The sun had finally risen over Gensokyo City, and a haunting presence had followed it. Yuuka had just awakened from the flower bed – the only one in miles, inside a small patch of green in the midst of the urban desert.
Feeling refreshed, she got dressed again, sadly registering the absence of her usual flower pajama. The thought brought a tear to her eye, but she wiped it off and, after she had finished getting dressed, scrambled with a smile on her face to return to her yesterday activities, namely finding any known faces from Gensokyo and drag them to Yukari.
Of course, her searches until now hadn't turned out anything useful: neither the few still living trees, all too often blinded by the poisonous smokes of the city. She had drawn a few suspicious looks from the humans in the zone, but she was still intimidating enough that no-one went further than giving her a funny look and scuttling as soon as they met her eyes, who were placed just above an unfriendly grin which conveyed very well the message "Don't bother me or I'll use your corpse as fertilizer".
But still, zero results. Yuuka's gut was telling her that there was no way things could stay this static for long, and something of importance should be happening in minutes.
For now, though, she hadn't been getting anything but rumors and complaints about various issues, such as the government, prices at bars or restaurants – Yukari would have probably agreed with them – and juvenile delinquency. And something about the old underground stations.
It could have been a lead, as it could have just been misleading. And Yuuka sincerely hoped it was the second.
She felt very, very uncomfortable in the deep, sunless caves. She had gone to Old Hell once, back in Gensokyo, and it had been one of the most unpleasant experiences of her life. It had taken quite some time to get the poisonous voices out of her head: while the first levels, still populated by some forms of plant life, were , at worst, still and silent, the deeper ones were mostly inhabited only by those fungi who were hardened enough to stand the high temperatures and rarified water and air.
And they were certainly not going to welcome her.
She was spacing out, again.
This wasn't good. This city wasn't good. Despite what Yukari said, she wasn't convinced that this was merely a dimensional displacement. This place was too real, felt too real… but where Gensokyo was a gentle breeze, or a vivifying, if heavy, rain. That city, instead, had a sick, scorching touch, that got directly under her skin, burning and flaying her flesh.
But she wasn't going to accomplish anything by concentrating on her present unease. So, she forced herself to keep walking.
And she didn't like what she saw.
Human children hiding in the sewers, running from the more organized gangs or the so-called police. Fighting to death over a crumb of bread or a pair of shoes.
She snorted. Not only humans mistreated her kind, but didn't even use the gifts they had forcefully taken to guarantee happiness to all of their own. She was really starting to think that if humans could only squander her precious gifts, then plants might as well take them back. After all, it is madness to take water from the still green leaves to give it to the old, shriveled ones.
Humans really had a strange way of thinking.
She set aside those thoughts again, thinking in abstract would get her nowhere. Still, she had no idea where to look.
The familiar odor from the day before immediately struck her. This time she was positively certain: she knew that scent.
Not distant, 400 meters maximum, on the left, was what her senses told her.
She reacted immediately, and sped off towards the source of the scent, before stopping herself mid-run: she was starting to remember whose smell was the one she was feeling, and with that realization came the conclusion that a different approach was in order. Her prey was a sneaky and fearful one, so, if she started running like a bear, stomping over everything in her path, she would scare her off and lose another day. So, she slowed down and glanced around to find the person she was looking for amongst the others.
It was still a little hard to tell them apart by faces, but she had been getting plenty of exercise on that, so, when she finally spotted her prey, she took a few seconds to confirm it was that person. And indeed she was: even when trying to be as anonymous and unassuming as possible, the night sparrow was unmistakable, even without head-wings.
Yuuka took a few more steps in the direction of her target, and in the meantime she scanned her surroundings. She felt a dark, deep-brown smell of burning wood coming from Mistya's position, along with the animal stench of burned flesh. Apparently, she was cooking something. Her eyes only confirmed what her other senses already knew: she was standing on a recycled old cart and spinning some skewered meat over a wood fire. A very, very dangerous thing to do.
The flower master moved a step towards Mistya, when she saw a couple of ominous-looking humans, covered in black clothing and wearing on their heads a black helmet which concealed their faces, approaching her prey. The tallest and largest of the two interrupted the sparrow's work by grabbing her arm and forcing her to face him, then muttered something. The words were muffled by the ending, but Yuuka was pretty sure she heard something about a "selling license".
Mistya tried to wriggle free, and the man smacked her in the face, then threw her to the ground. The second person neared, and gave a kick to her head.
Yuuka felt something flare up inside her. Whether it was rage or pure survival instinct, she leaped over and grabbed the taller one by the collar. Then, she ripped off the helmet in one smooth move, contemporarily swooping the ground with her leg and tripping the man, making him fall face-first on the ground.
After downing him, she pressed his head on the floor with her foot, turned to the other agent, unsheathed her best smile and said: "You can go~".
The policeman, instead, stood there, frozen for a few seconds, then produced something from his right side, but before he had any opportunity to use it, Yuuka had already leaped onto him and grabbed his wrist. The agent tried to hit Yuuka to no avail, and she then twisted his arm, kneed him in the crotch and finally forced him to bow with his hands behind his back. She was about to strip this one too of his helmet, when the first policeman, who had, in the meantime, managed to get up and draw his pistol, threatened her: "Hands up or I'll shoot!"
Yuuka simply lifted the resisting policeman to her height and said: "If you want to hit your friend, go ahead…"
The first officer tried to react, when Yuuka suddenly threw his colleague onto him, and they both tumbled to the ground because of the impact. They reached for their guns yet again, only to find that Yuuka had already taken them.
"Nuh-nuh, not going to happen~" Yuuka held up the stolen weapons and pointed one at the pair. "Now, forget this all happened, walk away nice and quiet, and I won't open a new orifice in your heads~"
"No way!" The smaller of the two had managed to untangle himself from his colleague and stand up. "Surrender yourself and maybe you'll only get five years instead of ten!"
Yuuka's only answer was to fire two shots to the bulkier officer's leg and shoulder. The thinner one squeaked and started running, carrying the other on his shoulder. While he was running, he screamed: "I won't forget this! We'll come back for you, bitch! You've signed your death sentence!"
After the two had gone out of sight, Yuuka turned her gaze to the terrified night sparrow, who was hiding under the cart, clutching her head.
"Hi miss! I'm Yuuka-" she started, but Mistya interrupted her immediately: "Are you crazy? Now those goons are gonna come back for me, and you too! Who do you think you are, Jet Li?"
Then, the night bird suddenly found out that lashing out at the weird woman right in front of her was a very bad idea when Yuuka lifted her by her ankles.
"I just told you that I'm Yuuka. Mind your manners, wren."
This loony's dead serious… thought Mistya with fright.
"He- hey, lady, I was- I was just scared, don't mind what I just said… uhm… can you put me down pleasepleaseplease?" she whimpered, tearing up a bit.
Yuuka smiled warmly, then put her back on the ground.
"Aren't you going to say thank you to big sis Yuuka? I just saved you from those… insects."
She was speaking like someone would speak to a kid. Not a good sign, thought Mistya.
The sparrow, still trembling and breathing heavily, complied: "We- well, thank you, miss Yuuka… he… he…"
"Awww, don't mention it, sweetie. Buuuuut…"
Oh gods I knew it, she's gonna kill me or something of the sort. Mistya's eyes edged around, only to discover that there was literally no one left in the square. Everybody probably already figured that it wasn't going to end well…
Shivering even more than before, Mistya timidly asked: "B- but what, m-miss Yuuka?"
Instead of answering, Yuuka seemed to space out for a few seconds, then, suddenly, drew her face uncomfortably close to Mistya's own.
Yuuka mimed a lovestruck tone: "What do you do for a living, my little lark?"
Ok, this is getting seriously creepy, thought Mistya. But, who knows what she'll do to me if I don't do as she says... Mistya remembered with horror what happened to the two orcops.
"W- well, I have a grill cart, but… why do you ask?"
Yuuka suddenly slapped her. "No, bad, bad sparrow! I'm the one making questions!" Then she paused, put up her honey smile again, and added: "Ok?"
Any doubts Mistya had about the woman's mental sanity were suddenly confirmed. She's nuts. She's totally nuts, and added, maybe as an address to whatever cosmic force was drawing the lots for her destiny: Please, please, I don't wanna die…
Yet, she still forced herself to answer as to not incur in Yuuka's wrath: "O… k?"
Yuuka's smile widened again. "Good bird. Now, tell me… you don't recognize me at all?"
Mistya was getting more and more confused by the scary woman's behavior. What was she trying to tell her, that she was some sort of long-lost relative who had come to this hellhole to drag her off the streets to let her live in luxury?
Well, now that she had calmed down enough to take a closer look to the strange woman currently in the process of questioning her, she did have some fancy clothes…
Yuuka suddenly spoke, interrupting her musings: "I see, so you really don't remember anything…"
Mistya was confused. Was that a hint of sadness in Yuuka's eyes?
Yuuka perked up immediately and continued, putting back up her smile: "Well, that's an unlucky occurrence. I'm sorry…"
"Uh? Sorry? Sorry for wha-" Mistya was starting to reply, but she was cut off when Yuuka grabbed her by her shoulders, loaded her on her back and sped off.
Yuuka ran for a bit, until she found the little secluded grass patch she had spent the last night in. She dived in, hiding in the high grass, then gently laid the still hyperventilating girl on the ground.
Mistya tried to speak, but the only sounds that came from her mouth were something along the lines of "Wha- wha- whu-?"
Yuuka immediately shushed her, and said: "I'm sorry, little sparrow, but I had to. You see… there are… things I have to tell you. Complicated things."
"Like… algebra or biology? What was it like… that thing that made blood red? Funny that, it's kinda the only thing I remembered from what prof Nakagawa told me, but now I can't remember it… homogli- hemegli-, no hemo… hemo someth- oof!" Yuuka interrupted her with an elbow to the stomach.
Yuuka then spat back: "No, you airheaded bird! What I'm saying is that… you may not know who you really are."
As she spelt that last sentence, her voice dropped dangerously almost to a whisper, and gave Mistya the chills. If she had thought so far that the person in front of her was just a crazy woman with incredible reflexes and fighting skills, for the first time she found herself wondering if she wasn't actually something more… if her… quirky behavior wasn't actually a sign of folly or some horrible mental disease, but a sign of something… else. She tried to brush aside those thoughts, but any attempt at clear reasoning simply crashed when she found herself staring inside Yuuka's eyes.
That… that was probably the moment her life took a turn for the bizarre. When things she couldn't have even dreamed of before, when she was simply a kid doing what she could to survive on the streets, from living off of the rare charity she got from random people to occasional thefts, always alone, always isolated and focused only on surviving… well, the same moment she looked into those eyes returning her a gaze that could only be described as inhuman and ancient, as if those eyes weren't actually placed in front of her, but they were actually staring back at her from the timeless abysses among the stars, the realization finally dawned on her of how what that woman was saying was true, that there was something inside her, a part of her unknown to herself, a silent protector with her own face, who had been lurking in some small, obscure corner of her brain, only rarely surfacing to save her life when she was in actual, impending danger, had finally managed to force her to recognize it.
And after that mind-blowingly revelation, immediately came an equally mind-blowing cramp on her stomach. "Ouch!"
Yuuka glared at her: "Were you listening to what I was saying at all?"
Mistya promptly tried to answer… and found herself stuttering to answer: "We- well yes- I m- mean, I had a… oh, how do you… heh… heh…". She started hyperventilating, and took her a good thirty seconds to manage to stitch together enough coherence to give an intelligible answer: "Y- yes, I d- did, and I think that… you may be right." Her stomach gave her another cramp, this time also letting out a groan. She hadn't eaten for two days now, but with all the stress she had went through, first with the two orcops, then being kidnapped by Yuuka, she was too preoccupied with more pressing concerns to notice it, so the brief period of stunned quiet after… whatever the elegant madwoman in front of her did to her was the perfect occasion for her stomach to butt in and painfully remind her that it had been irritatingly empty for too much time.
Still, she had to find a way to tell it to Yuuka without angering her, which would have been quite a feat, as Mistya simply had known her for a grand total of maybe an hour, and the woman seemed completely unpredictable. And, shaken as she was, she wasn't sure she could muster the force to be diplomatic. Still…
"Y-Yuuka, I…" she tentatively spoke.
Yuuka, though, didn't reply, but simply closed her eyes, with an unexpectedly serious look appearing on her face. "Yes, Misty?"
"I- I think I believe you, but right now… Imabithungrycanieatsomethingpleasedontkillme?" she all but shouted that last part while trembling and closing her eyes in fear.
"Uh? Hungry?" Yuuka seemed lost in thoughts for a bit, then her usual smile came back up. "But of course, little one!"
Mistya almost couldn't believe her ears. Yuuka telling her "Oh, it's ok"? It seems like she does have a good side to her… now, where should I eat?
Then, she remembered she had left all her money in her cart. Now she had to go back there and pick it up! …If someone hadn't already stolen it.
That was the last straw. She started to cry, she started to cry hard. Life was so unfair sometimes. Many times.
Noticing her distress, Yuuka kneeled in front of her and asked: "What's wrong? Didn't you want to eat?"
"I… I left all my money in my cart… someone will probably have stolen it by now…" Mistya replied between the sighs.
"Uh? Money? I don't get these human customs…" Yuuka looked like she was reflecting on something, then said: "Well, let's see if your money is still there. Don't worry… I'll protect you."
Whatever the shock had done to Mistya's brain, it must have been something quite powerful, as she even felt safer as that promise left Yuuka's mouth. She wondered for a second if her was a case of Stockholm Syndrome (another thing she had learned in her brief period at the evening courses with prof Nakagawa. Not that it actually helped her any in the current situation, of course. When had Nakagawa's ramblings ever helped her? Still, she remembered Yuuka's stare. That was by no means an earthly thing. And while her brain must have probably gone on vacation without even sending her a postcard, she still couldn't deny what she had saw the improvised Jet Li do to the two orcops.
So, she decided to simply play along and go get her money back. While she was leaving, she asked Yuuka: "So, when you said I didn't know who I actually was, what did you mean?"…
"Marisa! There you are! I've been looking for you all day!" Alice shouted as she spotted her fellow student in the empty corridor.
Marisa was currently sulking in a corner, leaning over a table, showing off her nice back… Wait, what am I thinking? Alice mentally slapped herself. Now wasn't the time for thinking about Marisa's body. She had a very important speech to give her, after all…
It seemed like Marisa hadn't noticed her stepping in the corridor, but instead of calling her, or making her presence known, Alice took a few steps towards Marisa, admiring her: sun entered from a window, shining over Marisa's dirty gold hair, who sent back shiny reflections, dazzling Alice. Her form, bent over the table, reminded Alice of a wild cat, and emphasized her nimble but muscled legs…
Alice was too caught in admiring Marisa that she didn't notice that she had been noticed by the object of her admiration, who had currently turned to face her, sitting on the same table she was leaning on before: "Alice? Wassup?"
Marisa's words drew Alice from her trance, so she quickly reminded herself why she had come there.
"Marisa… we should talk"
Alice mentally smacked herself. That sounded so old-couple-ish…
Marisa made a sweet, sweet smile, tilted her head to the side and just plainly said: "I'm listenin', Alice…"
Even if she had rehearsed her speech many times, when Alice tried to speak, she didn't feel the words coming to her mouth. She was blocked, maybe by stress or fear. Of all the scenarios she had run through her mind, not even one included such an embarrassing meeting, or maybe it was just that, as her mother always told her, it's tough when you actually have an audience, even tougher when in the audience there is someone you care about. Trying to force herself to speak, she only managed to say: "Well I- I- I mean, you are- ah, damn, how can I say it? Wait, stop don't say anything, give me just a little…" Alice immediately reacted when she saw Marisa trying to speak, then she continued: "I… It's something that I've been wanting to tell you for quite some time, since… you got in touch with that… old friend of yours…"
Marisa flashed a grin at her: "Don't tell me you're jealous, mon chou?"
Alice felt her heart shrink at the criminal expression Marisa was pointing at her and at the completely gratuitous French she had used. The hell? She's not thinking that…?
"Hora hora… seems like I was right, ze... Li'l Alice is really jealous of her big sis Marisa…" Marisa had jumped off the table and started slowly, seductively treading towards her…
"You… you got it wrong, it's not that kind of matter! I wanted to talk to you about-" Alice was suddenly cut off by Marisa shushing her with her index finger. "I know, Alice… I know what you want to tell me, pasticcino… but you don't have to worry… it's just a matter of a few months… I'm here just for you… just for you, meine lieber…"
Conflicting emotions were coursing through Alice's mind. Anger for the misunderstanding, fear of losing Marisa, sweet bliss for the loving words of the blonde… she felt a burning in the chest and her heart beating like crazy, but the rational part of her brain kept telling her to take the discussion back on tracks, that Marisa was being too accommodating and that this whole situation felt like something out of a cheap romance novel. But when would such an occasion ever present itself again?
Alice felt tears welling up in her eyes again, an tried to speak a last time, with a voice broken by sighs: "Marisa, I was just… worried that…"
"Shhhh, you don't need to be worried about anything. You know that… Marisa's always here for you…" Marisa hugged her and patted her back and spoke in a comforting, almost motherly tone. "I know why you're scared… but let it go… You know I won't go away… I won't die… Trust me a little, amore…"
Then, she lowered her head and, before Alice could understand what she was doing, Marisa nibbled lightly at the nape of her neck. Alice let out a faint cry and pulled Marisa closer. She wanted to feel her, again, stronger…
"…Bite me harder…"
Marisa only grinned, then complied.
Alice let out another cry, louder and huskier this time.
"You're enjoying yourself, li'l Alice?" said Marisa teasingly.
"Y-yes…" muttered Alice. "Can I just ask you one thing?", she then added.
"Go ahead, dolcezza…"
"Stop it with the gratuitous foreign languages… You sound like my mother… and it's awfully disturbing…" Alice let out with a giggle.
Marisa stuck out her tongue. Not that Alice could see her, as Marisa's face was still firmly planted on Alice's neck. "Aw, I dunno if I should feel flattered or offended…"
Alice felt a hearty laugh getting caught in her throat, and her features distorted in a devilish grin while she let out part of it. "You should feel insulted. Very… very… insulted…"
"This insulted, li'l Alice?" Marisa bit again at the nape of her neck, stronger than even last time. Alice felt almost like melting in a puddle of bliss then and there. It hurt a bit, that was true, but…
Alice suddenly felt the pressure at the base of her neck disappearing, and Marisa had seemingly stood up, as she wasn't feeling her on her body any more. So, she heaved her eyes back up… and the sight that greeted her made her scream. Marisa had disappeared, and in her place was a hulking humanoid covered from head to toe in a military suit, and wearing a helmet with visor. And beneath the Plexiglas visor was…
Alice was jerked awake from the sound of musical instruments playing at very high volume, and probably no farther than ten meters away from her: she could easily discern the oboes, the bass drum and the violoncello. And seconds after, a voice she didn't really want to hear at the present moment pierced her ears.
Oh, the morning was starting just beautifully. First, she got a pseudo-erotic dream about her friend turned friend in need that only needed an aria to look like it came from one of mom's fantasies, then, the exact moment she left her slumber, she was greeted by the Slavonic dance n.7. Not that she considered it bad… ok, it was the one she liked the least, but still… at 6 a.m? REALLY?
Out of the kitchen came her mother's eardrum-piercing voice: "Alice, darling, wake up! Breakfast is ready!"
Too weak to actually shout loud enough to be heard over the thumping music, she just grunted, buried her head in the pillow and moaned: "Lemme fhleep juf' a bit mooarrr…"
Shinki didn't wait much to resume her calling: "Come ooon, Alice dear! Mommy's made breakfast just the way you like it! I even made the jam toasts!". Alice wondered whether her mother had actually heard her muffled muttering over the Slavonic dance…
When she first woke up, she was just feeling very drowsy from the interrupted sleep, but now her mother was starting to make her angry. The hell? The exams are next week, why can't she just let me sleep? I'll just study later!
She didn't voice out her thoughts at first, but when Shinki called her for the third time, she snapped. Anger had washed away all dizziness left from her system just so she could finally shut up her annoying mother.
"MOM!", she yelled, and waited until she got a response to continue. "Yes, sweetie?"
"SHUT! UP! I WANT TO SLEEP TODAY SEEING HOW I HAD TO OVERWORK MYSELF FOR THE WHOLE WEEK BETWEEN STUDYING FOR THE DAMN EXAMS AND WORKING AT NAKAJIMA'S ANTIQUE. NOW! I! DESERVE! SOME! REST! SO PUT AWAY YOUR STUPID TOASTS WITH JAM, MUTE DVORAK AND LET! ME! SLEEEEEEP!"
After she finished the rant, Alice felt suddenly very drained and tired, as if she didn't care anymore. She didn't even notice that Shinki had replied with a teary "Ok, dearie" or that she had just turned off the music – or, at least, lowered the volume a lot: She just fell back on her bed, and in an uneasy sleep for the rest of the morning.
Wheeeew, I can't believe it really took me more than TWO FRIGGIN' MONTHS to write this. I mean, it's not more than 4500 words! What's wrong with me? I really need to be whipped into shape, hehe. Jokes aside, there's one thing I'd want to comment on: Yuuka. I started the story with the idea of making her abrasive and contemptuous, then turned her into a strange sort of animist/synesthete who saw the world in her own bizarre way, and now she's suddenly uncomfortably similar to what she was in IM, though much less villainous (for now, hehe… nah, just joking. Or not, who knows?). The fact is that out of all the characters, she's the one I understand less. She's such a free spirit that even I have troubles understanding what's going through her head. Another issue I wanted to address was repetitiveness. Now, I don't think my story is already getting repetitive (I'd better take it off the site and forget about it, if that was the case), but I think the initial situations may actually be. Thing is, I still have problems gauging how much time I should let every scene cover, or how many things I should have happening in each scene. As usual, I'd be overjoyed at any critique that could help me improve, as this baby deserves to be seen through to its end, but I don't want to leave behind a boring story. For this, the opinion of my (twenty-five? Ok, that reference was totally out of place. Slap me) readers is very, very important.
That said, I think I might be starting to want Shinki as my adoptive mother. I think I might have a bad case of Oedipus complex. Which is noooo good.
Just joking, of course.
Well, see you in the next life. Or in the next chapter, whichever one comes first, hehe.