Prologue ~ Winter Surface

Cirno huffed as we finally approached the little shack concealed within the bamboo. "Chitose! Why're we going here again?"

I glanced back at the ice fairy, hefting the load I carried in my arms. "I told you, Cirno. I was already on my way here when we bumped into you... I'll help you find Letty once we drop this off, I promise, but this is a little more important..."

Cirno frowned. "I don't even get how you find your way here," she grumbled. "Even I can't usually find this place when I wanna prank the birdbrain. And Dai won't help."

I rolled my eyes lightly, turning back to the shack. "No, I don't think Daiyousei's keen on helping you find and prank someone who responds to fairy pranks with fire and pain," I pointed out, sliding the door open. "Just stay quiet... Mokou usually sleeps a lot at this time of year, and I'm pretty sure even you know how she tends to view fairies."

Cirno huffed, but I knew she couldn't really argue with that. Mokou's dislike of fairies, and her tendency to burn them without provocation, had become something of Gensokyo legend by this point.

As we entered, I saw that, as I'd expected, Mokou lay asleep, her long white hair out of its ribbon for once and pooling on the floor around her. The third member of our group slipped past me and hovered quietly before the little stove in one corner of the shack. "... you were right, aneechan," he called softly. "There's not even a pilot light on..."

I stepped carefully around the sleeping Mokou, setting my armload of fuel down beside the stove. "Well, that's why we brought along the 'kindling fire', right?" I teased back, careful to whisper.

Sakan smiled as I ruffled his hair, and nodded, carefully reaching into the stove and letting the smallest of flames drop from his outstretched fingers onto the sparse coals left in the bottom. As he carefully began fanning the flames, I smiled quietly down at the newborn youkai I'd been taking care of for nearly two years now. A young tsukumogami (a youkai born from an object that had been lost for over one hundred years), Sakan was quite literally a living book. While the grimoire that my magic teacher Patchouli had once lost remained his true form, with his awakening as a youkai he had gained the ability to manifest a human appearance.

Partially, at least. I'd met other tsukumogami who could take on a totally human appearance outside of their object self, but Sakan seemed content just to "stand" halfway out of his book, leaning on the edge as often as not, with his legs still inside the book as if he were perpetually partway emerged from a portal.

After a few minutes of concentration, Sakan began adding fuel from the piles he and I had brought, and then turned and nodded to me. "Fire's going, aneechan," he whispered.

I brushed some of his long, wild red hair out of the way so I could look into his violet eyes properly. "You are such a sweetheart, you know that?" I teased. Then I hugged him gently. "You're gonna make some girl really happy one of these days."

Sakan flushed and poked me lightly in the ribs. "Aneechan, you know most of the girls here only like other girls..."

"They like who they like," I countered, and ruffled his hair. "I didn't think I liked girls before I got here, remember? So some of them probably like guys too."

Sakan lit up. "And now you like Daiyousei, right?"

I flushed, and behind us Cirno broke into a fit of giggles. "Oh, she totally does. You should hear Dai talk about her all the time..."

I blinked and let go of Sakan at that. "Wait, she does...?"

Cirno burst into giggles anew. "Aha! I knew it, you totally like Dai~"

I huffed and glanced back at the ice fairy hovering behind me. As always, despite the winter weather she wore nothing but a pale blue dress, a pattern of white triangles accenting the hem, and a darker blue bow in her sky-blue hair. Three crystalline shards of ice hovering unattached behind each shoulder served as her wings. While not mean-spirited, as I knew well from the friendships I'd at least attempted to make with the fairies I'd met, she had a tendency to never think anything through before she did it, especially pranks.

That latter tendency leapt to my mind as I saw the grease pencil in her hand. "... Cirno... you didn't..."

Sakan pointed to the rather crude scribbles on the sleeping Mokou's face. "... she did, aneechan..."

Cirno put her hands on her hips and grinned. "Course I did! I am the strongest, I fear no crazy bird-lady!" she crowed.

A moment later, she let out a yelp and made a very undignified forward roll to avoid the fireball that whizzed through where her head had been and out into the snowy forest. "Can't even get any sleep in the dead of winter, huh?" Mokou muttered as she sat up.

I moved quickly to stand beside Cirno. "Mokou, calm down, please," I urged softly.

Mokou blinked up at me, slowly getting to her feet. "Oh. Hey, Chi. Been a while, huh?" She eyed my outfit. "... a long while, apparently. When did you go miko?"

I smiled, turning back and forth a bit to let her see from all angles. I was dressed as always in my shrine maiden uniform, a simple white kimono and a long pleated hakama that shaded from bright orange to a warm yellow, each shade exactly matching that of an autumn leaf. "Just a few months ago," I said lightly. "Shizuha-sama and Minoriko-sama finally asked me to be theirs."

Mokou grinned a little, setting her hands in her pockets. "They finally asked you, huh? Sheesh, I need to get out more..." She raised an eyebrow. "Though it seems even the most traditionally-dressed miko can't help but accessorize, eh?"

I blinked, thinking at first she meant my hair-clip. My goddesses had given it to me along with the outfit, the crossed wheat design chosen to represent Minoriko's dominion over the good harvest. Then Mokou tugged at the bright-red scarf around my neck, and I shrugged. "Well, it's winter, after all," I pointed out, and raised one hand to show the white, down-lined gloves I wore. "Shizuha-sama made it for me." I smiled, envisioning the elder of the two sisters I served happily, the goddess of turning leaves.

As for "traditionally-dressed", I knew that one well. Although the other two shrine maidens living in Gensokyo had been born into the tradition, whereas I had been asked to become one, both Reimu and Sanae wore uniforms decidedly altered from the usual, including detached sleeves that left their shoulders bare. My uniform, on the other hand, differed only in the color of the skirt from any normal miko's.

Mokou nodded. "So anyway, Chi..." She glanced at the girl still fluttering behind my shoulder. "Why's there a fairy in my house?"

I glanced pointedly at Cirno. "We bumped into her in the forest, looking for Letty. I told her I'd help her once we were done here if she behaved herself."

Mokou frowned, her focus thankfully shifting back to me. "And why were you guys coming here?" She blinked. "Actually, scratch that, who's 'we'?"

Sakan waved quietly from his place beside the stove. "Hi, Mokou," he mumbled shyly. "I've... got the fire running..." He was always a little shy around Mokou; he'd been with me the first night I'd met her and seen the raw power at her disposal, which had left him in awe of her ever since. I also suspected he felt some affinity for her as a fellow fire-user, but... well, even I had to admit she could be kind of scary.

Mokou paused, her face softening as she moved over towards him, warming her hands at the flames. "This again?" Her voice was a lot quieter now. "I keep telling you guys I don't need a fire... it's not like even a blizzard can kill me now..."

Sakan hovered quietly at her side, hands reaching out to the fire as well. "It can't kill me either, but it'd still hurt a lot," he said quietly.

Mokou glanced at him and shook her head. "Well... yeah," she said quietly. "You're still young, kiddo... guess people just get used to this sort of thing after 1300 years..."

Sakan huffed and crossed his arms. "Well, so what if you're used to it? That doesn't mean you should keep letting it happen... c'mon, Mokou. Doesn't this feel nice? It's so warm and cheery in here now... I know you don't like the cold either..."

Mokou reached over and ruffled Sakan's hair roughly. "You really like living up to your name, huh kiddo?" she asked quietly. "I do like it. The fires you make are always nice and bright. I just... don't want to get used to something like that..." Her eyes lowered. "... Things change. Someday, you'll stop showing up. Maybe you'll just grown up and forget about me, maybe I'll end up having to go somewhere... even youkai don't last forever, kiddo. I'm just... tired of losing stuff, I guess."

Sakan's face grew indignant, but I put a hand on his arm to quiet him. "Mokou," I said softly, "Just because happiness might seen fleeting isn't a reason not to seek it..."

Mokou sighed quietly. "... I think that's why I probably hate Kaguya so much," she muttered, tensing at even the mention of the immortal Lunarian's name. "Thirteen centuries of living perpetually, watching all the other humans get old, pass on... everyone realizing I was immortal and cursing my very name..." She grit her teeth. "... and then I met her, and she still had that same stupid, carefree face and manner as the day she turned my father down..."

She sighed, and lowered her head, letting her long white hair shade her eyes. I nodded, understanding. "But Gensokyo is a different place from the outside world," I murmured.

Mokou's eyes peered out at me from between strands of pure white hair. "The world always changes," she replied, her voice level. "And I'm immortal... when it does, I'll still be here to see it..."

I shook my head. "I believe Gensokyo really will be eternal, Mokou," I countered. "It's the sort of world people in the outside world dream of... an eternal dream..."

Sakan moved in, shyly putting a hand on Mokou's shoulder. "Even if it's not going to last forever... shouldn't you enjoy it while it lasts?" he asked. "I know I might not last forever... or a time might come when we can't see each other anymore... but as long as I last, I wanna try and make you happy..."

Mokou hid behind her hair again, and gave a long sigh. After a long moment, her arm emerged from the curtain and tugged Sakan close. "... thanks, kiddo," she whispered, her voice calmer now. "Don't mind me... I always get this way when winter comes around."

Cirno huffed, startling me; I'd almost forgotten the ice fairy was still there. "Why?" she demanded. "Winter's the best time of year!"

Mokou glanced up, still holding Sakan. "... truth be told, it's pretty and all, but winter can be... pretty harmful to humans..." She shook her head. "... The first time I had to watch someone get old without me, it was pretty much the most important person I had back then... when it starts getting cold out, I start thinking about him..."

Sakan hugged her quietly, and she patted his back. "It was the dead of winter when sickness caught up to him," she said quietly. "I was still young then, and didn't even know how to properly tend the fire... soon after he died, the fire went out. It was the coldest night of my life..." She shook her head. "It was also probably the first night I really understood what it is to be immortal."

Sakan gently slipped from her side, rummaging around her sleeping mat for something. I looked quietly at the white-haired immortal girl. "So winter reminds you of him?"

Mokou nodded, glancing to the side. "... He was kind to me," she said. "Even when it was clear that I looked the same even after all the years he'd taken care of me..." She paused, clasping her hands quietly in her lap. "It's not that I don't have fond memories of him," she added. "It's more... I hate remembering that I'll never have any more of them..."

Sakan looked back at us. "But there's lots of other people who want to give you fond memories of them," he pointed out. "He may be gone, but he's not the only person who wants to take care of you..."

Mokou glanced at the rummaging youkai with a smirk. "That what you're trying to say?" she asked. "You wanna take care of me, kiddo?" She shook her head, and then blinked as Sakan flew back over with her ribbon in hand. The youkai started to carefully tie her hair back, and she lowered her head and her voice. "Don't worry too much about me. I'll be feeling better when spring rolls around and I'm not thinking of him so much."

Sakan nodded. "Well, I want you to be feeling better in winter too," he said firmly, giving the ribbon a tug to finish tying it. "You saved aneechan's life before... and you're just really cool... I don't want you being sad."

Mokou looked up at him, shivering a little. I rose. "Think it's about time we got out of your hair," I said lightly. "Cirno, c'mon..."

Sakan floated up as well, but paused as Mokou rose, hesitantly holding out an arm. "... You mind staying, kiddo?" she asked, her voice hesitant, as if unused to even asking something like this. "I wouldn't mind some company for a while... think I could use it, honestly."

Sakan floated lightly into her arms and settled against her. "It's okay, right aneechan?"

I smiled. "What're you asking me for? Your call if you wanna stay with her... plus, it's a lot warmer here than it is back at home right now..."

Mokou hugged the little youkai quietly and nodded. "Don't worry, I'll have him home before his bedtime."

I giggled softly, and headed out the door. Cirno stuck out her tongue and flew after me. "She still didn't notice," she snickered.

I raised an eyebrow. "No, but she has very good hearing," I pointed out, catching the fairy by the wrist and tugging her out of the way of an incoming fireball.

Mokou stood fuming in the doorway now, and I looked back. "Mokou, it's just pencil. It'll wipe off easily," I said softly. "No need to roast someone over a silly prank..."

Mokou huffed. "Thought you said she promised to behave."

I gave Cirno's wrist a light squeeze. "You did," I reminded her softly. "When I behave, I mean no pranks, not even harmless ones... got it?"

Cirno pouted. "Fine, spoilsport..."

I chuckled. "Spoilsport who's going to help you find Letty," I pointed out. "C'mon, you broke your promise... and that really wasn't very nice to do to someone who's asleep... apologize..."

Cirno's wings seemed to stick straight out like a cat puffing up its fur. The ice fairy glared at me, but I simply looked quietly back at her, and after a while she seemed to deflate. "... fine... sorry, birdbrain..."

Mokou huffed and crossed her arms. "Birdbrain?"

I smiled. "C'mon, Mokou... she said sorry. Chill out..."

Sakan's voice piped up from inside. "Or warm up, as the case may be..."

Mokou blinked. Her lips curled into a smile, and she let out a single, quiet chuckle. "... heh... all right, you're off the hook, baka fairy. Consider yourself lucky that I've got company..." She turned and closed her door, and I set out through the bamboo forest with Cirno fluttering indignantly at my side.

"I'm not an idiot," she was muttering over and over as we reached the village. "The one who calls people an idiot is the real idiot, that idiot!"

I smiled. "Just keep telling yourself, behaving yourself means you get to find Letty that much sooner..."

Cirno seemed to brighten up at that. On the far side of the village lay Myouren Temple, a temple built and maintained by the Buddhist monk Byakuren, a kindly woman whose primary goal was to foster friendship and understanding between humans and youkai. We were headed there now; Letty hid most of the year, but I hoped that word of this youkai-friendly temple might have reached her ears, and with the time for prayer approaching, there were hopefully many youkai there who might have seen her, or even Letty herself in attendance.

As we got closer, I saw that my guess had been even better than I had expected. Out front, talking to a girl with a broom I didn't recognize, was a far more familiar pale-haired woman dressed in blue and white.

Cirno's eyes widened, and she shot from my side to hug the woman tightly from behind. "Letty! There you are!" she cried happily.

I smiled as I watched Letty turn and move Cirno around to her front for a more proper hug. "Hello, silly," she said lightly, petting one of Cirno's wings idly.

I bowed lightly as those lavender eyes rose to regard me, their hue an exact match for her hair. The woman standing before me, despite her human appearance, was a snow youkai named Letty Whiterock. Said by some to be the lingering spirit of a woman who died of exposure, the yuki-onna was far kinder than legends tended to cast her kind, a personality reflected by her almost matronly face and figure. She generally wasn't very friendly to humans, on account of their tendency to drive her away, but through Cirno I'd been able to develop somewhat of an understanding with her the previous winter.

As Cirno slipped away from her, I got a better look at her outfit. She wore the same clothing as always, a deep blue dress with a white apron. A simple brooch adorned her collar, whose shape my studies with my magic teacher Patchouli had taught me was the sigil used by alchemists to represent silver.

"So," she said after a long moment. "A shrine maiden... do you plan on driving me away like the red-white?"

I frowned a little, recognizing Reimu's most common nickname. "Autumn gives way to winter. That's the natural way of things. As long as you don't try and hurt Shizuha-sama's leaves or Minoriko-sama's harvest before the humans have time to appreciate them, why would I?"

Letty smiled. "Oh, so you're the shrine maiden for those two sillies," she said softly. "You're not planning on punishing me for bringing on the frost?"

I laughed. "Not as long as you're not planning on frosting the leaves right off the trees," I countered. "Shizuha-sama works hard on those..."

Cirno tugged Letty's sleeve. "Letty, that's Chi... remember? I introduced you guys last year..."

Letty put an arm around the fairy and held her lightly against her side. "I remember that, but she wasn't a shrine maiden last year," she said gently. "When humans' jobs change, so do their priorities."

I smiled as I watched the two, Cirno nestling happily against her. Daiyousei and Cirno were close, maybe even closer than the sweet greater fairy and I were. However, perhaps because she quite literally hibernated for the whole year aside from winter, Cirno and Letty were closer still.

"Chi was helping me look for you 'cause I missed you, goofball," Cirno was saying, practically snuggling the taller snow youkai by this point.

Letty nodded. "Well then, thank you, Chitose," she said, patting Cirno's hair.

The girl that Letty had been speaking with finally spoke up, her odd, furry ears perking up almost like an animal's. "Chitose Izumo?"

I turned to look at her. Despite the fur covering her ears, she didn't seem to be an animal youkai; hers were on the side of her head, and long, curled, and tapering like an elf's. Otherwise, she looked completely human. Her hair was a rather bold shade of aqua blue, but odd hair colors were almost the norm because of all the ambient magic; Akyu, the village historian, had vivid purple hair. Her outfit was fairly simple, pale pink with a white dress underneath and cute blue buttons in the shape of flowers.

"I am," I said, bowing lightly to her. "And you?"

The girl grinned. "Kyouko Kasodani's the name." She looked at me expectantly, and after a long pause, "So...?"

I frowned in confusion. "I'm not sure I follow what you're asking..."

The shout Kyouko followed up with nearly shattered my ears. "Good morning!"

Gasping a bit, I managed to steady myself and stammer out a "g-g-good morning" in return, which drew a huff from the eager girl. "You should be louder," she muttered.

I bowed. "Sorry if I've spoiled your fun," I said lightly. "You rather startled me with that sudden yell..."

Kyouko grinned, and her ears seemed to flutter. "Well that's my job, after all! When I'm not reciting sutras from memory of course. I'm pretty good at that too, I'll have you know!"

I nodded. "So, what did you need me for? You asked for me by name, after all."

Kyouko nodded. "It's not exactly me asking," she said, starting to sweep again. "It's the lady of the temple that wants you. She said... 'Kyouko, you'll know her by the fact that she's the only girl in miko robes who will look at you exactly the same way that humans look at each other.' And that's definitely you."

I blinked at the exact quote, something suddenly fitting together in my mind. "... Oh!" I shouted, suddenly raising my voice almost to match hers. "You're a yamabiko, aren't you? And you work here?" I smiled, finally recognizing the echo youkai for what she was.

Kyouko grinned. "There, now you're getting into it!" she shouted happily, raising her broom in the air. "Good morning!"

I blushed a bit in embarassment, but matched her volume this time. "Good morning!"

Kyouko beamed. "Much better!" She set her broom back to tile again. "Miss Byakuren always says that 'greetings are a mental oasis'."

I nodded. "So Byakuren is looking for me?" I asked, just to confirm.

"Byakuren is looking for me?" I heard back, and rolled my eyes. Kyouko grinned. "I'm finally in a place where people don't hear an echo and just say it's bouncing sound," she pointed out. "Don't get mad just because I'm enjoying it a little... Anyway, go ahead in. She wanted me to send you to see her if I saw you."

I nodded, bowing to all three present as I walked carefully along the well-swept tiles. Cirno grinned as I started off. "Chi, you're all dressed for winter already, so don't even think of trying to get out of playing with us later!" I glanced back and flashed them both a smile, and then turned toward the temple.

As I entered, I heard Byakuren's voice from up ahead, along with another that, while familiar, I couldn't place. Following the two voices brought me to one of the private chambers, a sitting room that opened out into Byakuren's bedroom on the far side. I seated myself carefully outside, waiting.

After a few minutes, there was a soft giggle from inside, and Yuyuko opened the door, smiling lightly. I glanced up at the pink-haired ghost with some surprise, rising slowly. "Yuyuko... hello..." I said hesitantly, bowing.

Yuyuko laughed softly, face half-hidden behind her fan. "Ah, so you're who was waiting out here so patiently..." she murmured, turning. "Bya, Chitose's here..."

Byakuren beamed and motioned me inside. "Chitose, thank you for coming so quickly..." she said, nodding as I entered and settled myself, while Yuyuko remained at the door. "Don't worry, you're not eavesdropping... what Yuyuko and I were discussing is actually the same reason I called you here..."

Yuyuko had remained at the door. "I think I have some idea of what we're dealing with," she said, eyes twinkling just above her fan. "But I'm afraid it's not a ghost... I don't know anything that can help you..."

Byakuren nodded, meeting the ghost's eyes for a long moment. Something seemed to pass between them... I, however, was left in the dark. After a long moment, Yuyuko's eyes twinkled again. "I'm not lying when I tell you that it isn't a ghost," she said softly, slowly closing her fan. "Perhaps, though... it might be some sort of youkai that was sealed away, like you were, or like the youkai who were exiled underground for fear of the humans."

Byakuren had kept her hands folded in her lap, but at these words she gave a start and they slipped free, the monk looking up at her. "Exiled... youkai?" she whispered.

Yuyuko smiled. "Indeed," she said. "You haven't heard of them before?"

Byakuren shook her head, eyes fixed on Yuyuko's now. "I knew there were a few youkai living underground... I have met Utsuho, after all." Her hands gripped lightly against the sides of her long black coat. "What do you mean by exiled, exactly?"

Yuyuko tucked her fan carefully into her kimono and sat down again, lacing her fingers as she looked across the room's lone table at the monk. "Yukari told me about them a few times, after that incident where all those wicked evil spirits started appearing from the hot springs..."

I tensed a little. "The incident that Utsuho caused, you mean?" I put in, hesitating.

Yuyuko nodded. "Many years before the Hakurei Border was created, there were youkai with strange and terrible powers," she said, eyes dancing as she watched the two of us. "The oni, with their fearsome strength and literally unbreakable will. The satori, possessed of penetrating minds that could peer into the minds of the humans. Kappa, possessed of the power to conceal themselves from all but the most gifted of eyes. Tengu, faithful servants of the oni and faster even than the Hakurei line."

Byakuren's hands tensed on her dress. "... It was not a good time either for humans or for youkai," she murmured quietly.

Yuyuko shook her head. "Not at all. Especially for those born without the desire to harm others..."

Byakuren nodded. "The kappa and tengu dwell now on the mountain, of course..."

I smiled a bit. "And the oni dwell underground now, much to the chagrin of a certain deva..."

Yuyuko nodded sagely. Then she said, "I think sake must taste better underground." She giggled. "That makes more sense, don't you think? Their leader probably figured out how much better it was and let her people underground. In appearance, a rout and defeat, but really an ingenious plan to keep the best sake to themselves!"

Byakuren blinked lightly. "... I never know whether to take you at face value when you say things like that..."

A soft voice spoke from outside. "I've known her since I was born, and I still don't know, Miss Byakuren... May I enter? I've brought the tea that you and Mistress asked for..."

Yuyuko got up and opened the door herself. "Or maybe they made a mutually beneficial agreement with the Hakurei of that time," she added, smiling at the girl behind the door. "Tea tastes much better up here in the wide open surface air..."

The white-haired girl who entered was one I'd met briefly a few times before, and recognized by sight. Youmu Konpaku, a gardener, bodyguard, and general servant to Yuyuko, was dressed as always in a long skirt and buttoned vest, both in hunter's green, and a simple white top beneath. A pair of blades were sheathed behind her, as always, and her arms deftly supported a wide tray bearing three cups of tea.

She nodded politely to me as she caught sight of me. "I see. That explains why Mistress wanted to have three cups made," she said, her voice barely ever rising above a murmur. "I recall your face, but I can't seem to put a name to it..."

I smiled a little, extending my hand. "Chitose Izumo. It's nice to see you again, Youmu."

Instead of taking my hand in return, Youmu bowed deeply, her calm, red eyes regarding me. "My apologies."

Byakuren frowned quietly as she lifted her tea to her lips. "There were more than three varieties of youkai back then," she said quietly. "What about the others?"

Youmu spoke this time, tucking the empty tray under her arm and cradling the thick, tapering ghostly wisp that floated around her in her hands. This I knew to be Youmu's other half, a phantom usually known as Myon. "It was war," she said simply, holding the wisp a little closer. "Barely any that stood up to the humans, or even simply tried to stay out of the way, are with us today."

Yuyuko nodded. "I was bowled over myself when Yukari told me that Marisa and Reimu had met a pair of satori," she said, sitting back down with her own tea. "One of them lives in the underground now, actually... I wonder if she prefers sake to tea too..."

Byakuren tensed. "... I see... at least there are two who can enjoy the equality that is coming to this world..."

Yuyuko shook her head lightly. "As I said, the youkai underground are exiles," she said quietly. "Remnants of once more common races were drawn underground, linked by their love of sake, fear of humans..." She paused, fanning herself lightly, and I caught a hint of a smirk behind that waving fan. "And of course their terrifying powers..."

Byakuren fell to musing, and Youmu bowed deeply again and excused herself. I looked over at the monk for a long moment, before reaching out to tap her arm lightly. "Lady Byakuren..."

The monk gave a start, before smiling widely at me. "No more of that 'lady' nonsense, please. You're a miko now... a religious figure, like me. As far as I'm concerned, we are on equal ground, age difference notwithstanding."

I nodded. 'Byakuren, I hate to change the subject, but I think we're starting to lose track of the whole reason I came... You called me here for a reason, and Yuyuko as well, it seems."

Byakuren smiled. "That's true," she said, taking up her tea. "And Alice as well, actually. She told me she would stop by later, once she's sure Marisa is busy on her latest project and won't disturb us. You're right, though, I'd completely forgotten with all this talk of underground youkai..." She set the tea down again and folded her hands in her lap, eyes growing stern. "For the past few weeks, I've been sensing an unknown presence somewhere in the temple, and it's begun growing in strength..."

I nodded. "And you wanted to find out what it is," I finished. "So you asked a ghost, a magician, and a miko to take a look at it..." I blinked. "I'm not very good with seals yet, though... wouldn't it be better to ask Reimu or Sanae?"

Byakuren winced. "I don't know that it's serious enough to be an incident," she said, hands squeezing one another. "Reimu is... heavy-handed in any case. We've no indication that it's hostile... as for Sanae, sweet as she is, I feel she would insist on getting Reimu involved anyway..."

I nodded. "I can at least try and put up a seal... having a miko around is definitely not detrimental to the sisters' faith. So, where is it?"

Byakuren unfolded her hands and stood. "We believe it's in the old mausoleum, actually... which is why I thought it might be some sort of phantom or ghost in the first place... Nazrin picked up a treasure reading from within, but when she investigated, a pair of jiang-shi showed up..."

Nazrin was a mouse youkai and a follower of Byakuren's, one who possessed a pair of absolutely infallible divining rods. If there was a reading, then there must be something precious hidden in the depths of the mausoleum. "However," Byakuren went on, "After hearing Yuyuko's story, I thought of a task that would be perfect for you..."

The monk beamed lightly and put a hand on my shoulder. "The world is changing, Chitose. Youkai and humans don't have to fear each other anymore... you and I know that better than anyone. And that goes for the youkai underground as well."

Yuyuko closed her fan and folded her hands in her lap, closing her eyes. I could have sworn a frown replaced her perpetual smile for a brief moment. "Underground, is it..." The smile was back now as she looked at me. "Well, Bya, I think that's a superb idea... although of course it's up to Chi if she wants to go..."

I looked up at the two girls, not quite daring to rise. "What is it you want me to do?" I asked softly.

Byakuren beamed all the more. "Chitose, how would you like to be an ambassador to the exiled youkai?"

I blinked, only now rising. "So then," I began, haltingly. "You want me to go underground... and meet the youkai there...?"

Byakuren nodded enthusiastically. "Exactly! You think the way I do... I'm sure you can convince them that the world of the surface has changed."

Yuyuko rose, face hidden behind her fan again. "Well then, I believe I've helped you as much as I can," she said lightly, turning. "Chitose, dear, when you meet that satori, do me a favor and ask her if she likes sake or tea better? I'm curious now..." Giggling lightly, she slipped out of the room, Youmu vanishing in a flash after her.

I looked across at Byakuren. "I've only barely just become a miko... I've little power, and less experience. Why send me?"

Byakuren patted my shoulder gently. "I can't go myself," she said quietly. "To Reimu, it would look like a play for more faith, and frankly, I worry sending someone of my power will spook them." She smiled warmly. "But you, Chitose... you're a young, friendly miko who's befriended many youkai, and even yousei. You've even been raising a youkai yourself." She smiled a bit. "You're something special, Chitose. I think you'd be an excellent choice to go and meet them."

I nodded. "What about the presence you felt?"

Byakuren clasped her hands lightly behind her back. "If you're still willing and able to make a seal when you return, I'd be more than grateful," she said softly. "But this will help me too. Just think... they might know some truly amazing things..."

I smiled. "I'm always happy to meet new youkai," I replied, clasping my own hands behind my back. "And you have a point... it's better to send someone who's not a fountain of power..."

Byakuren beamed. "I'm curious too, to be honest," she added, voice dropping to a whisper. "There might be all sorts of strange and wonderful youkai living down there, ones that humans believed had vanished long ago... I can't wait to see who you meet..."

I nodded. "... And, of course, it should be all right for them to come out of exile and meet people now," I said. "I mean, Yuugi comes up to the surface fairly often, or so Suika says. And of course Suika herself lives up here."

Byakuren beamed, and slipped past me to open the door. "Then it's settled," she said, smiling. "You may want to take someone down with you, though... although I'd advise against Sakan. It's extremely humid down in the underground."

I cringed, nodding. I had perfected a waterproofing spell, but it likely wouldn't last for days on end, which my trip very well could take. "I'll think of someone..."

As the two of us left the room, a weather-beaten umbrella I'd noticed earlier suddenly leapt up from its position against the wall, hovering before us and opening to reveal a red, staring eye and a huge, waggling tongue. From beneath the spread cloth, a young girl dropped down and leaned towards us, hands outstretched like claws. "BOO!" she shouted, a wide grin on her face that was pretty clearly supposed to be frightening, "I got you!"

Byakuren just smiled, and I rolled my eyes, ruffling her hair gently. "Hi, Kogasa..."

Kogasa pouted. "You weren't scared?" she asked, straightening and catching the umbrella lightly in one hand. "Not even a little bit?"

I smiled. "You were leaning against the wall already when I came in," I pointed out. "You can't scare someone if they already know you're there..."

Kogasa was twirling her umbrella on her shoulder now. "So, you weren't scared because I was too... um..." She pouted and tilted her head. "What's the word?"

Byakuren patted her shoulder. "Conspicuous," she said gently. "You shouldn't really be trying to scare humans anyway, though..."

"It's fun, though!" Kogasa countered, pouting. "Besides, you never get mad or hurt! Or anyone else here... 'cept Nazrin, but she's a spoilsport anyway..."

I shook my head. "Just don't try it on Daisuke anymore. He was livid after the last time.. and you know he's not really fond of youkai in general..."

Kogasa nodded, twirling her umbrella. Like Sakan, the young-looking girl was a tsukumogami, though of an umbrella rather than one of Patchouli's grimoires. Umbrellas were common objects for transformation into youkai, so much so that, despite being a subtype of the tsukumogami, they had become known as karakasa.

This particular umbrella had been a rather ugly shade of eggplant... I had a sneaking suspicion that Kogasa had spent her one hundred years being deliberately thrown away rather than lost. The girl beneath, though, was simply adorable. Dressed all in water-blue colors that matched her hair almost exactly, she wore a slightly lighter skirt that fell to her knees and a blue vest over a white, puffy shirt that had been tied together crudely in the middle. One eye was deep blue like her hair, but the other was a brilliant red that matched the umbrella above her.

The karakasa tilted her head a little at us. "Anyway, I heard you two talking... something about a companion? How about that fairy girl you're always hanging around with?"

Byakuren smiled. "Daiyousei, you mean," she said softly. "That's a thought..."

Kogasa beamed, eyes closing a bit. "She's nice," she murmured, giving her umbrella a spin. "She doesn't even get mad when I try and scare her..."

I laughed. "She spends a lot of time dealing with three goofballs who don't see anything wrong with leading humans astray on a freezing cold night," I pointed out, crossing my arms and grinning a little. "Someone as cute and friendly as you isn't going to get her upset unless you somehow got someone hurt..."

Kogasa nodded, letting the umbrella float lightly beside her as she clasped her hands behind her back. "Exactly. She's nice, you totally like her, she's really smart... she's perfect for going with you, huh?"

Byakuren put a hand to her chin. "... She does remember quite a lot," she murmured. "She's lived far longer than most of us, even more than some of the younger youkai. She knows many things about Gensokyo that almost nobody remembers nowadays, except perhaps Akyu. I think she'd make an excellent guide, don't you?"

I nodded. "Yes. The only thing I'm really worried about is that she might get hurt, but..." I smiled a bit. "In a cave, there are many pools of water, and water seeps down from the surface and slowly falls from the ceiling into those tiny pools. They're not that big, and there aren't many currents, but Dai is the embodiment of ripples in water as well."

Byakuren smiled. "So she'd be surrounded by her element..."

I nodded again. "Exactly." I paused, glancing away. "I'm still a little worried about what you were sensing, though..."

Byakuren patted my shoulder gently. "Alice is going to take a look at it soon," she reminded me. "If she can't solve it, feel free to try and seal it up when you return." She tilted her head a bit and smiled. "But trust me, doing this will help me a lot too."

I smiled, bowing lightly to Kogasa, then to Byakuren. "I'll go once I can find Dai and get both of us ready," I said softly. "I want to do this too... there's still so much of Gensokyo I've never seen, after all."

Byakuren nodded. As I turned and started to fly off, she laughed softly. "Well, soon you'll be one step closer to it all..." she murmured, patting Kogasa on the head as she turned and headed for the main temple to begin the day's service.

((Yep, a new chapter with Chitose in it! This story I'm uploading as chapters are completed, so I don't have a set schedule for them like I was able to do with the first story, which was already finished when I started posting it. I'll shoot for once a week though, I do have an outline of the story worked out.

Mokou scene! Because Mokou. And I wanted to make her happy for once, even if she spends most of her time being mean to one of my favorite characters. Most of her backstory stuff here is invention, though certainly not far outside fanon. The person she's talking about is NOT Iwakasa, by the way. And yes, Cirno is mangling a quote from a certain famous IOSYS song. I had to make a reference to them eventually...

Also, Letty and Kyouko get! It's meant to be sort of implied that Kyouko has -just- started at the temple, since Chi's never met her before, but I didn't really get an opportunity to make that explicit. So we manage to meet a Ten Desires character anyway despite the fact that Ten Desires actually takes place in the spring following this story.

Which brings us to Byakuren's worry... yep, the one she's sensing is indeed Miko. And you just know that Yuyuko knows all about it... more about that when we get to the end of the story. Suffice to say that Yuyuko is actually very good at being Yukari (to the point that "[S] Yuyuko: Be Yukari" is effectively a valid Homestuck command) and she's in full form here since Yukari is going to have little to no presence this time around.

Lastly, suddenly, Kogasa. Because she's too damn cute and she got left out last time. And that's all for this installment. ))