"Sorry to call you on such short notice, Fujiwara."
Bloodshot blue eyes flickered over to the other figure, clad in red and white. One of the few people he could call on for her opinion and know she would respond completely and utterly honestly. Fujiwara minced no words, and right now he much preferred cold, hard, truth from a veteran in these matters to anything else.
"But… I have a question, and I need answers." Shuffling over to the whistling teapot, he tilted it to let the stream of liquid fill her cup, and set it down gently on the table. From this distance, he looked even worse - hair messy and with loose strands hanging about his face like a ripped, dusty curtain, chin dusted with stubble born of days past, black bags hanging beneath his eyes like sloths clinging to a tree branch, and generally looking a lot more weary than he had the last time they’d met.
"Answers I’d hoped that you would not mind being the first to provide."
He waited until she had taken a sip of her tea before clasping his hands before him, gazing down at his intertwined fingers.
"…For as long as I can remember, I have been engaged in a war with a rival dragon clan. A blood feud, if you will. My family was taken from me by their hands when I was a child, and I have been seeking to avenge them ever since. Already several of them have fallen to my blade, and I might have continued in this vein until they all lie dead before me… but recent events have conspired to change my mind.”
"Two roads now lie before me, each as dark as the other. One, to carry on as I always have, and bear the guilt of the extermination of an entire clan on my soul, and know that I contributed to the slow death of our race as a whole. Two, to leave this conflict be and let the embers of war flicker out and die… and dishonor the memory of my father, and my brothers, and my mother, who gave their lives to save mine, and break my oath to one day seek vengeance for their deaths. And I… I am nothing without my honor."
A haunted, helpless, tormented gaze looked up to meet hers, many nights of sleeplessness and agony over this choice showing in their depths. Whatever she said, now, would affect him for the rest of his life.
"What do you think I should do?"
Arrows of fate come from recipients most curious, don’t you think?
What was supposed to be yet another day of capricious peace and fun times with the children at the Temple School, another day of Mokou’s shriveled, damaged leaves opening up yet another centimeter, of a heart with more scars than tissue forgetting her past atop the River Styx was interrupted by a silhouette in the distance. There is a connection shared by those of similar circumstances, an understanding that takes a mere glance to produce an entire conversation. As soon as the dragon’s eyes met the phoenix’s, her heart nodded and, with quiet but fast motions, Mokou wrote a message for Keine in a piece of paper and imbued it with magic to make it a temporary shikigami in the shape of an origami bird, a parlor trick for experience exterminators. Closing up her yakitori stand and hiding it on the usual shrubbery she veils it under whenever she is not around, Mokou calmly advanced towards her destination: Akira’s abode.
That look told her everything she had to know: Things were not right, and she was needed to make them right. "…Just what in the world…?" The often proud eyes of the divine dragon looked agonizingly defeated. That alone was enough to tell her everything she needed to know.
The boiling pot did little to distract the immortal from the defeated visage that was his friend. It’s few the people that Mokou trusts enough to refer to as a “friend”, but Akira’s age, view on life and strength were a soothing oasis for Mokou’s trust among a sea of busybodies lacking uniqueness. And yet, this man she had deemed worthy of her high standards of acquaintance laid a defeated shell of himself. Uncouth clothing, a stubble tainting his normally clean face, hair that hadn’t seen discipline in days and the look of a battered and torn apart punchbag. What could possibly have happened to the normally strong and dignified dragon…?
Averting her red eyes from the battered divine, Mokou grasped the cup presented in front of her and drank the tea. Bitter and strong, just how she liked it. "…You can look like an oni had a temper tantrum on yer body, yer tea ain’t any weaker. Mighty tasty" nonchalantly praised the woman in a futile attempt to lighten the mood if even a little. Sipping once more from the cup, Mokou solemnly placed the cup down and waited for the dragon to weave his words.
And words she got.
It made sense why he would call him; they had many things in common. Pride, a sense of duty that nothing could tarnish, the willpower to walk into hell willingly and back out as if it was nothing, and the strength to take over hell, if it was necessary. It all honestly hit too close to home, startling her to hear such a tale behind his refined blade. There’s a silent agreement between warriors to not delve into other’s pasts without the gates being opened to them first. Truthfully, she could understand why: Though with key differences, Akira and Mokou’s pasts were not so different when it came to how brutal destiny had decided to raise them.
"So you…" Dragons were not numerous, and they only dwindled with time. It wasn’t like humans, who have a healthy population, no, dragons had been in decline. As mighty and prestigious as they are, dragons also are subject to the pit of pride, and all the genocide that that brings. How many battles had Akira fought not as a person, but as a flag bearing the symbol of his clan? The mere thought brought back bittersweet memories of a flag tied to her back as she spilled blood for the illusion of a clan that was merely political interest masquerading as a noble cause. "I see…"
"Akira, your situation… Is not an easy one. The crossroads of life are cruel and full of thorns. You wish to pick the road with less thorns, but there’s no way to tell which one of them is the option that won’t rend your heart asunder and leave you a mere shell full of regret and pity."
Her voice, her mannerisms, her body language… They were different than her usual blend of bravado and brutesque swaying. She was sitting in perfect seiza, hands in her lap, face in a perfectly smooth picture that could only belong to someone of purple blood. Her words didn’t have that rough accent and burlesque pronunciation, nor were her words unpolished rocks coming out with the grace of a shattered lower jaw. Her posture, voice and language… The facade was off: This was the real Fujiwara no Mokou, tackling this subject with the seriousness that this merited. "If someone is going to put this trust on me when it comes to their way of life and their pride, the least I can do is to be honest and open to them. Steel yourself, child of the heavens, for the words I will direct to you now will lacerate your heart!”
Mokou took in the story that the man shared with her and etched it in her very mind. Now it made sense why he would come to her, of all people.
"Akira, you and I are from a very unique caste. We find our meaning, our joy and our end in the battlefield. For us, there is no greater glory than the collapsing throats of our foes, the feeling of yet another victory, another notch on our numerous streak of wins, the feeling that once anew, your technique proves to be absolute. Well, then, Akira, let me ask you, from someone who has dived completely into the River Styx to someone who has done the same… Is this lifestyle…"
And here is where one could see genuine pain in the features of the phoenix.
"Is this lifestyle… Worth it anymore?"
There they were, the words she never thought she’d say. If it was her, she could continue to delude herself for an eternity or six. She could deal with it, or so she liked to tell herself, and just live with a denial she knew ensnared her heart like a malicious vine.
She could do that, or, for her own sake, and that of the tortured soul in front of her, she could face the eternity of misguided fists that was her past and be honest about it, for once.
"Dragon! From whence we come, revenge is a war medal of honor, a goal worthy of devoting one’s entire existence to fulfill and accomplish, the road a true warrior is expected to take when they and theirs are wronged. Family feuds, emotionally charged assaults on age-long foes, this was the life! It was the expected life of pawns under a flag, was it not…? Was it not!? But for what reason? I can’t say it’s wrong… But… It is. It’s wrong, and it pains me to say this, but what is supposed to be the wind under our wings ends up being a shackle tied to a heavy steel ball, limiting our movement. "It’s alright", we whisper to ourselves, "it’s alright, this is alright, this is the way it’s supposed to be…" and we carry on, living on breadcrumbs and a false sense of satisfaction, akin to drinking muddy swamp water and praising it as the finest of bamboo wines! I… If you had asked me some years ago, I would have told you to discard this weakness that assails you and to complete your duty, to eradicate every last one of them, I would have said this with a smile, and I would crack a joke about me owing you a drink for when you accomplished this… But that… But that…!"
"That would be spitting in your face, Akira! That would be drinking the muddy water and claiming it is delicious! I cannot stomach that! My time here… In this Gensokyo, this land of desire and illusion… Heh, maybe, just maybe, it’s me who has softened up… I was the sharpest nodachi, and now I speak like a dull tanto, but… My time here with Keine, with the kids at the temple school, with Kaguya, Eirin, the bunnies at Eientei, with the taoists and with Satori, with my dear friend Cirno… Each day, it seemed like my life became weaker… And yet, I wordlessly clamored this? Because it is what you and I perceive as weakness that is true happiness… Not being bound by a self-made chain made of pity, regret and fear."
“We are relics, Akira. We are relics from an old era that no longer exists. We believe ourselves stalwart keepers of the “good” ways, and yet, here we stand, wallowing in self pity when our only question is how to live life properly! What would you father and mine say about this!?”
"…And what good is a relic if it can’t be put to use in the era in which it exists!? As a piece of memorabilia in a museum?! Is that how we want to be seen?! Huh!? As mere mirages from Those Times, instead of people with the capability to grow!? It tears me apart to say this, but…! You know who I am. I am Fujiwara no Mokou, the last child of the Fujiwara, descendants of the Nakatomi. Our predecessors, the Nakatomi… They were at war with those of the Soga clan. I thought it was a conflict I had no connection to, and yet, one time, when I went to visit Toyosatomimi no Miko, a friend of mine, as fate would have it, I find myself face to face with one from their ranks…"
"…One Soga no Tojiko."
"I wanted nothing more than to slam my fist against her and break her apart, make her pay for her crimes, subdue her… But then, as if I didn’t have enough foes in front of me already, my own mind decides to antagonize me. "Why?" my mind asked, and I couldn’t help but wonder… Why? Slights from over one thousand and three hundred years ago… Were they worth fighting for? Would I be doing my clan justice to unleash the pyre of conflict once anew over something like this…? I admittedly… Avoid Senkai because of this. I am afraid of seeing her, because it’s akin to seeing a mirror. In this mirror, heh, I see not my current self, but my sane self, the one that knows the true, the embodiment of my denial. I see…"
"…Someone I would rather not see. Because she says the hurtful things I say to you right now."
"Akira… I am going to tell you what a very dear friend once told me: "Forgive them not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace".”
At this point, Mokou turned around, her voice staying strong, but her face, for just a second, being not unlike a pained mask.
"…Free yourself, Akira. It’s not easy, it won’t be, and at times, you will hate yourself, wondering if it’s ok to… To not live the warrior’s life, but… Four your sake, and the sake of those that will be the fruit of your loins, isn’t it better to leave our antiquated tenets behind and embrace the kinder, softer world we work our butts of not to be a part off…?"
Mokou’s white hands tightly gripped her own pants. She didn’t like it, but the words she just said, those are the words she was confident were the best. For her friend and for herself.
"…What’s more important: to not break an oath, or to not break your entire future? I… Hate to say this, but in the end, the past is the past, and our way obsolete. Embrace the future, Akira, for the world stretches endlessly before us, and we just isolate ourselves in our gilded cages."
"Our… Gilded cages… Beautiful and ornate, but restricting and suffocating… That’s what pride is, Akira. A gilded cage. Will you be a caged bird, or a soaring dragon…?"