Title: A Question of Guilt
Fandom: Fatal Frame II: Twin sisters Mayu and Mio wander into a ghost village. Literally. The town was destroyed by a cataclysm long ago. When Mayu vanishes, Mio must uncover the town's secrets and find her sister while fighting off ghosts with a magical camera. I do not own it!
Taunt: My fandom adds ten pounds.
Mio was familiar with the term "survivor's guilt." She knew what it meant. It was, simply put, the guilt one felt over being the one to survive, while others died. That in and of itself was perfectly plain.
But there was something about it that she was unsure of, something that no dictionary definition had yet cleared up for her. What if the survivor was the one who had actually caused the death of the lost one in the first place? Was that really survivor's guilt?
…or was that just guilt?
Mio was still not sure of the answer to that question, and she certainly wasn't about to ask. There really wasn't anyone for her to ask, even if she really wanted to know the truth. It was a case where ignorance was not quite bliss, but it was better than the alternative.
It haunted her, what had happened that night. She couldn't even really think about what had happened, thinking of it only as "that night" or "the ritual." She could never think of it as "the night Mayu died" or "the night she killed her sister." But there was plenty to remind her of what had happened and what she had done. She was left with a deluge of what ifs and might have been's and will never be's, amidst the empty space beside her where Mayu had always stood.
The ritual was supposed to make her whole by uniting her with her sister as one person, joining the split halves of their soul as one. She could think of any number of words for that idea, most of them unprintable. It was foolish to think that by killing one, the other would somehow become whole. It was the opposite. It had torn her apart.
In her more vindictive moments, Mio found herself thinking that perhaps the village had deserved its awful fate. She hated the village, hated the moment she and Mayu had stumbled past its gates. Perhaps being destroyed by the Repentance was, in fact, their repentance. The punishment from the gods towards a town that practiced rituals soaked in innocent blood, and embraced a tradition that made murderers out of children.
On the other hand, was she really any better? She had become a part of the ritual. She had stood before the stone altar, mere meters away from the Abyss. And she had killed, with her own two hands. Her hands were as red and stained as anyone else's in that god-forsaken village.
There was no way to forget. Even if she could have put the events of that long night behind her somehow, her own body bore a mark, one that she saw every time she glanced in a mirror. It was the proof of her guilt, the undeniable evidence of what she had done, stamped into her very skin.
She had first seen the outline of the crimson butterfly at her throat the day she had returned home, in shock and without her sister. How they had found her in the woods, she did not know. She had not been seeking civilization, that much was certain. She had been wandering the forest in a daze, alone and in shock and heartbroken, barely aware of the passage of time. When the searchers had approached her, she had barely had the presence of mind left to give them her name when they asked.
Her stay in the hospital was brief, thankfully. She was still too numb to let herself feel, and answered their questions in the fewest words possible without even beginning to brush the truth. Eventually, she was given a clean bill of health and released into the care of her uncle. Kei asked, but she told him nothing, and he let the point go for the moment.
When she went into the house and went into her room, she passed the mirror and saw the mark. It was merely an outline at first, but every time she passed the mirror, it grew clearer and more pronounced. And far too soon for her liking, it had developed into the unmistakable shadow of a crimson butterfly, exactly like the one that had flown from Mayu's throat.
…was this what they had meant about making the twins one?
Faced with this mark of her status as a Remaining, Mio changed her style. Where she had previously favored pretty feminine clothes, she now hid behind turtlenecks and sweaters, taking care not to expose her throat unless she knew she was alone. Again, Kei asked, and again, she told him nothing, keeping everything to herself.
Harder to mask were the few wisps of white that began to appear in her dark hair.
She tried to return to life as normal. She even returned to school for a time, but that had stopped after a science lesson on anatomy. They were discussing the brain, and the teacher had commented that in order to cause death, the brain had to be deprived of oxygen for approximately four minutes. This was then referenced to murder mysteries and the like, where people were strangled.
It had given Mio an awful jolt. Four minutes…had she really knelt there for that long with her hands around her sister's neck, squeezing with the intention to wring the life out of the unresisting Mayu? Four minutes in which she could have stopped, released her hold, let her sister go…
She had gotten up and left the room without a word of explanation to the startled teacher, not even bothering to gather her things on the way. She had not gone back since.
Eventually, it started to become too much. Her nightmares, her feelings, and her longing for her sister were overwhelming. She couldn't even imagine how the twins who had performed the ritual before her had lived with this like they had.
Mio invested in a small book: a diary, not unlike the many they had found scattered around the village. There were several different colors; she chose red. Why she chose that, she could not say. Perhaps it just seemed the most appropriate at the moment, all things considered.
That diary became her sole confidant, and the only guardian of her sanity. She poured everything into its pages: her nightmares, the story of what had happened in the town, disjointed flashes of emotion. And she kept it hidden, tucked within the pocket of a coat in her closet. If anyone found it…
She went back to the area one time after the completion of the dam, where the forest and the Lost Village had been. Her uncle took her to the site, but stayed away from the actual place at her request; he offered to accompany her out to the lake, but she refused, saying that she wished to go alone.
There was a bench beside the newly formed lake, and she took a seat. She was alone, and so she slipped her sweater off and bared her throat to the setting sun and the scenery. The butterfly was there; she could almost feel its wings flutter against her skin.
Mayu was down there, she realized. Somewhere beneath that lake lay the Abyss, the hole to hell that had become her sister's grave. She had left Mayu there, all alone, down in the darkness and the depths and the cold water and their broken promise to be together forever.
The realization brought tears, and a rush of guilt so terrible that for one awful moment, she thought about throwing herself into the lake. It wouldn't be so bad, she thought. Just let herself sink to the bottom, fall into the darkness there…
Be with Mayu again…
Keep her promise…
Before she could decide whether or not to take action, she heard Kei calling her. And she realized that the sun had all but set. Startled out of her thoughts, she tugged her sweater back on to once again hide the mark of a Remaining. With one last look towards the lake, she let her uncle lead her away from the place and back towards the car.
Her breaking point nearly came the day Uncle Kei brought home that camera. Mio did not know where he had found it, but he came in and set it down on the counter, and she saw it.
The Camera Obscura.
It terrified her, and it didn't even occur to her to try and hide it. Kei looked bewildered at her cry of panic and her desperate attempt to put as much distance between herself and that cursed camera as she could. Judging by the fact that he removed it fairly quickly and she heard him speaking to someone about taking it, for a couple of different reasons, it seemed that he had figured out the problem.
Mio retreated to the safety of her own room. Seeing the Camera had brought back one of the things that had been plaguing her since her escape from the Lost Village. It was a question, a what if.
What if she had given Mayu the Camera Obscura after she found it in the village? Could it have protected Mayu from Sae Kurosawa's malicious spirit somehow? Or would it really have made any difference at all? But the thought that perhaps that simple gesture could have saved Mayu's life would not let go of her, and seeing the Camera again had tightened the idea's hold on her.
She fell asleep that night with Mayu's voice floating through her ears, asking her why she hadn't given her the camera. She knew that Mayu was the weaker of the two of them, after all. She could have saved her life, couldn't she? It didn't really sound like Mayu, but she was too exhausted to discern a difference.
And that night, she had the first dream.
She dreamt of a house, a great mansion surrounded by falling snow. The place seemed to stretch on forever, winding and twisting. It reminded her of that place. Even her clothes had changed back to what she had worn that night. She did not know why or how. But as it had been in that place on that night, she needed to find a way out, and so she began to wander, to explore in search of an exit.
Or at least that was her intent until she realized that there was someone walking a short distance ahead of her. A silhouette that rapidly took unmistakable form.
It was Mayu's retreating back, just up ahead. She was walking away with slow, dragging steps.
Mio stared at her sister's back for what seemed an eternity. Then her feet gained a mind of their own and began to move. She was walking, jogging, running to catch up to Mayu, who seemed to stay the same distance away no matter how fast she ran.
She awoke the next morning tired and short of breath, and uncertain of what had happened.
The next night brought a similar dream, and she followed Mayu even further into the mansion. She was determined to catch up to her and…something. She had no idea what she would do when and if she caught up to Mayu. What would she say? What would she do? It was entirely possible that she would ask to go with her, wherever it was that she was going. She would follow her sister into hell at this point if it meant that they could be together again.
She found another person in the dream the third night, after she had made her way deeper into the manor: a man. He was curled on the ground, shaking and muttering about how it wasn't his fault. He did not move or look up when Mio spoke to him. But she was curious as to what it was that wasn't his fault.
It was shortly after it, that same night, that she encountered the woman.
She had lost sight of Mayu, and was frantically searching for her sister (and oh, how that brought back feelings of the most sickening nostalgia) through the never-ending corridors. She was dodging spirits that came out of the walls at her and tried to grab her. And for a moment, she actually wished she had the despised Camera Obscura again.
Mio glanced around, and thought she spotted someone (or something) moving around a corner. She rushed towards it, hoping it was Mayu and she had finally found her. When she rounded the bend in the hallway, she froze in her tracks.
She was facing a woman. The woman was topless, with long hair, and an odd blue aura about her that somehow seemed to emanate from the tattoos that marred every visible inch of the woman's skin.
This tattoo covered woman was coming towards her with a slow deliberateness, seeming to vanish as she entered the shadows and reappear as she emerged from them. Mio stood where she was, caught in a moment of alternating terror and curiosity as to who this person was and what they wanted. This woman was obviously different from the others in this place. In fact…
…the woman reminded her of Sae's spirit…
That was the thought that shook her into motion, and just in time. The woman was all but on top of her, and reaching out towards her with one ink-mottled hand. Mio ducked and turned to flee, but it was an act of futility. She felt fingers on the back of her neck, like frozen needles dragging across her skin.
She ran. And when she awoke in the morning, she felt that same exhaustion and confusion at what was going on. But this time, there was something new, and she hunched over, both hands clutching at the back of her neck as…something happened. It felt like something was actually moving beneath her skin, rough and harsh and painful.
After that, the dreams came every night, and became more and more vivid. She found new areas of the manor, saw Mayu's shade everywhere, and was beset upon by ghosts and spirits that seemed more reminiscent of the Kusabi than anything else. And every morning, the pain that had started in her neck seemed to spread further down her back and across her shoulders.
What was going on?
The dreams changed at some point, too. At first she was just wandering the manor. But after a while, she began to see two places. One was the same mansion, with all its rooms and corridors and ghosts, oh how she hated ghosts. The other consisted of the painfully familiar buildings of the place she had wanted so badly to forget.
She was back in the village.
After that, it seemed she spent more time in the dream than anywhere else. Her waking hours became fewer and fewer, farther and farther between. And when she was awake, she was groggy, exhausted, and incapable of much by way of human interaction. The nurses who tended to her asked her questions and things, but there was little she had to say.
She wasn't even sure when she had gotten there. She knew she had fallen asleep in her own room, and woken up a long time later in a hospital bed. The nurse who had been standing there had said something about her being brought there when she couldn't be roused from her sleep, but Mio had already been dozing and had missed a lot of the conversation.
Sometimes her uncle Kei was there when she woke up, and he would try to talk to her, coax her into conversation. She tried to reply in turn, but more often than not she felt like those few precious hours of wakefulness were merely wasted time, keeping her from the sleep she so desperately wanted.
Even though sleep meant returning to that place.
But Mayu was in that place, and it was Mayu she wanted to see. It was exactly the same as in the Lost Village. For her own sake, and for her sister's, she would delve into the most unsavory place imaginable, possibly even seeking her own demise.
And to do that, she had to be asleep.
Being lost to slumber also meant that she could ignore the pain of the tattoo spreading beneath her skin. It was painful, a physical manifestation of her own emotional turmoil. And the oddest thing was that when she asked a nurse about it during a brief moment of clarity, the nurse looked confused and claimed that she saw nothing at all.
Nothing? How could she see nothing? It was right there, marked across her body in red snakes and blue holly! There was no way the woman saw nothing. It was not possible at all.
Just one more reason for her to stay asleep.
Mio continued to search the place nestled in her dreams, jumping at shadows and chasing the slightest sound in search of her sister. It was as she found the prison where the Kusabi was held, surrounded by documents and crimson butterflies (was one of them Mayu, she wondered?) that her strength finally gave out, and she slumped to the ground.
She was tired. Tired of running, tired of searching, tired of feeling…
She wanted the guilt to go away, whether it was truly survivor's guilt or not.
So she stayed there in the prison (it was the most fitting place for her to be, really), barely even noticing that the door had been closed, and not really caring. There were butterflies, the beautiful crimson butterflies. One of them had to be Mayu, right? Maybe the Mayu she had seen was leading her here, to be with the butterflies…
To bring them together again, just like they had promised…
This was where she was supposed to be.
The tattoos were moving again. She could feel them. Each time they shifted, they went further, claiming more and more of her skin. What would happen when they completely covered her? Somehow, Mio doubted it was anything good. But whatever it was, she doubtlessly deserved it.
After all, she had survived while Mayu had died. She had killed her sister.
Mio deserved all the pain in the world.
As the tattoos crept across her face, the last part of her left unmarked by ink, she wondered what Mayu would say to her when they met again. At least they would be together again. That was how it was meant to be. Together forever.
The tattoos crept further and further…
…and then she heard a voice.
For the first time in far too long, Mio moved and looked up at the sound of the voice.
The voice said something else, something she did not hear but felt, and then she was standing and looking around as the world around her wavered and faded and dissolved to nothingness. And she dropped away into the darkness as once more the voice, Mayu's voice, spoke, those same words that skipped past her ears and bore their way straight into her soul.
It's time to wake up.
Mio opened her eyes. This room was…
Oh yes, she was in the hospital. She had woken up here a few times before, but not for long. She felt disoriented, tired, but strangely…light. When she managed to sit up, the weight that for so long had hunched her shoulders seemed to have lifted somewhat. She was able to sit up straight.
And the tattoos that had marred her skin were gone. There was no more holly. A glance in the mirror revealed that the crimson butterfly was still there, but it was less bright than before.
Mio tried to remember what had happened in that last dream. She had been in the cage in the manor, surrounded by crimson butterflies. And she had been trying to chase Mayu through the never-ending corridors of the great place. She had been in the document room, behind bars. And then…
She could not remember.
Although she swore she had the faint recollection of hearing her uncle's voice calling out to her within the manor. Had he been there as well?
The next few days passed surprisingly quickly. Her recovery was said to be miraculous by several nurses, especially given how many people who had fallen with her condition had vanished. And her uncle Kei was a semi-constant presence at her bedside. For the first time in so long, she was able to smile at him, albeit a small smile, and she felt a new type of guilt at making him worry so much.
Being told that she could go home was a relief. All she really wanted to do was try to move on. She wasn't past what had happened with her and Mayu, not yet. But it was like a chain had broken, loosing a shackle that had held her back. And she was sure that with a little help and a little more time, she could take that first tiny step forward.
Baby steps. One day at a time.
On the day she was to go home, she dressed in clothes Kei had brought the day before. She noticed that he had brought her a zip-front sweater; the mark of the Remaining was safely hidden away. Although…
When Kei came to check her out and take her home at long last, he brought her a coat. It had been storming a lot lately, and there was a definite chill in the air. While he spoke with the receptionist, she put the coat on. It wasn't until she was slipping her arm into the second sleeve that she realized which coat he had brought for her.
This was the one whose pocket had become a hiding place for her diary.
And a hand pressed to her side proved the worst: that pocket was empty.
There was only one possible culprit.
And he had just turned away from the front desk to start walking towards her.
Mio froze. Should she ask? Or should she try to pretend that there was nothing wrong? But look at where pretending had gotten her before: it had nearly cost her her life. And he was still here, coming to get her and take her home. If he had found it, and read it, and seen the proof of her crime signed in her own hand…would he still have come for her?
She followed him out of the hospital and into the crisp morning air. It was early; the sun had not yet fully risen. She took a deep breath, relishing it. How sad was it that she had nearly forgotten the smell and taste of fresh air? It had been too long.
Kei was walking ahead of her, his car keys in his hand. There was no one else around.
Before she could stop herself, Mio said his name. He stopped and turned to face her with a curious look.
And then she froze. She wanted to ask about the book, but her voice ceased to work. All she could do was stand there and stare at him, fairly sure that the question was written right on her face. Her hands clenched at the front of her coat, clutching the fabric just above her crimson butterfly.
After a moment passed, Kei closed the distance between them. One hand drew out of his own pocket and pressed a small scarlet book into her hands. Mio's heart sank, but she received yet another shock to the system at his words.
I didn't read it.
She gaped at him, and he shrugged.
I'm curious. But if you want me to know, you'll tell me.
Mio was too stunned to resist as he pulled her along to the car. The drive home was silent, and she went straight to her room after they arrived. She sat at her desk and stared at the book for a long time, wondering what she should do.
As she thought, she picked it up and began absently thumbing through the pages. Her handwriting was all over the place, growing worse and worse as the entries grew more frantic and desperate. She did not read any of the words; she knew all of them anyway.
As the last page flipped past, she noticed something written at the bottom. She nearly missed it, but it caught her eye because the handwriting was different. It was not her handwriting, but it was one that she knew as well as she knew her own name. How many study sessions had been spent looking at that penmanship? How many notes had been passed in that same script?
It was Mayu's handwriting. And spelled out a single word.
Mio stared at that word, letting it burn into her eyes.
She did not know how it came to be written there, or how Mayu had known. But it decided her.
Leaving the diary on the desk, Mio left her room and made her way downstairs. It was nearing lunchtime; she was surprised to realize that she was hungry. It seemed she was not the only one, as she encountered Kei walking out of the kitchen. He smiled at her and asked if she wanted lunch.
She nodded and followed him back into the kitchen. As he whipped up a few gourmet sandwiches (or so he claimed with a bit of gusto), she watched, hoping that what she was going to do was not going to be the end of this peace.
When he was finished, she spoke up again and asked if she could talk to him for a moment. He looked startled, but nodded. They took seats in the living room, the sandwiches sitting on the coffee table between them. Kei looked concerned, and she did not blame him.
After a few bites to make her stomach quiet down, Mio sat up straight. She took a deep breath, and unzipped her sweater to reveal the butterfly mark at her throat. She had to force herself to look at Kei, and was not surprised to see that his eyes were wide. Another deep breath.
I…need to tell you something.
The weight lifted a little more.
Baby steps, she reminded herself.
One step at a time.