Author's Notes: Sorry for cliffhanger last chapter; it was kinda important then.

I have to thank Snowflames for helping me beta this.

I was afraid, and this Shanghai doll is telling me to listen to her "onee-chan". It was morning of the fourth day, and this was not how I ever wanted to wake up.

"Onee-chan wanted to get some things straight with you…" Hourai began trying to explain things to her "sister" in her own way with gestures which belonged to some kind of a sign language, and this "Imouto" Shanghai translated for me. "Alice strictly belongs to her and us Shanghais. She hates Marisa, and tries to drive her out every chance she gets while Alice is out. That was the first thing, Suzie."

"I have no intention of taking Alice for myself. I'm scared of you all, so why would I do such a thing?"

I called this Shanghai doll "Imouto" since she seemed different from the others due to being "alive" and calling Hourai her "onee-chan", not to mention her features being more life-like than the other Shanghai Dolls. The joints were not as noticeable as the others, if there were any at all; her ribbon was scaled to her larger-than-usual size compared to the regular Shanghai dolls. She essentially looked more leader-like among the Shanghai dolls. I would have called her Leader Shanghai, if it were not for that one thing she keeps calling Hourai.

"Imouto" Shanghai translated to Hourai, and I think the "evil" doll seemed content with the answer. Hourai then began "saying" things to "Imouto" Shanghai to relay to me.

"She says you're misunderstanding something, and that she hasn't killed anyone… ever." It took me some time to process the information, which was a little bit too much for me at that time to digest.

There are a few reasons why I did not faint at the moment. The first reason was because Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai were not aggressive or even trying to be aggressive. Second, I needed to be strong for this. Also, I must get over this phobia soon, and with my own strength one of these days… even if it would me years, I must get over it soon.

In response to Hourai's "getting it clear to me", I was skeptical: "Why should I believe you? You killed my father, made my mother forget everything, and attacked me the other night. You are not tricking me! Never! Never again!"

I made sure to emphasize my hate for Hourai quite clear. "Imouto" Shanghai seemed to translate the message, while also stressing the hatred I had for her "Onee-chan".

Hourai covered her face with her hands and began her argument via "Imouto" Shanghai.

"Believe what you want, but I won't be killing you any time soon as long as you don't get close to Alice. I killed nobody, and I, too, am looking for that rogue doll that broke one of our important rules of never killing anybody without orders from our creators." "Imouto" Shanghai translated, and then adding, "Sorry, Suzie. I wouldn't mind you being with her, but Onee-chan is protective of Alice."

I took a moment to digest this information, understanding this "rule" the dolls had. If they were not allowed to murder without orders from their creators, was this not similar to a major crime to humans who were blacklisted or even executed for committing these crimes? Was this killer doll an outcast, or a criminal to them? I have to ask: "This killer doll… it wouldn't happen to be a 'criminal' to the dolls, would it?"

"Imouto" Shanghai thought hard on this after translating this question to Hourai. The red-dress doll answered immediately, having her "sister' translate her message: "She says the analogy is accurate, and that this killer doll had an owner before, but was abandoned. When she grew a will of her own, she broke our code and killed a human; she's a traitor to all dolls, and we haven't seen her in over 10 years. I hear rumors from the other dolls in the human village that our killer might be living on a hill, surrounded by poison—"

"Wait, hear rumors? How do you even do that?" I had to interrupt there. "Imouto" Shanghai stopped her "sister" there, and relayed the question, much to Hourai's dismay.

"I hear them too, when we're in between plays, but Onee-chan hears most of them since she's used the least, and only during special occasions when us dolls are organized during rehearsal. That's beside the point though, and Onee-chan's quite angry since we don't have much time to talk alone and get this straightened with you."

"As Onee-chan said, the rumor of this killer doll being on a hill surrounded by poison. That's the only place we haven't checked, and it's not easy to traverse; the poison does that while slowing down whoever's in the poison." I watched and listened to her explanation. "That makes going there twice as bad. We'd go there ourselves, being dolls and immune to poison, but not without Alice controlling us and seeing what we can see. If at all possible, Alice would need this special mask that the humans know of to block poison from their faces so we could fight together if our 'criminal' is there."

Quite the explanation Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai gave; it took me another minute to digest this explanation.

"Why are you telling me this, Hourai? Do you want revenge or something against this 'criminal'?" I had to ask this for clarification.

"Imouto" Shanghai translated this, and it seemed Hourai nodded in affirmation.

"I see." I would have been out cold by then, but I thought talking with the very object I fear was probably the first step I should and I did take towards curing my phobia without fainting. It was then that I began to understand myself a little better, for I realized my paranoia and my hatred for Hourai was misplaced. She was telling me the truth, and I was rejecting it because I believed Hourai was the killer, and was set on believing that.

They tried to tell me something important regarding the doll issue, and that they, too, were trying to find a traitor among their kind, though without telling Alice. I did not know why they did not make themselves known to Alice that they were alive, but I would have to ask them soon. Hourai apparently broke a rule, and had her "sister" cooperate to get this out to me.

"Out of curiosity, what rules did you break to tell me these things?" I asked "Imouto" Shanghai to translate.

Hourai took in the question quite readily: "We can't let Alice know the two of us are self-aware; if she did, she'd lose her reason to be a magician. Autonomous dolls are created naturally, but she's trying to make one artificially. Truthfully, we want to help her, but we can't interfere with anything our creator does directly. We also can't disrupt her life directly; it's a doll code. We can, however, get a mediator to help us indirectly get something across to our creator, but they must never reveal to them we are relaying things to them."

It sounded like a tricky balancing act, but there was one point in there I realized I had to ask about.

"Wait, why are you telling me this?"

"Imouto" Shanghai, again, translated our conversation.

"Onee-chan wishes to form a truce for now, and ask for help. It's a risk for the both of us just talking to you like this, and she wants you to cooperate for both our benefits. You can get revenge, Onee-chan can be witness to justice being done to our traitor, and you might come to stop being afraid of my comrades and their friends in other places. Please, don't let our gamble go to waste." Hourai would stop being aggressive, as long as I could keep my end of the bargain in helping them find, and bring justice to, this "criminal".

No matter how I look at this, the proposition was beneficial for everyone.

"Also, Suzie, this one's from me. I will talk with my comrades about being gentle around you. I noticed you are terrified of us, and I want to help you there. I will talk to them about being more aware of your phobia, so they could understand and work around it in order to make you feel more comfortable around us. The others also agreed to keep quiet, and I will let them know to make sure they mean no harm, and will show it. Your cooperation means a lot to us if you can keep quiet about us while helping us out. Please try to work with us as it will take some getting used to for helping your fear." "Imouto" Shanghai added of her own will.

I could work with this: "You do know why I was afraid, right? The fear that you were alive and wanting to kill?"

"Imouto" Shanghai took that in, and translated that to Hourai when the red-dressed doll asked her "sister". Hourai also had the answer first. "Onee-chan says it's a fear created by humans themselves out of their own fear. That gets passed around. That fear eventually became a belief, and that belief gave birth to dolls here that have their own will and life… I don't get it myself, but that's what Onee-chan believes."

I only understood half of that, and even then, I was not sure if I "understood" it the way she wanted me to understand.

"Anyway, Alice is getting close; she woke up a little while before we took you away. I just heard my comrades out there looking for us; they informed me and Hourai about her movements. We dolls are faithful to our creators, and have our own network, like humans in the outside world have their 'net' that we can't see. My comrades will guide her to us when we're done, but I think Onee-chan's done her part in asking for help and straightening things out." "Imouto" Shanghai concluded our "chat'.

"One more thing… Why did Hourai not talk to me directly?" I had to ask that now that it hit me.

"Onee-chan isn't good with humans; she means well, but doesn't know how to get along with them. I don't blame her; she was aggressive towards Marisa for making hints at an interest in Alice, or teasing her in ways that hurt her. She may not know how to be direct, and may be difficult, but I hope you forgive her for these blunders. As for the other night, she thought you were aggressive towards her, and wanted to take Alice for yourself. She did try to get help from Marisa before, but she proved to be unreliable, and didn't want to help at all. Onee-chan's putting her hopes on you, even if you can't do anything helpful, at least help us with that."

I understood Hourai and the dolls a little better after the conversation. My fear of dolls, while instinctive, might be overcome with this knowledge shared between human and doll.

The dolls would not kill, nor would they rebel against their creator. The "living" doll was a fear created by humans, and taken to a new level by another pediophobic person to where "killer" dolls became a bigger fear. The "order" was the movements the creators or owners put on the dolls. They were like an underground organization hidden from their creators with a network of their own. They had their own "code" for "living" just like we had social and moral codes of conduct. From what I understood, they could not act autonomously in front of their creators or owners; they had to work in secret, helping their owner or creator from behind the scenes. They also could not request help from their owner or risk their way of life becoming known, and causing a panic.

Alice, from what I understood, wanted an autonomous doll with a will of its own; to the autonomous dolls produced naturally, she may as well be doing the equivalent of "playing God" in human terms, trying to create artificially what had only occurred naturally. Each doll, while without a life of its own, do behave like they were alive.

"Anyway, I'm counting on your help, Suzie. Onee-chan is, too. We'll help keep you out as long as you help us. Anyway, I'll let my comrades know where we are, while we sneak back home. Alice thought Hourai and me 'stolen' and you kidnapped. We'll sneak back inside, while you try to convince her she had simply 'misplaced' us, and you got up early to get fresh air. This is Onee-chan's plan to avoid getting us both in trouble." As soon as "Imouto" Shanghai relayed the message from Hourai, they executed their plan of action and snuck back into Alice's house, while I played my part of "getting fresh air".

Of course, Hourai knows Alice better than I do, so I have to trust her word on this.

I got out of our hiding spot and began pretending to be out and about in the morning. Sure enough, a short while later, Alice and her doll army flew in to take me back.

It was the afternoon hours and Alice was bombarding me with questions about where I was. I had to improvise while make it sound believable to her: "I was out getting some fresh air early in the morning after having that nightmare again, but it was another doll this time attacking us. It was Shanghai this time, except… it was some kind of revolution where the dolls were fighting this… this traitor, and my family… my family was in the crossfire. My father was killed, but my mom was shocked and scared to the point where she developed amnesia.

"That dream was scary, but I heard voices from the Shanghai Dolls. I don't remember what they were shouting about… but it was scary… and I woke up after that, and saw Hourai and one of the Shanghai Dolls missing. I was afraid you'd panic, and I went outside to look for them. I couldn't find them, and gave up so I could take in what you said yesterday about my fear… and I realized I needed to work on that… I think I realize now that I have to force myself to spend time with them, and slowly overcome this fear." It sounded cheesy to me. I had to lie to keep my end of the bargain with the dolls, but I also told some truth without revealing what I learned from "Imouto" Shanghai and Hourai.

Alice nodded and agreed: "I see you woke up to reality. I, too, forced myself to run away from Shinki, but the first step is the scariest. You acknowledge something, you want to do something, but don't know how. You take the first step in actually doing that after you plan out HOW to do it."

"I think… I just need some time alone with the dolls… get used to them… and slowly overcome my pediophobia."

I saw Alice pick up one of the biscuits on the snack tray, and handing it to one of the Shanghai Dolls that was around. It took the snack and made its way towards me. "Let's start small and work our way up. If you can manage to interact with the doll, then it'll be a start. Can you take the snack from her?"

I nodded slowly. Behind Alice, I could see "Imouto" Shanghai winking subtly at me. Hourai was there, but I could see her looking away as though she would have blushed if she were human. She did show a sign of support with a "good luck" sign after a moment.

The dolls—Alice's dolls—still scared the living daylight out of me, but I had to be strong to resist fainting to avoid letting their efforts be in vain. Thankfully, that paid off as I understood them better, and I thought that helped a lot towards curing my phobia.

I remembered vividly what happened. Slowly, I reached out to the Shanghai Doll, all the while hearing my own heart thump inside my chest like a loud pump. Every beat was like a punch to my chest, which itself constricted and tightened like I had a thousand tons of weight pressing down on it while I tried to breathe. I could notice my hand tremble and my fingers glistening with moisture. They felt deathly cold, the air around them stinging my skin even though the room was nothing but comfortable to stay in.

Still, I managed to take the biscuit, my fingers shaking little bits and pieces off of it even thought it was not my intention. The doll willingly relinquished the tasty pastry and, despite making no actual facial expression, I thought it smiled at me as I had smiled at myself.

I did it! I did it! Alice seemed to nod at this small step; even though it was a small step to the vast majority of people, but it was a giant leap for me!

"The first step, even if it's small, must be made. It's like life; you start small, and work your way up. Curing this fear of dolls you have follows the same idea. Actually, anything starts small, and works its way up." Alice complimented me in her own way.

Unfortunately, this moment of happiness did not last long as "Imouto" Shanghai just had a look of pain on her face. I noticed this as well, but I have to check with her on this later. In the meantime, I have to play my part like the dolls do and wait for the right time before acting on something.

"Is something wrong?" Alice asked as she noticed my face of concern.

"No, sorry… I just thought that this start… is everyday occurrence to you, and how pathetic I am for calling this a start." I had to lie—no, be economic with the truth—yet again, because in hindsight what I said was completely true, just that it was not what I was thinking at the time.

"No, I understand that, and it's not a minor thing to me. I, too, was afraid of dolls, but I came to realize they're not as scary as I thought they were. Now, I work with them because I love them. It may be small to you, as you think it is, but I do acknowledge the first step you took. That's a start anyone afraid of dolls will take. You aren't alone, and those that have taken that first step help others take that step themselves and work as a team." She assured me warmly.

Though I was touched with hearing that my perception was wrong, and the world wasn't as serious and "demanding perfection' as I thought, I felt as though she was comforting me despite her words.

"… What's next?" I asked her more directly.

"Try touching Shanghai. Play with this one a little. Whatever you feel suits your imagination with her."

Hold on a second. Did she say "touch" and "play"? That might be a bigger step than I can manage right now, I thought: "Isn't that a big step for me to be taking right now?"

"Nonsense! I don't know how far you want to go, and I'm taking the next step in helping you overcome this." She reassured me, though I somehow find her reassurance hollow. She seemed to have disconnected the string attached to this one Shanghai Doll, and let it fall to the table.

I thought she wanted me to understand that she would not interfere with this, and that I would eventually grow out of this fear. This precaution seemed to cater to this fear of mine, so I would not be startled by sudden movements.

I slowly poked the head of the doll, making sure it would not suddenly get up on its own, but then I remembered what "Imouto" Shanghai said: she would talk to the rest of the dolls about me, and she would persuade them to provide me support.

She reacted as any inanimate object would react after receiving a poke to the head; in fact, her head bobbed up and down a little, as if it were floating on a spring. It was deceiving me and waiting for me to drop my guard, I thought; as irrational as it might be, I could not help but poking her with my sweat-glistened fingers a couple more times, and she reacted the same way. I did not know why I was expecting something different.

My hand crawled closer to the doll. I was apprehensive. What if it was what she was waiting for? What if she would just grab my finger and snap it like a twig? What if it would suddenly whip out a knife and stab me in the face? What if…

Before I finished asking the questions, though, my hand reached its destination. I steadied my breath, even though I was once again breathing as if a thousand tons were pressing on top of my chest, and tried to steady my hand.

It was the moment, and if this moment would mean my death, then so be it!

Without a moment's pause, I snatched the doll in my hand, before I realized that she was in pain; Alice could not see her face, but I could, and she was grimacing because I was gripping her so hard that it was causing her discomfort. But even though she was grimacing, she still managed to squeeze a smile out at me.

She was supporting me, too; she was supporting me, even though I was—albeit unintentionally—hurting her. If a doll could be as courageous and selfless as she was, the surely I could do better.

"Sorry." I muttered under my breath, so quiet that Alice had to ask what I said. Smiling, I loosened my grip, and instead letting the Shanghai Doll lay comfortably in my palms. Curiosity took over, and I began looking at the Shanghai doll more closely, checking out the details I would not be able to notice at a first glance.

Some of the noticeable details were the materials that made up her clothes was the same kind of quality we use for our own clothes. Normally doll clothes would be made cheaply with bad materials, but I think Alice puts more love into her dolls than I originally thought, because from the materials and craftsmanship, she had made and decorated her dolls with love and care, as if she were dressing up her children. The hair ribbons aren't attached by design as many dolls made by humans are done to save time and mass-produce them; they're made of the same materials girls wear for decoration. The shoes she wore were made of the same leather that we would use to make our own shoes; the socks—tiny white socks that fit snugly between leather shoes and ivory feet as tiny as each other—were made with finely woven cotton, and they were thin as paper.

The hair, much to my disappointment and intrigue, was made of magic to produce an effect somewhat similar to real hair. The material of the dolls had an ivory texture, mostly, but it seems there were bits of metal used for reinforcement of certain parts hidden beneath it. The hands of the Shanghai doll were meticulously crafted to have life-like detail; I could make out each joint with its axis as thin as a needle in its fingers, as well as the ball joints between the palm and the fingers. I could even identify the imitation of nails on its fingertips, the small useless decoration painstakingly carved into the ivory to make it as close to a human hand as possible.

I wondered how much each of these dolls would cost. A masterpiece with such level of detail would surely be most coveted among connoisseurs and collectors alike, and Alice could have earned a fortune through selling them. But I could also tell from the level of detail that she had created each doll with a fragment of herself, that they meant as much to her as family. Selling any one of them would be akin to selling one of her own children, and I would never imagine her doing anything like that.

"These are really well made… it's almost… life-like… almost as if you treat them like children." I commented, having lost myself in thought and in breathless admiration of such craftsmanship.

"Of course, but each one is a creation attempt at creating an autonomous doll, all of them have failed, and I can't let them go to waste, so I salvage them into the Shanghai Dolls you see here. They were children to me, children that, though I could not see them gaining sentience, I have a responsibility to take care of because I brought them to the world in the first place." She explained, just as I suspected.

"Why do you want to create such a doll?" I asked. It could be as simple as "the autonomous doll is a dream of mine that I think is worth pursuing", or it could be something much more complicated and intimate than that.

She looked to the side, frowning, and then leaned forward.

"To be honest, I wanted a friend, one that I can keep for myself. While Marisa is a friend, she isn't one I could call for help or tell my troubles. She is whimsical, and she is the worst person in the entire world to keep a secret. She is also rather dense, in the sense that she usually approach interpersonal relationships with the finesse of a fairy and can never read subtle signals from other people. That's why I'm making my own friend; a doll with a will of its own, one I can call my friend."

As I expected, it was complicated with a lot of personal reasons behind it. Somehow, I felt that she was not telling me everything, that she was hiding something from me. However, with what she had told me, it was a goal worth pursuing, and if she liked it, who was I to talk about her decision?

"I see… I don't know how I'd be able to help you accomplish that, but… good luck." I said in response. It was the truth, for once; I had zero clue how I could help or if I could help at all.

The setting sun colored everything a crimson red. Alice was out on some errand, leaving me alone at her house. I had to check with "Imouto" Shanghai on something I noticed earlier.

"Shanghai? What's wrong? Was something bothering you earlier?"

She had a pained expression, and I knew it meant something was wrong, whatever it was.

"It's Marisa. I got word earlier from one of our comrades stolen years ago that she was killed. Alice doesn't know this yet, but she's heading to the Hakurei Shrine for an evening chat, which is where Marisa was killed."

Marisa… Marisa… wait, was she not the "friend" Alice mentioned in our conversation? The friend that was a little dense, and unable to keep a secret?

Alice was not going to take it well. If, as I assumed, Marisa was Alice's only friend, then her reactions would be unpredictable. If a normal human were the perpetrator of Marisa's murder…

I shuddered at the possibilities. Alice could very well shift the target of her rage onto me, and the result of that would never be pretty for me. For just a few words, "Imouto" Shanghai managed to worry me quite a bit: "This is quite a bit of information to digest for the number of words you used…"

Hourai also seemed distraught, but she relayed her thoughts and opinions through "Imouto" Shanghai, whose distress in her voice all but made it evident:"That's not all; the one who killed Marisa… and Onee-chan confirmed this several times through our doll network… the one that killed Marisa… was Reimu herself. This happened just as you took the first step towards overcoming your fear of us. I'm sorry, but please pretend you didn't hear that from us, but you should know this so you yourself won't be hit as hard when Alice breaks the news to you, IF she breaks the news at all."

It should be common knowledge for Gensokyo to know about Reimu and Marisa being best friends, and the go-to people when an incident occurs.

"This can't be… Reimu… Marisa's BEST friend over many years… why would she?"

"That's what Onee-chan's been asking around for without much success! She doesn't know, and she's asking every doll out there for help on why Reimu would do such a thing!"

I think I might be at fault here; I thought she would know the answer by now, and asked as though she DID know the answer, but I rushed her when she didn't know the answer even now.

This time, Hourai was panicking, and rushed her response to me via "Imouto" Shanghai: "Alice just saw Marisa being hidden near the shrine, and fled before Reimu noticed her presence. One of our comrades was left behind in her panic, and she's hiding while listening to Reimu…"

Hourai relayed the events as she received news from the comrade there, which left "Imouto" Shanghai to translate for me.

"…Something about… Haru… never putting him down… how he's hers forever…"

Wait, that name!

"Wait, Haru? As in Yamato Haru?"

I asked her.

"Huh, Yamato Haru? What does he look like?"

I laid out the description about him from last I saw him; a plain ordinary person, who looks like the ideal person for misfortune to hit at any given moment, a coward who was not good at making friends, and deathly afraid of yandere personality.

"Imouto" Shanghai relayed these details to Hourai to confirm with the comrade out there at the shrine. The response was rather swift.

"Onee-chan says he fits the description perfectly. Reimu even muttered that exact name while cuddling with him. You know him?"

Oh, gods. Oh, gods. Oh, gods. What is Alice going to do to me when she'd find out about all this? My legs almost gave way before I got a hold of the handrails beside the staircase. She would probably want to torture me, extract all information she could from me—which was not a lot—and then kill me in the slowest, most excruciating way possible.

But there was nothing I could do if she ever decided to do that. I was helpless in front of her, and the dolls—Shanghai and Hourai—would never disobey their creator.

I steadied my breath and tried to regain my balance. It was successful, partially, as I could support myself with my grip firmly on the handrails, but my legs were still on strike. "Uh… um, yes. Yamato-kun was a victim of bullying in a neighboring class a couple months ago, but recently became popular for becoming the boyfriend of Tanaka Miyu, one of the more popular girls in his class."

"Our comrade was just picked up by Alice, and being brought back here as fast as she can; she's absolutely terrified at seeing what she just saw. Onee-chan's trusting you to keep quiet about this, and pretend you haven't heard this from us. Please, help Alice where we can't help right away; it's your turn to help Alice where she helped you."

Hourai trusted me. Shanghai trusted me. The dolls had my support. If they could trust me and help me, while have unquestioned love for their creator Alice, I could certainly do the same for Alice.

I could do the same for Alice, regardless of what she could do to me if she finds out.

The night was young, but it was already unbearable. Alice had just stormed into the house, slamming the door against the wall with such force that it slammed shut itself having rebounded from the collision. She made a beeline to her room, and with the same force opened and shut the door to it, rattling every window in the house and probably shattering a few teacups by shaking the house so much that they would fall from the kitchen counter.

"Alice? What's wrong?" I asked her as neutrally as I could, even though I knew what was going on. I leaned against the door to her room, and listened.

She did not answer at first, but I did hear heavy breathing, and then weeping. Soon, it became sounds of unbound grief as she wailed and screamed louder than a banshee.

Hourai, Shanghai and the dolls gambled their hopes on me, an ordinary person, to help them support Alice in their place due to their "code". They probably would have placed their bets on someone else if given a chance, but I have to ask that question some other time.

"Alice? Seriously, what's wrong?" I asked again, hoping for some kind of answer, but Alice did not provide. Knocking on the door did not yield any results, so I had to turn in for the night, and hope she would talk to me about it tomorrow.

I told "Imouto" Shanghai about this to relay to Hourai, and both of them seemed to nod in agreement. "I'm sorry, but I can't help her tonight; she needs time alone; humans need that after a big shock hits them."

"By the way, why did you ask me for help, out of all the people in Gensokyo?" I had to ask them.

"Marisa was the first person we asked for help, during a critical moment, and she bailed on us. We didn't trust anyone for a long time, but Hourai opened up to you in hopes she can get help this time around for Alice. 'Even if you're as useful as a dish rag, you're better than nothing' Onee-chan says."

What was up with her? A dish rag? Am I that worthless? Am I of such a low value to them?

I was honestly taken aback for a few moments, but then I remembered. I remembered the urgency in her eyes when she asked for my help; I remembered the frantic hand gestures she made when she tried to talk to me. She needed my help so that she would not break her code, and she knew it. Such a… degrading statement was probably due to her difficulty in dealing with me.

It was cute, in a certain way; Hourai's dishonesty was… refreshing. In any case, Alice was hurt, but I could not let her know that I knew just yet. The dolls know I could not help her because it was not the right moment; she did not want help and she certainly needed some time to get over her grief.

All I could do at the time was to pretend to be oblivious of what happened, and give her the time she deserved to deal with her grief. I was exhausted, anyway; calling it a night did not seem like a bad idea.

I woke up early on the fifth morning, and I could tell Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai seemed ready. I could not do much for Alice, except try to give back to what she gave me; at least, I could make her life a little more comfortable.

So, I got into the kitchen and tried to make a little breakfast for both of us. It was simple: rice balls with umeboshi in the center. Instead of a triangular shape, they were much more… spherical in shape, but they were not at all spheres; the shapes were much more abstract, with bits and pieces of rice sticking out from the sides. As for tea, I saw she had various kinds, and I was not sure which kind she liked better. I asked one of the Shanghai Dolls for help, and she pulled out one labeled "Mouthton". Thanking the helper, I followed the directions on the carton to make it work right. Hopefully.

Eventually, Alice came out of her room. The dolls noticed her faster than I did, mostly because of their "network" of communication. I only heard about this when the Shanghai helpers fled back to their original locations prior to helping me prepare something for Alice in a small attempt to help her recover. Well, I knew she was coming because of the dolls, and their "code' required them to live secret lives helping their owner and/or creator behind the scenes.

"Good morning, Alice." I greeted her as I heard her sit down at the table. There was silence, uncomfortable silence that my mind urged me to fill, yet I could not. She was still dealing with her loss.

"You know, I was worried about you, after you stormed into the house a couple days ago. What happened? Could you tell me?" I had to ask her now.

Alice was still in grief, but she perked up. "It's none of your business."

"I can't let this go, Alice. You helped me get a start on my problem, and now it's my turn to pay it back. What's bothering you? Please be honest, Alice." I insisted. I was not about to back down after a little resistance. She was surprised; perhaps my insistence was not at all expected.

"I wanted to know what was bothering you last night, but let it go because it wasn't the right time. Please, tell me what's wrong… so that I can help you get over whatever it was that troubled you… just like how you helped me. You should be fine enough to tell me what's bothering you right now, right?"

Alice was on the verge of tears again, but took a moment to avert her eyes. I must push harder; her defenses were buckling. "If your dolls were alive, would they try to help you the way I am trying to help you right now? Would you push them away like you are pushing me away when they're trying to help you?"

She winced as though in pain. I think I nailed the problem right there; she would have confided this loss with her dolls, but not with me. She raised her hand, ready to slap me, but stopped just before swinging her hand to my face.

I held her head close to my chest and let her cry her heart out.

"It must've been pretty bad… whatever happened to you. You were my support yesterday, let me be yours today." I whispered into her ear as gently as I could.

In the corner of my eyes, I saw Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai keeping an eye on me closely. They were nervous about the relationship between me and her growing closer than that between her and them, so I mouthed to her to relay to Hourai: "She's in pain, I'm not taking advantage of her. It's a human comforting thing."

I think "Imouto" Shanghai got the message, and relayed that to Hourai. The red-dressed doll seemed to have loosened up a little, and then returned to watching Alice with worry.

"Are you settled down now? Please, tell me what's wrong, Alice. If the Shanghais were alive, they'd be worried, especially if Hourai was alive."

Alice calmed down enough and began to explain her problem though the last remaining tears she had after a full thirty minutes of sobbing. To me, however, it felt like an eternity.

"It's Marisa… she was killed. Reimu… I don't know why she would kill her… but I know it's her that killed Marisa."

It was exactly as the dolls said. Hearing this was an untold cue from the dolls; I had to play the part of "did not know" to prevent Alice from figuring out I did know, not to mention the possibility of her thinking that I had a part in killing Marisa and set it up at this stage of her recovery.

"Reimu? You mean Hakurei Reimu? That's not right… Why would she kill her best friend? It's common sense for all of Gensokyo to know that she's Marisa's best friend. Nothing set them apart… ever."

"That's what I thought too, but something happened to cause her to attack Marisa."

"Did Reimu have her own friend?" There was a train of thought that I had to investigate.

"No. I don't remember. Why, how does this relate?" As expected.

"You took me in, and Danielle was taken in by Marisa. I think Reimu also took in a friend for herself if the pattern fits from four days ago. Everyone in Gensokyo took one of us human villagers for themselves, and I think they fought over us as if we're some kind of prize. I don't really know, but I'm just guessing based on what you told me, and what I remembered four days ago when I saw you and many other girls take us human villagers away."

I made my guess right there. I knew I had some possible answers there, but I was quite sure every big-name Gensokyo girl out there took one of us human villagers for themselves. Alice, while still resting her head on my breasts and getting the last of her tears out, began to consider my explanation.

"If what you said… was true… was she killed… because she tried to steal Reimu's human villager?"

"I don't know, but I think that might be the case. There are cases in the village that lead girls to get in cat fights with one another over boys they like, but I think the human world took this another step in making it a big deal, almost to where Reimu did what she did, which was killing to keep the boy they like for themselves. That's what I think anyway, but I don't know unless I know more."

Alice seemed to have taken her first step in recovering from the shock of losing Marisa. It's a bigger step for her to take than I did for my pediophobia. I wanted to relay this to Alice last night about a lead, but I was not sure if this would be the right time.

"Anyway, I read a book once about this hill covered in poison. Does something live there?" At this moment, changing the subject of conversation sounded good. Besides, I needed to find out that information, too. Some intelligence gathering would not hurt.

Alice looked up at me with a concerned face. "Why? Is there something there?"

I began explaining my variation of the dolls' rumor.

"I think the book said there's a youkai that lives off poison there, and might know how to cure my mother's illness-induced amnesia."

"You're talking about Nameless Hill, aren't you? There's nothing there, and Marisa only told me about a poison youkai living there. She told me the name of that Youkai was Medicine Melancholy, but said it was a puppeteer like me, and that she hates humans. She wasn't sure of what kind of youkai it was, but I'm sure that's all that lives there."

Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai in the corner out of Alice's sight had an immediate reaction to hearing the name "Medicine Melancholy', and began signaling me to come over to them as soon as possible. Apparently, at this moment, I think this "youkai' wasn't really a youkai; it might be the doll Alice, the dolls themselves, and myself are looking for. That's just a guess right now, but I need to confirm this with "Imouto" Shanghai and Hourai later.

"Was that all that you remember of this youkai?" I had to ask for clarification.

Alice nodded. "Yes. There's nothing more I know about this youkai, except to move on; it's not related to your past."

"I'm just wondering, what if this youkai was actually that doll we're looking for?" I raised the possibility to her. I did not know any more than this as a thought; I'm going by Hourai's and "Imouto" Shanghai's reactions to help me open this line of thinking to Alice, without telling her or hinting that the dolls think that as well.

"That youkai? Being a doll youkai? The same one we're looking for? I seriously doubt that as a coincidence. What makes you think the Nameless Hill poison youkai is our doll?"

I had to stop there. If I said anything about her dolls tipping me off, it was "game over" for me, my life, and the end of the secret lives of the dolls. And because of that, Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai definitely looked at me with great scrutiny.

"I just want to know. If it's just a regular poison youkai, we might ask him or her if he or she knows about my father's killer. If it's our doll, we can both finish what we want from it. If there's nothing there, then I was foolish for asking." I was being economical with the truth again. It helped open the possibility to Alice without tipping her off.

"I see. I'm a little reluctant to get going, but if curiosity's worth dying for, I think it best we brave the question. Let me get ready, and we'll check out Nameless Hill in an hour. Be ready for fighting if this youkai is aggressive; that sword of yours will be a spell card you can use in accordance to the spell card system. If you know basic danmaku, you should be able to hold your own." Alice let herself off me and went to her room to get ready. Right after she left, Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai snuck past her towards me. Their faces seemed to be that of praise, but also of satisfaction that I was doing my job for them while keeping their secret.

"Suzie, that youkai Alice mentioned is the name of our traitor to dollkind; Onee-chan's absolutely sure of it. Medicine Melancholy was an exceptional doll who was once owned by a young girl named Fujiwara no Mokou many centuries ago. Fujiwara kept Medicine as a "friend' after losing her family, friends, and place in life, but then abandoned Medicine when she became immortal, and found Kaguya Houraisan for revenge. Many years passed, and the abandoned Medicine became a cursed doll with a life of its own, out for revenge."

"Imouto" Shanghai relayed Hourai's explanation to me about Medicine.

"Abandoned, Medicine grew to hate humans since she saw the same pattern over and over again; girls grow old and abandon the dolls they played with when they were children. This became her reason for hating humans, and none of us dolls can argue with that reason; we do eventually become abandoned, but get recycled or passed down to the next generation of humans. Some of us dolls are given to Alice, where she takes care of us and turns us into Shanghai Dolls. Medicine knows this, and refuses to become a Shanghai Doll; She will not become one of Alice's dolls, whether intact or a Shanghai doll. To her, Alice is another girl who will eventually abandon her Shanghai Dolls and move onto other things."

I could sympathize with Medicine's seclusion, but I did not exactly know how it felt to be abandoned and ignored. Either case, she was a criminal to the dolls, and I needed to get back at her for my parents.

"Also, Suzie… you might want to suggest to Alice to bring along Goliath Doll. Medicine isn't called 'exceptional' for nothing; She and her own doll are deadly together. Onee-chan fought Medicine before when she was lost, and they were evenly matched. Also, ask Alice to teach you how to 'control' us. Let her teach you a bit, but let us do our fighting while pretending to control us when we get there. You'll understand this when you play along."

Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai relayed to me before fleeing back to their location prior to sneaking out of place to relay all that information to me.

I nodded in agreement, and began to work my part of their plan, but to be honest, I was not not a great schemer, so I'm going by the dolls' plan.

It was the start of the afternoon, and I knew I had to act fast to be ready for the confrontation against Medicine. Alice left her room in her battle garments. It was not any different from her normal clothes much, aside from her clothes being made of sturdier materials, some more protective gear like leather gauntlets and shoulder guard that were simple in design.

"Alice, I know this is sudden, but I want to take a big step in my fear… and learn to control dolls like you do."

Judging by her looks, she must have thought that I was insane. "Why ask me this now? I expected you to ask me this a couple days from now when you are more comfortable with Shanghai Dolls."

"I want to try it out, see if I can learn how you did that, maybe help you if we have to fight."

Alice sighed when I explained this. "This is a big step… and I'm not sure if you're ready for this; I don't want you to faint upon trying something bigger than you can handle."

"Please, let me try." I would not let up. I was only told to learn this a few moments ago by the dolls themselves, but I could not let my fear stop me in these few moments. I could tremble in fear and horror for as long as I want after this.

Alice simply sighed, went over to pick up "Imouto" Shanghai's ring string controller and gave it to me. "Put this on one of your fingers, and channel your thoughts of movement towards Shanghai. This Shanghai was my training doll to learn how to emulate the concept with real magic, so I think you can learn something similar later if you pick up a similar kind of magic."

I slid the ring string controller on my left hand's pinkie finger slowly, afraid of what might go wrong, and picked up "Imouto" Shanghai. She winked at me while her face was well out of Alice's sight, and I knew what she had in mind: learn the basics now, and then let her do the work under the guise of "beginner's luck" later when it would be time to face off against Medicine. For the moment, I need to work with "Imouto" Shanghai and learn to manually control her.

I did as she instructed, and thought of the command to make her perk up and do some walking back and forth. Sure enough, I felt myself being spiritually connected with "Imouto" Shanghai, and it felt like a spirit taking over the body of the target.

From the moment I thought to command "Imouto" Shanghai, I felt a part of my mind was sucked into the doll's body, and that part of my mind became engraved in her body. It was like an extension of myself in astral projection; my main body being where it is, while the doll was like a second body for me to control.

This feeling of "remote control" was new, and exciting for me. I've never felt or experienced the possibility of having a part of myself be in control of something aside from my body.

Trying this sensation for the first time, I did some commands to her as I said earlier; "Imouto" Shanghai definitely did get up and walked around the table. The feeling was enjoyable, and I think this was a bigger step I have taken towards getting over my fear.

Unfortunately, I had to stop myself, and told myself to cut my control of "Imouto" Shanghai short.

"Fun huh? I had that same feeling when I tried it the first time after learning to control dolls with my own magic."

"Yeah, it feels fun to be in control of a doll, making it move to your will."

"Be sure to remember that feeling; it's a basic technique for puppeteer magicians. I taught two humans my technique, but they claimed my method for themselves. I trust you to won't steal this technique for yourself and take credit?"

"I won't. I'm not like those idiots who steal other people's ideas and take credit for themselves. I just want to learn this so I can help you in battle if necessary."

Alice nodded her head as though saying "good'.

"That's ambitious, though I think I have to put off Nameless Hill until tomorrow; learning to control dolls is easy, but using them in battle will take some practice."

I nodded. "I'll try, Alice. Please be sure to train me hard."

"I think you've gotten over the majority of your fear with an understanding of them, from what I see. Whether you have overcome your pediophobia completely or not… I don't know."

I thought she has a point; my fear of dolls certainly seemed to have been overcome. "I think it's like you said; I misunderstood them, and needed time to learn WHY I was afraid of them. Though that one killer doll still haunts me, I think I can face it a little better if I come across it again."

"Good, now then, let's get Hourai connected to you." Alice got Hourai's ring string controller. I put it on my left hand's ring finger, next to "Imouto" Shanghai's ring string controller.

I was right-handed, so I thought I should play the two of them like a combat mage; using my "familiars" with my left hand when I did not need to get close and physical with my family heirloom, the "Blade of Tostuka' as my family called it.

Actually, at that moment, I thought that giving it a new name would not be a bad idea:"Katana-no-Ningyou… I think my family heirloom's due for a name change right about now."

"Hm? What's this about Dolls?" Alice muttered, perking up at the mention of "doll".

"Sorry, it's my family heirloom's new name now."

The Sword of Dolls, formerly named the Ten Hands Long Blade, whose previous name was forgotten. To be honest, the family heirloom kept getting its name changed with each generation, and it was a pointless tradition to have each successor give it a new name, but I thought I would pick up that tradition for the last time and make it a milestone of my life here. It would also be my physical symbol of overcoming my pediophobia, as a reminder of the help I got to overcome this, as a reminder that I was never alone, that there were people out there who were kind enough to help others. This sword…was me.

I could continue life with a better outlook, but there was one more thing I need to do before I can live my life as Alice's partner. I had to face the past itself, get rid of Medicine Melancholy, and avenge my parents. My friends—no, comrades—were the Shanghai Dolls, with "Imouto" Shanghai and Hourai as my informants to what went on while I keep the dolls' lives secret.

Sadly, I had to return to training with Alice.

"Controlling two dolls at the same time is tricky, as you have to divide your attention between the two of them. Remember what you did with the Training Shanghai doll? Do the same, but to Hourai at the same time as you do to Shanghai." Alice instructed.

The afternoon training went smoothly, as I learned to manually control them. Hourai looked to the side with her eyes, and I felt as though it was a strange moment with her; but then, she gave me the look of trust before letting herself get ready for being taken over. As usual, she did this while facing me, and away from Alice.

I did as instructed, and tried to get myself in control of Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai. It was hard to get right the first time, and I took control of neither.

"It's not easy to control two at a time huh? It will take some practice, but you'll get the hang of it."

"That's right. It's not easy, Alice. How do you manage to control the twenty or so dolls around you?"

"Oh, I just do that now every day, only needing twenty at a time. When you learn to control multiple dolls at a time, being able to control several will come naturally over time. It's best to learn how to divide your attention among them first, and then you'll be able to control them while you're doing your own things once you get the hang of controlling them first."

Alice's explanation would've been absurd and abstract, if it wasn't for the first-hand experience I had in trying this earlier.

Anyway, I gave this a try again, dividing my attention between Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai. Fortunately, I was able to take control of both of them this time. I could not see what they saw, but I had control of their movements. It felt awkward, especially since I was controlling them both at the same time, but I thought they wanted me to learn this manually to convince Alice to let me join her in the fight and learn her fighting style. The dolls, however, would take over and do the fighting themselves, leaving her to think that I had mastered her techniques during the moment of truth. I thought that was their plan, and I had to place my bets on them.

"Hey, Suzie, can you hear me?" I thought I heard "Imouto" Shanghai's voice in my head while controlling her and Hourai.

"About time I can finally talk to you, half-useful human." I think I also heard Hourai's voice this time.

Wait, was that telepathy?

"I thought I heard someone calling me." I muttered quietly.

"Hm? You thought you heard someone? I doubt that since it's just you and me here, Suzie." Alice responded.

"Oh, Hourai can finally speak with you, Suzie. Alright, Onee-chan, speak your mind."

"Listen, Suzie; we can communicate directly if you're connected to us, whether you're in control of us or not through that controller you're wearing. It has to be ours to communicate with us; Alice can't hear our thoughts, so you need to think your thoughts to me or my imouto to talk to us directly."

This explanation seemed rather far-fetched, but I thought they were trying to keep me informed this way; their planning ahead and sneakiness amazed me how hard they tried to communicate with me without Alice knowing about their "network" and "secret" lives with their doll code.

"Okayso, what's going on?" I thought to both of them.

"Listen, Suzie, leave the fighting and stuff to me, my imouto, and my imouto's comrades. All you need to do is watch our backs. Don't take control of us when we get out there to fight Medicine Melancholy; let us fight, but help us keep an eye on Su-San, Medicine's own doll. They love to tag-team their enemies, and that's where your help comes in. If you can keep track of their movements and relay them to us, we can coordinate our comrades better. Well, the ones Alice gives you to control anyway. Be sure to push your training to control 8 more by tomorrow, and I think we might be able to stand a chance. Alice won't bother fighting her; she'll want to take Medicine home to study her. As much as we want her to advance on the autonomous doll project of hers, we can't allow Medicine to remain in Gensokyo." That was Hourai's explanation this time. I had to practice controlling both of them while they communicated to me their plan to avoid letting Alice figure out the dolls are talking to me.

"Alright, Hourai. That's the battle plan tomorrow? Controlling ten dolls at the same time might be a stretch as to what I can do right now, but"

Hourai then interrupted: "You have to get it right, you half-wit! Get it done today, and then you don't have to worry about it in the future; we will take control of your squad while you stand on the side and watch our backs and help us there. Get that right, and you can take it easy from there; you need to convince Alice that you can manage ten of us at a time, so the thought of us being alive and acting on our will doesn't cross her mind when it's showtime."

Yikes! Hourai really had this planned out in great detail.

"I'm sorry, Suzie. If we had time to spare, Hourai wouldn't be pushing you this hard for everyone's sake." "Imouto" Shanghai relayed to me.

"Hey, are you alright, Suzie?" My thoughts were interrupted when Alice called out to me.

Breaking my train of thought with them for a moment, I responded to Alice: "Sorry, I'm trying to get the hang of controlling both at the same time, and I think it's not as complicated as I thought it was."

Again, the economics with the truth.

"I think you have a talent for this that you didn't know about, but let's try controlling five dolls." Alice complimented and then brought three more Shanghai Dolls and their ring string controllers. I put the controllers on the rest of my left hand fingers. Specifically, I placed them on my middle, pointer, and thumb fingers. Then, I tried to establish the connection with all five of them at the same time. It took longer than simply connecting to both Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai, perhaps due to a "synchronization' thing between puppeteer and puppets.

Eventually, I was connected to all five of them spiritually. I know it's kind of magic to be controlling them, but I call it being connected spiritually because it's the closest thing to an explanation I can give for myself.

"Good, you got three comrades into our network with you." I heard "Imouto" Shanghai say to me.

"I'm in… a network?" I asked "Imouto" Shanghai curiously.

"Our network isn't just limited to communicating between dolls verbally or by strings; we can establish private networks of sorts like this if we wanted to, but we don't do it because most of the time, our owners or creators would often hear our thoughts, thus tipping them off that we are alive. Please, try to master controlling the five of us at the same time so you can convince Alice to let you go with her.""Imouto" Shanghai answered hastily through our thoughts.

While hearing this from "Imouto" Shanghai, I had to practice their simultaneous manual movements to keep Alice believing I'm making progress.

"Good luck, Suzie!" I heard the thoughts of the three Shanghai dolls cheering me on.

I remembered the gamble Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai made to try and get me to be their human mediator. They were counting on me to keep my end of the bargain, and I would not let them down.

"Let me try ten now. Hold on." I thought to Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai, and just as I did that, the connection with them was cut.

"If I can control ten, can you let me fight alongside you if the need arises, Alice?" I asked her sternly.

"If you can that is. You struggled a bit to control five at the same time, but if you can handle ten, then yes, I think you should be safe in battle with me. Though I think taking ten at a time is rather over-the-top for what you can do; even I struggled to control ten on my first day. Slow down, Suzie. I know you want to fight, but aren't you rushing this practice?" She was a little bit surprised, I suppose, but it was only natural, because even I thought it was a little bit too ambitious.

"I want to be ready for the worst-case scenario. Tomorrow's when we leave, right? I have to be ready by then."

I had to show her my determination. Hourai told me that poison youkai living on the Nameless Hill might be our target, and I wanted to be ready now so that if Medicine were there, I could fight her.

Alice sighed in defeat: "Alright, though I don't expect you to get it right, I'll see how you can fare."

Reluctantly, she handed me five more ring string controllers. These I put on my right hand fingers. Like before, I began to synchronize my spirit with the ten dolls. It took twice as long as before, and twice as hard on my focus.

"Good, you half-useful lump. You got to synch with ten of us. Just work all of us today, and leave the control of us to ourselves tomorrow. You have to convince Alice you have control of all ten of us, or she'll think something's up. Do this much and I think we can work together tomorrow; the eleven of usMedicine needs to own up to her "crime' as you call it, you get your revenge, and we can go our separate ways."

Just as Hourai said that to me through the doll network "thoughts', I could see her looking away while saying the last sentence.

"Alright, so you're going to take the lead, Hourai?" I asked her through this network.

"Yes, you'll just be watching our backs, informing us of sneak attacks by Su-San. We've discussed this several times. I'll be coordinating the attack. Just make it LOOK like you're in control of us so Alice doesn't get suspicious." And then at that moment, I finally understood my role in the confrontation that would happen the next day.

While I was confirming the plan with Hourai, who I must admit had an eccentric way of responding to me, I had to focus on making this look convincing to Alice of my progress.

The most I could do at the moment was to make all ten dolls walk around and float aimlessly in directions I could only coordinate in my thoughts, which was pretty much the controls Alice told me were.

I reckoned I had a good grasp on the controls for Hourai, "Imouto" Shanghai, and the regular Shanghais.

Unfortunately, when I realized the time, it was evening hours. Alice worked on the next stage of this doll training.

"You have the basics down, apparently. Learned quite fast, which is surprising for a non-magic user. Then again, you're using the training equipment that shows you how it's supposed to work in practicality. Oh well, it's time you learned to hold your own using the dolls." She began. "Remember how you controlled them? Now make sure you use them in a more practical manner; I'm going to come at you with my Shanghais, and you focus on keeping each Shanghai of yours alive for a while. This includes Hourai; keep all ten of them alive for thirty seconds."

I nodded.

"CrapAlice is serious; she's testing you, Suzie. You cannot fail this one." I heard "Imouto" Shanghai relay to my head directly through the "network" they use.

I nodded again, this time a little slower, and readied myself.

I could not rely on the dolls for help this time. Alice seemed to be focused on my movements, and if she caught me slacking with the dolls moving on their own, it would be all over.

This would be the start. Alice brought out one Shanghai Doll from behind her and pointed it threateningly at me. Had I still been pediophobic at the level I was at before spending time with Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai, I would have fainted right there on the spot.

"Good luck, Suzie. Show Alice how serious you are so we can get moving and finish this up tomorrow."

I heard "Imouto" Shanghai cheer.

"Show Alice who's boss, half-useless human."

I still could not get used to the strange manners in which Hourai conversed, but that would come with time as well, I thought. It was do-or-die time: my first confrontation with dolls, and I would have my own to fight against them.

Alice began shooting danmaku from her Shanghai doll, and I had to move all ten of the dolls under my control to safety.

I wish Hourai, "Imouto" Shanghai, and the regular Shanghai dolls would help me out, but such a thing would not work if Alice were as observant as the dolls were making her out to be.

Alice's attack pace picked up, shooting more danmaku my way, and I had to move around, while also moving my comrades with me to have all eleven of us avoid taking a hit.

Twenty-five seconds remaining.

The attack pace did not let up, but it changed patterns this time, requiring more focus from me to maneuver the dolls between the danmaku to keep each one alive.

As hard as it was to manage to keep two from danger, 10 is quite a lot to manage in tense situations like this, even if it's training or a test.

Twenty seconds remaining.

Hourai, "Imouto" Shanghai, oh, how I wished they could help me at the moment!

Alice's pace picked up and brought out two more Shanghai Dolls. Moving the left hand squad a bit to the right to get closer to the right hand squad, I thought it would be easy if they acted as one unit in one place.

Adjusting for bullet pattern, I lined up my squads so they could weave in and out in a curve bending according to the patterns.

Fifteen seconds left, and Alice was busting out the big guns.

"Doll Sign: Shanghai."

Now there were ten Shanghai Dolls on her side, equal to the number of dolls on my end.

I would definitely faint for a day had I still been afraid of them. Fortunately, I could play this like Chess somehow and focus on getting each doll through the danger of danmaku.

Hourai and "Imouto" Shanghai were up at this moment, so I had to move them close to avoid the majority of the danmaku from the Shanghais on Alice's side, but then she switched over to third, fourth and fifth Shanghais on her side, which I had to move mine more spread out since she was concentrating fire towards the middle.

Ten seconds left.

Alice now brought the fight to my right hand's squad, all five of them all at once. This time, she pulled something I did not expect: each of the five Shanghai dolls opened fire at the dolls on my side.

This was hard for me to keep track of all at once, but I knew I had to overcome this to win Alice's trust and convince her I have some talent. Either way, I worked what I could, spreading out my squad of Shanghai dolls to avoid most of the fire.

Five seconds left. I only needed to hold out a little while longer and keep my focus in top shape.

I took a deep breath and beheld her movements. Her dolls were weaving between each other, spraying out streams of bullets as it

T-minus four.

I had to scramble the team randomly in positions this time; they all were spread out pretty far.

T-minus three.

Her dolls tracked their targets' new positions. I got this. I just shuffled the positions of the dolls to safer spots for this moment.

T-minus two.

As I thought, they each had a particular target in mind, so I just had to shuffle them again out of danger.

T-minus one.

All I needed to do is scramble them one more time out of danger, and it's over.

That's exactly what I did upon seeing an opening for the dolls; I took that chance, and scrambled the positions one last time.

Blast off.

Alice's spell card timed out, and she put away her ten Shanghai dolls.

"I underestimated you… you're a quick learner, but your strategies are a bit on the beginner's side. It's not a bad start for you. I'll let you have Hourai and the Shanghais for tomorrow's exploration at Nameless Hill." She complimented as the test was over.

"ImpressiveSuzieYou actually held out. I guess you aren't as useless as I thought. Alice won't be suspicious of us now that we're with you. Though you have to wake up early tomorrow and pretend you're practicing when Alice wakes up so she will think you're practicing; it will let us move more freely in battle and with better coordination when she sees your practicing. Trust me on this." Hourai said to me telepathically, even though it was not true telepathy.

"PhewI didn't think I would be able to hold out in the first place. Though I wish you could help me even for a moment!" I complained back with a whine.

Alice, fortunately, retreated back to her room when I thought that back to Hourai.

"Oh, Alice. Bring your big guns tomorrow; I don't know how strong this poison youkai is, so please get ready… something like your strongest doll?" I asked her quickly, shifting my attention to her before she was completely in her room.

"Hm? You mean like Goliath Doll? I don't see a need for her if it's just a trip there to check something." Alice shot back.

"I just have this feeling… and I just feel it… She's there… I think… I just feel… my father's killer is there… I want to be ready… at full force… with your help… to get rid of her… if she's there… Please Alice."

I was desperate at this point. I wanted her help. She seemed to be taking this lightly, as a simple trip to a random location. I wanted to tell her Medicine was there for sure; I wanted to drop this pretense, to stop being so economical with the truth and just speak my heart out to her. After all, it was not like these truths were going to feed me when I was hungry.

Yet I could not.

"HeySuzie, I know you want to go there badly, and have Alice ready, butyou can't be desperate like this." "Imouto" Shanghai said to me via "telepathy'.

"No… you're right, Suzie… I should be ready… I don't know what's out there, and my confidence was telling me I'd be fine with just Shanghai protecting me." That statement from her caught me and my doll squad off guard.

Did she realize how serious I was?

"I think… I understand one thing… if your hunch is right, then we may have to fight to get cooperation from the poison youkai."Alice muttered.

"If that youkai is really Medicine Melancholy… I won't hold back one bit; I will make sure nothing remains of her." My determination was strong, I made sure Alice burned this through her head.

"I see. If Medicine does live on that hill… Unfortunately… I might have to defend her until I get my answers."

I believe that will be imminent, Alice; I thought.

"I'm sorry it's come to this, "Imouto" Shanghai, Hourai, and the Shanghais with me; we are going to have to fight Alice at full force when that comes if you want your revenge on Medicine. Please tell me what YOUR choice is from now so I don't make the mistake of breaking our deal with you, or betraying you all." I said to my ten dolls via "telepathy' (their "network').

I did not get an answer right away. Alice retreated back to her room, and I had to wait for the dolls' answer to this question.

Whether my comrades are willing to fight Alice for their way of life to be avenged, and for my sake… or to remain faithful to Alice and pass up this chance I wanted my entire life to have…

That was what they were thinking about at the moment; I was sure of it.

"Hourai?" I asked her again.

"…. I'm still thinking, dammit! I don't know what to do right now! If we defect from Alice, we'll just be as bad as Medicine isbut if we stay with Alice and abandon this opportunity, we would be betraying you, who we put our hopes and trust in!"

Hourai shouted through "telepathy' to me.

Apparently, this was one situation I think even she wasn't prepared for.

"Imouto" Shanghai also seemed equally distressed at this fork in the road they have to choose.

"I'm sorry, Suzie. The ten of us need to talk alone overnight. We'll tell you our decision when we come to an agreement. From there, Hourai will tell you what to do." "Imouto" Shanghai informed me before cutting herself loose from my control.

Hourai and the other Shanghai dolls also did the same, removing their ring string controllers from my hands. I retired with them to my room.

The decision to make was heavy for them; the ten dolls who had to make the ultimate decision to defect and become traitors for the right cause, or remain faithful and break the trust they built with me to help Alice for them.

Even I was distressed at the thought of turning against Alice for my own desire of revenge.

Either way, I hoped my comrades would make a choice for the best, for it would never be a beneficial decision for both of us at the same time: with either choice, someone loses, and I had to live with it.

Hurt Alice even more and get revenge for my father, or let all my efforts be in vain and help Alice with her research and recover from the loss of Marisa, her formerly close friend.

I figured I would wait for their answer in the morning, clear my mind and await morning in a couple hours.


(P.S. Another hanging spot, but this one's NOT the end of Alice's story. I have to split the chapter in half from here, and work on the other half later. This is part 2 of Suzie's story)