Forgive, but not Forget

Reisen sat with her back against the wall, her legs drawn up under her chin and arms draped loosely around her knees. She stared out at the shrine's interior with blank eyes, as she had been doing all day. Part of her insisted that she get up and do something, such as prepare supper for herself and Reimu, but she seemed unable to do anything save for take in the bizarre state the shrine was in and try to puzzle it out. Thus far, she had made no progress.

The shrine was filled with money, literal bucketfuls of it. She and Reimu had spent a good portion of the previous evening bringing it in. While Reisen was a bit more used to wealth than the shrine maiden, having lived around royalty all her life, this was still more money she had ever seen gathered in one place, even if technically she had had access to even more, given her status at Eientei. And under normal circumstances, Reisen would be thrilled. It had taken her less than a week to understand why Reimu Hakurei had always been so agitated about her finances. And with an extra mouth to feed, things had become even tighter. Reisen had helped out in what small ways she could, but she often found herself missing Eientei and its seemingly inexhaustible resources. There was a lot to be said about having food whenever you wanted it and an army of servants to take care of the place's upkeep. Now she had to worry about stretching a small bag of rice over a week, and more often than not went to bed with her stomach unsatisfied. They had still managed to make do, but Reisen often found herself sympathizing with Reimu's constant craving for more. As such, a bonanza like this would normally be a cause to celebrate.

Not today. Given the money's source and the attached request, Reisen felt nothing but trepidation. Remilia Scarlet's reputation alone would be a cause for concern, but given her servitors' hands in Rin's literal meltdown and subsequent imprisonment, the Lunarian rabbit felt no small amount of resentment toward them and their house. Nothing good would come of this, she knew it.

The room's door slid open and Genji floated in. Settling down next to her, he took a long look at the piles of wealth and slowly shook his head with a sigh. "Well," he rumbled. "That there's an ominous blessin' if I ever seen one."

"You too?" Reisen said, automatically scratching the turtle behind his ears. "I thought you'd be happier about this."

Genji let out one of his hissing laughs. "Sweetiebuns, maybe it's my overpowering allure that's been makin' you forget, but I'm a motherlovin' turtle. Money really ain't got no use for me. Reimu's the one with bills on the brain, an' even she smells somethin' fishy. Mark my words, no good will come o' this."

Reisen wholeheartedly agreed. "What do you think it's all about?"

The massive shell lifted in a shrug. "Dunno. Normally, I'd say it's about time. I mean, they've been hangin' out for how long, and Miss Wealthywings still ain't alleviated the girl from the clutches of poverty? You'd expect her to slip Reimu a few thousand for her birthday at least. But in these dark days?" Genji sighed. "Somethin's happened, somethin' bad. An' given certain histories, I'd bet every one of them bills that it's got somethin' to do with your girl."

Reisen swallowed. Rin had not been heard from since disappearing in the wake of the brawl at the Youkai Mountain. While it was possible that she was laying low somewhere, Mima's all-too-cheerful report on her destabilizing mental condition made that very unlikely. Every day Reisen's prayers grew longer and longer, and that Rin would not succumb to the torments she had suffered and become the monster everyone feared had high priority among her supplications to the gods. But the Hakurei Shrine was a godless shrine, and it was unlikely that anyone was listening.

Then Genji's head swung around, focusing on the front door. His eyes narrowed. Reisen knew that look. Someone was coming. "Who is it?" she said. "Is it Reimu?"

Genji was silent for a few moments as he listened. Then he closed his eyes and groaned softly. "Oh man. This ain't good."

Reisen's spine stiffened. "Who…"

Then she heard Reimu's voice. "…let me talk to her first, okay? The last thing any of us needs is a fight. We've had way too many of those lately."

"As you wish," said a soft, yet strong voice. "We will wait here."

Reisen's jaw dropped. That was Sakuya Izayoi's voice. Remilia Scarlet's maid was here. Or more importantly, Rin's former warden was here. But why? Oh gods, please don't let it be…

The door to the shrine's small living quarters slid open, and Reimu walked in. The shrine maiden looked like she had been through an emotional wringer. Her shoulders were slumped, her breathing ragged, and her eyes tired. What was more, they looked red and blotchy, as if she had been crying. That was a shock all on its own. As far as Reisen could tell, Reimu lived in a state of constant irritation. She resented her lot in life and wasn't shy about complaining about it, but she never, ever cried. It seemed…beneath her.

Reimu brightened a little when she saw the buckets of money, though that was probably just a reflex. She then looked to Reisen and Genji and what small bit of joy she might have derived from her newfound bounty disappeared. "Hey, Reisen," she said, her voice sounding as tired as she looked. "Genji. I…gotta talk to you guys."

Genji cocked his head to one side. "It got somethin' to do with the vamp and frosty maid outside?"

Remilia Scarlet was here too? Reisen huddled down into a tight little ball. "Reimu," she whispered. "Wh-what's going on?"

Grimacing, Reimu cleared some of the buckets aside and knelt down on her knees in front of them. "Uh, yeah," she said. "Something…happened."

"No duh," Genji said dryly.

"Shut it, Genji. This isn't exactly easy." Reimu closed her eyes, mumbled something under her breath, and inhaled deeply. "Okay," she said, letting it out. "Like the wiseass turtle just pointed out, obviously a lot has happened, exactly none of it good, and-"

"Is Rin okay?" Reisen blurted out.

Taken by surprise, Reimu blinked and said, "What?"

"Rin. She…she had something to do with this, right? Is she okay?"

Reimu cast a look at Genji, who shrugged. "We was hypothesizin' 'bout why your fangy buddy called you over," he said. "Weren't hard to draw some unfortunate conclusions."

"Right," Reimu breathed. She raked her fingers back through her hair. "Well, I'm sorry, but I don't know."

"What?" Reisen said, blinking. "Wh-what do you mean?"

"I mean you're right, Rin was involved, and like I said, the news isn't good, but I have no idea what her present, er, condition is." Reimu shook her head. "It's…a hell of a long story."

"Best get to tellin' then," Genji said. "Before those guests of yours pitch a tent on the front lawn."

"I will. But about that…See, Remilia's going to be staying with us for the time being. Sakuya too, though I think she's going to be on a part-time basis."

Reisen said nothing in reply. She couldn't. Her mouth had forgotten how to speak and her brain refused to cooperate. As for Genji, he just closed his rheumy eyes for several seconds, muttered something astonishingly profane, and said, "Yeah. You, uh, wanna run that by us again?"

Reimu explained, and Reisen and Genji listened. Neither of them interrupted: Genji because he knew better and Reisen because she still had not regained use of her vocal chords. But her ears were working fine, though her heart was now threatening to fail.

"So…so that's the situation," Reimu finished. She focused on the rabbit. "Reisen, I know all this sounds…horrible…because it is…but believe me when I say we're going to do everything we can to get Rin out of there. Yukari hasn't changed her mind, and with everyone working together, we're sure to rescue her before too long. I just need you to, uh, not flip out about having to room with-"

She ought to have gotten to that part sooner, as Reisen's tongue chose that moment to wake up.

It started off small: nothing more than a small, continuous squeak. But it grew in strength and volume, becoming shrill whistle before escalating into an all-out shriek as Reisen doubled over. Reimu drew back in surprise, her eyes wide. She opened her mouth to say something, but Reisen had already scrambled to her feet and bolted out the back

The shrieking stopped as soon as Reisen left the shrine, but her feet did not. She kept running and running until she had left the shrine grounds and was well into the cherry grove. Finally, once the shrine was out of sight, her legs gave way, and she fell into an ungainly heap at the foot of one of the trees.

She stayed there, curled up into a shaking ball as tears flowed from her eyes. "Oh gods…" she sobbed. "Please…please just…oh gods…"

Reisen wasn't sure if she was praying or just crying out. Maybe both. But who would hear her? Hakurei Shrine had no god, and all the rest of Gensokyo's native deities had to be too far away. As for those of the Shinto pantheon, they were the gods of the Lunarians as well, and probably wouldn't react too fondly to her, given her betrayal.

Still, she kept fervently weeping pleas in desperate hope that someone would hear her. She didn't care who, she just wanted someone to answer her. She didn't care if it was a god, a demon, a youkai, a fairy, or a mortal. She just wanted someone to answer her, anyone at all.

And then someone did.

"Reisen!" Genji's voice bellowed through the trees. "Dagnammit, girl! Where the hell are you?"

Blinking away tears, Reisen turned to see Genji floating his way through the grove, irritably searching for her. Finally catching sight of her, he shook his head and flew over to settle down next to her.

"Damn it all, girl," he growled. "You tryin' to give us a heart attack? Thought you had gone run off!"

"I should," Reisen bitterly spat out. "I should run away."

Genji sighed. "No, you shouldn't."

"Why not?" she challenged. "You…you heard what Reimu said. About Rin. About how she's…" Her throat closed up, leaving her unable to continue.

Genji let her cry for a while before saying, "Yeah, I heard. But that don't mean you should go."

"But…they gave Rin to…"

"I know, and that sucks a great big fat one. But Reimu needs you right now."

Reisen blinked. "What?"

"Didn't yah see her just now?" Genji shook his head. "Kid's about ready to fall to pieces. I ain't never seen her like this, no ma'am. And if yah don't want her turnin' into a basket case, she's gonna need all the help she can get."

"Help?" Reisen let out a small laugh. Sniffing, she wiped her nose on her sleeve and said, "What help can I give? I never help anyone."

"You do," Genji told her. "And you have. Reimu ain't never gonna admit it, but she appreciates you bein' around. And she's gonna need you around if she's gonna get through this." His brow wrinkled as he frowned. "Look, I don't blame yah for buggin' out, and if you really wanna leave, I ain't gonna stop yah. But the girl's already put herself in all kinds o' jeopardy for you. You owe it to her to stick with her."

Well, he was right about that. Reisen owed Reimu her life. But this was possibly asking more than she could give. "But…Remilia Scarlet sold Rin to…A-And Sakuya Izayoi helped turn her into…"

"Ain't sayin' you gotta make nice and sweep it all under the rug. Challenge 'em to a danmaku duel in the yard or arm-wrestle them or somethin' if you makes you feel better. But Reimu still needs you."

Reisen stared at him for a moment. Then she swallowed and shakily tried to stand up, only for her knees to buckle again.

"Ah hell," Genji grumbled. "Looks like you're gonna be all wound up for a while." He sighed and moved closer to her. "Alrighty, climb aboard."

That took Reisen back. "You…you want me to ride you?"

"Why not? Reimu used to do it all the time, and you look like a stiff wind would push you over. Get on, girl."

Reisen hesitated for a moment. Then she slowly climbed onto the hump of his shell.

At first it was strange riding the massive reptile, but it wasn't as difficult as she had expected. Genji made the ride gentle, and it was surprisingly easy to keep her balance.

As they passed over the pond, Reisen found herself shivering. "Why?" she muttered.

Genji twisted his head around to look at her. "Beg pardon?"

"Why?" Reisen repeated. "Rin. Yuuka Kazami. Remilia Scarlet. Just…why?"

Genji sighed. "Kiddo, that's a question I've been hearing all my life. Been near three thousand years an' I still ain't got no way to answer. You figure it out, and make sure to let me know."

With a groan, Yuuka eased herself to her feet. She had to move slowly. Her bruised body and aching joints had joined together to protest that motion, but she overruled them.

As she painfully straightened up, Yuuka took a moment to survey what little remained of the House of Orchids' interior. The house itself was still standing, and she had thankfully prevented sunlight from slipping through the many, many cracks that now covered every visible surface, but that was about it. She sighed. This was going to take some fixing.

Still, despite the massive collateral damage, she had prevailed. Flandre's napkin now lay neatly folded on the floor, put there by Flandre's own hand. Granted, it could never be used again, but the napkin was folded. It was a start.

Flandre herself lay curled up next to the napkin, thumb stuck in her mouth as she sleep peacefully. Poor thing was quite worn out. To think that so much fuss could be put up over a napkin! The damage done to her by her irresponsible sister had to be greater than Yuuka had previously believed.

Well, she could let Flandre have a nap for the time being. Sighing, Yuuka knelt down next to her and smoothed away her golden hair. Poor, mistreated child. If she reacted so strongly so something so simple, then Yuuka would certainly have her hands full. Not that she minded, but this trial was going to be…

Something suddenly occurred to Yuuka. She reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a golden pocketwatch, which unfortunately had been smashed. Frowning, she set it aside and stepped outside of the house to check the position of the Sun. The morning was passing, and it was almost midday.

Yuuka stared unblinking up at the warm, yellow orb. Then she smacked her palm across her face. "Yuuka, you unbelievable dunce," she said. "Vampires are nocturnal!" No wonder Flandre was so cranky! It was well past her bedtime.

Shaking her head, she returned to the house. The bed had been smashed, so she made one for Flandre out of leaves and moss. Once the girl had been put to rest, she turned to leave.

"Fix this place," she instructed her plants as she left the House of Orchids. "I want it in perfect condition by evening. But take care not to allow one single strand of sunlight pass through these walls."

As Yuuka gingerly made her way back to Mugenkan, she reconsidered the problem before her. Flandre's vampiric sensibilities made her especially delicate. Blood wasn't a problem. There were many sources of that; Yuuka had several already. But her natural sleep schedule and her aversion to sunlight made caring for her something of a challenge.

Well, challenges were made to be overcome, and vampire habits were ridiculous anyway. So long as Yuuka was helping the girl overcome the corruptions in her mind, she might as well devote some attention to those of her body as well. After all, she had already tamed one child of death. There was no reason she should not be able to remodel another.

As Yuuka turned the problem over in her mind, she became aware of a bright yellow daisy rising up on a stalk to meet her. "Hello dear," she greeted it warmly. "Do you have news for me?"

The daisy curved around to whisper in her ear. Yuuka listened, and her eyes widened. "Oh, is she?" she said. She clicked her tongue. "My, my, my. Now, what are we going to do about that?"

As she sat on the grass waiting for Yuuka Kazami to show up, Rin Satsuki felt quite beside herself. In fact, though she had lived the last few weeks in a near-constant state of bewilderment (at least when she wasn't being driven by blind rage), she was probably more confused now than she had been since she had been freed.

Everything was happening too fast, and she didn't know how she was supposed to feel about it. The Dark Voice, Rumia's sinister past-self, was finally gone. Fully and permanent, as was evidenced by how her terrifying power over death was gone as well. And despite the agony the extraction process had put her through, Rin couldn't be more relieved of the fact, nor more grateful toward Hina Kagiyama for ridding her of that monster. And now that it was gone, Rin was coming to realize just how much it had been affecting her. No longer did she have insidious whispers at the back of her mind pressing her towards violence. No longer was overwhelming violence jumping to the front of the line every time she needed to make a decision. No longer did her rage constantly feel like someone had lit a slow-burning fire beneath it that was always one second away from flaring up into an inferno. Oh sure, she still had plenty of anger and resentment toward those who had wronged her, but it no longer took up her thoughts the way it had been, and with that supernatural source of fury and maliciousness gone, she was now ashamed of the way she had been acting.

But while that was certainly a good thing, Rumia was gone too, and now the inside of Rin's head felt a lot smaller. Rin had gone from having no one but herself for company for nine years to having Rumia with her constantly for several weeks. And it wasn't as if they had been something so simple as roommates: being held together in an empty without so much as the ability to sleep meant spending pretty much every single second in each other's company. And Rin wasn't going to lie: it had not all been pleasant, especially given how aware they had both been that Rumia was pretty much her prisoner. But it had been a damned sight better than the complete isolation that had defined her world before that, and Rin had very much enjoyed having the other girl around. Even though Rumia was literally within whispering distance, Rin still felt empty without her.

And then something downright miraculous had happened. Despite telling Rin to her face that they were by no means friends and Rumia couldn't wait to be rid of her not too long ago, Rumia had soon after admitted that she didn't really hate Rin. And once she had finally been freed, she had taken Rin by the hand and proclaimed to her friends, the same ones that Rin had taken her away from, that Rin was her friend as well.

Rin had been completely floored. Even Rumia's recanting her earlier expression of hatred had been more than enough. This was…well, unthinkable. Rin had been fully prepared to send Rumia on her way, go off to some place she could safely release the remainder of her captives, and…well, after all that there wasn't exactly much reason to remain in the world, was there? But instead, Rumia had forcibly dragged her along to meet the people that had every reason to hate her and declared her a friend.

Why would she do something like that? It certainly wasn't anything Rin deserved. She couldn't figure it out. Sure, Rumia had to be feeling great about being released, and they were both still going off that high that came from having the Dark Voice exorcised. But this was almost too far. It was bizarre, it had come right out of nowhere, it made no sense at all…and it was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for Rin. She would face Yuuka Kazami against for this, sure.

However, the wait was downright uncomfortable, because on top of the roiling bewilderment stirring within her, the company was making things very awkward. Rumia was still riding her euphoric high and taking delight that came from every rediscovered sensation, which was something that Rin fully empathized with and felt more than a little guilty about what she had subjected her to. Yuuka's serving girl Elly, on the other hand, seemed to hate her, to no real surprise. At least, she was adamant about refusing Rin entrance to the Garden of the Sun until Yuuka personally okayed it, and was standing with her alarmingly large scythe held at the ready while staring daggers through Rin. And as for Rumia's friends…well…

To say that their response to Rumia's words was mixed would be an understatement. Cirno, their blue-haired fairy leader, had at least forgotten whatever hostility that had prompted her to make that stupid bounty and had now taken a deep interest in Rin. She was now hovering uncomfortably close while jabbering away an endless list of questions, some of them not exactly easy to answer. Rin responded to her the best she could while doing everything in her power to seem as unthreatening as possible, but the fairy's intensity and seemingly bottomless well of energy was making Rin's head spin. As for the others, the firefly, Wriggle, was keeping a healthy distance between herself and Rin while regarding the Kirin with naked distrust. Based on what Rin had taken from Rumia's memories, such a reception was to be expected from her. Mystia, the sparrow, was even worse, in that she seemed to be genuinely afraid of Rin, and was occupying herself with helping Rumia come to terms with her new freedom while being as inconspicuous as possible. And the other fairy, Daiyousei, seemed as befuddled by the situation as Rin was, and was standing alone looking like she had no idea what to do with herself. Rin couldn't blame them, and in light of Rumia's behavior, which had to be bizarre to anyone that didn't understand what she had been through, no doubt they were wondering just how Rin had brainwashed her. Maybe she had without realizing it. Long captivities did weird things to people.

But even if it was understandable, Rin couldn't say she cared for this sort of attention. Between Cirno's interrogation and the others' fearful or hostile reactions, she felt like a freak. Okay, so she had always been a freak, but she had been a solitary one, not the sort to be paraded out in the middle of a circus tent for people to gawk at. Hopefully Yuuka would arrive soon and end this debacle, which really was a testament to just how awkward Rin was feeling, if that was her wish.

"So do you have lungs and stuff?" Cirno pressed as she hovered in a slow circle around Rin, peering at the mutated Kirin intently. "Like, I can see you breathing, so do you got organs and stuff?"

The question made Rin take a deep breath, ironically enough. "I don't think so," she said in all honesty. "Every time I get blown up, it all comes out as goo. So I guess my body just absorbs the air."

"You've been blown up?" Cirno said immediately. "By who? And did it hurt? How long did it take you to come back?"

As Rin wondered how much about her past torments she should reveal, she glanced over to Rumia, who lying flat on her back and happily waving her arms and legs up and down, making a grass angel. "Oh gods, this tickles so much!" she giggled. "Hey Mysty, you gotta try this! It tickles!"0

"Ah, that's okay," Mystia stuttered. "I'm fine." She glanced at Rin, and seeing that the Kirin was watching them, quickly turned away. Rin sighed and turned back to Cirno.

"A lot of people," she said. "I've…made a lot of enemies. And yes, it hurts a lot. And it used to take a long time to come back, but now I'm faster." She left out the part about how the Hourai Immortals were to thank for that.

"Oh, so it's like something you can get better at?" Cirno said, coming in rather close. "Because I can't make myself come back faster! Can you-"

"RUMIA, DON'T!" Mystia suddenly screamed, making everyone jump. Everyone turned to stare and her and Rumia. For her part, Rumia seemed as shocked by Mystia's outburst as the rest of them. She was sitting on her knees with her fingers wrapped around a dandelion stem.

"What?" she said.

Mystia was literally shaking. "Just…just let go of that dandelion. Don't tear it. Just let it go."

"Uh…okay." Rumia did as she was instructed. "Why?"

Cirno was the one to answer. "Oh man, you didn't almost pick that, did you?" she said, swooping over to Rumia. "Because Yuuka hates it when you hurt her plants! No joke, she can actually talk to them, so they're like her friends." She looked down at the grassy field below her. "So I guess these ones are like her neighbors or something. Anyway, don't hurt the plants. Seriously."

"Oh." Rumia glanced down at the dandelion and nervously scooted away from it. "Er, sorry about that Mr. Dandelion. Didn't know."

Everyone relaxed a little, and Rin let out a long sigh. Boy, it really was a good thing her death powers were gone. She didn't want to think of what would happen if she was still automatically killing every plant she floated over.

And then a cold chill went down her back and a hush fell upon everyone. Turning, Rin saw the reason. Yuuka had arrived.

The tall youkai (or whatever she was) was standing on the edge of the border to the Garden of the Sun, her single eye watching the children without much expression. One hand grasped the handle of a copper cane, while the other merrily twirled an open umbrella over her shoulder. She looked to Rin, then to Rumia, and back to Rin. A small smile curled the edge of her lip, and she knelt down to have a whispered conversation with Elly. Rin, whose hearing was second to none, heard Elly explain what Rumia had said about Rin being her friend and wanting her to come with her to the Garden. She swallowed and waited for Yuuka's reaction.

As Elly explained, the eyebrow over Yuuka's remaining eye shot up. She glanced again to Rin and her smile grew. Rising, she crossed over the border to where the children were gathered. Rin tensed up, but as it turned out, Yuuka intended to speak with someone else.

"Ah, you must be Rumia!" Yuuka said, smiling down to the youkai girl in question. She stuck out her hand. "My dear, it is an absolute pleasure to finally meet you in person, and may I be among the first to congratulate you on your newfound freedom!"

Rumia, who had never been at a loss for words for as long as Rumia had known her, was very much at a loss then. She gawked up at Yuuka, whose shadow was literally covering her. It looked like she both awed and intimidated, and considering the sorts of things she had recently endured, that was saying something. Maybe being outside of Rin made her feel vulnerable. Or maybe Yuuka just had that effect on people.

"I…uh…thanks," she said, tentatively reaching up to take Yuuka's hand. This proved to be a mistake, as Yuuka immediately snatched her up and brought her into a crushing embrace against her chest.

"Oh, you are just adorable!" Yuuka said, affectionately pressing her cheek to Rumia while ruffling her hair. "I could just eat you up! Oh, we are going to be splendid friends, I just know it."

For her part, Rumia didn't seem all that enthused. In fact, as she choked and struggled to free herself, she didn't seem to be much of anything besides asphyxiated.

"Welcome to the Garden of the Sun, sweetiecakes," Yuuka said, giving Rumia a big, grandmotherly kiss on the forehead. She finally released the unwilling target of her affection, who fell to the ground and immediately began gasping for air. "Do enjoy your stay. No harm will come to you while you are here, you have my promise."

Finally, Yuuka turned her attention to Rin, who, having lost a significant portion of her power, didn't really feel like such a hotshot anymore. "Ah, Rin Satsuki," she said with a cordial nod. "Given Rumia's celebrated release, I take it your…treatment…was successful?"

Rin swallowed again and nodded. "Uh, yeah. It's…it's all gone. For real, this time."

"Good to hear! And the goddesses in question?"

"Er, Hina was kinda sick when she left, but she said that was normal, and that she'd be okay in no time." Given just how many dolls she was going to have to work through, Rin questioned her definition of "no time," but hadn't made an issue of it.

"I wish her a full recovery then," Yuuka said, nodding. "Elly, be sure that she is sent a gift basket and a combination Get Well Soon and Thank You card. After all, we owe her a great deal, and I for one will sleep much easier knowing that the world is now short one Fallen Angel." She tilted her head to one side. "Now, Elly said that there is something you wished to speak to me about?"

Well, here went something. Clearing her throat, Rin said, "Uh, yeah. Look, the last time I was here, I was pretty rude. I was…having a really rotten day, and you had scared me pretty bad. But you still did us a tremendous favor, and while I still have no idea what you are and why you're so scary, you're…well, I guess you're really all right. I really owe you, and I'm sorry about how I acted."

Yuuka's smile didn't so much as waver. "Oh, my dear. Don't you worry your pretty little head. It's all water under the bridge." She sighed. "And I must admit, I did not conduct myself well during our unfortunate encounter at the Youkai Mountain, nor did I give you much reason to think well of me after opening that box. We all acted rather beastly that day. So, please accept my apologies as well. I hope we can get along after today." She winked. "After all, we outcasts ought to stick together."

Well, this was going better than Rin had expected. She might as well press on. "So…uh, look. I don't really have any place to go…and I really kinda feel responsible for Rumia after all I put her through, you know?" She nervously shuffled her feet. "So…would it be okay if I stayed here for a while?"

Yuuka's answer wasn't an immediate "Yes" as she had been hoping for, but it wasn't a "No" either. "Hmmm," she said, thoughtfully rubbing her chin. "Well Rin, I must be honest: that is a very tall request. Given your infamy, it would attract all manner of unwanted attention to the Garden. Looking after these rapscallions is as full time job as it is, and having the most notorious fugitive in Gensokyo as a houseguest would definitely complicate things."

She thought for a time while everyone held their breath in anticipation. Rin had no doubt that most of Rumia's friends were hoping that Rin's request would be turned down. But then her hopes were dashed and Rin's fulfilled when Yuuka smiled and let out a small laugh.

"Well, I suppose it would be hypocritical of me to cast stones for acquiring a bad name," she said, giving her umbrella an extra twirl. "And far be it from me to turn away a little girl in distress. So how about this? You may stay for the meantime, while I keep my ear to the ground and suss out the situation, see if a way to clear our sullied names doesn't present itself?"

This day was going better than Rin could have ever dream. "Thank you!" she said. "I won't be trouble, and…"

"Tut, tut, a little too early to promise that!" Yuuka laughed. She turned toward the Garden and gestured with her umbrella. "Well girls, it would behoove us to return the safety of my house. We are a bit exposed out here, so let us go to tea and get to know our new friend a little better!"

No one argued, though some looked like they wanted to. Rin didn't much mind. She could win them over if she tried.

As they entered the Garden and made their way to Yuuka's house, Rin felt someone punch her lightly in the shoulder. Turning, she saw Rumia grinning at her.

"See?" she said. "Nothing to worry about."

As the children happily soared their way toward Mugenkan, Yuuka lingered near the rear of the group, gradually falling further and further behind. As she wasn't exactly a fast flyer, the girls didn't take much notice, save for Elly.

Checking to make sure that their guests weren't paying her master much attention, Elly dropped back to fall in pace with Yuuka. "Master, are you sure this is a good idea?" she said worriedly. "She's dangerous. Even with the…" she swallowed, "you-know-what gone, I don't trust her. Remember how she treated you!"

"Oh, I do," Yuuka said, her eye fixated on Rin with hawk-like focus. "Dangerous she most certainly is. And yet…" She smiled. "Lately I've become more and more convinced that things happen for a reason, Elly. I for one do not believe that simple coincidence brought Rin to us. And I for one am very curious to see where this is going."

Elly struggled to come up with an adequate reply, but as was often the case whenever Yuuka started talking like this, she found herself unable. So instead, she changed tactics. "But what about Fl-"

"Shhhh." Yuuka gently placed a finger over Elly's lips. She shot a sharp glance to Rin, who fortunately didn't seem to be eavesdropping. "Be mindful of that name. Words can carry."

Elly nodded. "Yes, master. But…what about her?"

Yuuka pondered the question a moment before shaking her head. "Nothing's changed on that front. This situation is fluid and ever changing, and we may still need her help. And besides…" Her lips curled, exposing her perfectly white teeth. "I am finding her to be a far too interesting project to abandon. She truly was wasted on her sister, of that there is no doubt."

It was late evening at the Hakurei Shrine, and Remilia Scarlet was now a resident.

She hadn't brought much. Some clothes, a small bag of toiletries, a few keepsakes, some books, and a stuffed bat. Yukari hadn't allowed her to bring more than that. However, as futons were apparently unsuited for her to sleep on, she had brought along something additional: a small, black coffin, inscribed with a scarlet rose blooming from the center of a golden cross. "This place isn't as guarded against sunlight as the Scarlet Devil Mansion," Sakuya Izayoi had explained. "She'll need proper protection while she sleeps."

Perhaps, but Reisen still found it odd. A vampire sleeping in a coffin just seemed so…clichéd, even if it did make sense. Still, even she had to admit that it looked comfortable. The coffin's interior was lined with soft, velvet cushions, and Remilia fit snugly inside with her blanket, pillow, and stuffed bat. If Reisen didn't hate her so much, she might have found it cute.

At the moment, Remilia was still asleep, and Reimu had gone off on a walk "to clear her head," and Genji had accompanied her. Which left Reisen alone in the shrine with Sakuya Izayoi.

Reisen hated her even more than she hated Remilia. She hated her for what she had done to Rin and that she had gotten away with it with no reprisal. She hated that she had gone right on living her comfortable life while Rin had suffered away in whatever closet she had stuffed in her in. And she really hated the fact that Sakuya and her mistress were going to be moving in. Before, Reisen had come to see Hakurei Shrine as a sort of sanctuary from all the horrible people that ran Gensokyo and their wicked schemes. But now they had come to her and made themselves comfortable.

Oh, she was going to endure, if only for Reimu's sake. But she didn't have to like it.

At the moment, Reisen was in Hakurei Shrine's small kitchenette, fixing supper for her and Reimu. She doubted any of them would feel like eating, but she needed something to do with her hands. And if she kept busy, she wouldn't have to talk to-

"Excuse me."

Reisen glanced over her shoulder. Sakuya had entered the kitchenette. "I apologize for intruding," the Lunarian maid said with an elegant bow. "But I must have the mistress's breakfast ready for when she chooses to rise."

She apologizes for walking into a room, but her hand in destroying Rin's life didn't merit so much as an "I'm sorry." Reisen stared at her for a moment before shuffling to one side to make room.

She tried to keep her attention on the skillet of vegetables and chicken she was working with, but she couldn't help but watch Sakuya out of the corner of her eye. The maid placed a glass bowl on the table, extracted a steel pin, and pricked her finger. A tiny ruby dot welled up against the flawless white skin, which was then smeared against the side of the bowl. Sakuya then pulled out her infamous pocketwatch, clicked it open, and nudged her thumb against a dial set in the side.

The drop of blood suddenly multiplied and expanded, filling more than half the bowl.

Noticing Reisen's shocked expression, Sakuya smiled and said, "My power allows me to turn the interior of a medium-sized mansion into the size of a small city. Filling a bowl from a drop poses no difficulty."

"Oh," Reisen said, looking away. "I see." Now that her morbid curiosity had been satisfied, being in the same room with a bowl of blood was kind of nauseating. She forced herself to focus on what she was doing, and not let the maid pick up on how much she-

"You hate us, don't you?"

Well, there that went.

"Yes," Reisen said without looking at her.

Sakuya didn't seem taken back by Reisen's bluntness. "Reimu said that you were close to Rin Satsuki, before her meltdown. She said that you loved her."

Reisen tried to keep her anger from showing, but her face hardened and her grip on the wooden spoon she was using tightened. "She's wrong."

That took Sakuya off guard. At least, her complexion was marred by a small frown. "She was?"

"If that was what she said, then yes she was. It's not 'loved.' No past tense." Setting the spoon down, Reisen turned to look Sakuya in the eye. "I love Rin. I love her with all my heart. She was like-" Reisen almost said sister, but her throat closed up, refusing to let that word out. Well, so long as she was being honest with Sakuya, she might as well start being honest with herself. "-like a daughter to me." Reisen turned away. "And then you came and took her away from me."

"She was dangerous. Mad."

"Yes. Because of what you did to her."

"We couldn't have foreseen that her powers would react the way they did."

"Then you shouldn't have tried tampering with them in the first place."

"She volunteered-"

"She was a nine year old girl!" Reisen suddenly shouted. She whirled around and stuck her face in Sakuya's, who, to her credit, at least had the decency to be surprised by Reisen's outburst.

"A nine year old girl," Reisen repeated. "All she wanted was for Eirin to be proud of her. That's it. So she let herself be experimented on. But you didn't care about that, did you? You didn't care about how dangerous it was, that it could destroy her. You just cared about what you could take from it. And when it did destroy her,she was just a problem to be cleaned up."

Her eyes started to glow. She had no real intention of rewiring Sakuya's brain, but she wanted her to think that she did. And sure enough, the maid quickly averted her gaze, giving Reisen a small measure of satisfaction.

"Tell me something, maid," Reisen all but spat out. "In the nine years you had her stuffed away in a dark little hole, did you once feel even the tiniest bit of regret, hmmm? Did you ever spare a single thought to the little girl you had locked away?" When Sakuya didn't answer, Reisen allowed herself a bitter smile. "Didn't think so. But then, locking up little girls is an old hat to you, isn't it?"

That got a reaction. Sakuya's face whipped toward her, her icy blue eyes narrowing with anger. "Don't you dare speak of matters that you do not-" She stopped herself mid-sentence and squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, they were as cold and emotionless as ever.

Reisen's smile didn't so much as waver. "I dreamed of Rin every night for almost a year after that. I begged Eirin and Princess Kaguya to change their minds so many times that they threatened to send me back to the Moon if I didn't stop. What did you do?"

Sakuya did not hesitate in giving her the answer. "Nothing."

Now Reisen was struggling to keep her smile, but she forced it to remain. She wasn't going to show weakness. "I didn't think so." She turned her attention back to the meal she was preparing, which was starting to char. "Reimu saved me when I had no one else, so if she says you and your wretched mistress are to stay, then I'll make do. But if you do anything to make her life harder than it is, or say one more cross word about Rin, then I'll make you wish that Yuuka Kazami had killed you all."

The rest of the evening was spent in silence.

Remilia lay still in her coffin, Freddy the Bat clutched to her chest, listening as Reisen Udongein verbally dissected Sakuya. Every word felt like a hammer blow to the chest, and by the end of it, it was well that she did not have access to a wooden stake.

"Sweet Christ," she whispered, tightening her grip on Freddy. "Is there anything I have not ruined?"

With a heavy heart, Alice glowered down at the catastrophe on her floor. The rune she had been working on, designing, redesigning, taking apart, flipping around, and putting back together for weeks was now a complete and utter mess. It now took up the majority of the floor and was composed of so many different elements and symbols that it now looked more like an artist's representation of a galaxy suffering from schizophrenia.

At her side, Medicine Melancholy was also staring with both sets of her eyes. As someone ignorant of magical theory, it had to be even more bewildering to her than it was to Alice. Her heads tilted from one side to the other in unison, painted eyes frowning with incomprehension. Finally she said, "I-do-not-get-it."

Alice sighed. "Neither do I, Medicine. Neither do I."

"But-you-were-the-one-who-made-it."

"Yes, thank you, I know that, Medicine," Alice snapped. "Hence my frustration."

The rune, if it could still be called that, was growing to be a constant source of agitation for Alice. She had pored over all her books over and over, dissected every theory she knew of, and pressed both her intelligence and her creativity to their limits. But despite everything she had tried, all she had to show for her efforts was a great big mess.

And the worst part of it all was that it did nothing! Most of the hybridized symbols simply did not work, and the ones that did cancelled each other out. Even if it had blown up it would be preferable to this, because at least it would have been a start.

Medicine's larger half continued to gawk, while her smaller form turned to glare at her. Even so, it was the larger one that spoke, as was always the case. "You-are-the-ma-gi-cian-of-this-part-ner-ship," she said accusingly. "It-is-your-job-to-make-the-ma-gic-work!"

"Whereas you seem to be the deadweight of this partnership!" Alice shot back. "Because I don't recall you doing anything of use besides hovering over both my shoulders at the same time making snide-"

Suddenly, Alice's tirade was brought to a screeching halt, as both the wards she had set up outside and her own magical senses had detected someone approaching her house. "Oh, and there she is," Alice sighed, pressing two fingers to her forehead. "Right on time."

Medicine's smaller body smirked. "I-as-sume-you-mean-the-Hu-man-witch?"

In answer, the Human witch in question started banging her fist against Alice's door. "Yo, Alice!" Marisa hollered. "Open up already!"

Taking a deep breath, Alice shouted back, "No, thank you! We don't want any!"

"Your-past-re-ac-tions-to-her-pres-cence-would-in-di-cate-o-ther-wise."

"Shut up,Medicine."

"Don't care!" Marisa called. "C'mon, I'm getting tired of doing this, ze! Just hear me out already!"

"Just ignore her, she'll leave eventually," Alice muttered to Medicine.

"I'm serious here, Alice! I ain't leaving until you open this door, so you'd better come out and talk to me, or I'm giving yah the full Marisa Kirisame treatment!"

This time, both of Medicine's bodies turned to look at her. "E-ven-tual-ly," she repeated doubtfully.

"Yes, eventually." Alice turned back to the rune. "She always does."

"What-ex-act-ly-is-the-full-Ma-ris-a-Kir-a-"

"Alrighty, you're asking for it, ze!" Marisa shouted. She cleared her throat. "Mi, mi, mi…"

Alice's eyes went wide. "Oh no, she isn't going to-"

"Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, ninety-nine bottles of beeeeeer!" Marisa belted out. "Take one down, pass it around, ninety-eight bottles of beer on the waaaallll!"

Medicine gave Alice a pleading look. "Please-do-some-thing-about-this."

Sighing, Alice raised her hand and snapped her fingers, activating the soundproofing charms she had installed her house's exterior. "All right, that should block her out until she gets bored and-"

"NINETY-EIGHT BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL!" Marisa bellowed, her voice twice as loud as before. "NINETY-EIGHT BOTTLES OF BEEEEEER! TAKE ONE DOWN-seriously, you're gonna try to out-rune me?-PASS IT AROUND, NINE-SEVEN BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WAAAALLLL!"

"This-is-phy-sic-al-ly-pain-ful," Medicine grimaced. Alice, who was covering her ears with both hands, agreed.

"NINETY-SEVEN BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL! NINETY-SEVEN BOTTLES OF BEEEEER!" Marisa continued to holler out. "TAKE ONE DOWN…ENCOURAGE IT TO BREED, TWO-HUNDRED FIFTY-EIGHT BOTTLES OF-"

"All right, that's enough!" Alice shouted as she tore the door open. "Marisa Kirisame, you stop this nonsense right…" She blinked. "What in the world?"

Marisa was indeed waiting for her on the front porch, that wasn't surprising. However, the manner by which she was doing so certainly was. The young witch was sitting on a chair made completely from brown glass bottles of beer. From the seat to the armrests to the back to the footrest that Marisa had propped her feet on, every piece of it was made from beer bottles. An open bottle was held in Marisa's hand, which she used to salute Alice when the puppeteer appeared at the door.

"'Sup, Alice?" Marisa causally greeted her. "Want one?"

"I…ah…er…" Alice was at a loss for words, which irked her. After all these years, one would think that she would be used to Marisa's antics by now. "Where…where did you get all this alcohol?"

Taking a sip from her bottle, Marisa simply said, "Places."

Alice scowled. "You stole it."

"Did not."

"Yes, you did!" Alice insisted. "You don't have the money for this sort of prank, and I know that you haven't taken up brewing, so there's no other way that…" And then the answer came to her, which made her feel a bit foolish. "Oh, wait," she said with a sigh. Walking over to the beer chair, she tapped its back, sending a jolt of disrupting energy through it.

The beer bottles shimmered and disappeared, to be replaced by a perfectly ordinary porch chair.

"That wasn't funny," Alice told Marisa.

"No?" Marisa shrugged and took another sip of the very real bottle in her hand. "I thought it was."

All right, enough was enough. "Well, you've had your joke and your laugh," Alice said. She turned around and walked back inside. With one foot, she nudged the door closed. "So I bid you good-"

Marisa's foot slammed down between the swinging door and the doorframe, stopping it cold.

"We need to talk," Marisa said, her tone suddenly serious.

Alice scowled. "No, we do not," she said, nudging Marisa's foot out of the way. "Go away, Marisa."

The door swung shut, banishing Marisa's annoying face from Alice's line of sight. "Well, that's done with," Alice muttered, turning back toward the room. "So let's get back to-Ah!"

Marisa was crouching in front of Alice's rune, staring down at it with a look of complete bewilderment. Medicine was looking down at her with much the same expression. She glanced up to Alice and both of her bodies shrugged.

"The hell is this thing, ze?" Marisa said. "This looks like the sort of thing that pops up in my dreams after eating a bunch of mushrooms." She tentatively poked at it with her finger. "'Cept they usually work when I try them out later."

"How did you…Get out of here!" Alice shouted. She grabbed Marisa by the collar, hoisted her up, and motored her over to the front door. This time, she made certain that the witch was in fact on the other side of the door after she threw her out.

That done, Alice turned around, leaned back against the locked door, closed her eyes, and sighed. She didn't need this.

Opening her eyes, she was greeted by the sight of Marisa standing over the rune with her hands on her hips, again quizzically studying the bizarre symbol. "Seriously, it's like I recognize all the itty bitty pieces you've used here, ze," she said, waving a hand over the rune. "But put together like that doesn't make any sense at all."

"How-does-she-do-that?" Medicine asked.

"Get out!" Alice yelled, her voice rising to a near-screech. This time she grabbed Marisa by the ear, hauled her over to the door, and again threw her out. This time, she activated every defensive spell she had put into the building. Taken together, it was a major case of overkill, but Alice was getting desperate.

Especially when, one by one, those defenses started to fail. She could literally feel them sputter and die. "Oh no," she moaned, leaning her forehead against the door. "Why, gods? Why me?"

"How-is-she-doing-this?" Medicine asked again.

Alice turned her head just enough to glare at her. "She's Madam Mima's apprentice," she said. "That's how."

"Damned straight," Marisa said, her ash-covered face suddenly popping down from Alice's chimney to hang upside-down in her fireplace. "It's actually kinda hilarious how many people underestimate me, ze." She tilted her head to one side and grinned. "'Sides, did'ja forget who helped you put all those wards together?"

This time, Alice didn't have the energy to shout. She just whimpered, "The flue was closed. And locked."

"Ho, ho, ho, so was your door." Marisa's arms came into view. She grabbed the ceiling of the fireplace, pushed, and came rolling onto the floor in a cloud of soot.

Alice was starting to regret refusing Marisa's offer for a drink. "You're filthy. And you just got ash everywhere," she said, pulling over a chair so she could sit down.

"Eh." Marisa snapped her fingers. "Vacuumus."

Suddenly all the soot covering both her and the floor detached themselves of their hosts and gathered into a single spot directly above Marisa's hand, leaving both her and the floor spotless. It congealed into a hard, black ball that dropped into Marisa's palm.

"Here yah go, Woodie," she said, tossing it over to Medicine. "Have a snack."

Alice buried her face in her hands. "Why, Marisa? Just…why?"

"Hey, you're the one that's been brushing me off for weeks. Had'ta do something to get your attention." Still seated on the floor, Marisa crossed her arms over her chest and folded her legs. "So? You gonna hear me out now?"

Whimpering, Alice lowered her hands. "Marisa, why must you be so-" She cut herself off when she saw what Medicine was doing. "Medicine, did you actually just eat that ball of soot?"

Medicine looked sheepish, or at least as sheepish as a doll could look. "It-was-not-bad-act-ual-ly."

Wonderful. The madness was spreading. "Medicine, I think you'd better go home for today," Alice said.

Medicine gave her a look. Then she glanced over to Marisa and smirked. "As-you-wish."

Once the doll was gone, Alice turned to Marisa and said, "If you wanted to get my attention, then there has got to have been a less infuriating way to do it. And you know how much I hate trespassers."

Picking her nose with her pinky, Marisa said, "Y'know, I think I read a porno once that started with that line."

Alice's blue eyes flashed with anger. "Marisa…"

"All right, all right." Marisa stood up and brushed her hand off on her apron. "Look: you've been avoiding me for weeks now, and I'm getting pretty sick of it."

"Oh, and I wonder why that would be," Alice said snidely. She crossed her legs. "After all, considering your behavior here today, it's a wonder why anyone would not want to be around you."

"Hey, I do that stuff all the time. You used to find it funny." Marisa folded her arms over her chest and glowered. "Cut the crap, Alice. You and I both know it's because of what Kotohime Sonozika said to you when you came by to see me."

"Oh, you mean the bit about how you tried to murder her and her associates?" Alice tapped a finger against her chin and directed her eyes upward in a mock-show of thinking. "Come to think of it, I do seem to remember something about that."

"Yeah, that's the one," Marisa said, rolling her eyes. "'Course, it was right after Mima had told me Yukari was gonna ambush and arrest me, which scared the pants off of me. Then after I booked it, I spent a long-ass time getting lost and jumped by every dumbass fairy with a death wish. Then those GPF guys ran into me out of nowhere, ratted on me, and Yukari threw a fucking tornado at me."

Alice blinked. "A tornado," she repeated.

"Yes, a tornado! You can ask her! Barely got out of that one by the skin of my teeth, ze." She opened her mouth and tapped a finger against the teeth in question. "So yeah, I lost my temper. I snapped. I was having an incredibly shitty day, got piled on with one straw too many, and starting throwing whatever I had around. Ain't saying it wasn't bad, but it's not like I had planned to do kill something. I just freaked out."

"I see." Alice closed her eyes and sighed. "Well, it's nice to know some things are consistent. Such as you making excuses."

Marisa's eye narrowed. "I'm not making excuses. I already admitted that it was a shitty thing to do, didn't I? I'm just saying that I got pushed too hard and snapped. I don't go around planning on killing people, and after that awful day, I'm making damned sure I don't freak out like that again. But you wouldn't hear that, would you? If I recall, you ran right out and pretty much wrote me out of your life."

"Yes, shame on me for not wanting to associate myself with someone who attempted murder." Alice shook her head. "Marisa, I know it's hard for you, but at least try to be serious. What sort of person would want to be with you after something like that? I mean, besides your infamous mentor, of course. From what I hear, she would see such a turn to be a step in the right direction."

"I dunno, maybe Reimu?" Marisa shrugged.

"Well. No accounting for taste."

"Funny. But I am being serious, ze. See, like you, Reimu got all kinds of disturbed about what Sonozika told her. But unlike you," Marisa jabbed a finger in Alice's direction, "she didn't go run off and pretend I didn't exist. She made a point of coming to see me so she could give me a pretty scathing lecture about how much I had fucked up. Said she didn't wanna have to go explain to some family why their mommy or daddy or kid or whatever wasn't coming home, and that she didn't want to have to take me out one day."

Alice raised an eyebrow. "Sounds like sound advice. I hope you were listening."

"I was. And guess what, Alice? I admitted she was right and promised to try to keep control. Like I said, I had fucked up. Full confession, right there! Did bad, gonna try to improve myself. And you know why? Because I appreciated the fact that Reimu cared enough to come tell me that to my face. Which is more than you ever did."

Alice sighed. This was getting melodramatic. "Right. And this bothers you so much that you have to come rapping at my door three times a week…why?"

Marisa's head jerked back. She looked honestly shocked. "Why? Because I miss you, you dumb jerk!"

Now it was Alice's turn to be taken back. While one had to expect a certain measure of brashness when dealing with Marisa, she hadn't expected this sort of outright honesty.

But Marisa wasn't done. "I mean, for the gods' sakes, Alice! We've been friends for, what, ten years now? We've hung out almost every single day, worked on a ton of projects together, and teamed up for a bunch of incidents! So yeah, I'd hope that my best friend would care enough to try to keep me from going too far instead of writing me off and letting the pieces fall where they may!" She started walking around in a circle, dramatically flailing her arms in the air while doing an admittedly accurate impression of Alice's voice. "'Oh, that Marisa turned out pretty nasty, didn't she? Look at all those bodies! Well, it's not my problem anymore!'"

Alice had to struggle to find her tongue. "So you're saying that your behavior is my responsibility now?"

"No!" Marisa marched up to her and jabbed a finger against Alice's chest, making the young magician take an involuntary step backward. "I'm saying that after all we've been through together, you at least owe it to me to yell it into my face after I've fucked up instead of just walking away and pretending that I never existed, ze! And in the meantime, while you're moping about how Marisa got mad and did a bad thing, you decide to go spend all your time with Little Miss Genocide!"

"I-I-I, well," Alice stuttered," "Medicine is all talk, and-"

"No, she ain't! She tried to poison me and Reimu, remember? And I know we weren't the first to wander into that stinky field of hers."

Oh right. That did happen. "Well, she's a youkai!"

"So?" Marisa shrugged. "You're one too."

"Th-that's different!" Alice protested. "Wild youkai have different ways of looking at things!"

Marisa rolled her eyes. "Gimme a break. Most of my friends are wild youkai. And most of them are a hell of a lot nicer than I'll ever be. Why does the talking doll who hates Humans get a pass, but me screwing up once means getting excommunicated?"

Dumbstruck, Alice had no reply. She had spent the last several weeks resenting Marisa over what she had done, and had rehearsed the inevitable confrontation so many times in her head that she had come to believe that her case to be airtight. But despite winning all of those mentally simulated debates, she found herself unable to recall a single point.

Seeing that she had finally scored a hit, Marisa's face softened, which was sort of strange to see on her. "Look Alice, I like you. I like you a lot. And I miss spending time with you. So yeah, this whole cold shoulder thing is bugging me. So if you really don't wanna be friends anymore, fine. I'll go and leave you alone. But at least have the guts to tell me directly, got it?"

Swallowing, Alice managed a short nod. "I'll…think about it."

"You'll think about it," Marisa repeated, her tone implying that that wasn't enough.

"Yes."

Marisa raised an eyebrow. "And…?"

"And I'll…" Alice grimaced. "I'll come by tomorrow to…to talk about it."

Finally Marisa's trademark grin appeared. "Promise?"

Well, nothing for it now. "I promise."

"Thanks," Marisa said, sounding satisfied. She patted Alice on the shoulder and started for the door. "That's all I ask."

But before she left, she stopped again and peered down at Alice's bizarre excuse for a rune. Her brow knitted in a frown. "By the way, the hell is that mess on the floor for anyway?"

Alice sighed. "Oh. I'm still trying to make Shanghai come to life. That…rune…was intended to make her start…moving independently."

"Really? Huh." Marisa tilted her head to one side as if that would change her perspective, stared at it a moment longer, and then shook her head. "Yeah, I ain't seeing it." With that, she finally left, whistling "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" as she went.

Once she was sure that Marisa was truly gone, Alice slowly walked to the door and shut it. Sighing, she returned to her armchair and slowly sank into its cushioned embrace. "Neither do I, Marisa," she muttered, massaging her aching head. "Neither do I."

Byakuren found her sitting on the hillside that descended from Myouren Temple, though perhaps "sitting" was too strong of a word. "Slumping" would be more accurate, and "slouching" would do as well. A bottle was clutched in her hand, and two more lay beside her. Byakuren sighed. Well, that explained a great deal, while opening the door to further questions, questions she wasn't sure she wanted answered.

"Well," Byakuren said. "This is…undignified."

Yukari glowered up at her from beneath her drooping eyelids. "At the moment, no one can see or hear me save for yourself. Further to the point, so long as you remain within a two-meter radius of me, no one can see or hear you either." She lifted the bottle to her lips. "Dignity be buggered."

A quick check of their surrounding confirmed Yukari's claim. It seemed that she did not wish to be overheard. "I suppose this explains why you had me come out here instead of popping in unannounced, as is your custom."

"You are the one that does not allow alcohol in her temple." Despite her slovenly appearance, Yukari's speech was not slurred. In fact, it was even more articulately precise than normal, if a bit slower.

"Thank you for respecting that, but must you be drunk?"

Yukari smirked and drank again. "Byakuren, let me let you in on a little secret: there are some things that no woman should have to deal with while sober." She held the bottle up to the monk. "Care for some?"

Byakuren sighed again. "I do not drink. You know that."

"Suit yourself," Yukari shrugged, lifting the bottle to her lips. "Though I will wager that you'll have changed your mind after I get done telling you the news."

"If it has something to do with Remilia Scarlet claiming Yuuka Kazami's bounty, I wouldn't count on it."

Yukari paused, bottle still hovering halfway to her mouth. Slowly she lowered it and said, "Okay. When and how?"

"This morning," Byakuren said. She sat down on the grass next to Yukari. "Via various newspapers."

"Oh, right." Yukari frowned. "Now, how did I forget about those? It is, after all, how the news reached me, no pun intended mind you." She finished the bottle.

Byakuren hesitated a moment before asking her next question. "Is Remilia Scarlet still alive?"

"Mmmm-hmmm," Yukari said, lowering the bottle and wiping her chin. "At least as far as that term applies to vampires, unfortunately. Though not for a lack of trying, mind you."

Byakuren was actually a little surprised: not that Yukari had attempted to execute Remilia Scarlet, but that she had somehow failed. However, she was quite a bit relieved. "What happened?"

"The girl had the good sense to turn to Reimu for help," Yukari said. She glowered at the bottle as if it had offended her somehow. "Reimu got there first, and when I showed up, words were exchanged."

"Ah, I see." That explained a great deal then. The Hakureis had an uncanny knack when it came to swaying Yukari's decisions.

Yukari scowled. "Yes indeed. I really must give her credit. That's twice this week she's pulled that off, though she wasn't nearly so articulate this time around."

That wasn't much of a surprise, considering that oratory skills weren't among Reimu's greatest strengths. "What did you end up doing to her? Remilia, I mean."

Yukari shrugged. "Evicted her from the Scarlet Devil Mansion, until such a time as when the current crisis can be said to have been absolved. She'll be staying with Reimu in the meantime."

"Are you sure that's wise?" Byakuren asked. "I mean, doesn't Reimu have enough on her plate without-"

"Considering that Remilia had already made a point to donate the entire bounty to her beforehand and the maid opted to come along, I'm sure she'll be able to handle the additional responsibility," Yukari said with another shrug. "Especially since one provision was that Remilia's entire estate is now at Reimu's disposal for whatever capacity she requires."

Well, that at least made sense, though little else was. "Maybe it's time you explained exactly why Remilia Scarlet chose to deliver Rin Satsuki to Yuuka Kazami."

Yukari's lips lifted in a small, bitter smile. "Ah, that's right. I had forgotten."

"Forgotten what?" Byakuren asked, blinking.

"Forgotten which details of our little brawl with Yuuka were considered classified. Well, that bird has permanently left the nest, so you might as well know. During the fight, Yuuka killed Flandre Scarlet."

Byakuren was not easily taken back. She had seen the world at its absolute worst many times over, but rather than let it overwhelm her or turn her into a cynic, she had long accepted it for what it was, learned to see the good wherever she could, and did her best to help correct the wrong. But even so, this bit of information caught her off guard. "She…she did what?"

"Mmmm-hmmm," Yukari nodded. She wiped her chin. "Staked her good, from what I hear. But she managed to seal up her essence and walk off with it, so a return appearance of the younger Scarlet sister is all but definite. After, of course, she's received the full Yuuka Kazami treatment."

"Oh…" was all Byakuren could think of it say. Suddenly, almost everything was making sense. "Oh."

Yukari's scowl grew darker. "Yes, very few people are exactly happy about that little situation, as I'm sure you've surmised."

Byakuren nodded. "So, Remilia Scarlet…"

"Wanted her sister back, yes." Yukari shook her head. "Yuuka, as it so happens, was not in a mood to haggle."

Byakuren swallowed. This was…this explained everything. And it made Byakuren feel sick to her stomach. Yuuka Kazami's reputation was well-known, and having her gain possession of either Rin Satuki or Flandre Scarlet was nothing short of horrible. But having her take both…

"And now she has both," Yukari said, echoing Byakuren's thoughts. "Exactly no one is happy about that situation, I assure you. So if you have any lingering affairs you need to take care, I'd really get on that if I were you." She let out a rueful chuckle. "Feel free to ignore the bills though."

Byakuren didn't feel like joking, but neither was she ready to throw in the towel. "It's a bit…early to declare apocalypse, isn't it?"

"Oh, certainly," Yukari agreed, taking another drink. "But it always pays to be prepared." She fell silent for a time, brooding moodily to herself. When she spoke again, her voice had lost its acidic spite. "Byakuren, tell me truthfully. Did I make a mistake?"

Byakuren frowned. "When?"

"In letting Remilia Scarlet live," Yukari said. "She might have doomed as all with that stunt." She shook her head. The gods know I had every reason to ash her right there and then. But I didn't."

"Because Reimu asked you not to."

Yukari sighed. "Yes. Because Reimu asked me not to. Exactly. Favoritism at its finest." She finished the bottle and opened another. "So tell me, did I make a mistake?"

Byakuren's answer was immediate. "Mercy is never a mistake."

Yukari snorted. Don't be naïve. Mercy is a mistake all the time."

Byakuren had a feeling she knew exactly which incident Yukari was thinking about, and knew that pressing down that path would do nobody any good. So she changed tactics. "The damage was done. What good will executing her now do?"

"It'll prevent her from doing even more damage. Had I destroyed her when she first snuck into my tower and threatened me, we wouldn't be in this mess right now."

"It will also prevent her from doing good and atoning for her mistakes," Byakuren pointed out. "As well as turn her household against you, to say nothing of the grudge Reimu would be holding for killing her friend."

Yukari frowned, considering her words. "Perhaps, but still…Byakuren, can you truly say that there is no crime so severe that it would not warrant execution."

"The Buddha says-"

Yukari let out an exasperated groan. "Byakuren, if I cared at all for Buddha's opinion, I'd pop next door and ask him myself. I was asking you."

"Me?" Given the weight of the question, Byakuren took almost a minute to consider it before carefully stating, "I think…that it is not for me to judge. But whether or not there exists such an evil offense that the perpetrator must be killed in cold blood, Remilia Scarlet's trespass does not qualify."

Yukari gave her a sidelong look. "Oh? The girl might just have doomed us all. She almost certainly doomed Rin Satsuki, whom I should point out you put in quite a lot of time and energy to helping, to say nothing of those friends of yours she's currently carrying around."

"I do not deny that she has done wrong," Byakuren said. "But a wrong done out of love and desperation is not the same as one done out of malice and cruelty."

"Even if they result in the same thing?"

Byakuren nodded. "Insofar as the one doing it is concerned? Yes."

Sighing, Yukari straightened up and stretched her arms over her head. "Which is more-or-less exactly what I thought you'd say."

"Then why bother asking?"

"Validation, perhaps?" Yukari shrugged. "After all, you so happen to be at the top of the very short list of other Ringleaders that I both like and respect enough to seek counsel from." She chuckled. "In fact, you might be the only name on that list."

"Truly? There are no others?"

Yukari laughed again. "You know Yuyuko, right? My best friend? Now, I love Yuyuko. I enjoy spending time with Yuyuko. That doesn't mean I seek out her opinion on anything that doesn't involve a menu. As for Shinki and Eiki…" She rolled her eyes. "I will freely admit that they do their jobs very well, and rule over their respective domains with efficiency, diligence, and wisdom. Gensokyo is better off for having them in it. That doesn't mean I can stand being in the same room with either one of them for longer than a few minutes."

Despite the compliment she had received, Byakuren couldn't say she much cared for where this subject was going. Still, she asked, "And the others?"

Yukari snorted in contempt. "Oh, please. Sonozika is a bigoted idiot who is a mere shadow of every single one of his predecessors going back six generations, including his brother. The Hinanais are more concerned with spoiling that moronic brat of a daughter of theirs than actually doing something useful. The Dragon King has become the epitome of small-minded isolationism to the point where the closest thing he ever does to involving himself with the rest of Gensokyo is occasionally sending his pet oarfish over to remind all of us that he still exists. Satori is smart enough, but is such an inept leader that she may rank as the least-liked by her own people in all of Gensokyo; and I assure you, you need only to speak to her for five minutes to understand why. Qilin only becomes interested in anything after it's been sent through the 'proper channels,' signed off in the triplicate, and officially ratified by a majority vote of Kirin nobility. Boss Tenma is a drunken oaf who can never see the big picture because his stomach is in the way. And Lord Zora is a simpering worrywart who has the attention span of a buttered biscuit." Her tirade done, Yukari finished another bottle in one go and slumped over her knees with a weary sigh.

Though she was loath to admit it, Byakuren couldn't help but see the points Yukari was making, though she was considerably less cynical about the qualities of her fellow leaders. People were inherently flawed, and to focus on nothing but those flaws was very shortsighted. Still, the only counterpoint she found herself making was, "Technically, Tenma and Zora no longer sit on the council."

Yukari blinked in surprise. Goodness, you're right. I honestly have no idea how I forgot that." She shrugged. "Well, I actually rather like Kanako, and feel she's done a lot of good, so go ahead and put her name right below yours."

Byakuren nodded. And now that that was out of the way, it was time to get to the root of the matter. "Yukari, why are you really here? Because I'm sure it isn't to make yourself feel better about your decisions or to rant about how much you dislike your allies."

"You're right it is not," Yukari said with a laugh. "Though it is related. As it so happens, I need to borrow Koishi for a while."

Byakuren started. "Koishi? Why?"

"Ready for some bad news?"

Byakuren closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Slowly letting the breath out, she said, "Yuuka Kazami also has taken Satori Komeji prisoner."

Yukari looked surprised. "Good guess. Or, was it a guess?"

Byakuren shrugged. "There have been some disturbing rumors regarding the brawl in the Blasted Lands. Plus, Kanako contacted me recently, talking helping her bring relief to the Ancient City, and also mentioned something about a morale drive. Coupled with what you just told me, I put two and two together."

"Yes, well, there you go," Yukari said with a shrug. "Currently working on taking Yuuka's new harem away, but in the meantime, I'd really prefer it if the Underworld didn't break out into riots."

That made sense, but even so… "But…Koishi? Are you sure that's a good idea?"

"I need someone that can stand in for Satori and keep her damned pets under control," Yukari responded. "The last thing we need happen is for there to be violence in the streets and a nuclear meltdown in the palace. Until I get the Satori back, I need a Satori to keep things in line. And as it so happens, Koishi is the only one capable of doing that."

"But she's-"

"What? Unstable? Unpredictable? Unreliable? Unable to read minds and therefore properly play the role? I know that. And if we had someone better, I'd gladly take it."

Byakuren didn't, but that didn't change the fact that she thought that this was an extremely bad idea. "Yukari, I don't know if-"

Yukari scowled. "Byakuren, I'm really not in the mood for this. I am well aware of the dangers and have prepared for them." She stood up and brushed the grass off her dress. "I'll be glad to go over the details with you later, but for now, I need to talk to Koishi."

Byakuren rose with her. "Not with those," she said, pointing to Yukari's bottles of alcohol. "You're not taking those into the temple."

"Wasn't planning on it." A gap opened parallel to the ground, and Yukari dropped the bottles inside. "And now that's done…" Closing her eyes, she pressed her fingers against her temples and concentrated. For a moment, nothing happened. Then her face spasmed. "Ah, that hurts," she moaned, opening her eyes. However, all trace of intoxication was gone.

The two youkai women walked toward the temple. As they passed through the courtyard, Yukari took note of the faces she saw. Kyouko was sweeping the paths as always, and Kiko was tending the garden. Neither of them was smiling, and for once Kyouko was completely silent. "A bit melancholy around here, isn't it?"

"Yes," Byakuren said simply. "They miss Nue and Mamizou."

"Ah. Well, I suppose that makes sense." Yukari frowned. "Ah, do they…know?"

"Yes."

"And what about…"

"Yes. I've told them everything."

"Well, good to hear," Yukari said. "Well, no, nothing's really good these days, but at least they're not…" She shook her head. "Oh, forget it."

Nothing more was said until they had entered the temple. But rather than take her to the living quarters, Byakuren first took her to an isolated storage room. As they entered, Yukari's eyebrows went up. "I don't believe for one moment that this is where you're keeping Koishi."

"It's not. So long as you're here, there's something else that we need to talk about."

Yukari grimaced. "Well, I know and dislike that tone. Go ahead."

After making sure that the door was closed tightly, Byakuren said, "When you listed off the other Ringleaders earlier, there was one you omitted."

Sighing, Yukari walked over to a barrel and sat down. "And that would be why."

"I know you're tired of hearing this-"

"Oh, so true."

"-but you know as well as I have that Mima hasn't changed. She hasn't regretted the things she's done, nor has she repented of her ways." Byakuren positioned herself directly in front of Yukari. "You were all set to execute Remilia Scarlet for one horrible mistake, but allow the Butcher of Syeon onto the council-"

Yukari massaged her forehead with her fingertips. "If Remilia Scarlet behaves and plays her cards right, she might get a seat of her own one day."

Byakuren didn't find the joke at all funny. "Yukari, you just got telling me how much you like and respect me. If that's true, then please do not brush me off with a smirk and a quip. You owe me that much."

There was a short silence, and then Yukari sighed. Well, this does seem to be my day for guilt trips. You're right, Byakuren. But then, you often are. I apologize, that was uncalled for."

"Thank you," Byakuren nodded. "But you still haven't answered my question."

Yukari looked as if she were regretting sobering up, but she didn't back away. "Well, despite what you may believe, I haven't forgotten what Mima is, or what she's done. As you know, there were countless times in which, had I the opportunity, I would have gladly rid the world of that snake." She looked up at Byakuren, her golden eyes resolute. "But that was then. These days, I am finding her far too useful to dispose of. That debacle at the Youkai Mountain was proof of this. After all, did she not protect, and in several cases rescue, both Reimu and Sanae Kochiya? Was she not the one who rallied everyone, Rin Satsuki included, and organized them in a successful counterattack against Yuuka? And did she not obtain vital information regarding Rin Satsuki's psyche that proved invaluable to your cause?"

"I am not questioning her skills or intelligence, nor am I denying the aid she has brought us," Byakuren responded. "I am questioning the wisdom of trusting someone who takes pride in her skills as a deceiver and betrayal."

Yukari nodded. "Okay. That's fair. She is a snake, after all. But fortunately for us, this snake has a collar, one she willingly slipped onto her own neck."

"Explain, please."

"Need I?" Yukari smiled. "It's Marisa Kirisame, after all."

Byakuren frowned.

"Surely you've seen it," Yukari continued. "Mima loves that girl, loves her like her own daughter." She snickered. "Hell, I'd say more than most mothers love their daughters, based on what I've seen of most mothers. It doesn't take any great perceptive skills to see how she dotes on the girl and delights in teaching her. I'll freely admit, when I first found out, I fully expected Marisa to be Madam Mima, the second generation."

"And?"

"And instead, I found an impulsive, rude, irreverent loudmouth, who openly takes after her mentor when it comes to lying and cannot be trusted with anything that is not bolted down and had its bolts melted." She shrugged. "Oh, the kleptomaniacal nuisance is an admittedly brilliant, there is no denying that. It's easy to see why Mima would want to teach her. And yet…" Here she sighed as if admitting some sort of defeat. "And yet despite her choice in parental figures, and despite the fact that I honestly do not much like her at all, I have to admit that Marisa is firmly one of the good guys. A bothersome one, yes, but the girl has a surprisingly healthy conscience, one that somehow not only survived her upbringing but managed to thrive. It's an enigma, there is no doubt."

Byakuren was incredulous. She actually liked Marisa quite a lot, despite once having the same reservations as Yukari. And she fully agreed with Yukari's assessment of the girl, but still found her logic to be quite suspect. "And you expect to control Madam Mima because her beloved apprentice has a good heart?"

"Bingo." Yukari gave her a thumb's up. "Because said apprentice also, despite all odds, managed to become best friends with none other than the Hakurei shrine maiden. And through them, Mima has also developed a strange affection for Reimu, which in turn leads to a certain level of protectiveness." Yukari shrugged, displaying bewilderment at the unpredictable nature of the universe. "She loves Marisa, and would do anything for her. She likes Reimu, and Marisa likes Reimu, so she finds it perfectly suitable to remain on friendly terms with the descendant of her former enemies. She hasn't turned over a new leaf, she simply finds that her current interests lie on our side."

Byakuren thought on this, and found that she still didn't buy it. "And because of this, you trust her?"

"I trust Mima to do what's best for Mima," Yukari answered. "I trust Mima to stand by Marisa. And I trust Marisa to stick with Reimu. So long as that balance remains in place, so will Mima."

"And yet you had Marisa arrested," Byakuren reminded her. "You forced her into your war."

Yukari nodded. "Yes. And I got Mima as part of the package, which ended up working out rather well." She sighed and stood up. "Look, Byakuren. I'm not telling you to like her. I'm not telling you to trust her. I do neither. But if I must suffer her being in my country, I much rather have her pointed at our enemies than the other way around."

"Perhaps, but Hakurei Shrine? Why give Mima Hakurei Shrine?"

Yukari smiled. "I did nothing of the sort."

"What?"

"I gave Mima to Hakurei Shrine, and therein lies the difference," she said pointedly. "And thus far, it's worked out rather well." She turned and headed for the door. "Now, come on. Let's speak to our mutual friend about family matters."

Like sands in an hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

Yeah, sort of soap-operay chapter. But hey, sometimes you gotta confront a problem before it's fixed. And there's a lot of problems that need confronting.

Anyways, birthday update! Turning 28 today, which is something I guess. So glad this one is done, mainly because it means no more deadlines until Christmas! I can sleep normally again! Woohoo!

Also note that I'm going to be tweaking Koishi's character a bit to make her more usable. So, chalk that one up to several months of Byakuren's influence since HM.

Until next time, everyone!