He stared blankly ahead without a care in the world, waiting to be acknowledged. Yes, something inside him knew that that was unusual. Maybe even wrong on some level. That didn’t matter, however. Even if he had tried to whip himself up into a less static state he had no idea what else he could be doing. It wasn’t like anything around him looked familiar at all. Not to mention—most importantly—it would be rude not to have some tea.
“There we go,” Yuyuko said with a perfectly courteous smile as she made sure every last drop of tea made it safely from the teapot to the cup. Had he not been so out of it, the man might have complimented her on her preternatural grace; nary a movement she made seemed sudden or unnecessary. He stared at the contents of the cup quietly, thinking little as the steam rose gently and his host sat across the table from him.
“Thank you,” he mumbled, finding the sound of his own voice somewhat unfamiliar. It was a good voice, mind. Lower on the tenor range with a quiet dignity to it that made people stop and pay attention subconsciously. Not that he was aware of it at that point. After all, he couldn’t even remember his own name.
“Please help yourself to a snack if you like,” the host motioned towards a small tray full of sweets. They looked pretty good but he wasn’t very interested.
Instead, he politely declined and reached for his cup. The tea smelled really good, unlike anything he had experienced before. It smelled of springtime and the delicate aroma of flowers. The taste mirrored that assessment, he found, as he let the first few drops of liquid sit on his tongue for a few moments before swallowing. “This is really good tea,” he said with a nod, feeling a warmth spreading quickly through his body.
“I’m glad you like it. It’s been a struggle to get Youmu to learn how to make it just right. That girl can be so hopeless when it comes to the simplest of things...” Yuyuko lamented with a good-natured look in her eyes.
“She’s done a good job,” the man said after taking another sip. “I feel like I’ve been revived by this tea.”
Yuyuko giggled, her youthful presence striking the man as effortlessly beautiful. She took a sip of the tea as well, a delightfully coy twinkle in her eyes rousing greater curiosity.
“Did I say something odd?” the man asked, feeling an increasing rush of feeling in his body and mind. He couldn’t remember what he had been doing just a few minutes ago and now suddenly it felt like he couldn’t help but to take everything in at length. The traditional décor in the room, the calm stillness that came in from an open door and courtyard beyond, the light blue of Yuyuko’s kimono that contrasted well with her cherry-blossom-colored hair and soft features—he felt very mindful of it all.
“It’s just that you’re not very far off the mark,” Yuyuko explained, “in a sense you were revived by that tea. Not just the tea but that was a pretty good dramatic flair at the end of it all.”
“I don’t really understand...” he said, furrowing his brow.
“You’re dead,” she said rather matter-of-factly. There was a levity in her tone that seemed a touch inappropriate.
“I feel pretty alive,” he countered. But then again, who wouldn’t in his place? As far as he could tell he could taste things normally, he was breathing and… if that dull thump in his chest was what he thought it was then his heart was also in working order.
“Hmm, I’m not sure there’s a quick way of convincing you,” she said as she took a long sip from her tea. After a moment, she posed a question, “Do you know where you are?”
He looked around but found that the sitting room offered no clues. Not even the scrumptious little snacks were keen to offer much in the way of explanation. “Actually, now that you mention it, I don’t know where I am,” he conceded.
“You’re in the Netherworld,” Yuyuko said, “a place for various types of spirits.”
“Ah, that explains the phantoms that have been floating around you every now and again,” he nodded, accepting the ludicrous instantly. “I would have said something about them earlier, but I thought it might be rude to do so.”
“Ah, you’re very polite,” Yuyuko smiled, “I like that about you. In case it isn’t clear, I’m a ghost.”
“You’re not exactly what I imagined a ghost might look like, I hope you don’t mind me saying,” he said, feeling sheepish.
“Ghosts are people too,” she said, “...of sorts anyway. There’s all kinds of youkai at any rate.”
“So am I a ghost as well?” he asked the obvious.
“Yes and no,” she stated.
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re dead but also alive in a way. Not like a zombie or anything but more than just a simple spirit that you see around in the Netherworld. Your body is very much the body you had before… or so I’m told,” Yuyuko explained calmly.
“Or so you’re told?”
“Listen, your situation is special,” she reached out across the table to take his hand. Ghost or not, it felt warm to the touch. She continued, “I am only dealing with your ghostly nature because of my abilities. But there’s some things I don’t fully understand myself.”
“I can deal well with spirits, let’s just say,” she winked at him, let go of his hand and gobbled up one of the delicate snacks on the tray. Though it wasn’t a very elegant thing to do she still managed to make it look relatively lady-like.
“Why deal with me? I suppose I’m thankful that I’m alive… sort of, but you probably don’t offer tea and snacks to every ghost you meet,” he reasoned. It was a fairly sound question though it accepted her premise and the other absurdities a little too readily.
“Ah, well, yes,” Yuyuko nodded, “it helps that you’re perceptive. I want you to do me a favor.”
“What sort of favor?” he asked, finally giving in and trying one of the small sweets on the tray. It turned out to be less sweet than it looked which was a good thing because anything too sweat would have overwhelmed the flavor of the tea by contrast.
“I need you to manage a group of people. Get them together and have them working towards a common goal,” she explained. She punctuated her sentences by taking a nibble from a snack without hesitating. In a way, it was an impressive ability.
“What sort of goal?” he asked.
“Baby steps,” she said with a sly smile, “you’ll get overwhelmed if you bite off more than you can chew.”
Yuyuko then proceeded to take a bite of a snack that most betting men would wager she could not chew. They would have lost as the ghost seemed more than capable of dealing with large mouthfuls of food.
“...” he watched silently as she washed down the mouthful with a comparatively small sip of tea.
“...at any rate,” Yuyuko said, “I’m going to give you written instructions so you don’t get sidetracked by opinionated villagers or deceptive temple folk.”
“Is that really a big threat?” he asked, not really picturing the sort of scenario she meant.
“No, not really. This first part should be pretty straightforward,” she said, sliding over a small envelope across the table. It was labeled “For your Eyes Only” and had a cartoonish big-headed version of Yuyuko drawn with a finger raised to her lips under the text.
He raised an eyebrow and then asked what everyone ought to ask in a scenario like that, “what’s in it for me? Can’t I just say no?”
“Oh, yes, you’re totally free to decline,” Yuyuko said with a polite smile. “I’m not going to hurt you or anything if you say no but be warned that you may spontaneously go back to being dead. Well, more dead than you already are.”
“...it’s hard not to interpret that as a threat,” he said with a polite smile of his own.
“It’s not, I assure you!” she laughed and shook her head, “I’m just saying that what has been done to have you here isn’t very permanent.”
“I suppose I’ll just have to take your word for it,” he shrugged.
“Well, if you do help out, we’ll see about making you permanently alive again. It should be possible, I’m told,” she outlined the reward.
“I don’t mean to be rude but that doesn’t sound very convincing,” he frowned. What constituted life and what constituted death was very academic when one couldn’t remember either state very well. All he had to go on was his now and that was a very dubious foundation.
Still, he didn’t really have much of a choice. Without real memories or much of an idea of what else he could do, or whether or not he could just suddenly die again, he was otherwise adrift. A troubled look clouded his dark eyes and he found a little solace running his fingers through his mid-sized fluff of chin hairs. That seemed to be something that he recalled doing a lot though under what circumstances he could not say.
“Look into your heart and I know you’ll accept,” Yuyuko said softly. They both knew that he would accept. There was nothing else he could do. What was unclear, however, would be how he would react to her next proposition. With a look so sultry that it could melt a glacier, she made a direct proposition, “I do wish to remind you of how nice it feels to have a body. If you like, just say the word and we’ll have some fun together.”
That was a bold promise that he was certain she would do her best to keep. Her smile was one of a woman who knew exactly what a man enjoyed the most.
And thus he dithered, the curse of those newly reborn.
 He appreciated the kind reminder.  The tea proved to be enough kindness.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/02(Sat)09:30
Hullo, this is the story I’ve decided to start up this year for NaNoWriMo. It’s an adventure with faces both familiar and new. It will strive for daily updates as is the case whenever I write one of these and it’s meant to be fast and loose. I hope you enjoy it.
>>200504 >>200503 Don't think in terms of routes because I don't and will mock those who do. Take the options at face value, I'm not playing 3d chess. It's like when I started my Kagerou story last year and people thought that voting between ears and tail was something greater than just literally that. There's also a reason why this isn't in /border/ and in general you shouldn't think about characters that haven't shown up because there is no guarantee that they will and if they do that choices not involving them will have any sort of long term impact on them.
If you disregard all that you're going to have a bad time and I'll just be laughing at you every step of the way.
The words got stuck in his throat. Try as he might, he couldn’t manage even the slightest of sounds. It was pathetic. He grasped his tea cup firmly but found that he couldn’t feel any more warmth against his fingertips. Indeed, he couldn’t feel much of anything. He knew that there was a disconnect between what he ought to feel and his incapacity to know what exactly that was supposed to be. On the verge of tears, an involuntary sigh finally escaped his throat.
Yuyuko looked on patiently; her desire revealed itself more nuanced with a nearly divine sense of compassion coloring her dark eyes. Out of respect, she said nothing, knowing that her actions would help solve the puzzle for him. With immeasurable grace she moved next to him and sat down. Her hands reached for his again and gently guided the still-hot cup back onto the table. She felt the heat that he couldn’t but said nothing of the discomfort it caused.
He relaxed and became as soft clay to her touch. As she took his hand into her own, a long-forgotten wet sensation began to stain the area around his eyes. Seeing the formative tears, Yuyuko whispered a kindness to him and gently guided his head down to her lap. There it would lay for a while with nearly-forgotten thoughts becoming effervescent in his mind. She ran her fingers now gently through his hair, helping a lot of what was repressed to simmer.
“Shinji,” she continued her reminder, conjuring up a lost identity, “you can take your time if you like, but you musn’t be afraid of what might happen.”
“I’m not afraid,” Shinji replied with a banal lie. There may have been a time where he might have said as much out of pride—his reply then was one of innocence, one of someone who did not understand the expectations that even he had for himself. In the confusion of feelings and thought all that he could say for sure was that he was completely surrendered to her delicate touch.
Yuyuko laughed softly at his child-like contradictions. It was at this point that he once again became aware of feeling and felt her warmth keenly. She stopped massaging his head but lost no time spreading the joy of feeling to the rest of him. He remained pliant in her care as she massaged neck, shoulders and more.
As Shinji became increasingly aware of himself and his emotions, he began to feel something not unlike guilt. The reminder brought also with it sensations that were not entirely positive. Yuyuko had been speaking for a while, telling him an old story with an old ending. He had not been listening properly, incapable of concentrating on much other than himself. There was little he could do about it but mouth a silent apology and shamelessly hope that he would be automatically forgiven.
“You are capable of more, but you must find your own pacing,” Yuyuko’s latest words cut through the self-absorbed steam that was his mind.
“What do you mean?” he found himself speaking again, the physicality of his body once again becoming prominent. Yuyuko had stopped playing around with him.
“Exactly what it means, silly!” she laughed softly, offering a far less serious response than what he would have liked. “How you carry on is up to you. Whenever you’re ready, I’ll be glad to help out more.”
“Why?” he sat up and stared right at her face. The immaculate lady had morphed into something altogether different: a young girl with the brightest and most carefree of smiles. There was much that he had not been able to process yet and found his selfish lack of satiety turning into a silly remark, “I don’t understand anything at all.”
“It’s not always possible to figure everything out at once. At least in a way that you might like,” Yuyuko said, “I tell Youmu as much all the time.”
“But… what you-” he wanted to say that he hoped that she was the key to all those things that still remained forgotten and suppressed within himself. He could not bring himself to be that brazen. Not after his miraculous revival.
She placed a hand dotingly on his cheek and rubbed it gently, lovingly. “Have you noticed that you stopped crying?” she asked.
“So I have,” Shinji replied, noticing something so basic for the first time. “Thank you,” he said.
“Have a sweet,” she brushed off the thanks like she had done nothing at all.
“Lady Yuyuko,” he smiled at her, incapable of thinking of tea or snacks anymore.
“Oh dear, why so formal?” she fiddled with the sleeve of her kimono in a coy fashion, looking like she hoped to divert attention from her soothingly familiar presence.
“I can’t express myself any better, my apologies,” he shook his head. The possibility hadn’t crossed his mind at all beforehand and it took both of them by surprise; he reached out towards her, mirroring her earlier caress. It didn’t end there and he found himself leaning in closer, another perfume becoming intimately registered in his memory. He pressed his lips against hers, softly, an act devoid of any motivation other than gratitude. The peck lasted only for an instant and he pulled away quickly, lest he become as clay again.
“Oh my, oh my~” Yuyuko vocalized softly. She acted modestly and looked on ahead, avoiding looking directly at his penetrating gaze. He knew that despite his lack of ability to put what he felt that that gesture had conveyed his affectionate gratitude well. There was something beyond that that he knew was possible but he was still incapable of understanding or expressing.
Wordlessly, they both leaned onto one another, shoulder to shoulder. An indeterminate amount of time passed. It seemed like they could well spend the rest of eternity just like that—a private joy that did not have to pretend to be anything lesser nor greater than what it was. Unfortunately, time waited for no one, not even ghosts.
“Lady Yuyuko,” a third party ultimately shattered the quiet moment. A girl in green had come into the room and meekly dared to make her presence known. It was Youmu, evidently. Shinji knew who she was just as he had known who Yuyuko had been without a word of introduction being needed. With her shoulder-length silver hair and black ribbon she carried with her an energy that was more forceful than the calm Yuyuko.
“Ah, Youmu, have you brought more snacks?” Yuyuko gently separated herself from him, facing the newcomer with a bright smile.
“There’s still some left on the tray,” Youmu pointed out, “but no, it’s not that.”
“Ah, of course, silly me!” Yuyuko grabbed one of the remaining snacks and wolfed it down in record time. She seemed to enjoy every moment of it, chewing contentedly. It looked like Youmu wanted to frown at that sight and struggled to keep a more neutral expression. Likewise, she struggled to not show that she was interested in him as she tried her best to keep her light-colored eyes from straying.
“Lady Yuyuko...” Youmu began again, “you said you needed me after I finished my chores for the day.”
“Oh yes, I did say something like that, I think,” Yuyuko said in a carefree manner, not really quick to answer. She seemed to enjoy having Youmu stand at a tense state of attention while she grabbed yet another snack. “Are you sure you don’t want another?” she turned to ask me. Biting off half of a small cracker, she then pushed it towards me, giggling, “Say ahhh~”
“Ahh~” I did as I was told, a feeling of primal happiness compelling me. I chewed happily as Youmu looked increasingly frustrated.
“Lady-” Youmu tried yet again.
She was interrupted by Yuyuko who waved a hand at her, stating, “yes, yes, I know. I haven’t forgotten. You need to learn patience, Youmu. Knowing how to enjoy the moment is important.”
“I’m sorry, I’ll try harder in the future,” Youmu lowered her head.
“See that you do,” Yuyuko skirted the line between scolding and friendly reminder. “You’ll have to try very hard for the foreseeable future.”
“What do you mean?” Youmu asked.
“You’re going to be in this man’s care for a while,” Yuyuko delivered the news calmly, “he’s off to do an important mission for me and you are to assist him however you are able.”
“Eh? Why?” Youmu reacted with surprise. Her shoulders drooped and betrayed how she really felt. Even as she attempted to sound unaffected, the quick glances she stole in Shinji’s direction gave her away. “This sort of thing is very sudden. Why couldn’t I do whatever you need by myself?”
“Think of it as part of your training,” Yuyuko said without offering any more details. She smiled at Youmu warmly but that only seemed to frustrated the latter more. The spectral blob that had been otherwise floating passively behind her began twitching anxiously. Youmu looked ready to raise another objection but Yuyuko cut her off, adding, “please wait outside, I wish to have a private word before you set off.”
Youmu couldn’t ignore a direct command like that and nodded an uneasy acknowledgement before withdrawing. Yuyuko waited another moment before saying anything else.
“Act as I would in getting her to obey,” Yuyuko said to him, resting on her hands and reclining a little. “She’s a good girl, just young and headstrong. If I know her, she’ll need some convincing before you set out. First impressions matter a lot.”
“...I’ll try my best,” Shinji answered, feeling swept up by the course of events. Instead of worry, he felt excitement; there was a feeling like if he was coming back to a hobby or sport that he enjoyed but hadn’t practiced in a while.
“That’s the spirit,” Yuyuko nodded approvingly. She gently straightened out his collar and patted down parts of his clothes that had gotten crumpled. Once done, she gave him a final reminder, “I’ll be waiting for you once you finish the first part. I hope we can have a lot more fun together.”
Shinji stood up, finding that a proper goodbye felt unnecessary. Both of them knew better than to say something superfluous. He left the room holding the envelope and with an intoxicating sense of purpose. Youmu stood in the hallway with her arms crossed, looking towards the door—and him—with unvarnished skepticism.
An introduction was in order.
 As advised, a familiar attitude was called for.  A blunt and more neutral approach would work well.
[x] A blunt and more neutral approach would work well.
I don't really get the "As advised" part of the first choice. How am I supposed to know how Yuyuko would get Youmu to obey? I don't know these people. And why would being familiar with her have anything to do with it? Youmu obeys Yuyuko because that's her entire job description, not because of how the latter acts, right? I don't get it.
Youmu isn't happy about this, but she's very serious about work, so I think trying to be 'professional' and seem eager to get to the job at first will work better. Reminds her it's Yuyuko's orders and all that, rather than trying to be friendly right away.
Treating people like a close friend from the moment you meet them has always been the go-to standard for me. It helps eliminate the feeling of exclusion that sometimes prevents introverts from making friends.
[x] As advised, a familiar attitude was called for.
He ignored the questioning stare as he introduced himself, “My name is Shinji, we will be working together for a while.”
The girl in green nodded. Though there was clearly much that she would have rather have said instead, she returned the introduction with a brief one of her own. “I’m Youmu,” she said, “I will do my best to assist you.”
“We should try to waste as little time as possible,” he said dryly. He could have dressed that statement up in any manner of ways but he wasn’t looking to be persuasive. Had he been, he may well have struggled as much of his mind was still a disconnected mess; there was little in way of connection between particular ideas, feelings and memories. The only thing that was truly clear to him was that he wished to help Yuyuko however he could.
“I need a moment to gather my things,” Youmu said after staring right at him for a moment. She seemed to be trying to size him up but found very little to work with. It would be obvious to all but the most dull of minds that she wondered about his sudden appearance and his relationship to her mistress. Lady Yuyuko was often frustratingly hard to read and even after years together she struggled to understand what it was what she meant with her words and decisions. It was easier for Youmu to fly off on her own and worry about the consequences later than it was for her to follow her advice.
Shinji followed Youmu down the hallway. He gave her some space and let her enter what he assumed was her quarters alone. The very traditional building was called Hakugyokurou, he somehow knew as much. It wasn’t exactly a grand manor but the mostly-wooden structure was spotless and had a quiet aged dignity to it. He wasn’t very curious about how the place came to be nor who else may have lived there but, had he been, he may not have learned much regardless—Youmu knew little and Yuyuko would share even less.
When Youmu emerged from her room, she had added a pair of sheathed swords to her person. Both blades were strapped to her back; one was almost as long as she was tall and the other only a little longer than her arm. She moved unencumbered by the burden and bid him to follow her. He did as asked, finding that the phantom that was always with the girl seemed to occasionally stop and turn to make sure he really was following.
He didn’t make much of either girl or phantom, his thoughts straying elsewhere. They emerged beyond a courtyard and finally outside the building to a quiet, windy landscape. Some trees clung stubbornly to their leaves but most had succumbed to the autumnal pressures and were virtually bare. Mountains loomed off in the distance and the whole scene felt somehow nostalgically calm. He took a deep breath and enjoyed the feeling of cool air filling his lungs.
They had continued to walk away from Hakugyoukurou for several minutes before the girl stopped suddenly. She turned to face him with a scrutinizing gaze. “Where are we going?” she asked something that ought to have been asked as soon as she was told to assist him.
Shinji wondered the same. He had no clue what he was supposed to be doing. Exactly, that is. Of course he remembered that he was supposed to manage people and to follow what the letter said. Yes, that was the answer—the letter. He had put it away into a pocket and now took it out again to open and read its contents.
“You don’t know, do you?” Youmu frowned at the obvious signs of ignorance. Impatience boiled over and became something increasingly ugly.
“This letter explains it all,” he said without picking up on her discontent. He was concentrated on finding out more about his mission.
“You can stay here,” Youmu stated as less of a suggestion but more of a command. Her faith in him was nil. While perhaps that would have been well-justified had she known what she would set out to do in the next few days and with whom, her reasons for taking a hard line then were far more trivial. In other words, she didn’t trust him and felt that Lady Yuyuko had once again overlooked her talents. She didn’t need a chaperone. After all, there was virtually nothing that she and her blades couldn’t handle.
He finished reading the letter and finally noticed the heavy atmosphere that had been developing. With an innocence that would have made Yuyuko smile, he asked the frowning girl, “Is there something on your mind?”
“Just tell me where we’re supposed to be going!” she snapped. “The sooner we get this over with, the better.”
“Oh, I agree,” he nodded, not really understanding why she was being short with him. “We should hurry along, don’t you think?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying,” she didn’t quite know how to express herself. Instead of coming up with a reasoned argument—of which there were many—she instead stooped to something rather childish. “The sooner we’re done, the sooner you can get back to spending time together with Lady Yuyuko,” she spat out.
“...I’m sorry, are you jealous?” Shinji asked straight out, eschewing tact. He meant to simply probe and discern the truth, not aggravate her further. Still, that was the very predictable effect of his words.
Youmu huffed in disbelief, the phantom part of her shaking at him in an accusatory manner. Together they summed up to deflection. She was incapable of an actual answer as she was becoming increasingly hardened towards processing her emotions appropriately. “What do you have to offer, anyhow?” she asked something that he couldn’t really answer.
“I’ve been entrusted to do this and I will do my best to carry out Lady Yuyuko’s request,” he provided an explanation that was obviously unsatisfactory to a heated head.
“You don’t seem to know much. Do you know where you have to go? Do you even know where you are? Can you fight someone if you need to?” she asked a flurry of questions, not really expecting an answer.
“With you there to help, I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he replied. That may have been the truth, and sort of what Yuyuko intended but that wasn’t an answer Youmu could live with.
A few spirits had begun to gather around them, sensing something out of the ordinary. They were used to seeing Youmu up and about, tending to chores and training but they were less accustomed to seeing her confront someone else. Yes, she had fought people who had entered the Netherworld in the past but this felt different. The stranger she was getting worked up over seemed oblivious to her more impulsive instincts.
“I have to do solve things by myself as usual,” she mumbled to herself, taking up an aggressive stance. Shinji found himself taking a few steps back due to some half-forgotten instinct. “If you can’t survive getting cut a little bit, then you can’t really be very useful,” she said something frightful. Not to mention rather rude.
“You want to fight me?” he asked without emotion. He just wanted to make sure.
“I’m pretty strong so I just want to make sure you aren’t weak,” she smirked in a display of potent self-satisfaction. That clearly wasn’t the reason why she was confronting him but it was the reason she attempted to use to justify her actions to both herself and the world. Her eyes narrowed. She would make the first move without hesitation but was giving him a moment to prepare himself.
 He would meet her on her own terms as a sign of good faith.  She could lash out but a fight would not truly settle the question.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/04(Mon)10:40
Had he even wished to fight, he would have been at a disadvantage. An armed opponent had greater reach and more capacity of inflicting harm easily than someone totally unarmed. Youmu’s body language also told him that she was experienced in a fight—her movements were deliberate without being overly tense—so the threat was even more dangerous. That she was smaller than him or more likely to underestimate his latent abilities did little to counterbalance the situation.
“Stop this,” Shinji said flatly. This was not a pleading mewl nor undignified request born of fear. On the contrary, it was a firm command. As a master might yet command a journeyman, he sought not to chide but let his quiet dignity of reason weigh down her ears.
“If you fear getting slashed, then maybe you shouldn’t be here,” Youmu postured, totally misreading the situation. To her partial credit, she held off from making the opening move. Whether this was due to doubt in her convictions or a reaction to his utter disinterest was unclear.
Shinji maintained eye contact. In her, he saw frothing excitement. In return, Youmu saw little more than a calm look. It was, indeed, frustratingly normal. It grated her for reasons that she could not put into words. Without making any sort of aggressive move, he sat down on the bare dirt. She now looked down at him, unsure whether his actions were an immediate forfeit or some sort of ruse; many in Gensokyo chose not to play fair and to strike whenever a guard were lowered.
As if reading her mind, he stated, “I will not fight. Do as you please.”
Something so simple was enough to trigger a panic in Youmu. She knew nothing about him nor why he was even there. He seemed to her about as normal as a man might appear though, admittedly, she knew little of men. Then why would he behaving in such a way? If Lady Yuyuko had foisted him upon him then it would be for good reason. There were few in Gensokyo that were utterly unremarkable. Her strongest instinct was to attack and to end the uncertainty.
Looking at his dark, almost opaque, eyes she could not help but to hesitate.
“Please fight me,” she requested, sounding pathetic even to herself. An uncomfortably hot sensation began to ripple across her face. Even her phatom seemed unsettled, coiling less like a snake ready to strike and more like a writhing worm wracked by uncertainty.
“There is no purpose to it,” he told her, at peace with his actions. His utterly relaxed state surely was opprobrious, she tried to reason. “Come join me,” he bid her with that fixed, unflinching stare.
It seemed that the spirits of the Netherworld that had been attracted by the prospect of a confrontation desisted. A few scattered but many remained, only now coming to a peaceful rest near the ground. As if they were mirroring the man’s calm and righteous posture. The cold carried by the breeze further dampened their excitement.
Youmu frowned. As a lifelong martial artist she knew how to read the many silent indicators that allowed a fight to be judged and understood. If an untrained eye might see a pair of combatants evenly trading blows then she would note the infinitesimally small times it took them to recover to their stance. Thus she could determine the level of fatigue and predict who would be the likeliest to make the first of many tiny mistakes that eventually led to defeat. This mixture of experience with instinct now told her that she had already lost.
Yet she could not seem to rationalize why. So she stared down at him, bewildered and ashamed. His serenity remained unchanged. Her fingers slipped from the grip. Next, her arm slackened back to her side. Finally, her legs yielded as she sat down opposite him. Exactly as he had beckoned.
“...why?” she asked, the word coming out as a whisper.
“You are in my care,” he replied. “We have a common purpose and act under the direction of the same person.”
“...that has nothing to do with finding other things out,” Youmu couldn’t help but offer up a childish protest.
“Is kindness not a strength?” he asked. In his mind the return of feeling, of conscience, of purpose had been an act of kindness. For someone to bring something from practically nothing was a more powerful ability than cutting down a foe.
“I don’t understand,” she shook her head, “if I had attacked you, then I’m sure I would have won.”
“That’s a foolish thing to worry about,” he put it quite bluntly. “You did not; we have both won.”
“Oh!” Youmu’s face lit and an involuntary smile formed across her lips. “I’m not sure that I understand what you mean but that reminded me of someone.”
He felt like there was something else that he was supposed to say but he did not have an immediate followup. Instead, he worried about something else. “I will need your support and patience,” he explained, “there may be need for your blades at some point.”
“Hmmmm… so I am going to fight someone,” Youmu nodded, “I wonder why Lady Yuyuko didn’t just allow me to fix things by myself then.”
“I’m not sure if you will fight,” Shinji told her, “though it would be best if I made that determination. There are more important matters at stake.”
“...we’ll see about that,” Youmu didn’t want to give in entirely, even though it was almost certain that she understood she was being unreasonable.
“You know the other inhabitants of Genoskyo, correct?” he asked.
“More or less, yeah,” she nodded and relaxed, somehow quickly forgetting that she had been ready to fight the man she was talking ago only moments ago.
“Then I’ll have you guide me to a few of them,” he said, recalling the contents of the letter. “You were correct about one thing—I don’t know the first thing about where I am. Are you up for the task?”
“I am,” Youmu replied, eyes again back to a more confident state.
“Then let us be off,” he stood up and shook the dust and dirt off of his bottom.
Youmu similarly bounced up to her feet. She patted down the edges of her skirt and made sure her swords were firmly fastened. “What’s our first destination, Master Shinji?” she asked eagerly.
He didn’t really understand her sudden enthusiasm. But he supposed that she were excited than dour and resistant. Mainly, he puzzled over something else. “Why do you call me ‘master’?” he vocalized the question.
Youmu avoided looking at him, turning around and pretending to redo the string and clasp that tied the large sword to her back. “You defeated me,” she offered an unclear explanation in a hushed voice.
“I said we both won,” Shinji countered, “what’s more, even if that were true, surely titles are not meant to be applied so liberally.”
“No, if Lady Yuyuko put me under your care, then you’re certainly a master,” she reasoned poorly. Was it to give cover to her own shortcomings? A desire to rationalize and accept her subsidiary role? It could have just as easily been a clumsy attempt to mend fences. If so, perhaps she was trying too hard. The phantom part of her seemed to turn what some might call its head towards him, as if to scout and judge his reaction.
“You would accept that as truth so readily for so petty a reason?” he asked, feeling incredulous.
“It’s not just that,” she said, “um, I’m not sure I can explain. It’s just a feeling I have. Maybe I can learn something useful from you? So if you’re my teacher and I’m your student…”
“As your instructor, I could be considered your master,” he saw some of the value of that logic. “Youmu,” he called out to her quietly. She froze up and stopped pretending to fiddle with her equipment. He sighed, “…have you stopped to consider how I may feel about that imposition?”
“It’s an imposition?” she asked without thinking. “Oh, sorry!”
Without having seen her face, he somehow knew that her embarrassment had manifested itself quite physically. He thought about the impact of her passing fancy.
 Comrades-in-arms had no use for formal titles.  How she chose to address him was of no concern.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/05(Tue)10:50
He could not say that he cared about what others thought of him. An extension of that truth was that a title was inherently meaningless. If it were convenient for someone else to use a specific word, then that was on them.
Shinji placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder. It elicited a small mouse-like “eep” from Youmu. It was difficult for him to believe that only moments ago she had hinted at masterful disciple of mind and body. Perhaps that was an ability solely reserved for combat, he explained it to himself.
“Let’s go,” he said, “call me what you will, but I won’t be calling you my disciple.”
“Alright,” Youmu replied, a small smile forming on her lips. It appeared that she was altogether too easy to please. She followed as he continued to walk on, adding, “I’ll be right behind you, master.”
The majority of the remaining spirits that had gathered in the area began to disperse. They would go back to idling their days in the quiet of the Netherworld, contemplating the landscape or their own existence as best as they could. A few others continued to follow the pair from the distance—mostly to make sure that they didn’t miss any other excitement that could possibly happen.
“We’ll need to leave this place,” Shinji said as he walked down a simple stone path. He recalled what the letter had said and he would need Youmu to guide him to his destination.
His companion asked an important question hesitantly, “you can fly, right?”
“I believe so,” he somehow knew he could. “A perk of being dead,” he wished to say but held off on saying anything unnecessary.
“That’s good,” Youmu said, “if we keep down this path after a while, there’s a part we can fly out to the rest of Gensokyo. May I ask where we’re going?”
“To a bamboo forest,” he replied. There they would meet someone else who would join them. Yuyuko’s letter claimed that while the broad strokes had already been agreed to, a few small details still needed to be sorted.
“Oh, I know how to get there!” Youmu exclaimed. “The people there like to hide away from the rest so I wonder why Lady Yuyuko wants us to go there?”
“I’m not certain of the full reasons, myself,” Shinji added. He didn’t want to keep her in the dark but his instincts told him that things would go smoother if he took things step by step. “There’s no use in speculating right now.”
They walked for a while longer before the path suddenly cut off into a clump of trees. All of the spirits that had followed them at first had gotten bored and scattered along the way. At his encouragement, Youmu took point and began to glide upwards slowly. It was thankfully easy for him to join her and he found that flying around required absolutely no conscious thought. It did feel like an odd thing to do to but, then again, he hadn’t fully squared the idea that he was a spirit or ghost of some sort.
The ground below got more distant and became harder to see due to a fine mist or fog. It became colder as they got higher and the only noise that he heard was the flapping of cloth against air. Youmu increased her velocity when she noticed that he was able to keep up with her well enough. Soon they were someplace that may as well have been the inside of a cloud. Soon thereafter, signs of the greater world became visible again.
His first impression of Gensokyo proper was that it somehow felt nostalgic. He couldn’t remember what he was being reminded of precisely. The deep forests that stretched up mountains and down into a flat expanse drew the eye. As did a large lake as well as fields and a large concentration of buildings that was likely a village. Had he been just by himself, he would have been at a loss where to go. Youmu continued to fly ahead, zooming towards the land below confidently.
They moved in a direction opposite from the largest mountain, skirting what Shinji confirmed to be a large village. The terrain was by and large flatter than the rest of the area and a few carts traveled presumably towards the village on a dirt road. The green barrier cut off the open area; the bamboo forest was large and dense. Even from the air it was difficult to see inside as, unlike the cherry blossoms in the Netherworld, the tall stalks kept most of their leaves.
Youmu slowed down and descended, coming to a rest at the edge of the forest. “Master,” she asked, “where exactly in the forest do we need to go? It’s pretty easy to get lost in here if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”
Shinji laughed. Youmu thought he was making fun of her and so pouted. He noticed and disabused her of the notion, “my instructions are somewhat vague, I’m afraid. Yuyuko has told me to ‘ask a rabbit’ for guidance. Perhaps you know what that means?”
“Oh, um, yes, I think I do!” Youmu tried to pretend she hadn’t been on the verge of a full-on sulk by turning away to face the green wall. “I think we have to go to the mansion, there’s plenty of rabbits there.”
“Can you find us passage there, then?”
“I’ll try,” she nodded but inspired little confidence.
The man thought about how to best handle the situation. There was no guarantee that there progress would be made in a timely manner. Visibility was poor and there were no signs of clearing or landmarks once within the bamboo. He didn’t see any rabbits around that he could consult. They tended to be a skittish lot and finding one to ask questions might prove difficult.
 He relied on her instincts to find a path.  Entrapping a rabbit was the fastest way to get questions answered.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/06(Wed)11:00
Youmu took the lead. She was not entirely at ease with her role—immediately struggling to move through the dense patches of very leafy bamboo. Whenever she thought she had successfully cleared a particularly challenging part of the forest she found that there was plenty more stretching out in every direction. More than once she thought of simply slicing down the annoying stalks and more than once she looked back at Shinji and decided to be patient for a while longer.
She had been entrusted to find the way through and the sense of obligation made her quiet any complaints she might have otherwise voiced. It didn’t matter that her dress—that favorite three piece ensemble that she thought made her look smart—was getting scuffed by the forest. Shinji wasn’t complaining and, if her master said nothing, then surely it would be inappropriate for her to raise any objections. The swordswoman concentrated and looked for any sign of a path or habitation.
It seemed from time to time that they might have been on the right track. Youmu was happy to discover her first dirt trail in the middle of the forest and followed it diligently. That is, until it came to an abrupt end. There were no tracks or explanation as to why there had been a relatively clear length of ground in the first place. She felt frustrated but continued to put on a confident front, charging on ahead with evermore vigor.
Shinji had not said anything mostly because he was taking in his new surroundings. Contrasted to the Netherworld, Gensokyo was absolutely lively; birdsong came in periodically from all directions, the bamboo swayed and reacted to both wind and movement at their base, and the occasional small critter could be spotted warily staring from a distance or darting back towards its unseen den. He readily forgave the inconvenience of having to push aside brush to advance and, indeed, seemed to enjoy the very physicality of the act. Of course, that began to change as time went on.
Youmu was nowhere closer to finding her way through the forest. She used the excuse that her ribbon was coming close to being undone to gauge Shinji’s mood. “I’m afraid we’re not making much progress,” she admitted, slightly out of breath. Her phantom half drooped, echoing the apologetic mood. “It’s been a long time since I came by here. Maybe Lady Yuyuko would remember the place...”
“Do you wish to take a break?” Shinji asked, mindful of not pushing her too hard. “I don’t suppose it would help to fly above the canopy.”
“It wouldn’t,” she shook her head, “this is the sort of place that it’s easier to leave from than get into.”
“What do you want to do?” he asked, patiently.
“I want to keep trying, master!” she didn’t even think about giving another reply.
“Wandering aimlessly isn’t a very sound strategy, however, “ he noted, “we’ve been at this for over an hour already.” He picked off a leaf that had fallen on her shoulder and gave a quick adjustment to the other ribbon tied up in a bow around her collar.
“I won’t let you down,” Youmu bowed her head. She attempted to reciprocate his gesture by clearing off some dirt on his collar but she fumbled and her fingers ended up slipping down a ways down his chest. In a right panic she repeated the attempt quickly while muttering an apology.
He didn’t seem to either mind or pay much notice at her flustered move. Something had caught his eye; the swaying of some bamboo close by led him to believe that something big was nearby. Someone, perhaps. If that was the case then they were somewhat shy. He decided to observe for the time being.
“Let’s get back to it,” he urged his companion.
For the next twenty or so minutes, Youmu redoubled her efforts. They ran into yet another dirt path that went nowhere. That was at least a welcome break from the variable-width gaps between bamboo and other plants. She hadn’t yet noticed herself, but Youmu began to hum softly as she led the way.
Shinji was preoccupied with the presence that had been trailing them all the while; it kept a steady distance and made next-to-no noise. If it weren’t for the very subtle persistence of swaying in patches of bamboo they had passed he wouldn’t have noticed at all that they were still keeping up. He couldn’t say for sure whether or not it was a threat but he didn’t believe that it was. A hostile creature would have jumped out long ago when their backs were turned. Then again, it did feel like the presence was getting closer over time.
“Youmu,” he stopped her from pushing on.
“What’s the matter, master?” she turned to look back at him, wiping off a bead of sweat from her brow.
“You’ve done a good job,” he said, “there is a clearing just over there. That must be something.”
“Eh?” Youmu looked around. She hadn’t noticed that just twelves or so body lengths to the right the bamboo thinned out quickly. Her instincts weren’t half bad, she thought to herself in a congratulatory manner.
They could just make out the edge of a wall, part of a larger structure concealed by the bamboo. Shinji took the lead, patting Youmu supportively on the shoulder for a job well done. The girl beamed up at him, the fatigue washing away from her body at that moment.
 They pressed on to find a rabbit in the building ahead.  He called out to their new companion to stop hiding and join them.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/07(Thu)12:00
I'll repeat something from earlier because it seems it hasn't sunk in: don't try to be cleverer than is needed. The choices should be taken at face value. They would not be options if the parties involved thought themselves incapable of performing an action or that the underlying reasoning behind them was unsound.
Youmu took the lead again, eager to finally get out of the brush. Shinji wasn’t in as big of a hurry. He followed her for a few steps before coming to a stop again. “Would you like to join us?” he asked. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder at a concentration of bamboo a ways behind them.
“Oh, sorry?” Youmu didn’t get what was going on.
Shinji ignored her for the time being. The person slinking around was his sole focus. There had been no response and no further movement. “I’ve known you’ve been following us for some time,” he said firmly, his voice carrying some distance.
“There’s someone there?” Youmu craned her neck at the spot where she thought Shinji was staring. As far as she could tell, there was no one there. Still, she didn’t want to be unprepared if anything else happened so she moved her hands towards her blades just in case.
Shinji waited a moment. He didn’t see any movement nor hear anything but the far-off calls of birds. He repeated his invitation, adding, “we’re not that pressed for time, we can have a nice chat if you like.”
Try as they might, the bamboo would not reveal its secrets. It was quiet and there was little for Shinji to do but to risk getting closer. He didn’t think that a feral monster was about to jump out but there was always going to be something inherently unnerving about not knowing who he might be dealing with. “I’m sorry,” he said, signaling for Youmu to say back with his hand, “I’m coming a little closer. If you’re shy, don’t worry, my companion will stay behind.”
“Are you sure-?” Youmu began but got shushed with another wave of his hand. She could do little but watch her master make a bold gamble. If anything happened, she would rush in, cutting a path to safety. Neither youkai nor bamboo could resist the sharp edge of her swords.
“What are you two doing?” a voice coming from the clearing interrupted the scene. Youmu pivoted quickly with sword in hand. But she held off, recognizing the new arrival.
“...hello,” Shinji didn’t want to turn around in case the person following them decided to use the distraction to escape. “I don’t mean to be rude but someone’s been following us, I wish to find out who it is.”
“There’s no one there,” the voice said.
“Oh? How can you be so sure?” Shinji asked.
“I’m used to this forest,” came the reply, “besides, I’ve just come up from a direction similar to yours. I would have noticed someone else besides you.”
“...maybe she’s the one you noticed, master,” Youmu piped up, hoping to be helpful.
“I don’t think so,” Shinji kept his eyes firmly at a particularly suspicious clump of bamboo. Between the leafy green leaves… there might have been flashes of other colors. He wasn’t sure.
“She lives here and...” Youmu tried to explain things. Shinji motioned for her to be quiet again.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to be rude,” Shinji apologized to seemingly everyone at once. Then he moved quickly—far more nimbly than, say, Youmu might have expected him to be able to—and rushed at the spot where he thought the other person could be hiding. “Ah!” he blurted out upon finding no one there.
“Looks like you were wrong,” the latest arrival said, “it’s easy to get lost around here. And it’s easier still to imagine seeing or hearing things.”
“I suppose you might be right,” Shinji collected his thoughts, giving his surroundings one more scan before engaging in the usual rituals of civility. He found that he was talking to someone who definitely fit the bill for Yuyuko’s hint.
Those long and slender rabbit ears looked somewhat like antennae from a distance. Still, there was little else about her that was even remotely bug-like. She wore her lilac hair long, around knee-length. With a simple light-colored top and a slightly darker skirt she looked rather normal. A necktie was an eccentric little touch but otherwise the large rabbit girl made a normal first impression. She had a backpack on and, with one of her hands, she held onto a strap mindlessly.
He introduced himself, “My name is Shinji, I’ve business in this forest with a rabbit. Perhaps it may well be you?”
“I doubt it,” Youmu interjected without thinking, “she works for the person in charge so she can probably point us in the right direction.”
The rabbit girl frowned a little at Youmu; the latter failed to notice and smiled at Shinji, convinced she was being helpful. “I guess I can take to you my master,” the girl said.
“That would be just fine,” Shinji said, “please lead the way.”
The girl waited for him to come towards the clearing with Youmu. “I’m Reisen, by the way,” she said softly, her red eyes scanning over them. It was only natural for her to be suspicious of them, Shinji thought, especially as Youmu was a little too quick to leap into action.
The clearing revealed a large building that seemed almost too big to hide in the middle of a forest. This mansion had a walled exterior and looked to be no less sophisticated than Hakugyokurou. Reisen walked towards a short paved path that led up to a small gate. She didn’t seem very talkative, which Shinji respected. Some caution and reserve was likely wise when meeting a stranger.
“I’ve been here before, you know,” Youmu bragged to Shinji, fiddling with her swords so that they were once again carefully sheathed and strapped to her. “I came here with Lady Yuyuko, it was an exciting adventure.”
“Is that so?” he asked with some disinterest. His first instinct would be to get the rabbit girl to open up some so he could gauge whether or not he was on the right track. Chatting with Youmu about the past could wait. Reisen seemed perfectly contented to let them talk among themselves as she opened up the gate and ushered them in. He noticed that there were a pair of regular rabbits by the entrance. They scampered away upon spotting them, going towards the back of the building.
“Welcome to Eientei,” Reisen said, “keep following me and we’ll go to the infirmary. If my master is available I’ll ask if she would be willing to speak to you.”
 Youmu continued speaking of the past. Under the guise of conversation, he discretely let her know that he had seen footprints where he checked in the forest.  It was a puzzle why the note had suggested speaking to a rabbit. He wished to figure it out by engaging with Reisen and learning more about her.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/08(Fri)15:00
Sorry, life was being life. I plan to return to a more regular schedule but this one vote is going to be shorter than usual.
For the time being, Shinji decided to focus on the rabbit. He didn’t mean to leer but there was no avoiding the fact that some of her features directed attention; as she led them into the building proper, a puffy bulge in her backside drew the gaze to both tail and surrounding backside. Youmu continued to prattle on about this or that but very little of it was relevant.
“It’s strange to see a place like this hidden away from the world,” he used a moment of silence to start up conversation with Reisen. Admittedly, it wasn’t the smoothest of entries but it seemed reasonable enough to him to talk about his surroundings. The interior was all wood and fine wood at that—the corridor featured finely varnished surfaces as far as the eye could see and screen doors had delicate depictions of the bamboo landscape outside.
“Privacy is something that the people here value very much,” Reisen stated, making no bones about the fact that she was also referring to herself. It was difficult to tell just how large the building was—the corridor seemed to stretch on forever and a turn to the left showed that there were plenty other corridors like it.
“We had to drag them out of hiding that one time,” Youmu piped up unhelpfully.
“...” the rabbit said nothing.
“At any rate,” Shinji cut in, “maybe I’ve lived a sheltered experience thus far but I’ve never met a rabbit before. I wouldn’t have expected you to live among the bamboo. I’m certain you have your reasons,” he said, mindful of her reservations, “but I suppose it might get boring being all alone out here at times.”
“We’re private, not antisocial,” the girl replied with a shake of her head. She wore a slight smirk on her lips that was equal parts bemused as entertained. That was an encouraging sign for Shinji, who chose to leave Youmu behind in order to walk closer to their guide.
“I saw other rabbits on our way in. They didn’t even bother to greet us,” he said, with a chuckle, “so are you sure about that?”
“Oh, those guys? They probably went to tell Tewi that someone different had shown up with me,” she explained. “Tewi is another rabbit, by the way, I’m sure she’ll make you meet her if she’s interested in you.”
“Hm, is that how it goes? I suppose I’ll be in luck if that’s the case,” he said.
“Yes, you will be,” she laughed softly to herself. He knew it was a private joke but he couldn’t even begin to suss out what it could mean.
Shinji didn’t have much to go on yet but he felt it in his gut that Reisen wasn’t a bad person. If Yuyuko had a specific rabbit in mind then it could as well have been her. “What kind of person is your master?” he asked, figuring that he could learn something by the way she explained their relationship.
“Someone wise and very smart,” she said.
“I suppose you would look up to someone you called ‘master’,” he opined, unsurprised.
“No,” she felt compelled to explain, “I’m not saying that because I admire her. That’s her reputation. I was lucky to have her take me in and I’ll always be grateful for that but I don’t think there’s many people like her out in the world. She’s really one of a kind.”
“My master is no slouch either!” Youmu once again butt in, “I’m hoping to learn some of his deep wisdom while spending time together.”
“Oh, so it’s like that between you two?” Reisen smiled, “I didn’t really expect that. You abandoned that other ghost for bossing you around?”
“Um, no! Lady Yuyuko is still, well… more in some ways, less on others…?” Youmu struggled to explain herself. She came to a somewhat coherent position before too long, stating, “There’s different sorts of things I can learn from Master Shinji so I want to make the most of it while we’re working together. We’re both working for Lady Yuyuko.”
“...there’s room for another in our little squad,” Shinji used humor to divert attention from Youmu’s improperly detailed explanation. He preferred to be reserved and divulge as little as possible when meeting someone new. After all, he had no idea if his goals and hers aligned. Better to leave things ambiguous than to out yourself as being at cross purposes at the first opportunity.
“I’ll have to ask my master for permission first,” Reisen said with an equal degree of humor. Her reasonable nature reassured Shinji that things were going well.
It didn’t take them very long to reach their destination; Shinji attempted to keep up the conversation but found that a combination of Reisen’s aloofness and Youmu’s (un)timely interruptions kept him from scratching much beyond the surface. There were a few comfortable-looking chairs along one side of the room with a table and printed material of varying subject matter within arms’ reach. The room was otherwise sparse save for a few images that were posted on the walls depicting people that had bandages or some sort of injury smiling as a woman treated them. A stuffed toy rabbit also had been abandoned in a corner—he had mistaken it for an actual rabbit at first glance.
“Please take a seat and wait here,” Reisen instructed. She took off her backpack with a grunt and lay it gently down in a corner. Before going through another set of doors she took a moment to stop in front of a mirror and gave her tie a quick adjustment, fiddling with a carrot-shaped clip that had strayed down.
As she disappeared through the door, Shinji did as he was told and sat down. Youmu, however, walked up to the mirror and took a look at her own face and clothes. “Geez, I’m going to have to sew a few ends before they come loose,” she complained. After making sure that the ribbon on her head was still nice and fluffy, she gave her reflection an encouraging nod.
“Do you think she’s the rabbit we’re looking for?” she asked him as she performed a similar check on the phantom around her.
“Hard to say,” Shinji kept his cards close to his chest. “What do you make of her?”
“Alright, I suppose. We haven’t really spoken much outside of incidents. She’s strong in her own way. Has an icky but powerful ability. Not enough to stop my swords, of course,” Youmu smirked.
“Of course,” he nodded.
“Hm...” Youmu peered at him with suspicion.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, well, it’s just that you’ve got the same expression Lady Yuyuko gets sometimes. Like she knows something I don’t but doesn’t want to share it. It’s about Reisen, isn’t it?”
Shinji laughed, “what makes you think that? Surely I’m not that easy to read!”
She crossed her arms and moved towards the chairs. For a moment, it seemed like she was going to accuse him of something but her expression was soft and her words likewise mild, “Maybe it’s just a feeling, I don’t know. I just try my best and things work out so I don’t really try to think about what she’s thinking because it’s a waste of time.”
“Perhaps you should try to understand your masters if you want to learn from them?” he suggested.
“I learn by seeing and doing. And I’m a quick study!” she harrumphed unwisely.
It was so tone-deaf that it got the patient Shinji to consider impressing upon his so-called student a lesson.
 He shared some of what he thought of the situation, in hopes that she would learn something.  He could not help but have fun at her expense and crowed on about how alluring he had found the rabbit.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/09(Sat)12:10
“I suppose you are right,” Shinji said, not being able to take the girl’s over-eagerness too seriously. He wondered what was possessing him to say what he then said, “I was holding something back from you.”
“Oh, I knew it!” Youmu exclaimed giddily like she had just won a lottery drawing. The phantom around her floated up and down rapidly as if hopping with joy. “So, what is it?”
“Ah, I’m not sure if I ought to tell you,” he held back from just blurting it out. For whatever reason he felt that he had to draw her in some more.
“I can handle whatever it is,” Youmu stated, looking a little too proud of herself, “it’s fine for the master to rely on his student every once in a while too.”
“Is that so? Perhaps you’re right,” Shinji said, stopping to stroke his chin. He enjoyed keeping her in suspense as he ran his fingers through his short beard. It seemed like she was ready to hang on his every word. He wondered if perhaps Yuyuko behaved the same towards her. It seemed like it was an easy enough thing to do.
He motioned for her to sit next to him, indicating that it was to be a confidential conversation. The quick study that she was, she understood and she did her best to put on a solemn face—not that she could totally hide the lingering excitement on being let in on a secret. The phantom hovered in close, almost wrapping around Youmu like a snake.
“Here’s the thing: you know that rabbit?” Shinji spoke in a hushed tone. He waited for her to lean in closer and nod. “I’m only telling you this because I trust you. Well, the thing is that I can’t get her out of my mind.”
“She has the ability to mess with minds, you know,” she whispered a little too loudly for it to be a strictly confidential conversation.
“Maybe that’s it,” he agreed, “then again… it might be something else entirely.”
“Like what? I didn’t see her do anything strange.”
“I guess you could say that I found her enchanting.”
“Oh so she can use magic?” Youmu asked.
“No, I mean that she’s charming. Very cute, might be my type of woman,” Shinji stated very dryly, without giving a single hint that he might have been joking.
“Eh? What about Lady Yuyuko?!” Youmu reacted in an unexpected fashion. Shinji hadn’t expect her to make that connection. Although it made sense. She had made an assumption when they had first met, one that wasn’t wholly unfounded.
“We’re not like that,” he explained, trying not to play on the defensive, “a man and woman can be close without all that you imagine.”
“But she might not think like you,” Youmu shook her head, “it sounds like it could be a huge misunderstanding that might hurt her.”
“It’s really not,” he insisted, “we’ve known each other for a day, there is nothing more than empathy and respect between us.”
“Ah, but you just said that Reisen is your type and you just met,” she reasoned, “couldn’t it be the same for you and Lady Yuyuko?”
“I suppose you’re right,” he conceded, annoyed that he hadn’t been as clever as he had hoped. Despite being easily led around the nose, her instincts weren’t wholly bad. “Regardless, Reisen has the most lovely hair, don’t you think? I imagine it takes her a long time to brush that in the mornings.”
“...I don’t think she’s that cute,” Youmu pouted. She wasn’t too sure how she felt. Surprise, certainly, but also something different and more personal—jealousy if she could have found the word. By proxy, perhaps, but jealousy all the same. Her new master’s words were a little too sudden. Even she knew that it would be a little too insulting to blurt out but she hadn’t really seen him as a man before.
“Ah, you just don’t understand the appeal of a nice, puffy tail,” he continued, “nor the confident-yet-reserved attitude she has. It drove me wild, let me tell you.”
“I’m confident too!” Youmu blurted out something without really understanding why. The implicit question was, “do you like me too?” though she couldn’t quite bring herself to ask that.
“It’s difficult to speak of matters of the heart, especially to the inexperienced,” Shinji said with as much gravitas as he could muster. Though he supposed that a spirit could be any age and maintain a youthful appearance, he had assumed in his subconscious that he was older than her. He could therefore be excused for some level of condescension.
“I’m not that inexperienced,” Youmu said quietly. When he gave her a quizzical look she wiggled uncomfortably in her seat, reluctant to say anything more.
“Be that as it may,” he couldn’t help but laugh, “this is what was on my mind. I’m certain you’ll understand the truth behind all this one day.”
“...I think I might tell Lady Yuyuko about this,” she made a strange threat. Strange because he didn’t think either him nor Yuyuko would mind. What’s more, she might get a laugh as she realized what it was that Shinji was trying to do to Youmu.
“Following your conscience is never a bad thing,” he said, capping off the exchange with a real lesson.
If Youmu wished to pry more, she became unable as her window of opportunity closed. Reisen returned, with a polite smile. “Please come on in. My master says that she’s been expecting you,” she announced.
“Hm, expecting me?” Shinji asked as he stood up.
“Yes, she said that I should have also been expecting you,” she said with a laugh, “of course she knows that’s impossible as I was following another order of hers.”
He had noted that Youmu had been staring at him quite intently. His guess was that she was attempting to scrutinize whether or not he was smitten by the lovely Reisen. However could she hope to tell? He wasn’t about to slobber all over himself nor blurt out lewd love poetry.
“I’m going to prepare tea, would you like some?” Reisen asked.
“Yes, that would be fine,” he replied. “Youmu, why don’t you join her?”
“Eh?” the silver-haired girl failed to catch on at once.
“It would be a nice gesture,” he stated. The truth was very clearly something else: he wished to speak to Reisen’s master by himself. If he had been expected then it stood to reason that it was for some purpose. No doubt Yuyuko had planned that all along.
“I don’t mind the company,” the rabbit said, possibly catching on to the reasoning. Or perhaps she had a good idea of what her master’s preferences were.
Youmu didn’t seem entirely convinced.
“I’m sorry, but would you give us a moment alone?” Shinji made a request.
“I’ll be right outside,” Reisen nodded amiably, taking no offense. She left the room, closing the door behind her.
“Youmu,” Shinji berated her, “you need to trust me to make these decisions. I am to meet her master alone. Observing things elsewhere is a better use of your time. One can never know when that sort knowledge can turn out to be useful.”
“Oh, so it’s a mission!” Youmu became chipper instantly. It seemed that she responded well to being given a sense of purpose.
“Indeed it is,” he began to explain the most important things she ought to focus on:
 Becoming friendly with Reisen and earning her trust.  Finding whether or not there’s anything or anyone suspicious lurking around.
[x] Becoming friendly with Reisen and earning her trust. Telling this Youmu to find out about a specific thing is as good as firing off a missile. She'll treat it like an interrogation or something. This choice isn't likely to turn out that much better on that front, but still.
Also I feel slightly insulted on Youmu's behalf by how incompetent you're making her. Poor girl. She's not THAT clueless, is she?
Youmu acknowledged the request. Though not without showing a little bit of cheek, saying, “don’t worry, I’ll find out if she likes you too.”
“Oh, it’s much more thrilling if one finds out on one’s own,” he chuckled to himself, somewhat pleased that she was taking things in stride. The combination of eagerness and sobriety did make for a good fighter but did make social interaction awkward at times. He suspected that they would get on just fine if Youmu relaxed and had a little fun.
Deciding just how serious he should act was a different matter entirely. He watched Youmu leave before walking up to the other set of doors. A good first impression was a must. So he attempted to be extra mindful; he rapped on the door lightly and, upon hearing a reply, opened it and went in.
The other room was a fairly standard examination room. There were charts on the wall, a tray with the most common of examination tools, a partition curtain which hid a bed, and a few anatomical models that had even the most intimate of details. Shinji, of course, could make an educated guess about the purpose of these things; the fact remained he had had a very provincial concept of healthcare and what a doctor might do. Something like an IR thermometer may as well have been a magical artifact.
Reisen’s master sat at a desk, reading through a pile of collated papers. Seeing that Shinji had come in, she stood up and greeted him. She extended her hand towards him and that small action caught off guard. “My apologies for making you wait,” she took the initiative by taking his hand and shaking it. It was not an unwelcome gesture but he bowed all the same to return the greeting.
“My name is Shinji, please to make your acquaintance,” he introduced himself. In the back of his mind he wished he could be less familiar but his memory extended no further than his given name.
It didn’t seem that she minded in the least. “Eirin,” she said, “Udongein was just telling me how you were looking for someone around here.”
“Ah, yes, apologies, I mean Reisen,” she clarified with a smile. He found himself liking her almost immediately; she projected a confident aura that was manifest in both her body language and choice of words. The choice of a blue and red dress partitioned almost in a heraldic fashion was unusual but he liked the points of white carefully stitched in the patterns of constellations. It at least matched her blue cap with a red cross which sat atop a head of dark silver hair which was about as long as Reisen’s but done up with an intricate and long braid.
Eirin offered him a seat on a small stool. She grabbed another one for herself instead of sitting in the padded chair by her desk. It kept them both at similar heights and allowed their eyes to meet freely. “You must forgive me for being so blunt,” she said, “but I had expected that wily ghost to show up here herself.”
“You mean Lady Yuyuko?”
“Hm, quite formal,” she noted, echoing Yuyuko’s own reaction to the title, “yes, I meant her. She seemed to be enthusiastic about the idea so I expected her. Has she told you the purpose of this meeting?”
“No, only given me a letter with instructions to come here and seek out a rabbit,” he confessed. It would do him no good to dissemble and try to suss out more information from someone who clearly knew much more than he.
“I’ll never understand that desire to play games,” she shook her head. “I suppose I do see the value in revealing as little as possible, however. Gensokyo is the sort of place where rumors tend to gain a life of their own. ‘A handsome ghost showed up at Eientei and spoke to the sage there’ could get spun into any number of sorry stories.”
“Ah, that’s a kind assessment of poor old me,” he chuckled, finding the woman’s forwardness oddly endearing.
“It’s the beard,” she explained with a convivial wink, “you wear it well.”
“I was not aware I was in the presence of a sage, however, so my apologies if I’ve been too dull a companion,” he prodded gently at her.
“Oh, that?” she flashed a fairly self-deprecating smile, “that’s just a title given by others a long time ago. I’d rather be known as a doctor or, better yet, a kind master.”
“There is much I would like to know about this place. Indeed, some of those things relate to you” he confessed, “but I suppose that ought to wait.”
“I suppose it must,” she agreed, seeing where he was headed.
“So what am I to do?” he asked.
Eirin placed a hand on her chin, stopping to think for a moment. “I suppose I must give you a trial,” she concluded, “such is the way of these things. It’s what your Lady Yuyuko will want, I wager. Don’t worry—there’s a reward for completing it successfully.”
“My meager skills aren’t very useful for most things, but I’ll try my best,” he replied.
“You won’t be alone,” she explained, “both the other ghost and Reisen will be joining you. This trial is both about you and them. I do not wish to be too mysterious about this so I’ll flatly confess that seeing how you approach the situation is more interesting to how it actually turns out.”
“Will it be a tactical conundrum or a moral one?” he asked, struggling to think how he could make much of a difference in a situation with two other people.
“The most interesting ones are always contain both,” Eirin chuckled, “I am beginning to see why she sent you. We ought to have tea together on some other occasion after this matter is done.”
“It would be my pleasure,” he answered politely, at once interested in what it was he was going to be doing. Yuyuko clearly wanted him to guide Youmu and was it the same with Eirin and Reisen? Or were they both supposed to just be means to an end?
“Before getting to the heart of things, I must confess that my curiosity has gotten the better of me,” Eirin said, sounding apologetic, “I’d like to ask you a probing question.”
“I don’t mind, ask away,” he replied.
“Most people would agree that hard work merits reward,” she framed the context in a philosophical manner, “I wish to avoid getting too bogged down into abstract and heady a discussion. So I’ll skip some of the structural arguments. Needless to say there are those who would say the the only real reward in life is the self-improvement that comes as a result of much effort. So externalities like the material matter little.”
She paused, seeing if he was following her line of thinking. “I understand that perspective,” he said.
“Good,” she nodded in reply. “My question may not seem directly related to what I just said and what will probably happen but I believe it is. Which has most value then? The reward you get from the process of making the effort or the end state after all is said and done. That is to say: the struggle towards enlightenment or enlightenment itself?”
Shinji thought about the question. And replied confidently.
 The journey was what mattered the most.  Without a satisfactory resolution the rest was less important.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/11(Mon)12:00
His answer was not what one might expect from someone promised another life after death. In aligning with the transitory and ill-defined present, he found himself unable to justify his quest. Not that it really mattered. If he liked, he could well find meaning in the struggle, in the process. Whether or not that was a freeing thought or just a coping mechanism was up for debate. Internal debate, that was, as Eirin didn’t really press him further on his reasoning.
“In a sense, that equips you well for what comes next,” Eirin stated, folding her arms across her chest. She showed no overt signs of judgment; he could not be sure whether or not she approved of his answer. He caught himself reflecting her querstion back at her, curious to know what she would choose. “It’s somewhat of a reductionist position, wouldn’t you agree?” she dodged giving a proper reply.
“The best option was not to reply at all,” he shook his head, amused. It hadn’t occurred to him to reject the premise. He tried to connect the dots nonetheless, asking her about what happened next.
“Udongein will be back at any moment with tea,” she explained with a polite smile, “then I’ll provide more details for your trial. More efficient that way.”
“So it’s important that she knows what she’s doing? And Youmu as well?”
“Somewhat,” Eirin shrugged, “I know that she’ll obey. Like I said, more efficient than repeating myself.”
As if on cue, a knock came at the door. Eirin welcomed the pair of arrivals and the tray they carried. Youmu smiled at him in a carefree fashion, offering a spontaneous opinion, “she’s really good at making tea, she’s practiced a lot.”
“Well, of course she is,” Eirin spoke proudly of her protege, “I’ve always encouraged her to do her best.”
“Thank you, master,” Reisen nodded as she set down the tray on the desk. She poured out four cups and handed them to every person present. Shinji could tell that the tea had been brewed at the precise temperature just by smell alone—the taste more than confirmed the superiority of leaf and Reisen’s fastidiousness.
The two girls stood by their respective masters, consciously deciding against taking a seat. There was a lull in the conversation as all enjoyed their tea quietly.
It was Shinji who carried things forward, asking Eirin about the task. “I assume we can tackle it right away,” he stated, observing how Eirin reacted.
“Udongein,” Eirin smiled at her apprentice, “you are on loan for the foreseeable future.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” the rabbit said quietly, placing her cup on a nearby table. It seemed obvious at a glance that she had very little luck reading Eirin; Shinji could therefor not be faulted for being in a similar predicament.
“It’s simple:” Eirin explained, “you are to follow this handsome fellow’s orders as if they were my own. That will be your duty until I say otherwise.”
“...I understand,” Reisen bowed in acknowledgment.
“Just like that?” Youmu interjected, “that seems a little weird, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“They trust one another,” Shinji preempted a reply from the others, “in other words, they know that this is the best way forward.”
“It’s something like that,” Reisen agreed, smiling at Eirin. Her red eyes showed that she would accept even the most ridiculous of requests if asked.
It appeared that Youmu was touched by the display of fealty. She nodded approvingly and shut up—smiling to herself and a far off Lady Yuyuko. For the most part, she stayed out of the ensuing conversation, happy to sip tea and observe how her own master and Eirin’s rather strong presence interacted. What’s more: as the two masters spoke about more technical matters, she and Reisen stole understanding glaces at one another.
“-what is this medicine for?” Shinji asked, trying to come to grips with the task ahead.
“That is a confidential subject, I’m afraid,” Eirin frowned, trying to emphasis that it was something that she had to keep quiet for the sake of someone else. “The important thing is that it was requested and that the recipient is not aware that she needs it. Or, perhaps it’s best said, she would claim that it’s unnecessary.”
“Why us then? Why not just yourself or Reisen?” he asked.
“I only deal with people who come to me freely,” she explained, “the request was made in person and I honored it warning that the other person would not accept the imposition.”
“Sure, fine, then why can’t you just give it to the person who requested it, have them sort it out?”
“Because I knew that this would be a possibility,” she said.
“What was?” Shinji sought a clearer answer, “my intervening?”
“Yes,” Eirin confirmed it without hesitation. “Two birds with one stone, as it were. Remember, I do not care if you’re successful. I only care how you carry on.”
“And the reward?” he decided to be a little cheeky. “I suspect it’s not a kiss and a confession of undying love.”
“Indeed not,” she laughed, giving Reisen a look that was indicative of a private joke; the rabbit smiled back at her, recalling immediately what it was that she meant. With a smile still on her face, she shared some bad news, “You’ll have to take a leap of faith. I’m certain you’ll enjoy your reward but it remains a secret until you finish your task.”
“Sounds like something Lady Yuyuko would say,” Youmu muttered to herself, barely loud enough for Shinji to overhear.
“Very well then,” Shinji felt like sighing but managed to control himself. “Reisen, if you don’t mind, you’ll be in my care for now. I appreciate your opinion, so don’t be afraid to speak up.”
“I look forward to working with you,” she replied with a small bow, her ears juddering forward.
“I will need another hour or so to get everything ready,” Eirin said, “you’re welcome to enjoy Eientei’s hospitality until then.” Catching herself by looking at the cup right in front of her, she shrugged, “Do take your time and finish your tea first, sorry.”
“Youmu,” Shinji took a sip from his cup and then gave the girl a command, “help Reisen clear this space and I’ll meet up with you soon.”
“If you’ll have me...” Youmu winked at Reisen, eager to help out. Whatever inhibitions she may have had regarding her quest appeared to have given way to an adventurous and pragmatic spirit.
“Let’s get going,” Reisen took the hint that I wanted to be alone with Eirin and worked with Youmu to clear things. They both left as quickly as they had arrived.
Eirin had watched Shinji with a nascent smile on her lips. Her feelings were plain. She approved of his style, offering a quick assessment, “it is good that she listens to you so readily. That sort of trust is often hard-earned.”
“I can’t say that I’ve done much yet,” he confessed, “she suddenly decided that I was her master without so much as asking me how I felt.”
“That’s a gift, you know,” Eirin said, looking at him with a cool analytical stare. He felt naked, like the otherwise perfectly charming woman was capable of stripping away all of his layers and seeing what he was thinking at all times.
“We’ll see if it is so after this first trial,” he said, acting like he didn’t notice just how intensely his every movement was being scrutinized.
“Yes… but what is it that you wanted to ask? You made them leave for a reason, I imagine.”
 He wondered whether Reisen was meant to observe on her behalf.  The reason why she would cooperate with Yuyuko still eluded him.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/12(Tue)16:00
Sorry, rough day and so a short timer to make up for lost time. Still plugging along regardless.
“From what I can tell, Youmu is the dedicated sort and seems to be perfectly lovely,” Shinji gave Eirin a preamble to what he was really thinking. He felt that she would understand what he was driving at and why better if there were no ambiguities about his position. It may well have been an unnecessary gesture as Eirin had long since appraised both him and the situation and had reached her own conclusions. “With that said,” he continued, “she does not seem to have much of a head for discussion and nuance.”
“In other words, you’re saying that she’s rather immature,” Eirin joked, not being altogether too far from the mark.
“I’m certain that you have your own opinions on Reisen’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said rather diplomatically, not willing to speak ill of his companion if she wasn’t present. “This conversation isn’t something that Youmu needs to be around for, her time is better spent elsewhere.”
“I can’t imagine you’re going to ask me for a check up,” Eirin kept the tone light while patiently waiting for him to make his point.
“I haven’t figured out why you’re working with Lady Yuyuko is the summary,” he went directly to his main thought. He was certain that she would appreciate the directness.
It very much turned out that he was right. She had a positive opinion of people who knew when to stop mincing words. It therefore saddened her some that she couldn’t give him the answer that he wanted at the moment. There was no one reason for that. The truth wouldn’t repulse him, she suspected, but there were things in motion that required discretion. Eirin generally thought that information was best meted out as absolutely necessary.
Shinji picked up on her reluctance. Though she had a very practiced poker face he knew at once that she had decided not to provide a real answer. “I’ll settle for the general answer,” he said.
“We have a common interest,” Eirin chose her words carefully, “although a child could deduce as much. I am not very close to your cunning ghost but that is also something that you would have soon figured out. Your role is accidental but convenient in that you’re to act as the common link. I did not wish to meet in person with her.”
“That isn’t much of an explanation,” Shinji observed. Reason could only get him so far if he lacked context; he didn’t know who else may have been involved nor any of their past interactions.
Eirin sighed, “For whatever it may be worth, I apologize for keeping you in the dark. You’ll certainly agree with our purpose once you have all the information.”
“I’m not certain that I share your enthusiasm,” he demurred with a sigh of his own. His feelings weren’t the ones that might have been expected; he felt neither anxiety nor resentment. What weighed on his mind was something similar to disappointment—and even then that may have been too strong a word. What he felt was more like a scholarly interest to know more. If he knew more then he could piece things together. If he pieced things together, then perhaps he would figure out more about his own existence and what he wanted. Not being able to do that in a timely manner left him in limbo.
Eirin got up from her seat and looked through her desk. He watched her silently as she found a blank piece of paper and a pencil. She scribbled something on it and then handed him the piece of paper, saying, “This may not be an answer but it is the promise of one.”
“I may hold you to this,” he said after looking at the piece of paper. The promissory note was less about the material than the average bar tab IOU: it stated that at the end, if he wasn’t satisfied, she would get everyone together and provide a full explanation. Eirin’s signature was written with neat, flowing characters at the bottom.
There wasn’t much else to say after that. Eirin was guarded but sympathetic to his position and he felt more or less the same way towards her. As an addendum she outlined the basic idea of his task. It didn’t seem like it would be too difficult but, then again, if it were then why send three people? Eirin promised written instructions as well, “so that you can show Reisen if she’s skeptical.”
That would have to wait until later. He left her to her preparations and went out to see how Reisen and Youmu were doing. Eirin suggested that they could likely be found in the kitchen and gave directions to get there from the infirmary.
The kitchen was disappointingly normal. Shinji had a hard time recognizing most of the objects in the infrimary so he had half-expected for the kitchen to be equally as baffling. A stove, cupboards, pots and pans of all sorts of sizes were hung or laid about the place. Both Youmu and Reisen had finished tidying up and he found them in the middle of a discussion about snacks. It wasn’t clear if Youmu was following his instructions to be friendly to Reisen or if she was just being herself—either way she seemed to be fully at ease.
“Oh, master,” Youmu greeted him with a smile, “do you have a favorite sweet?”
“I’m more into savory flavors,” he said.
“Ah, that’s fine too. Reisen was just telling me about the mochi the rabbits make,” Youmu continued, undeterred, “I really want to try it some time.”
“If you come around the next full moon then I’m sure you can have some,” Reisen said.
“That’s soon, isn’t it?” Youmu asked, looking out the kitchen window. It was still daylight, around midday, so there was no way of seeing the moon yet.
“Soon enough,” Reisen replied. She then asked him a question, “Did my master say anything else?”
“Not really, just that she would be done soon,” he replied. “It may be best for you to rest up and see to your affairs. I would like to leave as soon as is possible.”
“So, are we going to do anything interesting?” Youmu asked. “After walking through all that bamboo I got a little worked up. It would be nice if I got an excuse to cut stuff up and be useful.”
“I don’t want to fight if it can be helped,” Reisen chimed in, “it’s usually a waste of time. But orders are orders, I suppose...”
 It would be prudent for Youmu to be prepared in case he saw it fit to give her the excuse she desired.  Reisen was reassured that physical conflict was strictly a matter of last resort.
[x] It would be prudent for Youmu to be prepared in case he saw it fit to give her the excuse she desired.
I mean, the mission is apparently to drug someone unnoticed, against their will (no doubt a necessary and ultimately honourable goal). Technically the only way you get in a fight there is if you fuck up. But it's Gensokyo. Let's throw Yummu a bone.
“It would be best if you’re prepared as well,” Shinji said, placing his hand on Youmu’s shoulder. Both girl and phantom reacted with joy—the former showed him a confident smile while the latter rose up towards him, taking a thinner and pointy shape as if it were mimicking a sword. He didn’t mean to promise the moon to her but he explained that she ought to be ready for any trouble.
Reisen withdrew momentarily, not really interested in vague talk of fighting. Her excuse was rather sensible: there were things she needed to get in order before setting out. She lamented not being able to take a bath to lighten the mood but Youmu was too busy asking Shinji for specifics to get much of a reaction. That left the pair of visitors from the Netherworld on their own.
“You know, Reisen is pretty nice,” Youmu offered an unsolicited opinion while helping herself to a rice cracker. Without someone from Eientei around to keep watch, she was making herself at home. She even offered one to Shinji who turned it down.
“So you’re on your way to becoming friends?” he asked.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t be,” she answered. It seemed like she had forgotten all about his suggestion that she earn her trust. Instead, she prattled on about rather irrelevant things. “I’m not sure how Lady Yuyuko will feel, but I think that she’s a good person.”
Shinji ran a finger through the hair on his chin, trying to figure out how Yuyuko had anything to do with Reisen. The bright-eyed ghost let him know, being very unsubtle about the mix of joy and sadness she felt, “I can see why you would like her.”
“Ah,” Shinji smirked, “then I’ve your approval to pursue her?”
“Matters of the heart can’t be helped, I guess,” she said, shaking her head solemnly.
He found the spectacle charmingly cute; her misunderstanding made her cheeks ever-slightly flush as she spoke and she avoided looking directly into his eyes. Unprompted, she gave a short speech about forthrightness and being genuine to a lover. Each time she emphasized something like heart, romance or the like she came off as reluctant and painfully inexperienced in the subject.
“Perhaps I’ve changed my mind about her,” he said quietly, unable to help himself. There was something about just how seriously she took her own assumptions that made him want to play around with her.
“No, that’s no good!” she objected sharply, the phantom coiling up like a snake about to strike in the air. “Men should be assertive and follow their passions!”
“Oh, is that so?” he was flippant, curious to see where the conversation would lead.
“Of course, master,” she doubled down, “didn’t you know at least that much? That’s a little disappointing!”
“Matters of the heart can’t be helped,” he echoed back her earlier words. That she would get so worked up—to the point of subconsciously gripping at the strap that attached her swords to her back—was curious. It was true that he could not recall any experience in romance but it was also true that he could not recall much beyond the present. Try as he might anything he might have felt could be as easily a nearly-forgotten memory as it could be a product of imagination. There was simply no way of being sure.
“...” Youmu didn’t have a real good follow up.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, hoping to move on from the subject, “we will be working together and our common goal takes precedence. There is no time for anything but success.”
“That sounds a little sad,” Youmu said, “shouldn’t it always be time for love?”
“Maybe it should be,” he conceded. The truth was that he didn’t have a very strong opinion on the subject. His priorities were different. Understanding who he was and why he was around seemed more important. “I’ll certainly think about things,” he struck a conciliatory tone.
“No, no, it’s not about thinking!” Youmu lashed out. The intensity of her objection seemed to take even herself by surprise; her next few words were deliberately quiet and devoid of emotion, “like using my sword or tending to the garden, both those things are done without thinking. If you think too much you don’t get anything done. It’s the same as that.”
“Let me put it this way: I’m not sure how I feel. But when I do, I’ll make sure to let you know. Sound fair?” he attempted again to get her to drop the subject.
The trick worked. Youmu sighed but ultimately agreed, “I’ll be there to cheer you on. I just hope you don’t mess things up.”
“Yes, master,” he patted her shoulder once again, laughing. Youmu tried to make herself seem small, realizing just how embarrassing her outburst had actually been. It may well have been that she regretted imposing her opinion on him but she kept mum, instead grabbing another rice cracker.
Without supervision, Shinji decided to that a change of scenery was needed. If only to force a change of topic. He traced his steps back through the building and found his way outside. He went to where a cluster of rabbits had gathered by the side of the building, curious as to what was going on. None of them seemed special, unlike Reisen, and looked like the typical garden-variety of rabbit. Youmu commented about their cuteness and they seemed to perk up and started hopping around.
“Would you really eat mochi prepared by rabbits?” Shinji asked of his companion, not able to picture any of of those white and brown rabbits capable of much.
“Oh, I’m sure that the ones like Reisen also help out,” Youmu said, “this is a pretty big place. I bet that there’s all sorts around.”
“You’re right about that,” a new arrival interrupted. A girl in a pink dress, short with messy black hair and two very floppy rabbit ears appeared out of seemingly nowhere. The pack of rabbits all flocked about her on sight, tittering and hopping about happily. She smiled and bowed, a carrot-shaped necklace flopping out in front of her.
Shinji returned the bow. Youmu looked at her master and followed suit.
“Our mochi is pretty tasty,” the girl boasted, “but I think we might have to charge outsiders for the privilege. Rice isn’t free, you know.”
“We’re guests of Eirin,” Youmu huffed, “would you really ask for money from a guest?”
“I know that,” the girl smiled, showing a polite smile, “I’m just saying that nothing is free in life. The favor you’re doing is in return for a reward, isn’t it? It’s the same.”
“Hm, so you know what we’re up to?” Shinji asked.
“I know about most things that happen in this forest,” she said, “I’m the leader of the rabbits here. Tewi, nice to meetcha.”
“Shinji,” he said, “this is Youmu.”
“We’ve met,” Tewi shrugged, ignoring Youmu for the most part.
“Isn’t Reisen the leader of the rabbits?” Youmu asked. The question got no response.
Instead, Tewi sidled up to Shinji, carrying a small rabbit in her arms like a child. She made him an offer, “I can help you make sure that things go smoothly. Eirin doesn’t really care if you win or lose but I can make it less likely that you lose.”
“And what can I assume is the price for this generous service?” he asked skeptically, recalling that “nothing is free in life”.
“I just want a share of whatever reward you get. Doesn’t have to be much, just something. That Eirin is a bit stingy with us rabbits, so I have to watch out for their welfare,” she explained, claiming the altruistic high ground.
“I don’t think she’s going to pay me,” he said, thinking, “in fact, she didn’t specify the reward at all.”
“Mister, I don’t care if she ends up giving you a big wet kiss on the lips. It’s the principle of the matter,” she laughed and puckered her small lips and made kissing noises.
“Are all rabbits this lewd?” Youmu asked Shinji quietly but not quietly enough. He had no doubt that the petite rabbit girl had overheard. Not that she seemed to care or even acknowledge that Youmu was around.
“So what is it that you’re offering exactly?” Shinji humored her some.
“Information. And, most importantly, luck,” she winked at him as if that were something that could be given away as easily as a blown kiss.
 He accepted the innocuous bargain.  The deal was too sketchy to be taken seriously.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/14(Thu)15:00
nothing about the deal seems bad accept the vagueness and lack of details, just like our task. Though I would like to figure out what is done if we are unable to pay for what ever reason like a lack of reward or being alive or some-such complication.
>>200876 Tewi said herself that it's more about the principle, not the actual reward. If the reward end up being just a "thanks, good job", then her cut would just be a "thanks" as well. If it ends up "being alive" then we use some of our time being alive to repay her, or something. The deal is vague enough that if we get some metaphysical reward, then an equally vague interpretation of "sharing it" is fine. We're not signing a fine print contract for a specific percentage of it or anything.
The rabbit in Tewi’s arms craned its head up to stare at Shinji, its red eyes fearless. He found it strange that a small rabbit could seem to intensively analytical. At length, Tewi brought her head closer to her held companion. The rabbit broke its stare and looked at her and then she nodded.
“We have a deal,” she clapped her hands.
“What sort of information can a rabbit have anyhow?” Youmu muttered under her breath, questioning her master’s wisdom.
“Some time ago,” Tewi crouched down and let the rabbit gently down on the ground, “this fellow here was stuck in a storage room. A wild animal or something like it had gotten in and made a right mess. Such a waste, as everyone likes the stuff.”
“Probably left a terrible smell too,” Youmu winced, as if she had been in a similar situation before.
The rabbit she had held approached Shinji slowly and sniffed at his feet. It then pressed its white and brown body against his leg, ears jiggling excitedly. Youmu smiled at the sight, evidently finding it cute. Tewi chuckled, explaining, “he seems to like you. He regrets not having something to gift you.”
“He would give me a bottle of sake, I presume?” Shinji ventured, believing he understood what she was getting at.
“That’s certainly a fine gift,” Tewi nodded. She crouched down and pet the rabbit on its head. The rabbit gave Shinji one final sniff—its small nose twitched up and down—before darting away at high speed. He disappeared just around the corner. A chain reaction followed with all the other rabbits following his example. That only left Tewi alone. She stood and hopped back, dusting off her dress afterwards.
“Is there nothing else?” Shinji asked.
“Not for now,” The short girl replied. She put a finger to the corner of her mouth as if trying to think if she had forgotten something. With a “hmm” followed by a “ahh”, she pretended to remember recalling something. “There is one more thing,” she added, “we’re accepting donations to take the rabbits out for a fun day by the lake. Would you like to contribute?”
Shinji shrugged, “I don’t have any money on me.”
“A shame! Oh well, maybe next time.” She bowed and made ready to leave.
Youmu was having none of that. She objected loudly, “you haven’t told us anything useful!”
“That’s a rude thing to say,” Tewi responded quietly. She put on a hurt expression, her ears drooping some to nearly the level of her face. In but a moment she had become as cute and defenseless-looking as one of the many rabbits they had seen. It was enough to give Youmu some pause and make her unsure of what to say next.
Shinji did not wish to see how the rest of the scene played out. He was impatient—restless even—and simply wanted to get things moving along. His voice was quiet but steady and had the effect of capturing the attenion of everyone present, “If there is something else you can tell us, please go ahead. If not, it would probably be best if we parted ways for now.”
Tewi sighed, looking even more dejected. “Fine,” she said, “have it your way. I’m certain you’ll have the best of luck with your task. Make sure to be nice to Reisen. She deserves at least that much.”
“She’s already part of the squad,” Youmu was oddly adamant. “we are going to look out for one another.”
“If you say so...” Tewi shrugged and waved a quick goodbye. Her parting words were directed at Shinji: “Being nice even when the other person isn’t is difficult, don’t you think?”
He wished her well as she shrugged once again and left. Tewi didn’t have any more words for Youmu and it seemed that the indifference was mutual. Shinji put his hand on Youmu’s shoulder and urged her to move on. “We’ll be off soon, so make sure that your mind is focused,” he said.
“It always is,” Youmu replied, cocksure. If she had anything else to say about the short bunny in pink, she thankfully kept it to herself.
In the end, Shinji sat on a nearby stone and waited patiently for the others to arrive. He wasn’t meditating as such but he still tried to keep his mind free of any superfluous thoughts. This was a contrast with Youmu who paced around next to the wall, the phantom in tow, practicing what seemed to be various approaches to drawing her swords. It seemed to him that that was her own way of clearing her mind. He knew little of swordplay but it seemed immediately obvious that Youmu knew what she was doing.
It wasn’t too long before Reisen joined them again. She sat next to Shinji and watched Youmu do her exercises. He noticed that the rabbit now wore a belt with a holster—an odd-looking handgun dangled from it. Then again, all handguns looked odd to Shinji as he had never seen one before. He could suspect that the white tube-like device was some sort of tool or perhaps a weapon but he could not imagine that it fired colorful projectiles.
“Do you think you could win against her?” he asked quietly, surprising himself that he had asked the question.
“I think so,” she replied, “I also train in my own way.”
“Not nearly enough,” Eirin added, appearing from nearby, carrying with her a small satchel. She had taken off her cap and her long hair now seemed a little messier than before despite her braid still being in place. Though that was just Shinji’s impression; Reisen saw nothing different about her master.
“Everything is ready?” Shinji wasted no time trying to get into gear. He stood up and accepted the satchel from Eirin. He used the long strap to hang it from his shoulder.
“Everything you require is in there,” she said, “along with detailed instructions on how to administer the drugs. You should leave that part to Reisen, however. She is my assistant for medical matters and should be able to do it competently.”
“I’ll do my best,” the rabbit nodded.
Eirin stopped to watch Youmu for a moment. She crossed her arms and remarked, “She sure is energetic, isn’t she?”
“I hope she won’t be too tired later...” Reisen said.
Shinji wasn’t too interested in talking about Youmu. Instead, he used the opportunity to turn Tewi’s information into action. “I need a favor,” he said to Eirin.
“Oh?” Eirin appeared somewhat surprised. “What is it that you need?”
“A bottle of sake.”
“Planning to drink on the job?” she joked, looking at him with a smile. The smile, however, didn’t match the cool energy in her eyes. They scrutinized both him and his request, showing that cogs were always turning in her head.
“It’s not that,” he said, “if you could spare a bottle, it could make this task easier.”
“Hmm...” Eirin stopped to think about it. And gave an order, “Udongein, fetch a bottle from the pantry.”
“Thank you,” he nodded as the rabbit went back inside to get the sake. There was a moment of silence as they continued to watch Youmu. Whether or not Eirin thought that giving him a bottle of sake was wise was immaterial—it was clear to Shinji that she would not stand in the way of his decisions. Looking at the how objectively required non-interference.
Youmu worked herself up to a light sweat by the time that Reisen returned. The rabbit had a large bottle with her. The letters on the label were unrecognizable to Shinji but he accepted the sake with a smile, putting it away in the satchel. He had to move a small box and a vial but it all fit without issues.
“Udongein,” Eirin instructed, “take them to that person’s home. Tell her about the medicine but let him make the decisions on how to approach the situation. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Reisen nodded, “I’ll listen to him as I would you.”
“Good, good,” Eirin nodded, “do try and take care. I think it unlikely that there will be trouble but you’ll be dealing with very irrational people so watch out.”
“Youmu,” Shinji called out, “it’s time to go.”
After saying their goodbyes—and allowing Youmu a moment to go back inside and wash her face—they set off into the woods. Reisen took the lead, her footsteps light and quick. Shinji followed close, attempting to avoid all bamboo and obstacles. Finally, Youmu was at the rear, scanning in every direction in case she had to jump into action.
He thought that it was perhaps just his imagination but Shinji thought he caught glimpses of rabbits every now and again. If so, then they were being observed. It stood to reason that Tewi might want to keep an eye out on them and how they were doing. In that case, they would be better off simply keeping up with them as he had no intention to hide what he was up to from anyone.
It took them about a quarter hour to twenty minutes to reach their destination. There was another clearing in the bamboo forest—far smaller but still cleverly hidden away in the green maze. There was virtually no chance that someone might accidentally stumble upon the area. A small wooden building, made from a mix of wood and bamboo, stood in the clearing. There were clothes hung out by the front so it seemed that someone lived there.
“We’re here,” Reisen said, “the rest is up to you.”
“Any advice?” he asked her.
“It may be best if I stay out of sight at first. Eientei hasn’t always been on the most friendly of terms with others at times,” she explained diplomatically. It didn’t tell him much except that she was reluctant to go up and knock on the door.
Someone definitely was at home. Shinji spotted a trail of smoke coming from a small chimney towards the back. Youmu stuck close to Shinji, looking around for anything that could be a threat. She was ready for a fight if one was to be had. Though he doubted it would come to that, he wondered whether or not caution was necessary or if an open approach would be best.
 There was nothing wrong with approaching as a group.  Shinji wished to make a good first impression by himself.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/16(Sat)16:00
[x] Shinji wished to make a good first impression by himself.
Maybe two would be fine, but showing up with a posse to someone's house (someone who's apparently 'irrational') and attempt to feed them mysterious medicine they won't want to take... I don't see it working. Granted I don't see it working alone either, but what can you do. Maybe you could fake a friendly visit of sorts first, then ease in the whole medicine deal later.
In fact, that's what I'm assuming that's what the sake is pointing towards. It's a gift. How do you present gifts(bribes) when you're trying to get something you want? It's not a fee you present over a counter and get handed what you want back. It's a social sort of situation, and I think one-on-one is more suitable for that. Besides, Youmu would probably put her foot in her mouth.
Also I just gotta note that this entire mission is shifty as hell and in another situation where it didn't happen to be the whole point of the story and the alternative weren't death, I'd be trying to find the first opportunity to nope outta it. You've gotta be really dumb to just go along with things when you have fuck all idea what's happening, what's at stake, and everyone else seems to be having a laugh at your expense.
Shinji told his companions to let him approach the home alone. There was no verbal objection though Youmu looked with the side of her eyes at him with skepticism; the phantom echoed the sentiment and stiffened with tension. Shinji smiled at his companions both to reassure them and to remind them that it was their duty to have confidence in him. For better or worse, there was a hierarchy to follow.
He approached the hut openly and without caution. To hesitate would invite suspicion, he reasoned. There was no need for him to hide who he was nor why he was there. Giving a sharp rap on the door, he awaited a reply.
The squeaking of wooden floorboards and footsteps confirmed that someone was at home. When the door opened it revealed a young girl with very long pale hair with a ribbon on top and several more down along its length. She wore a comfortable-looking blouse and red trouser combination that fit her loosely. “Are you lost?” she asked in a quiet voice.
“I don’t believe I am,” Shinji replied, “I’ve come to see you.”
“No, you are lost,” she insisted, “I saw it on your face earlier.”
“Earlier?” he narrowed his brow, somewhat confused as to when that was. More importantly, he wondered why would she ask the question if she already knew the answer.
“It’s easy to spot you,” she said with a shrug, choosing not to elaborate. “I’m not going to turn you away, at any rate. Would you like to come in?”
“Yes, I would,” he said, surprised at how quickly things progressed.
The girl looked over beyond his shoulder at his two companions in the distance. She raised an eyebrow and asked, “any reason they are standing around?”
“I wished to meet you first myself,” Shinji said, finding no reason to withhold the truth, “not knowing you, I didn’t want to overwhelm your attention.”
“Hmm… I’m flattered by your consideration,” the girl smiled, finding the explanation amusing. She ignored the pair of companions purposefully and urged him to come in by himself. He could feel Youmu’s attention intensely focused on him but she stayed put. Maybe that was what amused the girl the most, he figured.
Shinji was ushered into a the small home. It was a cozy wooden building that had only two or three doors. The largest space, that connected right to the entrance was a combination of living area and kitchen. In fact, it had all sorts of things in it including laundered clothes, a painted wall scroll and a table and chairs. Towards the back a traditional stove had a fire lit under it and something stewing in a pot smelled good.
The girl sat at the table and urged him to do the same. “So, do you have a name?” she asked, “or does it not matter?”
“It’s Shinji,” he introduced himself.
“Right. Mokou, for whatever it’s worth,” she said indifferently.
“Pleasure to meet you,” he nodded, “you know why I’m here, right?”
“I believe so.”
“Here are the things that I am to give you,” Shinji reached for his satchel, placing it in front of her on the table. He undid the clasp and first produced the bottle of sake. “This,” he said, “is a gift I wanted to give you as a sign of good will.”
“Say, now isn’t that lovely?” she smirked and took the bottle from him. “I wonder how you got something like this from those strange folks. Did you have to promise your firstborn?”
“If you mean Eirin, then all I had to do was ask,” he told her. “She gave me the bottle with no preconditions.”
“Awfully generous of her,” she said, “then again, this whole venture is uncharacteristically generous of her. Makes me a little suspicious if I’m honest. Know someone like that for as long as I have and there’s good reason to not trust them.”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t really know anything about her. Or you, really. I’m doing this as a favor to someone else,” he stated.
“Is that so? Not a curious bone in your body is there?” she leaned back in her chair, folding her arms.
“I’m curious alright,” he replied, fetching the remaining things in the satchel, “it just doesn’t make that much of a difference to me and it would be rude to pry.”
“I can respect that, I suppose,” Mokou said, laughing. Her eyes lit up for a moment before returning to a more serious default. “Well, I doubt you’re an assassin. Even if you came with a moon rabbit and a girl who seems to like swords a lot.”
“I am not a violent man, so I would make for a poor assassin,” he said. Although there was no accounting for his past he could at least say that his behavior throughout the day had been anything but aggressive.
“You couldn’t kill me even if you tried,” she stated dryly. With some interest she examined one of the vials that he had produced from the satchel. A clear liquid sloshed around inside. She then looked at the small box and opened it, finding sundry medical supplies including bandages and ointment. “That Eirin is being very generous indeed.”
“What’s all that for, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“This?” she picked up the small jar of ointment. “This is to help my injuries be a little less unpleasant in the future. Of course, it won’t do much for a broken leg but I’m always getting nicks and scratches every which where.”
“Oh, do you do dangerous work then?” he asked.
“Not really...” she shrugged yet again. Apparently there was a limit to how interested she was in talking about herself.
“Oh, it’s just that this is a large amount of supplies so I just assumed...”
“It’s not all for me,” she stated and her expression darkened.
“You may go back with your friends if you like,” she said after a pause, “you get passing marks for this job.”
Shinji felt in his gut that she was simply trying to avoid a more fundamental issue. If things were as simple as a delivery then Eirin would not have sent him. He apologized silently to his companions outside but he would be a while longer. A shameless imposition seemed necessary.
 He suggested sharing a drink.  A direct question or two would save everyone’s time.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/17(Sun)13:00
Since she wants to avoid telling us, she probably won't answer a direct question and just tell us to leave. However if we share a drink, even if we don't get an answer we will have at least had a good time.
“I don’t think it’s time to leave yet,” Shinji said. He had decided to be a nuisance for a while longer. He reached for the bottle of sake. “Care to offer your guest a drink?”
“Sure, why not?” she shrugged, not at all bothered by the imposition. Mokou stood up and went to a cupboard and produced a pair of clear cups. Her standards of cleanliness were evidently second-to-none as she simply ran her fingers along the rim of each to get the dust off. She handed a cup over and placed the other in front of herself.
He opened the sake bottle deftly; the top twisted off with a satisfying click as its seal was broken. There was no need to wait on ceremony and so he poured right away into both cups. “Cheers,” he said, bringing the sake up to his lips. Mokou was following his lead and mumbled a “cheers” of her own.
The sake was flavorful. Smooth and with a hint of sweetness that neutralized some of the astringent taste of the alcohol. He could not recall ever drinking before but somehow knew that he was privileged to try something a cut above the usual. As the cups were small, both he and the girl finished their drinks in just two or so greedy sips.
“That Eirin...” Mokou sighed, “she may well kill me with this instead of a blade.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I would down this whole bottle by myself,” she explained with a smirk.
“Good that you’re enjoying it,” he said, pouring up more sake. He felt a warmth spreading from the pit of his stomach to the rest of the body. It was very different than the tea Yuyuko offered—less restorative when it came to his senses but still lively in its own way. Indeed, he felt more alive than ever, even feeling hunger for the first time that he could recall.
“So what’s your plan? Get me drunk and then what?” she certainly didn’t hide her thoughts.
“Talk,” he replied simply.
“Not charm me into spilling all of my secrets?”
“If you feel like it,” he said, “I am content to sit and drink and see what happens.”
They drank some more. Neither one pressed for conversation but instead relaxed in their own way; Shinji enjoyed the taste of the drink and the warming feeling it generating while Mokou collapsed ever more onto her chair, going as far as putting her foot up against the edge of the table. The periodic sound of pouring liquid was the only think that broke up the background noise of a simmering pot and crackling stove fuel.
“You’ve a weird stare,” Mokou stated rather bluntly, “those brown eyes of yours look like they’re staring somewhere else all the time. Far away. Can’t say that I like it.”
“Isn’t that a little rude?” he said, finding her comment more amusing than insulting. He had no real awareness of what appeared like most of the time. There were no memories, no idiosyncrasies that he could identify. To be told he looked distant was novel.
The girl shrugged, leaning back into her chair. “It’s unsettling to talk to someone who doesn’t seem to be at all here.”
“That may well be the case,” he said, “I’m supposedly dead.”
“Shit, really?” Mokou propped herself up again. She put her elbows on the table and leaned in, looking like some sort of clever bird trying to figure out a puzzle. With a “feh” followed by another grunt as she looked closely at his face, she added, “you look normal enough. Then again this is Genoskyo. Appearances aren’t everything.”
“I don’t feel very dead, if that matters,” he said. It remained the case that he could feel a faint heartbeat, he seemed to breathe and felt everything else that the living did. As far as he could tell. It wasn’t like he had much choice when it came to a frame of reference.
Without asking, Mokou reached out and touched his face, running her hand from his cheek to chin. “Soft and not freezing cold. You’re not a corpse,” she said, “though you might need a shave.”
“I like my beard,” he retorted, running his fingers through the soft hairs on his chin.
“Just my opinion,” she shrugged again.
The roles reversed as she began to pour the next few rounds of drinks. They had worked their way through a third and then more of the bottle in a remarkably short amount of time. Shinji felt mostly the same though perhaps his reflexes had dulled a bit. Mokou sat stoney-faced across from the table, apparently impervious to the effects of alcohol.
“Join me?” she asked, tilting her head at the pot, “food ought to be ready.”
“Sure,” he shrugged, adopting her mannerisms every-so-slightly.
Mokou had prepared a simple stew. Stewed bamboo shoots, appropriately enough. A few other vegetables and no meat. It had become thick with time and she poured the food into a pair of small bowls. She placed them on the table and grabbed a pair of spoons from the same cupboard as before. It seemed like they were going to continue drinking even as they ate—she poured more sake into their empty cups.
Shinji found it hard to eat the boiling-hot food right away. He blew on every spoonful before bringing it into his mouth. The taste was simple and earthy—and quite likely very nutritious. It took some work to cool and consume the food and his pace was very measured. That wasn’t the case for Mokou who simply eat spoon after spoon of the stuff without minding the heat in the least. He was close to sweating after a few mouthfuls; she seemed as normal as could be.
With her sustained pace, Mokou was the first to finish. She drank more and watched him eat silently. He could not tell what went on in her mind: her eyes betrayed no judgment, no particular thoughts. At one point she turned her head and covered her mouth, emitting a muffled bit of flatulence from her stomach. She didn’t draw attention to it but neither did she seem particularly embarrassed.
“I enjoyed the meal,” Shinji said, finally finishing up his stew about ten minutes after she had cleared her bowl. Despite having eaten, he felt somewhat inebriated. No wonder—the sake bottle was about half-full.
“How old are you?” she asked quite out of the blue.
“...I don’t know,” he replied honestly. “I’m dead, remember? I guess age is meaningless when you’re not alive.”
“I think I see why she sent you here,” she said quietly. Finishing off her cup, her expression darkened once again. There was no way of telling what she could possibly be thinking about.
“Who, Eirin?” he tried a guess. He felt that his thoughts were harder to pull into clear order.
Mokou became visibly agitated, her left leg restlessly moving as she tried to slump back into her chair. Finding that she couldn’t quite sit still, she yo-yoed back upright and drummed her fingers on the surface of the table. She didn’t offer a response to his question, instead pouring more sake and commanding tersely, “drink.”
 They allowed things to be pushed further.  It was time to change course.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/18(Mon)13:30
He held up his glass at eye level. The clear liquid sloshed but did not spill as he then brought it quickly to his lips. He drank as Mokou did—quickly and quietly. Whatever questions either may have had for the other went unasked as they settled on an almost-mechanical routine. That was just as well since the mental haze grew stronger in his mind and he found himself incapable of reasoning about much of anything.
In contrast to his fluttery state of mind and clumsy movements, Mokou seemed to become more precise in her actions. Every time that she poured, she made sure every single drop landed in the glass. Her stare was hard and unrelenting, kept firm on his face at nearly all times. Though she did little to hold her involuntary tics in check—her legs alternated between swinging from the chair and tapping her foot softly on the floor—there was unchanging intent in her continuous libations.
Shinji had to confess to feeling intimidated. Her intensity was overwhelming and he could not think of much he could say that would not sound stupid. Even flashing her a smile seemed like a big ask, one with unknown consequences. He stroked his chin hairs silently, too self-conscious to even “hmm” or “eh” while he thought. He could not say that he was a prideful man but there was something just so pathetic about his situation.
The pressure had built up to an incredible degree. Between the physical intoxication and the mental corralling he was just about ready to flop onto the table, apoplectic. What he actually thought or even what he felt didn’t really matter. Not any longer. In this most wretched of states, where he could do nothing but stare at her uncaring eyes, he voiced some nonsense, asking, “Are we to finish the rest of the bottle?”
Mokou poured another drink. Not much was left, less than a fourth. “Of course!” was the obvious answer but it remained unspoken. Instead, the girl shook the bottle and looked at him with a frown. Without finishing the drink in her cup, she drank directly from the bottle, gulping as one might when drinking the antidote to a terrible poison. She handed over the bottle to him, shoving it in front of his face silently.
The investment he had put into drinking was considerable. A lack of inhibitions had been subverted into something dark and uneasy as he did not know what could happen next. He felt weak and vulnerable as a result. Oddly, this sensation wasn’t the only one at the fore: his confidence abounded. This was unfounded, perhaps, but it was just about the only positive emotion that he could still reach out at. Just because he could not see all ends or, indeed, assess much of the present, that did not diminish his resolve. In other words, it was stubbornness that kept him going. This stubbornness was both manifest in his sunk costs and the belief that all would be well.
He gripped the bottle tightly, as if trying to make sure that it would not slip his hands as he did what needed to be done. Without much restraint he put the bottle to his lips. It was wet with more than just sake but he did not mind the indirect exchange at all. He drank as wildly as Mokou had and soon finished off most of what remained.
Mokou laughed. He passed the bottle back to her and laughed as well. She drank most of what remained before passing it off one last time back to him. He did the honors of extinguishing the rest of the fiery fluid. When all was said and done not a single drop remained. They tittered at some unspoken joke that they both understood at an instinctual level.
As they quieted down, she seized the initiative. Her words enounced deliberately, an attempt to keep the mental slosh at bay, “How did you die?”
“Yes, I’m dead,” he said out loud, confirming that basic fact mostly to himself. He shook his head, telling her the truth, “I don’t… right well remember how.”
“How, I mean, how do you not? Dying just—just the once is a big deal.”
“I just don’t know,” he insisted. It frustrated him, sure. But it was what it was, he reasoned. He still felt alive. The conclusion he hastily reached was that that was the reason he couldn’t remember. He was the same as ever.
His reply frustrated Mokou. She drummed hard on the table, trying to think of how someone couldn’t remember their own death. “I mean,” she offered a theory excitedly, “maybe you hit your head really hard.”
“Probably would have a scar from that, right?” he ran his fingers through his short hair, finding that everything felt normal.
“Maybe we should shave you completely, get rid of that beard as well,” she suggested.
“I said that I like my beard, so nope,” he offered a stalwart defense of facial hair, “Eirin said it made me look handsome.”
“Why don’t you just marry her then, sheesh,” Mokou waved a hand dismissively at him. “I have every right to my own opinions, you, you know that, right?”
“I do, but it’s the same for me. How would you like it if I started talking about your hair and all that other stuff?”
“There’s nothing wrong with my hair,” she said and held up long clumps of her hair up to his face. “See, see?!” was the unspoken question. “You don’t know much about anything,” she frowned, going quickly to dour then back to irreverent with a laugh, “who could trust anything about a guy who can’t even remember how he died?”
He pouted, feeling her attack unfair. “Normal people don’t worry about how they die. You’re just weird. I mean, who drinks a whole bottle of sake with someone they just met?”
“Hey, you did that too,” she shrugged it off. “You did that and did a lot more.”
“Maybe I died drinking, I don’t know. It feels like I could die again,” he said whatever.
Mokou rocked back and forth in her chair, building up to a burst of energy. She stood—altogether too quickly and almost lost her footing—and managed to drag herself back to her stove and kitchen area. He both hoped and feared that she would produce another bottle of stupidly delicious alcohol.
Instead, she came back with something far more sinister in her hands: a knife.
“Don’t try to kill me, that’s not nice,” he said, joking.
“I was thinking about it. If you’re dead already then… well then it’s probably alright, right?” she said with a stupid smile, as if that made all the sense in the world. “I remember dying all the time. So how the hell can you not?”
“Oh, so you’re dead too?” he asked. It hadn’t been obvious to him that she was some sort of ghost or zombie. Maybe the ribbons that looked like seals should have been a giveaway, he reckoned. What an odd thing he had been caught up in.
Mokou smiled at him, stopping about an arm’s length away from him. “No, don’t be stupid. Me—I’m alive. So alive that I can never die,” she said. “I’ll prove it to you if you want!”
She held the blade up against her bosom. Shinji wasn’t an expert at anatomy but despite her very awkward starts and stops it looked like she knew how to best slip a knife past the ribcage. “No, let’s not kill ourselves,” he shook his head, “can’t we, uh, agree that we’re just who we are and the rest doesn’t matter?”
“That’s stupid, you’re stupid,” Mokou shook her head and waved her knife-wielding arm up in exasperation. It sliced through the air but not much else. At once maudlin, she said with her eyes turning red, “People who haven’t died can’t understand what it’s like. That I want to know what you felt and what happened after—it’s not my fault, alright!”
“Don’t be like that, shh, shh,” he tried to keep her from crying. He reached out at her and found that she allowed herself to be pulled closer. In fact, she was unable to keep herself on her feet for much longer. Mokou collapsed onto him, straddling him and rocking the chair back and forth. He felt the hardness of the flat side of the knife between him and her.
“Crap, I shouldn’t have made fun of your beard,” she whispered something really unimportant.
“That’s okay,” he said, at a loss for any other real words. “We drank a lot. And pretty quickly too. And your hair is nice.”
“I know, right?” she said proudly. “It takes a lot of work to keep it like that. Cutting it is a pain.”
It may have hurt to have her full weight on his lap. He couldn’t tell, feeling numbed by both the effects of the drink and the smell of stew mixed with sake that came from Mokou. He probably smelled the same. Maybe a little sweaty on account of having been out and about all day. He wasn’t able to think of anything much more interesting than things of that vein.
“I should get off you, this is pretty awkward,” she laughed like it was no big deal. It wasn’t flirtatious or even remotely sexual as far as they were concerned. Just two people sharing a chair because of the way the universe worked.
Mokou tried to push off but found that if she tried to dismount by putting down one leg first, she would lose balance on the other side. That elicited a quick shuffle and scramble as she held onto his clothes and the back of the chair for fear of slipping. Needless to say that a person of sound mind would have just… stood but circumstances conspired against them. The chair rocked back and forth.
Just when it seemed that she had gotten the hand of it—Shinji was helping stabilize her by stiffening his shoulders—disaster struck. The chair rocked a little too back and then a little too forth. At some point contact with the ground was lost. The laws of physics took care of the rest: all went to the ground with a loud crash. The chair took the worse of it, one of its legs snapping clean off.
Shinji groaned and found that the back of the chair had slipped from under him and was helpfully at his side. His legs were pinned and there was still a heavy weight on top of him. Predictably, Mokou had fallen right on him. She was on all fours with her knees thankfully only next to his legs but with both palms rooted in his chest. Her hair was splayed out all over him like a silver veil.
“This really hurts,” she complained, grimacing. The reason for her pain was immediately obvious—as she fell the knife had slipped and had cut up part of her forearm. “Stupid bloody thing,” she said of the knife, picking it up and removing her hands from his chest.
They both stared at the blade, somehow enthralled by how blood rolled down its edge.
Before any suggestion of treatment could be uttered, their private moment came to an abrupt end. The door had come open and it revealed a very serious-faced Youmu brandishing her dual swords. She scanned the room quickly and her gaze fell upon Shinji first, then Mokou, finally the bloody knife in her hand.
“Stop that at once!” Youmu thundered, seeming several times larger than she was.
“You stop!” Shinji fired back, managing to have enough presence of mind to nip the obvious misunderstanding in the bud. “We’re not fighting! We’re friendy, good friends, right?”
“The best of friends!” Mokou agreed, rolling off of him and coming to a rest on the floor, rear-end first. It was the least threatening pose that Shinji could imagine someone ever adopting: a girl with a bleeding arm, close to slipping into a supine state with her hair now a mess.
Mokou’s eyes met Shinji’s. They giggled at one another, sharing a joke no one else on the planet would understand.
Youmu certainly didn’t get it. She continued to grip her swords but she was, in a word, perplexed. There was no danger, obviously. But just what on earth had happened? Why had they taken so long? She had hear raised voices. Reisen had told her to keep her distance but she could not help but feed her sense of curiosity. She hadn’t been eavesdropping—she had just been close to the door for a while. Seeing if there were signs of anything wrong. It was part of her duty to her master. And, well, she thought with some frustration: Why the crashing noises? She certainly hadn’t acted out of turn.
“Oh, e-everyone is here,” Shinji said with another laugh as he spotted Reisen peering into the house from the doorway.
“You’re drunk,” Youmu said with a very disapproving frown.
“Yeah, well, why aren’t you?” Mokou answered for him. He felt that she raised a valid point. Youmu could do with some loosening up.
“...” it seemed like Youmu didn’t have a good answer. A clear case of check and then mate.
“We should totally get going,” Mokou continued, rubbing her still bleeding arm with her other hand. That did little but smear blood on her pale skin.
“We’re going somewhere?” Shinji asked, feeling that he had forgotten something earlier in conversation, maybe. He struggled to not just lie defeated on the floor. His head swam and so he had to concentrate a lot just to prop himself up on his elbows and sit up. He winked at Mokou and then flashed what he thought was the most reassuring sign that he was fine: a smile infused with his pure, raw and unwavering internal confidence.
“Yeah, no time like now to put that medicine to use. We should go to the village before it gets dark,” she said, “I didn’t want to go alone but if you’re there then it’s fine. Alive or dead, it doesn’t really matter anymore. We can be either together.”
“It doesn’t look like you can go anywhere,” Youmu said, exasperated. Reisen nodded in agreement but stayed quiet.
“That sounds like a challenge. I like challenges,” Mokou said and then looked at Shinji, “don’t you?”
 Challenges made life worth living.  Hugs were really nice as well.
Time remaining: :: Timer ended at: 2019/11/19(Tue)14:40
It was challenging for him to sit without wobbling. Shinji couldn’t even conceive of actual struggle, something like running around outside was beyond his capacity. Though it dismayed Mokou, he had to speak from the heart, “There’s a lot of really nice things in life. Sake, friends, hugs. All three sound really good.”
“Such a lack of passion!” Mokou clucked her tongue and tried to stand. Her legs were as wobbly as his. She used the table as support, dragging herself up with her arms. It took the realization that she still held her knife for her to let it go and coordinate herself better. Past that struggle, however, she seemed stable enough and was able to stand and face those present. “I’m going out,” she announced.
Shinji sighed. He wished he could simply lie down and enjoy the feeling of the cool floor for a while longer. But, duty called. His disciple was watching and that rabbit that had been entrusted to him probably looked up to him as well. Not to mention, his drinking buddy was in need. How could he abandon a friend? Naturally, he thought, he should be an example for all.
Elegance wasn’t really his goal so he propped himself up as efficiently as possible—putting one hand after the other and grunting as his legs struggled to stay firm. He faced Mokou, looking directly into her eyes. The girl seemed to ask “what’s your deal?” and he was happy to answer, stating, “if you’re going to do all that then I have to come with. But there’s no need to do it right away, right?”
“Why wait?” she asked, impatient only as someone who had successfully shut off the more grounded voices in their head could be.
“Ah, well, that’s a really good question,” Shinji nodded, giving her skepticism the full treatment of his presently sagacious intellect. He stroked the hairs on his chin but, deciding that this wasn’t nearly enough hair to manipulate given the importance of the matter, he moved on to playing with locks on his head that had become disheveled as they had drank and moved about. The added gravitas had an impact on Mokou: her attention was solely focused on him.
It was Reisen who first spoke up and said what Shinji would have undoubtedly concluded had he not been so deep in a thought loop. “That wound ought to be treated,” she said quietly.
“Yes, that’s right,” Shinji nodded, “you shouldn’t go bleeding around everywhere. Not only is it bad for you but it’s really off-putting to others. If there’s a mission you have to do everything to ensure its success.”
He thought that that was very sensible leadership on display. He would have patted himself on the back for that but it would look bad to the others. Being modest was also a vital leadership trait. No one liked a braggart.
“Oh?” Mokou looked at her still-bleeding arm. “This will just fix itself soon enough. But I guess it does look weird. Not as weird if I had cut deeper but I guess I could see people maybe getting queasy about a little blood.”
“Reisen!” Shinji called out for the rabbit, sweeping his hand dramatically towards her. The rabbit flinched, not at all expecting his outburst. He smiled at her and did not miss a beat. “Could you please use your wonderful skills to help out my friend? I’m sure if you do it, you can bandage her in no time at all.” Turning to Mokou, he asked, “That’s fine, isn’t it?”
“Guess so,” Mokou nodded, taken in by the theatricality of the exchange. “Make it quick, please!”
Mokou sat down in the chair she had been in earlier and held out her arm in a very exaggerated fashion. It was as if she were presenting it to a surgeon who had decided to lop it off with a sharp blade. As Shinji leaned up against a wall to steady himself, Reisen got to work. She recruited an annoyed Youmu, telling her to fetch water while she rummaged through the supplies that Shinji had brought.
Shinji vaguely thought it important to watch how the rabbit chose to clean and bandage the wound. He watched as she used the bucket that Youmu fetched to wipe clean the smeared splatter of blood. She identified the actual wound—a finger-sized shallow incision that ran along the forearm—and then applied a powder to the area. Mokou winced some but then smiled, putting on a brave face. As the final step, Reisen wrapped the wound up snugly with a bandage and put on a tiny elastic clasp to hold it in place.
“Thank you,” Mokou remembered her manners, smiling at the rabbit. “You’re wasted on that hag, I don’t know what you see in her.”
To that, Reisen smiled awkwardly, opting not to bother with a full reply.
“You should rest,” Youmu opined, “when I hurt myself training I know better than to push myself.”
“Ah, but I’m not training,” Mokou countered. She stood up again and joined Shinji up against the wall. The two sober people present stole a glance at each other, asking what it was they should do. “You’re a strange dead guy,” Mokou bumped her shoulder into his.
“You’re strange and you’re alive,” he said, feeling that there was some deep wisdom there.
“True, true,” she agreed. “I have to thank you too.”
“Oh yeah? For what?”
“Drinking and getting this messed up with me,” she laughed and launched an assault on him. It was a very awkward operation, with her hands accidentally groping or missing their marks at first. Still, once he understood what she was going for, he did his best to help. He turned his body so that she could hug him better, squeezing around his back tightly. She let go and grinned, “That’s a nice thing about life, you are right.”
“I guess fair is fair,” he said, “we can go whenever you want.”
“You think maybe your friends want hugs too?” Mokou inquired. “Not from me, hah, but from you? The one with the phantom looks jealous.”
“Am not!” Youmu fired back childishly. “I’m just angry that you’re doing wicked things to my master.”
“What, hugging him?” Mokou laughed again.
“No, leading him to drink so much that he loses all of his sense,” Youmu huffed. She looked to Reisen for support, “Don’t you think so too?”
“This is a silly discussion,” Reisen tried to remain neutral on the issue. It was clear to all that she wasn’t amused with the situation but she also was more disciplined with her thoughts.
“Wicked things?” Shinji repeated quietly to himself. He could not fathom how having a friend show affection could be wicked. Still, he wasn’t happy that his companion was upset. “I’m sorry Youmu,” he said, “I’ve been inconsiderate of your feelings.”
“Ah, Master Shinji!” Youmu was surprised by his declaration. “I didn’t mean to criticize you. It’s not your fault that this wicked woman tricked you.”
“I wasn’t tricked,” he said, “I drank because I wanted to. In fact, I’d probably drink a little bit more if there were any left.”
“There might be another bottle of something less good somewhere,” Mokou commented helpfully.
“I just meant,” Shinji tried to remain focused, “well, I just meant that I’m sorry for worrying you. But I’m fine. I made my own decisions. You should make your own. It’ll be fine, too.”
It may not have been the most coherent expression of how he felt but he hoped that Youmu would understand where he was coming from. The girl sighed, deflated. It seemed to him that maybe she did get it, after all.
“Let’s get going!” Mokou interjected impatiently. She hit him in the shoulder again like an overeager puppy might smack his snout into whomever it demanded attention from.
“Okay, fine,” Shinji relented, finding that he could not say no to her.
With Reisen’s help, Mokou gathered what she needed to take from the table and stuffed it into the satchel. She tossed it over to Shinji, who managed to catch it and not make a fool of himself. Off to an auspicious start to the next leg of the adventure by the look of it.
Walking was probably the most inefficient way they had of getting about. At any given moment they could trip and fall. That’s why he was in full agreement when Mokou suggested flying to the village. The catch was that flying in a straight line was also a challenge in its own way. Both drunk members of the party felt especially weighed down by gravity and prone to being affected by the wind and other factors. There was a solution that, thankfully: pooling resources together.
 The two combined forces to make it to their destination.  Each leaned on one of the other, less compromised, individuals.
[X] Each leaned on one of the other, less compromised, individuals.
As funny as it would be to watch the Gensokyo equivalent of a pair of drunks leaning on each other, stumbling home after a night of drinking, I don't think neither Youmu nor Reisen would find it as amusing as us readers would.
It was one of those ideas that was proposed at once by all parties; Shinji and Mokou wished to help one another while the other two saw the futility of that endeavor. The two sober members offered to help, evidently mistrusting both their ability to go in a straight line and their sense of direction. It didn’t take very much to persuade everyone, as it turned out.
“I want the feisty one,” Mokou said, meaning Youmu. Thinking herself the epitome of wit, she explained her decision, “It’s the only way to make sure I don’t do anything else wicked along the way.”
“Go on, help her,” Shinji said to the frowning girl, urging her to pair up with Mokou. Youmu didn’t complain, taking up the task with relative good humor. Judging from the look in her eyes, it wasn’t the first time she had helped steady an intoxicated person.
That left him paired up with the mostly-quiet rabbit. “I apologize for the imposition,” he said, feeling a little guilty. Reisen was a good sport about it, offering him a warm smile that seemed to say “these kinds of things can’t be helped.”
The arrangement turned out to work quite well. All it really took was a firm arm around the back to keep either inebriated soul from straying too much. Mokou decided that she would be talkative and spoke to Youmu quite a lot about things that were lost in the rushes of passing air. Shinji, on the other hand, opted to be more reserved and tried to burden Reisen as little as possible as they flew. The afternoon sun felt good on their backs and it made the journey to the village a pleasant experience.
By the time they had reached the outskirts of the village, Shinji could claim to be more in control of himself again. The passage of time helped, yes, but the fresh air and space to think on his own terms did much to keep him coordinated and lucid. That wasn’t to say that he wasn’t still really rather drunk—he knew that if he spoke, his words would be more unfiltered than he might hope. He tried not to share his appreciation for Reisen’s support as a result. It could wait until some other time.
Mokou led them to a quiet space in the village. They walked the last leg of the journey and navigated through modest homes and normal villagers. Shinji walked under his own power, carefully but steadily, whereas Mokou chose to keep on leaning on her partner. They were an unusual sight; playing children smiled and giggled, some pointing, as they passed but more out of a sense of novelty than with any malice. A few idle housewives gathered to gossip out by a home also seemed to enjoy the interruption, mostly entertained by the tandem act put on by Mokou and Youmu. Whatever else might have been true about youkai and humans coexisting, a group with a phantom, a girl with a bandaged arm and a rabbit-eared woman was still fairly odd to see.
Their ultimate destination turned out to be one of the small homes in the area. There was nothing very remarkable about it: it was a small wooden single-floor home with only a single window or two, In other words, it was virtually indistinguishable to neighboring houses. Despite that, Mokou was confident that she was in the right place. She finally shrugged off Youmu’s support and walked up to the door.
Mokou scratched her head nervously and looked back at Shinji. He returned a smile, not understanding the situation beyond sensing that she needed a supportive push. He left her with plenty of space but took a few steps forward, letting her know that he was going nowhere. “This is a challenge, I like those,” she seemed tell herself as she opened and closed a fist. A sigh and a self-deprecative shrug followed. She was able to forget about everything else long enough to knock on the door.
The reply was quick. The door opened and revealed a woman dressed in blue whose eyes sparkled with recognition. “Mokou? What are you doing here?” she asked, a delighted smile spontaneously forming on her lips. Shinji found her voice calming and measured. Those two features would perhaps be the things he would highlight in a generalization following first impressions.
Her hair was long, and somewhere between silver and pale blue. She looked older than either Youmu or Mokou but not by that much. If he had to qualify that thought, Shinji might say that she gave off more experienced or mature vibe. He watched as she doted over Mokou, happily inviting her into her home. Almost immediately, she noticed the others and lumped the group as “friends of Mokou” and extended the invitation with a happily beckoning hand gesture.
Collectively, the group instantly felt more at ease and followed Mokou inside. Reisen smiled politely back and Youmu began to realize that she wouldn’t have to use her swords there either. Shinji found himself thinking, perhaps unfairly, about the only incongruous thing about the woman: her choice of headgear. It was something that reminded him of a gift box, complete with a red ribbon atop. It only just undermined the otherwise unspoken dignity and plentiful warmth she exuded.
“You’ve hurt yourself again!” she exclaimed as she noticed Mokou’s bandages. With a sigh as she looked for an upside, she added, “For once it seems like you did a good job dressing the wound.”
“That wasn’t me, sorry,” Mokou said sheepishly. Her earlier bluster was nowhere to be found. “You’ll have to praise this rabbit from Eientei.”
“Ah, well,” the woman turned to Reisen, “thank you very much for helping out Mokou. She doesn’t know how to take care of herself.”
“It was no trouble at all,” Reisen replied politely.
The woman used the opportunity to introduce herself. She said her name was Keine and that she did a few things around the village. That prompted a reciprocal introduction. Mokou used the time to take the satchel off Shinji before awkwardly withdrawing into herself some more.
“I’m not a kid, you know,” Mokou averted her gaze. That provoked a knowing smile from the woman.
“We can talk about that next time,” Keine said, driving the conversation towards the present. “It’s not like you to show up with friends out of the blue. Is everything else alright?”
“Y-yeah,” Mokou replied, “I’m alright, Keine. This isn’t really about me.”
“Don’t tell me you got drunk because of something silly like a dare?” Keine sighed.
“Oh, how did you know-” Mokou began to ask.
“I’ve known you long enough,” Keine interrupted, “I know you’re trying really hard to pretend you’re fine but you look like you’d rather be lying in bed right about now.”
“I just needed a little courage,” Mokou grumbled, looking at Shinji to check if he was still on the same wavelength as her. He tried to signal her about the best way forward.
 Mokou needed to trust herself.  He jumped in to lessen the pressure.
Mokou felt cornered and could not see much of a way out. Frustration crept into her face, manifest in the narrowing of her eyes and the scrunching up of her lips. A suitable answer failed to come to her and, when she turned for support from the rest of the group, there was no lifeline from the others. It would have been an exaggeration to call it a betrayal, but she hadn’t expected to have to rely on just herself. For a moment, the look she gave Shinji was sad and seemed to wonder why he wasn’t intervening.
His response had been admittedly subtle. Whatever else he might have thought or felt at that moment, he wished to impart on her that she ought to trust herself. He did not want to interrupt the conversation or make it about himself but there were few ways of transmitting all of that with just a look or gesture. Add to that the difficulty of effectively communicating after drinking a fair amount and there wasn’t much that he felt that he could do.
“Mokou just wants to be honest and speak from the heart,” he ventured, drawing Keine’s attention to himself. She looked at him with a questioning twinkle in her eye, likely both wondering about why he was saying that and how he came to know it. That was the limit of his intervention as he felt it would be unwise to jump in any further.
“Crap,” Mokou said to no one in particular. She then lashed out at Shinji, frustration transformed into misdirected anger, “We’re going to need some privacy to talk, so you better leave.”
Keine seemed to sense that something was off, and added diplomatically, “My apologies for being such a poor host, but I don’t think that I can offer you tea for your troubles.”
“That’s fine,” Shinji said, looking at his other two companions. Reisen didn’t seem bothered by the development though Youmu was staring intently at Mokou, something no doubt on her mind.
Mokou had crossed her arms and leaned up against a wall. She muttered something under her breath and avoided making any more eye contact. She looked annoyed, yes, but also determined. That was perhaps what had been needed from the get-go and what could have avoided much dancing around sensitive subjects.
Shinji wished them well, hoping that his encouragement would prove useful in the end. The group offered quick goodbyes to both Mokou and Keine and then left her home. They walked away with Shinji leading the way, going nowhere in particular.
Youmu was the first to speak up about what had just happened. “Master,” she asked, “what was all that about?”
“Does it matter?” Reisen made a rare interruption, “we finished our mission.”
“Reisen is right about the mission,” Shinji observed, still finding it difficult to walk in too straight of a line, “but it does matter. Getting her to stop hesitating seemed like the most important part.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Youmu said quietly. She ignored the looks of the odd passerby glancing at her phantom and walked next to Shinji, scanning his face for anything that could make sense of the day.
“I think I need to sit down,” Shinji said. It wasn’t his intention to dodge the question. All that flying around and walking had genuinely tired him out.
Luckily for him, they were close to the edge of the village. They were able to find a clearing between the buildings, the nearby fields and lightly wooded area where they could idle for some time. Shinji enthusiastically sat down with his back against a tree and allowed himself to relax.
Reisen shrugged but joined him, sitting up against the same trunk but off in another direction. Youmu preferred to stand, keeping a lookout directed mostly at the village for no real reason.
“My apologies for causing you both trouble today,” Shinji said, stifling a yawn. Soft grass and warm afternoon light was just what he needed to slowly get over the effects of drink once and for all. “Despite everything, I think we’ve done well for ourselves.”
“I don’t really see how,” Youmu once again tried to make sense of things.
It was Reisen who once again tried to put things into perspective, “Mokou had a problem she was reluctant to deal with. We made sure that she dealt with it.”
“Did we?” the girl in green asked, shrugging. “She could be talking about anything else with her friend. There’s no way of knowing.”
“Oh, we know.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Well, we wouldn’t have left if Shinji didn’t think so,” Reisen offered an explanation that just happened to be fairly flattering to Shinji. He smiled to himself, hoping that neither companion would notice.
“Maybe I require more training,” Youmu stated, “but it didn’t feel like that to me.”
“If he thinks that, then it’s good enough for me,” Reisen continued, “I’ve learned with time that whenever I’m sent out to do something, it’s usually for good reason. Even if I don’t understand it at the time.”
“You trust Eirin that much?” Youmu asked, abandoning her pointless lookout to look at the rabbit squarely in the eyes.
“Don’t you trust your master?” she asked back. “Not just Shinji, but that other ghost? Didn’t she send you with him to help? That must be for a good reason, right? But do you know the exact reason why?”
“…Lady Yuyuko has her own way of doing things,” Youmu offered a very weak response.
“Ah, so, see? It’s the same,” the rabbit nodded, confident that she had made her point effectively.
“No, but she tells me things. Sometimes without really trying to.” Youmu tried to explain what she meant but found it difficult, “it’s not that she doesn’t like to share… well… sometimes she’ll say something she’s thinking aloud and it’s because of my years of service that I’m able to tell that there’s another meaning that she might not realize herself.”
“Sounds complicated,” Reisen said, sounding somewhat uninterested in learning more. Still, she humored Youmu for a while yet. A somewhat predictable back and forth ensued where Youmu tried to explain things carefully and Reisen used parts of the examples given as evidence that her broader point was correct. It went on for a long time as Youmu didn’t realize that she didn’t really know what point she was making anymore and was just essentially venting about the hardships—as she saw it—that she had to go through thanks to Yuyuko.
Shinji had opted not to intervene in the conversation from the moment it had started up. For one, it was interesting to hear what either subordinate thought about their situation and how they approached orders. It also saved him the trouble of trying to think or attempting to be coherent. He choose, instead, to rest his eyes and listen to his body; he could no longer pretend he wasn’t out of sorts and itching to rest.
When he next opened his eyes, the sun was beginning to dip under the horizon. Reisen was humming to herself softly, still seated close to him. When he moved and she realized he was awake, she offered an apology, “It looked like you were really enjoying sleeping. We didn’t see a reason to wake you up.”
“That’s fine,” he said, “I hadn’t expected to fall asleep. But I feel refreshed. We should get back. Eirin is probably waiting on us.” He stretched and slowly roused himself up onto his feet. It was then that he noticed the group was a member short. “Where’s Youmu?” he asked.
“Ah...” Reisen looked back at the village. “She wasn’t patient enough to just sit around so she went back into the village. I tried to stop her but she said she would only be looking in from a distance and that it’d be fine.”
“That’s not surprising,” Shinji said. He might as well have expected her to do something like that. The fact that she had reassured Reisen that she wouldn’t do anything was something, at least. He was fortunate that his head didn’t hurt but he wanted to return to Eientei as soon as possible.
They found Youmu staring at Keine’s house from across the street. She had been true to her word and hadn’t moved in closer. Upon seeing Shinji, she offered a quick report: that nothing at all had happened. No one had entered or left.
Shinji called her away and they left the village. They flew close together and had a brief exchange before they arrived back at the bamboo forest.
 Both companions were praised for their support.  Speculation about what happened next to Mokou followed.
“It really was no trouble,” Reisen said softly, the cool whish of air passing by almost drowning out her words. She appeared to be amused by how Shinji had gone out of the way to thank her for her help, particularly when it came to flying straight. Though she used words like “duty” and “job” readily, the coy smile on her lips gave her gratification away.
Shinji hadn’t yet figured out if the occasional twitches of her long ears meant anything in particular but he noted that they seemed to increase in frequency as he laid on the praise. “You were collected,” Shinji added, his voice carrying on the wind, “it’s not just anyone who can keep their temper and feelings to themselves while working. It’s commendable. Thank you for putting up with my apparently unreasonable and somewhat selfish decisions. The bandaging was also expertly done.”
“Oh, stop it now,” she looked back at him, her eyes almost at a roll from the fit of self-consciousness, “I told you, I just did as I was asked. It’s what Eirin wanted, after all.”
Reisen increased her distance from him ever-so-slightly, making it harder for Shinji to get a good read on her expressions. As he was slightly above her and to the left, most of what he had to work with was the back of her head. Farmland and woods below were more open to being observed than the rabbit.
“What about me?” Youmu interrupted, not being able to take much more of being left out of the conversation. She flew the highest of the three—and was the end of the aerial left echelon. It didn’t seem like she had heard Reisen’s replies herself but she had definitely heard Shinji heap praise on the rabbit clearly. Though she was sure that Yuyuko would have been the first to chide her for being so impatient, she thought that getting called out was better than getting no praise at all.
“I’ll have to think about it,” Shinji said, unable to help but have the tiniest bits of fun at her expense. It was the price she would have to pay for not waiting her turn proper.
“Hmph!” she was having none of it, seeing through the ruse, “I know you’re just saying that to get me all flustered. That’s pretty mean, Master Shinji.”
“Patience is a virtue,” he said with a chuckle, “if you knew that and also that I would make light of your lack of patience, then why bother?”
“I like being as direct as possible!” Youmu exclaimed, her voice booming in the twilight. “That’s why I like my swords so much: they never lie and cut every path before me clear.”
“Your energy is good,” he said, “I appreciate how quick you are to react and how willing you are to throw yourself into action.”
“Oho~!” she beamed, “so there is praise for me too!”
“Naturally,” he slowed down a little to come up to her side-to-side. He displayed her a grave look—the soberest that he had put on all day—and Youmu couldn’t help but get completely lost in his dark eyes. The natural sense of respect she felt towards him multiplied a thousandfold. “Youmu?” he called her name, noticing that she had tuned out.
“Hm, yes?” she asked dreamily.
“Your eagerness is an asset,” he judged, “but you need to work on discerning when to pull back a little.”
“Huh?” she didn’t seem to understand, blinking at him blankly.
He explained calmly, “Having initiative is good but so is knowing when it’s appropriate to wait and see. If Mokou had been upset at us and seen you waiting outside of her friend’s home, she might have picked a fight.”
“Oh, yeah, but so what? I would have won,” Youmu shook her head, a confident smile blossoming. She tapped the hilt of her large sword, as if to indicate that that thing solved all problems.
“It doesn’t matter if you won or lost,” he said, “what matters is if we were successful or not. I was entrusted to see things through so it’s my call on what’s an appropriate stratagem.”
“Hm, I think I understand,” she said with a nod. That statement didn’t really convince him that she did. Especially as she followed up with a lively boast, “With your strategies and my sword I think we can win against anyone, master.”
“We’ll figure things out if we keep on working together,” he said, mostly to himself. That Youmu nodded enthusiastically at his statement showed that it would be a long road ahead. Still, in the spirit of being nice, he let her believe in her own excellence.
The arrived back at the bamboo forest just as it properly became night. Quite a few stars were visible as there were few clouds in the sky. Reisen guided them expertly through the bamboo, making their journey in the morning seem overly circuitous. At some point, a group of rabbits materialized from the dark underbrush. They provided a hopping escort to the group. Reisen greeted them warmly and they twitched their ears happily in response. Youmu seemed to like them as well, purposefully brushing her leg up against the one closest to her on occasion.
By the time they had arrived back at Eientei, the mood was absolutely festive: several human-like rabbits welcomed them back cheerfully. Reisen asked if there was any reason why they were making a fuss over them but they all deflected quite expertly. Shinji suspected that that was a command from Tewi that they were following for whatever reason.
Following up on that hunch, when Youmu and Reisen were both distracted with the main gaggle of rabbits at the door, he leaned down and spoke to one of the small rabbits that had been escorting them. “Tell Tewi that I haven’t forgotten about our bargain. We’ll see about fulfilling terms later,” he said.
His suspicion that the rabbits were more than just sweet and fluffy things seemed to be on the mark. The rabbit he talked to twitched his nose at him and gave him a look that he generously interpreted as understanding. It then hopped off in a hurry, to some unseen part of Eientei.
Rejoining the rest of the group, they set out to see Eirin right away. Reisen chatted to Youmu about this and that, mostly about food. She had taken it as a given that we would be staying over for dinner, while Youmu insisted on helping out with kitchen duties. They reached the infirmary quickly and Reisen wasted no time in announcing herself to her master.
Eirin came out from her office to greet them. “You’ve returned so soon,” she said, showing a smile to her subordinate, “I trust Undonge behaved herself.”
“She was a great help,” Shinji nodded, “I’m glad she was with us.”
“Marvelous,” she returned a nod of her own.
“Master,” Reisen cut in, smiling sheepishly, “we’re a little tired and hungry from work.”
“Oh, of course,” Eirin understood the implication at once, “go ahead and rest. Feel free to get dinner started if you want. I’ll see that our guest is entertained.”
“I’ll be going with her, if you don’t mind,” Youmu looked to Eirin and then to Shinji. “I’d like to help out.”
“Go ahead, it’s fine,” Shinji spoke for both masters, having read the mood successfully.
“Shall we sit?” Eirin asked as soon as the other two had left. She guided him back to her office, back to the stools they had sat on earlier in the day.
“We’ve done as you asked,” Shinji stated, allowing himself the privilege of sighing. That sigh signified the end of a day full of ups and downs and it felt good to get it out of his system.
“That’s great to hear. I’ll be asking Udongein about some of the details later, just to make it clear,” she explained, “that doesn’t mean that I don’t trust you.”
“I’m not offended by that,” he retorted.
“Good, good. Would you like some tea?” she asked, fetching a pair of mugs from under her desk. “I have an instant brewer here, which isn’t as nice as the traditional method but it gets the job done.”
“Sure, that’s fine,” he shrugged, never having seen an instant brewer before. He watched with curiosity as she manipulated a nearby cylinder and pressed a few buttons. There was a beep and soon the unmistakable sound of water heating up to a boil could be heard in the room.
“So, how do you think you did?” Eirin asked, watching the metallic cylinder carefully. A blue light had come on at its base. “Be as honest as you like, I’m mostly interested in hearing how you decide to frame it.”
“Alright,” he said, thinking about how he would describe the situation. The most important thing that he could highlight came to mind.
 He was at a loss as to what exactly he accomplished with Mokou.  His team had worked very well together and so things had gone smoothly.
Shinji described to Eirin what had happened broadly, thinking that it was best to give her an overview before getting into specifics. That was just about the time it took for her instant brewer to finish doing its job. Eirin pressed an unseen button on the device and a small hole opened up near the top. He paused as she poured out hot tea from the cylinder into the mugs.
“I’m not sure what I accomplished,” Shinji said, accepting the tea.
“Had a little too much to drink, by the sounds of it,” Eirin teased, bringing her tea to her lips. She blew softly on the hot liquid before taking a sip.
“It wasn’t just like that,” he said. He paused to taste the tea—it was perfectly decent and he couldn’t believe that it had been brewed so quickly. Bringing up the drinking worked for him and he expanded on the idea that he was uncertain to what happened. Yes, he had opted to drink to her to get her to relax, make her feel at ease—all of that and more. Eirin listened patiently as he explained it all.
“You’ve made a friend by the sound of it,” she concluded, “I didn’t think that girl prone to taking a quick liking to strangers.”
“That might be a stretch,” he countered, “I don’t think we might at best be acquaintances. It seemed to me she didn’t seem too pleased with how I left things.”
“Yes, so?” Eirin asked rhetorically. “People won’t always be pleased with the decisions that you make. Learning to handle that is a normal part of life.”
“That’s true,” he conceded. However, there was more to it than just being unsure of how the girl felt towards him by the end. Whatever else may have happened, he didn’t even find out why all that business had been necessary. So he asked.
The reply he got from Eirin wasn’t quite what he expected. She put down her mug and leaned forward. Her long silver bangs shook but held their place relative to the rest of her face in defiance of gravity. “Did you try asking her yourself?”
“Yes, though only about the initial batch of things. Not the things that she took with her to the village,” he said. “She wasn’t exactly an open book.”
“Ah, I understand the drinking now,” she smiled wryly.
“It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time,” he chuckled, scarcely believing they had polished off the whole bottle by themselves, so fast.
“It didn’t occur to you to ask once drunk, I imagine,” Eirin assumed correctly. She sighed, sat back upright and took another sip of her tea. “Don’t expect me to tell you,” she said.
“Why not?” he couldn’t help but frown despite wanting to appear as detached as possible.
“It would be unethical,” she stated. “What you delivered was meant for a specific patient for specific reasons. Reasons they may prefer to keep private. If this were as simple as delivering a parcel, then there would be no reason to drink oneself up to a courageous state, now would there?”
Shinji found that he could not argue against that. Nor, even if he did, that it would yield any more answers. If he had wished to know more about Mokou’s reasoning he would have had to insist upon it personally. All the same, it was deeply unsatisfying.
“Ah, don’t look so disappointed!” Eirin said with a quick shake of her head.
“At least this tea is nice,” he said, forcing a smile. There was no point in getting weighed down by things that he could not change. As Eirin seemed open to it, he continued to share his thoughts between sips of tea. After the tea had been finished off and he had run out of things to say, he asked, “Satisfied?”
“It’s been an interesting experience,” Eirin said with a nod. She offered him more tea but he declined. “I’d like to give you something for your troubles.”
“The reward you mentioned?”
Eirin said nothing but opened a nearby drawer and produced a small wooden box. She undid a latch and fished out something small and very flat. Using her nails, she peeled off an end of the flat thing and then quickly pressed it up against his chest. He expected… something to happen but nothing did. She withdrew her hand, leaving in place something stuck to his clothes.
“Lovely, don’t you think?” she asked with a radiant smile.
Shinji looked down at his chest. He couldn’t quite make out what it was. Something blue, red and… like Eirin? Stretching out the fabric, the image began to make sense. It was upside down from his perspective—obvious in retrospect—but it was a sticker with a very stylized version of Eirin smiling face, complete with cap and tongue poking out playfully from the corner of her mouth. There was text below it, saying “You’re the best!”
“It’s, well, lovely,” he was at a loss for words. Under no circumstances would he have expected something like that as a reward. Or that Eirin would have a childishly playful side to her.
“I made a batch for Udongein. Originally to be given whenever she was feeling a little down,” Eirin explained, “I thought you might like one as well.”
“Well, I don’t mean to be rude...” he started, trying to pick his words carefully.
“Obviously, that’s not the reward I mentioned originally,” she chuckled, as if that had been evident all along. He hadn’t known what to expect from her, so it wasn’t a very fair assumption to make. “I’ve been very amused by your how, so it’s only fair that I reciprocate properly.”
“Had you expected things to go differently, then?” he used the opportunity to ask her a question, buoyed by the enigmatic energies of the cutesy face on his chest.
“I had no expectations,” she answered, “that may be hard to believe, but it’s the truth. I could have thought about how likely it would be for you to fight, succeed, fail or whatever else but that wasn’t the objective.”
“What was the objective?” he asked.
“Learning about you… among a few other minor things,” she shrugged, “nothing nefarious though I wonder if you’ll continue to be unorthodox for the next task.”
“No, not from me,” she clarified, “you’ll surely learn more later tonight. For now, it’s best you freshen up, enjoy a nice meal and all the rest. I’ll give you what you need afterwards. Now, how about that reward?”
Eirin stood and walked over behind the screen divider. The reward had been prepared beforehand, clearly, as it took her no time at all to return. There was another bag in her hand, similar to the satchel Mokou had spirited away. She handed over the leather satchel to Shinji, adding, “you may keep it. Also there is something you may find useful inside.”
He thanked her and opened it up. There was a small box with something inside that rattled around. Opening that box, he found a number of perfectly smooth and pebble-like objects. They were all black and quite cool to the touch. He had absolutely no idea what they could be. They weren’t natural objects, that much he could tell.
“Either hold one in your hand or press it up against your collar and it’ll stick,” Eirin said. “The range ought to be sufficient for your purposes.”
“Range? What are these?” he asked.
“Communicators. Enough for the people you are with. And for those who may have unfairly coveted anything I were to give you.”
“So, you knew?” he wondered how he had figured the rabbit out.
“I know many things,” Eirin showed the smile of a woman pleased at her ability to just know what others had taken for secret. “More importantly,” she brushed off the topic, “I think you’ll find it a useful way to speak with the others if you’re ever separated. Tap on one end and a light will come on. You’ll transmit to everyone else holding or wearing one until you tap again.”
“Thank you,” he said, affixing one of the black discs to his collar. It adhered readily as if by magic.
“Now that our business is over, I think we can move on to other topics if you like,” Eirin said. She sat back down and poured herself another cup of tea. Shinji decided to join her after all. “It’s not often that I get interesting guests,” she confessed, a charming smile underlining her meaning.
While Reisen and Youmu were busy playing about elsewhere at Eientei, their masters took their time getting to know one another better. Between the tea, playful comments and a few other activities, they whiled away the time until it was time for dinner. He learned for sure that she really, really, really did like his beard.
He learned something else from Eirin. Something more important than her preferences in men.
 He got a quick lesson on the basics of providing medical treatment.  Upon learning that he was interested in archery, Eirin taught him a trick to improve his accuracy.
[X] He got a quick lesson on the basics of providing medical treatment.
I feel like we're more of a leader than a fighter, so taking a more supportive role might be nice. I mean, Youmu is always more than ready to fight anything we point her at, so being able to patch up her scrapes after she comes back is probably a good thing.
When Reisen came to fetch the pair for dinner, she found both masters in a state of undress. They had at some point stripped down beyond the point of modesty and seemed very nonplussed about it. Eirin sat at her examination table while Shinji worked an odd-looking piece of equipment, waving it over her exposed abdomen back and forth, keen to hear if the device beeped.
“You’ll just have to press your fingers like I mentioned earlier,” Eirin said dispassionately, cupping and lifting her black brassiere and their hefty contents in order to give Shinji a clearer view of the area.
“It feels tender,” he said, prodding two fingers into her flesh. He repeated the motion on himself, feeling his own chest to compare results.
“If there’s anything wrong, you’ll feel the area stiffer,” Eirin said, noting that Reisen had come in with a dart of the eyes but remaining focused on the lesson. “Remember that the massages I taught you can also be used elsewhere, to stimulate blood flow and relax muscles.”
“Yes, I’ll keep that in mind, thank you,” he said, putting away the few tools he had been using just recently.
“If you forget any of this, you may always ask Udongein,” Eirin said, getting up from the table. “She knows most of this and is experienced at being a test subject as well.”
Reisen nodded a quick agreement. She was surprised to see her master reduced to almost her most basic. It was true that being her assistant made her witness to all sorts of intimate moments and thoughts but Eirin seldom allowed herself to be used as an example. An anatomical doll was usually used whenever she needed to facilitate the rabbit’s education or, in rarer cases, she would demonstrate directly on Reisen’s body so that she wouldn’t forget the lesson.
If the rabbit questioned her master’s intentions, she hid it well, handing her her clothes with a courteous smile. She did the same for Shinji who seemed about as calm as Eirin. For a moment, watching him cover himself up again, she let her mind wander in a different direction but was all business soon again.
“We should go eat,” Eirin said, smiling at Shinji, “Udonge tends to pout if I let her hard work get too cold.”
“My master can get lost in her thoughts,” Reisen explained to Shinji, playfully standing up for herself, “she says I nag sometimes, but sometimes her five minutes can turn into five hours.”
“What an exaggeration!” Eirin couldn’t help but laugh at Reisen’s unusual audacity. “I never noticed this rebellious streak of yours before,” she shook her head, taking it in stride, “it seems that guests really do make things livelier.”
Shinji said nothing, preferring to smile and nod whenever a gaze flickered over him. Neutrality seemed like the most appropriate response; he observed happily the intricacies of their relationship. He followed the pair along, stopping only to wash his face and hands in a bathroom before finally heading to the dining room.
There he found a large banquet-style table covered with several piping-hot dishes. There were a few flower arrangements and decorations in the room but he paid little notice to them, instead focusing on Youmu. She had already sat down and was happily chatting away with someone else who was sitting at one end of the table.
“Ah, so the princess is joining us tonight?” Eirin said as a genuine smile formed on her lips.
“My, Eirin, you didn’t think it unfair to keep these guests to yourself?” the girl quipped, turning away from Youmu to address the new arrivals. Shinji was at once struck by the impression she made—grace oozed from her every movement, great or small, and it was not dissimilar from how he had first felt about Yuyuko. Like the ghost, that refinement was matched by vast beauty—almost supernatural—with dark flowing hair and porcelain skin providing a vivid and delicate contrast.
“There was business to attend to first,” Eirin explained, “and I did not wish to bother you with it.”
“Oh rubbish!” the girl exclaimed, “Youmu here filled me in on the details. It seems to me that this is just your own selfish way of staving off boredom again, isn’t it?”
“It hurts that you think me so petty,” Eirin feigned displeasure. “At any rate, we’re all together now, isn’t that what matters?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” she conceded, “I would appreciate being kept in the loop in the future. Hearing about this secondhand from the rabbits is just a little bit sad, don’t you agree?”
“Oh those rabbits and their loose lips,” Eirin kept her playful smile, but the fleeting look of irritation on Reisen’s face made Shinji realize something about the power dynamics of Eientei.
The girl stood from the table and faced Shinji. “My apologies for my rudeness,” she bowed deeply, “I am the mistress of Eientei, Eirin likes to refer to me as princess, but a guest should not have to put up with such presumption. You may call me Kaguya.”
Shinji was struck dumb for a moment by her impressively refined form and diction. He found himself bowing back as deeply, his language becoming formal to the point of almost becoming stilted. He felt self-conscious in a way he couldn’t ever recall feeling before.
It was Eirin that broke the ice, interjecting cheerfully, “see, princess? You’ve already stolen him away from me just by being yourself. No wonder I try to keep the guests to myself.”
“Oh Eirin, really, you’re too much,” Kaguya laughed softly, using one of her long pink sleeves to cover her mouth in a show of modesty.
Shinji felt that he had no clever turn of phrase or way of not seeming a fool, so he kept his mouth shut. Youmu seemed puzzled by his reaction, clearly having adopted another sort of attitude towards the princess. Reisen, on the other hand, smiled wryly, as if she had expected as much.
The rabbit was the one to move things along, politely reminding everyone that while they waited, their food was getting cold. It, indeed, would have been a shame if they had continued to ignore the food. There was some sort of rich-looking stew that smelled of vegetables and a blend of spices, grilled fish and a series of side dishes and rice. As he sat down, Youmu boasted that she helped prepare things but that Reisen knew her way around a knife and stove as well.
Eirin and Reisen sat at one end of the table and Youmu and Kaguya at another. They all spoke to one another as the food was served. Though, as was usually the case, tangents developed and—between spoonfuls—conversation became localized. Shinji drifting in and out of each group freely for a while, mostly acting passively. It was only by the time that he had a small second helping that he wished to make the most of the situation.
 The good-natured and somewhat intimate back and forth between Reisen and her master drew him in.  He was captivated by Youmu’s unguarded exchanges with an accommodating Kaguya.
“You really do all that as part of your training? My, that’s really quite something!” Kaguya was effusive, matching the energy of her chipper conversation partner. She had been listening, rapt, and encouraging the other girl to share as much as she liked.
Youmu had been detailing her habitual regimen. While it didn’t seem like the intended to show off, there was a distinct prideful undercurrent to her explanation. She was eager to describe how early she usually woke, how it was important to concentrate in order to work on her sword technique and just generally the sheer discipline that it all involved. Though there was nothing quite as outlandish as standing underneath a waterfall, some claims came close.
Though earnest to the point of risking tripping over her own words, Youmu explained away her time management as a necessity, “There is no telling when Lady Yuyuko may need me to do something, so I need to be in top condition at all times.”
“Of course, most of the time she requires me to cook, tend to the housekeeping or the gardening,” Youmu continued, finally seeming to feel she was making too much of her martial pursuits. She slumped her shoulders some as she stole a short glance at Shinji. It was almost as if she expected him, as proxy of Yuyuko, to scold her for whatever reason. The proud warrior with a knack for domesticity continued, “I do spend a lot of my time shearing branches off trees and tending to the garden. That’s as important as training.”
“Your mistress is fortunate to have someone as devoted as yourself,” Kaguya opined, noting that Shinji had been listening to the exchange. She offered an understanding smile to the girl and invited him to offer his own verdict, “Her zealous approach must make your work easier, I imagine.”
“I have no complaints about her dedication,” Shinji replied after a moment. Youmu seemed happy with the answer, nodding her head like an overly-pleased house cat. Still, there was no use in pretending he knew her that well, so he ventured forth the truth that they had just recent met.
“Ah, it would seem that I’ve made a careless assumption,” Kaguya said, almost apologetically. She looked over to Youmu and quietly explained herself, “I believed that the firmness with which you call him ‘master’ meant that your association had been a long, perhaps storied, one.”
“I believe that he can teach me all sorts of things,” Youmu said quietly, as if embarrassed to reveal how abrupt and one-sided the creation of the connection had been. She made herself smaller, the phantom curling up next to her into a ball. “We, well… haven’t spent that much time together yet.”
Kaguya smiled softly, breaking with dinner etiquette to lift the girl’s depressed chin with a single delicate finger. “The intensity of a bond has little to do with the amount of time that has passed,” she said, reassuring the girl. Youmu could not help but stare into the mistress of Eientei’s dark eyes with a sense of awe. “A day, a thousand years or eternity itself does not necessarily change how one feels about something. Or someone for that matter.”
“Y-yes of course, Lady Kaguya!” Youmu squeaked, the fearless girl who delighted describing the difficulties of her training having long since routed. All that was left was a young delicate girl who almost quivered at Kaguya’s soft touch, cheeks infused with a rush of red.
Kaguya withdrew her hand and giggled softly. “My, how fortunate both your masters are,” she chose not to elaborate on that point, instead simply giving Shinji a simple knowing nod.
He could do little but smile in return, unsure what to say to his self-styled disciple or the princess. That title did not seem particularly ostentatious when applied to her. Such was the power of natural grace, he found himself thinking. The quick reduction of Youmu to a pliant creature nearly felt enviable. He enjoyed watching her interact with Kaguya.
The direct attention did little to discourage Youmu from recovering soon and speaking her mind about other things. He followed along the conversation as he ordered his thoughts, interjecting once or twice whenever a direct question was put to him—invariably by the princess. Clearly she was interested in him as well and, particularly, why Youmu had chosen him as her master. She asked Youmu small little questions regarding that that were perhaps too subtle for the excited girl to really understand.
Kaguya showed no outward signs of frustration at not nailing Youmu down with her questions. By the time that dinner ended, Shinji could confidently say that it had been a pleasant evening for all involved. Reisen and Eirin had rejoined the conversation at some point and things had turned to talk of food and sweets. Youmu was all too eager to share her likes and dislikes while the others chimed in about a few of their own preferences now and again. Shinji had little to say on that subject as he simply could not recall what his preferences were.
Reisen cleared the table with Youmu’s help. Both left to wash up the mess elsewhere.
“It’s been a while since we’ve had a lively meal like this,” Kaguya said to Eirin.
“I’m glad you’ve enjoyed yourself, princess,” Eirin replied. She looked over to Shinji, smiling at him mischievously.
It seemed that there was some sort of unspoken understanding between the two women as Kaguya shook her head slightly. “Really now,” she said quietly, “we should have guests over more often.”
“The problem is finding good company willing to come over,” she said, “Master Shinji here has better manners and, dare I say, a more interesting disposition than most people around these parts.”
“Master Shinji does seem to be different than most,” Kaguya agreed, smiling with coy delight. “I was also quite taken in by Youmu. I like direct, hardworking sorts like her.”
“I’m certain that the feeling was mutual,” Shinji spoke up, “she seemed happy to talk to you, Lady Kaguya.”
“See, Eirin?” Kaguya lifted up one of her hands up at her friend, bringing into focus the golden and finely-stitched bamboo patterns on her long pink sleeves, “By treating him so formally, you’ve made him address me in an equally reserved manner.”
“May I remind you that you, yourself, just called him master as well?” Eirin chuckled softly, crossing her arms.
“Ah, so I did! Still your fault,” the princess demurred, “you know that I trust you implicitly. It’s only normal for me to follow your lead!”
“I’ll be mindful not to abuse such awesome privilege in the future, princess,” Eirin said with faux solemnity.
“Eternally incorrigible,” Kaguya giggled and offered an equally serious “tsk, tsk” as an additional reprimand.
“A description better suited for Shinji’s next nocturnal encounter, I would argue,” Eirin shifted the subject. She looked over to Shinji with a sly smile.
“My, Eirin!” Kaguya recoiled in surprise. She shielded her face with her sleeve, seeing as she had no fan within reach. “That’s rather forward of you. I’d venture to say even inappropriate given the brief acquaintance.”
“...I’m afraid your imagination has run all the way the far side of the Moon with you in tow, princess,” Eirin corrected her friend. “He is to leave soon and I only meant what would follow on the next step of his journey.”
“Perhaps I was too hasty, then,” Kaguya retracted her shock. Though she took the time to explain her initial reasoning, adding as if it were a joke, “I believed I detected an unambiguous feeling coming from you.”
“Yes, I suppose I am direct in that regard,” Eirin conceded, but brushed the subject off, returning what she meant. “He is to meet with someone capricious, perhaps to an exaggerated degree.”
Shinji had said nothing as the exchange unfolded. He could not as far as he was concerned. The deep understanding between the two women was not something to be intruded upon. Even if he was the subject of something salacious or ribald—after a fashion—the truth was that there was nothing to gain by jumping in carelessly. Both would respect him more if he wasn’t careless; he would respect himself more as well.
“Well then, are you going to leave it at that?” Kaguya inquired. “Quite cruel for you to tease and say no more.”
“That wasn’t my intention,” Eirin sighed. She uncrossed her arms and relaxed her shoulders, as if to show that she wasn’t being difficult on purpose. “You’ll remember her from those incidents. He’s to meet that vampire at her mansion.”
“She was a decent enough host,” the princess displayed a slight hint of disappointment on her face. Her nose wrinkled ever-so-slightly. In her mind she had built up a far more exotic scenario.
“It’s not really her ability to organize a party that is important here,” Eirin said. “Her being difficult is more the point.”
“A somewhat harsh pronouncement for someone you’ve only met once or twice, I think.”
“Hm, curious,” Eirin smirked at her friend, “I recall you having a strong opinion of your own when we were talking among ourselves afterward. I wonder then if those words weren’t as sharp as I seem to recall them being.”
Having been consigned to a mostly passive role for a long while, Shinji saw an opportunity to inject himself back into the conversation. As Eirin had let it slip that he was going to meet a vampire next, it seemed only natural to want to know more about what was expected of him. Or, indeed, about the vampire herself. He did not know the phrasing he would use but knew that he would get a different answer depending on whom he asked.
 Eirin seemed eager to share the difficulties he might encounter when dealing with the vampire.  He coaxed out Kaguya’s true opinion on the vampire and her personality.
Alright, I'm calling it here. Probably won't update today due to lack of time, but I'll try within the next day or two. I figure I should be a bit more transparent about my update schedule since I haven't put on timers lately.
In general, feel free to ask me about updates and writing. I know some of you might feel like you're bothering me but I don't mind it at all. I'll try to be as realistic and honest as possible when answering.
>>201313 I'm alive. If I don't update in the next 2-3 hours, there probably won't be anything for another day or two in the least. Sorry but life is kicking my ass and keeps interrupting my attempts to update.
Shinji asserted himself without much force, exploiting the natural pauses in conversation to reshape its flow. The two women paid this departure no mind, patiently indulging him.
“Yes, she lives by the lake,” Eirin said of the vampire, having explained that she would be expecting him. “If you’re worried that it will be a long way after all the excitement of today, don’t be.”
To another query, Kaguya commented rather ambiguously, “I’m certain that you’ll manage to keep your wits about you.”
“With apologies,” he riposted, “I don’t mean to be indiscreet but I feel that you’re hiding your true thoughts about this Remilia.” The vampire’s name had rolled off of his tongue uneasily, a word almost too foreign-sounding for him to remember clearly.
Eirin said nothing though her quiet and steady gaze said that she had much on her mind. She allowed her friend to take the full brunt of the accusation and devise an answer of her own.
“I do not wish to malign someone whose hospitality I enjoyed,” Kaguya admitted quietly, eyes politely avoidant of Shinji’s face. She explained her conundrum, “but neither do I wish to insult a guest of my own by refusing to say anything.”
“Whatever it is you feel comfortable with sharing will suffice,” he replied nearly by reflex. Kaguya’s charm and grace allowed for no other answer. Even if probing insistence had flashed through his mind, to act upon that would be akin to sinning. The way he behaved was the only way forward.
“I thank you for your understanding,” she bowed her head at him apologetically. Eirin watched on quietly, crossing her arms as she let the other two speak at their own pace. “Yes, I do not think highly of her,” Kaguya admitted after a pause.
“Is there any example of untoward behavior you wish to share?” he picked his words carefully.
“May I ask you a question?” Kaguya turned things back at him. He nodded and she continued, “Were you to receive a guest in your home, how would you deal with him?”
“Much as you have here. Offer the comforts at my disposal, such as tea or a meal,” he said, meeting Eirin’s eyes with an approving gaze. “That is what is proper, is it not?”
“That is the proper etiquette, yes,” Kaguya nodded softly. “One must offer their best without drawing attention to oneself. That this or that finery or a rarity is really immaterial. What or how is less important than the why, I believe.”
He thought he understood what the princess was getting at. At no point during the day had he thought his interactions dishonest. The treatment that he got from everyone at Eientei was undoubtedly authentic and spoke to the kind of persons that they truly were. The fine but intimate meal that they had just shared was the crowning proof of that.
“I am as of yet unaccustomed to the ways of this land,” Kaguya said softly, playing down her own judgment. “I am surely guilty of speaking out of turn or being too hasty to compare people and things I see here to the places where I used to dwell before. In light of that, please do not be hasty in judgment. Your truth would not necessarily be my own.”
Eirin sighed, “Princess, you’re usually more plainspoken. Our dear guest won’t know what to make of you at this rate.”
“I know that you would want me to say crude things, for it amuses you,” Kaguya shook her head.
“Perish the thought!” Eirin laughed, “I don’t have the habit of holding everyone to the impossible standard that is lunarian propriety.”
“Thanks in no small part to my urging...”
“Be that as it may,” the silver-haired woman was keen to involve Shinji in the conversation, “all of this will undoubtedly go over the head of our guest here. All he knows of us is from his experiences here, today.”
“Yes, yes...” Kaguya suppressed a sigh. She bowed her head again, “I apologize for not being very helpful.”
“I believe I understood the underlying message,” Shinji said. There was no doubt that he felt overwhelmed in a sense. Eirin was right. He knew that there was much more to them than a polite conversation after a meal could reveal. The context that he was missing could only be acquired by prolonged exposure. He would not mind learning it but that was beyond the scope of the day—and his ongoing mission.
By the time that Youmu had returned, looking as chipper as ever, Shinji had some more innuendo and deductive supposition about the vampire. It wasn’t much but he formed a basic idea of the type of person that he would be dealing with. Whether or not that proved to be actionable insight that would give him an advantage remained to be seen.
After all, he hadn’t expected much from that rabbit. Yet her suggestion had proved a defining point of the day for better or worse. Kaguya bade him farewell and good luck as she retired elsewhere and Eirin wished to see to a few things before he were to set off. Youmu reported her carefree work with Reisen eagerly, though he did not really care that much.
As much as he would have liked to have continued to chat with the mistress of Eientei he found himself looking for that resourceful rabbit. He found her waiting for him in a nearby inner courtyard. Youmu seemed to have accepted the rabbits as he peers quickly and did not think it odd that her master would want to talk to Tewi. She sad down on a stone at the edge of the courtyard and pet a rather large brown rabbit that sidled up to her.
“How was your day?” Tewi asked with an exaggerated grin as Shinji approached her.
“You likely already know, don’t you?” he trusted his instincts, delivering the accusation with a warm smile. “It was somehow a shame you weren’t there at dinner.”
“I had other things to do,” the small girl replied, not bothering to deny that he was right on the money. “Besides, just sitting around, talking and eating is a little boring. Lady Kaguya is very kind to us but it’s not like we can just cut loose in her presence. That would be rude.”
“You’ll be wanting your payment now, right?” he chuckled, amused by her mix of honesty and deflection. He reached into his bag and produced a pebble.
The girl sighed, clearly disappointed at her just reward. “Eirin is such a cheapskate sometimes,” she grumbled, “I already got a dozen of these.”
She tugged at one of the her messy strands of hair and pouted. Shinji tried his best not to smirk too hard at her, finding the reaction endearing. As if sensing that she was an object of amusement, she snatched the pebble from his hand. “It’s all I can offer,” he reminded her.
“I know,” she said as irritation crept into her voice. “A deal’s a deal and you honored your commitment. I can ask for no more.”
He looked up at the sky. Wispy clouds flew by at some speed, illuminated in part from behind by a timid-yet-bright moon. The air was cool but not to the point of inducing a chill. It went without saying that he had never met a vampire before. As far as he could recall. A thought bubbled through to the fore of his mind: it seemed appropriate that that experience happen be on a night like this.
 He would offer the rabbit a new, consolatory, deal. A first encounter with a vampire was a special occasion.  The time left before setting off was best spent offering proper goodbyes to his hosts and other companion.
“You look like you’re enjoying yourself,” Shinji said to Youmu. Tewi had gone away unceremoniously, a shrug following a prompt goodbye. That had left master and disciple alone in the courtyard with a few rabbits—most of which were clustered around the short-haired swordswoman and competed for her attention.
Youmu giggled as a rabbit nuzzled up against her leg. As her phantom hovered around her, it drew the attention of a playful rabbit who made the occasional attempt to hop into it but always came short. Shinji was impressed at how quickly she had adapted to Eientei. “They feel so soft,” Youmu confirmed his assessment, “give a try, master.”
“I’ll leave you in charge of this fluffy lot,” he said, unable to help himself from smiling at the girl’s earnestness. She would come along if he asked but he didn’t feel that it would be necessary. “I’m going to talk to our hosts before we leave, to thank them for their hospitality.”
“Sure,” Youmu nodded, stroking long ears happily, “I’ll be here if you need me.”
Shinji left the courtyard with purpose but without much sense of how to approach the situation. The obvious would be to call on Kaguya but he had neither a clear idea of where she could be found nor thought it proper to intrude into her quarters. He did not wish to bother Eirin as she had claimed she would be preparing a few things before they left. And with Tewi gone, that only left a single thread to tug at.
He retraced his steps towards the infirmary. As luck would have it, he chanced upon Reisen in the corridor. The rabbit-eared girl looked like she had something on her mind as her expression was serious, if not sullen. Still, when she noticed Shinji, she brightened up and asked, “Is everything alright?”
“Maybe I ought to ask you that,” he said, “it looked like something was troubling you just now.”
Reisen laughed, as her red eyes softened more. “I’m that easy to figure out, huh?” she asked, soon adding, “I was just thinking about my duties, that’s all.”
“Oh, well, don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to pry. But if you want to talk, listening is the least I can do after all your help today.”
“Mmm, maybe I shouldn’t ask for anything, that way I can save up points with you,” she said.
“I’m sorry, I don’t follow,” Shinji stroked the hairs on his chin, trying to understand what she was driving at.
Reisen did not beat around the bush, “I’m to accompany you for the foreseeable future. Eirin just told me as much. Repaying me for my help can wait.”
“Oh,” he nodded, parsing the development. It came as a slight surprise that Reisen would be joining him on a more permanent basis. Whether that decision was due to Eirin’s generosity or a desire to keep an eye on him was unclear. As charmed as he was by the silver-haired healer he also thought her canny to an extent—evidenced by how she held back from explaining too much at once. Looking at the matter-of-factly manner which Reisen reported the fact, he told himself that it was fundamentally a gesture of good will.
“I’ll be in your care,” Reisen bowed with a tinge of nervousness about her.
“I hope that the prospect of helping me out isn’t what was worrying you,” he said, adding, “I don’t intend to demand much nor be harsh.”
“Ah, it wasn’t that at all!” Reisen tittered and avoided meeting his gaze. She crossed an arm to hold her shoulder as she spoke. “I was simply thinking about my duties here. I’m not sure that things will go smoothly if I’m not around.”
“I’m sure that they can handle themselves,” he reassured her. “Let’s just worry about the things that we can do something about. You’ll have met this vampire before, so I’ll be relying on you to help me out if needed.”
“Of course,” she nodded, “I’ll keep my focus on the mission.”
“I won’t keep you much longer, I’m sure you need to get ready before we leave,” Shinji said. “I wanted to offer a proper goodbye and thanks for dinner, so I was wondering if it would be possible to see Lady Kaguya if she’s not indisposed.”
“Lady Kaguya?” Reisen seemed to draw a very particular conclusion from his request. One that she had long-since internalized as the expected behavior from anyone that had met the mistress of Eientei. She stifled her personal feelings and gave him a rote answer, “I’ll see if she’s available. Please wait here.”
Shinji picked up on her strange and sudden distance but said nothing, watching as she bowed politely before disappearing into the depths of Eientei. He had too much on his mind to simply wait around. So he proceeded into the infirmary and found that the door to Eirin’s office was open.
“I’m afraid that my handwriting is a bit rubbish,” Eirin said aloud, noticing that she had a guest. She was at her desk, a compact tube in her hand. Shinji made the leap that it was a writing implement of some sort as she had just lifted it from a piece of paper.
“Mine is probably no better,” he said, consciously keeping his gaze away from the paper.
“It’ll have to do,” Eirin shrugged. She folded the paper neatly and stuffed it in an envelope. Then she reached into her desk and stamped the back in lieu of using a seal. Finally, she stood and handed the envelope to Shinji. “A formality,” she explained, “I vouch for your character, abilities and so forth. So that perhaps you can avoid wasting your time with her.”
He took the letter from her. “And Reisen?” he asked, “she told me that she would be with me indefinitely.”
“That’s correct,” Eirin said, “I told her quite explicitly that you’re her master for all intents and purposes. She is to follow your every word as if it were my own utterances. Is that a problem?”
“No, not at all. Just unexpected,” he replied.
“I admit that the master part is just me having a little fun. That other girl of yours is so into it that I wondered if perhaps Udongein wouldn’t end up feeling the same way. Though then I suppose it will be my fault if a handsome bearded fellow ends up absconding her for good,” she said the last part with a very childish grin.
Shinji couldn’t make up his mind about Eirin. Alluring due to the confidence in her judgment and knowledge yet not above the occasional spot of frivolity. Even then, when she was being less-than-serious, her delivery was still commanding with more than a helping of gravitas. In sum, she was simply too alien for him to truly understand. He accepted her explanation and thanked her for all her help, keen to be on his best behavior.
When Reisen returned, she looked apologetic. “I’m afraid that Lady Kaguya is unable to see you again,” she said, ears bobbing forward, as she bowed her head.
“Ah, at this hour she must be taking a bath,” Eirin said, “case of bad timing, I’m afraid.”
“She does send her regards and did say that it was no trouble at all to receive you,” Reisen relayed.
“Thank you, Reisen,” Shinji said. He felt a bit more disappointment than he’d care to show, let alone admit.
“You ought to get going,” Eirin said, looking at a device on her desk. “You don’t want to get there too late. You’ll need to keep your wits about you and being tired doesn’t help.”
Shinji knew Eirin was right. Reisen went off to collect her things while he said a last goodbye. Eirin was polite about it but he could tell that she wasn’t one for sentimentality. A “good luck” and a smile was all that he got from her.
The next step was to get Youmu ready. She was still happily playing with the rabbits when he found her. “We’re going now,” Shinji said, “say your goodbyes to your furry friends.”
After a few head pats and promises to play more the next time she were around, Youmu collected herself and joined Shinji. They made it to the main gate and Shinji let her know that Reisen would be coming along as well. That was just swell as far as Youmu was concerned.
“Let’s keep on trying our best!” she exclaimed when Reisen emerged.
“Yes,” Reisen nodded. She was dressed as before, complete with her belt and holstered weapon. The only new addition was a small backpack that was almost completely covered by her very long hair.
The group wasted no time in getting going. They chose to fly and sped off towards the lake with Reisen and Youmu taking point. Shinji thought he felt someone watching from down below from time to time but the feeling soon went away.
Visibility declined sharply as they neared their destination. From a distance, they had been able to see parts of the lake reflecting pale moonlight. Mist shrouded the shoreline and pretty much everything else. Flying became impractical as the possibility of smacking into a tall tree increased.
They spotted a clearing below and decided to land. It turned out to be a dirt road, worn and with compacted dirt. After looking around for any landmarks, Reisen noticed a faint orange glow off in one direction—their destination if they were lucky. Shinji decided to go towards that spot of brightness and Youmu once again took the lead. She gripped her sword’s hilt firmly, on edge that something might jump out of the mist at any moment. Following her cue, Reisen kept at Shinji’s side, keeping watch for anything that might harm her new master.
The air was still and they mainly heard only their own footsteps and the rustling of Reisen’s hair on her backpack. A piece of wood cracked somewhere but it was hard to say if it had been a twig swept on the road or if it had come from elsewhere. As they drew closer to the light, vague contours of a structure became noticeable. Walls, Shinji judged by the height and length. He felt uneasy. But could not say if it was due to something in his surroundings or just how they were approaching the situation.
 Seeming on edge would leave a poor impression on whomever met them at their destination.  They checked their surroundings with some more care before reaching the light.
Shinji found that his shoulders had become tense. It wasn’t a feeling he was comfortable with; the overly-serious look on Reisen’s face was likewise out of place. He tapped her on the shoulder and the rabbit-eared girl turned to face him, wondering why he had interrupted her watch. He wordlessly told her to relax, smiling and urging her to focus on the path instead of the rest of their surroundings.
Not content to leave things there, he also caught up to Youmu, who flinched upon being touched. “I almost cut you in two,” she grumbled, scowling at her master.
He said, nonplussed, “We’re almost there. Try to relax. We’ll make a bad impression if get worked up about nothing.”
“It’s not nothing,” Youmu retorted, squinting at the misty darkness, “we’re probably not alone.”
“It’s nothing for the minute or so until we make it to the vampire’s home,” he assured her. “I don’t want to have a tense first meeting. Even if we risk leaving ourselves open to surprises.”
“...this is stupid,” Youmu grumbled. But ultimately obliged him. She took her hand off the sword’s hilt and fell into place next to Reisen. Shinji noted that the phantom around her continued to look sharp and uneasy. Whether it was capable of keeping as effective a lookout was unclear.
“It’ll be fine,” he said to no one in particular as the road finally came to an end. His instincts had been correct—a large wall extended to either side of a heavy-looking iron gate. Beyond… not much could be seen. A garden of sorts and a dirt path that presumably led to an actual building.
“Let’s try knocking,” Reisen stated, tilting her head towards a small structure by the gate. It cold barely be called a hut. It was a windowless box which was large enough to have three people stand in it at once. Still, it seemed to be made of decent enough wood, something dark and thick that looked unlike most of the trees that could be found in Gensokyo.
“There’s no need,” Youmu grumbled again, still sullen she wasn’t able to play out her dependable bodyguard fantasies.
She was right, at any rate. The door swung open and revealed a fairly tall women in green. She was all smiles with the strangers and swept back one of her fiery red braids before she spoke, “Hullo, are you visitors?”
“Good evening,” Shinji greeted. An echoed ‘good evening’ came from the woman. “We’re here to see Remilia. We’ve business with her.”
“Ah, is that so?” The woman tugged at her white blouse, bringing it clear of the tangled hem of her green vest. “Whom may I say is asking after the mistress?”
“Master Shinji,” Youmu spoke up, “we’ve come from Eientei. We should be expected.”
“Yes, I have a letter to present as my credentials,” Shinji fumbled around in his bag and produced the sealed letter. He presented it to the guard in case she would open and verify its contents. The girl smiled and declined.
“Just a moment,” she said, retreating back into her shack.
“You shouldn’t speak for him like that,” Reisen chastised Youmu as soon as the guard was out of earshot. “He’s our master and he makes all the decisions.”
“I know, but I don’t want to stay out here any longer than we have to,” Youmu said, still looking a touch uneasy. The phantom rose above the group, as if it hoped to gain more visibility from a height advantage. That was impossible and it soon slunk down, looking frustrated… insomuch a faceless phantom could.
“So long as you aren’t rude, you’re free to express yourselves,” Shinji said, finding himself amused at how quickly Reisen had taken all that ‘master’ business to heart.
The redhead returned soon. She grinned, white teeth brilliant even in the misty moonlight. “They have been waiting for you!” she exclaimed, “let me open up the gate for you, dear guests.”
Wasting no time, the guard produced a heavy-looking iron keychain from somewhere inside her long, flowing skirt. She took the largest key and, producing a large ‘clack’ as it entered the keyhole, she quickly opened up the gate. It creaked as one side was drawn open and it was more than enough room for the party to enter through.
“There will be someone waiting for you at the main door,” she said, adding with a carefree wave as she saw them off, “nice meeting you!”
The squad proceeded forward. The guard closed the gate behind them as they started to make out a large, dark structure just at the edge of the mist. Unlike Eientei or Hakugyokurou the architecture seemed completely foreign—tall and imposing—and very unapologetic about being different. Shinji imagined that in the daylight the hints of carefully-curated flowerbeds stretched for some distance and that the red brick and polished stone of the exterior walls was purposefully eye-catching.
A large double door waited at the end of the path. It looked absolutely heavy, made of a dense wood that almost definitely was not native to the land. There was no need to use the large brass knockers to summon someone—one of the doors was open and a winged girl that was fastidiously-dressed received them. Youmu and Reisen identified her as a fairy but Shinji, who couldn’t remember much of anything, simply thought of her as an elegant retainer for the mistress of this place.
“Come with me,” the girl said, her voice bubbly and as childlike as her face. She led them into a grand hall beyond, full of expensive and odd-looking furniture and embellishments. Where the outside was covered by fog and darkness, the interior saw countless lamps lit and almost perpetually shone its polished wooden walls and marble floors. Even someone who had never experienced something so alien and not-Japanese like Shinji could appreciate instinctively that this was a very luxurious space.
Youmu and Reisen seemed less impressed and that was fine. Shinji took point in following the servant through the large entrance hall and up a mammoth set of steps that led to a second floor. Paintings adorned the finely-inlaid wooden panels on the wall and velvety carpet felt soft under their feet as the moved through long corridors. There was an abundance of mirrors, as tall as the ceiling but very few windows; the few portals to the outside that Shinji noticed were covered up with thick and heavy-looking velvet drapes.
They passed a few similarly-dressed girls in the hallway, who all invariably looked at them with curious smiles as they passed. The fairies loved new faces and were happy to let outsiders run around the mansion, much to the chagrin of their vampire mistress. Of course, the group didn’t know that and just thought that the fairies were bored and happy to be interrupted from dusting vases or mopping up the floors.
At last, after climbing a smaller flight of stairs, they reached their destination. Their guide knocked on the wooden door, rubbing her hand on the velvet detailing afterwards with a contented smile. She opened the door gingerly, waiting to see if someone inside would scold her for being too forward.
As the dressing down never came, she eventually opened the door completely and revealed an audience chamber fit for a king: the amount of fineries overwhelmed the senses to the extent that someone more accustomed to with Western culture might think was vulgar. There was a large portrait of the mistress hanging over a roaring fireplace at one end of the room while a long red carpet led to a raised chair, whereupon the mistress might command her staff ex cathedra. Naturally, the vampire was sitting there, a snifter of something or the other in her hand, with the head maid standing beside her with a blank expression.
“If things go wrong, I can handle her,” Youmu whispered to Shiniji, unimpressed at what she had seen. Large golden chandeliers, taxidermied bears and relics kept behind glass had no effect on someone who was just concerned about proving herself worthy to her master.
The servant left them and Shinji approached the mistress with the other two girls maintaining a respectful distance behind their master.
“Welcome to my humble home,” the vampire greeted, looking at the group with hungry eyes, sizing them up as if she expected great things from them. “I am Remilia Scarlet, mistress of this estate. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” Shinji bowed his head, “I am Shinji, these are Reisen and Youmu, both under my care.”
The other two looked to him hesitantly before offering a small bow of their own.
“Yes, I believe I’ve met both on other occasions,” the vampire cooed, “this here is Sakuya, my faithful head maid and friend.”
“A pleasure,” Sakuya offered a curtsy, her silver braids bobbing as she performed the maneuver with practiced grace. Her uniform—Shinji deduced as much from seeing the other staff dressed similarly—was darker and had a white apron fashioned on the front. The shortness of the skirt showed off perhaps more than what would be acceptable for a normal servant—a garter with daggers tucked in stead of a belt.
“Head maid and bodyguard,” Shinij thought to himself.
“What brings you to my humble home tonight?” The vampire asked, a mischievous twinkle in her red eyes that betrayed her attempts at seeming genuinely surprised.
“I’ve come here from Eientei. With a letter. Eirin said you’d want to talk to me,” Shinji explained, coming close to the throne with the letter in hand. For a moment it looked like the bodyguard would intercept him and take the letter for her mistress but with a subtle motion of her hand, the vampire told her to stay put.
Remilia stood from her chair and took a few steps down towards him—revealing that she was only just over half the size that he was. Her bat-like wings were curled behind her back, leaving most of the focus on waving of her long pink dress and attached ribbons. She looked up at her guest with amusement, curly locks of blue hair draping over her face. Without a word she took the letter from her guest’s hand and quickly read it.
When she was done reading, she laughed. “Ah, that crazy lunarian!” whatever dignitas she wished to project crumbled. Her voice was less grave than before and more easy-going and childish. “I don’t know why people don’t like those moon people, they’re always worth a laugh. Isn’t that so, Sakuya?”
“As you say, mistress,” the servant responded by rote, her eyes fixed on the arriving party. In particular, she seemed to be eying Youmu, making sure that she went no where near her sword. That wasn’t to say that Reisen was forgotten—Sakuya took position to the left of her mistress and formed a triangle between the two guests. It seemed that Shinji posed no material threat as she allowed him to get as close as he pleased.
“I’m very confident that this will work!” the vampire explained, smiling a very fang-y smile at Shinji. He didn’t really know what a vampire was nor how one behaved but he could hazard a guess as to how they fed judging from the sight.
“I’m not clear as to what I’m doing here,” Shinji confessed, “would Lady Remilia be so kind as to explain to us?”
“Oooo~!” Remilia shook her head excitedly, looking at her servant again ,”hear that, Sakuya? Lady Remilia? I’m in love with this one already!”
“May I please remind my mistress what happened the last time she found herself in love with a polite, bearded fellow?” The servant said quietly.
“Ah, you’re no fun!” Remilia said sullenly, “it was his fault for offering to let me have a drink… and then another… and so forth. I didn’t know that the magic spell he cast would make my hunger grow.”
“...I just wish to remind you that guests are not your plaything. Need I remind you about what happened to-” Sakuya did not finish the sentence. But the message was clear enough. She obviously didn’t want to talk too much about the past in front of strangers. Though she looked serious and committed to her role, Shinji could tell that Sakuya was less serious on a personal-level. How? That he couldn’t say. Maybe it was the way she smiled when she thought he mistress wasn’t looking; impish and carefree behavior that contrasted with how her mistress expected her to behave.
“Yeah, I know!” Remilia barked, looking a little irritated at her maid. She turned to the group again, scratching her backside in a most unladylike fashion. It didn’t seem she was conscious of the act. “So, a drink?” she asked. “A toast to a new partnership!”
Shinji saw no reason not to oblige. The servant went to a cabinet to the side of the chamber and took out a small tray. On it she placed several small glasses and filled it with a dark liquid from a bottle. She presented the tray to each party member, waited for them to take the glass before finally presenting the last one to her mistress.
“To a beautiful new friendship!” Remilia toasted. The jeweled earrings and collar she wore twinkled in the candlelight, sparkling as vividly as the drink when shook around.
“To friendship,” Shinji echoed the toast. For the second time in the day, he began to drink.
 Remilia’s lips became loose as she drank deep of the glass and her guests. He focused on the master.  Try as he might he could not ignore the vampire’s servant. She stole furtive glances at him and he repaid in kind.
The scent of wood was not an unpleasant one. Nor could Shinji say that the taste—almost hot and sharp at first impression—was bad. He was unaccustomed to that sort of thing and the sweet and mellow hints of fruit at the end of the gulp were strange but not unwelcome. He watched as his host greedily gulped down the contents of her glass, a satisfied smile forming on her lips.
His companions, on the other hand, were not as taken to the drink. Youmu took a cautious sip and her grimace said it all. She would not take a second sip. Reisen, on the other hand, had a more delicate approach; the rabbit-eared girl was stone-faced but limited herself to only the tiniest amount of drink. Were another toast made, she would likely have more out of a sense of politeness, Shinji thought.
“Would milady care for more?” The servant asked, taking the empty glass from the vampire’s hand.
Remilia smirked, “I think you know the answer.”
“Perhaps, then, we should move to the sitting room?” Sakuya asked. “Having the guests stand around on ceremony might prove uncomfortable for them after a while. Not to mention for milady. That growth you told me about the other day might-”
“Sakuya, not now!” the vampire hissed, trying to keep her voice down. Of course, that was a pointless endeavor in a large hall like that—the acoustics were designed to amplify the voices of anyone speaking. Shinji pretended he didn’t hear a word of the exchange while a knowing smile formed on Reisen’s lips. Youmu remained blissfully unaware of what was going on.
After a pause and some very loud whispering, the vampire once again directed herself to her guests, “Follow me, let’s sit and talk.”
Sakuya came around to each guest quickly, taking whatever remained of their drinks and putting the glasses on a tray. With a quiet nod, she urged the guests to follow her mistress to a door at the side of the chamber. Shinji wished to say something to her but was interrupted by the vampire who came and fetched him for straggling.
“Don’t be shy!” Remilia laughed, linking her arm around his own. She was eager to talk and opened up the side door to a small passageway beyond. “I know that all this nonsense I have on display can be a little intimidating for common people but you’re my guests and I’ll treat you well.”
Youmu did not approve of Remilia’s chumminess, chaperoning the pair by standing a few paces behind them. If that was meant as some sort of intimidating gesture, then it had no real effect. Remilia ignored her and, when the maid caught up to the party, she engaged the two other guests in quiet conversation. That effectively left Shinji and the vampire in their own private bubble for a while.
“No, I never had,” Shinji replied to one of the vampire’s quick-fired questions. As the passageway was narrow, she pressed her small frame against him as they walked together. He could not help notice the smell of rose perfume that came from her. By contrast, he was certain he sported a far muskier odor.
“But you enjoyed it, yes? I’ve a special reserve I can ask Sakuya to fetch if you’re interested in trying it.”
“That would be lovely,” Shinji said, feeling that his fate had been decided for him.
The gregarious vampire kept things lively, asking him about this and that. His full name, age, how long he had worked for Yuyuko and, of course, his favorite drink were among the questions asked. It didn’t seem to matter if he didn’t have an answer, she seemed charmed by his attempts to explain himself to her. “You don’t say!” was one of the phrases Remilia repeated time and again.
By the time that they reached their destination—a smaller room with wood paneling, several generously-cushioned couches and a few side tables—Shinji could not help but feel a tenuous sense of intimacy with his host. He even asked her a few questions of his own. Obviously, nothing as bold as a lady’s age but he asked what he thought were questions that let him get a handle on her personality. He was not yet sure if Kaguya was right about her. So far she had been less self-centered than he suspected she might be.
“Here, here~” Remilia escorted Shinji to one of the smaller couches near one of the walls. It was a mix of wood enriched with gold paint and filling covered by very soft-looking fabric, velvet or something similar. Had Shinji known more about the particular century and continent where such designs were in vogue, he might have guessed the vampire’s true age. Or, at the very least, have known that that compact design was more commonly known as a two-seater or, in some places, as a loveseat.
Naturally, Remilia sat down next to him, the distance between each other a mere hand span. Her servant ushered in Youmu and Reisen, leading them to a larger couch opposite them. Sakuya held off from taking a seat, correctly divining that her mistress wanted her to attend to her needs. “Shall I bring more refreshments?” she asked.
“Yes,” the vampire grinned, a fang poking out the side of her mouth. “Bring the ‘58, if you would.”
“Of course. And perhaps something lighter for the others?” Sakuya thoughtfully considered the other guests. The fact that they had not enjoyed the drink had not escaped her.
“Ah, yes, of course. Is sake fine?” Remilia asked an overly-serious-looking Youmu.
“Yes, that would be fine,” the girl nodded in reply, looking tense for whatever reason.
The maid dissolved back into the passageway with a nod. Remilia fiddled with a bit of lace around her collar. She also noted that Youmu was not at ease. Turning to Shinji, she asked, “Is there something wrong with your servants? They look rather glum and bored.”
“I think they’re just not used to this sort of environment,” he replied diplomatically. “In fact, I have to admit I’m not used to this sort of place myself.”
“I suppose that my tastes in décor are not the standard for Gensokyo,” Remilia said with a clear measure of pride in her voice. It immediately seemed clear that she though it superior to the understated elegance of, say, Eientei. “I’ve heard that my taste in pets is likewise different. I have thought of keeping a rabbit you, know,” she looked Reisen in the eyes, red meeting red, “do you happen to know if there’s any who would want to come live with me.”
“Ah, sorry, I don’t think so,” Reisen said, offering a neutral smile, “the rabbits are quite fond of the bamboo forest.”
“That’s no problem!” the vampire countered, “I can have a wing remodeled. Bamboo and greenery indoors, as if it were a real forest.”
“I’ll make sure to mention that next time I’m home,” the rabbit said. “I can’t promise that there will be much of a response.”
“That’s fine, that’s… alright,” Remilia said, tossing back a lock of hair that had come to obscure part of face with a flick of her hand. Though her hair was just about shoulder-length, it was surprisingly messy for lack of a better term. The locks were curved and wavy and spilled forth from her dainty pink cap in every which direction.
Sakuya came back in what seemed to be an instant. She carried with her a large rectangular tray, with a pair of bottles and a handful of glasses. She first approached Remilia and Shinji and poured each a drink from a dark bottle before attending to the two others.
“Cheers,” Remilia raised her glass once again.
After the toast, Shinji tasted the new drink. It was broadly similar to the first thing he had tried but with a far deeper and concentrated taste. His tongue almost fizzled with an explosion of flavor and with an aftertaste that was even more subtle. He liked it a lot. There would be no problems in keeping up with Remilia as she drank.
“Milady,” the maid interrupted as soon as she had finished her glassful. The group had been talking about the impressive sights on the moon. Remilia had begun unprompted and Reisen had contributed some knowledge of lunar society while Shinji and Youmu listened quietly.
“Oh, what is it, Sakuya?” irritation crept into the vampire’s voice, “I was just going to get to the good part.”
“Don’t forget to get to business before it’s too late,” Sakuya said.
“We have all night!” Remilia gesticulated wildly, clearly upset at being interrupted for something so trivial.
“It’s just that, if I must remind milady of the past, around three or four good drinks milady is tempted to begin singing of songs from her youth.”
“...must you bring that up in front of company?” Remilia spoke through her teeth.
“I only aim to be the best servant I can be,” Sakuya bowed, “you made your wishes clear earlier to me in confidence and I desire to honor your original design as best as I can.”
“Insubordination,” Remilia huffed. She was red in the face but still had the wherewithal to ask Shinji a direct question, “are your servants as cheeky as this one over here? I swear it’s like a curse.”
“I haven’t known them for that long,” Shinji replied, smiling at the other two. “But being headstrong is fairly common.”
“’Bah’, milady?” Sakuya looked over to the vampire with bemusement. “Perhaps you would deign to use your words properly.”
Remilia was quiet for a moment, lost in thought. Finally, she looked up at the braided servant with an unnaturally wide smile. “Say, Sakuya,” she uttered quietly, “would you be so kind as to entertain the other servants? You’re correct that I had certain expectations from this meeting. I should see to them.”
“Of course,” the maid nodded. Perhaps Shinji imagined it but for a brief moment it seemed that her eyes laughed with a mischievous energy. “If you wouldn’t mind, I can give a tour of our humble home,” she said to the seated pair.
Reisen looked on to Shinji for confirmation. He nodded assent. Youmu hesitated but was persuaded by something that Reisen whispered to her. In but a moment, he had been left alone with Remilia.
“At least she left the bottle,” Remilia grumbled, pouring more to drink for herself and then Shinji. “I barely know what she’s thinking half of the time.”
“It seems that she care for you, however,” Shinji said of Sakuya. Her attentive service could not simply be explained away with professionalism.
“Yes, yes, of course she does...” the vampire sighed. “Still, she has a knack for ruining the mood.”
“I’m still enjoying myself,” Shinji said. He was not lying. As strange and rushed as the encounter had been thus far, he was enjoying the energetic change of pace. If were less intoxicated, he might have even rationalized that he enjoyed the genuine interest and forwardness that Remilia displayed towards him.
“You’re lovely for saying as much,” she sighed again, putting her free hand into his. It was small and felt slightly cool to the touch. “Still, I suppose we must make the best of the time we have together. Say, won’t you tell me more about yourself?”
Shinji sat back, letting himself sink into the couch. “I’ve told most of what I know,” he confessed, “I don’t really have memories beyond the last day or so.”
“Why you then?”
“When I met that ghost of yours last, she said she had someone dependable in mind who could help out.”
“Lady Yuyuko?” he thought back to the first face he recalled seeing. “I haven’t had time to think much. It’s been an exciting day.”
“That lunarian of yours certainly seems to think highly of you as well,” she said, staring into her cup. “She wrote that you were creative and an adequate leader. I don’t know her that well but she’s harsh when it comes to judging others.”
“And you, milady?” he asked, “what do you make of me?”
“Too soon to tell,” she said, leaning on him. Her wings unfurled gently, coming to partly drape his shoulder. “Perhaps I’m too isolated these days, but I am also willing to believe that your character is adequate for our purpose.”
“Is there a chance that you would explain what that purpose is?” he asked, half-expecting a straight refusal.
“Yes, there is,” she said, “but there’s nothing to gain from telling you yet.”
“Rather rude to say that, don’t you think?” he complained with a bitter smile.
“Ah, my apologies,” she laughed. Without missing a beat, she turned her head towards his face and planted a light peck on his cheek. “Does that make it better?” she asked with a wicked and toothy grin.
 If she did not wish to share more, he would not insist.  He teased that she would have to do better to win him over.