“Hey there,” the white-haired immortal greets you, setting down her axe and walking closer. “You’re here pretty early. Sorry but I’m not opening my stand today. Keine wants to go shopping.”
You hear Yoshika groan behind you. Rolling your eyes, you shoo away the ever-hungry girl and she runs off to go roll around on the ground or something.
“That’s fine. We’ve already had breakfast at the temple. I Just thought we’d stop by to chat for a bit, if that’s okay with you.”
You and Mokou relax at her stall, you taking a stool while she jumps onto the counter.
“So,” Mokou begins with a hint of nervousness, “did that favor you wanted to ask of Eirin the other day work out okay?”
“I think so,” you respond, “I ended up making a deal with Tewi. She was pretty helpful, said she’d do her best and would get back to me soon. Thank you for that advice, by the way.”
Mokou beams at you. “Not at all! Like I said, despite how annoying they can be, the earth rabbits are all a good-natured group. I was a bit worried you were going to do something drastic.”
“Like crawl inside and set Eirin’s underwear on fire?”
The immortal blushes lightly. “A-anyway, whatcha doing here so early? Not that I mind the company, of course, but I feel like this is pretty far out of the way for you. I mean, I guess if you just came to talk to me then it’s not out of the way…”
“It honestly wasn’t far off,” you answer with a smile. “I’ve been setting up a workshop in the Forest of Magic, so that means long days of drawing funny symbols on the ground and the like. Plus, there’s a pretty dangerous person wandering about so it’s a little straining mentally. I thought coming to see you would be helpful to relax.”
“Glad I can help!” Mokou smiles widely before quickly frowning. “A dangerous person, though? Did you need help? I can come by and set them straight if they’re looking to hurt you!”
“No, no. They’re a welcomed guest…sort of.” You did make the offer, after all.
“Okay?” Mokou wonders.
You don’t even want to try and take the time to explain your relationship with Seiga. The best you can offer Mokou is a shrug. When you don’t bother to elaborate on the situation, Mokou shrugs too. “Even if you did invite them it sounds like difficult work for you.”
“Not as difficult as learning how to put on makeup and dressing up for Keine, surely?” You laugh when Mokou fidgets and looks away. “How did that end up going? You two looked great together during the festival, by the way.”
“T-Thanks. For the compliment, I mean. But also for your help with all that girly stuff too, a-actually. I know I would have messed it all up without your help. Keine really appreciated all the work that went into it, I mean me, I think.”
“Oh, did she?” you ask. “Then she must have rewarded all your hard effort, right? A favor, maybe? A pat on the head, a back rub, a trip to her room-”
“No! Nothing like that. Geez, what are you even trying to say?” You swear little licks of flame rise from the tips of Mokou’s burning red ears. It takes a good minute for the immortal to calm down and even consider talking to you again.
When she does, it’s with a much more serious air than before. “Hey, so Keine was mentioning some things to me the other day about how all of your temple people were acting all panicky.”
You nod. “Remember those mutated rabbits of Eirin’s?”
“Of course I do, persistent little monsters.”
“Yeah, well, apparently everybody else living in the bamboo forest here is being run out by the Lunarians. That fact, combined with the creatures existence, made Byakuren think an incident was brewing.”
Your mention of the I-word doesn’t throw Mokou into a tizzy like the others. Instead, the immortal rapidly nods her head and starts to ponder. “Uh, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I can’t really say I’ve paid any attention to when things were going to hit the fan until they hit me directly. People usually visit me when they want something, you know? Like, a lot of times it’s just someone that wants to fight me for some reason so I guess that’s another reason I really like it when you come visit. Erhm, anway, Reisen has stopped by a bunch recently, actually a couple of times a day. She’s so overworked that I usually only get to see her when we run into each other at the village and then we don’t really get to say more than a few words.”
“So if she visits you at home that means she was sent? Like part of her work?”
“Yeah, pretty much. She never really says the same thing twice though so I can’t tell why she’s stopping by. They aren’t exactly friendly catch-up visits but she never asks me for the same thing twice. Maybe she’s just got a lot on her plate, more than usual? I don’t know, it’s weird,” Mokou admits.
What does Eirin want? After all, you have no doubts that it’s Eirin’s bidding that Reisen is acting towards. “She’s not threatening you is she?”
“No!” Mokou shouts. “Sorry, I’m not trying to make trouble where there isn’t. Usually it’s just a few questions, or a few minutes of greetings. It’s nothing to make me think that they want me out of the forest, at least. I don’t know what’s going on there. It’s not like I ever talk to my neighbors much; they can’t pay for my food and I don’t make good eating. Still, I feel like if they wanted me out they’d probably just blow up my house and me with it.”
“Hm.” The dynamics of this group are too much for you to decipher. They spent years murdering and torturing each other but now they’re pretty friendly, except when they’re not. “Well, if you do have any problems or if Eirin’s experiments get out again then you can come find me or go to the temple for help.”
“Thanks, but it won’t be a problem. That little monster got the better of me the first time but I think I figured out a better way to fight it. I’m not going to lose to a ball of black gelatin again!” The flames of Mokou’s passion ignite behind her.
You point, causing the immortal to turn around and squeal. She quickly flops onto her stomach and reached underneath the countertop of her stall, grabbing a fire blanket to throw over the little flames growing on her nice woodwork.
“Could you fight it without burning down the forest?” you ask while she frets. You remember what Reimu said when you told the shrine maiden about the attack. ‘Mokou held back,’ she had spoken resolutely whilst sitting around in her underwear.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I did,” Mokou mutters. She carefully grabs one corner of the blanket and peeks under it. “But um, yeah I think I can. You’d think living as long as I have I’d be better as using my powers but I’m really not that smart at the end of it all. It’s hard for me to get creative in the heat of things. A little bit of time after, and I guess chatting with Keine, gave me all the plans I might need. I can definitely keep those monsters from hurting anybody now. If you ever feel free threatened don’t worry about relying on me!” Mokou pumps her arm with energy but quickly shakes it off and glances around warily.
“I’ll be sure to,” you grin. “I don’t suppose you-”
“Hello!” Your conversation is broken by a silver-haired woman walking into the clearing.
Mokou immediately jumps to her feet and runs over to the newcomer. “Keine, hey!”
You want to laugh at how eager the immortal is. You slowly get up and walk over to the pair, Yoshika falling into step at your side. You try and wipe off the dirt print that Yoshika’s hand leaves on your sleeve but the jiang-shi simply leaves her mark elsewhere.
“I’m sorry for making you wait.”
“No, no, not at all! You know I’m never that busy out here, Keine.”
“That isn’t true. Ah, but I am sorry for interrupting your conversation,” Keine directs the comment towards you. The schoolteacher bows to you with her apology.
“Not at all. I was just helping to pass the time,” you respond. “Don’t let me get in the way of your trip.”
“Please, do not feel as if you are unwelcome. In fact,” Keine stands up and reaches out her hand. “I believe I should be the one thanking you for helping Mokou, both for the festival and other times.”
“Again, not at all,” you say while giving Keine’s hand a quick shake. “I was glad to help. I was afraid Mokou was going to burn down her house with how panicky she was.”
“Truly? She looked astonishing when she arrived at the festival. Were her first attempts not as refined?”
“I’ll just say that I’ve seen better attempts from-”
“Stoooooop,” Mokou moans.
Keine mouths a quick ‘later’ to you before graciously moving on “Then, shall we head out? It would be better to get to the stores as early as possible. I know you’d rather not shop with the crowds around.”
Mokou quickly nods, glad to be escaping from any further embarrassment. “Yeah sure, let me just-”
“Hey, Mokou!” A cheerful voice rings.
You all turn to look at Reisen as the Lunarian bounds out of the forest. She’s dressed no differently than you usually see her, blazer and skirt all perfectly laundered. Looking carefully, you see the rabbit youkai’s eyes quickly dart around the clearing, carefully assessing everybody there. The smile on her face and pep in her step don’t change.
Mokou glances at you once, her exasperation clear, before addressing her newest visitor. “Hey, Reisen. What do you need this time?”
The purple-haired rabbit wastes no time in pulling out a fancy looking tablet and swiping around on it. “I was actually hoping if you had time to come over for-”
“Right now?” Mokou surprisingly interrupts her. “Sorry, but I’m heading over to the village with Keine. I don’t have the time.”
“Oh, I see,” Reisen responds, the slightest of frowns making its way onto her face. “Then can I get your schedule so I can see when you’d have the time to stop by? There were a few things I and the others were looking at and we think you’d be a big help in-”
“Perhaps later, Reisen?” Keine asks, a tone of what might be impatience creeping in.
The rabbit girl looks up from her device, eyes widening as she takes in the two women standing with their arms locked together. She nods once, then twice. “Yeah, yeah, okay. That should be okay. I’ll find you later then.” Her frown deepens as she swipes quickly at her tablet. After hooking the device back onto her belt the rabbit girl bows once. “Sorry for taking up your time.”
Reisen quickly takes a few steps backwards and briskly walks away, giving you a quick nod and smile before disappearing back into the bamboo shoots.
The three of you simply look at each other.
“See what I mean?” Mokou asks.
Despite how the week began, time passes without incident. No army of monsters comes crawling out of the bamboo forest. There are no mysterious deaths in the village. Seiga doesn’t murder you while you’re working. You don’t trample all over the hearts of innocent young girls.
Well, mostly. Kogasa hasn’t bothered to start following you around again, but that’s probably a good thing.
“One, two, three, hah!”
“One, two, three-ahh!”
You and Byakuren both chuckle when Kogasa falls flat on her face, unbalanced by the spear she holds in her hands.
The two of you take a sip of tea.
Even from across the courtyard, you can see Shou’s shoulders shrug as she releases her stance and walks over to her newest pupil. The tiger picks up the umbrella youkai with one hand and places the girl on her feet. You watch Kogasa perform her lunge in slow motion, Shou lightly tapping the girl’s arms and legs to adjust her form.
When Shou steps back, Kogasa resets her position and begins anew. It’s hard to tell considering she’s facing away from you but you think Shou seems proud of Kogasa’s effort.
Maybe that’s just your imagination.
“Why did you think this was a good idea, again?” you ask the head nun beside you.
“It should build character?” she responds.
You look to your right, Byakuren turning slightly to catch your eyes with her own.
You smile and give her a little nod.
She smiles and inclines her head.
The two of you raise your teacups and drink to the little umbrella’s fortune.
Time passes with little moments like that. Throughout the week, you are busy improving your workshop and studying the texts you borrowed from Kosuzu. Byakuren is hard at work leading the temple, preparing her disciples and taking the time to better integrate the bamboo forest youkai.
Even with your wildly differing schedules, the two of you manage to find the time for each other. Sometimes it’s breakfast, maybe a few minutes of rest in the afternoon, or perhaps a cup of tea before bed. Generally, you just talk; what happened during the day, what little favors could be done, mild concerns for the future. None of your moments together seem to stray into the same intensity that some of your previous encounters have.
Thank goodness for that. I don’t think my heart could take it.
Wasn’t your sister encouraging you to talk about feelings and emotions before?
Frankly, it always seems to go either very well or very poorly. I’ll settle for average, for now. Also, pay attention.
“Sorry,” you say as you focus on the woman sitting next to you. “You were saying?”
Byakuren shakes her head and kicks out her legs, naked feet beautifully contrasted with the darkened nighttime grass. “Nothing of importance. You were speaking with your sister?”
The slight breeze you feel sitting atop the wall surrounding Myouren Temple turns the rather pleasant autumn night chilly. How can Byakuren stand having her legs bare? Isn’t she cold in her nightdress? Sure, she has a jacket on too, but the nippy wind can travel up her legs to- distraaaaactions.
You cough and quickly glance up. Thankfully, Byakuren has her head inclined towards the moon so she didn’t see- her eyes flick over towards you, a knowing smirk forming.
“Um,” you lamely respond, far later than you should have. “Yes. Sometimes I, uh, get lost in my thoughts.”
Byakuren’s airy giggles are unmistakable in the quiet night.
“But usually it’s my sister trying to occupy my attention, honest. Like she doesn’t already take up enough space in my mind.”
Hmph. Kids these days, no appreciation.
“I see,” Byakuren comments. There’s only the slightest moment of hesitation before she continues, “Does your closeness not bother you? Boundaries restrict us, but also make us who we are in many respects.”
“Well, I can’t say that it doesn’t. I wouldn’t be working so hard to separate us if I thought the situation was perfect. Still, I guess we just learned to live with it?” You lean back, recollecting the first days of your joining. “If we perfectly communicated and always felt the same emotions, I’m not sure if we would still feel like two people. At least from my perspective, we’ve always been of two minds.”
You sigh and fall back forwards, resting your elbows on your knees. “With everything that I’ve learned, I can’t honestly tell you if that’s an illusion or not. I wasn’t exactly in a sound mental state to notice any changes to myself at the beginning. And my sister, well, death and consumption of her soul should have broken down all her barriers and left her…malleable to me. Even if my sister isn’t just a hallucination of my mind, she should have been unequivocally changed before she managed to build her own barriers and piece together her individuality.”
I couldn’t think of a better person to have been changed by, if that’s the case. Still, I don’t know why you’re speculating on this. I thought we were pretty confident in what happened.
“As she’s pointing out right now, we think it’s probable that because we were so close in life that I had a good mental image of my sister. Even if she got all of me, she could find something of herself somewhere in that mess.” With a wave of your hand you cast away all the long-suffered speculations. “Ultimately, it’s one of the many reasons I want her to live her own life again. I can’t give her back what she may have lost but she can certainly start gaining new experiences of her own.”
A comforting hand presses against your back. “And I pray for your success. Have you discovered anything further to help you there? Any new information in your studies?”
“Not yet. Without the information from Tewi, without the Necronomicon itself, I still can’t verify if it contains all the answers I seek. It should, but even if it does I’ll have to sort through the chaff. At least that part is looking up. The reference books I received from Kosuzu are very helpful.”
“Wonderful. Do you believe any of your prior magical experiences will be of use?”
“Perhaps? The very basics will, at least. I don’t think making skeletons walk around will be of much use.”
“It is truly a wonder,” Byakuren hums.
“What is?” you ask with a smirk. “How beautiful you look tonight?”
Byakuren rolls her eyes and shoves you with her shoulder. “How magic so astounding as to summon the dead cannot immediately solve all your issues.”
“I think Necromancy has caused me more problems than anything. A lot of the solutions involved running away, after all.”
“A poisoned apple, then?”
“I think of Necromancy as a tool, just like any other magic. I guess it’s unfortunate that it is easier to do harm than good with it and that it is thought of as poorly as it is. Can’t have people running around using this evil magic, after all.”
Byakuren’s long locks brush against her shoulders as they move from side to side. “I do not think it evil. I spent many hours agonizing at the thought of your Necromancy being my panacea.”
You swallow. “Did you? The thought certainly crossed my mind but…you never asked.”
“And had you offered I doubt I would have refused.” Byakuren shifts and searches your eyes. “If you noticed, why did you not suggest it?”
“Suggest that I could bring back your brother for you?” Her quick gasp of breath fills you with anger at yourself.
When you look at Byakuren, she doesn’t seem angry. Startled at hearing the possibility spoken aloud, perhaps, but otherwise fairly stoic. It’s been so long since the topic was last broached, with how she speaks she makes it sounds like- She’s worked through it all herself already.
Well, thought about the possibilities at least. Coming to terms is always a different beast entirely. Emotions hardly follow logic. Yet, Byakuren isn’t asking you to do this for her now. No. She just wants to hear your thoughts.
You try to remember your reasoning, your feelings on the matter. The thought of offering certainly had passed through your mind plenty of times. It would have been hard to not figure out how much…emphasis Byakuren places on her brother.
Whenever you thought to make your special brand of offer, it felt irresponsible somehow. Why would you bring up her hope only to crush it if you couldn’t? Would speaking with her brother again for mere minutes help resolve centuries of pain or only worsen all the negativity she felt? Would it be a slippery slope? Or could you have swooped in like a guardian angel and fixed everything with a wave of your hand?
It was a practical uncertainty as well as a moral one. You were surprised that you managed to reach Mokou’s mother. You would not have managed Reimu’s if the girl herself hadn’t broken something with her ridiculous powers. It should have been the other way around given the vast difference in time spent dead but perhaps the rules are different for those who were powerful in life.
If that is the case, could you even touch someone long dead and who held power equal to the strongest in Gensokyo?
“I guess I never offered because I was uncertain,” you conclude with a grimace. “A poor reason as any, I guess. It might not have helped, it could have worsened everything, it may not have worked, I could have failed – my excuses are endless. Sorry.”
“You should not be,” Byakuren quickly reassures you while grabbing your hands. “It is better to leave that box unopened. No matter how much it still hurts me, I should be listening to some of the precepts I preach. I dwell in the past when I should not, when there are people in the present I should be focusing on instead.”
She gives you a small smile, one you return as widely as you can.
Then she slides around, peacefully resting her side against yours, one hand still held.
The night is calm, beautiful. Much like how the week is going. It feels like you should be winding up, on edge as calamity slowly approaches. Instead, your preparation is almost lackadaisical. Perhaps it is because you aren’t so alone this time?
Facing the terrors of the night with only your disembodied sister is nerve wracking.
With others? Even a single friend can act as a light in the darkness.
It’s been so long since you’ve felt this feeling of safety. The thought that there are those who will watch your back no matter what may-
“I had another nightmare the other day,” Byakuren abruptly says. “A new one, surprisingly. The revenants of the dead rose from the ground, all those we had caused the deaths of. Villagers we could not save or that we ignored to strengthen our relations with youkai. Soldiers that were killed, families that had been sundered. Yet even with all of the dead rising around me, the one I wished to see was not there. I went insane, in that nightmare, and watched those vengeful spirits murder everybody sleeping in the temple. The few who were strong enough to resist, experienced enough to turn aside the tide, met death at my own hands.”
Byakuren is leaned against you, but her head is not. You can’t see what she is staring at, off in the darkness.
“I was in tears when I awoke. I had been in tears when I first fell asleep, as well. Minamitsu had just finished telling me of Mokou’s mother and how she could not believe that such a shrew of a woman could have a child as mild-mannered as Mokou.”
“I-” You clench your fist once before unfurling it and wrapping both your arms around Byakuren. You squeeze her as close to you as possible. You’re a poor comforter, a poorer barrier against all her woes, but you try.
“I don’t know what to say,” you admit.
“Nothing is fine.” Her hands reach up to cover yours. With as tight as you have her clutched, her loose grip seems far more secure. “Telling this to you feels selfish, but there was nothing more I wanted at the moment. I expect nothing in return.”
Despite what she may claim, you start to speak anyway.
Nothing intelligent. Nothing deep. You speak of the vines in the forest that tried to melt your foot earlier. You complain about the newest cauldron of foul-odored liquid Seiga had dragged to your workshop. You tell her that as stunning as you think she looks tonight, your sister is more in awe of her and her proportions than you are.
She responds in kind, voice quavering. Breakfast was particularly bad as the newest residents were put on their first kitchen duty. She thinks you need a bit more color in your all-black ensemble, more than what your gifted scarf provides. She wants to go into the village at the end of the week to buy new undergarments.
The night passes as the two of you speak. Nothing bothers the two of you on your perch. The waxing moon glows beautifully.
When you finally separate and head to sleep in your respective rooms, you still feel troubled.