Tainted Bonds: Update 39, Christmas Edition balistafreak 2012/12/27 (Thu) 06:41 No. 163906 ▼
File 135659049069.jpg - (79.65KB, 850x594 , Snowy Umbrella Chen.jpg)
I really should bother to proof my work more.
Snow falls over Gensokyo on Christmas day.
It’s a gentle snow, the kind that blankets everything in a stifling layer of white. It settles on the tops of the trees of the Forest of Magic, layers itself on the roofs of the village, adds to the cap of Youkai Mountain without discrimination.
Not that it remains pristine for long. Gensokyo is a land full of life, after all. Wild youkai cut trails through their normal hunting grounds soon enough, or cause miniature snowfalls of their own upon brushing branches and bushes. Children shovel their homes’ walkways for pocket change, or perhaps just because “I said so”. Even the tengu, who are almost all capable of independent flight one way or the other, can’t help but clear it from in front of their doors. And when the snow stops falling and the winds starts anew, drifts begin to form in even the empty fields and prairies.
But at the base of Youkai Mountain, there is a place where snow does not fall, where the wind does not blow. It eludes one’s gaze, appearing to be nothing more than another patch of forest, and should one somehow manage to walk into it by pure chance, one would find oneself so subtly repositioned several meters to one side that one would most likely fail to notice.
Excepting those, of course, who know how to bypass such precautions.
“Yes, Nami, I’m sure that I’m not going to suddenly break out in hives, or have a death-curse put over me. No, there aren’t any hexes, any plagues o’er both my houses either,” the girl sighs, waving off the frantic buzzing of the fairy around her head. If she were human, she couldn’t be any older than twelve or thirteen, but in this land appearances count for little in relation to age. She’s bundled up in a fur-trimmed parka and boots, but despite neglecting a scarf, hat, gloves, she doesn’t shiver in the slightest in the bitter cold wind.
The girl’s brow furrows slightly in concentration as she sneaks her way through another ward. With a wave of her long, thin fingers, there’s a quick purple shimmer in the air as abjurations part before her – this one intended to induce nausea in feral youkai that might not be deterred by misdirection. “No, I’m not breaking anything. Not permanently. I’m better than that. The place’ll fix itself up when I leave. Easy.”
More frantic buzzing; the girl gives a far more exasperated noise now. “Nami. Please, you’re distracting me. I don’t want to have to make that an order – “
Dead silence, further exaggerated by the sound-absorbing banks of snow all around. “Thank you,” she sighs as the fairy settles onto her shoulder, now sulking.
Two more quick spells, and she’s through. A single step removes her from the knee-deep snow onto a hewn flagstone, space and dimensions bending as she crosses into a demiplane, causing her to gasp in surprise.
It’s a monument. The ground is covered in stone for about twenty meters around, bordered by the archways of painted red torii and outward facing stone lions. For a few seconds the girl stares intently at the latter, trying to gauge if the lions will spring to life to chase her off, but the statues are just that – lifeless works of art carved from stone.
All of this is to highlight…
“Marvelous,” she exhales.
She walks underneath the torii before the centerpiece of this entire place – a life-sized depiction of an elderly but muscular man and young girl, perhaps her own age. The man is carrying the girl on his shoulder, an expression of mirth on his face as he steadies her with his other arm, while the girl for her part is carrying an umbrella for the both of them, holding it above both their heads, her eyes closed and her head thrown back in laughter. The statue is carved of a rich fruitwood, although its dimensions imply that some sort of shaping magic was used to craft it.
Kneeling down, she reaches out to touch the pedestal, where a few words are carved:
In memory of Youki Konpaku and Kogasa Tatara
She looks up at the statue again, looking for some clue as to their histories. There’s a long, rectangular hatch in front of them, integrated into the pedestal, apparently leading to a compartment within it. Rising back to her feet, she reaches for the handle of the sliding door, then hesitates. “Nami, what do you think?” she asks, unsure of whether or not she’s crossing some sacred line.
A quick buzz; quizzical, tentative, unsure. “Well, I don’t feel anything coming from it, precisely,” the girl muses. “Too much background noise from this entire place in general – this place is maintained through basically pure magic, after all. Alright, fine. We’ll take a peek.” Another squeak of alarm. “Of course not! I’m not a thief. Especially not from the dead.”
The hatch slides smoothly open, evidence of masterwork craftsmanship. The sight of the objects within cause her eyes to widen. A massive blade, longer than she is tall, rests at the bottom of the compartment, and laying over that, the remains of some wooden and cloth object.
A shiver runs down her spine, and she slides the door shut faster than she opened it.
Just then, the hairs on the back of her neck stick up. She’s not alone anymore.
“Hide!” she hisses to the fairy on her shoulder, who promptly flits upward into the statue’s umbrella, pressing herself up into the hollow of the canopy. The girl looks about frantically, looking for a spot to conceal herself. A quick diving roll, a murmured word, and she’s invisible, pressed against a pillar of one of the tori, trying to make herself as small as possible.
“… you think they’ll start something?” comes one voice. A woman’s.
“Who, the tengu, or the Travellers?” Another woman’s voice, this one lower and slightly more mature.
“I was actually thinking the villagers, myself, they’ve been getting quite fed up with the feuding spilling over into anything and everything.” The girl watches as the first and current speaker comes into view, suddenly phasing through the edge of the demiplane – a younger woman in a red dress and black stockings. A cat’s ears poke out from underneath her green cloth cap, while two tails waggle out from underneath her skirt with minds of their own. She folds a snow-covered umbrella up, propping it against one of the tori pillars as she passes underneath it.
Aunt Chen? What is she doing here? How does she know about this place?
“They’re too divided to risk making a scene,” says the other woman as she too comes into view. Her shock-white hair is too lush to be bleached with age; another non-human. There’s an otherworldliness about her entire being, from the green vest and skirt to the pale glow that seems to emanate from her. The only things that seem remotely real about her are the two swords at her back and waist.
Miss Youmu? The phantom woman is good friends with Aunt Chen; she always comes with Aunt Chen when the nekomata comes to the mansion’s guardhouse to visit. Despite not needing to eat herself, she’s an astoundingly good cook, but this is the first time she’s seen her with weapons. And she wears them so naturally!
“Even if someone does do something stupid during the festivities, the elders will refuse to back them up, and – is someone else here?” Youmu suddenly barks, hands flying to those blades faster than the girl’s eyes can track.
She swallows, and weaves a few more nondetection spells around both herself and the fairy, wishing she’d paid more attention to her master’s lessons on this subject. But they seem to do the trick, because Chen’s raised ears and focused expression give way to minor amusement. “No, Youmu, no one else is here. You’re imagining things again.”
“I’m telling you, Chen, one of these days there will be someone there, and you’ll be caught off guard…”
“The odds of something being able to surprise me and being faster than I can react to are really low,” she says dismissively. “Lady Ran computed the odds for me once.”
“You can’t assign numbers to that sort of thing,” Youmu groans. “Numbers mean nothing when something actually happens.”
“You’d be surprised,” Chen says lightly. “It’s a shame she doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore,” she sighs, looking nostalgic. “She used to so much more…”
Her words trail off into oblivion. A moment of silence passes between them while the girl strains her ears, hoping to hear more. This is the first she’s heard of Aunt Chen’s own master – just like how Nami is her own shikigami, Aunt Chen is in service as well, but she’s never been willing to talk about her before. “Trade secrets”, she’d explained, even though the girl’s quite sure that that term isn’t exactly the most suitable one.
“The incense, Chen,” Youmu gently prompts.
“Ah, sorry, I was just thinking,” she apologizes hastily. “Yes, the incense.”
Youmu watches the nekomata with a slightly troubled expression as she sets up the materials for a small ceremony. “Chen, if there’s anything you want to talk about – “
“There is nothing to talk about, Youmu,” she says icily, igniting the sticks of incense with a snap of her fingers. “What’s done is done. She’s still my master, even if she’s not the same person she used to be.”
“She isn’t just your master, she’s for all intents and purposes your mother,” Youmu says angrily. “You think that it’s healthy to just keep all those feelings bottled up – “
“You wouldn’t understand our relationship, Youmu!” Chen barks, cutting her off. “Just because she practically raised me doesn’t mean I can just walk up to Yukari and demand that – “
“Look at you, you’re lashing out already,” Youmu presses on. “When Youki died, I was much the same – “
“Your father died,” Chen says, her voice harsh with anger. “He wasn’t – twisted – “
Youki. So that statue – is of Youmu’s father?
“He was,” Youmu says, her own voice starting to rise, “and let me tell you that was certainly the most terrifying experience I’ve ever experienced, I know how you feel.”
“ – okay, he was – “ Chen concedes, “but you didn’t have to live with it as if nothing had happened! At least he gets a memorial for his passing! The Lady Ran I knew is gone, and I have to smile and nod as if she’s still the same woman she always was!”
“… and if she were still here, she wouldn’t want us to be fighting over it,” Youmu admits, her anger suddenly draining away as fast as it had risen.
“Neither would Youki,” Chen agrees. They both smile at each other sadly, then look away as if embarrassed to have quarreled in the first place. With a wistful sigh, Chen follows the trails of incense smoke as they float towards the demiplane’s ceiling –
“Youmu, you were right!” she exclaims, scrambling to her feet. “There is something here!”
The girl squeezes her eyes shut in resignation, realizing that while she muffled both of their auras, she completely forgot to turn her shikigami invisible as well.
“It’s a fairy,” Youmu wonders aloud, lifting her hands off of her swords where they had instantly flown once again. “I thought Reimu told them to not touch this place.”
Panicking, the fairy detaches itself from the underside of the statue’s umbrella and zooms for the sky, but, faster than a blink of the eye, Chen leaps up and snatches it into her hand with all the agility that her cat-like nature would suggest, landing back softly down on the flagstones with the fairy squirming for dear life within her grasp. “You know fairies. It’s not as if they mean any harm. This one probably just forgot. Like most of them probably have already,” she chuckles.
“How’d it bypass the wards, though?” Youmu points out, still unconvinced.
Chen shrugs. “They’re fairies. They have a tendency of getting into all the places where they’re not supposed to be. You hear that?” she asks her prisoner. “When you reform, don’t come back here, okay?”
She tightens her fist slightly, and with a soft pichun, the fairy disappears in a spray of sparks. “Well, good riddance to that.”
The girl flinches, not in pain, but in realization that her cover is about to be blown.
“… Chen, it’s coming back already!” Youmu says, a slight edge of amusement in her voice. Sure enough, the fairy is reforming itself as a ball of glowing light right above the girl’s head, invisible as she is.
Chen’s eye’s narrow. “The nerve of… wait.” She sniffs the air, and the girl, sensing her impending doom, uncurls herself just enough to get the soles of her feet back underneath her.
But that small movement is enough to tip Chen off, and before the girl can take another step away, she’s been lifted up kicking and squirming into her hands. “Got you, you little bugger! What are you and Nami doing here of all places?”
“Aunt Chen! Miss Youmu!” the girl whines right back, letting the glamours fall off of her. “What are you doing here!”
“Paying our yearly respects,” Youmu says lightly. “How’d you even find this place?”
“Nami said that she and her friends found it one day,” she explains, trying to shove the blame off of her as Chen puts her back on her feet, leaning down to stare her face-to-face.
“… it’s supposed to be concealed from them in the first place. How did that one happen?” Chen asks, face wrinkling in confusion.
“Exactly,” the girl huffs. “It’s kind of like throwing a sheet over something in an otherwise empty room. You don’t know what’s under the sheet, but you know that something’s. Maybe you can’t get underneath it yourself, but you might get someone else to do it – I’m Nami’s master, and I thought it might be fun…”
“It’s dangerous out here,” Youmu admonishes her, coming to squat down to the girl’s height along with Chen. “You shouldn’t be wandering outside like this. Ferals don’t respect Christmas, and I’m not sure that the tengu wouldn’t take it as an excuse to not rough you up a bit.”
“Please, we all know that Mom taught me a punch hard enough to send any hungry feral over the top of Youkai Mountain,” the girl scoffs. “And Mistress Futatsuiwa taught me better than to get caught by one in the first place. Tengu patrols can’t catch me either, although what they’d be doing at the base of the mountain, outside their jurisdiction, would be beyond me. ‘sides, it took you a while to find me, and I was right underneath your nose the entire time!” she boasts, putting her hands on her hips.
Chen and Youmu exchange a helpless look, then share in a mutual sigh. “I wish you’d take more after your mother. Meiling can’t bluff her way out of a closed room.”
“Mom’s adorable when she tries, though,” the girl agrees with a laugh.
“Already know what your present is?” Chen chuckles in turn.
“A dress,” she groans. “I hate dresses. I still don’t see how Mom can fight in one without tripping all over herself. Give me a pair of pants any day.”
“First of all, it’s not a dress, it’s a robe, and secondly, if you can fight in a dress, that just means you’ll fight even better when it isn’t in your way,” Youmu points out.
“Still…” The fairy comes to perch on the girl’s shoulder, sticking her tongue out at Chen. “Aunt Chen, apologize to Nami.”
“She’s just a fairy, she didn’t even feel a thing,” Chen backpedals, holding her hands palms out in front of her defensively.
“Apologize,” she repeats, a predatory smile growing on her face as she steps towards the nekomata. “Or I’ll tell Miss Youmu about the time you – “
“Okay! Fine! Okay!” Chen says helplessly, waving off the girl’s advances. “Nami, I’m sorry for blowing you up like that.”
With a bemused smile, Youmu starts, “What precisely happened that I can’t know – “
“Nothing at all!” Chen cuts her off. Meanwhile, the fairy turns her nose up and crosses her arms, clearly wanting more remorse than that. “I’ll get you a peach the next time we’re in town, okay?” Chen offers. The fairy opens one eye, her resistance cracking. “With some candied plums too?” That seems to do the trick, as the fairy offers her a huge grin, kicking off of the girl’s shoulder to buzz a few circles around Chen’s head before settling back onto the wrist of her master’s outstretched arm. “As for you… well, you already have a bribe,” she giggles. “You know there’s already a present waiting for you back at home.”
“And you made sure to ward it, unlike Mom,” the girl grumbles, flicking the fairy back off of her arm as she folds it back towards her body. “Well, you can start by telling me why this place is so hidden.”
As the fairy lands back on the girl’s shoulder, Chen glances at Youmu, receiving a shake of the phantom’s head. “Now’s not the time, love. Maybe sometime later.”
The girl stomps her foot in annoyance. “It’s a memorial, right?” she presses on. “Then it should be public so that everyone can pay their respects, not hidden somewhere where only the fairies can find it! Why the secrecy?”
Youmu sighs, rubbing her brow with a hand. “It’s not that simple. It’s a memorial, yes, but it’s not just that – it’s also a vault.”
“A mausoleum,” Chen corrects her.
“A vault,” Youmu insists. “A mausoleum is for dead people. My father… Kogasa…” she trails off. “There’s still something left of them. Of both of them.”
The girl’s spine crawls. “… is that what’s in the box?” she says in a hushed voice.
Youmu suddenly steps to the girl and grabs her shoulders, drawing her close again. The fairy scrambles off her shoulder, retreating upwards to the top of the statue’s umbrella, laying herself flat on top to just barely peer over the edge at the unfolding events. “You didn’t touch anything, did you?” Youmu growls.
“N-no,” the girl stammers. “It wasn’t locked, so I just… took a peek. I thought that if it was something more important, there would have been something there. Like, a latch at the very least.”
“You don’t think all the wards you bypassed were for show, did you?” Youmu points out, one eyebrow raised.
Realizing her guilt, the girl bows her head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
Sighing, Youmu lets go, but not before tousling the girl’s hair. “It’s okay. Just don’t go poking your nose into there again.”
“I won’t,” she promises. “Not that I know what’s in there now. But then – still, it feels like you’re keeping their passing a secret from people. Why?”
Neither of the older women answer at first. “Will I have to dig through Missus Kamishirasawa’s records?” the girl threatens. “I’m on very good terms with her – she’ll let me look, and I don’t think it’d be so secret as to not be in there.”
The two older women share a tired look yet again, before nodding in resignation. “There was an incident two years ago, in Hakugyokurou. Something evil attacked there. It tried to control all the spirits – not even Lady Yuyuko was spared.”
“Lady Yuyuko? But she’s fine now… she even gave me a present, too! Even though I’ve never met her. She gave me one last year, too.” the girl says, confused.
“She’s been giving you presents?” Youmu repeats, alarm clear in her voice. When the girl nods, confused, she grinds her face into her palm and swears. “Lady Yuyuko, stop meddling,” she grumbles.
“She must feel guilty,” Chen offers cryptically.
“One, she has no reason to, and two, she’s only going to cause problems if she keeps on doing that. I’ll talk with her,” Youmu declares.
“Hey, those are my presents!” The girl’s not about to let a source of gifts, however mysterious, dry up. The fairy, mirroring her master’s emotions, puts her own hands on her hips, spreading her wings in an attempt to look as big and threatening as possible.
“She’s not even supposed to talk to you,” Youmu sighs, “much less send you presents.”
The girl purses her lips in thought. “Does this have anything to do with Yukari?” the girl suddenly asks, presents forgotten.
“Lady Yukari,” Chen automatically corrects her, buying time for Youmu whose swords suddenly seem to need their straps adjusted.
“She’s just Yukari to me, until I see her do something deserving of the title,” the girl declares.
“Mind your tongue!” Chen shouts.
“She’s not my master!” she shouts back.
Youmu stands awkwardly to one side, holding her tongue as the two begin to quarrel. “She’s not mine, either, but I won’t have you speak ill of her regardless!”
Chen raises a hand angrily to slap her, but the fairy changes course and plants herself onto her face, limbs spread wide, catching her with one arm held awkwardly high. “I’m sorry,” she sighs, anger draining out of her. “Just – please don’t speak of her like that,” she sighs, conceding the earlier point. After peeling the offending fairy from her face, her arm falls lifelessly back to her side. “She might seem like a meddling busybody, but she’s just trying to do what she thinks is best. Even if she ends up hurting a lot of people’s feelings in the process.”
“More than just feelings,” Youmu mutters darkly, eliciting only a helpless shrug from her companion. She turns towards the statue of her father, her expression sad. “But meddling aside… upon realizing what had happened, Lady Yukari raised a force as fast as she could. Your aunt, her master, and I – we certainly would have all perished if she had come any slower. Even so, my father still perished before the rescue came. Kogasa,” she indicates with a wave of her hand towards the statue, “died protecting the rescuers in turn. A great tragedy. The likes of which we never want to experience again.”
The girl twitches. “You’re lying about something.”
“Excuse me?!” Youmu cries, spinning towards her, face contorted with anger. “My father died and you have the nerve to – “
“Your anger. It’s fake,” the girl continues, a stubborn expression. “You do feel sad, but you’re not a good actor when it comes to trying to be angry. You’re hiding something.”
“Okay,” she admits, but continues blustering, “I left out some details about the incident, but you don’t need to know them all, alright? I don’t want to talk about them.”
“You’re hiding something about me.”
Chen flinches, her fists curling into balls, but she says nothing. Youmu turns white as a sheet, looking more and more like a ghost with every passing second.
“Mistress Futatsuiwa has been teaching me how to tell when people are lying, or being deceptive – and what they’re being deceptive about.” She advances upon the phantom woman, eyes hard. “You’ve been hiding something about me, and I’m sick of it!” she cries. “Every time we see each other you’re always playing games, there’s something more than just a pleasant visit to the mansion – I can see it, anyone with half a brain can see it, Mom is always so flustered when you come as if she’s not sure what to say or how to act, and when you talk with Mom in private you always go through so much trouble to put up wards of silence, so strong that I could throw myself at them for years and never break them – ”
“Recette,” Chen says, her voice cracking, but gentle. “Please. Calm down.”
The girl sucks in a huge breath, then lets it out in a huge rush. “I just don’t get it! It’s not just that I’m adopted – oh please, everyone can see that I’m not of Mom’s blood,” she explains when Youmu looks stricken herself. “We’re as different as night and day. She’s got dragon blood in her, yes, and so do I – but that’s exactly why I know, it’s not the same blood, and we can both tell.”
“She loves you as her own, though, you know that, right?” Youmu says slowly, still recovering from her shock.
“I know,” Recette sighs, “and I love her too – but she can’t explain so many things! Why did I pick up Mistress Futatsuiwa’s lessons so easily? Why do I know half the things in her books before I ever read about them? And these – these dreams, of ironworks and foundries and clanking machines she can’t give me anything but cups of warm milk and out-of-tune lullabies and I just – want – to – know – “
Her voice starts choking, and Chen steps behind her, hugging her against her chest without a word. Recette turns around in place, throwing her arms around her waist, and starts sobbing, even as Chen starts stroking her head, trying to comfort her with hushed reassurances and calming words. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I wish we could tell you too, but we don’t know either.”
“But you do know something,” Recette says, her voice catching with a hiccup. “And you won’t tell me.”
“I wish we could,” Youmu sighs, admitting defeat even as she moves beside Chen, embracing Recette from the side. “I really wish we could.”
Recette coughs. “It’s something to do with Yukari. Isn’t it.” It’s not a question.
“Per our agreement, I’m going to say nothing…” Chen says lightly. “… but I think that’s all I need to do for you to need to know.”
“I hate her,” Recette declares with all the sincerity a two-year old can muster.
“Hate is a strong word,” Youmu scolds her automatically.
“I’m sorry,” Recette replies, just as smoothly.
They remain there for a few seconds, high-strung emotions ebbing away, leaving them drained and clinging to each other for support, both physical and mental.
“We should all get to town. The lighting of the tree should be magnificent,” Chen says, gently trying to disentangle the three of them. Recette allows herself to be peeled away, but only so far as to allow them to walk in a line, herself in between the two friends. The fairy slowly floats back down to Recette’s shoulder to join them, looking expectantly at the nekomata. “No, I haven’t forgotten your fruits,” she chuckles.
“You better have not,” Recette mutters darkly on behalf of her shikigami, but a smile flickers across her lips anyways. “I’m sorry for making a fuss, Aunt Chen, Miss Youmu.”
“Don’t mention it.” Youmu beams. In a blur of motion, she cleans the detritus from the ceremony, packing up the materials into the same bag that they came out of, leaving it as pristine as before. “Come on. I hear the kappa have outdone themselves this year.
“And to think that this whole holiday started when that hermit used it as an excuse to steal from homes…” Chen mutters.
Even the fairy laughs this time, as the three of them walk arm in arm out of the monument’s demiplane, away from the past and into the present.
Excepting a small jog back for the umbrella, that is.