Alice stretched before returning her attention to the tome. Shanghai leaned over her shoulder, following her mental interest in the words. Being a puppeteer required more than just studying magical tomes. In order to be a performer one had to learn storytelling as well. Alice's skill in that field was... mediocre. Still she was passable at ad libbing, which meant that if she studied a story well she could use that as a basis for her own performances.
She was currently reading through a tale about a princess who escaped her captors before the various princes looking for her ever found the castle, and the various issues that sprang up from it. There were a few edits she already had in mind, specifically the princess' disposition and competence. But overall it was a good piece for a festival.
She sighed as a knock on her door interrupted her thoughts. Shanghai flailed in annoyance as she stood to deal with the intrusion. Who could be visiting her anyway? Marisa would have already walked inside. She waved her hand and a doll levitated over to open the door.
To her surprise a demon with flame red hair in a librarian's outfit was standing there. "Ah, sorry to interrupt you Lady Alice, but something's come up."
"Something stranger than you being out of the library without Patchouli?" Alice replied. Shanghai waved the little devil in, and Alice mimicked the gesture. "Well it must be important then. Come in. Do you want some tea?" Alice sent a few dolls out to the pot just in case.
Koakuma gingerly entered her house and sat on one of the couches. "Ah, tea might be nice, but I'm not sure how long we'll be staying. You see, there's a problem at Marisa's."
Alice raised an eyebrow at that. "What kind of problem?" she asked as Shanghai bobbed about in agitation.
Koakuma's head wings twitched. "Well, Miss Patchouli sent me to get back some books... So I decided to stake out Marisa's house and break in while she was out."
"A good plan," Alice stated. "So what's the problem? If you want me to act as a decoy I'm afraid I'll have to refuse."
"It's not that. Breaking in would be too easy." Koakuma frowned. "The problem is Marisa's been moping about during the day and drinking herself senseless at night for the last three days!"
"What?!" Alice bit her lip and stared down at the table. What could cause Marisa to mope like that? It wasn't romance, since Alice was... decently certain she knew who Marisa was interested in. No one in the village had died recently. And Marisa never let herself get this obsessed over spell research.
Shanghai's agitated pacing brought her back to reality. She looked up at Koakuma. "So you want me to help break Marisa out of her funk?"
Koakuma nodded, her wings drooping slightly. "Yes. I'm afraid I'm not the best person to cheer up Marisa when she's down. If she were her normal self I could help I think, but right now," Koakuma looked away, "she doesn't need me making her question her romantic inclinations."
Something in the little devil's tone caught Alice's attention. She looked closer at Koakuma, trying her best to read the tiny movements of the woman's true emotions. Finally the truth struck her.
Shanghai covered her little doll mouth as Alice stated "You like her, don't you."
Koakuma drooped some more. "Not the same way I like Miss Patchouli, but..."
Alice sighed. Devils were apparently complicated. "We'll have to have a talk later I see." Shanghai zoomed upward as she stood. "But first let's deal with a drunken witch."
Koakuma's recovery to her cheery self was remarkably fast. "Right! Please lead the way Lady Alice."
"Hmph. You're the one who asked me to go." Shanghai shook her head as Alice floated out the door. "Still, I guess I am the one who will be doing all the work. Come along then, and try not to interfere too much."
She flew along doing her best to ignore Koakuma singing "What do you do with a drunken witch girl," as they traveled. Though she had to admit the woman had a fine mastery of doggerel. It had to be all the books.
Marisa's house was, as always, a wreck. Strange metalwork, discarded items stolen from Kourindou and other assorted junk filled the girl's yard. The grass itself was poorly kept as well, with strange (and poisonous) mushrooms growing in the shade and odd vines wrapped all over.
Alice put aside her annoyance at how messy Marisa was and landed straight in front of the door. She considered being circuitous for a moment, then discarded the idea. Marisa could be subtle, but usually the direct route was best. She knocked on the door. "Marisa, it's me, Alice."
There was a rustling from inside followed by the dull clank of a bottle hitting the floor and a series of curses. Shanghai and Koakuma flinched as another dull clank indicated someone had kicked the bottle. "I'm busy. Go'home."
Alice felt her lip curling in disgust. What could have driven Marisa to such a sorry state? "Sorry Marisa, I'm here to beat you in a magician's duel and enslave you for a year and a day. Today the forest will be mine."
Koakuma's mouth dropped open. "What?! What are you saying?! That's not part of the plan!" Alice ignored the little devil. Her panic helped with verisimilitude after all.
There was another curse from inside and the clattering crash of a table being violently swept clean. There was another clunk as a bottle was kicked again, then several stomping footsteps before the door was flung open and Marisa pointed a hakkero right in Alice's face. "I told ya to get lost."
Alice's eyes flew open at Marisa's appearance. The witch was disheveled and reeked of far more than three days worth of boozing. Dark rings encircled her narrowed golden eyes, and her hair was matted and ratty. She'd been sleeping in her outfit as well, given the creases, smudges, and missing hat.
And to further Alice's surprise there was an aura of power around the black white witch that Alice hadn't expected to feel for some time.
Shanghai bobbed forward as Alice stared. "You've become a magician."
"What?" Koakuma's voice helped pull Alice back to reality. "You're a magician now, Marisa?" The little devil moved up next to Alice, ignoring the danger posed by Marisa's hakkero. "Why didn't you tell us? This is impressive!"
Marisa's eyes and arm dropped at Koakuma's praise. "Yeah. I'm a youkai now." She turned and kicked a basket full of umbrellas over. "The worst magician in Gensoukyo!" she spat as Alice flinched. "Can't even cast my own spells right!"
Alice could only stare in shock as Marisa carelessly threw her hakkero to the side and stomped back to her table, pausing only to grab a bottle from a shelf on the way. "So whatever. Do your damned magician's contest or whatever then go away. I want to be alone."
"Marisa..." Koakuma looked at the newly born magician with sympathy in her eyes. Alice understood the little devil's feelings. Something had gone very wrong to get Marisa this out of sorts. On the other hand, Alice was also angry at how blasé Marisa was being about something she'd worked damn hard to accomplish.
Shanghai straightened up as Alice decided on her course of action. First things first. She needed to get past Marisa's refusal to admit her problems to find out what was actually going on. And the best way to handle that was to put Marisa off balance.
She marched up to one of the other chairs, righted it, then sat down. "Very well then. I challenge you to an endurance contest. Whoever can withstand Koakuma's back rub the longest wins."
"What?" The two other women stared at her incredulously. After a few moments Marisa started rubbing her eyes to check that she was still awake. Koakuma on the other hand started smiling wider and wider. "You're joking, right?" Marisa muttered incredulously.
"Nope," Alice replied. She waved Koakuma forward. "You go first Marisa."
Marisa just stared at Alice stupidly as Koakuma skipped over behind her. She finally snapped out of her stupor as the little devil rested her hand on her shoulders. "Wait! What are you- But I thought-"
"Now now Marisa, this is a formal challenge," Koakuma cooed. Marisa sat bolt upright as the succubus started massaging her shoulders while pressing against her back. "But don't worry," Koakuma said in a false conspiratorial whisper. "I'll take it easy on you."
Marisa sat there mouthing words soundlessly as Koakuma went to work on her. Alice did her best to pretend to be uninterested in the proceedings, though the fact that Shanghai was fuming next to the wall probably belied her calm a bit. Finally Marisa sighed and relaxed a little. "You just set this up to try to get me to talk didn't you?"
Alice took a deep breath. "Yeah," she admitted. "It was the only way I could think of that would work on someone as hard headed as you."
Marisa grunted, then gasped as Koakuma somehow made her shoulders pop. "Yeah, that figures." She sighed and sat there for a few moments with her eyes closed.
"The immortality potion wasn't supposed to make me a magician youkai," Marisa finally said.
"Huh?" Alice blinked at Marisa's statement. "It wasn't supposed to make you a youkai?" Shanghai started hovering forward as the full meaning of Marisa's words hit her. "You mean you turned yourself into a youkai by accident?!"
"Ha! That's right!" Koakuma hopped back as Marisa slammed the table, then slouched forward. "I created a potion that absolutely, positively, one hundred percent could not turn a human into a youkai. And here I am! A fucking youkai magician!" Marisa slapped the half full sake bottle to the floor then buried her face in her arms.
Alice ground her teeth while sending one of her dolls to right the bottle. How dare Marisa just brush off the effort it took to become a magician. How could she...
She shook her head and forced herself to take deep breaths. Obviously there was something else at play. She did her best to calm herself. Fortunately Koakuma had gone back to giving Marisa a back rub, so the other magician wouldn't notice Alice's annoyance.
When she'd gathered some control over her temper she asked carefully, "Why didn't you want to become a youkai magician? Isn't that the normal result of an immortality technique using magic?"
Marisa snorted. "You wouldn't understand. You're from Makai. Humanity doesn't mean much there. Here..." Marisa managed to push herself somewhat upright with Koakuma's help. "Here it's different. Now I'm on the other team. Forever. Even if I solve an incident I can only make things worse."
"Ah..." Shanghai sat down on Alice's shoulder as she thought. Marisa did have a point. She didn't completely understand the details here in Gensoukyo. And she didn't think much about what it meant to be human one way or another. She was Alice, raised by the demon goddess Shinki. The concept of "humanity" didn't mean much there.
After a while she decided to return to facts. "So, you created an immortality potion in order to become immortal without ending up as a magician, lich or hermit. And after taking it you ended up as a magician." Alice frowned. "That seems wildly improbable. Especially since you're so good with potions. Perhaps you ran afoul of some magical law that isn't in the literature?"
"I shouldn't have," Marisa muttered. "I made extra sure the potion was inimical to youkai power. Hell the damn thing should have killed me when I became a youkai. There were three different allergens in there."
Alice sighed. "I see..." She turned her attention to the table for a while, trying to think of what to do. She couldn't understand this. Koakuma couldn't understand it. She had a feeling talking to Reimu was out of the question. So who could they turn to?
"You don't need to keep twisting my shoulders Koa," Marisa muttered.
Shnaghai took to the air. That was the solution. "Marisa, go get cleaned up. We have someone to meet."
Marisa glared over at her. "I don't recall saying I wanted to go anywhere."
Alice rolled her eyes. "Think for a moment. You want answers to two questions. Why did your potion fail, and how to be a human that isn't fully human." Alice tapped on the table. "And the obvious people to answer those questions are Patchouli and Sakuya."
Marisa blinked a few times. Then nodded. Alice was pleased to see a spark returning to those golden eyes. "Sakuya. Yeah, she'd understand." Marisa sighed then slowly stood as Koakuma stepped back. "I guess I'll have to take a bath." She sighed again, then slowly walked over and picked up her hakkero. "Oh, and if you peek Koa, I'll blast you." She walked out towards her bathroom.
"Don't worry Marisa," Koakuma called after her.
Alice closed her eyes as Marisa entered the bathroom. "Well, we're getting somewhere."
"Yes. That was very clever Lady Alice. I'm glad you came to help." Alice started as a softness pressed into her back. Then two hands fell on her shoulders. "Still, I'm afraid I'm still favoring Marisa in the contest."
"That was a joke and you know it," Alice sputtered in protest.
"You said it was an official challenge~" Koakuma replied. Alice's retort was cut off as Koakuma somehow managed to make both shoulders and her breastbone pop. "And besides, as a succubus my pride demands I prove that I did go easy on Marisa..."
Alice sighed as her spine seemed to lose its strength. "Alright alright you win."
Koakuma giggle. "Actually I believe Marisa wins." Alice shuddered as Koakuma breathed into her ear. "Servitude for a year and a day was it?"
Shanghai whapped the little demon upside the head. "Don't you dare," Alice muttered.
"Aww..." Koakuma pouted, then she smiled. "Well then I guess I could take Marisa for that time."
Alice slowly pushed herself upright. "Drop the matter and I'll help you surprise Patchouli."
Koakuma thought for a moment, "Alright, it's a deal. Three for one is best anyway~"
Alice's retort was cut off by Marisa exiting her bathroom. "Let's go before I think of a way out of this," the witch muttered.
Alice groaned and stood. "Yes. Let's get out of here."
As their little group walked through the shelves in silence Alice once again noted how Voile was very obviously Patchouli's space, not Remilia's.
The most obvious indicator was the bookshelves themselves. Remilia would have compromised ease of use with aesthetics on some level. Patchouli just had Koakuma put the books into the correct shelf with no concern as to whether it stuck out past its fellows or was half the size of it's neighbors.
The furniture was another strong indicator. While everything was of similar make to Remilia's, it was all scattered and oddly placed here in the library. Sakuya probably had given up at some point. Chairs were placed as bookstops, tables were overturned to create makeshift pens, and several of the ubiquitous flower lamps had been reconfigured to stands for magical artifacts.
Finally they arrived where Patchouli was working. Shanghai and Koakuma both waved, while Alice nodded politely. Marisa on the other hand did her best to disappear. Alice moved behind the woman so she couldn't run away as easily. She was just glad they'd gotten to Marisa before she'd gotten seriously drunk.
"I'm back Miss Patchouli!" Koakuma chirped.
Patchouli gave the group one of her long stares that would look so much better with glasses. "I asked you to bring back the stolen books, not the thief responsible, Koakuma. Though since Alice is here I..." Patchouli suddenly started then stared directly at Marisa. Alice put her hand lightly on the witch's shoulder to keep her from backing up more.
Despite how serious the matter was, seeing Patchouli totally and utterly dumbstruck was one of Alice's secret pleasures. The way realization slowly dawned across the elder magician's face was somehow priceless. It started out as simple suspicion, turned to inspection, then shock, curiosity and bitter annoyance before finally settling on pure disbelief. "You. How did you do it?!" Patchouli choked out.
Marisa flinched at the question. "I don't know. I fucked up somehow."
Patchouli started to tremble. "You. You. You. You completed both magician rituals? By accident?!"
Patchouli started rapidly whispering and a magic symbol formed around her feet. Marisa yelped and ducked under a nearby table, while Koakuma teleported away. Alice simply snarled and flicked her wrist to drop one of her suicide dolls on Patchouli's arm. "You can kill her later! Right now I want to find out what's going on."
A fit of coughing seized Patchouli and the magical runes faded. Marisa poked her head out as the elder wizard sat down. "Fine," Patchy muttered. "I suppose this is something that needs study, no matter how much it insults me."
"Wait a second Patchy," Marisa said as she moved back up next to Alice. "You said I completed both rituals? Shashoku and Shachuu?"
"Yes." Patchouli replied sharply. "Something that should be impossible."
"Yeah well I should be dead too," Marisa muttered as she pulled out some papers and tossed them on the table. Alice could help but lean forward as Patchouli moved to get a look at them. "My notes. I used all the ingredients as written."
The three all crowded around the table, previous threats forgotten as they poured over the papers. Alice had to admit Marisa's mastery of potion craft was impressive. It was vastly better than hers, and judging by the way Patchouli was occasionally referencing another book, it was probably better than Patchouli's as well. Alice had always suspected Patchouli was an alchemist who worked better with non organic compounds.
Still the basics were easy enough even for Alice to figure out. "You're right, Marisa. That much hemlock would kill a human, and sakaki berries are deadly to us youkai. I have no idea how you're still breathing."
"But I'm not dead," Marisa pointed out.
"I can fix that if you want," Patchouli muttered.
"Ah, it seems matters weren't as bad as you suggested, Koakuma."
The trio looked up to see Sakuya floating down, with the little devil behind her. The maid had a serving tray with a pot of tea held in one hand, while she idly flipped a knife in the other. "I brought tea if you aren't actually planning on killing each other right now. It was also suggested I might wish to stick around for the conversation?"
Alice and Shanghai both turned to look at Marisa, the doll folding her arms as she did. Marisa looked away and pursed her lips. Alice wondered if Marisa had finally realized how insulting complaining about being a youkai was to a bunch of youkai, or if she was still just angry about her weakness.
Sakuya just put down the tray and poured the tea silently. She was an expert in waiting people out, much better than Yumeko. Of course their masters were quite different as well, Alice reflected.
Finally Marisa sighed and hung her head. "So yeah. I wanted to chat with you Sakuya."
Sakuya blinked at that. "Well I suppose I could take a short break. Please feel free to speak what's on your mind."
"Well..." Marisa looked over to Alice and Patchouli before quickly looking away. "Mind if we walk and talk a bit?"
Sakuya nodded. "Of course not." She bowed to Patchouli. "With your leave?" Patchouli waved the two away before turning back to Marisa's notes. Alice gave the two a polite nod as they wandered off.
As soon as Marisa rounded the corner Koakuma pulled out another book. "Ah. I brought you the encyclopedia of eastern potion making as well Miss Patchouli. I figured you might want it around now."
Patchouli gave a sigh of relief. "Thank you Koakuma. I have no idea why the hydrangeas had to be blue, but Marisa was specific about it."
Shanghai hid a grin while Alice raised an eyebrow. "So you admit she's better than you at potions?"
Patchouli grunted. "And other item enchantments. I knew I should have studied those more, but it was so time consuming and alchemy seemed like a better use of my resources."
"The perils of being a magician without a specialty." Alice replied.
Patchouli flipped the book open harshly. "It would be easier to accept if her magical studies weren't all over the place. I'd never met someone so deserving of the term hedge magician before. It stings my pride, even if Marisa is a master at it."
Alice smiled. "Well perhaps you could use some stress reduction." She quickly dropped a silence rune on the elder magician. "Koakuma maybe a backrub will help your mistress."
Patchouli's eye's opened wide, but Koakuma was already in motion. "A fine idea~! Now don't worry Miss Patchouli. I promise you I won't use my full power."
It took Patchouli half a second to dispel the rune preventing the magician from ordering Koakuma to stop. By then of course Koakuma already had her hands on Patchouli's shoulders and chest against the magician's back. "Koakuma that's no- ah!"
Alice sat down and tried not to look too smug at Patchouli's expression as she melted into the table. "I really must get you to teach me how to do that someday, Koakuma."
Marisa walked silently along Sakuya. Every now and then she found herself glancing over at the maid. She knew what she wanted to say, but how could she put her feelings into words?
Finally Sakuya stopped walking and turned to look directly at her. Marisa couldn't help but flinch away from the older woman's gaze. "I see. So you became a magician." Sakuya said. "I thought I was just sensing one of Patchouli's experiments, but I guess I was wrong."
"For a dabbler you're pretty good." Marisa couldn't bring herself to look at Sakuya's eyes to see the maid's emotions. "It's... well... I didn't want to become a magician. The potion was supposed to make me immortal, but not a magician."
"Hm?" Sakuya's sound of surprise helped banish some of the butterflies in Marisa's stomach. She looked over to see Sakuya tapping her knife belt and looking up in contemplation. "That seems strange, but I suppose stranger things have happened."
The maid's eyes opened wide for a bit, then she looked back at Marisa in sympathy. "Ah I see. You understood what it meant to be human. That's why you were trying to avoid becoming a youkai."
Marisa let out a long sigh and sank down next to one of the shelves. "Human? I dunno. But, well, I wanted to give other people who were weak a goal to aim for." Sakuya sat down next to her as she continued. "When I was a kid, when I was with Mima or even just when I was flying around on my own I never realized how big a deal it was. I mean, here I was, a kid with a little more magic power than average, and I was flying around Gensoukyo beating up master youkai right alongside the Hakurei maiden."
Marisa stared up at the crimson ceiling. "I think it was Byakuren who finally made me figure it out. When she told me youkai were oppressed, I thought of all the humans who spent
their lives completely at the mercy of youkai. Sure it's not a big a deal if you've got the special magic bloodline or you're a god, but to those of us who have to train for years to be able to fight and survive it means a lot!"
"I imagine people with the ability to master time would fall into the 'not that big a deal category," Sakuya stated.
Marisa winced. She accepted the maid's cold stare with her own eyes. "Sorry Sakuya. I didn't mean to hit that.".
She sighed. "That's actually why I wanted to talk to you before Reimu." She matched her gold eyes to Sakuya's blue ones. "You know what it means to lose part of your humanity against your will."
Sakuya nodded, then closed her eyes. "Yes... I do know that." The maid's eyes flickered open again. "But I'm afraid Marisa my advice won't help you much. Because the humanity I lost was the one part you were going to throw away. I don't hate you for it, but you must understand, a human who doesn't die naturally is barely a human at all."
"Well, you're still a human," Marisa protested. "You just work for a devil. That's why the villagers can't relate."
"It's much more than that, Marisa," Sakuya replied. "Mokou is human. Keine is half human. Even Meiling was once human. In fact she said at one point that any children she has will naturally be human as well."
Marisa blinked at that. "Really? Meiling? Isn't she older than China itself?"
"Not quite. But she knew the immortals who left to become the first Lunarians," Sakuya stated with a smile. "Still, you can see how time changes someone. As the centuries pass it's impossible to not become distant from humanity."
Marisa let her head flop back against the shelves. "So you're saying I was pursuing something impossible to begin with."
"I'm afraid so."
Marisa groaned. It figured. She never should have trusted a youkai's word on the matter. Even if that youkai was Yukari. Then again it was nice knowing the youkai sage could be so uninformed on humans.
She drummed her fingers on the floor. "I still would have liked to stay a human. Now it looks like I switched teams because humans aren't good enough."
Sakuya nodded, then leaned back herself. "To be honest, I'm one of the few humans who would think like that. I'm afraid that within a century no one will remember you as a human Marisa."
Marisa turned to face the maid as Sakuya put her hand on her shoulder. "However you can still make a difference if you want. Weren't you trained by a youkai yourself? One with hatred for humans no less. Why not take that role up?"
"That's boring nonsense. Where's the fun if you can't blow people up yourself?" Marisa muttered.
Sakuya laughed. "Ah that's our Marisa." The maid stood and dusted herself off. "Well, you'll have plenty of time to figure out where you stand in Gensoukyo now. If it's a big deal for now, remember, you can just lie. Reimu's the only other human you spend time with who will notice."
Marisa pulled herself up as well. "I'm not looking forward to that either," she said.
"Hm, I think you should worry more about Patchouli killing you in a fit of jealousy," Sakuya replied with a grin. "She takes pride in her magical abilities, and she hates being shown up by 'a country witch' as she so delicately puts it. She had enough trouble coming to terms with my ability."
"Huh. I figured she'd be laughing at me." Marisa dusted off her hat. "At least there's some silver lining to this cloud. I should get back and annoy Patchy more."