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The languor of the lakebed is tranquilizing this time of year. The chill in the water would cool a surface-dweller to the bone. For those that reside in the lake, it is a none-so-subtle reminder to retreat to the depths and seek the safety of the nooks and crannies that are etched into the waterlogged surface. And, for those that are too bold, or too belligerent, to heed the numbing kiss of a deep-winter frost, then the sheet of ice etched upon the surface calms the sometimes-torpid waters and separates the water from the air.
The land-dwellers who so often frequent the shores of the lake in warmer times have long since vacated, save for the odd, confused few that revel on the frozen ice. And, those that swim without a dream of touching the skies are denied even that dark and dreary vision that typically clings to the horizon when snow visits. Ice covers the lake and, save for the peculiar few, the result is a peace oft missed in the summer months.
And so is found, deep beneath the ice sheet and the water surface, a young youkai, her fins idly flapping as she rests on the rocks of the lakebed. Scattered about her dark abode are small containers, filled to the brim with stones polished to a shine. The light that trickles down to this section of the lakebed is weak this time of year, and the normally sparkling piles of stone have lost most of their luster.
The youkai, a mermaid, shows just as much life as her tail lazily whips back and forth as she rests on the muddy bottom. The underwater weeds drift back and forth, a few sweetish slipping in and out of the folds that drift about. She eyes them for a little while, wondering if it is even worth the while to expend the effort to catch the little fish. The chase would produce quite the distraction caused by the endless winter days and nights. They quickly vanish beyond the confines that define her home, and she goes back and closes her eyes and instead listens to the soft, wiggling chorus of the distant schools.
Carp slowly float near the surface while loaches lurk in thrushes and trout putter alongside. On the bottom, further down than the mermaid's dimly-lit home, are the catfish and snails that prowl the surface, coasting and ever-searching for the next meal. Every single flit of the tail flap of a fin, or the distant crunch of bone adds to the soft choir. Everything is heard, even though much of the sound is distant and faint. Only the faint, deep base of a monster lurking in the deepest part of the lake adds any beat to the mindless melody, and even that adagio has no wish to accelerate.
That is the life of the mermaid, a ruler of the mindless masses who pay her no heed, and to whom little is repaid. She continues to just listen to the bubbles of air that pipe in soft notes, stirred up by that faint lake-born activity. A gentle choir of life, sleepy and arrested.
The mermaid jerks its head up, surprised at the sudden sound. A shift in the ice far above is not what she expected this time of year, so soon after the frozen lake was sealed off. The ice shouldn't be breaking up, and it isn't the crash that she would normally associate with a fight breaking out. The mermaid counts herself fortunate that the stinging cold usually keeps both humans and youkai at bay this time of year. Only that fairy and a few others enjoy the chill.
If the first wasn't enough to rouse her attention, the second is enough to lure her off of her muddy throne. She turns her head towards the direction of her echo. Hundreds of feet away, past the green curtain that walls off her small home, that sound has echoed but twice. Now that her ears are perked, she hears the thumps of steps. It is a light-footed creature, that much is sure, but something seems to be trampling around on top of the thick ice. Every step adds another echoing pulse into the still water, and it is deafening in the quiet.
The mermaid begins to scurry forward, darting past the weeds and scatter the fish that are woken from their drowsy, idling swim. Her ears flit as she listens to the storm of activity that is spun in her wake, and other fish begin to flee for cover as her tail pushes her onwards. In her wake, mud kicks up off of the lakebed, though as she ascends to the ice, the loose sediment earns a reprieve and begins its slow descent towards the bottom. She finds herself curious, part of herself knowing that it is likely but a trap. At the same time, there is a part of her that doesn't even care; some excitement, something different would be a nice change of pace from the tedium of the long, soporific days.
Finally, she has reached a spot close enough that she can see the broken ice. A spider's web scatters over the bottom of the ice, and a few chips have already been broken off the back side. Barely, just barely, she can see the faintest image on the other side; from this distance, there is nothing but the barest of dark forms to even witness.
Finally, the thick ice has been conquered by the specter from above. The shattered remnants are bobbing in the water, rubbing up and down as they are finally set free from the prison that they once composed. One by one, they largest chunks are plucked away. From below, the mermaid can see the first few rays of light that she has witnessed in quite some time, piercing from above as if they are rays shining out from heavenly clouds. She bobs in the water, still quite curious, as the last few pieces of ice are cleared away.
She continues to wait as the waters begin to still and the activity kicked up by both her and the cracking ice die down. The mermaid barely notices as her own buoyancy begins to slip, and she feels herself succumbing once against to the drudge of the wintry lake. Before she becomes at risk of falling into her previous stupor, an object splashes into the water and begins to descend.
It isn't hard for her to notice the shape of the object above. A hook on the end of the string; she is quite familiar with that device's purpose. Any worry over the intents of the foreign body is muffled by her curiosity of the motives of that person above. Questions abound in her mind, and she can't help but to float up and stare at the object as it descends.
Whatever fish might have been interested in swimming by have vacated the immediate area; devoid of weed, this shelf near the shore only has the rocky sediments that gently roll about in the wake of the mermaid's tail. She doesn't even notice as, for a moment, a gem of Tyrian purple is revealed, only to be covered up by the next wave of water.
There is nothing nearby that is interested in this hook save her. She peers at it curiously as it dangles, examining the rusty nail that has been bent by hand; she can see the spots where fingers have forced it into shape. And, just as curious, she reaches out and tugs the hook down before scurrying out of its way, wondering the reaction it might provoke. Sure enough, the hook is quickly tugged upwards with a sure yank before it is reeled in, roughly three feet at a time. It does not take long for the naked hook to be case once more into the lake, although this time the fisher jerks around hook, giving it enough motion that a fish might, perhaps, be interested in taking a bite.
It's certainly enough to make the mermaid curious, but this time, she takes care. Remembering the pain of past encounters, she swims up and, once the angler has grown board of jerking and leaves it to simply sag in the deep, she rolls it end over end in her hand, making sure that the hook cannot catch and there's no slack in the string let it snap and catch.
She continues to roll until she reaches the hole in the ice. Her eyes widen as she catches the sight of baby blue skies, marred only by the occasional, wispy cloud. Her eyes avert themselves from the harsh rays of the warm yellow sun and, propelled by instinct and sudden excitement, she flings her head through the hole in the eyes and looks around. The mermaid looks about in wonderment, spying the woods and the shore covered in a blanket of white. It's both familiar and alien, so air is the moment. Even odder is the feeling of air passing through her lungs, especially as crisp and dry as it is.
Caught up in the awe of the rare midwinter break, she barely notices the nearby form that fell over in surprise at the sight. Belatedly, she realizes the shock of a fish head suddenly appearing in a whole without it being hooked on the line first. The mermaid shakes her head, casting off water and letting her hair spring free for the first time in weeks upon weeks. As small as the hole is, she cannot pull herself any farther up, but it doesn't matter; she has enough clearance.
Instead, she examines the toppled girl, whose knees are knocking together even as she pulls herself back up to sit. A worn dress of purple and black is all that protects her from the elements, and the clawed hands grip a bamboo pole, to which the string is tied. Around her neck is a cast-off scarf, mismatched and looking out of place on the simple dress. Two wings beat rapidly, though be it in frustration or panic is hard to tell. A third wing, perched upon the top of the head and of deep a shade of red as the other two, is spread as wide as her eyes. The bird, an ibis, finally returns to a seated position, shivering again as the cold continues to bite at her.
Tilting her head, the mermaid looks toward the bird in confusion. "Why are you here this time of year? The lake is quiet, and its residents uninterested in your hook."
The ibis tilts its head, somewhat surprise at the question directed to her. As bright of one as it may be, the third wing still descends and hides part of the face as her already-rosy cheeks radiate just a little more heat. "I'm searching for food. This year, it is difficult to find."
"Why not go to the mountain, then?" The mermaid blinks and stares curiously up at the ibis. "If it's fish you seek, the waters at its base are flowing and unfrozen; the mountain should be home to frogs. Why is their need for fish of this lake?"
"It is also home to gods and kappa," said the ibis. "Though I have tried at the riverside, the river is replete with their devices. Without knowing where, it isn't safe to remain. And the reptiles that line their shore are gone, and the fish have been scarce." The wing on her head droops as the ibis continues to recount. "The frogs of the mountain have their protector; I have no defense against that goddess of the iron rings.
The mermaid winces a little, trying and failing to imagine what quite that might involve, but knowing all the same how comfortable it might be. "I see. …Was there nowhere else for you to go?"
The ibis opens her mouth before a violent shiver takes her body for a moment. She draws her dress a little bit tighter, keeping her warmth as best as she can. "…Insects have all flown away or retreated into their burrows. Even if the firefly youkai in charge of them would come out, she wouldn't grant me a fly. It's not like many would be alive this time of year, anyway." She sighs and clutches the pole near her, the third wing flitting slowly back and forth. "The black-white I asked, but she has nothing more than mushrooms, it seems. …And brooms. Painful brooms."
The mermaid nods, remembering quite well how vicious the humans could be. "…What of the humans? They might have something lying about…"
"Stealing from the humans?" The youkai droops and shakes her head, the third wing rocking in time. "That's asking for trouble… They're good at fighting off youkai. And just being mean. Even if I could get away, the red-white would come after me. If not her, then the green-white would instead. …Or the blue-white. Or the…" The ibis sighs and slumps even more. "…Again. They don't need a reason normally, so… They don't."
The mermaid is already checking the skies, her tail tensed up and ready to pull her back under the water if there is even the slightest chance of one of those shrine maidens appearing. The accomplices were bad enough, but one of those two would not end up well for her. "…Is that why you're here?"
"Essentially. …There's no one here. …Only thing I have to worry about is the ice fairy. All that' she'll do is try to throw ice at me. …Sharp, piercing flurries of it, perhaps, but that's all."
"It looks like you're about to freeze up." The mermaid continues to look at her curiously as the ibis shivers. "Why not jump in the water? It's warm enough here."
"…Ibis don't get warmer in the water; not this time of year." She tilts her head to the side, thinking. "…Not any time of year, perhaps."
"…Then go warm up the bird way?" Slightly confused, the mermaid just shakes her head. "This cold isn't good for youkai like you, is it?"
The ibis doesn't seem to want to answer. "Still. …I have to find food first. …Even the night sparrow doesn't have any." The ibis droops a bit more at that, and seems about to say something, but shakes her head. "…Are you going to stop me from fishing as well?"
After a moment, the mermaid tilts her head. "Well, I suppose you may. But there are none that are going to come here; they are too sleepy and too slow this time of year, and you're nowhere near their location."
The ibis slumps even more, the third wing covering her eyes. A second later, it shoots on up, standing at full attention. "…You're not stopping me?"
The mermaid shrugs as much as possible in the small hole. "You're not planning on eating me, are you?"
The ibis stares long and hard at the mermaid. "…No. Wouldn't fit through the hole."
She knows not why, but that brings the mermaid a little bit of amusement. That sounds just like another predator that once considered feasting odd her. "If you'll wait a little bit, I will bring you something that will fit through the hole."
The ibis perks up even further, that third wing wagging with glee. "You will?"
The mermaid doesn't answer and instead dives down. With one quick thrust, she is already darting down to the thrush, her eyes alight. The taste of the air seemed to revitalize her, with energy bursting at the gills. She had not felt up for such a hunt in quite a long while. The fish are quieter than normal, but with her bright eyes and the little light that is afforded, she commits to the hunt.
The trout are no match for the youkai mermaid in this state.
A few minutes later, after taking one of the fish for her own contentment, the mermaid ascends back out of her icy prison, her hand darting out and tossing a couple of fish, one after another. She knows not to risk taking more; she doesn't want to even risk the population this time of year… And plenty do have to be left to spawn. Another section must be chosen for the hunt the next time she has this type of energy.
Once done extricating her bounty, she raises her head through the hole again. The mermaid spies the squawking ibis flapping her wings and chasing about the fish that are flopping around. Eventually, she does manage to snag all of the fish, though one attempts to swat the ibis in the face while it tries to escape.
Even so, once caught, the ibis merely toddles back over, the fish secure in hand. Confused, the mermaid looks back up at the ibis, who is curiously returning the view. "Is something the matter?"
The ibis looks back down, the third wing pointing straight back, rocking gently. "…Are you trapped under there?"
"…Trapped?" The mermaid tilts her head and pauses as she considers the question. "…I do not suppose so. There isn't as much as the world outside it, but… the lake is my home."
The ibis tilts her head to the side, still surprised. "But how does that work? It looks like a cage. …And wouldn't books get soggy?" The mermaid shoots her and odd look, and the ibis droops a bit. "I see…"
The mermaid continues to contemplate the bird before her. The ibis continues to stare back with wide eyes, although she does seem to be honestly asking. "Well… It is. But it's home. …I don't need anything else that I cannot find in it. …And the ice keeps me safe as well." After another moment, the mermaid smiles. "It makes seeing the sky all the more special. This was… a nice surprise."
"It was?" The mermaid nods, and the ibis tentatively returns it. "…It's always there. I never thought of it that way. It simply is there." After a moment, she bows her head again. "Still… thank you for all the fish."
"It was nothing. I'm just happy to stretch my fins." … The mermaid looks up at the sky for a while longer. "…Although, could you do something?"
"Hrm?" The ibis quizzically tilts her head, looking back at the mermaid in misstep.
Still smiling, the mermaid asks, "Well, I can't go to the sky. …Could you go there and, once the spring thaw comes, tell me what's at the end? Or what is beyond it?"
"I could try. I've never tried to fly toward the sky's end before…" The ibis continues to consider it. "…I might not go until it warms. I do not want to risk a winter storm."
"It's of no rush. It is a lot to ask you of, especially for a few fish."
"Fish are important." The ibis nods again. "I will try. …Once spring comes, I can try and see." And, with that, the bird takes to a crimson wing and heads off into the sky. Content with herself, he mermaid watches the sky for a while longer, eyeing the sun's path and enjoying what little warmth it brings. Before the dark comes, however, she slips back into the water, down into the same quiet chorus that continues to echo. And, despite her best intentions, she finds her energy fleeting and her will to ascend to the surface vanishing again. The routine returns leaving nothing but a hole in the ice.
That soon freezes over, and the mermaid is left with her long winter wait. It is only interrupted by a sole nail-hook that manages to find its way through the thawing ice. Once again, the mermaid's interest is most definitely caught.