January 1st, U.C. 0047, 6:40 AM
“Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu, Chikako-onee-sama!” Aina greeted Chikako enthusiastically. Chikako was wearing a navy blue Kimono with purple and white flowers on it. Aina thought that it went well with her pale skin and titian hair. It was also a different kimono than the one she had worn on special occasions for the last three years, so Aina guessed it must be new. “Ara, you look so pretty!”
“Akemashite omedetou,” Chikako replied, a small smile on her face. “Is that a tegami I see in your hands?” Chikako reached her hand out to accept the letter from Aina.
“Un,” Aina confirmed. “Anou, there’s something I can’t write in the letter, in case it gets stolen, but it’s really important my parents know. Could you please make sure to tell them that experiment number san-jyuu-ni was a failure? They’ll know what that means. Gomen, I wouldn’t ask you to do this unless it was important.”
“Wakatta,” Chikako said, furrowing her brow in concentration. “Experiment number san-jyuu ni. I think I can remember that, but please remind me before I leave tomorrow.”
“You’re not going today?” Aina did her best to hide her disappointment.
“Iie, goshujin-sama wants to get hatsumode over with,” Chikako explained, gesturing to her kimono. “Goshujin-sama doesn’t have a wife, so it’s my duty to accompany him.”
“You’re going unarmed?” Aina asked, concern in her voice.
“Not entirely,” Chikako smirked. “Besides, we’ll have Diaho-sama and Naomi-sama there to protect us. You should have seen the look on Diaho-sama’s face when I suggested that he should have the honor of wearing the kimono.” She flourished a paper fan and hid her smile behind it.
They were interrupted by the sound of loud footsteps moving quickly in their direction. Aina turned to see Naomi storming down the hall.
“You two, if you want to wish Mme Jin luck before her surgery, come with me.”
“She’s having surgery on New Year’s Day?” Chikako asked, hiding her shocked face behind the fan.
“She may re-awaken her powers if we wait another day, and the doctor has generously offered to perform the surgery today,” Naomi explained, walking past them. Aina and Chikako followed her towards the infirmary, though Chikako had a bit of trouble keeping up in the kimono.
“I take it you’re going to the shrine,” commented Naomi.
“We’re going to the shrine,” Chikako corrected.
“Afraid not,” Naomi countered. “It’s my responsibility to stay here throughout the operation. Besides, if something goes wrong with Mme Jin’s surgery, the doctor might need to examine my implant for reference.”
“That sounds like an excuse to me,” Aina observed.
“And that, young lady, sounds like you have just volunteered to take my place on the shrine visit,” Naomi shot back.
“That might not be the best idea,” said Chikako. “I don’t think the head priest likes Aina-chan.” Aina had to agree. She could still remember the displeasure on the priest’s face when he had tried to purify her following the magical training incident in the doujou. After his third attempt, he had declared her free of any spells and stomped off. But, she thought pessimistically, he wouldn’t turn her away if she came bearing offering money.
“You may be right,” Naomi observed. “I probably shouldn’t admit this to you, but what happened to Mme Jin has me second-guessing my own judgement for the first time in decades. Regardless, I don’t want Mme Aina present to cause any trouble during the operation, and I would be grateful if you would take Mme Karin along as well. She’ll be an emotional wreck, and I can’t stand that tough facade she puts on when she’s trying to hold back tears.”
It had only been a short drive to the shrine, but it had been awkward. Aina had sat in the back, between Chikako and Akira. To an outside observer, Aina thought, they must have looked like a goshujin, his wife, and their daughter, who they dressed as a meido.
By the time they reached the shrine, a line had already formed. Being on the outskirts of Neo Crystal Tokyo, this shrine wouldn’t attract as many people as its more centrally-located cousins, but because it was patronized by quite a few goshujin, it still drew in respectable crowds. Aina had resigned herself to a long wait, but upon exiting the car, the group headed away from the line, to the side of the shrine, where they met an assistant priest.
“Akira-sama, How nice to see you,” the priest greeted them. “Douzo, douzo,” he bade, gesturing to the torii gate behind him. Diaho walked through first, followed by Akira, Chikako, and Karin. When Aina tried to pass the man, he stopped her.
“She’s with me,” Akira explained.
“Ah, hai, Akira-sama, it’s just, she can’t enter the shrine like this,” the priest said, removing a paper ofuda from his pocket.
“Like what?” Akira asked. Without answering, the priest slapped the ofuda onto Aina’s chest, and then quickly pulled his hand back as the paper was engulfed in a blue flame and disintegrated.
“Like that,” he said, waving over another priest from within the gate. “Please, don’t be embarrassed. It’s not uncommon for… certain young people to have to wear these within the shrine in order to avoid disturbing Omoikane-sama.” The priest was referring to magical girls and other children of the GINZUISHOU, who were required to seal their powers when entering the shrine. He thought he was being discreet, but Akira had no idea what he was talking about. For her part, Aina was impressed that this normal-looking man had noticed the excess spiritual energy flowing from her body.
The other priest arrived with a larger ofuda and attached it to the front of Aina’s clothes. It ran from her collar almost to the hem of her dress, and even she had to admit it looked comical. However, despite its more impressive size, Aina didn’t get the impression that it was much stronger than the other one, so she suppressed her energy as much as possible, and redirected it away from her chest. The two priests hemmed and hawed and fitted Aina with two more equally-useless ofuda before letting her into the shrine.
“Ojamashimasu,” Akira recited, sliding open the door to one of the buildings within the shrine.
“Akira-sama, how good of you to come,” the head priest greeted him warmly. When he spotted Aina with the group, the smile immediately dropped from his face. “Ah, you brought that one with you…”
“Nice to see you again too, Ryuunosuke-sama,” Aina greeted the priest with a curtsy.
A small chuckle could be heard coming from behind a screen at the rear of the room.
“Leave her be, Ryuunosuke-kun,” came a voice from the same location. “Her presence is agreeable to me.”
“Of course, Omoikane-sama,” the priest said, wiping his forehead, but he still eyed Aina with trepidation.
“Why don’t you patrol the area?” Chikako offered diplomatically. “Maybe buy yourself a charm. I’m sure you’d find this adult conversation boring anyway.”
Understanding that this was an order, and not a request, Aina bowed to the group, bowed again to the curtain obscuring Omoikane, and left. The door slid closed behind her. She didn’t feel like waiting in line for the offering, drawing a fortune, or buying a charm. Even knowing that they existed, Aina didn’t have much faith in the power of the kami. She much preferred to trust her own power. And so she patrolled the area as ordered, though she doubted it was necessary. During her patrol, she noticed that a small but significant number of people were wearing ofuda like she was.
“Baka, don’t do that,” she heard a hushed voice whisper. “That’s not some cosplayer. That’s the real thing.”
“That’s exactly why,” replied another hushed voice. “I’ve never seen a real meido before. I might not get another chance.”
“Demo, if she catches you…”
“She may be a meido, but she’s young. She won’t pick a fight with grown men.”
“What if she has nakama?”
Aina turned her head towards the voices to spot a young man aiming a cell phone camera at her, and another grabbing his arm. She didn’t particularly mind if they took her picture, but Naomi had taught her to be wary of anything aimed in her direction, so she glared at them.
“Oh, tsundere!” The two men squealed before running off, tripping over each other.
Almost as if on cue, Aina heard laughter coming from her other side. She turned to her left to find a miko, a few inches taller than she was, covering her giggling mouth with one hand.
The hard expression dissolved from Aina’s face. This girl was perhaps the most beautiful that Aina had ever seen. Even Chikako couldn’t compare. Although others might describe her looks as plain or even below average, to Aina, she radiated a warmth of the soul, giving the appearance of a golden aura which made her straight black hair seem even darker, and her rosy cheeks more full of life.
“Gomen,” the miko apologized, “you just look so silly. Did one of our priests put those on you?”
“Hai,” Aina replied, shaking herself back to reality.
“They’re not doing much good,” the miko giggled again, “and I can tell you’re struggling not to disturb them. I can remove them if you’d like. I’m sure Omoikane-sama wouldn’t mind.” The miko took a few steps towards Aina, and when she entered Aina’s personal space, Aina’s spiritual energy parted before her and enveloped her from behind, as if gently caressing her aura. Aina usually was conscious of others in close proximity. Their presence disrupted the flow of her spiritual energy, but this miko’s presence felt completely natural. The miko reached out for Aina’s ofuda, but Aina instinctively increased the spiritual pressure around the miko’s hands, as if imploring her to stop, though she wasn’t sure she could have forced the girl to stop with all of her spiritual strength.
“Ii yo,” Aina reassured her. “Please leave them. I am struggling, but it’s good practice for me.”
“Wakatta,” the miko answered, retracting her hands, drawing Aina’s spiritual energy towards her. She wove it around her neck as if it were a scarf and smiled, feeling the same warmth from Aina that Aina felt from her. “My namae’s Fumiko. Nani’s yours?”
“Gomen,” Aina replied, dropping her gaze to the ground, “I’m not allowed to tell you.” Giving a false name to this girl didn’t feel right.
“Sou ka?” Fumiko mused, tugging lightly on Aina’s energy in a way that nudged Aina’s chin upwards. “Jya, I shall just have to call you anata.” They both blushed. “I have to go now,” Fumiko explained. “It’s my turn to sell charms. Would you like to help me? I’m sure having a meido at the booth would help boost sales.”
Although she knew she shouldn’t, Aina nodded. Fumiko turned her back to Aina and began to walk towards the center of the shrine, keeping a firm grip on Aina’s spiritual energy. And so, in this way, she led Aina along as if she were a dog on a leash, though the leash was invisible to all but the two of them.
“There you are. You ready to go?” Karin asked. She was obviously anxious to leave, and wasn’t paying much attention to her surroundings.
“Hold on,” Aina replied, “we should buy a health charm for—” She caught herself before saying Jin’s name aloud, and then continued, “Fumiko-chan, would you sell me a health charm for my kohai?”
“Un,” Fumiko agreed unenthusiastically. She didn’t want Aina to leave any more than Aina did. “Since you helped out, I’ll give you a discount. Just go-hyaku yen.” Aina reached into her pocket, pulled out a coin, and pressed it into Fumiko’s hand. They allowed themselves to stay like that for a few seconds, and Karin, distracted though she was, noticed.
“Arigatou, Fumiko-chan,” Aina said quietly as she picked up a charm from the table. “I had fun.”
“Arigatou, anata,” Fumiko replied. “So did I.”
“‘Anata,’ ne?” Karin grinned, nudging Aina playfully with her elbow. The two younger girls blushed for the second time that morning. “Can’t take you anywhere.”
“Anou,” Aina hesitated before continuing, “would you take a shashin of us?” She handed Karin her cell phone.
“Ii yo,” said Karin. “Peace!”
“Peace!” Aina and Fumiko repeated, flashing peace signs while Karin snapped the photo. Karin then handed Aina her phone back and waited while Aina copied the photo to Fumiko’s. After that, it was time to go, so she grabbed Aina by the arm, and the two headed back towards the car. Fumiko, abandoning her post, followed the two of them as far as the gate.
“It was a pleasure, Akira-sama,” said the assistant priest who had greeted them earlier. “Here ojou-sama, let me remove that for you,” he offered, reaching down for the ofuda attached to Aina’s dress.
“No need,” Aina assured him, relaxing her control on her spiritual energy, causing the ofuda to disappear in a flash of blue fire. The priest pulled back, surprised by the ease with which she had destroyed the shrine’s most powerful seals. Fumiko giggled at the priest’s reaction, and Akira and Karin seemed to find it amusing, but Chikako and Diaho were not impressed with Aina’s unnecessary show of power.
“Welcome back, Master,” Naomi greeted them at the door.
“How’s Jin-chan?” Karin demanded before anyone else could speak.
“She’ll live,” Naomi answered, “but it will still be a few hours before she regains consciousness, and until then, we can’t know how the implant has affected her.”
“Meaning?” Karin pressed.
“Meaning that she could be fine, or she could be in a vegetative state for the rest of her life, but worrying about it will accomplish nothing at this point,” Naomi said.
“Fetch me when she regains consciousness,” Akira commanded. “Either way, it’s my responsibility to see what becomes of her with my own eyes. I owe her at least that much.”
“You don’t owe her anything,” insisted Chikako. “You’re her goshujin-sama.”
“She saved my life,” Akira replied. “Even if it was her ninmu, I’m still grateful.”
“You may have a more pressing personnel issue to deal with, master,” interrupted Naomi. “This came for you while you were out.” She handed him a letter. From her position, Aina could just make out the emblem on the front of the envelope. No, Naomi had tilted it on purpose so that Aina could see it: a silhouette of a nekomimi carrying a nekomimi kitten, the logo of the Nekomimi Preservation Council.