I ask, “The oldest game?”
She says, “The one and same.”
I know. I know it. “For unknown youkai.”
She agrees, sing-song, “Under darkened sky.”
The light around her is all I can see, so I focus—no, unfocus! The forest returns, trees appearing, but the sky is too far away. I can't see anything there. Will light appear? I think so—it always has before, hasn't it? But how can I know that the sun will rise again? Ah, but she said—I'm sure the girl-bird-thing said—that the night would not last, and what could come next but day? Maybe. I can't be sure. Trusting the thing, I can't be sure of that.
But the game...
I know the game, I'm sure, and there's no deception here. It's the most straightforward of games. Run and fly and catch and pounce and tear and claw and bite and jump and roll and laugh and snarl—I know these things, and I'd know them only by seeing her if I did not know them otherwise. I'd know them from the other girl, the dark-black-violet—the similarities are there. Plainly, I can see them in her light, even dim as it is when I unfocus on the trees. Am I reading her, or is she sending to me? I don't know, but...
It doesn't matter.
She's waiting for an answer. She knows she can wait, because of her position—is that it? Is this a guest courtesy? An arrogance born of standing. If you're born a few years earlier, you're given the right to beat others over the wood chips, and stand at the top of the barred dome, or the fort walls, spinning noughts and crosses with your feet. That's how the world works. And if you don't like it—I don't like it, and who would?—at the bottom of the heap—then—
No rule says I have to play fair.
Climb up. Climb up. Grasp those bars, and scamper—stealthily, sneakily is best, but I can't do that here with her watching. But the first strike, that's the one that matters, and the more aggressive ones—the crazy one wins, the one with the bloodshot eyes—that's why they didn't touch that one. I can see the bars, coming out of the wood, right where I need them to be. I rush up, foot over hand over foot, slapping against old, green-and-rust metal, pushing and launching into the air without pause for balance, seeing her dainty hands and wicked claws and vulnerable neck coming closer and closer with each step I take and each time my hand swings behind me. She didn't expect this, I think—I can see the surprise, but not in her eyes. They're a dull gray, as everything. It's the wash of color outside, becoming clear yet like mist as I approach it, that tells me. But it's not something I need to know. Stopping to think isn't possible. There's no room for thought at all, only—
. . .
—the rush of motion, strike and counter-motion and counter-counter-strike. It's only when it's over that I can understand—understanding is impossible in the midst of a storm. It can only be felt. So, afterward, I realize she dropped below my swinging arm, taking that tantalizing neck out of reach and, afterward, I realize that I let myself fall directly into her with a foot aimed to her head, and that she struck it away with the back of one hand, fouling my aim. And now, I'm flailing through the air and—no, not flailing, grabbing the sheer side of a tree, my fingers sinking into it to give me the purchase I needed. Only now, after I realize what happened, can I think about what to do—but not for a moment, as a moment is far too long. I will have to take my half-moments and quarter-moments and savor them.
It's so much easier, now that I can stop thinking. Without thought, I feel. The colors bend about as she moves, flying on those wings (or without them) to rip me apart where I stand (or cling). I twist and flip, feet tapping the trunk above where my hand still holds, above where she strikes and shatters bark that flies away and into the void below. She's singing, I think, but it's only birdsong, meaningless songbird chirping, trilling—but she moves with it, and that's important. It's part of the feeling. I flip back again to aim a feinting double kick at her head—feinting, because I know she's seen me kick from such an angle, and she isn't slow, so it won't catch her now if it didn't then. My feet continue without pause when she dodges away, landing and jumping sideways-wise from the tree. I feel...
It's true. My eyes are wide; I must look as mad as she looks. My teeth must be bared as hers are—as sharp, I don't know. When my hand scores and rips tears in her dress, I know I'm grinning. My lips are pulled back with absolute tension while the rest of me operates on a fountain of fluid grace. Not ever before could I move like this—but I don't think about it. There just isn't time for memories, not in quarter-moments. I feel, and that's enough, because feelings are all in the present, and that's important. And when she bounds back, and charges forth, and I come to meet her and duck away and twist and come again, and she follows and twirls and slashes and I meet her hand to hand, and I'm knocked back and come again and we dance again and again and again...
And her laughter pours into her song.
My thoughts still can't catch up, but what I see is always what's in front of me. I see her come too close to a too-dense grove, and I push and push harder and draw her another wing-flutter in, claws flashing by my eyes so I can see them that much more clearly, and I bound away and up to a second tree, flash to a third to put myself behind her as she turns... and... drop. Her blind spot, at last. I knew it had to exist. For me, she was a beacon in the darkness. For her, I don't know. But now she's only able to turn to see me as my body hits her—not fast enough to turn and get away, not knowing the way to dodge. The angle is fouled, again. My hands miss her neck, but my arm catches it, and we tangle, tumble, fumble, and fall, and—
And my laughter joins hers.
It isn't a shared joke—or is it? It's a shared feeling, I know that much. We're still playing. It isn't over yet. She's lost the advantage, now—there's no height for her to stand on, as I won't let her go. I strike, and she strikes, and we both twist away, put I grab on again—no way to strike as I grab, no leverage, too much risk she'll get away. So I pull and strike and she grabs and blocks and strikes and I turn the blow, and she kicks and I block and lock and it would blur together if it weren't so sharply in focus, just as the forest blurs as it rushes up away from us. There's ground down there somewhere, but I don't know where or—this is the important bit!—when. There's no future, and precious little past, but the present is the youkai's game.
“Oh,” she said, and nothing else when her eyes widened in surprise. She was looking down at that point, so I can guess what she sees. Just another moment to struggle, a half-moment, quarter—
. . .
The pain... is bearable. My arms, my legs, my back—they'll knit. It could have been worse, I think. Sit up, sit up, get up—where is she? Aha, not far, not far. It could have hurt worse. Maybe she's to thank. But if so, she did nothing for my sake—we were still playing, after all. Wasn't it me who dragged her down? But now, I think, I feel—that we are done. The goal was reached. And it was me—I who stood first. I... won? But...
She lays there, still stunned—maybe not really unconscious. But stunned. What does the victor do, now? If she were standing, I'm sure I could read this in her—and if she were standing and I were laying, defeated, I'm sure I'd know, then. But neither of these are true, here-now. Think, think, remember, the game—the loser is...
[ ] ...taunted? No, that is...
[ ] …helped? Or, no, wait, shouldn't it be...
[ ] ...devoured? I don't know, I don't know, so I'll...
[ ] ...wait, and ask her...
[ ] ...or, in final thought, leave before I must act.