's the world we live in."

"I don't want to hear that from you!" Yatsuhashi snapped. "You are the only reason I- we are doing this! If you didn't put a knife on our throats, we wouldn't be working for a bratty little vampire with Napoleon complex incapable of having a serious talk with her little sister!"

"Speaking of which," interrupted Benben. "Why us, Sakuya? I'm not saying we aren't cut for the job, of course, but I'm sure there are other people more experienced in dealing with children."

The maid's sly smile went unnoticed for the trio, since she had her back turned on them.

"Let's just say I like to bet on new promises," she simply said.

"That can't be the only reason. Come on, spit it out," urged Yatsuhashi. "You owe us at least that."

Sakuya brought a finger to her chin, thinking of the right words to explain it without giving up too much information about the real reason.

"If it's not too much of a bother to answer, how old are you?"

The three tsukumogami looked at each other in slight confusion, before Yatsuhashi answered first:

"Well, I'm a 478 years old kotofurunushi, dating back from when the famous musician Kengyo-"

"No, not that," Sakuya shook her head. "I meant when you first adquired sentience."

"Ah," said Benben. "We became tsukumogami when the Miracle Mallet incident happened..."

"... about three months ago," completed Raiko, who already had a clue where Sakuya was heading.

"Meaning you're still very young and inexperienced, despite that air of maturity and wisdom you give yourselves. With all due respect," added the maid.

"Why do I get the feeling you don't intend any respect at all?" grumbled Yatsuhashi mordantly.

"Au contraire, Miss Tsukumo, I intend every whit of the respect you are actually due."

The koto tsukumogami clicked her tongue disapprovingly, but didn't volley any insult back. The last thing she wanted was to get pricked with a wall of knives appearing from nowhere.

"And how can we remedy this situation?" asked Raiko.

"Your 'prank' undermined the trust my mistress had in me," although she tried to hide it, a bit of bitterness impermeated the maid's otherwise neutral tone. "Consequently, the trust I had in my choice diminished too. I suggest you start by proving me right and succeed in the job that you've been tasked."

The three tsukumogami interchanged a knowing look. They had finally found a good enough reason to do what they had to do, even if that reason was just cleaning up the mess Raiko made, and they weren't going to gain any profit from it. But like good epics and legends usually go, the true reward was the insight the band gained of themselves, even if that insight was just the realization that they weren't much different from that bratty little vampire with Napoleon complex.

"I guess we've got no other choice, right?" said Yatsuhashi.

"We never had," shrugged Raiko. "Then let's get this show on the road!"

"Wait," Benben interrupted. "You haven't answered my question, Sakuya. Why did you choose us?"

For the first time, the maid stopped in her tracks and turned to face the biwa tsukumogami.

"We tried to give Flandre the talk for a long while now. But whenever we answer one question, she comes up with three more. Her curiosity knows no bounds at this stage," she explained. "I believe it's because we tried to talk like adults to a kid like her, and she didn't completely understand what we told her. But, if someone like her were to explain it..."

"Hold up, are you calling us kids?" interrupted Yatsuhashi.

"No, but you definitely are more in touch with your 'inner child' than us," the maid responded, redoubling her pace. "That's why I think you're the most suitable people for the task. Does that answer your question?"

The older sister stared back at the maid. She had the feeling what Sakuya told her was just a half-truth; she found it strange that a dependable and resourceful person like her would trust a former enemy that much. Despite that, Benben was too respectful to ignore the vote of confidence, and decided to drop the issue.

"Yes. I'll do my best to meet your expectations."

That answer seemed to please Sakuya greatly, who treated the three tsukumogami to the rare sight of her honest smile for a second, before returning to her usual marble expression.

The group eventually reached their destination: a door bigger than the rest, built in pure black ebony full with esoteric inscriptions all over its surface. A relatively savvy person would instantly figure out it probably holds an extremely dangerous and powerful abomination behind, but Raiko and Benben felt like they could tackle whatever obstacles was in front of them. However, the younger sister, who was still in touch with the grim reality, felt the need to yank her two fellows back from the, in her opinion, uncalled optimistic moment:

"And what if we can't meet your expectaction, Sakuya?" she glared at the maid. "Will you put those coffins to good use, hm?"

If she was hoping to get a reaction from the perfect and elegant maid, she utterly failed. Her voice didn't even show a hint of coldness, always staying neutral.

"So you heard that?"

"You bet your sweet dérriere I did."

"Hey, don't steal my catchphrase..." complained Benben weakly.

"I don't believe we will need to use coffins any time soon," Sakuya responded.

"That's good to hear."

"After all, there won't be anything left of you to bury should you fail..."

With a simple sentence, full of dreadful implications, and the look of a person watching cattle walking to the slaughterhouse, Sakuya managed to sink the tsukumogami's spirits even lower. Yatsuhashi thought it was impossible to be more scared than she was before, but she was once again proven wrong. At the very least, her two companions finally realized the great danger their lives were in.

"Well, I must go. My mistress needs me," Sakuya said, as she took a big key out of somewhere, put in into the door's lock and opened it. "I wish you the best of luck."

"W-wait!"

Yatsuhashi was promptly ignored, as the maid suddenly dissappeared and left the group distraught. The three tsukumogami exchanged looks between themselves, the door, the hallway from whence they came, back at themselves, back at the door, and finally let out a weary sigh of resignation.

"Welp, this is it!" Exclaimed Benben, trying to cheer the group up.

"Time for us to face the music..." her sister muttered.

"Think positively, girls," Raiko, unwilling to let the mood get the best of her anymore, clapped her hands to get the attention of her two companions. "We have rehearsed our repertory a lot of times over the last week. This is not exactly what we're trained to, and it certainly will not be our finest moment, but I want you to treat it like it is, alright? We'll give it our best, or die trying!"

"I think you could've chosen better words, but..." Benben scratched her ear. "Yeah, this Flandre girl will be the one facing our music. No reason to get all depressed!"

"Awright, let's get this show on the road!" Yatsuhashi pumped her fists together, already feeling her blood boiling in excitement. If there was something capable of getting her out her usual sour mood, it was the prospect of a loud performance.

"Today we're making history, people!" shouted Raiko, taking the reins. "Let's go!"

With their confidence boosted by their mutual rousing speech, the band of tsukumogami pushed the doors open and entered Flandre's room. One step after the other, come what may, they would be ready to face it together, and they would not back down.


-----------------------------



Many good epics and legends have the heroes wander into the monster's lair before its eyes gleam in the darkness and it attacks the group. The monster of this one, however, was not waiting for the tsukumogami band in ambush, but calmly reading a book in her bed. What was shining in the shadows weren't her eyes, but the rainbow-colored crystals hanging from her wings. Neither was the lair in the dark: a small lamp dimly lighted up the admittedly austere room. In fact, labeling Flandre Scarlet as a monster is questionable, despite her incredible strength and her past history of insanity and violence giving some credibility to that categorization.

The three tsukumogami, however, were completely unaware of her past - that was the main reason they were chosen for the job, even if they didn't know it. But all the foreshadowing and implicit warnings they caught from Remilia and Sakuya was enough for them to be on their guard. With a studied gesture, Raiko signaled the two sisters to prepare the stage, while she slowly approached the little vampire.

"Flandre?" she spoke to her.

The blonde girl raised her focused gaze from the book, and her inquisitive scarlet eyes scrutinized the redhead woman from top to bottom.

"You know me, but I don't know you."

"My name's Raiko. These two are Benben and Yatsuhashi," the drummer pointed at the two sisters, who were finishing tuning up their respective instruments.

"Are you the new people Sakuya wanted to hire?" the vampire asked, tilting her head. "She was talking about how badly she needed someone capable of lending her a hand with the cleaning."

"No, we're not maids, but as a matter of a fact she did hire us. As musicians, that is."

"Ah, musicians! It's been a while since we had musicians in here!" Flandre exclaimed with glee. "Oh, oh, hey, can I ask you a question?"

"Hoo boy, here we go..." scoffed Yatsuhashi.

"Yeah, sure. That's why we're here," Raiko answered.

She was trying her hardest to look composed, but the truth was that she was beginning to feel restless after seeing the first glimpse of Flandre's endless curiosity. But as the professional performer that she aspired to be, she couldn't allow herself to lose her cool when the music hadn't even started.

"Is it true that you musicians have the music in your veins?"

But Flandre was not making it any easier. What would normally be a jest from the mouth of another person, it turned into a extremely terrifying question when uttered by a vampire. The fact that she said that so casually and innocently was even scarier than any implied threat from Sakuya.

"W-well, that depends if you mean it in a metaphorical sense or literally," spoke Benben, disturbance evident in her trembling voice. "Because if it's the latter then I believe it depends on what do you accept as the definition of 'music'; an abstract concept, a series of sound waves, a genetic factor, or rather something more spiritual-"

"Long story short, we don't," Yatsuhashi cut off. "Our blood isn't any different from the guy next door."

"I knew it!" the vampire snapped her fingers. "Sis thinks your kind has a 'delectable' flavor, whatever that means, but to me it tasted the same. Or maybe it's another of those things I need to be an adult to understand?"

"How should we know? We don't drink blood!" said Yatsuhashi.

"Speaking of adult things, Flandre," Raiko, seeing how the conversation was veering towards an unpleasant topic, decided to cut to the chase. "Your sister told us you wanted to speak about mating."

"Mating? Oh, 'that'!" the blonde girl sat up straight on the edge of the bed. "What do you want to know?"

The three tsukumogami froze in their places, clearly not expecting that answer from her. After a few seconds, Benben expressed the group's surprise in the most eloquent way possible:

"Eh?"

"Nobody wanted to tell me, so I decided to break the rules and sneak into Patchy's forbidden section, and I found... this!"

With a glowing smile of a hundred suns painted in her face, Flandre showed the book she had been reading before.

"'Hounds by the Ninth Day of Autumn'," Benben read the title outloud. "Isn't this...?"

"I've been reading it this week, and I learned a lot of things!" Flandre was obviously proud of her feat. "Like the West Wind, the Wounded Tiger, the Willow Path, the Chair, the Obedient Wife... Ah, but don't tell Patchy or Sakuya I stole it, or they will sack me!"

"Gimme that for a second," Raiko pulled the book out of the vampire's hand.

The redhead hesistated for a second, already having a clue of what she would find inside it, but in the end she finally opened it, part in honest concern and part in morbid curiosity. Raiko picked a random page, and her suspicions were confirmed once she saw the pictures. She managed to maintain her composture, but Benben and Yatsuhashi's cheeks displayed a luminiscent blush when they saw the detailed portraits of the Six Long Breath Stimulants, the Eight Shallow Penetrations, the Nine Minor and Eleven Major Positions, as well as the Technique of Passive Acceptance, Forceful Dominance, Contortion, and Mobile Union, among many, many other techniques.

"Holy f- is that even possible!?" exclaimed Yatsuhashi.

"How can you do that with the ankle?" muttered Benben.

"O-okay, I see you're... familiar with the act, but..." spoke Raiko to Flandre, her composture almost broken to shards. "Do you know the purpose of it?"

"The purpose?" Flandre tilted her head again in confusion.

"Yeah, that book shows the 'how', but not the 'why'. Nobody would want to risk spraining their ankles like that for no reason, right?" the drummer said, quickly glancing at the page her two companions were totally engaged with.

"I guess?"

"And that's what we've come to teach you!" the taiko tsukumogami readied her drumsticks and turned to her two companions. "Alright, girls, let's get star- and stop gawking at the book already! You're not horny teenagers!"

Raiko pryed the album out of the two sisters' grip, who were getting too absorbed with it, and with a wave of hand instructed them to get ready for the performance.

"So what are we going to play exactly?" asked Benben after invoking her biwa out of nowhere.

"I believe that song about the Parisian Stork would be the most fitting now."

"The Parisian Stork?" Yatsuhashi was confused. "I don't recall rehearsing tha- Oof!"

She was promptly silenced by yet another kick to the shinbone, this time by Raiko, before she whispered to the two sisters.

"Just- just play whatever you were playing when we were waiting for Remilia. I'll improvise on the way."

The Tsukumo sisters exchanged a look - Yatsuhashi's eyes still watering from the pain - and sat in position, waiting for their boss to give them the signal. Meanwhile Flandre looked at them with evident curiosity, or rather at the ancient instruments the sisters were holding in their laps. It was the first time she saw a biwa and a koto, but even she knew they were not normal instruments; the magic at work was evident at first glance.

"So Flandre, have you ever heard of the Parisian Stork?" Raiko sat at Flandre's side and asked her.

"I think Patchy told me a bit about it..."

"Then we will play you the song of the White Stork and its people, how about it?"

"Oh, a song, a song!"

The vampire clapped excited, and in that moment she looked exactly like a normal small child, save for the strange rainbow wings, the strange red eyes, the strange long fangs, and the strange diaper hat. Like a strange small child actually, but a child nonetheless, and that put the three musicians at ease, who were able to forget for a minute that they were dealing with a crazy powerful vampire. And so, with Raiko's drumsticks setting the rhythm, the calm, soothing sound of the ancient instruments filled Flandre's room, and the three tsukumogami sang:

Stork, white stork was mother for a day
‘Eureka!’ she said. She had laid a white egg!
Clack clack, clack clack!
But the bad owl came
Ooh-haa, ooh-haa
and knocked the egg away-


"And why did the stork say 'eureka'?"

"...What?"

The music stopped abruptly, and the three tsukumogami's heads lashed out towards the curious vampire in a silent scolding, who had dared to interrupt their performance!

"Why the stork said 'eureka'?" repeated Flandre. "You said the stork said 'eureka', 'clack clack clack'. Explain to me, why, why did the stork say 'eureka', why, why?"

But Flandre's curiosity was too strong to even feel guilty about it; she needed an answer, and she needed it right at that moment. The three musicians were very tempted to scream at her, but they were explicity hired to bear with her, therefore it was not an option. Instead, Raiko had to calm herself and explain to Flandre:

"The uh... the stork said 'eureka' because she was very happy."

"Really?"

"Yeah!"

"She was happy?"

"Very happy!"

"Very happy?"

"Yeah..."

"She was euphoric! Heehee!" the vampire chuckled to herself.

"Riiiiight," Yatsuhashi sighed. "Can we go on now?"

"Yes, yes, that's all," Flandre nodded.

Raiko and Benben shrugged, and the band continued their song again:

"But the bad owl came and knocked the egg away
The white stork was very sad, and she-"


"And why was the stork very happy?" Flandre asked. "Why? Why? WHY!?"

The three musicians flinched at the vampire's scream, and realized they were not in position to complain, lest the little girl would do unspeakable things to them.

"The stork was very happy, Flandre, because she was going to have a baby," explained Benben, with all the patience she could muster.

"Uh?"

"And that made her very happy," completed Yatsuhashi.

"Really?"

"Yes. It's so beautiful to lay a baby..." said Raiko.

"What?"

"Have an egg."

"What?"

"Have a baby!" the drummer corrected herself. Then, she coughed, hit her drumsticks for the third time and resumed the song yet again:

"The white stork was very sad, with the owl she was mad!
And so she flew to the ground and-"


"And why is so beautiful to have a baby?"

"Because babies are the joy of the life," Yatsuhashi groaned with her trademark sarcasm. "With their laughter, their games... their questions... Like a blooming rose."

"A blooming rose!" Not surprisingly, Flandre was completely oblivious to sarcasm.

"Yeah."

"How pretty!"

"Do you like the song, Flandre?" a false smile was painted in the koto tsukumogami's face.

"Yes!"

"Then shut up!"

And for the fourth time, the 'White Stork' went on:

"And so she flew to the ground and she met a little-"

"And why do roses bloom?"

The three musicians let out a weary, exasperated sigh, and they wondered if they could ever finish the damn song before they day was over at that pace.

"Because roses belong in the rosaceae family, with the stamen and the pistils well inserted in their stems..." explained Benben. "And just like the flowers bloom, people need to find themselves."

"Okay, that's all."

"Leave us be..." whimpered Raiko.

"And so she flew to the ground-"

"And why do people need to find themselves?"

"Because finding oneself is to trascend, going beyond the facts until reaching a certain kind of balance," Raiko said with the calm rage of a boiling pot. "A certain kind of balance like a swing."

"A swim?"

"A swing."

"A swim."

"Yes, a swim!" The drummer facepalmed.

"A swing, got it," Flandre nodded to herself.

"Like a bird that flies," Benben added.

"A bird that fries, got it."

"Fries," sighed Yatsuhashi. "Or like a boat that floats."

"Like a boat that floats, got it."

Thinking the little vampire was finally done asking questions, the tsukumogami started again:

"And so she flew to-"

"And why does the boat float?"

How wrong they were! The poor Yatsuhashi couldn't stand it anymore and finally exploded:

"Because any object, wholly or partially immersed in a fluid, is buoyed up by a force equal to the weight of the fluid displaced by the object!" she screamed. "It's Archimedes' principle!"

"Who?" Flandre's confusion was evident.

"Archimedes, the guy who said 'eureka' when he discovered it," explained Raiko.

With that, Flandre's metaphorical lightbulb lit up, and she exclaimed, like she just solved the riddle of the ages: "Aha, like the stork!"

"Yes, like the stork!"

"But why did the stork said 'eureka'?"

And that was the last straw for the the three tsukumogami. Raiko gripped her drumsticks tight until her knuckles went pale, and Yatsuhashi pulled on her koto's strings so strongly it snapped in half, making a fittingly dissonant sound. But Benben, as the calm and composed sister, remembered the one thing that must not be forgotten whenever someone tells something to a child: they must always be told the truth.

And so, Benben beated both Raiko and Yatsuhashi to the punch. In the most literal sense of the word, because she stood up and, in an unexpected fit of rage coming from her, she slapped Flandre hard. Then she took her biwa and slammed it repeatedly into the poor vampire's head, all the while delivering the truth to her:

"Silly! Flandre! Storks! DO! NOT! TALK!"

When Benben was done smashing her instrument to pieces, Flandre was lying in her bed, and her blood was flowing out of her skull and staining the beds, already covered in bits of gore and wood splinters. Raiko and Yatsuhashi could only stare at the biwa tsukumogami in horror, all covered in red and breathing heavily. 'But is she really to blame?' They thought. If she didn't lose her cool, they were sure one of them would have done it sooner or later. It didn't make the scene any less

shocking, though.

"What the hell, sister!?" Yatsuhashi finally shouted. "What have you done!?"

"I'm done! I'm so done!" Benben fumed.

"No, she is done for," said Raiko. "You friggin' killed her!"

"I don't think so," Benben ran her stained hand down her face, making her look like a complete psycho. "She's a youkai. I'm sure she'll be fine."

"You smashed her brains out of her skull, sister!" Yatsuhashi exclaimed.

"You bet you sweet derrière I did. So?"

"So!? Benben, that kills people!"

"Check her pulse. Maybe she isn't dead yet?"

Raiko did as Benben asked, though she already knew what she would find.

"Nope. Not a single heartbeat," the drummer shook her head somberly.

What they forgot in the heat of the moment is that vampires, being undead beings, do not have a pulse, and their regenerative abilities allowed them to survive even the most gruesome of deaths, except by silver weapons, exorcism, or stake to the heart. In hindsight, little Flandre was very lucky when none of the biwa's splinters ended up piercing her chest, or else she would have not lived to tell the tale. But that's another story.

"Well, this sucks," Yatsuhashi muttered.

"I guess Sakuya won't be too happy once she finds out about this little mess," Benben boarded the understatement train as well.

"Okay, things have blown out of proportion," summarized Raiko. "What do we do now, gang?"

Many good epics and legends have the heroes be in peril, and just when everything looks bleak and the monster is about to kill them, a loyal companion sweeps in with reinforcements at the best time and rescues them. The protagonists of this one, however, were not in peril, and although things didn't look good for them, it was because the monster was (almost) killed by them and not the other way. On the other hand, the one who swept in wasn't precisely a loyal companion, but rather another of their most dreaded enemies. Luckily, she didn't bring anyone else with her, but came at the worst time possible. And of course, she didn't appear to save the tsukumogami; she went to see her friend Patchouli and borrow some books for life, but because Voile was in complete shutdown, she decided to pay a visit to the little Flandre instead.

The scene Marisa Kirisame found when she barged in was almost shocking enough to knock her massive witch hat off her head from the sheer surprise:

"Heya, Flan, it's a me, Mari- What the hell!?"

It was just what they needed, and not in the sarcastic sense of the phrase. Qhile Yatsuhashi and Raiko thought this was really their end, Benben's mind saw in the witch a very convenient scapegoat. With an evil grin in her bloodied face, the older sister slowly walked towards the terrified witch, who was too flabergasted by the sight in front of her to even react.

"W-w-w-w-w-what, what are you doing? What's with all the blood? Why is Flandre on the bed like that? And what are you going to do with that strin- Oh, no, no, stop it, no, no, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO-!"

-----------------------------------------------------------

Many good epics and legends have some sort of epilogue that explains what happened to the heroes and other secondary characters after the evil has been defeated and the world is saved. While some of the most perceptive readers might have catched on the hints throughout all the narration and noticed this story is not a conventional epic or legend, it does have an epilogue of sorts.

When Sakuya found Flandre's "corpse" and Marisa's unconscious body at the basement, she thought the witch had intruded the room, began a fight with Raiko, Benben and Yatsuhashi, and accidentally killed Flandre in the resulting danmaku - just as Benben planned. The maid ordered some fairies to sack the witch in retaliation, but Marisa managed to escape before she recieved her punishment. As a result, the fairies responsible of sacking Marisa were sacked by Sakuya herself.

Thanks to Benben's mindblowing therapy methods, Flandre's curiosity was quelled once she revived. However, to everybody's dismay, it also had the inconvenient side effect of total memory loss. Of course, Remilia blamed this on Patchouli's lack of foresight, and the librarian responded by politely telling her to sod off. Flandre had to be taken care of like a newborn baby from then on, but at the very least her inability to speak coherently meant she couldn't ask any questions, so in a way all was fine, and Remilia and Patchouli were somewhat satisfied with the end result. However, the little blonde vampire began to have nightmares about a crazed woman with lavender hair beating her head over and over again, and she'd always wake up bawling in terror, to Sakuya's annoyance.

As for the protagonist trio, they left in such a hurry they forgot to ask for the money after a "job well done". However, Yatsuhashi managed to pick up the copy of 'Hounds by the Ninth Day of Autumn' Flandre was reading before they ran off, so in the end they did get a reward. The gang promised not to speak of this incident ever again, and roamed Gensokyo in search of a hopefully better employment. And so their adventures continued, and eventually they'd make a name for themselves, rivaling the famous Prismriver band in popularity and talent. But that's, as they say, a story for another time as well.

There were no tea parties after the incident, however, in case anyone wondered.
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“Mrow.”

I look down. Cat swishes tail. Looks expectantly with tall eyes.

Food time.

The chair clatters when I stand up. Cat a step behind me. Pantry squeaks, can groans, cat talks.

Food time.

It has been years since I forgot. 3067 days, to be sure. He was taught long before then. He is fed in the morning, once. Sometimes I don’t notice the sun coming up, going down, streaking across the sky. Apparently it even grew blood red, or was hidden to the sky once. I saw none of these things. All I know is that every day, this creature will come and ask for its food. That is when I eat too. I do not need to, but it reminds me of other times.

I bite into the stale cracker, weevils swarming in my mouth as I devour my meal. Hunger… I remember.

I finish my meal and return to my studies. Dusty pages of ancient tomes of immense power. Languages written in mind and reality bending concepts so alien that their very inscriptions may be written in non-Euclidian geometry, power pounding at the gates of our dimension screaming to be let in just to open my mind and let it all

“Mrow.”

The cat rouses from its sleep. I had not noticed, but it made its perch on my head, in between the folds of my hair. I had chosen to grow it out when I changed. It did not grow, anymore, but what is that difficulty to someone who has transcended the ages of time? Apparently it appreciates the greater length. I am told it is… fashionable.

I look up. Cat swishes tail. Looks expectantly with tall eyes.

Food time.

The chair clatters when I stand up. Cat a step behind me. Pantry squeaks, cat groans, cat talks.

Food time.

It has been years since I forgot. 3068 days, to be sure. He lets me know.

Munch cracker, sip teas. Back to work.

…Just to open my mind, and let it all in. Unfathomable power, deity-rending spells and ideas, philosophies so complete that knowledge of them would break lesser men to doctrinal slaves, the very ability to metamorphize self and object to transfer consciousness, breaking the barrier and turning reality into unreality and unself into self! Power complete and utter! The things I could!...

…It has been more than a day, hasn’t it? Where is he? Not my head. Not my lap. Not my desk. I turn. I look. Up. Down. Around? It is behind? No. Cabinet? No. Where is it?

Bed. It’s… in its bed? Isn’t it hungry?

“Here. Kitty.”

My throat is hoarse. Language weird. It has been long since I used it. I surely sound possessed. But this does not rouse it. I say it again, louder. Nothing. It is sleeping deeply. Maybe I missed it while poring over the tablets and it got bored, and went back to sleep. Yes. Boredom. That is a thing that happens with mortals, isn’t it?

“Here. Kitty.”

I touch it. It does not move. Why? It does not move! Why does it sleep so dearly? I do not understand.

I hesitate. The answer may be in my tomes. Maybe if I just… delve a little deeper. If I, open a few more portals. I could summon allies. Thousands. Millions. All of that power, I would-

No… that would take too long, wouldn’t it? What is the word in human terms? Decades? Or was it centuries? Centuries, the Latin root century, for 100… 100 years? I don’t remember. It is not important.

I must seek help elsewhere. Who knows how to handle this beast? I remember…



She does. Hakurei. She has one of them, there. Oh… human contact. It chills me to my core.

“Here. Kitty.”

“Here… Kitty.”

“Here, kitty.”

I practice it on the way over there. I must remember, language. But concepts? How do I explain this? What is the word? I can’t remember. There is a word. I can’t remember. A long sleep. Very long. Hrm, what is it…

“Ah, Alice?”

I pause. I did not notice. I was thinking. Imagining. Tomes, dictionaries, thesauruses they were called… So many words. What was I going to say?

“Here… kitty.”

“Excuse me?”

She looks at me as if I were a three-headed hound from the depths. I was sure I reversed that spell. I check again. I did.

“There wasssss an incident.”

The words come slowly, but I remember. So many times before. This very conversation. Her face crinkles. Nose upturned, brows close in. That is something people do, isn’t it? Emotions…

“What is it? Was it another Youkai? You know I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“It won’t wake up.”

“What?”

Increased breathing. Increased contact. She leans in. Sparkling eyes. I forgot about that. Worry. She worries. Smell of human. Fragrance. Perfume. Shampoo. I had forgotten all about those-

“Did you check, Alice?”

I blink. Distraction. These things are distractions from work and knowledge.
Emotions…

“Check what?”

She takes my hand. Her hand. My warm hand, her warmer hand. Lovely texture. It feels like the pages of my favorite books. The tantalizing momentary touch as I turn them. Lowers her voice, tells me it’s okay. What’s okay? I don’t understand the whispers. Just like the whispers from other worlds. Those are the best, when I hear those, when I don’t understand. She’s just like those. All those best things.

She explains gently. The best way to learn. Gently, easily. It comes to you. She does it in such a way as to make me feel at ease. She is pacing herself for me. Death. That was the word. Dead. Death. That is the word I forgot. She has taught me it again. She is wonderful. I remember. I remember long ago. Feelings.

When did I forget? I forgot all these things. These feelings. Loss. Loss, that is what I will remember from now. I lost her. I lost it. This journey taught me that. Love. Love is what I will remember of the past. I loved her. I loved it. The future? What will I feel in the future? A tear rolls down my face.

Emotions… I remember.






She held me as a cried. She did not know, or perhaps dared to guess that I cried for her as well. But I will teach her. I have forgotten to for far too long. I vowed that I will show her these feelings that she has given me!

We travel back through the forest, talking the entire time. My rustiness with the language disappears. My inhibition to feel falls away. I feel my heart opening up, and I feel her drawing closer. It is a wonderful thing, these emotions. My heart pounding. My body stirring. Perhaps we shall learn something else, this very night. Yes, I am sure. I have something in mind. I am eager for it.

Is it thereupon that we arrive back at my humble abode, crooked and falling apart after years of neglect. Oh, how I will fix that so, just… right after I do this one thing. I indicate to her with a wink, and a nod. Those things I remember from yore. She responds in kind, and moves to be the perfect gentleman.

She opens the door. Confusion spreads across her face. Turns to me and says,

“I thought you said-”













“Mrow.”
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“You're not human.”

She says something. I look at the leaf I'm holding instead of at her. I suppose I should look at her, should I want to be polite, but I'm more interested in the leaf I'm holding. It's round. The rib splits it in two while dividing into smaller versions of itself. Then the smaller ribs split into even smaller ones. And then again. And then... they're too small to see. I'd like to know how small they get.

“I said, you're not human.”

She says something again, a bit louder this time. I look upwards, trying to find the sun. The monotonously gray sky beyond the branches of the tree offers no help. Holding up the leaf regardless, I place it so it's against the brightest part of the sky. The clouds are too thick and the light doesn't shine through. Disappointed, I let go of the leaf and watch as it drops to the ground, spinning and flipping.

“Hey, can you hear me?”

I finally look at the human. She doesn't seem too happy and is wearing funny clothes. She has a massive black and pointy hat hiding most of her blonde hair and dress of the same color with some sort of an apron on top of it. To top it off, she's holding a broom of some sort. I'm not completely sure how long she's been standing there, but it seems like she's not going to leave unless I do something.

“I know.”
If I keep it short, she should leave before long. No-one likes it when I'm like that. At least they didn't.

“Eh?”
She seems confused.

“I know I'm not human. What of it?”
I hope she'll leave me alone soon. I still haven't had time to see if the is the same near the top as it is down here at the ground.

“It's just weird to see non-humans come this near the border.”
I don't like her tone. She seems too casual.

“Border? Is that what they call the fence?”
I try to remember how I got here. After making my way out of the facility, I came through the gate and then wandered off into the forest... and somehow ended up in here. Something must have happened in between, but I was too perplexed by my surroundings to really think about it.

“Eh? Are you new here?” She stares at me with her mouth open. I don't like it. “I- uh. Come, I'll take you to the shrine.”
She'll take me there?
She'll take me back?
She'll take me to that room?
Do they call it “the shrine?”

I don't want to go back. I'm not sure where I am, but it's better in here. Now that I finally got out and saw what they always told me about. They told me of trees, leaves and animals. I haven't even seen animals yet.
No, I don't want to back.

“Come on, I'm sure she'll be surprised to see someone like you.”
She takes a step towards me. Then another. She reaches out with her hand. I don't want to go.

No. I don't want to go. Not there. Not back. Not now. Not ever.
I back off, but hit the tree. She doesn't stop. I'll, I'll...
I...
Send her flying.

“Gaah!”
Thump.

I shiver at the sound. I didn't want to do it again.

“I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't want to hurt you. I didn't want to hurt you.”
I start mumbling as if it would do something.

“Ow. That hurt!” I didn't want to hurt her. “Give me a warning next time, okay?” I didn't want to hurt anyone. “...hey? Are you okay?”
She's going to hate me now. She's going to hate me like everyone else. She'll think I'm weird and not like the others.

“Just go and I'll be quiet.”
I hope she'll leave. Hopefully she'll forget.

She approaches quietly. I hug my knees and look away. She's going to hit me. I deserve it. I wasn't being properly. I escaped.
Something warm gently touches my shoulder. I jerk in shock. Will she...?
She curls her arms around my chest and presses her body against my back. They called it a hug. Why? They never hugged me. I was too important, too different. Too strange.

“What's with you? I just wanted to help; it's not like she'll do anything to you at the shrine.”
She lets go of me. I turn around to face her, embarrassed by my tears.

“I don't want to be a specimen again.”

---

Not really a proper entry, but rather a mess of thoughts.
It isn't even Touhou related; it'd work with anyone.
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She fell in love with him at first sight.

It would be incorrect to say that it was like any other day in Hakugyokurou, but until that moment, it would have also been incorrect to say that it was a unique day. That day marked a changing of the guard; after many years of loyal service, old Aoi had finally gone to join Tetsuo in the flocks of souls resting within her domain.

Just like every other time, the princess had already had her friend Yukari contact Aoi’s son from the minute her retainer had sagely noted the imminence of her passing. While the princess had felt a little sad, knowing she’d miss the little things that distinguished Aoi from all the other Konpakus before her – her unique habit of smoking flower pollens, her tendency to default to a throaty chuckle to fill silences in conversation, her drive to decorate every panel in the mansion with a unique painting, her treatment of the Hakurouken as a reluctant burden and symbol of position rather than a treasured family weapon – she had also felt a little excited, knowing that she’d get to learn all the inner quirks and idiosyncrasies of a new servant. And since he had already married, that meant the house would be lively once again; while it had been comfortably tranquil with just her and Aoi, after Tetsuo had passed away, she had been ready for a change of pace.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t known anything about him. After all, she had been Aoi’s midwife, and she had watched the couple raise their son into his teenage years, even helped them. But just like every other Konpaku born and raised in Hakugyokurou, he had returned to Gensokyo as soon as he had come of age, before his own service would be required.

What would he be like? There was no question that would take after his mother to some degree, as the half-phantom bloodline always ran true. Of course he would have white hair – unless he chose to dye it like Sancha had – and be accompanied by a phantom “half” in the form of a misty white wisp. But beyond those few guarantees, what would his personality be like? Would he take after his mother, staying up for days on end to finish his latest masterpiece? Or perhaps he’d be more like his father, full of ideas so radical and revolutionary that the tengu tribes had exiled him for his flagrant disregard and outright snubbing of customs, hierarchies, and traditions.

After about only a few hours of idle speculation, though, she had stopped herself. It would be most likely that his life in Gensokyo had turned him into someone unique. After all, Aoi and Tetsuo had only raised him in Hakugyokurou for a scant two decades before he had struck out to make a name for himself, compared to three centuries of his own struggles, failures, and triumphs that she had yet to hear about. She could have pumped Yukari for more information about the incoming couple, but there would be many centuries yet to come, centuries of nights where she could ask him to tell her stories of the world on the other side to fill the hours, and so she contained herself.

She had expected to be a little excited when the gap opened at the base of the long stairway that marked the “entrance” to Hakugyokurou. But when he had stepped through the transdimensional portal, she had not expected her heart to stop.

Of course, she didn’t have a heart, being a ghost. That made the feeling all the more unique.

It seemed he had taken after his father and then some in terms of size, to the point where she wondered if some ancient oni blood had decided to finally assert itself – and there was oni blood somewhere in the Konpaku line, however diluted. But unlike an oni, he carried himself with grace; tall without being lanky, wide without being stocky. There was obvious muscle in his limbs, and yet he carried himself as deliberately as a dancer. Handsome didn’t quite do him justice; he was beautiful, his soft and portrait-perfect features accentuated by his phantom half in a long wisp that spiraled several times around his body, thick enough to be noticeable but thin enough to not conceal him.

Even his hair was the same: long, straight, and well-groomed, like one of those mythical samurai from the Outside Hayate had entertained her with stories of. It was longer than hers, even; she kept her own just barely past her shoulders, but his fell past his waist like a beam of pale moonlight even after being put up in an oversized ponytail. Only aiding his image as a warrior was the massive nodachi he carried in his hand, an impossibly unwieldy hunk of metal for anyone else, but a perfectly proportioned, beautiful two-handed sword for him. The one thing that detracted from this image was his rough, homespun kimono, and yet somehow that only made him stand out more, like a piece of art highlighted by an otherwise bare room.

“Mistress Saigyouji,” he murmured, casting his eyes low even as he bowed before her. Even bent nearly double, his head barely dipped below hers.

Mistress Saigyouji. It was what every Konpaku called her – for a servant to call her, the esteemed Princess of the Netherworld, by just her given name would be far too familiar.

But no. No, she wanted to be familiar with him. It was an admission that rocked her to her core. In all her millennia as the caretaker of the netherworld, she had never felt outright lust before, but the way her legs trembled and bosom heaved was impossible to deny. She found herself wishing that they had known each other since the first Konpaku had defied physical law to lay with a phantom, since the Dragon and Yukari first constructed the Border, since the very birth of all creation –

“Welc-come home,” she stammered, blinking rapidly in an attempt to recenter herself, fumbling with the sword-belt at her waist. The difficulty gave her a sufficient excuse to tear her gaze away from the top of his head and look down for as long as it took her to remember to undo the buckle prior to removing it. “H-here.”

The longwinded, flowery speech of greeting she’d perfected over many generations and performances escaped her completely, and without so much as a warning she thrust the Hakurouken’s hilt at him, the clinking of the buckle against its scabbard prompting him to straighten. “We can drop the titles between us, okay? We’ll be taking care of each other for a long while yet, so let’s b-break the ice now, alright?” Let him think that she was not one to stand on ceremony. Formality would only delay things down, things being mornings spent viewing the sakura blossoms, playful luncheons spent feeding each other as much as themselves, evenings whispering sweet nothings, and then in a single room, within a single futon –

He furrowed his brow, clearly taken aback by the brusqueness of her introduction; even then she thought it a well-shaped brow. Nevertheless, he took it in stride, accepting his family sword with a firm grasp, a gentle tug from him finally dislodging the grip of her stiff, unresponsive fingers. Even with one of his hands encumbered by his own personal weapon, he somehow belted it onto his own waist with a practiced ease. “I understand that perhaps you feel no need for boundaries – “

Oh, no, not at all. No, she wanted absolutely no borders between the two of them. She wanted to be near him, to cling to him, to feel him –

“ – but as you are my mistress, and not my lover…” He smiled with a humor that she failed to feel as her blood – blood that she didn’t actually have – froze ice-cold. “... that’s a privilege I’m afraid Noa will be all too protective of. As I’d like to keep my head on my shoulders, can we compromise?”

His tone was light, but that only heightened the shame that washed over her, that crunched into her chest like a shot from a cannon, that exploded across her cheeks in two bright splashes of red. Oh. Right. He was married already. How could she have forgotten that? “Of c-course. Anything.” Anything to salvage the situation, to distract him from realizing the blunder she’d just committed. There were so many things wrong with her attraction she didn’t know where to begin. She had seen every single one of his ancestors grow old and die, helped raise at least two thirds of them, and even personally delivered half straight from their mothers’ loins with her own two hands, himself included! And she was – until today, she hadn’t even thought herself capable of desire. Not for a man, like that.

“Can I call you Lady?” he asked, but the question completely flew past her attention. “Not even my mistress, but an equal.” When several seconds passed without a response from her, busy as her mind was grappling with her internal guilt, he repeated himself. “Lady Yuyuko. How’s that?”

Lady Yuyuko. That one extra title was a more painful border than any Yukari could have conjured, and yet it was the best she could hope for. “That will do,” she lied, trying to conceal her disappointment with a smile. “That will do just fine. But then what shall I call you?”

He exhaled slightly in amusement, that damnably devilish smile lifting at the corners of his mouth. “I guess it is too much for me to ask for you to change your habits after so many years, I suppose. Just Youki will do.”

“Youki,” she repeated back. It was a strong name, a powerful name, a name that suited him perfectly. “Just Youki.” A name she wanted to say again and again, to whisper into his ear like a gentle summer breeze, to shout from hilltops until it echoed so strongly as to blast the petals from the cherry trees.

“Youki?” That voice was not the alto of the princess’s; it was a light, airy soprano, a girl’s voice that prompted Youki’s face to light up. Turning back towards the rent in reality through which he had travelled, he offered a brawny hand to the indigo abyss. A dainty limb slipped through in response, blindly searching for it with long, delicate fingers, and when he moved to capture her hand with his, those fingers burrowed themselves between his own digits with a familiarity like birds returning to roost.

A fitting analogy, for Noa herself was like a bird. Her first steps on the flagstones were tottering and unsure, greatly affected by the disorientation of magical travel when her husband hadn’t so much as blinked. She was fragile; clearly human, without a drop of youkai blood in her. Despite his earlier joke, the princess could never imagine her slicing off anyone’s head, much less her own husbands; she seemed far too gentle. Indeed, she was physically his opposite in almost every way. Where Youki’s limbs were strong, she was delicate; her raven-black hair stayed in a tight bun while his own pale white mane hung loose; while he stood straight and proud, she hunched down and inward as if protecting herself. In fact, Noa was even shorter than she was; if the princess was a good two heads shorter than Youki, then Noa was three, three and a half if she counted with Noa’s smaller head instead of her own.

“Lady Yuyuko, this is Noa.” He did not introduce the girl as his wife, but the way his arm gently came to rest over her shoulders and the way she eagerly leaned into him for support said everything she needed to know. Those motions lit an envious inferno in her chest, an emerald flame stronger than that of any hashihime.

“Lady Yuyuko,” the girl murmured, bowing as best as she could without dislodging Youki’s arm. Despite her jealousy, the princess couldn’t help but smile at the sight. There was something precious about her, a kind of earnest loyalty. If she was a songbird, she was the kind that one kept in the home with the cage door open, knowing that she would never dare to stray outside the house’s walls, preferring to keep one company with chirps of song and cheeps of conversation. “My husband and I are in your care.”

She could not bring herself to hate Noa. No, she had to say she already liked her.

She liked her because like a bird, she would be a source of happiness and entertainment while she lived.

She liked her because like a bird, it would not be long before she died.

</3

It was true that the princess had been looking forward to Noa’s death. She just hadn’t wanted it to happen so soon.

“Push! Push, damn you!” she snarled, her hands bloody where they worked between the mother’s legs. The princess had delivered dozens of healthy Konpakus before, but this was the first one she was afraid to lose – the first mother she was afraid she’d lose as well.

If there was one thing her servant and his wife had, it was chemistry in the bedroom, much to the detriment of the princess’s own sleeping habits. Even as early as the first night they’d spent in their new quarters, they had begun going about the act of creating a successor with considerably more enthusiasm than necessary. More than once she’d been awoken by a not-quite-muffled cry or heavy thump in the night. There were disadvantages to living in a house with paper walls, after all.

But there were advantages to paper walls as well: although she would never admit it to anyone, she would sometimes find herself spying on their evening activites after being roused from her slumber. Kneeling in an adjacent room and peering through a clandestine slot in the wall, she couldn’t help but admire the way Youki’s form twined with his wife’s, her mind conjuring fantasies where she was the one spread wide on the bedding, shaking her hips astride his lap, lifted against the wall…

Youki had always been too occupied to notice her presence, but Noa had caught her in the act. When Youki had been bent over the nightstand, her face had come to rest right by the slit in the wall the princess had been using, and she had stared right back at her, with her skirts hitched up and her fingers busy. She’d simply grinned and unleashed a torrent of innuendos that left even her husband’s ears aflame, to say nothing of the withering embarrassment the princess herself felt.

She hadn’t seemed to mind. If anything, she had taken her spying as praise, and as motivation to drive her husband to further heights of ecstasy, almost as if flaunting her position before the princess’s eyes.

But those erotic escapades were the last thing on the princess’s mind now. For all the jealousy she had felt, wishing herself and not Noa to be the one that her servant took to bed each evening, now she felt nothing but concern for his wife – concern that was gradually becoming more and more tinged with panic.

“Iiiiit hurrrrts,” Noa moaned, her knuckles white where they clasped desperately at Youki’s for support. Support was all Youki could give now; he’d been all too eager to help the moment his wife’s water had broken, but now that it was down to the actual delivery, the princess trusted only her own ghostly, sterile hands to not introduce a post-birth infection.

But the more she worked, the more she realized that that risk was paling in comparison to the growing threat of immediate death. It wasn’t that Noa was physically frail, although that didn’t help matters. No, something had gone terribly wrong inside of her. There was too much blood dripping into the basin – it was too bright, too fast.

“Your daughter,” the princess hissed in disbelief. In all her experience, she’d never seen anything quite as ill-fated as this. “She’s turned sideways, she can’t come out.” Her hands moved to her distended abdomen, pressing against her womb, trying to somehow massage her body to right the baby inside. It was no use; the baby remained turned.

“S-something’s torn,” Noa whimpered. The raven hair that had once shone with life, forming beautiful contrast entwined with her husband’s, was now dull and lifeless, matted with sweat and plastered to the sides of her head. “Oh, make it stop. Make it stop hurting.”

The princess wished Noa would open her eyes. Screwed tightly in agony as they were, that left her husband with nothing to do but stare at her expectantly, wide with fear, asking her for a guarantee she could not honestly give. “Lady Yuyuko, please, is there anything you can – “

“I’m trying,” she hissed. “And I’ve already given her more herbs than I should to ease her pain. Any more and she might fall unconscious, and then she’ll definitely – “ She bit back her next words. No, she didn’t want to even raise the possibility in front of her. Not yet.

“She’s kicking,” the blackhaired girl moaned. “Oh, she wants out. She wants to be out, I want her out, she wants to live, I want her to live…”

Indeed, she could feel a flutter of something underneath her hands – which only made the situation worse. No. There was absolutely no reason why their daughter should be awaking now. She needed to be out in the open air, in her mother’s arms and not still in her womb, before trying to draw her first breath. Inside there was nothing but liquids to breathe, and it would only take a scant few minutes for her to drown. Even the passing seconds threatened to leave the baby forever damaged and maimed.

Her throat dry, she came to a conclusion. She reached up and turned the girl’s head towards her, smearing her own blood on her chin. “Noa…”

“Lady Yuyuko,” the woman whimpered, but she found the willpower to open her eyes. They were full of pain, but there was not yet resignation. She hadn’t yet given up.

The princess swallowed. “Your baby, she’s awake already, and she needs to breathe. You need to birth her, now.”

“I can’t,” she sighed. No energy. And at this point, it wasn’t even her poor constitution to blame; she’d fought for hours already, longer and harder than any other mother the princess had worked with.

Youki. Youki was in the way now, trying to reassure his wife now. “You can, Noa, please, just one more, just one more time – “

“No,” she interrupted him, prompting a low gasp. “No, she can’t.” It was the truth. She could think of only one last thing, one last desperate attempt. “Noa, I can birth your baby safely, but I can’t guarantee that you’ll survive. I’ve – I’ve never tried this before, and it will be violent at best, fatal at worst – ”

“Does my life matter?” The princess blinked in surprise, but then she saw the acceptance – the inner peace of one who knew they were martyring themselves. “Do it. Only she’s important. Please. I beg you. Save my daughter.”

Youki whipped his head towards her. “Don’t do it,” he barked, angrier than she’d ever heard him before. “Don’t you dare – “

“It’s not your decision, Youki,” Noa giggled. Yes, giggled. She could still find her husband’s attempts at protecting her adorable. “I just want our daughter to live.”

He swallowed. “Noa…”

“Do it,” she murmured. “Before I lose my nerve.”

“I’ll do my best,” the princess whispered back.

And she meant it, too.

She laid her hands on Noa’s stomach yet again – no, it was different this time. Her hands turned to wisps of ectoplasm, moved inside of her up to the wrists. She could feel the kicking baby inside, how she was choking on amniotic fluid, trying to find breath in her watery prison and slowly dying away.

And then her hands were solid inside of her, turning her daughter properly headfirst towards the open air and life. She tried to be gentle, as slow as she could, she tried, she tried

She made a mistake. Her hands became just a little too solid, or maybe it was a part of her wrist or her arm. Something caught outside of Noa’s womb, and as the princess egged the baby on towards life with a gentle push, there was a sickly sensation, something pulling, something breaking.

Noa screamed, she wailed, she bucked. Three contractions. Somewhere in her heart of hearts she found the energy, the will to push three more times. Three was all it took, after hours of sweat, blood and tears and hundreds of futile attempts prior. Three contractions, and then her daughter was born straight into the princess’s awaiting hands, her hands stained up to the elbow with her mother’s lifeblood.

A stroke of the feet and a tip of the head, and then the infant’s nose and mouth were cleared. With a final coughed, it took its first breath of real air, letting it out in a lusty, defiant cry. She clamped and cut the umblical cord, but the former act was completely futile; Noa was already bleeding to death from the inside. Somehow she managed to swaddle the newborn and hand the baby to its father, but she had no attention for whatever words they exchanged. She was busy pressing a hand to the mother’s stomach as if to try and fix what she had done, but there was no point. Her belly was still swollen, but no longer from a child. No, it was from blood spilt from wounds she could not staunch, wounds that she had caused.

She sat back stunned. I’ve killed her, she thought. It’s all my fault. She looked back towards the woman she had doomed, expecting a condemnation, and yet she was greeted with a sad smile.

“Take care of them for me, Yuyuko,” Noa mumbled. Youki stammered something, some last entreaty, but she had no ears for it as she closed her eyes and sighed.

She did not draw another breath afterwards.

“A name, Noa!” Youki cried. He put the baby to her breast, hugged her arm around it, turned his wife’s head towards their child. “Open your eyes, please! Give her a name!”

But she couldn’t. Not anymore.
File 13811903178.jpg - (125.33KB, 850x850, Younger Youki Hugging Yuyuko.jpg) [iqdb]
1252
When Yukari came to take Noa back to her village to be buried, Youki asked the princess if he and his newborn daughter could go with her. It was absolutely unheard of for a Konpaku to abandon their charge, but there were extenuating circumstances, after all.

Deep inside, she could not bring herself to deny him his mourning in private. Not when she was at fault for his grief.

She had thought a single day of waiting between servants was uncomfortable; but after ten, and then a hundred, she had revised her opinion of solitude.

It was not merely uncomfortable. It was torturous.

She tried to cook meals for herself to pass the time. It wasn’t as if she didn’t know how. After all, not every Konpaku arrived in her domain as an expert in every single field needed to fulfill their position as her servant. And while Yukari could always bring in tutors for things like carpentry or gardening, the one skill that the princess would have to teach herself would be cooking, as only she truly knew her own tastes in cuisine.

But without anyone to share the meal with, the food might as well have been ash. Her appetite shriveled to nothingness.

Could she have asked Yukari to keep her company? She could have, and knowing her friend she would have caved to the request. But doing so would mean asking favors But she grit her teeth and suffered through it, staring out at the endless fields of cherry blossoms that without a companion to appreciate them with seemed dull and lifeless.

Eventually, she gave up on the gardens altogether. She attempted to immerse herself in the works of former servants: paintings, sketches, ceramics, poetry, stories. But walking through the mansion only reminded her how empty it was, of the absence of people who had made each and every brushstroke whether on canvas, porcelain, or parchment, and the pain, the crushing loneliness, was simply more than she could willingly bear.

How many days flew by while she wasted away? Weeks? Months? Years? Without a living companion’s needs to keep track of time by, without even her own personal hunger, she had no idea how long she languished alone.

At some point she dug out one of his old robes from a closet, and for a time she wrapped herself up with it and pressed it against her face, greedily savoring whatever faded traces of his scent that still lingered on the homespun.

But in time it came to smell of nothing but old wood and cherry blossoms, becoming nothing more than a cloth with which to muffle her sobs.

It was not long before she lost even the energy for tears.

</3

“…Yuyuko!”

She jerked awake. Her name. Someone was saying her name.

“Lady Yuyuko! We’re back!”

A voice from long ago. How long ago? It didn’t matter. It was a voice she knew, and that was all that mattered.

Still clutching the old green homespun around her shoulders, she half-floated, half-tottered upright, stumbling through the mansion’s hallways towards the voice. When she couldn’t find the strength to slide the doors open, she ended up simply floating through them. For that matter, she found herself flying instead of walking, as a thick coating of fallen cherry blossoms, still pristine as the moment they had fallen without a gardener to clear them away, covered the grounds like some kind of demented pale pink snowfall. It was a novel sight; she’d never seen the netherworld in such an unkempt state before. At any other time it would have disgusted her, but for now it was a mere curiosity.

“Lady Yuyuko!” His voice was worried now, more urgent. She put more energy into her flight, cresting over overgrown shrubs and tangled flowerbeds.

“Laaady Yuuuyuuuko!” That was not a voice she knew. It was a child’s voice, a girl’s voice. Her mind raced. Youki had taken his daughter with him back to Gensokyo, and surely she had grown some by now…!

Down the porch. Around the gazebo. Through the archway. Over the veranda. Across the scenic trail. And then up and down the stairwell…!

Her stop at the base of the hill was so sudden that she blasted the flagstones clear of their cherry blossom covering; all over the figure standing there, in fact.

“Youki!” That one name exploded from her, carrying all the bottled feelings and pain of her agonizing solitude. She slammed straight into him right as her body regained its mass and form, arms flying around his neck with her legs kicking the air until he finally bent over underneath her weight to let her reach the ground.

She kissed him. After years of waiting for his return, she couldn’t control herself. It was a clumsy kiss, an unschooled kiss, nothing more than a desperate press of her lips to his, an expression of repressed desires overflowing her restraints… and yet he didn’t push her away. But he wouldn’t deepen it, when she very much wanted him to sweep her up in his arms and kiss her senseless, carry her away and do this and that

But for now, he wasn’t pushing her away, and that was enough.

At some point he straightened, moving his head and upper body away from hers until their lips separated and her arms were forced to fall around his waist. “I’m sorry for staying away so long, Lady Yuyuko.” His voice was thick, full of regret and pain.

It was up to her to grab fistfuls of his kimono into her hands to pull him close until she was all but grinding her face into his chest. “It’s okay,” she sobbed. Her face was wet with tears, again, but they were no longer of pain, but of happiness. “You’re here now. Just – just don’t leave me alone again, Youki. Please. Never again. Promise me.”

A pause. A hesitation that for a moment plagued her with second guesses and doubts. Even if she decided she didn’t care about propriety between master and servant, was she still treading upon the memory of Noa?

But then she felt his sword arm wrap around her, his nodachi pressing up and down the entire length of her back and then some. A cool sensation flowed over her in long stripes; his phantom half flowing around the two of them, as if shielding them from outside view to give them a small moment of privacy. “I promise. I swear to you, Lady Yuyuko…”

She shook her head against his chest. “No. Just Yuyuko. Please,” she whispered.

She said nothing in return, but she felt his other hand slide behind her head, his fingers burrowing through her hair to hold her close. “… Yuyuko,” he repeated, and warmth blossomed in her chest. It felt good. It felt right.

“I’ve stayed away far too long, haven’t I?” he suddenly chuckled. She moved her head to stare up at him, and couldn’t help but join him. The flying cherry blossoms from her approach had settled in great quantities in his hair, over his shoulders, even in his eyebrows and goatee. She could only imagine how bad she looked for him to have laughed at her in the first place.

“Laady Yuuyuukoo,” spoke a girl’s voice from behind Youki’s knee. The princess jumped, and Youki, still laughing and still holding her, stepped to one side, revealing a young girl of not more than five or six years. Her hair was cut similarly to the princess’s, although it was straighter and less voluminous, with a black ribbon holding her bangs out of her eyes.

“Say hello to Lady Yuyuko, love,” he crooned. His daughter averted her eyes, staring at the flagstones before attempting to sidle back behind his leg, a movement he foiled with a small shift of her intended refuge. “I’m sorry,” he laughed nervously. “I’ve told her a lot about you.”

“Oh?” she gasped in surprise. Just what had he been telling her? That she was a ghost? That she had an appetite to match that of twenty of her father’s? That she had sacrificed her mother’s life to preserve her own?

Without anything to hide behind, the girl resorted to confronting the source of her fear, although she did it from behind the haze of her own phantom half. “My naame is Yooumuu, Laady Yuuyuukoo,” the girl said quietly, her voice slightly lisped with youth. She gave a deep bow that hesitated twice on its way down, as if realizing twice again that she needed to bow lower than she was. “Myy faather aand I aare iin yoour caare.”

The sight was awkward and yet endearing, to the point where the princess finally found it within herself to separate herself from Youki and crouch down to the girl’s level. “Tell me, Youmu. What’s your favorite dish that your father makes?” she suddenly asked, taking her completely off guard.

A flush rose in her cheeks as she struggled with her response, trying to decide if it was improper or not. “Hee saays I shoouldn’t aask foor iit aall the tiime…”

“Oh, don’t worry,” she assured her, glancing upwards towards the man who sired her – the man they both loved equally. “It is a special occasion, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Youki confirmed, his face radiant.

“… taiyaki,” she admitted, provoking a hearty laugh from both her father and the princess.

“Youki, could I ask you to prepare a dozen cakes in addition to tonight’s dinner?” she asked lightly.

“I would create a cake the size of a whale if you so desired,” he replied glibly. Her heart fluttered.

“A d-doozeen?” Youmu stammered in disbelief. “I caan baareely f-fiiniish oone myyseelf – “

“Then you shall have one, and Youki, another. The other ten are for me,” she explained, a grin stretching itself across her face. “After all, I haven’t had a good meal in years, and I’m starving.

She had Youki all to herself, now. She had time, and a daughter to raise with him. Romance could come later. For now, she had a dinner to look forward to, and companions to share it with.

She would never be alone again. After all, she had Youki with her now.

</3

It was not difficult for the Princess of Hakugyokurou to seduce her gardener.

It started when they were putting his daughter to bed together, as always. Youmu had burnt herself out like any other three year old girl. Today’s entertainment had been wildly swinging a too-large wooden sword in all directions in blind imitation of Youki’s forms until she was reduced to hugging her father’s leg, nodding off right then and there. Large as he was, Youki simply scooped her up into the crook of one arm and begun walking back towards the house without seeming the slightest bit encumbered.

His other hand was carrying his nodachi, as always, but there the princess spotted an opening, seizing the arm that the hand was attached to and pressing herself up against his side like an overly friendly feline. She had expected that the end result would be the same as all the other times. He’d shake her off with a laugh and playfully point out that she wasn’t a child, she’d pout and claim he spoiled her like one, prompting a frantic exchange of barbed witticisms until they finally parted ways at the mansion’s foyer, for him to take his daughter and put her to bed before retiring himself, and for her to settle in her own chambers.

What she hadn’t expected was for him to cough slightly, but pull his arm – with her on it – closer to his side.

Unable to believe her luck, she found herself at a loss as to what to say. With Youki holding his tongue as well, they traveled the rest of the way in silence, tension slowly thickening the atmosphere around them.

When they made it to the mansion, he paused at the hallway where they normally parted. Fearing that he would attempt to separate the two of them, she only hugged his arm tighter, burrowing herself into his side and nestling his forearm between her bosoms as if to embrace him twice.

With a cough, he continued his normal route to his side of the mansion, but this time with his mistress in tow.

She did let go of his arm when he entered his chamber, noting with excitement that he instantly glanced down as if to confirm that she was not leaving his side entirely. As he lowered his daughter down from his arm, she made herself laying out the child-sized futon, and they both pulled one corner of the blanket over the slumbering child, their gazes both ostensibly on the recipient of their pampering and yet not-quite-stealthily glancing over her at each other, and when she was tucked away they no longer had anything to look at each other.

The mansion was one area of Hakugyokurou that the spirits stayed out of, mostly, and yet they found themselves mutually agreeing to retreat to the hallway, sliding the door shut behind them, and then to her quarters; was it to preserve Noa’s memory, or was it to simply not disturb the child?

There were no such restraints when they made it to the princess’s rooms, though. When she kissed him like she had upon his return, with closed lips and closed eyes, he had her open both with his response. In the next few seconds he had her robes open as well, and within a few minutes her legs.

There was no conversation that night beyond whispered nothings and feverish entreaties. Their garments ended up as their bedding, their hunger not to be delayed by something as unimportant as proper bedding. Between her inexperience and his awkwardness, it was not a smooth night for either of them. Knees and elbows got in the way, rhythms wavered and fell apart, and at least half the gasps and groans that they let out were from discomfort and pain rather than pleasure, but it would be wrong to say that neither of them enjoyed it, and it would be impossible to deny that neither wanted it. Despite their enthusiasm, though, there was something else there, some reluctance, something holding them back from being as open and honest as lovers should.

It was not her name he cried when he finished the first time that night, and she did not have the heart to correct him. Perhaps he realized his mistake the second and third, but when they finally lay together, spent and satiated, it was not her name he mumbled as he slipped into slumber.

As she stared down at his dream-haunted face, she wondered just how long they would last.

</3

The answer was not long. Long enough for Youki to begin skipping meals without starving, for him to purify his body beyond mortal needs. Long enough for him to hone his mind until he could force himself through the netherworld’s mists and come out with his sanity intact. Long enough for him to delve into the mansion’s library, devouring every word on communion with parted souls.

Long enough for his daughter to reach half his height, for him to put her through her a grueling ten-year regimen of physical conditioning and mental drills alongside his own. Long enough so that she would have the necessary foundation to become a warrior without further teaching.

Without further teaching because the day he felt he was ready, he left as suddenly as his wife had. The next changing of the guard occurred not at the base of the stairs at Hakugyokurou’s border, welcoming home a child after many years away, but within the walls of the mansion itself.

“I don’t understand,” Youmu said, staring at the sheathed katana the princess offered to her, not able to take it herself with a wooden practice blade in each hand. She was still sweaty from practicing the katas Youki had just demonstrated for her not half an hour ago.

The last thing Youki would ever teach her.

“Do I need to repeat myself?” she snapped, using anger to shield her grief. The half-phantom flinched; never had the princess sounded so harsh before. “This is yours now.”

“B-but why?” The wooden replicas rattled onto the floor, dropped numbly out of her hands out of shock, but still she refused to take the blade proffered to her. Her phantom half twisted back and forth, just as unsure of what to do as her human hands. “That’s Father’s, that’s not mine – “

“Youki is gone. You are next in – “

But the girl would not let her finish. “Father is what?”

The princess had wondered why Youki had begun excusing himself from meals without touching so much as a grain of rice. Why he had begun taking long walks in the far reaches of the netherworld without telling her, an act that cost most mortals their rational minds. Why he had begun attempting to converse with errant spirits that strayed into the mansion’s gardens instead of shooing them out as he was supposed to. But when Youki had come to her on the veranda with the Hakurouken unbelted and in his hand, she finally understood.

Youki meant to bring his wife back.

“He has left – on a very long journey,” she explained, her expression like icicles in the summer air; once hard and sharp, now swiftly melting. “He will not return for many years yet, and so asked to be released from service.” She took a deep breath, or rather tried to; it was tremulous wavered. “You, as his daughter, will succeed him.”

His daughter took an involuntary step back, rocked onto her heels by the sudden news. “B-but I – I don’t know anything about how to be a servant!” Youmu stammered. “That’s – that’s not fair! How am I supposed to take his position?”

“Youki taught you well,” she assured her with a confidence she did not feel. “As for what he did not teach you, I will.”

“But – I was supposed to go to Gensokyo first! That was the way Father said it always was!” Her eyes were wild now, the absurdity of the situation catching up with her. In seconds, perhaps, there would be tears spilling, and the princess did not think she could also control herself if that happened. “To travel by myself, to become my own person – he told me all those stories – am I to never leave Hakugyokurou again? He told me I would get to climb mountains where he was taught, swim in the rivers he learned to swim in – I would get to visit the village where he met Mother – “ She sniffled, her eyes watering. “Where Mother was buried – “

The princess thought to Noa, bleeding out from the inside, not even able to name the girl who stood before her now. “Things have changed. I am sorry.”

“ – and is he just leaving you? Leaving me?!” The realization was just now hitting her that she had been abandoned by her own father without the slightest bit of warning, when scant minutes ago she had expected him to return for the next lesson. Now the tears were rolling down her cheeks, hysterical tears of disbelief and grief and anger, all at once.

“Yes,” she confirmed, feeling the girl’s pain mirrored in the aches within her own heart “Yes, he is.”

They stood opposite from each other for a minute, the princess and the daughter. “You’re his mistress! Couldn’t you have stopped him?” she demanded.

“Yes… I could have.” She could have. She could have exercised the power that bonded the Konpaku line to her, to give him an undefiable command and force him to stay with her until the day he died, still as heartbroken as the day his better half had left him. “Then why didn’t you?” Youmu screamed, an accusation borne of rage and sorrow that pierced through the princess’s heart. It was too much for even the princess now – her own tears were finally flowing free from behind her composure.

She swallowed, and turned away, staring out into the endless fields of cherry blossoms, the rolling hills and infinite meadows, all thick with the white fog of resting spirits. Somewhere in that fog was Noa’s soul, and Youki would not rest until he had found it and brought it back.

He was a foolish man, he was a bold man, a stupid man, a brave man. He was the man she had fallen in love with, that she wanted to fall in love with her, and yet none of these were the reason why she had let him go.

“Because he loved her,” she whispered, more to herself than Youmu. “More than he will ever love me.”
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The Hakurei Shrine doesn't get very many visitors. The stairs are long and steep, almost half a day's walk from the village. Of course, most people can fly. Strange then, how he, a normal human, regularly made the trip.

The sun was nearing its apex when he arrived at the shrine. He shivered at the lingering cold. Winter, it seemed, had not yet released the mountains from her icy grasp. Here, snow had not yet given way to flowers.

But that was unimportant. He wasn't here to complain about one of the bizarre weather patterns the Hakurei Maiden solved roughly once per year. No, he had come to see a girl.

Trudging through ankle-high snow, he deposited a few coins in the donation box.

"Weren't you just here two days ago?"

Noticing a bit of red poking out of the snow, he went over. "Good afternoon, Miss Hakurei. I'm here to visit-er, what are you doing?"

Reimu Hakurei, almost completely submerged in snow, replied, "Enjoying the last bit of winter. I had planned to make a snow angel, but the snow is really soft and comfy. I haven't managed to motivate myself into moving."

"Just how long have you been lying there?"

"Maybe an hour or two. Care to join me?"

"I'd rather not. Aren't you cold?"

"I don't get cold. Not since the Cherry Blossom Incident almost ten years back. You don't survive being out in that for a day and a half without building up some sort of resistance." Reimu looked much too pale for someone claiming to be immune to the cold. She was, after all, more-or-less human.

"In any case," he said, "won't you please get up? I've brought soup and tea."

"I suppose I can."

___

The shrine was warm and well-insulated from the cold, likely due to having been rebuilt a few years back. While it was nice to be out of the snow, the shrine was too quiet and empty for his liking. The one he had come to see was nowhere to be found.

"You know," his hostess said, "to an onlooker, a lone man regularly coming to the shrine has certain implications."

"Oh?" better to feign ignorance about this state of affairs.

"If Aya were to write about this, all of Gensokyo might come under the impression we're having some sort of secret love tryst." Reimu leaned forward, dripping clothes still saturated from her time in the snow.

"I'd like to clear that up then. It wouldn't do to sully your reputation."

"And if I should want my reputation to be sullied?" She was very nearly whispering in his ear now, having nearly climbed over the table.

"Why, Miss Hakurei-"

"Reimu."

"Why, Reimu, if you hadn't been regularly testing me for the last six months, I'd be inclined to think you fancied me." He sipped his tea, unfazed by the advances of the woman before him. Early on, he'd been taken by surprise by Reimu's apparent interest. But as he discovered the nature of her game, her teasing had become much less effective.

"Oh well," Reimu returned to her seat as though nothing had happened. "You pass the test with flying colors, as usual."

"If I may ask, where is Kokoro?" In the six months of visits to the shrine, this was the first time the pink-haired girl had been absent.

"At the moment? Hard to say, really. She's off sorting through her emotions again. Hopefully, she won't do so by beating down half of Gensokyo this time."

"I'm sorry about that. I think it's partly my fault."

"Don't be. A young maiden's heart is complex and unpredictable." Reimu said, idly twisting a lock of her hair. "You could, however, have been a bit more overt."

"I will be when I next see her. Do you know when she'll be back?"

"A week, maybe ten days at most. These things can take some time."

After they had finished their tea, he politely excused himself. He would be back in seven days' time. And yes, he told Reimu, he would bring food and donations at that time.

___

He spent the week busying himself by helping whomever was hiring at the time. Yet his thoughts always returned to the girl he now made the trip up to the shrine twice-weekly for.

Kokoro.

The first time he could recall seeing her was actually at the Hakurei Shrine. There, she fought the tanuki who had until then largely acted as an observer in the Hopeless Masquerade incident. Kokoro seemed uncertain and directionless, easily being defeated. Her first change in expression was one of bewilderment as the tanuki advised that she go out and discover her own emotions.

Clearly, she took the advice to heart. Kokoro proceeded to defeat every other person involved in the incident. She even defeated the three religious heads, Miko of the Taoists, Hijiri of the Buddhists, and Reimu herself, in a three-on-one duel (albeit with plenty of friendly fire). Witnessing a few of the fights was likely what led to his interest in Kokoro.

Afterward, Kokoro came to live at the Hakurei Shrine, her kabuki performances attracting youkai and humans alike and bringing in money for the shrine. He found himself going every few days, as often as he could manage. Even when the amount of visitors slowed to a trickle as the novelty wore off for the populace, he continued visiting. As it was now, Kokoro performed every few weeks in the village, as well as taking requests for special occasions.

Once he finally worked up the nerve to approach her, he found Kokoro strange, yet likable. Her attempts at emoting were often flawed and she was sometimes prone to a disconnect between her expression, intent, and tone. Yet after a while, he learned a bit of how to read her mannerisms. When she was unsure of how to proceed in conversation, she would default to a blank expression. She only blinked when surprised or when it was commented on. If told that a particular attempt at showing an emotion came across as creepy, she would get annoyed and deliberately increase the behavior until she either received an apology or the person got used to it. Occasionally, if she didn't feel like talking or continuing a particular line of conversation, Kokoro would put on one of the many masks that freely appeared and disappeared around her.

After six months of visits, he believed that he and Kokoro had grown rather close. In autumn, he helped her clean up around the shrine and once they finished raking leaves, she proceeded to jump in the pile. It was a good bit more work after that, but she was clearly having fun. In winter, they spent a large part of their time together. While ice-skating on the Misty Lake was a really awful idea in hindsight, it was great fun, even if they were both novices. They exchanged gifts to celebrate the outsider holiday of Christmas. She seemed to like the scarf he got her enough to be wearing it any time he visited the shrine. Of course, he took to constantly wearing that outsider hat she acquired somewhere. While it was a bit too big and he didn't typically wear hats, it was his favorite color.

In addition to spending a lot of time together, they knew each other's preferences about a variety of things. While Kokoro didn't have a favorite color, she disliked yellow and purple. She liked the rain but was afraid of thunderstorms. While she had quite a sweet tooth, Kokoro actually liked spicy foods the most and bitter foods the least. The only people she would allow to brush her hair were those she trusted unconditionally, a group consisting of Reimu and himself. Otherwise, she wouldn't even bother brushing her own hair.

___

On the seventh day, Kokoro had not returned to the shrine. Before he could return on the eighth, however, she appeared on his doorstep. He was a bit taken aback by this, as she had never actually visited his home before. This was because youkai-human interactions that were not strictly business were met with disapproval at best and open hostility at worst.

"Kokoro, I..."

"Sorry for disappearing." Her expression was impassive, but she was fidgeting uncomfortably. "I didn't mean to worry you."

"As long as you're alright. Please, come in."

It was just before dawn, early enough that he hadn't yet had breakfast and coffee. Kokoro, of course, proceeded to smother her coffee in sugar and milk.

"Reimu said you were off wandering Gensokyo." he said. "Did you find what you were looking for?"

"Well, after we talked and I thought about it some, I still wasn't sure what I was feeling. I asked Reimu about it and she said you were 'a lecherous buffoon'." She rather closely impersonates Reimu's voice.

He just about choked on his drink upon hearing that. Indeed, he could believe Reimu said something like that.

"I didn't really understand, but Reimu clearly didn't want to answer me. She just said things would be tough for us in the future and I should figure things out for myself before answering you."

"That's why you set out?"

"I just did what Miss Mamizou recommended when I was unsure of myself. It worked out then as well."

"You figured out what your feelings toward me are?" Reimu did recommend that he be more overt. Not that she was apparently the best at giving unbiased advice.

"I'll tell you when I get done with my story." Kokoro didn't like it when stories were interrupted, whether or not they were her own.

"Sorry."

"First I climbed the big mountain. I asked the gods on top for advice because asking gods for help is a thing people normally do, right? The blue snake goddess was no help, but the green one was all 'how romantic' and the yellow and purple one said it wasn't something that could be explained with words.

So then I went down underground. A spider girl said it meant I wanted to eat you which is bad, but that was wrong. The big oni said I was probably drunk if I was blushing so much. Then Koishi attacked me and we started a bar fight. I left after that. I think Hell people give terrible advice.

After that, I got turned around a lot and somehow came out near a field of sunflowers. It was nice and warm and I met these nice green-haired ladies."

Kokoro had a run-in with Yuuka Kazami and one of her acquaintances? Yet she seemed no worse for the wear...

"They said something about remembering being young and foolish once too and they shared a weird look.

Then I went to the Forest of Magic. That puppeteer wanted to study me and I ran away, but then I met Marisa. Marisa said the feeling I didn't understand was Love! She said if I could shoot big lasers then there would be no doubt. We went around blasting trees and youkai for a few days before she said my training was complete.

Then I came here. I think I love you."

Kokoro took very few breaths while saying all that. Wait, what was that last part? She...

"I think I love you too, Kokoro."

A few minutes pass after they embrace. She's very lightweight, he noticed. But that might be due to being able to fly.

"So," Kokoro breaks the silence, "now what?"

"What do you mean?"

"I understand what love is now, but I don't know what we're supposed to do next."

"Well..." He hadn't really thought he would get this far. "Whatever we want, I guess."

Kokoro smiled.
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