Reimu's Christmas Carols

Gensokyo was a wild, undeveloped country. Nature was something to be obeyed and withstood rather than controlled. Magic was still very much alive, and very dangerous. It was a land of savage beauty, full of mystery and monsters, one to which such concepts as "mild weather" were jokes to be laughed at while raining a vicious downpour upon the those unlucky enough to be outside, baking the clay with hideously hot weather, or encasing the landscape in freezing white.

Naturally, this made things a bit hard on those who lived out on the fringes of civilization. Or just outside of eyeshot of civilization. Or barely within walking distance of civilization. Or so far divorced from civilization that things like indoor plumbing were considered dark sorcery and even swinging doors were to be distrusted. Which, given that this was Gensokyo, accounted for the overwhelming majority of the mystical country's population.

As such, winters at the Hakurei Shrine, which rest upon the border between Gensokyo and the rest of the world, tended to be miserable affairs.

Reimu Hakurei sat bundled up with her heaviest clothes and every blanket she owned. Her legs stretched out under the kotatsu, which was warmed as much as possible without actually setting fire to something. All the doors and windows were shut tight, with thick paper taped over the crevices. And yet she was still shivering.

It was cold. It was damned cold, just like it was every damned winter. Sometimes she wished that the winters were literally damned. Hellfire would be a welcome change over this frigid torment.

Naturally, despite only adding grey woolen scarf to her normal black-and-white ensemble, her friend Marisa Kirisame didn't seem at all affected by the weather. "Reddie, if I've told you once, I've told you a hundred times," she said, lazily lying back on Reimu's futon, her legs propped up on the kotatsu. "Heating charms. They're a lifesaver, and real easy to make. You know how. Why keep torturing yourself like this, ze?"

Reimu raised her head a bit out of her cocoon to glare at the young witch. "Sh-shut it," she said through chattering teeth. "L-last time I l-let you m-m-make me some, y-you almost b-b-burned down the whole shrine!"

"Well yeah," Marisa said. "But you were warm."

Reimu glared.

"But hey! It was a valuable learning experience! Thanks to that little barrel of laughs, I was able to figure out the flaw and remove it! Now I use 'em all over my house, and it's always toasty warm!"

More glares.

"It's like being in the middle of summer! I can walk around in my undies and never even catch a chill!" Marisa sighed. "Ahhhhh, sweet, luxuriating warmth, surrounding my body, seeping into my bones."

Mumbling dark obscenities, Reimu pulled the blanket down over her head like the cowl of a mysterious stranger. Charms or not, there were still several things she could do to make the place warmer. Actual wooden walls instead of the thin paper she used, a proper fireplace, more thorough insulation, new clothes and blankets that hadn't been handed down through the ages, and so on.

The problem was that she just couldn't afford the necessary changes. Hakurei Shrine was always hurting for donations, and during the winter her earnings were at their leanest. It was just too far out of the way, and given her less than stellar reputation among her fellow Humans, very few were willing to make the journey for an out-of-the-way shrine that didn't even have a proper deity, even if Reimu was directly responsible for their continued existence a dozen times over. Not for the first time she wondered if she should start charging a Hero Tax every time she saved the world, or at least their corner-pocket of it, though to be honest those had been motivated as much by her own convenience as they were by her shrine maiden duties. The winters she had to put up with were bad enough. Eternal winters were just straight out.

Reimu felt generations of Hakurei shrine maidens glare disapprovingly down at her for having such thoughts. She respectfully told generations of Hakurei shrine maidens to get stuffed. It wasn't like they had never had similar thoughts.

"So hey," Marisa said. "What time you coming by tomorrow?"

"Eh?"

"You know," Marisa prompted. "For the Christmas party, ze!"

"Oh yeah," Reimu said. "That is tomorrow, isn't it?"

"Yeah. Funny thing, that Christmas. Somehow it manages to happen at the same time every year. So what time you coming by?"

Reimu groaned. As fun as Marisa's holiday bashes were, the trip to her house was always a total nightmare. It usually took about half an hour in pleasant weather. Traversing the distance in this ridiculous climate was going to leave her half-frozen and mostly homicidal. "Making a lot of assumptions there, friend."

"Aw, come on!" Marisa heaved up into a sitting position, a pout on her face. "You gotta come! You always come!"

"And it takes me like half an hour to thaw out afterward!" Reimu grumpily folded her arms.

"Ten minutes, tops. Less this year." Marisa grinned. "After all, toasty warm."

Reimu made a show of sighing dramatically, but her will was crumbling. The way she saw it, she could either spend all Christmas pouting alone in her freezing house, or she could brave an hour or so of pure misery and spend the rest of the day in Marisa's toasty warm paradise. Besides, it was Christmas. You just didn't stand your best friend up on Christmas. "Yeah, sure, of course I'll be there," Reimu said. "Just make sure it stays in your house this time."

"What, you didn't like last year's Christmas party hopping tour? I thought it was awesome!"

"Sure," Reimu said dryly. "Right up until you decided to add 'Moriya Shrine' to the agenda."

"So what's wrong with that, ze? Eientei and the SDM didn't have a problem with our gang showing up."

Reimu spoke very slowly, as if explaining things to a small child. "That's because Kaguya Houraisan's parties are practically festivals that are open to everyone, and I have a standing invitation to everything Remilia throws. I don't think the small family celebration the Moriyas had going on is the kind that takes well to gate crashers."

"Huh, that explains the hissing." Marisa snatched her hat off the ground and plopped it onto her head. She threw the front door open, letting in a particularly harsh gust of winter cold that she didn't even seem to notice. "Well, see yah tomorrow, Reddie! Merry Christmas Eve and whatever!"

"Yeah, sure," Reimu said, flinching as the cold wind bit into her exposed face. "And hey. You better have your clothes on this time."

Marisa grinned at her and flicked the brim of her hat. "I will. I make no promises for the rest of the guests though." With that, she mounted her broom, pushed off the ground, and was gone.

Reimu stared after her in dismay. She hadn't even bothered to close the door.

With a groan, she emerged from her fuzzy cocoon and stumbled her way over to the door, grumbling the whole way about inconsiderate witches and unbearable climates.

Once she got there, she paused. Two figures were approaching, coming through the snow-covered lawn. One was very tall, about two meters, and had short blue hair covered by a fuzzy red beanie. The other was about Reimu's size with most of her face obscured by a thick hood pulled down practically to her eyes and a grey scarf wrapped around her lower face. Both were wearing bulky overcoats and seemed to be having great difficulty walking forward. The tall one especially looked like she was on the verge of falling over. Still, she greeted Reimu with a cheery smile and waved to her as they staggered their way up to the steps.

"Merry Christmas, good friend of mine!" said the tall one in a high, piping voice. She reached over to drape an arm over her companion's shoulders, though that might have been to prevent her from leaning too far to the right. "We're with the GKUP-"

"GCFTVPAU," whispered a muffled voice from inside the breast of her overcoat.

"GCFTVPAU!" said the tall one. "Which stands for the Gensokyo Charity for the, uh…"

"Very Poor and Unfortunate," said her chest.

"Very Popular and Unaffiliated!" said the tall one, prompting her overcoat to sigh. "And we're here to collect donations to help out those in need this holiday season! Perhaps you might have something to spare for those who, uh, don't have homes and food and need money and stuff, you know, because it's Christmas?"

Reimu stared at the pair for a good long time. Then she slowly said, "Okay. Let me get this straight. You came here to ask me to donate money-"

"Yup!"

"-to help the poor and unfortunate-"

"Because they need it, and we know you're all kind and generous and a really good person! And stuff."

"-despite the fact that I am dirt poor, living in a broken-down little shrine in the middle of freaking nowhere, with old clothes, practically no heat, and barely enough food to get me through the next few days, and what little money I have very carefully rationed so that I don't freeze and starve before spring gets here. Is that correct?"

The shorter of the two slumped her shoulders, which nearly sent her careening over. The taller one's face dropped. "B-but I know that, uh, if you look real deep inside your heart, you'll find it within you to, uh, have compassion on-"

"It's not working, let's bail," said the legs of the shorter one.

"Shut up, I got this!" the tall one snapped back.

Sighing, Reimu shook her head and rolled eyes up at the grey and gloomy sky. "Okay, normally I'd find this hilarious, but it's cold and I'm not in the mood. So…"

Then she placed a hand on both of her visitors' chests and gave a shove. Squeaking in surprise, the two fell backward into the snow and fell apart. Well, maybe two really isn't the right word to use, because when they hit the cold and soft ground, there were five of them crawling out of those overcoats.

Reimu stared down at the gaggle of wannabe con-artists. "Cirno. Daiyousei. Wriggle. Mystia. Rumia. Really guys, really?"

Pulling off her beanie, Cirno shook the snow out of her collar and pouted. "Well, you can't blame us for trying."

"BEAT IT!" Reimu all but roared. That was all the encouragement the mischief makers needed. Abandoning their disguises, they shot into the air and fled the shrine grounds like all the forces of Hell were nipping at their heels. Which, if they had hesitated, might have been the case.

"Stupid, lousy, brainless idiots," Reimu muttered as they left. "I'd be offended that they tried to swindle me if it wasn't so dumb and-" Then her gaze fell upon the overcoats, scarves, and beanie, still lying in the snow and her face lit up. "Oh hey! Thick clothes!"

Of course the half-assed disguises used by Cirno's gang of idiots were all rather filthy and smelled bad. She wondered how long they had been moldering away in whatever nasty excuse for a hideout those morons had and shuddered. However, it wasn't anything a good, long boil with soap couldn't fix.

Normally, Reimu would be drastically opposed to doing anything resembling manual labor when the cold was that bad, but working with boiling water actually sounded like a significant step up from sitting around and freezing. After she had cooked the smell out, she laid them out to dry on top of the kotatsu. And when she finally put them on, she was feeling much more kindly toward Cirno's gang than she had before. In a way, they had ended up helping the poor and unfortunate.

However, it really was too cold to do anything else, and with Marisa gone she figured she might as well turn in early. So after wolfing down some beef stew she had saved for the holiday, she bundled up under as many layers as she had available and turned out the lights.

She lay in the dark, listening as the wind picked up outside. It howled against the thin walls of her home and rattled the shutters. Shivering, she drew her cocoon closer and tried to find her way into the warmth of sleep.

The night grew colder.

Then, just as she was finally starting to doze off, Reimu was suddenly jerked back to full wakefulness. She had heard something. There had been a loud thump, followed by footsteps.

Something was coming.

Reimu's face twisted up in puzzlement. She was more irritated and confused than scared. Most of the local youkai knew better than to trespass on her home, and even those powerful enough to do her harm with a large enough grudge to want to do so were deterred by her title and the big names she had befriended. After all, even if one managed to hurt her, they would not get far before people like Yukari Yakumo or Remilia Scarlet found and dismembered them.

But while she wasn't exactly worried about the identity of her unannounced visitor, she was mighty bewildered as to who would dare disturb her rest. Lying still, she listened hard as the person plodded their way across her front porch, their heavy footsteps clumping against the wooden planks. She heard the sound of rattling chains with every footstep.

Then the bell over her door started tinkling, and the door was thrust open.

An icy blast of night air hit Reimu like a striking snake, biting her even through her many layers. The visitor staggered across the house toward her, its heavy chains clanging, "Reimuuuu Hakureeeeiiiiii," said a thin, reedy voice. "Reimuuuu Hakureeeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiii." There was a pause, and then the voice said in a more frantic tone, "Reimu Hakurei, answer me right now! I can't see!"

With a groan, Reimu lit the lantern near her head and sat up. "Suika, what in the flying hells are you doing? Do you have any idea what time it is?"

Reimu's small oni friend staggered toward her, arms flailing in distress. "I know, but I can't see!" she cried, emphasizing odd syllables as she often did.

"That's because you have a bucket on your head," Reimu told her.

Sure enough, a wooden bucket was fully covering most of Suika's head, obscuring her face. How it got there, Reimu couldn't guess, but one of her horns had somehow gone through one of the bucket's handles while the other had simply dislodged one of its planks and gotten wedged between two more.

"Well, get it off!" Suika said, her hands pawing at her wooden blindfold.

"Seriously? You can bench-press freaking mountains, but you need my help to-Aw, hold still." Reimu slithered over and grabbed the bucket with both hands. "Okay, push."

With one heave, they got the bucket loose and pulled it off her horns. With a sigh of dismay, Reimu turned the ruined bucket over in her hands. "Well, this is gonna take some fixing. How'd you get it on there anyway?"

Her little face twisting up in annoyance, Suika ran her fingers through her unruly hair as she answered, straightening it out the best she could. "Well, I noticed that my gourd was missing, so I thought maybe I left it here. But when I went to go check your shack, I tried over some wood and hit the wall. And then the bucket fell on my head!"

Oh joy, Reimu thought. That meant that she now had to go inspect the supply shack for damage. The oni's skull was thicker than lead, and those horns of hers were known to take off branches of low-hanging trees without her even noticing. "You lost your gourd? I thought you died if you went too far away from it or something!"

"Naaaaaah, I just get really, really, really cranky," Suika said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Then I hit something. And they die!"

"Duly noted," Reimu said, taking a few quick steps back. "Well, it's not here, so you'd probably go look somewhere else."

"Okay!" Suika said cheerfully. "See you tomorrow!" She turned and ran out the door and into the night, hands outstretched to either side like wings. However, before Reimu could go close the door, the oni came running back in.

"Oh, I almost forgot!" Suika said. "I'm supposed to give you a message!"

"Huh?" Reimu said, blinking in surprise. "From who?"

"Dunno, didn't ask. But you're gonna get visited by three ghosts tonight!"

Reimu stared at her, her eyes searching Suika's face for some hint that she was joking. Unfortunately, since Suika existed in a perpetual state of inebriation, it was impossible to tell if she was being serious or not, as more often than not she would make a joke and then immediately not only forget that she was trying to be funny but also that she had said anything at all. True to form, she was now rocking back and forth on her heels, eyes closed and hands clasped behind her back as she hummed off-key to herself, a vaguely pleased smile on her face.

Well, it seemed a little prompting was in order. Reimu cleared her throat and said, "Oh, am I?"

"Huh? Are you what?"

"Getting visited by three ghosts."

"Oh. Yeah, you are!"

"I see," Reimu said heavily. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Um, which three?"

"Dunno," Suika said with a shrug. "Didn't think to ask."

"Ask who?"

"Huh?"

Gritting her teeth, Reimu spoke very slowly and very clearly. "Who. Told. You. That. I. Am. Getting. Visited. By. Three. Ghosts?"

"Oh." Suika shrugged again. "Dunno. Never saw them. They just said it in my head as I was coming here."

It was times like these that Reimu wished that she had been born into a perfectly normal and boring family that didn't have to put up with this sort of crap. Like one of those farmer homesteads, or the families in the Human Village. Did they ever have to deal with drunken mountain demons staggering into their homes on Christmas Eve to insufficiently warn them that a strangely specific number of spirits were going to pester them that night for unspecified reasons?

Well, to be honest, some of them probably did. Gensokyo was a weird country and Reimu didn't want to assume.

Still, she was willing to bet that no other Human had to put up with this sort of thing as regularly as she did. "Okay," she said, trying not to lash out in anger. "Did they at least tell you why?"

"Yeah, something about you needing to learn to stop being all selfish and greedy and stuff," Suika said. "Or something."

Reimu gaped. "Wait, are you kidding me? What in the hell-"

"Anyways, see yah!"

"Wait!" Reimu cried, reaching out to her. "What's this all-"

But Suika was already gone.

Despite the cold and the lateness of the hour constantly demanding that Reimu get herself under covers right that instant, she still ended up spending another half an hour fortifying her shrine against spectral intruders. Wards were checked, charms were refreshed, rituals were performed, and by the time she was finally able to crawl into her bed's welcoming embrace, the Hakurei Shrine was a veritable fortress against the incorporeal.

It helped that the place was already well protected against wandering spirits. Given the location and the nature of her job, things like ghosts, poltergeists, evil spirits, and other disembodied nasties were more of a natural environmental hazard rather than the spine-chilling horrors that they were often made out to be. Hell, keeping the local spiritual population in check was literally part of her job, and she had personally visited the Netherworld on more than one occasion. That was part of the reason why she never really "got" ghost stories. Okay, so the restless spirits of the dead were haunting some run-down old place and causing a ruckus. Big deal. Stop running around screaming and get some damned charms up already! They were literally sold over the counter at most stores.

Either way, terrors or nuisances, Reimu was in no mood to put up with their bullshit. If some spirits wanted to play games with her, they could damned well wait until the sun was up.

Finally she finished, and when she did she threw herself back into the warmth of her cocoon. She shifted around under the covers, adjusting the layers of thick fabric for maximum protection against the cold, and closed her eyes with a sigh of relief.

Fifteen minutes later she opened them again.

She couldn't sleep. It wasn't the cold, it wasn't the wind, it wasn't even the realization that her left arm had gotten completely pinned between her two overcoats and her tightly wrapped blanket and was swiftly becoming deprived of bloodflow. It was the knowledge that it didn't matter how many charms she put up or spiritual traps she laid, those three ghosts Suika had spoken of were going to get in anyway. That was just how it went: all her precautions were going to end up for naught because she had ended up missing something or the thing coming after her was too powerful to be kept away by any mortal means and her night was going to get ruined regardless! That was the life she was destined to live: one of perpetual irritation.

And by knowing this, there really was no chance in hell that she was going to be able to let her guard down, because the second that she did, those ghosts were going to show up. They were going to startle her awake and subject her to all sorts of unpleasant nonsense so that by the time she finally got rid of them the sun was already going to be up and she was going to have to make the long, cold trip to Marisa's house on no sleep and probably bring the whole party down with her constant griping and groaning and end up nodding off during the eggnog fight and Marisa was going to doodle all over her face again-

"Oh, get over it," Marisa said as she tossed her hat at Reimu's face. She sat down in a chair and started taking off her shoes and socks. "I've only done that once."

Reimu glowered up at her, her head sticking out of her shell like a particularly cranky snail with black hair. "Five times!" she yelled at her. "You did it to me five times!"

Marisa grinned at her without shame or apology. Then she commenced to unbutton her blouse without shame or apology. "Then you shouldn't have fallen asleep, ze," she said as she shrugged the garment off her slender shoulders. "It's your own fault."

"Look, I was dead tired, and…Marisa, what are you doing?"

Marisa looked down at her skirt, which was now lying in a heap around her ankles. She looked up at Reimu and her grin crept higher. "I think with a little critical thinking, you'll figure it out on your own," she said as she slid her hands up behind her back.

"Yeah, but…" Reimu struggled to pull herself out of the blankets, but they seemed to have shrunk two sizes smaller, clamping tightly around her body. "Why are you…What are you even doing here? I thought you went home hours-"

Then Marisa's bra hit her full in the face. Reimu shook her head to dislodge it, but it did no good, as the young witch's bloomers came sailing at her right after.

"It's like I said, Reddie," Marisa said as Reimu managed to free her face from her friend's underthings. She looked up to see Marisa standing directly over her, now fully clad in Sanae Kochiya's shrine maiden outfit, with her ancestor Suwako Moriya's stupid frog-eyed hat on her head. Cirno and her stupid friends came up behind her, each of them holding a golden trumpet. "You shouldn't have fallen asleep."

Then Marisa took off her head and started rolling it around her arms like a basketball while Cirno and company blasted out an obnoxiously loud fanfare.

Reimu's eyes snapped open with a small gasp, the sound of the trumpets still ringing in her ears. Her heart was pounding, her face was flushed despite being the only part of her body exposed to the frigid air, and certain parts of her were now much warmer than she felt entirely comfortable with. Her gaze darted this way and that, searching the darkened room, but Marisa was nowhere to be found.

She lay still for a while, letting her mind untangle itself from the dream and her body to…just untangle itself. Gradually her heartbeat relaxed and her breathing evened out to a smooth and steady rhythm.

"Okay," Reimu whispered to herself as she laid her head back onto the pillow. "Promise to self: Marisa is not to know about that dream under any circumstances." Neither was Yukari, come to think of it. Or anyone she knew. They teased her enough about being repressed as it was.

She was about to close her eyes again when she heard a scratching sound. She listened for a bit, checking to make sure it wasn't another dream. Nope, there was definitely something moving across the floor, something very tiny by the sound of it.

Her brow furrowing in puzzlement, Reimu squinted to see. Her eyes were already adjusted, so she could just make a very, very small figure tiptoeing across the floor toward her, one only a few centimeters tall. It was definitely humanoid, so that ruled out a mouse or some other woodland animal. It was also not a ghost, of this Reimu was certain.

"Sukuna?" Reimu said as she shimmied her arm loose and reached up to turn on the lantern next to her head. "Is that you?"

Sukuna Shinmyoumaru froze in place, the little inchling's eyes wide with chagrin. "I'm sorry!" she said in her high, piping voice. "I didn't mean to wake you.

Reimu's frown deepened. She wasn't upset by the intrusion so much as she was confused. Had Sukuna actually wakened her she might have been more annoyed, but as she had been expecting ghosts this new development was just odd. "Nah, not really. What are you even doing here though? It's past midnight!"

A sheepish look on her face, Sukuna held up a gift-wrapped package the size of an acorn. "I can't make it to Marisa's party tomorrow, so I just wanted to drop off your present! I thought if I was really, really quiet, I could sneak in and leave it where you'll find without waking you." Then her face fell, and she cried out, "But I screwed up! I'm so sorry!"

"Oh," Reimu said. Then she actually smiled a bit. "Oh, uh, it's okay! Seriously, I'm not mad. Er, hey. Stop crying, it's all right?"

Sniffing, Sukuna wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her kimono and said, "Really?"

"Yeah. Look, don't worry about it. I wasn't asleep, promise." Reimu let out a small relieved chuckle. "Hey, I'm actually glad it's you and not one of those stupid ghosts."

"Ghosts?" Sukuna said, blinking in confusion. "What ghosts?"

Then the lantern went out.

"That would be me," purred a rich, velvety voice. Then before either of the girls could react, a slender, luminous hand with bright green fingernails reached down and gave Sukuna a flick. The inchling wailed as she sailed right toward one of the windows. It swung open of its own accord and she flew right through. As soon as she was gone, it slammed shut again.

Reimu froze in shock. But soon she was able to pinpoint exactly who that voice belonged to. Once that was figured out, everything else fell into place. Wincing, she slowly turned to see that, yup, a ghost was floating nearby, glowing eerily in the darkness. A ghost dressed in a long robe and a pointed hat, both of a rich blue color and adorned with golden astronomical symbols. A ghost with long, lustrous green hair that flowed down her back. A ghost with refined features twisted into a cruel and arrogant smile. A ghost that Reimu knew only far too well. After all, she was practically her family's arch-nemesis. "Mima," Reimu said in a guarded tone. "Of course. I should have guessed."

Mima laughed, a high, chiming noise that made Reimu's head ache. "Oh, I'm your primary suspect! I'm so flattered!" Then she held up a fist and let it open toward the ground. Shredded bits of paper fluttered down from the grasp, all that remained of all the charms Reimu had put up. "By the by, I accidentally knocked these over coming in. Don't worry, I'll dispose of them on my way out."

Reimu stared down at the ruined remains of the charms that had taken her an hour to put up. Her lip twitched. "Mima, what in the hell is this all about? What are you even doing here? Because I am really in no mood for stupid games."

Mima beamed. She spread her hands, and a spotlight shone down over her from the ceiling. "Why, I am here because tonight the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past will be played by none other than the magnificent, wondrous, and oh so enviable Madam Mima, of course!" An unseen audience starting cheering wildly, as roses fell to the ground around Mima's ghostly tail. Mima waved and bowed. "Thank you, thank you." Then she snapped her fingers, and the light, sound, and flowers disappeared in an instant. "It's only fitting, when you think about. Seeing how I'm also the Ghost of Touhou Past."

Reimu let out a pained groan. She knew exactly where this was leading, seeing how Mima had a tendency to bitch about it at every available opportunity. "I swear to all the gods, if you came here at one in the freaking morning to bitch at me again about not being transferred over from PC-98, I will spend the rest of the morning sealing up your bitter ass and making it stick this time!"

"Bitter?" Mima placed a hand over her chest while her mouth formed a perfect "O" of shock. "Moi? Oh my, my, my, I'm not bitter! What have I to be bitter about? I mean, look at all I've been blessed with! Primary antagonist of two sequential games, playable in two others. That is far beyond what more than ninety percent of the other characters get. I really should just count my blessings and be thankful that I have made such a mark on the franchise and have retained a loyal fanbase even after all these years."

"Mima…" Reimu sighed, but predictably she was ignored.

"Why should I be bitter that, despite my undeniable prominence in the original series, a certain alcoholic anorexic seems to have forgotten that I even existed at all and passed me over in favor some little nobody that literally only just showed up in the latest game?" Mima said, pressing the back of her hand against her forehead while heaving out a heavy sigh. "But I suppose I just wasn't young and pretty enough to warrant a phone call."

"Mima!" Reimu all but screamed. "I don't care! It is one in the freaking morning and I'm freezing! So stop complaining about the games and get to the-"

Right about that moment the door banged open. Before either Reimu or Mima could react, two men wearing black tuxedoes, impenetrable sunglasses, and carrying shiny attaché suitcases stormed in. Following close behind was a tall woman with short green hair, red eyes, and a red plaid-checkered skirt and vest. She looked extraordinarily displeased.

"What is this?" Mima said, blinking in surprise.

In answer, one of the men held up a rather official looking piece of paper. "Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask that you stop breaking the fourth wall, as doing so is in direct violation of the conditions stated in my client's contract."

"Your client's…" Mima snatched the paper out of his hand and scanned it over. Then she shot Yuuka Kazami a look of disbelief. "Wait, are you serious? This story isn't in Imperfect Metamorphosis's continuity! It has nothing do to with…okay, stop the story, stop the story!"

Please stand by…

Mima hovered in the middle of the shrine, a disgruntled look on her face and a piece of paper in her hand. Off to one side stood Yuuka Kazami, her arms folded across her chest and her mouth as thin as a knife wound. Her lawyers stood to either side of her, silently waiting.

"Well?" Yuuka demanded.

Sighing, Mima lifted up the paper and read in a dull and exaggeratedly slow monotone, "I…Madam Mima…do apologize…for my…repeated breaking of the fourth wall…despite knowing…that doing so…is Yuuka Kazami's official gimmick…and having multiple characters overuse it…cheapens the effect…" She took a deep breath. "Despite this Christmas special having absolutely nothing to do with Imperfect Metamorphosis and is canon to nothing but itself, so I don't get why she's got such a massive Christmas tree shoved up her bum and-"

"That's enough," Yuuka snapped as she snatched the paper out of the ghost's hands. She held up her right index and middle finger, pointed them at her own eyes, and swiveled her wrist around so that they were jabbing at Mima's. "I'm watching you."

"Take a picture, it'll last longer," Mima said in a bored tone. She made a sweeping motion with her hand. "Shoo, shoo, you're not even supposed to be in this special!"

With one final glare, Yuuka spun on her heel and marched out of the shrine, her black-clad lawyers following close behind like a pair of well-trained dogs.

"And thus exits the ass that so that most deserves a thorough kicking," Mima muttered to herself. "Prissy little fruitcake." Then with a sigh, she shook her head and glanced over to Reimu, who had remained bundled up on her sleeping mat the whole time. "Sorry about that. Where were we?"

Reimu blinked. "Uh, discounting all that PC-98 crap, something about you being the Ghost of-"

"Christmas Past, that's right!" Mima said, snapping her fingers in front of her nose. She pointed at Reimu, who suddenly found all of her blankets blown right off of her. Before the shrine maiden could react, the spirit had swooped down, seized her by the arm, and lifted her right up to her feet. "Well, time's a wasting, so let us be off."

"Wait, hold on!" Reimu said, wrenching herself out of Mima's grasp. "Go where?"

"To your past," Mima said primly. "Duh. Specifically one of your past Christmases. Duh. Because I'm the Ghost of Christmas Past. It's literally in the name." Then after a few moments, she added, "Duh."

"What? Why?"

"Oh, something about learning some sort of lesson about selflessness and altruism," Mima said with an unconcerned shrug of her shoulders. "I guess seeing your younger self is supposed to put things in perspective or something. Sort of a before and after thing, but with puberty instead of plastic surgery."

Reimu gaped at her. "The hell you say? Selflessness and altruism? You're freaking evil! Why the hell would you even care about those?"

"I don't, to be honest. But hey, they needed a ghost with some sort of past gimmick, a job's a job, and I get double overtime on the holidays."

"Well, screw that!" Reimu shouted. She took a step forward to jab a finger in Mima's sternum. "If you think I'm going to go along with-"

Two things happened at nearly at once. The first was that her finger passed right through the spirit's body, thereby failing to halt her forward momentum as expected. The second was that the floor failed to meet her foot as it came down. As a result, Reimu suddenly found herself pitching forward. She flailed her arms, trying to regain her balance, but she was already falling.

"Buh-bye now," Mima said with a wave of her hand as Reimu plunged through her noticeably unsolid floor. "See you on the other side!"

Yelling in surprise and outrage, Reimu tumbled head over heels through what looked like a twisting blue vortex. The wind ripped at her hair and the heavy clothes she was wearing. All around, white lightning sparked and flashed, coming far closer than she was comfortable with.

"MIMA!" she shrieked into the void. "I SWEAR I AM GOING TO-"

Then she glanced down at the threat died on her lips.

Ghostly faces were floating up around her, faces of people she knew: Marisa, Yukari Yakumo, Remilia Scarlet, Kanako Yasaka, Genji the turtle, Byakuren Hijiri, Shinki, and dozens of others. Specters of her past and present rode the swirling blue winds up around her. And directly below was the face of a giant clock, one that seemed to little respect for the proper functions of its kind and was demonstrating its rebellious attitude by having its oversized hands move entirely too fast to be of use and in the wrong direction.

Glowing white letters appeared in the lower left hand corner of the clock. They read, "Evil magician does her best and is preparing. Please scream warmly until she is done."

"MIIIIIIIIIIIIMAAAAAAAAAAAA!" Reimu screamed as she fell into the face of the counter-culture clock.

Then she landed in something soft. However, in defiance to the glowing words advice, it was also very cold.

"Wah!" she cried as she bounded up to her feet. She was standing outside in what seemed to be the dead of night in the middle of winter, though which winter she couldn't tell. The sky overhead was so thick with dark clouds that she couldn't see the moon, and the naked trees stood out as dark, skeletal silhouettes. Snow crunched under her feet, snow that she really, really wished that she didn't have to walk through.

Thankful that she was at least still bundled up in every scrap of clothing that she owned and cursing the fact that it still wasn't enough, Reimu hugged her coats closer to herself and shivered. "M-M-Mima!" she called all through chattering teeth. "Get y-your dead ass-s-s out h-here and-"

"Goodness, child. There's no need to shout! I'm right here."

Reimu turned to see the spirit floating less than a meter away, an amused smirk on her face. "Well, great," Reimu said, her breath coming out in great big puffs of steam. "Now s-send me back!"

"Back? You mean back to the shrine?" Mima spread her hands and lifted them over her head. "But Reimu, there's no need for that. Rejoice, because that is exactly where you were!"

It was indeed Hakurei Shrine. Most everything was recognizable, from the shape of the snow-covered lawn to the grove of trees surrounding it on three sides to the hill sloping down to the main path to the mountains in the distance to the sparkles of the Hakurei Barrier at the far back, indicating where Gensokyo ended and the Outside World began. However, it clearly wasn't her Hakurei Shrine, at least not anymore. The snow lay even thicker than it had back in her time, indicating an unusually harsh winter, even for Gensokyo. Several additions that Reimu had added after she was old enough were conspicuous in their absence. And as for the shrine itself…

"Wow," Reimu said, staring. "Did I really live in that?"

If anything, Hakurei Shrine was even more ramshackle and worn down than usual, and it looked desperately in need of maintenance in the best of times. In fact, it looked practically abandoned, with rotting timbers, a roof that was in danger of falling apart, and walls that needed patching. Sitting their surrounded by the dark and the snow, it had a lonely, haunted feel to it. Reimu couldn't help but shiver in a way that had nothing to do with the cold. Sheesh, no wonder people never visited.

"Mima," she said. "Where am I?"

In response, the spirit just rolled her eyes.

Shaking her head, Reimu amended, "Fine. When am I?"

Motioning to the living quarters in the back of the shrine, Mima said, "Take a look. See for yourself."

Frowning, Reimu crunched her way through the snow. The windows had no shutters, so it had to be a point in time before she had added them. That had been after the second time the shrine had been knocked down, so that at least narrowed things down somewhat. Hell, given the state of the place this had to be fairly early in her life. Which didn't exactly thrill her, because her childhood had, quite frankly, sucked a big fat one.

She peered through the window and sighed. Sure enough, she saw herself, at barely ten years old. If the Reimu of the present was lacking in basic amenities, this one was just downright pitiable. Her younger self was huddled in a corner, a threadbare blanket wrapped tightly around her shivering shoulders. In front of her was a small fire inside of a clay pot, which she was feeding with tiny handfuls of dried twigs from a small pile. From the look of things, she was being careful not to throw in too many at once, as she was starting to run low.

"Momma," the younger Reimu whimpered to herself. "Momma."

"Oh, this is pathetic," Mima said, sidling up to peer over Reimu's shoulder. "When was this?"

Reimu stared stonefaced at the scene. "This was right after my mom died."

"Was it? Oh, how tragic that must have been. Young child, all alone in a dark cruel world, left to fend for herself in the middle of one of Gensokyo's notoriously cruel winters."

"Yeah," Reimu said coldly. "Y'know, you really don't sound all that sympathetic there, Mima."

"Oh? And what makes you say that?"

"The fact that you're grinning from ear to ear."

Mima's already enormous smile somehow managed to gain a few centimeters. Any wider and the top half of her head would be in danger of falling off. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Sighing, Reimu turned back to look at the cold and lonely child she had once been. "Mima, what's the point of this? To remind me that my childhood sucked? How hard it was to lose my mom? I haven't exactly forgotten, you know."

To this, Mima only shrugged. "To be frank, I do not know nor do I particularly care. It's my job to take you here and show you around. Any sort of life-changing revelation is entirely up to you."

Reimu glowered. "Screw. That. You brought me here, you explain what the point it."

"Well, fine," Mima huffed. She motioned with one hand to the window and the sad scene beyond. "Perhaps by showing you how truly bad it once was, you may come to appreciate what you have and show more compassion for those who have even less."

"Even less," Reimu echoed. She coughed into her hand and said, "Er, Mima? Point of contention. Sure, things don't suck as much as they used to, but I am still literally the poorest person in my social circle. Remilia's so filthy rich that I'm pretty sure she could buy the freaking country if it was for sale. The gang over in Moriya Shrine rule over a freaking mountain and get a constant stream of tribute by the people that literally worship them. Yukari's got that big old house in another dimension and sort of actually owns Gensokyo. Byakuren's got that sweetass temple and gets more donations in a day than I see in a season. Kaguya's a princess with a hugeass mansion, Sukuna's got that sweet castle with the rest of her folks, Alice has a really nice house that's twice the size of mine, and even Marisa has interior heating."

"You forgot Suika," Mima pointed out. "After all, she's technically homeless."

"Suika?" Reimu snorted. "She's an oni! You could drop her in the middle of a blizzard and she would barely even feel it! And she keeps wandering around because she likes it! I'm a very poor, very cold, and very pissed off mortal. Who the hell am I supposed to show charity to?"

"Damned if I know, but then, I never really cared in the first place," Mima said with another shrug. "At any rate though, my job is done. Maybe the next two ghosts will be able to provide you with the missing pieces."

Reimu's heart fell. In all of the annoyance caused by Mima's shenanigans, she had almost forgotten that she had to endure these stupid trips two more times. "Are you serious?" she said. "Why can't you guys just leave me alone?"

Mima smiled, but said nothing.

"Hey, don't give me the silent treatment! You dragged me out of my bed to ride this sob train, so you better give me some answers!"

To this Mima only tilted her head to one side, but her smile and refusal to answer remained the same.

Reimu gritted her teeth. Hot anger and burning frustration churned in her stomach. "Mima, I swear to all the gods, if you don't give me a straight answer right this freaking second, I'm going to-"

Then she blinked. Mima was gone. One second she had been hovering right in front of her with that infuriating smirk of hers, the next she had simply vanished without a trace.

For a brief, terrifying moment Reimu was afraid that she had been abandoned in the past. But then she realized that she was back at the shrine, her shrine, in her proper time, with that vision of her miserable child self returned to memories where she belonged.

Reimu closed her eyes and slowly inhaled. "Okay," she muttered. "Fine. I guess we're doing this then."

With that, she sat down on her sleeping mat, crossed her legs and folded her arms, and waited. If they were going to insist on doing this, then they were going to do it her way. The next ghost to show their face was taking a Fantasy Seal to the face. She just hoped that they showed up before she started nodding off again.

We now interrupt Reimu's Christmas Carol to bring you Reimu's Christmas Carols. Though wishing to use the restroom or return that text may now do so. Or you can stick around and sing along. Your choice, just so long as you're back in your seat by the end of the intermission.

And so without further ado, I give you Reimu's Christmas Carols.

Cirno the Strongest Fairy

Cirno the strongest fairy

Was the toughest of them all!

And if you ever fought her

She might just freeze your balls

All of the other fairies

Used to laugh and call her names

So Cirno kicked their asses

Because those losers were lame!

Then one muggy Summer's day

The three fairies came to say

(derp, derp, derp!)

"Cirno, we knocked down your igloo!

Now tell us what you gonna do!"

So Cirno beat them senseless

And they cried out for mercy!

(mercy!)

Cirno the strongest fairy

Takes guff from nobody!

Let It Snow

Well, the weather outside is frightful

But the blossoms are so delightful

So long as my tree continues to grow

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Look at all this spring I have taken

It's possible I was mistaken

But look at my tree grow!

So let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

While the world downstairs is frozen

Consumed by the endless cold

And it looks like I'm in for a scolding

Or so I've been told

Well it seems that my tree is evil

And my corpse is fueling the seal

But c'mon, how was I to know?

Just let it go, let it go, let it go.

Okuu the Raven

Okuu the Raven

Was a sweet and ditzy girl

Until things went sour

And she got overpowered

And tried to nuke the world!

Okuu the Raven

Is now kinda nuts

And her friends are scared

That no one cares

About how much they're (beep!)

There was just too much power

In that old sun god she ate

Because when she finally got him down

She was filled with madness and hate!

Waily wail wail, waily wail wail, listen to that siren go!

Waily wail wail, waily wail wail, I think she's gonna blow!

Okuu the Raven

Became a living nuke

Until a witch and a maiden

Decided the day needed saving

And the world was let off the hook

Down Underground, with a nuclear third leg.

Shooting here and there and everywhere, trying to make them beg.

She fought them right through Hell, trying to make them die

Until they hit her in the face and she started to cry

Okuu the Raven

Was sorry for what she'd done

"Oh, it's okay,"

She heard Satori say

As she gave her a great big hug.

We hope you have enjoyed this rendition of Reimu's Christmas Carols, and have gotten all urge to text your friends out of your system. We now return you to Reimu's Christmas Carol, and so so help us God, if we catch any one of you with your phones out during the show, you will be eaten!

Reimu didn't have to wait long. Scarcely fifteen minutes went by before the bell above the door started ringing of its own accord, announcing that the second spirit of the night was making their entrance.

Her body tensed beneath the layers she was wearing, and her fingers moved over the spellcard she was holding. Okay, here it came. One incorporeal ass kicking, coming right-

Then the lights went on. All of them.

The interior of the shrine's living quarters was suddenly filled with a homey golden glow, more than her collection of candles and lanterns could actually produce. The temperature rose by several dozen degrees, climbing from "frigid" to "pleasantly balmy." It was such a sudden and welcome change that Reimu was almost knocked over in shock. However, before she could gather her wits, a new sensation suddenly waged an all-out assault on her senses and took no prisoners.

The single most delicious scent Reimu had ever had the pleasure of experiencing permeated her nostrils and seeped through her body. Roasted meats slathered with herbs, freshly baked bread dripping with butter and honey, delectable sugary sweets both hot and cold, sharp cheeses melting over crisp pieces of toast, deviled eggs, fresh vegetables swimming in dressing, steaming noodles soaking in spices, piles of fried rice mixed with pieces of beef and pork, and so much more. The pit of Reimu's stomach, long accustomed to small and plain meals, suddenly gaped wide open while her mouth started running like a faucet. The air was so thick with delicious smells that she could practically taste them.

Reimu looked around and her heart started beating faster. Sure enough, the most enormous feast she had ever seen surrounded her. Directly in front of her was a small hill of fried chicken drumsticks, covered with breadcrumbs. Cheeses of every color and description formed a tower over by the door. A many tiered stack of silver trays displayed pies, cakes, cookies, and other frosted delights. A chunk of thick sourdough bread the size of Reimu's donation box had been hollowed out and filled to the brim with a steaming, savory brown stew of rice, onions, and chunks of steak. And there was more, so much more. More food than Reimu had probably consumed in her entire life now sat before her, just begging for her to dive in.

Now traditionally, magical banquets showing up out of thin air tended to be dangerous things. The nastier brand of fairies known as the Fae were fond of ensnaring mortals with their magical food, and while there wasn't many of their kind in Gensokyo there were still many that worked off the same playbook. Reimu was well aware of this, and under normal circumstances she might have exhibited a little more self-control. But she was just so hungry that for one brief moment she would have happily endured any sort of mystical trap just to fill her stomach.

She didn't, though not because of common sense. Rather, it was then that she heard the sound of someone already eating, and doing so loudly. A bit of caution returned, and deciding that she had better see who her dinner guest was before indulging herself, Reimu peeked out around a bowl of pasta almost as tall as she was and saw who the second ghost was.

Her new visitor was sitting on a throne made from piled food. She was almost a full head taller than Reimu was, with short, curly pink hair and a round, cheerful face. Like Mima, she had a faint glow to her, though hers was considerably warmer and lacked the menacing aura her predecessor had. She wore heavy frilled robes of pale blue and had a large, puffy hat of the same color on her head. She held a plate piled high with various delights and was wolfing them down with gusto, her eyes squeezed tight in delight.

Loath as she was to disturb her, Reimu still needed to move things along. So she lifted her hand to her mouth and coughed loudly into her fist.

The ghost paused in her feasting and looked around. She swallowed and called out, "Who's there?" She smiled. "Come and know me better, man!"

Shaking her head, Reimu came out into view and waved. "Hey there."

The ghost blinked. "Oh. Or woman, that's fine." She shrugged and smiled. "Sorry. Hello, Reimu! Merry Christmas!"

Reimu sighed. "Yuyuko. Honestly I am not surprised."

"Then you were expecting me! Good!" Yuyuko Saigyouji said with a pleased smiled. She glanced around at the great bounty around her and her brow knitted in concern. "Oh, I'm sorry, this isn't yours, is it?"

"What?"

"Yukari keeps telling me that showing up uninvited to people's houses and eating their food is very rude," Yuyuko said. "I try to remember, but things slip my mind."

Despite wanting to hold onto her irritation for appearance's sake, Reimu found herself growing amused. Despite her power and authority, Yuyuko was so absent-minded that every time they spoke, Reimu spent most of the conversation fighting the giggles. "Uh, no. This is all yours, actually. You brought it with you."

"Did I?" Yuyuko beamed. "Well, then it's okay!" She set her plate aside and stood up. "Come, come, have a seat, I'll make you up a plate!"

For all her faults, Yuyuko did know her way around food, and soon Reimu had a plate of her own, piled high with glory.

"Ohmigods," she groaned as she ripped apart a chicken leg with her teeth. Hot, spicy chunks of meat slid down her throat, warming her chest. "This is wonderful!"

"Isn't it?" Yuyuko said as she drank from a cup of flavored ice, giving herself a blue mustache. She handed Reimu another plate. "Here, try the pecan pie. Now tell me that isn't the most delicious thing you have ever tasted."

Reimu was disinclined to obey, as it really was the most delicious thing she had ever tasted. "Oh my gods," she mumbled with her mouth full, her eyelids fluttering.

Yuyuko wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "So now Reimu, what brings you by on this fine night?"

Reimu paused. Swallowing, she said, "Uh, Yuyuko? You came to me, remember? This is my place."

"It is?" The elder spirit honestly looked confused by this. "But you just said that the food was mine!"

"The food's yours, but you brought it with you," Reimu explained, making sure to speak slowly and loudly. "This is actually my home."

"Is it?" Yuyuko looked around as if seeing the small room for the first time. Then she shrugged and smiled. "Well, Youmu's always getting on me to bring a lunch. It seems I finally remembered!"

Reimu nodded and chewed on a dumpling while she waited. When Yuyuko said nothing she prompted, "So…"

"Hmmm?"

Well, it looked like she was going to have to spell it out. "Yuyuko, what are you doing here?"

"Here?" Then Yuyuko's eyes widened and she snapped her fingers in front of her face. "Well golly, if it hasn't completely escaped my mind. Why am I here?"

Reimu shook her head. "Well, if I was to guess, I'd say it had something with you being the Ghost of-"

"Christmas Presents, that's right!" Yuyuko said with a pleased smiled. "Jolly good, too! I love presents!"

"Uh, no," Reimu said. "Pretty sure you're the Ghost of Present. You know, what's happening right now."

"Oh, is that right? Well, I supposed you're right. That's disappointing. But I supposed the present is the only time one can truly enjoying receiving presents, because when it's in the past they're just possession, and in the future they are only brightly colored possibilities."

She fell into a contemplative silence, no doubt mulling over her own words of wisdom. Reimu's mouth set in a straight line. She was enjoying the food and warmth, yes, but even so, her patience was running thing.

"So…" she said again.

"Oh, right!" Yuyuko said as she hopped up. "I have to show you your present!"

"Great." Reimu glanced around and motioned vaguely in the air. "Well, here it is. Well done."

"Oh, no, no, no. Not that one."

"I have more than one present?"

"Most people do on Christmas." Then Yuyuko frowned. "Well, with the exception of the extraordinarily poor."

"Which I am," Reimu was quick to point out.

"Then this Christmas you're getting a second one," Yuyuko declared. She grabbed Reimu by the bicep, causing her to drop her plate. Without wasting any time, she hauled the shrine maiden right out the front door. "Come on, let's go!"

"Wait, go where?" Reimu cried, but it was too late. One step, and they were outside.

It was day. The clouds had all cleared away, and the sun was shining, if not bright enough to warm the world then at least enough to cheer it. Or at least what bit of the sun they could see, as Reimu and Yuyuko were standing in one of the Forest of Magic's many tangled paths, where the thick and twisted canopy often obstructed all light and good feelings.

However, directly in front of them was a reasonably sized clearing, with enough break between the branches overhead to allow for warm rays pierce down to the snowy ground. There were even a few birds chirping merrily.

"Welcome to Christmas morning!" Yuyuko declared, spreading her arms wide as if she wanted to embrace the whole of the world.

Reimu scowled. They had come here with no fuss, no twisting vortexes, lightning strikes, giant clocks, creepy faces, or glowing messages with bizarre syntax. "The next time I see Mima, I'm popping her in the nose," she muttered.

"A capital idea, I never really liked her," Yuyuko said pleasantly. She grabbed Reimu's hand and pulled her along toward the only thing of note in the clearing: a T-shaped, one-story house sitting in the middle of it all.

Reimu knew both it and the clearing, of course. It was Marisa's house, and given that this was supposedly a few hours from where they had begun, they were there to watch Marisa's Christmas party and learn something from it.

"Isn't this against the rules?" Reimu said as they drew closer.

"Hmmm?" Yuyuko said.

"You're showing me what's going to happen tomorrow," Reimu said. "That's still the future. Doesn't that like run the risk of causing a paradox?"

"Oh, I'm sure if does," Yuyuko said without a care. "But I'm sure it'll be fine. Just try not to think about it and forget anything of importance."

"Then how am I supposed to learn this less-"

"Shhh," Yuyuko said, holding a finger to her lips. She nodded over to the side window. "Go see."

Reimu shot her a sour look. Then with a sigh, she trudged over and peeked in. Oh well, at least she could see if the party was worth going to or not.

From her perspective, it certainly seemed like a hoot. Most of the gang that didn't already have something going on were there. She saw the puppeteer magician Alice Margatroid sitting in one of the easychairs and chatting with the half-youkai shopkeeper Rinnosuke Morichika. Cirno and her gaggle of misfits (of course they would be there. Of course) were all gathered around a big barrel filled with water and were bobbing for whatever Marisa had dumped in there. Based upon past experiences, Reimu was willing to bet that it was more than apples. The kappa inventor Nitori Kawashiro and the two Tengu journalists Aya Shameimaru and Hatate Himekaidou were gathered around the punch bowl, which, judging by the state of their grins and how grabby they were getting, had to be spiked with something unconventional. Suika was there, apparently having found her gourd. She was sitting at some kind of gameboard, glaring hazily at the pieces as she either contemplated her next move or tried to figure out exactly what game she was playing. Sitting across from her was the hermit Kasen Ibaraki, who, despite playing against a clearly inebriated opponent, seemed to be losing quite badly, if the sweat on her forehead and the worried look on her face were any indication. Gathered around them were those three troublemaking fairies that lived in Reimu's cherry grove, all of them shouting words of encouragement and bad advice.

And though she was sort of expecting it, Reimu also saw herself.

Apparently all thawed out, her future self was reclining on the couch with Marisa, happily chatting away. She held a plate of sandwiches, sausages, and cookies in one hand with a bottle of sake held in her lap. Marisa was slouching back with her fat pet tsuchinoko lying in her lap, which she would occasionally feed bits from fruit from a bowl.

Reimu blinked in surprise as she watched herself laugh at a joke. She looked…well, happy. Relaxed. Like she was enjoying herself. Granted, she usually had fun at Marisa's parties and always liked to hang out with the young witch, but actually seeing herself smile was sort of odd. Winters were always miserable affairs, and even in good weather her job was a constant source of stress. Coupled with her harsh life and meager earnings, she had never really thought of herself as a happy person. Fun was something that happened to other people.

But tomorrow she was going to smile and laugh with her friends. Huh.

"I say, that looks like fun!" Yuyuko chimed as she leaned over Reimu's shoulder to peer inside. "I almost wish I hadn't promised Yukari to come to her bash. Maybe I'll leave early and stop by!"

"I'll be sure to warn Marisa to hide the sandwiches," Reimu said. "But yeah, it does look like fun." Then she turned to look her ghostly guide in the eye. "But, uh, what exactly am I supposed to take from this? That I'm going to have a good day? That's nice to know, but I'm not sure what lesson I'm supposed to learn."

"You don't?" Yuyuko said, her face falling. "Oh, that's too bad."

Reimu sighed. "Then how's about we skip the clue hunting and you just go and tell me?"

"I can't," Yuyuko said with a shrug. "I don't know it myself. I'm just supposed to bring you here and let you figure it out yourself."

Reimu's right eyelid started to twitch. "Is that right? Well, that sucks a big-"

At that moment the cuckoo clock that sat on Marisa's mantle suddenly went off, declaring it to be eleven in the morning. Reimu's future self suddenly stiffened. She shot a glance at the clock and a dark look passed over her face. She said something to Marisa, which made the young witch crack up. Then, setting her plate and bottle on the nearby coffee table, the future Reimu stormed over the very window that Reimu and Yuyuko were peering through, a determined look on her face.

Reimu drew back as she watched herself approach. "Uh, hey," she said. "Can she see us or-"

Then Reimu's future self threw open the window and leaned out. She glared out at Reimu and Yuyuko, though her eyes didn't exactly focus on where they were standing.

"Hey!" she called out. "Past me! I can't see you but I know you're there." She jabbed a finger at the window and pointed it in an accusatory manner. "You're getting screwed over! Those ghosts messed up! They're supposed to visit someone else entirely, don't know who though I can venture a few guesses, but they went full dumbass and started harassing you instead! It's all a stupid mistake! But you're going to have to go through with it anyway, because I did and you have to avoid that stupid paradox! Oh, and Yuyuko? Thanks for that, by the way. Really appreciate getting dragged around three timelines at one in the freaking morning!"

With that, she slammed the window shut and stormed back to the couch, where Marisa was still laughing her head off.

Reimu stared, her mouth hanging agape. Then she slowly turned to Yuyuko, who was standing with a rather sheepish look on her face. "Uh, Yuyuko?"

The pink-haired ghost was obviously making an effort not to make eye contact. "Er, yes?"

"You, uh, wanna comment on what I just told myself?"

Yuyuko inhaled sharply and then let out a rather nervous giggle. "Oh, hey, look at the time!" she said, pulling out a large silver pocketwatch and jabbing a finger at its back. "You know, I think I'd better get you back to the shrine. Good lesson though. Merry Christmas!"

"Now, hold on one minute!" Reimu shouted. "You're going nowhere until you-"

It was then that she realized that she was yelling at empty air. She was back in her shrine, only rewound back to the twilight hours before dawn. Yuyuko was gone, vanished much as Mima had.

Again Reimu stared with red cheeks and clenched fists at the space previously inhabited by a meddlesome ghost. Her forearms trembled a bit, but she otherwise was completely motionless.

Then a low growl rumbled out from deep within her chest. It gradually rose in pitch, rising to a snarl until climaxing as a shrill shriek of outrage.

"YAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!" Reimu screamed at the emptiness and dark that surrounded her. "Out of all the STUPID! POINTLESS! COMPLETELY IDIOTIC-"

Words failed her then, and she started kicking her blankets in frustration while snarling like a rabid dog.

It wasn't fair! It just wasn't fair! Why did all the weird shit have to happen to her? Okay, her job meant having to hunt down weird shit and putting a stop to it, but damn it, there had to be limits! And the middle of the night in her own home when she was trying to sleep on freaking Christmas Eve should be one of them! Especially since apparently she wasn't supposed to be the one dealing with the weird shit in the first place!

But of course a mistake would be made to ensure that she ended up being the one harassed and annoyed. The fates had to be conspiring against her, there was no other explanation. She was born unlucky, cursed to always be the one to get screwed over. It just. Wasn't. FAIR!

Finally her anger exhausted itself, and Reimu stood panting, looking down at the battered mess she had made of her bed. Then with a rude snort, she sat down on the blankets, crossed her legs, folded her arms, and waited. She didn't care who the next ghost turned out to be, it was going to get a faceful of danmaku and an earful of profanity.

It was then that Reimu noticed just how hungry she was. She looked down at her stomach in dismay. Apparently in making her exit, Yuyuko had not only taken her entire feast with her, but had also erased all traces that it had ever been there in the first place, including the food in Reimu's stomach.

Reimu took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "Of course," she whispered. "Of. Freaking. Course."

We once again interrupt this presentation of Reimu's Christmas Carol for some more of Reimu's Christmas Carols. Hey, come on. They are in the plural.

The Day After New Year's

Twas the day after New Year, and all through the shrine

Not a creature was sober, they had drunk all the wine

The youkai slumbered with nary a care

With beer on their skirts and puke in their hair

The fairies were using each other as beds

While premonitions of hangovers grew in their heads

And Alice was snoring away on my lap

While I was wondering if she was good in the sack

When the door flew open with a thump

And scared me so bad that I almost threw up

Then a snowball flew through the air like a flash

And hit me in the face with its cold, melting mass

So I wiped it away and snatched up my broom

And squinted at the one who had entered the room

Standing in the door ringed by morning mist

Was the maiden of the shrine, and boy she looked pissed

More swiftly than Tengu her bullets came

Kicking so much ass while yelling at them by name.

"Out Cirno! Out Yukari!

Out Alice and Marisa!

Out Sanae! Out Daiyousei!

And stop drooling on my floor, Suika!

Get off my floor and move your ass out the door!

And get out of here! Out of here! Out of here! NOW!"

Quicker than flies in fear of a smack

We bolted for the door without looking back

So into the air her evicted freeloaders did fly

Either laughing at her or pleading for their lives

And as we fled from the shrine, we heard the maiden shout,

"The holidays are over, so get the hell out!"

Master Spark

Smashing through the wall

On an old-school wooden broom

Through the air I fly

Shooting lasers of doom!

(pew, pew pew!)

Stars and sparkles fly

What a lovely sight!

We're unleashing the power of love

On people we don't like!

Oh, Master Spark, Master Spark,

What a lovely sight!

We're unleashing the power of love

On people we don't like!

Ze!

Master Spark, Master Spark,

What a lovely sight!

We're unleashing the power of love

On people we don't like!

Over an Open Fire

Wait, this feels familiar…

Moonbitch roasting on an open fire

Because yesterday she cut off my nose

Her screams are rising ever higher

As I go to work on her toes

Everyone knows this jackass

Screwed me over all right

So for the honor of my father

I'm going to set her alight

She's had this coming for days and days

And now I'm here to slay

And every rabbt is going to see

How far her head will fly

And so I'm telling her this simple phrase

As her skin starts to fry

Though we've said it many times, many ways,

"I hate you. Please die."

This concludes another session of Reimu's Christmas Carols. Should you notice any newly empty seats, please keep in mind that we were serious about eating those who dare use their cellphones during the show, and would ask that if you don't wish to join them, please make sure your phone remains off and stowed out of sight.

On a completely unrelated note, due a sudden surplus of meat, hotdogs are now half off at the concession stand.

And we now return you to Reimu's Christmas Carol.

Fifteen minutes the bell over the door started ringing, and the lines on Reimu's face tightened. Right on time.

"Okay whoever you are!" she shouted. "Get your ass in here! You and I have-"

Then the air grew colder, and all the candles went out, their wicks sending smoking curls twisting into the air. Outside, the night wind rose up to a howl that rattled the walls and made the foundations groan. Reimu's words died in her throat.

Through the thin walls of her home, Reimu could see a dark silhouette moving across the porch. She couldn't make out much in the way of detail, but from the looks of things, this ghost was very large, taller than even Yuyuko, and was clad in a very large hooded robe. She swallowed.

Then the door flew open, and a blast of harsh winter air howled in.

The silhouette had not been exaggerating. The third ghost was huge, standing well over two meters tall. It had to hunch over to fit through the doorway, framed by the moonlight and casting a long shadow across the room to cover Reimu herself. It wore a long, hooded black robe, its cowl pulled down to obscure its features. All Reimu could see of the spectre beneath was one slender hand, as pale as a corpse's, which grasped the handle of a wickedly sharp scythe.

Reimu's eyes went wide. Okay, this hadn't been what she had been expecting at all. Another irritating spirit of her acquaintance? Yes. The Grim Reaper himself? Not so much.

Good gods, what had the person that was supposed to be getting this visits done to deserve this?

The deathly figure slowly moved into the shrine, the trails of its black robe dragging on the floor behind it. As it passed inside, the door slammed shut behind it with an echoing bang that a door that light had no business making. It used its scythe as a walking stick, the wooden pole thumping against the floor with each step. Reimu gulped as it advanced. She had seen scarier things. She had fought scarier things. She had beaten scarier things. But when the Grim Reaper came calling on a cold winter night, it made an impression.

She sat frozen and stared as it drew closer, until it was standing directly over her. For a moment, neither of them moved, its faceless gaze boring into her frightened eyes. Then, holding the scythe in the crux of its arm, it reached up with two white hands and reached up into its cowl and slowly drew it back, giving her a look at its face.

Red locks of hair were shook free, and it let out a relieved sigh. "Goodness!" said the Reaper in a cheerful tone. "But damn its cold out there!"

Reimu gaped up at the pleasantly attractive woman smiling warmly down at her. Then she groaned, the tension leaving her shoulders. "Komachi," she muttered. "Well, fine. For the third time, I should have known."

Komachi Onozuka, Gensokyo's resident Shinigami, laughed. "Hey, Reimu," she said as she shrugged her way out of the robe, revealing the brightly colored outfit she normally wore. "Sorry about the big entrance, but there was no way I was going out into that without covering up. It's frostbite weather out there!"

Reimu frowned. "Yeah, it is. And hey, about that-"

Komachi stuck the butte of her scythe against the ground. It stuck as surely as if it had been planted there. Still talking, she hung her robe over the blade. "Seriously, I took one step outside, and was all like, 'You serious, dude? You want me to go all the way to Hakurei Shrine in this? You trying to kill me through hypothermia? Who's gonna collect my soul if you do?'"

"Right. But see, here's the thing-"

"Fortunately I had picked up this big ol' thing a few years back for a Halloween party," Komachi said, affectionately patting the cloak. "Not only does it make for a bitching costume, but it's also super warm. Seriously, covers everything right up, and nothing gets through! Not that I'm not glad to be indoors now, though. Because godsdamn!"

"Cool," Reimu sighed. "Hey, you know you got the wrong place, right?"

Komachi frowned at her. "What are you talking about?"

"You got the wrong place," Reimu said, more insistently this time. "You and the other ghosts were supposed to go teach someone else a lesson, not me."

"Yeah, pretty sure we're not," Komachi said with a roll of her eyes.

"Pretty sure you are," Reimu countered.

"Yeah?" Komachi folded her arms. "And how do you know?"

"Because I told myself."

This just earned her a blank stare.

Sighing, Reimu backed up a bit and said, "Look, when Yuyuko showed up to show me Christmas morning, she took me to see myself at Marisa's Christmas party. Why, I don't know, but she did. And I guess my future self figured out that we were there and-"

"Dude, you talked to yourself from the future?" Komachi said, her eyes popping wide. "That's, like, against so many rules!"

"Hey, I didn't initiate it!" Reimu said, holding her hands up. "Future me was the one to come over and start yelling!"

"Dude, you talked to yourself from the past? That's even worse!"

"But I haven't done it yet!" Reimu cried. "It's in the future!"

"Then don't! Seriously, you can get into so much trouble for-" Then Komachi wrinkled her nose. "Though come to think of it, if you don't talk to your past self, how will you know not to…Damn it, you're already risking a freaking paradox! See, this is why you're not supposed go mucking about with timelines!"

"Mucking about-WHAT the HELL!" Reimu all but roared. She swung an accusatory finger at the unwanted Shinigami. "You're the guys dragging me from my bed at one in the morning to go mucking about with timelines! I never wanted to go on these stupid trips, but you keep showing up to take me on them anyway! And according to future me, you're doing it to the wrong freaking person!"

At least Komachi had the good graces to look a little sheepish at this. She grimaced and nervously rubbed the back of her neck as she thought. "Er, well, you may have a point there," she admitted. "Say, did this future you say anything about whether or not you went on all three trips?"

To this Reimu's shoulders slumped, and she sighed. "Yeah," she said. "She said I went on all three." A wince, and she added with great reluctance, "She said I had to go on all three."

"Ah." Komachi bit her lower lip. "Er, so you do kinda have to finish things up. You know, so future you won't be wrong and end up causing all of time and space to collapse."

"Damn it," Reimu whispered.

"Look, let's just nip into the future real quick and check things out," Komachi said, holding up her hands, palms facing out. "If it's what I was told you're supposed to see, then it's all good. If it's not, then I am so sorry, and I will personally seek out and kick the ass of the one responsible. Hell, I'll even throw in some money for wasting your time. Deal?"

Reimu groaned, but her resistance was weakening. As much as she wanted this whole ordeal to be done with, she had to admit that she could use the boost to her coffers. And the prospect of whoever it was that had messed up having their ass kicked by an angry Shinigami was pretty tempting. "Fine," she said as she stood up. "Make it quick though."

Komachi breathed out a slow breath. "Okey-dokey," she said, and waved a hand at the door.

What followed was downright disquieting. It was like the front door simply twisted on itself. The wooden contraption warped into a spiral and then melted into itself, forming a gaping hole into complete darkness. White steam trickled out through the portal, spreading out over the floor while a sound like wind whistling through a canyon sent shivers over Reimu's skin.

"Creepy," she remarked. "You sure this isn't some weird ploy to take my soul into Hell?"

"Dude, if that was my job, I'd just do it. These things are stressful enough throwing pulling stupidly complicated schemes into the mix." The redheaded Shinigami tilted her head toward the portal. "C'mon."

When Reimu hesitated, Komachi sighed and tilted her head again, this time more impatiently. "I said come on! I know it looks scary, but I am sort of the Grim Reaper. This is just how we roll, okay?"

Taking a steadying breath, Reimu walked with resisting legs toward the portal. Nodding in satisfaction, Komachi plucked her scythe off the ground, threw her hooded robe over her shoulder, and walked with her into the dark.

It was strange, passing through a hole in space and time created by a messenger of Death. It was dark, yes. Very dark, the kind that not only obstructs the sight but also makes thinking difficult. Reimu could feel the blackness pressing down against her mind, making her useless eyelids flutter and her steps stumble.

It was cold, yes. Very cold, the kind that is more than a mere absence of heat, the kind that you feel under your skin instead of on it, the kind that freezes the breath in your lungs and slows the blood in your veins. Reimu felt her breathing slow, her limbs slowly shut down. She just wanted to sleep, to curl up on the ground and sleep forever.

Sleep, whispered a voice that was not quite her own, but close enough to make her want to listen. Just sleep. Embrace the dark.

Reimu found her head nodding in agreement, or maybe that was just the fatigue. But then something made stop, her lip twisting slightly in puzzlement. No, wait, she couldn't sleep now, she had something to do. Now, what was it? It had to be important, but for the life of her she just couldn't think of what-

"Aw crap, I forgot," said another voice, this one annoyingly real. "Okay, speed it up girl. You really don't want to sleep here."

Then a strong arm grabbed Reimu by the back of the collar and all but carried her forward, the tips of her toes barely brushing the ground as she was hustled through the darkness. Reimu tried to protest, to say that she didn't want to go, that she just wanted to stay and lie down and rest for a bit, but for some reason she just couldn't get her tongue to cooperate.

Then all of a sudden Reimu was out, out of the cold and out of the dark. Harsh, burning light assaulted her eyes, making her squeeze them shut with a cry of pain. Even then she could still feel it permeating through her eyelids, attacking her sensitive corneas and digging into her brain.

As for the cold, well, technically it was still rather chilly. But compared blanket of ice that had just been lifted off her soul, it was practically toasty, enough to make sweat bead on her forehead.

Reimu lay still for a time, breathing in air that was uncomfortably warm. However with each breath it grew cooler and cooler, until her lungs realized that winter air was actually cold and started registering it as such. The light's harshness also ebbed away, calming from a hellish inferno to the soft morning light that it actually was.

Finally Reimu flopped onto her back and opened her eyes. She squinted at a shadowy figure standing over her, though the light still felt like needles jabbing into her eyes. She blinked several times until the pain faded and she was able to recognize Komachi's concerned face.

"Reimu?" the Shinigami said, her voice sounding strangely out of focus. "Are you okay?"

Reimu slowly shook her head, though that was mainly to banish the last few cobwebs clinging to her consciousness. She sat up and rubbed her aching head. "What was that?" she said hoarsely.

"Dude, I am so sorry," Komachi said, kneeling down to look the shrine maiden over. "I totally forgot that living mortals are, well, not supposed to go through a Shinigami's gate. That was stupid of me, and I sincerely apologize."

"Ah," Reimu said. She worked her tongue around the inside of her mouth, trying to work the fuzziness off. Then she said, "So. I almost died just now?"

"Yeah," Komachi said sheepishly. "Only Shinigami and the souls of the dead are supposed to go through those, but it's been so long since I took a living mortal anywhere that it completely went out of my head."

"Ah," Reimu said again. She took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "So yeah. About that money you said you'll owe me if you're wrong…"

"You'll get it regardless," Komachi said hastily. "Double."

"Cool," Reimu grunted. She held out her hands. "Help me up?"

Komachi helped her to her feet. Reimu took a few steps and was pleased to find that her legs still worked. Sighing, she turned to Komachi and said, "Okay. So now that you've almost killed me, what the hell am I supposed to see?"

Komachi grimaced, but said, "Well, ironically enough, it's right after your funeral."

Reimu stared. "Ah ha ha. No, seriously. What's up?"

To this Komachi just silently pointed. A feeling of dread built up within Reimu, but she turned around anyway.

They were standing on the edge of snow-covered cheery trees, overlooking a wide courtyard. Reimu knew it immediately, and that disturbed her.

"That's Hakurei Shrine," she said.

"Yes," Komachi said.

Reimu frowned. "But it's…different."

"Well," Komachi said. "We are several decades in the future. That is the whole point."

Different indeed. Hakurei Shrine was similar enough to the decrepit couple of buildings that Reimu knew for her to recognize it, but evidently it had undergone several changes. For one, it was now considerably larger. The shrine part was at least twice the size as the one Reimu had tended, with a proper roof, a sizeable porch with a big heavy bell, and a series of stone steps leading down to a cobblestone path, one lined with stone statues. The living quarters to the back has also seen considerable remodeling, with thick stone walls, at least two smoking chimneys, and enough space to accommodate at least a dozen people.

That wasn't all though. The tiny storage shack was now twice as large and joined by two others. A small pier extended out over Genji's pond. Several chicken coops were lined up in the back, as was a pen with a small family of goats. The well had been replaced by one with a couple of working hand pumps. Everywhere Reimu looked, she saw evidence that the future was just plain better.

"Well," she said. "This is…really something to look forward to." She glanced over to Komachi, who looked very puzzled. "So, what exactly am I supposed to learn from this? Because it looks like I end up doing pretty well for myself."

"Yeah, it does," Komachi said. She shook her head. "Er, this isn't really what I expected at all."

"Huh," Reimu said. "You know, I bet that has something to do with you bugging the wrong freaking person!"

Komachi made a face. "Yeah, as much as I hate to admit it, it looks like-"

Then the door to the living quarters opened, and two women walked out.

One of them, a tall, beautiful stunner with long blonde hair, Reimu recognized immediately. It was Yukari Yakumo, Gensokyo's kinda sorta…actually, Reimu wasn't exactly sure what Yukari was to Gensokyo. She was the closest thing it had to a ruler, except she never really bothered to much ruling. She seemed more content to dick around most of the time and annoy whoever was available, but she was undoubtedly more-or-less on top of the country's hierarchy. Maybe she was closer to a landlord. At any rate, Reimu did consider her something of a friend, albeit a rather bothersome one. But then, that applied to most of the friends she had.

If this was indeed her funeral, then she had to admit that it was sort of touching that Yukari was there. Given Yukari's immense age, it wouldn't have surprised her if she had simply forgotten Reimu the moment she stopped being interesting. But yet, here she was. And with her…

Reimu didn't know her at first. She was human, and she was also pretty old, with short, spiky, white hair and a long black dress that sparkled with crystal stars. A faintly glowing red brooch was pinned in the center of her collar, and a black velvet cloak was draped over her shoulders. Still, there was definitely something familiar about her face, something about the eyes…

Then Reimu noticed the tall, pointy hat she held in one hand and her eyes went wide. "Oh my gods," she whispered. "That's Marisa! And she's old!"

"Looks like," Komachi said.

"Wow," Reimu whispered. While it made perfect sense for Marisa to be there, seeing her like this was a real shock. Marisa looked…respectable. Important. Actually dignified. And that disturbed her more than anything else she had seen.

Yukari and Marisa came closer, and Reimu realized that she could hear their conversation.

"…still surprised it's hitting me this hard," Marisa said to Yukari. "I mean, we all knew it was coming, her health being what it was, but I always had this feeling that she'd live forever."

"Indeed," Yukari said heavily. "I admit, even though I've seen generation after generation of Hakureis come and go, it never really gets easier. And I was especially fond of this one. She was…special."

"I'll bet. I'm really going to miss her." Then Marisa let out a small chuckle. "Though I know there's a bunch of gamblers crying into their drinks right now."

"What, all the ones that bet that you'd go first?" Yukari said wryly.

"Hey, c'mon, it's me," Marisa said with a cocky grin, which was the first thing Reimu recognized as being wholly unchanged from the Marisa she knew. "Even I bet against me."

Yukari laughed. Then she put a hand on Marisa's shoulder. "Take care of yourself, Archmage. Don't be a stranger now."

"Are you kidding?" Marisa put her hat on with a snicker. "This family would collapse without me, and you know it, ze."

Then with a small puff of blue sparks she was gone, leaving Yukari alone in the snow.

Reimu felt her chest clench up as she watched the elder youkai look over the snow-covered shrine ground with a hollow look on her face. She had never seen Yukari look like that before, so tired and sad. It was then that she realized just how much Yukari had cared about her. She wondered if Yukari herself even knew, and if Reimu ought to say something about it. Probably not, given the whole risk of paradox. But she was glad that she knew.

Then the door opened again and two young girls wearing the plain robes of a shrine maiden in training ran out, and Reimu couldn't keep from gasping.

They were beautiful, with nut-brown skin and bright eyes. One of them looked about thirteen, with pale blue hair that fell down her back in a long braid and a round face and a dimpled smile. The other was about eight, with short midnight-black hair and a longer face than her…sister? Cousins? They were clearly related though, Reimu could see that at once.

They both had her eyes.

"Auntie Yukari!" the younger one called, reaching up to tug on Yukari's hand. "Come on, Miss looking for you."

Yukari smiled at her. "All right, Kurumi. I was just seeing Archamage Kirisame off."

As Reimu watched, the two children led Yukari back to the shrine. Standing on the porch was a short, middle-aged woman wearing a variation of Reimu's red-and-white shrine maiden out and a pair of glasses. She was pleasantly plump, with a friendly, open face and short hair the same pale blue as the older girl's. And like the children, she had Reimu's eyes.

Reimu swallowed. "Th-that's my daughter," she whispered hoarsely.

Komachi breathed out. "Er, yes."

"Those kids. Those are my granddaughters. I have a family."

"Looks like." Komachi's shoulders slumped, and she pressed a palm against her forehead. "Oh man, you are not supposed to be seeing this. We screwed up big time."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," said a new voice. "Sure, you screwed up, and yeah, she's seeing a bunch of stuff that breaks your rules. But I wouldn't say she's not supposed to be here."

Reimu and Komachi both froze. That voice…she knew that voice. Sure it was different. Aged. Or rather, matured, grown fuller and richer. But even so, she heard that voice every day when she talked to Marisa or one of her other friends, or when she exchanged barbs with an uppity youkai, or whenever she was alone feeling miserable and wanted to complain to herself.

But it couldn't be. That version of her was dead, wasn't she? This was her funeral, for the gods' sakes!

Steeling herself, Reimu slowly turned around. And she stared.

A second Komachi stood there, identical to the one that had brought her, completely unaged and unchanged, save that she had a rather disgruntled look on her face. And like the one that had brought her here, this one was accompanied by a Reimu.

It was her, Reimu knew that instantly. She was older though, a fully mature woman instead of a young girl. However, unlike Marisa, she wasn't at all elderly. Hell, it was impossible to tell her age. She might have been a woman in her forties who had aged exceptionally gracefully. She might have been in her late twenties and looking more mature than most. Her face was smooth and free from wrinkles, her skin vibrant and healthy. She wore a simple red-and-white kimono with the symbol of the Ying-Yang sewn over one breast. And she was watching her younger self with a wry smile of amusement, her eyes twinkling.

"Hello, me," she said.

"Uh, hi?" Reimu found herself replying. A few seconds ticked by, and then she ventured, "Look, aren't you supposed to be, you know, dead?"

The older Reimu shrugged. Then she reached up to touch the trunk of a nearby tree.

Her hand passed right through it.

"Funny thing about hanging around Shinigami," she said. "Communicating with the dead doesn't require a ritual and a chant. You can just go right up to them and say hi."

At this, Komachi, the one that Reimu had come with, exploded. "Now, wait, hold on!" she shouted. "Look, we were bending the rules enough just to go on this trip, but now this is too far! You're not supposed to divine important stuff from beyond the grave, you're not supposed to talk to your future self, and you're definitely not supposed to talk to your future self from beyond the freaking grave!"

"Dude, you think I don't know that?" the Future Komachi said morosely. "But I had to! We would've had a full-blown paradox otherwise!"

"Oh," Present Komachi said. "Stable time loop?"

"I guess," Future Komachi sighed. "At least space and time haven't collapsed in on themselves, so there's that."

Dead Reimu folded her arms. Her lips twitched up into a smirk. "Well, if you two numbskulls hadn't completely screwed up your job, we wouldn't be in this situation, now would we?"

"I haven't changed much, I see," Reimu said.

"Oh you have, but you still kept the best parts." Future Reimu focused on the redfaced Present Komachi. "Now, if you're so bound and determined for little Reimu here to learn some kind of lesson, then it's time for the two of you to piss off and give us some privacy."

"Oh, hell no!" Present Komachi said, a look of horror on her face. "I'm in for it as it is without letting you drop reality ripping spoilers!"

"Dude, just let it happen," Future Komachi said. "It happened with me, and we gotta avoid that paradox, remember?"

"It happened because you let it happen!"

"Yeah, and you're going to let it happen because I let it happen, and that's just how it works!" Future Komachi rolled her eyes and turned to the two Reimus. "Okay girls, go ahead and keep riding the freaky train. In for a penny, in for a pound."

"Oh, for crying out loud," Present Komachi said as she buried her face in her hand. "Hey, Future Me? Tell me this much: do I get into a ton of trouble for this?"

To this, Future Komachi let out a small groan. "Yes. Yes you do. And it's mainly because you were dumb enough to ask that question, you IDIOT!"

Present Komachi stood stock-still for a moment. Then she turned around and threw her hands into the air. "That's it, never again! Never again with the time travel! It's just too stinking dangerous!"

"Then why agree to this dumbness in the first place?" Future Reimu said. "I mean, no matter what you would've created a paradox. That's the whole point of learning a lesson from the future, isn't it?"

"Oh, just get out of here," Future Komachi groaned as her previous version started kicking a tree. "You guys got me into enough trouble already, and it's about to happen again."

Laughing, Future Reimu led Present Reimu away from the upset Shinigamis. "You know, I never did get an answer to that question," she said to her younger self. "Seriously though, what the hell were they expecting to accomplish?"

"To annoy and confuse me?" Present Reimu suggested. "Because if so, I'd say mission accomplished."

"Oh yeah," Future Reimu breathed out. "I remember that very well."

"Oh yeah?"

"Of course," said Reimu's future self. She sat down on a rock and crossed her legs. "Even as amazingly bizarre as our lives might have been, that night stood out."

Reimu nodded. She leaned against a tree and folded her arms. "And it's just going to get weirder, isn't it? Or is that something you can't tell me?"

To this, her future self shrugged. "You have to understand, Komachi wasn't lying about this little conversation being incredibly dangerous and against so many rules. So I can't really give you much in the way of details…"

"But you want to talk to me anyway?"

"I talked to me, and nothing bad happened." Future Reimu waved dismissively in the air. "So screw it."

"Yeah," Reimu said with a laugh. She had to admit, she was glad to see that her attitude would become even more irreverent with age. Then she made a face. "This is kind of surreal though."

Future Reimu nodded. "Incredibly."

Of course a thousand different questions were flashing through Reimu's mind, questions about her future and the people she knew and how everything was going to turn out. Granted, she had already seen the shrine and her descendants, but there were so many other details. But unfortunately, she couldn't ask any of them. So instead she went with, "Did they…Were the ghosts really supposed to go bother someone else?"

"Yup," Future Reimu said with a sour look. "Can't really tell you who, mind you. But yes. They were supposed to treat a completely different person to a night of kidnapping and time travel to teach them an important lesson about humility and charity and some other nonsense." She rolled her eyes. "But as we both know, if there's a bad time to be had, the fates will conspire to ensure that we end up having it instead."

"Figures," Reimu muttered. "I get dragged around through my whole lifespan to learn some moral that was intended for somebody else." She shook her head and sighed. "You know the sad thing in all this?"

"You're practically resigned to this stuff by now?"

Reimu had to admit, it was refreshing to talk to someone who so thoroughly understood her point of view. "Yeah, I guess you would know."

Her future ghost smirked. "Well, trust me on this much. As pissed off as you may be now, you're going to be glad you went on this little trip."

Reimu stared. "What?"

"Just because you weren't supposed to learn a lesson tonight doesn't mean you haven't learned one," the ghost explained. "It might not have been the one those incorporeal nitwits intended, but it's one that you really, really need."

"Oh yeah?" Reimu said with a touch of irritation. "What's that?"

"It gets better."

A long pause followed, during which Reimu could only stare at her future self. She had no idea how to respond. After all, it had already been made clear that it was her life was going to improve, and the message itself was pretty simple. Hell, Reimu had always sort of known things would get better eventually.

But still, hearing it stated so plainly by someone who clearly knew what she was talking about made her throat tighten. It was going to get better. She wasn't always going to be cold and hungry. She wasn't always going to be rejected by all save for a select few. She was going to get better.

Seeing the look on her younger self's face, Future Reimu sighed and said, "Reimu, I remember the night you're having. I had it too, you know. Hell, I remember that whole period of my life. I was cold, I was always hungry, I was lonely most of the time, and felt angry about the unfairness of it all. I had done so many things for Gensokyo, but it took every available resource I had to keep from starving and freezing. And to top I wasn't even being allowed to get any sleep on Christmas freaking Eve of all times. So yeah. I was kind of upset, you're kind of upset."

"But it…it does get better?" Reimu said, her voice cracking a little. "Like, this isn't something that might happen, but it's something that really does happen? I'm not always going to be-"

She couldn't say the rest.

Her future self shrugged and smirked. "Well, it happened to me, so you've got some pretty good odds."

Reimu almost laughed, but found that she was unable.

"Reimu, you've had a pretty hard life until now," said Future Reimu. "Believe me, no one knows that better than I do. And you've got more tough shit ahead of you. You know this already. But I can tell you that it does get better. It's not all for nothing. You are going to make it."

Reimu glanced back at what her shrine was going to become. Inside, people not yet born were living their lives. "I have a family."

"No, I have a family. You're still on the waiting list."

This time Reimu did laugh. "Yeah, but. Still. Wow."

"Well, it is sort of tradition, you know?" said her future self. "Where do you think those long lines of Hakureis came from?"

"Yeah, but I'm going to have a big family." Just the very thought of it threatened to give her a mental breakdown.

To this, Reimu's future self made a face and let out a snort. "And it's going to drive you absolutely bonkers, let me tell you. You think you have it hard now? Try keeping just one of the little twerps from killing themselves. Because they will try. Believe me, they will try."

That put a bit of a damper on Reimu's euphoria. Taking care of herself was hard enough. Taking care of kids sounded almost impossible. "Is it worth it?" she asked.

Then her Future Self smiled in a way that was neither mean nor sarcastic. It was a warm, genuine smile of satisfaction. "Oh yeah," she said, and then Reimu knew it was going to be all right.

Still, there was one little detail that she knew she probably should let lie, but she still just had to ask. "So, uh, who's the lucky guy?" she said, mentally reviewing the list of compatible males of her acquaintance. It was a very short list.

"Ah, ah, ah," Future Reimu said, waggling her finger. "That would be telling. Just don't go make any assumptions and think every cutie to wander by the shrine is Mr. Right. Keep your head about you and don't try to make this future happen. Just do your best with what you have and let the pieces fall where they may, and things will work out."

"Good advice," Reimu admitted.

Then her future self regarded her with a shrewd look in her eyes. "Though while we're on the subject, since you got a good look at how much other people like and care about you, would it really kill you to let them know that you care about them too?"

Reimu paused. She looked her ghostly future up and down, and then glanced over to the sizeable shrine, filled with people that she cared about or would come to care about, all gathered to mourn her passing. "Apparently," she said.

Her future self stared at her. Then she snorted, which escalated to a snicker, and before too long she was all but falling off the rock, holding her stomach as great guffaws threatened to knock her over. Reimu had no problem joining her in her mirth. She had a really sucky night, and it felt good to just relax and share a laugh with someone who understood you, even if it did so happen to be your own spirit moments after you died.

Finally the laughter died down. Looking around, Reimu shook her head and sighed. "Well, this night was a wreck."

"Yup," her future self readily agreed. "But at least some good came out of it."

Reimu nodded. But then a nasty thought occurred to her, and her mood soured. "I don't…look, I know I was the wrong person, but do I also have to learn that lesson about not being selfish and stuff? Because if yes, then I might actually go crazy."

That brought a wry twist to her future self's lips. "Okay, this much I can tell you. Yes, things do get better." She leaned forward a bit and said in a loud whisper, "But even after your fortunes change and you grow old, you will still be the stingiest, grumpiest tightwad in all of Gensokyo. And it's going to drive your family nuts!"

Reimu laughed again. "Oh, thank the gods!"

The older, deader Reimu stood up then. "Well, we'd better get back. You need to go back to your time, and I need to head into the great beyond or whatever."

"Yeah," Reimu said with a nod. "Though can I say that even though I have no idea how old you are when you kicked it, death really looks good on you?"

Future Reimu lifted a hand to touch her cheek. "I know, right? No more wrinkles, no more arthritis! Post-mortem facelifts are the best!"

Chuckling, the pair headed back to where the two Komachis were still waiting, presumably in the midst of a rather awkward conversation of their own.

They weren't alone.

Two other spirits had joined the party while the Reimus had been gone. Both Mima and Yuyuko were there now, and the four troublesome messengers from beyond the grave were engaged in a rather heated discussion. As the two Reimus neared, it slowed down to a crawl, with a great many sheepish looks being exchanged between the two identical Shinigami.

Naturally, Mima didn't look at all embarrassed. "Oh, there you are." She folded her arms. "Well, it does turn out we've made a bit of an error."

"Sorry about that," Yuyuko said in an unusually small voice.

Reimu's future self snorted. "No shit, genius."

Mima focused on her then. "Huh," she said, looking the spirit of Reimu Hakurei up and down. "You. Well, I guess I'm not the one to get you after all. More's the pity."

"Yeah," Future Reimu said, her mouth twisting in a savage grin. "Fortunately, I can't say the same."

Mima started then, and Reimu was able to enjoy the rare sight of the meddling spirit being taken off guard. "What?"

"Okay, that's enough!" the Komachi that had brought Reimu there shouted. "We are done! Future people! Take a hike before you get me into even more trouble!"

Reimu turned to her future self to bid her goodbye. But before she could speak, the ghost suddenly threw her arms around her and squeezed her tightly. Apparently her state of incorporealness didn't prevent her from touching her own self, because to Reimu it felt very real, and very warm. She was taken by surprise at first. Hugs weren't something she experienced often, unless Marisa or sometimes Remilia Scarlet was feeling frisky. But then she relaxed a bit and returned the embrace. It did feel really good, she had to admit.

"Take care of yourself," her future self said as they parted.

"Yeah," Reimu said. "I'd say the same, but it looks like you have."

Komachi scowled. "Move it along, Doublemint!" she said, snapping her fingers impatiently.

With that, the Komachi and Reimu of the future were gone. Like the others ghosts, they simply vanished without a fuss, to go face the futures of their own. Reimu felt her throat tighten again. After all, she had just witnessed the moment that she would leave Gensokyo forever. Happy circumstances or not, that was kind of big.

Still, they had business to attend to. Once they were gone, Komachi sighed and said, "All right. So yeah, we screwed up, and we are so sorry that we did, and-"

"Yeah, about that," Reimu interrupted. "Seriously, what the hell were you thinking? I am literally one of the poorest people in Gensokyo! Of course I'm super-thrifty! I don't want to starve!"

"Don't look at me," Mima said with a shrug. "Komachi was the one relaying the instructions."

"Who were we supposed to talk to again?" Yuyuko wondered. "I forgot."

"That's because you were never told, you gluttonous imbecile," Mima sneered. She turned to Komachi. "Hey, we're still getting paid for this, right?"

Once again fed up with the incompetent spirits' shenanigans, Reimu felt her good feelings melt away and she started shouting. "Shut up and take me home! Without almost killing me this time!"

"Right, right," Komachi sighed. "I'm so sorry about this. Er, Yuyuko?"

"Okay!" Yuyuko said cheerfully. She waved. "Merry Christmas, Reimu!"

And with that, Reimu was back in her own time and back in her own shrine without any fuss.

She looked around at the dark, sparse room. After seeing what it would one day become, it did feel rather disappointing to be there. Because despite what she had seen in her future, she was still poor, she was still cold, and she was still very much alone.

But then she remembered that glimpse she had gotten of herself at Marisa's party and made a quick amendment. Okay, so maybe she wasn't really alone. She at least had friends. And that was a definite bright spot in her otherwise miserable life.

Oddly cheered by the thought, Reimu settled back down under her blankets and thought. Clearly she had a ways to go before she reached

Then she noticed something in the dark, something that had not been there previously. Lying on the ground near her head was a large leather sack. Frowning, she reached out to prod its side.

It clinked.

Reimu stared at the newly arrived bag of money with wide eyes. Well, for all the trouble she had put her through, at least Komachi had kept her promise. So maybe this night hadn't been a waste after all. She now had something to look forward and a bit of a start to help her get there.

With a happy sigh, Reimu settled down and closed her eyes. But as she drifted away to sleep, she found herself wondering who exactly it was that the ghosts had been supposed to visit and if she would ever find out.

"…was supposed to be done half an hour ago," Remilia Scarlet snapped at the gaggle of fairy maids cowering before her. "If it's not done within the next five minutes, I will drain the throat of the one responsible, and then fire them!" She looked around. "And where the hell is Crachit? I know I told him to show up today!"

One of the frightened fairies raised a shaking hand. "Er, M-Mistress? You said he could have half a day off."

"WHAT!" Remilia thundered. "Humbug! Doesn't he know it's Christmas?" She threw a goblet at the fairies, making them scatter. "Well, someone go find that idiot and bring him here! I will not have my Christmas party ruined by some lazy-"

Then she her a loud thump. Blinking, the little vampire turned to see something bumping against the door of her closet, making it shake.

"What in the world?" she wondered out loud. Walking over to the shaking closet, Remilia grabbed the handle and pulled it open.

Three surprise visitors spilled one, ones that Remilia was actually familiar with. Madam Mima, Reimu's arch-nemesis, was at the bottom of the untidy heap and looking rather put out. Yuyuko Saigjyoi was sitting on the former's rump and looked quite pleased with herself. And distangling herself from the others was that Shinigami, Komachi what's-her-face.

"What," Remilia deadpanned.

Komachi looked up and her and smiled in embarrassment. "Er, sorry we're late. Hey, do you have a minute?"

God, that felt cleansing. Merry Christmas, everyone!