Kotohime and Her Heart's Desire

Princess Kotohime of Gensokyo, chief of police, planar adventurer, and recovering stamp collector, froze in mid-step, her sandaled foot hovering just over the surface of the dirt road. "What was I doing again?" she asked, blinking her rich red eyes.

"Um, talking?" came a young girl's voice from behind her. Kotohime glanced over her shoulder and saw a familiar fairy fluttering nearby, ice-crystal wings glinting in the morning sunlight, her blue-haired head tilted in puzzlement.

"'bout what?" Kotohime pressed.

"Uh…" Cirno's ultramarine eyes darted about as she struggled to overcome her short attention span, her mouth working like she had something stuck between her teeth. "Something something justice something law as my torch something streets-"

"Ah, yes! These streets!" Kotohime's face broke into a wide, easy smile. "Let us proceed, Lieutenant Cirno."

Kotohime shook off her momentary confusion and led the march, her companion hovering close behind as they journeyed along the village's main avenue. They drew admiring glances from passersby as they progressed, and Kotohime couldn't blame them – with her flawless features, flowing purple kimono, long red hair bound in a loose ponytail, and jitte bouncing in its sash on her hip, Kotohime was the very image of princessdom and a damn fine-looking policewoman.

And Cirno was… well, she still looked like a slightly tomboyish nine-year-old in a simple blue dress, her slightly paler hair topped with a big blue bow, but the shiny badge bouncing on fairy's shirt helped bolster her authority.

"These streets," Kotohime lectured, "well, we've gotta walk them-"

"Does that mean I have to land?" interrupted Cirno. "'cause I lost my shoes again and I don't wanna have to wash my socks-"

"Figure of speech," said Kotohime quickly. She frowned before adding, "Though you probably should land from time to time to build up your policewoman's instincts. Spend enough time walking about and you can tell when trouble's brewing just from your citysense."

"Oh. Is that what you were feeling earlier?" asked the fairy.

"No, that was just a moment of total existential disorientation," Kotohime replied with a careless wave of her hand. "Anyway, streets. You've gotta walk – or hover above – these streets like you own them. Well, technically I own them, but it's still important to project an air of confidence. Which shouldn't be a problem for you, should it?" she added with a grin.

"Yeah! Or, uh, no?"

"And it's important to stay visible," the princess went on, nodding at a dumpy older woman fixing a sign to a shop's front window. Hey, that was a good price for shoes. "It lets the people know that the law's out there, looking out for them, and also ready to give them a beating if they get any ideas."

They had to pause for a moment as Keine Kamishirasawa led a gaggle of schoolchildren across the street like a mother duckling, Kotohime exchanging a quick greeting with the pale-tressed local teacher.

"So doing police stuff is a lot of walking - or flying – around?" summarized Cirno. She didn't sound happy about it.

"Well, the boring parts," replied Kotohime with a winsome smile. "The rest is all exciting chases, tense investigations, sexy suspects to interrogate, heart-stopping battles, that sort of stuff."

The little fairy's big blue eyes got even bigger. "Awesome!"

"Oh it is. Now, what else was I talking about?" Kotohime glanced up at the sun, idly wondering how much ultraviolet protection the Great Hakurei Border afforded the inhabitants of Gensokyo. "Ah yes, the law! Well, the law is our shield," she lectured, leading Cirno around a stopped horsecart and the pair of men unloading crates from it. "It defends us, we can use it to protect others, but like a good shield it can also be used to bash people's faces in. Though if someone breaks the law, it doesn't reduce the shield's effectiveness any, so maybe it isn't a metaphor that bears close inspection." She glanced back and saw the confusion on her fairy companion's face. "Still with me, Cirno?"

"Uh…"

Kotohime slowed to a stop with a sigh, turning to face her subordinate. "Honestly, I'm not expecting you to take notes or anything-"

But Cirno was pointing past her shoulder. "Is that Rumia?" she asked.

Kotohime shaded her eyes and searched above the village's modest skyline. Sure enough, a little globe of darkness, as though midnight had come early for a very specific part of the clear blue sky, was zig-zagging in their general direction.

At least until it dipped too low and clipped a weathervane. A girl's voice cried out and suddenly the darkness vanished, revealing a childish figure tumbling down the slope of a roof before landing in the street with an "oomph!" and a cloud of dust. A bystander started laughing.

Kotohime shot the man an annoyed glance before striding forward and helping the little darkness youkai up. Rumia was about Cirno's size and apparent age, though her hair was short and blonde, and she wore a black dress and vest over a white blouse. She looked up at Kotohime with cherry-red eyes before wincing and shading her cherubic face with an arm – and then she disappeared behind a four-foot-wide sphere of night once more.

The policewoman sighed in exasperation. "Deputy Rumia, what did I say about flying blind?"

"Um… don't?" came a sheepish voice from the blot of shadows.

"And what did I say about hiding yourself?" Kotohime went on.

The orb of darkness scooted back onto the sidewalk, under a building's awning, before vanishing to reveal Rumia again. "Sorry, chief," she said meekly, fidgeting and looking at her shoes.

"And you're not wearing your badge!" the policewoman exclaimed. "How are people supposed to know you're on police business instead of rampaging around like an uncivilized youkai? It's as much for your own safety as-"

Rumia whimpered and disappeared again.

Kotohime stopped mid-tirade and sighed. Yes, Rumia was technically a man-eating monster, and yes, as a subordinate you had to repeat your instructions a few times before she got it. But it was simply impossible to stay angry at her, even after she'd latched onto someone's arm like a bulldog.

So Kotohime dropped to a knee and reached into the black sphere to ruffle Rumia's hair companionably until her darkness went out. "Eh, I'm no good at being the bad guy," she said. "That's my evil twin's job. Just try to do better next time, right?"

The darkness youkai made a sound of halfhearted protest and took a step back out of reach, trying to get her hair back into shape. "Is my ribbon still on?" she asked anxiously, spinning about in a quick circle as she tried to look at the side of her own head.

"It's fine," Kotohime assured her.

"Awww," pouted Rumia.

For some reason, the deceptively childish youkai couldn't touch the red ribbon tied around a lock of hair on the side of her head, no matter how much she wanted to take it off. Kotohime had done some research on the matter, and her findings suggested that the ribbon was either the result of some youkai hunter's prank, a cursed fashion accessory, or a seal limiting Rumia's power so that she didn't turn into an umbral avatar of the void and slaughter everything in Gensokyo with a colossal blade of razor-sharp shadows. Kotohime kept meaning to yank the little charm off to see what happened, but things kept coming up.

Lucky for her she'd remembered this time. "Hold still, I'll get it," said Kotohime as she reached forward-

"So why'd you come rushing over?" asked Cirno, blundering in front of Kotohime to address her friend.

"Um, I'm supposed to be getting help," Rumia answered, glancing down nervously and toeing the boardwalk. "Mystia sent me. Something happened."

"A crime?" asked Kotohime, ribbons forgotten.

The youkai nodded. "Someone's murdered Marisa!"

Gensokyo's police chief opened her mouth to begin a stern lecture on the priority of certain messages, but stopped herself. If the land's most infamous witch was dead, her condition was technically stable, so there wasn't any rush. Instead Kotohime favored Rumia with a curt nod and gave Cirno a cool and confident look.

"Well ladies, it looks like we've got ourselves an investigation to conduct." She straightened up and flung an arm out in the direction of the Forest of Magic. "To the crime scene!"

-x-


In the magical land of Gensokyo, justice is delivered by two separate, yet equally important groups: the youkai-exterminating vigilantes who investigate and resolve Incidents, and the princess-policewoman who occasionally puts one of the aforementioned vigilantes in a jail cell. This story concerns the latter more than the former, though who knows what will happen after the plot twist in the second act. There might even be a ninja or two. Or possibly lesbians.

The story you are about to read gets pretty bizarre. Names have not been changed, to better shame those involved for their misbehavior.


-2-

Kirisame Residence
9:51 am

Kotohime had been by Marisa Kirisame's cottage on numerous occasions, and considered the two-storied home tucked away in a forest clearing to be a bit foreign, but charming, what with its dark shingled roof and tan stucco walls and ivy crawling everywhere. But the gaping hole it now sported in place of its front door didn't really go with the décor, she decided as she led her squad to the crime scene. Charred bits and pieces of building littered the already-untidy front lawn, and the two windows left on that facing of the house were both shattered.

Kotohime marched up the curved, paved path leading to the house, Cirno and Rumia in tow. She nodded at the girl standing guard at the entrance: Mystia Lorelei, an avian youkai who had run a grilled lamprey stand before Cirno had convinced her to join the force along with her friends… somehow. Kotohime was a bit hazy on the details, particularly why an ice fairy, darkness youkai, and fairly successful night sparrow, among others, would have a reason to hang out together.

To begin with, Mystia was taller than her child-sized companions, mature enough to manage a successful business, and sufficiently cunning to synergize her ability to cause night blindness with legends about certain foods' curative powers – qualities Kotohime hoped the night sparrow could use for the good of Gensokyo instead of scamming late night snackers. Mystia wore her usual long brown dress, and her bright pink hair was capped with a shapeless hat bearing her shiny policewoman's badge and crowned with some sort of winged ornament. Her own wings were pinkish with purple highlights, not colors Kotohime usually associated with night sparrows, but then again she wasn't an ornithologist.

"Morning, captain," said Mystia by way of greeting, her usually musical and downright chirpy voice betraying fatigue. Kotohime had her running the day shift for the same reason she'd had Cirno working nights for a while, because it seemed like the sort of borderline sadistic challenge a rookie was supposed to go through during training.

"Officer Lorelei," replied the princess with a curt nod. She scanned the blackened, ragged edges of the hole where Marisa's front door used to be. "Why isn't this taped up?"

Mystia blinked. "What?"

"Crime scene tape, bright yellow color, 'Do Not Cross' on it?"

The night sparrow looked at her friends, hoping for backup. "I've never seen anything like that," she protested, her wings ruffling irritably. "Was I supposed-"

"Though maybe you're right, it might be premature," interrupted Kotohime as she stepped over the threshold and into the house, her deputies following her. "We still need to confirm that a crime has occurred."

Mystia made a choking sound. "Are you serious?" she asked, gesturing at the living room.

There was a lot of junk strewn about in heaps that bordered on "drifts," though that was perfectly normal. Marisa had a habit of collecting things whether or not their previous owners were done with them, only to quickly lose interest in her new acquisitions and let them pile up. But that familiar chaos had been multiplied – the house's furniture was in complete disarray, wooden chairs in splinters, and a second-hand couch Kotohime had quite liked now in shreds, its stuffing hanging out as if the sofa had been disemboweled. Lamp oil stained the rug, a mere puddle compared to the long red smear taking up most of the floor and part of a wall.

In the middle of it was a ragged bit of black cloth recognizable as the remains of Marisa's trademark pointy witch hat. A pair of stockinged legs gently swayed over the staircase's landing, the blue dress above them familiar to anyone who'd seen Marisa's fellow magician Alice Margatroid.

Cirno groaned and doubled over at the sight, causing Kotohime to smile with nostalgia. Ah, to be young again, investigating her first murder-suicide…

"So, girls," she said brightly, "what are we looking at?"

"Cirno throwing up," answered Rumia. There was a growing pile of slippery ice chunks on the floor beneath the fairy, which Kotohime mentally filed away under 'gross, but interesting.'

"Besides that. What can you piece together from the crime scene?" she asked, sweeping her hand across the spectacle.

The darkness youkai looked around, all wide-eyed innocence, her mouth hanging open slightly. "Looks like a lot of blood," she ventured, not in the least bit bothered by the sight. If anything it made her look a bit peckish.

"What turns someone into a red stain?" asked Mystia, her face pale.

"Magic?" suggested Rumia. "Like the vampire girl with the holiday wings? She could do that, right?"

"Though any magician of sufficient talent – such as myself – would be able to turn their foe into a fine red mist," Kotohime reminded everyone.

Mystia tapped her chin with a talon-like fingernail. "Or Alice," she added darkly.

"But why?" asked Cirno as she pushed herself upright, swiping at her mouth again. She still looked shaken, but the nausea was being pushed back by righteous outrage, Kotohime noted with approval. "Why'd Alice want to hurt Marisa? They're friends!"

"If only there was some sort of note left behind by the killer to explain his or her motive," Kotohime lamented, before turning her gaze towards the ceiling and whistling softly to herself. The others stared at her until Rumia spotted the piece of stationary lying on the floor under Alice's feet.

"Oh," said the little youkai girl, darkening slightly as she blushed – that is to say, everything around her got shadier for a moment. She hurried over and retrieved the piece of paper, waving it triumphantly. "It says…" Rumia trailed off as she stared down at the note for a few long seconds, before giving up and handing it over to Mystia.

The night sparrow squinted at the paper, looked around furtively, and produced a pair of slim reading glasses from somewhere. Adorable pink-rimmed reading glasses, Kotohime amended after Mystia somehow hooked the things on her feathered, owl-like ears. Thus bespectacled, the bird youkai read aloud: "'I am tired of treachery, of the endless charade. Marisa is mine, she always has been. We will be together at the very end.'" She lowered the note, solemn-faced. "That's all it says. Guess it's as good as a confession."

Kotohime just hmmed to herself and took the paper from Mystia, examining it with her own eyes. Good penmanship, she noted approvingly, though the writer forgot the signature.

"I still don't know why Alice'd want to do this," Cirno spoke up. She looked confused, and angry about being confused.

"Well, you know how she was," Mystia said with a dismissive shrug. "Absolutely Marisa-crazy. Unhinged. A creepy stalker who made effigies of her romantic rivals."

Kotohime tapped her chin, thinking hard. Something was definitely wrong here. The princess strolled over to inspect the red stain again. She'd walked into the house wondering if there'd been a crime at all… "Rumia?" she asked. "Taste this."

The little blonde girl-shaped monster blinked. "Huh?"

"It's not cannibalism when you drink blood. Go on, have a taste," Kotohime ordered. "Just don't fall off the wagon and start gnawing on citizens again," she added with a stern wag of her finger.

Rumia shrugged and dragged her index finger across the stain, then sucked on it for a moment. Her deep red eyes widened. "Hey, that's not blood! It's… fruit?"

Cirno crouched down and leaned forward, sniffing the floor. "Strawberries?"

Ah, the telling lack of the coppery stench of spilled blood. Go nose! The police chief moved on to the body hanging over the foot of the staircase, staring dispassionately up at it. That trademark Alice dress, neck-length flaxen hair hanging from the slumped head, a well-tied noose around the neck strung to a light fixture on the stairwell's high ceiling… it looked a lot like a dead Alice, but….

"S-seriously, fruit?" stammered Mystia. "W-what's going on? Are we being pranked?"

"Someone's definitively toying with us," agreed Kotohime. She prodded the hanged figure with her jitte, noting the texture and sensations as she set it a-swaying. "See what I did there? Toying? Because this is a doll," she explained, giving the form another good poke. "Feels like wood."

"And it has thingies on its elbows," Cirno spoke up.

"Good eyes, lieutenant," said Kotohime with a smile. At this rate, Cirno would probably make captain by the end of the year. The princess grabbed the faux-Alice's hand and gently moved its arm forward and back, revealing the metal circles on either side of its elbows. "Metal joints," she murmured to herself, then started humming a simple, cheerful ditty while she pondered.

"So… the creepy doll lady was a doll all along?" asked Rumia uncertainly.

"That would be some satisfying symbolism, but I don't think so," replied the princess. She briefly met the face of the dangling doll, noting the wooden expression only reinforced by its wooden texture. Then she drew a bonesaw from her sleeve and got to work. "I'm not sure if we're supposed to conclude that, or if this whole scene is trying to send a message," she said as she wrenched the tool back and forth until the doll's left forearm clattered down the bottom two steps of the staircase. "But in the meanwhile, we've finally got something to analyze in the lab!" she said excitedly after scooping up the specimen.

"So is Marisa dead or not?" asked Cirno, folding her arms and pouting.

"All we can conclude from the scene is that there's been some property damage to her home and hat," Kotohime reassured her. "For all we know she and Alice are off on a picnic or something after a tragic pie-baking accident."

"Good, because I don't want her dying before I get my rematch," grouched the fairy.

"But what about the note?" protested Mystia. "And the hanging doll?"

"Hanged," the policewoman corrected patiently. "It's an ongoing investigation, girls. For now, we'd better get back to headquarters and see what we can learn from this bit of evidence." Kotohime stuffed the arm in question down her voluminous sleeve. "Until then, it looks like…"

She withdrew a pair of sleek and shiny sunglasses, opened the shades with a quick flick of her wrist, and purposefully slid them onto her head.

"…these are the wrong prescription," she finished. "Seriously, I can't see a damn thing," she added, slowly panning her head and trying to walk straight. "Did I get an extra pair of yours by mistake, Mysti-YAAAAAA!"

Rumia looked down at where Kotohime had faceplanted. "I think you slipped on Cirno barf," she said cheerfully.

-x-


-3-

Gensokyo Police Department Headquarters
10:22 am

Gensokyo's police station was as stately as it was sturdy, a stolid symbol of both civic authority and architects' tendency to put as little effort as possible into public buildings. It was a place of ordered chaos, where apprehended criminals were brought in, processed, and eventually released to begin the cycle anew. Just stepping through its wide glass doors was a reminder that the wheels of justice were always turning, crushing evildoers like a monster truck made out of laws and ordinances.

Or maybe that was the wrong analogy. Maybe it was like a hive, Kotohime thought as she led her squad through the atrium and into the building's offices. Yes, a place swarming with people all bustling about with purpose, each fulfilling a specialized function, be it patrol officer or clerk or repeat offender.

And coordinating this swarm was, appropriately enough, the mistress of all bugkind. Wriggle Nightbug sat in her usual spot behind the main desk, an array of phones and keypads spread under her fingers, her face inhumanly calm and detached from the turmoil around her. Wriggle's boyish looks, penchant for shorts and shirts over dresses, and short teal hair led to some hilarious gender confusion, but she bore it with the same vague disinterest she had for everything else. As an insect-derived youkai, she didn't have some of the hang-ups of more 'normal' citizens, even if the only sign of her buggishness was the pair of antennae sprouting from her head.

"Put her in the usual cell until I get in touch with her owner," Wriggle was calmly ordering another policewoman, one escorting a statuesque, handcuffed figure wrapped in nothing but a towel that didn't quite conceal her clump of bushy golden tails.

"Right," the other girl nodded. "First I think I'll get her a robe or something."

"There should be one under the cot," the insect youkai reminded her, before her fellow officer led the fox-woman out, ignoring the prisoner's anxious inquiries about her cat shikigami. Then Wriggle noticed Kotohime and her coterie. "Oh, you're back," she said without a hint of interest.

The princess narrowed her eyes. "Wait, if you're the bug lady directing everything, that would make you some sort of hive queen."

Wriggle didn't even flinch, but merely waited patiently for her boss to explain herself.

"What was that about, the usual?" asked Mystia, flapping a wing at the departing perp.

"The usual," repeated Wriggle. "Public indecency, running down Main Street without a stitch of clothing, like she'd forgotten she wasn't in fox form. Usual crime, usual cell-"

"Usual 'mysterious' disappearance before morning," Mystia finished with a sour look on her face, glowering at the departing nudist kitsune. "Bloody Yakumos."

"But it's better than letting her roam free and scar impressionable young children with her naughty bits," declared Kotohime, mentally resolving to sort out the bug-princess hierarchy later. "Anything else to report, Officer Nightbug?"

The green-haired youkai shrugged slightly. "A few hats on statues, but nothing out of the ordinary."

"We'll see what we can do to fix that," Kotohime reassured her. "In the meantime, keep an antenna out for word regarding Miss Kirisame and or Miss Margatroid."

Wriggle saluted, then started pushing buttons, ignoring the people in front of her. Kotohime nodded to herself and beckoned her other officers to follow as she led them out of the reception area.

"Alright, time for some lab work," she said with a clap of her hands. She marched down the hallways leading into the beating heart of Gensokyo's justice system, or possibly its churning bowels. "Rumia, go rustle up Team Nemesis and send them down, I've got a job for them."

The darkness youkai saluted and took off along a side hallway, while Kotohime led Mystia and Cirno down some stairs. "Those two like to hang around your place for food, right?" she asked, giving the night sparrow a sidelong look

Mystia nodded. "Not as often as when we weren't on the force, but we still try to get together every now and then."

"So, in your expert opinion, have they…" Kotohime trailed off when she noticed the attentive look on Cirno's childish face.

"What?" asked the ice fairy.

"Have they… you know," Kotohime asked Mystia, waggling her eyebrows.

The bird youkai colored slightly. "Oh! You're asking if they've…" she glanced down at her fairy friend.

"What?" demanded Cirno.

"Um, I'm not sure if they've…" Mystia made a quick, embarrassed gesture. "You know. But they do seem to be sitting closer together these days."

"What are you guys talking about?" grumped Cirno from somewhere below them.

"Well if they haven't…" Kotohime let out a few quick whistles, "think they've at least..?" this was followed by a clicking tongue and quick tug on her bangs.

Mystia just stared. "I'm feeling as lost as Cirno," she confessed, still pink-faced.

"Stop leaving me out!"

"I'll tell you when you're…" Kotohime trailed off as she stared down at the little fairy, who was mentally still in grade school but physically at least sixty. "Riiight. Anyway, conversation over, we're in the lab now," she declared as she pushed open the double doors into the station's forensics laboratory.

It was shiny. So many chrome cabinets and tables, so many expensive-looking instruments. As if all the gleaming surfaces left the truth with no shadows to hide in… hey, that was pretty good. Kotohime hurried over to a nearby desk with a notepad on it to jot down that poetic observation. She caught Mystia giving her a curious look when she was finished, but the youkai was smart enough not to say anything.

"Okay, so…" Kotohime finally noticed who was womanning the laboratory, an intent-looking girl with dark green hair under a lighter-colored cap, wearing a matching dress with an unusual number of pockets and pouches. The overstuffed backpack on the floor next to the lab tech made her identity clear. She saw Kotohime's interest and offered a shy little wave before getting back to her paperwork.

"What?" asked Cirno.

Kotohime scratched her head. "A kappa? We've got a kappa working for us?"

"Well, who were you expecting?" countered Mystia, one pinkish eyebrow arched. "They're the best engineers around, of course we'd hire some as technicians."

Which was overlooking one or two local scientists Kotohime was familiar with, the princess mused to herself. She mentally shrugged, trying to brush aside the sense of disquiet that had been weighing on her since Marisa's house, and resolved to keep her front facing the river-dwelling youkai. "Alright then. Let's-"

The doors behind them slammed open as a woman kicked them apart with casual strength, closely followed by another policewoman. "You wanted somethin', chief?" the first girl gruffly asked around her cigarette.

Kotohime had to take a moment to just appreciate the scene. She hadn't bothered to come up with an official uniform, but both newcomers wore matching outfits, of a sort – long jackets over baggy trousers, though they had a nice yin-yang thing going on. Fujiwara no Mokou's clothes were a crisp white, a brighter shade than her own ankle-length pale grey hair, except where bright red paper charms had been attached to her legs or tied into her hair. Similarly, Kaguya Houraisan's uniform was pitch black, so that her own absurdly long hair matched it like a cape. But while Kaguya wore her clothes buttoned-up and presentable, Mokou had her jacket open to reveal the sarashi she'd worn beneath it, enough to preserve her modesty while making it clear that she was a renegade cop who didn't play by the rules, and who also had a distractingly nice midriff.

Mokou leaned up against a cabinet insolently, hands still in her pockets, cigarette smoke curling around her sunglasses. Kaguya gave her partner a disapproving look and a little disdainful sniff that did absolutely nothing to diminish her natural charm, then saluted Kotohime and stood patiently at attention.

"Deputy-Princess Kaguya, Deputy-Acting-Princess Mokou," the policewoman-princess said with a nod to each woman. "Lookin' sharp. Bet if we slap you two on a poster, recruitment will triple overnight."

"Ah, well," said Kaguya modestly. "I only took your suggestions to heart when I selected my uniform." She offered her superior a quick bow before asking "What was it you required, princess?"

"Your help, of course. It's time for Science!" the police chief said as she circled around behind a table. The kappa lab tech perked up at the word, Kaguya, Cirno and Mystia sidled in closer, while Mokou took another drag on her cigarette and continued to slouch against the furniture.

"Observe," Kotohime continued, making a flourishing motion with her arms. "Nothing up my sleeves," she assured her audience, shaking out her hands as part of her warm-up, and causing the severed wooden forearm to slip out and bounce off the edge of the desk.

Cirno blinked, then scowled at the princess. "You lied to us," she accused.

Kotohime stared down at the carved limb and sighed. "Moving on." She picked the bit of evidence up off the floor and crossly dropped it onto the table. "Exhibit A: one wooden limb recovered from a possible crime scene. I need to figure out who made it. So, how do I do it, ladies?" she asked her subordinates.

"Look for a maker's mark?" deadpanned Mokou, head tilted up towards the ceiling as she emitted disinterest and tobacco smoke.

"Ask some carpenters?" suggested Mystia with a shrug that made her wings flap.

Cirno just stared blankly, her face vacant and waiting.

Kaguya half-shut her deep brown eyes, staring past Kotohime as she thought out loud. "Well, the craftsmanship is above-average, so you can narrow down the list of suspects to the top percentile of artisans. I know little about the varieties of local lumber, but if you had an expert analyze it, he or she might be able to tell you what species the limb is made of, allowing you to search sales records of that specific wood. A forensic scientist could study the aging and weathering of the material to estimate when it was made and what conditions it was kept in-"

"That's-" Kotohime cleared her throat, then glanced down and inspected her nails. "Those are all good points," she admitted. "But what I had in mind was right up your alley, Deputy-Princess."

"Is it?" the Lunarian replied with utmost politeness.

"Yeppers. Metal joints," said Kotohime, tapping the steel hinges of the thing's elbow and wrist. She picked up a tub of water from another table, set it down on the desk they were gathered around, and unceremoniously dropped the wooden arm into it with a splash. Cirno absently prodded at a puddle to turn it into an ice slick.

Kaguya tilted her head slightly. "This will make it more difficult for a forensic expert to-"

"Hup-up-up!" Kotohime interrupted, one finger skyward. "This will also narrow down our list of suspects considerably. So, princess," she continued. "Your superpower is the manipulation of eternity, right?"

A brief but dazzling smile danced across Kaguya's face. "That is essentially correct, yes."

"So," the police chief went on, "what'dya get when you examine this? Get the sense that this is pretty temporary? Soon to rust and rot, eh?"

Kaguya blinked. "Ah, being able to manipulate something is not necessarily the same as being able to-"

"Don't be shy!" urged Kotohime. "Go on, give it a shot, see how soon this will all decay."

The Lunar exile obligingly leaned closer to the soaking wooden limb, her brow furrowed slightly as she concentrated. "'Soon' is of course a relative term," she stated. "But… the wood will rot away in a matter of decades, while the metal will endure for comparatively longer with few ill effects. Though both materials are still fleeting when viewed with-"

Kotohime clapped her hands, a satisfied smile on her face. "Thank you Deputy-Princess, that will be all."

"Will it?"

"Yep yep." Kotohime nodded at the arm. "Metal joints that don't rust for a while, so we're dealing with stainless steel. And who's the largest producer of stainless steel in Gensokyo? The amphibious kappa, of course!" She started heading for the door. "Be right back, investigating Youkai Mountain."

"Hold up," Mokou said, standing upright only to tilt her head, the bow tying her hair flapping like the wings of a red-and-white bat, "where'd this arm even come from, anyway?"

Kotohime shrugged. "Some fake Alice Margatroid doll that was swinging from Marisa's ceiling. Had her dress on and everything."

Mokou's frown deepened. "So why not ask her what-"

"What do you want us to do?" interrupted Cirno as she crossed her arms grumpily, clearly upset over being left behind.

"Patrol," Kotohime ordered, giving her deputies a grave look. "Go out there, be visible. Discourage troublemakers from making trouble. Let people know that even though there's been some explosive remodeling at the Kirisame household, there are still forces of order in this world of chaos."

Kaguya's eyes widened in surprise. "There's been an incident at Miss Kirisame's house?"

"The others can fill you in. Call me if anything else comes up," Kotohime yelled as she slipped out the door.

-x-


-4-

The Untrodden Valley, Youkai Mountain
11:14 am

"-on official police business, so bugger off!" Kotohime shouted, loosing another barrage of stylishly violet danmaku at the pair of wolf tengu hounding – har, har – her flight.

The duo of white-and-black uniformed sentinels split in opposite directions to avoid her aggressive defense, hair and lupine tails streaming as they darted through the skies with grace and speed that made one wonder how they kept their tokin hats on during such aerial stunts… and how the hell canine-derived youkai could fly so well… or how they could possibly be related to the more familiar bird-winged tengu. But the wolf-eared guards didn't press the attack, and instead regrouped well out of range before quickly disappearing into the distance.

Kotohime slowed to a hovering halt, high above the forest canopy, and shook her fist in the direction of Youkai Mountain. "I'll be lodging a complaint with your superiors! I am well out of tengu airspace, and even if I wasn't I'd have a valid reason for being there! As well as diplomatic immunity!" Of course there wasn't an answer, though she was quite confident one particular wolf had heard her. The princess sniffed indignantly and muttered about over-excitable pups as she began her descent.

The lush valley at the mountain's base looked ablaze with vivid reds and oranges and yellows, save where a wide river meandered its way through the boughs of the forest ringing. The princess sighed at the scenic view. She always loved autumn in Gensokyo – wait, was it seriously fall already? But it felt like just yesterday she'd set out on a journey under a late summer sun…

The princess mentally shrugged as she dropped down past the treeline, slowing as she cruised over the shining stream. She watched the armada of leaves drifting with the current for a moment, then focused past them, trying to penetrate the sun's glare and the reflections on the water's surface to find her quarry. That was the problem with dealing with kappa, of course, at least if you weren't a similarly amphibious species. She really ought to have brought a cucumber to try to lure one of the turtle-folk out of hiding.

Kotohime tried to focus on spotting one of the elusive youkai, but found herself distracted by a niggling worry. The tengu and kappa had been neighbors for, like, ever. They knew the limits of each others' territory, and normally a wolf tengu patrol would have no reason to come this far down in the valley. So why were they here?

Even as the princess pondered this, she noticed something in the water beneath her, a shred of blue cloth drifting on the current. Familiar blue cloth.

Kotohime accelerated, following the intermittent bits of tattered dress. Maybe it was just a catastrophic wardrobe malfunction, she tried to assure herself, but something told her she was approaching another crime scene.

Sure enough, she rounded a bend to find a muddy riverbank littered with scraps of clothing and what looked like the contents of a toolbox, the moist earth beneath soaked an almost black color. Worse were the flesh-colored bits, as well the splash of azure hair half-hidden behind a rock. Kotohime slowly hovered her way around the mossy boulder, dreading what she knew she was about to see, but there are some times you just have to deal with a severed head. Despite being unattached to the rest of its body, it still sported a cheery smile, as well as a sporty cap.

"This is turning out to be a really violent day," Kotohime mused to herself as she took in the mess.

A twig snapped.

Kotohime whirled, her jitte out and pointed at the source of the sound within a split-second. "Show yourself!"

"Oh, it's you!" came a relieved voice.

The underbrush hugging the riverbank parted from an unseen force, and then a section of air seemed to shimmer as through a heat haze, or as though sheets of water were running down over something invisible – something that shortly became Nitori Kawashiro, hale and whole, if looking a little rattled. Nitori tended to have a wide-eyed, "deer-in-the-headlights" look on her face until she was certain whoever she was talking with wasn't a threat, but today she looked positively happy to see Kotohime.

"Heya, officer," the kappa said, brushing an errant strand of vivid teal hair away from her similarly-hued eyes. "Uh, I suppose you're wondering about the mess…"

The policewoman stared at her for a moment, then pointed meaningfully at the sodden ground and body parts. "So I take it you've discovered how to cheat death? Some sort of respawn system, perhaps? Or do you have a bank of clones hidden somewhere to beam your mind into?"

"Huh? Ah, no, nothing quite that advanced. That's not me," explained Nitori, her hands held up to fend off Kotohime's accusations. "Er, I mean, obviously not, I'm standing right here instead of spread all over the…" The kappa coughed. "Anyway, I call it a Nitoribot."

"A Nitori-robot," Kotohime repeated flatly, arching an unconvinced eyebrow. She looked closer at one of the flesh-colored bits, then picked it up to examine the chunk. While the skin looked and felt lifelike, there was no blood staining it, and protruding from beneath it were broken pistons and dangling wiring.

That explained the smell of engine oil, at least.

"Pretty lifelike," the princess grudgingly admitted.

"Sure is!" Nitori agreed, beaming, any unease quickly fading now that there were technical matters to discuss. She hooked her thumbs beneath the criss-crossing straps of her dangerously overstuffed backpack, her bosom swelling with pride. "I haven't managed to come up with some artificial hemoglobin yet, but Nitoribots' neural circuitry comes close enough to simulating brainwaves that they have a ninety percent change of fooling even satori, assuming optimal weather conditions."

"I dunno, it seems like a lot of work to make a glorified stunt double..."

"But it's worth it the first time one saves your life," the kappa countered. "So-"

"Just how functional are they?" interrupted Kotohime, her head tilted speculatively.

Nitori blinked. "What do you mean?"

"You know, are they fully functional, or are they," the princess gave her a look, "fully functional?"

The kappa stared for several seconds, then jumped back, wide-eyed, as she went through a full-body blush that clashed weirdly with her sky-blue dress. "Ehhhh?" stammered Nitori. "I-I mean, sure, I guess you could – but I never-"

"Body doubles are a good start," Kotohime continued, "but there's some opportunities there. Modifications, attachments, special settings-"

"I didn't – it was just a – okay, maybe once-"

"Arm cannons, rocket boots, that sort of thing," finished the princess. "Make it a proper bodyguard, not just body double."

Nitori went very still for a moment, then made a big deal out of smoothing the folds of her skirt. "W-well, obviously if I'd installed something like that the Nitoribot wouldn't have gotten smashed."

"Good point." Kotohime tapped her foot, scowling at the mess. "This is the second not-quite-murder I've uncovered today. Don't suppose you saw it happen?" she asked hopefully.

Nitori crouched down on her haunches beside one piece of the mangled robot, precariously balancing her bulky backpack, and shook her head. "No. I wanted to see how the Nitoribot behaved when left by herself, so I went for a half-hour swim. Came back and she was in pieces."

"It," Kotohime corrected. The kappa gave her a surly look, which the policewoman ignored as she inspected the crime scene for clues. "Well, we can rule out firearms, offensive magic or bladed weapons," the policewoman declared. "No bullet holes, smooth cuts, or scorch marks. This bit of property damage seems to have been done by a blunt object."

"Like a wrench?" Nitori asked.

Kotohime nodded. "Yes, like a…" she frowned at her companion. "Found one, didja?"

"Yep." Nitori gestured down at the oil-stained tool lying not-quite-concealed by a leafy frond. The kappa was careful not to touch it, which Kotohime appreciated. The princess quickly pulled on a pair of gloves so she could handle the object without contaminating the evidence.

"Hmm…" Kotohime gave the wrench a few experimental swings. "Well, you could take a good whack at a robot skull with this." She gave the remains of the Nitoribot another look. "But that in itself wouldn't make quite this much of a mess."

"Someone would have to be pretty strong to get that much chunkage," Nitori agreed.

Kotohime didn't bother to ask how the youkai knew that. You heard things about kappa, things involving hands reaching into body cavities, fell deeds that even Kotohime didn't need to know the details of. "Superhumanly strong," she murmured instead, absently tapping the not-quite-murder weapon against her open palm while she thought. She squinted down at it, reached inside her sleeve to produce what looked like a salt or pepper shaker, then held the wrench by its tooly bits with one hand while the other shook the vial over its grip. "Dustin' for prints," she explained for Nitori's benefit. "Got a magnifying glass or something?"

Nitori wordlessly reached into one of her many, many pouches, withdrawing a rectangular doodad. She flicked a switch on its side to extend a squarish glass pane, then handed it over to Kotohime, who murmured her thanks.

The princess peered at the attempted murder weapon, walking into the light of the riverbank to get a better look at what the dust had revealed. She nodded, coming to a decision. "Beans," she announced, lowering the wrench with a determined look on her face.

Nitori's pigtails flopped as she cocked her head. "Pardon?"

"Bean prints on the wrench," Kotohime repeated. "Not fingerprints. Bean prints."

The kappa just stared blankly.

"So either we're dealing with an ambulatory, aggressive legume," the policewoman went on, "or this was the work of a dangerously strong plant-based supernatural entity. And that means-" Kotohime deliberately paused, waiting for Nitori to jump in, but instead the youkai engineer continued to stand in silent bafflement. "The Aki Sisters," she finished, a little disappointed.

Nitori stared for a few long seconds, opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again to say "What."

"Well, Minoriko, anyway," the princess clarified. "If Shizuha had done it we'd be finding leaf prints. But Minoriko's made of all sorts of tasty goodness: sweet potatoes, beans, apples…" Kotohime swiped at her mouth, aware that she was starting to drool. Normally she'd be ordering lunch about now. "But it's hard to imagine her getting involved in something without her older sister."

The kappa was still giving her an incredulous look. "You think the Aki Sisters did this?"

"Positive. It's the only explanation that makes any sort of sense. I'd better-"

Kotohime was cut off by a sound like a mechanical cricket chirruping from her clothing. She wordlessly help up a finger to silence Nitori, then pressed firmly on her badge. "Talk to me."

"Chief?" It sounded like Wriggle, though her voice was a bit scratchy and faint, like she was talking through a metal tube. "We've got a situation."

"Did Cirno lick the flagpole again?"

"Negative," the youkai dispatcher said placidly. "There's a disturbance at the food bank. Shots fired, nobody hurt so far, but it's-"

"The Akis," Kotohime interrupted, as she gave Nitori a grim look.

"Huh? Somebody told you?" Wriggle actually sounded mildly surprised.

"Who's on the scene?" Kotohime asked instead of answering.

"Cirno and Mystia were the ones who called it in, but they're keeping their distance so far. Then Kaguya and Mokou tried to go in, but something went wrong, and I can't raise Mokou." Wriggle hesitated a few heartbeats before adding "From how Mystia tells it, it's a hostage situation now."

"On my way. Kotohime out." The princess slapped her badge with a determined look on her face. "Looks like I'm needed elsewhere," she told Nitori.

"But…" The youkai sat down on the big mossy rock, sweeping off her cap so she could massage her forehead. "Why would Minoriko trash my Nitoribot?"

"I'll be sure to ask her," Kotohime assured the kappa grimly. She leapt into the air, racing away like a bolt of purple justice, trying to shake the feeling that she was forgetting something…

-x-


-5-

Gensokyo Food Bank
12:26 am

Kotohime landed about a block from the crime scene, not willing to expose herself by flying right towards it, instead closing the distance on foot to take advantage of cover. She used her jitte to push her way through the gawking crowd, poking and whapping the foolish bystanders hoping for some lunchtime entertainment. She really needed to get more girls on the force so they could get up some proper barricades.

Luckily the area in front of the food bank itself was clear of potential collateral damage. There were a few abandoned carts and wagons parked in the street, and hunkered behind one of them was one of Kotohime's officers. Mystia Lorelei was nearly bent over double by the weight of her dusky black riot gear, especially since she had to remove the backplate of her armored jacket to accommodate her wings, leaving her off-balance. Her head snapped up at Kotohime's approach, making her oversized helmet tilt lopsidedly.

"Chief!" the night sparrow sang out, relief plain in her voice.

"Officer Lorelei," Kotohime responded with a curt nod. She crouched down next to the girl, taking a moment to straighten Mystia's headgear. "What's the situation?"

Mystia's dark grey eyes were wide behind the smudged visor. "They've got Mokou!" she chirped. "And guns! Loud, scary guns! Why do they have guns?!"

"Kalashnikovs, I believe," came Kaguya's voice in Kotohime's earpiece, cool and calm. "I can't determine which model, but I suppose it doesn't really matter right now."

"Where you at, princess?" asked the police chief.

"Behind you, on the roof of the inn." Kotohime briefly glanced over her shoulder at the four-story building. There was no sign of Kaguya, but that was rather the point, wasn't it? "I'm in a good position," came the other princess' voice, "and will let you know when I have a clear shot."

"Stay frosty," Kotohime replied. "Chief out." She lowered her finger from the side of her head with a slight smile on her face. Kaguya's marksmanship training would come in handy today, she wagered. It faded when she realized someone was missing. "Where's Cirno?" she demanded.

Mystia winced. "Over-"

"ARE YOU STILL IN THERE?" an electronically amplified voice inquired with window-rattling force.

Kotohime grimaced and followed Mystia's pointing finger. Sure enough, two carts down a small blue figure hovered to peer over the top of her barricade, a megaphone nearly the size of her head gripped in her tiny hands.

"I, uh, thought it might be good to get a dialogue going, since it's a hostage situation," Mystia explained, picking at her long teal talons nervously.

"We're not going anywhere!" a woman's voice yelled from the crisis scene.

Kotohime peeked around the front of the cart. The food bank was a simple two-story building designed much like any other shop on the street, but its windows were dark and shuttered, its door all but closed. Still, Kotohime couldn't miss the splash of vivid orange lurking just behind the threshold, a gleaming metal object cradled in the thin figure's hands.

"You're going to listen to us!" Shizuha Aki screamed out at a cruel and apathetic world. "Respect us! Remember us! Or else!"

"WE COULD REMEMBER YOU BETTER IF YOU CAME OUTSIDE," Cirno suggested with deafening cunning.

"And you don't have to yell into the megaphone, you idiot!"

Kotohime could see Cirno turn red even from yards away. "I'M NOT AN IDIOT! THE ONE WHO SAYS 'IDIOT' IS THE IDIOT!"

"Stop yelling!"

"MAKE ME!"

The gun's barrel drooped a bit as Shizuha sagged in confounded desperation. "Is there anyone else I could talk to?"

"NO!"

"They've been doing that for at least ten minutes," said Mystia wearily. "I'm sorry, but Cirno got to the amplifier first, and then we got separated, and-"

"She's wearing them down, encouraging them to surrender and stuff," Kotohime finished, clapping Mystia's armored shoulder encouragingly before glancing over the rest of her gear. "In the meanwhile, you need to get better equipped. The rest of us are immortal, but you need more protection. Here," she said, rifling through the duffel bags on the dirt road beside them to extract a pair of riot shields. "Stick your wings out for a second," the princess ordered. "Don't want you to take a bullet in a pinion and be grounded the rest of your life."

"If you s-say so," mumbled Mystia as Kotohime slung the rectangular, transparent items sideways onto her wings. She winced. "Those are really heavy."

"But sturdy." Kotohime drew back to admire her handiwork. "Nice. Now, stay in cover, I'm going to relieve Cirno." The minute Kotohime took her hands off Mystia's wings, the overburdened youkai toppled over with an indignant squawk. The policewoman didn't look back, instead dashing to her other minion's side with a quick burst of flight.

Cirno jerked her head around in surprise, before her face lit up as she recognized Kotohime. "Oh, hi! I'm negotiationing!" she said proudly.

"I saw!" Kotohime replied, ruffling Cirno's sky blue hair affectionately. "But I think it's my turn."

"This thing is fun," the ice fairy giggled as she handed over the megaphone. There was frost all over the grip, but Kotohime stoically endured it, making a mental note to wear gloves around Cirno now that summer was apparently over.

"Good morning!" she called brightly, noticing how her own voice echoed off the unembellished front of the food bank.

A blonde head poked back into sight just past the open door. Kotohime could just make out a faint "Oh thank goodness" before Shizuha remembered to glare and shouted "What do you want, copper?"

"I was about to ask the same thing!" Kotohime replied without rancor. "Minus the 'copper' part, anyway. Now, you might be new to the whole hostage-taking business, but normally you'd make some demands at this point." She took her finger off the megaphone's trigger to let the idea sink in for a moment. "Unless you're just doing this for attention," she added.

"N-no! This is part of a plan! I'm not… we're not…" The elder Aki sister shook her head, as though trying to dislodge some cobwebs. "I'll be back!" she promised, before disappearing into the shadows of the building's interior.

"I'll be right here!" Kotohime assured her foe. Her cheery smile faded as she lowered the amplifier. This didn't feel right. She knew perps could get stressed out during their illegal activities, and the pressure cooker of a hostage situation could certainly lead to lawbreakers having second thoughts about their current path through life. But it almost felt like Shizuha didn't know what she was doing here in the first place.

"I wonder if she's on the drugs," she murmured to herself.

"Huh?" Cirno tilted her head like a confused puppy.

"That's right, I haven't set up a narc unit yet," the princess realized. "I'll explain later. Oh hey, this looks promising!"

There was movement from the food bank, but the emerging colors were darker, a black dress with a salmon-colored apron over it, worn by another blonde woman of indeterminate age. Like her sister, Minoriko Aki cradled a vintage assault rifle in her arms, and Kotohime couldn't help but think that the harvest goddess could have at least tried to better accessorize her weapon with her outfit. Maybe an orange ribbon or two, or perhaps a sweet potato stuck on a bayonet.

"Is that you out there, princess?" called the younger Aki tiredly, her normally cheery face twisted into something uncharacteristically darker.

"I'm right here, goddess," the policewoman answered. "So what's this all about? Shouldn't you be at a harvest festival or something? Instead of, you know, firing heavy weaponry at law-abiding citizens?"

"We're…" Minoriko lurched a bit, only remaining upright by grabbing the doorframe, letting her weapon hang listlessly in her other hand. It could have been due to Minoriko having two left feet, but Kotohime thought she looked just as disoriented as her sibling. "We're here to get the respect we deserve!" the minor deity shouted, rallying. "For too long we've been marginalized or overlooked! We're goddesses! You should fear us, not invite us to a party once a year and then forget about us!"

"You mean invite you," Kotohime corrected helpfully. "Shizuha just does leaves, nobody pays attention to her in the first place."

In the pause that followed, yelling, faint but unmistakably furious, could be heard emanating from deeper in the building.

"So why hit the food bank, anyway?" asked Kotohime, leaning forward to rest an elbow on the abandoned cart she was standing behind, propping her chin up with one hand.

"It's an insult!" the harvest goddess spat back with surprising venom. "Hoarding food like this? So that if there's a bad crop this year the humans can continue to stuff their faces? So that it doesn't matter if I've not been properly appeased? Blasphemy!" Even from the other side of the street, Kotohime could see Minoriko shaking with rage. "Humans need me. I will not be replaced by a warehouse!"

"So I take it demand one is getting this place shut down?" asked Kotohime. "Write that down, Cirno," she hissed out of the corner of her mouth.

"Obviously! And then…" The younger Aki sister looked about wildly. "And we're tired of disappearing after three months! Why should humans live in defiance of the seasons, but not goddesses?"

"BECAUSE WINTER IS LETTY TIME, NOT STUPID AKIS TIME!" Cirno shouted, leaning in to take over the megaphone. "GO AWAY SO LETTY CAN COME, OR I'LL FREEZE YOU SOLID AND BREAK YOU IN-"

Kotohime gently pushed Cirno back. "Easy there, champ," she murmured. She cleared her throat before picking up the amplifier again. "So we've got 'shut down the food bank' and 'longer autumns' as your demands, does that sound right?"

Minoriko straightened up a bit. "Yes, that's-"

"But why should we grant them?"

The goddess seemed surprised by the question. "Because we have a hostage?"

"Prove it!" Kotohime challenged. "For all we know you've got a sack of flour and a wig in there! Bring 'er out front so we can get a good look!"

Minoriko glared at her, but disappeared from sight. "Get ready, princess," Kotohime whispered into her radio. Kaguya was too focused to waste words on a response.

Hopefully they could finish this up before lunchtime. Kotohime's stomach gurgled at the thought of the cans and sacks and barrels of food just a few yards away from her, with nothing but two uncharacteristically belligerent goddesses and a pair of the Soviet Union's most notorious export in her way. She could almost smell sweet potatoes from across the street.

Less than a minute later Minoriko returned, while Shizuha prodded a grey-haired woman along with the barrel of her gun. Fujiwara no Mokou, immortal phoenix warrior, police officer, and now part-time hostage, looked more bored than anything, stoically enduring a large bruise covering the side of her head. After one last poke, Shizuha stood at sloppy attention, her rifle's barrel swaying as she looked around.

"Here she is!" Minoriko called, her own gun momentarily slack in her grasp. "And unless our demands are met, we'll-"

"I've got a shot," Kaguya whispered into Kotohime's earpiece.

The police chief nodded. "Fire."

Kotohime didn't know what kind of caliber Kaguya's sniper rifle used. She had no idea where the Lunarian had gotten the thing, whether it was an import from the moon or elsewhere. She wasn't sure if there was any special propellant or ammunition involved.

But one thing was for certain: the gun did terrible things to a person's head. A watermelon being hit with a sledgehammer came to mind.

While the two survivors stood rooted to the ground with shock, approximately 88% of Fujiwara no Mokou swayed slightly before flopping over. The Aki sisters stared down in wide-eyed horror.

"Crap, sorry Cirno," Kotohime said while the little fairy deposited a pile of ice chunks on the street beside her. "Should've told you to look away." She picked up the megaphone again. "Okay!" she called brightly. "Now you have no hostage, but you're still surrounded by the police." All four of them, from one side of the building. It was a pretty complex tactical maneuver, surrounding someone like that. "So," Kotohime continued, "why don't you put down your weapons-"

Shizuha finally let out a hoarse scream and bolted, fleeing deeper into the building. Minoriko backed away, still staring wide-eyed at the mess, before abruptly whirling and following her sister.

"Or not," Kotohime finished lamely. Well, it had been worth a shot. Which reminded her. "Good shooting, princess," she said into her collar.

"I do my best," Kaguya said with unconcealed satisfaction. She was usually in good cheer if Mokou had died recently, more so if she had been directly or indirectly responsible. It was just one of the quirks of their relationship, Kotohime supposed.

"Now stand by to provide further support," ordered the police chief, "we're going in."

"We are?" Mystia asked. The police chief blinked in surprise – somehow the dust-covered sparrow girl had gotten upright and staggered over to join them.

"We are." Kotohime drew her sidearm, slamming a fresh clip into it purely out of habit. "Lock 'n load, peeps."

"Uh…" Officer Lorelei was staring at Kotohime's pistol like she'd never seen it before. "Where did you get a gun?"

The princess frowned. "I'm a police officer," she explained.

"Yeah, but…" The night sparrow fidgeted and gave up. "So were we supposed to have guns?"

"Do I get a gun?" asked Cirno, evidently recovered from her sickness.

"Because I don't remember any firearms training when I joined," Mystia continued.

The problem, Kotohime reflected, was that until she finished that cloning tank, she'd never get a police force as competent as its leader. She'd just have to make do with what was available.

"Mystia," she snapped, focusing her authority to forestall any further argument, "stay close behind me and sing if they get the first shot." The night sparrow paled but nodded. "Cirno, ice anything that looks unfriendly, we can thaw them later if need be." The little fairy threw what she thought was a salute. "Rumia…" Kotohime trailed off and looked around. "Okay, whose turn was it to keep an eye on her?"

"She's still at the station, chief," came Wriggle's voice in her ear. "When you ran off there weren't enough for the normal paired patrols, so I had her helping up front."

"Oh." Kotohime thought for a moment, then added "Any casualties?"

"Dr. Yagokoro thinks she can save the man's leg," the insect youkai explained. "And he's too scared to press charges."

The police chief gave her subordinates a stern look. "And this is why it's important to remember to feed the Rumia," she reminded them. She stoically ignored her empty stomach as another thought occurred to her. "Hey Wriggle, can you get the blueprints for this food bank?"

"Of course, chief." There was a few seconds of tapping keys coming over the radio, before the dispatcher declared "I've got them on-screen right now."

"So does this place have any side entrances or backdoors?" the policewoman went on.

"Checking… doesn't look like it, chief," buzzed Wriggle in her ear.

"That makes things easier. But remind me to fine the owners for safety violations afterward, they should have at least included a fire exit." Kotohime looked at the two other members of her squadette. "Okay girls, let's show these goddesses what we're made of." She tensed to lead the charge out of cover, then remembered something. "Oh, and make sure not to slip in Mokou on the way in."

Mystia watched another rain of ice chunks tumble from Cirno's mouth, then gave Kotohime a disapproving look.

"Screw it, catch up when you can," Kotohime sighed, before bounding up and over the parked cart, her robes flapping heroically. She landed in an action roll and bounced out of it in time to end up with her back against the wall to the side of the food bank's door. The princess held the pose for several heartbeats, then spun and rolled through the portal, coming out of the maneuver on one knee in the food bank's shadowy lobby, her pistol jerking around as she searched for a target.

Nothing. Nothing to blast at, no audience to appreciate her awesome entrance.

Well, other than… Kotohime tapped her earpiece. "See anything, princess?"

"Not now, no. You're in my way, sir," the sniper replied a shade reproachfully.

"That's 'ma'am,' or 'princess,' or 'chief,' and I meant through the windows," said the policewoman tersely.

"Oh, sorry! Ah…" Kotohime could almost feel Kaguya's scoped gaze sweeping the outside of the structure. "Sorry again. Most are shuttered, it's dark inside, and I can't see any movement. If it's alright, I'd like to come see to my partner."

"Consider it an order. I'm moving deeper into the building." Kotohime somersaulted forward again for good measure, avoiding entanglement in her own long robes thanks to years of training. There were so many places to hide, she realized as she cautiously pulled a flashlight from her sleeve to illuminate the unlit building. Storage rooms, offices, piles of canned goods-

"Chief?" Mystia had struggled her way out of her armor and was gingerly sticking her head through the food bank's entrance, Cirno hovering behind her shoulders. Kotohime made a quick gesture for them to stack up behind her.

"Eyes and ears open," she hissed, switching her flashlight in a reverse grip and using it to steady the butt of her pistol.

Cirno smiled and nodded, while Mystia gulped loudly.

The police chief led her team down a hallway, hugging one wall, methodically checking each adjacent room for any sign of the rogue Aki sisters, expecting a hail of gunfire at any moment. But there was nothing but the gentle sound of hundreds of pounds of long-lasting foodstuffs waiting to be eaten, dried fruit and salted meat and why couldn't this all have happened after lunch?

"Is it getting colder?" murmured Mystia as they turned a corner.

Kotohime felt it almost immediately, like she'd crossed twenty degrees of latitude in one step.

"I can't feel anything," commented Cirno.

"Or is it longitude?" Kotohime mused. "Stay alert, guys. These two aren't known for cryomancy, so we might have a wild card on our hands."

She froze as her foot crunched on something. Looking down, Kotohime saw a layer of frost covering the floorboards, tendrils of mist curling up from it as warmer air from outside seeped in.

Mystia's wings shuddered from the cold, or perhaps nervousness. "Something's not right here."

Cirno's smile practically lit up the hall. "Feels good to me."

The next room Kotohime stuck her head into contained the Akis. Or rather, what was left of them.

Two discarded assault rifles lay on the floor, almost hidden by a layer of rime. Shizuha's clothes were in a rumpled pile, brilliant red and orange leaves spilling out from the sleeves to coat the frosty floor like a bloodstain. Minoriko had met a similar fate, it seemed, though her remains resembled an exploded cornucopia, with assorted treats and vegetables lying in a rough pile around her own dress. And standing over them was a tall, matronly woman with lavender eyes and hair under a white cap, wearing a dress as blue as a clear winter sky-

Cirno squealed with delight and flung herself into Letty Whiterock's arms, making the woman lurch from the impact before Letty burst into warm laughter, smiling like she'd been greeted by a favored niece.

"Oh," was all Mystia said as she took in the scene. She took a step backward to prop herself against the wall, rubbing her temple with one hand as she tried to make sense of it all.

Kotohime lowered her pistol – but only a bit. "Miss Whiterock," she said neutrally, nodding at the yuki-onna. "What brings you to our crime scene?"

Letty gave Cirno one last maternal smooch on the forehead and set the fairy down, smoothing out her dress afterward, her nearly transparent cape more like a curtain of wind-blown snow than a piece of fabric. "Why, winter of course," she stated, as though surprised that the policewoman couldn't figure it out on her own.

Kotohime frowned, tilting her head as she looked up at the ceiling. "I dunno, I thought it was summer until I saw all the leaves and the Akis."

"But now winter is come," Letty replied evenly.

"If you say so," said Kotohime slowly.

"Did you hear me telling the stupid Akis to go away so you could get here?" Cirno eagerly asked her fellow creature of cold. Then she seemed to remember what was on the floor nearby and added "Oh, and did you see what happened to them?"

"I killed them," the herald of winter said matter-of-factly. The three policewomen jerked in surprise. "Well, perhaps that is the wrong word to use," Letty corrected herself. "In any case, they are gone, and will not return."

"Uh," Mystia nervously began, "you mean like you normally, uh, 'kill' them, right? Like they're autumn goddesses, so you show up and kick them out until next fall?"

But Letty shook her head in disagreement. "No. There will be no more autumns. No spring will follow this winter. This is the end." She gave Cirno a faint but reassuring smile. "I am required elsewhere, but we shall be together one last time before then, little one," she promised.

And then a sudden wind gusted through the room, spraying snow and ice crystals so that Mystia and Kotohime had to shield their eyes. When the whiteout was over, Letty was gone.

"Nice exit," Kotohime grudgingly admitted.

"I'm gonna see Letty again!" declared a cheerful Cirno. The ice fairy's good mood faded as she reconsidered. "Wait, what was she saying about one last time? I don't want that, I want to see her lots of times!"

Mystia's whole body spasmed as she tried to dislodge ice from her feathers. "'This is the end?' Is she serious?"

As her subordinates turned to stare expectantly at her, Kotohime chewed on a length of her red hair, deep in thought. "Guess the hostage situation is resolved," she said finally. "A no-score win. Not as satisfactory as it could have been, but beggars, choosers." She looked down at the floor, then scooped up one of the rifles the goddesses had been holding – or rather, tried to. The guns were coated in a hoary layer of ice, the metal cold enough to cause blisters. Kotohime furiously tried to rub some life back into her fingers. "Cirno, you can't get frostbite, so you work on confiscating the weapons."

"Okay!" The childish fairy dropped to her knees and started trying to get a grip on the rifles.

"Just try not to pull the-"

The brief burst of automatic fire made Mystia dive for cover and left a cluster of smoking holes in the wooden wall of the food bank. Cirno hopped to her feet, wincing in embarrassment.

"The triggers, yeah, don't do that." Kotohime ducked down to quickly scoop something else off the floor and marched out the door, Mystia hauling herself upright and hurrying to follow.

"What's that?" the night sparrow asked.

"Sweet potato."

"You… what?" The squeamishness was audible in Mystia's voice. "Did you get that from Min-"

"It's only cannibalism if you're preying on your own species," Kotohime retorted. "Otherwise it's not letting food go to waste." She scowled down at the half-frozen spud. "And I haven't had lunch yet."

Team Nemesis was guarding the food bank's entrance. Or more accurately, squabbling in front of it.

"That was my favorite jacket," grumped Mokou. She was looking hale and whole, if surly, squatting on the porch and frowning down at the mess left behind from her hostage situation, her hands brushing against her blood-soaked collar as she tried to fix her hair.

"It's your fault for getting captured," teased Kaguya as she leaned over her partner, her dark brown eyes sparkling with amusement. "Honestly, a warrior of your caliber being incapacitated by two minor, minor deities? I'm surprised you didn't die of embarrassment."

"Before you blew my head off, you mean."

"We've been over this, it's standard procedure for hostage situations involving regenerative immortals. Remove the hostage and you remove the hostage-takers' bargaining position."

Mokou finished tying her bow and scowled up at Kaguya. "When we get done, I'm going to take this out on your hide."

Kaguya erupted in a peal of melodious laughter. "Promises, promises."

"Glad to see you're not letting the case get you down, princess," Kotohime commented, having watched her fill of the two's spat.

The Lunarian smoothly turned to throw a salute, still smiling. "Excitement is what makes a life worth living," she replied.

"Well said. Looking better, Mokou," added Kotohime, nodding at the sitting woman. "Catch," she commanded, tossing the sweet potato.

The phoenix-themed immortal caught the morsel without looking at it, then had to do a double-take when she saw what was in her hand. "Take it the Akis are dead?"

"Letty'd," Kotohime confirmed. "Now make with the flames."

Mokou shrugged one shoulder and abruptly her hand was engulfed in fire, the savory scent of cooking sweet potato filling the air. "So what now?" she asked.

"First you turn off the heat and gimme my lunch back." Kotohime easily caught the steaming spud, idly juggling the hot potato from hand to hand until it cooled a bit. "Then I go ask where two goddesses got illegal firearms from the outside world."

"But… I still don't understand," Mystia complained, trudging through the doorway and sinking to a seat next to Mokou. She looked up at Kotohime, her grey eyes lost and bewildered. "What about Marisa and Alice? And you said Nitori was almost murdered? Where do the Akis fit in with all of this?"

Kotohime squeezed Mystia's shoulder gently. "We keep asking questions, kiddo. We remember our training, we keep our heads-"

Mokou snorted, while Kaguya's grin managed to get even wider.

"And above all else," Kotohime continued, "we-"

There was another deafening rattle from inside the building.

"-confiscate the guns from Cirno before she kills us all," Kotohime finished without missing a beat. Kaguya wordlessly hurried into the food bank. "And eventually we put the pieces together and figure out whose ass to kick. Just like solving an Incident. Except with paperwork." She stepped off the porch and into the street. "Wrap things up here, I've got some questions to ask." And with that she surged into the air, headed away from the city, towards the magical forests ringing it.

-x-


-6-

Kourindou
13:38

Kotohime enjoyed her visits to Kourindou, whether on a normal shopping trip or while investigating a potential kidnapping and attempted murder. The little specialist store was tucked away in the suburbs, where houses had proper lawns and trees lined the roads, a compromise between the urban offerings of the village proper and the more wild youkai lands surrounding it, much like how Kourindou's half-human owner bridged those two worlds. Said owner was a reliable source of unreliable information, but occasionally he could come up with something useful… sometimes in ways you wouldn't expect from a mild-mannered shopkeeper.

The police chief pushed the door open with a cheery electronic ding-dong! and Rinnosuke Morichika looked up from his seat behind the glass counter, the dripping noodles dangling from his mouth swaying as turned towards his customer. "Mmmf-" he quickly slurped up the mouthful and gulped it down. "Ah, hello there, princess!" He dabbed at his face with a napkin, smiling sagaciously at Kotohime, at least until he noticed the sauce splattered on his glasses.

"Mr. Morichika," replied Kotohime with a curt nod.

He paused in the act of wiping off his spectacles. "Uh oh. I'm in trouble, aren't I?"

"Depends where the investigation heads," the princess said coolly. "The more cooperative you are, the better it will be for you."

Rinnosuke sighed and donned his glasses again, absently running a hand through his unruly silver hair. "I'm always eager to help the police, of course. What can I do for you?"

Kotohime let her gaze drift over the cramped aisles and shelves lining the store's walls, all covered with… well, detritus was a good word for it. Kourindou didn't stock a normal inventory, after all. Here on the fringes of Gensokyo, items from the outside world occasionally materialized, waiting for an enterprising half-youkai to collect them, tidy them up, and put them up for resale. Sort of like fencing, though pseudonatural forces were at work rather than outright theft, and Rinnosuke was usually more interested in holding onto his finds than selling them. Probably legal, then, if in a bit of a grey area when it came to tax codes.

The princess stalked over to Rinnosuke's counter and leaned against it, looking the halfblood right at his golden eyes from uncomfortably close range. "Make any sales lately?"

"Mmm." Rinnosuke scratched his clean-shaven jaw as he thought, trying and failing to disguise how he was subtly scooting his chair back. "There was a coloring book in some language I don't know, Miss Kamishirasawa picked that up a few days ago. Cracked crystal ball, Miss Izayoi from the Mansion bought that, she didn't say why. A pair of strange trousers – you wouldn't believe how wide the legs were! A shiny silvery color, and I never figured out what they were made from, either-"

"And you have records of all these transactions?"

Rinnosuke nodded smartly, quickly retrieving a battered little book from the satchel he habitually wore with his blue-and-black outfit. "Of course. Though I guess if I needed an alibi, I could always fake them, right?" he joked, laughing lightly. It faded when he saw the cold stare Kotohime was giving him.

"Put some thought into this?" she accused.

He held up his hands in a placating gesture. "No, just-"

"Do you stock any weapons?" Kotohime interrupted.

"-trying to, what? Oh, uh, not really. Just a few curios. I keep them off the general shelves," Rinnosuke explained, tapping the glass countertop. Kotohime glanced down and finally inspected the case she'd been leaning against. There was a weird knife or two, something that looked like it might unfold into a knife, and the type of spike-studded heavy club an oni might use if she didn't want to get her hands dirty.

"Not a bad start for an arsenal," Kotohime commented. "Branching out into arms trading?"

The half-youkai bristled, his glasses flashing. "Certainly not!"

"No assault rifles?" the princess pressed.

"No!"

"No bolt-actions?"

"None whatsoever!"

"Shotguns?"

"You're just going to keep on going, aren't you?" sighed the shopkeeper.

"Flintlocks?"

Rinnosuke pointed over his shoulder at a handsome wooden case on a high shelf. "One, actually. It's an antique dating back to the Dutch-"

"Phased plasma rifles in the 40-watt range?"

"This is taking up my lunch break, so I hope you're getting to a point," said Rinnosuke sourly.

"Oh quit complaining, all I had for lunch was a chunk of Minoriko Aki," Kotohime griped.

The half-youkai stared blankly, his mouth half-open and his eyebrows cocked.

"Someone supplied the Aki sisters with heavy weaponry," the princess continued, folding her arms and leaning against the short stretch of wall between the counter and the building's entrance. "Shooty guns from the outside world. Real shooty. I'm trying to figure out who did it, how, and why. Sounds like you aren't involved, but I'm still not any closer to finding who is."

Rinnosuke stared at her for a moment. "Someone's been smuggling lethal items through the Border?" he repeated slowly.

"Yeppers. And obviously they've managed to elude the two females most concerned with keeping the Border secure." She sighed theatrically and stretched her arms over her head. "Well, I was just checking to see if you had any ideas. I hope I can get this sorted, but me and the girls are overworked just dealing with the usual stuff. It's a shame there's no one else who could look into this, like some heroic beefcake vigilante with an interest in things getting through the Boundary."

"Yes, that would be fortunate," said Rinnosuke, poker-faced. "I'm sorry I can't be of more help, princess, but I've told you all I know."

"Yeah. Guess I'll run along then," Kotohime said, tossing her ponytail back over her shoulder as she made for the door.

"That would be best. I think I'll close early today," said the shopkeeper. He leaned his head forward slightly so his face was cast in shadow, but his glasses flashed dangerously. "If I learn anything that could help, I'll be sure to let you know, princess."

Kotohime slipped out with another ding-dong!, walked unconcernedly until she reached the treeline, then ducked out of sight, peering back between the bushes. She saw the lit windows of Kourindou wink out, and could just see Rinnosuke moving about behind the doors. He disappeared, there was a moment of stillness and quiet… and then a blur streaked out from behind the building into the shadowy forest around it.

The police chief broke into a wide smile and jumped into the sky with a light heart. She hadn't gained any vital new information, but at least she'd gotten one of her assets into play. An asset with a particularly fine asset of his own, she thought as her smile turned salacious.

-x-


-7-

Gensokyo Police Department Headquarters
14:06

"Something wrong?" asked Mystia.

Kotohime pounded her sternum with her knuckles and belched, making a sour face. "I think Minoriko's repeating on me. Please continue."

"Uh, right." The night sparrow adjusted her glasses and shuffled the papers she was holding. "There are no reports of any injuries from the Akis' rampage, just claims of property damage. Minor interior damage to the food bank, a shot-up wagon or two, and so forth."

"Sucks to be them," the princess shrugged. "Probably nothing in their insurance plans about harvest goddesses going bonkers with automatic weapons."

"Yeah, probably not." Mystia cleared her throat… melodically, Kotohime noted. The girl probably sneezed song lyrics. "Cirno and Kaguya got the guns down to the lab for… testing?"

"I expect they'll science the hell out of them before the day's over," Kotohime agreed. "Check for fingerprints, measure ballistics, that sort of thing. Forensical stuff."

"I guess," the bird youkai said uncertainly. In the pause that followed, the faint clatter of semiautomatic weaponry and an excited whooping could be heard echoing up from the basements. "And that's about all that's happened since you ran off."

Kotohime grunted noncommittally and looked around, hoping she'd had the foresight to stock some snacks within reach of her desk, but there weren't any dumplings hidden under the heap of paperwork. Sighing, she held up a hand to settle for an appetizer. "In mani ylem," she intoned.

There was a moment of silence, as Mystia stared at her in blank bewilderment. "Pardon?"

"Nothing," said Kotohime quietly, staring at her empty palm.

"So, uh, anyway…" Mystia's wings twitched nervously. "Did you learn anything new while you were away doing whatever it was you were doing?"

"My informant didn't have any leads to offer," explained Kotohime, shifting in her seat and trying to refocus on the case, "but the lack of information is in itself telling." The police chief hunched over her desk, resting her elbows on the table and entwining her fingers to hide the lower half of her face. "The weapons obviously came from outside the Boundary, but the odds that they would spontaneously appear to be used like this are simply staggering."

Mystia stood patiently at attention for a long moment, awaiting further clarification that never came. "So, uh, how did they get in then?"

"The better question is who let them in," Kotohime corrected ominously. "There are two people in Gensokyo able to mess around with the Boundary, and neither of them have complained about arms smuggling. Which means…"

"They might be involved," Mystia finished, paling.

"Precisely. So." Kotohime smirked behind her interlaced fingers. "Hakurei or Yakumo, pick your poison."

The night sparrow gulped. "Oh boy… uh, Reimu, I guess."

"Can't blame you," the princess said wryly. "You might want to take some backup along when you hit the shrine. Ask questions, but more importantly keep your eyes and ears open. See if anything looks suspicious or out of place. And," Kotohime went on, jabbing Mystia's stomach, "listen to your policewoman's instincts. If anything feels iffy, pay attention to it. You hear me?"

"Y-yes, chief," Mystia nodded. She looked scared, but determined. It was a good look on her, Kotohime noted.

"Dismissed."

The night sparrow saluted smartly and strode out of Kotohime's office, yelling for Rumia as she went. Gensokyo's police chief smiled to herself.

She'd hoped that Lorelei would choose to go after Reimu. This left Kotohime with the odious task of seeking out Yukari Yakumo, who, as a youkai of boundaries, could be pretty much wherever she wanted to be more or less instantaneously. She had a house somewhere, but no outsider had ever found it – or at least found it and returned to tell the tale.

So since Yukari could be anywhere, you could be said to be looking for her anywhere as well. Like, just to choose a place at random, in a bar serving greasy fried food and on-tap booze.

The morning's death and destruction notwithstanding, the afternoon was looking up.

-x-


-8-

The Princess' Crown
14:35

The beautifully-crafted sign swaying in the breeze over the tavern's entrance proudly announced to the world that this was The Princess' Crown, the favored dining establishment of Gensokyo's head of state. Kotohime considered it more valuable than any conventional royal headgear, though of course the metaphor fell apart if you tried to picture her wearing the place.

Whatever, the food was good and the beer was cheap. She slipped through the front door into the warm and smoky interior, earning a chorus of delighted shouts and cheers as everyone in the bar raised a mug to toast her entrance.

"Princess, always a pleasure!" gushed the bartender, his cheeks flushed with merriment and his kindly eyes twinkling.

"The pleasure's mine, Mr. Mizushima," Kotohime replied with a wide grin. One of Kotohime's oldest allies and dearest friends, Mizushima always had time to pour a glass for Gensokyo's princess and share any relevant rumors with Gensokyo's chief of police. Everyone in town knew and liked him, including the police force, making Kotohime wonder where he'd picked up that unfortunate nickname of his. His close-cropped hair and neat little mustache gave the impression of an uptight businessman, but he had the outgoing personality to become Gensokyo's most popular distributor of hangovers. He was already grabbing a bottle of Kotohime's favorite brew before she had even taken her place on a barstool.

The sweating glass slid smoothly down the lacquered wooden bartop into the princess's waiting hand, so skillfully sent that it didn't spill a single drop. She took a quick pull and let the liquor sit in her mouth for a moment to soak in the flavor before swallowing. "As always, good stuff."

"Only the best for you, your highness," the man said with a blush. Then he heaved a great sigh. "I'll miss this," he admitted. "The people, the work."

A memory kicked the inside of Kotohime's skull. "Oh, that's right," she said, smiling thinly while glancing up at the coils of tobacco smoke gathering near the ceiling. "You're retiring?"

Mizushima nodded. "Three days from now. Moving out of the city, buying a farm, finally settling down with someone. Not sure how I'll adjust, but," he blushed and looked down bashfully, "you know how it is."

"Well, not me personally, but I've read a thing or two about matrimony." Kotohime took a quick gulp of her beer. "Have you picked a date for the wedding?"

"Depends on how soon we can get the farm tidied up," the barkeep said. "But it won't be long. You're invited, of course," he added quickly.

"And how's the future Mrs. Mizushima?" Kotohime asked.

"Yumi's, well, looking forward to it." The man tugged nervously at the sleeves of his red tunic. "I just hope we get it done before the baby comes."

"Anybody giving you any trouble for that?"

"Oh, no!" the man said, shaking his head vehemently. "Our families are very modern. Besides, you gave that last guy a pretty savage beating, remember?"

"I give out lots of beatings, so don't think you're getting preferential treatment," Kotohime warned him with a sternly wagging finger. She took the edge off the gesture with a crooked grin. "Sounds like you've got a great life to look forward to, man."

Mizushima looked down again. "I guess," he said modestly. "Oh, finally got a tengu to take some pictures for the invitations," he remembered, reaching into a pocket to withdraw a glossy colored photograph to hand to his best customer.

Kotohime whistled approvingly. "Nice. Her name's Yumi, but it should be Yummy, am I right fellas?" she asked the other patrons around her, to a chorus of cheers and catcalls that made Mizushima turn beet-red. "Can't blame you for not waiting until-"

Someone tapped on her shoulder.

Kotohime casually turned to look, but froze when all she found was a disembodied, gloved hand hovering in the air behind her. The background conversations in the tavern continued, the bartender happily exchanging banter with a man two stools down from the princess, as though nobody had noticed a stray arm hovering in the air.

"Do you have a minute?" a woman's voice whispered in her ear from no obvious source.

"Sure," Kotohime said tersely, her face an emotionless mask. The floating forearm beckoned towards an empty two-person booth along one of the walls. Without looking back at Mizushima, the princess wordlessly abandoned both her seat and beverage to slip into the indicated booth.

The arm disappeared, immediately replaced by a shifting in the texture of the air, as the world seemed to come apart at a seam hovering over the opposite side of the table. For a moment Kotohime saw nothing but a window into a dimension of purplish haze, studded with vague impressions of otherworldly eyeballs staring unblinkingly at her, but then a woman slipped out, swiveling to take a sidesaddle seat on the rift in space-time.

She looked… well, in-between. Her features were mostly Japanese, but with a hint of the exotic to them, emphasized by her golden hair, worn today in an elaborately-braided bun. She seemed ready for a royal reception, clad in an elegant dark gown that glittered like a midnight sky and long white gloves that sparkled like diamonds. Without her usual mob cap and with her hair styled the way it was, she almost looked like a different person, but there was something unmistakable about Yukari Yakumo's smile and the way it was reflected in her amber eyes – quietly beautiful yet disarmingly otherworldly, calmly confident but also flighty, friendly yet aloof, mysterious but playful.

Kotohime's eyes narrowed at the sight of the intruder, but she rose briefly and offered a polite bow. "Lady Yakumo. How convenient. I was hoping to ask you some questions."

Yukari blinked in surprise. "Were you now? Well, that is convenient," she said with a smile, her voice calm and agreeable. "I intended to provide you with some answers."

"How convenient and wonderful and pleasant," Kotohime said flatly. She reached down a sleeve to withdraw a slender notebook and snapped it open. "Where were you this morning around ten o'clock?"

"That largely depends on where the clock is, whether the viewer has read it correctly, and what you think happens when you dream," the Youkai of Boundaries said placidly. She saw Kotohime's expression and gave the other woman a little grin. "I promised some answers, not straight answers, or even necessarily the truth."

The policewoman stared at her visitor for a moment, wrote a choice expletive in her notebook, and moved on. "Are you aware of any unauthorized weapon trafficking across the Hakurei Boundary?" she asked.

Yukari sighed. "No, I am unaware of any unauthorized weapon trafficking across the Boundary." She gave Kotohime a vaguely disappointed look.

"Are you authorizing any weapons traf-"

"Much better," Yukari said. "But no, I'm not causing any trouble. Well," she reconsidered, looking speculatively up at the ceiling, "not for you, anyway."

Kotohime made a note of it, mentally congratulating herself for her insight and patience. Something about Yukari just made her want to start hitting things, probably the aura of "I know something you don't"-ness that the woman radiated like a small, reality-warping sun.

Yukari shifted in her mid-air perch, turning away from Kotohime before leaning back until she was looking at the princess while upside-down, gloved hands folded neatly over her belly. The position did interesting things to her bosom, Kotohime couldn't help but notice. "Has the conversation proved enlightening so far?" the youkai woman asked.

"More than I expected," Kotohime admitted.

"It is just," the gap youkai continued, "that I fear you are not asking the right questions. I don't think you understand the current situation."

The police chief scowled. "I have everything under control," she insisted. "I know what's at stake, and I am confident that I shall soon apprehend the culprit."

"Are you now?" asked Yukari, a faint smile tugging at her still-inverted lips. "Putting the clues together? Piecing together the puzzle?"

"I've got the corners and edges done. The rest should be cake."

"Mmm-hmm," murmured Yukari noncommittally. She sat up and turned to give Kotohime a sidelong look over her shoulder. "I could just give you all the answers now. But-"

"-what would be the fun in that?" Kotohime finished with a grim little smile. She gave the Youkai of Boundaries a curt nod. "I appreciate your concern, but I'm no rookie when it comes to this sort of thing."

Yukari studied her for a moment before dipping her head slightly in acknowledgment. "Very well, I shan't trouble you any more." She pushed herself away until only her head was poking out of the gap in reality. "I've got places to be, and I should get going before I'm noticed, anyway," she added, glancing skyward. "Good luck with your, ahem, 'investigation.'" Then Yukari ducked down to disappear entirely, as the gap all but silently sealed itself behind her.

Kotohime merely grunted in response, scowling at her notepad. Dismissive attitude and vague answers notwithstanding, Yukari had at least confirmed Kotohime's suspicions… unless the whole interview had been part of the dastardly scheme, but she doubted that. No need to make things too complicated with plots within plots. She sighed and pushed herself to her feet, stowing her notepad and heading back to the bar. "Hey Mizushima, got another beer?" she called.

The cheerful barkeep opened his mouth to respond-

And with a sudden roar of collapsing wood and snapping timber, the roof caved in on him.

Kotohime's superhuman reflexes had sent her diving to cover almost before her ears had picked up the descending wail of a falling object, and she quickly darted out from under the table that had shielded her from the hail of splinters and debris. Furiously blinking from the dust cloud now filling the tavern, she stepped forward into the unnatural stillness following the disaster, an eerie silence broken only by low groaning as the restaurant's other patrons dazedly staggered to their feet.

Her foot brushed something fleshy, and she looked down. An arm protruded from under a dislodged rafter, an arm that had served her a drink mere moments ago. Kotohime knelt next to the limp limb and felt for a pulse, shifted the rubble aside enough to confirm her diagnosis, and then slowly rose to her feet, her face stony. She reached down a sleeve and withdrew two coins to drop into Mizushima's open palm.

"Smooth voyage," she murmured. Then she turned to take in the disaster's epicenter.

A rough pile of shattered ceiling lay where the bar used to be, covered by a lingering dust cloud turned to a luminescent fog by the sunbeams coming in from the hole above. There was a shape in the vague brightness, a shadowy figure standing on a stage of broken dreams.

Then with a snap-hiss a blade of blazing scarlet flared into existence, pointed at the floor as the figure held it in a loose grip. The bloody highlights revealed a deep blue dress, a pinkish shirt, hair the color of a spring sky, and a face twisted in cruel amusement under a black hat.

"Did you like my entrance?" the girl asked brightly. With her free hand she reached up and plucked a succulent-looking peach from the band of her bonnet, then bit into it with insouciant relish.

Kotohime levelly met her gaze. "Tenshi Hinanawi, heaven's resident hellraiser." She took a slow breath, tasting the mixture of wood dust and spilled beer and blood in the air. "Manslaughter. Destruction of property. Reckless endangerment. Breaking and entering." A still-smiling Tenshi tossed away her peach pit. "Littering."

The rogue Celestial laughed. "My goodness, and I only just arrived! I take it you're going to try and arrest me?" she asked, wiping fruit juice off her lips with the back of her free hand.

"It'd be best if you come along quietly."

Tenshi's smile grew wider. "But what if I feel like resisting arrest? Will you resort to force?" She shivered, her cheeks flushed. "Oh, will we see some police brutality?" she went on eagerly. "I'd quite like that."

Kotohime, her face a placid mask, simply extended a hand. Her jitte jumped off her belt and into her waiting palm, then ignited with a blaze of purple energy. She shifted into a fighting stance and brought her humming truncheon into a proper guard, both her hands wrapped around its grip and the tip pointed up and away from her body. She could hear the bar's other patrons scampering out the door, but kept her gaze locked on her opponent.

Tenshi giggled and hopped off the pile of rubble, her sword of cherry-red flame blurring as she pointed it at Kotohime. "Now, I've come a long way for some entertainment" she said, her eyes almost glowing with anticipation. "So don't disappoint me!"

And with that she leapt to the attack, a reckless lunge that brought her blade through a wide overhead chop at the policewoman, gouging a line in the ceiling above her.

Kotohime didn't bother parrying, but spun to the side, her sandals scattering glass shards and splinters. The Celestial recovered with surprising quickness and attempted a backhand chop that would have bisected the princess at the waist, but Kotohime retreated again, the flame-tongued sword just missing her.

It wasn't that Tenshi was a particularly dangerous duelist, Kotohime reflected in the adrenaline-lengthened moments between blows. She had no combat style, no real training. But what the troublesome Celestial did have was a beamsword that could crack the Earth's surface. Finesse took a backseat when you had that much power in your hands.

Tenshi laughed as she swung her searing blade in an almost lazy horizontal chop that tore through a line of booths and tables like they were tissue paper, forcing Kotohime to duck and roll.

"What's the matter, officer?" the Celestial giggled. "Scared, or just holding back?" Her mocking smile faded. "What, you don't take me seriously? Think I'm just playing with you?"

Kotohime came out of her roll and warily stayed out of reach, lit by the embers of the ruined and smoldering furniture, her face still clear of emotion as she regarded her foe. "If you want to be taken seriously, maybe you shouldn't wear fruit on your hat," she suggested.

Tenshi growled and angrily chopped down at the ground. The tip of her sword cut cleanly through the floorboards, but the entire building shook and rattled from a sudden minor earthquake. "Fight me, you coward!" she bellowed over the crash of debris falling through the hole in the ceiling. "Hit me! Punish me!"

She flung herself at the policewoman, swinging her flaming sword like a club, a hoarse yell of frustration on her lips. Kotohime snapped her humming jitte up to block the attack, hoping to use its tine to disarm her foe-

There was a tremendous crash and a burst of sparks as the sword of flame impacted on Kotohime's glowing truncheon, then the princess was hurled away, stumbling badly after clipping a barstool, only barely keeping a hold of her weapon. She glanced down and saw that the purple glow around her jitte had vanished, then had to desperately hurl herself out of the way of another wild swing from Tenshi that vaporized a booth seat. Before her opponent could follow up with another attack, Kotohime did a neat backflip over the low wall setting the bar area off from the rest of the diner.

The Celestial growled in frustration, the sound rising to a ragged shout as she stamped her foot with a tremor that sent crockery in the kitchen shattering on the floor. "You're doing this WRONG! Who do I have to kill to get you to-"

Kotohime's jitte leapt from the floor to be caught in midair as the policewoman hurled herself at her foe, the weapon again trailing purple flames to match Kotohime's blazing eyes. The flat-footed Celestial brought her burning brand up in a hasty guard, but Kotohime's two-handed swing burst upon Tenshi's blade in a flash of light.

Staggered from the collision, Tenshi bounced off the edge of a table, her arms splayed wide as she tried to catch her balance, but Kotohime was upon her, pounding the Celestial in the gut with the grip of her jitte, then snapping an elbow up to catch Tenshi on the jaw.

Kotohime nimbly hopped back as Tenshi clumsily tried to retaliate with a weak reverse chop before falling to one knee, the Celestial's flaming sword biting through a floorboard. Panting, Tenshi slowly pushed herself upright. She spat red, dabbed at her mouth, studied her fingertip… and regarded Kotohime with a bloody smile. "Finally," she hissed, her breathing speeding up.

Kotohime mentally lambasted herself for losing her cool. "You're outmatched," she informed her enemy. "I've studied under Master Konpaku himself, you're not winning this. Surrender, now."

"I wonder what you'll do to me if I kill one of your officers?" mused Tenshi with a feverish gleam in her eyes, as she traced a fingertip along her busted lower lip. "That ice fairy's your favorite, isn't she? Or what about the bird?"

Kotohime brought her jitte up in a guard and slowly began circling to put herself between Tenshi and the door. The Celestial ceased her threats and readied her own weapon… but was deliberately keeping her stance loose and vulnerable, the princess realized. She wanted to get hit, it would seem.

Well. Kotohime could arrange that.

The policewoman stopped, staring, taking in the scene, letting a freeze-frame image of the smoldering ruins of the tavern fix itself in her mind.

Tenshi scowled impatiently and opened her mouth to whine-

And Kotohime deftly reached up her sleeve and flung a small paper packet at the Celestial's head, immediately closing her eyes-

Even so, she could see the brilliant burst of light from her homemade flash-powder. Tenshi bellowed-

Kotohime was already flying forward before her eyes had opened, closing the distance and snaking around behind her staggered, blinded opponent. She only had this one chance. Her hand clamped down hard on the flesh between Tenshi's neck and shoulder, fingers squeezing with expert precision-

She tried to dodge Tenshi's backhand but only partially succeeded. The Celestial's fingernails raked across Kotohime's scalp, burning like fire but doing little damage. The policewoman quickly retreated before Tenshi could follow up on it, making sure her jitte was up in a guard while she waited.

Tenshi shook her head furiously, leaving her hat at an awkward angle while her free hand rubbed at her eyes. She glared at Kotohime once she could see again. "Cheap trick," she growled. "But about as effective as whatever the hell you just did to my shoulder."

Kotohime's breath caught as Tenshi took a step forward. If this didn't work-

But when Tenshi's foot landed and skidded slightly, and the Celestial's eyes widened in surprise, Kotohime knew she had won.

"Got'cher nerves," the princess explained, smiling grimly. "The right pressure at the right points – well, you probably know about acupuncture. I just did a little something to shut down part of your nervous system. You can still move and breathe, but you're going to be numb as a narwhal on Novocain for the next hour or so," she concluded.

Tenshi's eyes bulged. She stared down as she brought her flaming brand up, then moved her free hand close enough for the skin to turn pink and blister, but her eyes didn't so much as twitch from the sensation. "You bitch," she spat.

"Foul language directed at officers of the law," Kotohime replied.

"This isn't over," vowed Tenshi as she moved to attack, but her movements were awkward, each step clumsy and jolting, as though she kept hitting the floor unexpectedly. The Celestial howled as she swung her weapon, but Kotohime intercepted her attacker's arm with her jitte, stopping it mid-attack and sending the crackling blade of fire tumbling through the air to rest against a wall, where it quietly went to work charring the wood.

But even before the sword had hit the ground, Kotohime followed up on her maneuver, ducking under Tenshi's now empty hand to come up behind her foe. She shoved Tenshi forward onto her knees and quickly grabbed her wrists, jamming her jitte into her sash so she could whip out her handcuffs.

Tenshi surged forward but tripped, falling sideways to land unceremoniously on her back, her peach-bearing hat flopping onto the floor next to her. She tried to rise but suddenly realized her hands were bound, and in her insensate state she couldn't get her feet under her properly.

Kotohime cocked her head as she stared down at the Celestial. "Flat on your back in a bar, kicking your heels, and it's not even dinnertime yet," she clucked disapprovingly. "I'm pretty sure they boot you out of Heaven for that kind of behavior."

Tenshi glared at the police chief, face twisted with impotent rage. "Why you… I'll-"

"Come quietly and answer some questions," Kotohime interrupted in a low, dangerous voice, crouching close to give Tenshi the full effect of her baleful glare. "You trashed my drinking hole, killed my bartender, and are distracting me from a very important case. So you'd better be involved somehow, and you'd better have a lot of helpful information you're going to share to make all this worthwhile. Or mark my words, I'll find a way to burn this sudden masochistic streak right out of you and teach you to fear pain again. Understand?" she growled.

Tenshi's face had gone white, and she looked about wildly in search of rescue before nervously licking her lips.

"I-"

And then with a blinding flash and a crack of thunder, a lightning bolt hit the middle of the abused tavern.

"Ah, it looks like I got here just in time!"

Kotohime blinked away the stinging afterimages, struggling to her feet even as she heard confident footfalls on the ruined tavern's floor.

"Really, Eldest Daughter, the trouble you get into when I'm away…" the newcomer continued.

The princess' vision cleared, revealing, in the center of the billowing coils of a pink and red shawl, a smiling woman in a black and pink dress, wearing a black hat with two long red ribbons extending up and back from the headgear like antennae.

"What do you want?" Kotohime growled.

Iku Nagae blinked in surprise. "Why, I'm here for Miss Hinanawi, of course." Her red eyes roamed over her wrecked and ember-lit surroundings as realization slowly dawned. "Oh… is this a bad time?"

"Is it a bad time for you to try and steal my perp from me?" repeated the police chief, fighting to keep her temper. "Yes. Yes, it is."

"I see…" the oarfish youkai looked generally regretful. "I'm sorry to inconvenience you like this-"

"I'm not!" a cheerful Tenshi interrupted from the floor.

Without looking, Kotohime lashed out with a foot. Tenshi wouldn't feel it, but it sure made the princess feel better.

Iku just clucked with disapproval, the air tingling with static as she slowly shook her head, her blue-violet hair crackling slightly as it swayed. "See, that sort of thing is why I came. Tenshi is a Celestial, and as such needs to face heavenly justice."

"What Peachy needs is psychological therapy followed by a savage beating," countered Kotohime. "But first she needs to come with me and answer a few questions. You can have her once I'm done with her."

The divine messenger's expression hardened slightly. "I'm afraid I wasn't making a request."

Kotohime stared for a long moment, and when that wasn't enough slowly drew her jitte. "I know Heaven may be above Gensokyo in a spatial and metaphysical sense," she said quietly, dangerously, "but I am this land's princess and police chief, and I will not have my sovereign jurisdiction challenged by a bunch of harp-strumming, haloed layabouts."

"It's really no challenge of all," declared a smiling Iku, before quickly reaching out to grab Tenshi's shoulder.

Kotohime let out a hoarse yell and swung her truncheon, but only hit the burst of photons as the Celestial and her handler both vanished in a flash of light, the thunderclap and stench of ozone following a split-second later.

The police chief stared up through the jagged hole in the roof, resisting the urge to start blasting away at the clouds above. Instead she scowled down at the body of the tavern's owner for a few moments, before turning towards the exit-

She whirled around as the crime scene with struck by another lightning bolt.

"Forgot the sword," explained a sheepish Iku.

Kotohime only stared in sullen silence as the glorified flying eel bustled over to scoop up the burning brand, before disappearing in another flash and thunderclap without further word.

The princess stomped out the door, grumbling like a stopped-up garbage disposal. Her favorite bar wrecked, another crime to puzzle out, and she still hadn't gotten lunch.

-x-


-9-

Gensokyo Police Department
17:39

Kotohime rubbed her eyes wearily before taking a long pull from her cup of coffee. She was hoping the caffeine boost would compel her brain cells to perform, but no such luck. She grouchily tapped her pencil against her desk, staring at the blank sheet of paper as if it was its fault that she was stuck.

Growling, she started writing. Incident at- she crossed it out quickly. Commotion at Kirisame Residence, she wrote instead. Marisa, Alice missing. Hanged doll, fruitstain, vague note.

She flipped through her notepad until she found and reread the mysterious letter left at the maybe-a-crime-scene. Together for the end, huh?

Nitoribot destroyed, Kotohime jotted down next. She wondered if it had happened simultaneously as the Kirisame Residence fracas, or after. It'd be nice to know if there were two baddies running around or not.

Next to that, the policewoman scribbled Aki food bank shootout. She stared at the words in case anything about them started to make sense, but moved on to Tenshi crashes my watering hole. It was quite hard not to view that altercation as anything but a personal attack. She was forced to admit that she'd handled it less than professionally, which had almost certainly been her foe's intent.

So. Four destructive events over the course of one day. It was certainly possible for the wild world of Gensokyo to provide such entertainment naturally, but… Kotohime chewed on her lip. This obviously wasn't natural, was it? So where were the connections?

She drummed on her desk with her pencil, thinking for a minute or two, then drew a line between the Kirisame Residence and Nitoribot. Both Alice and the kappa were Marisa's friends, right? Mystia had jabbered about some sort of romantic undertones, and though Kotohime found that frankly hard to believe, maybe the sparrow was on to something. If, say, Alice, were feeling murderously possessive towards Marisa, she could have attacked Nitori to finish off a rival, then… trashed Marisa's house, abducted the witch and left behind an effigy of herself hanging from the ceiling?

Tap tap tap went the pencil.

So what about the other hootenannies? A food bank gets shot up by some bonkers autumn deities, and a Celestial smashes a tavern for giggles. Two random, independent plots that just so happened to occur on the same day.

On the other hand, maybe they weren't, so Kotohime drew a line linking the two.

Some sort of unholy heavenly alliance, perhaps? Did the Akis know any Celestials? Or were those snooty jerks in heaven able to use minor goddesses as hired muscle? …Hired muscle to trash a food bank? How did that benefit Celestials?

Kotohime groaned and rested her head against her desk. Detectiving was hard. If only she had Reimu's intuition. Her methodology of randomly flying about while attacking suspicious-looking characters probably wouldn't change much, Kotohime admitted, but it'd be nice to know she was making progress.

Well… the princess straightened up, eyes half-closed as the ideas started flowing. The Celestials didn't get any benefit from the Akis' rampage, but the whole hostage situation had tied up Kotohime for a good hour. An hour Tenshi's ilk could have been doing who-knew-what elsewhere. The Akis going bonkers might have been nothing but a distraction.

And if that were the case… what if Tenshi had been a distraction too?

Kotohime solemnly drew lines linking the food bank and bar incidents with the other two. So. Somebody hits Marisa's place and Nitori, while others distract the police with unrelated attacks. Kotohime's weary face broke into a wide and sunny smile. Knowing that she was competing against a malign mastermind was certainly more interesting than a bunch of unrelated altercations.

She leaned back in her chair, propping her feet up on her desk as she stared up at her office ceiling, deep in thought. A smokescreen, of course. Should she take the plunge and try to discern what lay behind it, or continue to flap her arms until the fog dispersed? Did she have the time? The note said something about the end of the world, but Gensokyo saw one to three near-Armageddons a year.

So far the two somewhat-related events had involved Marisa, Alice and Nitori, and a note about jealousy. Alice and Nitori didn't have much to do with each other, so Marisa seemed to be the linking element. So who else did Marisa know that might get involved in this mystery?

The door to Kotohime's office slammed open as someone rushed inside. "Chief!" gasped Mystia. "We've got a problem! There's an ongoing attack at-"

"The Scarlet Devil Mansion," Kotohime finished calmly. She swiveled in her chair and got up, smiling at the look of shock on the night sparrow's face. "Let's see if we can't save Miss Knowledge before anything nasty happens to her."

Mystia blinked, still bewildered. "But how did-"

"No time for talk, to the garage!" Kotohime ordered, already hustling out of her office.

"The what?" Mystia stumbled as she tried to follow, as though keeping track of Kotohime's thought process was too difficult to do while walking.

"We are a police department. Policewomen have police cars. Police cars have to be kept in a garage. Ipso facto," the police chief lectured.

"But we can fly!" the sparrow all but shouted.

Kotohime ignored her, slapping her badge as she took the steps three at a time. "Cirno, Rumia, we're heading out. Get Team Nemesis and meet us at the garage." She didn't wait for a reply, instead sprinting down a hall and kicking open a set of double doors-

That led into a large chamber containing a pair of police cruisers.

"The garage," the princess said as Mystia skidded to a stop behind her.

"I wasn't arguing," the bird youkai mumbled. "Just don't see the point…"

"Of course you don't," Kotohime said breezily, immensely cheered by the sight of the vehicles before her. They were overbuilt brutes of automobiles, probably American imports if Kotohime was any judge, if not oni-made. Their bodies were solid and blocky, their chrome detailing gleamed even in the subdued lighting of the garage, and best of all their purple stripes matched Kotohime's robes perfectly.

The police chief was still grinning like it was her birthday as she popped open one car's door and slid into the driver's seat. She let her fingertips trace reverently over the steering wheel and gear shift, then realized she was still the only one in the vehicle. "Stop gawping and hop in, we've got an emergency to deal with!" she barked at Mystia, finally shaking her fellow officer out of her daze.

The night sparrow reluctantly sat down in the passenger seat, her long nails scraping over the buckle as she engaged her seat belt.

"Don't know why you're bothering, these things are built like tanks," Kotohime commented. She swiveled in her seat, checking the garage entrance. "Where's Cirno and Rumia?"

"Here!" came an enthusiastic yell. The two not-quite-children scrambled through the doors, stopped in their tracks at the sight of the cars, then dove towards the unoccupied one with squeals of excitement.

"Hold up!" Kotohime barked, opening the door enough to stick her head out. "Where's the immortals?"

Rumia darkened slightly in her unique version of a blush. "I tried to get them to come, but Kaguya said she had almost figured out-"

Insolent moon princess! Kotohime grit her teeth and jabbed a finger towards the rest of the building. "Rumia, drag them out of their office and meet us at the Scarlet Devil Mansion. Cirno, hop in the back."

There was a duet of disappointed groans, then Rumia halfheartedly skipped out, while Cirno struggled to open the back door of Kotohime's cruiser and took her seat behind the wire mesh barrier that kept perps from strangling the driver. Once the fairy slammed her door shut, Kotohime eagerly twisted the ignition, growling along with the motor.

"Delicious. You can just taste the internal combustion."

"You sure can," Mystia agreed, trying not to cough. "I hope this room is well-ventilated."

"It will be in a minute," the car's driver said cheerily.

"Pardon?"

"For every meaningful disturbance that's happened today, there has been an equally deadly distraction," Kotohime lectured. "But, for this attack on the Scarlet Devil Mansion-"

"What makes you think they're connected?" protested Mystia.

"-we haven't gotten our distraction yet," Kotohime went on. "Which means our next opponent is waiting for us to make our move, and will try to slow us down as we respond to the real problem. So." She tightened her grip on the steering wheel, baring her teeth. "There's an alley to the right of the headquarters, yeah?"

"Uh-huh," nodded Cirno. "Wait, which one's right ag-"

"Perfect." Kotohime slammed the stick forward a notch and gunned the gas, sending the cruiser swerving backwards in a ninety-degree turn and nearly hitting a shelf holding spare parts, but leaving the car facing a brick wall instead of the metal garage doors. She rolled down the window and leaned out, fetching an explosive from one of her sleeves. "Fire in the hole," she warned as she lobbed the grenade to roll to a halt against the wall.

Cirno frowned in confusion. "What hole?"

And then there was a deafening blast that sent bricks flying and kicked up a cloud of dust, which was immediately shredded by a police car filled with screaming women hurtling forward at ludicrous speed.

Kotohime kept a death grip on the steering wheel and flexed her knees as the car bounded over the pile of debris and the lip of the hole, immediately making a hard left to avoid hitting the building next to the police headquarters. One loitering fairy was fast enough to dodge out of the way, but Kotohime got a brief glimpse of another's gobsmacked expression before it exploded into a cloud of glitter under her front tire. She gunned the engine as soon as she was lined up with the alley exit and burst onto the streets proper, slewing around to start her race across town.

"Alright, what've we got?" the princess murmured to herself, fiddling with the rear view mirror as she tried to get a look at what they were leaving behind.

"Car!" screeched Mystia.

"No, looks like motorcycles," Kotohime corrected while swerving to avoid an oncoming vehicle. She tried to remember what side of the road she ought to be driving on even as she took a closer look at who had been waiting in front of the police station. A dozen or so riders were hastily reforming from ambush positions to pursue Kotohime's cruiser. The streetlights glinted off shiny black jumpsuits, and while Kotohime didn't recognize the make of the motorcycles, they were obviously sleek and sporty machines built for speed and performance. "A biker gang?" she wondered out loud. "That doesn't really fit with the day's theme. I was expecting maybe-"

"Half-car," Cirno said, pointing a finger through the mesh barrier.

The police chief hauled on the wheel and swung around the other motorist with a squeal of tires. "They're called 'trucks,' goodness knows why," she informed her lieutenant. She checked the rear view mirror again to see their pursuers falling into formation, one large mass taking up the middle of the road, while two smaller groups pulled ahead to try and surround the police cruiser. "Emphasis on try," Kotohime chortled as she stamped down on the gas pedal.

This really was just what she needed after the fiasco at the bar: a good old-fashioned vehicular chase with motorcycle stunts and squealing tires and exploding fruit stands and everything.

"Can we turn on the siren?" asked the ice fairy eagerly.

"An excellent idea," Kotohime agreed. She leaned forward to peer at the dashboard, and all the strange dials and buttons and switches and-

"TURN!" shrieked Mystia.

Kotohime glanced up in time to see a rapidly-approaching tea house and wrenched the wheel to the right, bouncing off the driver-side car door and making Cirno tumble all over the back seat.

"JUST FOCUS ON DRIVING!" the night sparrow bellowed, her normally pleasant voice hoarse with terror.

Kotohime shot Mystia a look that even Cirno would have called frosty. "Need I remind you which of us is the police chief?"

Her subordinate said nothing, focusing instead on sitting rigid with her taloned hands digging into the sides of her seat.

"That's what I thought." The princess slapped the panel of mysterious buttons, simultaneously activating the siren, seat warmers, and switching on some pounding electronic music that Kotohime immediately started bobbing her head to. Untz-untz-untz-untz. It did not get any better than this.

While shooting through a red light to a chorus of blaring horns, the policewoman resumed peering into the rear view mirror. "Well, they're managing to keep up, but I can't help but wonder how they planned to stop-"

Cirno shouted with alarm as the rear windshield cracked and pinged with several sharp impacts, like horizontal hailstones. Mystia seemed torn between staying as still as possible and ducking out of sight, but compromised by adopting an uncomfortable-looking hunched posture with a terrified whimper.

Kotohime rolled her eyes. "Honestly, people, bulletproof glass."

Something larger thudded into the rear windshield. Kotohime got a look at it in the mirror, then flexed her legs to push her upper torso out the driver-side window, leering back at their attackers, one hand tugging at an eyelid while her other kept the wheel steady. "And shuriken-proof!" she added. She pulled her head back into the car as several darkened metal objects hissed past. "Stupid ninja bikers."

Then a produce stall on the side of the road detonated with a virulent green explosion as they passed, pelting the cruiser with flaming cabbage.

Kotohime blinked with surprise before hauling on the wheel to send the cruiser screeching down a side road, dodging a brightly-colored barrage of fireballs of various sizes. "Not sure about danmaku-proof, though," she muttered to herself.

Mystia made a strangled sound through her clenched teeth.

"Well they wouldn't be ninja if they didn't have deadly surprises for us," shrugged Kotohime, while the throbbing music on the radio picked up another layer of untz. This stuff was pretty good, she decided. Perfect for the road or the bedroom.

She checked behind them again and saw the pack of motorcycles smoothly turn to follow, two of their number actually leaping off the street to drive along the side of the buildings before landing on pavement again, the show-offs. The lead biker, her identity concealed by her bodysuit and black-visored helmet, held up a fluttering strip of paper between two fingers. A split-second later spirals of fist-sized green fireballs surged forward to impact on the street, sidewalks, buildings, and everything but the frantically swerving and dodging Kotohime.

Mystia whimpered each time the car went up on two wheels, while a tumbling weight and angry yelling marked Cirno's passage back and forth over the back seat. "Don't suppose this thing has any rear-mounted weapons?" Kotohime wondered aloud. Then she swore as a direct hit slewed the rear of the vehicle to the left, Cirno's yelp audible over the shattering rear windshield. The princess fought to keep the car steady and risked a quick glance back to check the damage, but most of the important bits seemed to be there. "Yeah, could definitely use a tail-gunner…" she trailed off as a wide smile spread across her face. "Cirno!"

The ice fairy jerked her head up, her eyes dizzy and her hair frazzled and full of powdered glass – or possibly frost. "What?"

Kotohime looked over her shoulder to grin at her. "Spell cards on motorcycles!"

"What?"

"You got your spell cards, right?" She asked. When Cirno nodded, Kotohime continued "Then show 'em what you've got!"

Cirno beamed before spinning around, standing on the seat cushions and propping herself up with one arm on a headrest while the other dug around in a pocket for her collection of magic. The fairy yanked one of her spell cards out, glanced at the text scrawled across it, and brandished it through the broken rear window at the pursuing bikers, her chest swelling as she announced which devastating attack she would unleash upon her foes. "Freeze Sign, P-"

Kotohime sighed as the scrap of paper tumbled away behind them, torn from Cirno's fingers by the car's slipstream.

The ice fairy looked back at her, flustered, then went back to rummaging. "Uh, I've got more… ahah!"

"Just anything but-"

"Ice Sign, 'Icicle Fall!'" crowed Cirno, the spell card wrapped tightly in her fist as she thrust it at the ninja motorcyclists. The air temperature dropped a good ten degrees as lines of icicles spread out to either side of the speeding police cruiser before shooting backwards in a fan-like pattern at the oncoming bikers. Javelin-sized lengths of ice shattered against the asphalt and perforated vehicles parked at the side of the road, and though the ninja bikers had quick reflexes, not every strike could be dodged completely. A fiery crash lit up Kotohime's rearview mirror, while at least two other motorcycles skidded out of control as their riders were blown out of their saddles.

But the lead biker, the ninja who had started the vehicular danmaku duel, accelerated towards the cruiser, safely tailgating in the painfully obvious blind spot that characterized Cirno's most infamous spell card.

So Kotohime slammed on the brakes.

The car rocked as the motorcycle smashed into the rear bumper, catapulting the biker up and over the car's roof to tumble down the front windshield onto the hood. The ninja barely had time to begin to stir before Kotohime hit the brakes again, launching her attacker off the car (and sending Cirno to crash into the mesh barrier separating her from the front seat). Then without a moment's hesitation Kotohime stomped the accelerator. The car's suspension squeaked as it bounced over the ninja left sprawled in the road.

Mystia's head snapped to the side, staring at Kotohime with eyes torn between incredulity and panic.

"What?" Kotohime sent the car drifting through an intersection, leaving behind streaks of burnt rubber and a brief cloud of bluish sparks. "They're ninja, inherently disposable. It's no use taking them alive anyway, they either never talk or swallow some suicide pill that makes their mouths foam, and if it gets on your shoes you can never quite get the smell out." She risked a glance at the backseat. "Cirno?"

The ice fairy popped her head back up, brushing her tangled blue hair out of her face. "Yeah?"

"Good work back there, exactly what we needed."

"Thanks!"

"Now it's your turn to drive."

Cirno blinked. "What?"

Kotohime slapped a switch that dropped the mesh screen dividing the car, then reached back to grab the chilly little fairy. "Hold this," she muttered to Mystia, yanking Cirno forward and into the bird youkai's lap. Then Kotohime flung herself towards the backseat, squirming and twisting her way out of her chair and smashing Mystia's head with her butt in the process.

"What?" repeated Cirno.

"WHAT?!" echoed Mystia.

"Take the wheel!" Kotohime ordered. To her credit, Cirno immediately scooted over into the driver's seat, yanking the car out of a collision course with a nice-looking apartment building.

Meanwhile, the police chief thrust a palm upward and unleashed a blast of magic at the car's roof, shearing off a chunk of metal that regrettably included the cruiser's lights and siren. Before the debris had hit the road behind the now-coasting vehicle, Kotohime was upright, her jitte out and ready –

Just as the ninja, her jumpsuit scuffed but still very much alive, hurled herself forward from where she had been hanging on to the back of the car.

"The old 'underside cling' trick!" the police chief shouted, meeting a flurry of slashes with her own blunt weapon. Her assailant had one palm flat against the car's trunk, digging some sort of climbing aid into the metal, and was standing on the cruiser's rear bumper as she dueled with Kotohime, flexing her knees to compensate as Cirno led the car on a drunken rampage across every lane in the street.

A gradually slowing drunken rampage…

"Cirno, can you reach the gas?" Kotohime shouted without looking back at her driver.

"Sure!"

Kotohime's eyes widened with realization just before the car started drifting towards a rent-to-own furniture store. "Mystia, steer!"

The night sparrow youkai sang a wordless note of terror, but the car jerked away from the sidewalk and back onto the road.

"Which one's the gas?" called an oblivious Cirno from underneath the steering column.

"Right!" snapped Kotohime, even while her jitte met the ninja's oncoming blade with a clang-

And then she was crashing into the back of the driver's seat as the police cruiser came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the road, sending the ninja flying up and over the car once again.

There was a moment of silence broken only by the growling of the engine and the incongruously uptempo music, before Cirno asked "Was that it?"

Then Kotohime heard the roars of the approaching motorcycle pack. "Get down!" she barked. It wasn't really necessary for her or Cirno, being immortals, but Mystia whimpered and obligingly trying to wedge herself underneath the passenger-side dashboard-

And then the motorcycle-riding ninja assassins were upon them, a hurricane of screaming tires and snarling engines, the night air filled with sleek black shapes coming within inches of the stationary police car, a flurry of shuriken marking their passage. Kotohime's baton whipped through the air as she deflected the most dangerous of the incoming projectiles, but she could still hear the thuds as the thrown weapons embedded themselves in the upholstery of the car's interior, or pinged into its metal hull.

After that timeless moment, the storm was past, and the eight or so remaining bikers were receding into the distance ahead of them… before slowing, coming about to face their prey once more.

Kotohime rose from her crouch, looking over the mangled remainder of the car's roof, sizing up the enemy. "Mystia, you alright?"

"Mmmmrrrgh." A few molted feathers drifted onto the road as the night sparrow slowly raised her head, her hat askew and her eyes wide and crazed.

"Scooch over, Cirno, trade places with Mystia," continued the princess. Cirno obligingly crawled over Mystia's lap, then prodded the other policewoman until Offier Lorelei reluctantly took her place in the driver's seat. "Now then." Kotohime cracked her knuckles. "These guys are between us and our destination."

"Buh-uh-but chief," Mystia protested, finding her voice, "we can get to the Scarlet Devil Mansion just fine if we got out and flew-"

"Our destination is the lakefront district," Kotohime corrected. The night sparrow was bright enough not to argue. "We're going to smash right through these jokers, then it'll be clear sailing."

"Driving!" added Cirno.

"They can outrun us," Mystia weakly pointed out.

"Can they?" The police chief favored her subordinates with a confident grin, then straightened up from her perch in the back seat. She thumped the car's crumpled roof with one hand while the other flourished her weapon at the enemy. "Drive me closer!" she commanded in a clear voice ringing with authority, "I want to hit them with my jitte!"

The night sparrow whimpered but obligingly slammed down on the accelerator, almost as if she was trying to dislodge the woman standing up in the back of the vehicle. Kotohime decided to give her the benefit of a doubt as she tensed her legs and gripped her police baton, riding like a charioteer into the fray.

The surviving ninja bikers gunned their own engines and maneuvered to meet Kotohime head-on, several riders doing wheelies as they brandished their swords in challenge. The princess' toothy grin grew wider.

It took the greatest minds of Medieval Europe to invent jousting. Now, at long last, Kotohime had perfected it.

She started yelling a wordless battle cry, quickly taken up by Cirno as the fairy bounced in excitement in the passenger seat, then even Mystia added her melodious voice to it. The throbbing radio music built to an tooth-rattling climax. And then the ninja were upon them.

Kotohime lashed out with a two-handed swing and saw a helmet go flying, though she couldn't tell if there was a head inside of it. Then she was parrying her jitte without thinking about it, deflecting a trio of hissing shuriken before thrusting out with her baton to knock another rider out of his seat and into the front wheel of another bike, sending the vehicle spinning along the pavement. The police chief had to duck as a fourth ninja ramped his motorcycle off the front of the police cruiser, making Mystia and Cirno cry out as the windshield cracked into a spiderweb pattern. The air was filled with the snarls of the engines and the untz of the speakers and the sound of metal impacts along the front and side of the police car.

And then they were out of the fleet of bikers, roaring along the avenue leading to the Misty Lake.

Kotohime bounced back up and looked behind her as the ninja motorcyclists – or at least the few that survived – swung their vehicles around and immediately sped up to close with the police car. She smelled the acrid stench of a damaged engine just as Mystia declared "We're in trouble!"

Sure enough, there were several ragged gashes in the hood that were streaming thick black smoke to trail in the car's wake. On top of that, the cruiser wasn't going quite as fast as it had been. Kotohime looked ahead, eyeing the distances. It was going to be close…

"Left or right?" asked Mystia. The street ahead ended in a perpendicular intersection with another road running along the lake's shoreline.

"Straight," ordered Kotohime with a predatory grin. "Cirno, you're a hood ornament now."

The ice fairy blinked at her superior, then shrugged. "'kay." She obligingly crawled out the passenger window and onto the hood of the car, keeping her balance in a squat over the front bumper.

"Mystia, keep her steady…" Kotohime turned her gaze back on their pursuers, who would be in melee range within seconds. "Steady…"

There was a jolt as the car skipped the curb and slammed down onto a wooden dock. Mystia kept the car roaring down the short pier without Kotohime's prompting. Presumably she'd caught on. Without a moment's hesitation, the ninja biker gang followed them, not even slowing as their prey sped towards an apparent dead end.

"Cirno, now!"

"Now w-"

"FREEZE!" bellowed Kotohime.

The police car sailed off the end of the pier-

-and bounced once before racing along the sheet of ice Cirno was creating from her perch on the hood.

The ice fairy had her arms down and forward, palms out as she sprayed an arctic wind that temporarily froze the water's surface. The ice patch evaporated almost immediately, but by then the police car had moved on. It was like having a roving stretch of road always under the vehicle.

The ninja bikers did not share this benefit.

A series of splashes marked the ninja gang's progress towards the bottom of the lake. Kotohime watched the demise of her enemies with a satisfied smirk, then settled down in the back seat and enjoyed the wind in her hair and the starry night sky. "Well played, ladies," she drawled as the phat beats on the radio faded out.

"We could've flown," Mystia said to herself, beginning to shake as her adrenaline high wore off. "Could've flown and skipped all that, drove instead. Could've flown, drove instead. Could've flown-"

"Can I come in now?" yelled Cirno from the front of the car. "It's windy out here!"

"Just another minute," Kotohime told her, eye on the horizon. There was a bright smear along the lakeshore, the lights from the Scarlet Devil Mansion's docks diffused through the mist that settled over the estate like a shroud. "Bit to the left, Officer Lorelei, there's a boat ramp we can use."

"-instead. Could've flown..."

Kotohime reached forward to change the station, eventually setting on some folk guitars to drown out the night sparrow.

-x-


-10-

Scarlet Devil Mansion
18:29

A heavy fog lay over the Scarlet Devil Mansion like a shroud… wait, she'd already used that metaphor, Kotohime remembered. Right, the fog lay over the mansion like a sheet of cotton pressed against a bed of nails. The manor proper and the surrounding grounds were vague, menacing shapes lurking in the murk, while numerous towers and spires impaled the skyline above. It was a scene of gothic horror transplanted from Eastern Europe to the Japanese countryside, a locale where you could throw around words like 'macabre' without feeling silly, the ideal abode for a bloodsucking monster.

And then Mystia brought the police cruiser to a stop before the manor's main entrance, where the gatekeeper was currently asleep, leaned against the brick wall.

Kotohime stood up in the backseat, staring perplexedly over the remaining half of the car's roof. The tall redhead in the green-and-white Chinese-ish uniform didn't react to the growling and grumbling car just a few feet away from her, and continued to snore softly in the lamplight.

Cirno stood up to look over the passenger side dashboard. "Oh, she's snoozing, as usual."

"As usual?" repeated Kotohime.

The ice fairy nodded, her blue hair and blue bow flopping. "You can catch her awake around breakfast or lunch or supper, but that's about it. China's not good for much else."

Kotohime's eyes narrowed as she considered the implications. "I see. Well, if nothing's woken her up this evening, I guess we beat the baddies to the crime scene-"

"That useless gatekeeper could sleep through a dragon attack," Mystia interrupted, coming out of her stupor at the rudest possible time. "The mansion could've been leveled and she'd still be like this. Come on, we can just-" she shot her boss a meaningful glance "-fly over the walls and let ourselves in."

Officer Lorelei was taking charge of the situation, Kotohime noted as the battered car's engine rattled and died and Gensokyo's police force disembarked. Normally it'd be time to consider a promotion, but as it was she wanted to give the night sparrow a ding upside her head. She gave the bird-girl a pointed look until Mystia wordlessly tossed her the keys, then Kotohime walked over to inspect the gatekeeper. Hong Meiling was in her usual uniform, she had the same mixture of honed athleticism and almost childish friendliness the princess remembered, and she was quite happily snoring on her feet.

"'ello?" the police chief tried, not-so-gently tapping Meiling's collarbone.

The Chinese youkai didn't even flinch, but toppled over sideways to collapse onto the lawn, all without disrupting the steady rhythm of her snores.

Kotohime sighed and joined her underlings in hopping over the mansion walls into the mists beyond.

The fog seemed unseasonably chill as the trio of policewomen advanced up the long causeway, paired gargoyles leering down at them from the columns that lined the street. The mansion remained a lurking darkness ahead, its few lights diffused into corpse-glows by the chill haze, a pallid luminance that failed to illuminate much of anything.

It was atmospheric as all hell, Kotohime noted with approval, but it would make it a little harder to detect any threats. "Cirno, keep an eye out for any zombies or skellies," she ordered. "Mystia, you've got the best night vision, you watch the skies for bats, crows, or flying medusa heads. I'll-"

"Who dares intrude on my demesne?"

The voice seemed to come from all around them, as cold as the fog and as arrogant as the towers and spires of the mansion, the voice of a noblewoman who had found a stain on a 'cleaned' teacup or a roach on the ballroom floor.

Cirno and Mystia looked about nervously, unconsciously backing towards Kotohime so the three of them could stand together. But the police chief held her ground and held her head high. "The law," she replied.

Mystia ducked and whimpered as a storm of bats exploded out of the fog, just missing the three intruders as the flying rodents winged up and into the sky.

"And what makes you think your laws apply here, mortal?" the voice demanded.

"Immortal," corrected Kotohime. "And look, normally I'd love to banter with you, but we're kinda in hot pursuit here. There was a report that your quote demesne unquote had been attacked."

The unseen woman laughed haughtily. "You were too slow, then!"

The fog suddenly lifted, there was a flap of leathery wings, and the three officers looked up to behold the manion's owner. Framed against a blood-soaked moon was a woman casually perched on thin air, one elbow on her crooked knee as she cradled her chin, a pair of batlike wings unfurled behind her. Her dress seemed to glow a soft red in the unnatural lighting, her pallid skin and pale blue hair were as beautiful as they were corpselike, but her crimson eyes shone with unnatural vitality.

"Rest assured," Remilia Scarlet continued, "those other intruders were no match for my defenses. The warriors at my command are without peer, while I am heir to the legendary Vlad Tepes himself." Her eyes flashed with a dark power. "Now remove yourselves from my lair, lest I sate my thirst-"

Someone coughed politely.

A grey-haired but ambiguously young-ish woman in a prim blue dress and frilly white apron was standing at attention a few paces away from the confrontation. She met Kotohime's eye and gave the princess a slight nod of acknowledgement, then resumed staring neutrally into the middle distance.

Remilia dove to the ground to land next to her servant in the blink of an eye. "Yes, Sakuya?" she demanded tersely.

"Milady, I am pleased to report that there is no sign of the attackers, and that the damage to the library appears slight," said the maid, bowing her head so that the pair of braids flanking her face dangled briefly. "Milady will also be pleased to hear that I have checked the basement and can confirm that your-"

The vampire's head snapped to one side to glare at Sakuya.

"-belongings have not been disturbed," the maidservant finished after only a split-second's hesitation.

"I expected nothing less," Remilia said with a disarmingly toothy smile. She turned to face Gensokyo's finest once more, nearly shining with poise and confidence. "So as you can see-"

"Although Patchouli's been kidnapped," Sakuya added.

"WHAT?!"

And suddenly a proud and powerful vampire lady was reduced to a blubbering child in a pink nightdress.

Kotohime took a step backwards, more disturbed by what she was seeing here than the crime scenes she'd visited earlier that day. It was like watching a warrior in the prime of her youth wither into a senile invalid, or a grand work of art crumble into dust. As royalty, Kotohime knew the importance of charm and composure, and seeing another would-be princess fall so far, so fast, hit alarmingly close to home.

"But, but, she's supposed to know spells to defend herself," the vampire sobbed, clutching Sakuya's dress to plaintively look up at the woman. "How could this happen to Patchy?!"

"I can only speculate, milady," the maid replied calmly. Sakuya was still looking somewhere near the horizon and trying to maintain a neutral expression, but Kotohime detected pinkish cheeks and a not-quite-concealed, self-satisfied smile.

Remilia whimpered, then turned to face the policewomen, her face crumpled with misery and her eyes shining with tears. "You'll find my Patchy, won't you, lady? That's your job, right?"

Kotohime could only stare in open-mouthed horror.

"We'll do whatever it takes to rescue Miss Knowledge," Mystia spoke up when the police chief made no move to reply. "Could we have access to the crime scene and look for clues?"

"Yes! Yes-yes-yes, just get Patchy back!" the vampire child ordered. She jabbed the mansion's chief maid with a finger. "Sakuya, show these nice people to the library so they can find Patchy."

"Milady, I must protest," the grey-haired woman answered, still calm. "It is highly irregular for outsiders-"

"Sakuuuuyaaaaa…" whined Remilia.

The maid's smile grew almost imperceptibly wider as she reached into a pocket for a handkerchief. "Very well, milady," she said, dabbing at a mild nosebleed. "Right this way, please, ladies."

"You-" Kotohime coughed, struggling to speak with a dry throat. "You two go on ahead," she told Cirno and Mystia. "Search the crime scene and stuff. I'm gonna call this one in."

Cirno gave her a puzzled look, but Mystia nodded smartly, her wings flapping once along with the gesture. "As ordered. I'll have a full report ready once we get back to the station."

"Yeah, you do that," the princess said distractedly. Kotohime turned away from the mansion to amble back down the path to the front gate. She had to get her head together. Seeing Remilia Scarlet fall apart like that… blergh. It was going to take a hell of a distraction to take her mind off that.

She'd almost reached the outer wall when she heard a faint noise, a flapping of fabric, like a cape… or perhaps a loincloth.

"Princess."

The voice was male, low, rough and gravely, practically oozing with testosterone. Kotohime shivered just from listening to it, and slowly turned to face the speaker.

Someone was standing, tall and proud, in the shadows at the base of the wall, half-hidden by the inky darkness. Light gleamed from the man's glasses, though Kotohime was more interested in the way light gleamed from his muscles. Each bicep and pectoral and abdominal was lovingly caressed by the moonlight as if by a tender lover, and it was all Kotohime could do to restrain her own hands from-

"I see you made it despite the culprit's diversion," the man growled, his silvery hair gleaming like steel wires.

"Huh? Oh yeah, the bikers." Kotohime shrugged. "We made it, but the punks did their job and kept us from getting here on time." She glanced back at the spires and turrets of the Scarlet Devil Mansion. "Don't suppose you saw what happened?"

"No. But I have some ideas." The muscleman shifted slightly on his sandals, his loincloth swaying distractingly from the motion. "Whoever hit the mansion knew exactly where to go and how to get in. Since all potential culprits for an inside job are accounted for, it must've been an outsider who knew the place well."

"Yeah, that narrows the list down considerably." Kotohime scratched her jaw, wondering if she ought to just round up the usual suspects and drop them in the clink for a night so she could go on to bed. Then she remembered what else had been going on that day. "Hey, any luck finding where those guns came from?"

"Not much," her informant admitted. "The local anti-socials have... assured me they aren't involved. I tried to question Lady Yakumo on the matter of border traffic, but nobody's seen her in town for days."

Kotohime's eyebrows shot up. Interesting. "That's pretty suspicious," she said.

The man nodded. "I'd hoped Yukari had learned her lesson after getting involved in the Spring Snow Incident, but..."

"I suppose that makes her our primary suspect," Kotohime concluded. "Good work." She looked back at the mansion, wondering what her subordinates would turn up to add to the case. "I'll continue investigating along the legal avenues, you-"

There was another rustle of a loincloth flapping in the night air, and Kotohime knew without turning back that the man was gone.

"-do what you do best, yeah," she finished, smiling slightly. Well. That conversation had just been full of revelations.

She hopped over the Scarlet Devil Mansion's perimeter, finding the banged-up police car and sleeping gatekeeper right where she'd left them. Kotohime frowned down at the slumbering woman, and the little bubble of mucus on Meiling's nose. "Chief?" Mystia glided in for a landing, a frustrated look on her face. "Cirno and I did the best we could," she went on, as her ice fairy partner fluttered up to join her, "but there's not much to see, just some broken glass."

"No note or anything?" Kotohime asked. When her deputies shook their heads, she shrugged. "Well, it's not like whoever attacked Nitori left behind a calling card." She sighed. "At least she's safe with us."

"She's what?" Cirno tilted her head like a confused puppy.

"Nitori's back at the station," explained the police chief patiently.

"She is?"

Kotohime shifted her gaze to Mystia. "I didn't put her under protective custody?" When the night sparrow shook her head, the princess looked up at the sky, considering. "Balls," she concluded.

Mystia coughed. "Er, do you want us to send someone to get her, chief?"

"No point. She's either dead or captured by now," Kotohime said with a shrug. Her gaze lingered on the city lights on the other side of the Misty Lake. "What's keeping Team Nemesis? They really ought to be here-"

Mystia suddenly sucked in a breath of air for a good scream, but the police chief was already moving as her ears picked up the descending roar. She tackled Officer Lorelei, shielding the night sparrow's slender frame with her own invincible body, as something whooshed by just overhead in a blaze of sound and heat and light. There was a tremendous crash as whatever it was hit the lawn just yards away from them.

Kotohime quickly pushed herself to her feet, taking in the burning wreck of a police cruiser that had just hit like a comet. "Cirno?" she asked, realizing she was one subordinate short.

A sparkling fog a few feet away condensed into a familiar fairy. "I got hit by a car again, but this time I wasn't even playing in the street!" complained Cirno.

"You alright, Mystia?"

"You're heavier than you look," came a mumbled voice from the lawn.

"I'll pretend I didn't hear that." Kotohime crossed her arms, waiting patiently. Sure enough, the driver-side door of the blazing car swung open as a smoke-shrouded figure stepped out, completely unconcerned by the flames. Then the driver noticed her audience and strolled closer, hands in her pockets.

"Heya chief." Mokou's open jacket looked a little singed, but her talisman-studded white pants could have come fresh out of the laundry. She didn't bother to salute, and stood before Kotohime with a wide smile on her face, her ash-colored hair swaying from the inferno behind her.

The police chief held her gaze for a moment, then nodded at the wreck. "Run into some trouble?"

"Motorcyclists and firebombs, wouldn't call it 'trouble,'" shrugged Mokou.

"Where's your squad?"

Another shrug. "Had to chuck Rumia out the window when we caught fire on the lakeside road."

Great. Who knew how many people an unsupervised Rumia could have chewed on since then?

"And Kaguya?" pressed Kotohime with superhuman patience.

Mokou's smile grew wider. "Well, you know the problem with seatbelts," she said, inclining her head slightly towards the wreck. "They jam at the worst times."

The princess hissed in vexation. "I was curious about her theory concerning the culprit."

"She was going on about it at the beginning, before things got interesting," said Mokou. She strolled over, closer to the wreck, trying to spot what was left of her partner. "Wasn't much to it, really. Said we're up against-"

Kotohime just sighed when the burning car exploded, sending a white-hot steel door scything into Mokou. Mystia squawked at the sudden violence, Cirno added a pile of ice chunks to the scene, and yes, Meiling had managed to sleep through the commotion yet again.

A shame, really. The whole car chase had been a lot of fun, but everything afterward was turning out to be such a letdown.

"I'll be back at the station," Kotohime announced to her squad of dead or nauseated policewomen. Without waiting for a response, she took to the skies.

-x-


-11-

Gensokyo Police Headquarters
19:72

Kotohime sat slumped at her desk, staring down at her scattered sheets of notes without really seeing them, trying to shake off her gloom about as ineffectively as she could the chill of night. It wasn't that she was worried the case was getting away from her, or that she wouldn't be able to rise to the challenge and solve it. It was just that, despite some exciting action scenes and shocking plot twists, the whole experience remained… well, unsatisfying.

Maybe some music would cheer her up. The police chief reached over to flip a button on portable set resting on the edge of her desk. Some catchy synthesized tunes filled the air, the sort that Akyuu always recommended. Kotohime had a few seconds to enjoy the sounds until-

"Hellllooooo there, chicks and children!"

-she knew that her mood would only be getting worse.

"This is Aya Shameimaru – CAAAAAWWWWW! – comin' at you loud and proud from Bunbunmaru News Radio, live with a breaking bulletin!" The sound of shuffling paper escaped through the set's speakers, which the princess found preferable to the over-enthusiastic female announcer. "My flea-bitten girl on the scene reports that the ostentatious abode of Gensokyo's most notorious blood-sucking brat has just been, to use the vernacular, wrecked. Explosions, fires, flying cars, you name it, and word is that the resident librarian has been forcibly evicted by a kidnapper who remains at large. Now unless you've been living at the bottom of a pond – talkin' to you, kappa! – you've no doubt noticed that this is barely news for today. We've had a shootout at a food bank, a comet dropped on a downtown tavern, and a running battle on the city streets. Yet when asked about this spree of deadly crimes, a police representative admitted that they have no arrests, no suspect, no clue! So what, I ask you, are the police doing?!"

The burst of magical energy reduced the radio to a scorch mark and a few half-melted screws, appreciably decreasing the amount of clutter on Kotohime's desk. "Thinking twice about allowing a free press," she grumbled.

Stupid tengu. The worst part was that the bird brains were out of her jurisdiction, technically, so the best she could do would be to start up a state-run news agency and try to drown out their disingenuous assertions. Not that she had the time to sit around talking into a microphone all day. Maybe Mystia? Counter birds with birds? Or-

"Chief?"

Kotohime swiveled in her seat, blinking out of her planning to give the avian in question a brief smile. "Officer Lorelei. Thinking of branching out into journalism?"

"Uh, no, chief." Mystia eyed the wreckage on the princess' desk, but declined to comment. "I was actually wanting to talk to you about the case."

"Hmm? Oh, right." Kotohime shuffled some papers around, uncovering the sheet she'd been working on earlier. Aside from a sketch of herself in a cowboy hat riding a dinosaur, she wasn't making progress. "I'm making progress," she said confidently. "There's a pattern – oh, that's right, I already told you."

"But what about a culprit?" the night sparrow asked.

"They're 'suspects' until we determine guilt," Kotohime corrected gently. "Anyway, I already know who's behind everything."

"What?" Mystia leaned forward suddenly, gripping the edge of Kotohime's desk with her talons. "How?" she demanded, her golden eyes boring into the police chief's.

Kotohime met the bird-woman's stare with a serene smile. "I'm a genius? Police instincts honed by years of experience? Call it a hunch?"

"Wait, did you manage to find Yukari?" asked Mystia, clearly suspicious.

The police chief shrugged carelessly. "Someday I'll find that house of hers, but not today. Farthest I got was my favorite tavern before someone dropped a rock on it." Kotohime's mind filled with images of fried chicken and fish fillets she'd never eat again, which reminded her that she'd never gotten lunch. Hell, she'd skipped dinner, too! And she'd spent all day flying around and battling ninja bikers running on nothing but a bit of Minoriko Aki. Wasn't that a Buddhist thing? Sustenance from the air or something like that? Was it possible to learn high-level Buddhist magic by accident during unrelated police work? That could imply a connection between the Buddha and law enforcement-

Mystia straightened up, rubbing at her forehead. "I guess I don't have a mind like yours yet," she sighed, "I don't see how anything fits together."

"Eh, give it time." Kotohime leaned back in her chair, making a mental note to visit the Myouren Temple to ask how to turn off that not-eating thing. Just because she could go without food didn't mean she preferred to, and Kotohime certainly didn't want to worry about gaining weight by eating normally on top of gleaning sustenance from the air she breathed. "Hey, weren't you supposed to visit Reimu at some point?" she remembered.

"Oh, right." The night sparrow colored slightly. "Uh, I took Cirno with me, but we ran into those three fairies along the way, so I ended up spending an hour chasing them all around-"

Of course. "No worries," Gensokyo's princess said breezily. "Something for tomorrow, then."

"Tomorrow?"

"It's like bedtime o'clock," Kotohime pointed out. "We've got nothing to worry about for the rest of the evening. See," she explained, "an honest worker would have the discipline and dedication to see a task through, even if it meant staying up late. But since criminals are by definition dishonest, they'd rather slack off and go to bed early than finish their illegal endeavors."

"I see," said Mystia unconvincingly. "But wouldn't it be wise to try to catch up with those criminals while they're lazing about?"

"Nah, it's like how back in the old days you'd put a war on hold 'cause of bad weather. It's night, they're tired, we're tired, so we call a truce 'till morning." Kotohime reached under her desk, withdrawing a pillow and thick fuzzy blanket. It'd be nice to be able to run home for bed, but given how she expected the next day to go, she may as well camp out at the office.

"So we should just take the rest of the evening off?" asked Mystia.

Kotohime grinned at her. "Whaddya mean 'we?' You're nocturnal, right? So guess who gets to take watch?"

-x-


-12-

Dawn of the Final Day
-24 Hours Remain-

"Chief!"

Kotohime blinked, once, and lifted her head from the pillow laid atop her desk, the dim grey light coming in through the room's window indicating that it was now just past dawn. Weird. She couldn't even remember falling asleep, it was like she'd put her head down and bam-

"We've got a problem," her little intercom continued. "It's-"

"Freezing in here," Kotohime muttered, pulling her blanket back over her shoulders. She was surprised to see her breath clouding in the air. Then she realized something else and took a second look at the device that was talking to her. "Wait a minute, what are you doing on the main desk, Mystia?"

"That's the problem!" said the tiny speaker. "Wriggle's sick!"

More like dead, Kotohime decided after hurrying down to the main floor of the station. Officer Nightbug was belly-up on the floor beside her chair at the department's coordination and communication desk, her face twisted into an expression of mild annoyance, her arms and legs curled like she was clinging to the underside of an invisible tree branch. Hopefully she was just hibernating or something… with her eyes wide open, sure.

"I bet it's the cold," said a teary-eyed and blotchy-faced Cirno. "Bugs don't like cold much," she explained, speaking from experience.

"Why is it so cold, anyway?" asked Gensokyo's police chief irritably. All that money spent on the building's climate control, and here she was watching her breath fog indoors.

"The temperature kept dropping all night, and doesn't look like it's going to turn around now that the sun's up," said Mystia. She slumped against a wall, her grey eyes sunken and exhausted. Oh, right, Kotohime had put her through two night shifts in a row while keeping her working all day. Whoopsie.

"And Letty said something about winter coming soon," Cirno said. "Also, the end of the world," the ice fairy added after a moment's recollection.

Kotohime continued to stare down at Wriggle, biting her lip thoughtfully and resisting the urge to poke the firefly youkai with her jitte. "Tricky. Now we have to try and solve the case with our mission control taken out."

"Oh, we goin' somewhere?" Deputy Mokou was sauntering onto the scene, jacket open and midriff bared despite the temperature, a concerned-looking Kaguya and a Rumia-looking Rumia in tow.

"Yeah, it's time to wrap up this case," Kotohime nodded. "May as well save Gensokyo at the same time, or at least before lunch-"

"Ah, chief," Kaguya said, clearly reluctant to interrupt. "I never got the chance to tell you, but yesterday I did some thinking, and I believe that our culprit-"

"Relax, princess, we're going straight to the Hakurei Shrine," said Kotohime with a winsome smile.

"Oh! Well." The lunar princess smoothed out her sable uniform. "I see you didn't need my assistance after all."

"Reimu's known Marisa longer than anyone," Kotohime explained, noting the extremely interested look on Mystia's face that had managed to burn through her sleep deprivation. "So in the event that Reimu was feeling jealously possessive of her friend, that gives her a motive to snatch Kirisame, as well as go after any rivals. Reimu also has the border-based powers that would let her smuggle in contraband such as weapons or motorcycles, and as a shrine maiden has the godly contacts that would let her set up some of the distractions we've been dealing with. She's our most likely suspect."

"Is that so?" asked Rumia, obviously unconvinced.

"Well, it makes the most sense with the clues we've been given," replied Kotohime with an easy shrug. "Yukari's got the power and mindset to pull something like this, but that wouldn't explain the Kirisame connection-with-a-k. So, Reimu."

"It just doesn't sound like the Reimu I know," the darkness youkai went on.

"Maybe we didn't know the real Reimu after all," Mystia added darkly, before tilting her head towards the garage, her winged hat tipping slightly. "Do we want to take the cars-"

"Silly Mystia, both our cruisers got wrecked over the course of last night's adventure and were left on the Scarlet Devil Mansion's front lawn like so much garbage." Kotohime's smile got a little wider. "We'll fly, of course."

Which was just as well. With Mystia's eye twitching like that, she didn't need to be behind the wheel.

-x-


-13-

En route to the Hakurei Shrine
51:29

Technically the sun was up, but it wasn't doing anyone much good. A layer of dark, ominous even, clouds had settled over Gensokyo like… drat she'd really been overusing the shroud metaphor, Kotohime noted unhappily.

The princess led her five policewomen in flight just over the city streets, now turned to white canyons by the layer of snow coating just about every surface. Traffic had come to a standstill, a series of lumps below denoting where a vehicle had been buried by the wintry precipitation. No pedestrians trudged along the sidewalks, and for good reason – although the snow had eased back to a few scattered flurries, the bone-numbing chill remained. More than that, the dark sky above created an instinctive desire to stay indoors and put your head down. There was a sliver of faint daylight visible on the horizon, but it somehow only served to illuminate how dark the clouds above were.

Hey, black sky, white lands below. Kinda yin-yang-ish? That would have been a useful clue if Kotohime hadn't figured things out already.

No one spoke as they flew in formation from the city to the suburbs to the back roads leading to the Hakurei Shrine. It wasn't because they were going too fast to communicate without shouting, it was that there was nothing to say. They all knew where they were going and who they were up against, and they knew they'd better save their energy for the battle ahead.

Something was missing, though… ah. There was nothing to shoot at. Normally a flight over Gensokyo involved blasting through waves of fairies, but on this dark, chill morning there was nothing else in the sky. Even simple-minded sprites and pixies had picked up the mood that had settled over the land like a dammit.

And of course the ninja were all dead. Kotohime sighed with regret, the steam of her breath torn away by the speed of her passage. She really needed to learn to pace herself when it came to cutting down shadowy assassins. If she wasn't careful she'd end up wiping out the whole species. Maybe she should set up a ninja preserve, try and breed some in captivity.

After this whole "save the world" thing was over, anyway.

-x-


-14-

The Hakurei Shrine
513:8

Kotohime always considered the Hakurei Shrine to be a tranquil place, perhaps due to the balanced soul of its shrine maiden, perhaps because that shrine maiden would beat the stuffing out of anyone who tried to disturb that tranquility. But this morning the place felt empty, as dead as the ice-covered trees surrounding it.

She touched down under the big red torii like it was a finish line, the rest of her team landing in short order. The police chief held up her hand and motioned for silence, and the six policewomen cautiously advanced onto the snow-dusted courtyard, alert for any signs of danger. No warm lights greeted them, and Gensokyo's princess instinctively knew Reimu wasn't around.

Which wasn't to say that nobody else was. Something stirred in the shadows beyond the shrine's open front door, stepping out into the paltry daylight to become a petite figure who would look pretty childish were it not for the twisted horns extending horizontally out from her bushy ginger hair.

"Oh, you guys," said Suika Ibuki, the Hakurei Shrine's parttime resident oni. She yawned hugely and stretched her deceptively slender arms, the short length of heavy chain shackled to her wrist jangling at the motion. As skinny as she was, and despite how exposed her sleeveless vest left her, Suika didn't seem bothered by the cold – it was an open question whether this was due to her robust physiology, or the purple gourd left carelessly on the floor past the shrine's threshold.

"Miss Ibuki," Kotohime replied with a brief smile. "Is the shrine's maiden around? She has some questions to answer."

"Around, yeah, but she doesn't feel like talking." Suika nudged her gourd out of sight with her sandaled foot and regarded the police officer with a neutral expression on her face. And something was terribly wrong, Kotohime realized. Suika's brandy-brown eyes were sharp and clear, her face was the same tone of the rest of her body rather than flushed from the cold or-

Suika Ibuki looked sober.

The princess cleared her throat, trying to keep her composure. "Be that as it may, I still intend to talk to her. Please step aside so-"

The gangly little oni interrupted by holding up a finger. "One, Reimu's not in the shrine." She clomped down the front steps, strode out into the courtyard, and turned, her extended finger now pointing over the shrine's roof… and what was rising above it.

For a brief moment Kotohime thought the moon was rising early, except there were clouds behind it, and the color was off, and above all else it was too big. Gensokyo's police force could only watch in open-mouthed awe as a massive spherical construct drifted into the sky behind the Hakurei Shrine. Parts of it were gunmetal grey, others a dull sable, and its surface was cut by a winding trench equidistant between two discolored depressions in the hull-

It was a giant metal yin-yang.

Kotohime opened and shut her mouth, struggling to find words. "I honestly did not see that coming," she managed.

"Guess that explains where the shrine's donations went," Mystia said meekly.

"It's a space station," breathed Kaguya, evidently impressed. "My goodness, I haven't seen one of those in some time."

"'s not in space," Mokou pointed out.

"'Extremely low-orbit station' doesn't have quite the same ring to it, though," Kotohime noted. Then she remembered who had been talking earlier. "Oh hey, what was your second point?" she asked Suika.

"Well, Reimu doesn't want any distractions, so I'm supposed to stop you," the oni said matter-of-factly.

Figures. The Aki Sisters probably counted as one encounter, then Tenshi, the ninja biker gang… it obviously wasn't time to battle Reimu just yet, so a scrap with Suika made sense. On the other hand, by Kotohime's reckoning it was also too early to be fighting Reimu's lieutenant. She resolved to ration her explosives.

Instead Gensokyo's police chief nodded at her officers, who spread out to either side of her, half-encircling the oni standing in the middle of the courtyard. Mokou flexed her neck as a few cinders rose into the air from behind her shoulders, Cirno folded her arms, her heavy blue eyebrows furrowed in anticipation of battle, and Rumia… tried her best, bless her, but holding her arms straight out from her sides wasn't particularly threatening.

Not that Suika seemed to be in any way threatened by the mixture of immortals and badass youkai confronting her. Well, this was going to be interesting.

"Impeding a legal investigation, stand aside or face the consequences, etcetera," Kotohime said for formality's sake.

The oni responded with a somewhat melancholy grin. "What, and miss my chance for one last battle before the end of Gensokyo? I don't think so."

Suika shifted into a low crouch with her legs planted wide, her blue skirt sweeping up flurries of snowflakes, then slowly lifted her leg before stomping like a sumo wrestler. The shockwave that followed could probably be heard across Gensokyo. And then she began to grow.

"Oh, right, manipulation of density," Kotohime remembered. Her fellow officers nervously backed away a few paces before turning to run, and the princess elected to follow. It was either that or be forced to look up a skirt the size of a circus tent.

The sextet rallied under the shrine's torii as Suika reached her desired size. The oni bestrode the clearing like a colossus, the long, lean muscles on her arms and legs like slabs of granite, her limbs like bundles of tree trunks, her horns the gnarled roots of mountains. Her face had lost its childish cheeks and eyes – Suika's jaw had thickened into a wide, heavy maw, while her eyes shone like a pair of harvest moons out from under a fringe of ginger the size of a waterfall. The big red bow on the back of her head looked absurdly out of place.

The giant oni shifted slightly, crouching a bit as that huge demonic head tilted down to leer at her opponents, clouds steaming from her nostrils in the biting cold.

"Don't suppose anyone brought their bazooka?" asked Kotohime hopefully.

"How are we supposed to fight that?" Rumia inquired like a child asking for help with homework.

"Good question." There wasn't enough sunlight to hold up her jitte and see if any parts of the giantess lit up. Instead Gensokyo's chief of police reached down a sleeve and withdrew a lens attached to a mechanical doodad she set on her temple like a futuristic eyepatch. With a few button presses, she caused the high-tech monocle to dance with text and graphics as she slowly panned her gaze over Suika's enormous form. "Well, I'm not reading any obvious weak points, though her cholesterol is looking pretty good," Kotohime announced.

"Chief?" quavered Mystia. "What's our strategy?"

"The same strategy Gensokyans use to solve any problem," her commander replied, before sucking in a deep breath. "FIRE!"

Mokou, annoyingly, beat her to the punch, but then again Kotohime figured the girl had been waiting for an excuse to ignite. Her lead lasted only a split-second, and Officer Fujiwara's bolts of flame were soon joined by Kotohime's stylishly-purple projectiles, Kaguya's multicolored barrage, icy shards from Cirno, and less characterful danmaku from Rumia and Mystia. She really needed to have a talk to them, Kotohime noted even while the spat magical death from her outstretched palms. Maybe some kind of shadowbolts for Rumia, and for Lorelei… musical notes? Too silly. Maybe Mystia could use some sort of invisible, air-rippling, sonic danmaku-

Something rumbled above them, perhaps thunder, perhaps a guffaw, and then a hand the width of a barn sliced through the cloud of explosions as Suika attempted to swat them aside. Mystia squawked and took wing, Mokou rocketed back on a column of smoke and flame, and Kotohime did a neat backflip. When she landed she saw Rumia and Cirno tumbling head over heels simply from the displaced air.

Which left- "Where's Kaguya?" she asked.

The smoke hanging over the shrine's courtyard cleared, revealing Suika again, who was flicking her open hand as if to dislodge something. A dark shape plummeted from the oni's palm, hitting the ground with a crump and a burst of snowflakes.

A few seconds later, Kaguya shakily pushed herself out of her crater and flew over to join the others. "How embarrassing," she said with a weak laugh. "I think that might have killed me."

"That's what soft living does to ya," Mokou harrumphed, not looking away from their foe. "Time to bust out the spell cards?" she asked Kotohime.

"I don't think they'd do much good," Mystia gulped. "Only a miracle could save us now."

Kotohime snapped her head to glare at the night sparrow. "Don't even say-"

She was interrupted by a synthesized fanfare blaring from the tiny speaker on her scanner, followed shortly by the roar of jet engines. Suika had just enough time to turn before catching a pair of giant fists in the face, sending the oni reeling.

A second giant had entered the clearing, a metal humanoid of gold and black and red, its eyes shining like the hidden sun, a pair of enormous aircraft-like wings extending from its shoulders. The ground shook when it landed after performing its attack, then the – yes, it was clearly a mecha – struck a heroic battle pose.

Rumia and Cirno looked at each other and gasped in delight. "Hisoutensoku!"

"No!" shouted Kotohime, shaking a fist at the giant fighting robot. "Absolutely not! This will not stand!"

The scanner over her right eye flickered with static before resolving into the transparent portrait of a green-haired girl in a blue-and-white shrine maiden's outfit, a blue visor over her eyes and a manic grin on her face. "Heya, chief!" said Sanae Kochiya cheerily. "I was in the neighborhood, and it looked like you could use a hand. Or more accurately, a rocket fist!"

The robot braced one outstretched arm with the other, then with a flare of light its right forearm detached in a burst of flames to streak across the sky. The giant metal fist socked Suika right in the jaw, further staggering the enormous little girl. On Kotohime's visor, Sanae's cocky smile grew wider as the detachable fist jetted back to its socket.

"Iron fists of rage! Iron fists of justice! Show no mercy for their schemes!" chanted Cirno and Rumia.

Kotohime gave them a pained look. "Et tu, Cirno?"

"Don't worry about me, chief, I can hold her off," the image of the wind goddess miko mecha-jockey pain-in-the-ass assured Kotohime. "You just get up there and stop whatever Reimu's up to!"

"You sure you can handle it?" Mystia asked the side of Kotohime's head, raising her voice to try and be heard over the blaring music.

"Better believe it!" Sanae replied, flashing a thumbs-up that made a part of Kotohime die inside.

Suika had rallied, regarding the equally-large robot like a wary predator. Then a fierce grin split her fearsome face and she began limbering up, stretching her legs and cracking her knuckles in preparation for an epic battle.

"With the divine onbashira-"

A quartet of hexagonal pillars slammed down into the ground around the robot as if arriving from high orbit, before levitating into the air, turning ninety degrees, and taking position above and below its shoulders, bound by a glowing golden circle of energy.

"-and the Iron Rings of Moriya-"

A pair of enormous chakram sprang from the ground as though ejected from a toaster, easily caught by the robot. They were both improbable weapons and improbably thin, no doubt sharp enough to slice through even oni hide.

"-I won't lose!" finished Sanae. She let out a hoarse battle cry as she charged her machine forward, while Suika lowered her horns and did the same.

The ominous clouds above were buffeted by the shockwave of their collision. Suika dropped to one knee, then had to scuttle back as those big honkin' iron rings hissed through the air, nearly taking off the tip of one of the oni's horns. Suika answered the attack with a sudden uppercut that launched Hisoutensoku airborne, but before she could follow up on it, the mecha somehow swung itself around, aiming the four pillars arranged around its torso like cannons.

There was a blaze of eye-searing light, and then Suika was gouging a line through the surrounding forest, pushed around like the end of a mop by the column of energy spewing from the robot. Yet when the display was over the giant oni hopped to her feet, barely scuffed by the ordeal.

"I hate feeling superfluous," Kotohime muttered bitterly. She snatched the scannermajig off the side of her head and threw it to the ground, causing a small, unsatisfying explosion.

Mystia shook her shoulder, pointing skyward. "But now's our chance, chief! The way to the fortress is wide open!"

"Because she stole our boss fight," the princess growled. She was mad, and she was annoyed she was mad. A princess ought to be cheerful and charming, and a police chief needed to be level-headed in the face of adversity. But she was still, technically, human.

At least she could vent her frustration on the one behind all this. "Let's go," she snapped, hurling herself skyward like a reverse lightning bolt of purple-and-red vengeance. She sensed more than saw her five officers following.

The yin-yang shaped airborne fortress hovered just beneath the cloud layers, filling up the sky like a rogue moon, but at least it didn't seem to be sporting any weapon batteries. Kotohime and her henchwomen were able to approach undisturbed, even while flashes of light and rumbling explosions marked Suika and Sanae's slugfest below.

The police chief reached down a sleeve and withdrew another monocular sensor lens, her augmented gaze sweeping over the metallic hull of the Hakurei Shrine's improbable superweapon. She held two fingers against her free temple. "Looks like there's an entrance in the equatorial trench," Kotohime reported.

After a moment's pause, Mystia came through over the squad frequency. "So why aren't we headed-"

"Because I don't intend to use the front door," Gensokyo's princess replied. Instead she led her squad up over the gently-curving sides of the floating sphere, to hover between its top and the cloud layer. The fortress was so massive that she couldn't even see snow-covered Gensokyo below.

Her sandals hit the surface with nary a clank, or even a crunch. Interesting. Despite winter's sudden onset, nothing had snowed on the yin-yang fortress. Had it recently launched from a subterranean hangar? Did the despised youkai of the underground have a hand in this? Did the question even matter?

Even before the rest of her squad had finished landing, Kotohime began rummaging through her favorite pouch.

"Gonna hope someone opens up a hatch for us" asked Mokou as she cupped a cigarette, struggling to keep it lit in the chill wind whipping through the assembled women's hair and clothing.

"Cirno, go ahead and make us an ice wall a good distance thataway, as thick as you can," ordered Kotohime. The ice fairy saluted and hurried off. "Any non-immortals or immortals who don't want to waste time regenerating ought to get behind it."

When her fellow officers saw the size of the satchel charges Kotohime pulled out, they practically tripped over each other in their haste to get to safety. She smiled and whistled a jaunty tune to herself as she set the explosives down and slowly flew over to join her crew, unspooling the detonator wire behind her like a trail of obscenely dangerous breadcrumbs.

Cirno was putting the finishing touches on the freestanding ice wall, which looked to be about one Rumia thick and four Rumias tall. "Perfect," Kotohime said with a smile. The ice fairy beamed back at her, then resumed huddling with the others, crouched with her wings pressed to the wall, head between her legs. Most of the others were in a similar position, though Mokou continued to stand, leaning against the barrier so she could smoke out of the wind.

"Noise," warned Kotohime. She lifted a pointer finger over the detonator-

There was a rustle of movement and a surprised grunt as Mokou was shoved out of cover-

A tremendous BANG split the air, followed shortly by a clatter of metal on metal. Kotohime quickly hopped out of cover to examine her handiwork. The smoke from the explosion was already clearing, revealing a hole that, while big enough for two people to go through at a time, could have been bigger, Kotohime felt.

Officer Fujiwara pulled herself to her feet, glowering at Kaguya. "Nice try, but I barely felt the shockwave," she growled.

"How disappointing," the Lunarian princess replied with a charming smile. "But I must warn you, I don't intend to finish this mission having died more times than you."

"That's enough horseplay, girls," Kotohime said mildly. She checked her scanner again, but it didn't have much to say about the hole she'd made. The policewoman shrugged and tossed it aside, the resulting explosion barely registering after the big boom from a few seconds ago. She clapped her hands, cheered despite everything. Gunpowder just made life better. "Let's wrap this up, shall we?"

Without waiting for an answer, she hopped into the breach in the fortress' hull.

-x-


-15-

Yin-Yang Sky Fortress
1569013 M3

Kotohime landed in a low crouch, her robes settling around her like a superhero's cape, and straightened up slowly, taking in her surroundings. They were disappointing.

She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting to find inside a floating metal fortress shaped like a giant yin-yang orb, but its interior turned out to be more of the drab sheets of metal that made up the hull. Aside from the occasional etched yin-yang design on a bulkhead, that was it. No carpet. No potted plants. No tasteful nude sculptures. Nothing to look at. The whole place looked designed to be a backdrop for an exciting aerial battle, yet the utter lack of enemies to fight robbed Kotohime of such amusement. And where were the fairies?

Cirno touched down behind her, followed closely by the rest of the squad. "Where are we?" the ice fairy asked.

"And where do we go from here?" Mystia added. The pink-haired policewoman glanced down each identical stretch of the hallway they were standing in and shrugged.

Kotohime reached down a sleeve and drew another scanner, stuck it in place in front of her eye, and slowly panned her head around. "Well, I'm reading a large power source below us," she explained, looking through the metal floor beneath her to the vibrant splash of color that filled most of the lens. "Probably running whatever non-magical wizardry is keeping this puppy afloat. Buuuut…" She gestured down the hallway before her. "I'm also getting some anomalous stuff from that direction." She pulled the device off her head and carelessly tossed it over her shoulder to explode on the floor a few paces away.

Kaguya eyed the scorch mark but didn't comment on it. "Can you go into more detail?" she asked politely.

The police chief shrugged. "Doesn't matter. It's probably not an engine room, so I'm guessing it's what we're here for. And while I'm no Reimu, I'm pretty good at leaping to conclusions." She grinned. "And leaping into action!"

She made good on her words, jumping into the air to fly down the boring metal hallway at a brisk pace, the others shortly taking up formation behind her. Good thing the place was built large enough to accommodate flying warrior-princesses who may have need to partake in a running aerial shootout. Even if there still weren't any stupid targets.

The whole yin-yang death ball felt pretty empty, really. Half-finished, a shell made to present an intimidating exterior while only a small part of the inside was actually used. It reminded Kotohime of… she frowned as the memory tried to wriggle out of her grasp, as if-

"So what's the plan?" called Mystia.

Kotohime's deep red eyes narrowed in annoyance. "Confront, accuse. Demand an explanation. Demand surrender. Pummel when the surrender is rejected."

"Couldn't we just skip to the pummel, then?" Cirno pointed out.

"Gotta follow procedure," the princess-policewoman explained. "Give the perp a chance to go quietly, even when you know she won't. Unless you want the yama to show up and give you a lecture." She glanced back at the ice fairy and flashed a brief smile. "Know what I mean, Lieutenant?"

The ice fairy made a face. "I think her special power is talking a lot."

Officer Lorelei looked nervous. "I've not met her, but I've heard stories-"

Kotohime's smile turned brittle, and she shifted her attention back to the hallway ahead. "You should have listened more closely," she said.

"Chief?"

"Oh, what's this?" Kotohime slowed as the hallway finally terminated in an open doorway, leading into a good-sized room. She let her sandaled feet kiss the ground and bid her girls do the same. The princess carefully stepped through the threshold into what turned out to be a wide, tall, well-lit chamber, roughly hexagonal in shape and free of any obstructions between the entrance and the far door.

"Chief?" repeated Mystia.

"C'mon in," Kotohime told her followers. The princess stood to the side and waved the others through. "Just waiting for…" she trailed off until Kaguya, bringing up the rear, entered the chamber.

The split-second after the Lunarian princess was clear of the doorway, a heavy metal plate slammed down into place, a set of iron bars snikting over it.

"Called it," smiled Kotohime. "Prepare yourselves, ladies."

"Huh?" said Cirno.

"Well, this place is perfect for a battle, so…" the princess trailed off when she saw that the ice fairy was pointing towards the center of the chamber.

Four dark figures hovered in the air before Gensokyo's police force – 'dark' in the sense that they were wrapped in unnatural shadows, giving them only slightly more definition than silhouettes.

"It looks like," Mystia said uncertainly and unnecessarily, "Marisa, Alice, Patchouli, and Nitori."

"Only all shadowy," Cirno added.

Kotohime scowled at the apparitions. Sure enough, three of the dark figures bore a witch hat, bulky backpack, and pajama-y robe that made their identities clear, and the one in the comparatively-normal dress looked just like the wooden doll found hanging from the roof of the Kirisame residence what felt like years ago.

Lame. First that obnoxious demigoddess cheated her out of a brawl with a fifty-foot oni, now here she was being presented with some cheap shadow clones to battle, like that made up for it.

"Could Reimu's miko abilities have done this," wondered Kaguya with the lack of concern granted by immortality, "or has she been expanding her repertoire?"

"Does it matter?" countered a bored-sounding Mokou. "Whatever they are, they're in the way."

The shadow ladies said nothing, but drifted apart, subtly shifting into battle stances.

Kotohime made up her mind. "Rumia, what can you do with these?"

"Huh?" The little darkness youkai turned to regard the princess, confusion in her blood-red eyes. "I guess I could bite them-"

"You can manipulate darkness, so I was wondering if you could get rid of them or something," explained Kotohime patiently.

"Oh. Uh…" Rumia flung her arms straight out from her sides, her adorable little face grimacing with exertion. The Nitori shade may have wobbled a little, but nothing else happened. "I don't think I'm strong enough," Rumia gasped a moment later, doubling over to try and catch her breath.

Well, nothing ventured… "Hold that thought," Kotohime declared.

Then she lunged forward to grab Rumia in both hands, lifted the little youkai to head height, grabbed the girl's ribbon with her teeth, and lobbed her deputy like a powder keg before Rumia had time to squeal in alarm.

She detonated like an inkwell exploding. Pitch-black shadows splattered across the chamber's floor and ceiling with a flash of anti-light and a blast of silence, the combined effect similar to that of a folding chair applied to the forehead followed by a bucket of slimy sushi being poured down the back of one's shirt.

Kotohime staggered to her feet, fumbling for her jitte with shaking hands, but when she lifted her head all she could see of her foes – or Rumia – was a roiling black cloud in the center of the room.

"What did you do?!" choked Mystia.

"Took off Rumia's amulet, unsealed her true power, used her as a grenade. Plan was for her to chow down on those shadow thingies," the princess explained.

"And it worked," said an unfamiliar woman's voice.

A thin line of color appeared in the dark fog, a strip of painfully intense red fabric that coiled and twisted like a snake suspended in mid-air, before curling into a perfect circle. Then a blonde head emerged from the bank of shadows, followed by the rest of an adult woman clad in a familiar, if resized, black vest and skirt over a white blouse. The figure straightened up as the virulently crimson ribbon settled above her like a mock halo, while the shadows behind her silently shifted to hang from her shoulders like a vaporous cloak.

The woman finally lifted her gaze to meet Kotohime's. She would have been beautiful, the princess wagered, had her features been a little less lean and hungry. Her cheekbones were sharp, her chin angular. Her teeth gleamed like freshly-sharpened knives, and her deep red eyes had a predator's unnerving focus. She was at once very familiar and disarmingly alien.

"I'm not sure how to thank you for freeing me, much less offering me that snack," Rumia's true form continued, her voice almost husky with anticipation. "I suppose I could slay you first and spare you the sight of what I'll do to the rest of Gensokyo. Or perhaps I should save you for last?"

Cirno and Mystia took several shocked steps away from this apparition, but Kotohime just rubbed the back of her neck in embarrassment. "Yeah, probably should've seen this coming," she sighed.

"M-m-m-" Officer Lorelei gulped. "Maybe Cirno and I can try to reason with her? After all, we've known Rumia the longest-"

"Deputy Rumia, atten-shun!" barked Kotohime.

Unbound Rumia merely smiled. There was a gust of something other than wind as the shadows behind her suddenly coalesced into a pair of void-black wings that snapped once before spreading to fill what felt like the whole horizon. The darkness youkai reached behind her, somehow producing what turned out to be an alarmingly large sword-shaped hole in the world. Its blade was absolutely, ultimately black, while its edges gleamed the icy blue of an event horizon. Despite the weapon being as tall as herself, Rumia Final gripped it one-handed without any apparent effort

Kotohime shrugged and gave Mystia a helpless look. "Well, if she's not going to follow my orders, I think violence is the only solution."

Mokou shifted into a combat stance, her wings of fire fwoomphing as they flared into incandescent existence. "We can take her," she said confidently.

It was tempting, oh-so-tempting. Nega-Rumia certainly promised a more interesting fight than a quartet of shadow clones, maybe even Reimu herself. Still, Kotohime didn't have time for such an admittedly-entertaining distraction. Heaving another sigh, she turned to give her girls orders.

"Team Nemesis?" Mokou didn't tear her eyes away from Rumia, while Kaguya saluted. "You two get to deal with this. Try to knock some sense into her if you can, or if nothing else keep her busy until I get to Reimu and stop whatever she's up to."

"After all you've done for me, you're leaving before I get the chance to show you my appreciation?" asked Rumia with exaggerated sorrow, her face twisted into a wicked grin.

"Cirno, Mystia, with me," Kotohime continued. "We've got a shrine maiden to chastise."

"You're just going to skip her?" asked an incredulous Mystia, golden eyes wide with shock. "After complaining about not fighting Suika?"

"Not skipping, delegating," the police chief corrected.

"Ah…" Kaguya actually looked uncomfortable for once. "Your Highness, I'm not sure I like the look of that sword of hers, Hourai elixir or no."

"So don't let it hit you?" suggested Kotohime. "Or on second thought, see if you can jump on it when she swings at you so you can run up the blade and get her right in the head!" The princess reconsidered. "Wait, why am I the only one on the force with a melee weapon?"

"Moonbitch has that branch," Mokou pointed out. Her attention was still locked on her opponent, and the phoenix warrior restlessly paced back and forth, waiting for the moment to strike.

"There ya go. Have fun, you two." Kotohime gave the two other immortals and a somewhat puzzled Mega Ultra Rumia a cheery little wave before nodding at her two other teammates. "C'mon girls, we out."

She led Cirno and Mystia around the three would-be combatants to inspect the metal door on the far side of the arena. The princess gave the thing a nudge and was surprised when it swung back slightly. "Wasn't even locked!" she announced, before kicking the door wide. Kotohime motioned Cirno and Mystia through, then looked back at who she was leaving behind. "Aren't you supposed to be fighting?" she accused the two-immortals and her former underling.

Kaguya and Rumia exchanged a puzzled look, at which point Mokou bathed both of them in a roaring firestorm. The darkness youkai shrieked like air escaping through a hull breach and blindly swung her immense sword, while Kaguya flew out of the conflagration with her hair and clothes aflame.

"Those two," chuckled Kotohime. "Have fun you kids. Now, you other kids, follow," she reminded Cirno and Mystia before taking to the air again.

The three remaining members of Gensokyo's police force left the raging fight behind, coasting down empty halls without exchanging any words. Kotohime had nothing to say, Cirno looked confused but stubbornly tagged along, and Mystia felt like she was pointedly not saying anything.

Once they'd outpaced the echoes of screams and explosions they briefly flew in silence, but then Kotohime picked up some faint music coming from somewhere, distant pipe organs, low and moody. Culturally inappropriate, but thematically appealing.

In enough time for Kotohime to grow bored but not enough time for her to do something about it, they rounded one last corner and there they were. Kotohime brought her group to a halt and stared up at the oversized set of dark mahogany doors, expertly carved to create a, yes, yin-yang emblem where the two doors met. They gave off a definite "no going back" feel, denoting the passageway as one to an undoubtedly final confrontation.

The princess looked up and down the portal. There didn't seem to be any obvious way of opening it. "Well, looks like this is it."

"Looks like it," agreed Mystia with an audible gulp. Hesitancy notwithstanding, the night sparrow leaned in to more closely inspect the doors. "I guess the yin-yang's a lock? So there's a key somewhere? Maybe we need to solve a puzzle, or-"

"I've got a key," stated Kotohime as she reached into her pack once more.

"Oh? You picked one up earl- oh." Mystia took some hurried steps back as Kotohime placed the satchel charge against the portal. Kotohime had to suppress a grin at her officer's badly-concealed annoyance, before focusing on unraveling more detonator wire.

"That's not a key," Cirno pointed out flatly.

"You're exactly right," Kotohime said with a nod. "A key is usually designed for a particular lock. This can open just about any lock." She led the others around that last bend in the hallway triggering her payload.

The metal halls really amplified the sound of the explosion, Kotohime noted.

She was striding around the corner before the echoes had faded, so the thick smoke was still coiling in the hole where the door used to be. Explosives. Was there any problem they couldn't solve?

"Um," Mystia spoke up, "I hope you're not expecting us to go in like we did at the food bank, none of us brought our gear-"

"That won't be necessary," the police chief said with a wave of her hand. "I'll take it from here."

Cirno immediately made a pouty face, but Mystia only nodded. "I see. Need to take care of this personally?"

"Something like that, yeah. I've got words to say, with beatings possibly to follow."

"We'll, uh, watch your back, then" the night sparrow offered. "Keep anyone else from interfering."

Kotohime smiled. "Yes, keep the teeming hordes of enemies we passed from getting underfoot. In all seriousness, you might as well regroup with the hourais and escape the fortress. It'll probably try to explode once I deal with Reimu, so you can watch the fireworks and speculate whether I got out in time right before I show up all victorious."

Mystia nodded again, but Cirno crossed her arms, scowling. "So why did you bring us along in the first place?"

Kotohime dropped to one knee, put a hand on the ice fairy's shoulder, and whispered "Keep this to yourself, but I thought Mystia could use the exercise. She's getting kinda chunky." Cirno giggled, and Kotohime spun her around and swatted the girl's backside half-heartedly. "Now get going."

Mystia actually saluted. "Right, chief. C'mon, Cirno."

The two took flight and began traveling back the way they'd come. Kotohime smiled as she returned Cirno's wave, trying to shake the feeling that they were saying good-bye. Marshalling her confidence, she turned and strode fearlessly through the ruined doorway into-

"Ouch. Garish," the police chief remarked with a wince.

It looked to be a throne room of some sort, characterized by an unnecessarily large, empty space dominating the chamber's center, ringed with a few columns close to the walls that helped support the vaulted ceiling placed high enough overhead to make an airborne battle feasible. A short, wide flight of steps culminated in a dais topped with a regal-looking swivel chair currently sitting with its back to the door. Behind that was an enormous round window with a view of the stormy winter sky outside, the iron latticework making the shape of a – of course – yin-yang.

And the colors hurt. The floors were tiled in a gaudy checkerboard pattern, and the white-marbled columns clashed badly with the onyx-paneled walls. The flight of stairs alternated between the two colors, and… ugh.

She'd walked in here expecting to use her badge, but now Kotohime felt ready to use her degree in interior decorating.

Disembodied male and female vocalists began singing along with the pipe organs, their words faint and indecipherable to Kotohime, but definitely complementing the ambient music. As if on cue, the throne slowly rotated, revealing the person presumably behind all of the trouble of the past day or so.

Reimu Hakurei was slouched in her seat, hands loosely cupping the ends of the armrests without gripping them, her head slumped forward so that her chin rested on her collarbone., the sort of poor posture that would cause health problems if continued for a few weeks, though that wouldn't be a problem if the apocalyptic warnings were true. Worse, she matched the room's décor – Reimu wore her trademark not-quite-a-shrine-maiden outfit, but her vest, dress and bow had darkened from a cheery red to a matte black, making her white detached sleeves stand out all the more. Even her hair and face looked dull and washed-out, her usually vibrant ruby eyes nearly matching the stormclouds outside the window in hue and luster.

She stirred at the sight of Kotohime, straightening up somewhat from her slouch. "So," Reimu said with a brittle smile, her once-cheerful features looking almost empty, "it's you."

"It's me," agreed Kotohime with a somber nod. "I suppose it's fitting. Only the one woman able to subdue the mighty Reimu would be capable of stopping her from doing… whatever it is you're trying to do."

The shrine maiden's smile turned contemptuous. "The great detective, still in the dark at the very end?" she taunted.

"Well, I've got the general gist of it," Kotohime shrugged. "You're the one behind the kidnappings because of jealousy issues, I guess."

"Not jealousy, love," Reimu corrected without anger. The shrine maiden gestured to a section of wall near her throne, where hidden panels rotated to reveal a quartet of clear tubes filled with an unidentifiable liquid and four identifiable females – Alice Margatroid, Nitori Kawashiro (sans backpack), Patchouli Knowledge, and Marisa Kirisame (sans hat), all floating in some alchemical preservative. They looked peaceful enough, as though they were sleeping. In pickle jars.

"Marisa's mine," Reimu continued dispassionately. "She always has been."

"You don't need to convince me," Kotohime replied, hands out. "I've seen the way your eyes light up just before she makes an entrance. I mean literally light up, it's actually kind of unsettling. But that doesn't quite explain the non-Marisa captives."

"Also love," answered the rogue miko. "Marisa cares for them. I brought them along, so that even if Marisa does not love me, she will still be with those she does, at the end."

"Guess that works," nodded Kotohime. "Still doesn't explain… a lot of stuff, really. The guns. The ninja biker gang. How exactly you got the Akis and Tenshi to work as your goons." She paused, giving the other woman a chance to speak up, but Reimu just stared dispassionately at her accuser while the choir continued chanting in the background to fill the silence. Kotohime shrugged. "Guess it doesn't matter, really. The biggie is still motive. I mean for the whole 'end of the world' thing."

"I'm tired," Reimu said quietly, her eyes half-lidded. "I'm tired of the endless conflicts. The Incidents that sweep through the land with depressing regularity. I'm tired of being the guardian of the ingrates who squat in this backwater hole. I'm tired of my sacrifices, my unwanted victories, being ignored."

"Are you now?" replied Kotohime. "You always seemed pretty content with your life to me."

"A façade, a mask I was forced to wear." Reimu's head tilted forward, the fringe of her bangs hanging. "I have no need for it now. Soon Gensokyo will be destroyed, and we will all be free."

"Liberty through annihilation," summarized the policewoman, arching a dubious eyebrow. "So does this floating death base have some sort of doom ray?"

"Actually, it was the hellraven who gave me the idea," Reimu admitted. She gestured at a patch of floor in a corner, which opened into a trapdoor to admit a platform rising from the depths, bearing-

"Hello!" said a cheerful voice.

A woman was standing on the platform, a perky girl with bright green hair and a brighter smile, wearing a frilly white maid's apron and headband over a blue dress. She'd been very securely tied to something.

Kotohime heaved a sigh and gave Reimu a weary glance. "Okay, what can this maid do?"

"Why, just about everything!" the green-haired girl quickly responded. "I'm programmed in over five hundred forms of domestic services, including housecleaning, cooking-"

"Programmed, eh? You're a robot?" asked Kotohime.

"That's right! My name's Ruukoto," the girl said. "I'd bow, but these ropes are quite tight."

"So your robo-maid is going to clean Gensokyo to death," Kotohime summarized. "Gotta say, Reimu, as doomsday plans go-"

"The fact that my colleague is nuclear-powered may be pertinent," a second, older woman's voice suggested, her tone formal. Kotohime swept her gaze across the room, searching for the speaker. "Your pardon, I'm in front of you, behind Ruukoto."

The princess took a few cautious steps to the side and noticed what the robot maid was bound to – a five-foot-tall missile with its nose and fins painted a cheery red. Someone had also added a simple crescent-shaped smile and two eyes to the warhead, which flashed as the device talked.

"I am Mimi-Chan, a JC-9x class Intercontinental Ballistic Missile-"

"Who talks?" Kotohime interrupted, honestly surprised.

"Indeed. I suppose you could say I'm a smart bomb, except I'm self-propelled so it wouldn't be quite accurate." One of the eyes went dark in a sort of wink.

Gensokyo's police chief faced the sudden, horrifying question of whether the countless explosives she'd so callously expended over the years could have just as easily struck up a conversation with her, had they only the mouths to do so.

"Now," Mimi-chan continued, heedless of Kotohime's inner turmoil, "my warhead has an estimated 900 kiloton yield, which I'm sorry to say should be more enough to destroy Gensokyo. However, Mistress Reimu is nothing if not through, and has coupled me with Ruukoto in hopes that my reaction will be enhanced by her own fusion power cores going supercritical as I detonate."

"I'm helping!" said Ruukoto cheerfully.

"The end will be quick, at least," mused Reimu. "A mercy, really, and more than this wretched place deserves."

Kotohime scowled at her, then turned her glare on the talking warhead. "And you're okay with going along with this?"

"I'm sorry, but I am programmed to obey," responded Mimi-Chan.

Kotohime rubbed her chin, trying to remember if her self-administered demolition training had included anything on nuclear weapons. "Where did you find these guys, anyway?" she asked Reimu.

"You may not remember," the renegade shrine maiden said. "There was a contest to explore some ruins, a tournament of sorts. I won, and met two surprising women from another world. They gave me Ruukoto as my prize, while the missile I 'acquired' from Marisa." Her mouth quirked in amusement at the thought of robbing Gensokyo's most notorious thief.

"Mmm-hmm," Kotohime said with a nod. That clinched it. She clapped her hands together. "Well, I think I've heard everything I need to hear."

"Oh?" A bitter smile twisted Reimu's otherwise attractive features. "Do you tire of these games as well? Are you ready for it to all end? Or do you think you can stop me?"

"No, I'm saying that I know you're not Reimu."

A nearly visible silence rippled through the air.

"Is that what you think?" the other woman said in a near-whisper, her gaze locked with Kotohime's.

The police chief nodded. "I know it." The music picked up again, the chorus and pipe organs now accompanied by a strings section playing an urgent melody punctuated by tolling bells. Classy!

"You talk about a 'façade,' about disguising your true feelings," Kotohime continued. "Reimu doesn't do that, it's one of her more interesting qualities. She doesn't hide her opinions behind social niceties or think any differently from what she says. She's honest, if sometimes a bit rude. That's why oni like her. No, there's never been any indication she was getting tired of being the Hakurei Shrine Maiden, or riding out every now and then to crack some skulls. A pretty mellow person, our Reimu, but she's willing to get her hands dirty. I guess the fact that she makes new friends in the process makes it all worth it." The princess shifted on her feet, trying to bury an unbecoming glimmer of jealousy. "Not sure how she does it..."

The false Reimu sank back in her throne. "So who am I then?" she challenged. "A doppelganger, evil twin, disguised fiend, what?"

"Those are all appealing choices," Kotohime admitted. "I'd get a challenging boss fight and get to rescue the real Reimu afterward, really show her up. Sounds fun. Suspiciously fun."

"What are you implying?"

"I'm not implying, I'm saying." Kotohime flung an accusingly pointing finger at the other woman. "You're just a figment of my imagination."

The music abruptly cut off just when it was getting good. The false Reimu froze in mid-snarl, her yellow eyes blinking with surprise. "What?"

"This isn't real. None of it. This is all an illusion, or a dream, or some such nonsense, and I've played along for long enough." Kotohime folded her arms and looked up at the ceiling, tapping her foot impatiently. "So let's hurry it up, I've got places to be today."

And with a sound that was part tearing metal, part wails of the damned, reality crumbled.

-x-


-16-

A Pretty Boring Tesseract
66x10^-√13 pm

The scene in the throne room froze, then shattered like a stain glass window during a cathedral shootout, the shards of the stand-off against the false Reimu tumbling down to disappear into the endless black void Kotohime found herself standing in. The unearthly screech of the world exploding faded to a distorted echo.

Kotohime massaged a temple, trying to shake off the lingering tinnitus. That had to have been the second loudest collapse of reality she'd experienced. "So," she said to no one in particular, glancing about expectantly, "what's next?"

There was a flicker, a brief glimpse of something like a purplish-tinged starry sky, and then not-Reimu was standing in front of her, peeved. "That's a good question," she growled. "Sis?"

Her copper senses tingled, and Kotohime turned to face the girl who had appeared behind her. "You," said Mystia, "are a real bother, you know that?"

"Only to evildoers," Kotohime countered brightly. "Now disguises off, please, let's introduce ourselves like proper ladies. I'll go first – Kotohime, princess, policewoman, and would-be captive fully prepared to kick some asses until I get answers." She bowed.

Not-Reimu glowered with her yellow eyes, which were the only part of her that didn't ripple like a mirage before reforming into a new figure. In the shrine maiden's place was – wonderful, yet another maid. She almost looked like one of Kotohime's old friends, with her short yellow hair that matched her eyes, and navy blue dress with pale pink aprons and frills. But there was something a bit off about her face: round cheeks, a button nose, all the individual ingredients for cuteness that when combined nevertheless made something that fell just short of human.

"Mugetsu," she said, folding her arms in a way that made Kotohime miss a certain ice fairy.

The princess nodded in acknowledgment, then turned to the other girl, who looked almost identical to Mugetsu, save for her longer hair and different outfit. She wore a pink and white dress under a red vest, along with a red bow in her hair. Another key difference became apparent when she unfurled a pair of white feathered wings that flapped once as she floated next to her accomplice.

"Gengetsu," the girl almost grudgingly admitted, those now-familiar yellow eyes narrowed as she studied Kotohime.

"Interesting…" The princess tapped the side of her jaw as she thought out loud. "I'd guess siblings, but I've never heard of one inheriting wings when the other didn't. So were you mass-produced somewhere and Gen's a more advanced model?"

"Hey!" Mugetsu started.

"We're sisters," Gengetsu stolidly stated.

"Or maybe an industrial accident cost Mu her wings?" continued Kotohime. "Tragic, but I'm sure something could be done. I know some people back home that could hook you up with some crystally prosthetics… or at least I'm assuming her wings aren't biological, but with that girl there's really no telling," she admitted. "I don't know the whole story, and frankly I'm not sure I want to…" she trailed off when she noticed the look Gengetsu was giving her.

"She doesn't need wings," the girl in pink insisted.

Mugetsu licked her lips nervously. "Actually-"

"And that's not important right now," Gengetsu went on.

"That's right, I was demanding answers, and here I am not giving you the questions! Forgive me," Kotohime said with another polite bow, "my mind's a bit scattered right now. Probably because you two have been tampering with it," she said, and her smile shifted from charming to chilly. "What are you, and why did you stick me in an illusion?"

"We're demons," Gengetsu said calmly.

"And we created this dream world," Mugetsu piped in. "And-"

"A pretty boring looking one, though," Kotohime noted, looking around in case some scenery had popped up while she wasn't looking. No such luck. "What, you can manage a phantasm that fools all five senses but can't be bothered to decorate this place?"

The girl in the maid outfit scowled and snapped a finger. With as much fanfare as a lightbulb switching on, a large purple disc appeared in the void behind her, a round chunk missing from the top-left quarter as though a planet was passing in front of it. Mugetsu added a little waggling motion and a belt of pale blue stars appeared in a horizontal band flanking the moon, or sun, or whatever it was.

"Better?" she asked sarcastically.

"Better," nodded Kotohime. "Style always counts."

Gengetsu shrugged, and suddenly the outline of an enormous, three-dimensional cross appeared in front of the purple sun.

Kotohime tilted her head back and forth, regarding the addition. "Christian?" she asked.

"Style," the winged blonde replied with a thin smile. "How did you determine you were in an illusion?" she asked without preamble.

"I'm supposed to be the one asking questions right now, but... well, I figured it out almost immediately." Kotohime clasped her hands behind the small of her back and began pacing back and forth on the formless void, happy to explain her peerless detective skills. "I suddenly found myself walking down a street with no idea what I was doing there, and without the slightest taste of alcohol on my breath. Obviously someone was messing with my mind."

"Just from that?" Gengetsu deadpanned, crossing her arms much like her sister had earlier. "Really?"

"Oh, there were many other hints," continued Kotohime, giving her would-be captors a sympathetic look. "Sure, your Cirno and Rinnosuke were spot-on, but you got other folks, well, wrong. The red-herring with Alice as some sort of possessive psycho. Meiling was suddenly lazy and useless. Tenshi as some murderous masochist. And I don't know what you were going for with Sakuya. On top of that you got some facts wrong, like Mystia never meeting the yama, but especially that whole tournament over the ruins. I was there, girls, I won it. Reimu didn't get anything but a night in the slammer."

Gengetsu heaved a sigh before turning to scowl at her sister. "I suppose that's what I get for putting you in charge."

Mugetsu flushed and planted her fists on her hips. "Hey, I did pretty well given who we were dealing with!"

"The seasons changed twice over the course of a single day! The technology level jumped all over the place!" accused the winged girl.

"Well, that last part was me," Kotohime admitted with a slight smile. "I figured since I was dreaming, I might as well have some fun, you know? Always wanted a proper sidearm and a police car. You're just lucky I kept my libido in check," she added with a wide smile. It faded at the sight of the two utterly dumbstruck demonesses. "What? I learned how to lucid dream at an early age, it's a useful skill."

Gengetsu's frown deepened, but she nodded as realization dawned. "That's why you found those ridiculous 'bean prints.' You were toying with us."

"It certainly wasn't my idea!" Mugetsu quickly added.

"Forgive me my little amusements," the princess said, her smile returning. "I was curious to see what you'd do with such a ludicrous premise. You did well by trying to deflect the question of why the Akis would be involved by adding an investigation into those guns they were using," she grudgingly admitted. "And making it personal with Tenshi killing my bartender, that was another distraction too. Of course, both ended up raising their own set of questions."

"We don't often get the opportunity to improvise," said Gengetsu, her scowl relaxing somewhat.

"But I still don't see how we could have gotten things wrong!" complained Mugetsu. "We built the illusion from your own memories!"

Kotohime tapped her temple with a finger. "Anti-psychic defensive training. Frankly, I'm impressed you were able to get in at all."

"Or maybe our source material was suspect," Gengetsu said darkly.

"Do wha?"

"Exactly."

"So why go through all this trouble, anyway?" asked Kotohime. "Seems like building a dream world to entrap random dimensional travelers is a pretty intensive use of time and energy, so hopefully you have a good reason for it beyond 'giggles.'"

Gengetsu smiled unpleasantly. "I suppose you could think of us as… police officers."

Kotohime carefully maintained a neutral expression.

"There are some dangerous beings out there," Gengetsu continued. "Particularly unstable youkai, wicked hermits, dark magicians. We find a place for them."

The princess slowly nodded. "Sorta like Shinki, then."

"Oh, is that what she told you?" said Mugetsu with a derisive laugh.

"Rather than letting such threats roam free," Gengetsu continued, flashing her sibling an annoyed look, "we lock them safely away in a personalized realm of dreams, trapping them within their heart's desire. So a warlock lives in a fictional world he has already conquered. A shinigami desperate for a career change has a simple life as the gatekeeper of a mansion no one ever visits."

"And I got an exciting mystery to solve with a climactic battle at the end," Kotohime concluded. "Shootouts, car chases, the works."

"Precisely."

"Which means… you think I'm as dangerous as those other guys," she said quietly. She looked up at them, blinking her eyes in confusion and hurt. "Is… am I really that bad?"

Gengetsu cocked her head. "Did you not notice the havoc you raised during your visit to Makai?"

"Oh come on! Reimu and Marisa are even worse, and you guys didn't nab them!" Kotohime protested hotly.

The two demons flinched at the names.

"Well…" Gengetsu shifted uncomfortably.

Mugetsu cleared her throat, looking embarrassed. "We tried. There was a… breach, an escape, they retraced the trail and sprang one of our maximum-security prisoners-"

"She doesn't need to know this," interrupted an irate Gengetsu.

Kotohime stared for a moment, and then a slow smile spread across her face. "I see. They fought free. So," she went on, cracking her knuckles, "I'll just have to do the same."

"You're not nearly powerful enough," Gengetsu said bluntly. "If you stop resisting, we can erase your memory of this conversation and let you dream in peace."

"Ah, but there's a problem with your reasoning," Kotohime said, still smiling. "We're still in a dream realm, yeah?"

"Of a sort, yes."

"Well, in my dreams, as in real life, I always win," the princess said matter-of-factly as she drew her jitte. "So why don't you come along quietly? You're under arrest for Grand Theft Princess and impersonating a miko. You have the right to create spellcards-"

"Why do they always fight?" muttered Mugetsu, as she and her sister drifted back a few paces from Kotohime, spreading out while staying close enough to support each other.

"Oh hey, quick question, which of you two is the older?" asked Kotohime suddenly.

The two girls exchanged a look. "Um, she is," Mugetsu said.

Which meant that, if anything Kotohime had learned over her career was accurate, wingless was the stronger of the pair. Better knock out the weak link early. "Killer, thanks," she said with a curt nod.

And she surged to the attack.

Kotohime launched herself forward, flying at full speed towards Gengetsu, arms swept back, robes fluttering in the not-wind, hands shining with purple power. The winged human floated frozen in shock for a moment as Kotohime swung a truncheon trailing violet flames at her face, but then Gengetsu seemed to shimmer, to ripple as through a heat haze, and she was gone.

The police chief spun with wasted momentum, glancing about wildly as she searched for a target. She spied another distortion in the void, but Mugetsu popped out instead. Before Kotohime could get a bead on her, the maid kicked her legs and flung her arms out like she was throwing confetti, unleashing a fan of flaming blue darts that sizzled and spat over Kotohime's head as the princess ducked beneath them. She answered with a volley of her own magic, but in the split-second her vision had been obscured by the danmaku, Mugetsu had vanished again.

On instinct Kotohime glanced over her shoulder – and Gengetsu was right on top of her, smiling as she raised a hand that released a pulse of angry crimson energy that rapidly expanded to fill Kotohime's vision. The princess desperately backpedaled as fast as she could, until the sphere of projectiles grew large enough for her to slip through a gap between the bolts of hostile magic. She'd no sooner navigated that attack than Mugetsu was back, attacking from above, loosing a swirling star-shaped spray of danmaku that forced Kotohime to twist and turn and roll to save herself.

Even so, one of the projectiles burned a hole through her robes near her ankle with an angry hiss. Kotohime stared at her wounded outfit in shock, barely managing to slip through the rest of Mugetsu's bullet pattern, only for that shock to deepen into outright fear as she heard the familiar rising tone of a particular magical attack charging up behind her.

Without bothering to look, Kotohime abruptly broke off her current vector and dove down and to her left. That weird purple moon-sun and outlined cross blurred across her vision, and then the void filled with a fierce white light, a throbbing chord of sound, an outburst of raw magic that made the police chief's teeth tingle and eyes throb.

"Why does everyone get to Spark except me?" she panted to no one in particular. Every time she tried the attack she wound up exploding.

Mugetsu darted in front of her again, prompting a hasty burst of fire from Kotohime that disappeared into the distant darkness, then the police chief had to bob and weave to avoid the trail of golden danmaku the demoness had scattered in her wake like hostile breadcrumbs. The void rippled in front of Kotohime, and for one glorious moment Gengetsu was right in her sights.

The winged fiend lifted her hand to unleash another attack, but quickly aborted her attempt, wrapping her feathered pinions in front of her body to absorb Kotohime's hail of fire. The princess sustained it as long as she could, both her arms out in front of her as magical power pulsed out of her palms, but after a moment Gengetsu shot her a hateful glare, rippled, and disappeared-

Revealing Mugetsu, who shouted as she made a slashing motion with her hand that unleashed another spray of magical bullets.

Kotohime had barely time to go evasive, and felt sizzling projectiles frazzle her hair and scorch her robes from near-misses. She kept firing blindly, but by the time she was out of the thick of it, both demonesses had vanished.

She fought to catch her breath in the lull that followed, her heart and mind racing. These two were turning out to be obnoxiously worthy opponents, and the princess banished the suspicion that they weren't the kind of worthy opponent that sorely tested you before ultimately being defeated. Instead she tried to think of something that would give her the edge needed for victory.

Unfortunately she'd blown through her supply of explosives over the course of her trip through Makai, and had left all her heavy weapons at home even before that. Just when those magical super-grenades would have been pretty useful, too. She could try smiling, of course, but after the tournament Kotohime had sworn to only use that in the direst of circumstances-

"Reconsidering your decision to resist?" taunted Mugetsu. The demon girl had reappeared to smirk down at the princess from above, making the princess seriously reconsider her vow of restraint.

Wait. There was always…

"Just remembering something I had up my sleeve," Kotohime retorted with a smile (but not The Smile). She flung out a pointing finger before jabbing her free hand down her sleeve. "I choose you! Suika Ibu-"

Uh oh. Kotohime's rummaging took on a desperate character.

Gengetsu shimmered into existence next to her sister. "What are you doing now?" she asked with exasperated sigh.

House keys, decoder ring, spare scrunchies, key to Marisa's house, emergency chopsticks- "I could've sworn I had her a minute ago," the princess muttered as she tried to peer past her arm and into her voluminous sleeves.

"Her? Who? What?" Mugetsu gave her sister a long-suffering glare. "See? This is what I had to work with!"

Kotohime gave up her search, chewing her lip thoughtfully. "Oh dear," she said to no one in particular. She'd checked before she left on her mission, and hadn't run into anything that would have dislodged her in Gensokyo, so… hopefully Makai could handle a mini-Suika running about until Kotohime got back to retrieve her. An oni couldn't cause much more trouble than the likes of Marisa, right?

Gengetsu's expression hardened. "This has gone on quite long enough." The deceptively angelic-looking creature calmly stretched her arms out, hands shining with an intense white light-

It was a blizzard, a directed typhoon of blazing energy. Or all of the stars in the sky converging upon you in the space of a heartbeat. Kotohime got the impression of alternating, overlapping circular waves of danmaku emanating from each of Gengetsu's hands, so close that she could barely see between the individual barrages, but there was so much flying at her, so much information to process, and all so damned fast, that she could feel her brain blanking out parts of the attack instead of trying to comprehend all of it at once-

Kotohime stared dumbfounded until just the last second, when she curled up into a ball and hid her face with her arms, focusing all her magical might into a defensive screen. There was no possibility of fleeing or evading before-

Then she was tumbling, explosions all around her, in a world of noise and white light she could see through her eyelids…

Kotohime blinked. She was… drifting, or falling through a void. Her purple robes were scorched and tattered, her glorious red hair floating about freely as though she were underwater, and she was so very tired. Weird moon, nice color though. A good long sleep would be just-

"You never did anything with Letty," she suddenly realized.

Gengetsu rose into view, flying parallel to Kotohime without bothering to flap her wings. "Pardon?"

"Letty," repeated Kotohime. She managed a weak and shaky smile. "Remember? She promised Cirno they'd meet again. But she didn't. And Cirno didn't notice either."

The winged demon shot her sibling a look as she drifted over next to her sister. Mugetsu shrugged, flustered.

"Rinnosuke kinda disappeared too," the princess continued. She managed to halt her uncontrolled fall, slumped forward while hovering in a near-void, resting her hands on her thighs while her head hung. "Would've been... a good surprise to have him show up in the sky fortress. Just for future reference," she gasped.

"But you got so angry when I had the robot show up!" protested Mugetsu.

"Maybe because it wasn't foreshadowed?" theorized Gengetsu. "She willingly accepted the shopkeep as an ally, so-"

"Don't you take her side in this!" protested her sister, red-faced. "We've worked together long enough for me to know how to craft a dream, thank you very much."

"Yet despite that, you made so many-"

Kotohime shouted with the effort as she hurled a guttering purple fireball at Gengetsu's distracted noggin. But the winged girl calmly reached out, caught the attack in her open palm, and snuffed it out without even looking.

Then Gengetsu turned her head to glare at Kotohime. "A worthy effort. But useless."

"My back-up plan was to try and turn you two against each other," admitted Kotohime with an exhausted smile. "But you were such a tempting target."

Mugetsu muttered something that sounded like agreement, but took up position next to her sibling to regard the princess. "Ready to give up?"

"Nope." Kotohime lifted her head to stare defiantly at her opponents. "Don't care who, what, or how powerful you think you are, I'm going to win this."

She barely had time to shield herself from the flare of magic the winged demon loosed at her, sending her spinning through the void again.

"You're forgetting," Gengetsu said quietly, but confidently, "that this is our realm. We are in control."

The princess, aching and exhausted, slowly uncurled from her defensive ball. She was not beaten, this was merely the point where, when all hope seemed lost, she tapped into reserves of heroic willpower and found the strength to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Doing so required a snappy comeback.

"But not as much control as you think."

Which was pretty good, except the wrong person was talking.

Reality parted at a seam, tied off on either end by a cheery red bow. A tall, stately blonde woman stepped through the gap, idly twirling a white umbrella in her gloved hands. She'd changed clothes since Kotohime had seen her last, and now wore a lacy mob cap and a ruffled white dress under a purple Chinese tabard, a strange blend of Eastern and Western styles that matched her unearthly beauty.

Yukari Yakumo bowed politely to Mugetsu and Gengetsu, then straightened up to stare at them, her amber eyes narrowed slightly, her expression inscrutable but vaguely disapproving.

And the worst thing about it, Kotohime bitterly reflected, was that the sisters' attention was firmly on Yukari now, as if she was the greater threat.

"Miss Yakumo," Gengetsu said warily. "What a surprise."

Mugetsu was completely gobsmacked. "But… how did you-"

"I am the youkai of boundaries," Yukari stated. "Though I can't take all the credit, you two have been strangely distracted as of late."

Kotohime tried to clamp back her annoyance at being used as a diversion.

"And what brings you to our world, uninvited?" asked the winged girl.

Yukari's bangs swayed as she tilted her head towards Kotohime. "Her, of course."

"Oh come on!" the princess in question said crossly. "No way in hell I'm letting you rescue me! I've got this!"

The gap youkai took in the scorched and tattered patches of Kotohime's outfit and wordlessly arched a delicate eyebrow.

"And I'm inclined to agree," Gengetsu said. "About the refusal to rescue her, at least," she quickly clarified.

"See?" Kotohime floated over to stand shoulder to shoulder with her former opponents before turning to glare at Yukari some more, her arms crossed. She tried to ignore Mugetsu's baffled look. "I'm staying until I bust myself out," the policewoman insisted.

"She doesn't belong here," Yukari continued evenly, as though Kotohime hadn't said anything.

"She doesn't belong anywhere," replied Gengetsu. "She has no place in your world, and can only cause chaos elsewhere. The only exception is our realm, where she will be safe-"

"The important thing," Kotohime interrupted, "is that I am totally winning this fight and can break out of here on my own. Five more minutes, tops."

Yukari tilted her head, gloved fingers tapping her chin speculatively, her golden gaze still locked on the sisters. "I could battle you for her freedom-"

Kotohime could feel the energies gathering around her would-be captors. "But are you sure you would win?" asked Mugetsu, a challenging grin on her face.

"There are very few who could hope to prevail against us individually," said Gengetsu. "Fewer still who could survive when faced with our combined power. You are formidable, Miss Yakumo, but not that formidable, I think."

"And you'd be up against me, too," the princess added, not wanting to be left out. "I'm not letting you 'rescue' me without a fight." Again, she had to pretend not to see the perplexed expressions on her unlikely allies' faces.

But Yukari only nodded, as if she'd just finished a somewhat challenging math problem. "I could simply take the princess," she suggested.

Kotohime bristled. "You wouldn't dare."

"We would have her the next time she crossed worlds or fell asleep," Mugetsu said with a laugh. "You'd just delay the inevitable."

Again, Yukari nodded in acknowledgement of the facts. "Alternatively…" She smiled, and despite the friendliness of the expression, it was somehow more threatening than anything else she could have done. "I could take you."

There was a disorienting blur of movement as the four of them were swallowed up by a new scene as abruptly as though they'd fallen out of the sky. Kotohime and the demon sisters winced against the sudden blinding sunlight. After that void, the buzz of insects, the heat of the sun, and the refreshing breeze were almost overwhelming.

"Where are we?" demanded Mugetsu, rattled and fidgeting in the unfamiliar environment.

"Gensokyo," murmured Yukari cryptically. Kotohime saw the gap youkai seated overhead on one of her seams in reality, her lacy parasol out to protect her from the sun and her paper fan spread to cover the lower half of her face, which probably meant she thought she was being clever.

The princess sighed and tried to get her bearings, shading her eyes as she searched for landmarks. "Well, there's Youkai Mountain," she said after a moment. "Fat lot of good that does us, though. The obvious thing is that we're in a field of sunflowers."

That was the problem, really, they were surrounded by bright orange-yellow flowers taller than they were, which severely limited the expression 'as far as the eye could see.'

The two deceptively angelic-looking demons noticed too. "Sunflowers?" said a clearly puzzled Mugetsu.

Gengetsu's wings flapped once as she settled down, a confident smile returning to her face. "I must admit that the scenery is quite picturesque, Miss Yakumo, but I'm curious as to how this would help you."

"What I'm curious about is why all the flowers are facing us," Kotohime said.

Mugetsu and Gengetsu blinked and took a closer look at their surroundings. Every single brown-faced flower had at some point swiveled to face the four intruders. It was unpleasantly like being in the middle of a hostile crowd… which was a pretty ridiculous sensation to get from a bunch of plants, all things considered.

"They're supposed to follow the sun across the sky, right?" Kotohime went on. "I always wondered how they managed that. Didn't think plants had muscles-"

"W-whose-" Mugetsu gulped, paling despite the harsh sunlight, "whose flowers are these?"

"You did mention that there were a few individuals who could hope to stand against you," Yukari pointed out.

"I think this is the Garden of the Sun," Kotohime supplied as her geographic skills kicked in. "Kinda obvious really, I can't think of any other fields of sunflowers in Gensokyo. Embarrassed not to have caught it-"

Mugetsu whimpered.

"You win," panted Gengetsu, a few white feathers tumbling from her shivering wings like dandruff. "You can have the girl. Just get us out of here."

"'Girl?'" repeated an irritated Kotohime.

"GET US OUT OF HERE, NOW!" shouted Gengetsu desperately. "PLEASE!"

There was a rustling sound, as though someone or something was moving through the foliage, and Kotohime turned to face the newcomer-

Only for the entire field of sunflowers to fold up like a futon, dwindling until it was neatly closed by one of Yukari's gaps, leaving the four empowered females standing in the black void again.

"Kinda gloomy after all that bright sunshine," Kotohime noted, looking around with distaste. She missed the warm breeze already.

"So are we in agreement then?" asked Yukari, her parasol and fan stowed, as she took a step towards Gengetsu and Mugetsu.

"Yes!" gasped the older sister. Mugetsu was standing close and looked near tears, her white-knuckled hands gripping Gengetsu's arm. "Take her and go! Just get out of here!"

Yukari nodded to herself, half-turned to walk away, then reconsidered and took another step closer to the siblings. She leaned forward slightly, and Kotohime was grateful that she wasn't the target of the glare Yukari was giving them. "And I trust I won't find you kidnapping Gensokyans again? Whether from their dreams or otherwise?"

The two dreamweavers quickly shook their heads, like children recovering from a spanking.

But Yukari leaned in closer. "What was that?"

"No, Miss Yukari!" Gengetsu and Mugetsu chorused.

"Good." The gap youkai straightened up. "You're free to find prey elsewhere, of course. But rest assured that if I catch you-"

"Excuse me," Kotohime interjected, fuming from being ignored for so long. "I think you're forgetting something." Three pairs of eyes gave her curious looks, and the princess jabbed a finger at the sisters. "Our fight wasn't finished."

Gengetsu hissed in exasperation and turned to Yukari. "Can you take her home now?"

Kotohime swelled up for a good tirade, but before she could open her mouth, Yukari nodded, and suddenly she was falling.

-x-


-17-

Gensokyo
A Fine Afternoon

Kotohime landed gracefully, of course, tucking and rolling upon contact with the ground purely by reflex, bobbing up at the end in a combat stance, her jitte up and ready, her eyes flashing with alertness. Sadly, the cow standing mere feet away didn't seem particularly impressed by any of it. Kotohime strung together a litany of her favorite epithets and stowed her weapon.

"That wasn't very lady-like, professional, or befitting a princess."

Yukari was leaning out of a gap in the air above Kotohime, her elbows resting on the edge of the spatial anomaly to prop up her chin. "Surely that violates a statue on foul language," she went on, her golden eyes glinting with amusement.

The police chief scowled at her. "Are you here for a reason?"

"No, please, don't thank me too much," the youkai replied, rolling her eyes and heaving her bosom in a hearty sigh.

"Even if I had needed your help to escape, you still cut my battle short," Kotohime shot back. "So at worst we're even." She looked around, pointedly ignoring Yukari. They were in a pasture on a hill, in clear view of the human village a short distance away. It was hot.

"I suppose that makes a sort of sense-"

"Just what time of year is it?" Kotohime interrupted. "I left for Makai around… late fall? How long have I been gone?"

"Time passes differently in different worlds," Yukari supplied unhelpfully.

Kotohime groaned and clutched her forehead. "Wonderful. I have a lovely outing, poke around another world or two, and get to look forward to a huge backlog when I get home." Without a backward glance she set off towards the village, her stride confident and purposeful.

She carried on until she passed a lamppost, which Yukari stepped out from behind despite the slender pole being totally unable of concealing her. "I-"

"I'm definitely going to have to put those two on file," Kotohime immediately interrupted. "They're certainly one of the bigger threats I've bumped into."

"They are quite powerful, yes," Yukari agreed, keeping pace with the marching princess by bobbing along on a floating gap, her parasol out to block the shining sun.

"Even if they went to pieces at the end. Wonder what made them freak out?"

"No matter how deadly the opponent, there is always one they fear," replied the gap youkai.

"Yeah, I guess. Reimu and Marisa always tense up if you talk about red-headed maids around them, even though I always got along well with-" Kotohime came to a sudden stop, blinking in realization. "Wait, you mean Yuuka?" At Yukari's nod, the policewoman shrugged and continued walking. "She's not so bad, though. Got a softer side, even if it isn't always obvious."

"Oh?"

"Oh. Think she gets lonely sometimes. I've seen that flower field of hers drooping even when the sun's just as bad as today." She swiped some sweat off her brow and kept her arm up, shading her face as she peered into the distance. Then she noticed something under her sleeve. "Hey!" she squealed, her face quite literally lighting up with a pearly luminescence. Kotohime uncoiled the glowing crystalline bramble she'd snatched from Makai. "I was wondering where this went!"

Yukari arched a delicate eyebrow. "A memento?"

"A botanical sample," Kotohime corrected. "I've always said Gensokyo needed some royal gardens, and this puppy will make a good start. Or half of it will, anyway." With a firm tug on each end she broke the strand of alien vegetation in two, shoving one length down a sleeve and looping the other around her wrist like a bracelet. She abruptly turned off the road.

"Changed your mind about going home?" asked Yukari.

Kotohime shot her an annoyed glance. "Figure I sorta owe Yuuka one, and she ought to get a kick out of this. Maybe she can give tips on how to grow more."

"You owe her one, but you don't owe me one?" Yukari repeated, sounding vaguely amused.

"I didn't ask you to get involved, I didn't need you to get involved, and I don't know why you got involved anyway," Kotohime huffed. "And don't tell me you're policing the boundaries between dreams and reality, or-"

"I assure you, I have no intention of impinging upon your jurisdiction," Yukari answered calmly.

"So why then?"

Yukari looked up at the blue dome of the sky, that faint smile on her face like she was the only one who got the joke. "I've always had a soft spot for dreamers," she replied. And for a moment Kotohime thought Yukari looked younger, girlish and carefree rather than ageless and inscrutable, her eyes a shade of violet rather than gold. "Your dreams should take you somewhere, not put you in a cage. Using a dream to keep someone from finding Gensokyo… well, that's just criminal." She closed her eyes for a moment, chuckled, and let her head drop forward, her golden gaze meeting Kotohime's. "Am I making any sense?"

"About as much as usual," grumbled the princess.

"I can live with that."

"And I'll have to learn to put up with it." Kotohime came to another halt, heaved a deep sigh, and reached down her sleeve.

Yukari caught the bronze object the princess tossed at her almost without thinking, then glanced down at what was in her gloved hands. "Your badge?" She sounded genuinely surprised.

"A badge," corrected Kotohime. "If you're going to run border patrol I might as well deputize you. We've got too many vigilantes zipping around as it is."

"I'm touched," Yukari said with a smile.

"In the head, but as long as you follow orders I'll overlook it. Now," began Kotohime, sweeping an arm across the glorious vista spread out before them, "I'll probably put you under Lieutenant Cirno for the first week or two of training, and then you'll be patrolling with Officer Lorelei…" She trailed off when she noticed that Yukari had very politely raised her hand. "Yes?"

"You do realize you're no longer in the dream world?" the gap youkai asked.

Kotohime blinked and tilted her head a few degrees. "And?"

"Excuse me, you're no longer in that particular dream world," Yukari corrected herself with a smile. "Until we next meet, your highness." And with that she bowed slightly as the gap she was riding on swallowed her whole, leaving behind no sign she had ever existed aside from the annoyed expression on Kotohime's face.

Gensokyo's police chief glanced around, not really expecting to find Yukari anywhere, and rolled her eyes. On the downside, she'd just given one of the most powerful and least comprehensible entities in Gensokyo a fraction of her civic authority. But the good news was that the next time Yukari misbehaved she could demand her badge! So it all evened out.

The princess/policewoman continued on towards the Garden of the Sun, already planning ahead to the paperwork she had to do. The worst part was coming up with the forms to fill out. Was there even a citation for dream-napping?

Maybe Yuuka would have some ideas. Kotohime continued her march home.

-x-


Author's Notes:

Sunflower buds are heliotropic, mature sunflowers are not. It's a popular misconception.

So, that took awhile, didn't it? A combination of being too busy to write part of the time and being in the wrong frame of mind to write a silly Kotohime story the rest of the time, I'm afraid. Plus there was the nature of the story itself.

I always try to have the ending decided before I write the story leading up to it, and see what happens when I try to link the two. This story gave me an excuse to include more nonsensical sequences and gags that would break the suspension of disbelief in a 'proper' narrative, and take less care than usual that everything made sense. The result was surprisingly difficult to write at times, as I came up with some scenes I wanted to include but then had trouble finding a way to tie them together. So it turns out grounding a story in reality can be somewhat helpful, while plotting out a wild dream can be hard.

Hopefully it was at least entertaining. But goodness, two years since the last update? Kotohime has a lot of catching up to do...

-x-


-x-

"It wasn't your fault," Gengetsu assured her sister, a comforting arm wrapped over Mugetsu's shoulders as the wingless demon dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. "We just... ran into a wild card, that's all."

"I did my best," Mugetsu sniffled. "Tried to give her want she wanted, b-but-" She was cut off by a hiccup.

"You did very well," insisted her sister.

"It all went wrong so quickly!" wailed Mugetsu. "She never went to investigate the dollmaker's house, and then she got those two goddesses involved for a stupid reason! And she wanted to do something with modern weapons, so I gave her that, and then she wanted cars and motorcycles, so I did that, but when I put in that space station she scoffed at that-" The extradimensional being dressed in a maid outfit trailed off so she could blow her nose.

"Sometimes it's safer to play it close, give them want they want when they want it, instead of planning too far ahead," Gengetsu said with a gentle smile, rubbing her sister's spine. "We would've been fine if Yukari hadn't gotten involved. I thought I felt her poking around earlier, when I wasn't there to watch. I'm guessing either the bar or the river. See, just goes to show even I can make mistakes."

"I'm sure I made more, though," said Mugetsu gloomily, her head hanging forward.

"Well, you need to learn to pace your action sequences," Gengetsu lectured, brushing her longer golden hair away from her face. "You loaded a lot on the end, with the duel in the bar and the motorcycle chase and the climax all blurring into each other."

Mugetsu sighed. "That's why I cut the oni fight, but that just made her angry-"

"Hey!"

Both siblings jolted with surprise as a patch of darkness fell apart to reveal a bat-winged blonde girl in a black dress. She looked about wildly, her yellow eyes wide, her mouth hanging open to reveal unnervingly long canines. "Where, where did it go? My lake, my blood…" She finally seemed to notice the sisters. "Who are you? Wait… why do I remember…"

Gengetsu and Mugetsu traded glances, then simultaneously broke out into devious grins. "Well," said the older sibling, "if Miss Yakumo wants us to send troublemakers back to Gensokyo…"

-x-


-x-

"So all in all, not something worth traveling to another world for, but it's got a market, probably lower-income customers out to feel highbrow for an evening. Serve it with meals or nuts." A surprisingly deep belch accompanied the squeaky speaker. "Not as bad as your first attempt, at least. What's next?"

Sara rose and hurried over to the wine racks covering one of the room's walls, hesitating only a moment before pulling out another bottle for her unexpected guest.

"I think you'll like this," the one-time Makai gatekeeper said as she returned to her seat. "Everyone who's tasted it says it's pretty good."

"Guess we'll see whether they were trying to make you feel better or not," said a miniaturized Suika Ibuki from her cross-legged seat atop the table, surrounded by empty shot glasses and unfinished wine bottles. "Lucky for you, there's an oni around to give you an honest opinion."

"Lucky me," muttered Sara, her expression back to her default look of vague suspicion and concern. Between the little creature's shrill voice and harsh criticisms, she had an urge to toss her out the window. Nevertheless, she popped the cork and carefully poured a thimbleful of wine for the ginger-haired horned girl.

Without further word, Suika lifted her improvised cup with both arms, somehow avoiding toppling over or sloshing herself in the face as she drank. She made a little surprised sound at the first sip, then proceeded to down the rest of it in one go.

"Fwah!" she gasped, rocking back on her rear end. "Very sweet, but the acidity gives it a refreshing dry feel. Flavor's excellent, reminiscent of brown sugar, but I can't quite place it… a native vine?"

Sara nodded. "Grows around Vina. Hence the name, you know."

Suika gave a shrug and motioned for her host to pour another shot. This time the oni savored her drink before chugging it, leaning in to take some deep breaths. "Good aroma, almost smells like pecans…" She took another sip, mulling the sparkling amber drink over for a bit. "Oak barrel?" she guessed.

The demonic winemaker nodded again. "You're good. Yes, I had to dip into my savings to import the seeds and worked my tail off to get the trees to grow, but-"

"It was absolutely worth it," Suika finished. "You could build a whole business around this stuff. I'll be taking a bottle home. Now, let's see if you can top it."

Sara flushed with pride, her face momentarily matching her pink hair and eyes, as she hurried to provide another sample for the tiny winetaster who had unexpectedly staggered onto her vineyard from who-knew-where.

"Oooh, this is good, too. Almost leathery aroma, attractive garnet black color. Wonderful interplay of dark berries and spices, with a hint of cocoa. You'd want this with cheese, and before a meal so your palate is fresh enough to appreciate it…"

-x-