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It takes me a while to realize I'm dreaming. The atelier in my house has always looked faded, so it wasn't like I could notice any physical difference. The colors of the walls and the floor are on the edge of being washed out, just two steps away from being grungy white, and yet I I could swipe my hand against them and leave trails in dust.
Still, it's not my place to interrupt, not when my teacher's working her magic.
Mima's half-lounging in the air over a bubbling pewter couldron, her face carefully masked with feigned disinterest. So, nothing out of the ordinary there. The only difference is that today, there's a wisp of blue flame on her ghostly tail, one that she's tucked underneath the bottom of the massive witching pot.
Good thing, too. If there was an actual fire, then the little redheaded girl on the rickety wooden stepladder would be in quite a pickle. But with Mima watching over her safety, the small apprentice is free to take risks and learn from her mistakes. Mistakes like leaning too far over the rim of her couldron and falling in.
The splash is sudden yet inevitable, splattering viscous green goo all around the tiny atelier. The books are safe enough, thanks to the miracle of hardcover, but I remember the fit I threw when I realized all my notes were soaked. Now that I'm older, I'm more concerned with how the concoction's seeping through the wooden boards, and the stain the slime's going to leave behind.
Not that Mima gives a shit. She's still incorporeal, so all that prototype potion just flies right through her. I can see her shoulders shaking with held-in laughter as she peers in on the red-headed me, who's half floundering and half pouting as she sits in a small pool of goo.
"Mimaaaaa, help me out! I've fallen and I can't get up!" It's... weird, hearing my childhood voice; I'm lot higher-pitched then I remember sounding, for one. And the whine that's in the back of her throat is sorta endearing, but mostly embarrasing.
"Mmm... I don't think so, Mari. I did warn you that you were brewing more than you could handle. We can continue your lesson when you finish cleaning up."
Thus, I watch my mentor abandon me in my time of need without even a farewell. And it's hilarious. Mima's matching my smile as she walks towards me and the door, and I can feel more than see the point where she changes from an empty memory into something more.
"You never did stop going the extra mile. What was that saying, 'go big or go home'?" The gentle admonishment in her voice is wonderfully soothing, and then we leave my past self to stew in her own mistakes.
"I always was a problem child. Sorry for being incorrigible." My smile hasn't waned a bit, so I don't bother overplaying my contrition. It's my head, after all, and Mima, whether she's real or not, would smack me otherwise.
She takes my apology in good faith, and just waves me off with a flick of her wrist. "You'll grow out of it in time. Or into it, maybe." There's not much to say to that - mostly because it doesn't make much sense - but I try not to pry. I miss her too much. Instead, we descend into a comfortable silence. For a given value of silence; off in the distance, I can still hear little Mari's grumbling, and the faint hisses of magic as she tries and fails to vanish all the potion-ooze into the aether. There's a crackling fire, too, and it's a little longer before I notice that Mima never did put her tail out.
I don't get to ask her about it before my ghostly mentor decides to shortcut through the walls. But me, I'm still corporeal, so I have to take the long way around to get back to the living room. It's unsurprisingly spotless; I knew how to keep my home presentable when I was young, but I fell out of the habit as Mima left and I got busy.
So I do my damnedest to not stare at the carpet as I walk down the hallway. It's remarkably soft, though - and it looks like it's a brownish red, but my guess is as good as any as to whether that's the original coloring. In any case, without the years worth of borrowed books and stolen treasures to jump around, it's actually easy to find my way, and being able to actually recline on my sofa's pretty sweet, too. When I finially relax, Mima just nods, and we enjoy the togetherness that comes from family and friends as good as family.
And while I know these things never last long enough, the way that Mima breaks it catches me pretty off guard.
"Marisa, pop quiz. Describe teleportation to me."
Pop quizzes being what they are, I go into it before I even have a second's chance to think. "Right, uh, okay - so, let's simplify this. Movement is the action of going from point A to point B by crossing the distance between them. Teleportation, in contrast, is going from Point A to Point B without actually moving. This is how you move between different dimensions and realms, like from the 'Soak to the Outside, or from Higan to Heaven or Hell."
I try not to flinch when Mima raises her eyebrow, but that sorta thing's Pavlovian. It's hard to imagine Mima, crazy bitch as she is, resembling anything like a good teacher, but the woman's always been intense with me.
"Okay, that's true enough. Now, why do barriers stop teleportation? From what you've told me, putting a wall, magical or otherwise, between Point A and Point B shouldn't stop you from going where you please."
Her revelry in my misery is pretty warranted, because truth is, theorycrafting isn't really my thing. I'm sure there's a properly written thesis about this exact subject somewhere out there, but I've always prefered being more hands on; this sort of factual analysis sucks, and man what I would give for Alice or Patchy to answer for me.
Still, magic's always been about emotions, the soul. So I think I can intuit this out. It's a small mercy that I'm apparently not timed on this little review, or else I'd have been failed twice over. I lose track of time just as easily as I lose track of my words; it's always on the tip of my tongue, and I just need to coax it out...
"It's... because teleporting means you're bending time and space. That's how the smacktalk always goes, right? You're changing how the laws of physics works so that Point A and Point B are, for just a split second, right next to each other. So you move only a little, and then when reality straightens itself out, you're at Point B instead of Point A." I pause for a moment, just to review what level of bull just spewed out of my mouth, and I am relieved to see that it actually sounds reasonable. "So, what a barrier does is sort of - reinforces reality. It's that extra oomph right in the middle of the fabric that makes it that much harder to fold it."
It's obvious that Mima's trying to lead me to something, and I like to think I've grown patient enough for this sort of learning. Little Mari would have probably gnashed her teeth and just begged Mima to get to the point... and maybe that's why Mima's only telling this to me now.
Regardless of ulterior motives, Mima continues to look at me, taking in my everything and keeping it in her memory. I'd say she's eyeing me like a piece of meat, but that's not actually true; there's no sexual or emotional desire there. If anything, it reminds me of Patchy - just total curiosity, and maybe a hint of mirth. "Alright, then. If that's the case, Marisa, how would you go around the barrier?"
Now that I have something I can actually answer, my muscles stop tensing up and my breath comes back to this side of normal. It's nice. "Well, you can always go brute force, yeah? Just gather up all your energy, focus it into the most condensed beam yoy got, and laser away. Just punch a hole through and leave the other suckers to clean up.
"But if some poor shmuck needs to get going, and isn't as awesome as we are, then... I dunno, be sneaky? There's usually some way to get in or out of the barrier normally, so you could always just examine the thing and find a weakpoint. A password, or a special exit... whatever works, you know? There's probably a ritual or two that's made just for this sorta thing; you could use those to do some hocus pocus and get out without snapping the barrier against your knee."
I'm grasping at straws, I know, but this sorta thing is literally the opposite of my specialty. Even after getting Reimu to tutor me on this subject, I can't make anything better than a half assed shield, let alone the stuff she creates and maintains. So, sure it's annoying, but at the same time I can't really get myself invested in this sorta talk.
"Uhm... I, I think Reimu told me a little about this stuff, Master. Can I answer too?" A soft, shy voice draws all of my attention.
Lilttle Mari's still coated in thick green goo, but it looks like she's gotten the worst of it off. That purple dress of hers has seen better days, for sure, and I bet all the water she's gonna need to clean it would wash the red off her hair to boot. She's not leaving a trail of the gunk, thank Heavens, and I guess that's enough for her... especially if she actually wants to hash this sorta thing out.
I can't remember a time when Mima wasn't sweet on me, and that still holds true in my dreams. With just a flick of her wrist and a snap of her fingers, all the ooze seeping into little Mari's dress vanishes like mist in the sun, peeling off the damp and clinging fabric before finally dispersing. It left her so spic and span I'd have thought she just finished a bath, and the sudden soapsmell that starts wafting off her leaves me rolling my eyes. The kid ends up trilling as she flounces onto the couch next to me, and looks into her instructor's eyes with as much sincerity she can muster.
"Well?" Mima teases. "Go ahead."
"Oh! Right, uh - okay, so. Reimu said that if Point A and Point B were close enough - not, like, /physically/ close, but if it looked and felt the same, then sometimes the barrier wouldn't be able to tell the difference. I wasn't really sure why, and Reimu wasn't really sure either, but I looked it up and I think it's... kinda like voodoo dolls? It's, uhm, sym-pa-the-tic magic. A voodoo doll works because the magic thinks the doll and the person are the same thing, right? So if you kiss the doll, the person feels someone kissing her. If you tickle the doll's foot, then she'll jump around and stuff."
Mima's smile was as genuine as I've ever seen it, and she floated over the table to pat my dream self's head. "That sounds like it sorta makes sense, Marisa. But could you explain it a little more?"
And of course, the redhead was happy to oblige. "Right! Well, if you make Point A enough like Point B, then the magic thinks they're the same place, too. So you're not breaking the wall that blocks the way, you're tricking the wall so that it thinks you never went around it. There's a Hakurei Shrine in the Outside too, and when Reimu sends people back Out, she's not making a hole between the dimensions, she's just sorta... nudging things, so that the barrier thinks Point A and Point B are the same place. When they're back Outside, Reim changes it up, and bam! Outsiders gone, youkai and us still trapped."
"Hmmm - that's a pretty clever answer, Marisa. Good for you, you did a wonderful job. In fact... why don't you go outside and have fun for a bit? I'm sure Reimu would love to play with you."
Little Mari doesn't even let Mima finish - she's already out the door and flying away before Mima can get to 'love'. If the house was as dirty here as it was in real life, she'd have kicked up an avalanche of books in her wake. As it is, she still ends up leaving a dirt cloud right by the open front door, and I shoot it shut with a tiny star before it can float in.
"You were a lot more insightful as a kid, Marisa. What the hell happened to you?"
The shit-eating grin on Mima never fades, and the middle fingers I shoot her only make that smile grow wider. But I take the teasing in stride, and step up to stretch my weary bones. "Hey, it's just buried underneath the surface is all. I mean, this is still a dream, so she's still me. Hell, you're me too."
She shrugs. It's not so much a 'I got nothing' shrug as an 'Ehh, I can't be bothered' sort of deal. It's surprisingly easy to read a ghost's body language, considering the lack of body. So I shrug back to drop the subject, and move on to the next thing on the agenda. "So - why bring this whole teleportation thing up?"
"What, you actually think stepping on cracks is going to work?"
Stepping on cracks is totally going to work.
I mean, to be fair, Miko wasn't clear at all at what constitutes a crack. I spent a good fifteen minutes when I woke up just making tiny fissures in the dirt around my house, but there was no love there. I suppose that would make it too easy. Then I went back inside to freshen up and pack a small lunch, and now I'm casually walking across the vast plains between Reimu's shrine and the Village, snacking on some buns as I scan the ground.
Still, there's a way these things are done. Going to Byakuren or Daichi and asking for an audience would have worked well enough, but I want to approach Miko on her terms - and her terms are to step on some cracks and to wait for an audience. Relying on Byakueven ren again would have probably left a bad taste in everyone's mouths, and asking Daichi when he passes by the library would be too... conspicuous. It ruins my whole mystique.
Because damn it, I am a great and powerful magician, and I will get to Senkai on my own even if I have to tunnel there with a spoon.
...But despite all my rage, the spring sun is sapping away all my motivation. It's just one of those days, you know? The sun is shining, the breeze is nice and cool - if a youkai weren't guranteed to come across me and have me for lunch, I'd be tempted to just lie on the grass and take a nap.
Really, that's the worst bit. This whole thing is boring, and I'd much rather just rest a little while, but there's too much danger to do something so miniscule. So I'm left shuffling my boots across the packed dirt, looking for something - anything really - to break up the momentum.
There's no magic infusing any particular cracks - or rather, none that's out of the usual. I don't know what it's like Outside, but everything in Gensokyo's soaked with that good ol' magic essence. If Miko's being subtle, which she probably is, there won't be any trail I can pick up. I am going precisely nowhere fast, and all of the frustration is whetting my appetite. When I take a break, it's in the middle of a grassy nowhere, with only the trees and dirt for company.
I don't get to even bite into my sandwich before it falls apart into complete inedibility. Granted, getting swallowed by the earth and falling down deep into Gaia's bowels would normally leave people more concerned about other things, but I did kinda ask for it.
I've fallen from enough great heights to know when I'm at terminal velocity, so I can tell that there's something keeping my descent nice and steady. My first instinct, then, is to try and lash out with my magic, trying to grip my falling lettuce and slices of bread so that I don't make a mess of things. Nobody likes a houseguest who makes a mess of things. But my second instinct, when I realize that I can't feel any magic in me at all, is to scream. Loud. The cramped tunnel I'm falling through doesn't do me any favors, and I can hear my shrieks ringing in my ears even as my throat grows hoarse and sore.
It's more muscle memory that keeps me from flailing like a fool, and when I see the stone courtyard rapidly rushing to meet my face I have enough sense in me to tuck myself into a roll. It still hurts like a bitch when I stick the landing and bleed off all the momentum, but anyone who's anyone knows at least how to fall with style. Not that splattering my cured meat and bread all over the pavement is particularly stylish, but cleaning up after myself was never particularly difficult. When I get up and brush the dust off my dress, however, I can hear someone clapping at my impromptu entrance.
Kaku Seiga looks as ravishing as ever, with her skimpy sky-blue robes and that thin silk shawl that's more for supporting her plush breasts than keeping her warm. As she steps towards me, still clapping, I can't help but notice the casual sway of the older woman's hips, the faint jiggling of her barely-supported mounds, and the coy smile that graces her lips. The woman oozes sensuality with every feminine step, and it's only thanks to experience that I can look into her eyes and not blush.
It helps that her long blue hair is still folded up into that atrocious pretzel shape. Maybe it's personal preference, but she'd look so much better if she simply let her hair down. I bet it'd fall just to the small of her back, and the tips of her silky locks would frame her plump ass perfectly.
"Exemplary landing dear, but the screaming was a bit undignified, and your meat almost landed on my face. Why don't we split the difference and say 8 out of 10, hmmm?"
"Oh come on, I deserve a 9 at the least. That stunt of mine was all me, no magical assistance, and it's not my fault you guys called for me while I was eating."
The woman waved me off, of course, and in the same motion banished the remains of my poor sandwich to who knows where. "Believe me, Marisa, I certainly had nothing to do with this. I was just in the area when my precious student asked a favor of me. How could I possibly refuse?"
So she beckons, and I follow, and we walk through a quiet, lifeless Senkai. No matter how hard I look, I can't see a single person besides Seiga and myself, nor can I find even a speck of life. The stones that make up the courtyard are fitted so tight that even weeds can't grow between, and the silence is deafening enouh to make my ears ring.
The funny thing is, I can't feel any magic either. Not just mine, which is weird enough, but there isn't even anything in the air. The marble is just marble, the cavernous ceiling just regular rocks, and even the faint lights that give Senkai its glow seem plain and blank to my senses.
Really, it's the complete opposite to Myouren Temple. Byakuren's place is lively and full of life, to the point that the chaos is somehow peaceful. But Miko's pad is... austere. Hell, it's downright ascetic. Everything was put into its place with a clever eye and skilled hands, and the lack of distractions lets people focus as they please. All Miko needs are some actual people, and this place would be downright harmonious.
Wherever Seiga's leading me, it's definitely not the front steps. We passed by those a long time ago. And while I'd normally complain, I'm too busy enjoying the sight of Seiga walking to really give it much mind. I mean, it's not like I have my head in the clouds, really! I just trust Miko to not throw me to the wolves - or I guess, I trust Seiga to keep a promise with a student.
In any case, we end up stopping near one of the smaller outbuildings - and frankly, I didn't even realize it was a building at first. There aren't any doors or windows, and the walls are so samey that I figured it was just some weird art piece.
Having no entrances doesn't stop Seiga, however. She just removes her oak smoking pipe from her hair, traces a nice, round circle, and lets her Taoism do its work. There isn't anything flashy about it, but Seiga isn't trying to be subtle either. One moment, there's a thick stone wall, and in the next there's a hole to what looks like Miko's private dining room.
And I really do mean 'hole.' If it was more esoteric like a portal or one of Yukari's mysterious gaps, I'd probably be less shocked. Because Seiga just... put a giant hole into a thick-ass wall, and Miko nodded and waved as if it was completely normal.
"Go on now," Seiga said, as she patted me gently on the ass. That alone isn't enough to get me to blush, far from it, but I can't help but feel disappointed the other woman doesn't squeeze. That's probably why she doesn't, too. "I'd normally invite myself as well, but this seems like a business lunch, and I'd just be a third wheel. So tootles."
And then Seiga vanishes, just like that. I can't tell if she did that mystic Taoist teleportation trick, or if she just made herself invisible, but frankly I don't know and I don't care. There's no hat rack as far as I can see, I just end up leaving my hat propped against the outside wall as I step in through the hole. Luckily for my pride, I don't jump when the hole suddenly vanishes and seals me off from my precious headgear.
The inside of the dining room is way bigger than the outside, but that's one of those Miko things that's par for the course, ha ha. And speaking of, Miko's chosen some pretty good fare - a lot of wild meats and vegetables that are lovingly prepared and absolutely mouthwatering. I didn't recognize even half of these dishes, either, but the smell alone? Exotic.
Heck, Miko isn't looking half bad herself. Her famous cape is draped across the back of her chair for now, and the headphones she always has on are set aside next to her plate. Without them, those hair flaps of hers are finally let down, leaving her locks reaching down to her bare shoulders.
When our eyes meet, the ex-Imperial Prince just smiles and gestures to her meal. "I imagine you've worked up an appetite stomping up above, Miss Marisa. Why, I could hear you quite well, even this deep underneath you. Come, sit and eat, we can discuss why you've visited my humble home once you've rested."
If she could hear my frustration up above, then she can definitely hear my heart's desire now. I'm just a few feet away with her, and even if I try to keep as mellow as possible, the girl's headphones are off. If she takes meals so far away from the others, that would explain why no one is around - they're probably up in the Village, or eating in Senkai's main halls.
But this little place? With a warm fire by her side, and a table just for two? This is her sanctuary, a place to kick back and rest her ears, and she just let me in like that.
I can't fathom her reasoning. But I can, at least, play the grateful guest.
We talk about our past few days as we eat, more to fill the silence when the silverware isn't enough. It's nice to shoot the breeze, and if Miko notices my thoughts are racing, she doesn't show it. And I hoped she would, if it got too annoying. No need to agitate my next teacher, after all.
But for now, I continue to pick at this amazingly braised duck, and think on how to best convince a girl who's literally led a nation to lead a class.
[ ] Use Miko's rivalry with Byakuren against her. I still remember the talk we had after I decided to side with the Buddhists last time. And half of the Symposium was just refereeing the volleys of shots and burns these two were throwing at each other. If I played my cards right, then I could convince Miko to do it as a matter of pride... but she might not appreciate me playing hardball so obviously.
[ ] Convince Miko to join as a professional arrangement. Sometimes, working together is just a matter of 'scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' I could definitely use Miko's charisma to keep the kids in line, and the fact that the Taoist has Akyuu's Humanity Seal of Approval means that even the parents won't raise much of a fuss. Miko, on the other hand, could use my school as a sort of screening test for people who want to learn from her, and I think she's the kind of girl to want the limelight on her, anyways.
[ ] Flirt flirt flirt. I've always liked mixing business with pleasure, and this table's so intimate that the two of us could play footsie if I got her in the mood. And took off my boots. But in any case, Seiga already got my heart pounding and my blood flowing, and Miko definitely has her charms. Granted, if I fuck this up I could probably say goodbye to any relationship with Miko, professional or otherwise... but what's politics without a bit of seduction?
"It does not. I can't say why I know this, but I know it does not."
"I'm just gonna say that most people don't want to fondle fairies."
"Ohhhh, man, the things I would do to go Outside. But Yukari's vetoed that idea so many times it's basically never going to happen. I mean, Reimu could let me out, but that's a one way trip, and neither of us are okay with that."