Chapter 1 : Kindling
I think I smell something burning. Fujiwara no Mokou stopped in her tracks and sniffed at the air, taking several long, even breaths. The Bamboo Forest of the Lost was no place for a stray flame, especially not during the dry crisp of late autumn. As fire was her constant companion, however, it took some effort to separate the elusive smell from the ever-present odor of char around her. No, that's definitely something burning. In fact . . . Her stomach came to the conclusion first, growling loudly as Mokou recognized the aroma of roasting meat.
Oh, right, I forgot to eat today. Ah well, at least I didn't have a re-light. Mokou felt her cheeks heat, and she tried to keep from contemplating the reality behind the glib turn of phrase, for accidentally starving to death had to be among the most embarrassing ways to die imaginable. A shake of the head dismissed the embarrassing thought, and then Mokou set off, walking at a comfortable pace and letting the scent lead her. After all, nobody is going to leave meat unattended, not out here! Even if they're not as hungry as I am, there are plenty enough youkai who are more stomach than brains for anybody who's doing cooking to keep watch.
Following the delicious smell back to its source gave Mokou a shock- the aroma was in fact coming from her own house. Well, perhaps "house" was a bit too strong a word; the dwelling was more of a cottage at best, one that was saved from being termed a "shack" only by the lingering dignity of a noblewoman . . . and some substantial help from Keine. She must have come over to help out again and brought dinner with her. I really should convince her to quit it, or at least find some way to repay her. With a rueful smile on her face, Mokou marched up to her own front door, gave a polite knock, and entered.
"Welcome home, dear!" called a voice that was most definitely not Keike Kamishikawa. Mokou stopped dead in her tracks, jaw hanging slack and a nasty nervous tic grabbing at one eye.
"What the fuuu-" Mokou let the obscenity drop in a gust of exhaled air, too gobsmacked to form words properly.
"What, I always wanted to try that once," replied Kaguya Houraisan, former Princess of the Moon and current antagonist of one Fujiwara no Mokou.
"Okay, what the fuuu-" Another attempt at interrogating the onetime Moon Princess as to her intentions dribbled right out of Mokou's mouth when she realized that not only was Kaguya here, in her house (okay, cottage, not-quite-a-shack, whatever, it still amounts to trespass!), and worse, she was wearing a pink apron . . . and basically nothing else, that Mokou could see, and cooking something besides. The fact that Kaguya appeared to have brought an entire portable kitchen with her, consisting of a wheeled grill with caddies on the sides for condiments and tools made it all the worse, as it both stole Mokou's next interrogative gambit ("Who the fuuu- said you could use my stuff?!") and made plain just how little the phoenix actually possessed.
"Mokou, dear, close your mouth, you'll attract flies, and that will spoil your appetite," added Kaguya helpfully. Mokou's mouth snapped shut, but only to let her teeth grind together as her anger boiled up.
"Okay, just what the fuck is going on here?" snapped Mokou, hurling out the question before Kaguya could short-circuit her any further. What the hell does she think she's doing in that- that getup! Mokou fumed as she glared at Kaguya, the analytical portion of her mind noting just how long and how shapely the Princess' legs were, seeing as they were fully on display. Damnit! Now is not the time! So what if she's beautiful? That's what started this whole mess in the first place!
"Well, I was going to try something along the line of 'what, can't a girl make a nice meal for a friend', but that wouldn't fly even if I had caught you in a post-resurrection stupor, and I wasn't going to blow you up just to have that bit of an edge. You can say 'thank you' now."
"Uhh? If this isn't just a crazy set-up to get the drop on me, then what do you want?"
"I want to talk about us, and about the future." The joking, smirking Kaguya was gone, replaced for the moment by a mien appropriate for a Princess. "You've heard the report from Reimu's Outsider friends, I assume?"
"The Incubator people? Yeah. The Universe is supposed to last, what, 22 billion years they said? And that's without them doing anything else to stretch things out further."
"That's a long time," Kaguya mused.
"You can say that again," replied Mokou.
"That's a long time." Kaguya turned a feline smirk to Mokou's glare. "Hey, you gave me the opening. But yes, it's a long time. Hell, we've had our feud for about a thousand years, and that is a long time. Eirin thinks that with her alchemy, she might live for one million years, and that's definitely a long time. But a billion is one thousand millions-"
"I know how to math, Kaguya." Mokou growled out.
"Just shut up and listen to me!" Kaguya banged her utensils against the stove in frustration. "If every year of our history was the length of that million years, we'd still be barely started!"
"Uh, okay?" We?Mokou worked the word around in her mouth silently, trying to figure it out.
"Arrgh! If you're going to be obtuse, let me spell it out for you: I. Need. You."
"I'm not asking you to love me, or even be my friend. But I'm scared. I measured it out." Kaguya descended into a blank monotone, her eyes wide and wet, but not seeing anything. "I painted a line almost the whole way around my room. You remember what it looks like?" Mokou nodded; she had been inside the Princess' abode on more than one occasion, all invariably lethal. And that doesn't even count all the times I've floated outside, looking in her window . . . "I made it 22 meters long, 1 per billion. Then I tried to paint in how long Eirin would last. It didn't take much paint, let me tell you!" Kaguya coughed on something that was part laugh, part sob. "It's one millimeter. And for the entire time I've been alive? I can't get a brush small enough or a magnifying glass big enough!
"You know, if I could, if I had any way to get more, I'd give the Hourai elixir to everybody I knew, even the people I don't like, hell, I'd pour it on people I don't even know in the Human Village, just so there would be others to share the long journey with us. But I can't. So I'm begging you, please, I don't care if you hate me, just please don't let me forget what it means to be Human."
"I-" What do I say? How do I even say it? "I, er, think the meat is done," Mokou put in, lamely.
"Huh? So it is." Kaguya shook her head hard, visibly pulling herself together to bring the roast over to the cottage's rudimentary table. Mokou sat down and was handed cutlery, and began to work on the food set before her. As she chewed, Mokou tried to push her thoughts toward neutral ground.
"Ah, Kaguya . . ." How do I put this diplomatically? "I, uh, hope you didn't pay much for this roast." Mokou swallowed hard to get the vulcanized piece of meat to go down.
"Oh, don't worry, it was cheap," Kaguya replied. At that moment, the Moon Princess got up to rummage in her cart for something to drink, and Mokou looked up in time to see a garter around Kaguya's thigh. The phoenix had her hand up and curled in a casting gesture before she consciously realized what she was thinking, and when the conflux of the shape of the roast, the shape of Kaguya's leg, and the comment arrived together in her mind, Mokou was already unleashing hell. The incinerating blast struck Kaguya while she was completely unaware, filling the space with the stink of Kaguya's burned flesh and completely blowing out the back wall of the cottage. Mokou then took flight, an action as reflexive as the others, if for different reasons.
Stupid, stupid, stupid fucking idiot! Why did you have to go and do that? You knew damn well that wasn't what she was implying! You've smelled what her flesh smells like roasting before, and you knew from the moment you walked in that wasn't what she was cooking. Of course she bought some cheap cut, she's never been a good cook.
And how would you know that? Oh, right, because you're a creep and a stalker, and you've had a crush on her from day fucking one. Your tastes and Father's were exactly alike, and that's why you hate her so much. It's like that time you found the beehive as a little girl- how could something so pretty hurt so much? You should just pull up here, fly yourself right into the sun and save her the trouble of continuing to hate you-
A sharp whistle broke Mokou's reverie, and as she focused on the outside world once more, she realized the sound and the accompanying tug of airflow came from an arrow, shot past her ear. Mokou braked in the air and turned around, although she already knew who would be there.
"Well, I suppose congratulations are in order, or something. I think you've finally found a way to really hurt her." Eirin Yagokoro floated high overhead, silhouetting herself against the gibbous moon in a particularly unsubtle bit of symbolism.
"Yeah, well, she was asking for it," Mokou snarled, her voice harsh for want of control.
"She was, and I told her as much when she first floated this crazy idea to me. But that's not why I'm here. Rather, I want to ask how are you doing?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh come on now," Eirin scoffed. "Whatever else you might think of me, you know I am not a moron, nor am I a dullard. You think I haven't noticed you skulking around Eientei? I don't recall peeking in windows being a typical part of a forest guide's routine."
"You told her about that?!" Mokou blurted out.
"No, I did not. The Princess doesn't need her ego inflated any larger than it already is, or she will have trouble getting through doors." Eirin dropped down to the same level as Mokou, turning so that the phoenix could see the sincerity of the Lunarian's words. "For such as it is worth, Kaguya was being genuine with her offer, clumsy as it was."
"Yes, well, I . . . What do I do?"
"You could try being yourself." replied Eirin. "Not the scion of the Fujiwara, not the avenger of a grudge thirteen centuries old, but simply be Mokou, and look out for Mokou's interests for once."
"That's asking rather a lot," Mokou replied, shifting uncomfortably about. "I can't just turn it off overnight."
"And I'm not asking you to do so. But our world is changing, even as we speak. It is only natural to step back every so often and reevaluate our positions. I mean, hell, I never expected to live in a world where Cirno was in the top 5 of the power rankings, but gods preserve us, here we are."
"Heh, yeah, there is that." Mokou chuckled slightly. "So what do I do then?"
"Just take things slow." replied Eirin. "Whatever will happen, let it come naturally. After all, you've got all the time in the world to work it out."
"I'll think on that," Mokou replied, before turning toward home.
"Ah, there is one slight problem, though." Eirin called out, causing Mokou to pull up short. "You're going to need to find new housing arrangements. Your cottage more-or-less burned to the ground."
"More-or-less?" Mokou scoffed.
"Well, I called for a fire crew when I saw what happened. They're a skillful lot, but they were trained and equipped by the Kappa, so I can't rightly say how much was destroyed by the fire and how much was destroyed by their water spells, but there's nothing left."
"How could you tell? There was nothing there to begin with." Mokou gave a bitter chuckle as she considered her situation. "So now what do I do, Oh Wise and All-Knowing One?"
("I'm a doctor, not a real estate agent,") Eirin muttered beneath her breath. "No, hang on a second, I have one idea. It isn't very fancy, though." By way of reply, Mokou lit up a cigarette so that the Lunarian could see the sarcastic glare plastered upon her face.
The first snowflakes of winter were swirling through the air as Fujiwara no Mokou sat on the stoop of her new abode, puffing on a cigarette and mumbling a steady string of curses under her breath, damning both needle and thread to a multitude of hells and other misfortunes as she worked through her self-appointed task. So intent was the phoenix on her project that she didn't notice the shadow of a figure standing over her, bemused at the situation. Finally, after several minutes of watching Mokou furiously plowing through the cloth, pausing only for the briefest of instants to cauterize the latest poke-hole in her fingers with a tiny splash of flame, the interloper spoke.
"Wait, you can sew?" asked Kaguya in sheer bafflement.
"Yeah," Mokou grumbled. Don't panic don't freak out don't do anything stupid- "Ow!" Mokou hissed as the needle sank deep into its preferred canvas once more. "Well, more or less," the phoenix muttered, lifting up her hand to show the embedded needle.
"Interesting. When did you learn to do that?"
"Well, Father insisted I learn the skill as a girl, he thought it might help cure me of being a tomboy. I didn't start really using it until I was on my own. These charms keep my clothes from burning, but they don't do anything for arrows, blades, bloodstains . . ." Okay, genius, don't get all passive-aggressive, just get to the point. "So . . . how did you find me?"
"I didn't find you, exactly," Kaguya replied. "I had to make a trip out to the shrine of the forest anyway, and I'd heard somebody had taken up residence at this guidepost. Eirin had that little knowing smirk on her face when I asked her about it, so I figured it would be worth my trouble to check it out. If I may be so nosy, what are you making? That doesn't look like any cloth I'm familiar with."
"Oh, it's just a basic gown, but the cloth is asbestos. Doesn't burn, which is rather handy for being me." Mokou replied, looking down so that the Princess couldn't see the blush burning on her cheeks.
"Wait, isn't that supposed to be toxic or something?"
"The fibers can give you lung cancer, but once they're spun into thread it should be fine, unless you were to say go at it with a scouring stone and then inhale the fluff. Besides, that would suppose that I would go long enough between rezzing for lung cancer to actually take effect." Oh, nice going, way to step in it there! Okay, think, quick, try to get the conversation back on track! "So, what are you taking to the shrine?"
"Oh this?" Kaguya hefted her basket for emphasis. "It's Bribe Letty Day. She has a bit of a sweet tooth. I've found that it only takes about one good-sized basket of candied fruits to get her to exempt Eientei from the worst of the weather."
"Huh. That is handy. I always assumed it was some big fancy bit of rabbit magic, or something."
"Nope, just good old-fashioned personal manipulation," replied Kaguya, grinning. "Also, this is for you." Kaguya handed over a small package, tied up with a ribbon. "Anyway, good luck, and try not to sew any of your fingers together!" and with that, the Princess sauntered off down the path. Mokou meanwhile was experiencing something like a panic. What's this all about? It must be some kind of trick, she must still be mad at me. Worry didn't keep Mokou from untying the ribbon as fast as her fingers could move however, and the phoenix yanked off the box lid to find . . . a charged Spellcard.
Yeah, I should have expected that, Mokou thought once enough of her skull had regenerated to permit thinking. Still, for her that was positively polite. Hang on, what's this? Mokou picked up the lid of the gift box, which had survived the small explosion by virtue of having a thin sheet of metal in it, which was inscribed with kanji.
"My dearest Mokou,
Sorry about that little trick, but I wanted to even up the score between us, for old times' sakes. I would like to make a fresh start, however, and so to prove my sincerity, I am declaring a truce. I shall not initiate any further hostilities from here on out, and will defend myself as minimally as possible. I would also be delighted if you were to be our guest at Christmas this year. Please give the matter your consideration, but I will understand if you decline to attend.
"Huh." Mokou read through the note a second time, turning it over to make sure there wasn't a "P.S." or some other trick involved. "Huh," she said again, setting aside the note and picking up her sewing once more.
"Well, that solves the problem of how am I going to give her her Christmas present." Mokou said to herself, before setting needle and thread to cloth once more.