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[X] Leave Suika with Wakasagihime.
“Suika, I’m going back to Scarlet Devil Mansion. Would you mind waiting here while I go?”
“You’re gonna leave me with some slimy fish!?” she whined.
He looked on with a smile and some confusion. “You haven’t eaten each other,” he noted. To that, Suika made a grumbling sound. So did Wakasagihime.
“It’s a bad idea to let you in while Master Patchouli’s still in a mood,” he explained, gazing toward the Mansion again. He gave her his attention again, saying, “I’m leaving you for a little while to not start any trouble.”
“But trouble’s fun,” she told him with a grin.
“Not so fun is the punishment I’d receive for letting your fun through the gate,” he told her, turning away. He glanced at her once before taking off across the lake, waving and telling her, “... Later!”
Suika sat before Wakasagihime and watched him go while the mermaid waved goodbye to her friend. With that, the two seemed to stop arguing, and in short order idle talk began instead.
He brought his heel down to the sands before Hong Meiling, who lifted her head very suddenly to the sound. He shot her a glare. “You were sleeping again!” he chastised.
“S-Sir Gen... No, I...!” she answered him awkwardly, rubbing her right eye with the back of her hand. “I just closed my eyes!”
“Leave them open,” he told her with a frown. “What would the Mistress say?”
“Yes...” she replied, her head slightly bowed, “I will do better.”
His frown deepened and he shut one of his eyes, resting a hand on his hip. “I’m too new to Scarlet Devil Mansion to be the one chastising you.”
“Ah, to speak of chastising, Sir Gen,” Meiling whimsically changed the subject, pointing upward in announcement, “Lady Patchouli is angry with you!”
“Hehh... Seriously...?” he muttered, sweating a little at the thought.
“You should’ve told us you’d be staying outside of the Mansion. We figured you were dead,” explained the guard. Gen put his free hand on his other hip and cocked one of his eyebrows.
“She was angry with me even though she thought I’d died?”
Meiling yawned, waving off her breath while explaining: “She’s annoyed.” The youkai stood at ease, saying, “Please talk to her soon, Sir Gen.”
“Of course,” he replied, and he floated his way past the gate, hurrying to the front doors with the intent to go down to the basement quickly. Upon throwing them open, he paused due to seeing Sakuya blink into existence in the foyer. She addressed him immediately.
“Gen. Go to Kourindou later and find something curious for the Mistress. I’ve been meaning to but haven’t had the time.” She spun on the toe of her shoe, said, “Welcome back. Please see Lady Patchouli as soon as possible,” and vanished.
He couldn’t, and wouldn’t refuse her order, but he thought it was somewhat inconvenient. He wasn’t exactly sure where Kourindou was, let alone what sort of curiosity would pique his Mistress’s interest. While he was thinking, still at the door, his face caught a flying fairy maid, who grabbed around his head and threatened to topple him onto his rear.
“MMWHat!?” he exclaimed. From the scent, rather like the scent of an autumn morning, he determined in a muffled voice: “Merremia!?”
“I didn’t get to wake you up or sleep with you yesterday,” said his fairy, “I’m gonna sleep on you now, Sir Gen.” She squeezed his skull a bit tighter.
“Don’t, I’m doing something!” he shouted, but she was already at rest. Somewhat used to this, he sighed into the cloth of her uniform and put his hands under her thighs to start rotating her. He switched posture to pull her back around until she was settled, snoring, on his shoulders now in a way that let him at least see ahead. He felt exasperated, but held her drooling, unconscious form firm to him regardless. The foolish fairy felt like family to him at this point, and he didn’t even consider being angry with her.
He took a cautious step forward, expecting a different resident (or flock of residents, as the case may be) to stop him, but finding none. So he walked undeterred through the bleak antechamber and toward the basement stairs, keeping Merremia steady and hoping her spit would not ruin his hat.
That reminds me, he noted while descending beside flickering torchlight, watching orange streams and shards dance upon the steps, I need to get my coat back. Taking it off for the Village was pointless, huh? He looked down at his vest, recalling when he’d received it. Once entirely in the stone-halled basement, he felt a pang of guilt. He didn’t have to report in every day. He didn’t have to do anything, despite recognizing another person... at least three people, in fact... as “masters”. The nagging sensation he’d felt before accepting Suika’s midnight invitation loomed again at the edge of his awareness.
He pushed it away.
He looked down the hallway, pondering, Is Mistress Flandre in her room? He turned his attention to the great doors of the library, huffed, and moved to get them opened.
It wasn’t that he already missed the library—he’d been here just yesterday, but he realized that the old odor of its almost infinite catalog of books was calming his nerves with ease. As he pushed the right door forward, gripping Merremia’s thigh to keep her stable, and the smell of the library – the rush of mostly stagnant air displaced from a difference in temperature – blew around him, his apprehension and worry started to fade. It only started, and it wouldn’t finish. It did a little for his confidence, but he had to face his Master.
“Master...” he called out, moving into the library, flanked by shelf-towers and walls, “I’ve returned, alive.”
She didn’t answer him, so he kept on, assuming he would run into her instead—as was a fairly typical pattern. He did, not long after coming inside.
His Master was lounging on a scarlet-colored couch to his right and ahead from where he entered the area. Her legs were extended across it as she – of course – paged through a book. Her eyes laboriously moved from the text to his face, where they held their gaze in silence for a solid, rather noticeable number of seconds. Her first word after letting him stew was simply, unemotionally, “Gen.”
“I see,” she continued, unblinking, “you’re alive, hm.”
“I-I’m sorry I did not return last night,” the boy stammered. “I—”
“Are you aware of why I’d be angry about this?” asked his Master, blank-faced as ever. He swallowed, and answered her seriously.
“I don’t have that freedom,” he told her, echoing the truth his Mistress had given him the day he was introduced to Gensokyo. “I can’t pretend that I do.”
Patchouli swung her legs to put her feet near the floor, sitting up and putting her book down, slouching forward. “That isn’t the only reason,” she told him, speaking somewhat hoarsely. “In fact, I thought it over, Gen, and if it even is a reason, it’s a negligible reason. We can rule it out: no count on however free or not free you are.”
He stood still and listened. She explained.
“Of the facts relevant, the most important is that you are not only summarized in two words: ‘my student’. You are, in one word, ‘mine’.
“Yes, that means you have no freedom,” she said, her eyes steady, “but the overarching truth to this is that you are something I value. I do not want you to reflect on me poorly by dying stupidly out in the wild, and I do not want you worrying me by possibly dying at all.”
He drew his eyebrows together, feeling confused. She lowered her gaze, and continued to speak without tone.
“You’ve been good lately. Don’t concern me by playing ignorant with one of my foundational warnings.” Patchouli Knowledge stared into his eyes again and he straightened his back, feeling a prickling crawl up his forearm. “The night is dark,” she spoke smoothly, with a threat cold on her tongue, “and it belongs to dark creatures. It will never be humanity’s place.”
It had been quite a long time since last, but Itou Gen found that he was once more fearful of his Master.
He didn’t know what to say to her. He had a justification, but not one he wanted to admit to Patchouli Knowledge, and especially not at that juncture. He felt he hadn’t forgone her teachings, but telling why would leave him compromised. He had left his life in the hands of an oni and slept overnight at the foot of the Mountain (on a full moon—a youkai’s night, no less). He could explain every facet to the context of that reality, but he was sure she would hear only the reality: that he had knowingly put himself at the second greatest risk (and this was after he had put himself at the first when he’d dabbled with the Rauðskinna). He felt like right behind him, at his heels, was a yawning, bottomless, pit to doom.
He swallowed again, unable to break his gaze from her eyes, and something struck him as odd.
What struck him as odd was that more than scared of the witch’s potential malice, he was upset that he hadn’t met his Master equally. Not four days ago he had accepted that he had a strong love for his Master. Why, then, had he underplayed his worth in her eyes again?
When he’d nearly perished from producing a gift for Remilia and Flandre Scarlet...
When she’d taken up arms to defend his right to life against Kazami Yuuka...
When he’d returned after resolving the Spring Snow Incident...
There were many times he remembered that Patchouli had surprised him with concern, care, and even affection. Had he been surprised because she said caustic things? Because she wore a face that often told nothing?
Why hadn’t he realized this? In gesture and act, Patchouli Knowledge showed in many ways that she loved her apprentice as much as the apprentice loved his master. Was she not the same way with the Scarlet Devil...?
So now, although he felt worried for his life, he more majorly felt regret and fast-diminishing self-worth. He knew he had betrayed the one who mattered most to him within this hidden world.
He couldn’t regret it all, and he swore inside his mind; cursing that this was simply not simple.
“Master Patchouli...” he finally spoke, managing to tear his eyes from hers to stare at the blood-carpet below them. His chest was thumping into his throat, and cold ran down his skin. He opened his mouth, and felt a vibration through his teeth. The words he had to say, he had to drag them heavy from his heart, and so out they came weakly, but in absolute honesty, “... I am sorry.”
Without begging for anything, he expressed how he truly felt.
“... I didn’t tell you to always come back to me,” Patchouli said. He continued to gaze into the red before his feet. “And I didn’t think you made a mistake.”
His brow relaxed and his tension went away instantly, leaving him feeling pale, and in a daze.
“You came back safely, which tells me that whatever you did last night, you did within reason. I maintain that I have taught a good student, one who listens to me well.” Gen brought his head up with a jerk, jostling the fairy on his shoulders awake. His brow contorted in befuddlement, and there was a heat in his eyes. “I don’t need to know what it is you did...
“Thank you for returning unscathed. Please do not worry me any more. Welcome back, Gen.”
“Don’t cry, Sir Gen,” he heard Merremia’s voice, feeling her hands atop his head. He forced a smile to his lips, exhaling a shaking breath from his nose and mouth and saying:
“I haven’t cried yet.”
“Do you have anything to tell me about your discoveries or findings so far?” Patchouli asked, as if nothing prior had taken place. He hid his eyes behind the back of his hand before answering.
“N-No, I... I’m still working on your request, Master.”
“You should take care if you’re seeking things out at night that although the moon is a source of youkais’ power, it can be used just as well against them. Don’t fear it, or become narrow-minded about neglecting it.”
“Yes, I know that...” he replied, sniffing once, and keeping himself together. Merremia rubbed his head.
“And if you’re sleeping under the sky, don’t put too much faith in wards and barriers like some kind of idiot. That can just as easily be a beacon, and a shield is no use against quite a number of evil spirits.”
“Are you listening?” she asked.
“I always listen to you,” he answered, lowering his hand and revealing unreddened eyes, having successfully held back a wave of burning, twisted, sentiment. He told Patchouli Knowledge, “Master, I hope that I can always be someone you’re proud of.”
“... The record shows,” she said lightly, and she opened the book on her lap again. “If you’d like to read or research, do as you like. I’ll be waiting for the completion of your task. Be careful, be mindful, boy-Gen.” She turned a page.
“Please excuse me, Master Patchouli,” he announced formally, and bowed before turning to take his leave. Patchouli did not acknowledge this, and kept at her book.
As he listened to his soft footfalls on the scarlet field below, Merremia told her human, “You’re a real crybaby, Sir Gen.”
“There are things I don’t deserve, Merremia,” he explained. “And it just so happens, I often feel like it’s ‘every’ thing.”
“Hmm...” she moaned, swaying slightly while still seated on him, “I don’t get it.”
“You can’t,” he said with a chuckle. “Just... Lady Patchouli is a better person than she’d ever let on.”
“She’s a good girl,” he said simply. “I love her.”
Merremia breathed in sharply and he heard her wings beating rapidly. He looked up at the library’s doors, laughed through his nose and said, “Not like that.”
“No! Noo! Don’t you know what ‘love’ means, Sir Gen!?” the maid cried, gripping at the hair underneath his hat. He smiled easily now while he pushed the door open.
“No, please tell me.”
And she explained her fairy view of romance.
He couldn’t tell his Master what he had done the night before, or more importantly the circumstances behind his choice... he’d say that in time. He was not resolute or settled in his decision: regret still crept at his mind and core. However, he knew now that the faith he had in his Master, his Master readily reciprocated in him. He only needed to prove that her faith was worth it. Patchouli believed he was a mature enough magician to truly handle himself, even in the dark. He had to do everything to make that sure, and he was eager to rise to the challenge.
Before he left to complete Sakuya’s errand...
He felt like easing his mind, just a little more, through the company of at least one of the two sisters. Selfish though that may be...
Which did he seek out?