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13 Seconds To Midnight

Chapter Text

 

 

 


 

 

Hakurei Shrine

 

A week had passed since the altercation which occurred near the conjunction of where the forests collided.

As a precaution, the denizens of the Outside World were all screened to see if any other entities were attached to them, along with a purifying ritual carried out by Sanae and Reimu. 

Given the unexpected nature of Kaoruko's possession, the group were all too eager to ensure they were not the recipient of some malevolent ruler's objectives. Thankfully, nobody else was afflicted with the threat but they were required to be screened once a day for the time being.

The remnants of the demon which had sought out Kaoruko had been fully exterminated, her injuries healing with celerity. 

Yukari had been meticulous, had known which parts of Kaoruko's body Eirin could heal and which to avoid. 

Currently in one of the private rooms of the shrine, Kaoruko was seated in front of Reimu.

Her eyes opened as Reimu nodded, pleased with Kaoruko's progress.

"This should be the last of the cleansing session, Kaoruko, how do you feel?".

"Like myself" the heiress smiled, albeit sardonically, "Not sure if that is an improvement".

"Why do you think that?".

Kaoruko paused, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear as she averted Reimu's gaze but she could feel it on her.

"They say only the weak get possessed, the most useless.." she murmured, "I invited it in".

The priestess closed her box of amulets before chuckling which got Kaoruko to look at her.

"The weakest, huh?".

"You don't think it is true?".

"Almost everyone in Gensokyo got possessed by a vengeful spirit a few years ago. I mean that in a literal sense. Mokou, Alice, Kaguya, Yuyuko, Patchouli, Yukari. Ah, well, Yukari might have let it happen on purpose to help me solve the incident but you get my point".

This was news to Kaoruko, the surprise colouring her expression.

"So I wouldn't be so harsh on yourself. Mizuchi is a vengeful spirit but whatever took over you was a demon. The ones not native to Gensokyo are impossible to reason with and whoever sent it..well, we have reason to believe they are not some low level youkai. That guilt you're feeling for attacking the others, don't let it settle".

Naturally, Reimu could read Kaoruko and her concerns which was understandable considering what the heiress had endured.

Without Kaoruko's flickers of control during her possession, it would not have been farfetched to say that the demon possessing her could have killed Claudine and the rest.

Kaoruko relaxed her stance, fingers folded on her thighs as she felt the tightness of the bandage wrapped around her waist beneath her kimono. 

She lowered her head, a soft sigh exuding, "What if they don't feel the same?".

"Well, there is only one way to find out" Reimu said as she stood up and offered her hand to Kaoruko who accepted it, "Come with me".

With careful movements, the brunette helped Kaoruko to her feet before leading her out of the room and in the direction of the main living quarters of the shrine.

Kaoruko contemplated on Reimu's words whilst reflecting on what had happened. 

She hadn't seen the others for the week, staying at the shrine for Reimu to finish of the cleansing so Kaoruko hadn't had a chance to apologise, to explain herself.

The fragments of the demon's thirst to annihilate everything in Gensokyo and her fealty to the being who summoned her, the sensation of Kaoruko's own hands harming the one's she loved.

It all lingered. 

Kaoruko didn't know if she could look them in the eyes again.

Though Reimu wouldn't give her the option of prolonging this as she slid open the door, revealing the individuals in the room.

Claudine didn't wait a second as she stopped pacing and quickly walked to Kaoruko. 

The heiress stepped back, frightened that some part of her might still be under the influence but Claudine didn't even care at this point. She recognised that it was Kaoruko, could see it in her face and mannerisms so hooking her arm around Kaoruko's waist to pull in her close was second nature.

"Kuro-han".

Her voice was muffled, pressed against Claudine's chest as her hands tentatively grabbed for the blonde's shoulders. She felt her lover's arms settled behind her neck, her lips on her head as she sighed in relief.

"I'm here" Claudine replied, stroking Kaoruko’s hair as she glanced at Reimu, "Thank you, Reimu".

Reimu nodded, "I'm going to get some tea on while you all talk. Apparently tea or alcohol can fix anything according to, well, everyone in Gensokyo" she grinned. 

Kaoruko heard a round of laughter while Reimu left the room, summoning the courage to pull back and look at Claudine before her eyes met everyone else's. 

Maya, Tamao, Lisa and Sayo were present. 

Judging from their expressions, it seemed as if they held no animosity towards her but Kaoruko wasn't taking any chances.

She stepped away from Claudine, ensuring she was facing them all as she bit through the pain, bending forward into a bow.

Claudine's gasp registered, reaching out for her lover but Kaoruko put her hand out, "I hope you all can forgive me for what happened. I..don't have an excuse for what I did but I hope you know how sorry I am for going after you".

She heard footsteps close the distance between them, hands resting on her shoulders to get her stand up.

"What do you mean you don't have an excuse. You were literally possessed" Lisa exclaimed and pulled Kaoruko into a hug softly, "I think that definitely counts as a good enough reason as to why you don't owe us an apology, Kaoruko".

Lisa grinned at her, squeezing her shoulders before letting go.

Tamao then embraced her childhood companion, smiling fondly, "But I know how stubborn you are so consider yourself forgiven. We are just glad you are okay".

Kaoruko closed her eyes, willing for the tears to stay at bay as Tamao let her go but kept close. She noticed the faint imprint of her hands around Tamao's throat and felt the guilt resurface.

"I'm not sure if I should be forgiven so easily".

"I disagree. We can't imagine what you were going through. Not just when it revealed itself but for how long it was trying to control you" Lisa said sympathetically, "It was weird because you grew so distant. And some of the things you were saying didn't sound like you at all".

Claudine kept to the side, having had been fully exposed to the demon's antics as Sayo and Maya approached them.

"We saw how hard you were trying to keep the demon away from us, Hanayagi-san" Maya said, "While we appreciate the apology, it is as Tamao and Lisa have stated, it is not required".

"The restraint was evident as had you not had resisted the entity's whims, I most certainly would not be here to have this conversation".

Sayo motioned to her chest, the bandage notable through the opened buttoned of her shirt. In her efforts to save Lisa, Sayo had put herself on the line, her heart an open target which the demon switched her aim to. However, at the last moment before impact, Kaoruko managed to wrestle control and angle the blade a few centimetres upwards, away from Sayo's heart.

"The situation could have been far more dire than it already was. I was placed in a specific scenario and yet, because of you, I am still here. We all are" Maya stated, "You held out until Yukari, Reimu and Sanae arrived".

"I don't think I would be able to live with myself if I did.." Kaoruko voiced, unable to finish the sentence but they understood.

"The most important thing is that you did not carry it out".

The heiress held Maya's gentle gaze, her anxiety welling as she recalled the demon's fixation on Maya, "Actually, can I speak to you with Kuro-han?".

The heiress turned to catch Claudine's concerned gaze.

The elephant in the room had to be addressed as the demon's words were conjured in their minds when she attacked Maya. 

"I don't want this to happen again. The idea of hurting anyone else like that.." Kaoruko spoke up, her eyes meeting everyone's, "It will not happen again. There is a reason why I am blaming myself for this and we all know it. So, can I fix this?".

"I won't make you do this, Kaoruko, but if it helps, I'm fine with it. Maya?".

The brunette inclined her head in agreement, "Likewise".

With that, the three excused themselves to another room as Sayo, Tamao and Lisa wondered how the conversation would go.

The rift between Sayo and Lisa was an obvious conduit to Kaoruko's own worries and Lisa felt guilty for dragging Kaoruko into it. The heiress had been with her every step of the way, supporting her without hesitation. She looked at Sayo whom had returned to her seat at the table, her eyes focused on the surface, mien intense. Lisa wondered if the same thought was going through the other woman's mind. Their debacle had caused unrest amongst their group and it had taken time and Chisato's departure to settle things.

It wasn't just Kaoruko, Claudine and Maya who had things to settle.

In the room where said discussion was taking place, Kaoruko cut right to the chase as Claudine sat next to her and Maya was in front.

"What that demon said, about you being the reason she able to get into my head...she was right".

There was a tinge of shame to Kaoruko's tone, it was prevalent in her body language so Claudine reached out and placed her hand over Kaoruko's which was resting on the tatami mats. The blonde didn't interrupt, sensing that Kaoruko had to get this out of her system and Maya knew it too.

"When you returned, Tendou-han, my worst fears started to resurface again, about you and Kuro-han getting back together. I was glad that you were safe and I tried to focus on it, on you and Mahiru-han being here. But the small voice kept ringing, reminding me of what you and Kuro-han had. That was all it was" Kaoruko insisted and looked the woman in her eyes, "Jealousy. There was nothing more, like wanting to hurt you. Though it was enough for the demon to intrude, to try and shape my thoughts. Things that I didn't want to think about, like the two of you together like you were in the past and other scenarios which were not real became planted in my head. The anger and possessive feelings grew. So did the struggle of keeping her quiet, especially when she was with you, Kuro-han".

"So, whenever we..".

"Yes, that was me. The thought of her having any sort of access to you made me sick" Kaoruko replied, "Because I knew she would use you. The way it was going, it would have led to you and Tendou-han being her first victims. I'm sorry, both of you".

The insight was jarring to hear for Claudine and Maya, both sharing a worrying glance as Claudine moved closer to Kaoruko, taking her hands between her own when Maya spoke up.

She was understanding of Kaoruko's plight. 

This land had a curse of its own volition. 

"May I ask how you feel about the situation now?".

"You mean between you and Kuro-han?".

Claudine waited for a response, as did Maya.

She was thankful when Kaoruko shook her head, her hand intertwining with her own, "Truthfully, once we found out about you and Mahiru-han, my fears were put at rest. But apparently, there was an inkling of doubt left" Kaoruko lamented, "Enough for that thing to get inside my head and twist every interaction I saw between you and Kuro-han, making it appear more intimate than it was. If I was at the den, then I couldn't let the demon get closer to you and I would see less of Tendou-han so it wouldn't give her more power".

"So that was your logic" Claudine sighed, "If Sannyo hadn't told me about what was happening while you were there, I would not have known. I mean, at this point  it isn't strange for any of us to not be in our minds but it was different".

"Maybe it was for the best you didn't know the full details. I feel disgusted with myself and I owe Sannyo-han an apology too".

"Kaoruko".

Maya's slightly firm tone caught the duo's attention, especially as she had dropped the honorific, causing Claudine to get ready to shield Kaoruko but one look into the violet eyes told her not to worry, that her words were not going to be a detriment. 

 "As was stated by us all, the events which transpired..we don't hold you accountable for. This is unlike anything we have dealt with, yes? We are still navigating our paths while we are here, along with attempting to make peace with our pasts. I understand that everything does lead back to it".

Yachiyo, Chisato and Shizuha had found themselves at the mercy of it, a statement which wants unsaid.

"However, such judgments on the consequences of our actions are not objective" Maya said, catching herself from going into teaching moment which elicited a brief smile from Claudine, "What I am trying to say is that there will be no animosity from us. You were taken advantage of by something which used your fears so to blame you would be wrong. Let me reassure you, you have nothing to worry about in regards to what happened that night, as well as the possibility of myself and Claudine rekindling anything between us".

It was reassuring for Claudine to hear it too as she looked at Kaoruko, her stare reiterating Maya's point.

"Exactly. As I say this, if you find yourself thinking about it, then talk to me, Kaoruko. I'll be happy to say it over and over untill you're satisfied".

"You shouldn't have to do that".

Claudine shrugged, a half smile on her lips, "Doesn’t change the fact that I will".

"And if there is one thing we all know about Saijou Claudine, it is how persistent she is" Maya chuckled. 

Kaoruko did the same, smiling at Claudine's unamused glare aimed at Maya. 

Without the malevolent gaze cast on her mind, Kaoruko could tell that the interaction between the two was strictly one of friendship, one of which had withstood the perils of the lives of the two. A part of her felt foolish for thinking that Claudine would leave her for Maya, but the other side knew it was warranted. 

However,  those fears were put at rest, once and for all.

Maya eventually left the room after talking with the two, leaving Claudine and Kaoruko to tie up the last remaining threats which had frayed their bond.

Claudine could see the coils unfurl as she turned to face the other woman, her leg outstretched which led to Kaoruko placing her hand over where Claudine's wound was. Her finger splayed over the area, the soft material of Claudine's loose jeans cushioning the area.

"Kaoruko, it's better, I promise".

The heiress nodded, exhaled as Claudine took her hand and pulled her in closer till she could position Kaoruko against her chest, her head pressed over Claudine's heart. She wrapped both of her arms around her lover's body and leaned down slightly so that she could kiss Kaoruko. 

Kaoruko placed her hand on Claudine's cheek, simmering in the kiss.

To not have to fight something trying to take control felt like a relief for both. Claudine could feel how relaxed her lover was, how natural this felt since the possession.

Looking down into fragile brown eyes, the tangible aspects of Kaoruko being free was heartening to see.

"I'm sorry you had to go through all of that".

"Don't be" Kaoruko replied and smiled, "I only lasted as long as I did because of you. She ran around free every other time, trying to twist everything" she grimaced.

The imagery made Claudine share the same face, her anger simmering before it passed when Kaoruko stroked her thumb over her cheek.

Kaoruko was still here, information had been gleaned and the demon was exterminated.

This was the first victory against the unseen force ravaging the land.

"Even being with you was a risk. As much as I wanted to push you away, wanted to get you to do reject me, I couldn't. Something about the way you touched me just settled me, Kuro-han. I don't know how to explain it but it helped shut her up".

Claudine listed intently, feeling Kaoruko's digits brush over her face, gentle and careful, still wary of touching her.

To know of such a detail was something Claudine was thankful for because the feeling of helplessness never faded when she was trying to figure out how to approach Kaoruko when she saw her, to support her.

So to be privy of the detail, knowing that she was there for Kaoruko despite thinking otherwise brought a sense of relief to Claudine.

"You always had that habit, I guess. Of knowing when to intervene even when you did not want to get involved. With me and Futaba-han. With the Yumeoji sisters. With Yachiyo-han. Kagura-han too".

"Is that a nice way of saying I don't know how to mind my own business?".

Kaoruko smirked, eyes gazing into pink, absorbed in them, "It is. And I know they are as grateful for that as I am. Thank you, Kuro-han, I love you so much".

The blonde increased her grip, not enough to hurt her lover but to convey the sentiments of how she would do it all over again if it meant protecting Kaoruko.

"I love you too, Kaoruko" she breathed over Kaoruko's lips before kissing her, repeating the words till it was all Kaoruko could feel. 

Neither knew if this was the last of their ordeal but they could confirm one thing which was seen to.

The uncertainty of not losing each other and their hearts to someone else.

 

***

 

Human Village/Hakurei Shrine

 


With the school day over, Keine was directing the children out of the building when the parents arrived to collect them.

The lively chatter from the few left was enough to provide a jovial atmosphere as she watched over them. 

Eri was amongst the group, her usual buoyant mannerisms tying the group together in their shenanigans as they scampered around, trying to catch each other. To see the sight was warming considering Eri's own plight so to have her return to school and be with her friends was certainly aiding on her path to normalcy. 

The security around the village had heightened once again, both youkai in disguise and humans patrolling more often. With the parents sharing their concerns after hearing what had happened, the apprehension doubled but Keine managed to assuage their doubts. As long as an attack hadn't occurred inside the village itself, then that was something to take into account.

Still, Keine was wary given the prospect of possession and the villages history of such things happening, unbeknownst to the residents which was usually thanks to the youkai means of covering up.

For the time being, they had to remain observant. 

Keine saw Alice walk up to them, waving at her, "Alice".

"Hello, Keine" the blonde smiled and stood next to her, eyes going to Eri and her friends, "I hope she hasn't been a handful today".

"No more than any other 5 year old. If anything, I'd rather that was the case. She has been missed as you can see".

Eri was so immersed in playing with her friends that she hadn't even looked in the direction of where the two women were stood. After her injuries and missing school, Keine was constantly barraged with questions from the class as to where she was and if she was okay. Everyday without fail, they would ask so to see them all make up for lost time was welcoming. 

Reimu and Alice were worried about whether she would be able to settle in again but it seemed that they had nothing to fret about.

"To see her up and about again like this.." Alice said, her sentence not needing to conclude as Keine understood her perfectly, "I'm so grateful to Eirin and everyone".

"You and Reimu should be included in that, Alice. You faced any parents worst nightmare and pulled through. Eri is lucky to have you both".

Alice was filled with gratitude at Keine's kindness and the care she provided for all of Gensokyo's children, be they youkai or human. Considering Eri's half youkai nature, much like Keine's, Alice knew she would be relying on Keine's guidance as the years went on.

"Thank you, it means a lot to hear. We were unsure of whether she would want to return but she insisted, citing her friends and favourite teacher" Alice chuckled.

"Kids generally feel at ease with others and Eri was no different" Keine replied, her eyes taking them in, "In the long run, it is beneficial for them to know it is possible to continue on. I suppose that is the innocence of a child".

As much of a melancholic statement as it was, the words rang true.

That innocence was their weapon and their vulnerability. 

"So long as they have the support and guidance, they tend to land back on their feet" Keine added, "As difficult as it, try not to doubt yourself too much. You and Reimu are doing well by her".

"Thank you, Keine".

Those moments of hearing words of encouragement carried such a levity. 

For any parent, the struggle of guiding and raising a child was already filled with complexities so given Reimu and Alice's circumstances, those hurdles were augmented to new heights. Hearing that encouragement in the face of dissent could offer more reprieve than one could imagine. 

Alice kept it in mind as Eri had finally noticed her mother, grinning whilst waving goodbye to her friends.

She could see it in her daughter's demeanour that Keine's words rang true.

While the future remained uncertain, Alice knew that she and Reimu would do everything they could to guide Eri.

Because that is the job of a parent; to nurture and guide, not shape and control.

As they left the Human Village, Eri continued talking about her day as she hopped around, her lively vigour making her mother smile.

"And then we got to see Mokou light up the tube! It was like danmaku in glass. So pretty".

"Sounds like quite the experiment" Alice chuckled.

"It was!".

She patted the smaller blonde's head, "Are you feeling okay? Tired?".

Eri shook her head, "Nope. I think after all of that sleeping, I don't feel like sleeping when I don’t have to".

"I see, well it is important to rest, okay? So if you do feel tired, please tell me or your mama".

Eri grinned up at her mother, "I'm all better now so you don’t have to worry".

"Oh? And just who do you think you are telling me, your mother, not to worry?" Alice laughed, "It is my job too worry".

"Patche says you do that lot and I think she is a bit right, mother".

"Patchouli is one to talk" the magician quipped under her breath, "Well, how about this. How do you feel about flying home?".

Large red eyes looked up at her when Eri stopped mid skip and turned to face her mother.

It took every fibre in Alice's being not to melt and gush at how much she looked like Reimu at that point when presented with something she wanted.

"Really? Can I really?!".

Considering how long it had been since the girl had been allowed to fly since the incident, it was plain to see how restless she was becoming. Flight was engrained into her nature, Reimu's in particular so to not be able to carry out the action was bound to have Eri feeling like part of her had been stifled. The girl often watched Yuyuko practice and both of her mothers saw the longing in her eyes and the way her legs would be ready to kick off.

Given that she was well on her way to a full recovery and recently given the green light to fly by Eirin, Alice saw this to be perfect opportunity. 

"Of course. But you must stay close to me, okay?" She said as she crouched down, adjusting Eri's coat and checking her boots, "That is the main rule".

Eri tried to look all solemn and mature, "I promise to stay next to mother at all times".

Alice grinned, pressing a kiss to her daughter's forehead before standing up and extending her hand for Eri to take.

"It's a deal. Now, we'll go slowly at first in order for you to get comfortable. We will stay as low as possible so that the wind doesn't get in the way of your breathing either".

"Will it always be that way?".

"No, the more your fly, the more you become adjusted".

"Then I can go as fast as you and mama one day?" Eri asked eagerly. 

"Who knows, maybe you willl go faster" Alice smiled, delighted by the sheer contentment on Eri's face, "Now, let's get going".

Keeping a steady grip on Eri's hand, Alice hovered up from the ground whilst waiting for Eri to get into the mind-set. 

The plummeting temperature was something she kept in mind which is why Alice wanted to stay lower too. At the very least, Eri would be able to fly and enjoy the momentum which came with it.

Soon enough, the two were hovering above as Eri stumbled a tad before righting herself, flying up till she was at her mother's height.

"Ready?".

"Let's go!".

With that, they both rose into the air, past the hill which led up to the shrine. The wind wasn't as erratic thankfully which allowed Alice to slowly guide Eri forward when they increased in speed.

She kept a hold of her hand till she was confident that Eri had gathered her bearings, her cheerful giggles being music to Alice's ears. Once they had gathered enough momentum, Alice let go and Eri put her hands to the side as she flew with her mother over the winter horizon of Gensokyo. 

It was freeing for the girl, her eyes alight and ahead whilst taking glances at everything beneath them. She knew she could never get tired of the feeling, of having the ability to soar above like this.

Alice could see the serenity as she kept her eyes on Eri, staying close by but her daughter had kept to her word to remain cautious and next to her.

She was glad to have suggested it, knowing that it had made Eri's day, and her own.

A wave of nostalgia fluttered over Alice as she thought back to her flight over to Gensokyo, how taken she had been when following Reimu back to the shrine to clean up the damage left by Shinki's demons.

It was strange, that even at said moment, she just knew that one day, she would come back to Gensokyo again.

Making her home here, and with its priestess just felt like a pleasant surprise.

Alice thought of her mother. 

Her heart felt fulfilled now that her family were all together. 

To know that Shinki had accepted her decisions and wanted to be a part of her life again never failed to make her feel elated. In spite of the drama which had ensued, the woman could say she was fully content.

Just glancing at her daughter and the happiness she was engulfed in reiterated the point.

They were nearing the shrine grounds now and could see Reimu on the steps so Alice motioned to Eri to start to descend. 

Reimu stood up, watching her wife and daughter soar through the air.

There was nothing like it.

To witness their smiles, to witness them healthy and well.

She ruminated back to her conversation with Yukari about growth, her own journey. 

Reimu had found one that lead her to things she couldn't have imagined.

She laughed as Eri sped up, sweeping against the grounds of the shrine and straight into her arms. 

"I'm back!".

"Welcome home, Eri" Reimu exhaled as she hugged her daughter, her chin resting on the girl's head, "I'd ask how school was but I'm guessing it doesn't beat flying".

"School was fun but yep, flying is way better" she giggled, "I got to fly fast too. Next time I want you to be there".

"I'm sure that can be arranged" Reimu chuckled as Alice touched down, "How are you feeling, Eri?".

Eri pulled back and placed her hand over her lungs and took a deep breath in.

Normally, that would result in Eri coughing slightly and Reimu was preparing herself for it but to her relief, the girl didn't cough, just beamed.

"See?".

Reimu internally thanked a particular goddess, "That's my girl. You should head inside now though, it is too cold. Do you have any homework?".

"Not today, mama, does that mean I can learn some spells?".

"Well, since your mother let you fly, I suppose we can work on some charms" Reimu replied, her tone hushed.

Eri let out a cheer as she dashed up the stairs, taking her shoes off before running inside just as Alice approached them.

She saw her wife's amused smile as the blonde kissed her cheek, "I heard that".

"And I saw that" Reimu smirked back, "Think it's too soon for the charms?".

"No, I'm glad she can start again. She has more or less adjusted to being back at school so I don't see why she cannot start with them".

The duo walked back into their home as they continued the discussion surrounding their daughter. Eri was in the midst of washing her hands, using the step to the sink, humming happily as Aunn aided her. She was stronger already, a capable child who was curious of life. She jumped off of the steps and wiped her hands on the towel before running back into the living area with Aunn to where Hourai and Shanghai were.

Reimu slipped her arms around Alice's waist when the blonde remained near the door, reassuring her that things will keep progressing and how they would deal with any fallout together.

The magician believed her wife, leaning back and resting her arms over Reimu's.

Even if things became tumultuous again, with Reimu by her side, Alice knew they would be able to move forward. 

 

***


Yakumo Mansion 

 

Seated on the couch of Sayo's room, Lisa was in the process of changing the bandage on the Sayo's chest.

Her shirt was pulled down one arm, the silence between them more comfortable than it had been as Lisa's meticulous fingers applied cream onto the wound.

"Okay, let's leave it to dry for a few minutes then I'll put a fresh one on".

"Thank you, Lisa. I hope this isn’t an inconvenience. Eirin was more than willing to take care of this".

The brunette shook her head, rummaging through the supplies Eirin had provided, "I don’t mind. Besides, this wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for me".

"I don't regret it" Sayo said firmly, "So please do not feel guilty. I would not think twice about intervening in any situation".

"Thanks, Sayo. I just..".

Sayo didn't rush the woman as her hands continued to rifle through the box, the mindless action letting her gather her thoughts before her hand moved to the wound, the area around it.

It took Sayo everything in her control to not react.

The fact that she was feeling Lisa's touch, even under such circumstances, Sayo would take. She kept her gaze on Lisa's pensive expression, the long lashes batting gently. 

They were close enough that she could hear her breathing, smell her fragrance and it felt like home.

"After everything that happened, I didn't expect you to jump in".

"Why?".

"Even though I had my reasons, the way I treated you-".

"Is just as you said" Sayo interjected as Lisa looked up at her, "You had every right to be that way towards me after I betrayed you the way I did. But it changes nothing in regards to what I would do for you. Including putting my life on the line. As I said, how I feel about you is the one thing consistent in my life".

Lisa could feel the pace of Sayo's heartbeat increase, the honesty behind it tangible in each beat.

It still never failed to astound Lisa as to how the once stoic woman, so indifferent and detached, could speak such tender words freely to her.

While the sting of betrayal would linger, Lisa couldn't deny that seeing the way Sayo was adamant in restoring something between them was touching.

She smiled whilst reaching for a fresh bandage, peeling it open before aligning it against Sayo's wound and pressing it.

"Hearing you say things like that still feels surreal, you know" she whispered while pressing the edges of the bandage down so that it was secure, "Even after everything we have been through".

"My mistake was not saying anything during that time, amongst many others" Sayo replied, "In my effort to lessen the burden for you, I ended up hurting you in such an unimaginable way. I'm so sorry, Lisa".

"You don’t have to apologise anymore".

Sayo placed her hand over Lisa's which was still on her chest, "I do. I'll do so for as long as it takes. Truthfully, to have you talking to me again is more than I could ask for".

Feeling the calluses of Sayo's fingertips over the back of her skin, Lisa kept her gaze on their hands. The pulse of Sayo's heartbeat was steady, each thud felt against the flat surface of her palm. Sayo had always been vulnerable to the cold so she was concerned about what their first winter in Gensokyo would be like.

Whereas at this moment, she could feel the warmth of her skin, flush and alive.

Something that for a split second during Kaoruko's blade connecting with Sayo, Lisa thought she would never experience again.

"It may be cruel to say this but with Chisato gone, I..the threat isn't as bad and I hate how I think that way but I can't help it. That with her gone, I wouldn't have to worry about you going to her for help. Or something happening between you".

Sayo could hear the shame in Lisa's voice for thinking such a premise and it continued to hammer in the effect of what she had done.

She reached out with her other hand, daring to touch Lisa's cheek to lift her gaze up.

"Lisa, everything you are feeling..the good and the bad, is a result of our actions, my mistakes. If Shirasagi-san not being here is reprieve for you, then that is nothing to feel shame for. The shame is with me for making you feel that way, and for what I did to her. I just want to try and rekindle what is between us, for you to allow me back into your life, your heart".

Her thumb brushed over the brunette's cheek, feeling the tears and wiping them.

Lisa gulped, her eyes fluttering close as she felt Sayo's heartbeat again, beating so fast.

For her.

Only for her.

She angled her face up, lips lightly brushing over Sayo's while her other hand reached out for Sayo's shoulder to steady herself as she relished in the kiss.

It was tentative, almost a re-enactment of the first time they shared a kiss.

Backstage after a successful performance, both bathed in the adrenaline, the energy, their instruments secured to their side as they laughed while the audience chanted their names.

The gravity between them was unrelenting, drawing them together until they found themselves in each other's arms, their lips joined.

Just like now.

The same glow on their cheeks, the longing in their eyes, their love iridescent. 

It hadn't diminished despite Sayo's unintentional perfidy. 

But it was a betrayal nonetheless. 

For it to lessen wouldn't be straightforward, but this was progress. 

Lisa squeezed Sayo's shoulder gently, feeling the strands of green brushing over her knuckles as they remained in place when they parted.

"Can you give me some more time, Sayo?".

Hope was swimming in Sayo's head, her lips still tingling and heart on her sleeve, or rather, on the tips of Lisa's fingertips. 

There was still hope for them.

"Take all the time you need. I will be here".

She would wait for Lisa for as long as her body would draw breath.

 

***

 

Forest Of Magic 

 

The month of November had flown by without further incident.

Snow was prevalent over the land, the appealing yet debilitating element now notable.

Yukari's time to hibernate was drawing closer and she still had a few things to align in regards to Gensokyo. 

Particularly its defences.

Instructions had been sent to all faction leaders, to prepare as something was on the horizon and as a precaution, ensure that everyone was prepared for the worst case scenario.

For the Outside World denizens, their training regime had increased.

Every single one of them was capable of fighting given what they had done in their fight to survive.

Most could kill if need be.

Some were proficient under the act of healing thanks to Eirin's training.

It was another exemplar of balance.

Meanwhile, the youkai side of Yukari's planning were working on their own strengths and defences in the event of an attack.

When it came to a threat on Gensokyo, grudges and differences of opinions were foregone as a sense camaraderie was felt by everyone.

Without Gensokyo, most of its inhabitants, be they human or youkai, would cease to exist.

Not many had alternatives to seek should the land be destroyed. 

Though for one woman, she did have said alternative. 

Night had fallen in the forest as Alice was immersed in her work, her desk strewn with books on various magical defences. Her blue eyes scanned over the various lists and information, picking out details which could be useful to strengthen her own magic.

Reusing her home in the forest as a workshop was deemed safe after the attention to the home seemed to have disappeared after Shinki's arrival, like that was a warning in itself.

Alice sat back, pushing the tome forward, her mind working on overdrive as she attempted to decipher the last piece. She and the rest of the magicians of Gensokyo, now including Yuyuko, were compiling a method which could aid in Gensokyo's protection in terms of their abilities. 

That particular focus had been set by Okina and they didn't question it.

It was getting late and she had to head back home soon, but her need to find a solution had made the time condense.

She was about to begin to tidy up when a knock to her door alerted her of someone's presence. It was too late for a guest and the only other possibility was that someone had become lost. 

Still, it was far too late into the night for any human to be around which meant that it could be a youkai.

Her rings were on her fingers as she stood up, Hourai following her owner down the stairs. Alice's steps were quiet, hoping that the element of surprise could be used in her favour. She peered through the hole to get a better idea of whomever was out there, her apprehension dissolving slightly. 

Alice's hand remained on the handle of her door, taking in what she could of the woman bundled up in a brown cloak, her demeanour appearing antsy. 

She wasn't going to leave someone outside in this weather but she was cautious, slowly opening the door just enough to see her.

"Hello, can I help you?".

"I'm sorry to intrude on you like this but I need to speak with you, Alice, it is urgent".

The magician didn't recognise the voice and was startled that the woman knew her name. Then again, if the woman resided in Gensokyo, it would be understandable as Alice was well known.

"Who are you?".

"I will answer anything you wish to know, please, rest assured that I am not a threat. If anything, the information I have will be beneficial to you and Gensokyo".

The line was a confirmation that the stranger wasn't a Gensokyo resident and Alice was convinced she wasn't human either given the energy coming off of her.

After adding up the pros and cons, Alice decided to allow the woman in, especially if she had information which could help them.

In the glow of the house, Alice had a better look at the woman.

Purple hair and eyes, her expression not aggressive or minacious at all.

The cloak she was wrapped in was familiar, this much Alice could tell and her curiosity was building by the second. With that, she led the woman to the kitchen, offering her a seat at the table as she put on some tea.

From the sounds of it, it seemed like the woman had a substantial amount to divulge.

However, what she revealed to Alice would change Alice's life, as well as the path of the ongoing incident.

For every question the magician had, the woman answered.

"Truthfully, Alice, I was hoping it would not come to this".

Alice waited for her to elaborate and when she did, the blonde's entire countenance paused, her eyes almost glazing over as she processed the words.

She looked the woman in the eyes, asking her to reiterate what she had just said.

Her tone had dropped, sending the other woman shudders but she repeated her statement.

There was no choice anymore, too much was on the line.

Once the conversation was over, the woman stood up, mentioned how she would show herself out as she stopped besides Alice. 

"I'm sorry, princess. Please do not hold it against her. She had no choice".

The words were soft, tinted with fear and sadness.

And then she was gone.

Leaving Alice rooted to her seat as she processed everything she had been told, wishing for it to be lies and slander.

But there was no deception from the woman, there could be no rewards gained from what she had revealed, putting her own life on the line along with someone dear to her.

Alice's hands shook as she removed her hold on the cup and stood up once she regained functions of her senses. Her lips were pulled into a thin, indistinguishable line but her eyes, the blue irises were positively flickering.

Shanghai and Hourai were at her side again, lance and sword in hand while Alice stalked  up the stairs.

She walked into the opposite direction on the second floor to where her storeroom was and cast a spell to remove the charm.

A line of blue lights pulsed, setting the room alight. 

Her composure was slipping with every second as she made her way to the wall on the far side of the room, pulling the frame over it away and tossing it to the side to reveal a compartment within it.

It was sealed with Reimu's talismans and her charms.

Only she and her wife had access to it, and possibly Yukari but the area was rigged with all sorts of traps to dissuade anyone with sticky fingers or a death sentence.

Alice exhaled, breath shaky as she tore away the charms and opened the door to it.

She thought she would never have to use this again.

There had no longer been a need to, until now.

Her hands touched the item as it hummed to life, levitating as it felt its owner near by. An eerie red glow illuminated around it while Alice brought it to eye level, looking at the cover of the leather bound brown surface

The golden writing had been preserved, as had the pages.

Anything in this book would be unusable in accordance to Gensokyo's rules.

Thankfully, the place she would use this wasn't going to be in Gensokyo, especially since it was the original version and not the one encased in the glass stand in her living room.

Where she was going, rules were not necessary so using this was fair game. 

However, even if it wasn't, Alice's mind had long foregone the prospect of fighting fair the moment the woman had delved the information. 

The item floated closer to her, Shanghai and Hourai glowing a similar shade as flickers of energy dispersed around them.

She read the title of the book again, allowing the contempt she was imbued in to run free.

Grimoire of Alice.