I wrote this for a Touhou crossover fanfiction contest. Or would that be a Touhou fanfiction crossover contest? Anyway, I tied for first, which sounds really really cool until you understand that there were only two other entries I was up against. Anyway—Touhou Project's the creation of Team Shanghai Alice and Yellow Submarine was produced by...uh, I'm not sure. United Artists? King Features Syndicate? Apple Films? The point is—not me.
"She knew about this, you know," Lyrica whispers. They sit huddled by the safehouse windows, four in a row. (Not under—they learned that rule the hard way, when the missiles tore through the last rest stop. No windows, no hats.)
"Who did?" Reimu asks.
A long time ago (a week ago), Lyrica's smile was sly and quiet. Today it is filled with teeth. Reimu thought Merlin would crack first across the three of the sisters, Merlin with her boundless energy tumbled into restraints, but it is the thinker Lyrica who is the closest to faling over the edge. She can hear Lyrica during the nights, when they're pretending any of them can sleep—Lyrica, muttering at the walls, creaking louder than the floorboards, with plans and plans and nothing to execute them with.
"Layla," says Lyrica. "Layla knew about this, I mean. She told us stories."
And Reimu is the last of the Hakurei at the moment, keeper of the Shrine, guardian of the Border (and you sure did a bang-up job of that this time, didn't you, dear), but it's dark and she's tired and she's spent too many hours already cooped up shoulder to shoulder to a girl who's only barely on this side of real, so she snaps, "Told you stories about Gensokyo and an army of clowns?"
"We weren't from Gensokyo," Lyrica hisses back. "None of us are. I was just going to ask—" She stops, looks away, lips twitching, and Reimu has the sudden feeling she's gone too far, like maybe she's spent so long watching Lyrica at the precipice that she forgot her own feet were there, too.
"I wanted to ask if you wanted in, but forget it," Lyrica says. We'll get our things back on our own. Come on."
She leaves the safehouse, shoulders high until the moment she crosses the doorway and she has to watch her back again (the difference between pride and stupidity). Her sisters follow behind her, single-file, like students on a field trip—Merlin first, then Lunasa, who pauses at the light to look one last time at Reimu and Reimu can't tell if it's disapproval or an apology before she's gone, too.
And then there's a lot more room.
Reimu puts her head into her knees.
Crises in Gensokyo have always been kind. The symptoms come before the sickness. First the red mist rolls across the sky, then the vampires out to play. First the winter's a bit too long, then the soul-eating tree starts to bloom. It's a good system, in Reimu's opinion. It gives the responsible problem-solver (don't kid yourself, dear) just enough time to finger the guilty party before the serious problems start.
Reimu remembers arguing with Keine. She can pull the images out of time and into the undersides of her eyelids, if she tries, play them back in order like something out of a tengu filmstrip. Keine, one hand gesturing broadly in Reimu's direction, the other at odds with that ceremonial hat perched on her head. It kept slipping askew, Reimu remembers, and it was hard to take Keine seriously or even listen to a word she was saying with it slipping off every second. Her mouth was struck in a grimace. Her eyes were on fire.
The next images are blurred, overexposed. Something blue, flashing almost invisible against the sky. Keine's mouth going limp. The fire going out. It went out slowly. Reimu remembers that, too. It went out slowly.
The flush of anger in Keine's face fading out to gray.
There aren't any images after that. (That's when the screaming started.)
It isn't the missiles that are the worst, and that's the funny part. The missiles you can see coming, if you know what to look for, and what you can see coming, you can dodge (and the people who don't know what to look for don't have to worry too long.)
Reimu can dodge. Reimu has done nothing but dodge since she was a kid, thunder and fire and sharp teeth until she was old enough to make the Rules and then danmaku every day after. The problem is the clowns.
The clowns do not follow the Rules.
Reimu encounters a clown up close only once, days into the incident. She is flying too low, trying to avoid sight in the underbrush, when one rattles into her path—rattles, like the wind-up toys the kids set into the road to run down against the other side. Reimu has time to take in the painted blue face, the red lips curled back too far, too high, the teeth too tall—
"Fire one," says the thing on its shoulders, and presses the clown's glowing red nose.
The explosion happens between her body and the ground, lifts her straight into the air like a puppeteer yanking a doll's strings. (Alice still, seven colors gone.) For a moment, Reimu feels nothing, no weight, no pain—and then her head finds something hard and pain makes up for lost time, ringing its way through her skull and behind her eyes as she looks up at the thing on its perch—the thing, not human, not youkai, blue-faced and red-lipped as the clown itself, writing her off through that rictus grin.
"Fire two," it says, and doesn't it sound smug about it.
The danmaku cuts through the trees like a miracle from the god she's never worshiped.
The thing screeches, twisting around on the clown's back to avoid the rain of magic, hammering at the big red nose as it goggles through the branches with the air of a betrayed child. "Fire two-three-four," it huffs with each button-press and Reimu can hear the matching whumph for each one, a lot of air very far up blowing apart very quickly. "Fire five. Fire six—"
She realizes: It's forgotten I'm here.
She doesn't stay to find out who saved her (someone with more heart than sense), just lifts, quick and high, until her feet are skimming over the boughs with her head pounding toward who-knows-where-next.
There is another tengu filmstrip tucked away in Reimu's mind. She doesn't give them names, but if she did, this one would be The Last Time I Saw Alice. Or maybe What Happened to Marisa. The date on the side is barely a day into the invasion, and when she unspools the canister there's barely anything to it.
"I only saw the end of the encounter."
Reimu remembers pressing herself into the thin cushion of the chair by its armrests, pressing down the urge to leap up and press her thumbs into Alice's throat instead. It was the dull, clinical tone in the way Alice talked, in the way most magicians talked—like they didn't think your life was worth much if they couldn't wring a new spell out of it.
"Her broom broke. And from then it was a matter of time. You understand, of course."
"The dog ran her down. It sat on her."
Reimu hadn't seen it, didn't understand then (a dog? A dog, beat Marisa down?). It isn't until later that she spies the animal herself, taking shelter in the cavernous debris of a bombed-out shop, eye pressed against a gap where the wood was just strong enough to splinter but hold. For a second she doesn't know what she's looking at, her first impression a mass of writhing, blue-furred muscle. And then she sees the heads—and it has heads, four of them, moving in circles as the body rotates, large, flat snouts pressed to the ground for tracking. At the neck of each of the heads is a spiked collar, and attached to one of those collars (one collar, how do you decide which one) is the end of a leash, going back all the way to another of those gun-totingthings that just appeared one day, as you please, primed and ready to upend the happy enough life Reimu knew.
Reimu has a thought then, has had the thought before, while tucked away in makeshift cubbyholes, dodging sentries and missiles and glass: They were prepared for this. They must have been. They must have been planning this for a long, long time.
One of the dogs lifts its head and growls, a deep, guttural sound. There's a thunderbolt of fear down Reimu's spine (Keine, mid-tirade, fading out to gray), but whatever prey the dog's caught wind of, it isn't her. She watches the animal go, snarling and baying, biting at the air—three heads in front, dragging the fourth—and its handler—behind it.
She can imagine that dog pinning Marisa down. Marisa, broom broken beside her, beating at the animal's body, trying to worm herself free before the things arrive. And then—point-blank with lightning-flash guns, maybe. Or maybe not—it isn't just the bulbous, furry things anymore, not just them and the clowns and the dog that's a dog by technicality. There are other things now, too, things that she's seen from a distance, things with snapping jaws in all the wrong places, things that even look human except not human enough—stretched out of proportion, like the idea of a human pulled too long at the ends.
All the wrong color.
She goes back to Alice's after that—to check back? To apologize? (Sorry I didn't know what you meant when you said it sat on Marisa; sorry I hate you; want to come with?) It doesn't matter—the roof of the cottage is cracked, broken in, like the end of a emptied eggshell. In the middle of the rubble, Alice stands, neck craned, looking at the sky. Looking at nothing. Her clothes and skin have gone a dusty, light gray.
She looks like a doll.
And then her luck runs out (ran out a long time ago, dear).
They pin her down at the Village. It's bad timing, that's all, almost an anticlimax. She's in the middle of one of her food runs, searching building to building (and some buildings are emptier than others—small favors), when one of things comes stumbling in through the door the same time she's stumbling out. There's a second of mutual, comic astonishment—and then it snarls an alarm, reaching for its gun with one clawed hand, but Reimu can dodge, Reimu has always been dodging, and when the first shot goes whizzing over her shoulder she ducks in low and shoves the thing hard against the wall, sending the weapon flying out of its grip and skittering across the wooden floor. There's a part of her that wants to grope around in the dark for it and see how it fits, see if it works as well on them as it does on anyone else, but she junks that idea before it can sound good—better the door, the familiar safety of open space, open air—
She makes it two steps out before the sea of blue faces rushes over her, and then she's at the bottom of it. (There's dodging, and then there's numbers, and anyway miracles never happen twice.)
They lead her out of the Village in chains. She tries to fly, but she's wrapped up like a kite, and one good yank's enough to ground her. The second time she tries one of the things cuffs her in the back of the head—not a real blow, just enough for her to feel it—and she gets the hint and follows, the odd man out in the malevolent blue parade winding up the mountain wilderness, thorns and branches picking at her legs as she passes. Soon, though, the land levels out, and Reimu gets an eyeful that makes her heart do a swan dive into her gut.
If she ever needed any more proof that this is no incident, no loose consolidation of badniks scratching at Gensokyo's peace before life swings back into easy rhythm, this would be enough to give it up in spades. It's an army laid out in front of her, all the things she's seen wandering the countryside—the bulbous footsoldiers, the stretched-out men, the walking, jagged-toothed, leering grins, all of them here and grouped into formation, ready to march down the mountain at a moment's order. Something streaks through the sky in the distance, something that reflects light like lantern oil and paints a trail of thick, dark smoke behind it.
It's blue, of course. They're all blue. And the thing at the head, perched on a wooden stool like a massive fightless bird, looking Reimu over like she's yesterday's leftovers, is the biggest and bluest of them all. "What's this?" it asks, smiling. "What's this?" Its voice is reedier, loftier than anything that ought to come out of something so large.
At the front of the line, one of the things snaps to a salute.
"Prisoner, your Blueness!"
The thing, still saluting, bobbles its head. "No, your Blueness!" it says.
The head thing's smile broadens, a crescent window into rows of neat yellow teeth. "Well, what are you waiting for?" it says. "Finish her!"
"But your Blueness—"
And then the head thing is looming over them, her and the soldier both, the stool toppling in its wake, ruby lips snarling. "'But'?" it sneers, and Reimu can see those yellow teeth grinding against each other like a set of worn gears.
The underling flinches, but keeps its footing—and its salute. "It's the Hakurei, your Blueness!" it says, before the last of its courage fails it, and it scampers cowering behind the next in line.
The scowl drains away from the head thing's face, replaced by a strange calmness. It begins to slink around Reimu, looking her over again with deliberation this time, more than that first cursory glance. Reimu barely notices. They know who I am, she thinks, and something sparks in the muscles of her limbs, like cold sweat tinged with electricity. She knows this feeling—the feeling of high stakes and last chances, of now-or-never, of fate swerving to dive at the other path, and as the head thing passes behind her and can't see what she's doing with her hands Reimu takes that spark and puts it in her wrists where her chains are wrapped and pulls.
The chains don't even budge.
One more miracle, she thinks. "Who are you?" she says. "What do you want?"
The head thing finishes its lazy circle, bringing itself back face-to-face with Reimu. When it leans in, Reimu can smell something pungent wafting on its breath. "Who am I?" it says, and giggles. "Tell her!"
One of the things—the same one, maybe—raises its head out of the parade. "Chief!" it calls out. "His Blueness, Chief of the Meanies!"
The head thing, Chief, Blueness—preens, turning its head away, a parody of bashfulness. Reimu has just the time to feel a roll of disgust—and then its head snaps back toward the crowd, back to business. "And what do we want?" it calls.
The voices come in waves.
"A blue world!"
"You see?" The Chief turns back to Reimu. "We've suffered too long, living through a multicolored existence. Some of us have even fallen to the wayside and thrown in their lot with euphony. But they'll get theirs—soon! Oh, yes." It giggles again, louder, higher—and then it pulls in Reimu by the shoulder, leaning in even closer than before.
Its forehead touches hers, cold and greasy.
"We've seen the pictures, you see," the Chief whispers, like it's sharing a deep secret. "The photographs. It's a blue planet. And when we saw, we knew there was never any doubt. This is destiny, Hakurei. A blue world, just waiting for us to color in the corners."
The thing is insane, she realizes with sudden clarity. The thing is insane and invaded Gensokyo insane and succeeded at it, and Reimu can feel an uninterrupted line of Hakurei priests and priestesses glowering at her from somewhere around the cycle of rebirth, all but her mother, and that's only because her mother would never pull anything so cut-rate as a glower. Mother, Reimu knows, is smiling, all the way up to the cheeks but no farther, words dripping out like honey—
You screwed it up, dear, Mother Hakurei is singing. You screwed it up and you've been screwing it up from the start, from the moment I died and left you to pick up the slack. Not by choice—never by choice; do you think I would have left the safety of Gensokyo and a thousand-odd villagers to you if I'd had the choice? Do you think I can't tell what you're doing every time you let that oni drink itself to sleep on the shrine steps like it was born there? Well, you thumbed your nose at your mother—see what it's gotten you now.
"Did you drag me up here for a reason, or did you just want me to choke on your breath?" Reimu asks, and it isn't loud enough. It never has been.
The head thing's giggles rise to a whirling cackle. "That's it!" it cries, slapping her past the shoulder in its hysterics, sending her almost falling. "That's it!That's the Hakurei I've been watching!" The laughter continues long and hard, the thing's other hand pushing at its knee to support itself, and then it runs down and the thing looks at her straight and still, grinning up to the gums.
"Join us, Hakurei," it says.
Out of everything Reimu was expecting, this isn't even on the list. "What?" she says, before she can stop herself.
"Join us," the thing says again. "You've worn our colors before, haven't you? I knew you, the first I ever saw you—you're a natural Hakurei Meanie, as nasty as the worst of us! What do you say? You and me—let's paint the town blue."
The Chief of the Meanies' hand travels up from Reimu's shoulder, up to the side of her face, cupping her cheek, the image of a parent proud of their child. It's the first time anyone's touched her like that.
The thumbnail presses into the flesh below her eye.
You don't know me at all, Reimu thinks, and spits.
The thing screeches, stumbling back, taking its hands and its noxious breath with it. It claws where she got it, like she's the one with the poisoned mouth. "You—you dare?" it cries.
"I dare a lot of things," Reimu says. When she smiles, it's the first time in a week.
The thing's face twists, the veneer falling away, and there's nothing underneath to see but the howling rage, barely unconstrained. "O-blue-terate her!" it snarls, and Reimu feels what she expected all along from this trip: cold and metal, pressed to the base of her skull.
She doesn't close her eyes. She won't give them the satisfaction. Or maybe she just has something to prove.
It's a sound like thunder.
It isn't thunder, of course. The sky is cloudless, blue deepening overhead to evening. There's nothing to thunder from, and for a second Reimu thinks it must be the gunshot instead, then, the last instant of awareness before the gray runs into her head and she turns as still as the rest of them. Then the second passes, and then a second more, and she still feels complete. Real. Alive.
The head thing turns its head away, toward the horizon. Reimu hears it mutters, a slip past the theatrics:
The sound comes again, and this time it doesn't sound much like thunder at all. It's too full for that, too clear. Not a sound out of nature with its faded edges but something maintained, a single, held—
"What?" roars the head thing, and now its mouth is gaping, its eyes wide enough Reimu can see the whites around it, head still turned upward like it's frozen that way, like it's the one that's been shot. "That's impossible!" it says, "Impossible!"
And Reimu thinks: You shouldn't have come here, then, not to Gensokyo, not if you couldn't handle impossible. We locked ourselves away because common sense was killing us, Blueness. What did you expect?
She raises her own eyes.
There, in the air, grinning to the edges, dressed to the nines in something that might have been a uniform before it was dipped into most of a rainbow, stands Lyrica Prismriver, keyboard floating at her waist like it never left her. Beside her, cheeks pink, Merlin lowers her brass from her lips, and in back is Lunasa, casting a wary gaze with her violin tucked at her chin and bow poised and ready, both of them dressed just the same as their youngest sister. Except that's not the same keyboard Lyrica's always carried with her, and that's more brass turning around Merlin than Reimu's ever seen at any concert, and whatever wood that violin is made of shines.
"Impossible!" screams the head thing again, and Reimu wonders if it's set on using that word up. "I got rid of your instruments! Crushed them! Destroyed them!"
"Layla knew!" Lyrica screams right back, and maybe her smile still isn't sly but Reimu likes it better than the one from the safehouse, wide and sharp now, the smile of someone springing the trap and watching it go off the way they planned for ages. Reimu's smiling like that herself, and she doesn't care that she doesn't deserve it. "Layla knew, you bouncing blue creep, and she hid the rest away! She put them in the nooks!"
"And crannies!" Merlin adds, and raises the mouthpiece of her instrument up again (not a trumpet; too grand to be a trumpet). When she blows, the sound rolls over Reimu, low and deep, and she can feel her whole body resonate with it, like someone else's excitement flowing into her bones.
When she pulls at the chains this time, they shift.
The head thing jumps as if stung. "Stop it!" it shouts, and Reimu can hear something like the first waverings of fear in its voice. "Stop that noise at once! Don't you dare go any further!"
Lyrica smile becomes even sharper. She laughs, not all sane, but who is anymore? "Can't stop now!" she says. "We've already tuned up!"
"And we gathered the whole orchestra, too!" says Merlin.
"You know, the whole ensemble—can't you hear?"
And Reimu can hear, off in the distance—see it, too, a new cloud in that deep blue sky, moving in from the horizon. Only it's not a cloud at all, but an ever-shifting mass of people, a crowd, sweeping in from nowhere in the last minute, bringing with them the sound of laughter, of cheering, the sound of music—
And there's Yukari who went missing at the start, right in front (she cursed them, the Yakumos, for naming themselves for color), lounging in air in that irritating way she always has but speeding toward them just the same, something settled in her lap that Reimu can't recognize—some kind of instrument, like a biwa but with a longer, thinner neck, and a hole in the body—
And right next to her are Ran and Chen, and Reimu recognizes that instrument but she can't say she would have expected Ran to tote a flute, of all things, and Chen presses her hands together and the object in between squeezes and compresses and expands again, like some kind of bellows—
And Byakuren has something, too, something with a neck and for a second Reimu thinks shamisen and for a second she thinks that's the biwa after all, and she's tired; she knows she's tired because neither of those instruments even look the same but before she can squint to see better the head priest's lost among her followers, each of them raring to protect their leader, each of them carrying an instrument of their own (except for Kyouko, of course; of course Kyouko wouldn't need an instrument)—
And Yuyuko, floating in with that expression of serenity, like she's just where she's always been meant to be, and she pulls her bow across the length of the erhu but whatever sound it gives off Reimu doesn't expect to hear anytime soon, not with Youmu right behind her, saddled with some great double-sided drum that looks like its going to send her rolling over, even in midair—
And then there's Marisa, jockeying for the front, and Reimu wonders if she's gone crazy all the way because there's Marisa, jockeying for the front, riding in on her broom and grinning like the idea that anything could have happened to her is nothing short of nothing, only Reimu's sure she can't be crazy, not yet, because never in a million years would she have imagined Marisa with something like that strapped to her back, something gleaming with too many turns and a great maw of a horn opened out over her head, Marisa alive and real and there's Marisa, there's Alice, there's Keine, there's everyone Reimu saw taken from her, back in living color and then some, and it can't be real but she knows it's real and Reimu can't breathe.
"Fire," she hears the head thing scream. "F-fire!"
Most of the things are in no state to try—covering their own ears, burrowing their faces into the ground, some of them even turning tail to flee—but some of them manage, aiming unsteadily at everyone Reimu's ever loved, and she wants to laugh. That won't work anymore. She's sure, even if she doesn't know why.
"Lunasa!" Lyrica shouts. "It's your measure!"
Lunasa looks at her youngest sister with something like fond exasperation. And then, as the first shots begin to fly, she touches her bow to her strings, draws it out along the length in a single, sweet note, and the missiles seem to twist in midair, shrink, until they aren't missiles anymore but roses, bouquets of them, thrown in offering for the performance—
The head thing has time to moan, and then the new philharmonic is on them.
There's the impression of standing in a river as it rushes around her, a river of light and color and beautiful chaos and shining faces, but it's that music that Reimu really notices, that she'll think of, later, when it's all over and done and the after-party's winding down and the stars over the Shrine steps are fading out to morning. Because it's the music of a hundred people and youkai playing at once, no sheet music, no rehearsal, half of them blowing and plucking and strumming instruments Reimu doesn't doubt they've never touched before in their however-long lives. By all rights—by all sense—it ought to be nothing but sheer, ugly noise.
But this is Gensokyo, where sense was shut out, and the sound around her is—melodious? Wonderful? She can think of a thousand words, but they all fall short, and they'll fall short forever. The closest she'll ever come won't be for years, a murmur in the back of her head like a trickle of water as she watches the bustle of the Village playing out before her, little joys and tragedies.
Sugar water, she'll think, just in that moment. It fills you up like sugar water.
She tugs, one last time, and the chains tear like paper. And somewhere in the edge of hearing the head thing screams, one long, unbroken note of its own, the pitch never changing but the volume dwindling to nothing in an instant, the scream of something being pulled away that knows full well what's waiting for it on the other side.
And then gone.
The cloud disperses into people. The instruments are lowered, or set down, or packed away and there is the idle after-battle chatter that Reimu is used to, and the laughter—not the laughter of victory but the laughter that comes after, of weary relief and normality reasserting itself. Reimu listens to it all, a different kind of music, massaging her wrists where the chains pressed in.
No one's looking at her that hard, but when she sits down she does it slow, anyway, so she doesn't look like she's collapsing. She's got that much self-control left.
"Hey," says a voice.
Her body tenses up, but she makes it relax. She can do that, too (there's a sleep with her name on it; she's owed it). "So," she says, without turning her head up, "Layla knew about this?"
"I told you—we weren't from Gensokyo," Lyrica says. She might be smiling. She sounds like it. "Are you okay?"
"Fine." Like she'd say otherwise. "Just give me a second. What's left?"
"Nothing?" Reimu says, and if it comes out louder than she meant, it's only because it's always been up to her to sweep the last of it up. There's no one except maybe Yukari who knows better—that an incident isn't really finished, even when it's over. There are always dregs at the bottom of the cup.
But maybe not today. "Nothing," Lyrica says again. "This is a pretty high place—high enough for the music to carry, especially when you play it fortississimo. Or even fortissississimo. And any Meanies left were swept away in the Sea of Sound."
"Are you trying to be a poet?"
"It's a lot less metaphorical than you think."
Reimu knows about metaphors that aren't really metaphors. "Come by the Shrine and tell me about it," she says, not a request, but more polite than an order. "It doesn't have to be for a day or two, though."
"Yeah," Lyrica says.
And Lyrica leaves her sitting there apart from the rest, joining in on the on-the-spot celebration where Reimu won't. And why not? She's the hero of the hour—her and her sisters. A new cheer starts up—the kind that ends with somebody hoisted on somebody else's shoulders—and Reimu lets the seconds tick by, until she's sure Lyrica won't be doubling back to float over her again anytime soon.
And then the last of that self-control slips and she's going through the motions of laughter herself, silently, into her knees. How's that for a miracle, Mother? she thinks. A band of poltergeists to save the day.
She'll have to start saving up. It'll take a chunk out of her pocket—a good flute.