On the Boundary Between Light and Shadow

Cursed Goddess

"Hina Kagiyama"

Abilities: the ability to store and manipulate misfortune.

A goddess that amasses and collects misfortune. It is said that one can be cursed with bad luck simply from being in her presence.

For the sake of protecting the author and the readers, her real name has not been included in this book. Of taboos related to her, there are many.

Do not write about her. If you should ever see her, pretend that you did not. Do not speak to her. Do not even speak about her.

Avoid everything associated with her, for everything she touches becomes forever tainted with the curses surrounding her.

It has been said that she gains power from the misfortune of others. This has not been confirmed.

She is extremely dangerous. Avoid contact with her at all costs.

The disasters she bring cannot be avoided. They can affect your health, your livelihood, even your relationship with others.

If you believe you have been touched by her bad luck, ask for a cleansing at a shrine or a temple.

Excerpt from the Gensokyo Chronicles, 7th Edition

Fire burned in the sky. It flared up in bursts, illuminating the dark forest below with flashes of impossibly bright light, accompanied by the occasional rainbow glow of the shrine maiden's sealing talismans and the swarm of brightly, cheerfully colored butterflies that seemed to follow the Netherworld princess around wherever she went. And above it all, a blood red moon hung low above the horizon, casting its dispassionate gaze down upon the desperate fight taking place in the night sky.

She winced and gingerly held a hand against her ribs. While the introduction of the spellcard rules had served to all but eliminate the killing that had been commonplace a few years ago, she had not been pleased with the way it had ingrained violence into everyday life. The shrine maiden's attitude about the entire thing rankled her as well.

Even if someone were to be seriously injured over the course of the duel, as long as no one actually died, then what was there to worry about? Accidents happened occasionally, did they not? And even if spellcard duels inherently favored youkai with their naturally superior stamina and physical capabilities, well, that was no problem of hers. So long as the rules were enforced, and everything was at least nominally fair, Hakurei Reimu had discharged her duty to Gensokyo.

And now that shrine maiden had gone charging off after the one person she considered to be her family over what no doubt were more of that princess's lies. She'd tried to stop her, of course, but for all of her pleas for reason and efforts at barring her way, even on today of all days, she'd only truly succeeded at injuring herself, without managing to even delay the shrine maiden any significant amount.

It hurt. Not just in a physical way, although the sharp, throbbing pain in her side whenever she breathed was a persistent reminder that she'd probably cracked at least one rib in the altercation. No, this was a different kind of pain. It was the kind of pain that came from a sense of hopelessness, from the knowledge that, no matter how hard she tried, there was nothing she could do to change what was happening even as she watched.

The flames raged, hungrily blazing in large swathes against the tapestry of the sky, as if they sought to burn a hole through the inky void that swallowed all light. The colored bursts of light were getting more and more frequent as well, and the occasional shout and scream of pain drifted down to the ground. And then, one gigantic pillar of fire flared up, and it was over. The sounds of battle fell silent, and, for a long moment, five floating figures hung silhouetted against the moon before one of the five bowed slightly to the others and flew towards where she was standing.

A long stream of silver hair fluttered out from behind her as the newcomer landed. Her friend hadn't come out of the fight unscathed – the large bow tied into her hair had disappeared, and, here and there, splashes of red seeped into her otherwise white shirt. A few of the protective charms woven into her clothing had evidently been torn out as well, as a large chunk of her sleeve had simply vanished, the missing cloth surrounded by a ring of charred black fabric.

She slumped to the ground, and let out a sigh. Finally, it was over, and she could go back to the life she normally lived... A pair of arms enveloped her in a tight hug. She let out a sharp gasp of pain at the way her ribs protested the further strain.

"Are you all right?" Her friend sounded worried, she noted through the red haze of pain that descended across her vision. "Reimu didn't hurt you, did she, Kei-"

"-eine?" Kamishirasawa Keine, schoolteacher and self-appointed guardian of the Human Village, groaned and slowly turned over in bed. The blankets were warm, it was too early in the morning, and surely whatever had brought someone to her door at this ungodly hour couldn't be all that important, right? Surely it could wait until later. Yes, later sounded nice. She sighed and stretched a little under the blankets covering her body, and relaxed again, trying to get back to sleep. Maybe whoever it was would simply go away and leave her alone, and she could go back to sleep.

"Keine? Are you there?" This time, the sound of knocking at the door accompanied the words, a series of sharp raps that rattled the doors to her modest home. No, evidently the person looking for her was quite persistent – enough so that they were not likely to leave anytime soon.

"I'm coming," Keine grumbled, more to herself than anyone else, before slowly crawling out of bed, haphazardly throwing on a change of clothes. The door quietly slid open with a push, and she looked outside, blinking at the harsh sunlight. One glance was all she needed to identify her visitor. "Hakurei Reimu," she said cooly. "What brings you to my doorstep at this hour?" The events of the so-called Imperishable Night incident had not exactly endeared the shrine maiden to her, and the dream she'd just had about the events following immediately afterward hadn't helped, for that matter.

"Good morning, Keine," Reimu greeted, stepping aside to reveal that cursed goddess who lived on the mountain. "Hina here wanted to meet with you quite urgently, and, as per your previous requests to not let youkai in the village without informing you first, I've accompanied her to her destination here." She smiled. "Anyway, now that my work here is done, I'll be on my way. If there's anything you need, you know where to find me." And with that, she simply turned around and left.

Keine glared at her retreating figure for a moment. How rude. The shrine maiden's normal lackadaisical attitude was irritating enough, and Reimu's behavior on the few occasions that she'd shown up in the village had hardly left a good impression. For someone who was, at least theoretically, supposed to protect the villagers as part of keeping the balance, she showed remarkably little concern for any of the niceties that played an integral part in human relations.

She grimaced. There was still the other visitor to deal with, and fuming over Reimu's antics would not do her any good. She looked over to where the curse goddess from the mountain was standing quietly, hands clasped in front of her. What was her name again? Kagiyama Hina, was it? There was an entry about her in the Gensokyo Chronicles, although much of what was "known" was simply speculation and rumor. From the way she was standing there nervously, Hina probably wouldn't cause any trouble. No, she could probably handle this by herself.

"I'm sorry," Hina said timidly. "Did I come at a bad time? I can come back later, if you want..." She trailed off.

Keine sighed, belatedly realizing that she'd probably been glaring at her while she was thinking. "No," she said. "It's fine." She stuck out her hand as a form of greeting, and Hina hesitantly reached out to shake it. The curse goddess's hand was bitterly cold, she noted, despite the pleasant warmth of the first days of autumn. "I'm Kamishirasawa Keine," she continued, "a schoolteacher here in the village, as you probably already know. Pleased to meet you, Kagiyama-san."

"There's no need to pretend to be happy to see me here, Kamishirasawa-san," Hina said dryly. "I doubt you are unaware of my ill reputation."

"Nonetheless," Keine said, "you have come here as a guest, and as long as you do not act maliciously, I will treat you the same as any other visitor to my home." She smiled. "Would you like to come in?"

Hina shook her head nervously. "No," she replied. "I think it would be better if we spoke out here."

The youkai seemed serious about wanting to talk – more so, at least, than Shameimaru Aya had been the few times she'd shown up to try to worm an interview out of her. And, well, if the stories and rumors about the curse goddess on the mountain were true, then perhaps it would be better if she stayed outside here, instead of letting Hina into her home. "So what might the problem be?" she asked, finally.

"There's a boy," Hina said, "who I think could use your help."

Keine frowned. "I thought everyone knew about the classes I teach," she said. "At any rate, if the child in question is a youkai, I hold a separate set of classes at Kourindou. If he is a human living outside of the village, then I can arrange for an escort if necessary."

Hina shook her head. "Na- The boy is someone I met in Konoha on one of my trips Outside. He's an orphan, and as a result of the lack of attention, he's missed a lot of the instruction that the other children his age have had." She smiled ruefully. "At the same time, though, I'm not exactly the person you'd look for to teach these sorts of things..." She shrugged helplessly.

"Alright," Keine said. "Let me get this straight. You befriended this orphan in a ninja village, and you want me to go there to teach him?" Hina nodded. "And why exactly," she asked, "did you come to me about this?"

"You're a teacher," Hina said, as if the answer were blatantly obvious. "Everyone on the mountain agrees that you're the one we should go to for advice and help regarding humans." She frowned a little. "Should I have gone to someone else instead?" She sounded honestly confused.

Keine sighed. It was too early in the morning to deal with something like this. No matter how sympathetic she was towards Hina's request, she had her own duties here in Gensokyo, duties that kept her busy enough that she couldn't really justify running around the Elemental Nations for a few weeks simply for the sake of one boy that she had never met. On the other hand, she could certainly understand that child's situation – she herself had not had an easy childhood. Her mother had died at childbirth, and no one knew who her father was. With the additional stigma from being a half-youkai, it had been all but a miracle that she'd survived until Mokou found her.

She wanted to help. She really did. But...

"I might be able to clear up enough time to visit," Keine said. "It's going to be a one-time thing, though. With how busy I am here, between teaching and the various administrative tasks that have been pushed onto me, I can't spare any more time than that. To be honest, the only real way I can really help you is if you can convince the child to move here. I believe there have been provisions set up for integrating civilians into "Kekkaigakure," and you may wish to ask about those."

Hina smiled happily. "Thank you very much for your help, Kamishirasawa-san," she said, bowing deeply to her before hurrying off.

Keine waved at her retreating figure for a moment, before heading back inside. She had paperwork to do and classes to teach, but, for the moment, none of that really mattered. Moments like this reminded her why she'd chosen to become a schoolteacher in the first place – not for the respect and prestige it afforded her, but, rather, to help improve the lives of those less fortunate than her. To be honest, she'd thought it was impossible to effect any sort of change on the Outside with what little resources she had, but Hina's visit had brought up some new ideas and a new motivation. And maybe, just maybe, there was something she could do to change things, not just for the people of the village, but for everyone else.

There was a shrine maiden in the middle of the cleared dirt patch that served as the village's town square. Both the vibrant green shade of her hair, so atypical for this region of Fire Country, and her peculiar accent, with its unfamiliar idioms and its quaint, almost archaic feel, marked her as a foreigner, probably from the west, in the Land of Waterfalls or the Land of Grass, where that particular color of hair was common. It swayed in the wind as she stood on top of an overturned crate, talking to the dozens of villagers who'd shown up to listen to her speak, and it shook when she pointed, first up to the sky, then down to the ground, and then finally to the parched fields that surrounded the village.

Hayate snorted. Almost every single time bad weather ruined a harvest, dozens of cults sprung up, promising that, with a simple prayer – and a modest donation – all of the farmers' woes would be solved. Such cults sprung up with such predictability and regularity that checking up on the occasional itinerant preacher wandering through Fire Country was considered an easy mission. Unfortunately, low difficulty meant correspondingly low pay.

As a chuunin with less than three years of field experience, his mission pool was limited to the easier, less well-paying missions, and while the pay was more than adequate to cover his living expenses and the cost of repairing or replacing damaged equipment, it still left very few funds for discretionary expenses. Even though getting the approval to take more difficult missions was simply a matter of time, there were certain things – luxury items such as a higher-quality sword or various consumables such as soldier pills or explosive tags – that he would much rather have now rather than later, and which would make his life much easier.

So here he was, out in the countryside and away from home, taking on a solo mission to openly investigate yet another minor cult that had sprung up in the wake of this summer's drought. He'd done similar missions in the past, and they'd all been uniformly uneventful. Most of the time, the self-proclaimed 'prophets' would show up for a village and solicit for donations before disappearing with whatever ill-gotten gains they managed to obtain in such a fashion. There were exceptions, of course. He'd been briefed on one of the few truly murderous groups before he left, a death cult revolving around some god named "Jashin" that had recently cropped up in the Land of Hot Springs, whose members tended to show up to various villages and slaughter everyone who refused to convert.

Thankfully, there were no murderous cultists here, only a single young woman who didn't seem particularly inclined towards violence. To be perfectly honest, his job here wasn't terribly interesting – observe any proselytizing that the cultists might be doing, and make contact to uncover more information as necessary. Still, he supposed that uninteresting and dull was better than the alternative. No, better that he complete the mission uneventfully than end up with a situation that might earn him a bit of hazard pay at best, and a spot on the black graven memorial by Training Ground Three at worst.

As he made his way closer, slowly edging into the outer fringes of the crowd, the woman continued rambling on about her religion. It was some drivel about faith giving gods power, and about how prayers and entreaties made by those of unwavering belief would be answered. Surprisingly, it seemed that she hadn't asked for anything from the villagers yet. Now that he thought about it though, the shrine maiden hadn't said much of substance, making none of the false promises that he'd heard time and again from the lips of itinerant preachers. Her name, he learned quickly, was Kochiya Sanae. She seemed to be making a point of trying to reaching out to her audience and projecting an image of honesty, given how she was freely answering questions about herself and her duties as a shrine maiden.

That, no doubt, was at least partially responsible for the large crowd the visitor had gathered. Even civilians eventually became incredibly distrustful, especially after meeting one fraudulent, lying "prophet" after another. There was something different about this woman, though. She seemed to genuinely believe in these gods of hers, and that self-belief only made her words all the more convincing. No matter how disillusioned with religion the villagers might be, the idea of praying their troubles away was no doubt still quite the attractive prospect to the people who faced starvation in the coming winter if the drought continued.

Something about this whole thing rubbed him the wrong way, though. He would probably feel better about the visitor if he could find some obvious scam that this new cult was trying to pull. It was concerning – the mere fact that there hadn't yet been any requests for money marked the group that the shrine maiden belonged to as something other than the typical cult that popped up every so often. He'd done a bit of investigation of his own on the visitor, and, despite her foreignness, all of the paperwork had been filed properly, and he could see the visa with the tracking seals hanging from the hem of her shirt like a good-luck charm. Everything about her was perfectly above-ground – scrupulously so, almost. It was enough to raise suspicions. Regardless of his own misgivings concerning the situation, however, his job here was to seek information, and not to make policy decisions that were better reserved for those with more authority and experience, and so he stayed put and listened.

After an hour or so, the shrine maiden ended her sermon with a short prayer, requesting that the villagers follow along, exhorting some goddess – a "Suwako-sama" for favorable weather and the revival of the harvest. Hayate elected not to join them, choosing instead to watch as Sanae closed her eyes and held up her hand in front of her, flipping her gohei around to draw the shape of a five-pointed star in midair. She murmured something under her breath, and when she opened her eyes again, there was a glint there that had been absent before.

"Thank you very much for taking the time to listen to me," she said after she finished, sounding oddly happy about the whole thing. "With enough prayers, the gods can give us blessed rain. Stay faithful, and perhaps you will witness a miracle." With that, she brushed off a few requests that she stay, mentioning pressing engagements, before making her way back out of the village and onwards down the road that lead deeper into Fire Country.

He chose not to follow her when she left. The wooden card that she carried on her person would let him find her wherever she went, and he was curious as to whether Sanae's claims about the weather would actually materialize.

Exactly two days after Sanae left the village, a rainstorm swept in from the north, bringing with it an end to the month-long drought in the form of nearly a week of steady rain that slowly seeped into the ground, bringing fresh life back to the parched fields. It came too late to completely save the harvest, but it was enough to ensure that no one would starve during the cold days of winter. Even as the villagers celebrated the occurrence of the "miracle" and made plans to build a shrine according to the instructions Sanae had left, Hayate could not help but wonder about the rain. Was it truly a coincidence?

Perhaps, Keine decided, as she wandered aimlessly through the street market, bringing Mokou with her hadn't been such a good idea after all. Truth be told, she initially hadn't planned on it, either. When Mokou had found out about her planned trip to Outside, however, she'd insisted on coming along as well, and there really hadn't been much reason to refuse. But now, that choice was, more and more, seeming to have been a mistake.

She'd wanted to explore Konoha during her limited time there, though. She'd asked Hina to leave her with directions for a rendezvous point, and, with that settled, she'd set off to explore the village. It was rare that she ever got the chance to leave the Village for an extended period of time, between her teaching and the other administrative duties that occupied her time. And really, how could she, as a teacher, even try to teach about this new Outside if her only knowledge of it were gleaned from the dry, almost clinical reports that Aya generated? So that meant wandering around in the village, and it would be useful to have someone else with her, if only to help her keep track of where they were in the village itself. Since Hina would probably be off finding that child she'd been trying to help in the meantime, that meant finding someone else to bring along. And who better than her closest friend?

It had sounded like it would work a lot better, she reflected, while she'd been back at home still planning her trip. As it was, Mokou stood out a lot more than she had expected, with her absurdly long, silvery hair, which attracted far more attention here than she'd expected. Although that alone might have been fine, it seemed that she was spending more time sending scathing looks at everyone around them than actually keeping an eye out for points of interest and the like.

As it turned out, she'd underestimated both Mokou's protectiveness towards her and her rampant paranoia.

"You know," Keine said, finally, after Mokou had glared a couple across the street into submission, "not everyone in this place is a ninja."

"And you're willing to trust your safety on that? Because I'm not."

She sighed. "Mokou, we're here to visit and to add money to their economy. If they didn't want us here, we wouldn't even have made it through the gates."

"I still don't trust them," Mokou muttered. "I heard that..."

"I don't care what it is that you got out of reading Aya's screed," she snapped. "Look. All I'm asking you to do is at least pretend that you don't think that everyone here is out to kill me."

Mokou said nothing, choosing instead to viciously grind the butt of the cigarette she'd been smoking into the dirt. In a single smooth motion, she pulled another yet one out of a box stuffed in her pant pocket and lit it with a snap of her fingers. She'd had an unopened box with her earlier in the morning, and now, judging from the rattling sounds it was making as she walked around, it was almost empty.

Keine sighed, but said nothing. Mokou had picked up quite a few vices over the years, and smoking was harmless compared to some of the others. The one and only time she'd tried to admonish her for the habit, Mokou's response had been a simple question: "What's it going to do, kill me?" She'd given up on trying to convince her not long after. It had been a difficult lesson to learn, but, in the end, she'd decided that it would be best to conserve her energy for other things – it simply wasn't worth the effort to argue over the small things, not when there were much more important things to insist on.

Like now. "Mokou," she said. "You're doing it again." There was no response. "Mokou," she said again, a bit louder than before. Once more, Mokou gave no indication that she'd heard. Keine sighed, and drove her elbow into Mokou's side. "Listen to me!"

"What was that for?" Mokou said angrily.

"Are you capable of acting normally at all?"

"You didn't have to poke me that hard," she grumbled, wincing a bit as she rubbed her side where she'd been elbowed with one hand, pointing to the roof of a nondescript building. "There was someone watching us, up there."

It was a plain, nondescript building, almost identical to the numerous others that lined the street that they were standing on, notable only for the fact that there was only one sign mounted on the side, advertising a restaurant that presumably occupied the space inside. Keine looked up towards the rooftop. There was nothing there. "There's nothing up there," she said dubiously. Leave it to Mokou to see nonexistent threats to her person.

"There was someone," Mokou said insistently. "I saw it."

Keine shook her head and sighed again. It was touching to see how much Mokou cared about her – it really was – but dealing with her sudden attacks of paranoia could be trying. Maybe it would be for the best to cut the sightseeing short and head directly over to the place where Hina had asked to meet them. It could always wait until later, and really, it wasn't worth it if it meant dealing with Mokou's eccentricities. She grasped Mokou's hand in her own and gave it a squeeze. "Come on," she said softly. "Let's go. Hina's waiting for us."

Hina's directions led her to the second floor of a dirty-looking apartment building. She knocked on the door twice, before stepping back and waiting patiently while Mokou paced back and forth along the narrow hallway, her footsteps echoing off of the bare concrete.

Barely a few seconds later, the door burst open, revealing a young, worried-looking human boy. "Are you Hina-nee's friends?"

Keine resisted the urge to smile uncontrollably at the unexpected title that he'd accorded to the curse goddess and nodded. "I'm -"

"Please," the boy said, cutting her off. "You've got to help her!"

Well. Now that was interesting. Hina had been perfectly fine when they'd parted ways earlier in the morning. Just what might have happened in the meantime? Youkai typically had hardier constitutions than humans did, and if Hina had either been injured or had fallen ill to the extent that a human who was likely unaware of her true nature was worried, then there was likely very little she could do without using her own supernatural abilities. Almost as if on cue, someone spoke up from inside the apartment. "Kamishirasawa-san, is that you?"

She blinked. The thin, watery voice that had drifted out of the apartment bore little resemblance to the voice that Hina had had when she'd last spoken to her. "Kagiyama-san?" she called out. "It's me, Keine."

"I'll -" Hina said weakly, before her voice devolved into a chain of wet, racking coughs. "I'll be all right."

Illness, then. Keine winced. That had sounded quite painful. And if Hina had somehow fallen ill in such a short time frame... "I'll take a look," she told the child, who nodded and stepped aside from the doorway to let her in. Hina was sitting curled up against a wall in the living room, her hands pressed firmly to her mouth. She slowly straightened up as Keine walked towards her.

"I'm fine," she said, "re-" She doubled over and coughed again, in a series of spasms that shook her entire body. When she sat back up, she took in a deep, gurgling breath and loudly cleared her throat before spitting something into the plain white handkerchief she'd been holding in her hand. "I'm fine," she said again. It wasn't particularly convincing.

Keine frowned. She felt like she'd seen something strange, although she couldn't quite figure out what she'd seen that had been so notable. Hina, on the other hand, was being remarkably stubborn about whatever it was that she was suffering from. "Kagiyama-san," she said gently, "I understand if you don't want to tell me." Hiding one's own problems was hardly a trait limited to humans, after all. If there truly was something important that she was attempting to conceal, trying to force the truth out of her was hardly going to yield useful results. Best to take a softer approach. "But," she continued, "if there's something wrong, I'm here to help."

Hina nodded, before jerking her head towards the doorway, to where the young boy was standing, nervously watching the proceedings.

"Mokou?" Keine asked, giving her a pointed look.

The immortal rolled her eyes, but obligingly led the boy over to what looked like a small bedroom opposite the doorway. "Come on, kiddo," she said. "Let's give Keine some privacy while she does her magic, all right?" The boy swallowed thickly and nodded, though he kept glancing nervously over towards where Hina was sitting against the wall.

The bedroom door slid shut with a thump, but Hina remained silent. It wasn't until the muted strains of conversation began drifting out of the bedroom that she finally unfolded the scrap of cloth clenched in her hand, revealing a tarry mass of black ichor, laced with faint streaks of blood. As Keine looked at it in a mixture of horror and fascination, it slowly dissipated into the air, slowly, almost imperceptibly shrinking as it dispersed into tendrils of black smoke that lazily drifted upwards before disappearing into nothingness.

"What is that?" Keine asked, shying away. The amorphous mass sitting on the handkerchief was disturbing, and not just because Hina had apparently coughed it up. No, if anything, it felt almost malicious, enough so that she felt the beginnings of an instinctual repulsion.

"It is what I am," Hina replied. "My very being." She tilted the handkerchief, letting the fluid drip off of the cloth and onto her hand, where it oozed into a small pool in her palm. "It is misfortune," she continued. "Misfortune in its purest form, gathered and condensed until it can make its presence known in the physical world."

"The Chronicles call you a curse goddess," Keine said, "and it warns travelers to avoid even the mention of your name, but I never thought..."

"It is not as much of a burden as you might expect," Hina said. "But do not forget that the rumors and superstition that surround my existence came about for a reason." Hina sighed. "At any rate, there is no need to worry about adverse effects from this." She shook her head and raised her hand up to her chin, knocking her head back to tilt the substance into her mouth. Hina grimaced for a moment and swallowed visibly. Almost immediately afterward, she started to cough again.

Keine reached out to her, more as a gesture of solidarity than as an attempt to help, but Hina waved her off. "I'll be fine," she said after the coughing subsided. "This is not the first time I have had this happen to me." She smiled wanly. "I might derive my own powers and abilities from misfortune, but too much can still affect me adversely."

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Keine asked.

Hina shook her head. "Please," she said quietly, "just go take care of the child. This illness will resolve itself in time, and we only have a few days here in Konoha. Every moment is precious."

Keine sighed. It was not difficult to see that further attempts at persuasion would prove to be fruitless. She stood up and made her way over to the closed bedroom door, gently rapping on the frame. But even as she wondered about how to explain the whole situation to that young boy, she could not help but think that the young woman sitting curled up against the wall looked terribly, terribly lonely.

"Where's Hina-nee?" the boy demanded, almost as soon as the door slid open.

"She'll be all right," Keine said. "It's just one of those things that needs some time to go away." The boy looked at her for a moment and nodded, looking unconvinced. "Kagiyama-san asked for my help," Keine continued, "so I'm going to be your teacher for the next few days." She extended her right hand to the boy, who looked honestly confused for a moment, before he finally realized what was asked of him and reciprocated. "I'm afraid that we haven't been properly introduced yet, with all the commotion. I'm Kamishirasawa Keine, and as I'm sure you know already, my friend here is Fujiwara Mokou."

"Uzumaki Naruto," the boy – Naruto – said quietly in response.

Keine gave him a bright smile. "Well, then, why don't we start with introductions? As I've told you already, I'm Kamishirasawa Keine, although Keine-sensei is fine if you don't want to say my family name. I'm a teacher in one of the villages near where Kagiyama-san lives."

"A teacher?" Naruto asked.

"A teacher," Keine confirmed. "Mostly, I work with children like you, though I've had a few other students as well." She smiled again. "Well, why don't we start off with a story? Hina said that she'd already told you one?"

The boy nodded. "Yeah!" he said, sounding much happier than before. He scrunched up his face in concentration. "Ta-ke-to-ri Mono-gatari?"

Mokou let out a quiet chuff. "I'll head back outside and make sure Kagiyama-san's going to be okay," she said quietly.

Keine nodded at her in acknowledgment, turning back to the child once Mokou shut the door firmly behind her. She tapped her finger on her lips, giving an outward show of deep thought. "Hmm. I know! How about a story about a brave young man who rescued a princess?"

He nodded eagerly.

"Well, a long, long time ago, there was a man called Urashima Taro..."

As far as stories went, it was not the happiest story she could have told. No, the tale of Urashima Taro ended not with a blissful, joyous reunion, but rather the bitter tears of regret. The version of the story she always told to her students ended with the fisherman grieving by the sea, his back bowed by the weight of his old age, mourning his lost love. No, definitely not the happiest of endings. There was a lesson to be learned there, though, one that was much easier to impart by parable than by direct instruction.

It had taken her a few months of teaching – a few months too long – to figure out that most young children had difficulty understanding abstract concepts. That was not something that had been easy for her to understand, given her own circumstances and upbringing, and, indeed, Mokou had almost had to rub her face in it before she finally got it into her head that the amount of material that a student memorized and the amount of material that a student actually understood were two vastly different things. But she'd learned her lesson, in the end. Complicated questions posed to children, in the end, were worse than useless. Better to tell stories instead.

To Keine, the story of the fisherman and the dragon princess was more than just a simple story. Admittedly, the sheer amount of times that she'd ended up telling it throughout her life might just be due to simple sentimentality – it was the story that Mokou had spent hours and hours repeating to her as a child – but it was, nonetheless, a useful tool, both to impart knowledge and to perform an assessment. On the surface, it was simply a story about a foolish man who let his curiosity get the better of him, but there was more to it than that. Thematically, the story was quite complex, with a few central ideas that she felt were important, especially to a child in Naruto's position. While her knowledge of the circumstances and history of this world was limited to what her little information her friends and acquaintances had managed to glean from their few trips Outside, the small amount she'd heard was enough to indicate to her that certain concepts would be particularly important for a human child growing up in such an environment to learn early.

While wariness of the new and the unknown could sometimes be a hindrance to progress, they'd served her well when she'd been growing up, and, in such a potentially dangerous environment, the ability to identify just what should be left well enough alone was incredibly important. If these ninja behaved in any way like what she'd read about the onmitsu from the Sengoku era, then knowing when to stop asking questions would be a crucial survival skill. And while the child might not understand the purpose behind the story that she was telling him, hopefully the story itself would stick.

At least the boy was quite the eager learner. Too eager, perhaps. Naruto seemed to be content with the fact that he even had someone to tell him stories in the first place, not to mention that the way he seemed to cling to her every word was... disturbing. No child should have to turn to a stranger to slake that desperate thirst for attention, that desperate need to find someone, anyone, who cared. Given what Hina had related to her about Naruto's circumstances, it was, perhaps, understandable, but leaving an orphaned child to fend for himself simply wasn't something that was done.

Originally, Keine hadn't intended to do anything more than a simple series of tests, enough to determine the boy's level of education and leave Hina with enough resources to be able to teach the boy on her own, but this... this was not something she had expected. Now that she'd actually met the child, though, it was hard to resist the temptation to stay long enough to make a proper attempt at giving him a proper education.

Not that she would, of course. She had business to take care of, both here in Konohagakure and back in Gensokyo, not to mention the full moon that steadily drew nearer.

It still left a bitter taste in her mouth, though.

A long, long time ago, she'd sworn an oath to protect those who were powerless to protect themselves. As it was, all it really meant was that she'd harbor the occasional Outsider who found themselves drawn inside the Barrier, now that the spellcard rules had come into place and concerns about feral youkai attacking the village had largely dissipated. The oath remained, though, and even though there was nothing to enforce it save her own pride, here was a child who needed protecting. Here was a boy, too young to understand the harsh realities of the world, and yet denied any sort of protection from the troubles and trials that children should not have to face. This child was just the type of person who she'd devoted her entire adult life to defending and protecting.

But what power did she have here, a stranger in a strange land?

Nominally, there was a clear separation of duties between the Military Police Force and the Anbu Black Ops teams. In theory, it was quite simple – the Military Police was in charge of internal security and counterintelligence operations, whereas the Anbu teams dealt with foreign intelligence and operations that fell outside of Konoha. In practice, however, the supposedly clear-cut delineation between the two groups' duties was not quite so clearly defined as had initially been hoped. Occasionally, the Military Police took on missions outside of Konoha or, for that matter, outside of Fire Country proper, while the Anbu often ran their own operations within Konoha's confines. Furthermore, much of the time, it was unclear where the information obtained from the regular ninja forces should be sent. The standard procedure in such cases was to send the reports to both the Anbu and the Military Police, and, more often than not, those reports eventually made their way through the bureaucracy, jumping from inbox to inbox, and, eventually, to the desk of Uchiha Fugaku.

Reading through those reports was a time-consuming and often irritating task that took up a large portion of his time, but someone had to do the job. And while he certainly trusted his subordinates to do their tasks properly, in the end, it was up to him as the leader of the Military Police to understand the implications of recent events on Konoha's security and act accordingly.

And so, here he was, slowly working his way through the thick pile of paper. Most of it consisted either of mission reports or observation logs that contained nothing of particular note. The very last log, though, caught his eye, mostly because of its subjects.

To be perfectly honest, there was nothing particularly questionable in the report, nothing to indicate that the foreigner initiating contact with the observation subject was anything more than what she claimed to be. Even the conversation with the child had been fairly straightforward, with nothing of real content save for a few tales of adventure and fantasy that would not be out of place in any civilian's home. The only real reason that the conversation had been logged was the identity of the child in question.

The Kyuubi jinchuuriki. Or, perhaps more importantly, Konoha's only jinchuuriki, and thus, Konoha's bargaining chip in keeping its place in the balance of power between the various Hidden Villages. Naturally, having such a person be influenced by a foreign entity was less than desirable. No doubt Hiruzen had just been put in the uncomfortable position of potentially having to find a way to warn a citizen of a potential ally away from a strategic asset without either giving away too much information or alienating someone who could potentially veto any possible treaties between Konoha and Kekkai. Thankfully, while he occasionally had to deal with similar issues if policy himself in his role as Uchiha Clan Head, he'd never quite encountered a problem of this nature or magnitude.

It helped, though, that the conversation itself was so innocuous, without a single thing to indicate that it was anything more than a woman being concerned about the plight of a young orphaned boy. No doubt Hiruzen agreed with his assessment, judging from the lack of any response to this report on Konoha's part.

Fugaku sighed. He flipped through the pages one more time, and set it down on his desk, ready to toss it into the burn bag of sensitive documents along with the rest. Something though, made him turn back to that particular report. He could have just left it at that, could have simply discarded the report as having no other value and left the matter as just one more of the mildly interesting events that served to distract him from the mindless tedium of filling out paperwork, saving him from having a job that consisted of nothing more than hours upon hours of mind-numbing drudgery. But he didn't.

It could have been the mystery of the place – a new hidden village, populated with names and figures unknown to everyone appearing from thin air. It could be simple curiosity about the place that had dominated nearly every single meeting at every level throughout the village for the past few months. But whatever it was, Fugaku took a deeper look at the report. And what he found there was, quite frankly, terrifying.

The watcher assigned to the jinchuuriki had managed to transcribe most of the conversation between 'Hina' and 'Keine', and the contents of that discussion had quite a few disturbing implications. Fugaku suspected that his counterpart in the Anbu had simply dismissed it as a fairly transparent attempt at misinformation, but he himself was not convinced of that. For one, this set up seemed a bit too much for what would effectively amount to a simple attempt at overstating Kekkaigakure's capabilities – too implausible to be reasonably expected to be true by any analyst worth his salt, and with an excessively convoluted method for delivery.

No, as strange as it might sound, the information from that conversation mostly likely was true for the simple reason that it was too ridiculous to possibly be true.

Manipulation of misfortune. The mere idea that an intangible concept could somehow be materialized in a physical form was patently absurd. As far as he knew, every single jutsu acted upon the physical world in some way, either by directly acting on the environment, as ninjutsu and genjutsu did, or by acting on the self, as taijutsu did, allowing ninja who knew the proper techniques to increase their strength and speed to levels far beyond those of an untrained civilian. All of these things were measurable, though, did something that had a palpable effect in some way or another.

This hitherto unknown ability, on the other hand...

Often as not, a mission's success or failure depended a great deal on luck. Usually, the intelligence that a shinobi received on his target was incomplete, with large gaps that had to be filled in using deduction and guesswork. And sometimes, unexpected things occurred. Maybe a roof had been poorly maintained, causing a tile to break underfoot. Or perhaps some guard had abandoned his schedule, managing to be at just the right place at the right time to discover an operative. Like it or not, sometimes the completion of a mission was left solely up to the whims of fortune. And if there was an enemy operative who could somehow twist the odds and increase the probability of encountering some unfortunate happenstance? No, it was not a pleasant thought. Thankfully, the young woman that the reports detailed, this Kagiyama Hina, didn't seem to be a kunoichi, displaying none of the characteristic signs of ninja training that were so difficult to hide, nor any knowledge of the jinchuuriki's watchers.

Most likely, her abilities stemmed from some sort of kekkai genkai, some sort of warped bloodline that permitted her passive control over something so powerful and fickle. It was surprising that Hina had even been allowed out of the village in the first place, given the potential that she carried. While anonymity could sometimes serve as a defense from unwanted attention, there was always the possibility of an unfortunate...

Fugaku laughed at that. No, someone with such an ability would not have to worry about such things, would she?

He shook his head, flipping the report closed and tossing it onto the pile along with the rest.

It was, of course, pure speculation. There was no way to conclusively determine whether any of it was actually true. Not without actually speaking with the woman, at least.

He frowned and rubbed his chin. Now there was an interesting idea. As one of Konoha's four noble clans, the Uchiha clan, and, by extension, he himself, was afforded certain privileges. The benefits ranged from the freedom to negotiate certain economic deals independently from Konoha itself to guaranteed seating during planning meetings, both civilian and military. Perhaps most importantly, while on Uchiha clan lands, he was afforded a certain degree of privacy, a guarantee of sorts that the security presence that pervaded all of Konoha would not touch on clan territory, if only to allow for the keeping of clan secrets. As he understood it, the Hyuuga made use of this assurance quite extensively – even now, the exact details of how the accursed seal that the Hyuuga clan placed on the members of their branch houses functioned were still a mystery.

While, under normal circumstances, meeting in private with a foreigner would be quite unwise, especially under these tense political circumstances... Well, what the Hokage didn't know wouldn't hurt him. Not with regards to this, at least.

He hadn't had much of a chance to speak with anyone from Kekkaigakure during the brief diplomatic visit earlier in the year, seeing as how most of his time had been spent attending hours and hours of meeting debating over something that had been a foregone conclusion from the very start. The brief snatches of conversation he had had time for had left him with more questions than answers. Not that he'd had much time to talk – the one time he'd managed to hold an in-depth discussion with one of the visitors, it had been a short break over lunch, between tours of Konoha's various landmarks, but it had been enough to instill within him a burning curiosity about Konoha's strange new neighbors.

Speaking with that kunoichi who'd called herself Shameimaru Aya had been quite the experience. Despite the way that she'd flitted from one topic to the next, seemingly unable to settle on a single subject to discuss, she was still quite the remarkable conversationalist. Even though she hadn't divulged much information about Kekkaigakure, he hadn't exactly given up much that wasn't already common knowledge, seeing as how she'd spent the entire time asking about the background and culture of the Elemental Nations as a whole, rather than focus on Konoha itself. In between questions about the history of the world, though she had seemed to imply that Kekkaigakure would not be opposed to developing a closer relationship with the Uchiha Clan.

Moreover, establishing such a relationship would be to his clan's benefit. The trade delegation had brought with them quite the array of products: everything from finely woven cloth, dyed in every conceivable hue, to knives and swords made of steel of a higher quality than he'd thought possible. If he could negotiate some sort of exclusive distribution rights involving the civilian members of his clan, that would undoubtedly lead to more money in his coffers – money he could use to arm his clan members with tools and equipment of the highest quality he could find, money he could use to make sure that his fellows would return from missions alive.

A good working relationship could, no doubt, lead to an alliance as well. Unthinkable as it was, there might come a time when Konohagakure would refuse to accept the presence of the Uchiha within its walls. With the current tensions and the gradual marginalization of his clan, there was some possibility, and, no matter how small that chance was, it was still a chance. If such a thing were to ever happen, the Uchiha Clan would need all the allies it could get.

Establishing contact with Kekkaigakure, however, would require some sort of face to face meeting, however. Sending someone to the north was out of the question – there simply wasn't anyone who he could send without arousing suspicions of treason here. But... Fugaku glanced back to the report he'd been reading. Who better to meet with than the mysterious visitors that had turned up almost on his doorstep? An invitation for a dinner then, to properly welcome Konoha's new trading partners to the village. Yes, that would do nicely.

And with that settled, Uchiha Fugaku leaned forward in his chair and began to write.