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[x] Time to visit Flandre!
"Thank you for the offer, but I really must be going," I say with a bow.
"I see. Do come again; we don't get many visitors," Lunasa replies.
"And don't tell anyone about our new music! It's going to be a surprise!" Lyrica adds as I turn to leave. I give her a thumbs-up and a big grin.
The front door seems to be... no longer serviceable, so we leave through the same window Kyouko used on our way in. It would be much too dark under the trees for a human to find their way, and to be honest it's a bit too dark even for me, but thankfully Sekibanki has better night vision. Once we're back in the air the light of the moon is more than enough to see by. Not that I need it, because my destination gives off its own light.
Sekibanki eyes Mystia's cart hungrily as we pass, and gives me a questioning look as we touch down outside the Scarlet Devil Mansion, but she doesn't say anything, content to wait and see what I have in mind. Then I realize I'm not quite sure about that myself. I normally visit the Mansion during the day, when Meiling lets me in with nothing more than a playful danmaku battle to ease her boredom. But now I'm here at night, and I've only just noticed that Meiling is not on duty.
Two fairies flank the gate instead. They're wearing red instead of blue and hats instead of maid headdresses, and they're almost a head taller than most of the maids I see scurrying around inside. They're also standing really still, which is kind of weird for fairies, and looking right at us, so they know we're here, and they're not worried about it. If it weren't for the wings, I'd have mistaken them for two childlike youkai.
I decide to walk straight up to the gate. "Hello! I'm here to visit Flandre!"
The two fairies look at each other. The one on the left is slightly taller, has short black hair and a childish face. The one on the right has long blond hair and looks a bit more mature (in various ways).
"That's a new one," long hair says.
"Still, anyone could come here and say that," short hair adds.
"But I've been here loads of times!" I protest.
"I've never seen you before," long hair says.
"Besides, orders are orders," short hair says, "Miss Meiling says nobody gets inside, so nobody gets inside." She puts her hands on her hips and nods her head confidently.
"But surely some people should be let in. Don't you have a, a guest list or something?"
"Oh, right, that," long hair says. She folds her arms and fails miserably at sounding gruff and intimidating. "Yer name's not down, yer not comin' in."
Short hair strives valiantly to hold back her laughter, but we all break down at that.
"Seriously, though, can't you just go and get Meiling or something? She'll know if I'm telling the truth," I say.
"We're not allowed to leave the gate," long hair says.
"Then how are we going to work this out?"
"Well... there's two of us, and there's two of you..." long hair suggests.
"Ooh? Fairies chalenging youkai to a duel? You're brave, I'll give you that!" I say, giving my umbrella a twirl.
"Bring it on, umbrella girl!" short hair shoots back.
All four of us fly up into the air, spreading out to give ourselves room to dodge. The two fairies take the offensive immediately, with short hair saturating the area with predictable, slow-moving shots while long hair darts from place to place firing waves of faster projectiles from awkward angles. It's not very elegant, as spellcard duels go, but it keeps us constantly moving.
I respond with a steady stream of focused danmaku, while Sekibanki periodically lauches pairs of lasers from her eyes. She's sticking close to my side and not doing much else, so I'm not sure she's in good condition for a fight right now. The short-haired fairy almost lazily grazes my shots, and the long-haired one is zipping about too erratically for me get in a good hit, but the stalemate is broken when one of Sekibanki's lasers clips the short-haired fairy, sending her spinning off course and into my line of fire. She drops her barrage of bullets in favour of dodging, leaving me free to take it up a notch.
Umbrella Sign "Parasol Star Symphony"
The two fairies scramble to prepare for the first proper spellcard of the duel. Short hair once again stays at a distance, slowly and carefully weaving through my spiral of shots once they're comfortably sparse, but long hair charges in as close as she can, careening around me in a dizzying circle and almost ramming straight into one of my umbrellas. She somehow manages to avoid being shot down until short-hair's precise aim wears my card down. I float away and wait for them to return fire -
Long hair throws a punch at me! I quickly snap my umbrella shut and use it to knock her aside, but she spins all the way around and comes back with a kick! Right away I can see Meiling's training in her flurry of blows, and mentally slap myself for not figuring it out sooner. Still, she's only a fairy, so I manage to duck, dodge and block her strikes even without any martial arts skill of my own, and when I do finally manage to snag her in my vicelike youkai grip, the fight is immediately -
"Incoming!" Sekibanki yells, and I glance backwards just in time to avoid a hail of fast-moving, pointy projectiles from the other -
Next thing I know I'm reeling back, eyes tearing up, after long-hair's fist finally makes contact with my nose. It's not bloody or broken, and she looks kind of silly shaking her hand and biting her lip in pain, but still, that hurt!
"Ow." I say.
"That'll teach you to underestimate us fairies!" short hair yells. She doesn't get to gloat long, though, before Sekibanki headbutts her hard enough to knock them both out of the air.
"Soooo," I say, reopening my umbrella with a broad, dangerous smile on my face, "the little fairy wants to play with the big girls now?"
"Ehehehe..." long hair giggles, quickly putting some more distance between us.
Monster Train "Spare Umbrella Express Night Carnival"
"Remind me never to piss you off," Sekibanki says as I stroll back to the mansion gate. The short haired fairy beside her just swallows.
"We are the dumbest pair of shmucks ever to guard a mansion gate," long hair groans as she totters over and flops onto her stomach next to her partner, "Miss Meiling's gonna give us hell."
"Actually, I think she's going to congratulate you."
We all look up at the tall, green-clad woman balancing on top of the gate.
"You actually managed to land a solid hit on a youkai, and more importantly for the mansion, distracted her long enough for help to arrive," Meiling explains.
"We also made ourselves look like idiots in front of the head gatekeeper, who would probably prefer to be eating dinner right about now," long hair says without opening her eyes.
"You do that anyway, and dinner hasn't started yet," Meiling says, hopping off the gate. "Go get cleaned up and take a break; I'll add an hour to your shift tomorrow to make up for it."
The two fairies gratefully stagger through the now-open gate and toward one of the mansion's many side doors.
"So! Welcome to Scarlet Devil Mansion," Meiling says, turning to face Sekibanki, "I don't believe we've met."
"Sekibanki, rokurokubi from the Village. Well, some of her, anyway."
"Hong Meiling, groundskeeper. Pleasure to make your acquaintance." Meiling bows formally. She then turns to me. "I imagine you're here to see Flandre?"
"Yep! I know it's, uh, later than usual, but we were in the area so..."
"Not a problem. Dinner will be served shortly, and I'm sure the young mistress would be ecstatic if you were to attend."
Sekibanki perks up. "Food?"
"Food," Meiling confirms. "Come on in. I'm sure you've worked up quite an appetite."
Meiling opens the front door to the mansion and ushers us inside, saying she'll be along as soon as the gate guards' relief arrives. I still don't know my way around the Scarlet Mansion - the layout seems to change every time I visit - but it's really, really easy to find the dining hall: just follow the fairies!
"Whoa," Sekibanki says, and I can't help but grin at the look of surprise on her face. The main hall is, somehow, larger than the entire mansion. More than a hundred fairies are present or arriving - the number of them being served at the kitchen at once is impressive all by itself.
"Welcome back, Miss Tatara," a voice says from directly behind us, nearly giving Sekibanki a heart attack, "I see you've brought another guest."
"Hi Sakuya! Umm, yeah, is that okay?"
"...scared me out of six years' growth..."
"Of course, Miss Tatara. Shall I inform the young mistress of your arrival?"
"Sure! Uh, is it okay if we stay for dinner?"
"Certainly. Please take a seat."
Before I get a chance to say anything else, she's gone.
"Is she always like that?" Sekibanki asks.
"Uh, sort of? She's funnier usually, when she's in a good mood."
"Funny funny or funny funny?"
"She tells jokes and stuff."
"...what kind of-"
A blur of red nearly tackles me off my feet. Thankfully for my lungs, she lets go quickly.
"You're back! I know you promised but Marisa promised too and she still hasn't come to visit even though it's been forever and hello who are you?" Flandre says, words tumbling out in a rush. Sekibanki stares at the bundle of explosive energy with wide eyes.
"I, uh, Sekibanki. Name's Sekibanki." She finally manges.
"Are you Kogasa's friend?"
"Er, maybe? I mean, we know each other pretty well, and we both live in the village so -"
"The Human Village? You live there? Both of you? But I thought only humans lived there! That's why it's called the Human Village, right? What's it like? I mean if youkai aren't supposed to live there then -"
"Flandre," I wheeze, "slow down."
"Oh. Right. Sorry!" Flandre says, and stays quiet long enough for me to finish catching my breath, although she does fidget constantly.
"Yes, Sekibanki and I are friends, yes, we live in the village, yes, she does pretend she's human, though I don't 'cause I like spooking people, no, I don't want to play danmaku with you right now, I just had a fight with the fairies guarding the gate, and yes, we are staying for dinner."
"Hooray!" Flandre cheers, before promptly dragging me over to one of the many small, round tables dotting the room. She yanks two chair out, shoves me into one of them, pushes Sekibanki above the one to my left and backflips over the table to land perfectly in the other.
"Sakuya! Food please!" she calls.
"Of course, young mistress," Sakuya says from directly opposite me. "Would you prefer you tea red or black, Miss Sekibanki?"
"Eh?" Sekibanki looks confused. I lean over to her.
"She means do you want human food or human food," I whisper.
"Oh. Well, uh, I'm trying to stay clean, so..."
"Black tea it is," Sakuya says, and vanishes.
Suddenly, food! Flandre doesn't bother with Japanese tradition and starts eating immediately (and furiously). Sekibanki, on the other hand, is just staring at her plate.
"...I didn't think this through, did I?" she groans.
"Huh?" I ask, looking up from the delicious spread of food in front of me.
"No hands!" she says, with a sheepish grin.
"No problem!" I say, picking up her fork, "open wide~!"
"Wait no what are you-"
"My dear Flandre, you really should eat with more elegance, especially in front of guests."
"Miss Remilia!" I say, straightening up.
"Sis, it's fine. We're friends, see?" Flandre says, wrapping her wing around my shoulder and pulling me closer. I put on my cheeriest grin.
Remilia just smiles and pulls out the fourth chair at the table. She sits, snaps her fingers and food appears on her plate.
"You're eating with us?" I ask.
"Can I not dine with my own sister, in my own home?" she replies.
After an awkward pause I go back to feeding Sekibanki, who flushes red with embarrasment but is too hungry to protest. Flandre, meanwhile, has gotten her second serving, and is eating much more sedately.
"So," Remilia says, "you must be Sekibanki."
"Oh, uh, yeah. That's me." Sekibanki replies between mouthfuls.
"My head maid tells me you run a rather delightful little soba shop in the Human Village."
"Er, well, I dunno about 'delightful', but yeah, I do. Or did. I'm kind of, uh, indisposed at the moment."
"So I gather. Do you not have any employees who can manage in your absence?"
"Haven't got any employees, period. I'm supposedly pretending to be human, but, well, it's kind of like the spellcard rules - everyone knows I'm a youkai, but as long as I'm not seen to be a youkai, everyone pretends they don't, y'know? Only they do, and they're not, well, keen on having me for a boss. Or even buying my food, really."
"You have trouble attracting customers?"
"Something like that. With me out of commision for a month, I'm probably going under."
"That would be a terrible shame; my head maid has come to enjoy eating there when she does the shopping."
"...no offence, but are you going somewhere with this, or just rubbing my face in it?"
"Heaven forbid! I'm trying to compliment you here, girl!"
"Sorry. I'm just a grubby commoner; I can never tell if you upper crust are being sarcastic or not."
"Bitter much?" Flandre asks, suddenly jumping into the conversation.
"Maybe a little," Sekibanki admits.
"I think you ought to take pride in your achievements," Remilia says, "you have worked hard to get where you are, which is to say living peacefully among those who were, until quite recently, our mortal enemies."
"What she said," Flandre says, thumbing at her sister.
"I'm sure Miss Byakuren would approve!" I add.
"Can we get off the 'let's cheer up poor 'Banki' boat and talk about someone else now, please?" Sekibanki says.
"Yeah, yeah! What's this about you two getting in a fight with the gate guards?" Flandre asks.
The conversation quickly spirals into me and Sekibanki doing our best to field Flandre's constant flurry of questions about everything from everyday life in the Human Village to how Japanese umbrellas are made, and drags on until Sakuya drags her away to bed. Remilia's wide awake and just getting started on her 'day', but I'm starting to doze off and Sekibanki is looking a bit drowsy too.
"Come now, you two look dead on your feet. Why don't you stay the night?" Remilia offers.
"You're the second person to offer us that tonight, but I," I stifle a yawn, "I think I'm going to have to accept this time."
"Prepare a bath and room for our guest. Guests," she hastily corrects.
"Yes, Mistress," Sakuya says, then turns to us. "Please follow me."
We follow Sakuya, who - walking for once! - leads us to one of many ornate doors somewhere on the second floor.
Inside is one of the most lavish bedrooms I have ever seen.
"Woooow," I say, but Sakuya's not done yet - she guides us through another door to reveal a big metal tub full of hot, soapy, flower-scented water.
"Please leave your clothes by the door to be cleaned for tomorrow," she says, "you will find suitable sleeping attire on the shelf to your left."
"You, uh, don't have to go this overboard just for us!" I say.
"I assure you, Miss Tatara, this is but the usual courtesy afforded to a guest of the Mansion, and no trouble at all on our part. Now, Miss Sekibanki, your room -"
"Whoa, hey, hold up! You don't need to give me a whole extra room. I couldn't even open the door! Just, give me a pillow or something to snooze on and I'll be good."
"...as you wish," Sakuya says, and vanishes again.
"Whew," Sekibanki says, "I'm never going to get used to that."
"She's not that bad. I haven't visited that many times, and I've already started to expect it."
"Yeah, well, I don't intend - hey, why are you undoing my ribbon?"
"We're getting in the bath, silly!"
"I don't need -"
"Look at all this dirt! I, uh, guess that's my fault for tossing you on the ground at the Temple..."
"I can wash -"
"No you can't! No hands, remember?"
"Gaaaah you could have at least -"
"In we go! Rub-a-dub-dub, there's a head in the tub~"
Once we're clean, I put on the bright red pyjamas Sakuya pointed out and move one of the (huge, fluffy) pillows onto the desk for Sekibanki to sleep on, as she suggested. Then I climb into the huge bed, and fall asleep almost as soon as my head touches the pillow.
Where am I? Why is it so dark? Why is my bed so big? Wah! I'm drowning!
I half crawl, half swim out of bed and tumble onto the floor like a silly fairy, then paw at my unkempt hair as I try to figure out why I can't see anything. The walls of my house are made of paper, so there's always some light as long as the sun is up, but this place has walls made of solid brick. I think there was a window somewhere around... there. I feel my way to the wall and find a big heavy curtain, which I heave aside to reveal... rain.
It's raining outside! Nice, steady, soaking rain! I give a few more tugs at the curtain to get it to stay open, and turn around to look at the room. Sekibanki is awake, blinking the last of the sleep out of her eyes, and next to her pillow are our clothes, clean and folded just as Sakuya had promised.
What should I do today?
[ ] To the library! Let's read some books!
[ ] To the basement! It's time for a danmaku match!
[ ] To the Moriya Shrine! I'll teach that weird Outsider girl to fear us youkai eventually!
[ ] To the Hakurei Shrine! If I can surprise the red-white, I can surprise anyone!