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1 yr ago
Current At the end of the day, God is everyone's bull.
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me the poopy you the pants.
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i relate.
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SEIMEI KEIKO



It had always been Keiko's way to be observant. Despite the reputation she had cultivated in the village as a troublemaker, despite her mother's scolding whenever she shirked her lessons, she was a perceptive young woman. When her interest was piqued by something, little managed to escape her notice.

It went without saying that the terse standoff outside the village's smithy thoroughly piqued her interest. Though dread still roiled about in the pit of her stomach—or perhaps because of it—she hung off every word that left Ashida Katsuro's mouth. If they had not been tended to by a smith for months at a time, there was no doubt to be had as to their origin. They came to the village from someplace outside the valley, and perhaps more importantly, wherever they came from was a significant enough distance away that their equipment had fallen into disrepair in the meanwhile.

She might've allowed her mind to race through the possibilities. How did they locate the village? Had they come through the gate or found another way in? How had they managed to get the gate open? What was the world like beyond those fragile utopias like the one she had called home for so many years? Were there other valleys like Heiseina's own in the world they had discovered? Perhaps most importantly, what had become of those valleys?

The questions came to a halt as the glint of steel caught her eye. The item held so gingerly in Katsuro's hands was an uneasy sight. It resembled the tools some of the village's hunters used while performing their sacred duties. Given its length, she doubted it was used to dispatch humble wildlife. Keiko's unease grew.

Impulsive as she was wont to be, she struggled to maintain her deathly stillness. The conversation had nothing to do with her in particular: they stood in Tetsu's forge, requests being made for his apprentice's work. The man did not seek Seimei Tomo, but the village's headman. She had little reason to stay. The signkeeper's apprentice considered how she might plot her escape in the waning moments between the man's request and his eyes igniting like so many embers.

And with his words, her escape became less a nervous desire and more a sudden need. Every ounce of willpower the young lady had in her body dedicated itself to restraining the expressive orbs that were her eyes into indifference. Liberation from the demons? A prize in the valley? The dread that had filled her sunk into her stomach like a gaping pit as her mind pieced together just what the party of armed men before them wanted.

She had to talk to her mother. She needed to talk to her mother. Everything else was secondary.

"Uhm, well, that all sounds very important," The trickster's nature in her bubbled to the surface as Keiko donned the same innocuous guise she had in the moments before their Blazing Fist's arrival, which had grated at Fumiko so, "Maybe it's for the best if I clear out. I had only come by to keep Tsu-kun company, but it seems he's going to have his hands full..."

With a bashfulness in her cheeks, she placed her hands on her lap, offering a polite bow to the older gentleman in a show of courtesy.

"I wish you luck in the endeavors that bring you here, Ashida-sama."
SEIMEI KEIKO



"Sounds good to me, Tsu-kun!"

The saccharine words on Keiko's tongue felt as foreign as the dazzlingly bright smile she wore to accompany them. It was almost enough for her to want to break her little act and see the taste washed away with her usual irreverence. But the results were far too pleasing for that to come to pass. Though she played at hanging on Tsubasa's every word, the young signkeeper remained acutely attuned to Fumiko's reaction. There was anger at first—a genuine, roiling rage—then surprise, perhaps at the depth of wrath she managed to feel. Surprise quickly became pink-faced embarrassment that flickered for only a few more moments... then the mask returned. The facade that hid away true feelings behind mock serenity and the falsest pleasantries.

Ordinarily, Keiko would disdain that mask. Given what she had glimpsed beneath? There was only smug satisfaction to be had in its wake. She had found a wound and ground all the salt she could gather on such short notice into it. She could relish in that triumph until it soothed her wounded pride.

"Hey, Fumi-chan!"

The triumph was to be short-lived, however. The sound of the village's most blinding beam of sunlight shook her from her reverie moments too late. Had she been more vigilant, she might have managed to decouple from Tsubasa before they were spotted. Her skin all but crawled at the sight of the knowing smile Haruhi shot them and the comment that followed. She wanted nothing more than to end the charade then and there before the sign-adverse farmer got it in her head that they were a proper couple and went trundling around the town declaring it to everyone she could find.

But just as quickly she appeared, she vanished into the ogre's cave beyond, leaving Keiko with little more to do than try to hide how frazzled the potential fallout made her feel.

"Ah, yeah, let's uhm... Let's... get going, Takamori-san?"

The squabbling of youth had occupied Keiko's mind such that she had nearly missed the shift in the environment, swift though it was, until the master's niece invited them to head off. Something had changed very starkly while they feuded over the village's most eligible idiot, and it was not until the hoofbeats of the arriving caravan hit her ears that she found herself recognizing the gravity of the situation. Like most of the village's inhabitants, Keiko watched as the armed convoy of men arrived in their humble home, letting her grip on Tsubasa's arm fall slack as she glanced between every one of them.

The horses they rode. The way they dressed. The... things they held. It was different. All of it was different.

It was foreign.

And that made it feel wrong. The utopia of Heiseina and the valley it claimed had no place for the unusual. Keiko had been made very aware of that all her life. Her eyes instinctively darted toward the direction they had rode in from. There weren't any hamlets she knew of down that way. No homestead could house so many men and their steeds. All that lay in that direction, far off through the forests and mountains beyond was the edge of the world itself—the old gate that she had only glimpsed from afar.

Her heart skipped a beat as she reconciled with that idea. That the rough-looking man who approached the humble forge had an origin from beyond.

Tsubasa was the first to act, dear, sweet fool that he was. Had her grip not slackened, she might have tried to hold fast to him to keep him from so readily approaching the danger before them. But instead, he disentangled himself from her reach and met the older gentleman with all the confidence in the world. Resisting the urge to curse under her breath, she was left with a choice. Remain, and see how things played out, or follow her instinct and hurry back to her tower home to warn her mother of the storm to come.

Perhaps to her detriment, curiosity won the day.
SEIMEI KEIKO



Any devious scheme to get Tsubasa to pay for her meals would have to be put on pause. No sooner did the words leave her mouth did she spot someone approaching the forge, and someone Keiko was not at all happy to see. Truthfully, she wasn't pleased to see most of the village's inhabitants, but to be face-to-face with the Master's niece so early in the morning was a quick way to tarnish her mood worse than it already had been. The girl's family practically were Heiseina, the privileged few who oversaw all and kept their perfect little utopia running nice and smoothly. They embodied the very spirit of the valley itself, and Keiko received a poignant reminder of that as she met the young Takamori's gaze.

It didn't take an especially sharp mind to notice the iciness in Fumiko's eyes the second they drifted from Tsubasa to herself. An immediate rejection, even through the facade of pleasantries that poured out of her mouth in the following moments. A microcosm of the very thing which had so thoroughly spoiled her mood, and a perfect metaphor for how the town had treated her.

She hated it. The look, the village, the Takamori, and Fumiko all. It took every ounce of her composure not to let the animosity that had built all morning boil to the surface. She wanted to do something to wipe that sweet, fake little smile off the girl's face. To do something to make her feel some pain for once in her perfect little life. She wouldn't need to think for long. That cold gaze that had spurred on Keiko's spiteful side was the answer to her plea. She could see the way the girl's eyes lit up when she looked at Tsubasa. The little smiles. The sugary tone. There was an easy way to make her squirm.

"Hmm, I don't know. Tsu-kun and I were just about to head off to see the festival together," Keiko replied, her tone just as manufactured in its cheer. She took advantage of their proximity, reaching over to loop her arm through his own and lean into him a little. An intimate thing, but she was sure he wouldn't care, oblivious lug that he was. She imagined Fumiko, on the other hand, would care quite a lot—especially when she caught sight of the slightest hint of the smug little grin tugging across her feature.

"I suppose we could postpone our little date if it's super important. What do you think?" Her inquiry came with a slight flutter of her lashes, the look she cast toward Tsubasa decidedly more innocent than the one she had offered Fumiko seconds before.
SEIMEI KEIKO
tags - @Hero



A pout found its way onto Keiko's lips, and she had half a mind to begin guilt-tripping him for his declaration that he did not intend to ask her to the festival. She decided to be merciful in the end, seeing as though he quickly pivoted his answer—as much as she wanted to watch him squirm, there would be many more opportunities to do so if she spent more than just a few passing moments with him that day. The short girl dropped back onto her heels after a moment, her pout morphing into a face of contemplation.

Of course, he hadn't just stopped there. The heartfelt words that followed almost made her give up her mischievous little act. There was a strong urge to break the facade of consideration she wore when he mentioned her being part of the village. An urge to meet him with disdain. As if he of all people knew what it felt like to be ostracized. Half the village youths swooned over him, and the other half wanted to be him. But she steeled herself against the worst of her impulses and decided to respond in her usual teasing.

"Well, I suppose I don't mind going with you. Even if you are sweating through your shirt," She decided, positively resplendent in her mercy, "You'll be paying for the food though, right? I treated you to breakfast, you know. It impolite to remain indebted to a lady."
SEIMEI KEIKO
tags - @Hero



"Of course there's always work to be done. The only other smith in the village is a lush." Keiko responded in her usual matter-of-factly manner, regardless of how uncouth it was to insult a man while dallying on his property. It wasn't like the old man was around to defend himself if he could even manage it at such an early, hangover-laden hour. As she greedily deposited the last few wedges of her orange into her mouth, the girl dismounted from the workbench she had claimed as a seat, making her way over to the table Tsubasa had just finished before her unexpected arrival. She poked at it with a toe, as if to test the strength of the structure with such a minimal use of force.

"Wonder what the old man is doing that requires such a sturdy table. Or who, I guess. Never know with old lechers," She mused conspiratorially as she chewed, although she couldn't quite follow the train of thought too far. Instead, her musings were interrupted by Tsubasa inflicting a wound of his own upon her pride. An unknowing redress for her teasing, perhaps. She swallowed down the remnants of her carefully cultivated treat before peering up at the taller male.

"Nope. I never do. I never have anyone to go with, so I usually spend most of the festival back at the tower, waiting for it to end so everything goes back to normal," Despite the sorrowful tale she told, she remained indifferent as ever in tone and expression, "I'm not even sure what people get up to for most of it if I'm honest. I guess it must be pretty enjoyable... but I wouldn't know."

She made just a few steps forward, pushing herself up onto her very tiptoes to get more on level with Tsubasa. Only then did the slightest glimpse of mischief start to shine through her big brown eyes.

"Unless that was your way of asking whether or not I'd be interested in going to the festival with you. Is that why you ask? Did you want to take me? Huh? Did you? Did you really?"
SEIMEI KEIKO
tags - @Hero



"You're welcome."

Keiko couldn't help but grin just a little devilishly as she watched Tsubasa try and shift the subject from her would-be seduction to the fruit before the two of them. It was almost kind of cute, how flustered a little bit of teasing had gotten him. She had expected him to be more resistant to such things—half the village's girls gave him doe eyes, after all—but it seemed she had been wrong in her assessment. She hefted up the other orange as he peeled away at his own, digging her fingers into the smooth flesh to peel away the rind until the soft flesh within was revealed.

"Bold of you to assume people would want to buy from me. I'm pretty sure half the village still thinks I'm some kind of yokai. Certainly wish I was, maybe I'd start getting offerings instead of rude gossip," She retorted, pulling a wedge from the fruit and popping it into her mouth, "Still, maybe I'll give it a try. It would piss old man Moriyama off something severe if people started buying their fruit from me instead of him."

The impish apprentice kicked her legs back and forth with just a little more force, chewing the juicy piece of citrus thoughtfully as her eyes danced from here to there, taking in the sights of the forge. It seemed Tsubasa had been rather busy despite the earliness of the morning. She was almost jealous of that, as absolutely bizarre as it sounded. He had plenty of matters to attend to, so he didn't have to deal with such consuming boredom all day as she did. Of course, he probably had an actual life to lead outside the forge, so maybe it was unfair to compare their situations, but acknowledging that didn't make her doldrums any easier to deal with.

"You get an awful lot of work during festival season, huh?" Keiko asked, making little more than idle conversation while she enjoyed her treat, "I would think people have better things to worry about than... fencing? During a time of celebration."
SEIMEI KEIKO
tags - @Hero



Keiko couldn't help but grin a little deviously as she watched Tsubasa jump at her little prank. It was a good reminder of why she bothered to come out this way as often as she did. He was as gullible as any of the yokels laboring out in the rice paddies, but a heck of a lot nicer when he found out he was being had. Despite her antics, she had been as well received as she ever was at the blacksmith's forge. There was the matter of that obnoxious nickname Tsubasa had always used for her as if she were some kind of child, but she had never managed to get him to stop for more than a day or two at a time. Another reason for her to continue picking on him whenever she had the opportunity.

"That makes one of us." She answered his pleasantries nonchalantly, dangling her feet off the side of his workshop as she did. For all his politeness, the blacksmith's apprentice seemed usually vigilant in his appraisal of her. She couldn't understand why, of course, and that only proved to vex her. She dressed more or less the same way every time they saw each other, and it wasn't like she prettied herself up before leaving home like a lot of the girls in town. Her natural curiosity caused her to trace the line of his eyes, just a few moments before he hastily looked away. Her eyebrows rose as she glanced down and found the source of his fascination.

It seemed as though there had been a misunderstanding. One which was wonderfully exploitable. Would that she could force a flush into her cheeks.

"I was wondering when you'd notice, honestly. It's kind of flattering that you did. Not many people pay that much attention to me..." Like flicking a switch, the smug little grin that constantly adorned her features had been replaced with something more... flirtatious.

She fluttered her eyelashes just a little like half the village girls did when they talked to Tsubasa. In truth, she didn't think he would so much as notice it. He always seemed a little oblivious to their gazes and flirtations, but that didn't matter. He would surely pay attention to the finger she trailed along the hem of her kimono, tugging enticingly on it as she continued.

"They just came in this spring. Bigger than I could have ever hoped, although I guess you've already noticed that," A giggle followed that one, airy and soft as she could make it, "Would you like to see them? I'd let you if you wanted. I'd even let you taste them before anyone else has the chance to."

She bit her lower lip at that point, excitement burning in her eyes as the incessant tugging she had been doing on her garment bore fruit. It began to pull away, the outer layer giving way to the cold air outside. She pulled and pulled until it all came spilling out for him, what Tsubasa's gaze had been on since he first laid eyes on her: a couple of oranges, which proceeded to roll down her chest and into her lap. Her expression returned to its vague disinterest just as they did, abandoning all pretense of seduction as slid her kimono back into its proper position. With her other hand, she seized one of the fruits and tossed it toward him.

"Itadakimasu."
SEIMEI KEIKO
tags - @Hero



The trip from the tower to the village proper wasn't long, but it was just scenic enough that Keiko sometimes wished it was, ignoring that she didn't tend to enjoy her time in town to begin with. Even from her place on the outskirts, she could see folks bustling back and forth, partaking in the aforementioned lantern hanging and bean scattering and all manner of festivity. She tried her best not to look sour about it, as if any of them particularly cared. After all, it was a bright, crisp morning. She had enough fruit to sate her all through the afternoon, and she had all the time in the world to do as she wished. It was just finding what she wanted to do with all of it that was the problem. Luckily enough, as she wandered the streets and pondered the issue, a distinct sound managed to snap her out of her contemplation.

Ting! Ting! Ting!

It was one relatively familiar to her. To everyone, in truth, as few in the valley knew how to work their metal. They all inevitably ended up at the town's smithy for all their needs, although ironwork was scarcely what brought Keiko to the humble little forge. The proprietor's nephew, Tsubasa, was something of an acquaintance of hers. She had been picking on him since his folks sent him waddling up the hill to learn how to Sign, and long after his time at the tower ended after an especially amusing incident involving an old tome and her mother's enduring wrath. To the lad's credit, if she even had the right to call him a lad, he had always taken her teasing in stride. An unfortunate thing, as it only encouraged her to keep doing it.

Before she knew it her feet had taken her towards the market square, and ever closer to the source of the sound. As she caught sight of the young man hard at work, she grinned wickedly. She had always prided herself on her light-footed nature, but it was so rare she even needed to sneak up on him. He always got so absorbed in his craft that she probably could have walked right on into the work area and he'd be none the wiser. It still didn't stop her from meticulously toeing her way towards the forge, careful to avoid his peripheral vision as approached from behind.

Only once she was within striking distance did she make her move. A quick pair of fingers reached up high to tap him on his right shoulder, just enough to get his attention. Then, nimble as could be, Keiko ducked to his left and hopped up onto the table beside his workspace, careful not to land her behind on any of the cooling works in the process.

"You lookin' for someone, pretty boy?" She asked cheekily as she kicked her legs back and forth, nonchalant as could be.

SEIMEI KEIKO
tags - nobody



Warm, comforting water. Thick, billowing clouds of fragrant steam. Soaking away one's woes on a chilly spring morning was something most of Heiseina's residents would probably relish. Most of the working sorts didn't have the luxury of bathing in the comforts of their own homes. Most probably preferred to do it in public anyway, where they could unwind and discuss all the little happenings of their sleepy village among friends and peers. Maybe that was why, even steeping with the smell of sweet citrus in her private tub, Keiko could not find solace from her melancholy. The Dance of the Serpent was upon them, a time of merriment and new beginnings when the villagers would be gathering together to celebrate Miorochi's return. For Keiko, it was nothing to look forward to. Every year, the festival only saw her sink into a black mood in the days leading up to and during. Witnessing friends and family line the streets, joking and playing, enjoying each others' company—it all served as a poignant reminder. A reminder that such things were absent from her life. She wouldn't have anybody to hang lanterns or exchange gifts with. If she was lucky, maybe her mother would accompany her to the shrine to leave an offering.

That would be the extent of her celebration. It always was.

The sullen thoughts swirling through her mind were far more bitter than any stray orange blossom floating about the bath water, and it didn't seem like a prolonged stay in the tub would help clear them. It was a foolish idea in the first place. Keiko knew herself. She was the type to get stir-crazy without things to do, and while she liked to busy herself whenever she slumped into dejection, the festival week had left her with no matters to attend to. Her mother had insisted she take the week off to celebrate the holiday and enjoy herself, either a cruel joke or a vain attempt to force the mending of bridges long since burnt. There was always studying, but she couldn't bring herself to retain the bounty of old tomes and scrolls in her current state.

A sigh, half of which came out of bubbling water, announced her rise from the bath. She couldn't just mope around home all day and expect it to lighten her mood. At least getting outside would provide a distraction, something for her to hone her mind in on aside from the gloom that had overtaken her. The splattering of water on smooth, cold stone filled an otherwise silent chamber as she stepped out of the wooden tub. The air was chilly despite the hot moisture that hung heavy in it, but that was trivial enough for her to overcome. She extended a thin finger and traced familiar symbols before her, a pale glow at its tip as she marked the space before her with two kanji. The glow brightened, then faded, and in its place, a gentle stream of hot air flowed from her digits. A flow she wasted no time turning on herself, sending droplets and wild strands of damp hair every which way.

If only it was as easy to Sign away her other problems.

___________________________________


As cold as it was inside, it somehow managed to be even colder when Keiko stepped outside. There had been some vague hope that the sun would have banished some of the chill in its benevolence, but that hope was quickly dashed. It would surely warm up as the day went on, but that was of little comfort to the Signkeeper's apprentice as she descended the stairs of the tower and made her way around the side of the landmark she called home. There was one small treat waiting there for her—the fruits of her labor in seasons past, in the most literal sense. She had managed to convince her mother to plant a garden behind their illustrious home, ostensibly so that the many young farmers who came to practice their Growth signs had something to practice on. In truth, she simply wanted to have fresh fruit on hand to sate her sweet tooth whenever she wanted.

She had set about raising six trees in the year or two prior, and raise them she had. They were already taller than her, and producing fruit despite the unseasonably cold weather, a result of her daily tending as much as it was the valley's fertile soil. Even as she approached the largest of the bunch she could see fat, ocher fruits hanging from its many limbs. Big enough to be her breakfast, for sure. Maybe even big enough to be taken into the village on market day. She wanted for relatively little, but there was usually something interesting to bargain for, and if nothing else, she could always gloat at those sour-faced Moriyama about how much more productive her fledgling grove was compared to their own.

They would also make thoughtful gifts, she couldn't help but think as she plucked one, then another from its branches. Not that she had anybody, in particular, to hand them out to. But the matriarch of her little clan had been stressing in the months prior about turning over a new leaf. She wasn't a little girl anymore, she said. It was time to start making connections. To turn set down some real roots. She would be the village's Signkeeper eventually. Heiseina was her home.

"Tch."

Keiko couldn't contain her cynicism at the thought. An armful of oranges wasn't going to undo a lifetime of ostracism. If the villagers wanted to make friends with their would-be Signkeeper, they could do it on their own. Maybe if they were lucky she would forgive them.

Maybe.

Satisfied she had picked the ripest of the bunch, the girl tucked what extras she had into the folds of her kimono for safekeeping, holding the finest of their lot held between slim fingers. She tore into its unblemished exterior with them, peeling back the outside with just a deal more aggression than she had intended. The catharsis it provided, however mild, was enough to pull her from the downward spiral of her thoughts, and she feasted upon the pulpy flesh within, one wedge at a time, as she set off in the direction of the village. Perhaps the walk there would clear her head, and if not, well, at least she was in good company for the journey.

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