Komachi cracked her eyes open and found herself face to face with a fearsome red oni.
There was a pause as Komachi's still groggy mind tried to process what was going on.
Why was there an oni on this side of the river? Where had it come from? Why was it glowering at her? Why did its voice sound like Eiki's? And, come to think of it, why was it dressed like her, too?
She squinted and decided the face hovering above her did actually belong to Eiki, even if it was beetroot red and giving her the evil eye.
"Oh, it's just you, Lady Eiki. For a moment I thought..."
From the way Eiki inhaled through her nose at her words Komachi realised that she might have actually preferred an angry oni. She scrambled on her feet.
"I can explain! I strained my arm and was just taking a teensy-tiny break to recuperate so I could work even harder after-"
Eiki's face started turning purple, hinting at the possibility Operation Cunning Deception had turned out as Operation Lameass Excuse. Komachi swallowed.
"How many times do I have to tell you, Komachi," Eiki said through gritted teeth. "After all these years, do you honestly think I can't tell when you're lying based on your mannerisms? Moreover," she clenched the Rod of Remorse in her hand so tightly Komachi half expected it to snap like a twig. "This is the second time I've caught you napping within the last two hours. This is absolutely inexcusable! You're a disgrace, Komachi!"
Komachi winced and slammed her forehead to the ground. "I'm so sorry! Please forgive me!"
"And to lie on top of that...have you no moral fibre? Are you truly this eager to be sentenced to Hell the day you have to face your judgement?"
Komachi summoned a meek smile. It wasn't going to help, but she couldn't help herself. "I had to try, didn't I?"
"Indeed? Perhaps you might also be willing to try something else, Komachi?"
Komachi swallowed. "Such as?"
"SUCH AS DOING YOUR JOB FOR ONCE!"
Komachi sighed and kicked a pebble as she trod up an old path towards Youkai Mountain. The path was hardly ever used, both due the dangers of the mountain and the ubiquity of flight, and it showed: tufts of grass sprung from the rugged ground beneath her feet, and the sides of the road were covered in overgrown shrubs and weeds.
It was her day off, usually an excuse to kick back and go wild, but she didn't have any drive to do so today.
So, she slacked off a lot. So, she didn't work as fast as Eiki wanted. She probably deserved some of the scoldings and hits on the head she was used to getting. But lately...
Komachi sighed again. Lately, it had been all yelling, all the time. In fact, she hadn't seen Eiki without a scowl on her face for weeks. Had she really been working that poorly? What had she done to earn so much ire? It just didn't seem fair.
She came by a wide river streaming towards where she was coming from. A distant waterfall roared from somewhere beyond the horizon. She paused to look at the river, a smile appearing on her lips. The river was so different from the one she saw everyday: Sanzu was quiet and practically motionless, always covered in unmoving fog; colourless save for the flowers growing on both shores. This river, by contrast, was teeming with life: the water flowed by her like it was in a hurry, and tiny silvery fishes swam downstream with the flow.
She considered taking off her shoes and splashing her feet around in the stream for a bit when she spotted a tiny cloud of purple mist floating just beside her.
She leaned in to take a closer look and, when that revealed nothing, stuck her hand into it. As soon as her fingers came in contact with the mist, a shiver ran down her spine like someone had just poured icy water on her back. She quickly withdrew her hand, her skin in goosebumps.
Just then, she heard a crack from above, and as she looked up, a branch from a tree next to her fell down, hitting her squarely on her forehead.
"Ow!" She winced, squeezing her eyes shut and raising her had to her forehead as it began to throb. When the pain started to abate a few moments later, she opened her eyes to spot another cloud of mist a few feet from the first one, and another one even further away. She followed them, eager to find out who was behind them. Hopefully some mischievous youkai she could challenge to a stress-relieving danmaku match?
Soon she came across an enormous, ancient-looking tree growing by the river, its massive roots each thicker than her waist. She frowned. Behind the trunk, partially obscured by the shadows of the countless leaves was a huge cloud of the mist. She walked into the tree's cool shade and next to the trunk. She could hear shallow breathing coming from behind the tree as she approached.
She grinned. Found ya.
"Oh yeah, this looks like a perfect place for a nap," she said loudly enough to make sure she would be heard over the rushing river. "That mist looks kind of weird though. I wonder where it's coming from?"
Silence, save for the sound of someone holding their breath.
"I do wonder what it is," Komachi continued. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like it before."
"Don't touch it!" a high-pitched, panicked voice called out. "It's bad for you!"
Komachi raised her eyebrows, grinning. "And who says so? Care to show yourself?"
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, a short young woman stepped from behind the trunk. She was wearing an excessively frilly dress and the bulk of her long green hair was tied up securely beneath her chin with a ribbon. She was looking down at her lace-up boots and her hands were crossed. Komachi thought her face looked vaguely familiar, but that was it.
"You're the one making these clouds?" she asked, and received a nod as an answer. "I'm Komachi Onozuka, ferryman of the Sanzu river. You are...?"
"Hina Kagiyama, Curse Doll of Misfortune," said the young lady, finally raising her gaze. "I don't think you should be standing that close to me."
"Huh? Something wrong? Do I smell or something?" Komachi took a whiff at her armpits. They seemed fine to her.
Hina blushed. "No, nothing of the sort. It's me, you see. Approaching me is dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Komachi's eyebrows flared up. She had pegged Hina as something of a weakling, but now that she mentioned it...there was something unsavoury about her, like a dark aura of some sort.
"I...I'm a curse goddess. Misfortune follows me wherever I go, and it keeps overflowing and spreading into other people. It has caused some horrible accidents in the past, and I'd rather not risk your health..."
Komachi grinned. "Is that the problem? Don't worry about me, I'm a shinigami. I'm sure I'll be fine." She had plenty of misfortune already, a little more wouldn't make much of a difference.
Hina didn't look entirely convinced. "I don't think..."
"So," Komachi interrupted, pointing at the purple mist surrounding Hina. "Is that mistfortune or something?"
The corners of Hina's mouth twitched and she did a little spin. "It is. I try to contain as much of it as I can, but there's so much of it I can't help but let some of it spill. And there's always more misfortune to gather."
Komachi nodded. Just like there were always more souls to ferry over. "I know the feeling. Tiresome, right?"
"Well, sometimes." Hina did another spin, then another one. "but I do enjoy doing my share in making people feel better."
"Aren't you a sweet one?" Komachi laughed. She sat down with her back against the tree trunk, leaving her scythe lying next to her and raising her hands above her head. She had only talked about taking a nap to get a reaction out of Hina, but the more she thought about it, the better it sounded. Hina remained where she was, watching her carefully and occasionally doing a spin or two.
"Do you come here often?" Komachi asked after a long silence.
Hina nodded. "Yes, every once in a while." She paused. "Actually, I've seen you come here before. And I've seen you at Muenzuka, too."
"Uh huh." Komachi closed her eyes. The air was so warm and comforting, and being in the shade felt great. Would it be too rude if she dozed off? She could really use a nap. Besides, the longer she stayed away from Higan, the longer it would be until she would have to see Eiki again...but of course, if she slept for too long and ended up being late...
She opened her eyes to see Hina looking at her intently, her head tilted to the side.
"You seem...troubled," she said at length.
Komachi let out a low chuckle and raised her face towards the cloudy sky that could be seen from the cracks between leaves. "What, is it that obvious? Does it show on my face or what?"
Hina shook her head. "No, but I'm picking some misfortune coming from you." She paused for a moment before continuing more hesitantly: "Did you have a fight with a loved one?"
"My boss, actually. Well, boss and friend." At least I thought so, Komachi added bitterly in her mind.
Hina nodded. "That would explain it. This kind of misfortune would be strange coming from work problems alone."
"Huh," said Komachi. "And here I thought all bad luck was the same."
"Oh, there are hundreds of different kinds of misfortune. They all look quite similar when they manifest physically, however."
The pause that followed was a long one. Then Hina, leaning forward, her hands neatly crossed on her lap, broke it by asking: "If you think talking about it would make you feel better, I can lend you an ear."
Komachi was just about to shake her head, the words of declination already on her lips, when she actually paused and thought about the proposition. Why not, really? The situation with Eiki did bother her, after all, and Hina seemed trustworthy enough. She might as well talk about it. At least she'd get to blow off some steam.
So, she recounted her current woes to Hina, sparing no detail. Hina proved out to be an excellent listener, focusing intently and exclaiming and nodding at all the right places. Komachi was starting to feel at home, like she was retelling some amusing anecdote over at the pub to an appreciating audience.
"Worst of all," she concluded, waving her arms wildly, lost in storytelling, "she won't even give me the time of the day if she's not busy yelling at me. And when I tried asking her if I'd done something to piss her off, she just mentioned my latest transgression and started a whole new tirade about it." She shook her head. "I really don't know what to do."
"Are you sure you're the one at fault?"
"Probably. I'm almost always the one to blame in the end. Thing is, if I did screw up, I have no idea what it is that could have gotten her so mad at me!"
Hina looked thoughtful. "You really don't know?"
"Nope. I mean, I know why I usually piss her off: she thinks I'm a slacker. But it's not like I've been any more lazy lately than usual. So if it's me, I must have done something else to offend her, but how am I going to make amends if I don't even know what it was?"
Hina thought about it for a while, her brow furrowed in thought. Then, her countenance brightened, and she slapped her hands together. "I have an idea!"
"Oh?" Komachi raised her eyebrows. "Do share."
Hina smiled shyly and raised her index finger. "I believe there's a way you can make amends without having to know what you did wrong. You just have to act in a certain way." She stood up and dusted off her dress. "Follow me."
She began traipsing down the riverside. Komachi followed languidly behind her. Hina moved surprisingly fast considering that she was twirling around the entire time, but she could keep up just fine.
They had only walked for a few minutes when Hina slowed down and dived into a vibrant green bush by the river. She soon re-emerged, holding something colourful and shiny and her hand.
"Here!" she said triumphantly.
"What's that?" Komachi asked, peering curiously at the flat object. It looked kind of like a strange scroll. "How did you know it was there?"
Hina smiled apologetically and shook some leaves off her hair. "I have the habit of stashing my belongings in several separate places. Anyway, I found this thing lying by the road a couple of months ago," Hina raised the object higher. Komachi could now see it was some sort of newspaper or magazine, with a picture of a smiling woman with perfect pearly teeth and blemishless skin, as well as wearing ridiculous clothes on the cover. "It's probably from the outside world. Anyway, I believe this has just the thing you need!"
She sat on the ground and started flipping through the pages. Komachi made her way to behind her and kneeled down to read over her shoulder. More colourful images passed by, along with loud article titles. Most of them passed by with a blur, but she managed to catch a few of them: "New, revolutionary juice diet: shave off twenty years of your age!" "Throbbing Hearts and Stablelads, Part 4/8", and "Newest spring fashions: shoulder pads are in again" Komachi read the titles in wonder and mild curiosity.
Finally, Hina found the article that she had been looking for and placed her finger on it triumphantly. Komachi leaned in closer.
"Lockpicks for Hearts' Doors: 11 Tips for Making Your Sweetheart Soft Putty in Your Hands,"she read out loud. She gave Hina a skeptical look. "No offence, but I'm not entirely sure that is going to suit my situation. First of all-"
Hina waved her silent, most of her earlier shyness and awkwardness swept away by her excitement.
"I know it's not perfect, but we can adapt it! The advice itself sounds really good, and I'm sure it'll help." Her eyes sparkled. Komachi had seen that look before, several times. It was the look of a person who loved helping others doing just that. So, she swallowed her protests and decided to indulge Hina, regardless of her doubts. It couldn't really hurt, after all.
Hina saw the slight smile that crept on her face and beamed back. She turned back to the paper and began to visibly hesitate.
"Well, I'll admit, maybe some of these are kind of odd," she said meekly. "Like this one: 'Call him often.' Exactly what does that mean?"
Komachi shrugged. "Maybe it means I should holler her over whenever I feel like it. No way that could ever work. She'd deck me after the first few times, and I can't exactly blame her."
Hina nodded gravely, then perked up . "How about this one: 'surprise him with a home-cooked meal.'"
Komachi couldn't help but laugh. "I couldn't cook even if my life depended on in. There isn't much time to learn stuff like that while working for the Ministry of Right and Wrong. Besides, it's bad enough trying to coax her into coming to drink with me. I doubt I could make her stay for an entire dinner."
Hina frowned. "I'm sorry, I forgot to take that into account."
"No problem. Is there anything else that might help me out?"
Hina read the magazine more carefully before finally nodding. "Yes, I think some of these would work. Wait just a moment." She dived back into the bush and returned soon with writing utensils. Komachi looked on as she began writing. She paused several times to think furiously, then returned to the paper with a surge of ferocious energy.
"Here you go," she eventually said, handing over a short list to Komachi while wiping her fringe from her eyes. "I had to adapt the advice quite a bit, but this version should have quite the positive effect.
Komachi read through the list. It was only five items long and bore little resemblance to the original. Still...
"Yeah," she said, her eyes still on the note, "yeah, this sounds alright. I think doing these might make her forgive me for whatever. I'll give it a shot." She looked up and offered Hina her brightest smile. "Thank you."
Hina nodded and smiled. However, she seemed oddly deflated compared to her enthusiasm mere moments ago. "Come tell me how it worked out, okay? I mean, if it's not too much of a problem..."
They parted ways, Hina spinning towards the waterfall and Komachi heading back towards Higan, the note safely tucked under her belt. She decided to get to it as soon as possible, going through the list one by one. She wasn't entirely sure the actions described would be enough to melt Eiki's heart, but it was better than nothing.
1. Listen to her; hang onto her every word.
"Komachi, I simply cannot accept this sort of behaviour from you, especially not now. How many times do I have to repeat that you simply cannot disappear into Gensokyo for hours on end during your shift? Have you no work morale? You are doing a great disservice not only to the Ministry, but to yourself, as well! Wanton idleness encourages evil thoughts, and you, who have been entrusted with such an important task..."
Eiki paused her lecture and opened her eyes, no doubt expecting to find Komachi snoozing off as she usually was at this point of the lecture. The surprised expression on her face when she saw that Komachi had her gaze firmly fixed in front of herself, all ears, was a joy to behold.
"Komachi? You're awake?"
"Y-yes, Lady Eiki."
"And you're listening?"
"Yes, Lady Eiki. You wanted me to listen, so I decided that whatever you have to say must be important. So, I listened."
Komachi dared to peek up for a second. Eiki looked utterly befuddled. Then, she nodded seriously.
"I am glad you understand that," she said a lot less crossly. "In that case, I shall take the opportunity to teach you about as many things as time allows that you can do to improve yourself."
Komachi winced as Eiki continued her lecture, knowing it would be a struggle to stay awake until the end. Even if it was meant for her own good, having to hear about one's own faults at length was never pleasant. Still, she hadn't gotten a whack on the head with the Rod of Remorse yet, a marked improvement to the status quo. And so, she let the never-ending stream of Eiki's words wash over her, forcing her eyes to remain open.
2. Respect her wishes.
"Komachi, about your report for yesterday's work-" Eiki's words died on her lips and she very nearly dropped the scroll she was carrying. "Komachi, what on earth-"
"Hmm? What is it, Lady Eiki?" Komachi jumped onto the riverbank from her boat and turned around to pull it further in to the riverbank.
Eiki was still gaping, but now turned to stare at Komachi in turn. "You know what I mean. Where did all these ghosts come from?"
"These guys?" Komachi leaned against her oar and looked at the Titanic. It was filled from side to side with ghosts, piled on top of each other to make a huge mountain of them. "They're my backlog. They were all waiting at the other side, and I've neglected them for a while now, so I figured I'd take as many of them with me at once as possible. Guiding the ferry with a load like that aboard sure helps to bring out the sweat, if you don't mind me saying that." Eiki was still staring at her, like she had gone mad. "Are you alright, Lady Eiki? You seem a bit dazed."
Eiki finally seemed to come to her senses. "I'm fine, Komachi. I'm just a little surprised. I wouldn't have expected this," she waved her Rod of Remorse at the boat, "from you."
"Doesn't it please you? You told me yesterday that you wished me to work more actively, Lady Eiki."
Eiki gave her a suspicious look, but the corners of her mouth twitched. "Yes, I am quite pleased. I'm glad to see you're finally taking your work more seriously."
Komachi grinned. "Glad to hear that. I'll just boot these guys out and go get the ones whose crossings are supposed to be longer next."
"Well done. Carry on." Eiki left without another word, walking haltingly like in a daze. Komachi's smile stayed on her face as she returned to work.
3. Compliment her when applicable.
"Here's today's report, Lady Eiki."
"Thank you, Komachi." Eiki took the report and placed it on her desk before returning back to work. Komachi nodded and was just about to leave when she remembered the list.
"You're going to stay behind, Lady Eiki? I thought your shift ended at the same time as mine today."
"It does, but I have some work still remaining I won't have time for tomorrow, and I'd rather get it out of the way now," Eiki replied without averting her eyes from the scroll in front of her, moving only to brush a stubborn lock of hair out of her eyes. "Do go ahead without me. Your performance today has been exemplary, and you have more than earned your free time."
"Thanks." Komachi shuffled around in place for a moment before coming up with a suitable thing to say: "If you don't mind me saying this, Lady Eiki, your diligence is really impressive. I truly admire it in you."
"I'm simply doing the same that anyone else in my position would do," Eiki replied, her tone as even as ever and her eyes fixed on the scroll. Damn, she didn't get it.
"I say, Lady Eiki," Komachi pushed on, "did you get your hair cut recently or something?"
Eiki frowned. "No, nothing of the sort. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, nothing. I just thought it was looking really good today."
Eiki's frown deepened and she gave her a blank stare before setting the scroll aside and crossing her hands. "Alright, Komachi, is there something you wish to tell me? Have you done something you shouldn't have? You ought to know by now that flattery isn't going to get you anywhere when you ought to be doing good deeds instead."
Komachi felt sweat gathering on her forehead. What kind of a reaction was that to a compliment? Then again, she realised, it wasn't like Eiki was usually complimented by anyone who wasn't desperately trying to appeal to her to receive a lighter judgement. "No, no, I haven't done anything!" she said hastily. "I just thought that it looked really nice and wanted to say so."
This statement was followed by a long, scrutinising stare from Eiki. Komachi gulped, but stood firmly in place. There's was no reason to worry. After all, she did in fact think her hair looked nice today.
"Well, you appear to be telling the truth," said Eiki at length. She took one of the longer strands of her asymmetrical hair into her hand and looked at it, before casting another questioning glance at Komachi. "Komachi, is there something else going on? The way you've acted for the past few days has been very...unusual."
"Is it a bad kind of unusual?"
"No, not by a long stretch. In fact, I've been quite pleased by your recent diligence. It is simply that I don't understand what triggered this marked change. Is there something you're not telling me?"
"Eh..." Komachi began to sweat. "Um...oh, right! Lady Eiki, I've taken way too much of your time already. I really should leave you to it." She made her way to the door.
"Komachi..." Was it just her or was there a hint of sadness in Eiki's voice? She couldn't tell before the unusual tone vanished, replaced by calm professionalism. "Very well. I will see you tomorrow then."
Komachi sweated. It was quite obvious to her that the matter wasn't over yet despite Eiki dismissing it for now. She slinked out of the room, deciding to get herself a nice restoring drink as soon as possible. If a simple compliment had been enough to trigger Eiki's suspicions, how on earth was she going to get through the next item on the list?
4. Bring her flowers for no reason.
It was not often that one found Shikieiki Yamaxanadu speechless. In fact, most people would tell you she was speechless a great deal less often than she ought to be. This, however, was one of those occasions.
"Komachi...I...you...what..." she closed her mouth and tried again. "Komachi, this is quite...I'm not sure..." Yet another attempt. "...Thank you."
"You're welcome," Komachi muttered, looking at her feet. Sheesh, why was she feeling so embarrassed? She had done nothing wrong. And why did Eiki have to be so surprised every time she did something nice for her?
She looked up. Eiki was definitely flustered, with pink cheeks and all, her usually keen eyes glittering very differently from the norm. She was staring at the colourful bunch of flowers Komachi had just handed to her like it was a ticking time bomb. Some of their coworkers passed them in the corridor, casting curious glances at them.
"This is really...quite impressive," said Eiki, still shaken, "all these flowers...roses, violets, irises...and is that a zinnia?"
"I picked them up by the riverbank on this side," Komachi explained, still expecting some sort of an explosion, "I tried to pick as many different nice ones as possible. Although I'm not sure the spider lily was that great an idea," she added, pointing at the solitary blood-red lily in the middle of the bunch. Why was she even saying this? Were self-picked flowers even good enough a gift to give to the enma?
"Oh no, I think it suits the arrangement perfectly," said Eiki. She took one of the flowers in the bunch, a forget-me-not, into her other hand to examine it more closely. As she gazed at it, a smile briefly illuminated her face, a faint one but all the sweeter for it. Komachi congratulated herself silently inside her mind. She had managed to do something right after all.
Then, Eiki was looking at her again, with a strange wariness in her gaze. "I must thank you for these, as this was very kind of you, but," Komachi's heart sank, "I must also ask you to explain their purpose. Is it an anniversary of some description? I can't recall any that fall on this date..."
Komachi perked up. She had rehearsed this part. She moved into her usual, casual stance and grinned airily.
"Nope, Lady Eiki, nothing of the sort."
"Then what is it?" More suspicion, a deeper frown.
Komachi managed a chuckle. "No reason."
She quickly left, before Eiki would recover from her surprise and demand a proper explanation, and before her prospective customers decided to vote with their tails and floated away into flowers. She could hear murmured whispers from some of her more gossipy coworkers and felt Eiki's eyes on her back, no doubt desperately attempting to see through her skull for a more meaningful purpose for her actions. Despite all this, she felt that Hina's plan had actually worked quite well so far. Having to actually work was a pain, and so was listening to the extended lectures, but the shock, and more importantly, pleased smiles on Eiki's face made it worth it. Even so, she was glad the list was coming to a close, with only one item left to tick off.
5. The next time you go out, let her decide where you two shall go.
This one was the easiest of all, Komachi thought as she traipsed down the sun-spotted spring lane, since it's actually something I've done before. Really, apart from those few times when she asked Eiki to come drinking with her, Eiki was the one who decided where they would go when they were on the move together. For the past month they hadn't gone anywhere together, despite Komachi's repeated invitations. That morning, however, Eiki had appeared on her doorstep as soon as she had woken up, asking her to come to Gensokyo with her.
"Komachi? Did you see something?" Eiki's voice called out ahead of her. Komachi snapped out of her thoughts, and saw Eiki tilting her head. Damn, she must have gotten so deep in thought she had stopped moving.
"No, I was just thinking about something," she replied, and quickly moved back to where she had started, a foot behind Eiki.
"Very well," Eiki said, and smiled at her. Komachi felt a strange flutter in her stomach. The whole morning, Eiki had been unusually kind towards her, smiling and speaking softly the whole time. Was this thanks to the list? Komachi didn't really know what to think about it.
"Why are we going to the Hakurei Shrine?" she asked after they had walked on for a while, to break the silence. "Are you going to warn Reimu again?"
"It depends on if we have the time. Heaven knows that she could use another warning. However, there's something else even more urgent that must be done today." And before Komachi could ask what on earth it was, she turned towards her, with the same warm smile still on her face. "Come along then, Komachi. We're almost there." And then she suddenly took a hold of her hand and continued with a hastened pace.
Komachi stared as the small hand intertwined with hers as she stumbled to stay at Eiki's pace. This wasn't unprecedented, but it sure as hell wasn't usual either. Exactly how well had Hina's advice worked?
They climbed the stairs to the shrine and entered the courtyard, still hand in hand. Reimu was there, as was to be expected, lazily sweeping away nonexistent leaves as was also to be expected. She spotted Komachi and Eiki and looked at them without a hint of surprise. Komachi hesitated. She must have known they were going to show up. Had Eiki told her?
"Greetings, Reimu Hakurei," said Eiki, nodding her head in acknowledgement. "I trust you are well?"
Reimu shrugged. "So and so." She turned around and walked back towards the shrine. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get this over with as soon as possible."
Eiki nodded. "Yes, of course." She tugged at Komachi's hand. "Come this way."
Komachi followed Eiki towards the porch where Reimu had now discarded her broom and stood waiting, her arms folded inside her detached sleeves. She was more at a loss by the minute. She had wondered about why they had come to the shrine since Eiki had said it wasn't to chastise the shrine maiden, but she couldn't come up with an alternative reason for the life of her. Just what was going on?
"Is this fine?" Eiki asked once they were standing right in front of the steps.
Reimu shrugged again. "Sure. It doesn't really make that big of a difference."
Komachi decided to speak up. "Exactly what-"
That was how far she managed to get before the situation started developing rapidly. Eiki let go off her hand, and when she turned to look why, Reimu suddenly rushed towards her, ofuda in both hands and a grim expression on her face.
"Woah, woah! What the heck?!" Komachi raised her scythe in her front of her to act as a shield and unleashed a circle of coin-shaped danmaku to ward off the sudden assault. "What are you attacking me for?"
She noticed the fatal flaw in her emergency danmaku the moment Reimu swerved beneath it and emerged right in front of her at an alarming speed. Komachi grunted and used her ability to get the stubborn shrine maiden off her skin, distancing herself from her by several yards. However, it was already too late: she felt a strange burning sensation in both her wrists and ankles, and found herself flying backward regardless of distance manipulation.
She landed on her back with a loud thud. She snarled and tried to get up, but found herself unable to move. Shocked, she turned her head and spotted a pair of ofuda sealing her hands to the ground, practically gluing her to it. Her legs were much in the same predicament. She attempted to wrench her hand free, and was rewarded with a jolt of lighting from the ofuda.
"What's going on?!" she yelled, crooning her neck in an attempt to see Reimu and Eiki. "Why are you doing this?"
"It'll be fine, Komachi." Eiki had walked into her sphere of vision and was looking down on her. "There is no need to worry, we're not going to harm you. The restraints are for your own sake." She was still wearing the same tender smile from earlier. "Trust us."
"Lady Eiki..." Komachi felt another flutter in her stomach, and this time had no trouble recognising the feeling: fear spawned by uncertainty. Was she being punished for something again? "Can you at least tell me why you're doing this?"
Eiki kneeled down next to her and wiped an errant lock of hair from Komachi's eyes. "You've been possessed, Komachi, by a spirit of one of the deceased you were supposed to ferry over." She smiled again as Komachi's jaw dropped open. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, it happens even to the best of us at times. It only takes a moment of carelessness if the spirit is zealous enough and truly desperate to cling to life. Fortunately, the spirit in you doesn't seem to be malicious, but we still have to remove it." Her tone was soothing, but Komachi found herself unable to relax. Having yourself trapped in place and then being told that you're possessed tends to do that to a person.
"Possessed?" she yelped. How could it be? She certainly hadn't noticed anything odd going on. Then, she began to think about it. "Lady Eiki," she said carefully, "why do you think that I'm possessed?"
"You've been acting exceedingly strangely for the last week," said Eiki, still gazing at her tenderly. Was she trying to comfort her or what? "In some respects, your behaviour has been the polar opposite of your normal behaviour, and in others it has been simply bizarre. Considering how much time your spend around the dead, and how much of that time you spend napping," Eiki's eye twitched as she said that, "assuming one of them has taken over your body during a moment of relapse was the most logical conclusion." She stood up again. "Therefore, I found it pivotal to escort you to someone capable of exorcism as urgently as possible."
Komachi stared at her for a moment, then let out a wild laugh of relief. Eiki frowned.
"Oh, Lady Eiki, it's not that at all!" said Komachi. And to think that she had been worried for a moment! "I may have acted a bit strangely, but it was me doing it. Trust me, there's been no outsider influence here." Well, that wasn't quite true, come to think of it. After all, she wouldn't have done any of this if it hadn't been for Hina and her advice. Drat. It was funny how you sometimes found yourself realising afterwards that what you had said wasn't true even though you had had no intention of lying.
Eiki must have seen the uncertainty in her eyes, for she said: "Spirit, I understand that this must pain you, but you must let go of the false pretense that you are Komachi. You must aware that holding onto a body that isn't yours is wrong, just as lying is wrong. By prolonging your possession of her you're opening yourself up to more opportunities to sin. Your actions as her have been good, and if your actions during your life were of a similar vein, you have nothing to fear in your judgement. Therefore, I'm now asking you to return to Komachi what is rightfully hers and to cross the river peacefully. You shall be given a fair trial and a new destination to your soul. You don't have to fear for any other repercussions but those for the sins you have committed so far."
"Uh, Lady Eiki?" said Komachi, beginning to sweat. "I meant it when I said I have been acting on my own accord. There's no extra spirit to get rid of!"
But Eiki wasn't looking at her anymore. "I'm afraid that if you won't leave Komachi on your own accord, you will be exorcised out of her with force. The situation as it is is unbearable and must be rectified immediately."
"But I'm not possessed!" Komachi yelled.
"Yeah, don't you think that's what they all say?" Reimu chided in from somewhere beyond her sphere of vision.
"I mean it!"
"They always say that too." Reimu now stepped in front of her, yet another ofuda in hand, slightly larger than the ones she used normally. She brought her other hand to it and Komachi could see several sparks flying out of it on the impact, and she could have sworn she saw a burst of red electricity, too. And that had only been a light brush.
"Hey! Wait! Wait!" Komachi didn't know exactly what the ofuda would do, but she sure as hell didn't want it plastered on her forehead. She desperately tried to catch Eiki's eyes. "Lady Eiki, please listen to me! I'm not possessed! You can always tell when I'm lying, so you must know that it's true when I say that! I'm not possessed!"
Eiki met her eyes as she continued to plead, and there was a flash of recognition in them.
"...She's telling the truth," she said quietly.
Reimu gave her a suspicious glance. "Are you sure? You may be able to tell when Komachi lies, but the spirit might have different mannerisms. Besides, she might be telling the truth as far as she is concerned, and simply be unaware of the spirit inside her."
Eiki shook her head. "The words are white, and those are definitely Komachi's mannerisms. Komachi," she said, addressing her again, "I believe you. If you can also explain why you have behaved in such a curious manner, I will also believe that you're not possessed and simply oblivious to the fact. If that is the case, we will simply proceed with the exorcism, and if not," she raised the Rod of Remorse to her lips, "I owe you an apology."
Komachi shook her head. "You may not owe me an apology, Lady Eiki, but you do owe me a release from these damn things."
And so, she recounted the whole tale, about how Eiki had been unusually harsh towards her, her encounter with Hina, her attempts at making up to Eiki for whatever sins she had inadvertently made. Eiki listened to her with rapt attention, and so did Reimu, the ominous ofuda still in hand and an amused smile on her face.
After she was done, the two of them looked at her for a moment, then exchanged a meaningful glance with each other. Reimu crouched down to remove the ofuda holding her.
"Komachi, I really am terribly sorry," said Eiki as Komachi stood up and rubbed her wrists to get the circulation in her hands back on track. "The idea that you were trying to make amends for something hadn't even crossed my mind."
"It's alright, really," said Komachi, feeling rather bashful now that the matter was cleared up. "I wonder though, couldn't you have had just used the Cleansed Crystal Mirror to see what I was up to instead of guessing?"
Eiki raised her free hand to her chin and looked thoughtful. "Technically, yes, but I'm not to use the mirror outside of its intended purpose except in an absolute emergency. And as troubled as I was, this only counted as a minor emergency at best."
"Uh huh? Gotcha." Komachi looked away, trying to keep the smile off her face. Everything felt so much easier now, and so much lighter. She felt like she could start floating any minute now without making any actual effort to fly.
Eiki looked up into her eyes and continued: "I must also apologise for having been excessively harsh towards you recently. Truth to be told, I wasn't even aware I was being so strict. Please forgive me for my lapse in judgement."
"Really, Lady Eiki, it's fine..." said Komachi hastily. Eiki sure acted differently when she was being sorry for something, and for some reason, it was making her feel a little embarrassed. Then, as she realised what Eiki was saying: "Wait, you really didn't notice how harsh you were being?"
Eiki looked down. "I really cannot understand how I could have missed it. I thought I was being a tad more strict than usual, but that was only on par the usual during a busy season..."
Komachi nodded. "Yeah, that's just the thing. You were acting like it was the end of another sixty-year cycle all of a sudden when I only had a little more work to do than usual."
Eiki stared at her blankly before some thought suddenly dawned to her. "Oh. Of course, the extra work didn't really affect you. Don't you remember?"
"Eh?" said Komachi. No, she sure didn't remember. In fact, she hadn't a clue what Eiki was talking about.
"At the end of last month, a colleague of mine suffered from a nervous breakdown and had to be temporarily removed from his post. I took responsibility of his work to take care of alongside my own until a more permanent substitute could be found." She paused for a moment, and only now did Komachi actually remember how tired Eiki had seemed for the last few weeks. "Seeing how many souls I was receiving from his region as opposed to my own irked me, which is also why I made sure to chastise you for your indolence. However, it is now obvious that I let stress get the better of me when lecturing you. Again, I apologise."
"Is that so?" Komachi said absent-mindedly, digesting all the new information. She hadn't even known the enma could suffer from nervous breakdowns: even at her most stressed out, Eiki had always had full control of the situation.
"It is so," said Eiki gravely. She frowned. "Still, I don't understand how this could be surprising to you. In fact, I cannot see how you could possibly be unaware of it: I told you about it. More than once, in fact."
"Oh?" Komachi couldn't help but feel her cheeks redden. This was going to be painful.
"Don't tell me you were asleep each time I told you," said Eiki, looking exasperated.
Komachi felt herself shrink. "I'm sorry, Lady Eiki, I didn't mean to." Then, in the spur of the moment, she added: "I would have stayed awake if I had known you were going to say something important." She slapped her hand to her mouth as soon as she finished the sentence, but it was already too late.
Eiki facepalmed, and she could also hear Reimu doing the same behind her.
"Really, Komachi," said Eiki. She was smiling again, but there was no humour to be found in this smile. She rolled up her sleeves. "I believe you're not taking the matter of bettering yourself nearly as close to your heart as you ought to. Allow me to assist you in understanding the seriousness of the situation."
"So, are you two leaving now?" said Reimu, a trace of a smirk still on her face.
"Yeah," said Komachi. She rubbed the spot on her head where the Rod of Remorse has struck her with a sour expression on her face. It still stung.
"Cheer up," said Reimu, her usual nonchalant expression returning. "At least you weren't possessed: it's not exactly a pleasant experience."
"I guess that's something." Komachi shrugged lightly and looked at Reimu. "Have you ever been possessed, then?"
"By gods when I call for their power, but that's not really the same thing. I've exorcised quite a few ghosts and spirits in my time, however, and none of the victims have ever said they liked it better with someone else controlling them."
"I believe you," said Komachi, trying to imagine what it must be like.
"Oh? You were already here, Komachi? I was looking for you," Eiki's voice called out right behind her. Before she could manage to turn, she was already standing by her side, looking at Reimu. Eiki's good mood had mostly returned. The one good thing about her wrath was that after it was over she didn't hold a grudge. She even entertained Komachi with a quick smile when she saw she was looking at her.
"Thank you for your cooperation," she said to Reimu. "It is very much appreciated."
"No problem, it's a part of the job." She hesitated slightly. "This still counts as a good deed even though I didn't actually exorcise anything, right?"
"Really now," said Eiki and shook her head as Komachi laughed. Still, Komachi could see that there was a slight smile on Eiki's face, too.
"We really should have reserved more time for this trip," Eiki continued with regret in her voice. "You obviously need a lecture on good deeds and altruism."
"Actually, Lady Eiki," Komachi said with sudden glee, "we still have at least five hours before we're expected back at the Ministry. That should leave you with ample time for a lecture."
"You're right," said Eiki, visibly brightening up. She turned towards Reimu with a flash of steel in her eyes. "Now then, where should I begin?"
The look on Reimu's face was much akin to that of a person standing in front of a gapped train.
Komachi walked a few steps away and looked at the cloudless sky as Eiki unleashed her lecture on the hapless shrine maiden, smiling to herself. She made a mental note to return back to the mountain base as soon as possible to thank Hina from the bottom of her heart. The advice may not have panned out exactly as she had planned, but as all had turned out well in the end she had no reason to feel anything but gratitude towards the kind curse goddess. Maybe she should come up with something nice to give her. Flowers, maybe?
She caught a sight of Eiki's eyes as the latter had turned around to take a look at her and felt warmth spreading in her when she saw her smiling affectionately at her. Yep, definitely flowers. They really seemed to do the trick.