Today we are pure.
We are pure and beautiful and innocent, and we have no idea what that means.
So we must learn what it is to be sullied.
Tsubaki has never thought herself pure. That was then, this is now, a now where she is worldly and powerful and experienced. Innocent is always a few years back, when she didn't know this or that, when she still held some foolhardy hope or belief, when she hated herself a little less. Then she loses another layer of innocence she hadn't known she had, and her old self becomes innocence.
To prevent just that sort of thing from happening, their master tries to tell them everything that is impure, so that they will recognize it and be able to avoid it. Better to know that it exists than to be taken in unaware and learn the hard way. So day after day he spouts obscenities at them, telling them, "Never do this."
Their relationship to Master is as spokes to a wheel. Endlessly the loyal miko-to-be follow the exact same path, never touching, never crossing, barely noticing anything but Master and the trials he puts them through.
And there are trials. Garbed in white they hold poses beneath torrents of freezing water, an ice-brand with which to burn away any weakness of body or soul. They stare into flames, eyes stinging from the incense-smoke, until the visions come. They battle things they thought they'd left behind in childhood nightmares, with little more than the purity that they're supposed to have.
One girl endures the best. She shines of purity, she reeks of it, and Master is hardest on her. Rather than simply enduring like the others when faced with his torments, she thrives in it, always seeking to push herself further.
Her name is Kikyou, and Tsubaki aches in her presence.
Tsubaki has hope. Not the "hope" of her childhood, I hope Mother will get better, I hope he just goes away, I hope I disappear, I hope I'm strong someday… no, this one is grounded in logic. Hope, because Kikyou, she has decided, is a masochist. And Tsubaki wants nothing more than to give her pain.
When they stumble to their futons in the dark, Tsubaki fails to find hers, accidentally-intentionally.
"Kaede?" that soft voice asks. It's far too dark to see, but there's only one person it could be anyway.
Tsubaki decides to dispense with formalities, finding Kikyou's body by scent and the heat of her sore muscles, and after brushing her hand across Kikyou's face and down her hair, she leans in and kisses her, with her fist clenched around the last of Kikyou's long strands, lest her quarry escape her.
Kikyou is understandably shocked, and justifiably angry, but she does nothing. When Tsubaki is done, Kikyou only asks one word. "Master?"
For a moment Tsubaki merely sulks in silence. How could Kikyou mistake her soft lips for those of a man? "Did you want it to be?" Tsubaki says at last, dripping acid. She can hear Kikyou's little gasp, and as she presses closer, feel Kikyou's quickening pulse and nervous sweat.
They say nothing, silence echoing in that drafty room that has become a concentration of air and darkness, the unseen air currents battling between the collective heat of the sleeping, breathing miko and the wild night at the door. Tsubaki breathes the dark amphibiously, her eyes beginning to adjust to something less than a silhouette but more than nothing, a bluish line traced on one side of everything.
"What are you going to tell them?" Kikyou asks, seeming less divine and more human as she does so.
"Who did you think I was?" Kikyou asks, as if that were an actual question and not some sarcasm to drive a point home. As if Tsubaki would stumble in the dark and into the wrong person's futon. As if no one would want Kikyou, and she could only be kissed by mistake.
So of course Tsubaki cannot answer that. She leaves, not caring if Kikyou will be able to get back to sleep, not caring if she was recognized, or even if the world will know her perversion the next morning. To stay would be worse.
Quietly in her own futon, she curses Kikyou, and unlike the feeble hate-wishes of her childhood, these are real.
Kikyou doesn't know who her midnight visitor was until morning, when the mirror reveals a tint of red lingering in the creases of her lips, dispelling any doubt that the voice she heard was a woman's. She searches the faces of the other girls for red lips, and listens for that voice.
When she finds both, they belong to a girl who is flirting with their master rather blatantly. With a smile that might be considered a smirk, Kikyou confidently waits for their master to shoot her down and put her in her place.
Only he doesn't.
When they dance the dances of power, Tsubaki misses steps glancing over her shoulder at Master, and Master stumbles.
As Kikyou understands it, the ecstasy of the gods can only come to those unacquainted with earthly ecstasy. Master would never ruin the chances of one of his students in such a way, nor would he diminish his own power. Kikyou carries buckets of water up the mountain, and still has the strength left to string her bow, but there is less joy in her training. She tells herself again and again as she toils in obscurity, that her master would not break their trust in such a way.
Tsubaki tells her otherwise.
When they are sent off in pairs to train, Tsubaki requests that she be sent with Kikyou, and the master, with only the slightest twinge of regret to see her leave, acquiesces. Kikyou requests only the company of her sister, but is reminded that little Kaede is not in official training yet, and she is.
Despite their reasons otherwise, they are companionable. Tsubaki walks ahead at first, but when Kikyou takes the lead, Tsubaki is content to watch her. The day is hot and buzzing, the first true hot day of spring.
"I don't see how we're supposed to find a youkai," Kikyou says at last, stopping to catch her breath. Tsubaki smiles at this sign of human weakness in the perfect Kikyou. It feels more to her like a god feigning weakness for her sake.
"Perhaps that's not why we're out here," Tsubaki says dryly. "Maybe Master has a thing for his girls getting all sweaty on the mountain."
Kikyou's features tighten a bit, but it's not quite jealousy as Tsubaki expected. "Did you desire Master?" Tsubaki asks.
Dark eyes examine her, almost accusing. "Is that really all you know?" Kikyou asks. "Desire him? I love him. I'd have to love him, or I wouldn't let him put me through all this," she says, waving her arm at the mountain, the task, the yet-unfound youkai.
"But I respect him," Kikyou continues. "It's that kind of love. You… you degrade him and yourself. I don't know what to make of you."
Tsubaki's rage isn't the cold, bitter rage that has been her companion as long as she can remember, it is something hot and exciting and violent, so instead of weaving wicked curses in the darkness, she slaps Kikyou as hard as she can in the face, thrilling to see Kikyou's shocked and outraged expression, and the way the color rises into her cheeks—though into one cheek much more than the other, she thinks with satisfaction.
Encouraged, Tsubaki lets herself lose control to the passion, and screams at her adversary. "You idiot! You think that I wanted him? You think everything is about Master? He's nothing, I don't even need him anymore, I'm powerful enough already. I wanted… I wanted…" she grabs Kikyou's sleeves in frustration. "I wanted you to see me a little differently."
Kikyou's eyes seem to go out of focus slightly. "Monster."
"Wha—I'm not—" Tsubaki tries to say, dread jolting her body.
"No," Kikyou says calmly, reaching for her bow. "Behind you. A youkai."
Tsubaki whips around, and in that time Kikyou already has an arrow nocked. Tsubaki puts a hand out to stop Kikyou from shooting it, and with her other hand she searches in her gi for the ofuda they were supposed to use. "We're supposed to seal it, not kill it," Tsubaki reminds Kikyou.
The serpent youkai lunges, and Kikyou pulls Tsubaki out of the way. Tsubaki actually screams, much to her humiliation. "I know what I'm doing," Kikyou assures, loosing the arrow.
"It's dead… you wasted it," Tsubaki says, panicking at the sight of the still youkai. Inwardly she groans at the idea of having to find and subdue another one on such well-protected grounds. Worse yet, she is realizing that she had been afraid of the youkai, and does not want to confront another.
"I used a sealing arrow," Kikyou says. "I had to, your ofuda wouldn't have worked."
"And why is that?" Tsubaki demands.
Kikyou walks up to Tsubaki and matter-of-factly pulls open her gi. Tsubaki's breath hitches as Kikyou's fingers trace over her heart. Kikyou holds her hand up, and her fingers are stained black. For a moment, Tsubaki is overcome with an irrational terror, not understanding what she is seeing.
"Ink. You put the ofuda up to your body, and your sweat bled the ink out. They're useless now, the sutras are destroyed," Kikyou explains.
"How did you know?"
"Your gi was stained, I noticed it when you were yelling at me."
They stand there, over the sealed youkai, and Tsubaki laughs, her ink-smudged breasts bouncing merrily. Kikyou gives her that horrified-scholar look they're both getting tired of, and asks her what's so funny.
"The world," Tsubaki says, "it's a wonderful joke, isn't it?"
Kikyou is about to say condescendingly that she doesn't understand, but Tsubaki's laughter is contagious. "Silly, come on," she says, snorting slightly in a most un-Kikyou-like manner, "let's get out of here, the bugs are eating me alive."
"Very nice work, you two."
Kikyou beams. Tsubaki smiles, but only with one side of her mouth. It seems to be an expression unique to her, and she doesn't use it like an ordinary smile.
Tsubaki cranes her body over the sealed snake. The ground it lies on is rich and moist, so shifting her weight makes Tsubaki slip a little deeper into it, until the mud pushes at her toes.
"You're not like the others," the snake observes. Tsubaki blinks, but it looks just as still and dead as it had a moment before. Whipping around to see if anyone else heard it, Tsubaki discovers that she is now alone.
"You wanted me to," the snake replies.
When Tsubaki speaks, her voice is scared and breathy. "You knew. You were drawn to me, weren't you?"
Together they say, "Even in the dark I would find you."
"See?" the snake says softly. "I know you. And I know who you would find, if the world were dark enough to hide you. I know what you would give your life for."
"Beauty," Tsubaki says without a moment's thought. "To become beauty, to possess her."
The snake does not budge, its scales do not rise for breath, its milky eyes only reflect sky. It is the picture of death, and it asks for the only thing the dead ever want.
Life, of course. Tsubaki pulls out the arrow, and sees that all her life up until now had been innocent.
"You coming, Tsubaki, or are you just going to stand there?"
The rest of the students are walking away, following Master into the shrine, so Tsubaki throws the arrow down into the empty space where the snake had been, and runs after them.
It is sunset when she decides to test it. The red light bleeds their hakama into insignificance, and their blue-black hair foretells the night. Ten steps to bring her to Kikyou's side, a hundred breaths before her heart slows. Their clothes are still soaked in sweat from the heat of the day, but night's chill is cutting through them already, rending heat from life, and leaving them something torpid and dormant, like trees in winter.
Perhaps it is only Tsubaki who feels that cold.
Her hands run through Kikyou's slightly stiff hair, in an almost sisterly way, and Kikyou's hands are motionless, her eyes expressionless. "Am I beautiful?" Tsubaki asks.
"Yes," Kikyou answers, heartfelt yet mechanical, like a foreigner trying to express their feelings with unfamiliar words.
"After the sun sets, will you remain with me here?"
"Yes," Kikyou says, enthralled.
"No matter what things I beset upon your beauty?"
Tsubaki does not ask Kikyou if she loves her. Because she will have to say yes, and it will be a lie. Instead she is grateful for the lies she is given, and slips her frosty hands into Kikyou's gi, sliding around her breasts and cupping them, delicately brushing a nipple with each thumb. She pulls the space between them into nothing, and kisses not just Kikyou's lips, but her cheeks, her chin, her nose, her brow, and her eyelids, at once worshipful and possessive. She savors Kikyou as poor starving thieves savor stolen morsels, each a delicacy beyond compare.
Kikyou says yes.
But her eyes, Tsubaki cannot bear them. There is no restrained rage as Tsubaki might expect, nothing to let her feel superior and righteous, in fact, quite the opposite. Kikyou's eyes are passive, and utterly, completely, pure. No lust, no hate, only innocence which cannot fight back.
They are Tsubaki's eyes, a thousand thens ago.
So Tsubaki scrabbles at the unresistant Kikyou's sash, letting the hakama drop around her ankles. With it, she binds Kikyou's eyes, replacing that watchful shame Tsubaki felt with a stroke of vivid red. All better now, she decides, taking stock of the helpless, exposed Kikyou.
The sky has bruised purple, and is darker than it should be, in the east it is blacker than most nights, certainly too black for evening. Her night, she knows, watching the last alpenglow on the shrine. The world is as empty as before, and Tsubaki has no fear of being caught, so she takes her time.
She takes Kikyou into her arms, and she is soft and warm, the down of her nether-regions a tantalizing brush against her. Kikyou folds into her, passive-willing, and spreads easily beneath her palm. "Are you afraid of me?" Tsubaki asks, to which Kikyou can only reply "Yes," but it is truer than anything else that has happened that day.
Tsubaki parts Kikyou's gi, dragging a kiss behind it, and rests her head against her lower stomach, where it is tight and resonant and powerful. "Will you make love to me, my Kikyou?"
Kikyou says yes, and sinks down with Tsubaki, undoing her clothes in careful obedience. Only when Tsubaki has at last found her release beneath her, does she think to tell Kikyou that she is sorry. Kikyou only looks at her with her blind, dampened sash, and says nothing.
Morning comes starlit and smoky and black. There is a humid energy to the air that tells Tsubaki the day will be warm, but for now she shivers bitterly. She finds Kikyou in the dark by the chattering of her teeth, and the slight sound of cloth being drawn on.
"You must hate me." It makes sense to Tsubaki, everyone hates her eventually. She knows the kind of person she is, the kind that draws youkai and men's affections alike, and desires neither.
"Shall I say yes to that as well?" Deftly Kikyou ties her sash back on, completing the distance between them.
"Last night, I lost more than you ever did," Tsubaki says, her voice shaking. "And it was worth it. If you were to slay me here with your damned perfect light, my ghost would follow you, forsaking all future lives for the privilege of existing unacknowledged by your side. And though you couldn't hear me, I would tell you every day that it was worth it."
"How dare you act like this is love," Kikyou says. Dawn is rising subtly silver in the haze, the sort of slow clear light that masquerades as night until the last possible moment. Silhouetted against it, Kikyou looks ethereally beautiful, and completely unattainable. Tsubaki cannot even convince herself that this creature was hers a few short hours ago, though she is still sticky with her.
"You said that love makes pain okay," Tsubaki says, breathless and desperate. "I suffered for this, for you. You don't know what I gave up."
"We were friends!" Kikyou whirls around on her, furious and incredulous. "Did that mean nothing to you? To betray and hurt a friend, and tell yourself that it's wonderful, and you're a martyr? This isn't even the first time is it, you took our Master, you were supposed to respect him, he's given us everything! I've never seen such a twisted soul, it makes me sick to look at you. Begone."
Eyes painfully wide in the new light, Tsubaki draws herself to her feet, pulling the puddle of her clothes into her arms as she does so. Bare and heartsore, she flees Kikyou's wrath.
'Begone,' she says? Was this in the deal, could beauty banish her so? Tsubaki wonders.
"Is all happiness so fleeting?" she asks the snake, once she reaches the dusty, brambly wood.
"Dear, that's what makes it beautiful."
"What have I done," Tsubaki whispers, a mad smile creeping up her face. "Did she feel scales on my flesh as we made love? I have given my body to a man, and my soul to a youkai, all in the hope of catching her glance, and still she scorns me." Tsubaki gathers a clump of moist sod in her hand, and when she opens it, it scatters to the winds as dust. "Anyone who possesses her will be brought nothing but sorrow, as I have. Let them also feel her hate, in the end."
Tsubaki goes through motions. She dances her steps perfectly, but there is no power in them. She plays at ecstasy before the gods, but sees no visions, is granted no epiphany. When Master comes to her, she surrenders as if punishing herself, knowing that it is the only route she has left open to herself.
Unlike her, Kikyou heals. Kikyou throws herself into the priesthood with greater passion than before, attaining new heights of power. It is no surprise to Tsubaki when the famed and dangerous Shikon jewel is laid upon Kikyou's breast.
After they are sent out into the world to learn the things that cannot be taught, Tsubaki becomes sought after for her powerful curses and love spells. The men revile her, the women respect her, and the youkai do her bidding.
Thinking herself invincible, she takes up stalking Kikyou once more, and quickly learns why this is not a good idea.
No wonder Kikyou was chosen to protect the jewel, look how well she defends her heart, she thinks. They are not so dissimilar.
But before long, Kikyou loses both. A man is the cause. Tsubaki seethes with jealousy, and redoubles her curses.
She even attends Kikyou's funeral.
Tsubaki actually feels guilty, and feels a sense of loss. She's not so sure now that she wanted Kikyou to die, she had the vague idea that after Kikyou was punished, she would come back to her, and they would be happy.
There is no happiness in those flames.
She is tempted to throw herself on the pyre and burn with her—yes, in front of the gawking villagers and one-eyed brat sister, she would scream her last ecstasies upon her Kikyou, and let their ashes mingle. She whispers this to Kikyou, and other things, all lost to the roar of the flame, leaving her with nothing but the taste of ash in her mouth.
When it burns down at last, and there is no jewel, no Kikyou, no villagers, only a one-eyed brat with an urn and herself, Tsubaki steps forward and kneels. In the smoke's cover, she is entirely alone.
"Return to me," she says, and her breath is smoke, her body a pillar of white ash. "I will find every necromancer, every medium, and whisper your name in their ears as they sleep. Those who know the dead will dream of you as I do. Though your ashes should lie undisturbed for fifty, a hundred, two hundred years, the world shall not forget you, I don't intend to let them."
Slowly, she draws her finger over the lines of her damaged eye.
"And Kikyou? I can wait for you."
Tsubaki walks away slowly, knowing the beauty of youth and love, neither of which would ever die for her.