Staff Roll ~ To The Starry Winter Sky

The time had come to head back, and I knew it. We passed by the reactor with a brief hello to Utsuho, who had resumed tending to it, and found the Palace empty save for the animals; Satori seemed to have gone out again. The Ancient City sprawled before us as we finally passed through, still bright and raucous with the sounds of the festival. Konngara blinked as she looked over it. "... So which of their hundred festivals is it today?" she asked, hiding a laugh behind her hand.

Daiyousei smiled. "Solstice. Though I suppose it'd be hard even for an oni to tell oni festivals apart..."

Konngara shook her head, still grinning. "I'm just surprised to see the old city still so vibrant... I expected us to just slowly die off down here..." She sighed. "You guys really want all this mess back up on the surface?"

I smiled back at her. "Well, I at least want the opportunity to be open to come up and look around and for the other humans to meet such amazing other races..." I shook my head. "I'm not expecting you guys to all suddenly move upstairs, the evil spirits would be all alone if you did that... but at the very least, I want you all to be residents who live underground, not exiles forced to hide in the dark..."

Konngara nodded. "Mind if we stop in first? If it's really Solstice, I should go talk to the Lady of the Mountain... it's been fifteen long years after all..."

We continued along the streets to where the dim light rose to a bright shine, Yama-ba still sitting where I had left her. She beamed quietly up at Konngara. "Well, now. And here I thought I wasn't going to be allowed to remember your desires anymore..."

Konngara shook her head. "It's been too long, milady," she said quietly, going down on one knee to talk to her. "I've been... quite the selfish fool..."

Yama-ba just smiled quietly. "I still remember, sixteen years ago, on the last Solstice you visited me," she said quietly. "You told me you desired to find a way that you could keep from having to fight any longer... to keep that blade of yours silver, and not red."

Konngara nodded. "... That will always be my desire," she said softly. "But the way I found was a poor one that kept me away from you, my comrades, even the divine spirit I wished to protect..." She shook her head. "... And I have a new plan now, as well. To restore the Silent Shrine and to make amends to the divine spirit whose guardianship I have neglected these long years..."

Yama-ba smiled softly. "A desire I shall happily remember for you, Astral Knight," she said softly.

"Astral Knight? Yama-ba, you been at the special sake again..." Yuugi's voice broke in on us, the tall oni's eyes suddenly drawn to our new companion. "... Oh! I guess you haven't, then."

Konngara gave a wry smile. "She has not, I can guarantee. You look as well and unfazed as ever, Chuckles."

Yuugi laughed. "Looks like our newbie shrine maiden went off on her own and kept on being a busy bee while I was off gettin' drunk, huh?"

Konngara raised an eyebrow. "... how can you 'get' drunk if you're nevernot inebriated?"

Yuugi just grinned away. "Where've you been, anyhow? Don't tell me you and our fourth have been off having fun without me?" She shook her head. "We're supposed to be the Four Devas, y'know, not the One Deva Who Does All the Work and the Three Who Goof Off All the Time!"

Konngara rolled her eyes. "I've had less news of our fourth than you have, Chuckles, though I gather Giggles wandered above-ground to spend her days harassing the Hakurei. I've been sealed up since our friend with the bouncing ball came down, until this young lady saw fit to allow me out..."

"... excuse me." I was breaking in almost before I realized it. "I need to take care of some things before I return to the surface. Would you mind letting Satori know I'll meet her up near Yamame's home?"

Konngara nodded. "I'll bring her myself. If the surface has humans like you upon it, with desires like the one I felt, I cannot in good conscience not come up to see."

I smiled, bowed, and was off, flying high over the city until I could see the pale green flames burning in the distance... giving Daiyousei's hand a soft squeeze as I headed off towards them.

"... You don't have to come ask me permission to cross again, you know. I'm used to being forgotten." The first thing I could see of Parsee was those deep green eyes gleaming in their own light. The hashihime had hidden herself in a mostly bare cave beneath the far end of the bridge, a few old and broken objects scattered around that I could only assume were offerings from days long past.

I held up my lantern, looking the girl over quietly. Daiyousei had remained outside, so it was just us two there in the dark cave. "Maybe it's time to get used to something else, then."

Parsee raised an eyebrow. "Oh...?" She glanced aside. "Why are you here, anyway?"

I smiled. "Well, to start with, I had a question. I thought that you couldn't leave the bridge... but I saw you with Yuugi, back at the reactor..."

Parsee snorted lightly. "No big mystery there. Though honestly I'd forgotten it myself until Yuugi popped in to tell me you were in danger, and to remind me..." She sighed a little. "See, I'm a hashihime, but I'm also the guardian of this bridge." She motioned to the broken offerings. "And as the guardian, I'm responsible for seeing that all cross my bridge in safety. And that they return across it safely as well."

"So then..." I smiled. "That's why..." I set the lantern down carefully between us, and sat. "You all saved my life, you know... I don't think I would've been able to keep avoiding her much longer... and if it weren't for all of you, I couldn't have used my Last Word..."

Parsee sniffed. "... don't know what you're thanking me for. I just made her suffer a little, that stupid bucket was the one who knocked her away from you." Even so, she sat quietly down across from me.

I smiled. "Parsee, I'm a shrine maiden. Did you think even a newbie like me wouldn't be able to feel the faith coming from you back there?"

Parsee coughed, eyes widening for a moment, before looking determinedly away. "... Yeah, well... maybe I just didn't want you dying and not coming back across my bridge... 's my job, after all..."

I just grinned. "Yes, you're the bridge guardian, Parsee." I shook my head. "And it's long past time I give you the offering I owe you for your protection, and your permission to cross over..."

Parsee huffed and stared determinedly at the lantern as I began to tell her of every moment of my journey since my first steps underground. It was a tale long in the telling... meeting the strange, silly bucket youkai and finding my companion caught in an earth spider's web, descending to meet a pained, bitter soul upon a lonely bridge, then discovering a wild, active, living city of scores of different sorts of youkai all living far beneath the soil of our fields... and on the outskirts of the city, an absolutely beautiful house where a lonely young woman lives quietly with the animals she knows better than anyone else how to raise... I hesitated, as the steps of my recounting neared the reactor, and the battle within.

"... You don't even get to have things like that happen, do you?" I asked.

Parsee made no reply, just staring harder into the flickering blue flame before her. After a long moment, I closed my eyes and began again, not skipping even the parts she had been present for. She did blink lightly as I told her about unsealing Konngara. "... you unsealed something the Hakurei put up?" she murmured. "You've got guts... hell of a lot more than I have..."

I smiled a little. "You sure about that? You were pointing a handful of black lotus straight at a shrine maiden only a few hours ago... right or wrong, sorry or not, that certainly takes guts for someone who's seen Reimu in a temper up close."

Parsee snorted. "I was just a lousy impediment to her, Chitose. She wasn't in a temper when I saw her. It was bad enough just being in her way, even I don't want to be the cause of her in a temper..."

I nodded. "... well don't take it personally. If I got wrapped up in something somehow, I have a feeling she'd treat me the same... If an incident happens, she cares about one thing only, and that's resolving it..."

Parsee's eyes were on the flames again. "... Go on."

I smiled a little at that, continuing the last few steps that had brought me to her home beneath the bridge. "And... well, that's all the tale I have to tell about the underground," I said quietly. "There's a little bit left, but it involves between here and the surface, I can't really tell you when I haven't done it yet..."

Parsee waved a hand quietly, but I caught it. "... Want to come see it with your own eyes?" I asked, eyes sparkling just a bit. "After all, it's your duty to see me safely back to where I came from... isn't it?"

I could see the girl was taken aback by that thought. "... Pass," she finally said, rising and turning for the back of the cave. "You're going up there with Satori and your new oni ally... I'm not needed to ensure your safety..."

I nodded, and slipped to the cave's entry. "Then I'll see you again on the next solstice, if not before," I called to her.

Those eyes flared green at me from the dark. "You say all those nice things, then forget what I said about promises?"

"... And when did I say anything about promising to do that? I just said that's what will happen..." When no response to that came, save for a dimming of those eyes, I bowed lightly to her and slipped out.

Daiyousei was waiting quietly for me, and slipped her hand into mine. "Seems like that went better than before..."

I looked up at the bridge, the flames a quiet, soft white. "... Yeah," I murmured, before turning and flying off as well.

The rest of the journey proved fairly uneventful. With the lantern still burning brightly, Yamame's webs were easy to navigate, until we found the earth spider in her nest, lightly tipsy and conversing happily with Konngara about the other youkais' exploits. The oni nodded quietly to me, while Yamame beamed. "So, we going to head up?"

I nodded. "If you want to. Where's Kisume...?"

Yamame tilted her head a bit. "She's waiting up where you found her before... said something about wanting to play again..." She shook her head as I offered her the lantern. "Keep it, silly... that way you can visit again soon..."

As the four of us continued our way carefully upwards, the caverns merging into that one single tunnel, I handed the lantern to Daiyousei, then lightly slipped over a bit and caught Kisume. "I win again," I teased softly, tickling her belly.

Kisume pouted. "H-hey, you're cheating again..."

"I can't bring you up to the surface and show you around if I'm knocked out from a cute girl in a bucket falling on me..." I hugged her bucket lightly to me. "Besides, if the human can't move or they're cheating, how're they supposed to win? It's not a game if only you ever get to win..."

Kisume huffed, but settled herself in my arms and let me carry her along, the wind growing stronger and cooler as we neared the surface once more.

Satori was already there, eyes cast up to the sky. A snowstorm seemed to have come up while we were belowground, judging from the new drifts of snow across the ground, but the clouds had almost entirely left now. Night had fallen, and the stars glittered quietly in the clear heights of the winter sky.

Yamame beamed up at the twinkling lights. "Ah... how long has it been?" She sighed happily. "Such a sweet sight... denying this alone should be considered a punishment for the most heinous of crimes..."

A soft cough echoed in the night, and I looked over to Satori, then the red-garbed girl beside her. "So... what's all of this then?"

Reimu... not the person I'd wanted to meet the moment I got aboveground. Still, I steadied myself. "A few new friends from the underground having a look at the surface?"

Satori smirked lightly to me. "I suppose you wouldn't be too fond of harassing the Hakurei either," she murmured lightly, before turning to Reimu. "Take it from an old satori and her third eye... none of these have designs on harming humans. Which is all you're worried about, isn't it?" She smirked anew. "Now, in the meantime, I was rather indirectly invited to have tea with someone..."

Reimu sighed a little, stepping forward to eye me. A red dress, yellow ribbon, detached sleeves even in winter... Reimu really did have her own style when it came to the shrine maiden's uniform. "Seriously. What's going on?"

I blinked. "It's like I said, Reimu. I wanted to show Yamame and Kisume here around the surface a bit... Satori's intending to have tea with Byakuren..."

"Look..." Reimu grit her teeth. "I'm not saying she plans to do anything, but earth spiders can spread disease pretty much at will. I can't exactly just go around telling people not to be scared, she won't do anything even though she could plague the whole village to death in a matter of days..."

Yamame smiled softly. "Reimu, do you really think there'll be that much worry? You have quite a lot of other youkai up here already, you know..." She sighed. "And I won't go into the village at all if there's that much worry, but I'd at least like to visit the mountain shrine..."

Reimu tensed. "Look, I know you're not dumb enough to cause problems. But not everyone is gonna get that. I can't just casually let out a bunch of youkai that my ancestors sealed up... especially not if they might cause a panic..."

I crossed my arms. "... Reimu, aren't you having a little too little faith in them?" I finally asked. "They've accepted Sanae and her gods, even though they're from outside and most of their followers are youkai. They're totally fine with a shrine maiden who lets an oni live in her shrine." I shook my head. "Heck, plenty of them actively attend services at Byakuren's temple along with youkai..."

"And if that's not enough..." Reimu blanched as Konngara finally stepped forward. "Then don't just 'let' them go out. Let it be Chitose's responsibility, just like it's hers that I'm standing here before you." She smirked lightly. "We'll just say she... snuck them out, while you and I were... discussing a few things..."

Reimu had her gohei out in an instant. "After over a decade, you still want..."

Konngara rested her hand lightly on the hilt of her sword. "I want what I wanted back then, Reimu. To live in peace without people constantly coming for my head. But I also want to talk to you." She paused. "I've been gone for, what, fifteen years now? I think I have a lot of catching up to do... the last time I saw you, you were still using that orb instead of this danmaku thing I've been hearing about..."

Reimu blinked, still tense. "... You... want to talk?"

Konngara sighed softly. "... you're going to end up like the rest of your family line if you keep up this way, Reimu. Come with me... we'll go have some sake together and talk."

Reimu looked over the youkai around us. "Look, I can't just... I mean..." She sighed. "... no, you're right. They're not a danger. And maybe they won't freak out. Just... try not to frighten anyone, okay? I don't think anyone's so much as seen a tsuchigumo in over a century..."

"My, my... you found a tsuchigumo..." Byakuren had silently come up while we were talking; Satori, who had slipped away at some point, floated lightly beside her. "Reimu, you needn't worry. The world is changing... people are changing."

I frowned. "Youkai are changing too, though," I pointed out.

Konngara nodded. "She'd have been damned right to be suspicious a scant few decades ago," she said quietly, eying Byakuren for a long moment. "But we're not the same as we were back then..."

Satori looked over the two for a long moment. "... Konngara. Could the phenomenon at your temple be connected to..." She shook her head. "Well... perhaps it's fine..."

Konngara looked over Byakuren again. "... There are a lot of vulgar spirits around the Silent Shrine at present," she said softly. "Ones that anticipated my release and gathered to witness it... but I doubt that I was the resurrection they were expecting to see." She shook her head lightly. "Make of that what you will... now, if nobody else has objections, I think I want to go catch up with the times and share some sake properly with our esteemed Hakurei maiden. The gods alone know what habits she picked up from Giggles and her gourd..."

Reimu managed a slight laugh. "I suppose I do owe you an apology or three for barging in on you when it was probably her who kicked over my shrine back then..."

Konngara laid a hand on Reimu's shoulder. "You're a Hakurei. You solve incidents. Usually by whomping on the one behind them until they can't see straight. It sort of comes with the job." She laughed lightly. "There's a balance to it, that's all. One your predecessors never did find... but I think with the times as they are, if you can find the right people around, you'll figure something out."

Reimu glanced up and waved to a blonde-haired blur whizzing overhead. "Well, then. Let's go grab one of those right people right now, and go relax..." She paused, and looked back at me. "... and hey, thanks. You handled that little problem so well that I didn't even know anything was wrong until Yukari popped in to tell me it was resolved..."

I smiled. "Well, it's my job, isn't it?"

Reimu smirked. "Handling incidents is my job. But you're a shrine maiden too... and there's no way I'd be able to relax like this tonight with Marisa and an oni if you hadn't stepped up when you did..."

Still smiling, she headed off, that blonde blur swooping after them on her broom with a familiar laugh. Byakuren beamed. "Well, I'd say this little journey went well, even if I've a few things to think about now..." She shook her head.

Yamame smiled lightly to her. "Well. Don't let us keep you two waiting, you go enjoy some time together. Satori likes taking things slow, so I'll have tea with you another time..."

Byakuren bowed lightly. "I'll very much look forward to it..." she said softly, as she nodded and left. Satori turned, and for a moment, I thought I saw a slight smile cross her face. Then she tilted her head. "... why on earth would you want to know if tea tastes better aboveground?" she murmured, and was gone into the night.

Yamame smiled at me, patting Kisume's head lightly as she dozed in my arms. "So then... shall we go see the shrine?"

The night air whistled softly past us as we moved along. Below us, the village was mostly dark and silent, small lights here and there marking the spots where a few worked still late into the night, beneath the soft light of the moon. Before us stretched the mountain, a single cluster of lights marking out the kappa at work long into the night. Our destination was lower, though, and we soon descended among the dark trees to the little pond. Yamame smiled as she looked around. "... It's bigger than I remember," she remarked.

I nodded. "Someone built one long ago, but it was abandoned and mostly ruined when I found it," I said softly. "I'm actually a pretty good carpenter, so I fixed up what I could out of what was left and then expanded it more properly..."

"Huh, you're back..." I blinked as I saw Mokou emerge from the shrine, holding a book carefully in her arms. "Took longer than I was expecting you to..."

Yamame smiled lightly. "Staying over too, are you?" she asked brightly. "I'm Yamame Kurodani..."

Mokou eyed her a long moment. "... earth spider, huh? Well..." She smiled, just a little. "Fujiwara no Mokou, a human touched by the Hourai. I have a feeling the moon quack would love to meet someone with your power..."

The book in her arms shifted, then toppled out and opened, floating towards me. "Aneechan, you were gone a long time..." Sakan murmured, rubbing his eyes.

At the same moment, Kisume stirred in my arms, rubbing her eyes and lifting her head to find herself peering at the tsukumogami. The two looked at each other for a long moment.

"... cute!" they both suddenly declared, Kisume staring wide-eyed at Yamame and Sakan up at me. "Who's this?"

I laughed, and gently let Kisume float loose. "Sakan, this is Kisume. She's a tsubure-otoshi I met underground..."

Sakan nodded. "She's cute!" he declared again. "Are you gonna be her aneechan too?"

Kisume blanched. "N-no way, I've already got Yammy..." She looked up at me now. "Is this that book youkai you were talking about? You never told me he was a boy..."

Sakan fidgeted, looking around the group. "... hey, aneechan? I think there's too many people to really comfortably all stay at the shrine tonight... um... can I take her back to our house and stay there? I kinda wanna talk to her..."

Mokou burst into a sudden laugh. "You were right this morning... he really is a charmer..." she gasped out, ruffling Sakan's hair.

Yamame smiled. "Well, as long as Kisume doesn't mind..."

I rolled my eyes. "And as long as neither of you start messing around with your fire without me around."

Yamame giggled. "And as long as you don't go trying to scare any humans just yet, Kisume..."

Sakan and Kisume both stared at us. "... But it's okay, right, Mom?" they teased in unison.

"I'm your big sis, not your mom, silly..." I hugged Sakan warmly against me. "Well, I suppose if I can pick myself out a girlfriend, I can't really stop you from at least trying," I whispered in his ear, grinning.

Sakan looked up at me, wide-eyed, before gasping as Kisume took his hand and the two flew off rapidly towards the village again. Yamame giggled softly. "Well, I'm sure they'll get along just fine..."

Mokou shook her head. "I should get going," she said quietly.

Daiyousei fluttered up and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Mokou, please. You've been helping us all day... please stay. Relax... you're with friends here..."

Mokou blinked lightly, before giving a slight nod and shuffling back inside. Yamame bowed lightly and slipped inside as well.

After a moment, Minoriko poked her head out. "Chitose, you've had quite a long day, you know," she murmured softly. "Why don't you come in?"

Shizuha peeked out. "That Cirno kept poking in to pester us today, too," she said. "Something about you hiding from playing with her and Letty..."

I laughed. "I'll have to go find her tomorrow then... and maybe you can show off some of your colors to Yamame while I do, Shizuha-sama?"

Minoriko giggled. "Come in soon, all right? It's long past time you and your dear got some rest..."

I nodded as she ducked inside, turning my eyes to the stars above once more. Daiyousei settled up beside me, taking my hand in hers.

I smiled. "Well. I made some new friends belowground... I'd say I'm pleased, if exhausted..."

Daiyousei kissed my cheek lightly. "Definitely..." she murmured softly. We stood there another long moment more, before finally turning and heading into the shrine, sliding the door closed behind us.

(( Author's Notes: This one ended up kind of short, but I think it flows well enough for what it is. The one long day has finally come to a close, full of things accomplished and full of plans for the next day.

One thing I did want to talk about briefly here was Yuyuko. I've tried to be subtle about it, but to put it simply, Yuyuko was fully aware of the "utsuro's" actions belowground, and suggested this journey to Byakuren specifically to get Chitose, a shrine maiden, belowground to deal with it. And perhaps for another reason or two of her own, but I've said a lot already.

As for the half-forgotten goings-on at the temple that sparked off this whole trip, for those of you who haven't figured out yet, this particular story is set in the dead of winter shortly before the incident we know as Ten Desires. Miko's stirrings have already caused a few noticeable effects, and Byakuren's trying to deal with them in her own way... though what Konngara tells her at the end pretty much confirms her suspicions.

I'm not even going to try to actively put Kisume and Sakan together as a pair. All there really is between them is that they're young, they apparently each think the other is cute, and they're at the very least likely to be friends. I'm pushing things enough as-is making Chitose pair up with even a minor character like Daiyousei...

As far as the future goes, who can really say? I have a half-baked idea for another story, but it's extremely silly and I'm not sure if I'll ever put it to the page. I have other projects that I've been putting on hold as well, like a complete rewrite of .hack/Guardian. And I'm not entirely satisfied at present with this final chapter, so I may revisit it at a later date; I'll update the chapter here if I do so. In any case, we'll just have to see how things go. All I can do at present is offer this, and hope it meets with the sort of reception that Chitose's first tale gained beyond all my possible hopes. Thank you. ))