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Don't hit on grandma
If not "Veteran", what better term is there?

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"I love you." Your words, once again, fall on deaf ears. Or are your words deaf? Your mind is certainly deaf. Can't hear, nor can it think. Can't see, either, so maybe it should be blind, too.

Your sister pours over paperwork. Boring work. Busywork. Dull and dreary, as if you aren't here.

Yet ohh so cute as well. "I love you, Sis."

Her eyes are bored. She is boring. Why is she so boring. Talk to me. Look at me. "Notice me, Sister."

Left, right, left, right. Eyes flit left and right. Fingers make broad strokes on many papers. "Siiiis! I'm being a narrator, so get annooooyed!" The far more attractive of the two siblings glares at the jerk she calls a sister. Who also smells bad.

You need a bath.

You come back and intentionally drip water from your fingers on her papers.

She's so stubborn! "You're so stubborn!" You're mad! "I'm mad!" This isn't working... "No, it's not..."

You sit in the corner of the room, hugging your knees, just the same as always.

You miss her hugs, also just the same as always.

You regret this decision in some far corner of your mind.
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Lunasa stares at you just as flatly as the last time, or the time before that, or the time before that, or the time befo— "You realize that a giant cheesy grin doesn't an argument make, yes?"

"But sis, why not~?"

"Because we would gain nothing from it but ridicule and a tarnished reputation."

"We could learn what love feels like!"

"We could learn what many things feel like, were we able to feel." She pinches your cheek, or so you think. "For instance, pain."

You give your best pout, crossing your arms under your chest with a huff, though you feel none of the related things. emotional or otherwise. "You never let me have any fun!"

Sighing, Lunasa simply answers, "Love is not meant to be fun and games."

"Says the one that can't feel~"

"Don't you turn my argument back on me. I know as I have been meant to." You giggle a bit, though you only know that you should feel amusement, as that's what the you that you never knew would feel. Frowning, your grumpy-yet-not sister says, "Why won't you just drop this?"

"'Cause." You know why. You won't say why, for that's what you would do, but you do know why.

"That's not an answer."

"Neither is that, but you don't see me complaining~"

Your sister punches her brow, sighing. "Why will you not answer the question?"

"'Cause." That's something that you honestly can't answer. You just know that these are things you should feel, and you got tired of playing out the decisions of a dead woman.

But, more importantly, you've nothing better to do today. None to drive made with your dashing looks or blaring horn. In fact, you're feeling decidedly unhorny for you. Not even a toot thus far today!

Your sister gives you that same tired sigh. "Why do you even care about this?"

"'Cause." A rejection is better than an uncertainty. Or, that's what this you feels. Well, not feels so much as thinks.

"You realize I won't say yes unless you give me a valid reason to. We've no warmth to share, nor can we feel an embrace. No lust to sate, nor love to share. We simply are, Merlin."

You giggle in a way most unfitting to your words. "Because I used to love you all that time ago."

"What are you..." She blinks as realization dawns. "You mean to say that the real Merlin once felt the same?"

"Well, or Layla had odd opinions of her sisters." You give her a weightless sour look.

That gives her pause. "Very true. She did make you." Ohh, feel the burn. "Still, what could you possibly gain from it?"

You give that same big, bright, hollow smile as ever. "It'll take a load off my chest~"

Lunasa's eyes flit down.

Lunasa's eyes then lock with yours. "That would require more than words, sister."

You grin a bit wider at the joke. "Good one, sis. That was terrible."

"However, the answer remains no, just as an hour ago, and an hour before that."

"And don't forget the hour before, or it's hour older sister!"

You receive that same empty roll of eyes for your trouble.
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heartbroken heartbreaker
"A girl, I suppose. Probably a common answer for that sort of question."

The reporter looks intently at me. Fortunately, she's done enough interviews to tell that I'll continue without prompting.

"I remember the day I first saw her, when I transferred at the beginning of highschool. We made eye contact just after I introduced myself to the class. Now, I'm not one to believe in things like 'fate' or 'love at first sight', but I can't deny that I felt something in that moment. I wouldn't call it lust either, just an instinct, a connection I couldn't fully understand. Perhaps she felt something to, she didn't share the class's awestruck expression at my last name.

"The moment passed as I took my seat, and I was bombarded by questions. I quickly weeded out the leeches and was left with a core group of acquaintances that would be instrumental in taking the seat of student council president."

I have the reporter's rapt attention now. She's should be grateful I agreed to an audio recording of this interview, as there's no way that she'd be able to take notes at this point. I swirl my water in its glass, absently staring into it.

"She did approach me once, as I was leaving school. Receiving confessions wasn't uncommon back then. Her demeanor was completely different. She looked into my eyes and asked sincerely, as if it were for my benefit, not her own. Normally, they would invite me on a date, like a movie or a theme park. Not so with this girl. She invited me to her house that evening for the celebration of some local holiday. For some reason I didn't suspect anything untoward, despite the strangeness of the event."

"Of course, I refused. I had a new tutor coming to my house that day, and a good first impression is important for a good student-teacher dynamic. I would not have gotten the test scores I did without my tutors. "

A note of melancholy must have crept into my voice, as the journalist fakes a few sympathetic noises. I take a sip of my water, wishing it was something stronger. There's no rational explanation for why I'm feeling this way, but I can't shake the profound sense of loss.

"One day, I was taking care of some business at school and noticed a young girl coming in from the opposite direction. I would have passed by without incident, but she approached me with a knowing smile. My intuition told me they were family, and my reason concluded I was talking to her little sister, come to drop off a forgotten lunch. She was probably looking for more ammunition to tease the girl. From what she said, the girl had talked about me at home, and the two had made some sort of good luck charm for me. I didn't take it. I've proven myself capable of success with my own power, no need for silly charms."

"Then I transferred schools again, went to university, and you know the tale of my success from there. A year ago, I organized a reunion across my various schools, and that girl was the only one I couldn't find. According to the chairman, she transferred shortly after I did, leaving no contact information. It's like she's vanished."

I look the reporter in the eyes for the first time since beginning this story. It wouldn't take someone of my intellect to see that's she's struggling to show empathy for my tale, as it will get her the cover story of whatever gossip rag she writes for.

"So there you have it, my greatest regret: all the success expected from the eldest son of the Moriya family."
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Lone cayme the tyme
Whance an indygo did fancy mine eye
Whan her smyle was Of Spring
And mede did it give mineself
Amongst so many a lusty nyght
And ashayméd thaughts
That I could not Bear for it to parish.

Uponst her own
Did she clothe herself
With vibrent coloures,
And uponst her haire
Was a lylack, white,
Thow never did that lylack wend
To mine own direction.

With her, cometh mine sole joye,
For mine herte yerned no other nede
But to softely accrew her tale.
Sole her wyrds distressed mine heart,
Her wit, her gentille tone, her renown,
All did it was a sodeyn rob of mine wyrds
Whan I did chance her.

No, had I never lightly lovéd she,
Thow she stoode on a lofty cliff hire
And fear did blynd me
Whan tyme helde a quicker pace on mine eyes.
Thorugh the herte bledst mineself,
But in body I helde no wownd er teer.
Allas, that lylack shall falle in tyme!

cùis-eagailam bàsaichfidh sé dìtheanou

On mine own in treste, I mayde this lylack
Never parish and See the Spring,
Tymeless as watere and cloude.
That lylack, flore blossym,
Will take its leve, and hom she wente above,
Wayten for its tyme to bloom
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Get off me
"Renko," said Mary, "I'm gay."

"Awesome," said Renko, "I'm not."

And then they did not fuck.
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does this look like a face of mercy
"Renko," said Mary, "I love you."

"I love you too, Mary." said Renko.

"Too bad, it was me, Yukari!" said Yukari, revealing herself.

What followed was a painful experience that Renko would never forget.
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Being as spookeriffic as I was, nothing could spook me -- or, well, almost nothing. I'd say Keine's face looking down at me registered on the Kogasa scale. Between that and how much my legs hurt sitting upright on the floor, I was ready to pull whatever trick I could to get less here-ways.

I looked around for my 'brella friend. There he was in Keine's hand, held closed tight. He tried opening a little, but she squeezed him harder. No remote spook-tricks happening here. His big mouth sagged into a frown at me.

I threw his frown back up to Keine. She was being such a butt over some pranking. It was like she didn't know how to appreciate the meal of fresh spook I'd made. She was using a soup spoon to eat the salad. Typical dumb human mistakes. Oblivious to her mis-forking, she stood over me, giving me the death glare while the clock tick-tocked.

Before I could start thinking about knocking on her to see if she'd replaced herself with a log, she made with a long sigh and brushed her hair over her shoulder. "Tatara Kogasa," she said, putting a big space between my names. Tap-tap-tap went her foot on the floor. "A tsukumogami, wasn't it? One who regularly bothers humans, if my sources are to be believed."

I blinked. That sure was a textbook definition of a Kogasa. Except that 'bothering humans' part. That was some biased bull-honkey. A Kogasa spooks humans, thank you very much. Not that I was gonna make too hard an argument with two tons of forehead dangling over me.

"Y-Yeah?" I answered.

"For someone connected with the temple, you're quite the pest. Or do they not teach you how to not trouble others?" She threw her thumb over her shoulder. "What you just did is going to trouble me pretty good. Do you know how hard it is to keep money in this school? Akyuu will have me kowtowing at the very least."

I didn't even have to look to know what she was pointing to: the wreckage of the chalkboard. There were still pieces of green spread out on the floor around us. Remembering the boom it made when it hit the floor, right when the kiddos were out of range, I had to hold down a smile. The rush of surprise had just about bowled me over. Of course, that's how I ended up here.

"I don't stay around the temple anymore." I wasn't about to deny credit for a good spook, but I didn't wanna get bonked. The kiddos had some stories that made me cringe.

Keine's eyes widened a little and she stopped tapping her foot. I tensed up seeing her rub her forehead like a chef guy polishing a knife. Instead of a bonk, though, what I got was another sigh.

"I guess even Byakuren has her limits."

"She, uh..." I flinched. There was a name I hadn't thought about in a while. "She sure does."

Keine crossed her arms. "And I'm sure you testing them didn't help."

I stared at my knees, fidgeting in my seat. For a topic I didn't want to talk about, she was really digging into me about it. If only my 'brella bud wasn't wrapped in her hands. We stared at each other, both wishing we could find a closet to hide in.

Noticing me trying hard not to pay attention, Keine covered my friend's eye. I opened my mouth to say something, but she talked over me. "Let me guess how it all happened: You wouldn't quit playing pranks on the other disciples all the time."

"It wasn't all the time!" I shot back, looking up at her.

"So you kept on until something got out of hand. That's when Byakuren pulled you aside and gave you a warning, right?"

"N-No! That's not--"

Keine leaned down -- impressive when you've seen how tall she is -- right into my face. Her <what colour lal> eyes had a real glow to them. I guess you could say her engine was all fired up, full steam ahead. "And instead of listening to her, you went and did it again, didn't you? Except this time you wrecked things on purpose. You couldn't stand being told what to do that much. Look at me and tell me I'm not right."

I leaned back without breaking eye-contact, something way down in my gut area raising hell. My heart wasn't pit-a-pat'n, but it felt like my pulse was zinging along, like a storm clouds just rolling in to soak everybody down. The storm was a-brewing.

This big, tall, scary woman with the long, blue hair and the shiny forehead of pain, who spent her whole day blabbing at the kiddos when they could be out having fun, was right in a lot of things she said. And I hated it. She had no right to just pry open my head and jab at the things I didn't want to talk about. I wasn't going to stand for that. How dare she have a point.

Keine stood back up, standing like a big, tall pagoda of teacher and mad over my head. "I'll take your silence as a 'yes'," she said, quieter than a second ago. "Don't you see, Kogasa? It's that kind of business that'll keep you in trouble. If you don't--"

"You're wrong," I growled.

"What was that?"

I raised my hands up and smacked them into the floor as hard as I could, banging like thunder, making Keine jump back. "I said you're wrong! You keep talking like they threw me out, but that's a load of crap! I left them! I didn't like anything about their stupid temple, so I got out! Simple as that!"

Saying all those words at once left me heaving. Keine stood there with her mouth open, all jabbery from seeing lil' Kogasa having a backbone. She shook her head.

"That... That doesn't change my point. Your way of living causes trouble, and I don't need to remind you of how troublemakers are dealt with he--"

Catching my breath, I let another rush of anger take over. "That's all anybody ever wants to tell me! 'Kogasa, you're annoying!' 'Kogasa, you're making trouble!' 'Kogasa, stop acting like that!' I can't stop doing it, because that's what I'm supposed to do! Unless you just want me to curl up and starve to death!"

"No, Kogasa, I'm not saying that. All I want is to understand you."

"Quit with the bullcrap!" I screamed, knocking on the floor even harder. My throat hurt. My knuckles hurt. My eyes were starting to hurt. "You can't understand me. You're just... just a human! There's no way you'd ever know what it feels like."

For some reason, my eyes felt wet. Stupid eyes. I was supposed to be angry, not sad!

I raised my fist to start pounding the floor again when Keine caught me mid-swing. She knelt down, giving me a less mad and more 'you poor 'brella' look. Even though I hated being looked at like that, I couldn't stop the leaks in my eyes. I sniffled and whimpered. Then I broke out into real crying.

It took me a while to get all the waterworks out. Who knew how long it'd been since I'd had a cry like that. I bet my face wasn't real pretty all the while. For her part, Keine didn't say anything and just let me go.

"Don't--" Hic. "--tell me what to do," I slurred out as soon as I could talk instead of sniffling.

Keine set my friend down and sat down on the floor in front of me. Throwing her hair back with another long sigh, she patted her lap. I didn't even resist when she tugged me down, laying my head on her (warm and squishy) thighs.

"I know this might sound a little funny, but I have a real similar story. I want you to listen to it. Can you do that for me?" she said, almost whispering.

I thought about it for a second but was too tired from being angry to keep saying no. "Okay," I creaked.

She stroked my hair. Even though I was mad, it still felt good. I nestled my head into her thighs even more. She laughed softly.

"Alright, listen well. I haven't told this story to many people, and I won't tell it twice."


A long time ago, there was a girl. Let's call her Kei. Kei's parents had died in a big fight, like so many other children's, and I bet you can imagine that she missed them very much. Every night, in her dreams, she would see her mother and father walking into a misty forest. "Come and find us!" they would call to her before they disappeared into the mist. Except they were never to be found. Unable to be in her mother's arms again, Kei would wake up with big tears pouring down from her eyes.

Night after night after night, Kei would have this dream. Then, when sunup came, all the kids had to go outside to help clean up from the fighting. The way outside stretched past the forest with the thick mist rolling out, and Kei would stare and stare at it, wondering if her mother and father weren't deep in there, waiting for her to find them. The adults warned Kei that youkai would eat anybody going into the forest, so she would be a good girl and not talk too close. Nevertheless, she continued to think about it.

All of that thinking got to be a bit much for her one night. Wanting so badly to find her mother and father, she threw on her clothes and ran out into the night. "Even though I'm scared," she thought, "I would rather be eaten than live without Mother and Father."

Oh, how frightening the forest was! The mist rolled on and on, this way and that, making it impossible for Kei to know where she was going. Voices seemed to be talking quietly, and Kei could swear she saw eyes in the darkness. Still, she kept walking deeper and deeper into the trees. Maybe they would be there. They had to be there.

There in the dark of night, there was a place where the full moon shined brightly, a clearing in the thick of the trees. When Kei first saw it, she thought she was going to explode into tears of joy. This had to be where her mother and father were waiting.

Out in the middle of the clearing, something was moving in the shadows. It looked like the shape of a person lying on the ground to Kei. No, there was more than one person.

She hurried over to it, her arms spread wide, ready to give out a big hug. But what she hoped to find was not what she found at all.

Instead, nine eyes opened wide, staring at her through the blackness!

An old farmer said later that he heard a girl in the middle of the night screaming like she was being eaten alive, but he was never able to find her. The other children knew that it was Kei.

What happened to Kei? Was she really devoured by some youkai? What did she find there in that clearing? The only one who would know the answer to those questions was Kei herself. However, I'll be nice and tell you that she was alive and well.

In fact, one night, the full moon overhead, while the children were heading back from cleaning things up, there was a terrible shaking in the bushes. Convinced it was some animal, a couple of rowdy boys decided to throw rocks at the shaking branches. There was a loud "Ow!" and out tumbled Kei. Or, I should say, someone who looked a lot like her.

The girl who fell out of the bushes wasn't just a human: she had long horns sticking straight up from her head, and a big, bushy tail on her backside. This girl who looked like Kei was a youkai.

A panic raised up from the children. "Youkai!" they cried.

"Wait," said the youkai, "can't you see that it's me, Kei?"

"Kei is gone," said the children. "Eaten by youkai! You must have eaten her!"

Before the youkai could plead to them anymore, the adults came running, their sticks and swords in hand. They yelled and screamed, swinging their weapons around. The sight was enough to frighten the youkai and send her running back into the forest. Yes, Kei had survived, but she had stopped being a human and had become a youkai. Saddened that her friends couldn't recognise her anymore, she stayed in the forest.

Years seemed to pass by in a blur. All of the wreckage from the fighting was cleaned up, and the village was back in order. It felt like life was back to normal for everybody. Except they were still afraid of all the youkai around them.

When it became dark, eerie shapes would stalk the villagers. Grain and wine would vanish. Noises would carry on into the break of day. No wall or patrol could keep all of the youkai away. There were only so many people in the village left over from the fighting, and that wasn't enough. They would get so scared and angry, they started to think about having another big fight.

Not everybody agreed, of course. One of those was a man named Hieda. His family had suffered a lot in the fighting, and they had kept the memory of it all alive in big scrolls like they had before. "To see it happen again would be a great disaster," he thought. "But how can I convince them when they are all frightened like this?"

An answer to his question came to him one evening as he was sitting in his garden, thinking very hard. "Tell me, sir, do you know the story of the hakutaku?" came a voice.

"Indeed, I do. It is a beast that appears to wisest men, telling them all they need to know about the beasts that stalk him. Such a classical tale, but if only it were true!" lamented Hieda.

When he looked up, Hieda noticed that he was talking to a young woman. She was very pretty, but Hieda thought that there was something different about her. It felt like she was supposed to be a lot older than she looked. Curious, Hieda ask her to sit with him and talk a while.

Hours passed. Hieda and the woman talked and talked, about the village, about the youkai that troubled it, about how to deal with them. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. Even in his long memory, there were many things out there in the night that even he didn't know about, and here this woman was telling him all about them!

Soon, the stars were glittering in the moonless sky. The woman got up and bid Hieda farewell.

"Wait, wait!" said Hieda. "You can't just go. There's so much more that I need to know. Please, stay a while. I've got plenty of room."

The woman hesitated. She looked out to the forest. "If you so insist..."

And so, for many more nights, the woman stayed at Hieda's big mansion. She spent most of the day sleeping, only waking once the sun was down, which was fine with Hieda. When he had got home from his business, the two of them would talk well into the night, sometimes discussing youkai, other times discussing history. The woman especially knew a lot about history. There were things long before Lady Yakumo walled everything in that she talked about like she'd been there. The only thing she wouldn't talk about was herself. Hieda didn't even know her name, nor would she tell him.

Nearly two weeks passed with the woman staying in the mansion. Towards the end of the second week, it seemed like she showed up for less and less time to talk. Hieda wondered if she was feeling unwell, but the woman insisted she was fine. She had just retired when one of the servants pulled him aside.

"Master, I don't wish to be rude, but I must say I find that woman rather strange," the grizzled servant whispered.

"I'll admit that her sleeping habits are odd, as is the fact that she won't say her name. Of course, these aren't things to worry about, are they not?" was Hieda's reply.

"Not in and of themselves, Master. However, I must tell you that she's been less willing to come out these past few days. Why, just yesterday, Sayo came back in tears. You know what happened? She said the guest had been nasty with her."

"Surely, you're joking!"

"Oh, no, I am definitely not. I went in to have a word myself, and the look on her face... You would have believed she was an animal! Her eyes had a frightening gleam to them. Something deep inside compelled me to run away. I fear she may be a youkai, Master."

Hieda didn't want to believe what his servant was telling him, but he couldn't say it didn't make him even more curious. In spite of his servant's warnings, Hieda decided that he would try asking the woman himself. The idea that she might be a youkai frightened him, and yet he didn't feel any disgust toward her. Why would a youkai tell him so many things about other youkai? Weren't humans and youkai meant to be mortal enemies? "This woman is no enemy of mine," thought Hieda.

The next evening came with the signs of a full moon showing that night. Hieda's guest had yet to show her face. He waited and waited, but there was no sign. The night grew darker, and Hieda became worried. He excused himself, telling his servants he would be right back, and made his way to the woman's room.

Moonlight hit the doors, showing no one inside. "Miss? Are you there, Miss? I was wondering if we could talk," Hieda called.

There was no answer. Just the wind.

When Hieda opened the door, he saw that the outside door was open. There were footprints leading out through his garden. He leapt off the veranda and followed them as fast as he could. Over the wall and down the hill, the trail ran into a thicket of bamboo. Hieda didn't have time to think about how dark it was before he'd run straight into it.

The thicket was little, and it didn't time much time at all for him to come to the middle of it. That's where he finally found the woman. Or, at least, someone who looked like the woman.

She stood looking up at the full moon, a strange glow shining off of her. Long horns stuck out of her head. A bushy tail grew from her backside. There was no doubting that she was a youkai of some kind. Even though she was supposed to be a fearsome creature, Hieda thought that she looked very pretty under the glow of the moon, just like the woman he knew.

The youkai woman turned around. Her red eyes flashed at Hieda, and she ran towards him. Realising what was happening, he turned to run, but it was too late. The youkai woman had him pinned down in the shade of the trees.

"What's a human doing here?" she growled, every tooth in her mouth sharp for gnawing his flesh.

Hieda stared at her face, stunned. He'd never seen her like this, but he knew it was the woman he'd been talking with the night before. "Miss? It really is you. I was worried."

The clouds moved enough to illuminate them both under the moon. Now they could see each other clearly. Her face went white. She let go of Hieda.

"No," she muttered, "you weren't supposed to... Don't look at me!"

The youkai woman tried to turn away, but Hieda caught her. "I don't care about that, Miss. You've been really helpful to me, to all of us. I don't mind that you're a youkai."

"Really?" she asked.

"Of course not!" Hieda responded.

Having calmed down enough, the woman explained that she was the very hakutaku that she'd asked Hieda about when they met. She had been living in the forest for a very long time because she was afraid of what humans might do to her. That changed one day when she decided to step outside of the forest. She didn't know why, but she had felt the need to share her knowledge with someone. That someone happened to be Hieda.

Amazed, Hieda told her about sharing what she'd told him with the villagers. Every little ward and charm that she'd described worked. The big, scary youkai that were harming the village before weren't as much trouble now. She had been such a help that he felt the need to bow to her.

"I don't even begin to know how to express my thanks, on behalf of me and this village."

The woman shook her head. "Please, it is merely what I am supposed to do. Youkai aren't supposed to swagger about like hooligans when the night falls."

"But you must let me thank you somehow!"

The woman thought for a while. Hieda thought too. What was it that he could do in return?

"I've got it. You've never been too close to the village, right?"

"Indeed, not all humans would treat me as well as you."

"Why not come live with me as a servant? That way, you're not an outsider but a member of the Hieda family. No one will be able to treat you poorly that way!"

The woman stared at him. Swish swish, swish swish, went her tail. Hieda held his breath but wouldn't look away. He was serious in his offer.

"Well," said the woman after the long silence, "if you're that sure, then there's no way I can refuse such a generous offer. From this day forth, I call you Master."

The woman gave a deep bow to Hieda. For the first time, she was smiling.

The two were headed off for the mansion when Hieda stopped in the road. "Ah, I nearly forgot. Since I have heard your deep secret, you don't suppose I could know your name, do you? It wouldn't do to keep calling you Miss now."

"Very well. My name is Kei. It's been ages since anyone has called me by it. Pleased to meet you, Master."

That's right. Kei had grown from a little girl into a fine young woman. All those years since her old friends scared her away, she had lived in the forest, too afraid to talk to anyone. She believed that they would hurt her, so she shoved away the idea for a long, long time. It wasn't until she felt that the humans were in trouble that Kei finally stepped out. Her reward was a place to call home and a guarantee that no one would bother her again. For once in her life, Kei was very happy.

And what happened to Kei after that? Well, let's just say that she's still around. After years of serving the Hiedas, there was nothing left to share with them and now is was time that she tell others what she knew. With the family's help, she built her own little house where she could give everybody a few good lessons in what had happened in past, and how the past shaped the present.

The End.


Wow. One heck of a story.

Even though it went on-and-on, I couldn't help listening all the way through, staring up at the ceiling and imagining that poor girl's life. When Keine came to a stop, her head fell and she took a few deep breaths. She wasn't about to start sobbing, but I could see the shinyness of misty eyes from her. Telling that story had taken it out of her in more ways than one. She didn't even seem to notice when I sat up.

I wiped my nose and eyes. Thank somebody, my angry-sads had all run out of me while I was listening. Remembering my friend, I called him over, ready to grab him and run. He hopped along on his one foot, but stopped just out of reach, looking up at Keine with his paper mouth tilted to one side.

I blinked. Her eyes still had that sad look, but here she was flashing my 'brella friend and me a smile. It was so calm, I couldn't think about running at all. Then, something hit me like a bonk on a forehead.

My arms wrapped around her shoulders. I could swear everywhere on this woman was soft, warm, and squishy, like sinking into a mile-high kotatsu. I didn't even mind the smell on her like she'd rolled in a bunch of old papers -- kind of like the study at...

I felt Keine's hands brushing my back, and she chuckled. "And what's this all about?"

"I'm sorry about..." My voice squeaked. No, Kogasa, don't go getting all soggy-eyed again! "I thought you were just a human. I never knew all that stuff happened."

Keine didn't say anything for a minute, and then she let out a big, long sigh. I pulled out of my hugging position to see she was grinning at me, shaking her head slowly. "Somehow I knew your imagination might get the best of you," she chided me.


"Oh, nothing." She squeezed me and ruffled my hair. Wait a sec, did I just get bamboozled?

Keine's shoulder shook, then she broke out into a full on laugh. See, this was the exact thing I hated about humans: even though I'm supposed to be the spooky scary 'brellaton, they'd laugh and squeeze me and pat my head. Even the kiddos liked to crowd around me and all me 'big sis'. The nerve of them!

Seeing me pouting at her, she wiped the tears out of her eyes, still giggling. "Now, now. I just wanted to tell you a story. Pretty good one, isn't it?" I pulled myself out of her arms, but not before she patted me on the head one last time. "It's nice to know you can at least sympathise with somebody, though. Even if I'm not the one who needs it."

Grabbing my friend, I stood up and made for stage left. Phooey on her and her lessons. I'd have to prank her one better next time and show her who the boss of this schoolhouse was!

"Hey, Kogasa," Keine called before I could take another step.

I looked over my shoulder at her. "What?" I grumped.

Keine fixed her hair again. She was back to that smile that felt like napping in the sun. "I know we got off on the wrong foot, but my door's always open. Anything you want to say, I'll be there to listen. We all could use a little guidance every once in a while, mmkay?"

I swung around on my heel, making like I was about to shout out something nasty. Then I stuck my tongue out at her. "I don't need your sympathy, Miss Keine."

Keine snickered, covering her mouth. "Aw, is that so? Well, if that's how you feel, there's nothing left for me to say. Scoot along. And stay out of trouble, you hear?"

She waved me away, and I walked out of the schoolhouse, right into the closing sprinkle of a rainstorm I'd somehow missed. Anybody who was still out was scrambling to get wherever they needed to go. Seeing a puddle on the ground, I jumped into it right away. The splash caught some passing human across the front, and I got a mild tickle of surprise from them. I could hear cursing and yelling by the time I rounded the corner.

A few streets over, I hopped up on the roofs. The temple was back this way if I remembered. It'd been a while since I creeped around their graveyard.

I didn't need no dang teacher telling me stuff. I was gonna spook all day and all night.

Although, I still didn't know what that story was about. Maybe I could go back and ask. Just so I could know a little more. Yeah, that was it. Then I could tell her a story of my own. I bet I had one that would blow hers way out of the water.
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At the dark edge of that place, a girl stands
One fateful day, a stranger came to her
And as she made to question them, the stranger asked:
"What matter made your face frown so?"
Offended, the girl lowered her scythe and replied:
"What do you know about me?"
After she asked, the stranger took their leave.

The next day the girl stood, guarding as she always did
As did previous, the stranger approached her
And as she made to ask again, the stranger spoke:
"I see your mistress has left you."
Bewildered, the girl raised her scythe and replied:
"What do you know about her?!"
So she said, as the stranger withdrew.

The next day the girl thought, expecting the stranger
And while waiting, they returned as she thought
Before the stranger spoke, she said fast:
"Tell me what you know!"
To these words, the stranger only shook their head:
"What I know, you have already thought."
The stranger left the girl to her thoughts.

So the next day, the girl thought to herself.
Who was the stranger?
What was the mistress doing?
Where do they go?
When will they come again?
Why did she leave?
And how should I go on?

That night, in Gensokyo
—though the girl knew naught day or night—
the stranger came by while she was still in thought.
They said:
"Little girl, you have stood here for so long,
do you not desire to dream of more?
Perhaps pay a visit to a place beyond
where flowers bloom for four seasons
instead of a fantasy framed in a forgotten land."

And so the girl said:
"How do you know what I should do?
Why would I leave?
When would I see the mistress again?
Where would I go?
What would I do?
Who are you?"

The stranger replied:
"The answer you wish for
will never come if you won't seek it.
You've waited for so long,
shouldn't you think more for yourself?"
Without a response, the stranger left.

The next day, the girl thought again.
The girl thought to herself for a long time, and after that she felt better.
Now she didn't think to herself, and she wasn't standing anymore.
She paced to and fro.
She spoke of her wishes
of the future and dreams
with her mistress in mind.
She embraced her scythe in hand for an hour.

One last time, the stranger came by
They said:
"With years past, what do you expect?
You know best the answers without seeking them.
Why do you still dream in this world?
When you know your dream is impossible?
Are you certain of yourself so much that you cannot think past this?"

The girl, looking up at the stranger, said this:
"I know not what will come.
I dream of things that could be.
But I know now that I will never find what I want here.
So I will make my dreams a reality.
Even if I am to look for them in a place of fantasy."
Then, she cut through the air as she left, leaving that dark space behind.

And so Yuuka watched,
as the girl passed through the barrier.
Shaking her head,
a haunting smile on her face.

"What a funny child."
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“What a beautiful song.”

Those were the first words she heard from the girl.

Benben froze, taking her hands off of the biwa. Yatsuhashi gaped her mouth open.

“Thank...you.” A tingle ran through Benben's cheeks.

It was strange. Not that what seemed like a normal, human girl complimented her, or the bright smile that she had on her. No, what was strange was the trace of faintness that the girl exhibited. A humble, withdrawn voice. It was for this reason Benben asked.

“Your name?”

And the girl responded.


That was their first encounter.

The next couple of times, the girl named Layla simply sat and listened. On the side of the small path in the road of the forest, two youkai played the biwa and the koto. Next to the one with a biwa sat a girl, whose eyes were closed. Sometimes, she laughed. Sometimes, she rocked her head left and right to the plucking of strings. And it wasn't as though that was all she did. Layla asked who Benben and her sister Yatsuhashi were. She commented on the chords in their tune. Why they favored loud or quiet patterns at moments. Why it is one leads while the other follows, or how both play separately in harmony. Wondering why there was dissonance or resonance in the melody, and how it was created when either occurred.

“And what about you?” Benben said after a performance. She realized she hadn't even asked yet. “What do you play?”

With wide eyes, Layla placed her hands over her chest.

“Me?” She laughs at herself. “I don't play. But I do enjoy music.”

That was the encounter that interested Benben.

“Are you sure?” Yatsuhashi said to her sister after Layla left some time after. “Maybe she's just interested in our instruments.”

“If that was true, Yatsu,” Benben smiled at her, “she wouldn't ask why we perform together as we do.”

With a forceful sigh, Yatsuhashi let the subject go. Benben could see her sister was only worried about her, so it wasn't a matter to get angry over. What was wrong with an acquaintance who shared your love for something? Yatsuhashi narrowed her eyes at Layla when she commented on their latest performance. But that was only for the first five encounters.

“Guitars have a level of intimacy when playing, but that way you handle the progression.” Layla complimented Benben, applauding. “Do you ever consider playing with others?”

Benben felt her younger sister's gaze on her. Layla gasped in surprise when Benben took her hand and placed it on her biwa.

“Would you like to try?”

“Oh, no, I never!” Layla pulled her hand away. Seeing Benben blink, Layla's mouth opened before bowing quickly. “I-I didn't mean to offend you! It's just, I've never learned how to play something like this....”

“No offense taken. I only wondered if you would like to learn.”

Layla closed and opened her hand.

“Th...Thank you.”

After this instance, Benben showed the girl what she knew and learned while playing her biwa. As Layla chattered on what she was capable of, Yatsuhashi eventually threw away her doubts and joined the conversation. It wasn't long before the three spoke together in the midst of idle melodies. Idle experiences and things Benben and Yatsuhashi had seen in Gensokyo. Layla explaining the theories she'd learned or other instruments that Benben and Yatsuhashi weren't familiar with. Two weeks passed, and before long, Benben found herself showing Layla how to play a simple melody. In this position, she moved each of the girl's fingers into position and told her how to transition to the next note. Yatsuhashi made small talk all the while, and a few more days passed by.

However, Benben became worried when Layla didn't appear for three days.

“I'm sure she's fine.” Yatsuhashi flew beside Benben in the sky. By this time, the two knew that Layla was originally the youngest sister of her family. “Gensokyo's a large place. She can't be with us all the time. Visiting us every day.”

Benben wanted to agree. But she couldn't help but feel a sense of dread at the moment.

That feeling of dread returned when she saw Layla's forced smile a day after.

“Is something wrong?” Benben inspected the girl's uncertainty.

The smile melting into a sad frown irritated Benben. If someone was harassing her, there was enough frustration with that thought that Benben felt as though she would go out and handle the issue herself. Benben withheld her thoughts as Layla hesitated before speaking.

“No. Well....Perhaps we could speak quietly about this?”

The way Layla looked at Yatsuhashi as well, she allowed both of the sisters to hear what was on her mind. Wrinkles appeared on Benben's forehead.

“Go on.”

“I...haven't been entirely truthful to you.” Layla shut her eyes. “I told you about my sisters and wanted to listen to your music. But the truth was that I'd been running away that day.”

A mix of sadness and anger bubbled within Benben. But not toward Layla.

“Don't misunderstand. It was me who caused it. I,” Layla's eyes looked away for a moment, “it just...I haven't spoken to them in so long. But I can't do it.”

“How come you didn't tell us this before?” Yatsuhashi narrowed her eyes.

Benben knew Yatsuhashi wasn't angry at Layla either, but the both of them did sense something wrong with the situation.

“Because...the truth is....”

The day had yet to turn to night when the three of them approached the place the Prismriver sisters usually chose to play. By the edge of a lake, Benben turned to her sister. She paused for three seconds before speaking.

“Yatsuhashi? If you please.”

With a short nod and an uncomfortable frown, Yatsuhashi flew off into the distance.

In the light of the setting sun, Benben stood facing Layla. The only shadows present around them were their own, facing away from the clear blue of the lake. However, one cast its radiant cold inside of Benben, who cradled her biwa to her chest while facing the almost non-existent smile from Layla. The silent wind passed their bodies, cooling the skin but failing to move hair or clothes. Layla held the back of her own hand tighter in front of her stomach. Afraid of the silence for some reason, Benben spoke first.

“You can't meet them, can you?”

“...Yeah.” Layla confirmed with a slight hum.

There was an infinite amount of questions Benben could ask. But even more was the idea that a different way just...had more, regarding the girl in general. There was something that stuck out, though.

“You said you and your sisters came to Gensokyo.” Benben began. “But why did you come?”

Benben saw the change in this girl after asking that. No, that wasn't right to say. Layla only shook her head.

“I can't say. Because if I did....”

Benben held down her regret, fingers clasping the edges of her biwa.

“I know you care for your sisters.”

“And I hope you and your sister are happy.”

There was a minute of silence. Benben didn't know if or why Layla decided not to speak. And this in part affected Benben's indecision to decide what to do. Time was far from the issue. So perhaps simply standing in silence was the best way to prolong the moment.

But that, also, was not satisfying.

With silence came fear.

So Benben chose.

“Would you play for me?”

She approached Layla. Layla's eyes stared at the biwa, then up to the chain, and finally to Benben's wrist where the chain was attached. Layla made no move to take the biwa. So Benben took her biwa in her hands and held it in front of her.

“Do you remember?”

Layla glanced down at the biwa, then back up at Benben.

“I do.”

“Will you play?”

Another moment of silence passed. Whatever was going through Layla's mind, Benben didn't know.

“Can we sit?”

That was Layla's question.

Perhaps that was the best, though. Benben sat, facing the lake. Layla took the biwa, tugging light on the chain as she held the instrument proper.

There were a few seconds as Layla adjusted the biwa in her lap. A couple more seconds, and then the notes came stuttered and slow. Not that Benben cared about the accuracy.

“Is there any way?” Benben blurted, more rushed than her normal calmness.

She wanted to say more. Something on the edge of her tongue. Caught in her throat. The notes stopped. Layla stopped.

“Haha. Hahaha.”

Benben took in every laugh. Every syllable. And soon, she joined the laughter. She wasn't crying. But there was a sniffle to her side. A sudden thought occurred to Benben.

A youkai's life was long, true. Strangers? What about them? What about people who could throw something away? They throw away hundreds of things away everyday. Humans, especially.

Benben covered her eyes with a hand, still laughing softly.

...Yet, when something really special happens, it's something that can't be forgotten easily. When did something like that become true?

Benben continued to laugh long after the notes stopped and the biwa fell to the earth.

When she met Yatsuhashi some time later, there was a smile on her face.

“It's done?”

Yatsuhashi didn't want to stare her sister in the eye. Didn't know how to say what she couldn't say to Benben. Not at a moment like this.

Benben nodded. “It's okay. I'm okay.”

Yatsuhashi didn't want to hear this. Something about those words forced that lump in her throat to rise up and spill from her mouth.

“It's not okay!” Yatsuhashi ground her teeth. “It's definitely not okay...!”

But that's all she could say.

“You're mad at Layla?” A gust of a laugh blew through Benben's nose.

“I'm not! Of course I'm not! But...!”

“Then you're mad at them?”

“No! But that wouldn't be unfair, would it? Layla...she....She just wanted....”

Yatsuhashi shut her eyes. Benben drew close, pressing her forehead against her sister's while cradling her biwa to her chest.

“Now why are you sad? I'm the one who wants to cry. Come. Let's go meet them.”

Benben took three steps toward the sound of music before Yatsuhashi said something.

She had to admit, it was beautiful.

“Are you going to do it because of her? Or what is it?”

With a deep breath, Benben answered.

“Of course I'm doing it for her. What better reason is there?”

The walk to the sisters gave both sisters enough time to regain their composure. Yatsuhashi sighed. Benben waited. When the Prismrivers stopped playing, the older sister called out.

“Would you three mind if we played with you?”
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remorse without end
Through the woods, the poor child wandered, lost and chilled from autumn's cold. Struggled, he did, through the paths untrod, towards that village he called home. The forest's green expanse was slowly yielding to the frosty, frigid gale. The poor boy stumbled through that clime, tumbling into a meadowed lea.

There in the center stood a sight that had never touched the poor mortal's eyes. Far from the boy in this vast, desolate vale, stood a woman in a gown burnished by autumn's warm embrace. She slowly spun in a circle, her arms all outstretched, her hands gracing the leaves, needles, and even the bare blades of grass.

From every last touch, the child could but witness as the life faded from the great, healthy wood. Strong supple leaves would fade and embrittle. With every soft touch, the green placidly vanishes, with yellows and reds taking its righteous place. The grass that she trod upon crinkled and browned, the same as all caught in the hem of her frock.

The child barely reckoned the scope of his witness, vaguely kenning all the dread miracle happening before his eyes. He just saw the delicate woman clad in autumn’s colors spinning and twirling and carousing about. A strange feeling arose, deep in his chest, at the splendor that his earthly eyes had never touched on before. With no instincts halting, the child arose and walked o’er the meadow towards the dancer of leaves.

The woman’s head crooked and her dance finally ended; she spied the visitor to her small, seasonal waltz. As her gown finally fell flat to her sides, the woman knelt to look the child right in the eyes.

There were no words that desired flight from the poor boy’s lips, stunned into silence at this divine visage. Never before had he seen a face that shone with such vigor; rare was it that he even had seen one naked of dirt. Trembling, a small hand arose, its owner enthralled with the holy vision. Something within begged him to lay hands on the angel, not bothered by the blessings she had bestowed to all before.

Gently, spindly hands sought out and captured his arms, and with the barest of shakes she told all desired. The child slumped and turned his face, face red with shame. Yet one gentle hand reached out and lifted the chin, directing his vision towards a rarely-trod path. He looked up, confused, his mouth full of questions, but another small shake silenced him.

A short pat on the head and the gentlest of shoves, and a befuddled child trotted down lane for a moment before looking back to that enchanting splendor. His eyes sought comfort, begged her for answers, yet the angel of autumn spared him but one single line.

"I will meet you at the end."

Years hence, again, a young man did wander, burdened lightly with scythe and heavily in heart. Away from the home built with his hands alone, away from the struggles, if for one short night. An escape, from the toil and drudgery of survival. Away from a woman who he wished wasn’t his wife.

The moonlit sky, full of golden splendor, cast a pale on the forest that tempted and called. The man knew the dangers that prowled and hunted within, yet a foolhardy mission seemed to beckon him more. With nary a thought to responsibility and honor, he ventured alone into the misty veils before.

Surrounded on all sides by ancient hallowed wood, the man follows a path that he cannot see. His feet lead him on in the frigid autumn night, and the limbs creak about in a stiff midnight wind. Yet as he treads along a path, familiar, forgotten, he happens upon the meadow again.

There in the center of the meadow he finds her, the angel wrapped in every shade of autumn’s red and gold. Her feet cast light with every step, bringing her glory to all that she touches and sees. He witnesses her dance, so deliberate and patient. He is stuck between approaching the vision before him, but so in awe he is, his feet listen not.

Instead, the ponderous dance continues before him, her light casting a sparkling sheen into the faint and gloomy moonlight. The tree limbs, caught in the gust of the night, lead the trees in support of the angel’s seasonal waltz. The dry leaves rattle in endless refrain; that hollow, haunting rhythm sounds forbearingly through the dale.

The man only watches, enamored by holy perfection burned into a mortal’s eyes. An aged memory, familiarity, springs up, and the man continues to watch with a child’s delight. The angel approaches, every move yet steady. Yet as she stands before him, the leaves cease their song; the gown falls flat, and her luminescence is swallowed by Luna’s lazy light.

His eyes meet hers, looking down to their depths; yet he feels his knees weaken and threaten to give. The goddess, a giant in aura at least, meets his gaze without flinching, being steady and at ease. The two stand there in silence as the man’s gaze begs questions. He wonders why she sent him off like before. His mind wonders what if the goddess had met him, even saved him. What wonder could have been in his life had she chosen; what wonders, indeed, if he had a choice.

The goddess’s delicate hands, fragile as leaves, alight on his shoulders and he can’t do anything but look up in joy. However, eyes connecting, he silently asked for rescue, for relief. For her to grant him those things even now he dare not voice.

Yet with a shake of her head, she turns him about, pointing him back home with nary a sound. The rejected man slumps in resignation, before turning back for one last time. His eyes sought comfort, begged her for answers, yet the angel of loneliness spared him but one single line.

“I will meet you at the end.”

Decades tick by in Lethe’s slow flow, and the elder lay feeble on the thin mats at home. Life’s burden is over, and yet he awaits. Age brought infirmity, yet the final resolution eludes him. His breath yet draws one and another, his last labor in a lifetime so empty and so full. What family remains is not by his side, their own travails divert them from keeping watch for all day and the night.

The elder watches as the clouds paint the sky, followed by the sun staining the picture with its rosy rays. The path to his home, flanked by ancient maple, has yielded as well to the ravage of winter, with but a few small leaves clinging to the highest of boughs.

Alone in the silence, the elder yet watched, as the stiff, chill wind stole yet them from sight. Had he seen the last of autumn’s sad beauty before winter's tide blanketed it in the harsh and bitter white? Tired eyes gazed on the motionless path as he counted the last leaves that were claimed. He watched as the very last leaf finally gave up its fight before falling through the twilight, only to alight at his feet.

To his great shock, there stood the goddess, appearing without warning to fill his whole sight. Gracing his presence, she stood there in silence, her bright eyes meeting his in the last moments of his life. The elder found his breath failing him, though he noticed not; she was far more breathtaking than the memories buried in the corners of his mind. The goddess, clad only in a gown of autumn’s vivid embrace, stood stark in contrast even to his flawed sight.

His mind raced with questions, what he could not remember, a face so familiar yet so fleeting, calling up emotions that are foreign in the elder’s heavy heart. Weakly, a wizened hand lifted up with a tremor. He sought just to touch, to savor the divine sight.

The goddess, with an elegant hand, clasped his withered one within. With a slight shake of her head, the elder stops once more. Strength failing him, the goddess kept grasp with a small smile, as she was all that kept that hand from collapsing to the floor.

They stood there in silence, save for the wind’s eerie gale, their eyes still locked and saying more than any speech. The elder, for the first time in years, feels the briefest of comfort, an intimate truth. Why only now did he feel of home; why does the goddess’s grip feel like a loving embrace? His thoughts linger not, as he feels the darkness descending, and with his last action he clutches tighter, clinging to his last lifeline.

With a shake of her head, the elder has his answer, but doesn’t relent and stays steady as his soul runs dry. He holds on steady, savoring the last, as he scrutinizes her for one final time. His eyes sought comfort, begged her for answers, yet the angel of death spared him but one single line.

“I will meet you at the end.”

She danced in the valley, as countless times before. Her duties called to her; to those she couldn’t remit. The silent goddess remembers, as in aeons before, and ancient memories well up for every leaf her hands grace. A well of emotions stills her tongue; this season is silent for her, where life recedes. A cold, broken heart takes every last moment to grieve.

The angelic goddess knew the boy as he came, lost in the woods searching for home. Those monsters that in her presence tried to persist, she ensured that they would never dare encroach on him. Her wrath dealt but one result, and this time of year from her all creatures fled. That presence encroaching she had witnessed before. A promise once uttered weighed heavy on her mind. A lie that she told, one she never could fulfill.

He appeared in the lea, face full of apprehension and fear, though wonderment replaced it as the boy took in the goddess and her fantastic dance. He slowly arose and strode o’er the meadow, approaching her, befuddled in enchanted awe. It took her but a moment to compose as her dance came to an end; the tears were fought back and quickly subdued. Experience forged by time immemorial kept down the sob threatening escape. With an effort to move mountains, upon her face she fashioned a sad smile, small.

And with a voice, soft and tremulous, she repeats to him again, as the goddess will do until eternity’s end.
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