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File 14579714902.jpg - (126.23KB, 999x1370, a5aad28768bad3049f806489c3307082.jpg) [iqdb]
1934
White Day special number one of two. Consider them failure stories because I wanted to write for Valentine's Day. So screw it. Doing it now and today.

====

The end of winter. There’s nothing too different: The grass is a colder green, the trees move with the wind, and Lady Remilia complains about the cold. Sakuya checks in on me from time to time like every other season, at the same time every day. Whew. I don’t particularly mind, but it does hurt when she prods me with one to twelve knives. Or countless more.

“So you won’t train with me today, Meiling?”

Three knives clink against each other.

My eyes stop drooping. Sakuya holds three knives between her fingers, arms crossed and poised to strike. It’s better to assume so. Looks like I was drifting asleep. Since I’ve lost any time to rub my eyes or stretch my limbs, I speak before Sakuya becomes angry.

“It is a nice day to train, isn’t it? It’d be nice if it doesn’t get any colder.”

Sakuya hums in approval. “As long as you understand. I have much to do to keep Milady from complaining any more than she is already.”

I lean on the pillar of the gate as Sakuya disappears. She wouldn’t actually scold me in any way if I was on the verge of sleeping. But this guarantees that she won’t come back to check on me for at least a couple more hours. Unless, of course, she walks out the front gate with Lady Remilia. But that’s another punishment altogether.

Ah, but I really do wish I could have sparred with Sakuya. With anyone, at this point. It really is a nice day to do so. Cold enough to get the body warm again, and warm enough to not get any colder while sparring. It’s a perfect balance with no real consequences. Well, maybe not, if the person I’m against is from outside and wants to intrude. But the number of people that fall under that category is zero by now, since Sakuya has long stopped punishing me for the human magician breaking in. That’s not to say I wouldn’t let her pass without a fight, but my point still stands.

Ah. I wish I had someone to spar with. My eyes close.

----

“Haaah. I wish I had someone to spar with.”

Then, I yell as I thrust my palm forward. The tree that’s hit makes no movement on impact, but a single leaf falls. I close my eyes while my other hand seeks the leaf that has lost its way, as it has been separated from its source of life. Two of my fingers capture the crisp leaf before it falls past my head.

Someone claps.

My eyes snap open. On the other side of the path by my home, a young man applauds. His eyes are not astounded, the opposite of which is an expression I’ve seen more from the audience of an exhibition.

“You’re pretty good, aren’t you?” He brings his hand together in friendly greetings. “I don't mean to be intrusive! But wouldn’t mind showing me how that’s done? You are Hong Meiling, correct?”

I press my hands together in front of my chest, breathing out. My eyes don’t wander from this odd man.

“I assume you’re another martial artist? Not many find their way to this place without committing themselves to the long journey.”

“Ha!” The young man looks toward the valley of trees around him. “Don’t be so humble! You live just beyond a small village to the south. I wouldn’t call that a long journey.”

“To you as well. That village is by no means close to any other human location. If anything were to happen to it, no one would ever know.”

“And are you saying no one knows about the woman who lives by herself here? I’m sure many a person has made their way to you.”

I don’t respond. First, I want to take in the man’s words. He has long discarded the notion of man and woman when it comes to these matters. And I agree. “A person” is much different than saying “men”. And brash as he may appear for someone his age, his feat of reaching this area is not a simple one. Without taking into account the countless days to reach this location, there are many more predators than prey if one tries to make their way here. So if one isn’t starved and has given up or died, then they have been killed or eaten.

I properly face the man.

“No. If there were, then they have unfortunately perished somewhere along the way. And the only other living beings who come are either fools who do not appreciate our arts, or things that have no mind to be a fool.”

“Then what do you propose we do? As much as I would like to learn your moves, I would much rather enjoy testing my skill against you.”

“If you wish,” I clap a fist against a palm before taking a stance, “then let’s not delay. What is your name?”

“I have long since discarded the name my parents gave me.” The man declares, tossing his robe and belongings to a large stone nearby. “If you must call me by name, Mudo is fine!”

A monk? Or a peasant? Such simple clothes, yet my sense of his skill is anything but. I admit I felt a small rush inside my chest knowing someone had made it here for an actual bout. But I can’t hope too much. I wouldn't like to be disappointed.

“Then let us begin.” I say.

My ears tune out the sound of nature around me. I focus all of my senses on the one in front of me. The words are a formality. The silence is the true beginning. All I can confirm is that this man has survived a trek no normal human could walk. But what else has he fought throughout the lands? Was it of demons large and small, men wicked and cruel, of things that no man or woman has ever lived to tell stories about? With his foot forward like that, maybe—

I dodge to the side. The young man flies past me, his foot where my face had been a second before. My fist thrusts toward his side, and his body spins to avoid it. I duck the heel and respond with a sweep. I don’t feel the hard contact of a strike. His feet are already back on the ground, with the man to my side.

I raise my hands. His fists glide across my arms as I fend off his attacks. I chop one of his fists away from my stomach and swing my other arm toward his face. He stops it with his arm in kind. After a split second, we push each other back on the other’s foot.

My toes bend and relax. I look over his stance again. He’s not shaking at least.

“You have a good body.”

He frowns at my words. “Are you making fun of me?”

“No. I just want to be sure you’re prepared.”

I take in a deep breath. If this man is strong, then let’s see how strong he is. The surge of energy flows through me, and I let it fall to my feet. It fills my body, rising to my legs in a matter of seconds.

“Hmm.” The man called Mudo says. “So are the rumors true? Have you forsaken humanity for power?”

The power gathers around my waist before enveloping both of my legs. I grind my feet against the dirt.

“Believe what you want. Just show me if you have what it takes to win!”

I spin once, my heel swinging with the motion. The man falls prone, the blade of energy cutting over him into the sky.

“Though I’m not surprised,” The man rises to a knee, planting his other foot and the fingers of a hand on the ground, “I certainly wasn’t expecting that.”

“If you’re prepared enough to avoid that much,” I return, poised to attack again, “then let’s keep on fighting!”

I dash forward. The man returns to his feet without delay. My foot follows my second spin, opposite to the one earlier. I don’t hit anything, but the man winces as his head leans to the side. I raise my other leg and slam my foot downward. The earth crumbles as the man jumps back.

“Are you going on the defensive?” I lunge at the man again. Fire burns around my fists as I thrust an arm forward.

The young man leaps back again. I feel the fabric of his clothes before he lands. When he does, I deliver a third roundhouse toward his midsection. This time, I feel his elbow block his body. The force of the blow fires him some distance back before he tumbles onto the ground.

He jumps to his feet, bending his arm in and out for a moment.

“Conjuring fire and wind? No, I wanted to see how you use such mysterious powers. Of course,” The man slides a foot forward in line with his body again, “rumors are simply rumors. It's best to act on one’s own experience.”

The flames continue to burn over my hands. Balancing on one leg, I extend a fist toward the young man, pulling the other back across my body as if to ready a bow. I do not sense any other strength within the man. At best, he fights as best as a human can, with no experience of powers greater than one can gain. At the same time, his reflexes and physical form are in good shape.

“Haaa.” The flames around my fists swirl down to my feet. Fire and wind intertwine. “This will do. It’s good to find someone that can fight. However, I’ll be winning this fight!”

----

It's strange. Strange that despite the many attacks I've used, this man is still fighting. That even though I've used five of my most powerful skills, this man, Mudo, still stands. Even when I struck his chest in the center, with ki bursting behind him, he wiped the blood dripping from the corner of his mouth. What power or will of his rouses him so? With a fist pointing forward, I clench my fingers at the man who stands before me.

“Do you not grow weary of this?” My foot shifts toward the man. “It would be good to take a rest here, if you want.”

He seems to think for a moment, though his eyes, his stance, remain fixed on me. His chest rises and falls. Then, after another few seconds, he breathes out. His arms relax as he drops his stance. The man stands, one of his arms tensed in front of him, still readying himself in case the fight hasn't ended.

“I can continue.” Mudo's eyes sharpen as he stares into my own. “But if you're offering, then as long as this is not a show of mercy, I will accept.”

“Not at all. It is an offer I'm extending because you are skilled.”

“Hm.” His arm falls, its fist also relaxing as the fingers unbend. I also drop my stance, standing up straight.

“If you don't mind,” I bow, fist inside my other hand, “then perhaps you'd tell me a bit about yourself and why you've come. I can prepare tea.”

“I don't mind.” Mudo bows as well, arms straight by his sides. “I would like to learn more about you as well. I was afraid my skills might have dulled in the short span of time I hadn't fought reaching you, so that's why I requested to spar with you on a whim.”

I wait for the man to gather his placed belongings before inviting him into my home.

----

I balance on a leg and take a deep breath. The dream, short and broken as it was, lingers in my thoughts. Mudo. I recognize the name. But why didn't I remember? Was it just a part of my past from long ago? Surely I'd know of someone who had challenged me to such an extant. With one palm stretched toward the ceiling, I sweep the air with my other, now facing to my right.

“Hey, Meiling.”

Flandre sits on the only chair in her room, hands in front on the edge while kicking her legs beneath her.

“Yes, Lady Flan?” I shift my eyes to her.

“Can I try tying your hair? It's a bit undone, so I thought it'd be nice if I could do it for you.”

I bring a hand to one of my braids. From the corner of my eye, I see it between my fingers. The black bow that I tied from behind loosened at some point.

“Do you want to do it?”

Flandre hops off of her chair and places her hands on my sides. The gentle pull tells me she wants to sit on the chair.

As I take a seat, Flandre bends over to start. “Alright.”

My eyes close. It's a natural occurrence that happens when it happens. I was ordered by Lady Remilia and Sakuya to watch Flandre today. Which is a rare pleasure that happens when necessary. But back to Flandre. I taught her how to make her hair a long time ago. Not long after, she asked if I could teach her to do others. Or specifically, mine.

“You'll teach me more, right?” Flandre leans past my shoulder to do a specific tie. “And you'll show me how it's done.”

The words tingle inside of my chest.

“Of course.” I pat Flandre's back. “Let me know anytime, if we're together.”

----

I place the dishes inside of the bucket. With a cloth in hand, I begin washing.

“So I see you like to keep things tidy when possible.”

I hear Mudo speak behind me. Next to my bed place, crafted from metals and padded with cloth and straw, the man meditates cross-legged. My hand runs over one plate, smooth and without any more residue on it.

“If I may ask,” I flip the plate and start a pile, “was your previous place of residence as clean? If you had one.” I add.

“Not particularly. However, if we are to talk of my life outside of training, then my family had some difficulty handling me and my siblings.”

“I see.”

“I don't mind if you want to ask more questions.” I hear him stand as his voice changes locations. “Though I have renounced my former identity, I do not regret my past. I also wish to hide nothing. My pride would not allow it.”

“Then may I ask another question?”

“Go ahead.”

“It's related to your pride, I suppose. Your hair. You’re comfortable tying the sides of your hair into braids like that?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean, well, I just haven’t seen many men do that.”

Mudo doesn't respond after my words. I add one more plate to the pile before he says something.

“Are you saying you expect otherwise? This isn't a talk about men and women, is it?”

“No, of course not.” I laugh. “I was actually wondering if you'd mind cutting it.”

“You can’t be serious.” Mudo laughs as well, though with more defiance than playfulness. “I know it may be a bit absurd to say, but I will not cut my hair. So I’ve settled with tying it like this so it won’t get in the way of a fight.”

“Yes, that would be best. After all, I am the same.” I brush the back of my hand against one of my braids.

“Exactly. And it hasn't gotten in the way of any of our practice, has it?”

“No, it hasn't.”

I do acknowledge that much. The past two weeks I've learned much about this man's capabilities. Though it appears I outmatch him in the beginning, he always withstands or avoids whatever attacks I perform. His condition varies among matches, but his bare skill more than makes up for his lack of techniques. It could be said that the more I fight this man, the less chance I have at victory if we were to fight seriously. Especially since I have shown this man many of my greater attacks. Both in practice and in teaching. I judge this man's fighting ability that highly.

“Although now that you say it.” Mudo rummages through his belongings.

“Yes?”

“Your very appearance is quite striking.”

“Oh. Okay?”

“If you wouldn't mind, I would like to ask to learn something unrelated to martial arts.”

“And that would be?”

“Teach me how to braid hair in a fashion similar to yours.”

I stop washing the last of the dishes.

“What brought this up?”

“Nothing too serious.” Mudo seems to have found what he was looking for. “But though I do keep myself clean, I think I waste too much time tying my hair afterward. As I don't want to cut it, I was wondering if you'd show me how it's done?”

My hands resume washing.

“Alright. But after I run an errand in the village. If you'd like, you may come along.”

“Then it's settled. As long as you remember.”

----

“If you would help out preparing the dishes there.”

“Okay!”

I take some of the food Sakuya finished and distribute them among the many plates on the table. In the center of the kitchen, countless plates line up and hide the table's surface. As Sakuya continues to cook, I take what is prepared and transfer them to their proper containers. Bowls also sit on nearby counters, along with teacups and pitchers for drinks.

Sweat drops from my forehead, the kitchen warm from all of the cooking. Though I'd completed my share of cooking minutes before, Sakuya is still my superior when it comes to western cuisine. It would be the reason why my dishes were finished first. I was in charge of the more eastern dishes. That's not to say Sakuya can't prepare it or prepare it well. I'm simply an extra hand that's qualified to make the food just as quickly, and with equal quality. I catch the meat flung at me by Sakuya with a plate.

“The ingredients were quite exquisite today, as well as the feast Lady Remilia is planning.” The maid flips the meat on the pan. “I appreciate the help, Meiling.”

“The pleasure is all mine.” I catch a steak with another plate.

As much as I'd like to return to my dreams, I still have obligations to my life in the mansion. But if my current dreams were of the past, then why so suddenly? Did I have some sort of attraction to the man named Mudo in my dreams? A husband? If so, then I'd be very disappointed with the fact that I'd forgot. Though I'm happy with my life in the mansion, I can't help but be curious.

----

“So. Do you know how many dragons live in the area?”

Mudo eyes my hands as I cut into the flesh. Over an open flame, I place some of the meat placed aside into a pan.

“Too many.” I slam the knife through scale, skin, and flesh. “It's the main reason I'm staying here.”

“And it's the reason we're eating them. There's nothing wrong with it, is there? I won't be cursed by some weird spell of some sort?”

“Not at all. We would only need to be worried if we were eating one of the legendary dragons. Which are much too honorable to be doing barbarous acts such as attacking humans.”

“Mmm.” Mudo acknowledges my words, moving behind me to heave another piece of dragon toward me. “I'm not surprised to see such creatures, but I was worried when we ran into one a week ago.”

“Why? You handled it just fine. It was no match for the both of us combined.”

“True,” He stabs a knife into the scales, which had been damaged and softened from our encounter, “but surely you've run into a large number of them before?”

“And that's what worries me.” I drop another piece of meat into a pot of boiling water. “Though ten is no problem for me, the very fact that I faced ten doesn't fare well for how many actually live here.”

My eyes focus on the red of the flesh in front of me. A scouting group of ten dragons. How many were there in total, then? For this many rogues to be about, perhaps it makes sense since present times have forced the species into hiding. The land is not as mystical as it was centuries ago, and humans have become more self-sufficient. The village nearby is only under attack because their way of life matches what dragons were accustomed to long ago. But until when? Perhaps this is the only place left for dragons to go.

“Like any living being that loses its home,” Mudo sighs, “the situation may reach a critical point. The way you speak about it, Meiling, it seems that time is soon.”

“Yes, apparently.” I take a kettle of water and wash away the blood on my hands. “However, that's for another time. How about you show me your cooking skills?”

The corners of my mouth pull upward. My eyes are on Mudo, who laughs once behind a closed smile.

“Cooking, eh? I’ll have you know I learned from a cook in the past!”

“Really? Then let’s both cook and see how it tastes. A little taste test to see how well the other can make food.”

“You expect me to best you in cooking dragon meat, something that only a handful of humans have seen in their lifetime? Let's be generous and assume as such.”

“It's not as difficult as you make it to be. It's simply a matter of practice.”

“A matter that you have practiced much, I'm guessing.” Mudo looks at me for a moment before placing the meat in front of him inside another nearby pan. “I don't think I can accept this challenge. However, I would be more willing to do so if you would teach me. In return, I'll offer whatever recipes I know of that you currently do not.”

We have long passed the point of introducing our fighting styles to each other, only practicing or sparring on a regular basis. These small times give us a lull between battle. Which is more than I could ask for. That's not to say we hadn't lost our competitive edge. I just...recognize Mudo as someone I can be with. I'll admit I'm even attracted to him as a man. But until he makes it clear that he feels the same, I won't risk the relationship between us. Not that it would be ruined, only more awkward for a time.

I stretch my back. “Then it's a deal. I saw you doing something with an apple now and again. If you wouldn't mind, perhaps I'll have you say what you were doing?”

“Well then, it's a deal. Show me how it’s done, would you?” He flicks his head at the dragon meat surrounding us. “Cooking food is necessary for people like us. So I won’t stand for something if it isn’t perfect.”
File 145797180397.jpg - (311.25KB, 622x760, a24253146a56dd2ebb1d91215b7b6994.jpg) [iqdb]
1935
The flat of my tongue licks the roof of my mouth. The meat didn't actually melt under my teeth back then, but I now had a craving for dragon that probably wouldn't be fulfilled. My method of cooking that kind of meat leaves it chewy. But it's still tender enough that it doesn't make your mouth sore. Mudo also had a way with seasonings that leaves the spice lingering in your mouth. It wasn't a hot spice, but a herbal spice that rises into your nose.

The dreams are becoming more vivid.

“So,” Lady Patchouli peers over her book at me across her table, “these are the books that might interest you the most.”

“Thank you, Lady Patchouli.” I take the book from Koakuma, who closes her eyes and smiles as she hands me several books. The pile isn't heavy, though there are easily over five hundred pages together.

“Seven hundred thirty three pages.” Lady Patchouli turns a page. “Of which, twenty eight are most relevant to your condition. If you'd like, I can have Koakuma show you.”

“Who is showing something here?”

I turn my head behind me as much as I can. “Milady Remilia! Excuse me for using the library in my spare time.” The words come as naturally as breathing.

“It's fine.” Lady Remilia sits to the left of Lady Patchouli. “The library is a place where everyone comes to learn. What they learn is their own business,” She eyes the books in my arms, “so as I'm a good mistress, I don't meddle in personal affairs.”

“Remi.”

“What is it, Patchy?”

Lady Patchouli remains silent, turning another page. Lady Remilia sighs while sliding down her chair. I walk to find a table somewhere else, with Koakuma following beside me.

“Meiling.” The mistress calls.

I pause, turning to her once again. “Yes, Milady?”

Lady Remilia doesn't face me. She doesn't speak for a moment, and I stand waiting for her to do so. And when she does:

“You are important to us. Remember that.”

----

Three months. Some time after three months, I lie back on my bed. Mudo has long since slept inside with me, a proper bedroll made from contents given to him by those in the village. In the darkness, I hear him turn toward me.

“The time is coming.”

“It seems to be.” I lift and remove my hand from under the side of my head.

“Would you say you're prepared?”

“I'm not an unstoppable force. But I wouldn't say I couldn't take down over a hundred dragons.”

“Then what if there are a thousand?”

“I would be tired at the very least. At most, I think it's not impossible.”

I haven't closed my eyes yet. So I keep the conversation going.

“Then what about you? Are you not at least feeling nervous?”

Mudo breathes once. “I don't know how to answer that. I can only say that if I were alone, I wouldn't feel as confident as you are.”

“I think you could do it.”

“Is that opinion considering that I would make use of strategy? Or are you talking of my martial abilities?”

“Both.” This time, I turn around. Although he was not staring at me, now he watches as I roll to my other side to face him. “You are...a very strong human. If you devoted yourself to surpassing your limits, you could learn to do the things I do. But you wish to remain a human. And for that, I respect you greatly.”

“Thank you. I, too, think you are a great martial artist. If not the greatest, one of the best to live for eternity.”

Far past the need for humility, we accept the other's words. I adjust myself onto my back, staring at the roof of my home.

“Do you...?” I stop to re-word my thoughts. “Are you planning to leave someday? You came to visit me months ago. But surely you wish to become stronger elsewhere.”

“And how long will you stay here?”

“If all the rogues are gone, I....” I think. “I believe I'll stay here to make sure. For at least another year longer. It will give me the time to make sure all matters are settled, and there are no more rogues in the area.”

Mudo hums at what I say.

“Then,” He goes on, “I suppose it will not hurt to stay longer.”

“Are you sure?”

“You are the strongest person I have had the fortune to meet.” His words run a warmth through my chest. “If you would not mind, I will wait for you to settle your business here. And then, as long as you have no complaints, I will go where you go. If you decide to stay here, then I will too. My desire in life was to seek strength as it relates to the martial arts.”

“It `was`?”

Silence falls between us for a moment.

“I am not with you because you are a one of a kind martial artist,” Mudo speaks again, “who uses powers no mortal person can imagine having. I am with you because you live your life as ideally as I can dream. Though we don't agree on every subject, if there is a person who lives as honestly as you do, I have never met them. Nor do I believe I will again in my life.”

“I am not as noble as you think I am.” The caution enters my voice. It is not humility, but a confession. “I have done things many good humans couldn't bear living with.”

“Have you killed infants?”

“Not human infants.”

“Have you served under the wicked?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Do you regret the mistakes you've made?”

“I will live with them, but I do regret some of my actions.”

“Then you are better than most humans living today.” Mudo snorts. “I, too, as a human, have done things or been idle through moments I should not have. But because of that, I train to become stronger. And anyone who can think this much of themselves is someone I believe is good enough to live with. It's a life worth living.”

I blink. His words rouse my spirit. A confidence flows through my body. A confidence, of which, empowers me to ask something.

“Then. Would you like to live with me, as a human?”

Perhaps my voice came out differently. But I wasn't aware of any changes. To me, it felt natural to ask from the flow of the conversation. The silence after was the longest of the night. For a moment, I realize how sudden my question is. Or how awkward it may have sounded.

However, I hear Mudo shift in his bed.

“I think...I would like that, Hong Meiling.”

Something fills my chest. Like channeling fire through my body, the excitement and surprise burns through me, threatening to make me act unlike my current humble self so far. I'm aware of how energetic I am during a fight. But this kind of energy is different, if just because it runs through me outside of battle.

“Um.”

However, my nervousness disappears when he stutters.

“You haven't before, have you?”

From Mudo's voice, I know he is sitting up.

“I...haven't.” I answer his implication. “I have lived for a long time. And you are the first person. You would be the first person.” I also stumble with my words.

“Then, I guess you’ll show me how it’s done? Surely I should accommodate for being a human with less years.”

The conversation buzzes as my consciousness begins to fade. I don't recall having done anything that night. But I do remember staying up for another hour imagining future possibilities.

----

My thoughts at the end of the dream linger and haunt me. The conclusion to this dream sequence can't be a happy one. How can it? If I am not currently with Mudo and instead work at the Scarlet Devil Mansion....I don't want it to end badly.

I think so much about my dreams that I don't notice Sakuya standing in front of me.

“Daydreaming?”

With a long breath, I look up at Sakuya. “Sorry. I was lost in thought.”

Sakuya taps her foot once.

“Lady Remilia has informed me,” Sakuya shifts, a hand on her hip, “that you've been having peculiar dreams as of late. I just want to make sure it's not interfering with your work.”

“Sorry.” I apologize again. “Please forgive me.”

Maybe Lady Remilia knows. Because Sakuya hasn't punished me yet, I have to think so.

“I'm making an exception just this once.” Sakuya continues to lecture me. “If it happens again, I may reconsider. If by some chance you can control the dreams, please have them when you're not working.”

“I'm sorry.”

Sakuya disappears.

I lean against the gate wall. The memories of the events after my recent dream come back in fragments. Dragons as far as the eye can see. Killing hundreds of them. Getting hurt. Gashes on my arms, my sides, my legs. If I was alone during that time, I would be focused. Certain techniques come to mind. And certain techniques flash into my mind, used to destroy my opponents by the dozen. Injuring many more.

But I can't remember how Mudo fared at all. So I sleep. For my last dream.

----

“That last technique was incredible.”

I survey the area after I hear Mudo speak. Here and there, with patches of green to match, bodies of dragons lie as far as I can see. If I were to recount those taken down with martial skill alone, I believe he would have more than me. I consider it my loss, seeing as most of those I defeated were casualties of my many inhuman arts.

More so because it's Mudo who drags himself to me as I sit on a clean patch of grass. He grunts as he sits with his back against mine.

“So with this, the village is safe.”

“No other rogues would dare come close. They would sense the blood shed here for centuries to come. Perhaps forever.”

“You took down a good majority of them. It's no contest who took the most down.”

I press my hand against my side, wincing. “I am a youkai. If I were human, I would be more amazed by your performance than my own.”

“But you're not.” The back of Mudo's head rests on mine. “And even so, you are a strong person. It is clear I would have been unable to defeat them all.”

“We did it together.”

My eyebrows furrow. Blood. I can feel blood that's not from my own wounds on my back. I swing around, my side now on Mudo's back.

“Mudo...! You're...!”

I curse to myself. The battle was far too hectic to track Mudo's movements at every second. But even I realize the amount of blood he's losing is far too much for a human.

“I don't regret it.” He coughs. “I've done something no person has ever done...and am honored to have done it with you....”

“Let me take you to the village.” I start to rise.

But Mudo puts a hand on my shoulder.

“No...If I can't recover on my own...then I can't bear living with my own weakness....”

“Stop being proud.” I try to rise again, now on my knees behind Mudo. “It's not about being weak.”

“Meiling.”

I want to respect Mudo's wishes. But I cannot accept this. Even my consciousness that realizes this is a dream doesn't want to accept this result.

“I'm taking you to the village.” I move to inspect his body before carrying it. “Or at least back to my home. We need to treat....”

I freeze for a split second. As Mudo lies back onto the grass, I spot the wounds on the front of his body.

A normal man wouldn't even be conscious right now. Another realization creeps into my thoughts, but I resist it with all of my remaining willpower. I look up and down Mudo's body to judge where to take hold of him. Yet even so, Mudo speaks.

“Hey…Meiling….”

“What?” I answer, still looking for a place to take hold of.

“You're...a very special person. There are...a lot of things...I'd like to learn from you....”

His voice is a whisper.

“If so....Could you show me...”

“How it’s all done?” I slid my fingers between his.

He closes his fingers around mine.

What comes over me to abandon carrying him home, it forces me to continue this moment. I can feel the strength behind the soft touch. Even though I can feel his life fading from it.

I can’t cry. There’s too much blood for there to be tears.

Everything fades.

----

...Sakuya stands in front of me.

I should be concerned about the knives. But as I look up at her, she does something strange. Her eyes aren’t narrow, and she lowers her knives. It’s like she isn’t angry. Actually, she was, but her anger is gone.

I know why.

“Are you alright?”

Without answering Sakuya, I bring a knuckle to my eye. I don’t need to finish wiping to know I’m starting to cry. I do, though.

Because now I’ve realized the truth.

“Hey, are you okay?”

But I can’t answer Sakuya.

Something fills up inside my chest. It rises to my head. It pools up to my mouth, nose. My eyes. My body leans forward. I’m bent over by the weight of it all. A wheeze comes out of my mouth, and the pressure in my nose makes me sniff. I raise my hands to my face to hold it all in. But I can’t. My hands claw around my eyes, my palms try to block my nose and mouth.

If I were sitting, I’d have curled up by now. But since I’m standing, I can only do my best on two feet.

“Hey,” Sakuya says again, “what’s wrong…?”

I can’t answer. I can’t answer her. I don’t think I could get her to understand with my body as it is. I want to stop crying. But the truth hurts too much.

I can’t see her, but Sakuya touches my shoulder. My body falls forward.

It helps. I would have fallen to my knees if she didn’t catch me. And Sakuya’s embrace helps.

I cough. All my crying should come out when I do. But I keep coughing, crying. That’s what I wish could happen. I miss him. I want to go back and train with him just a little more. I want to learn to cook with him more. I want to hear his voice so much. But I won’t be able to again. So I bury my face into Sakuya’s body.

I loved him. I love him still. And I can’t stop thinking about everything I’ve dreamed about. When I do, something crushes my heart. It hurts more. But I can’t stop.

Sakuya holds me closer, patting my back.

----

I’m carrying the chocolates outside for the man I love.

I know because I dreamed about it every day for the past week. And now I finally remember. Each dream brought out a memory from long ago. How did I ever forget? I’m not blaming anyone. It’s just a little sad that I didn’t remember sooner.

I take a deep breath, heading back toward the gate. I’m still on duty today. I was allowed some time to make the small, chocolate hearts and wrap them in a small bag. Now it’s back to work.

That’s fine. It allows me to eat these chocolates.

“Hey Meiling.”

After popping the first chocolate into my mouth, I spot Flandre standing beside me, umbrella in hand.

“Good evening, Lady...Flandre.”

“Don't worry. She's not watching.”

My focus isn't on detecting any presence nearby, even though I don't normally try to detect Lady Remilia. Flandre leans against me.

“My sis told me to tell you she doesn't know what happened before she met you. So she doesn't know about anyone important in your life before you came here.”

“Ah.”

“Are you angry at her? You don't think she's hiding something from you?”

“No, I don't think so.” I offer a chocolate to Flandre. She looks up at me.

“Are you sure? Isn't that for...the person you like?”

“It's White Day.” I place the chocolate in her hand. “I've already done it all wrong. Plus, being flexible is a good thing.”

Flandre puts the chocolate in her mouth and chews.

I'm glad she likes sweets. Unlike Lady Remilia, Flandre eats normal food. At least, I'm happy when she eats my personal cuisine and compliments me. Now that I've had these dreams, it...reminds me of those times, too.

Flandre swallows. “I asked the librarian for books. And I found things about a certain place far away.”

I wrap an arm around Flandre's shoulders. I'm not surprised.

“I spent a long time finding it. In a certain city, there's a statue of a man and a woman who killed over a thousand dragons.”

“It was a long, hard-fought battle.”

“But there's no other information from when the statue was made.”

“I don't remember anything after that. And I don't have any dreams about the time after.”

I notice Flandre look back up at me from the corner of my vision. But I'm smiling.

“He was human.” I say to Flandre. “So if I lived with him after, I would have outlived him.”

“But you knew him only for a short time before that?”

“He was a special person. I don't think I'd ever find someone like him again.”

“Then, do you want to fight with me?”

Three figures fly in the distance toward the mansion. My smile doesn't fade.

“Maybe you should fight the humans coming by now. After all,” I pat Flandre on the head, “you never know how long you'll be able to stay with them. And that's the important part.”

After this, Flandre nods and smiles. She flies off toward the shrine maiden and the magicians. Less than a minute later, Sakuya joins the ongoing danmaku fight.

The end of winter. There's nothing too different.

Although it's still a bit cold, it's a life worth living.
Magnificent. A really well written, bittersweet story, thank you for writing this.
That's okay... I just wanted to wash my eyes from the inside anyway...


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