Avalon County Entertainment System
Channel Select: Avalon Broadcasting System (Channel 17)
It was a grey, drizzly day in the southeast of England, but afternoon found Gryphon out on the pier at Crone Rock anyway, dressed up in some scrounged Britannian foul-weather gear and watching as Mogami conducted her daily maneuver drills out in the bay. "Warships don't stay in port because it's raining!" she had declared with her usual indefatigable good cheer, and out she went, her only concessions to the weather a poncho and a pair of galoshes.
Watching her progress through rain-flecked binoculars, Gryphon reflected that he supposed it was all the same to her. She got wet anyway, what with the spray from maneuvering, and just from being so close to the surface of the sea. All the practice was paying off, at any rate. She was much surer on her feet now than she had been when they'd started. The new model of her propulsion rig had something to do with that. They had largely addressed the top-heaviness problem that had plagued the prototype, at least until they started adding weapons and armor topside. He was a little concerned that they would have more work to do balancing the rig once that job was done—but even in that instance, the confidence and experience from these drills would help her when the time came to gauge what adjustments were needed.
He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see one of Alice Murgatroyd's flying dolls, the one in the blue dress, approaching with a steaming mug of something clasped between her arms, like a normal-size person would carry a barrel.
"Oh, thank you," he said, accepting the mug, which turned out to contain hot cocoa. "Shanghai, right?"
The doll beamed, clearly pleased to be recognized. Gryphon had noticed before that both Shanghai and her red-clad counterpart, Hōrai, had remarkable ranges of facial expression, given that their faces appeared to be made from porcelain; whatever magic animated their bodies also made the material pliable, enabling them to be as expressive as any human.
He took a sip of his cocoa, then noticed that Shanghai was getting wet, her blonde hair matting and the ribbon tied at the back of her head beginning to wilt. The two-handed hold she'd had to take on the mug had prevented her from carrying an umbrella, if indeed she had one of an appropriate scale. She didn't seem inclined to leave and head back to the hangar, though; instead, she hovered there, looking out at the sea with a fascinated expression.
"Here," he said, unbuttoning the top button of his oilskin coat. "You'll get soaked."
Shanghai gave him a puzzled look, then caught on. After a moment's slightly-skeptical-looking hesitation, she flitted over and climbed inside the coat, arranging herself so that she was nestled in the V above the still-fastened second button. In this position, his chin and the overhang of his sou'wester hat kept the rain off her head.
"Comfy?" Gryphon asked, raising his binoculars again with his free hand.
Shanghai's reply was the first sound he'd heard from either of the dolls, not a word, but a cheerful musical sound that he took for agreement.
"Good, good," he said absently, and sat upon his bollard, drinking his cocoa and watching Mogami's evolutions.
He'd just about finished the former task when another figure arrived at his side, this time on foot. Marisa Kirisame, the Liberion member of the mysterious trio of witches who had shown up a couple of days previous, greeted him with a wave, then laughed as she noticed Shanghai.
"Great minds think alike, I guess," she remarked, indicating her décolletage. Rather than a doll, she had her yellow tabby familiar tucked into the front of her own borrowed raincoat, whence he was peering out in a fashion comically similar to Shanghai's pose.
Gryphon chuckled. "Seems so," he agreed.
"Does Alice know you're getting so chummy with strangers nowadays, Shanghai?" Marisa teased, taking a seat on the next bollard along. Shanghai rolled her eyes as if to say she wasn't going to dignify that remark with a reply.
Marisa looked out to sea for a bit, watching the show the best she could without binoculars. "Ya know," she said at length, "I've been all over the world and I've seen a lotta strange stuff, but that's still one of the damnedest things I ever saw."
Gryphon's only reply was a noncommittal grunt that might have been agreement. He silently handed her the binoculars so she could get a better look.
"Reimu doing actual work is also on that list, by the way," said Marisa, a wry grin crossing her face behind the binoculars. "You oughta see it. She and Alice are in there right now, studyin' that book of yours like there's gonna be a test." She chuckled, then lowered the glasses and turned the grin to him. "I don't think Reimu's realized yet that the test was two days ago."
Gryphon laughed, and might have replied, but Mogami had completed her practice runs and was coming in. What with helping her ashore, dismounting her equipment back in the hangar and getting it prepped for maintenance, and whatnot, it was after dinner before there was any opportunity for the conversation to continue.
Flying Yak Studios
Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
Avalon Broadcasting System
Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
another serial experiment
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Our Fighting Fleet Interstitial:
"A Day at Crone Rock"
He hadn't particularly been expecting that it would, but Marisa appeared in the corner of the hangar he'd staked out as the project's "admin office", perched herself on the corner of his desk, and went on as if the several-hour gap hadn't happened,
"Don't get me wrong, I ain't sayin' she's lazy. A lot of people think she is, because she never seems to work hard at anything, but it's not because she's lazy, it's because she doesn't have to." Marisa shrugged. "It's just part of who she is. Stuff comes naturally to her. Sometimes too naturally, so when somethin' comes along that doesn't fit into her worldview, she doesn't know what to do. Which is why she came down on you as hard as she did."
Smiling, Gryphon looked up from his notes on the day's work. "You sound like you're apologizing for her."
Marisa chuckled a little awkwardly. "Well, maybe I am, sorta. I mean, I figured she was gonna come in here like the U.S. Marshals, but I didn't think she'd take it as far as she did. At least not right away. Not unless you pushed back harder than you did. I guess I misjudged how rattled she was by the whole business."
"Seems like you know her pretty well."
"Oh, yeah, me and Reimu, we've been together since we were kids."
You're kids now, Gryphon thought, but he kept silent and let her go on,
"I mean, not in that way. That's... more recent," Marisa added, her ears going a bit red. "Anyway. What I mean is, she didn't have a lot of friends growing up. I was pretty much it for a while there. Even now, she hasn't got very many. See, she's... do you know anything about the shrine system in Fusō?"
"Not much," Gryphon admitted.
"Well, even if you did, you might not have heard of the Hakurei Shrine. It's out in the back of beyond, up in the mountains in central Honshū. Nobody goes there to get blessings or give offerings or any'a the usual stuff... but it's important in one very particular way. It's the spiritual heart of Fusōnese military witchcraft. Has been since... well, no one's sure how long. You asked Reimu, she'd tell you the shrine was founded by Empress Jingū herself, which would make it something like 26 hundred years old, but I dunno how literally you wanna take that. It's old, anyway, even by shrine standards, and super important, but since only fighting witches care about it, most ordinary people have never heard of it."
Gryphon nodded. "Heavy burden for such young shoulders."
"You don't know the half of it," Marisa agreed. "She's been carrying it since she was five."
"Five?" Gryphon said, his eyebrows going up. He had long since accustomed himself to the fact that this world's witch soldiers were young for their role and older than their years, some more than others—the Hartmann twins and Francesca Lucchini, for instance, had started their military careers when they were eleven—but five? That was pushing it even for his adjusted sensibilities.
"Yeah. That's how old she was when her predecessor died. She was still in training—obviously—but when that happened, she had to step up."
"In training. At the age of five."
"From birth, more or less. She was just a baby when her parents pledged her to the shrine. She never knew them. It's part of the deal. All we know is that her mother had to have been a military witch, because they always are."
Gryphon sat back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully. "Far be it from me to criticize an ancient custom," he said, "but that seems a bit..."
"Barbaric? Tell me about it," said Marisa.
"I was looking for a more diplomatic word, but that'll do. So if her predecessor died when she was five, who raised her?"
Marisa shrugged again. "Who knows? Nobody. Wolves. Hell, when you get right down to it, I did. I used to see her every day, except when we were away. My folks lived abroad for work," she explained, "but my father's parents lived in the nearest town... well, village really... to the shrine, and whenever my dad wasn't posted somewhere, that's where we'd stay. I was gone a lot, but when I was around, I spent most of my time at the shrine."
She chuckled ruefully, a clouded smile crossing her face. "Pop didn't like that much. He thought I was being a bother. Distracting the great and powerful Hakurei from her sacred duties. But..." She sighed. "I dunno why I'm telling you all this. It's ancient history now. I guess I'm just in that kinda mood tonight." She reached up and ruffled the ears of her familiar, who sat, phlegmatic as ever, on her shoulder. "Eh, Mr. Murgatroyd?"
Gryphon raised an eyebrow. "Your cat is called Mr. Murgatroyd?"
Marisa laughed. "Yeah. Remember I said we lived abroad when I was a kid? My old man's a diplomat. Or, well, he was, at the time. Worked for the Fusō Foreign Ministry. When I was little, a few months after I first met Reimu, he got posted to the International Settlement in Shanghai. We lived in the Britannian enclave there, next door to Alice's family, until the Cathayans kicked all the foreigners out at the beginning of the war.
"Anyway, Alice is a couple years older than me, but we were the only kids on the block, and we were both interested in magic, so we used to hang out. I was over to her place when I manifested my familiar," she concluded, petting the cat, "so I named him after her."
"Ah, I see. And I suppose that's why Shanghai is called Shanghai."
"Yep," Marisa confirmed with a nod. "Alice made her there. First doll she was able to put permanent magic in. The others only work when she's concentrating on them, but Shanghai can move by herself. So can Hōrai, but she came later."
She fell silent then, her smile slipping to a pensive expression. "This is weird," she said after a few moments' thought. "Why am I so comfortable with you? I barely know you, and here I am telling you not just my life story, but my friends' too."
Gryphon shrugged. "I just have one of those faces," he said. "If it helps, I'm taking everything in the strictest confidence."
"Thanks," said Marisa with a sardonic chuckle. "So anyway, gettin' back to what I was originally trying to say: Reimu doesn't normally have to work at anything, so the fact that she's putting in real effort to understand what you do says a lot. I mean, I don't know if you get this, but when word gets out into the general public that there's a way to avoid the Witch's Fate, there's gonna be an almighty shitstorm. People are gonna be lookin' for you with pitchforks and torches."
At his curious look, she went on, "A lot of folks only accept the special privileges witches get because they know it won't last. If we're gonna turn into ordinary girls when we hit 20, they reckon, what's the harm? Eventually we'll lose our magic and have to learn our place to make it through the rest of our lives. You go ahead and short-circuit that, and hoooly crap, that's gonna piss some people off."
Gryphon reflected on that for a few moments, then shrugged. "Upon careful consideration," he said, "I don't believe I give a shit what those people think."
Marisa stared at him for a moment, then threw back her head and laughed, a big, full-bodied, slightly cackling laugh that annoyed Mr. Murgatroyd and drew puzzled glances from the group sitting around the table at the other side of the hangar.
"I knew I liked you," she said with her broad, all-teeth-showing grin.
"One of my daughters has a motto of sorts," Gryphon said. "'Grant me the power to bring the world Revolution.'" He grinned. "I'm just doing what she would do."
"Is she a witch?" Marisa wondered.
"No, but her wife is."
"Oh ho." Marisa tilted her head. "Where do you come from, anyway? Your name sounds Liberion, but you have that Karlslandic title, and your witch shield is from Fusō..."
Gryphon's response to that was a dry little smile. "A little bit of everywhere."
"That sounded like an evasion," Marisa said, narrowing her eyes.
"It was a bit," Gryphon admitted equably.
"What, you don't trust me?" asked Marisa, a trifle coyly.
"Not so much that, as it's a really long story. I mean, it took me a whole day to explain myself to Remi."
"Well, I ain't marryin' you," Marisa pointed out, grinning again. "So I don't need most of the details anyway. See, unlike my esteemed colleague from the Hakurei Shrine, I did read the book before comin' here. Which means I could see things in your duel with her that she couldn't. And now that I think about it, that's probably why I feel comfortable tellin' you all this stuff," she added thoughtfully.
Then, hopping down from the desk, she dusted down her skirts and apron and said, "Well, anyway. Don't work too hard, yeah?"
Gryphon nodded. "I'm almost done here," he said.
Or so he thought; but while organizing the last of the day's notes, a few things occurred to him that he wanted to try out on the morrow, and writing those down took longer than he expected. Evening was falling outside the open hangar doors, a cool breeze rolling in from the sea, when he next noticed anything beyond the expanse of his desk.
When he did, that something was Shanghai, hovering nearby with a solicitous look on her face and another steaming mug in her arms. Upon inspection, this one proved to contain tea.
"Oh, thank you," he said, taking it. "You're really looking after me today."
"On her own initiative, I should point out," said Alice as she and Hōrai approached in Shanghai's wake. Stepping up behind the doll, Alice petted her head. Shanghai smiled and leaned into it, eyes closed, like a cat, while her counterpart hovered nearby, taking in the scene with a curious expression.
"Well, I appreciate it," said Gryphon to Shanghai, sipping the tea.
"Marisa is instigating a game of poker in the lounge," Alice informed him with a slight smile. "I believe she intends to relieve your two Fusōnese protégées of their Navy pay for the month."
"Heh. She's welcome to try," said Gryphon. "I know better than to play cards for money against Shizuka. She doesn't look like she'd have much of a poker face, but she learned to bluff from the best in the business."
"Well," said Alice, her smile becoming a bit less faint, "if I know Marisa, she'll find a way to lose all her money and still come out looking like everything went according to plan."
Gryphon took another sip of tea and said, "She told me earlier that you two go back."
"True. Not as far back as she goes with Reimu, but far enough. It was in Shanghai," she said, absently petting the doll of that name again as she said it, "just before the war began. Did she tell you I was present when she properly became a witch?" Her smile becoming faintly smug, she added, "That's one milestone Reimu can't claim."
The smile on Gryphon's face was faintly mischievous as he remarked over his teacup, "You sound ever so slightly competitive, Squadron Leader Murgatroyd."
Alice blushed, her fair skin going bright red. "Oh dear, I didn't mean it that way at all," she insisted. "Marisa's a very dear friend, one of relatively few I have, but she's not my type. Too loud, too impulsive, altogether too... Liberion. Besides," she went on, serenely unconscious of the fact that she'd just tarred Gryphon with the same brush, "she and Reimu..." She chuckled. "They were more or less inevitable."
Gryphon might have replied, but just at that moment, the door to the inner castle popped open and Marisa leaned into the hangar.
"Yo, Alice, what's the hold-up?" she called. "How long does it take to roust one guy out from behind a desk?"
"I didn't come out here to recruit another victim for your game, Marisa," Alice replied, just a touch primly.
"I would've thought you'd want to spread the risk out a little more," said Marisa with a grinning wink.
Alice sighed. "I suppose you'd better come along," she said to Gryphon, hiding a little grin from Marisa. "There's no reasoning with her when she's like this. Or at any other time, for that matter," she added in a slightly louder voice.
"Yeah, yeah, c'mon," said Marisa breezily. "All work and no play..." She left the rest of the aphorism unsaid as she left, the door closing behind her.
"She really is quite impossible," Alice sighed. "Shall we? She'll just come back in a little while and badger us some more if we don't."
"Fine by me, I can finish this later," Gryphon replied, rising.
Although drawn to the lounge, he managed to stay out of the card game, which was just as well, since—as he had predicted—Shizuka ran the table, keelhauling virtually all comers with a combination of luck, skill, and a flinty deadpan that was a direct copy of Mio Sakamoto's samurai game face. Only Reimu seemed able to hold her own, more through luck than judgment, and even then she was only able to keep herself from taking a loss on the night.
For her part, Marisa took her dry cleaning with good grace, remarking cheerfully at the end of the evening, "Awright, I'll get you next time," and then retiring to her bedroom to lick her wounds. Mogami was next to turn in for the night, followed shortly by Nishimura. Presently Alice called it a night as well, and then Shizuka herself, leaving Gryphon and Reimu the only ones left in the lounge.
"Well, I guess that's enough excitement for one day," Gryphon remarked wryly, marking his place in the book he'd been reading (Principles of Maritime Steam Engineering, according to the gilt letters on the spine) and rising.
Reimu seemed preoccupied with something; her only reply was an abstract sound of agreement, and she followed him in silence to the quarters wing. There, he turned at the door to his own room, which was the first along, to bid her goodnight, but she surprised him slightly by asking before he had a chance to speak,
"Do you mind if I come in for a few minutes? There's something I need to talk to you about."
"Not at all, come in," he said, gesturing her in before him. He left the door slightly ajar, as was his habit back at Saint-Ulrich, then took off his shoes and sat down on his bed, giving her an inquisitive look. "What's on your mind?"
"I never really apologized for coming on as strong as I did when I first got here, did I?" she asked in reply.
"Not in so many words, but by the end of the evening it didn't really seem necessary," Gryphon replied, smiling.
Reimu chuckled, her cheeks going a bit pink, but then she composed herself seriously and said, "Nevertheless, it would have been the polite thing to do." So saying, she bowed deeply, her sidelocks hanging perpendicular in front of her face. "I apologize, Gryphon-sensei, for my abrasive manner and my insulting remarks—about you, your art, and your betrothed. I was out of my depth and I took it out on you."
Despite having made a joke of the necessity for it a moment ago, Gryphon received her apology with the gravity it deserved. He got up, faced her, and returned the bow as properly as if they had been in a dojo, then replied,
"Thank you, General Hakurei. I accept your apology." Then, straightening, he smiled again, sat back down, put his feet up, and added, "And hopefully that's the last time we'll ever need to be that formal."
Reimu laughed, kicked off her shoes, and flopped onto the other side of the bed, transformed in an instant from a young woman tendering a serious apology to a carefree girl luxuriating in the relief of having discharged a difficult duty.
"I'm not really the investigative type," she said. "When I'm not tending the shrine or doing ceremonial things for the Army, my usual job is to exterminate rogue yōkai. They're not known for their subtlety," she added wryly, "so that doesn't take a lot of detective work. But, when you're the Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches, and the Emperor asks you to look into something that's affecting his witches..." She shrugged. "You don't argue."
"Marisa told me you've been the Hakurei shrine maiden since you were five," Gryphon said.
"She did, huh? Marisa talks too much," said Reimu archly. Then, with an eyeroll and a smile, she went on, "But that's true. Actually, I've been a Hakurei shrine maiden pretty much my whole life, but I became the Hakurei—the only one—when I was five."
"Do you know anything about your parents? Who they are, what became of them?"
Reimu shook her head. "Nope. Not a thing. I don't know if they're alive or dead. Heck, I don't even know if 'Reimu' is the name they gave me, or if Aki—my predecessor—came up with it when I was pledged to the shrine. I barely remember her, after all."
"Was she a very old woman?" Gryphon wondered. "I'm just trying to get my head around how a five-year-old child ends up all alone in the world in this day and age."
"No, not at all," Reimu said. "She wasn't that much older than I am now—maybe eighteen or nineteen."
Gryphon frowned. "What happened to her?"
"She was killed by a tsuchigumo she'd been sent to exterminate," said Reimu matter-of-factly.
"It was more powerful than she expected. The townsfolk had let it go too long before calling her in." She gave a resigned sigh. "It happens like that sometimes. People these days don't want to believe in the old magic until they can't possibly deny it, and by then it's usually too late. I've had a close call or two myself. Once or twice, if I'd been alone like she was, that would've been the end of the Hakurei." Reimu smiled, eyes gazing not so much at the ceiling as the past, and went on, "Luckily, I have something she didn't have. I have friends..." She chuckled. "... whether I wanted 'em or not."
"I have a friend or two like that," Gryphon said. "They can be the best kind."
"Yeah," Reimu agreed. "It's funny. My earliest clear memory isn't of the Emperor, or Aki, or anything like that. It's the little blonde girl, the half-gaijin, barging onto the grounds of the shrine one morning and demanding to know what I was doing, hanging around a creepy old shrine in the woods all by myself. And, you know, in hindsight it's a fair question," she added wryly. "I brushed her off, that first day. I was too important to concern myself with the likes of her. 'This isn't a shrine for tourists,' I said. 'You want Ise for that. Now go away, you're bothering me.'"
"And did she?" Gryphon wondered.
"Sure. For about 24 hours," Reimu replied with a laugh. "Next morning she was back with—I kid you not—a fish."
"A fish. A skipjack tuna, to be precise."
"Because she thought I looked underfed. Which, to be fair, I probably was."
"Did either of you know what to do with a whole skipjack tuna?" Gryphon wondered.
"No, but Marisa wasn't about to let a little thing like that stop her. She nearly burned down the shrine trying to roast it, having come close to cutting off her own hand butchering it first. The whole thing devolved into an absolute mess." Reimu leaned her head back against the pillow, eyes closed, and smiled at the ceiling. "It was delicious."
Reimu was out in the courtyard in front of the shrine, sweeping up, when she heard it: the sound of running footsteps, coming up the path. A moment later, Marisa crested the hill and burst through the torii into the courtyard as if she owned the place.
"Yo!" she declared, skidding to a stop and panting, hands on knees. "I'm back. Sorry, I couldn't score a fish today. But," she went on before Reimu could interrupt (if, indeed, she'd been planning to), "I found these on the way up the mountain!"
So saying, she dumped out the contents of the school backpack she was carrying, scattering it on the flagstoned ground at Reimu's feet. Frowning, Reimu picked one of the objects up and regarded it.
"Mushrooms?" she wondered.
"Yeah! They grow all along the path this time of year," said Marisa cheerfully, gathering them back up again. "I reckon we can make a soup or something."
"Aren't mushrooms poisonous?" said Reimu dubiously.
"Only if you're not paying attention," Marisa replied, not altogether reassuringly. "Whassamatter, don't you trust me?" she added with a wink.
"Well, I—" Reimu began, then stopped herself, shaking her head, as she realized she'd been caught up in the little blonde's pace again. "That's not the point!" she snapped. "Why do you keep coming back here?!"
Marisa gave her a puzzled look. "I told you before, so you won't have to be lonely any more."
"I'm not lonely!" Reimu insisted.
Marisa grinned. "Good! Then it's working!" With that, she sidestepped around the miko and went into the shrine, declaring over her shoulder, "I'll get started on the soup!"
"That's not what I—come back here!"
Things went on like that for some time. Every morning, Marisa would show up, disrupting whatever plans Reimu had had for the day, usually with some random food item in hand, and then she'd just... hang around. They never really played, as little girls customarily do; Reimu didn't know how and Marisa didn't seem interested in it. Instead, they cooked (with results varying from disastrous to surprisingly good), ate, cleaned up (this occasionally took most of the day), and then just sort of loitered around talking. Well, Marisa did most of the talking.
Every day around dusk, Marisa would finally leave. Every day, Reimu would tell her not to come back. And every following morning, Marisa would return. It got on Reimu's nerves. Who was this obnoxious hāfu girl, and why did she think it was OK to invite herself to the shrine and pester her every day? Couldn't she see Reimu had important... shrine maidening... to do?
Finally, one day after about a month, Reimu blew up at her after lunch: "What is wrong with you?! Why do you keep coming here? Can't you see you shouldn't be here?"
Marisa shrugged. "Why shouldn't I be here? I like being here. And you like having me here, you just won't admit it for some dumb reason."
"I... you... look," Reimu sputtered, leaning over her. "When I was taken to Kyōto to meet the Emperor, General Araki told me to let nothing and no one distract me from my sacred mission. And you come over here every day and do just that!"
"Who's General Araki?" Marisa wondered.
"He's... well... a general," Reimu replied, a little lamely, not having any really clear idea beyond that herself.
"But you're a general too, isn't what what you told me?"
"Well... yes..." said Reimu, not seeing where she was going with that.
"So you don't have to do with some other general says, right?"
And with that, she left the shrine maiden standing there in complete bafflement, her mouth working silently, and went into the shrine, calling back after her, "C'mon and help me with the dishes."
Thus, Reimu Hakurei gave up on ever dislodging her uninvited daily visitor. The summer passed, the pattern unbroken, and by fall, Reimu had gotten used to Marisa. Even, in spite of herself, to look forward to her daily appearance.
And then, one morning in late autumn, with the leaves falling from the trees and a distinct snap of impending winter in the air... she didn't come.
Reimu busied herself tidying up the shrine, not that it needed it, and waited. Any minute now, Marisa would come charging up the hill, all noise and disruption as usual. Probably more so, since she'd be agitated that she was late. It was all going to be so... annoying...
Why am I crying? Reimu wondered, gazing with blank astonishment as her tears spattered the ground at her feet, and then, Maybe I should go look for her.
Only then did it occur to her that she knew nothing about Marisa apart from her name. Not where she lived, not who her people were... nothing. Was she from the town a short way from the foot of the mountain? Probably, but so were at least a thousand other people. What was Reimu going to do, wander into town and just start asking around? The sudden appearance of the Hakurei miko in town would probably cause a panic. People would think there was a yōkai on the loose or something.
Reimu tried to get on with her afternoon, but her mind was a blank. She couldn't remember what she had even done in the afternoons when she was alone up here. How had she filled all those hours without someone hanging around the shrine, chattering about magic and mushrooms and whatever else popped into her blonde head, pestering her about the right way to make tea, getting in her space all the time? She had no idea. Right now it seemed like the only thing she could do was cry.
Night fell, and she was about to give up and go to bed when she heard a distant voice calling her name. Turning, she saw Marisa reach the top of the hill, waving a hand above her head. The blonde kept running until she reached the shrine building itself, where Reimu was standing just inside the door. Marisa tried to spring onto the porch without breaking stride, but caught her toe on the edge of the step and sprawled at Reimu's feet instead.
"Are you OK?" Reimu asked, and then, "Where have you been?!"
"I'm fine," Marisa replied, clambering to her feet and dusting herself off. Out of breath and full of apologies, it took her a few tries to make herself intelligible.
"My dad's been sent abroad," she panted, half-crouching to catch her breath. "He says Ma and I have to go with him. They've kept me busy all day packing."
"Abroad?!" Reimu cried, her face falling. "Where?"
"Shanghai. In Cathay," Marisa added (unnecessarily; even someone as unworldly as Reimu knew where Shanghai was). "He works for the Foreign Ministry," she explained.
"For how long?"
"I dunno. Couple-three years, probably."
Reimu's face fell further. "Oh." Then, getting ahold of herself with a visible effort, she said, "Well, at least I'll finally have some peace and quiet around here."
"I'll miss you too," said Marisa, as if Reimu had something entirely different. "We'll be back in the summers, though. And I'll come any time we're here for a visit. You'll be here, right?"
"Where else would I go?" Reimu wondered.
"I gotta go back before they notice I'm gone." Impulsively, Marisa hugged the startled shrine maiden, saying, "Take care of yourself. Don't forget to eat. I'll be back."
The rest of the 1930s passed, seasons blending into each other. The best part of a decade later, the only spots that stood out in Reimu Hakurei's memory of this time were the mornings, random and unpredictable except in summer, when she would hear footsteps on the path and a yellow and white whirlwind would blow through the torii, bearing strange gifts from the mysterious land across the sea. The rest of the time was just a dull blur of shrine duties, trips to Kyōto for ceremonies, and occasional fights to the death against supernatural foes of the common folk of Fusō. Even the battles felt routine. Boring. Meaningless.
Then the war began.
Reimu didn't have much of anything to do with it, directly. Her office was technically part of the Imperial Fusō Army, and it had been obvious as early as the Fusō Sea Incident of 1937 that the Navy would be taking point on any potential expeditionary operations against the Neuroi if they returned in force. The Army's job would be limited to securing the home islands against possible incursions from mainland Asia, and, well, securing the home islands was already what Reimu was doing.
One day in early 1940, a letter came for her in Marisa's unmistakably terrible handwriting, declaring that Marisa's father had been recalled to Kyōto with the closure of Cathay's borders, and that she and her mother would be returning to that gentleman's family home as soon as they could reasonably get away from the capital.
"Look for me when the sakura bloom," said the last line, and Reimu spent the rest of the winter glancing at the cherry trees on the edge of the shrine's grounds, willing them to get on with it.
Finally, the day came when they did, and Reimu had to endure the annual flower-viewing party with the Army General Staff. No Emperor this year, mercifully; she didn't dislike her sovereign, but there was no denying his presence raised the stress level of what was already a tiresome occasion to an even higher pitch, because of the intensified formality and the size of his entourage. The generals and their aides were crowd enough, and bother enough, without half of the imperial court crowding the grounds of the tiny shrine into the bargain.
She spent the whole day on tenterhooks, expecting Marisa to appear at any moment. She had no idea what would happen then—none of the generals knew she had a friend at all, let alone a half-Liberion one with a temperament like a sudden sunshower. In the end, her concerns were unfounded, but in the most disappointing way, for Marisa did not appear.
She saw the General Staff off very correctly at the end of the day, breathing a sigh of relief as the last of them tottered (for many of the generals were very old men, and by this point most of them were quite drunk) through the torii, down the path, and off her mountain. Feeling much older than her nine years, she slumped at the edge of the shrine's porch, her feet dangling, and sighed again, contemplating the empty gateway.
Marisa, she thought. You said to look for you when the sakura bloomed. Was that a lie? Did you get stuck in Kyōto?
She sniffled, tears coming to her eyes. ... Or did you just decide not to come?
"Oiiii! Reimu!" called a familiar voice, and Reimu started, looking around. The torii was still empty, and she'd heard no footsteps, but she could have sworn that was Marisa's voice, calling to her. Was it just her imagination?
"Yo!" the voice went on. "Up here!"
Blinking, Reimu came out from under the porch roof and looked up... and there was Marisa, dressed more elaborately than Reimu had ever seen her before. Instead of her usual rough-and-tumble playdress, she had on a frilled and petticoated black skirt with a waist apron, a trim black jacket with a double row of brass buttons down the front, and an enormous conical hat, its pointed top flopped back at a jaunty angle.
And she was flying. Or more correctly, at this moment, hovering above the courtyard, higher than roof level, perched sidesaddle on an old-fashioned straw broom.
"Marisa!" cried Reimu. Taking to the air without a thought, she flew to her friend's side, taking both her outstretched hands.
"Hey, sorry I'm late," said Marisa, squeezing her hands. "I figured you wouldn't want me to just barge in while all the old geezers were hanging around."
Reimu ignored the apology entirely and burst out, "You can fly?!"
"I sure can!" Marisa replied, then went on with a cocky grin, "I'm a witch now! This is my familiar, see?" she added, gesturing to the yellow cat sitting on her shoulder. "Say hello, Mr. Murgatroyd!"
"Nya," said Mr. Murgatroyd laconically.
"Uh, hello," said Reimu distracted, and then, "What is this?"
"It's a broom, of course," Marisa replied.
"I can see that, but why a broom?"
"For a Western-style witch, it's gotta be a broom!" Marisa insisted, which did not really clear up the matter any for Reimu. "Say, did the geezer brigade leave any food behind? I came straight here from the boat, I'm starvin'."
They went inside the shrine and finished off the leftovers from the provisions laid on for the flower-viewing party, then repaired to the porch to sit and watch the moon climb behind the cherry trees.
Reimu was half-asleep, leaning against Marisa's shoulder, when the blonde suddenly said,
"Huh?" Reimu said, blinking back to full wakefulness. "Sorry. What?"
"I said my dad's retiring," Marisa repeated. "Says there's no place for diplomats in a world with the Neuroi. He and Ma are settling here for good."
"So you won't be leaving any more?"
"If you're a witch now, though, you might get drafted next year."
Marisa shook her head. "Nah, nah. They can't draft me. One, I'm a Liberion citizen, and two, I already got a job."
"Yeah. Ma pulled some strings with her old outfit. They want me to do your Emperor a favor an' protect one of his vips."
"... What's a vip?"
"It stands for 'very important person'," said Marisa, a little smugly.
"Oh. ... Who is it?"
Marisa shrugged. "Some little shrine maiden. Lives all by herself in an old shrine out in some creepy woods where nobody ever goes."
"These woods aren't creepy," Reimu objected automatically, and then, "Wait. Me?"
"That's right," said Marisa, hooking an arm around her neck with a grin. "For the rest'a this war, I'm never s'poseta leave your side."
Reimu frowned. A Liberion witch, assigned as bodyguard to the Inspector-General of the Emperor's Witches? That didn't make any sense. Before she could word her confusion, though, Marisa let her go, stretched and yawned luxuriantly with both fists above her head, and then said,
"Man, I'm beat. It's a long flight up here from Nagoya. You about ready for bed?"
Reimu, reduced to operating on autopilot by bemusement, laid out her one and only futon, which was plenty for two people as small as she and Marisa still were. Marisa, with her familiar curled up by her head, went to sleep almost instantly, as she often did when she took a nap after dinner. Reimu took a little longer, lying there in the dark, trying to get her head around what she'd just been told and the unfamiliar sensations of not being alone at night.
Never leave my side? she thought, and then, finally, drifted off to sleep.
"It wasn't literally true—she's been sent off on other assignments for the Liberion War Department a few times, especially since the US officially joined the war," Reimu explained. "But for the most part, we've been together ever since." She blinked, seeming to realize for the first time how long she'd been talking. "Oh wow. Sorry about that. I didn't mean to tell you the entire story of my life."
"That happens sometimes," said Gryphon philosophically. "I'm used to it."
"Is this a manifestation of your 'Force'?" Reimu asked mischievously.
"I don't think so. If it is, it's not a conscious one. It's been happening since long before I found myself on that path. I think it's just part of my dharma."
She fell silent for a while, and he was just starting to wonder whether she'd gone to sleep, when she suddenly said,
"Can I ask you something?"
"Why can't you fly?"
"You should be able to," Reimu said. "You have everything you need. I saw the kind of power you have when you... showed me the error of my ways. And yet you can't use it to fly, except with that machine I've heard all the gossip about. I just think that's weird."
"I don't really know. I guess I never really thought about it. Maybe I just don't have the mindset for it. Like I said, I came to the path I'm on now fairly late in life."
"Hmm," said Reimu thoughtfully. "Well, if you teach me more about your ways, maybe I can help you with that. Although I'm not sure. I can't actually remember learning to fly. I've just always been able to." Her voice was starting to get blurry with sleep now, as she went on, "Maybe we should ask Marisa and Alice to help too..."
"Maybe. For right now, it sounds like you should probably get to your own bed. ... Hello?"
Quiet snoring was the only response.
"Or not," he said with an audible shrug, then turned on his side facing away from her, reached to switch off the bedside lamp, and went to sleep himself.
Marisa closed the book she'd been reading and looked at the clock on her bedside stand, puzzled. Double-ought-thirty in the dang morning, where was Reimu anyway?
She set the book aside, got out of bed, stepped into her slippers, settled Mr. Murgatroyd on her shoulder, and went out into the hall. Closed doors all along, except for the one at the end, which stood slightly open. Going to that one, she put her head in.
"Hey, Reimu, are you in—oh," she said, quashing the inquiry as she saw the answer. Reimu was indeed in there, curled up asleep on one side of the outsized bed (they sure did like 'em big in the Joint Fighter Wings, she'd noticed), her face illuminated by the low light of the bedside lamp on that side. The other side was in darkness, but the lump in the covers over there could logically only be one person.
"Whaddaya say, Mr. Murgatroyd?" she asked softly. "Should we crash the party?"
"Nya," replied Mr. Murgatroyd.
"Yeah, I thought so."
Stealing to the side of the bed, she shook off her slippers as quietly as possible, switched off the lamp, and climbed in. She had to budge Reimu over a little, but there was plenty of room, and the shrine maiden didn't wake.
"G'night, Reimu," she murmured, smiling, as she dragged a share of the bedspread over them.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Our Fighting Fleet Interstitial:
"A Day at Crone Rock"
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Strike Witches
created by Humikane Shimada
designed by Kensuke Tanaka
and Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020