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Aimless and Mystified Eastern Light

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~ STAGE 0: "In Media Res" ~

[START]


It was a display like any other in the Land of Illusions.

Myriad colors shot outward in every direction, lighting up the night sky. They burst, popped, faded out like prismic fireworks. Sounds of fighting could be heard amidst the luminous cascades of bullets. Any resident of this place would recognize the sights and sounds in an instant:

A Spell Card battle. An even duel where either side had a chance at winning. A 'beautiful' and 'fair' fight where sheer strength was no deciding factor at all. Where actions taken had meaning, and consequently drew power from that meaning. Where the victor could not kill a human, and youkai could freely demonstrate their power.

That was how things were settled in this place. It was an unspoken, understood rule.

-So, it only made sense someone would someday break them.

"Agh-!"

A young woman cried out as a sound like breaking glass smashed through the fight, her silhouette turned into a blur that was flung across the ground. She skipped across the grass like a stone across water, barely coming to a stop at the edge of a nearby ravine. Her clothing, decidedly modern and foreign, was torn up in various spots. Even though she felt like she'd just been punched in the chest by an angry gorilla, she found enough strength to weakly rise to her feet.

Behind her, far below, she could hear the distant echo of rushing water. She tried to ignore it as she looked back ahead. There was no time for her to get distracted.

Approaching her was an older woman dressed in red robes, a similarly colored horn protruding from her forehead. The elder chuckled as she walked, taking a relaxed sip from a sake dish in one hand; so cavalier, yet the air carried a deep sense of dread. What she held in her other hand only strengthened that feeling: a blade, its steel gleaming faintly in the moonlight.

The elder raised it upward, despite being a fair distance away. And then, as though she was ignorant of the weapon's limited range... she swung it.

Overcome with an overwhelming premonition, the girl quickly moved-

Before she even took a step, a searing sensation tore through her side.

Again, again, and again, all across her body from every angle. She could faintly make out the visage of the woman in front of her, making shallow strokes in the air with her sword. She couldn't explain the sensation, but it was like something was being 'warped' with each swing. As though the law that 'this strike will miss' was being rebelled against; as if such a common sense was completely unrelated to her movements.

Soon, the strikes stopped, and she nearly crumpled under the weight of her own body. It was a miracle she could even stay upright.

Staring down the sharp edge of that sword, the young woman saw more than her own reflection. She could see a clear image of her opponent's intent, and her fate if she didn't overcome them.

This was no longer a Spell Card battle. It couldn't even be called something as glamorous as 'a fight to the death'. That would've implied she'd go down with anything resembling a fight, at this rate. No, there was only one way to describe this: the willful murder of a human.

She cursed at the thought, and new strength filled her body as she rose her arms in defiance. All around her, a series of rapid 'BANG!'s rang out-repeated flashes of light like a firing squad had just opened fire. If one had the reaction speed, they would see something that looked like bullets of light screeching towards the older woman. Each one aimed for vital points of the body and would surely hit their mark-

A flash of steel; a simple flourish. With as much care as if she were swatting summertime gnats, the horned swordsman had simply slapped the barrage aside. A cold smile crossed her lips as she continued walking forward.

The girl didn't relent. Never one to be cowed, she kept shooting. Her eyes tracked the movement of each shot as it was knocked aside, never losing track of a single one. On one hand, she pressed her index and middle fingers together, extending them outward as she concentrated.

One…

"What are you hoping you'll accomplish?" The elder tilted her head slightly, her cold smile turning to a chilling grin. "These movements of yours are meaningless."

She ignored her and kept shooting; she denied her as she had many things leading up to this moment.

(But for how much longer would that continue?)

Soon enough, the other was within range to cut her down; too close for her to continue firing without risk.

Two-

Time slowed to a crawl. Her eyes tracked the blade's movements. Raised, it was poised to cut her down in a single motion. Her body tensed, as though she'd seen her own death, and she saw the look of fatal determination in her opponent's eyes.

And, as though she'd been waiting for it, she charged forward.

"-?!"

The swordsman's expression twisted into surprise as the girl rushed forward, faster than either of them had anticipated. The song of steel slicing air rang out and the blade passed right through the girl's body-

-But she was untouched.

The girl's observation was right. But she didn't have time to muse over her opponent's ability-she needed to follow through on her motion. She leapt, a palm set to meet her opponent's face. Right before she made contact, a card had materialized in the youth's other hand.

A Spell Card.

The bullets the swordsman had been batting about hadn't faded away. Rather, it was as though they had been controlled and repositioned. She would probably see out of the corner of her eye something forming around and underneath her: light, melting together as though creating a small pool.

Three!

"Cannnonball 'Sake Bomb'!"

Roaring defiantly, the girl slammed her palm into her opponent's face. The force of the impact seemed to surprise the other, as she lost her footing and her grip on the sake dish in her hand. Gripping her by the head as she went, the girl drove her into the radiant pool-

The next instant, the entire area was bathed in light. A tower of fire rising and falling, like someone had hurled a boulder into a lake. An exploding howl echoed out for a good mile, nearby trees quaking in its wake.

As the impact seemed to settle, the sound of something breaking filled the air once more.

"Ah… ah-"

Had this been a proper duel, such a move might have won her the day.

But, this wasn't something so frivolous or playful. The outcome had already been decided the moment one had challenged the other.

She almost didn't notice something had gone through her torso. Had it not been for that cold sensation running her through, she'd have missed it entirely. That, and the sensation of something wet running down her body. Her vision was too red to make out what it was.

Her body seemed to get the memo, and it filled with a sensation like burning needles. It hurt. Breathing hurt. Everything hurt. She felt the strength in her body leaving her as she stubbornly gripped the thing that was inside her chest and weakly tried to pull it loose.

"My, you're quite something."

The elder woman said something. She couldn't respond-any attempt made everything hurt even more.

"You keep denying the truth, and where has it gotten you?"

The swordsman steadily lifted up the sword in her hand, and the girl felt herself rising up off the ground. The burning sensation became searing, and she almost started screaming.

The only reason she hadn't was visible in the ferocious glare she was shooting her foe.

"Oh, that's quite a look. Yes, you've got some spirit." She grinned. "Don't think I don't sympathize with your plight, girl. I know what it's like to reject the nature of your very existence."

Her eyes seemed to be screaming in return: Shut up already. Even suspended in the air, she found strength to keep her grip on the blade in her torso. Something wet was covering her hands, now, too.

"..." The other frowned, as if genuinely disappointed by something. Then, a sigh. "You're not going to listen, are you? Yes, I suppose you are alike after all. Always denying me, even when I try to help you. Such a shame..." Her eyes shifted to the ravine nearby. Her grip on the sword's handle tightened, and her smile returned. "Well, so be it. It's not like I made plans for any other outcome. You have only yourself to blame for that, ◻◻◻◻◻."

It almost sounded like she was talking to someone else. The girl didn't understand any of it.

"Goodbye. Make sure you leave a spot in the afterlife for the shrine maiden, hm?"

She couldn't have reacted to it. She couldn't have done anything about it, either. All she heard was the singing voice of steel that cut her mind in half, before her consciousness went blank. Her vision was no longer tinted red, but dyed complete crimson.

Her silhouette, split down the middle, tumbled down the ravine without a sound.

She shouldn't have been able to think. Not anymore, in a state like this. And yet, as she crashed into the waters below, some semblance of her conscious mind remained. A brief vision of someone special to her, along with a single, conscious thought-

I'm sorry, Reimu…

It was her last thought before the current washed her away.

Chapter Text


~ STAGE 1: "An Irregular Outsider" ~

[START]


~~~

A few years prior…

~~~

 

The land they lived in went by many names. 'Land of Fantasy', 'The Eastern Country', 'Eastern Wonderland'. But to those who lived in it, it only had one, simple name-

Gensokyo.

The history of its origin was somewhat ambiguous; only those who had lived in it since its creation properly understood all of the details. Mankind once feared and worshipped the unknown and the supernatural; from that fear, both gods and monsters were born and thrived. But as ages passed and mankind grew more cynical, their collective faith and fear began to die out. The beings born from their belief in the unknown found their existence being replaced by science and new understanding of the world. Without doubt, soon they too would fade away, forgotten by time.

Those in Japan refused that fate, and thus devised a plan to survive amidst mankind's shifting beliefs.

Making a bargain with those of humanity who also rejected the coming era, they sealed away a great region of land from the rest of the world. That land would serve as a shelter for the old world and its ways.

But, such a place would always exist in a fragile peace. They needed a mediator. A central authority that could stand above and between humans and youkai; an impartial guardian who would keep the balance of the land.

To put a complicated story simply, that was her job. Her sworn, solemn duty.

… … … Well.

"Fuwaaahh…"

It usually was, anyways. Today was a slow day for Reimu Hakurei.

"No worshippers. No donations. Nothing."

She yawned again, idly sweeping away autumn leaves with a broom. It wasn't like she'd slept poorly. Rather, the stillness of today was starting to make her lethargic.

Actually, the past year had been surprisingly uneventful.

A mere three seasons had passed since the Spell Card rules she had created were put to their first real test. And yet, every time it seemed like everything was going to settle down, some incident or another had started up. A troublesome scarlet devil who darkened the skies of Gensokyo with an unnatural mist. A spring-stealing ghost who sought to revive a cherry blossom tree. A wild, party-happy oni who caused a festive ruckus. The Lunarians of Eientei making trouble with the moon.

Remembering it all gave her a headache. Not unlike when that yama came to clean up her subordinate's mess, and decided to give Reimu a lecture while she was there.

"Ugh." Perhaps the quiet was a merciful gift from the gods. A small repayment for her hard work. Normally, she would have taken such a blessing with little complaint, but...

It was usually when things got quiet that something really troublesome was about to start up again. It happened again and again without fail. Reimu only wondered when this year's incident would start up, and what it would center around.

She had a feeling it would be soon, and her intuition was never wrong.

-It took about sixty seconds.

"Zz… Zzz…"

Right in the middle of the path to the shrine, someone was lying on the stone walkway. Judging from their snoring, they were taking a nap. They seemed so fully immersed in their sleep, Reimu would have normally assumed they'd been there for hours. Would have, except she was fairly certain she'd just swept that area not even a few minutes ago. And now they were getting their drool all over that very spot!

"Hey. Hey!"

Reimu approached them, hoping she could rouse them from their slumber with a few irritated calls. Unsurprisingly, they didn't wake. Annoying… She contemplated hitting them with the broom in her hands for just a moment.

Then she saw the individual up-close.

A girl. About her age, actually. That wasn't really the strange part; what actually caught the shrine maiden's attention was her attire. It wasn't of a style that would be found in Gensokyo. It looked decidedly foreign, as though it'd come from a time and place quite distant. Almost as if-

"An outsider…? What are you doing here, exactly?"

She ended up muttering it aloud, like she was going to get an answer from this slumbering stranger. No such luck. On closer observation, Reimu had the impression she wasn't quite a youkai, so it was likely that she was human. Unless, in her boredom, she'd accidentally summoned a god that happened to dress and look like an outsider. That probably wasn't the case, though. Probably.

She nudged her a few times (even resorting to a soft kick), trying to wake her up. The girl muttered something in her sleep, but nothing else.

"Well, if you aren't going to wake up…"

With about as much ceremony as if she were hefting a sack over her shoulder, Reimu pulled the girl up from the ground and started a march to the Great Hakurei Barrier. "(Heavy…)" It was a bit tempting to just wake her up with a start, but that would have probably caused its own share of problems. This was a lot less troublesome.

Standing before the barrier, an ordinary person wouldn't notice anything different. A landscape that extended out into the horizon, and would keep going and going and going for anyone who decided to walk through it. That was what most inhabitants of Gensokyo would see. Naturally, Reimu saw more. She never really cared to understand every single minute detail, but Reimu knew that the 'barrier' was more than a simple boundary surrounding Gensokyo. It was something far more complex, formed long before she was a distant twinkle in her predecessors' eyes.

Even still, she didn't really need to know all of those details to do this task.

"In the name of the Hakurei God, I command thee-"

The words sounded grandiose, and really weren't her style, but ceremony was ceremony. The Great Hakurei Barrier divided the world of 'fantasy' and the world of 'reality'; common sense and nonsense. It wasn't anything she could handle halfheartedly, regardless of herself.

Any observer would see something that looked like a distortion in space, but that would have been a gross simplification. A boundary of 'common sense' wasn't something anyone could plainly cross; it operated on principles and meanings that went far beyond inhabited space. Opening a path through it could be compared to tearing open a rift between worlds-worlds which followed completely different sets of rules. To do this task and more without causing any serious destabilization was just another of her various, tiresome duties.

Regardless. Despite the numerous complexities that would leave an ordinary person's head spinning, Reimu had done it in about the same time as it took to turn a doorknob. And much as one would treat a stray animal that had somehow wandered into their home, Reimu quietly and unceremoniously flung the outsider back outside, taking care to gently shut the door behind her.

"There. That's taken care of."

Taking a moment to ascertain that the barrier was properly closed, Reimu went about her normal day.


"Zzzz… zzz…"

What.

It'd only been a single day. Reimu was sure she'd sent her back home. At worst the girl would've woken up, confused as to why she'd found herself next to an old, abandoned shrine. But she would have probably just returned home, in that case.

"Don't tell me…"

Reimu squinted at the outsider's sleeping form. Was she squatting in the shrine on the other side? A forgotten human occupying an equally forgotten building on the outside world, in such close proximity to the Great Hakurei Barrier-it would've been a miracle if she wasn't spirited away. To be honest, the living conditions of a stranger normally weren't any concern to her, but if they forced work on her like this, she was bound to get annoyed.

"Hm."

Well, whatever. She ought to look into this, at least.

Reimu went to a kneeling position by the girl, focusing on her appearance first. Though her eyes were closed, Reimu had a feeling they were a similar shade of brown as her long hair. Her clothing seemed unremarkable, even for an outsider. A dark undershirt, similar to the casual attire many of them entered Gensokyo wearing. Covering it was a red jacket made of a rather light material. Black pants on her lower half, the fabric looking like that 'denim' stuff she'd occasionally see on outsiders. On the girl's feet, Reimu could see a pair of comfortable-looking slip-ons.

… Nothing about her appearance particularly screamed 'forgotten human', or even that she was having any kind of troubles. At worst, her clothing seemed a bit worn down, like she'd kept this particular outfit around for a bit too long. Otherwise? She was a perfectly average-looking outsider. But, in this case, that just raised more questions.

Just as she was wondering where to go next…

"Yo, Reimu! What's with the dead body?"

Ah, yes.

"It's not a dead body. Also, hi Marisa."

The ordinary witch, Marisa Kirisame, had come to play. Reimu had been so caught up in her investigation that she hadn't noticed the witch landing her broom right next to her. Not that it was a terribly surprising arrival; when it came to trouble, Marisa had a way of sniffing it out and nosing her way in no matter what.

It didn't take long for the shrine maiden to catch her friend up-to-speed.

"Huh." Marisa adjusted her hat, looking down at the girl with a face that said 'Yeah, that is pretty weird.'. She took her own turn to kneel down and poke the sleeping girl, who still didn't wake in the slightest. "Heavy sleeper, isn't she? And you're sure she's the same one you threw out yesterday?"

"I'm almost positive." Reimu cupped her chin. "She doesn't look like the regular 'spirited away' type, but…" She probably had a funny-looking irritated squint on her face. "I'm not exactly sure what she is."

"We could just try wakin' her up and just askin'." Reimu didn't like the way she saw Marisa brandishing her broom, or the grin on her face. "Want me to hit her with somethin'?"

"..." That expression on Marisa's face really was far too eager. But Reimu didn't have any better ideas, so it wasn't like she could convince her otherwise. She sighed reluctantly. "Go ahead, just be mindful you don't hurt her."

"Aw, c'mon~." Marisa's voice was like a child being scolded for a bad habit. She raised her broom overhead, gripping it tightly by the handle. "Don't worry, don't worry. I'll be as gentle as a soft breeze."

The resounding crack as her broom made contact with the outsider's head made Reimu think about setting up a lie jar for the ordinary witch. Every time you lie, put 3 mon in my donations box. She'd probably be rich within a week.

"Marisa, really?" Reimu covered her face with her palm. "Was that necessary?"

"Hey, you saw she wouldn't wake up for anythin' else. I just saved us a lotta time pokin' and proddin' her without any results."

That bit was somewhat true; Reimu could see the outsider stirring slightly, even if it did look like her soul left her body for a few seconds.

"Even still, couldn't you dial it back a bit? I'd rather not have the idea of you accidentally killing an outsider on my conscience."

Marisa made a sound like someone being told their friend was behind on a trend. "Whoa, you've got one of those still?"

"I'm not even going to try to unpack that sentence..."

The two continued fussing at one another for a bit, seeming to forget the waking outsider. The girl seemed to regain consciousness, her eyes hazily scanning around her before settling on the sight of a witch in black and white and a shrine maiden in red and white arguing over something trivial.

"..."

She stared blankly at them for a few moments, a look on her face like 'Am I still dreaming?'.

Reimu was in the middle of a sentence when she noticed the girl had flopped back over and gone back to sleep. Marisa, too, turned to see it once she noticed Reimu's sudden silence.

"..."

"..."

Silence.

"... Marisa, hit her again."

CRACK!

The girl shouted loudly, holding her head, before jumping to her feet far faster than Reimu had anticipated. She yelled some things at the two of them, fussing as one naturally would if they had been woken up by being assaulted.

Nothing irregular about that, except the girl wasn't speaking Japanese.

"...Er." Reimu sheepishly looked at the girl, a confused expression on her face. "I'm sorry, what was that?"

The girl's eyes widened in similar confusion. She said something again, and Reimu had no idea what it was. She might as well have been hearing someone make random noises for all she understood.

"Hm?" Marisa, on the other hand, seemed to pause. She poked the girl's face with the handle of her broom. "Oi, say somethin' again."

Reimu could practically see the vein flare up, and the girl grabbed the broom and pushed it back, barking indignantly at Marisa. The witch didn't seem worried, but instead closed her eyes and hummed to herself as though thinking.

Then, almost out of nowhere, Marisa started saying the same nonsense the girl was saying. The outsider seemed taken aback, before responding in kind. Before Reimu could even interject, the two had launched into some sort of conversation. Judging from the tones in their voices, it seemed like Marisa was questioning the girl, but…

Why do I get the feeling I just got my investigation stolen from me?

After a few exchanges, Marisa nodded decisively, before approaching Reimu.

"Right…" She scratched the back of her head, as though something was actually troubling her for once. "I guess we can start with names. Her name's Luka. Luka East."


"... So, let me see if I understand this correctly."

Marisa had managed to gather a surprising amount of information from just that short exchange. Firstly, they confirmed she was, in-fact, an outsider. However, the details weren't quite the same as normal. The locations and places she described as home were somewhat similar, but also notably different from the regular outsiders. Not one mention of the Hakurei Shrine in the outsider world came up, either, which ruled out Reimu's earlier theory.

Unfortunately, all of it only left them with more questions.

"What in the world is 'Ah-me-ri-ka'?" Reimu said the word like it was some kind of foreign food. "And since when did you learn… what did you call it, 'ii-n-gu-ri-shu'?"

"English." Marisa clarified, using a sound that sounded a little strange to Reimu's ears. She beamed proudly. "I'm a witch of many talents. I can't exactly read books on western magic without bein' just a little multilingual, y'know?"

Reimu squinted. She had a feeling Marisa didn't sound nearly as smart in practice as she did in her head. At least she knew enough to translate.

"Hmm." Reimu hummed contemplatively. "So, she doesn't speak Japanese, but an entirely different language. She's also describing her home as someplace that is similar to other places we've heard of in the outside world, but not quite…"

"Think she's from another country or somethin'?" Marisa cut in. Reimu considered it for a moment.

"It's not impossible. But it's unlikely for someone to get spirited away if they're even a moderate distance from Gensokyo's 'location'." She used the word carefully, as Gensokyo didn't exactly inhabit a traditional type of space as any other region. "To speak an entirely different language, and to be from what could be an entirely different country… I'd have noticed if the Barrier was acting up like that."

"Well," Marisa's tone of voice suddenly got really excited. "she popped up in the same place twice, right? Both outside of your shrine. That's gotta be on-purpose. D'ya think…" Uh oh. Reimu could recognize that twinkle in her eyes. "... it could be an incident?!"

"Calm down." Reimu didn't dismiss the idea, but she wasn't about to get riled up if it turned out to be nothing. "It's not like one strange happening means an incident's about to happen. She could just be some random occurrence without any connection to anything."

"Oh, c'mon, Reimu!" Marisa didn't accept that, however. "You gotta know how weird this is, right? We've gotta at least do a bit of investigation'. 'Sides, it's not like you can just chuck her across the barrier again, since we know that's a bust."

Reimu's gaze finally turned to the outsider, who'd been sitting on the sidelines while they talked. She saw her leaning over the donations box in front of her shrine, peering inside it curiously. She wasn't sure what the girl was doing, but there was a hopeful moment where she reached into her pockets… only to find nothing in them. Ugh.

Well, considering the current series of events and her position, Reimu had to make a decision. She didn't really like it when she was forced into doing that, but work was work.

"Alright. We'll take a look into this, then. Just a bit."

"Alright!"

Marisa pumped her fist, jumping to her feet (and surprising the outsider with her sudden outburst). Reimu raised an eyebrow.

"I take it you have a plan of some kind?"

"Yup." Marisa adjusted her oversized hat, a confident shine in her eyes. "First order of business: get her to speak Japanese, 'cuz I'm seriously blanking on some of the stuff she's sayin'."

It's going to be a long day, isn't it?

Chapter Text

 


~ STAGE 2: “Take A Look, It’s In A Book” ~ 

[START] 


 

Flying was a pretty natural thing for Marisa Kirisame. The absurd height, the breeze rushing past her—compared to how things were when she first learned the art, everything about it just felt normal. She bet it was the same for most people who lived in Gensokyo. 

That didn’t mean it was normal for everyone. Especially not for the outsider who was currently clinging to her waist. 

“Don’t look down, don’t-don’t-don’t, d-don’t-look…”

They’d been flying for a little while now, Luka hitching a backseat ride on the witch’s broom. She clung to both the sweeping instrument and its pilot like a terrified cat, endlessly muttering stuff about ‘terminal velocity’ and ‘tomatoes’. It made flying kind of awkward for Marisa, especially since the broom wasn’t really designed to seat two people. She made it work, though. Er, about as well as balancing two girls on an old stick of bamboo could, anyways.

On the topic, actually…

“Why am I the one who has to lug her around?”

Marisa turned her attention to the third in their party, who happened to be idly floating a short distance ahead. 

“Because you’re the one who came up with this plan.” Reimu responded, turning her body around to talk to her friend. Despite that, she never lost any speed or control of her flight; almost as if she were on auto-pilot. “Also, I don’t really feel like carrying her around, and you’ve got that broom of yours.”

Marisa puffed her cheeks as Luka shrieked at some minor turbulence. “This ain’t exactly ideal, y’know.” She thought for a moment. “Hey, don’t ‘cha got that old turtle hangin’ out back in the shrine? I bet he could carry her around.”

“I’m not waking up gramps for something like this. Besides, you’ve got things under control, right? Just make sure she doesn’t fall off that broom.”

Reimu cheerily waved her hand as if to say ‘it’s not my problem~’. 

Marisa sighed. “Yeah, yeah…” The prices she paid for her aesthetic…

The plan that put her in this situation sounded pretty straightforward in her head. As a land that contained much of the fantasy that the Outside World had cast aside, Gensokyo was home to a wide assortment of weird yet capable people. To the far south of the Hakurei Shrine, there was a great manor owned by a certain vampire. Inside of that manor was a library filled to the brim with knowledge from every conceivable corner of the world, looked after by a pretty cranky mage. 

Irritable as she was, though, that same mage was also pretty smart. She surrounded herself in books and tomes from all over, to the point where her own knowledge and all that was contained in the library were practically synonymous. And though she specialized in elemental magic, she had knowledge of magic from all over the world. For example, if there happened to exist a spell that could translate one language from another, or possibly even teach someone an entire language in a day, she would be the first person to know it and learn it.

Of course, Marisa had other reasons to suspect such a thing. The grand scarlet mansion was pretty obviously western, as were most of its inhabitants. And even though they arrived in Gensokyo suddenly, they had little issue communicating in the native language. A boring person would complain that something like that didn’t make any sense. A smart person would understand immediately that it was some form of magic. 

(She also seriously doubted that the mistress of the house would put the time or effort into becoming fluent in another language, but that was another thing.)

She didn’t understand the specifics of it. Any kind of magic relating to linguistics had to be seriously difficult, and it was never a topic Marisa felt a need to dive into. And, well, here she was. She could only hope her hunch was correct. 

As they passed over the mist-covered lake, Marisa could see the distant silhouette of the Scarlet Devil Mansion just a short while ahead of them. She momentarily snuck a glance down at the lake’s edge, her eyes tracking an out-of-place igloo surrounded by even more out-of-place snow, before eventually concluding that particular pest probably wasn’t going to make an appearance in this chapter.

Though, right as Marisa let out a sigh of relief over avoiding that idiot...

“Hey, stop right there!!”

A sudden voice cut through the silent flight, bringing both Marisa and Reimu to a stop. It wasn’t an annoying ice fairy, though. No, when they were this close to that mansion’s gates, there was really only one person it could be. Her green uniform and flowing red hair were pretty unmistakable, as was the slightly dopey expression on her face. 

“Yo, Meiling, what’s--”

“Hooo…!!” The vampire’s gatekeeper took a really weird deep breath, striking what she probably thought was an intimidating martial arts stance in midair. It only made Marisa wonder how she could maintain a foothold while flying. “You!!!”

“...Er.” Marisa’s casual greeting deflated. “What, private airspace or somethin’?”

“Don’t you play the fool!” Meiling refined her stance, her intense glare focused wholly on Marisa. “I know exactly what you came here to do!!”

“Make use of the local community library?”

“Exac--No!!” 

Those unfamiliar with either of them would have no idea why Marisa was being treated with such hostility. Those who were familiar would know exactly why. One might say she had something of a ‘reputation’; that her ‘use of the local library’ wasn’t because she was let in, to put it implicitly.

Somehow stomping her foot in midair, Meiling jabbed a finger at Marisa. The witch continued to not react to the display, instead sneaking a short glance behind the gatekeeper. 

“You’ve been flying over me during my evening naps, and I got a thorough scolding from Lady Patchouli over letting you through these past few times!!” She continued to stab her finger towards Marisa, refusing to acknowledge anything else around her. “So! I dutifully stayed awake for the last week, preparing myself for your next break-in attempt!! And at last, you’ve arrived!” 

Meiling’s stance shifted, moving from cautious defensive to readied offensive.

“Now, prepare--!!”

“Hi.”

Reimu floated idly behind Meiling, her rather blunt cut-in quite literally taking the wind out of the gatekeeper’s sails. 

“--ah?” 

Meiling froze mid-lunge. Marisa could see beads of sweat popping up on her face as she slowly craned her head to see the shrine maiden. 

“W-Wait, what are you doing here?!” Still probably assuming they were there for troublesome reasons, the gatekeeper redirected her stance to meet Reimu. Until she remembered Marisa was still there, and struck an awkward fighting pose between them both. 

It was funny enough that Marisa considered not clarifying things. But judging by her blank expression, Reimu was probably tired of it.

“Work. Can you let us through?” 

“‘Work’...?” Marisa could tell from Meiling’s confused expression that she’d gotten the completely wrong impression from that word. “Um, we haven’t really caused any trouble, though…” 

“Not really what I meant...”

Before Reimu could explain, Marisa heard a really pathetic whimper coming from behind her; as did Meiling, who promptly turned to Marisa with an even more confused expression before the witch leaned to the side and jutted her thumb at the actual culprit. The gatekeeper’s guard soon lowered, her confrontational attitude being replaced with something more quizzical.

“Um…” She repositioned herself to get a better look at Luka, who was still clinging to Marisa at this point. “Who is that?”

“An outsider.” Marisa could feel the girl’s arms gripping her waist tightly. Typically a fun romantic fantasy, but right now it was kinda starting to annoy her. Plus, if Alice saw this... “Say, can we land real quick? Before this girl here ends up passing out or somethin’.”

Meiling considered it for a moment, before nodding and escorting the two of them to the front gate. Once they landed, Luka dropped off from the broom and fell to the floor like she was worshipping it. 

Since she was probably going to take a little while, Marisa decided to take the initiative and properly explain things.

“--So, yeah. That’s where we’re at. We were hopin’ Patchy could help out with that. You all didn’t speak Japanese before comin’ to Gensokyo, right?”

“...” By this point, Meiling had totally dropped her defensive stance, choosing instead to cup her chin in thought. “Well, I did, but… For the others, I do think I remember she made a comment about ‘fixing the language barrier’...”

“So she can help us out?”

Meiling let out a rather hesitant ‘mmm’. “‘Can’, yes, but ‘will’ is a bit different’...”

Reimu groaned. “Can’t you at least get us a meeting with her?”

“I don’t know…” Meiling’s gaze shifted to Marisa. Hey… “Lady Knowledge wouldn’t be very pleased if I willingly let that one in, given her history…”

“Hey, I--”

“If I make sure she doesn’t run off with anything, will you let us in?”

“Wha--?!”

“Hm.” Meiling locked eyes with Reimu for a few seconds, as though searching her soul for any hint of dishonesty. Then, after sneaking a shifty glance at Marisa, she nodded. “I suppose I can trust you, then.”

“Great, that makes this a lot easier.”

Marisa could only start up an offended ‘Look here—’ before the both of them started off through the front entrance. Neither stopped for her, or Luka for that matter.  

“Gimme a break…” 

She sighed, lowering her shoulders, before gesturing for a now-calmed Luka to follow as she joined the other two. Being escorted in wasn’t her usual style, but it couldn’t really be helped. Even Marisa had to admit she wouldn’t be able to do one of her usual entrances while babysitting someone else. 

Speaking of. 

As the four of them walked through the garden in front of the manor, Marisa glanced over to see how the outsider was doing. Surprisingly, she seemed to have totally calmed down now that she was back on the ground. Well, mostly; Marisa could still tell she was a little shaken by the experience, but she didn’t seem to be deeply traumatized or anything. As she was now, the girl just glanced around, taking in the sights around her and pausing to think about them to herself.

… A lot of Luka’s reactions to stuff so far were kind of weird, actually. Marisa figured she’d have time to ask once they figured out the language barrier stuff. 

Soon enough, they’d passed through the front doors and were inside the entrance hall. 

“Please wait here.” Meiling bowed slightly. “I’ll inform the mistress of your arrival--”

“That won’t be necessary, Meiling.”

An authoritative, yet childlike voice suddenly seized the room’s attention. Her’s was a charismatic tone that couldn’t be mistaken for any other, with all but one present knowing the identity of the speaker. Turning, Marisa could see her clearly. A vampire in scarlet, one of the only two in Gensokyo; the (supposed) descendent of Vlad Tepes and the cause of the Scarlet Mist Incident--

Remilia Scarlet.

“Yo, Remi.” Marisa hardly blinked at her arrival.

“A-Ah--” Meiling, as expected, stuttered for a moment, clearly surprised that the mistress was already here. “Lady Scarlet, I didn’t expect--”

“Aren’t you children supposed to be sleeping at this hour?” Reimu interjected with all the tact of a brick.

Remilia laughed, respecting Reimu enough to not take offense to that. Marisa still didn’t quite understand what was between the two of them, especially since Reimu was the one to put a stop to that particular incident. It felt a bit like a manga, where two super strong characters got along better after one beat the other. Youkai were weird like that. 

“Perhaps, but what kind of a host would I be if I didn’t greet my guests?” The vampire smiled smugly, and Reimu and Marisa shared a mutual expression of confusion (‘How did you know we were coming?’). Before either of them could get an answer to that, Remilia turned her attention to Meiling. “Meiling, would you care to tell me what brings our guests here on such short notice?”

“Ah. Y-Yes, you see…”


 

“I see. Looking for a favor with Patchy regarding that light snack standing behind you both.” Remilia stroked her chin, a thoughtful and totally trustworthy smile on her face. “Well, I’m feeling magnanimous this evening, so I’ll allow it. I can’t promise she’ll offer you any actual assistance, though—especially when a certain someone is asking.”

Marisa waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah, I got it…”

Remilia smirked in amusement, and her eyes glanced in no particular direction. “Sakuya, would you kindly escort our guests to the library?”

It happened almost immediately, but Marisa had seen it coming as soon as that person’s name was called. Without even the sounds of her footsteps, a silver-haired woman in a blue maid’s uniform appeared before them. Literally, ‘appeared’—it would have looked like she’d simply popped into existence. How she’d done so was no secret to anyone present, especially not with that particular stopwatch in her hands.

It was a totally natural entrance for Sakuya Izayoi, the perfect and elegant maid who could manipulate time itself. 

“--GH?!”

It was so natural that Marisa must’ve tuned out the first bit of Luka’s reaction to it. To a normal person from the outside world, someone randomly popping into existence was probably beyond supernatural. It probably would’ve scared Marisa too, if she wasn’t already used to it. For Sakuya’s part, she merely shot the girl a strange look, before seeming to let the matter go. 

“Right this way, then.”

Walking through the manor like this was definitely a different experience than normal. Well, slightly—she still kinda marched in like she lived here, but now she was being escorted instead of escorting herself. It felt weird. Also kinda boring. Maybe she’d blow something up later to make herself feel better.

Glancing to the side as they walked, Marisa caught a glimpse of some fairy maids doing ‘work’. Quotation marked because it amounted to a single one shuffling around aimlessly with a broom while the rest chased each other around. It took only a single piercing glare from Sakuya to scatter most of them, leaving only the remaining panicked one to continue sweeping a completely clean spot.

“Hired help still ain’t doin’ much, huh?” Marisa commented. 

Sakuya sighed. “They’re mostly useless. No matter how many times I scold them, they’re back to messing around in no time…”

Marisa figured that was pretty fitting when their master was a literal child. “Even if ya scared ‘em with death, it’s not like it’d keep ‘em for long.”

Reimu interjected. “‘Idiots can’t catch colds’, and whatnot.”

Sakuya nodded. “The pain does stick with them, however, so it can be somewhat effective as a motivator.”

Luka, blissfully unaware of the morbid conversation going on, assumed they were talking about the weather and minded her business.

“Oh, yeah.” The morbid talk reminded Marisa of something. “Speakin’ of, where’s the other little lady of the house?”

“Ah, Flandre?” Sakuya glanced back at her, a small smile on her face. “She’s still asleep, I’m afraid. I doubt she’ll be awake for the next few hours.”

“Huh. Guess it’s still only just the afternoon, after all.”

Well, that solved that problem. Marisa didn’t want to imagine the kid thinking the human they’d brought in was a snack for her, or something...

After what seemed like a shorter walk than Marisa remembered, they arrived at a familiar pair of tall, ornate doors. If she didn’t recognize them, then there would’ve probably been something wrong with her.

Behind those doors, one would see a truly beautiful sight; downright breathtaking, actually, though anyone who didn’t consider themselves a mage probably wouldn’t understand it. One would step out from the doors onto a balcony, staring out into a yawning expanse that reached out far below and above, defying all sense of space. It was a complete world of books, all of varying types, genres, and purposes. From dictionaries of every known and unknown language to magic tomes covering every possible field of study; advanced literature and manga, autobiographies and biographies, sentient grimoires and children’s books. It was a collection beyond numbering, yet ever so tidily arranged. If a book existed--no, if any kind of knowledge existed, it could probably be found here. She’d forgive anyone for thinking the place was the private collection of some deity of literature. 

Alas, it was just Patchouli.

The doors creaked open as they stepped inside, no one there to greet them. Marisa doubted the local shut-in even heard them enter, her nose probably firmly jammed in-between a set of pages. Time for her to change that. 

Before anyone else would say anything, Marisa zoomed over to the edge of the balcony, taking a deep breath as she went. Raising her head to the far-distant ceiling, she cupped her hands around her mouth—  

“OIIIIIIIIII, PATCHYYYYYYYY!!!”

Her voice echoed throughout the grand library, bouncing around the distant shelves. It was unlikely her voice reached every corner of the room, but there was no doubt that she was heard. It didn’t matter how loud she was, just that it was her unmistakable voice. Even if the curator of this massive collection were busy or asleep or somehow deafened, she would recognize that voice. It flattered her, really. 

As though it were echoing back, Marisa could make out the faintest sound of a groan, which brought a small grin to her face. Soon enough, a figure rose from the maze of shelves below. She could feel a soft breeze picking up, the immediate source obvious to her: elementary wind magic used to carry oneself around. A very useful spell for lazy librarians. 

“You again…”

Cloaked in the same billowing purple pajamas as always, Patchouli Knowledge scowled down at Marisa. Her eyes regarded her the same way as someone would a neighborhood pest, which Marisa had to say, was really hurtful. What had she done to make her so upset? She just didn’t know. 

(She absolutely knew.)

Patchouli’s scowl relented, however, when she noticed the company with Marisa. Not only had the Hakurei shrine maiden accompanied her, but there was also an unknown stranger in the mix as well. The librarian’s eyes lingered on Reimu for a moment.

“—You don’t normally come here unless you want something.” Patchouli bluntly stated.

“That’s right.” Reimu didn’t miss a beat, as usual. “Marisa, explain.” 

… Why d’ya gotta keep dumpin’ the hard parts on me?

Getting a childish pout out of her system, Marisa sighed and took the center stage. 

“Alright, where to start…”


“I refuse.”

Should’ve seen that one comin’...

Marisa, Reimu, and Patchouli sat around a circular wooden table on the balcony overlooking the library (Luka was also at the table, but she was hardly involved in the conversation). Patchouli sat upright firmly, her hands resting on a leather-bound tome in front of her.

Marisa had taken her hat off for now, leaving it on the table as they spoke. “Just like that?” She scratched her head. “I would’ve figured since Reimu bothered to show up for this, you’d give it a little more thought.” Reimu nodded thoughtfully. Marisa wasn’t sure if she ignored the implication there or just didn’t catch it.

Patchouli didn’t waver at all. “It’s true, the shrine maiden’s involvement does influence my considerations a bit. But since it’s also you ,” she pointed harshly at Marisa. “coming to me for help, that also changes things a bit. These considerations both balance out, resulting in my going by my default answer. Which is no.”

Marisa’s shoulders slumped. “Cold. Also weirdly mathematical.”

“Can’t we make some kind of exception here?” Reimu’s patience looked like it was being tested. “I’d seriously prefer to not make this investigation any more difficult than it needs to be.” 

“Hm.”

Patchouli was either considering something, or she just wanted to get the both of them to leave. She tapped a finger on her book, staring at the leather cover thoughtfully. Then her expression shifted, as though something had come to mind. “I could consider an arrangement, but that depends on the troublesome member of your party.”

“Can we just say my name? I’m right here.”

Reimu paused in consideration. “What are your terms?”

“Marisa will return the books she’s stolen from me.”

There was a silence between the three. Luka glanced over, feeling an odd shift in the room’s temperature. 

“—That was a really good joke, but no seriously, what’re your terms?”

The room got colder again. Luka’s eyes got wide, and she wisely decided to scoot away from Patchouli. 

“I’m not repeating myself.” The animosity radiating off of the librarian could’ve frozen Marisa solid. 

A few more seconds of silence. 

“—” Marisa snatched her hat onto her head and hopped to her feet, gesturing for Reimu to follow her. “Yo, team huddle for a sec.”

Reimu quirked an eyebrow at the remark, but followed after her. The two of them huddled a short distance from the table, with both Luka and Patchouli giving them an odd look.

“You seriously can’t just return those books?” Reimu whispered, with all the incredulity she could muster. “You stole them, after all.”

“BORROWED!” Marisa whisper-yelled. “Seriously, what part of ‘borrow-til-I-die’ does no one get?! I’ve only got like sixty years, tops!!”

“Focus.” 

“Ugh, right.” She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. “Look, it’s a firm ‘no-deal’ on that. I worked too hard to get ahold of those things, and I’m nowhere near done with ‘em yet! I ain’t gonna give ‘em back just so they can collect dust on a shelf again!”

Reimu squinted blankly at her. “Well, if we can’t figure something out, you’re going to be stuck teaching her Japanese.” 

“Urgh...”

“Why not ask Alice if she could help?” Reimu smirked slightly. “I’m sure she’d happily—”

“Damn you, don’t bring her into this! She’d never let me live it down…”

What a sticky situation… She hated diplomacy. Why couldn’t she just blast through all her problems without worrying about the details? 

… Wait.

“Aha!” Marisa suddenly broke from the huddle with a triumphant shout. “Alright, Patchy! I’ll agree to your terms on one condition!” 

The mage raised an eyebrow. “Go on.”

“You, me, Spell Card battle! If I win, then you help us and I don’t have to return a single one of those books of yours!”

Patchouli stared at her blankly, barely restraining herself from scowling again. “And if I win?”

“You get your books AND you don’t gotta help us at all!”

Reimu’s face went incredulous, with a look of ‘Aren’t you needlessly raising the stakes there?!’.

Patchouli seemed to catch onto that. “... Very well. I accept.”

Perfect. It sounded like bluster and false bravado, but there was a reason Marisa had upped the ante. Patchouli was nothing if not stubborn, and she wasn’t likely to take an offer for something like this if the reward wasn’t worth the effort. Marisa just had to take one, simple risk:

Don’t lose. 

“Alright!!”

Immediately perching atop her broom, Marisa shot upwards. She glanced back to see Patchouli lazily following after her, her grimoire tucked under one arm. What kind of magic would she be using for this fight? It was fun to think about, but she couldn’t afford to sit back and enjoy the show this time. This was a game they were playing for keeps.

The two of them leveled off from each other, meeting one another’s gaze. Spell Card battles were a simple, elegant way to settle conflicts, which meant that both sides had to agree to a set of rules for the duel. Fortunately, the two of them had done this enough times; it only took a mutual gaze for them to convey the thought: ‘We’ll be doing the usual, as always’.

‘The usual’, in this case, followed typical Spell Card rules and would function as a quick but decisive fight. As always, one side would take the role of the ‘aggressor’ (Marisa), and the other would take the role of a ‘defender’ (Patchouli). The fight would be decided with two ‘techniques/lives’ each, where the aggressor had to dodge their opponent or be crushed. Once it was over, it was over. 

Patchouli opened the book she had with her, and it steadily floated free from her hands. The pages flipped rapidly, as if they were being turned by a multitude of organized, unseen hands. Marisa could feel a shift in the atmosphere, as magical energy began to fill the air. A sigil--a protective field of magic--formed in front of Patchouli.

“Let’s begin. I’m confident my anemia won’t hinder my performance this time.”

Marisa merely grinned, the air also beginning to shift around her. 

“Oh, threaten me with a good time!”

The next moment, color danced around Marisa. The color took form, solidified, and became a set of vibrant stars. With a gesture, the stars shot across the open field and right into her opponent’s barrier with a chorus of ‘pops’ and ‘bangs’. A grin plastered across her face, Marisa kept the flow of starlight going as she awaited the counterattack. 

The librarian glanced indifferently at the attack, before snapping her fingers. The magical energy around her condensed, forming a set of orbs around her. Marisa’s eyes widened, but not in shock or fear. She veered to the right, and as she expected, a beam of light zipped right past her, followed by another. She didn’t need to look to know they’d started following her, and that several other beams had also started humming about in an organized fashion.

Yup, it’s definitely...

Marisa wondered if Patchouli was just warming up. It was slightly different (and a little more three-dimensional), but she recognized the pattern. She already knew that the beams following her were meant to push her into another set that would close in from the opposite side. It was a trick meant to make someone believe they were flying into an unavoidable trap—one that would hopefully trick them into wasting a bomb. But anyone who understood Spell Card rules knew that making an undodgeable attack was seriously banned. Seriously. It was enough grounds to get a serious Reimu on you, and nobody wanted that. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw exactly that buzzing in from another angle. Another pair of beams, following that exact intent. Instead of reflexively blasting her way out, she waited. Waited, as they closed in. One, two— 

Right on cue, the initial rays of light fizzled out right before making contact, and Marisa shifted into the empty space as the other set grazed right past her. 

Knew it. If that’s the same, then…

She glanced back to Patchouli, and saw more or less what she expected. The mage elevated herself, waving one hand while turning a page in her grimoire with the other. Then, several explosive flashes of red light—a storm of bullets burst from all around her, a huge number of them headed right for Marisa. The witch merely grinned, undaunted by the display, before diving low and continuing to fire her own storm of prismic stars. 

The pattern would loop and mix, a combined set of constricting beams and spreading bullets methodically placed. If she were a total greenhorn, Marisa might have gotten nailed by a few of them. But this wasn’t her first game; she’d been at this far too long to get snagged by something so basic. Not a single one touched her, and none of them would. 

“There!” 

With a casual flick of her wrist, one final star shot across the open air and slammed into Patchouli’s barrier. At this last shot, the wall seemed to give, at last breaking down. For her part, Patchouli didn’t seem to react, as though the result was hardly a surprise. It definitely made Marisa wonder if she was being played around with. 

“As expected. Then… hm?”

For some reason, Patchouli stopped. Her gaze left Marisa, shifting back down to ground-level. Confused, Marisa followed her eyes--

Back at the small table, their former meeting ground had turned into a spectator’s stand. Not only Reimu and Luka, but it looked like Remilia had joined in on the fun too. She could see them watching the fight, with Sakuya approaching them with a tray of drinks. 

Remilia waved her hand slightly. “Ah, don’t mind us. Go on, pretend we aren’t even here.”

The both of them floated idly for a few moments, staring back at them awkwardly. She could even see Luka hesitantly taking a cup of tea and sipping at it, her eyes glancing up at them curiously. 

Funnily enough, Patchouli was the one who finally got them back on track. “... anyways.” 

As though she were removing a bookmark, Patchouli turned to a page in her tome and lifted something from it. It was difficult to make out details from so far away, but Marisa could already guess: a small card framed in gold with a certain image on it. A physical manifestation of an attack with meaning, of a beautiful technique fashioned from one’s self— 

A Spell Card. 

“Fire Sign「High Level Agni Shine」!”

… Huh?

Suddenly, the temperature of the room increased. A lot. Patchouli’s grimoire ignited, burning brightly yet never singeing the mage. With a gesture, a bright, somewhat blinding inferno kicked up around her. It swirled around wildly, creating a hot whirlwind that made Marisa’s throat feel dry.

But, rather than feel intimidated, Marisa looked vaguely insulted. 

“Hey. You’re not seriously takin’ me lightly, are ya?”

She knew this Spell Card already. Not this specific version, but she could tell this was a similar type. A little spiced up, maybe, but not dramatically different.

Patchouli’s expression remained dispassionate. “Consider it research. Optimization.” 

“So, basically yes.” For once, Marisa was the one scowling.

She didn’t get a response. Patchouli waved her hand again, and the great tornado of fire expanded outward. Like a spreading wildfire, it overtook the space between them. 

But. Again, she knew this Spell Card. Smacking ‘high-level’ onto the front of it didn’t change its core design. Even if it was stronger, that didn’t mean it didn’t share the same flaws as its original. Looking at it, she could see the vortex of flames still had a slight wobble to it as it spread outward. That tiny motion, as subtle as it was, formed small gaps in the fire. Even if the number of bullets was bigger, all that meant was that it was a slightly tighter squeeze. It wasn’t any more difficult at all. 

Actually, since I’ve been at this sorta thing for longer, it might be even easier…

Like a leaf in a fiery hurricane, Marisa flitted about, returning fire. Her hail of stars cut through the blaze and went straight for Patchouli. Not an ember landed on her, but every shot she fired hit its mark. 

It was just a matter of time. Dodging, firing, dodging, firing, until…

Krk! A sound like glass cracking, then shattering. The first Spell Card was broken.

“Hah! Perfect run, too.” Marisa grinned smugly, leaning back onto her broom. “You gonna start takin’ me seriously?”

Patchouli, however, ignored her. With a flick of her wrist, she summoned a quill from nowhere and began to silently scribble in her tome. Marisa could vaguely hear her muttering something to herself. 

“...Uh?” Marisa’s smug smirk melted. “Patchy? We’re still fighting?” 

“Yes, yes, I’m aware.” 

Suddenly, a light came from Patchouli’s tome. Marisa recognized that bright flash, and it was never good. The mage reached into it, and it took a physical form. Solidifying, shrinking down, until… 

“Mm…” Another Spell Card formed, pinched between Patchouli’s index finger and thumb. “That should do it for the necessary improvements.”

Oh great. She’d just thought up a new Spell Card on the spot. 

The air shifted once more, this time growing hot even before any fires had started. There was a sound like paper flapping in the wind, and an assortment of tomes flew up from the library below. They surrounded Patchouli, their pages turning rapidly like the world’s most frantic invisible speedreaders were all trying to set a new record. The heat intensified, and Marisa could feel herself beginning to sweat. 

Holding the card above her head, Patchouli’s passive expression finally shifted into a focused glare.

“Fire Sign!「Agni Radiance」!”

Again. The temperature shot up again, and every book surrounding Patchouli lit on fire. The fire coming from them spread, spiraling outward in much the same way as it had before. It was even hotter than before, and the increased number of books brought out an even wider spread of fire. 

—The name was still the same. The genre was the same. Even the initial pattern was the same. 

It was just bigger.

That’s all it was. Just bigger.

“Seriously?” 

Yeah, even the wobble was the same. Small, easily-seen gaps in the pattern formed. This was just the same attack, but bigger. What the hell? Marisa was convinced she was being pranked at this point. 

Well, joke’s on her!

Taking her wounded pride, Marisa zipped ahead much more aggressively. She wouldn’t let this stand, not without some serious punishment. This was the last Spell Card she needed to break, and she’d make sure she broke it with style. The witch adjusted herself so that she was standing on her broom, steering it with just her feet. Weaving, she rode straight through the gap in the fire. Her plan was to reach into her hat with one of her now freed hands, pull out her trump card, and fire it as close as she could for maximum flair.

It should’ve been a straightforward path. Just a few more turns. But as she closed in, Patchouli didn’t seem to brace herself. Actually, was that a smirk on her face? Why was she— 

“—?!”

Jerking to the side, Marisa felt the heat from a giant fireball graze right past her. 

“Whoa, whoa—!!”

She’d made a horrible mistake. 

The same fireball that shot past her wasn’t alone. No, far from it. They came in an outpour, each one larger than Marisa herself. They left hardly any room to maneuver. Marisa could only dart around in a mad attempt to avoid getting hit.

But, she’d committed too hard to her aggressive push. It was hard to rapidly move around in her standing position. And so, in her effort to avoid getting hit by the new projectiles— 

She’d overlooked the original pattern of flames, and realized too late she’d flown directly into its path. 

“Oh sh—!”

To anyone else, it would have looked like a certain death. Being swallowed whole by a fiery inferno and burnt to a crisp; a horrible, sudden end. 

Pichuun~

A flash of light and distinct sound rang out as soon as the wall of fire made contact with her. The flames dispersed, fading out instantly. Left behind, a totally unscathed Marisa who looked more annoyed than fatally wounded. 

“Aaaagh…!!” Well, she was wounded in another way. “I seriously fell for that?! Gah!” 

Patchouli couldn’t hide her satisfied smile. “You were the one who assumed I wasn’t taking this seriously.” 

Touché, but still! It’s playing dirty when you take advantage of your opponent’s ignorance!

With renewed fire in her eyes, Marisa pulled down on her hat and readjusted her seated position. No more showing off, she’d do this properly. She resumed firing, her stars punching through the wall of fire once again. This time, instead of rushing through, she stopped to observe the pattern from afar. The frustration of getting hit hadn’t blinded her, but instead clarified her thoughts. 

To break it down… It was still, fundamentally, a big wall of fire. A vortex Spell Card that spun outward with tiny openings in its pattern. The major difference was that a new obstacle had been added into the mix: the giant fireballs. Their size wasn’t an issue on its own, but they were being fired into the openings from before. That meant that the one safe spot in the card she was used to exploiting was basically turned into a death trap. No, even worse—the sheer number meant getting close at all was basically asking to get blown up. 

Getting close… 

Wait a sec…

The room heated up again, and another wave of fire shot out. Marisa, in a bit of an uncharacteristic move, fell back. From the slightly confused look on Patchouli’s face, she could tell she didn’t immediately get where Marisa was going with this strategy. Backing up to the very edge of the play area could be an easy way for one to get cornered, especially in this kind of game.

But, Marisa had realized the opposite. 

Before, the reason she wasn’t able to dodge was because she’d bolted in without thinking. She got too close. So, when she tried to fly up and through the openings from before, she hadn’t had time to adapt to the fireballs. Those fireballs covered up a good chunk of the openings when they passed through, but they moved at a different speed than the vortex itself. In other words, it only looked undodgeable when Marisa had tried to zip through right when both types of projectiles were overlapping. 

If she waited, and carefully avoided the fireballs as they shot by first…

“Aha!!”

Then the obstacle preventing her from cutting through would pass by harmlessly, and the openings would remain just the same. 

Patchouli seemed to have noticed it too, her eyes widening. With a wave of her hand, she fired yet again, but there was no turning this back around. Marisa had figured the pattern out, and her continued fire was beginning to wear down Patchouli’s barrier. 

Of course, I could totally end this by just shootin’ the regular stuff. But what fun would that be?

No, no… Again, this wasn’t ending without some serious punishment. Some ‘tough love’, as they might say. 

Right as she dodged the last of the fiery volley, Marisa’s shots and movement stopped short. Casually reaching atop her head, she yanked her hat off of her head and dug a hand into it. She pulled her hand out like a magician drawing out a rabbit, but she wasn’t pulling out a rabbit. It was a tiny, octagonal block of wood, paired with a card not unlike the ones Patchouli had been using. 

“...!”

Patchouli’s body tensed. She was more than familiar with that sight. In a desperate move, she let out one final round of fire. It tore through the open air, the vortex mere moments from hitting Marisa— 

“Ooh, almost, too!”

But right before it made contact. A surge of magical power suddenly filled the air, all from the device in her hands. The heat from it overshadowed even the fire coming right at her, and the building light was enough to blind even the spectators below. Building, growing, the overwhelming magical energy readied, aimed— 

“Love Sign☆ 「Master Spark」!!!”

In the next instant. An unrivaled prismic blast shot forth. Calling the sound it made a ‘light hum’ would’ve been like comparing a roaring lion to a meowing kitten. And roar it did, tearing through the wall of flames in front of Marisa and leaving nothing behind. 

Patchouli hardly had a moment to react. With only a short, cut-off sound (“M-Muky—?!”) she was engulfed completely. The surge of firepower shredded through her barrier, overwhelmingly overpowering her in every aspect; a total overkill. The books surrounding her shot off in every direction, like a person losing their shoes from being hit by a car. The wave of light pushed her back and up, further into the air, building and building until…

B-B-BANG! A sound and sight like a firework exploding, and with it…

A resounding crash, like a glass screen shattering; the breaking of her opponent’s final Spell Card. 

~Winner: Marisa Kirisame~

“Aaahh…” She wiped her forehead, letting out a sigh of relief. “That never stops feelin’ good.”

It was kind of a shame she had to hold back so she didn’t destroy the library, but she’d take what she could get. It wasn’t every day she could let a Spark loose like that. Well, actually she could, but it wasn’t every day she could hit somebody with it. 

“KWAUGH?!” “Huh?!” “Oh my…”

… Hm? Did she hear something? Ah, whatever, it probably wasn’t important.

Looking up to where Patchouli’d been sent, she could see her figure steadily descending. 

… Actually, no, that was kind of like falling. 

… She was going to stabilize at some point, right? 

… … … Uh— 

CRASH!

Oof. Marisa winced as she watched the fragile librarian crash into a conveniently placed pile of paperback books. She shuddered to imagine if she’d face-planted on a stack of hardcovers…

Letting herself descend, Marisa idly floated next to the paper mountain. It looked like Patchouli was completely buried under there. “You alive down there, Patchy?” No response. “Cough if you’re dead.”

She heard a faint hack from underneath the mound.

“Whoops, guess the library’s mine now.”

A strong blast of wind immediately burst out from the pile, dispersing the books every which way (and almost knocking off Marisa’s hat—rude!). That same wind also caught the books in the same moment, before beginning to steadily arrange them in small, orderly stacks. Now freed, Patchouli rose back to her feet, dusting herself off slightly.

“I don’t recall signing a will.” Her scowl hadn’t softened a bit. She did raise an eyebrow, though. “Or including your name anywhere on it.”

“Aw, that’s cold. Aren’t I your favorite visitor?”

Patchouli gave her a humorless glare. Marisa pouted melodramatically.

“Regardless…” Sighing, Patchouli seemed to finally release some of that tension she’d had since they first arrived. “I suppose I’ll need to hold up my end of the bargain.”

Just like that. There was no sign that either of them had been in any kind of intense duel to the death, or fight to the finish. Neither showed any kind of serious injury at the end of the fight, nor any grudge over its conclusion. It was as though the entire thing had been a simple game, with the results being as inconsequential as any other gamble. 

It was, of course, and it made perfect sense to both of them. That was the way things worked in Gensokyo; how the ever fickle conflicts between youkai and humans were resolved. 

That aside, Marisa was feeling pretty proud of herself. Her solution to the whole language barrier problem had panned out after all! It was time for her to fly back up to the balcony and get things set up. 

But, what she saw there…

“Ah, you’re back.”

Reimu flatly greeted them, kneeling next to an unconscious Luka and checking her for injuries. The outsider was laid out on the floor, her chair knocked over. A book, recognizable as one of the tomes that had flown from Patchouli’s side after Marisa’s earlier Spark, could be seen lying next to her head.

Marisa suddenly remembered the weird sound from before.

“... Crap.”

Chapter Text


~ STAGE 3: “Discrepancies & Boundaries” ~ 

[START] 


 

 

She wakes up in her bed.

Another dream, another place she saw in that dreamlike world. A small town, but she can’t remember the name. Familiar faces, but she can’t remember any of them. It’s not the first time it’s happened. She vaguely remembers other places, too. A walk on the side of a mountain. A rowdy party someplace dark and festive. A mansion in the middle of a clearing. Vivid, yet faint. They’re lost to her as soon as she finds them.

None of that poetic crap really matters, though. The dream leaves as soon as it arrives. She’s just back in her room like nothing happened; just a random girl curled in sheets.

Who soon realizes she’s late for work. 

“Ah, crap!”

She moves quickly, shaking off the morning haze. Clean up; wash thoroughly, yet hurriedly. Change clothes; it’s the same black ‘uniform’ as always, pairing with a jacket since it’s chilly today. Breakfast; no time to cook, slap something on a bagel and run. She moves faster than her silhouette can match and is practically out the door in an instant.

Late again… It’s been a recurring problem for the last few days. For whatever reason, she finds herself assaulted by a surreal brand of exhaustion at random points of the day. Even worse, it’s impacting her sleeping schedule too, and she finds herself sleeping in more often, too. She’s tried going to sleep early, and even overloading herself with caffeine. Neither helps. As soon as the exhaustion hits, it’s like her body demands she pass out and flop over.

“Don’t tell me I’m developing narcolepsy…” She grumbles inside of a peanut-butter-covered bagel, the resulting words sounding pretty much incomprehensible. Gah, she should’ve brought juice or something... 

At the very least, it isn’t an immediate problem for work. Her dad owns the pub they work at. And while she’s only one of three employees, she knows business isn’t going to turn overwhelming anytime soon. It’s just a tiny hole-in-the-wall, after all. Really, her main concern is worrying the boss of the place.

She makes her usual commute through the bustling city streets. It seems to her like, no matter what part of it she goes through, New York is always busy, and her route will always have a crowd flowing through it. A short walk—now a run—down the street from their apartment. Colored in red-and-black, she flies around and between passersby like a ladybug, and zips through the door to the bar. As soon as she enters, someone catches her at the door.

“Morning, Luka. You alright?”

She knows it’s her dad before she even so much as glances toward the gruff-looking older man. Rough as he looks, he’s a friendly sort. Stone-faced as he usually is, she can usually read his subtle tells. His tone of voice, a shift in his brow, his eyes focused on her wholeheartedly; he’s worried about her. Rather than being frustrated about his employee being thirty minutes late, he’s more concerned about his daughter’s abnormal sleeping habits. 

Even if not by blood, they’re a family.

(... It makes her wonder what her original family was like, to leave her alone like they did.)

—Ah. She realizes she’s been standing there, staring off at a wall without responding for a solid few seconds. She scratches the back of her head. “Yeah, I think. Still not sure what’s causing these sleeping spells…” 

“If this keeps up, you might want to see a doctor!” Another voice interrupts them. A short distance away, there’s a young man about her age at the counter, wiping down a glass. “Wouldn’t want dear old Mr. Clint’s daughter to turn out sick with something, would we?” He smirks. She thinks about throwing her jacket at him.

Clint huffs. “Alright Miles, you smarmy shit. You finished cleaning those glasses already?”

“Yup. Speaking of," he sneaks a glance at the front door. "Now's about the time a certain bunch of regulars are about to start coming in. We might want to set up soon.”

“Yeah.” Clint sighs, and he sneaks a worried glance at her. “Go ahead and get set over in the back, alright?”

She nods, and gets to work. A familiar apron slides on her, and soon the same old faces begin to trickle in. Before she knows it, it’s just another day. Taking orders. Making drinks. Making food. Talking to people. Hearing about their lives. It goes by slowly and quickly all at once, and soon enough the sun outside begins to set. It’s a satisfying day, all in all. 

“Ah, damn…” She hears her dad casually curse over in the storage room. “Hey, Luka. Got an errand for you.”

“What’s up?”

“Looks like somebody screwed up somewhere in this delivery, this isn’t going to be enough barley to cover us for the next week. Can you head out and get some? Here,” he hands her a small note with some scribbles on it. “This amount should cover us until the next shipment. I added a few more things, if you can find them.”

Luka looks over the note. “That’s gonna be a train ride to the nearest homebrew place, you know. I’m probably not going to get back before closing time.”

“Yeah, I know. Miles and I can cover things here for the rest of the day. You just head over and take care of this.” Clint scratches his chin. “If you get back after everything’s closed up, you can just drop it off in the storeroom. You got your key?”

“Yep, I’ve got it.” She’s already sliding her jacket back on. “See you in a bit, old man. Love you.”

“I’m not that old. Love you too.”

And she’s off, just like that. She can’t afford to waste much time. The trains aren’t going to wait for her. Off and away, through the bustling crowds. She needs to squeeze, but she’s just barely able to get through and steal a seat. 

“Phew…” 

The doors shut, and the train starts off. As she settles into her seat, it starts to hit her. That familiar, annoying exhaustion slowly creeps up on her. Can she even call it plain sleepiness at this point?

“(Ugh, seriously… Hope I don’t have chronic exhaustion or something…)”

She catches herself nearly closing her eyes, and shakes her head. She flips open her phone, looking down at the map on the screen. She’s got at least an hour and a half until the train reaches its destination. What then? Could she stay awake that long? If she passed out, would she end up sleeping through her stop? She sighs, putting her phone away as the feeling cuts through her line of thought.

The steady sounds of the running train begin to blur together. The faceless crowd around her begins to blur together. Her vision itself slowly blurs together. She tries to fight it, to stay awake. She bites at her lip a little, pinches at her arm. But her idleness as she sits in the train begins to gnaw at her consciousness.

“(Crap… Not…)”

She fights it. She fights it as best she can. But eventually, without her even realizing it, her exhaustion hits its peak, and her eyes close.


Luka woke up again. This time, she wasn’t in her bed.

“--you sure there’s nothing weird about her, z̷̡̠͛̒e̵͚̳͚͙͊̾̓̚̚--”

She winced. It sounded like someone scraped their nails against a chalkboard. It definitely didn’t help her headache.

“Again, I’ve told you all I can. There are limits to what I can look into without literal dissection. Unless…?”

“Er, let’s not. Damn, you’re scary sometimes…”

Luka groaned. Can I stay out of this conversation? No? Fine, I’m getting up...

Trying to get up after a nap was always the hardest part for Luka. It was like trying to tune an old radio; a scrambled mess of sounds and signals until she could eventually turn the knob to the right place. Only this time, a dull throbbing sensation in her skull kept kicking her hand off the dial. 

Eventually, she managed to regain her focus, and she slowly began to take in her environment. It looked like she was in some kind of library, with shelves stretching out into what seemed to be an infinite void of higher learning. She was lounging on something like comfy leather, like a therapy chair, positioned right next to a desk with a stack of books on it. A short distance away, huddled around a table, she could make out two distinct silhouettes. One colored in black and white, another in purple.

It took her a second, but her memory clicked back into place. Everything that had happened earlier replayed in her mind. The awakening in another weird world, flying, tea with a girl with bat wings… Then something hit the back of her head, and she woke up. Or, didn’t. Maybe she was still asleep somehow. She pinched her arm. Nope, today’s nightmare was still reality. 

Everything seemed to match up, barring one exception: she didn’t remember anyone around her speaking English before. Not fluently, anyways. That should have been the case when she went back through her memories, except it wasn’t. 

The recollections subtly changed. The events were the same, without any obvious differences, but what she ‘heard’ was different. Conversations that sounded like total gibberish flowed through her like she’d understood them from the start in proper English. 

… Oh, god, that was what they were talking about earlier?

Among other things, Luka’s translated memories gave her context. She recalled names being exchanged and could put faces to them. Reimu, Marisa, Patchouli, Sakuya, etcetera. Knowing that didn’t explain any of the ominous, vague conversations she’d overheard, but it was something. 

Speaking of. It seemed like neither the witch or the pajama girl noticed she was awake. They continued to chat away, lost in their own little conversation. Which, by itself, was also a little strange. Luka recalled some explosions being exchanged before she’d been knocked out. Whatever, that wasn’t the concern right now. What really concerned her was where to go from here, especially after that ‘dissection’ comment. Should she make a break for it? Try to sneak out of the mansion at this point? 

Or, crazy idea, approach the two over in the distance?

If they wanted to kill me, she reasoned. I probably would’ve gotten more than a broom to the head earlier. Plus, Marisa did shoot down the dissection bit…

It was probably fine? Maybe? Then again…

"...?" Suddenly something flitted in front of her face. It curled, then held its position.

It was a tail. A devil tail? 

Then, something breathed on her neck. Right behind her. 

"GAH?!" Luka rolled forward, squeaking in a totally dignified fashion as she landed on her face. She could hear some mischievous cackling through the stars in her eyes.

"Hey! Koakuma, what are you doing over there?!" Someone shouted. It sounded like Patchouli.

"Just letting you know your human experiment woke up, Lady Patchouli!" The giggles quickly grew distant, as if fleeing from any potential retribution. Yeah, you better run...

Luka grumbled, slowly rising back to her feet. She only got to see a vague flash of red hair zipping behind a distant bookshelf. Great. Now she was getting punked by devils. 

"Honestly…" It seemed like Patchouli shared her exasperation. "She's always up to these foolish antics…"

"I thought it was a pretty good one." Marisa tried to hide her own laughter. Luka shot her a glare, and she cleared her throat before turning back to Patchouli. “Anyways, didn’t you say it’d take her a while to wake up and process the whole language?”

Patchouli stared a hole through Luka. “Yes, I did.”

So much for making a break for it.

"Uh…" Luka had a lot going on in her head. She rubbed the back of her head; should she start with the obvious question? "So, uh, you speak English now?"

“No. I’m speaking Japanese.” Patchouli studied her. “As are you, from my perspective.”

Luka tilted her head. “No? I’m speaking… English?” She realized her lip movements weren’t matching up with what she was saying. She was saying something else entirely. And yet, it felt like the words matched up with what she meant to say. “What the hell?” 

“Calm down.” Patchouli huffed. “All this means is that my work was successful.” 

Luka hesitated to ask. “What work, exactly?”

“Careful application of phonetics and linguistics knowledge woven through your conscious and subconscious mind, so as to grant your mind a basic enough understanding of the language you’re hearing, followed by some careful adjustments of the language center of your brain to both allow you to communicate verbally without issue and to understand the other language without needing to consciously perform the translation process.”

Luka made a funny face.

“Magic.” Marisa jumped in, waving a hand nonchalantly. “She means magic. Basically, she saved you a good couple months of Japanese 101.”

Luka stared disbelievingly. “Magic, right. Sounds closer to brain surgery.” 

Ten questions in Luka’s head turned to twenty. Before she could ask any of them, Patchouli’s feet left the ground, and she hovered menacingly towards Luka. 

“Uh?” Luka got ready to jump out of her chair. “Oh god, wait, I’m sorry—!!”

“Don’t.” Patchouli ordered. “Sit still for a moment.”

As if those words had a special power to them, Luka froze in place. She didn’t get this ‘magic’ business, but she didn’t think it was used to stop her just now. It was just that if Luka didn’t listen to such a simple instruction, parts of her were going to be passed around as afternoon reading snacks. 

Patchouli floated right up, leaning her face dangerously close to Luka’s. Her eyes bore holes through her, like she was expecting something to jump out of Luka’s body. Then, she started circling her, poking and prodding with no seeming rhyme or reason. 

“Uh.” Luka’s face warmed up and her patience thinned. “E-Excuse me. Can you, maybe watch some of the places you’re touching? I’m going to get mad.”

"My, Lady Patchouli, so forward..." muttered a familiar impish voice from a distant bookshelf.

Patchouli ignored both of them. Her brows furrowed and she snapped her fingers. There was a loud noise, and the impish voice squealed from afar, shouting out a hasty apology. Looking satisfied, Patchouli continued probing Luka. “Fire… and Moon…”

Luka decided to stay quiet for the rest of the procedure.

“... Hm.” Eventually, that hell ended, and Patchouli backed off. She disinterestedly floated back to Marisa. “I thought there might be something interesting, given how quickly she processed an entire language. Nothing. As far as a cursory glance can tell, she’s neither noteworthy or irregular.”

“Thanks?” Luka took it as a compliment.

Marisa cupped her chin, as if she was thinking about something. “Huh. I was wondering, since she looked a little Japanese…”

“Mm?” Patchouli hummed inquisitively. 

The witch and pajama-mage soon went off into their own little chat. Luka stared at them from afar, not sure where to even begin with her questions. 

“Probably not my place to comment, but,” Luka said. “You two seem pretty agreeable for a pair who tried to kill each other a few minutes ago.”

The two turned to her. 

“Well, it wasn’t really killing. More like a game.” Marisa shrugged.

“Indeed.” Patchouli nodded. “We were only settling a dispute through a Spell Card duel. A simple game. It’s a natural part of living here, though I can’t fault an outsider for not understanding.”

And right back to their conversation. Like she hadn’t even said anything.

Luka had so much to say about that, it wasn’t even funny. Firstly, there was no way something as serious-looking as that was just as casual as playing a game to settle a dispute. That would’ve been playing rock-paper-scissors to decide where to go for lunch. No, what she'd seen was, without a doubt, a fight to the death. Sure, both of them were still alive, so it technically wasn’t that, but that was like the distinction between attempted murder and murder. 

Twenty questions doubled into forty, and Luka got ready to cash in. 

Then. It was just for a split second. For just a split second, everything ‘stopped’. It was so fast and sudden Luka wasn’t sure it even happened; like a video buffering for a fraction of a second. Wait, didn’t this happen before? 

A soft tap came from behind Luka, and Patchouli and Marisa’s now-moving eyes moved to the source. 

“Oh,” Marisa said. “What’s up Sakuya?”

Luka, reacting last, turned around to find a vaguely-familiar, silver-haired maid standing half-a-foot over her. Right in front of her. Right in front of her. 

M’am, your chest— 

“Gah!!” Luka snapped backwards, landing on her butt. “Stop that!”

Sakuya looked down at her, tilting her head slightly. “Hm? Stop what?”

“Stop… that!” Luka jutted a finger at her, like that would somehow explain it. “You did it earlier, now you’re doing it again! That ‘thing’, stop it!!”

“Hm?” Sakuya raised her eyebrows. “I’m not quite sure I understand what you mean. You want me to ‘stop it’ again?”

“No, what are you even saying?!” You…” Luka ran out of steam, and let herself flop onto the floor. “Forget it. Just forget it.”

The maid smiled. Luka couldn’t tell if it was the smile of an awkward airhead who had no idea what she was saying, or the knowing smile of a devious, teleporting cleaning lady. She didn’t even care at this point.

“Given our guest here seems to be speaking properly,” Sakuya said. “Would I be correct in assuming you’ve finished your business?”

Marisa nodded. “Yep. Has Reimu finished interrogating Remi yet?”

“If you’re referring to their conversation in the guest room, then yes.” Sakuya’s dignified smile never seemed to falter. Luka wasn’t sure if she was just naturally graceful or concealing something. Maybe it was a knife. That would’ve been morbidly funny to see. “I was sent here to inform you that the shrine maiden is currently waiting for you back in the main hall, along with Lady Remilia.”

Luka vaguely recalled a tired-looking girl in red-and-white and a smug-looking rich girl with bat wings. Only just now did she realize the two were nowhere to be found. 

“Huh, already?” Marisa cupped her chin. “That was pretty fast. What was she asking about…?”

“Who knows.” Luka rose from the floor with a grunt, dusting herself off. “I just know I’d rather not hang around this haunted house any longer than I need to.” She stopped short. “Er,” she glanced nervously at Sakuya. “No offense.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that.” Sakuya lightly laughed. “If it were that easy to offend me, I’d have carved you into a fine meal for the mistress by now.” 

"—" Luka suddenly found her earlier thought more morbid than funny. "Okay." 

"Yo, Sakuya," Marisa was already marching ahead of them. She glanced back, poking a thumb behind her and toward a large set of doors. "If you're done picking on the newbie?"

"Of course. Right this way." Sakuya led the way, prim-and-proper, as though she hadn't just threatened to serve Luka with a side of coq au vin. Luka wasn't sure how to feel about that.

Actually, Luka wasn't sure how to feel about anything right now. From the moment she woke up, she'd been locking down feelings of uncertainty and fear. Wasn't that pretty natural in a situation like this? It was probably a little more miraculous she wasn't freaking out. A normal person would've probably gone into the fetal position by now. Fortunately (for once), her tolerance for things like this was a little different than normal.

Either way, she'd just have to keep all of that under lock a little longer. Breaking down wouldn't fix anything. And if she was reading the situation correctly, she was already on her way out. 'Just stay calm and work with what you have. Never panic when things get rough.' She remembered her dad saying something like that once. 

Thinking about it, she could also hear him shouting 'That advice was for dealing with rowdy drunks and violent punks!! The hell're you doing, kid?!' or something like that. It made her smile a little, which was kind of unnerving, but it also calmed her down. She could focus on getting back to that. All of this would just be a funny story to share when she got back home.

With Marisa already ahead of her, Luka walked after the pair, and back into the mansion's corridors.



~~~

A short while ago…

~~~

 

Reimu had a bad feeling.

From the moment she'd walked into the vampire's manor, she'd had that feeling. It wasn't something that could be put into words. It was like a hunch, a gut feeling that something was wrong. That feeling started from a pretty simple observation.

"You knew we were coming, didn't you?"

Seated at a table, Reimu stared questioningly at her host. Both she and the vampire had moved from the library where Marisa and Patchouli were working and into a smaller room… somewhere else in the mansion. Trying to figure out where she was in this place was always a headache. Just another reason why she didn't make a habit of visiting this place.

The other reason was sitting across from her, a haughty smile on her face. Remilia Scarlet laughed vaguely, like that somehow made her more mysterious. "My, what gives you that impression?

"Well for starters, that laugh tells me pretty plainly you know something I don't." Reimu squinted. "Secondly, you greeting us at the door so suddenly wasn't very subtle."

Honestly, she hated dealing with youkai, especially powerful ones. They rarely needed to directly show off their strength to create fear, and many decided to make a game out of playing with people instead. This one in particular, fitting to her childish appearance, was always looking for ways to avoid boredom. 

A normal human would be paralyzed with fear being in this situation, like a mouse cornered by a stray cat. Reimu just felt irritated.

The vampire seemed to notice that, and took enjoyment in it. "I'm glad to see you're as observant as ever. It would be a shame if the shrine maiden let something like that slip past her." 

"Was that supposed to be some kind of praise?" Reimu felt herself growing exhausted already. "Whatever, just answer my question."

"Why so hasty? Can't the lady of the house enjoy having guests over?" Yet another laugh. At least one of them was having fun here. "Maybe I was. Or maybe I wasn't. I am a vampire, after all; my network of information is certainly wide and vast enough to inform me that some humans are approaching my domain." 

"So someone tipped you off."

"I didn't say that."

"You're playing to it." 

Reimu cupped her chin, staring into the table. The implication that Remilia had been informed of her and Marisa's arrival had a ton of other implications attached to it. To start, someone would had to have been watching them or know they would have been headed to the Scarlet Manor ahead of time. And since the latter hinged on Marisa having the idea to take Luka there, it was just too far-fetched to consider.

"When were you told?" Reimu's eyes returned to Remilia.

"Hm…" Remilia angled her eyes upward and around. "I wonder..."

Reimu frowned. "Don't play coy. You either know something, or you don't."

"My, so forceful. Is that how one should ask a favor of an all-powerful, all-knowing vampire?" Remilia postured. "Perhaps, if it's knowledge you seek, I might be willing to share… if you swear a blood oath to me, and become my--"

"'Servant', right? Pass." Reimu frowned. "I have enough trouble as it is, I don't need cleaning your mansion on top of it." Remilia fake-pouted in response.

Remilia was obviously trying to throw her off. She could tell. Someone tipped her off, but they clearly didn't want anyone knowing any specifics about their identity. Who could have that kind of information so readily available? Especially when it concerned activity on the barrier.

Reimu pondered. She dwelled on it. And then, it hit her. She was actually a little mad she hadn't put it together sooner.

"I see." She stood up from her chair, and bowed politely to Remilia. "Thank you for answering my questions, but I really should get going."

"Leaving so soon? What a shame." So said Remilia, as she merely smiled. "Might I ask why?"

Reimu turned away and began walking for the door, but not before answering:

"I have to track down a certain gap youkai."


Double-check the pockets… Nope, still no phone. Where’d it go? Screw it, worry about it later.

The walk back was pretty uneventful. Luka was starting to worry that they were going in circles after the third time they passed the same fairy fighting a dust bunny to the death, but neither Sakuya or Marisa seemed worried.

"This place isn't non-Euclidean, is it?" Luka half-joked. 

"Sometimes." Sakuya said.

"... Oh." 

That… shouldn't have been possible in real, physical reality. Not without someone quite literally bending space-time. Or this could be a place that didn't obey the laws of physics, but that probably wasn't the case. Probably.

Luka thought back to that earlier teleporting trick the maid pulled. She opened her mouth to speak, only to close it. Better to not think too hard about it. Pretty soon, it wouldn't matter.

Speaking of questions. Marisa shot her an odd look. She'd been doing that since they arrived. What was her deal? Once they regrouped with Reimu, Luka intended to ask about that.

It didn't take too long.

"Took you long enough." Reimu narrowed her eyes. She looked like she was in a bad mood.

"Hey, it's not our fault you don't have an appreciation for taking the scenic route." Marisa said.

Sakuya frowned. "I was quite careful to make you the fastest route I could."

('Make?' No, ignore it.)

Reimu sighed. "It doesn't matter. Is she able to speak Japanese now, Marisa?"

Marisa's shoulders slumped. "Unfortunately, we totally botched it. She's stuck speaking Mandarin for the rest of her life."

"Oh, so it worked." 

Luka stared. "You know you can just ask me, right?"

"Ah, it definitely worked, then." Reimu nodded casually, like someone confirming their house keys were still in their pocket. "Good. Let's not stay any longer than we need to." She gave a light bow to Sakuya. "Right, thank you for your cooperation and so on. We'll be on our way now."

"Of course." The maid returned the bow. "The Hakurei Shrine maiden is always welcome here."

Marisa gave a lopsided smile. "What, I'm not welcome?"

Sakuya's smile seemed a little tight-lipped. "You'd break in anyways, so it'd be a pointless gesture."

Marisa hung her head like a wilted flower. "So cold!! I think I might freeze to death..."

"Wear a coat next time." Reimu shrugged.

Once that pleasant conversation was over with, the three of them finally prepared to leave.

"Just a moment!" Oh, come on.

The childish voice came from above, and Luka immediately pieced together who it came from. Turning to see a bat-winged silhouette peering down at them from the top of a staircase confirmed her guess. 'Remilia', right?

"Er, yes?" Reimu spoke first. She looked like a retail employee getting snatched at closing hours by that one last customer lining up at check-out. "What do you want?"

The vampire smirked, and Luka felt the room grow a little colder. "You didn't think you could leave without me exacting the proper payment for my services?"

Reimu visibly cringed. "No thanks. I have no interest in giving you any right now." She shot a glance at Marisa.

Hm? What were they on about?

"Uh, suffering from anemia." Marisa shook her head. "Nope, no can do."

'Anemia'? Wait. Hold on a second.

"As flattering as your offers are, it's not yours I'm interested in." Luka felt a pair of eyes. "I'm more curious about a different flavor I haven't tasted in quite some time… Mm, I wonder how it's aged?"

A little wheel in Luka's head titled 'FIGHT OR FLIGHT?' started spinning.

"Uh. Excuse me." Luka felt every set of eyes in the room turn to her. Sakuya flashed a dark smile and slowly started walking towards her. "H-Hold on, can we talk about this?!"

"It's already been settled." Remilia smiled regally. "Think of it as sealing a contract."

"I DON'T REMEMBER SIGNING ANYTHING!" Luka shouted. Sakuya drew close, and gently yet firmly gripped her arm. "Wait, wait, wait wait WAIT WAIT WAITWAITWAITWAIT--"

… Elsewhere in the mansion, the younger Scarlet was awoken by an odd scream. She rubbed her eyes before clutching a stuffed bear and rolling back over to sleep. 


Luka felt lightheaded for a variety of reasons. 

"Why'd you freak out like that?" Marisa casually asked. 

"Why didn't either of you clarify that it was just a regular blood donation?!" Luka absentmindedly rubbed at a bandage on her arm. "I thought she was about to drink me, seriously..."

"Nah, she's not really the type. She doesn't usually drink blood just by itself." Marisa shrugged. "Ease up, she's probably just gonna have it stored somewhere and use it like a fancy ingredient for other stuff."

"Yes, I feel much better knowing the vampire is going to use my blood as a special sauce." Luka's voice was dry enough to cut someone. "Thank you, Marisa."

"No problem!"

Luka resisted the urge to pull Marisa's hat over her face. Both she and Marisa stood a short distance from the front gate of the mansion. Their third, Reimu, was chatting up the gatekeeper for some reason. Luka didn't get the impression that Reimu was the social type from her general attitude. Was she trying to gather some more info? Eventually, she seemed to reach some kind of conclusion, and walked back over to them.

"Yo Reimu, you figure something out?" Marisa seemed to be far ahead of Luka's guess. "Usually you'd just brush right past Meiling. You got a suspect in mind?"

"Somewhat," Reimu replied. "I'm honestly mad I didn't think of her sooner."

Marisa raised an eyebrow. "You wanna be more specific? There's a whole lotta 'her's here."

"Think." Reimu said. "Who do we know in Gensokyo that's remotely as involved in work with the barrier as I am? And who has a penchant for playing subtle games like this?"

Marisa thought for a moment. Then her eyes widened. "Oh. Y'know, yeah, that is sorta obvious, isn't it." 

“Mm.” Reimu nodded. Whatever the two of them were thinking of, they seemed to reach some kind of mutual understanding. Their body language made it obvious; they were going to move out again. For what exactly, Luka didn’t know. But Reimu’s expression, at least, seemed decisive. "Alright, let's get--"

"Hey, time out?" Luka called out.

Reimu and Marisa both stopped and turned to her. 

“What is it?” Reimu looked a little impatient, which irritated Luka a little. “If it’s not important, can it wait?”

“Slow down already. If you want me to keep following you, yeah, I’d say it’s important.” Luka held herself back from saying anything ruder. Up until now, she’d been going along rather patiently with this entire mess. She wasn't going to keep flying blindly. “I only have a loose idea of what’s going on here. Can we stop for a second so I can catch up?”

It took Reimu a second to realize Luka’s plight. “Oh.” She cupped her chin, and her expression got complicated. “Uh… Right, um…” Her gaze drifted to the sky, which was steadily being overcome with a dark purple gradient. She turned back to Luka, and fumbled like she got a piece of food stuck under her tongue. “L… ‘Luka’, right? Sorry, this explanation might get a bit complicated, and it’s getting pretty late. How about we talk and fly at the same time? I’d rather not deal with any youkai popping up while we’re out like this.”

After nearly staring God in the face last time, the last thing Luka wanted to do was fly. She also didn’t even know what a ‘youkai’ was, which made it hard to grasp what Reimu meant. But she recognized that kind of wary look in association with nighttime. It was probably best to trust the local expert's judgement there.

“Alright, sure." Luka sighed. "Just, please don't fly super fast this time.”

Begrudgingly, Luka found herself back on Marisa’s flying broom. Getting an explanation while they flew to their next destination was probably the best case scenario for everyone, but that hardly settled Luka's nerves. Both Marisa and Reimu also found it a helpful chance to ask their own questions, so the conversation turned into an information exchange at 3000 feet. All while she was trying to shake off a vision of her obituary, reading ‘she sneezed then fell to her death’ right next to an ad for laundry detergent.

Reimu and Marisa questioned Luka in more detail regarding her arrival, but she couldn’t offer much in the way of details. She recounted what she remembered from the previous morning, all the way to her falling asleep on the train. Though, she kept the bit about her own chronic exhaustion to herself. It didn’t seem altogether important, insofar as figuring out why she was there. The two questioned if she’d seen any ‘strange characters’, offering a rather specific and detailed description of a shady-looking blonde woman with a parasol. She hadn’t seen anyone like that, which somehow only seemed to confirm whatever suspicions they had.

On her part, Luka found the information she was given more than a bit confusing. It was only a brief summary, but basically, she’d been ‘spirited away’ to another world (as if she didn’t already gather that part). The region she was in was called ‘Gensokyo’, and it had a slight history of people being dragged into it from the ‘outside world’. The difference being that in most cases, the people brought over seemed to be Japanese or lived in Japan.

Eventually, the topic of their ‘suspect’ came up. 

“So you think this ‘Yukari’ person is behind all of this?” Luka asked. “Behind kidnapping me and dropping me off at your shrine?”

“I’m not putting it past her.” Reimu said. “She’s got a habit of being irritatingly vague and playing games with people. At the very least, she’s the only other person in Gensokyo I know with a deep understanding of the barrier. If she happens to be innocent this one time , then I can at least try to get her take on what could have happened.”

That seemed sensible, but...

“I’m a little confused,” Luka said. “You keep talking about this ‘barrier’ like it’s a wall between worlds or something. In that case, is it really that weird for it to drag someone in from overseas?”

“Not exactly, but there are some rules that should prevent that.” Reimu said. “It works with a pretty specific purpose in mind. It blocks the ‘common sense’ from the outside world, only allowing certain things in. Also, while it is separating ‘worlds’ like you said, we’re also technically based in Japan. So most of what bleeds through the barrier should only be from around here.”

“Huh…” Luka didn’t follow, but she nodded anyway.

The flight got quiet again as both sides ran out of questions. Reimu slowly drifted ahead of them, leaving just Luka and Marisa at the rear.

“... Sooo, work talk aside,” Marisa looked back curiously. “You worked at a bar back home, huh?”

“Pub, actually.” Luka replied. “Bars are all about good drinks. We need to juggle good food too. Not always the easier act, but if our regulars are any indication, we haven’t let either hit the floor yet.”

Marisa hummed. “Sounds pretty good! Gensokyo’s got no shortage of people looking for that sorta stuff.”

Luka raised a brow. “Are you assuming I’m staying here?”

“Just a joke, a joke!” Marisa laughed. “I’m just feeling a little thirsty is all.”

“Uh-huh. Tell you what,” Luka said. “If you two can get me back home and happen to find yourselves in New York, I’ll cover the first round. Consider it my repayment.”

“I’ll hold you to that, y’know.” Marisa smirked. “Ah, if only it were that easy to just walk out the barrier…”

“Hm? I thought it only blocked out ‘common sense’.”

“Well, yeah, but you also can’t just fly outta Gensokyo. I tried, believe me.” Marisa pouted. “The barrier’s weird mind-bending magic goes both ways. Try to go straight through and you’ll just keep flying by the same terrain for hours on end. Then, the second you turn back, it’ll be like you never went anywhere. It’s super creepy.”

“...” Luka thought back to Sakuya and the manor they’d just left. Along with that, other thoughts crept through her head. She didn’t want to think about it, but the idea of a closed reality that didn’t adhere to the normal laws of physics—it wasn’t all that unfamiliar a concept to her. “Yeah, creepy…”

Marisa gave her another one of those curious looks, as if she’d noticed the tone in her voice. It seemed like she’d finally run out of patience, since she spoke right before Luka did. “Okay, now I’ve gotta ask: is this your first time in a situation like this?”

Well, she’d beaten Luka to the punch of approaching the subject. At least now she knew why she kept looking at her like that: she was picking up on Luka’s… less-than-reactive responses to everything. If there was some sort of scheme going on, it didn’t exactly look good on Luka to be acting so calmly in a situation where she was supposed to be freaking out.

“Not… exactly.” Luka hesitated to answer properly. If she were being specific, it was her first time dealing with this kind of situation in a physical sense, real-world sense. But how could she explain that world to a complete stranger? No, more specifically, she couldn't. She'd promised a certain someone to not do that for a very specific reason. "They're just dreams. Really vivid, repetitive dreams, like I'm in someplace else and everything's all weird."

"Huh." Marisa seemed skeptical of that answer. "For them just being dreams, you sure sound pretty familiar with that kinda weirdness. You sure you were asleep?"

"Have you ever heard of lucid dreaming?" Luka said. "It's something like that."

"Hmm." Marisa eyed her carefully, but seemed to take that answer. "Eh, I'm not so good with that sorta stuff. I'll take your word for it."

Luka let out a breath of relief. She didn’t want to keep following this line of questioning.

In truth, the answer she’d given was only partially true, in a way that deeply bothered her. 

Every direction had a different sight to it; a large town off in the distance horizon, sprawling forests, a towering mountain that seemed to rise past the clouds. The sight of the setting sun changing the colors of the sky; the edge of dust in a foreign land. It should’ve been a pleasant memory. Maybe even a terrifying one. 

Instead, from the moment she’d woken up, it felt… familiar. Like she’d been here before, even if she knew she never had been. Like a surreal deja vu, the view from up high only seemed to intensify that feeling. She’d been trying to ignore it. It was probably just her mixing up the locale with some scenery she’d seen in that ‘other place’. Her calmness was due to her exposure to the supernatural in that world. That was all. There was no other reason.

But it kept sitting in the back of her head. Like an uncomfortable itch she couldn’t scratch. 

She just needed to keep ignoring it. It’d go away as soon as she left this place.

“How much farther do we need to go?” Luka moaned. “Feels like we’ve been going in circles.”

“We probably are.” Marisa said.

"... Please don’t tell me we’re lost."

“WE ARE NOT LOST!!” Reimu shouted from ahead. “Just, give me a minute!!”

Marisa chuckled a little, easing her weight into her broom. “Don’t sweat it, she knows where she’s going. Reimu’s probably the only one out of us who could figure out where to go anyways.”

“‘Figure out’?” Luka said. “What, is it some kind of mystery?”

“Sorta.” Marisa hummed to herself, keeping her eyes trained on Reimu. “The person we’re looking for lives somewhere by the outer edge of Gensokyo. Thing is, her house usually doesn’t stay in the same place, so we’ve gotta figure out where it is.”

Luka was having a hard time parsing what she meant. “What do you mean? Does she live in some kind of mobile home?”

“Hm.” Marisa scratched her chin. “I don’t think it’s got legs, but I’ve never checked.”

She imagined a suburban house sprinting away from them with a pair of muscular, human-like legs, dodging laser fire as it ran.

Luka shook her head. “Taking that as a ‘no’. So, how does Reimu know where to look?”

“That’s her secret.” Marisa smirked. Luka almost thought she saw a twinge of jealousy in her eyes. “She’s just flying around at random until she finds it.”

Luka’s eyes glazed over. “Please don’t joke when I’m expecting a serious answer.”

“Ahaha…” Marisa laughed awkwardly. “Yeah, it sounds stupid, doesn’t it?”

“It is stupid.”

Marisa’s jealous smirk returned. “Like the leading lady said, give her a bit.”

A few seconds passed in silence, nothing but the wind rushing past them.

“THERE!!” Reimu cried and suddenly dove, cutting a line straight down. Tracing her movement with her eyes, Luka could faintly make out a building down at ground-level.

“You’re kidding me.”

“Told ya.” It was hard to describe the look in Marisa’s eyes. “She’s the kinda bullshit lucky person who can always win games of chance or luck without even thinking about it. She’s practically channeling Lady Luck 24/7.”

Luka glanced uncomfortably at Marisa. “I’m, sensing some env—”

“Anywayslet’sgetdownthere!!”

Luka yelped as the broom shot downwards. Gripping it as tight as she could through the rushing wind, she could begin to make out their destination. She didn’t have any familiarity with Japanese-style architecture, but she got the impression she was looking at some kind of mansion. It wasn’t on the same level as Remilia’s residence—the house looked closer to a larger-than-average-home than a manor—but it definitely had the air of belonging to someone influential. As an aside, it did not sprout legs on contact and run. Nightmare averted.

Eventually, they regrouped with Reimu at the ground. 

Luka wobbled a bit as she stepped off the broom. “Woogh… Damn, are you trying to kill me...?”

“You didn’t fall off, didja?” Marisa smiled smugly. 

‘Don’t push that particular button’. Noted… rurgh...

Once Luka coped with her newfound motion sickness, they started their walk to the building. As they approached, Luka spotted a silhouette at the front gate. She didn’t notice anything strange at first, but the closer they got, the more Luka could see. Tails. Multiple fox-like tails, nine in total, all flowing from the figure’s back like a big, fluffy bouquet. Their attire seemed mild by comparison: a long dress with oversized cuffs, pressed together and hiding her hands. Atop her head was a hat with what seemed like two pointed ‘ears’ to it.

Luka, a rational human being, stopped in her tracks and stared at the figure like she’d just locked eyes with a wild bear. Reimu and Marisa didn’t even slow down and continued marching without any pause. Luka was starting to wonder what kind of daily life the two of them lived to be so completely unphased by everything. Eventually, after staring a little uncertainly at the silhouette, she pushed forward.

Of course, the fox-tailed person acknowledged their approach, and stepped forward to greet them.

“Well, this is quite a surprise.” Her voice was orderly and firm not unlike Sakuya’s, but where Sakuya’s tone held refined yet aloof grace, hers seemed to carry a sort of gentleness to it. “What brings the two of you…” She laid eyes on Luka. Luka waved, flashing her best ‘I am not a threat’ smile. “... the three of you here?”

“Yo, fox shikigami.” Marisa gave a devil-may-care smirk. “Your master in? We’ve gotta punch in an appointment.”

“That’s right.” Reimu followed up. “If you don’t mind?”

There was a moment of silence as the fox glanced between the three of them. Her gaze lingered on Luka a little too long for her liking. “I’m sorry, but she’s still resting, I’m afraid. I’ve been ordered to make certain nothing disturbs her in the meantime.”

“... She’s asleep?” Reimu seemed confused. “No, nevermind. Just let us through anyways. We just have a few questions for her.”

“I cannot.” The fox spoke firmly. “As I said, nothing is to disturb her rest.”

Reimu grimaced, like she’d just been called in for overtime. “Please don’t make this difficult.”

 “I’m afraid it’s going to be difficult.”

Reimu let out a loud groan. Suddenly, a soft light caught Luka’s eyes, and an orb with a glowing blue yin-yang pattern appeared behind Reimu. It flashed again, splitting into two orbs, both orbs orbiting around her. From thin air, she produced a small slip of paper with an inscription on it. Luka heard Marisa ‘oooh’ nonchalantly, and suddenly she had a witch standing next to her to watch the upcoming fight. Wait, when did I become the designated sidelines?

“I really don’t care if it’s your master’s bedtime!” Luka definitely recognized that tone. It was the tone of a retail employee who’d had enough. “I don’t have the time or the patience for this! Either get out of the way or get exterminated!”

Myriad lights of various colors surrounded Reimu. The shikigami said nothing and only braced herself. 

“Fine! Have it your—!”

“Whoa whoa, time out again!!”

Right in-between the on-guard fox-person and the increasingly frustrated not-retail-worker, Luka shoved herself. In an instant, the tense air dissipated, the lights surrounding Reimu popped like soap bubbles, and somewhere in the back there was the sound of a witch going ‘aww’.

“Wh…” Reimu looked incredulous. “What are you doing?!”

“I could ask you the same thing!” Luka fussed. “Look, I don’t really get this whole ‘Spell Card’ business, but can we try and settle this without any more unnecessary violence? You know, like reasonable human beings?”

“Y’know she’s a fox and not a human, right?” Marisa poked.

“Not helping!” Luka said.

Everyone present stared at Luka like she was completely out of her mind. Why? Wasn’t it totally normal to break up a stupid fight before it happened? Was it really so bizarre for her to get in the middle of this weird ‘game’?

The fox shikigami’s hat (ears?) twitched. “I respect your resolve, but you really don’t need to intervene like that. This is just how we settle disputes here, especially between humans and youkai.”

Luka groaned. “Can we just make this round an exception? We just need to ask your, uh, ‘master’ some questions. It’s not like we’re going to barge in and start a fight.”

“I am not going to promise that.” Reimu commented.

“Ignore that.” Luka said. “Besides, if you start a fight outside the house like this, the noise’ll just wake her up anyways, right? That’s no good.”

The fox narrowed her eyes, her mouth twisting a little in confusion. “Are you trying to bargain with me?”

“A little?” Luka shrugged. “Listen, I don’t really know the whole score here, but I’m pretty sure both of these lunatics here will probably bulldoze right through anyways. And even if they don’t,” Luka jutted a thumb to Marisa. “From what I’ve seen? That witch over there could probably wake up everything in the next square kilometer if she just started shooting.”

Marisa nodded. “It’s true, I’d light this whole damn place up.”

"See? All we’re asking is for you to just let us through so we can have a chat with your ‘master’." Luka watched the fox's expression turn contemplative. She just needed to push a little more… "I can even throw in payment later, if you'd like. Money? Food? Drinks?"

"And now you're bribing me?" The fox squinted.

"Not bribing, making a deal." Luka said. "You'd be sticking your neck out for us, right? It's only fair that I pay you back if you decide to go along."

She heard Reimu and Marisa whispering to the side. ( "Does she even have any money on her?" "All I know is I'm sure as hell not payin'.")

The shikigami seemed to hesitate, her eyes focused directly on Luka. For a terrifying moment, she worried that she might have taken her attempt too far. Then, the fox nodded thoughtfully. "Perhaps some fried tofu will do…"

Phew. Luka couldn't hide her sigh of relief. "Thank you, seriously—"

“On the condition that I escort you to her room, and you leave as soon as you’ve had your talk with her.” Ran said firmly. “No later. Break your word, and I’ll hold all three of you accountable.”

“Sounds good to me.” Luka smiled eagerly and extended a hand. Agreements needed to be sealed with a handshake, right? "A deal paid in tofu it is, Miss…?"

There was another brief moment of silence as she stared at Luka's hand. What was with her? Luka was pretty sure she didn't have anything on her face. Maybe what Luka was doing really was that bizarre. Either way, it wasn't weird enough, as the fox took Luka's hand and shook it. "Ran. Yakumo Ran."

"It's a deal then, Ran."

A 'hmm' came from the side. "You're a bit of a pacifist, aren't you?" Reimu said. "You really shouldn't waste that effort on youkai."

Luka's irritation bubbled just a little. "I'm not a pacifist, I just don't like burning bridges or dealing with pointless fights." She sighed. "And I don't really know what you mean by 'youkai'. She's another person still, right? Let's not rough people up if we don't have to, okay?"

Reimu looked like she wanted to say something else. "... Oh, forget it." She frowned. What was her problem? "Anyways, fox." She turned to Ran. "Let’s go. We don’t have much time to waste.”

Being escorted in should’ve been less stressful than barging their way in. But, as they stepped through the silent building, with only faint moonlight illuminating their vision, Luka felt something. Looking around at the interior of the building, which seemed both old and strangely modern, she felt… nervous. Afraid. Like she didn’t belong here. It felt like a tiny voice in the back of her head, whispering: ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ ‘It’s dangerous here.’ Was it just the tension she’d been under since she woke up hitting its limit? She didn’t know. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. If Reimu and Marisa weren’t leading the way, her instinct might have had her turn around and leave. A part of her considered doing it anyway. For at least for the sake of her nerves, she told it to shut up and pressed on. It didn’t, but trying helped her ignore it.

“Here.” Ran stopped before a sliding door, turning back to the three. “You’ll find Lady Yukari in this room. Please, be mindful when you wake her.” Her tone seemed steeped in what sounded like mild regret. She might’ve been having second thoughts, but for now, she was honoring their deal. With a polite bow, she walked away. She probably didn’t want to stick around and get scolded.

After a tense moment, Marisa stepped forward and slid the door open. 

It opened into a small room, probably a living room given the furnishings. A square table in the center covered by a heavy blanket, some shelves, and slightly anachronistically, an old CRT TV paired with a VCR player off against the wall. They stood out, considering nothing else she’d seen so far indicated this place had any kind of electrical wiring setup.

“Zz… zzz…”

The sound drew Luka’s attention back to the table, where she saw a blonde woman sleeping under it. Her head was resting on a comfy-looking cushion and she was wearing a purple sleeping mask with a pair of weird eyes on it. 

Before she could process the sight, Reimu walked up to her. Luka felt a slight chill as she stepped forward. Reimu stopped just short of stomping on the woman’s head, and looked down at her sleeping face. She smiled dangerously, tapping her foot against the floor. 

The second before it happened, Luka had a vision of a goal kick.

“WAKE UP YOU OLD HAG!!”

CRACK!!


“What happened to not starting a fight?” Luka said.

“Like I said. I didn’t promise anything.” Reimu huffed.

Luka sighed, pinching at the bridge of her nose. This girl was going to seriously give her a headache. After that initial act of violence, the three of them seated around the table (which was called a ‘kotatsu’, apparently), all three taking a side. Completing the square was the  formerly asleep blonde woman, who sat opposite to Luka while wiping her now exposed eyes. She yawned harmlessly. Combined with the comfy-looking purple pajamas she was wearing, it almost made Luka question if this really was Yukari. 

Luka’s mind went back to the questions she was asked about a ‘suspicious person’. The only common detail she could see was that she was blonde. She didn’t even look particularly suspicious.

But…

For some reason, just by looking at her, Luka felt like she knew. This half-asleep, lazy-looking woman was probably Yukari Yakumo. There was no aura of malice, or any sort of giveaway that she was dangerous. But Luka’s feeling, that subconscious and instinctive feeling she’d been gripped with since she walked in here, was practically screaming when she looked at this woman. 

‘Yukari’, naturally, was nodding off all the while. Reimu slapped her wooden stick against the table like a math teacher. 

“Wake up. We’ve got a few questions for you.” Reimu growled like she was a police interrogator. It was pretty obvious she had more than questions on her mind. 

“Hm…?” Yukari yawned again, looking like she wasn’t even processing what was being said. “This is the H…” Another yawn. “...nn, Yakumo residence, please leave a message after the beep…”

“Yo.” Marisa leaned forward and snapped her fingers in front of Yukari's face. “C’mon, up and at ‘em. Don’t want our bad cop over here to get mean again.” Reimu grunted appropriately. 

“Oh fine…” Wiping her eyes for the final time, Yukari finally looked lucid. “Goodness, what a morning call. I was pretty sure I told Ran to direct any visitors away for the evening.”

“This is important.” Reimu said unflinchingly. “We convinced her to let us through.

“Is that so…?” There was a brief twitch of irritation on Yukari’s face. “I’ll have to correct her on that later. Honestly, when I tell her to do something...” She grumbled something unpleasant under her breath. Luka made a mental note to buy two helpings of fried tofu when the time came. “Well, so be it. What might your business be?”

Reimu sat up straight. “I’ll be quick.”

She proceeded to recap everything that had happened since Luka’s first appearance. From her appearance in front of the Hakurei Shrine, all the way to her conversation with Remilia and Luka’s language translation. Reimu went into all the details she had over Luka’s history, highlighting her status as an outsider from overseas, carefully watching Yukari’s expression the entire time. Throughout the entire explanation, Yukari’s eyes retained a somewhat sleepy glaze to them, but every so often Luka thought she saw something else in them. It went by so fast, she almost wasn’t sure she saw it. 

“To summarize,” Reimu’s monologue cut through Luka’s thoughts. “There’s something amiss with the barrier, and I believe you would be the one to understand what’s going on.”

Yukari, who had been listening up until now, spoke. “My, I’m sensing a little bit of an accusation behind your tone there, Reimu.” Her own tone was playful, like a cat pulling at a mouse’s tail. “Would you care to share your theory with the rest of us?”

“I was going to try and get some more information out of you first, but if you insist.” Reimu huffed. It was fairly obvious who her attitude was directed at. “This situation involves both an irregular human being spirited away through the barrier twice under unclear means, with both appearances being suspiciously close to my shrine. If we consider Remilia’s inside knowledge, someone else had to have informed her. There’s only one person who both could have snuck around so quickly from place to place through her ‘gaps’ to forward that information around and have access to it in the first place.” Reimu glowered at Yukari unflinchingly. “You.” 

Yukari didn’t seem to react to Reimu’s accusation. Even as every set of eyes in the room turned to look at her, she hardly flinched. She merely hummed to herself, as though processing Reimu’s claims. Then, a smile. “In any other context, I’d call all of that an astute observation and a well-done investigation. But, you’re missing some decisive evidence.” 

“... What?” Reimu balked. “No, it’s pretty obvious! How can you possibly argue against it?!”

Yukari’s smile deepened, and she raised a closed hand as if counting. “Your claim hinges on some faulty logic.” She extended her index finger, and continued extending fingers as she went. “Firstly, you’re assuming that because the matter involves the Great Hakurei Barrier that I would be the only other person with the knowledge of someone passing through it. While I’m flattered you think I’m such a major force in keeping the barrier up-and-running, I’m hardly the only other person who keeps track of what goes in and out of it. Secondly, your assumption regarding the vampire would involve me still being awake at the time. As you can see, I was sleeping quite soundly.”

“How’s that a counterpoint?” Marisa asked. “You coulda just had let her know the second it happened, then gone to sleep while we were working. Or had that fox of yours do it instead. Can you prove that you didn’t just do that?”

“Are you asking me to prove a negative, Miss Kirisame?” Yukari maintained her smile. “You know, the burden typically falls on you to prove that. So can you prove that I did something like that? Say, any definitive evidence that Ran or I was present at the vampire’s manor”

“Well,” Marisa opened her mouth, but couldn’t seem to find her words. “No, but...”

“Tch, fine!” Reimu’s patience seemed to thin. “I’ll fly back to that vampire’s mansion and beat the proof out of her myself—”

“My my, settle down. There’s no need to go picking fights.” Yukari laughed. “I believe I already have the answer to your problem.”

‘Huh?’ was the collective response. 

“What d’ya mean?” Marisa said. 

Yukari’s smiling expression never seemed to leave her face. It only shifted, turning from amusement at the accusations leveled towards her into a keen stare pointed directly at Luka. 

“W-What?” Luka was mobbed by those unpleasant feelings all over again. “Just say what you’re going to say already.”

“It’s really simple.” Yukari’s eyes bore straight through her. “You were brought here just like most things are.”

“‘Like…’ what?” Luka squinted. “I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.”

Reimu suddenly seemed troubled. “She’s trying to imply you were forgotten somehow. Which shouldn’t apply to her in the first place. She’s human.”

“Is she?”

The question silenced the room like a gunshot. Luka had no clue why. The answer should’ve been obvious.

“Of course I am. What else am I supposed to be?”

“Isn’t that a question you should answer?” Yukari said. "If you're so certain you're human, would you mind saying who your parents are?"

"My--" Luka stopped short. "... I have a father."

"Just a father? What about your mother?"

"Don't have one."

"Hmm?" Yukari hummed. "Surely you had one. It's not like you were born out of thin air."

"Look, I…" Luka trailed off. "Okay, my dad adopted me. I didn't know my ‘real’ parents. But that doesn't mean I'm not human!"

"Maybe it isn't definitive evidence.” Yukari said. “But it raises some questions, doesn't it?"

"That's enough .” A wooden tap disrupted the conversation. Turning, Luka saw Reimu resting that wooden stick of hers against the table. Her eyes looked stormy, like she was about to shoot lighting at Yukari. “I won't sit and listen while you try to use an orphan's history to cover up one of your schemes."

"Oh, my. I thought we established I wasn't plotting anything?"

"You're always planning something." Reimu said.

"Gah, everyone just shut up for a second!!" Luka yelled without realizing it. Yukari's words had punched a hole straight through her. She stared at Yukari, that sense of 'wrongness' deep inside her intensifying. "You…"

"Hm?" Yukari raised her eyebrows.

Luka opened her mouth and,

.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

nothing came out.

What was she about to say? It was something. What was it?

"Luka?" Reimu called. "Hey, what's wrong?"

Her head hurt. It felt like it was about to split in two. 

Leave. You need to leave now.

"I—" Luka stood up. Her headache seemed to settle as she did so. "I, I need to leave. Now."

She walked back to the door they'd entered the room in. She wasn't sure what that feeling was just then. But she didn't want to stick around and find out.

"Whoa, hold on!" Marisa said. "Where're you going?"

"Away from here." The words came without her input. It was like an instinct. "Thanks for your hospitality and so on, but I have no interest in whatever it is you're trying to do, Yukari. Goodbye."

In a single motion, Luka slid open the door and stepped through— 

She walked right back into the room.

"—huh?"

It was the same room she'd just left, there was no mistake. Luka had entered it from a different door. She could see the sliding door she'd just entered to her left, as well as the kotatsu with everyone seated in front of her. If she angled herself slightly, she could even see herself standing in the frame.

A playful 'tsk-tsk' broke Luka from her stupor.

"Let's not get too hasty, now. If my guess happens to be correct, you stepping back into the outside might just prove fatal." Yukari turned to face her. "You wouldn't want to take that risk, would you?"

Luka was barely registering what Yukari was saying. "You… How'd you…"

“It’s just switching the boundaries of some doors for a moment. Trivial, really. I could show you some more interesting uses of that power, if you'd like.”

Like staring into the abyss; the smile on her face didn't reach the hues in her eyes. Like a matchstick being plunged into snow, she felt at once suffocated by the cold, fear taking hold. The chill surrounded her like a hand slowly cupping. It could close at any time, snuff her out at any moment. It just chose not to. 

Could she even run? Would she get that far? A single wrong twitch, and she might die. The migraine from before started to come back, once again pulling at her from both ends. The feeling became unbearable. She contemplated running, regardless of the consequences—

Whack! A familiar wooden stick smacked the side of Yukari's head. All at once, that unpleasant mix of pain and fear evaporated.

"Knock it off." Reimu scowled. "I'm not so sure what's going on here, but are you seriously trying something on a human right in front of me? Do you want to get exterminated?"

"Ow…" Yukari childishly rubbed her head like a kid being scolded. "My, can't this old youkai have a little fun?" Reimu glared silently, raising her stick again. "Oh, fiiine."

The room seemed to settle, but Luka's mind didn't seem to join it. She had no idea what had just happened. She had no understanding of what was going on. Thoughts, questions, confusion—all of it filled her head, and she couldn't quiet the storm.

"You know something," Luka spoke, maybe out of desperation, directing her words to Yukari. "Right? What is it? What am I? Tell me."

Yukari's expression failed to change. "As I said before: is that a question for me to answer?"

"Don't mess with me, just give me an answer!"

"I'm just putting forward my own theory based on the information put in front of me. You're the one who needs to actually find an answer to that."

'Find an answer'.

That splitting sensation. The feeling she had looking at Yukari. That surreal familiarity when she looked over Gensokyo. All of them brought their own questions, and she didn't have an answer for any of them.

Luka wasn't sure if Reimu or Marisa could tell what Yukari was doing. Maybe they could, but they weren’t commenting. To Luka, it was pretty transparent. She was starting to realize why they had described this woman as ‘suspicious’. Even though Yukari was talking like she had no preference one way or the other, her words felt like they were meant to point Luka in a certain direction. Just vague enough to be denied. Just specific enough to guide.

Luka knew what the smart thing to do was. She knew that. It would have been to ignore her words, to ignore everything she’d just laid on the table. Walk away, go home, pretend she saw nothing. 

She thought about everything once more. One stray thought caught her attention.

“You mentioned before, me stepping back out might be ‘fatal’.” Luka said. “What did you mean?”

“The outside world’s become a hostile place for youkai for quite a variety of reasons.” Yukari said. “Above all else, however, humans just don’t believe in us. They don’t fear us. And so we cannot exist in that place.”

Luka’s face twisted. “What? That doesn’t make any sense. People don’t just vanish because no one ‘believes they exist’. A tree that falls in the forest when no one’s around to hear it, it still hits the ground. It’s just that no one hears it.”

“The difference is that a tree is a physical object, much like most things in the world.” Yukari replied. “Youkai like myself, well… We’re a bit more ‘fantasy’ than ‘reality’, if you understand. Our existence isn’t quite so grounded. Hence, our need for a place like this. You might say that this place creates a situation where people will always be close enough to hear the tree fall.”

Luka thought back to Marisa’s earlier comment about the barrier blocking ‘common sense’. Was that how this all worked? She shook her head. “That’s stupid. Who decided that?” 

“Who knows? I’d like to meet them, myself.”

Luka puzzled over what she’d been given. “Then, what about me? If you think I’m some ‘youkai’, then how’d I grow up ‘outside’ this place?” 

“Not all youkai have such illusory existences.” Yukari said. “Some can survive for quite some time in the outside world before needing to be brought here. Others, like myself, can travel through it freely.”

“Wait.” Hope filled Luka’s eyes. “Does that mean—?”

“I wouldn’t count on it. Unless you’d like to risk fading away in mere seconds.” Yukari sighed. “Even I can’t exactly stay in the outside world indefinitely . It’s like diving underwater. I just know how to hold my breath for a very long time.

Luka’s gaze soon shifted to the table. There were so many questions she wanted to ask. Needed to ask. But she couldn’t put all of them into words. And she still wasn’t sure she truly wanted to. She wanted to crawl under the table, curl up into a ball, and never come out. It would’ve been so much easier than dealing with anything going on right now. She was tired. She was frustrated. Above all else, she just wanted to go home. And now it was looking like she might not have any chance of doing so.

Reimu seemed to pick up on that, because she finally spoke up. “Okay, that’s enough. I think we’ve gotten all we can handle for one night.”

“Yes, please,” Yukari let out a hearty yawn, like she hadn’t just been entirely lucid for that entire time. “I really must… get back to my sleep…”

Reimu frowned, her eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything else. She rose to her feet. "Let’s head back. Marisa, do you mind flying Luka back one last time?"

“Sheesh, aren’t I in high demand today?" Marisa sighed and stood up. She gestured to Luka. "Sure, Kirisame Cab Service, right this way." 

Luka almost asked how she knew what a cab was, but she didn't have the energy. A complicated, gross feeling permeated Luka's body, like she'd bathed in oil. She needed a shower, a bath, something to clear her head. Quietly following Marisa and Reimu outside, Luka glanced back at Yukari. She wasn't sure what she expected to see. 

All she saw staring back at her was a devilish smile with eyes to match.


If there was one plus to the whole existential crisis thing, it was that she wasn’t nearly as focused on falling to her death.

Luka remained silent on the flight back. She wasn’t really in the mood to talk. What kind of topic would she even bring up? That her understanding of her existence was being totally unraveled and picked apart? That she might not be able to go back home, and could be stuck in some fantasy wildlife preserve? How could she sound even remotely calm about that? Gee everyone, thanks for making sure the endangered ‘New York barmaid’ youkai won’t go extinct!

She wanted to scream, but she also didn’t want to scare Marisa and cause them to go on a nosedive. That would’ve just been a humiliating way to die. 

Marisa seemed to pick up on the mood. "So, we're totally clear that gap youkai’s planning something, right?"

"Probably." Reimu grumbled. 

"Are we gonna do anything about that?"

"You know it's not that easy with her." Reimu sighed. "She's still partly responsible for maintaining the barrier. Holding her responsible for anything without any actual proof is always a headache."

"You sure knocked her around however you pleased." Luka said. "Why not just go the whole way and pick that fight you wanted?"

"It's my job to keep troublesome youkai in line." Reimu said. "And I seem to remember you making a deal that said I couldn't start a fight."

"I changed my mind. She deserves it." 

Marisa snickered. "And with that, you're now an honorary member of the 'Yukari Is A Pain In Our Ass' club. Meetings are on Friday afternoons at Reimu's place, make sure to bring snacks."

Luka laughed a little. She needed that. It helped her to realize that, as far from home as she was, she at least had some people looking out for her.

"Speaking of my place," Reimu said. The outline of her shrine appeared below them. She was the first of them to touch down, letting out an absolutely monstrous sigh as she did. “Home at last…”

Marisa seemed to remember something. “Oh, yeah. Double-speaking-of,” The witch turned to Luka as she hopped off the broom for what she hoped was the last time. “What now?”

“Huh?” Luka froze. “Um, I don’t know, I—”

“No no, not all that stuff . I meant do you got a place in mind to stay for the night?”

Oh. That. Luka exhaled. Sleep would definitely help calm her mind down, if nothing else. But Marisa’s question brought up a pretty big problem with that.

“Nope.” Luka shook her head. “I’m not even sure I want to take a chance going back home. I mean, if Yukari’s right…” Luka felt her blood running cold at the thought. Taking just a few steps outside, then fading away into nothing. Like she’d never existed, like she was never alive to begin with. That thought terrified her more than anything else. 

“That’s enough of that.” Reimu waved her hand. “It’s too late in the day to mull over stuff like that. You can stay at my shrine for tonight.” 

“Hm?” Marisa said. “Don’t you have a pretty strict ‘not-even-potential-youkai’ policy at your shrine?”

“She seems polite, so I can make an exception.” Reimu said.

“Can you not talk about me like I’m a lost puppy?” Luka complained. 

“I don’t know, you have the eyes for it.” Reimu cupped her chin. Luka pouted angrily in response, which probably wasn’t helping her case. 

Marisa snickered. “Ah, wish I could stay, but I’ve gotta head home. Getting late ‘n all.”

“Naturally.” Reimu said. “We wouldn’t want you getting lost in the forest at night, would we?”

“Eh, I’d just blast whatever jumps out.” Marisa grinned impishly. “See ya!”

Without a care in the world, Marisa zoomed back off on her broom. A literal witch flying off into the night sky. If it weren’t for the rest of her day, Luka might’ve dared to call the sight surreal. 

“Come on.” Reimu yawned as if it were just another Monday and started for her shrine. “There’s a guest room you can sleep in. I’ll show you to it.”

With a nod, Luka turned to follow her, but paused. Her eyes caught a glimpse at the dark sky. Through the large wooden gate at the shrine’s entrance, spread out over the horizon, she could see everything. Covered in the darkness of night, the faceless land spread out before her. A place she knew nothing about. A world of the unknown and the forgotten.

And now, it seemed like she was going to join them. She didn’t want to think of it as her home. She already had one. But she was going to have to figure it out anyways. 

“Hellooo?” Reimu called out. “If you’re planning to sleep out on the stone pathway again, let me know and I’ll just lock up for the night!”

“Agh! No, no rocks, I’ll take a bed, thanks!!”

Luka sprinted over to the shrine. She would just have to take this one night at a time.

Getting set for bed wasn’t all that difficult, though there was a bit of culture shock. Luka had no idea what a futon was, or how to set one (Reimu ultimately had to help out). She also was sorely lacking any kind of nightwear. She was bold enough to try and just sleep in the futon with her regular clothes, but got an earful about getting dirt all over it. Eventually, Reimu gave up and offered to lend her some pajamas.

“Er, you’re sure this is fine?” Luka looked down at the outfit. It looked like just a plain set of white pajamas with a slight floral pattern to them. “These seem pretty traditional…” Also, you know, borrowing a near-complete stranger’s clothes? Kind of weird.

“They’re just pajamas.” Reimu replied. “As long as you take responsibility for washing them, it’s fine.”

Luka studied Reimu. “... You’re weirdly carefree about this.”

“Oh?” Reimu raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, I mean… Earlier, you were treating this whole situation like it irritated you beyond belief. Like you couldn’t wait to get me off your hands. And now you’re offering me a room.” 

“Does it seem like it?” Reimu shrugged. “You seem like you’re having a rough time, and I have a spare room to offer you for the night. It’s just natural.”

Luka sighed. “I don’t really know what to make of you, honestly. But, if I’ve got to say anything else…” She smiled uneasily. “Thanks. Really.”

Reimu blinked, her eyes widening slightly as if the genuine gratitude surprised her. “Um, a-ahem—Don’t get too comfortable, you know.” She cleared her throat. “It’s just temporary. Tomorrow, we’ll head down to the village and see if we can sort out some kind of living situation for you.”

“Seriously?” Luka’s face lit up. “You’re a real great help, you know?”

“Hmph,” Reimu huffed for some reason. “It’s nothing, I’m just getting you off my hands. Anyways, goodnight!” With that, Reimu slid the door to the guest room shut, and Luka was left alone in the dark.

She’s nicer than that cranky attitude made me think. I’ll have to pay her back for helping me out, somehow…

She’d have to mull it over later. Luka pulled herself into the futon, leaving herself staring at the ceiling. That was normally the part where she would gradually fall asleep, like tuning the radio back to static. But once again, the various thoughts kept popping up and kicking her hand off the dial, no matter how much she tried to make them stop. Yukari. Youkai. Her dad. Her former parents. Herself. They all swirled around, asking her for answers to questions she didn’t even understand. 

As she lay there, wondering what she would do when she woke up the next morning, a loose idea hit her. 

I guess it would be a good idea to start there, wouldn’t it?

Luka did her best to close herself to all of the noise in her mind. She calmed her breathing, closing her eyes. She let time pass at a crawl. Slowly, gradually, it lost meaning. All blurred together, all became meaningless, and conscious thought gradually shut out. Darkness. Nothing. Silence. 

Nothing. 

Nothing…

… 

… And then she woke up again. 

“...!” 

She sat up. Or, more accurately, she imagined herself sitting up. 

She was in a building that seemed unrecognizable at first. But small pieces of it were familiar. Bits of her apartment, parts of the pub back home, even some of Yukari and the vampire’s mansions. All small, stitched-together images from her subconscious memories. Marching aimlessly, up and around, on the wall and the ceiling, was a bagel marching parade. Two rows of breaded pastries with crunchy peanut butter on them, rolling along in an orderly fashion. 

“Good morning, general!” One of them wearing an army helmet cheered. It wasn’t quite the sound of a voice that reached her, but the concept of something being heard echoing in her mind. “We’re just on our way to the coffee shop! Care to join us?”

“Maybe later, lieutenant. I’ve got urgent business.”

“Aww.” 

Luka rose up to her feet. She walked through the surreal space, even marching up the wall and seeing the world shift around her into various impossible forms that nonetheless always seemed totally natural. Various images continued to crop up. Her subconscious mind would recycle as much as it could from every loose or recent memory it could pull out. Wispy, mist-like images forming and breaking at a moment’s notice; unconscious ideas being remembered and forgotten in the same breath. 

It was always so surreal. That was a dream for you.

“Okay, here’s probably a good spot…”

She knelt down on top of a sliding door. She could do this with just about any flat surface here, but doors were easier to visualize the process with. Placing her hand against it, Luka closed her eyes once more. It was difficult to describe the process from there. It was like both diving into a pool and coming up for air at the exact same time. Like waking up and falling asleep at once. She held onto that feeling, ‘gripped’ it. 

Then, she kicked the sliding door to the side, and jumped right through.

What she saw once she fell through was even more difficult to describe. If she were to try to, the end result would sound something like a generic desktop screensaver. Red lines running off in random directions like an endless polygonal wireframe. Behind her, from where she’d just come, was a large bubble with a giant, oversized lock-and-chain wrapped around it. Right where she’d come from was a small square door opened in it. (It was always weird seeing how the exit never looked the same on the outside.)

“Just to be safe…” Luka looked carefully at the door and snapped her fingers. The door soundly swung closed, reforming back into the bubble. “There.”

Now she wouldn’t have to worry about any military bagels wandering outside. With that taken care of, Luka turned back to the open void. Where would she start looking? The person she was looking for wasn’t always around. But, then again, wasn’t it her job to make sure no one left? She had to know Luka’d just left her bubble somehow, right?

“Baah!!”

Uh oh.

Before she could even react, a fluffy white cloud popped up on her flank. Then her other flank. Then every other side that could be considered a flank. An entire wall of sheep formed around her, practically trapping her in place. Almost all of them graced her with constant indignant ‘baa-ing’. One of them was nuzzling her leg affectionately.

Fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), she knew what the flock showing up meant. 

“I could have sworn we had a discussion about you and leaving that bubble.”

Luka didn’t even have to turn to see the source of that voice. She had already appeared in front of her. A woman floating a short distance away dressed in an unmistakable black-and-white dress with similarly-colored cotton balls adorning it. A thin tail that Luka always thought looked sorta like a cow tail flicked slightly. She looked annoyed, which… Yeah, that was fair.

“Hey Doremy.” Luka replied. “Sorry, I know, you’ve got the whole ‘balance of the Dream World’ thing going on. But this is important.”

Doremy looked at her with mild disapproval, but seemed to gather that she wasn’t doing this casually. “Okay. I’ll humor you. What is it?”

“I’ve got a few questions I need to ask.”

If she was lucky, she’d have an answer to all of her questions by the time she woke up.

Chapter Text


 

~ STAGE 4: "New & Bizarre Everyday Life” ~ 

 

[START] 

 


Luka wasn't lucky.

"You're serious?" Luka said. "You don't have a single clue?!"

Both of them were seated at a table floating in the open void, countless dream bubbles surrounding them. One of the 'dream sheep' that always flocked around Doremy had offered itself as a seat for Luka, who graciously took the fluffy pillow's offer. Doremy herself simply sat in the empty air, like the very concept of being 'seated' was enough. 

“Now, let’s settle down." Doremy replied. "I’m sure you were expecting to find a nice and easy answer here. But being capable of coming here since you were a child doesn’t necessarily mean your existence is tied to this place.”

Doremy was a strange person, and Luka only knew vague bits about her. Their first meeting was real-world years ago, back when she was a little girl. The memory was still fresh: she remembered a little Luka who, for as long as her conscious memory could reach, always woke up in some strange place when she went to sleep. Then one day, she learned that if she thought hard enough about something, she could make it happen in the dream—everything except going through a strange 'wall' that seemed to block her every now and then. 

And one day, her curiosity got the better of her. She pushed hard enough, and fell through the world. Falling, falling, until she ended up someplace she’d never seen before. Before she knew what was going on, strangers started chasing her, attacking her, ranting and raving about ‘flesh in the real world’.

It was only thanks to Doremy that she wasn’t caught. Since then, the two of them had formed something of an odd friendship.

“Come on, what else would it be?” Luka protested. “Everything that’s been happening lately seems like it’s tied with me falling asleep. So it has to be something dream-related.” It was the only logical trail she could follow without making huge leaps in logic. “Maybe I have some weird dream powers or something.” She paused. “... I could be a baku, like you. Actually, thinking about it, weren’t you kind of quick to the scene when I was attacked as a kid? You aren’t—?”

Doremy very visibly cringed. “ Please , don’t go making up some bizarre fantasy.” Fair enough. She had more ‘not-aunt’ vibes anyways. “Firstly, we don’t reproduce the same way that you’re thinking. Secondly, if you were a baku, you would have been born in the Dream World and stayed here. You wouldn’t have been orphaned. Thirdly, you wouldn't be 'dreaming' like a normal human.”

“Then what am I?” Luka said. “Come on, you call yourself the ruler of the Dream World, don’t you? You’ve got to know something.'

“Luka,” Doremy said. “Do you remember our agreement?”

The memory was still fresh in her mind. “Yeah, I remember it. Why?”

“What were the terms?”

Why was she bringing this up now? Ugh… “Uh, let’s see… For starters, you asked me to not tell anyone about anything I ever saw when I was asleep. Secondly, you requested that I stay in my dream bubble and never leave it. And ideally, to pretend that I never saw anything at all.”

“Correct.” Doremy seemed pleased. “I made those terms up on the spot, as a way to keep you in-line with the other humans who visit the Dream World in their sleep.”

“What are you getting at?” Luka asked.

“The reason was because you aren’t quite like anything I’ve dealt with before in my very long career.” Doremy said. “I’ve seen my fair share of lucid dreamers, for sure. And quite a few have tried various methods to break free from their bubble, but I can count the number of those who had successfully escaped on one hand.” Doremy frowned. “As for you? You just happened to push through one day just by pushing hard enough. As a child, no less.”

“Yeah, that was apparently a massive safety breach, from what I remember you saying.” 

“A bit off-topic, but yes." Doremy said. "The point I’m trying to make is that if I knew exactly what you were, I wouldn’t have hastily tossed together some half-baked agreement and used that to try and keep you under wraps.”

Luka frowned. “So what you’re saying is that you don’t know what I am, just that I’m not like a ‘normal human’.”

Doremy nodded. “Whether you emphasize the ‘normal’ or ‘human’ part of that is your own business, but yes.”

Great. The one lead she had was already a dead end. She’d interrupted Doremy’s work for no reason and got absolutely nothing out of it, beyond confirmation of something she could already guess.

“Will that be all?” Doremy asked. “It’s nice to catch up, but there’s quite a lot for me to be doing right now.”

“Wait!” Luka said. “I… There has to be something. Some other leads I can follow. Anything, please.” Luka leaned into the table. “ Please .”

Doremy seemed to pause. Consideration flushed through her eyes, and her gaze went past Luka and to the dream bubble she’d just come from. “... You see quite a few strange sights in your dreams, don’t you?”

"Huh?" Luka wasn't sure how to respond to that. "I mean, yeah. That's pretty natural. There were some bagels…"

"No, not that kind." Doremy shook her head. "Places, not things. For example, a town you’ve never seen before. The side of a mountain, despite you only ever knowing the outline of a city.”

Luka froze. "How do you…?"

Doremy huffed. "You said it yourself. I rule this world." Doremy casually gestured to the space all around them. "I see the worlds created by all who visit my domain in their sleep. Every dream, every nightmare, every subconscious fear and desire. And every 'memory'."

At that word, Doremy flicked her wrist toward the book resting on the table. It swung open on command, and began rapidly through its pages. But instead of stopping at a specific page, as it flipped, Luka started to 'see' something in its motion. Like an illusory flipbook, she could see the images of her dreams. The places she'd seen, yet didn't remember. And just like they were in her dreams, every image seemed murky, like someone had hastily run an eraser over each individual frame.

"You're right that I see many things, Luka." Doremy said. "Everything people see in their dreams is something that I'm aware of. But I'm not omniscient. I can only see what you see. So if a memory isn't whole, say from amnesia or some other mental block…"

"You think I have amnesia?" Luka said. "That wouldn't make sense, there aren't enough gaps in my memory for that."

Doremy held a hand up. "It's just a general statement. Whatever these recurring images you see are, the fact is they exist. You can't make them go away."

Luka frowned. "They could just be some weird dream on their own…"

Doremy shrugged whimsically. "Maybe, maybe not. Would you happen to have any other leads you could follow?" She smiled. "Don't answer that, I already know the answer is 'no'."

Luka sighed. "Okay, sure. I see weird places in my dreams sometimes. What exactly am I supposed to do with that information?"

Doremy shrugged again. "I dunno. Maybe go on vacation there?"

Luka glared at her. The sheep she was sitting on bleated anxiously.

"Okay, okay, bad joke." Doremy laughed lightheartedly. "But in all seriousness, that might actually be the answer."

"... Please clarify." Luka restrained violent urges.

Doremy smiled. “The best way to dig up subconscious memories is to find certain triggers for them. Images, sounds, scents, names, anything." She gestured to the images on her book. "You're in an unfamiliar place that seems to have called to you, for one reason or another. In fact, it may not be too far-fetched to guess that the locations you see here could be actual places in Gensokyo."

"That's kind of a reach." Luka said. "But even still, fishing around for a subconscious memory doesn't really do me much good at figuring any of this out."

Doremy frowned. "Luka, didn't I teach you better than this?"

"You didn't teach me at all, actually." Luka said. "All you really did was shove me back in my bubble and check in with me every few months."

The baku huffed. Suddenly, a chalkboard materialized behind her. "You have a dream bubble. You seem to have an unnatural talent at controlling your own dreams, a reflection of your own mental world." A small chalk doodle resembling Luka in her dream bubble appeared, along with some bagels dancing around her. "Put that together with you refreshing any subconscious memories to repair them, and…?"

Luka suddenly got it. "You want me to relive those memories?" 

Doremy nodded. As if on cue, the chalk dream bubble reshaped to resemble the side of a mountain. "Relive, recreate, remember, whatever you choose to do, it's not my business." Doremy waved her hand, and the doodles waved goodbye shortly before the chalkboard vanished in a 'poof!'. "... Well, it is, but I don't really care as long as you don't make trouble."

"Uh huh…" Luka frowned. "You're making this sound a lot easier than it'll probably be."

Doremy's lips curved into a smile. "You'll figure something out. In the meantime, do your 'not-aunt' a favor and get some rest will you?"

"Shit, you heard tha—uwah?!"

Before she could react, something—no, multiple somethings—hoisted her up with a triumphant 'bahh!!'. A trio of fluffy sheep were suddenly marching her toward her dream bubble like a group of plush soldiers. Luka looked back to see Doremy politely waving goodbye, the table they were speaking at dispersing like a stray thought.

"Behave yourself, now! Seriously, I'm busy enough, please don't go causing trouble."

Those were the last words Luka heard before the sheep toppled her straight into her bubble, her body sinking straight into a pink void, then into darkness.


Luka's eyes snapped open. A stream of daylight smacking her in the face immediately informed her it was already the next morning. Funny how time worked in dreams.

This was normally the part where she'd get up and narrate the entire morning routine. Unfortunately, something else dropkicked that idea out of existence.

"@#$…" Luka grumbled unpleasantly. Of course. Of course she had jet lag. She'd been so caught up thinking about everything else, she hadn't considered that she'd jumped from Eastern Time to very Eastern time. 

Maybe she would just lay here for another day… week… month… the rest of her life. It was easier than getting up and tackling the absolute mess she was stuck with.

Ah, screw it. Luka mumbled a few curses against the land itself and forced herself to her feet. After vaguely folding up her futon, she started on her morning.

Reimu had already woken up, though she looked only a little less groggy than Luka. She probably wasn't a morning person either. 

After putting on some temporary plain clothes that Reimu offered, Luka took the responsibility of washing the nightwear she'd worn, as promised. She decided to throw in any other dirty laundry (along with her regular outfit) as a bonus. She was staying in her shrine, after all. It took her a bit to get used to the tools, but they weren't so foreign that she couldn't figure out what was to be used where. It almost felt a little familiar, which was an unnerving sensation. After tidily hanging everything to dry, she made her way back to the main building for breakfast.

Breakfast wasn't quite what she was expecting, which was definitely saying something. Sitting on the small wooden table in front of her was a pair of small rice balls, one for each of them. Plain rice balls with nothing in them, only a little larger than an eraser, with thin tape-sized bits of seaweed wrap on each. 

Luka looked down hesitantly at the 'meal', then at Reimu. She was slowly nibbling through it, almost like she was trying to savor whatever experience of a 'breakfast' she could out of this. 

Luka came dangerously close to blurting out ' Damn girl, you live like this?' She restrained herself.

Luka instead took a slow bite of the rice nugget. It tasted alright, but… "Small portions, huh? Not that I'm complaining, but…"

"And yet you have that complaining tone." Reimu pouted. "It's not like I was expecting to have to feed a guest. Money's been tight for the past while, so food's been a bit of an issue…" She popped the last bit of her rice ball into her mouth, a troubled look on her face. "I'll need to buy some things while we're at the village." She started mumbling. "(I should have just enough to get through this week…)"

… Luka suddenly felt really bad about eating her food. It wasn't just that Reimu had the aura of a low-income worker barely surviving to see the next day. The poor girl was a living testimony. 

After they finished eating, they had a bit of time to talk. Luka decided to use the time to share some of her findings with Reimu.

"You did research…" Reimu blinked in mild confusion. "While you were sleeping?"

"Er, not exactly, uh," Of course, trying to explain it while honoring her promise with Doremy wasn't easy. "It was mostly just thinking. Last night. Before I went to sleep. Thinking that…" Words… "That maybe there are parts of my memory that I might not remember. So maybe I can look around Gensokyo and try to stir them up?"

"Hmm." Reimu seemed suspicious. Her intuition was kind of scary. If she pressed any further, Luka wasn't sure she would be able to hide anything from her. Luckily, she seemed to accept that explanation. "I see. Normally, I try to tell normal humans to not recklessly nose around. But we still aren't exactly sure you're a 'normal human'."

"C'mon, I'm plenty normal. Do I look even remotely supernatural to you?"

"You'd be surprised." Reimu said. She sighed. "Well, whatever you are, you probably won't want to just wander around aimlessly. You'll need to learn how to defend yourself, or at least how to participate in Spell Card battles."

Luka blinked. "Isn't that a children's card game?" Luka thought of a guy with weird, multicolored hair.

"Uh, no. The opposite, actually." Reimu shook her head. "Remember that fight between Marisa and that librarian yesterday? Something like that."

Luka had a hard time even visualizing it. In what world was she ever going to start flying around, shooting lasers at people? It sounded like something restricted to the world of video games.

"Let's not worry about this now. We've got other things to deal with." Reimu said, rising from the table. "Come on, it's a bit of a trip to the village."

Reimu's intuition must've kicked in, since Luka's clothes were nearly dried by the time they got outside. After a quick change, she was all set and ready to go.

Luka patted herself down. "My pants aren't completely dry yet…" An unfortunate weakness of denim. At least her jacket was dried.

Reimu stood at the large red 'gate' at the front of the shrine. "Quit griping. They'll have dried completely by the time we get to the village."

Luka shrugged, then walked over to Reimu. "Alright, whenever you're ready, I guess?"

"...? Reimu blinked. "What?"

"Aren't we going to fly?"

Reimu raised an eyebrow. "Can you fly?"

"Uh, no."

"Do you have something to fly with?"

"No?"

"I don't have a flying broom you can hitch a ride on." Reimu stared flatly. "Don't tell me you were expecting me to carry you."

"... No." Luka lied. Admittedly, she wasn't really thinking about that specifically, but it wasn't like there were any other options. "Geez, I get it, sorry. I just figured since you could, it'd be faster to fly everywhere."

"Do you run everywhere because it's faster?" Reimu said. "Flying's already exhausting enough, I'm not going to wear myself out lugging you around Gensokyo to save time."

Luka didn't have a counter to that. "So, walking?:

"Walking. It's about an hour's walk, so let's get going."

They walked the entire way.

Even considering the view from last night, Luka hadn't realized how really high up the shrine was until they started on their way down. It was only as she walked down the winding stone path, descending what felt to her like a small mountain, that she processed just how high up they were. She couldn't see past the thick forest surrounding their path, but she imagined it was quite the view. If nothing else, it was a nice change of pace from the city.

"Oh, yeah." Luka remembered. “So, we only sort of explained everything yesterday. Since I’m going to be staying here, do you mind answering some more questions?

“Ngh…” Reimu looked like she really didn’t want to explain anything, but she was fighting the urge to say it outright. “Go ahead. We’ve got some time before we get to the village anyways.”

Luka paused to mull over what topic to start with. “I guess to start, what exactly is a ‘youkai’? I keep hearing that word.”

Reimu’s face scrunched up, like Luka’d just asked her where babies came from. “Er…”

“What? Is it hard to explain?”

“Not exactly, but…” Reimu sighed. “I guess an outsider like you might understand if I called them ‘monsters’, but that’s not really the right word.”

“What do you mean?” Luka said.

“‘Monster’ doesn’t really fit the full group of what youkai are.” Reimu explained. “You could think of ‘youkai’ as something that embodies ‘the supernatural’ in a tangible form. A monster would be a youkai, but that doesn’t mean all youkai are what you’d call monsters.”

“That doesn’t really narrow it down for me…” Luka said.

“Hrm” Reimu hummed. “I guess to give some examples, sometimes they’re pretty straightforward things like oni, tengu, ghosts, etc. Other times youkai are like an animal that’s lived for a long time and gained sentience, or a forgotten umbrella that’s done the same.”

Luka tilted her head. “Animals are already sentient, though. Do you mean sapient?”

“What?”

“Y’know, ‘sapience’.” Luka affirmed. “Sentience is being consciously aware of your surroundings and capable of reacting to them, whereas sapience adds the extra set of being able to think and make decisions. It’s what divides humans from regular animals. Is that the kinda thing you mean?”

“I… guess? Sort of.” Reimu said. “Sometimes they’re just kind of mindless, sometimes they’re like that other word—”

“Sapience.”

“Whatever. The point is, they gain intelligence of some kind through supernatural means and begin living as something else entirely.” Reimu said. “Something closer to the spiritual side of the world, instead of physical.”

“Spiritual? As in, souls?”

Reimu cupped her chin. “Not exactly…? It’s more like they need to be believed in to exist. Feared, specifically. If people don’t fear youkai, they’ll forget they exist and stop believing in them. Without that fear, youkai will grow weaker and eventually stop existing.”

‘Stop existing’. 

She’d said the sentence so casually, Luka almost wasn’t sure she’d heard it right. 

“‘Stop existing’?” Luka repeated. “As in, no longer being in this world? They just disappear?”

Reimu raised an eyebrow. “Yes. What else is it supposed to mean?”

Luka felt her blood running cold. She thought back to the last train ride she was on before she woke up in Gensokyo. The long battle with her own exhaustion. All of it, if she followed the logic Reimu was giving to her, led to a rather terrifying conclusion.

She’d nearly faded out of existence. She was ‘forgotten’. She didn’t want to think about what that meant. What it meant about her dad and the few friends she had. Did they forget her too, somehow? Or was only a few people 'believing’ in her not enough? 

The only thing she knew for a fact was that if all of that ‘youkai’ talk with Yukari were true… If it weren’t for Gensokyo, she would have just ‘died’ then and there. She would have been on the train one minute, then gone, without anyone even noticing.

“That’s… terrifying.” Luka tried not to show her anxiety, but she was doing a pretty poor job. “How’re they supposed to sleep at night knowing their lives could end at any moment?”

Reimu looked at her with a strange expression. “You’re soft.”

The suddenness nearly caused Luka to trip and fall on her face. “E-Excuse me? Who?”

“You. You’re really bizarrely soft-heated.”

“Wha—How is that even,” Luka stammered. “Why are you saying that like it’s weird?! Is it really so strange to think that it’s horrible that someone could just vanish one day over something as mild as that?”

Reimu’s expression didn’t change. “Most youkai here aren’t bothered by it. They continue living their troublesome lives, making problems for people so that they can continue to be feared. Then they’re ‘exterminated’ by me so that all the humans in the village can continue to live their own peaceful lives. Everyone’s living, regardless. Don’t take everything so seriously.”

Luka felt like she was being way too nonchalant about all this. No, putting that aside, “‘Exterminated’, you keep using that word so casually. What do you mean by that? You’re not killing people, are you?” She tried to keep her tone in-check, but it ended up coming out as an accusation.

Reimu suddenly stopped walking. “Okay, no .” She turned to Luka. Her eyes looked stormy. “First of all, that’s not what the rules are about—”  

“What ‘rules’?” 

“The Spell Card rules, don’t you—” Reimu stopped herself. Her brain probably caught up with her mouth. “Oh. Right.”

“Yeah. We had a conversation about this earlier.” Luka scratched her head. “Can we add that to the list of things to give me a proper explanation about? I remember asking Marisa and Patchouli about it yesterday, but I didn’t exactly understand what they meant.”

Reimu sighed and cupped her chin. “How to explain… In the interest of avoiding sitting here and explaining things all day, just think of it as a set of nonlethal dueling rules everyone in Gensokyo follows.”

“Nonlethal.” Luka stared. “With giant lasers and explosions.”

“Yes, nonlethal. With giant lasers and explosions.” Reimu nodded. “Look, the point is, it’s not actually life-or-death. We agree on our terms, we fight, and then that’s that.”

Luka had a hard time parsing it. “So that’s how you carry out these exterminations? You just beat them up in a game?” 

Reimu nodded, looking a little too proud of herself as she did.

Luka sighed. All of this was just too confusing for her to grasp. She could see the basic framework for some kind of bizarre give-and-take society, but she had no idea what to really take from it. In the end, she still had tons of questions to ask but little concept of where to begin.

Before she could really put together her thoughts and pose another question, something appeared through a clearing in the trees. 

At a glance, she could tell it was a gate. Large walls stretching to both the left and right with solid stones lining the bottom, both meeting at a huge wooden arch in the center. From the angle they were at, Luka could see that the walls curved and continued off into the distance. A walled-off town with only one proper entrance into it. Even without there being any kind of sign, Luka could tell they’d found their destination. 

“There it is.” Reimu said. “Come on, quit gaping and let’s get moving.”

At the gate, Luka saw someone. A tall woman with long purple hair tied in a ponytail that reached her back. Dressed in white robes with red flame patterns burning across it, she radiated an intense sort of energy. It didn’t surprise Luka to see a pair of sheathed swords at her hip. What did surprise Luka was the sheer length of one, as it looked like it overtook more than half the woman’s height. 

Next to her was an older man dressed in similarly older, Japanese-style clothing. He seemed to be in hysterics, and as the two of them approached, Luka could start to make out some frantic shouting.

“P-Please, you have to help!!” The man’s tone was fearful, and it almost seemed like he was holding himself back from approaching the woman any closer than arms-length. “He’s my son, please, he’s all I have left!”

The woman didn’t budge. “I’m sorry, but I can’t leave the gate to the village unguarded. You know that. And besides, we’ve already sent someone out—”

“And they haven’t come back yet!! For all we know, they’ve been eaten by youkai by now!” The man only continued to shout. “Please, Lady Meira, I beg of you to lend your strength!! A youkai-like swordsman such as yourself must be able, surely…”

‘Meira’ visibly flinched. At that moment, Reimu stepped forward. 

 “Er,” Reimu walked up to them. “Excuse me, what’s going on here?”

Meira tensed up for some reason, and the man turned to see Reimu. “Ah,” His eyes lit up with hope. “You! The Hakurei shrine maiden, you must hear me out, my son, he’s, he’s—” 

“Okay,” Reimu held both hands up. “Calm down. Take a deep breath, then explain.”

It took the man a moment to calm himself. Once he’d settled down and started talking again, he didn’t stop.

“Last night, my son ran from home. We’d gotten into an argument. I don’t even remember what we were fighting over. He said he was going to leave the village, I didn’t take him seriously and sent him to bed, and when I woke up, he, he—”

The man’s face turned pale and he staggered. Luka rushed up and balanced him, resting her hand on his shoulder. “Easy now…” The man’s ragged breathing slowed somewhat, but it was clear he was on the verge of passing out. 

“I see.” Reimu looked slightly troubled. “Meira, you mentioned someone was already out to search for the kid? Is it any of the local youkai hunters?” 

Meira shook her head. “By the time we were made aware, the child was long gone. Not enough evidence for us to let any regular hunter go looking for the child. Of course, before we could deliberate over what to do next, ‘that one’ ran off.”

Reimu raised an eyebrow. “‘That one’?”

Meira sighed. “What other fool charges off on hopeless quests because he heard someone needed help?”

Reimu paused for a moment, before realization flashed in her eyes. “Ahh,” She nodded, and her shoulder relaxed. “If it’s him, he’ll probably be back any moment now.”

“What?” The man seemed totally lost. “What are you two talking about?! My son’s been gone for almost half a day! By now any manner of youkai could have gotten to him!!”

Reimu didn’t waver. “Like I said.” She locked eyes with the man, a confident and assured look in her eyes. “I’m willing to bet he’s just about—”

“INCOMIIIING!!” A male voice cried out from afar.

Luka seriously wondered if Reimu ever lost bets.

Turning to the source of the voice, she saw a man that fit the look of a private investigator, who was currently running to them at top speed. Dressed in a vaguely formal dark blue suit and glasses, it made the sight of him absolutely gunning it a little morbidly funny. In his arms was a child, likely no older than nine years, clinging to him like he’d die the second he lost his grip.

Behind them… was a giant boar. Covered in scars, sized like a freaking car, and barreling after the detective and child with surging bloodlust pouring out from every single ounce of its body. Its tusks alone could’ve probably shredded a school bus into scrap. She would’ve called the sounds it was making ‘grunts’, but they sounded closer to what an angry steamroller would probably make.

“HOLY—?!” Luka’s heart nearly jumped out her throat. 

‘An animal that’s lived for a long time’. Was this one of the types of youkai Reimu was talking about?

Time seemed to slow to a standstill. The father looked stunned, frozen in shock. Reimu had already overcome her own shock and summoned a slip of paper to her hand, but she probably wouldn’t reach them in time. The boar was getting dangerously close to catching up to the two fleeing it. It reared its head, and prepared to headbutt them. Whatever happened next wasn’t going to be pretty.

Shing.

Luka didn’t quite process the next second. Something moved, a fiery blur zipping by in a single moment. A metallic noise smoothly cut through the air, unimpeded. As her mind caught up, she realized Meira was no longer standing next to them. 

Suddenly, there was a loud squeal, and the boar stumbled backwards. A black fog suddenly sprayed out from its front.

There, between the fleeing pair and the boar, was Meira. She stood in a slightly crouched position, the larger of her swords drawn. Without any sign of fear, she slowly adjusted her stance to a standing position, and pointed her sword at the boar. 

The boar seemed to hesitate. Like it was deciding whether to charge again or flee.

Meira glared. “Well?” Her voice bellowed with a calm yet fierce intensity. 

All it took was her voice. The boar immediately staggered, before reeling back and fleeing into the woods, squealing in terror. 

“—Were all those scars just for show?” Meira let out a dissatisfied sigh and returned her sword to its sheathe with a satisfying ‘click!’. “Don’t go chasing humans if that’s all it takes to send you running, whelp.” With that, she turned and walked back to the gate.

Luka made a mental note to not ever get on her bad side.

After everything calmed down, the detective let the child down, and he immediately sprinted over to his father.

“Eiji!!” The father rushed over and immediately caught his son in his arms. “Oh, my son, please, don’t ever worry your father like that…” His eyes were clamped shut, and it was super obvious he was trying not to cry.

“H-Hey, don’t cry, papa…” The boy was hardly one to talk, his eyes also misty.

“I should be the one apologizing. You’re not hurt, are you?”

The detective beamed. “Not a scratch on him. Wasn’t easy, but I made sure he was safe.” He gave a thumbs-up. “As the old saying goes, ‘all’s well that ends well’.”

“Ah!” The father’s eyes snapped back open, sudden realization filling them. He turned to the tired-looking detective. “Thank you, Mr. Amami. How, how much would it take to repay you for your bravery?” 

“Oh, um.” ‘Amami’ rubbed the back of his head. “It’s free. I’m just doing my job, you don’t really need to pay me back.”

“Please, don’t be modest! Ask for whatever you want, and I can give it to you!” The man practically looked like he was about to fall to his knees and start praising the man. “Oh!” The man also turned to Meira. “A-And you, Lady Meira!! I owe you both my very life!! Please allow me to repay this debt!”

Surprisingly, Meira averted her eyes. She looked sheepish. “That’s... unnecessary.”

Amami laughed awkwardly. “We’re flattered, really, but your gratitude alone is enough. And please, there's no need to be so formal. Call me Hiro.” Now that she could get a good look at him, Luka noticed he had a pair of heavy bags under his eyes. In spite of that, his smile seemed to radiate warmth. “I’m just glad to see everything’s worked out.”

As Hiro and the father conversed on the side, Reimu quietly began to grumble to herself. “(Aren’t we magnanimous? If I wasn’t occupied last night, I could’ve taken this job and snagged some extra money…)”

Luka gently patted her shoulder. “(There, there.)” She got her hand smacked for that one.

After they wrapped things up, the father and son were waved back into the village. Luka felt a little like she’d just awkwardly stumbled into the aftermath of something really dramatic and emotional. Still, she couldn’t help but stare as the two walked back home together. 

A parent, who was convinced that his child had run away and would never come back home. A child, stranded away from home, but who managed to find their way back in the embrace of their loving father. 

… What could he have been thinking when she didn’t come back home? How would he react when no one, not even the police, could find any trace of her? He wouldn’t even get the luxury of being told where she’d gone to. Not even a hint. 

Luka East was just gone. In all likelihood, she’d never see her father again.

Suddenly, Reimu poked at her.

“Ow. What?” Luka snapped. 

“You’re staring. What’s wrong?”

Luka glanced back at them. The father and son were now holding hands, neither willing to be separated again. It should’ve been heartwarming, but all Luka felt was envy. 

“... Sorry, just thinking about home, that’s all.” Luka said quietly. At least their last conversation wasn’t some stupid argument. 

Reimu seemed to get the hint. She looked back over at the departing duo, a troubled look on her face. Without another word, she redirected her attention to Meira and Hiro. 

“Hm.” Meira sighed. She looked annoyed. “We’ll need to put out a request for someone to go hunt that youkai boar down before it seriously injures anyone…”

“Taken.” Reimu said. Luka swore she saw dollar signs in the girl's eyes.

Meira nodded. “Well, now that we’ve dealt with that…” She sighed. Luka wasn’t sure why, but it seemed like Meira’s ears were a little red. Oddly enough, it seemed to only happen when she was looking at Reimu. Hmm. “A-Ahem. What brings you down to the village today, Hakurei?”

“A few things.” Reimu jutted a thumb to Luka. “I’m escorting an outsider to the village for right now.”

“Oh?” Hiro peeked over Reimu’s shoulder. “Another outsider, huh? Nice to see another of my kind made it to the village!”

Luka waved awkwardly. “Luka East. Nice to be here?” She took a second to process the last bit of his sentence. “Wait, ‘your kind’? You’re an outsider too?”

Hiro grinned and nodded. “Yup! I arrived here a while ago. I’m Hiro Amami, but feel free to just call me Hiro. Whatever you feel most comfortable with, really.” He gestured to Meira. “This one over here’s Meira. Don’t mind if she seems kinda cold or scary.” He hushed his voice to a whisper. “She’s not really great at talking. She’s actually kinda shy—”

“I can speak for myself, thank you.” Meira’s tone was like a sharpened knife. “Meira. Gatekeeper for the village. No family name. Nice to meet you.”

And without any fanfare, she marched off to stand stoically in front of the village entrance. 

“Whoops. I made her mad.” Hiro frowned. “Going to need to apologize for that later, or else she’ll seriously hold a grudge…” He cleared his throat. “Anyways! What brings the two of you here?”

“I’m actually looking for that boss of yours.” Reimu said. “I have a few important things to discuss with her.”

“Ah, so a business talk with the chief.” Hiro nodded. “She’s dealing with some stuff back at headquarters, but she should be able to meet with you if it’s a personal request. I can walk you two there, if you’d like.”

That’d be appreciated.” Reimu said.

As Hiro escorted them into the village, Luka found herself taking in the sights all around them. Much like everything else she’d seen from her earlier birds-eye view, seeing it in-person made a huge difference. The village definitely had an older style to it, almost like she’d traveled through time. Smaller crowds shuffled about the dirt path, chatting away in the same incomprehensible noise one would hear from any kind of crowd. In contrast to what she was used to, the village hardly seemed overcrowded. There was no rush, or need to squeeze by people on the street. The village seemed to fit the number of people just fine. Looking at the buildings around them, their sizes seemed to match something that she would’ve seen walking around Queens. Obviously the style of building was completely different, and she could hardly call it ‘urban’. Still, the place was just a bit bigger than what she was expecting when she heard the word ‘village’. 

Eventually, they came to a building located at what seemed to be the heart of the village. A two stories tall, it mostly matched the Japanese look of everything around it, but there were some smaller touches that made it stand out. In particular, a sign at the front with what looked like a bunny poking through the writing on it: “Little Rabbit Detective Agency”. 

“What do rabbits have to do with detectives?” Luka commented.

“Well, they’re small, unsuspecting, and tend to nose around a lot.” Hiro said. “Plus they’re friendly, right? People love rabbits.”

Reimu nodded thoughtfully. Luka just imagined a cottontail in a trench coat and hat mindlessly hopping around a crime scene, munching on the police tape.

After that enlightening conversation, the three proceeded in. The moment she stepped in, Luka swore she’d walked right into one of those old noir crime dramas her dad used to watch. It was almost an exact mirror to a set she might have seen in a black-and-white TV show, right down to the slightly disorganized, paper-covered desks and half-open filing cabinets. There was even a vague smell of coffee somewhere in the air. She could almost hear the slight static of an old TV, imagining her dad watching it late at night for ‘nostalgia purposes’. ‘Nostalgia’, said the man born a good twenty-something years after film noir died. And he kept wondering why people called him old.

Amidst the room, three places stood out. A small yet tidy wooden desk with a large number of filing cabinets organized around it stood near the entrance. A nameplace, ‘AMAMI HIRO’ sat proudly at the edge. In the corner, Luka spied a rolled-up futon with another nameplace sitting next to it: ‘MEIRA’. And lastly, one large wooden desk with a smaller amount of filing cabinets and an absolute mess of papers sitting all over it. At the edge there was a framed 'police badge' that, upon closer inspection, looked suspiciously like a Spirit Halloween prop, and one more nameplace: ‘HIJIKATA KOTOHIME’. 

Sitting at that desk was someone who heavily contrasted with the Western-style detective’s office all around her. A red-haired woman dressed in purple robes with floral prints adorning it, she’d have looked the part of some kind of princess if she wasn’t face-first in a stack of paperwork. A small, half-full mug of coffee sat next to her, as if begging for her to wake up and take a sip.

Hiro laughed nervously and walked up to her. “Chief? Hellooo?” He got a loud, unladylike snore in response. “Whoof, this is a bad one. Alright…”

Hiro walked over to his desk, sliding open a drawer. Reimu quickly covered her ears, and before Luka could ask why, she saw what Hiro had grabbed: a tiny, innocuous air horn. “Here’s hoping this horn we borrowed from Morichika still works…”

Luka immediately followed Reimu’s lead.

Hiro walked over to her and raised the horn up into the air right above Kotohime’s head. After a brief pause, the muffled sound of an air horn met Luka’s ears. Like a bolt of lightning struck her, Kotohime shot up out of her chair, her mug nearly flying up off the desk with her. A small line of drool was still on her face.

“UP, I’M AWAKE! I FINISHED THE PAPERWORK, I SWEA—ah.” Kotohime snapped out of it. Her eyes quickly scanned the room, processing that there were now two extra people who didn’t belong. “Oh. good morning, Reimu, and…?”

“Luka East. Hi.” Luka politely gestured to a spot on her face. “You’ve got, uh…” 

Kotohime took a second to catch on, and hastily wiped away the drool on her face.

“You’re still wearing that ‘undercover outfit’?” Reimu asked. “I would’ve expected you to have tossed out the princess robes a while ago.”

Kotohime smiled sheepishly. “They’re… very comfortable.”

“We can see that.” Luka said. 

“She’s getting work done, at least.” Hiro said. While everyone else was talking, he’d been tidying up Kotohime’s desk and arranging her papers into orderly little stacks. “I think it’s fine if she wears her ‘thinking robes’ every now and then, don’t you?”

Kotohime huffed. “They might become ‘sleeping robes’ if I’m not careful.” She sat back in her chair and took her mug. She took a careful sip and frowned. “... of course it’s cold…” With a sigh, Kotohime directed her attention back to Reimu and Luka. “My apologies for keeping you waiting. What brings you two here?”

Reimu was quick to get to the point. “We need a place for the outsider here to stay.” She gestured to Luka.

There was a second of silence.

“... We’re not a housing firm, Reimu.” Kotohime said. “Unless you’re planning on having her rent out a spare broom closet.”

“What, did Meira take your only futon?” Reimu remarked. “I know you have your connections. Not to mention, if I recall correctly, you still owe me for you and that swordsman of yours charging me down during the endless night incident.”

“You’re still on about that little misunderstanding?” Kotohime frowned. “You get into fights with plenty of people during incidents all the time. Including Kirisame, if I recall. What’s so bothersome about Meira and I going at you for a change?”

You aren't a problem, but that samurai…” Reimu shuddered. “I can handle most things, but ducking around that sword of her’s is just too much!”

“Under Spell Card rules, you still wouldn’t be under any real danger, even if she managed to hit you…” Kotohime loudly muttered.

Reimu puffed angrily. “How about that time you locked me up in jail for no apparent reason?”

“Wow, that’s an old one.” Kotohime raised her hands defensively. “Okay, point taken. Clearly, this is pretty important to you. But,” Luka wasn’t entirely sure, but she thought Kotohime’s eyes got more intense. She scanned Luka, as if looking for something. “We'll need to talk over some more concrete terms if you want me to go nosing around for favors.” 

Reimu’s eyes met Luka. There was definitely something going on. “Alright, fine.” Reimu sighed. “This might take a while… Luka, would you mind doing some shopping for me while I speak with Kotohime? Here.” She produced a small slip of paper and handed it to her.

Luka had a feeling that their conversation was going to be about more than just housing, but she wasn’t in any position to argue about being sent off to run errands. “Sure, I’ll try to only get moderately lost in the streets.” Didn’t stop her from shooting back a little. 

“It’s fine,” Kotohime glanced over to Hiro. “Hiro, would you mind giving our friend here a hand? Actually, this might take a while, so why don’t you give her a tour of the village while you’re out?”

“Not a problem!” Hiro saluted cheerily. “Right this way, Miss East.”

As Hiro walked out the door, Luka followed. Before she stepped back outside, she snuck a glance at Kotohime. She wasn’t sure what it was she saw in the red-haired woman’s eyes. Suspicion? Curiosity? Whatever it was, it made her a little nervous. 

After a moment of hesitation, she stepped after Hiro and left the office. 

“So,” Hiro spun around and stood proudly. “Where do you want to start, Miss East? Tour or shopping?”

Luka scratched the back of her head. “Just call me Luka. ‘Miss East’ feels weird. As for where to go first, let’s do the tour first. I’d rather not lug around groceries the whole time we’re wandering around.”

With a nod, Hiro started guiding her around. Getting a tour of an old Japanese village was about as novel an experience as she could get. Hiro was careful to show her around every major landmark he could think of, to give her a proper idea of what the village was like. In summary: it was a lot bigger than she expected, but still small. The village seemed to be divided into smaller areas, each with their own purposes, but there was no real sign of strict organization. The people were just placed wherever they could find space, and everyone worked around it.

“We’ll save the markets for last,” Hiro said. “C’mon, this way!”

She appreciated Hiro’s cheery attitude. It made her feel a little less bad about the people staring at her. Every fifteen-or-so feet, Luka would feel it. A small group of eyes sneaking a look at her. She didn’t detect any sort of malicious intent behind their stares, but there was a definite sense she was being recognized as an ‘outsider’.

A few mutters here and there caught her ears. 

“Another outsider’s arrived, eh?”

“She’s with that Amami fellow…”

“Such a stylish coat. Is this what outsiders dress like now?”

It made her feel a bit like a zoo animal. All she was missing was a random five-year-old pitching a handful of peanuts at her to see her reaction. 

Hiro noticed her discomfort. “Don’t take any of it personally.” He smiled reassuringly. “Outsiders coming by isn’t a very common thing. We stick out like a sore thumb. Clothing from the outside is just way too modern for this place.”

“I’ll say.” Luka glanced at an aged wooden building. “Seriously, did I time travel or something? This place looks ancient.”

“In a way.” Hiro cheerily spun back around, looking more like a tour guide getting to share a fun fact than a detective. “According to history, this place was actually founded all the way back near the start of the Meiji era. It’s stayed mostly the same ever since then.”

“I don’t even know what a ‘Meiji’ is.”

“Ah. Hm,” Hiro scratched his chin. “Think somewhere in the mid-1800s, then.”

Luka’s eyes widened. “Geez. This place is that old?” 

“You think it’s old?” Hiro said. “I think that’s pretty recent.”

“200 years is recent to you?”

“Well, time’s relative to everyone, isn’t it? Haven’t you heard? The older you get, the faster years seem to go by.”

Luka stared at him. “You barely look over twenty.”

Hiro beamed. “I’m an old soul! I’m practically throwing my spiritual back out every day!”

“Whatever you say, ‘old-timer’.” Luka shrugged. What a weird person. He did look tired, though. Maybe he was just rapidly aging from stress. 

They passed some more buildings. Luka stopped to stare idly at a small store, reading the sign ‘Suzunaan’, but hardly processing it. She was too deep in thought.

“Going back a second…” Luka looked to Hiro. “Are there any others? Besides you and me?” 

“You mean outsiders?” Hiro scratched his head. “At the moment, yes, it’s just us. Most other people that show up tend to go back home. It’s not uncommon to find outsiders wandering around, but the ones who decide to stay here are pretty rare.” He seemed to pause. “On the subject. What made you stay here?”

Luka paused. “What made you stay?”

“Question for a question, huh? That’s fair.” Hiro said. “I guess you could say I didn’t really have any places left to go when I ended up here.”

“That bad back home?”

Hiro smiled, but there seemed to be a bitter emotion behind it. “Sort of. I’d rather not delve into it, if you don’t mind.”

Luka sensed that she'd pressed a button she shouldn't have. "Sorry."

"Hey, what're you apologizing for?" Hiro laughed lightly. "It's my baggage, not yours." He smiled once again. "So, what about you? What brings you to our little pocket of reality?"

Luka hesitated. "... I guess you could say I didn't really have any places left to go."

Hiro paused for a moment, then nodded understandingly. "I see. Well," he smiled warmly. "If you ever feel like you need to talk about it, or anything else, you've got a friend right here!"

Luka returned the smile. "Thanks. And consider it likewise."

She started to relax and enjoy the tour. As they walked, the two of them began to chat. There was no denying Hiro was a bit of a weird person, but he seemed nice. There wasn't any sense that he was trying to pry any information from her, even in some subtle way by lowering her guard. His sincerity made her feel a lot more comfortable.

Eventually, they passed a small building with a small crowd of people and a sign that had a whale on it out front.

"Oh, hey. A pub."

"Hm?" Hiro peered over to where Luka was looking. "Oh, that's Geidontei. Wait, how did you know that was a pub?"

"Look at the people going in. A bunch of tired, stressed, vaguely depressed-looking older guys. It's either a pub, a bar, or something less age-appropriate." She lightly sniffed at the air. "And I've got a faint smell of alcohol and food, so yeah." Were those veggies? They smelled good. 

"Wow. You're talking like a real expert."

"I used to work in a pub back outside. So I know a thing or two." Luka said. She paused, then realized something. "Speaking of, I'll need to find a job if I'm going to stay here... Do you know if this place is hiring?"

"Hm. I'm not sure, but the old man that runs the place probably won't turn you away if you really know your stuff." Hiro nodded contemplatively. "He's got a good eye for talent. Plus, even if he doesn't hire you, it's not like this place has any shortage of bars for you to work at."

Luka raised an eyebrow. "You make it sound so easy."

"You'd be surprised. Especially if you're a rare commodity like an outsider." Hiro said. "The village is always curious about different knowledge from the outside, and if you happen to come here with any special skills, you might find yourself developing a reputation."

"Are you speaking from experience?" Luka said. 

Hiro smirked. "A little. Of course, I actually got hired by pure dumb luck…"

"Oh? You wanna share that story?"

"Hm. Where to begin…" Hiro stepped to the side of some oncoming pedestrian traffic, moving to the side of the street. Luka moved with him. "Well, I arrived in Gensokyo a few years back. I woke up in the middle of nowhere and managed to stumble my way to the village."

"Wait, you were spirited away too?" Luka thought back to Yukari. Was she scheming something involving Hiro too?

"Uh, no." Hiro said. "I, uh… How to phrase this… I was alone for a while, basically hit my limit, and passed out in the middle of nowhere. And when I came to, I was here. Since I was in Japan at the time, everyone assumes I just got snagged by the barrier by accident. No spiritings away, at least not as far as I'm aware."

"I see…" So, no Yukari. At least now she could probably guess why he didn't want to talk about his life outside.

"Anyways." Hiro continued. "When I arrived at the village, I was greeted by a certain purple-haired samurai guarding the gate. She, uh, didn't realize I was a person at first and started trying to cut down the 'evil spirit' that was trying to sneak its way into the village."

"Geez. You must've looked real bad."

"Oh, I seriously did!" Hiro laughed. "Eventually, someone overheard the chase out by the gates and notified Miss Hijikata."

"That messy-looking red-haired lady?"

"She's a lot more refined and elegant than you'd think!" Hiro frowned. "… But, yes, her. She calmed Meira down and heard me out. I was taken in the next day, and after I, well, happened to offer some help with a recent human disappearance case that had been causing them trouble, she offered me a place to stay at her agency with Meira."

"Huh. Makes sense." Luka paused. "Wait. You both live there?"

"There's a tiny room in the back with a bed Miss Hijikata used to take mid-morning naps on ." Hiro smiled awkwardly. "Meira actually… wasn't using it. She apparently prefers to sleep on the floor." 

Luka thought back to that lonely little futon in the main room. Damn, girl, you live like that?

"So, what exactly is it you guys do?" Luka asked. "I mean, I get you're a 'detective agency', but…"

"Our staff consists of a former-undercover-princess, a samurai, and me?"

"You could say 'me' with a little less self-deprecation, but yeah." ( Also, wait, 'former-undercover- what )

"It's a bit complicated." Hiro said. "Gensokyo, and by extension this village, doesn't really work the same way as the outside world. Specifically in the whole 'law enforcement' deal."

"How so?" Luka asked.

"For starters, we don't really have laws. Actually, there isn’t even really any system of government here." 

Luka's brain fell down a set of stairs. “I’m sorry?”

“You’re… forgiven?” Hiro tilted his head. 

“No, I mean,” Luka stopped herself. She needed to get her head straight. “There are zero laws here? No rules, nothing?”

“No no, you’re misinterpreting.” Hiro gently corrected. “I said there were no 'laws'. I didn't mean there weren't any rules."

"What's the difference?"

"Think of it like this. A 'law' is something firmly written down, set in stone. It's something that's enforced by those in power, which makes it both rigid and flimsy all at once." Hiro said. "After all, if laws exist, someone has to write them. And that someone can easily write laws such that they can be bent to benefit them, but also made rigid to go against their 'enemies'. You're from the outside world, right? I'm sure you've seen that before."

Luka didn't have a good counter argument for that. She nodded.

"A 'rule' is something commonly understood, yet not firmly written. It's not something any one person decided on. As such, no one can escape them by bending anything or hiding behind some rigid wording any small group of people decided. Everyone agrees on the idea of it, and fairness is upheld by that common understanding."

"Okay…" Luka was slowly starting to understand this place. "But, you can't have perfect understanding all the time. Disputes or fights have got to end up happening, right?"

Hiro nodded. "That's where we come in. One of our many jobs is technically what you might think of as 'the police', though calling us that feels kind of dishonest. We try to encourage everyone to uphold these ideas, but should someone decide they're above the common rules, we have the authority to step in and tell them to knock it off."

"By…?"

"Whatever causes the least amount of trouble for everyone involved. Most people understand, so that part of our job doesn't come up very often." Hiro said. "Usually our job consists of general work with helping around the village, or 'major incident damage control' whenever that comes up. Sometimes we also assist with missing person cases and minor incidents with youkai on busy days."

"Missing… Like that kid you helped out earlier." Luka recalled.

"That's right." Hiro smiled gently. He looked out at the village. He seemed to settle on something, but when she followed his gaze, Luka couldn't see what. There was a satisfied expression on his face. "It's not always the most eventful job, but it pays in more ways than one."

Luka took it all in. "I sort of get it. Seems like a bit of an odd system, though."

"The system wasn't my idea." Hiro said. "It was here for a long time before I even got to Gensokyo."

"Uh-huh…" As she looked out all around them, Luka thought about something. "Wait, there's only three of you. How do all three of you manage to cover this entire village?"

"Oh, that's easy." Hiro smirked. "Our 'abilities' complement each other."

"'Abilities'?" Luka detected a very particular emphasis on that word.

"Right, that's probably a new concept for you, huh?" Hiro folded his arms in thought. "Uhm… I guess you could just say they're like individual powers. Practically everyone in Gensokyo has one."

"Huh? How does that even work?" Luka paused. "Wait, let me guess. No one knows, but they just sort of accept it."

"I dunno. I just know we have them." Hiro shrugged. “You’ve seen Meira’s in action. Her’s is ‘rapidly stepping from one place to another’.”

Luka blinked. “That looked more like teleportation than… whatever you just described.

Hiro grinned. “Cool, isn’t it? Apparently, she didn’t learn it until she observed some fancy footwork technique from a tengu when she was younger.”

“Wait. I thought you said people just ‘have’ their abilities?” Luka said.

Hiro nodded. “They do, they’re just not all gained the same way. Sometimes, people have their abilities at birth. Other times, it takes people time to understand and gain their ability through training. Think of it like a natural talent. Sometimes it just clicks with people right away. Other times, you need to experiment until you figure it out.”

“Uh huh…” Luka wasn’t sure she understood, but nodded anyway. “Okay, so how does this help with your job?

“Well, for Meira, she’s usually our quick-response person. Her ability means she can respond to just about any problem lightning-fast.” Hiro said. “Of course, she can’t see everything in the village at once, so my ability comes into play there.”

Luka tilted her head. “Oh yeah? What’s that?”

Hiro smiled sheepishly. “Well… It’s kinda boring, but…”

“C’mon, dude. You just told me someone had the power to ‘rapidly step around’, and it looked like friggin’ teleportation. Just spill it.”

Hiro hesitated. “My ability is… ‘to observe’.”

Luka blinked.

“Like… to see?”

“Yes.”

“With your eyes?”

“Not… exactly, but yes.” Hiro pointed to his eyes, nose, and ears. “You ‘observe’ with lots of different things. Your eyes are one, sure, but you also observe the world around you through other senses, like smell, sound, touch, etcetera. My ability amplifies that sort of thing, so I can pick up on things much easier than most people.” He looked out to the village. “I’ve gotten pretty good with it. I can ‘see’ most things in the village, even if they aren’t directly in my line of sight. I communicate that information to Meira, and we respond to problems accordingly.”

“Huh.” Luka’s eyes shone with a bit of respect. “That’s pretty neat!” 

"You think so?" Hiro rubbed his neck. "To be honest, I think everyone has this kind of power. Everyone can observe the world around them."

"Yeah, but you can see stuff most people don't." Luka patted him on the back. "Chin up, it's a cool power! For a detective, I bet nothing gets past you with something like that."

Hiro smiled awkwardly. For some reason, he still looked ashamed. "... the constant stimulation makes it hard to sleep sometimes, but thank you. I'm sure whatever your ability is, it'll be cool too!"

Luka chuckled nervously. "Yeah, uh, sure." No way could she even imagine something like that. If she had any superpower, it was extremely bad luck. She paused. "Oh, right. What about Kotohime? If she's the 'chief', she must have some really hardcore, awesome power."

Hiro smiled nervously. "E-Er."

"... What?"

"Her power is to… 'collect bizarre objects'." Hiro scratched his cheek. "I-It's more useful than it sounds, I assure you!" 

… ...This place was seriously weird.

Before she knew it, they'd been talking for quite a while. Now was probably a good time for them to head over and grab the groceries they needed to get.

"Let's see…" Luka squinted into the sheet of paper Reimu handed her. "Geez, her handwriting is still tiny. And messy. I can barely read this stuff."

"Can I see?" Hiro leaned in. "Hm… Ah, I can read this."

"Seriously? I told you your ability was cool!"

"I'm not so sure it's my ability this time, but thank you?"

With Hiro's help, they quickly grabbed what they needed. Food, ingredients, everything on their list. Luka even remembered her promise with Ran and snagged two servings of fried tofu (though, mulling it over, she didn't quite know how she was going to get it to her).

As she went over everything one last time, a realization hit her. 

"Oh, crap." Luka stopped. "I forgot, I don't have any money to pay for this."

Hiro smiled. "Not to worry. I can cover the expenses."

Luka balked. "You sure? I don't want to cause you any trouble."

"Please. Helping people out is what I'm here for." Hiro beamed. "Just leave it to your friendly neighborhood Hiro!"

Geez. What an unbelievably pure guy.

With everything they needed, Luka and Hiro made their way back to Kotohime and Reimu. Luka only hoped that she'd come back to some good news.

 

Chapter Text


 

~ STAGE 5: Bringing Home The Bacon ~

 

[START]

 


 

"Not a problem! Right this way, Miss East."

Reimu remained silent as both Hiro and Luka stepped outside. All the while, she kept her eyes firmly planted on Kotohime. The detective always looked unassuming at first glance, but even now Reimu could see her penetrating gaze going through both her and Luka. It was enough to make even a veteran youkai exterminator squirm.

It was a throwaway comment by that were-hakutaku she’d once heard, but ‘Hijikata’ was an old name in Gensokyo, even from before the barrier had been created. A name with influence among humans, and while its relevance had slowly faded over the years, it still held a degree of influence in the village. Kotohime was simply the first one in a long time to actually do anything with that influence. The foolish called her eccentric. Reimu agreed and knew, from the way she observed everything around her, there was far more going on in her head than any villager assumed. 

The door closed with a loud Clack! , and Reimu felt Kotohime's sharp eyes focus on her. She took the dopey mask off.

"You wouldn't bring that outsider here without a reason." Straight to the point. "You've got a special case here. Care to share the details?"

"Of course." Reimu hadn't expected the conversation to go anywhere otherwise. "Where to start…?"

Recounting the previous day's events took a bit of time. Every now and then, Kotohime would stop her to interject with a seemingly innocuous question, before signaling her to continue. Though she smiled lightly, Reimu knew better than to trust that expression. Her work always went something like a man being nibbled to death by a tiny rabbit. Tiny, seemingly ineffectual bites until, before one knew it, they were missing a limb. It was terrifyingly effective.

Eventually, Reimu reached the end of her explanation, bringing them back to the present.

"That's certainly the situation to have landing in your lap so suddenly." She leaned back into her chair. "And you think this has something to do with a new scheme by the gap youkai?"

Reimu nodded. "That's why I brought the girl here. I was hoping you could keep an eye on her. Try to make sure Yukari doesn't try to start any trouble with her." Also she didn’t have enough food to feed two people living in the same shrine for too long.

"I see." Kotohime smirked. "And here I thought you were doing this out of the kindness of your heart."

"That too. I'm quite famous for my giving, generous soul." Also for being near-broke at all times.

"As I know, eh?" Kotohime chuckled. "Well, unfortunately, your 'famous generosity' won't be enough on its own in this case. There's a slight issue we'll need to discuss before I can start taking steps."

"What's that?"

"Think, Reimu.  About the story you've just told me. What exactly are you asking me to run around and spend favors for? To house in the village , of all places?"

She paused. "... An outsider?"

"... A potential youkai , Reimu." Kotohime raised her brow in the same way a befuddled mother would. "Don't tell me you seriously didn't consider that before you came here."

She hesitated longer than she would've liked. "O-Of course I did! I just wanted to make sure you were taking it into consideration, too!" She laughed weakly.

"Why do you even attempt to lie when you're so awful at it?"

"Shut up." Reimu pouted. "... She doesn't feel like a youkai, anyways…"

"That's ultimately a matter of opinion." Kotohime sighed. "You're asking something difficult of me, not to mention dangerous. You of all people should understand that much." She eyed Reimu. "What do you think the villagers would think if they learned about you being involved in hiding a potential youkai in the village?"

Reimu squirmed. "Couldn't we just… keep the whole thing a secret? I'm sure it'll be fine." It's not like their opinion of me is that great to begin with...

"Secrets have a habit of finding their way out and about, and rumors often carry on the wind with no way of stopping them. How they're handled can influence our reputation, which has quite a profound effect on our work." She raised a brow. "You ought to understand that better than me, Miss 'Youkai Shrine Maiden'."

"Yes, yes…"Reimu grumbled. She was going there, wasn't she?

Kotohime frowned, and took a moment to shuffle through the papers on her desk. At a glance, Reimu could read small tidbits from them. Requests for youkai extermination, incident damage reports, and so on. “Reimu, I shouldn’t need to ask, but you do remember the reason why this village exists, yes? Or rather, both reasons?”

“That’s a stupid question. Of course I do.” 

To any ill-informed outsider, the so-called ‘Human Village’ seemed a sanctuary away from all of the youkai who lived in the region. It certainly did fill that role, and to the villagers living inside of it, that was all it was. A safe haven where people wouldn’t have to live in constant fear of being attacked by youkai. 

That was the simplest, surface-level purpose of the village. 

Kotohime slid forward a small stack of worn papers. At the top of the cover page, Reimu could see the title: ‘The Truth about the Enigmatic History Society’ . Skimming it, she recognized the format. 

“One of that annoying crow’s articles?” Reimu asked.

Kotohime nodded. "It's just one example among many. Gensokyo has existed for longer than you or I, and it's been held together by a fragile balance all this time. The core of that balance is upheld by this village, by the perceptions of villagers. But not every human knows this, and sometimes the resulting paranoia leads them to do reckless things with no regard for the consequences." Her eyes narrowed. “I should know, considering I was also one of those types at one point.”

Reimu could feel the pressure from Kotohime’s gaze, and couldn’t help but avert her eyes. “What are you getting at?”

“Even though Gensokyo has no formal rules on money or currency, we still deal in one particular form of it: fear. But fear is a dangerous currency. If poorly handled, those who provide it may lose trust in their supposed protectors and fly into a panic. They could also become too complacent, and feel there’s nothing left for them to be afraid of.” Kotohime steepled her hands. “Do you remember when I approached you about this agency of mine, all those years ago?”

“I recall being locked in a jail cell.” Reimu smirked wryly. 

She chuckled. “Part of the reason I formed this little circle in the village was so I could do my part in maintaining the balance of Gensokyo, in ways that you couldn’t.” She gestured with her left hand, “Whether that means stressing the 'greater threat of youkai' by having a scary-looking swordsman guarding the village,” then with her right, “or building trust and unity with the villagers by having a certain fixer running around. Do you understand the point behind all this?” 

"Of course I do. Why are you pressing me on this?" There wouldn’t have been much point to a Hakurei shrine maiden if she didn’t know that much. Gensokyo wasn’t made just for the humans who lived in it; if anything, their presence and happiness were respectively a necessity and a coincidence.

Youkai needed to be feared to continue existing. The villagers needed to fear youkai for their everyday lives to continue as normal. That was just how it was.

"I just want you to make sure you understand what you're asking of me. You have a bad habit of not always taking your job as seriously as you should." She might as well have started wagging her finger. "Which leaves some of us the job of cleaning up your slack."

"Okay, I get it! Geez..." She just wanted the lecture to stop. "You keep going on about 'potential youkai', but I'm serious when I say I feel like she's not a youkai."

"Are you certain she's not a god, then?"

"I'm sure. I'd be able to tell if she were." 

"Alright. Then what would you call her, then?"

"A…" Reimu searched her mind for the best possible description she could find. "'Not-youkai'." 

"Succinct." Kotohime sneered. "How about this? Given the story, we're unclear on whether she's human or youkai. So, to be on the safe side, why don't we just call her a half-youkai for the time being?"

"That feels kind of presumptuous." 

"Maybe." She smiled reassuringly. "But we have a few of those hanging around the village already, so it would be the easiest way to get the villagers comfortable around her. Besides, it's better to be half-right than completely wrong, wouldn't you say?" 

"I'm not so sure..."

"Do you happen to have a better explanation for that ambiguous backstory of hers?"

"Um, not really, but—"

"Then it's settled! Thank you for your cooperation."

Reimu wasn't so sure about that. But it really wasn't worth fighting Kotohime over it. If Luka ended up with an unwanted reputation, that was just going to be her problem. Hopefully she would be able to deal with it. 

“It’ll take me just a bit of time to pull through the necessary favors to get a house constructed. In the meantime, you can look after her right? You still have that guest room at your shrine.”

But, her food. “I—” 

“Excellent!” No, but—Oh, forget it. Kotohime pulled back the newspaper and smiled. "Naturally, this is going to be quite a lot of work for me to add on top of my already busy schedule." A dark light smiled in her eyes. "So as you can expect, I'll be wanting some sort of compensation."

"E-Er…" Reimu scratched her chin nervously. "About that. I don't exactly have anything to pay you with."

"I expected as much." Ow. "Don't worry. I was looking for something much more service-oriented from you."

Why did she have a bad feeling about this? "And that would be?"

"Don't worry. It's just a simple extermination job. Let me explain..."


A lot of things were bothering Reimu. Her empty cupboards. Her empty donation box. Yukari's stupid smug face. Kotohime's stupid smug face. All of them floated around her head like a flock of annoying birds, pecking and cawing and not shutting up. It all made a request that shouldn't have been a problem feel so much more annoying and exhausting than it should've been. 

At least Kotohime was looking after Luka while she worked. Having her wander the path to the shrine on her own probably wasn't the wisest choice, given how many youkai tended to hang around there. It was safer to let her stay back in the village, plus Kotohime could take the time to explain their arrangement. Nice and convenient, just how she liked it.

Speaking of Kotohime.

"This youkai's been appearing outside the village lately, causing all sorts of trouble." As she walked through the woods surrounding the Human Village, their earlier conversation replayed in her head. "Here. After speaking to some witnesses, I was able to compile together a sketch from their descriptions."

Reimu fished out a slip of paper with a crude, almost-childlike drawing splattered on it. 

"... Is that some kind of weird cat? The whiskers look kind of big..."

"I-It's supposed to be a boar."

A giant boar. Large enough to dwarf a human in size, covered in scars and radiating bloodlust. What a coincidence. Now she half-regretted wasting her time watching Meira show off, instead of stepping in while it was distracted. She probably could have saved herself a lot of trouble.

Back to her thoughts… Supposedly, the boar had actually been randomly appearing at the outskirts of the village, sometimes even managing to sneak inside of it somehow. At first, the villagers had assumed it was just some sort of curious, long-lived animal, but then it started attacking anyone who came close to it before fleeing. The natural response was to have some of the local youkai hunters deal with it the next time it showed up, but when that next time came...

“It disappeared? Completely, without a trace?" She remembered asking. "Something that big?”

“That’s right. No damage to anything, hardly any signs it was even there at all. Almost like it was never there. Strange, isn't it? But that’s not all…”

Kotohime decided, on a whim, to start personally investigating the case. And when she did, some more irregular details started appearing. The boar never seemed to appear in the same place twice. A few frantic eyewitnesses whispered that they swore its eyes seemed to move with more purpose than any normal animal. And, above all else…

“... It’s rubbing against houses? What?”

“There’s more. After it happens, the people living there notice that a few of their precious belongings are suddenly gone the next day. No signs of entry, again. It’s almost like a ghost stole something.”

“That’s quite a coincidence.”

“It’s enough for me to be suspicious. It could just be the villagers’ paranoia getting to me, but regardless, I’d like you to investigate this. See if you can track down this animal. At the very least, it’ll keep the villagers calm. Just a regular job for you, yes?”

"Bleh." Reimu mentally stuck her tongue out. That was what it always started as. Then it either turned into a waste of time or an incident, and neither was preferable. When was she going to find a money youkai she could beat up? At least then she would be able to take it easy for a bit…

"I heard a ‘bleh’. Is something wrong, Reimu?"

Aaand there was the tag-along. While Kotohime handled Luka and Meira was left at the gate, Hiro was with her for some reason. He was hunched forward, investigating what Reimu could only assume was a fascinating mound of dirt.

"Just mourning the payment I probably would've received if she hadn't picked this job in particular as payment." To just imagine, a few extra weeks of not having to worry about food... "And still wondering why I need to bring along a helper for a small fry like this."

"Aha," Hiro stood. "Again, I don't disagree, but Lady Kotohime insisted."

"She definitely did, which is still a mystery to me. Can you even fight?"

"I'm not really a fan of violence…" He rubbed his neck nervously. "Usually when a fight breaks out, I tend to just run away."

"So you're useless." 

"Basically!" He laughed. "At least, when it comes to fighting! You're probably more used to that stuff than me, so I’ll leave it to you."

… Once again—"Why did she send him along for this?" 

"That being said…" Hiro eyed her thoughtfully. "The payment wasn't the only reason you took this job, right?"

… She avoided looking directly at him. “I don’t have to answer that.”

Hiro chuckled wearily. "You are the Hakurei Shrine Maiden, aren't you? Isn't it your sworn duty to put the villagers' minds at ease? Especially when there's a youkai causing trouble?"

His tone was light and friendly, but the words hit her like an arrow to the back. "Urg…"

"I also just footed the bill for a bunch of food and other things for you." And another. "And Lady Kotohime is doing you quite a favor by taking care of your outsider problem for you." Another one. "In fact, that she's even having me help you track down a giant boar youkai with for no extra charge is really generous—"

"Okay, okay, I get it!!" Reimu pried his words from her spine. Was he doing that on purpose? "Just, please get back to doing… whatever it was you were doing."

Hiro hummed jovially and resumed his work. She never knew what to think of him. Reimu's intuitions towards most people were usually fairly passive, but she always had an odd sensation when she looked at him. Not a bad one, nor a sense that he was suspicious in any way, just that he was… odd. Harmless yet a little unsettling, in a way. She didn't know how else to explain it.

At the very least, he was dependable. His earlier stunt was far from the first time. Be it a small thing like a lost cat or a human gone missing, he had a habit of nosing his way in whenever someone needed help. He always demanded nothing in return and always seemed purely happy to see everyone alive and grateful, which made him quite popular with the villagers. It was a kind of pure attitude that was enough to shame mere mortals like her. 

It was kind of annoying, honestly. It made her want to throw a rock at him. She chose self-restraint (for now).

"Find anything interesting in that dirt?" She prodded.

"Hm." He was oblivious to her tone. "Something like a trail. … Or two, it seems."

Oh, he actually found something. 

He leaned closer to the mound, gliding his hand over it. Reimu followed his eyes, and saw something—something like a concealed set of large prints in the dirt. Looking closer, she recognized them: boar’s prints. The whole scene painted quite a clear picture. 

“It almost looks like someone scraped dirt over the prints to hide them.” Reimu narrowed her eyes. “Wait. You said there were two trails. Where’s the other?”

Hiro silently gestured his head to the side. Reimu turned to see a tree.

“It’s a tree.” She observed.

“Look at the base. About a meter above the ground.”

Her eyes squinted. “There’s… some dirt?”

Hiro nodded. “These kinds of animals tend to scratch their bodies against things like trees or posts, usually on trails they tend to take normally. It’s one way of tracking them.”

“Huh. Didn’t take you for an expert on feral hogs.”

“Aha, well, not me.” He rested his hand on the boar’s print, as though reflecting on something. “I had a good friend back outside who was the hunting type, so I ended up with lots of know-how against my will.”

“I see…” She didn’t really care.

He narrowed his eyes and rotated his gaze all around them. Every now and then, he would settle on a spot for a bit. “There are more of these spots here and there… Prints, wallows, rootings, broken branches. Actually, there’re far too many trails scattered far too widely for it to be natural, even accounting for this thing’s size. Some of these…” He trailed off.

“What?” Reimu furrowed her brow. “You didn’t finish.”

Hiro turned his eyes back to the print he was kneeling in front of. “Look at the way the dirt is covering this.” 

She stared at it for a few seconds. “It’s dirt, what am I looking for?”

Hiro smiled wearily. “Well, ignoring how strange it’d be for a boar to cover its own trail, look at the… Oh, right, you probably can’t see them.” He sheepishly rubbed his neck. “Looking closely at it, there’s something that looks like human handprints in the parts covering up the prints. I can make out slight bits of fingerprints.”

Reimu’s eyes widened. “A human covered the trail?”

“Maybe. Or it could have been a human-like youkai.” He cupped his chin. “Either way, we can assume somewhere in this, a person is involved. Maybe an owner, or an accomplice…” 

Reimu thought back to Kotohime’s earlier observations. Was it actually possible the boar was being used to search for something in the village? What could it be looking for? 

“... Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’ll be better to track down our troublemakers and question them first.” Hiro said. “Give me just a bit… I might be able to puzzle something out from this big maze they made.” He stood and began tracing their surroundings with his eyes. 

That would probably take a little while, and she wasn’t feeling very patient. Reimu stepped away to take a closer look at the rubbing mark on the tree they’d seen. Of course, she didn’t really know what she was looking at beyond seeing a clearly-made dirt patch on coarse wood. She ran her hand across it, thinking to herself.

Maybe… If I set up a barrier somewhere in here…

A barrier was a simple thing to set up, just a boundary line between things. If she overlapped those lines, she could set up a small field that she could do just about anything with; say, reserving the space for a giant three-dimensional cube and setting off an alarm if anything went inside of it.

Reimu pulled out a small handful of ‘gift envelopes’, which were really just ofuda charms she’d drawn the word ‘money’ on. As for why she did that, none could ever understand the inner mechanisms of her grand machinations. Was it to deceive any crafty youkai who would steal from her? Or perhaps to make them lower their guard before being exterminated? None could ever tell.

(She’d done it once as a gag to make herself feel less poor, and it became a habit. That was it.)

Anyways. At least 4 would do for setting up a barrier. 

She pressed one against the tree, making sure the charm stuck to it. “Right around here…”

*Rustle, rustle.*

“Huh?”

She turned towards the noise, and was greeted by a bush; the leaves having just finished swaying from whatever moved them. Clearly not suspicious in the slightest. 

Carefully, slowly. Reimu took a few steps towards the sound. Raising up one of her charms with one hand and reaching for the bush with the other. Then, she gripped it, leaned forward, and poked past it—

Nothing. Nothing but more forest, as far as the eye could see. No signs of movement, or that anything had been there. 

“?” She didn’t just imagine that sound. Her gut feeling told her something was wrong. She took a few more steps. “That’s odd… Where could it—”

“Wait, Reimu!!!” 

Huh?!

Just as the familiar voice cried out, she heard the sound of something snapping, then whipping. Before she could react, something shoved her forward. She was lucky to have braced her arms out as quickly as she did, otherwise she’d have gotten a mouthful of dirt and grass. 

“Oof!” She flipped herself back over. “What in the—?”

Just as she did, a blue hat fluttered down right in front of her.

“Phew! Just in time!” Hiro, hanging upside down by his leg, was strung up a pretty good distance in the air. He held his glasses to his face like a treasured family heirloom. “Are you alright?”

“Why are you asking me that? I should be asking you!” Reimu stood and brushed herself off. 

“Well, something like this doesn’t really hurt. It definitely surprised me, though!” He was slowly rotating as he hung from the rope. He craned his head up to look at it. “Wow… Either this is an old snare one of the village hunters set up, or our friend’s human accomplice knows out to set up hunting traps!” He laughed like a man not strung upside-down a meter off the ground. “The ropework’s really impressive! I’m totally stuck!”

Reimu again fought the urge to throw a rock at him. “Don’t compliment the booby trap!” She groaned. She needed to get him down somehow. 

“Just, stay put for and I’ll cut you loose in a second. Not sure with what, though…"

"I usually carry around a pocket knife, but I think I left it back in the office before we left..." He folded his arms. His eyes looked off to the side, as if pointing. "Oh well. I can 'hang around' for a bit while you take care of business."

"..." Where was the nearest rock? "Right. After I deal with the person hiding in the brush over there.”

She heard that reaction. Off a good few meters from the trap, the foliage rustled just a little. Just the same way as it had earlier. Hiro's sneaky glance helped, but she technically heard them before he did anything; whoever they were, they weren’t very subtle.

“Just come out already.” Reimu made sure to look directly at their hiding spot. “It’ll save us both a lot of time.”

There was a moment of hesitation, but after a brief pause, a silhouetted figure slowly stepped out into the open, peering just where Reimu could see them. 

“You came with a friend. That's uncharacteristic of you.” Unnatural, almost glowing pink eyes. That was the first thing Reimu noticed about the woman standing in front of her. Her skin tone was browner than what Reimu normally saw in Gensokyo. Then there was her clothing: a striking black dress with an intricate pattern sewn into it. “How unfortunate. I was hoping to trap you with that, to be quite honest.” 

“Uh-huh.” Reimu eyed her carefully. “Let’s just get to the point. Are you the one ordering that boar around? That oversized pet of yours is making some serious trouble for the villagers.” 

“Maybe, maybe not.” She could make out the faint outline of a smirk on her face. “What will you do if I am?” 

“Preferably, ask you to stop. Optionally, make you stop.” 

"Hmm. Choices, choices." She tapped her chin. "Let's see, how about…"

She darted back into the treescape before Reimu could even react.

"Hey—!" And here we go. "Gah, come back here!" Reimu sprinted after her.

She might as well have been chasing a blur. Each time she closed in on the woman, she would suddenly swing around a tree and be several meters ahead of Reimu by the time she turned. How well did she know the forest? Still, Reimu kept on her tail. She had no intention of—

*Snap!*

Her leg barely tripped something. She didn't even have to look to see what it was.

"Wah?!" She instinctively twisted to the side, and the whipping sound of rope shot right past her legs. Another snare trap! "Knock it off already!!" 

"Lucky dodge…" With a disappointed "Tch!", the figure blurred back into the greenery. This was starting to look like a pattern. 

"That's it!" With a swipe of her hand, she started tossing ofuda. *Fwip! Fwip! Fwip! Fwip!* The slips of paper flew out, turning in the air to hit their marks—only to miss, the woman darting behind a tree or rock for cover each time one drew close. "Argh!! Quit hiding, coward!"

"Why would I sit still and take the hits?" She cackled. "Come, this body's more than fast enough to dodge some slow paper charms!"

Ugh, shut up already. Time for the other option—

Reimu readied another ofuda and sent it flying. It curved in the air, angling itself to hit the woman behind her cover. She would've seen it coming just like every other one. There were only a few places she could go to this time. Just a few.

She loosened her arm, and a small metal needle slid through her sleeve and into her hand. The ofuda turned, and the woman's silhouette darted from cover, out to a nearby tree.

"There!"

In the brief opening, Reimu flicked her wrist forward. The glint of metal shot from her hand, darting cleanly through the air between them, before embedding itself right in the fleeing woman's leg. She heard a yelp, and she fell forward, right into the brush.

"Phew." A perfect throw. Even if her target was a human, as long as she hit her mark, those divine throwing needles would still hurt enough to stop anyone in their tracks. "Just stay right there. If I see you start moving, I'll throw the next one at your other leg."

So she said, but since she'd fallen into the thick foliage, Reimu's view of her was even worse than before. She took her steps carefully, mindful to avoid tripping any more traps. 

A rustle. She was moving again.

"Ugh, what did I just say?" Reimu shifted her arm to pull out another needle. 

Just as she did, she heard a sound like a piece of rope cutting, then a tree branch snapping forward. Right in front of her, above the—

"Gah?!" She ducked and slid to the side, right before the wooden limb could slap her across the head. "That does it, now I've—" Something caught her leg and snapped. The familiar sound of whipping rope, only now it was from every direction, and it was more than a leg getting yanked upward. "HAD IT?!"

A webbed pattern of rope, suspending her in the air like a bag—really, a net?!

"Haa…" The woman was in a kneeling position, a small blade and a cut rope next to her. "Agh—" With a grunt, she yanked the needle from her leg. "Gah! Ah, ha… My, that hurt . It's been a while since I felt something that potent…"

"If that impresses you, you should cut me free. I've got a whole set just like that." Reimu glared.

"Oh, I'm not stupid enough to try and fight you head-on." She stumbled to her feet. "I'm well-aware of what you're capable of. It's always unwise to underestimate a Hakurei Shrine maiden."

Reimu raised an eyebrow. Her tone was a little too familiar. "Sorry, do I know you? I don't really do well with faces." Or names. Actually, her memory was downright horrid.

"Not personally, no; it’s a bit of an indirect association"

“You’re going to need to narrow it down a bit, that’s a lot of people." Regrettably.

A laugh. "Ah, it doesn't really matter." She seemed to pause to contemplate something. "Hm… Since I'm here, and I have you like this… Surely, she wouldn't mind."

Reimu sighed. "Dare I ask?"

"Me killing you ahead of schedule, naturally." 

Of course… 

The woman lurched forward, dropping to all fours. Suddenly, her body became a silhouette, then her silhouette began to shift. It contorted, morphed, changed, growing in size, bristling, until…

A boar. The same one she'd seen earlier, a perfect-ish match for the sketch she'd been given.

"Oh, Kotohime's weird cat." Reimu blurted out. 

"Hm?" She grunted, her voice deepened by a few octaves. "It's a boar youkai, you simpleton." 

"Hm, I have been craving tonkatsu..." 

"... What?" The boar shook its head. "Forget it. I'm just going to kill you and be done with it. You can sort out your nonsense on the River Sanzu."

The boar snorted, and turned to her. Her tusks looked as sharp as they did earlier. Without a doubt, if she tried to run her through, she would probably die instantly. Reimu didn't have anything sharp enough to cut the ropes making up her net. Technically, her needles might work, but it would take way too long. She was totally trapped and left exposed in the open.

A grunt, and then a roaring charge. The boar rushed at her, intent on finishing her off right there. Her tusks came ever closer, just a few meters, feet, inches— 

"...?!" The boar seemed shocked. She struggled, but her muscles didn't seem to respond to any command it gave. Only her eyes and mouth were barely capable of any movement "... W-what...is—?!" 

It took her a few seconds to realize what had happened.

On the tree. On a nearby rock. On the ground. All of the ofuda Reimu had been throwing. Wherever they 'missed', they attached to whatever surface they landed on. Their placement had somehow managed to create the perfect perimeter for a barrier, centered right around Reimu. And as long as the charms retained the divine blessing they were given, Reimu could still use them for whatever she wanted. 

Including, for example, creating a sealing field for an overgrown boar youkai.

"I may have misheard, but didn't you just say something about 'not being stupid enough to fight me head on'?" Reimu smirked. "It's bad form not to follow your own advice. Here's an incentive to help you remember—"

A card materialized in her hand.

"Divine Arts「Omnidirectional Oni-Binding Circle」!"

The space around them was engulfed in a purifying light. It swallowed up both Reimu and the boar, but naturally only the boar was receiving any kind of damage. It seared away at her without dealing any kind of visible damage—a purely spiritual attack. And yet, no matter how much damage the boar was taking, she couldn’t move a muscle. That was also natural. A seal like this would bind anything that stood in it, including humans, which was why Reimu herself could never move while using it. But if she was already tied up by a net, that weak point was a little moot, wasn’t it?

*SQUEEAAAL*! With one last shrill sound, the boar's body went limp. Reimu released the seal, and she flopped right onto the ground. Her form began to shift once again, shrinking and morphing, until once again there was the woman she saw earlier lying unconscious on her side. Unmoving, but still alive.

"Phew." She could have gone a few steps further and totally exterminated her, but that monologue had her curious now. Some questioning was in order. "Now, how am I supposed to get down from here…?"

Suddenly another rustling from afar. Reimu craned her head towards it. Another enemy?

"Hey, I found my knife!" No, just Hiro with a stupid grin on his face and a pocket knife twirling in his hands. "Turns out I did grab it before we left and didn't realize—" He stopped and blankly stared at the scene. "Oh, you're already done."

"Almost." Reimu wriggled a bit. "Can you cut me down already? I've got some questions to ask our new 'friend'."


“I’m really telling the truth, I don’t know what you’re talking abooo~ut!!”

So said the boar youkai as she was quite literally hogtied and hanging upside down from a makeshift spit-roast (fire not included [yet]). Reimu made sure the knots were tight enough such that she couldn’t move—not until she’d gotten the answers she wanted from her. 

“And I’m telling you that I don’t believe it.” Reimu growled. She really didn’t. The woman could cry those fake tears in those big brown eyes of hers. “You had a reason for snooping around the village, I’m sure of it. Now confess, boar youkai!”

“Again!! Babi ngepet!!! Why do you keep calling me that?!” She thrashed about. “And I really mean iiit!!” She looked like she was about to start sobbing. “I swear to you, I’m telling the truth!!”

“Maybe I ought to light a fire… Make some pork stew…”

The woman started blubbering incoherently. 

They’d been at this for a few minutes on a constant loop. She would threaten her and play tough, and the woman would feign ignorance and protest her treatment. She denied having infiltrated the village, even asking ‘Why would I be stupid enough to try stealing things from a village full of demon hunters?!’ Reimu almost believed she actually didn’t know anything. Regardless, Reimu would get her answers soon, she was sure… She just needed to press a little harder. Not actually do anything, but just scare her a little more. That would probably work. Right?

“Er…” Hiro, who had been standing off to the side, looked uncomfortable. “Reimu… Do you mind if I try to talk to her for a bit?”

“Hm.” Reimu stared at the woman for a few more moments. “... Go ahead, ‘good cop’.” It wouldn’t hurt to let Hiro take a crack at it.

He looked at her strangely, and then carefully approached the woman. “Right then… Miss? Might I have your name?”

“R-R-Rimba!! I’ll tell you whatever you want!! You want gold?! Riches?! I’ll steal anything you want! Please just get that crazy shrine maiden away from meeeee~!!!”

Hiro squirmed a little. “L-Let’s calm down a little. I don’t need you to steal anything. We just have some questions about some of your recent activities.” 

“I! Keep! Telling You!” Rimba tried to kick around, but could only helplessly bounce herself around. “I don’t know anything about that! Why don’t you believe me?!”

“Because it’s sketchy and also you tried to kill me.” Reimu retorted.

“WHEN!? WHY?! WAS I DRUNK?!” 

Hiro raised a hand to Reimu, a signal and expression reading ‘Please stop antagonizing her’ . Reimu pouted and let him go on.

“Okay,” Hiro nodded patiently. “Let’s say I believe you. You don’t remember anything about your most recent activities. Not a thing about you entering the village, or stealing various valuables, or the encounter you had with Reimu just a few minutes ago. Not a thing. Say we focus on that. What do you remember from before all of that?”

She went quiet, her face scrunched up in a desperate search for any kind of thoughts. “I… I can’t really remember.”

“Try to dig. Even if it seems mundane, like a regular day. Try to think.”

“...” She took a shaky breath. “I… I can only remember the regular stuff. Nothing weird. I met up with the other grassroots youkai, we exchanged some local gossip, I set up some traps to prank the village hunters when they wander into my part of the forest…”

Reimu listened passively. “(… So they were ‘pranks’, huh?)” ← Malicious intent.

“After that…” Rimba seemed to strain. “I think… I decided to… look into something…? No, I went to sleep? That’s not right…” 

“Easy now. Try to remember.”

“...I-I can’t. I can’t remember. Why can’t I remember?” She paled in a way Reimu rarely saw in youkai. “I-I’m being honest. About all of it! I mean it! Really!” 

Hiro studied Rimba for a few seconds. “Hm.” He turned back to Reimu. “Well?”

Reimu also stared at the woman. After a moment of silence, she stepped forward and placed herself right in front of her. She looked carefully into her eyes, studying her for any kind of sign she was being dishonest. All she saw was fear, and not just the kind of someone fearing for their life. There was an uncertainty, a confusion. An understanding that something was clearly wrong with her own recollection, and she didn’t know what caused it. It was clear and obvious, just looking at those brown eyes of hers.

Brown eyes…

“...” Reimu cupped her chin. “She could just be saying stuff to try and weasel out of consequences.” 

“I—” Rimba whimpered. 

“But.” Reimu’s tone silenced her. A sigh. “... I don’t think that’s the case. At least, that’s what my gut is telling me.”

“So what do you think?” Hiro asked. 

Reimu frowned. She thought back to the piercing pink eyes she saw before. Maybe… a vengeful spirit? She’d been told something once by Yukari, regarding the nature of youkai. Their spiritual existence made them different from humans in regards to how they would behave if possessed by something like a vengeful spirit. A human possessed by a vengeful spirit may behave differently, but the core of their person would remain. A youkai, on the other hand, would have the core of their existence overwritten. It would be as though their personality was completely different; a description that certainly fit the situation she was seeing right now. 

The problem with that observation was that said possession usually meant the original personality was ‘dead’, for all intents and purposes. Freeing them from the control of a vengeful spirit wasn’t an option. So why did Rimba’s personality return to normal after she was defeated? Was it something else entirely? Either way…

“I’m not sure.” She concluded. “And I’d be making some huge guesswork to try and figure out what happened. For right now, let’s just assume she’s innocent of it and move on.”

“H-Huh? You’re sparing me?!” Rimba looked overcome with joy. “T-Thank you, oh gracious shrine—”

A purification rod immediately shoved itself right into Rimba’s face, and she yelped accordingly. 

“Now listen here.” Reimu’s tone darkened. “I don’t need any youkai’s admiration or respect, got it? So don’t get the wrong idea, or start visiting my shrine!!” She made sure to stress the latter part. It was hard enough to get worshippers at her shrine, and she was already sick enough of uninvited guests.

“Y-Yesh ma'am!!” Rimba cried with a purification rod smushed up against her cheek.

With an understanding nod, Reimu marched off. “Good. Anyways, take it from here Hiro. Tell Kotohime whatever you want and do as you please with the were-boar. Roasted or stewed, it doesn’t really matter to me.”

“Huh?” Hiro stumbled. “E-Er wait, what about you?”

“Tired. Going home. See you later.”

And so she did. She didn’t concern herself too much with the mess she left behind. She already knew Hiro would cut the babi ngepet free and tell her to ‘stay out of trouble’ as a polite warning. She could guess he would provide a summary of the day’s events to Kotohime, and the detective would take that information in her own way. 

Whatever it all meant, she didn’t have the time nor the patience to go through all of it at the moment. Whatever troublemaker spying on the village was dispatched for the time being. That was enough for her to consider the matter resolved. If it turned into more, then she would deal with it then. 

For now… Home. To hopefully sleep, and move onto the next step in dealing with her new outsider-related headaches. 

Chapter Text


~ EXTRA 1: The Violet-colored Ronin ~

[START]


Meira spent most of her life alone. 

She didn’t have much interest in sharing the story with anyone who asked. What was there to share? She had parents once, when she was very little. Then she didn’t. What was the cause? She couldn’t remember. Maybe it was an illness. Maybe it was a youkai attack. Whatever it was, her little brain didn’t want to remember it; didn’t want to remember them, maybe to keep herself sane. 

The only thing she could recall was how sudden it was. And how villagers then began to talk. Hushed whispers whenever she walked by, whether they were children or so-called ‘adults’. Talk of a ‘youkai-like’ child. How her eyes were ‘filled with a dark light’, ‘her hair an unnatural shade of purple’, ‘her very demeanor unsettling’. It was stupid. Her eyes weren’t that special, her hair was her hair, and she acted just like any other child. How was anything that had happened her fault? She was still human. Not some demon child. 

Eventually, if anything bad happened at all near her, it suddenly became her fault. Superstition and fear became guiding principles for how to judge her. Other kids would run from her whenever she walked by. Some would scream or call her names. A few were even bold enough to try attacking her. She naturally tried to defend herself, and while desperation was a good teacher, it was hardly the best. She would often get hurt. Sometimes lose entirely. 

On days like that, she had few comforts in the village. There was a teacher in the village, a woman with white hair and a blue dress, who would often give her books to read. Most of them were historical and kind of boring, but a few caught her eye. Stories of swordsmen, samurai of old. Tales of a man who leapt eight boats at Dan-no-Ura; stories of another who learned to cut swallows mid-flight, only for that same one to be struck down by another legend wielding nothing more than the remnants of a boat oar. The words celebrated them, marveled at their achievements. Could she also have that? Could she become that? She allowed herself to be consumed by the stories, and eventually, she began emulating the legends she read with a wooden sword. 

As ridiculous as it seemed, fate seemed to finally give her a break in that one place. The wooden blade seemed to naturally become an extension of her. Swinging it became as natural as breathing. When other kids tried to attack her, now she would beat them with ease. As long as a ‘sword’ was in her hands, her body seemed to naturally move on its own. Even when the other kids tried the same, they somehow couldn’t emulate her own movements. They weren’t driven by the same passions as her, and so they fell, bruised and beaten just as she was before. 

Then everyone started running from her. Kids no longer tried to attack her, but adults also started hiding from her. Judgemental and superstitious glances became fearful gazes. Their eyes only regarded her even more as a monster, something to flee from. Nothing changed. 

Fine. She didn’t need them. That was what she told herself, but every time that wordless glare struck her… Every time she had to look into their eyes, and watched them run away…

It hurt. Something hurt. She didn’t know how to make it stop. Trying only made her angrier. Colder. Make it stop. But how? Just make it stop. Stop staring at her. Stop treating her like a demon. Stop running away! 

The thoughts and feelings became unbearable, and she took to locking them away. Avoid being noticed. Avoid their gazes. That was where she intended to end it. 

Then, one day, she saw the eyes of the villagers turning towards the sky. And she too turned. 

A girl, roughly the same age as her, flying high above the village on a turtle. She was fighting something—a youkai? The villagers watched in awe, a few cheering as the fight raged on.

“Look! The Hakurei Shrine Maiden has come to exterminate the youkai!”

Paper talismans flew, and an oversized yin-yang orb orbited the girl. 

“The new heir’s rather talented, isn’t she?” 

No matter how the opposition fought, nothing seemed to touch her. It was as if she was from another world entirely. 

“Oho! Look at her go!”

Amidst their annoying cheering, the girl won. The youkai she battled was slain. The villagers showered her with admiration and adoration. She heard murmurs that some would even visit the girl’s shrine to bring forth offerings and donations. 

… Something tugged at the very core of Meira’s being. She didn’t know what it was. 

All she could remember thinking at the time was how unfair it all was. Why was everyone praising her? She wanted to be praised. She wanted people to come visit her, too. 

Something stirred in her. The flood of emotions she’d locked away boiled, then began to burn. They called her an ‘heir’. So she was simply born into it? Born into that admiration? What had she done to earn it? She wanted what that girl had. She would have the respect they gave her, the love they showered her with.

Her power. The Hakurei’s power. That must have been it. That must have been the source of their admiration. 

She’d take it from her. All of it.

Reason and logic had all but vanished from Meira’s small, childish mind. How could she possibly fathom what she was doing at that age? Far too smart for her age, yet too foolish to think that far ahead, she concocted a plan. Whenever there was a commotion, the shrine maiden would rush out to face the problem. She would cut her off then, she decided.

The day came when she heard murmurs of ghosts and youkai swarming the girl’s shrine, and that the girl was headed out to deal with the source of it. A village blacksmith would notice that a single sword he’d crafted was suddenly missing, but wouldn’t be able to find it.

With every step, she seemed to lose focus. Her mind was a blur. All she could think about was taking what was ‘rightfully hers’. Under cover of midnight, in a great storm, Meira confronted her. 

“I am Meira.” The moonlight shone maliciously against her sword. “I’ve come to take the Hakurei.”

The girl looked at her in a brief moment of shock. “W-Whoa, whoa, slow down!” At first, Meira thought her reaction was that of a fearful fool valuing their life. It took Meira a moment to notice the girl’s cheeks were red. "Well, I guess I don't mind, but…"

???

“A-Anyway,” Meira wouldn’t become distracted by her antics. “If I win, the power of the Hakurei will be mine!” Soon. Soon it would all be hers.

The shrine maiden’s cheeks only reddened further. “Oh my…” She shuffled about bashfully on the turtle’s back (who merely sighed to himself). What? What was she going on about now? “There’s no need to fight with me, you know~.”

… What? 

… … … Oh heavenly gods—

“It isn’t YOU that I want, fool!!” Before Meira realized it, her entire face was warm. “It’s your power!!” 

The girl stopped unceremoniously. “Really?”

“YES!! WHY WOULD I BE INTERESTED IN YOU!?” And don’t look so disappointed!!

The shrine maiden hummed to herself. “Hm~. Well then, if I win, then…” 

“Are you even paying attention?! HEY!!”

Meira’s vision turned red. She remembered charging the girl in a rage. 

The rest was too humiliating to recount. 

Calling it a fight would have been too generous. To put it simply, she didn’t even stand a chance. If she compared the girl’s prowess with her earlier display above the village, the gap was astoundingly wide. Had she improved? Or was she just not fighting as seriously back then? No, even now she didn’t even seem to try. With each swing of her sword, Meira could only imagine that she was trying to cut a leaf dancing on the wind. Even a swallow could hardly compare; not a single strike even came close to hitting her. 

In the end, the best she could do was flee with her life. 

After she escaped, the sensible part of her mind finally caught up with her and the gravity of her situation began to sink in. What was she doing? She’d just attacked the Hakurei Shrine maiden. Meira had. Once word spread out, the entire village would want her head. They already hated her. But with proper justification for their hatred? She’d be killed for sure if she returned. Her own desperate logic suddenly seemed so far-gone, so senseless, and yet she couldn’t take it back. This was her life now.

It went without saying that Meira didn’t return to the village. She wandered Gensokyo for a time. As expected, youkai would attack her. She was a wandering human who had left the village, after all. It should’ve been the death of her, but some part of her refused to accept it. Even with a normal stolen sword she struck down the creatures which went after her. Each swordstroke became a blur, moving faster and faster and beyond her conscious thought. Perhaps her will to survive gave her attacks some greater 'meaning'. Or maybe her technique had simply transcended her humanity. Either way, even the youkai soon learned to steer clear of her. 

She often thought about what people called her before. A ‘youkai-like’ child. She wondered what they called her now. Even still, as she fought with inhuman skill and a desire to survive, Meira clung to the idea of being ‘human’. It was one of the few things that held her together, kept her from falling deeper into despair. 

She would bathe in rivers and sleep in the woods. Her food was whatever she could hunt with a sword. She got quite good at running. At times, she would move so fast she lost track of the process—as though she’d simply 'jumped' from one place to another. She could never do it consistently, but it became a useful trick.

Meira wasn’t sure how much time passed. She just remembered while she was sleeping one day, something happened to land on her face. A sheet of paper—a pamphlet? When she pried it loose and read it…

“(The ‘Fantasy Ruins’...?)”

Some sort of ‘Grand Opening’ was happening. To those who visited, they would be granted whatever wish they desired (‘within reason’). Below was a map with directions, as well a disclaimer: 

“‘WARNING: Only one (1) guest may enter the ruins. This capacity must be strictly observed. If this capacity is exceeded…'” 

So only one person would be granted their wish, was what they were saying. It seemed too good to be true. A single wish, to do whatever she wanted with. Perhaps she could wish for everyone to forget everything that she’d done, forget her reputation. Or at the very least, she could wish for a house to sleep in. Regardless, it was a chance. She decided to take it. 

Of course, she wasn’t the only one who’d found that flier. She faced and overcame a variety of strange opponents on her way there, all of them chasing after the same wish she was. From one of them, she’d even heard that the shrine maiden had gotten involved. So eventually, they would have to fight again. That was the fate she’d prepared herself for.

But, before that fate could greet her, someone else found her first.

“Oh my, a samurai?” A girl, perhaps a year or two older than her, regarded her oddly. Red hair and a strange, purple kimono—some sort of princess? “Or would that be a ronin?”

“Oh my, a princess.” Meira scoffed. “Or would that be a spoiled brat?”

“I prefer ‘police officer’.” She laughed mildly and held her hand in front of her. Suddenly, a small metallic object popped into her palm. Some sort of emblem—a badge? Or some kind of toy? “Officer Hijikata Kotohime of the Human Village. Mind if I see your license for that sword?”

Hijikata. Meira recognized that name. Why did it sound so familiar?

“That won’t be necessary. I’ll just give you a demonstration instead!” 

Meira was anticipating an easy opponent when she looked at her. She was anything but. The summoning trick she’d done earlier wasn’t just for show—it became a regular habit throughout their fight. Every time Meira thought she’d cornered her, she called some new bizarre object to herself. Her sword strikes were blocked with a strange clay tablet. When she went on the defensive, an unusual hammer’s head encased in stone struck her. Even retreating to gain distance did nothing, as crystal skulls suddenly started flying around and gnawing at her.

Her unusual collection proved to be too much for even her newly improved techniques. Eventually, she dodged poorly and took a bad hit, and she went down.

“Rgh… What are these weird things you keep throwing around…?” She struggled and failed to get to her feet. Again. Again she lost so thoroughly. 

“They’re all ‘OOPArts’.” Hijikata beamed. She looked like she hardly broke a sweat. “Aren’t they cool?”

Meira thought back to that name, ‘Hijikata’. That’s right. She remembered. There was family back in the village named Hijikata. In some of the books she’d read, she heard that they used to have a great deal of power back in the years shortly before Gensokyo was created. Even in the current day, they still held some degree of authority in the village. She’d lost to yet another affluent heir. 

“It’s not fair…” Meira’s despair gave way to her innermost complaints, and they slowly leaked through. “It’s not…”

“Hm?” Hijikata tilted her head. “Bemoaning your defeat? For a samurai, that’s not very honorable.”

“What would you know?!” She shouted. “You treat this like a game… What wish do you even need granted?! You and the shrine maiden, you have everything, and yet, and yet—!!”

“Whoa! Let’s calm down a little and clarify a few things.” Hijikata raised her hands defensively. It didn’t calm her down, but she just didn’t have any strength left to keep yelling. “Firstly, that nonsense about a wish. I don’t need anything like that. That advertisement was obviously fraudulent, and now it’s gotten everyone running around in a fuss. I’m just trying to make sure that things don’t get out of hand, especially with everyone fighting over that dumb ‘wish’.” Hijikata frowned. “Secondly… I thought your appearance seemed familiar. So you were that swordsman that attacked Reimu a while back?”

Meira felt her blood run cold. So this was it.

“... Yes.” She answered. “What of it?”

Hijikata hummed thoughtfully. “I see. You seem like you have some issues. Want to talk about them?”

Meira’s entire brain shut down for a moment. “... Huh?” She thought it was a joke at first. “You’re not… going to kill me?”

“Why would I do that?” Hijikata raised a brow. “... I mean, I do call myself an officer of the law, but there actually isn’t any law here. Plus, that would just make me a ruthless brute abusing her authority either way. It’s much nicer to just talk down people having a clear crisis rather than to execute them.” 

Meira felt like she would forget the girl wasn’t that much older than her when she spoke. Her voice felt comforting. Like she could lower her guard around her.

The moment she felt that, something in her cracked. The dam of emotions she’d been holding in, that had been straining since the day she left the village, poured out. Thinking back on it, it was utterly humiliating. She must’ve looked so stupid, sobbing her little kid eyes out as she bawled out her entire life story. Every emotion, every memory, every bruise and cut and tear shed. The whole while, Hijikata listened silently until she at last finished.

“I see…” She frowned. “That must have been hard.”

What reply could she have given to that? An undignified sob was the best she could remember.

Hijikata hummed to herself again, contemplation written across her face. “Okay. Tell you what.”

She held her hand out to Meira. In it was a small paper slip with some writing scribbled on it, along with a sketch of a misshapen oni with whiskers. A bold name sat at the top: ‘Little Rabbit Detective Agency’ .

“What’s… this?” Meira sniffled. “Why’s there an oni on it…?”

“I-It’s a rabbit! Why does no one recognize it?!” Hijikata sighed. “It’s a little place I’m putting together. Right now, it’s just a little shack in the village, but you can stay there. We even have a futon you can sleep in!”

“But…” Meira thought back to her earlier actions. “The villagers… won’t they—?”

“Don’t worry~” She smiled. It somehow made her anxiety melt away. “I’ll handle that. You’re homeless right now, yes? Just consider it!” Before Meira could interject, she was already up and running off. “I’ve still got some work to do, but I’ll see you there if you decide you want to join! Just consider it!!”

Meira wasn’t sure if she was serious. She didn’t seem to be joking. Looking down at the slip of paper, it hardly seemed real. 

Of course, what she saw when she arrived the next day felt even less real. 

“Hey, come on!! Lemme outta here already!”

“Sure, once I get tired of this.”

In the room, there was a somewhat hastily set-up jail cell, with a familiar shrine maiden locked up inside of it. On the outside was a smiling Hijikata, who’d changed into some strange Western uniform. At the sound of the door opening, they both turned. 

“Ah,” Hijikata grinned brightly. “You’re early! As you can see, I got you a gift.”

“H-Huh?” Hakurei turned in shock. “Wait, who is this?! What’s going on?”

“(‘W-Who’?! I tried to kill you not too long ago! And I want to know that too!!)” Meira restrained herself from saying aloud. Instead, “Erm. What do you mean by ‘gift’?”

Hijikata smirked. “I figured it’d probably be pretty cathartic to see her get locked up in jail for a bit. What do you think? Does it make for a good housewarming present?”

Meira stared at the scene. Such a small, shoddy space. There was barely any furniture, apart from a desk in the corner of the room with a chair behind it. Her eyes kept looking between the exasperated Hakurei Shrine maiden and the far-too-proud-of-herself ‘police officer’. 

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a futon. Neatly and tidily prepared, as if waiting for her. 

“... Haha… ahaha…” It was so ridiculous, she couldn’t help but laugh. It just slipped out. Before she knew it, a chuckle turned into a gut laugh, and she just kept going. It was funny. It really was funny. “Hijikata, you really are strange.” 

“Hm~♪ I don’t mind being called strange. But if you could, call me Kotohime, hm?”

She didn’t remember crying, but she wiped away a tear. “Very well… Kotohime.”

The two girls shared a smile. For the first time in a long time, the painful feeling that followed Meira around finally seemed to vanish from her. 

“Uh, hello!? Let me out of here alreadyyy!!! What did I doooooo?!!” 


Even back in the present, she found herself cracking a smile as she stood at the gate of the village.

It was such a strange series of events, a miracle beyond words. From that day forward, she worked under Kotohime as both an employee and a friend. That brought her to a variety of places she never expected to go, to face countless new foes and adventures. A duel against a half-ghost gardener amidst half-bloom cherry blossoms. A crushing defeat by a party-happy oni. A rematch against the shrine maiden under an eternal night. She’d seen so much she never dreamed to see, all with her new and first friend at her side. Her skills grew with time, and after a fateful encounter with a certain crow tengu, she would find her ‘running’ ability was actually much more. An accidental discovery of a technique the tengu had invented first, and one that she merely needed to see in-action to fully imitate: Shukuchi (縮地). 

But all of that together felt like a footnote in the end. Above all of the adventure, she’d found what she desired most of all. A home. A place to belong. Far more precious than any power or deeds, and it was hers. Even if the newest member was a little too suffocatingly nice and kept describing her ability in the stupidest way imaginable—

Speaking of. She wondered what the shrine maiden was up to, coming by with that new outsider. She would have to question Hiro about that later.

“Achoo!!”

That was sudden. Meira rubbed at her nose. Hm, someone must have been picking a fight with her somewhere.

Chapter Text


~ STAGE 6: Nostalgic Lectures ~

[START]


Reimu’s evening plans were pretty straightforward: return to the shrine, cook something for dinner for herself (and her slightly unwanted guest), relax, and then go to sleep. What she hadn’t expected was for the unwanted guest to take over the first task.

“You really don’t have to cook, you know.” Reimu peered into her kitchen. “You’re a guest, after all.”

“Yeah, but I’d like to.” Luka was already hard at work, having appropriated an apron and tied her hair back. “If anything, the fact that I’m a guest makes me want to do it even more. Just leave it to me!” It was a bit of a surprise to see how quickly she found her way around Reimu’s kitchen. Without even asking her, Luka’d already gathered all the tools she needed, set up wood for the stove, assembled an assortment of vegetables, and washed and set the rice to cook. Within minutes, the kitchen was filled with the sounds of cutting, crackling, and sizzling. "♪" And cheerful humming, with a smell like something being fried. "~♪~♪"

… She’s got a nice voice . Reimu closed her eyes for a moment, caught up in the pleasant tune.

“Hey, do you have any liquor sitting around?” Luka cut off her own humming.

“—” Reimu’s eyes popped open. “Huh? Er, yes. Why?”

“Woop, nevermind. found some.” Luka suddenly had a bottle and a box of matches. “Yeah, this should do.” 

Chik! … Chik! Foosh!

“HUH?!” 

Luka continued humming, seeming completely untroubled by the flaming wok she was holding over the stove. 

What came next involved a lot of unnecessary, bug-eyed screaming from Reimu, followed by nervous staring at flames and buckets of water almost being flung at people. It was a miracle dinner ended up being finished after that wild display. Even moreso, how Luka managed to turn that fiery wok into an appetizing-looking platter of stir-fried vegetables and rice. 

Luka looked like she was trying not to laugh as she set the dishes at the table. “I didn’t expect you to freak out like that. You’ve never seen a flambé before?” 

“No?! I don’t even know what that is!” Reimu was still shaking. “I thought you were trying to burn my shrine down!! Are you some kind of pyromaniac?!” 

Luka nearly doubled over, quivering just a little with her hand over her mouth as Reimu swatted at her with her gohei. Seriously, she lit a fire like that so casually and thought the reaction was funny?! She really was a pyromaniac, wasn’t she?! 

“Easy, easy.” Luka wiped a tear from her eye. “It’s a self-taught cooking trick I’d use every now and then back home. I just felt like showing off a little, your shrine wasn’t in any danger.” 

“A ‘trick’, huh?” Reimu glared suspiciously. She wasn’t sure how much she trusted the phrase ‘self-taught’.

Luka nodded. “By adding liquor to a dish as it’s cooking, then burning that liquor out, you can add more complicated flavors to it without overwhelming the flavor with pure alcohol. There’s some nuances to it, but as long as you choose ingredients that complement each other and burn the right amount of liquor out, it should turn out alright. Why not give it a try?”

Reimu stared nervously at the platter, then huffed as she sat down. “Honestly…” Seriously, this outsider was nothing but trouble. How she managed to make something so good after creating such chaos boggled the mind. “Thank you for the food…” She hoped it didn’t taste like charcoal.

With a careful, hesitant bite…

“... !!!”

A complex explosion of flavor punched right into Reimu’s taste buds. The vegetables were definitely lightly-singed by the earlier display, but there was a new flavor that had somehow snuck its way in. And, paired with the rice… Somehow, it was a perfect compliment, in almost every way. Simple, but with an inexplicable complexity. 

“Like it?” Luka smirked, reading her expression.

“It’s delicious!!” She probably had stars in her eyes, but she couldn’t help it! Reimu was in no way a bad cook, and she’d even made similar dishes to this before. But, this—the version Luka had put together was just a few giant steps beyond. “I don’t know how you did it, but it’s delicious!!” 

A proud nod from Luka. “I’m glad to hear that. I figured it’d be nice to treat you to something a little special as thanks.” She grinned. “Fire can be a little scary to work with at first, but as long as you use it properly with the right stuff, you can get some good stuff. … Oh yeah, I hope you don’t mind that I borrowed a bit of your liquor. Sorry about that.” She rubbed her neck.

‘Sorry’?! Honestly, if you could cook this for me every day, I’d be set for life!! Reimu was too busy stuffing her face to say it out-loud, but judging by Luka’s satisfied expression, she seemed to understand. 

With that, Luka began to eat her own plate. While she started with a smile, as she ate, a complicated sort of expression formed on Luka’s face. She had mentioned she did the whole ‘flame-be’ thing back home. Was she reminiscing again? It seemed like a bad habit of her’s, to always be troubling herself with some deep thoughts. If anything, seeing her mope all the time was getting a little annoying.

“... I can escort you through the barrier and you can try returning to the outside world, you know.” Reimu prodded. “I mean, I did go through the trouble of having Kotohime set up a place for you to stay, but you don’t need to force yourself to stay here if you really don’t want to.”

Luka frowned. Her brow furrowed in thought. “What about what Yukari said?” Her eyes drifted to the side. “If I’m just going to disappear when I walk back out the barrier, then…” 

“Don’t take everything she says at face value.” Reimu waved her hand dismissively. “It’s true that if you really are a youkai that is a possibility. But she could also have been lying, maybe to scare you into staying.”

Luka still seemed hesitant. “Why would she do that?”

“How am I supposed to know? That hag’s an enigma to everyone.” Reimu said. “... But, that’s not really the point. Do you want to try to go back home?”

It was clear that Luka wanted to go back. That homesick, puppy-eyed pout she kept flashing made it abundantly obvious. And yet, she seemed to swallow that feeling, and her eyes met Reimu’s.

“Thank you. But no, I don’t think I should.”

Reimu's brow creased. “Still afraid you'll vanish?” 

“No, it’s more complicated than that.” Luka frowned. “... Dad wasn’t really secretive about the fact I was adopted. I knew for most of my life. It didn’t change that he was my dad, and that I really do love him, and my old life!" There was a clear hesitance to her words. "But… I couldn’t really help but think about my parents. It was hard not to, every now and then. Who they were, why they didn’t… Well, why didn't they want me?” 

Reimu’s lips curved downwards ever-so-slightly.

Luka sighed, not noticing it. “Dad wasn’t normally a secretive guy. But, whenever I asked about them, it was like he’d dodge the questions. Always vague statements. I never pried, because it seemed like a touchy matter, and it didn’t seem important, but…” She narrowed her eyes. “Yukari knows something about them. I don’t know what she’s thinking, or planning, but if it’s got something to do with them, maybe I can get some answers. Figure out why dad was so secretive about them, you know? I want to know about them." An awkward smile. "There's other reasons too, things I can't really explain for a multitude of reasons. It's hard to find the words...”

"It definitely sounds complicated." Wanting to know anything about your parents who'd orphaned you? Going to absurd lengths to figure out that sort of stuff? Reimu couldn’t really relate. “I don’t really get it, but you seem pretty serious.” 

“Mm.” Luka nodded. “... Besides, judging by those stars in your eyes earlier, I’ve got at least one person who likes me being here.”

“I like your cooking, let's not get carried away.” Reimu passively took a bite of rice.

Luka slumped her shoulders jokingly. “Ow, food-zoned.” 

… That said, Luka really was a damn good cook. It went without saying that dinner was delicious, far better than normal. If she was this handy in the kitchen, Reimu half-considered telling Kotohime ‘nevermind, actually’ anyways and keeping her around the shrine. If only the cost of feeding two people wasn’t such a concern… 

Speaking of food and buying it.

“By the way, I saw some fried tofu among the stuff you bought.” Reimu said. “Are you seriously going to try and bring that to the fox?”

“I was going to try to.” Luka nodded. “She held up her end of the bargain. It’s only fair that I follow through, right?” 

“No, I mean,” Reimu frowned. “How are you planning to get to the gap youkai’s house to deliver it to her? I’m not helping you to go over there for something like that.”

“I—” Luka stopped, like the gears in her brain hit a jam. “... Crap.” Of course…

“You should’ve planned further ahead.” Reimu sighed. “The sum of your year is on New Year’s Day, after all.” 

“What’s that, a proverb?” Luka folded her arms. “Well, now what…” 

“You can always just store it away. I hear the fox visits the village sometimes to run errands for her master.” Reimu smirked. “Of course, I’ll eat it if you don’t feel like going to that trouble.” 

Luka scowled at her for that. With a sigh, Luka walked back into the kitchen, presumably to make sure they were tucked away someplace Reimu wouldn’t be able to find. She wasn’t being serious, anyways…

After a brief pause… “What the hell?!”

“Huh?!” Reimu stood up. “What, what is it?!”

“It’s gone! You didn’t seriously eat it, did you?!”

Wait, what?! “Of course not!” I may be broke, but I’m not a thief!

“Wait…” Some sounds of shuffling about. “Is that… it is!” Luka rounded back in, a confused expression on her face. In her hands was a small black box, which she seemed to be eying like it was some kind of legendary artifact.

“Hm?” It took Reimu a moment to recognize the shape. “Is that a mobile phone?”

“Yeah, it’s my cell phone. How’d it… —Wait.” Luka looked at her. “How’d you know what it is?” 

“I don’t exactly know, but I’ve seen some before.” Reimu shrugged. “Most outsiders wander in with something like that. A weird little box-shaped shikigami they hold to their ear and talk to. I figured it was like that.” There was also that one shop near the village. The owner tended to hoard various knick-knacks that had floated in from the outside, and she’d seen a few in his inventory every now and then. 

It looked like there was something in that description Luka wanted to comment on, but she chose not to. “I… see.” She looked down at her shikigami suspiciously. “What the hell… The tofu was gone, and my phone was tucked away in its place. What’s up with that?”

“Maybe your shikigami followed you here and ate the tofu.” Reimu shrugged. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it burnt through most of its energy finding its way back to you.”

Luka stared at her like the translation spell suddenly turned off.  “What the hell are you talking about? It’s a phone, they don’t eat.”

“Oh, really? You learn something new every day…" Reimu thought for a moment. If the tofu was a gift for the fox, then maybe… “Hm. They do say those who leave offerings for foxes can find themselves blessed with good fortune…” Given it was Yukari’s shikigami, Reimu contemplated checking her cupboards to make sure the tofu was the only thing that was taken…

“Good karma, huh.” Luka looked down at her shikigami and furrowed her brow. With a hesitant flick of her wrist, the box opened up. “—battery’s at ‘999%’, what—” She shook her head. “No, forget that, let me…” 

Reimu watched silently as the girl fiddled with her shikigami. There was a brief pause, as Luka took a deep breath and pressed her thumb rather decisively against it. A brief loud noise emanated from it, and then it started speaking in the same language Luka had been when she first arrived. Whatever the little thing was reporting to her, it wasn’t good news, as she grimaced the moment it started up. With a curse, she smacked it again with her thumb and it shut up. “No signal. Of course not, what was I expecting…” Luka’s shoulders sank as she slumped back down to the table, forlorn eyes still staring at her newly reacquired shikigami. 

“What exactly are you doing?” Reimu tilted her head. 

“Trying to call home. See if maybe I could reach my dad somehow.” Luka glared at no one in particular. “Of course, there’s a whole dimensional barrier or whatever in the way, so that plan was dead in the water before I even tried.” 

Reimu looked at Luka for a moment, then to the shikigami. “'Call'? What do you mean?”

“It’s a phone ." She said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, and then caught herself. "I guess that doesn’t mean much to you, huh.” Luka sighed. “Basically, it’s a device we can use to talk with people across the world, as long as you have their specific phone number. and a tower to transmit the signals.” 

"Sounds complicated." And now she was back to not really caring.

Luka continued to stare right into it. “... Even without the barrier problem, there probably aren’t any cell towers anywhere around here. So the main purpose of a cell phone is basically moot here. Why give it back to me?”

Reimu could only offer a shrug as an answer.

“... Hm?” Luka’s eyes narrowed, then widened. “Wait, she screwed with my contacts too?!” A glare, and Luka turned to Reimu. “I’m going to guess you don’t have a phone, right?”

“Of course not. Most people in Gensokyo probably don’t.” Reimu could only imagine the kappa as an exception, and even then whatever they used was probably totally different. “Why?” 

“Your name’s in here now.” She held the shikigami out for Reimu to see. Sure enough, on the small lit display was a bunch of words in a language she still didn’t recognize and one set she did: her own name, written in proper Japanese. “That might explain why I don’t see a number listed…” 

“Odd…” 

A brief pause. Luka’s eyes narrowed even more.

“I don’t recognize this ringtone.” She pressed her thumb into the box. “What’s—” 

"ねこ、みこ、霊夢 愛してる~ ♪

ねこ、みこ、霊夢 何してる?~♪

ねこ、みこ、霊夢 酒乱ゆらり~♪

ねこ、みこ、霊夢 無論ふらり~♪—"

There was a deep pause as both of them stared at the singing shikigami. Luka gaped in wide-eyed shock, as if barely processing what she was hearing. Reimu’s eyes darkened and smoldered.

On the screen, next to the contact’s ringtone setting, was a single character written in Japanese: "草". Neither really understood what that was supposed to mean. But they could guess who had named it. And could imagine the connotation behind it. 

A vision of a giggling old hag hung over the room. 

A thin thread in the back of Reimu’s head called ‘patience’—one that had steadily been worn down over the past few days—snapped. In the next instant, a scene not unlike two cats fighting ensued. 

“Hand it over!!” Reimu hissed, futily reaching for Luka’s now-pulled-away phone, the girl’s hand firmly pressing back against her face.  “I’m drowning it!! Then I’m tracking that hag down and beating her to death with it!!!” 

“Are you crazy?! My phone is a victim, not an accomplice!!” Luka pried her back, holding her phone back as far away as she could. “You are NOT turning it into a murder weapon!! DOWN GIRL, DOWN!!!” 

All the while, the shikigami kept singing its nonsensical tune to completion.

It took a little while for things to calm down after that. 

Reimu cleared her throat. “... That aside, it’s getting late. We should probably get some sleep soon. There’s a lot you’re going to want to learn if you’re going to stay in Gensokyo, and we’ll be starting tomorrow.” 

“I figured.” Luka flopped back-first onto the floor, exhausted from the earlier scuffle. “So, what’s the first lesson?”

That was a good question. If Luka was going to commit to staying in Gensokyo, there was a lot of ground to cover in terms of explanations. More than Reimu actually wanted to do, but… Anyways, it was probably a good idea to start at the most important thing for someone who wanted to live in Gensokyo to know. 

“It’s simple. Tomorrow morning, I’ll teach you about ‘danmaku’.”


The following morning, after a nice breakfast (yet again prepared by Luka— ’Since when were eggs this good?!’ ), Reimu and Luka gathered in front of the shrine. 

“So,” Luka settled into a crouched position, stretching her legs and arms. “Where do we start with the whole ‘bullet storm’ thing?”

“Danmaku.” Reimu corrected. 

“That’s what I said.”

Reimu shrugged. “It’s pretty simple. Do you remember the Spell Card rules I mentioned the other day?”

“Nonlethal lasers and explosions, yeah.” Luka nodded. “We didn’t go into a ton of detail.”

Good, she remembered. Okay… “The principles by which those rules work center around ‘danmaku’.” Reimu said. “As for what ‘danmaku is’, it’s kind of hard to explain what it is without showing it in action.” 

Reimu extended both of her hands outward in front of her. In one, she held a regular paper ofuda charm. In the other, nothing but her bare hand. With a deep breath and some concentration, a small light formed in that empty palm—changing, refining itself until it eventually mirrored the ofuda in her other hand. 

Luka applauded plainly. The sight had probably worn out its shock factor, considering she'd witnessed it a few times already. "Neat. So, what does this have to do with me staying here? Some kind of self-defense skill?"

"Of a sort. As I mentioned before, Spell Card battles and danmaku work in tandem as a system. We settle disputes between one another by these nonlethal dueling rules. Meaning that if you ever happen to run into a youkai while wandering around, you're going to want to be able to fight them with these rules."

"I see… So, as long as I fight with these rules, I shouldn't ever be in danger of dying?" Luka perked up interestedly.

"Not exactly." Reimu shook her head. "The system's not exact. It's kinda like dulling a sword so that it doesn't cut someone to ribbons—it's still going to hurt if you get hit dead-on by a super strong opponent. If you push your luck against the wrong person, you might actually die, so don't just go picking fights with whoever you want."

"Ah, well isn't that just great." Luke sank. "I guess it's better than nothing, but…"

"There are some other, maybe more important details, but it's kind of a pain to try and go over that all at once. We can worry about those parts later." Reimu cleared her throat. “As you can see,” She held up the copy ofuda. “danmaku can take on any kind of appearance its user wants, from generic shapes to stylized bullets. I’m sure it looks like any other kind of magic to an outsider, but it’s a bit more mundane. Like a supernatural martial art that anyone can do.”

Luka folded her arms. “You’re saying that, but it’s hard to parse any kind of difference just by looking at it.”

Reimu considered her words. “You can think of it as reflective of Gensokyo itself. It’s based around belief and intent.” As if to demonstrate, Reimu waved her hand. Without any conscious thought, she simply ‘believed’ that the bullets would appear around her. And of course, as she did, a circle of ofuda bullets formed and began orbiting around her. “You just need to believe that you can shoot bullets, and you can shoot them. And if your intent is that the bullets will be nonlethal, they’ll be nonlethal.” 

“Peter Pan logic, huh.” Luka narrowed her eyes skeptically. “So, what? Is it seriously just belief? It can’t be that simple.” 

“Why don’t you just give it a try?” Reimu swiped her hand forward. The bullets she’d formed all shot past Luka and zoomed to a nearby tree, smacking and popping against it like a series of punches, leaving a small cluster of leaves to flutter down to the ground. “It really is that simple. You should be able to do it if you just go for it.”

Luka looked at her hesitantly, before turning to the tree she’d fired at. It was a simple process, really. The whole point of the Spell Card rules and danmaku was so anyone could learn them. So that youkai could freely show off their power and cause incidents without worry of creating any serious harm to anyone, and so that humans of Gensokyo could freely resolve the incidents those youkai caused. The balance of Gensokyo was maintained by their existence. It was key that any new resident of the land understood those rules. 

In the short few years since she’d introduced the system, pretty much everyone who tried to use the system was able to shoot danmaku. Something based in such a simple system of belief in a place which literally ran on it made it intuitive and easy-to-use. It didn’t require anything complex, just the belief that someone could shoot bullets. Just that universal belief, even if it was incomplete or half-hearted, was enough. At this point, the only people who ‘couldn’t’ shoot danmaku were people who actively chose to stay in the village (or their shop) and not partake in the duels. 

All Luka needed to do was believe she could shoot danmaku and she would.  

Luka looked carefully at her target, then down at her hands. After a moment of consideration, Reimu watched as Luka took up a firing stance with one arm outstretched, her index finger and thumb extended, not unlike a gun. 

Reimu thought back to a moon rabbit, then discarded the thought. Probably just a coincidence.

With Luka aimed at the tree, she waited for her to fire. 

One breath. Two breaths. Three… 

Luka moved her other hand to brace her extended finger-gun. 

Ready… And…

… 

… … …

“You can shoot whenever you’re ready, you know.” Reimu squinted. 

“I know! Just,” Luka grunted. “Give me a second…” 

Another extended grunt. Luka’s muscles tensed like someone suffering from constipation. 

“... … Are you going to shoot?” 

“Yes!! Right now !” 

… And, nothing. Luka just continued to strain herself.

Luka smiled understandingly. “If you need to use the bathroom, the outhouse is over there…” 

“That’s not it! Besides, I went before we started—” Luka shook her head and spun around. “—look, nothing’s happening, okay?!” She waved her finger-gun incredulously. “I’m believing that I’ll shoot, and trying to shoot, but nothing’s coming out!” 

“...” Reimu blinked. “Wait, you’re serious?”

“Yes!” There wasn’t a hint of irony or deception on Luka’s face. She really was struggling to shoot danmaku. “As serious as I can be!” 

“... That’s a first.” It wasn’t an exaggeration; absolutely everyone who had tried to use the system before was able to use it. From vampires to oni, from regular humans to Lunarians. Even people who had never participated in Spell Card battles could easily adapt to the rules once they were explained. “You should be able to do it just by trying to. Are you really serious?”

“How many more times do I need to say 'yes'?” Luka pointed back to the tree and exerted herself a few more times. Not a single bullet fired. “See?”

… She was sincerely having trouble with such a basic fundamental. She looked like a lost, frustrated child having trouble understanding simple multiplication. Reimu wasn’t even sure how to react. She’d never encountered this problem before with anyone. 

“Hmm.” What a troublesome outsider… What could have been causing her to struggle so hard? The concept was so simple, even something as weak as a fairy could pick up on it. 

… … … Or, perhaps that was the point? 

Danmaku required some amount of power, whether it was spiritual, magical, or otherwise. Thus, while the theory was simple enough to grasp, it required at least that fundamental basis. It was easy for youkai to use it because they already had the necessary fundamentals. Humans in Gensokyo also could, once they grasped the idea behind it. Maybe, because Luka was an outsider, she just didn’t get the idea.

How could Reimu explain the idea behind something like danmaku to an outsider? 

“... Aha! That’s it!” Reimu smashed her fist into her palm. “How about we try flying instead? That’s even easier, and it might help you understand the process.”

Luka just stared at Reimu like the same child suddenly being told division existed. “How exactly is learning to fly supposed to help me figure out magic bullets?”

“It’s easy. Just watch.” 

Flight was even simpler than danmaku. Even more so than shooting bullets, which could be compared to martial arts, flight was akin to breathing. The action was natural to anyone and everyone in Gensokyo. That was because flight was, in itself, a natural part of Gensokyo.

Without another word, Reimu’s feed left the ground. A mysterious sort of floating, with no justification. A mysterious sort of flying, but it was very much real. She wasn’t carried by the wind, or lifted up by any kind of external force. She simply floated, with as much ease as if it were just her natural state of being. That was how it was for everyone in Gensokyo, as far as Reimu understood. 

“There. Now you try.”

Luka only offered her a blank stare. “Try what, exactly?”

“This.” She dropped to the floor, then floated up again. “Go on, try it.”

“No, I saw that part pretty clearly. I got a healthy dose of that two days ago. I’m asking you to explain what you’re doing, exactly, to pull that off.”

“Huh?” Reimu blinked. “I’m flying. What else is there to explain?”

“Everything?” Luka scratched her head. “Am I supposed to move my body in some kind of specific way? Exert some muscles in my body? Breathe in a specific way? What are you doing to pull that off? You’ve got to explain with a little depth.” 

“What depth? It’s just flying.” As far as Reimu understood, from the very beginning there wasn’t much for her to really elaborate on. Both danmaku and flight were things everyone in Gensokyo could do with ease. “There’s really not much to explain. You just do it.”

“That's not how—” Luka threw her hands up, mumbling something under her breath. “Look, can’t you give me some kind of description? Explain your process, somehow?” 

It felt ridiculous to try explaining something so basic. Was Luka seriously struggling so badly to grasp it? She didn’t even want to try. “Urgh, if it can’t be helped, then…” 

Reimu mulled over her words for a bit, trying to think of the best way to summarize her mindset when she flew. Back then, when she first learned how to fly, how it was explained to her… How did he put it? 

“Okay… Let’s think of it like this.” She stood up straight. “Think of what flying means. What it stands for. To fly is to be unbound by all things; to float, unhindered, by the very laws of the world which bound man to the earth. By releasing yourself from those binding shackles, you defy the common sense that declared that ‘what goes up must also come down’. That is what flight is: freedom from gravity, mankind’s first fantasy.” She nodded with a smile, content with her own words. “Well? Did that clear it up?”

Luka stared at her, eyes wide. “That was really beautiful. Super poetic description.”

Reimu beamed pridefully. “Hm-hm~.”

“It told me absolutely nothing.” Guh—

“Well, what do you want me to say, then?! That was how I learned how to fly! Isn’t that enough to understand it?”

“No, it really isn’t.” Luka sighed.

“Well, maybe you’re just a bad student, then!” With a huff, she turned away, arms folded.

Mutter, mutter. “Or you’re terrible at explaining things.”

“What was that?!” She peeked over her shoulder.

“I said you’re a bad explainer!”

It was useless. The entire lesson soon devolved into a really stupid argument. No matter how Reimu tried to explain something so simple, Luka just couldn’t grasp the concepts she was putting forward. What was so hard about it, anyways?!

“Maybe it’s just that you aren’t properly motivated enough to fly.” Reimu cupped her chin, and a devious smile crept onto her face. “Maybe if I had you walk the plank and put a man-eating youkai underneath you…” 

“Try it. I’ll drag you to hell with me.”

A mutual glare was shared, sparks ready to start flying. Right before one of them started a fire…

“Oh, it’s quite lively this morning. And with a fresh face, at that.”

An elderly voice, like that of an old grandfather, came from just above the both of them. Reimu already recognized it, before she and Luka even turned to see who had spoken. Looking only confirmed it; a large, flying turtle, old and with a gray beard, hovering just overhead. Even though he took on more of a shape akin to an actual turtle, she could still make out the faintest outline of a smile on his face. 

“Er.” Luka stared stupidly. “Hi?” 

“Gramps, what are you doing up so suddenly?” Reimu, meanwhile, completely lost all the malicious aura she’d been exuding, going totally meek. 

“I could overhear your conversation all the way from the lake behind the shrine. You were quite loud, you know.”

“Ah.” Reimu only got meeker. “W-Well anyways, you don’t need to force yourself to fly around and come check on me. I’m just trying to teach someone how to fly, and she’s not really understanding. I’ve got this under control.” 

“Oho? So threatening your student is having everything under control?” 

“Well, that’s…” She started fidgeting.

Luka, who had been staring at Reimu like she’d suddenly morphed into a completely different species, snapped out of her daze. “Sorry, can I interrupt?” She gestured between the turtle and Reimu. “‘Gramps’? You’re saying that in an adopted sense, right? You’re not a quarter-turtle or something?”

“What are you going on about? Are you stupid? He’s just an old friend.” Reimu said, avoiding direct eye-contact with the turtle. “He used to fly me around all the time, when I first started as a shrine maiden. That’s all.”

“Forgetting quite a bit in that explanation, aren't we? For instance, that I was the one who taught you how to fly.” Genjii huffed. “It seems you’re struggling to do the same.”

“Mrgg…” What? It was Luka’s fault!

“Uh… huh.” Luka looked at Reimu, then at the floating turtle. “I’m Luka East, a former ‘outsider’ or whatever the word is. You are…?”

“Genjii.” He lowered himself down to them. “Merely Genjii. That is all.”

“Nice to meet you, sir?” Luka still looked like she was processing the conversation. Her eyes continued to shift between the two of them, as if theorizing on their relationship in the back of her mind. “And, yeah, Reimu’s explanations are kind of terrible so far.”

“Why you—!” Reimu forcibly restrained herself in Genjii’s presence.

“She is simply giving the advice which feels most natural to her.” Genjii said. “She means well, I assure you. It's just that in her conceit, Reimu tends to forget her particular gifts are not shared by others.”

“I’m standing right here…” She felt like crying.

“That is why I am saying it so bluntly, yes.” Genjii turned to her. “You’ve a myriad of natural talents, my lady, but teaching is not one of them.”

“U-Urgh.” Why was everyone picking on her lately?! “It’s not my fault she can’t understand such a basic concept.”

“Ah, you misunderstand.” Genjii let out a mild laugh. The old turtle certainly got more jovial in his old age, didn’t he? “To teach is not merely to explain the basic principles to someone. You must adapt your explanation to another’s worldview so that they may understand it.”

“?” Reimu tilted her head. “What do you mean? I said it pretty clearly…”

“... Mmm.” The turtle turned to Luka. “You said you are an outsider, yes?”

“That’s what everyone keeps calling me, yes.” Luka shrugged.

Genjii nodded thoughtfully. “The outside world comes from a diverging mindset, completely different from that of Gensokyo. From what I overheard, you are concerning yourself with the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of flight, rather than simply accepting it.”

“I mean, that’s just logical, isn’t it?” Luka rubbed the back of her head. “It’s just how the world works. There’s got to be a method, or some explanation for how it works.”

“Perhaps. And indeed, maybe with time you could possibly uncover some hidden truth behind the grand fantasy of flight.” Genjii said. “But as long as you are in Gensokyo, the law of this land is that unexplained, natural existence is what drives this place. That not every question requires an answer.”

“Uh… This sounds more like a philosophy lecture than a lesson on flying.” Luka folded her arms. “Can’t you just explain it to me normally?”

“We have been explaining it to you normally…” Reimu pouted. 

“Hm hm.” Genjii closed his eyes for a moment in thought. “We merely have different ideals on what defines ‘normal’. To teach, one must be willing to learn as well. It’s been quite some time since I’ve spoken with an outsider in great detail, as well…” The turtle drifted over to Luka, an eager spark in his eyes. “Let us see if we can help you find your own method of flight, then.”

Before she knew it, the old turtle had basically snatched her student from her. He’d begun verbally prodding at Luka, a familiar lesson plan to Reimu. Luka raised an eyebrow, but humored him. After a little while, Reimu found herself seated back at the main shrine, watching from afar.

He really just wanted an excuse to get out of the pond, didn’t he…

It wasn’t a common occurrence for Genjii to nose around the front of the shrine, not since he’d retired from their work. Against her will, Reimu had gotten to know many youkai over her career as a shrine maiden. Genjii was the first and potentially the oldest she’d met (if she could ever get a serious answer from Yukari to measure that). From his own words, he was a friend of a previous shrine maiden, who had shown him mercy generations ago during an incident long past the memory of anyone in the region. After that, he’d sworn loyalty to the Hakurei shrine maidens and taken it upon himself to watch over each one who took on the role.

… Supposedly. Reimu was pretty sure he was just a weird turtle who liked hanging around the shrine. Whatever his story was, the two of them had worked for quite a time before he’d finally decided to retire. Despite her horrible memory, she could still vaguely recall the time before the Spell Card rules were put into place. Back when she was just a little kid…

Watching the lecture, Reimu could make out the image of a little girl with black hair and a traditional shrine maiden’s uniform fussing about in the same place Luka stood. 

“Gramps, can’t I just rely on you to fly everywhere? I really don’t get how to fly…” 

“You can’t rely on me forever, my lady. Try to think of flight as being a natural thing for you to do. As the shrine maiden who presides over fantasy, it is only natural that you can fly.”

“... Ahh, I don’t get it at all!!” 

… Even back then she hated hard work. Her job came with too many responsibilities, it was hard to juggle everything at once. If anything, she welcomed Genjii nosing in, since it took some of the burden off of her. Now, she could at least sit back and try to relax for a bit in peace…

… … … … … So, of course the moment she tried to, she remembered something else.

"Ah," Reimu grimaced. "Er, Gramps? Since you're here, do you mind watching the problem child for a bit? There's something I need to go take care of."

Luka frowned. "You look the same age as me."

"Am I not already doing that?" Genjii seemed to smirk. "Worry not, your charge is in good hands."

Cheeky old man…

With a sigh, Reimu rose and walked to the side of the shrine. There, tucked between the trees surrounding it, was a small dirt path. Easy to miss, it barely had enough space for one person to squeeze along it. Even without accounting for her memory, it'd have been easy to forget it was there. 

The only reason she didn't was because the path it led down was the host to a particular milestone in her career, albeit one not many people knew about: her very first incident.

After a few minutes of walking, the treeline opened up to an open field, the grass cleared in the center to reveal a great wooden torii . It stood untouched by time for the most part, likely in part to the guardian which watched over it.

Upon first sight, it would've looked really stupid. Floating idly in front of the gate was a large, almost comically-sized ball with a yin-yang symbol on it. Just looking at it, one would've been forgiven for mistaking it as just an oversized Yin-Yang Orb. But as far as Reimu knew, the big thing had no connection to her trusty orb. Then again, she didn't know much about it to begin with.

The only things she knew were things she'd gleaned from that incident all those years ago. Her memory was hazy (as always), but she could still recall the basics. The frightful shake, before her shrine came crashing down. An ominous overflow of impure, malicious energy tainting and tearing apart everything in the surrounding area around her shrine. All of it leading a trail back to the gate, with a stained, berserk guardian standing watch.

Reimu didn't really delve into an investigation back then. It wasn't like she could—back then, she couldn't even fly. The only thing she had was her Yin-Yang Orb, with which she effectively played the world's most life-threatening game of kemari . What followed next was all a bit of a blur, involving mist-like outlines of spirits, spiritually corroded seals she had to purify (by kicking the Yin-Yang Orb at them, of course), and a lot of screaming. Whether it was hers or the spirits', she couldn't remember.

All she remembered was that by the end of it, she had a purified gate with whatever was sealed inside firmly locked back in-place, and the guardian back where it belonged. Since that day, she made it a minor habit to check in on the gate every now and then. 'Now and then' typically being whenever she remembered it, which was basically just down to 'whenever'. So long as nothing bad happened like that again, she was content to not do anything else with it.

"... Hm?"

Reimu snapped out of her reminiscing to spot a human-sized silhouette slowly approaching the gate and its guardian. "Hey! What are you doing here?!" Naturally, she darted down to them, preparing for a fight.

The figure spun to her with a shock. A green skirt and tabard decorated with a thorn pattern twirled; her pink hair bobbing like a rose spinning in the wind. As if brandishing her thorns, the rose's bandaged arm rose in a defensive posture and her eyes sharpened for the briefest of moments, only for both her gaze and her stance to soften as they met Reimu's glare.

"O-Oh, it's just you Reimu." The strange woman withdrew her arm, smiling awkwardly as if she wasn't trespassing. "I didn't expect to see you here."

"???" Her tone was way too familiar. "Do I know you?"

The woman blinked. "Eh? We've met before. A few times, actually."

Reimu squinted at her. "I'm terrible with faces."

"... I see." A tight-lipped smile. "Perhaps a name will do. Does 'Ibarakasen' ring any bells?"

Ibarakasen… Ibarakasen…

… Ah!

It took her a moment. Granted, none of their prior meetings had really been all that meaningful, so it was easy for Reimu to forget they had happened at all. All she remembered was a hermit who had a tendency to nose her way into other peoples' business, and loved to nag Reimu about every little thing. 

"Right, Kasen. O-Of course I remember you." Reimu nodded. "You're that nosy, preachy hermit."

"'Preachy'?" Kasen squinted.

"Er-" Wait, don't get distracted! "That aside, what's a hermit doing poking around here? This isn't a place people should be sticking their nose around. It's dangerous."

"Oh?" Kasen looked impressed by something. "You sound like a proper shrine maiden all of a sudden, guarding this seal so diligently."

"For some reason, hearing that from you just makes me mad. ...Wait." Reimu blinked, then squinted at Kasen. "How did you know what this was?"

Kasen's eyes widened for a moment. "Ah, well—" Her eyes averted to the gate. "I simply—" She paused weirdly. "... Sensed something malicious here! So I guessed that there was something sealed here, right?" She seemed weirdly stiff.

"Hmm…" That made sense… She probably had some secret hermit sense or something. It was possible she sensed something bad and it was just making her tense, so she decided to investigate. "Yes, that's right. I don't really know all that much about it, though, just that it was here when I first became the Hakurei shrine maiden." She stared at the gate guardian.

"Hm, is that so." She didn't seem to react very much. "There's a certain age to the seal, that's for certain. I'd wager it's been here long before you were born."

"That wouldn't surprise me. It's pretty old."

"Mm. Speaking of its age…" She eyed the floating orb carefully. "Have you been taking good care of its shiki-ouji?"

"Huh?" Reimu turned to her. "You mean ShinGyoku?"

“—’Shin'— what?” Kasen gaped at her. "Huh?"

“Oh, it’s the name I gave it." She gestured to the orb. "Since it’s near the shrine a lot, it’s probably got some kind of godly association or something. Plus it usually looks like a ball, so…” She drew two kanji in the air with her finger. “Shin(神)Gyoku(玉). I don’t actually know what it is, though, so I usually just check to make sure it hasn’t keeled over and died. It’s not really like a pet, so I don’t have to worry about feeding it. It's pretty convenient.” 

Kasen's face twisted in the funny way, like she’d just gotten to the end of a graphic horror novel.

“I—... Putting your naming sense aside, no, even worse, your total lack of any kind of urgency here—” Kasen cleared her throat. “This is a shiki-ouji. A type of shikigami.” 

Reimu tilted her head. "You mean like the gap hag's fox?"

"A bit." Kasen raised a finger like a teacher giving a lecture. "Though this one's a bit unique. —Er, from what I can tell, at least. It doesn't seem to serve a master in a traditional sense; rather, it functions as something that could be described as a 'masterless shikigami'. Something which can exist on its own, even after the person who created it no longer lives on."

"Ehhh. So it's like a ronin or something?" Reimu nodded thoughtfully. "That really is convenient." So she was right to not worry about feeding it, phew.

"N...not quite, but that isn't inaccurate…" Kasen sighed. "It's certainly convenient, but there are some downsides. For instance, lacking a master means it's more susceptible to outside influences." Kasen started wagging her finger at Reimu. Ah, there she goes… "You should know this—and take care to perform a purifying ritual on it every now and then! What do you think would happen if something managed to corrupt it? It could very well go berserk!"

"Uhm…" Reimu tried to not look Kasen directly in the eyes as she beared down on her. "Yes, well…"

Hm?" Kasen eyed her strictly. "What is it?"

Reimu avoided her gaze. "Nothing. I'll keep it in mind…" She didn't need to know anything.

Kasen held her glare on Reimu for a few seconds, like she was waiting for her to flinch, before eventually backing down. "Good. As long as you understand." A satisfied smile.

Geh… Such a preachy, exhausting person… What was she, her mother?

"That aside," Reimu snuck a glance back to the path she'd come down, and gradually started tip-toeing towards it. "Now that I've checked up on everything here… I really should get back to the shrine…"

"Running away after you've been cornered, hm?" Kasen gave a sly smirk. "That's rather irresponsible of you."

"Gh—" Go, just go!! Don't continue fighting this losing battle! "Yes, yes, whatever!!" And away she went.

"Don't forget to properly maintain this shiki-ouji!"

"I know, I've got it alreadyyyy!!" Reimu yelled out as she fled, not looking back in the slightest.

Ahh… She didn't think she'd miss Genjii's lectures…


… … … … 

Once she was certain the shrine maiden was completely gone, a sigh escaped from Kasen. 

“My, the current shrine maiden is quite a handful, isn’t she.” 

Kasen’s eyes returned to the seal which she had come to check on. Her expression softened, tinged with an uncertain emotion. Staring into the wooden gate, she could only see through it into the forest surrounding them both. Yet, her gaze held to it, as though there was something there only she could see, something there only she could understand. 

Without thinking, she’d rested her still-remaining arm on her bandaged ‘right arm’. None could tell the myriad thoughts going through her mind, the lingering emotions resting in such a simple gesture. Things which were pointless to dwell on, useless to brood over, foolish to burden oneself with. Staring into that blank space inside the gate, she reflected. 

It was the same thing every time she came here. It’d become an annual ritual, in a sense. Rustling grass, silent contemplative steps, and she stood directly before the gate. If she hadn’t been trespassing before, she certainly was now, yet ‘ShinGyoku’ merely floated by idly. The guardian of the seal did not challenge her approach, and it wouldn’t have stopped her if she even chose to touch the gate. It was only natural that was the case. The ‘hermit’ was not someone who it was programmed to defend against. 

“... So much time has passed since then. How long has it been? How many human lifetimes? Two? Three?” She took a deep breath, and the stirred emotions within her settled just a little. “Quite a bit has happened in these intervening years…” 

Kasen approached the side of the gate, resting her back against the wooden structure and seating herself. It was a shockingly casual gesture for a hermit who had lectured Reimu not too long ago about maintaining the safety of the seal. Though, she knew how to handle it delicately enough so as not to damage it, so she could afford to be a little hypocritical. 

Not to mention once upon a time, they were ‘villains’ after all. Breaking rules was all too familiar.

“She really is a troublesome one, that shrine maiden.” Kasen smiled. “I don’t think I’ve ever met one quite so irresponsible. One who is so casual with youkai, in spite of putting on such fronts. I’m sure if you’d seen her, you would have likely thought it was some kind of act. Truth be told, she’s rather emblematic of all that has changed in Gensokyo from all those years ago. All that is different from the world we chose to leave behind…” Her words were stained with a melancholic wistfulness. “Would you have been satisfied with it, I wonder?" Her tone harshened. "You damn fool…”

Words from her old self. The hermit’s lips curved downwards. An uncharacteristic bitterness seized her as her bandages tightened into a fist. Despite the venom in her words, there was another emotion. One which couldn’t be understood by any but the speaker and her 'audience'. A cutting warmth which defied definition.

… Her clenched fist loosened and her scowl faded. It was in the past. Both ‘herself’ and 'her'. She could only pray that she found some peace before she was forgotten. A complicated smile formed on her face.

After a brief pause, Kasen stood and pulled something from her pockets.

“The day hasn't yet come, when the barrier no longer needs to exist, and when humans and youkai no longer need conflict to survive… Until that day…” 

… She did not finish the sentence.

With a solemn, heartfelt bow, the supposed hermit who called herself ‘Ibarakasen’ departed for her dojo.

Where she once was, left at the foot of the great torii gate, would be a wild rose of warmest pink.

Chapter Text


~ STAGE 7: Seven-Colored Rainbow ~

 

[START]


A week passed by in total silence. No grand incident began to unfold, no secret youkai conspiracy was unveiled, nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

It was honestly the biggest, most gigantic let-down ever for Marisa. 

“Seriously,” she thought on her way back from a youkai extermination job. “I thought something super interesting was gonna happen.”

It wasn’t so much the arrival of the outsider that had clued her into that. Sure, she was weird, but that was about it. Rather, it was the total silence from every single major youkai group in Gensokyo that made her suspect something major was coming. A whole bunch of incidents had been stirred up by all sorts of youkai since Reimu put the Spell Card rules into play. With so many parties clumped together, each with their own goals, Marisa figured it would’ve only been a matter of time before something started up. The random outsider with a mysterious past showing up just made her even more certain. Hell, the outsider herself could cause the incident for all she knew.

… But! In spite of it all, nothing had happened yet. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

It was so booooring!! 

Wasn’t the whole point of setups like this to kick straight to some serious action? A mysterious stranger enters the fray with no memory of their past, and suddenly an incident no one was expecting starts! Filled with strange new characters with cool and bizarre new abilities, and kickass action on every other page! That was what she signed up for! She wanted a refund!!

Ahh… Oh well. At the very least, there wasn’t a shortage of small fry work. 

“Thank you, young lady.” The old farmer handed over a small pouch weighed down with coins. “I’m still not sure what led those kamaitachi to start appearing so closely near the village, but you’ve saved us quite a lot of trouble.

“S’no problem.” Marisa wore a devil-may-care grin. “A bunch of displaced weasels aren’t a match for me.”

There had been a minor infestation of sickle weasels that had taken up shop near the village’s farmland. As a result, there were infrequent incidents where the farmers would be attacked while working. With the grain harvest approaching as autumn neared its end, it was almost the time of year to start fermenting alcohol. The last thing anyone needed was some youkai ruining their drinks. Marisa especially; the money the job paid was definitely one reason she took it, but the main reason was just because she wanted to try making some mushroom shōchū before the year ended. 

With her work for the day done, Marisa snuck a glance back to the sky. It was still early in the day, not even past noon, so she had time to waste. What to do?

Hm, I could go poke around the shrine and see what's up. Oh, but before that…

Shadowy underbrush the sun couldn’t reach, each damp pocket filled with its own assortment of colorful, noxious mushrooms. The dancing spores were a familiar sight in the Forest of Magic, and would have been enough to knock out any normal human. Good thing she was an ordinary witch instead; with how long she’d been working around mushrooms, they didn’t really affect her much anymore.

There wasn’t a path to follow, but Marisa hopped along as if following one. She’d lived in the forest for too long to get lost carelessly, especially when she was taking such a specific route. 

A clearing opened up from the dense foliage, revealing a small, pristine house. Surrounding it, a well-maintained metal fence and gate with no signs of age or rust. As usual, Marisa hopped the fence without bothering to check if the gate was locked or not. 

A series of glints spread across the yard in front of the house, like light reflecting off strands of hair. Attached to them were a small team of finely-dressed, pint-sized maid dolls. With how precise their movements were, someone seeing them for the first time could have been forgiven for thinking they were alive. A few grouped together and were ferrying around a reel mower, while the rest had settled into other more involved tasks, like weeding. Following the trail of wires back to the house, she’d see a slightly larger doll floating at the porch, watching the other dolls like a senior. The wires of all the ‘junior’ dolls all flowed into the senior doll’s tiny hands, its arms moving like the doll itself was the puppet master. Of course, a closer look revealed another thin wire connecting the supervisor doll back inside the house. 

“Whoa, a new face and a new trick! Alice is workin’ you girls hard today!” Marisa grinned as she approached the porch. The doll didn’t respond, instead shifting to the side as the door behind it creaked open. It bowed politely, like a servant letting in an honored guest. “Thanks a bunch~” Marisa tipped her hat and slid past. 

The sight of hair-like wires were just the same inside—if anything, it was even more crowded. A controlled set of floating dolls, all occupied with all sorts of tasks; dusting, sweeping, reorganizing shelves and furniture, everything. They moved with a coordination that made it seem like they were trained maids hard at work, perfectly selling the illusion that they were alive. That illusion was even more believable when one looked at the young woman standing at the center of the action. 

“Yes, over there is good. —Ah, don’t forget to dust behind there. —Shanghai, is the tea almost ready?” 

Her words made it sound like the dolls were all living beings following her orders, with each one responding in time with her commands. But a closer look would reveal thin wires trailing from each doll, leading back to the young woman’s fingers. They moved with delicate, precise motions, with no mistakes or wasted movement. It was a beautiful show, watching her move. The gentle look in her eyes as she commanded her dolls, the slight smile as if she were speaking to her very own children. The way she was able to manipulate so many dolls at once with such precision while still maintaining her weird habit of talking to them. All of it was 100% Alice Margatroid. 

Altogether, it made Marisa’s heart run a little lap in her chest.

Alice didn’t immediately respond to Marisa’s entry. In fact, she only barely seemed to notice Marisa was standing just a few feet from her. 

Here’s my chance~

Slipping past the dolls that were working, Marisa snuck right up behind Alice as she was delivering orders. Still no response; she seriously didn’t realize she was there. With a devious grin, Marisa leaned in—and, pecking in-and-out like a woodpecker, delivered a swift kiss right on Alice’s cheek. 

“———” 

For a brief moment, the wires (and subsequently, the dolls) twitched as if an electric shock had just shot through them. Marisa heard a sound like one of them snatching something fragile in a panic. 

“Afternoon, Alice—whoa!” Marisa ducked past a small strand that whipped by her head. “Hey~! That could’ve hurt~!”

Alice was looking away so it was hard to make out her facial expression, but her ears were bright red as she continued moving her dolls around. 

“Ooh, isn’t this some seriously cold reception?” Marisa swayed around playfully, sneaking a glance at the wires dancing around the both of them. “I’ve still got no clue how ya avoid tangling yourself on these things. Seriously, can you do it at least once? It’d be pretty funny if I walked in and saw you all tied up like that.” 

A series of ‘clack!’s rang out as a trio of dolls finished dusting a shelf with delicate glassware. With a flick of Alice’s index finger, the dolls swung to seated positions and stopped moving. A sigh. “Good afternoon, Marisa.” Alice didn’t turn to greet her, instead dedicating her attention to the dolls still working. “If I wanted to tie anyone up, it’d be the uninvited guest waltzing into my home like she owns the place. Speaking of, you still haven’t returned those grimoires you ‘borrowed’.”

“Hey, when you’re dating, shared custody is a policy, right?” 

“Me stringing you up so badly you turn into a doll is also a policy.”

A fake gasp from Marisa. “What a cruel threat to make! You’re an evil woman, Alice!” 

She caught a small glimpse at a smirk. “An evil woman who’s making tea. If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish cleaning so I can enjoy some. You’ll help yourself anyways, so go ahead and take a seat in the kitchen.” 

With such words being exchanged, one would think there would be some venom flying around. But there was no malice in the air; rather, the exact opposite. With a smile of her own, Marisa snuck past the cleaning dolls and over to the kitchen. Sure enough, a familiar doll model had just finished dutifully preparing black tea for two, a tiny bit of steam rising from the cups. With a curtsey (and a flick of a wire), she flew back off in the direction of Alice. Translation: I’m almost done, I’ll be over there in a moment. 

After just a minute, the puppet show closed its curtains and Alice stepped into view.

“You used a ton more dolls than usual this time.” Marisa leaned back into her chair, her hat now resting on an open space on the table. “Don’t think I’ve seen that greeting doll you had at the front door, either. She got a name?” 

“You sound like a womanizer when you ask like that.” Alice sat herself opposite Marisa. “To answer both your questions, I haven’t picked a name for her yet. And I decided to try using her and the other dolls today for research purposes.”

“Test run, huh?” Marisa thought back to the unnamed doll’s puppeteering. “Trying out some kinda autonomous control or somethin’?

“Mm.” Alice sipped her tea. The thoughtful look in her eyes always gave them a special shine that was easy to get lost in. “Of a sort. It’s not complete autonomy, but the principles behind her would put me a few steps closer to that.” 

“Huh, is that so?” 

Marisa had intended to come in for another matter entirely, but she ended up getting totally sidetracked. It was too easy for her to lose track of time whenever she was with Alice. While the tea was hot, they talked about a few different things. Alice’s new doll (Marisa started putting forward the name ‘Jugemu Jugemu—’ only to get rejected right away). A new type of mushroom Marisa had begun cultivating (a magic glowcap mushroom; still a work-in-progress). All sorts of stuff. 

Just like the flavor of the tea they were drinking, their relationship had quite the complex history behind it. A fragrant, fruity aroma that she had come to associate with Alice. Just taking it in made the normally eyes-straight-ahead Marisa a little nostalgic, old memories flashing by with each sip…


Makai, the demon realm. 

A little under a decade ago, back when Marisa was still training under her master, an endless swarm of demons had started flowing from the demonic realm and making a giant mess of Gensokyo. It didn’t take long for word to spread about Reimu heading straight in to investigate the incident. Marisa being Marisa, she dove right in after her. For her own reasons, of course. A demonic realm had to have some interesting stuff lying around, right? 

It turned out that most of the demons in the place weren’t actually all that strong. Reimu had already plowed through most of the small fry by the time Marisa even got to the edge of the capital. But…

Well, she’d missed one.

“What is this?!? Look at all the damage you’re causing!!” A cute girl who looked a tiny bit younger than her cut her off. Judging by her reaction to the destruction, she’d probably narrowly avoided extermination-by-shrine-maiden and assumed Marisa was the one responsible. Not like she’d deny it—she probably would’ve done even more damage, actually. “Just what are you humans doing?!” 

“Well, I dunno what the first person to blow through here was thinking, but I’m just here to take whatever I want.” Marisa smirked as she leaned forward on her broom. “Wanna help me out? I bet there’s lotsa treasure lying around a place like that.”

The girl recoiled. “Why would I help you steal from my mother? Even if I told you, you wouldn’t be able to get away with anything.”

“Ohh? Your mom’s the goddess of this scary place?” Marisa rubbed her chin. “You don’t look all that demonic, though. Plus, everyone who’s tried to stop me so far has been super weak. I could probably blow ‘em away and just fly right through. You wanna join ‘em?” 

“Aren’t you full of yourself? You don’t even look that strong yourself, witch!” With a wave of her hands, a pair of dolls made a crude formation around her. “I bet you won't even be able to lay a finger on me!” 

“Like I’ve even gotta touch you.” Marisa casually extended her arm out, summoning a star-shaped sigil to her palm. “If it’s a small fry like you, I can just blast you instead.☆”

“Why you!!”

The sounds of flashy magic and crude dolls colliding rang out across Makai’s sky.

———The fight was a total stomp. In spite of the girl’s bravado, Marisa basically knocked her aside without any actual difficulty. She actually felt a little bad when she heard her trying not to cry. 

“What were you expecting? Ya gotta apply yourself more, sheesh.” Was the best she could offer for advice before flying off. 

The rest of the incident hadn’t been all that interesting, in the end. It turned out the whole demon swarm thing had been a result of some weird tourism misunderstanding, and the god in charge of the place was already looking into the issue. Sure, they’d had a bit of a fight with the goddess in charge after that little detail was cleared up, but the whole dramatics of it was totally ruined by that reveal. What kinda final boss motivation is a tourism overflow? 

She was mostly just in a sour mood because she didn’t find any cool souvenirs to take home, but there not actually being a major incident to resolve after all didn’t help.

Just as she was patching up her expectations and heading on her way home…

“Finally. You’re here. You kept me waiting.” 

In a small pocket of the realm, cutting off her path was the cute girl from before. She was pouting all dramatically, like she’d been planning some destined rival battle but the other half showed up thirty minutes late. Tucked in her arms was a thick grimoire she hadn’t been carrying earlier. Oh, had the girl taken her up on her offer? 

“Nice, you found something! You’re kinda late, though. I was just on my way out.” 

“Huh? What are you talking about?” She glared, guard still raised. “This book isn’t for you. It’s a spell with the strongest magic known to Makai written in it.”

“Ooh! Definitely sounds like something I’d want!” 

“You can’t have it!!” 

“Aww, please? Trade it for a date?☆” She winked, making sure to shoot a tiny star from her eye for good measure.

“D—” The girl went bright red. “You are INSUFFERABLE!! And I’ve had enough of you! This is a duel. D. U. E. L! Take this seriously!” 

The book flew open and its pages began flipping wildly. Immense magical power poured out, filling the air around them both.

“Ooh!” Marisa’s eyes lit up. Flashy! Now she definitely wanted it! 

“Tch…!” The Makai girl clearly saw her excitement. She raised her arm, and the full power of the grimoire bent to her will, concentrating into the space around her. “If you’re so interested in this magic, then here! Have a taste!!”

The second round went a lot better for Team Makai. She wasn’t kidding when she described the book as having the strongest magic. The attacks were definitely bigger and flashier, but there was something lacking about them. It took Marisa dodging a few patterns to figure out what it was, but once she did, her foe’s grand spellslinging gradually lost its steam. Soon enough, the Makai girl went down, flopping over in midair like a dead fish. 

“Why…?" There she went again, choking back tears. The show was cute the first time, but now it was getting sad. It made Marisa hesitate to snag the grimoire she'd been eyeing the whole fight; she wasn't that heartless. "Why couldn’t I win?!”

“Heehee,” Marisa floated over, laughing a little but still feeling kinda bad. “You definitely had way more power than before, but it was kinda like you were goin’ against your style. You were better off the way you were fighting before.” 

“Huh?” The girl stopped. “W-What do you mean?” 

“Yeah. Usin’ the grimoire gave you a lot more firepower, but you seriously didn’t know how to use it at all. You just kept flinging spell after spell at me.” Marisa rubbed her chin. “With the dolls, the power wasn’t all that great, but you probably coulda caught me a few times if you had more and moved ‘em right. Felt like ya had more of a plan. Plus, it was pretty cool! They looked kinda like they were alive. Suits ya more, y’know?” 

There was a brief moment of consideration as she registered Marisa’s words. As if realizing she was listening to feedback from someone who had invaded her home and beat up both her and her mother, the girl snapped back to focus and glared. “Why are you telling me this?” 

“Hm? I need a special reason to help out a cute girl?” 

She went a brighter shade of red than the first time, all the way to her ears. “Y-Y-You—!! Are you mocking me?!” 

“Maybe~☆” With a gremlin giggle, Marisa spun back around on her broom and offered a two-fingered salute. “See ya!” 

“W-Wait!” The girl forced herself back upright with a bit of effort. “I said wait!” 

“?” Marisa glanced back. “What is it? I’m tired. Wanna go home already."

The girl grunted, likely holding back another angry comment. “Alice Margatroid!!” She shouted with what little force her lungs could muster, clutching her grimoire in her feeble arms. “Remember that name the next time you dare to come here! I won’t lose again!!” 

Even as she stood there, shaking from her previous crushing defeats, Alice’s words carried a fragile pride. The pride of a weakling who refused to remain as such. Who, with hard work and dedication, would defy the notion of defeat again and again, until she achieved the result she aimed for. 

It was a familiar sight to Marisa.

“... Hehe.” She flashed Alice a confident grin. Alright, Alice! Next time, then! I don’t plan on losing, myself!” 

Their meeting had thoroughly improved her mood. It wasn’t a bad feeling having someone form a rivalry with her first. Fated rivalries, grand battles in other worlds—such fantasies were what she was hoping for when she chose the life of a witch. 

It was settled. She would come back later and duel with the young missus at her leisure. In time, it became a bit of a weird relationship. In-between training sessions with her master, Marisa would sneak off to Makai to check in and spar with her new rival. And with each meeting, each fight, they both improved. Alice’s control over her dolls grew, as did the amount she commanded at once. The girl became more confident, more assured in herself. Marisa was even willing to admit she did actually lose a few of their matches. She still managed to keep making Alice mad though, and Marisa continued to laugh it off. Neither one of them missed a meeting, though. 

Over time, the normally icy, cool girl became a bit more talkative. A relationship formerly defined just by duels suddenly became more based in conversation.

After a while, one specific topic came up.

"Hey," The both of them rested atop a building in Makai's capital, Pandæmonium. Alice turned to her, an uncharacteristic curiosity in her eyes. "What's it like outside Makai?"

“Hm? You mean Gensokyo?” Marisa reclined, her hat resting on her lap. “... Hmm. Well, it’s not as crazy back home. The weather’s way different. We don’t have entire regions made outta just ice and snow, for example.”

“Really?” 

“Oh yeah, and we have youkai instead of demons.”

Alice nodded. “I’ve read about them. Actually, aren’t you a youkai? You are a witch, yes?” 

She shook her head. “Nah, I’m totally human. Just your ordinary human witch.☆”

“Is that so?” Alice squinted. "You're rather powerful for a mere human. You could probably become even more powerful if you—"

"Deee~nied."

Alice tilted her head. "? Why, exactly?"

"Lotsa reasons." A specific person crossed her mind. "But mostly pride. If I give up and rely on shortcuts like that, I'd lose. That's all." 

Alice's eyes lingered on her for a bit after that, but she didn't pry further.

"Speakin' of Gensokyo." Marisa looked over at Alice. "Why d'ya ask? Ya never been out before?"

Alice shook her head. "Mm-mm." She tucked her legs in and hugged her knees. "Mother doesn't allow me to leave. And I have responsibilities here. It'd be inconsiderate to just depart whenever I want."

"Huuh?" The words struck a chord with Marisa. A place she hadn’t expected to get picked at since she left home. "What's that gotta do with anything?"

"Eh? Well…" A pause. "I owe my existence to Mother. So I should honor her wishes if she wishes for me to stay—"

"Do you wanna see the world outside or not?"

"... I do." Alice hesitated. "I would like the see the world, to learn all sorts of things. But Mother—"

"We aren't askin' your old lady, just you!" Marisa didn't realize she was raising her voice just slightly. "What you do with your life isn't a question for somebody else to answer. You gotta make that choice yourself!" She stood up straight. "Do you wanna live a full life without regrets? Choose your own way of living? Don't let your folks choose for you! Choose for yourself!!"

"..."

Alice went quiet, a mesmerized stare into Marisa's eyes for what felt like an eternity. It took Marisa’s brain a few seconds to catch up with her mouth, and she realized she’d gotten all heated up all of a sudden. 

“... a-ahem.” Marisa cleared her throat. “Anyways, it’s your choice. I dunno all the details, but it all comes down to your choice in the end. If you wanna stick around here for your family or run out and see the world, that’s your choice.”

Alice seemed too consumed by her thoughts to properly listen. “Yes…” 

—The rest of the conversation was a little awkward. After that, Marisa returned home. She hoped she hadn’t scared Alice with that sudden outburst. It wasn’t her intention to project like crazy on her all of a sudden, but the choice of words Alice went with had seriously hit the wrong buttons. The last thing she wanted to think about was that old bastard.

The usual time gap between her visits passed by without anything special happening. 

It felt awkward heading back to Makai again, but it would’ve been kind of stupid if she flew into a weird rant and then never showed up again out of embarrassment. She just needed to find her broom and she'd be over there.

“C’mon, it’s not anywhere inside…” She tossed aside the assorted knick-knacks arranged into a pile she’d left lying around the front door. Where’s it gone to…” 

"Right here." A broom handle slid in front of her face.

"Ah, thanks." She took it. "Alright, I'm off—" Stop. Pause. She snapped to the figure that handed her the broom and was greeted with a very familiar tiny doll waving cutely at her. Right next to her, another familiar, cute face. "—eh?"

" Good afternoon ." Alice said, in perfect English. "Where are you off to?"

“I—” She blinked, then pointed at Alice. “You?!” 

"Me? I'm already here, though." She puffed her cheeks lightly. "You know, it's rude to point."

"No, not what I meant!" Marisa shook her head. "What're you doin' here? Aren't you supposed to be in Makai?"

"Indeed. Now I'm here." 

“... How?!” 

Alice looked at her strangely. “The same way you always do. There’s a gate that goes between Makai and Gensokyo, did you forget?”

Marisa frowned. “Correction: ‘why’? Didn’t you say you had ‘responsibilities’ or somethin’?”

Alice’s eyes drifted for a moment, as if she were reflecting on something. “Yes, I did. And it wasn’t easy to leave. But…” She looked back to Marisa, an assured expression on her face. “Well, it was like you said. I can’t let my mother’s decisions guide my life. I had to make the decision for myself.”

—Marisa wasn’t sure if she wanted to congratulate the girl or question her. “So, you just ran away?” 

“In a sense. Mother didn’t let me go lightly, but she saw my perspective eventually.” 

Alice’s confident tone wasn’t fully convincing, but the reality of the situation was more-or-less clear. They were both runaways in their own ways, who’d chosen to leave their home life to choose their own path. Details aside, that was the conclusion to it all. 

“... Huh.” Marisa rubbed the back of her neck. If that was the case, then... “You got a place to stay, or…?”

Alice nodded. “It’s a bit of a work-in-progress. Perhaps I’m imposing, but would it be fine if I stayed with you for just a bit while I work on building my home? It shouldn’t take longer than a few days.” A smile, brighter than Marisa had seen from the girl before.

“—” Damn it! That smile was too much! “H-Hell, I’ll do you a few steps further. I can help you build your place up! I built my own house, after all! Nice to you meet—I mean, nice to meet’cha, neighbor!” 

Alice giggled unexpectedly. “Oh? Then I’ll be in your care. Thank you for your kindness, neighbor.”

At the sound of Alice’s giggle, a strange, fuzzy sensation filled Marisa’s body. It made it harder for her to focus. What was it? At the time, she couldn’t really parse it. It wouldn’t be for years until the witch would get a clue and figure it out.

… Come to think of it, that was an interesting story in itsel—


“What are you thinking about, dear?” 

The warmth of someone’s breath hitting her neck and ear, a whisper tickling at her eardrums, a smile in her voice. 

“HWAUGH?!” Marisa’s entire body lit up on-contact, bright red like a sunburn. The empty teacup she’d been holding went flying out of her hands, luckily snagged by a Shanghai who shot her a grumpy pout. “W-What the hell?!” 

“Humph.” Alice, who had backed up just a bit after nearly killing Marisa, puffed her cheeks. “I was trying to get your attention, but you weren’t listening to me. Is something interesting going on in that brain of yours?” 

Marisa played with her braid, huffing. “Just thinking about how cute and sweet you were when we first met. Now you try to kill me with just your words. What happened to the earnest, nice girl Alice?” 

“When were you under the impression that was the only face I had?” A smirk, and Alice’s fingers danced delicately, a small team of dolls assembling to pick up their dishes and hustle them over to the sink to wash them. “We’ve only known each other for how long? Almost 8 years? I would think you’d realize I’m a little more than a cute face. Besides, I’m just paying you back for surprising me earlier.” 

“Hmph.” Marisa nearly splashed her face with cold water. Damn it, she’d walked into that. 

Two people who had left their homes, left their old lives, to pursue new ones. A relationship that continued to go strong, in spite of it all. Marisa didn’t really get how she got so lucky. All she knew was that she’d gladly hoard that little bit of luck she’d found, that sincere form of love, ‘til the day she died. 

“So,” Alice looked back at Marisa. “What were you coming over to ask of me?”

“A girl can’t come by just to play?” Marisa winked.

“I know that sparkle in your eye.” Alice squinted, but hid a small smirk. “I only see it when you come by with something you want to ask.”

“Aww, I wanted to make you guess.” She pouted. “It wasn’t anything important, really. Since I finished all my work for the day early, I was gonna head over to Reimu’s to see what she was up to. You wanna come along?”

Alice’s eyes glanced at a window. Warm beams of sunlight stretched through. “Hm, it is a nice day. It’d be a waste to spend all of it indoors.” She nodded. “Yes, I do think I’ll take you up on that offer.”

Chapter Text


 

~ STAGE 8: The “Ordinary” Perspective ~

 

[START]

 


The first sound that greeted Marisa's ears as she and Alice approached the shrine was the abrupt crack of a gun being fired. It was unmistakable; she'd heard the sound plenty of times, usually when the village hunters were out to get food.

Marisa also knew the villagers didn't go hunting around the shrine. And Reimu had about as much interest in guns as she did hard work. Luckily, she found out the source before she pulled out her hakkero and started shooting.

"Ah, so that's who was makin' all that noise. Geez, ya gotta warn people before they jump to conclusions." 

"How could I have done that?" Reimu said. "I'm actually just impressed you didn't start shooting right away."

Marisa sat at the front of the shrine with Alice, engaging with the usual hospitality. She was just fine sitting there, swinging her hanging legs and pretending she wasn't worried for a second. Reimu stood in front of them, providing the general recap for what all the commotion was actually about.

"She's some kind of legendarily slow learner." Was the basic summary Reimu offered. With Genjii's assistance, Luka had spent the last week just grasping the surface-level basics of danmaku. Only halfway through did she gain enough understanding to fire a single, basic bullet. Putting it simply, her progress was just way too slow.

"Gramps and I talked about it, and he mentioned something about her 'subconscious mental image'." Reimu made a gun shape with her thumb and index finger. "That she had some sort of preconceived notion about 'how to shoot a bullet', and how that was making it harder for her to learn. Then Luka started jumping around like she solved some puzzle and asked Genjii and I if they sold any guns at the village."

"That would explain how those loud things got involved." Alice glanced over, covering her ears and a doll floating next to her following suit.

The 'things' in question made another loud crack, drawing Marisa's attention. There, taking aim at the trees surrounding the shrine, was Luka. In her hands was a pair of matchlock pistols way older than anything the villagers used. Not the first thing Marisa thought of when someone mentioned danmaku.

A slow, deliberate pull of the trigger, another loud bang. With each shot, Marisa could see her process. Luka wasn't using them as normal guns; she wasn't loading powder into them, or lighting the percussive striker. She was just aiming and shooting, as if consciously channeling the process through the pistols. Each shot let out a resounding crack! , a single danmaku bullet firing out each time. The firing rate wasn't all that impressive, and neither was the firepower. Each shot merely popped against the nearby trees, like a kid flinging tiny firecrackers. 

What they did have, though, was speed. Absurd speed. The bullets moved faster than Marisa could blink. Low destructive power, extremely high projectile speed. Depending on the distance, Marisa wagered only a tengu could reliably dodge shots like that without reading her line of fire. It wasn't entirely practical, though—with such low firepower, she wasn't going to be breaking Spell Cards anytime soon. The low firing rate didn't help either. Marisa guessed that was why she was standing there shooting with such a serious expression: she was practicing.

"... That said," Something about it kinda bugged her.. "She doesn't need guns to shoot danmaku, right? Why's she practicing with 'em?" Even Marisa herself started out learning to use magic by her own power. It was just way more reliable.

"You weren't there for her first unarmed shot." Reimu's face twisted in such a way that it was hard to tell if she was fighting back tears or laughter. 

"It couldn't have been that bad." Alice said.

"... Watch." Reimu turned. "Luka! Would you mind showing off your 'no-gun' danmaku for these two?"

Luka flinched. "... Why, exactly?"

"Just do it!"

Luka grimaced and holstered her pistols. Extending one arm out, she formed an 'L' shape with her index finger and thumb. With a bit of exertion, light gathered at the tip of her index finger, and she jabbed it at Reimu with an irritated glare. Reimu didn't seem to react, merely staring flatly even as the light intensified. Like dropping the hammer of a gun, Luka flicked her thumb.

pew.

A tiny little bullet. No, it couldn't even be called that. It was closer to a pathetic little mote of light, weakly flying forward in a zigging pattern like a summer gnat that just got hit with a huge dose of pesticide. It stumbled about half a foot, sputtered, and finally flickered out with an adorable little poof .

Both Marisa and Alice stared blankly at the empty air where the sad attempt at a bullet died.

"..." Luka started shaking a little as she studied their reactions. "Don't. Even. Start."

"I'm… not—" Marisa lied, looking away and quivering a little in barely contained laughter. 

Alice hid her amusement a bit better, cracking a crooked smile. "I'm sure you'll improve given time."

"Yeah. In due time and all that." Luka grumbled and marched over to the trio and threw herself onto the wooden porch. "I'll stick to these for now, if it's all the same." She patted one of her holstered pistols.

"If those guns break, you'll probably die." Reimu passively offered Luka some tea. "Just a warning."

Luka took the cup. "Yeah, I’ll just not do that.” 

Alice raised a brow. “You can guarantee that?” 

“Nope.”

Luka sipped her tea with a hollow expression, like she'd just stopped caring. Her eyes had zero light to them. It was kinda scary. 

A pause. “Oh, right.” Luka glanced back at Alice. “First time we’ve met, isn’t it? Luka East, nice to meet you.”

“Alice Margatroid.” A Shanghai floating next to Alice bowed. “It’s a pleasure.”

“With that outta the way,” Marisa poked her head in-between them. “Now that ya got danmaku basics down, what about Spell Cards?”

A depressive atmosphere immediately formed around both Reimu and Luka.

“... What?” 

“We’re… getting there.” Reimu had a look of dread on her face. “Progress hasn’t been moving very fast.”

“It doesn’t help that every time I ask you for help, you go into some weird ramble.” Luka scowled.

“I’m giving you good advice.” Reimu protested. “You just have trouble understanding it.”

“Uh-huh.” Luka said. “And what about that time your explanation got so off-track you started telling me tea ceremony facts?”

“T-That was relevant!” 

Marisa sat on the sidelines with Alice and watched the minor argument unfold. Was this how the two of them had spent most of the week? She lamented not stopping by more often. It was fun to watch. 

“(Yeah, this lesson plan’s totally dead in the water, ain’t it?)” Marisa whispered. 

“(Luka might learn some helpful trivia from it, at least.)” Alice frowned. She cleared her throat. “Not to interrupt you two from this absolutely wonderful little conversation, but it would probably be prudent for you to teach her sooner rather than later. Wandering Gensokyo without knowing how to properly duel is a fast way for someone to lose their life.”

Luka pouted. “I gathered that, but I can’t exactly learn with this space case here teaching me factoids instead of fight-oids.” She ignored the ‘You wanna fight?!’ from the shrine maiden, focusing on Alice. “You wanna volunteer? I’d take just about anyone else.” 

“Mm…” Alice seemed hesitant. “I could, but your issues might be a bit different from what I can offer as a mentor. What about Marisa?” 

“Eh?” Marisa snapped to attention.

Luka glanced warily. “No offense, but I don’t think throwing an explosive in the classroom will keep the lesson on-plan.”

Alice chuckled. “She is still a human, hard as it may be to believe.” Alice drummed a finger on her leg. “And your perspective seems to be rather human, in spite of whatever origin you have. As a non-human, it would be difficult for me to understand some of the limitations you’re struggling with. Marisa, however, might.”

Reimu raised her hand. “I’m also a human, you know.”

Alice glanced at her. “No comment from the natural prodigy. You clearly understand far less than even I could.” Reimu could only grumble at that.

Marisa caught Alice sneaking her a knowing glance. Yeah, she could see what she was doing. It wasn’t Marisa’s first experience watching a normal person step into the world of the abnormal.

“Lemme thiiiink…” Marisa folded her arms dramatically, pretending like she was making some kind of grand choice. “What’s in it for me? Why must the great, wise, and cute Marisa Kirisame spend her afternoon teachin’ some greenhorn how to use Spell Cards?”

Luka sighed, as if thinking ‘I’m humoring this now, aren’t I’ , then smirked. “Because Reimu couldn’t do it.

It would be recorded that Professor Marisa Kirisame assembled a firing range in record time that day. With Alice’s (begrudging) help, a row of tiny dolls with equally tiny shields and spears were lined up to play the roles of ‘fairies’—the perfect filler enemy and an excellent warmup. Alice was still controlling them, as Marisa could see from the thin wires stretching from her seated spot at the main shrine. She probably just wanted to play along. Marisa and Luka lined up in front of the 'fairies', with Reimu on the side as insurance; mainly because she was a little concerned about hardcore target practice being done right in front of her shrine. 

“So, what d’ya know so far about Spell Cards?” Marisa asked.

“Giant nonlethal lasers and explosions.” Luka deadpanned.

Silence. “... That’s it?”

“That is literally it.” 

Damn. Reimu, you suck at this.  

“Alright, then how about we start with some basics?” Marisa rotated her arm as a warmup. “Shouldn't be too hard. Let's start by makin' your first Spell Card."

"Should I get a piece of paper, or…?" Luka made a scribbling motion in her palm. 

Marisa shook her head. "Nah, that's not how it works. … Well, technically it is, but it ain't actual paper." 

Luka tilted her head. "?"

Marisa grinned. With a confident snap of her fingers, starlight formed and took the shape of a thin card with a sheen. No image, no meaning was inscribed upon it yet—just a blank white card. "Let’s start with a blank card, first." If she was gonna actually explain it, it would probably help to go through the process of making a Spell Card, anyways.

“So, the whole Spell Card thing is literal?” Luka squinted at the small slip of magical paper. 

“Kinda sorta. The card’s not actually a physical thing. It’s sorta like danmaku.” Marisa twirled it. “Here, catch!” She flicked her wrist and tossed it to Luka. 

“Whoa!” Luka reacted a little late but managed to just barely snatch it out of the air. “Oh, uh, should I get a pen?” 

“No, no, you're not gonna need anything like that." Marisa said. "Maybe a demo oughta help ya get the idea." An eager grin, and she habitually reached into her hat.

" Ahem. " Alice cleared her throat. "I'd like for the 'fairies' to remain in one piece afterwards, Marisa." The dolls jabbed their spears around angrily.

"..." Marisa pouted. "Not even a little one?"

"You'll be sewing me new dolls if you go overboard!"

"Aw…" She really wanted to show off... With a disappointed pout, Marisa let go of her hakkero. “Okay, scratch that. We’ll go with something smaller and less cool.” This was probably a better way to do it, actually. She’d make her own card from scratch and have Luka follow along. 

She summoned another card and held it for Luka to see. “First, ya gotta get a visual in your head for the attack you're gonna use. A good place to start is something you think of as beautiful or captivating. Clear visual identity." Marisa tapped her foot, mulling over a few different ideas. Something simple that could demonstrate the basic outline… 

Yeah, that was a good one. Marisa closed her eyes and focused on the card. A glimmer of light flickered across it, and light began to engrave into it. “Think about how the image you’ve got in your head is gonna take form. How you’re gonna use it.” As she spoke, the image on the card became clear: a set of vibrant stars shooting across the sky. Her eyes opened. 

“Now, once you’ve got your Spell Card, you just gotta declare it.” Marisa turned to the dummy dolls and held the card above her head. The slip of ‘paper’ lit up and dissipated, like a mist being scattered by light. 

“Then, fire—!” Her voice boomed. “Star Sign 「Meteoric Shower」!”

She aimed both hands up-front and a volley of stars shot from her hands like light being funneled through a prism. The stars zipped around in a spray, blasting the panicked ‘fairies’ like they were a bunch of ants.

Luka squinted her eyes at the bright light, observing the display carefully. “I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but Spell Cards just kind of look like you’re shouting an attack name and shooting a bunch of danmaku. Is that basically it?” 

“Yeah, ya got the right idea.” Marisa nodded. “Danmaku and Spell Cards are pretty much the same thing. We just organized ‘em into a system so we can duel. Once ya can do danmaku, it’s a piece of cake to figure out Spell Cards.”

“So they’re just special danmaku attacks.” Luka said. “Isn’t it kind of weird to shout out the name? You’re just telling the other side what attack you’re using. It’s not exactly a winning strategy.”

“That’s not the point of them.” Reimu cut in. “The Spell Card system isn’t something we use because it’s practical or because it’s an easy way to win fights.”

“Then, what’s it for?”

“Youkai gotta show off their power, y’know?” Marisa chimed. “And humans can’t just go around bein’ terrorized by youkai all the time, either. They’ve gotta be able to resolve the incidents youkai cause without needing to worry about dying all the time.”

Reimu nodded. “The Spell Card system is something we put into play so that humans and youkai could settle their differences in battles that aren’t defined by pure power or stamina. Where, on-paper, anyone could win. A system for duels defined by beauty, logic, and thoughtfulness—where youkai and human alike can do battle without any immediate risk of death. That’s what the Spell Card system is.”

Luka’s brow furrowed pensively as she listened to them. “Sorry, I’m having a bit of trouble here reconciling something. You keep saying ‘no risk of death’, but you also keep warning me ‘oh you’ll probably die if this-this-this-or-this happens’. Which is it?” 

“I just said there was no immediate danger, not that there’s no danger at all.” Reimu stressed. “The rules strictly say that youkai can’t intentionally kill humans who have agreed to duel them, even if the youkai is the one who wins the duel.” There was a serious expression on her face. “If a human wanders Gensokyo who either cannot or will not participate in Spell Card battles, or if there’s enough of a strength difference, it can’t be helped if they end up dead. That’s all. Understand?”

The words weren’t said aloud, but Marisa could read Reimu’s subtext: “If there was no danger at all for people fighting youkai—no reason for youkai to be feared—then what point would there be to them being youkai?”

Luka didn’t nod, but she seemed to understand. She took a few careful steps to the firing range, and eyed the blank card she was given. “It’s just thought-based, right? As long as I focus on this card in my hands?” 

“Yep. Think of it just like shootin’ regular danmaku.” Marisa said. “All you’re really doing is putting that meaning to a card. Like you said, it’s just a special move.”

“Not exactly a ton for me to work with, with two pistols and zero experience.” Luka frowned. “Hm…” 

Marisa huffed. This girl really was a cynical type, huh? Still… 

She could vaguely remember a frustrated normal girl who wanted to be a witch. She remembered the day-long lectures with a formerly vengeful spirit, each lesson a step forward, each new tiny scrap of magic she learned taking her just a little further. The process of being something ordinary and learning to grasp and bend the supernatural to one’s will—she knew that struggle. If she hadn’t met that person, she wouldn’t have gotten where she was now. 

… Alright, that was enough with being sappy. It'd been years since Lady Mima decided to seal herself away. Reminiscing was only gonna make things complicated. 

“Just take it in steps.” Marisa said. “Find an image in your head, something that stands out. Then, once you got somethin’, think of a name and how you’re gonna move when you do it, and follow through.” She gestured to the ‘fairies’, who braced themselves worriedly. 

Luka looked down at her pistols. It took her a minute of pondering, but eventually a flash of inspiration seemed to hit her. With a few hesitant breaths, she began to move, pretending to hold her guns as she went. A slow, deliberate dance, moving both pistols at once. Almost mathematically, like she was internally trying to calculate some sort of angle.

… She then paused, and started reversing through the motions, seeming like she was correcting minor details. A detailed internal rehearsal was written on her face, like she was verifying her memory on something. 

“What are you doing?” Reimu asked.

Luka snapped to attention. “Er—” She blushed for some reason. “N-Nothing. Just, I figured since I’m gonna be learning some supernatural martial arts or whatever, I’d just try something cool I saw in a mov—someplace in the outside world once, yeah!!” She muttered something about ‘optimal kill zones’ and ‘statistically common trajectories’, then resumed her weird dance, face a little redder than earlier. 

Finally, she seemed to settle on something.

“Okay… Special move needs a name… Name, name, name…” She muttered to herself, looking uncharacteristically nervous. After slapping her cheeks, she seemed to snap out of whatever weird haze she was in. “Screw it, don’t fuss over it too much, Luka. Just go with what comes to mind first, follow your gut just this once…”

“(Does she normally talk to herself?)” Marisa whispered.

“(A bit. Says it helps her organize her thoughts.)” Reimu said. 

Luka held the card in her hands, and closed her eyes. Her breathing steadied, and her concentration seemed to hit a peak. Right as it did, the card’s image brightened, color swarming across it. On it, Marisa could vaguely make out what looked like a silhouette twirling in midair, shooting two smoking pistols. Luka’s eyes snapped open, and the card vanished from her grip.

“Spirits Sign「Rum & Smoke」!”

With a flourish, she drew both pistols and snapped her arms in front of her in a cross-formation. Two shots rang out, zipping forward and slapping two dolls at once. Barrels still smoking, Luka spun and continued firing, compensating the delay between her shots by firing one pistol at a time. Bang, bang, bang! A faint cloud of smoke formed, spinning with her. She advanced, rotating and stirring; she kept firing, building up momentum with each motion. The building force seemed to transfer to her bullets, each shot hitting the dummies harder and harder. Not too bad. Could've been flashier, but Marisa's standards were high on that. 7/10.

Then one of her legs tripped up the other, and she tilted forward suddenly.

"Oh—"

She must've already started pulling the triggers just as she started flapping her arms to get her balance back. Like a drink spilling everywhere, the bullets splashed outwards in every possible direction.

"GET DOWN!" Reimu shouted.

Marisa and Reimu dove for cover. Alice just barely registered the incoming fire in time, ducking just a second before a stray bullet nailed her right in the face. The dolls weren't so lucky, getting absolutely swiss-cheesed by the misfired volley.

With a loud crack! something hit the stone path to the shrine, and the gunfire stopped. Marisa peered up from the ground to see Luka lying motionless, her face sharing a passionate kiss with the floor. 

"Yeah…" Marisa propped herself to a seated position. "Maybe a week in is a little early for you to be adding that much spice to your Spell Cards." An awkward smile. "Also, maybe don't do big splashy finishes like that in public. The 'nonlethal' rules don't apply to spectators."

"Please don't!!" Alice cried out, her hair a little frazzled.

"My bad…" Luka's grumbles were muffled. "Sorry, I got carried away…" She looked dejected, like she wanted to shrivel up and blow away in the wind.

After a bit of cleanup, they decided to take a break. The dolls took a bit of a beating from Luka's little slip-up, so Marisa was helping Alice with repairs. A little sewing there, some patchwork there. Luka offered to help, but Alice wasn't too keen on letting strangers handle her dolls, so she was stuck sitting on the side looking guilty. 

"That was pretty damn good for a first attempt, though." Marisa juggled conversation and sewing. "Looks like you got the idea of a theatrical bomb-type, at least." She just needed to work on her execution.

"'Bomb-type'?" Luka said. "There's multiple types?"

"Well, yeah. There's bomb-types, pattern-types… Plus all the genres like 'stress', 'slave', 'theatrical', and so on. There's different considerations to make for different rulesets and all, too."

Luka gaped. "There's different formats ?"

"It's not as complicated as you're thinking." Alice said. "You can think of it like a sort of game."

Marisa nodded. 'Game' was kind of on-the-nose, but it wasn't inaccurate. "The system's supposed to be something flexible we can use in all sorts of situations. Different Spell Cards for different situations."

"How… How many?" Luka had a look of exhaustion on her face. "And how many Spell Cards am I going to need to make?"

"I mean, there ain't really a set amount." Marisa said. "You just use as many as you need at the time."

"She means 'a lot'." Reimu deadpanned. "Don't stress about it. Most youkai have a habit of making up new ones in the middle of fights, anyways."

Marisa shrugged. "For now, how about we go over the basic format? It'll probably help you brainstorm cards as you learn."

"Yeah…" Luka stared into space like she'd just had all her hard work upended. Yeah, been there and felt that, little buddy.

As Marisa explained, the most basic format was the ‘aggressor vs. defender’ setup, the same one used in Gensokyo’s first incident (and her fight with Patchy a little while ago). The ‘defender’ was typically the person who was in the way of the ‘attacker’, and they would use Spell Cards with an emphasis on passive movements with high bullet concentration. Their goal was to hit the attacker enough times to deplete their ‘lives’, winning the duel once the attacker’s final ‘life’ was spent. Meanwhile, the attacker needed to avoid being crushed by their opponent's Spell Cards while attacking in return. They had more active freedom to move, and had a limited number of ‘bombs’ per life to spend—basically, Spell Cards that were allowed to clear their path and deal damage to the defender.

“These just sound like rules for a shooting game.” Luka scrutinized. “Like in the arcade.”

Marisa shrugged. There was a silent agreement not to probe too deeply into the matter—it’d be trouble for everyone if we thought too hard about that sort of thing, especially for an unofficial derivative work.

“Anyways,” Marisa cleared her throat. “There’s other types of rules we play with. Sometimes we play on totally equal footing where both sides use bombs ‘til the other gets knocked down. Or we do stuff that’s totally different from the usual rules, even. Really, the rules are kinda fluid. There’s not any strict limit on how a duel can be set up.”

Luka nodded. “So, as long as both sides agree to operate within the rules you set, you can do any kind of duel you want with the Spell Card system.”

“Yup, basically.”

There was more to cover in regards to that sort of stuff, specifically covering genres and so on, but it was going to become a pain if she elaborated too much. Marisa decided she’d lend her a spare copy of her grimoire with notes on the matter for her to pour through. 

“Of course, you’ll probably want to actually get a grasp on the basics before you go into the more complicated stuff.” Reimu said. “If you’re botching moves like that, your limit is probably going to stop at a couple of fairies. You probably shouldn’t wander the more dangerous places in Gensokyo for now.” 

"So where does that leave me?" Luka seemed impatient. "The village, the shrine, and…?"

"That's about it." Reimu said. "If you feel like pushing your luck, go ahead, but it makes more work for me if I have to go rescue you. Too much trouble."

"Gee, thanks." Luka said dryly. "I'll make sure to not leave a body if I get killed, if it helps you any."

"It would, thank you~♪" Reimu smiled mockingly. Luka glared at her hair bow like she was considering yanking on it.

"Yeesh, you two need a room or something? Lots of tension in the air." Marisa joked. Both Reimu and Luka kicked her for that. 

With that, Luka flopped over with a sigh. "We haven't even made any progress on flight yet, either. Feels like I'm dragging my feet on this."

"Hey, ease up." Marisa grinned. "Lotsa stuff happens in Gensokyo. Knowing this place, I bet the next incident that crops up is gonna have some clue you can follow."

"Let's hope so." Luka frowned. "I'd hate to be stuck here doing nothing for too long."

Marisa hoped that wasn't the case. Seriously, this plot was already moving slow as hell. She was willing to bet any moment—probably a month, tops—that something was gonna happen.

… Maybe two months, just to be safe.