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Senri

Chapter Text

Hisashi balanced the silver pipe of his kiseru in his fingers as he exhaled wafts of white smoke into the cool night air. Seated on the engawa right outside his room, Hisashi looked up at the moon in the sky looming large amidst the clouds.

In the quiet night, he listened to the chirps of insects hiding in the garden and the muffled noises of his father's discussions with a Chinese trader. The foreigner was an old acquaintance of his father's, someone he met in his younger days and had not met again until today. Well, granted, they had been exchanging letters all this while.

Hisashi brought the pipe to his lips and inhaled. Whatever their relationship was, it had nothing to do with him. That's what his father would say. He parted his lips and let the smoke escape, watching it swirl in the stillness of the night.

Stillness? Hisashi paused. Weird. He could still hear the voices of his father and the trader, but the air had gone stale, unmoving. The insects and even the wind had gone silent. He frowned. Unusual. There would, at the very least, be some sort of-

A soft, almost inaudible rustle caught Hisashi's attention, derailing his train of thought and his eyes darted towards the shrubs lining the wall on the far side of the garden. Spotting a pair of golden eyes shining in the gloom, Hisashi squinted his eyes and stared. There were cats wandering around the city but he didn't recall seeing eyes like these on any of them.

The eyes blinked, melting into the darkness for a brief moment before more rustling reached his ears and a cat with rosette markings on its back stepped out into the moonlight. There was not enough light for Hisashi to make out exactly what colour the cat was, but it was a rather large-looking cat; bigger than any stray or housecat Hisashi has ever seen. It held it's fluffy, black-ringed tail high in the air, waving it ever so slightly as it started trotting towards Hisashi without hesitation. How strange, weren't cats typically skittish around people?

As it made its way over to Hisashi, the cat appeared to exercise some sort of deliberate caution, only treading on the stepping stones laid out across the garden as if particular about keeping its paws dry from the grass still damp from this afternoon's shower. Watching it quietly, Hisashi brought his kiseru to his lips and sucked again. The cat came ever closer and Hisashi shifted forward, towards the edge of the wood flooring outside his room to sit cross-legged. Noticing his movement, the cat paused and stared at him. For a fleeting moment, Hisashi thought that it might run away, but that passed and the cat continued its oddly determined approach.

Soon, the cat came close enough for Hisashi to touch it. But he knew better than to do that. He had seen others get scratched by cats when they reached out at this point, thinking that cats were as amiable as dogs. Cats were nothing like dogs.

The cat sat down on the paving stone in front of Hisashi, flicking its black-tipped ears as it cocked its head to the side and stared at him with its golden eyes, pupils wide and large. Hisashi had to admit that it looked adorable, even if was somewhat feral-looking. It appeared to wait as it sat there, unmoving with its tail curled around itself and covering its paws. Hisashi had no idea what it wanted. He held his pipe in his right hand and stretched his left hand out to the cat to wait and see how it would react.

It smiled. Or rather, it looked like it did. Do cats make such expressions? Hisashi blinked, surprised. He had never seen that happen before. That odd smile disappeared when he blinked once more. Eyes fixed on the animal, Hisashi wrinkled his nose. Perhaps it was just a trick of the light.

Carefully making its way up the slope that prevented rain from accumulating under the house, the cat came towards Hisashi's relaxed hand and bumped its head against it. Hisashi curled his fingers lightly and scratched the cat under its chin as it rubbed its face all over the offered hand. Soon enough, the cat emitted a low rumble, purring with its face seemingly delighted by Hisashi's gentle scratches.

Now that the cat stood right before him, Hisashi could see that its coat was sand-coloured, decorated with rosettes, as he first noticed, all over its body. Even if it was friendly, judging by its appearance, this was no housecat; this much Hisashi was sure. What was it then? Wild cats do not come around here. Well, none that he knew of at least. Then again, wild cats would not behave like this, would they?

As Hisashi continued puzzling over its origins, the cat came even closer, stretching up to put its paws on the edge of the engawa. It looked up at Hisashi, making eye contact with its large golden eyes as it let out a soft mew.

Hearing it surprised Hisashi. He was not expecting such a dainty sound to come out of a cat of this size. Without waiting for a response, the cat proceeded to climb up onto the platform and into Hisashi's lap.

Hisashi tensed slightly when it did, suddenly conscious of the fact that it might be grimy and he would need to change his robes later. He considered removing the cat but looking at the way it curled up in his lap, it seemed like it was too late for that now. Hisashi swallowed, his left hand hovering as he wondered what he should do. He did not have to, for the cat decided for him.

Reaching its front paws out, it put its paws on Hisashi's hand and pulled it closer as if urging him to pet more. Shrugging to himself, Hisashi complied. He casually stroked the cat's body, feeling its soft fur under his fingers as he continued smoking his tobacco leaves.

It was nice; petting the cat while he relaxed and enjoyed the evening. Much about the cat struck him as odd, but it seemed friendly enough. It appeared to have a rather agreeable disposition too.

With all the purring Hisashi heard, the cat sounded like it was enjoying itself as much as he was. He looked down at it, admiring its striking coat and its sleek form stretched out in his lap. It turned and looked up at Hisashi, golden eyes blinking slowly with a contented look on its face as it flicked its fluffy tail. Hisashi smiled back at it and put his hand on the cat's head, smoothing it along its body, all the way down to its tails.

Hisashi froze and blinked. Tails?

Startled by a loud burst of laughter followed by the sound of a shoji door sliding open, Hisashi snapped his head towards the source, his attention snatched away from the cat. As he set eyes on his father and the trader in the tea house, now enjoying the night with what might be sake in their hands, he suddenly felt the weight and warmth of the cat in his lap disappear.

Hisashi looked down, saw no cat, and then twisted around, eyes searching the darkness for a glimpse of golden eyes or rose-patterned fur but neither was anywhere to be seen. He furrowed his brow and pressed his lips thin, somewhat disappointed that he lost the short-lived companionship.

Breathing in deep, he shrugged to himself and went back to smoking his kiseru. Oh well, that was the most cat-like thing it has done so far and it was bound to leave sooner or later anyway. The tails thing still puzzled him though. Perhaps it was just his imagination. A cat with more than one tail? How absurd.

Hisashi put his palm behind him, using it to support himself as he leaned back and stretched his legs out. He noticed that the sounds of the insect calls have returned, as has the light, pleasant breeze. He smoked the remaining tobacco leaves in his pipe and exhaled. Odd.

Chapter Text

The Chinese trader had stayed the night. He joined the Imai family for breakfast the next morning, face full of smiles and still chatting with Hisashi's father. Hisashi did not understand the language, but it felt like they have transitioned from catching up to talking about business. Hisashi did not need to interact with his father's friend, but having an unfamiliar face dine with them made things feel awkward. Thankfully, breakfast went by quickly and by mid-morning, the foreigner had left the estate, supposedly to continue on his travels.

Finally excused, Hisashi retreated back into his room to read. Or rather, attempt to read until he got bored of words and turned his attention to fiddling with his shamisen. With the doors to the engawa outside his room open, he listened to the breeze rustling in the wind as he plucked idly, enjoying the tranquillity until he heard soft footsteps padding towards his room.

There was a quick rap on his door before it slid open to one of the household's servants bowing and saying, "I apologise for the disturbance, young master. But your father is here to speak with you."

Before Hisashi could respond, his father excused the servant and entered his room. Faced away from his father, Hisashi wrinkled his nose in displeasure. He had always disliked the way his father paid little to no heed to what he wanted.

"Hisashi," his father called, addressing him.

Forced to respond, Hisashi reluctantly put his shamisen aside and bowed despite remaining seated.

"There is something that I need to speak with you about."

Hisashi nodded again without saying a word. Of course, he did.

"In a few months, Ryukou, my friend will be passing through again on his way home," Hisashi's father said as he came forward and sat with him. "And he was hoping that we'd be able to procure a few things for him by then."

Upon hearing the second sentence, Hisashi felt a sinking feeling in his chest. He should have guessed that he would be asked to do something. Trying not to let his discontentment show, he grunted, "Umhmn."

"The peak of summer will pass by the end of this week. Much of what he wants will be coming into season then," his father said before pausing to listen to the murmurings of the pond outside the room. "I will need you to go to our villa," he continued, "stay there for the next season and get the herbs that Ryukou asked for. I will send Hitoshi over once a fortnight to bring back what you've collected for us to dry and process them. Whatever you need, tell him when he visits and I will have him bring it."

Hisashi was silent, upset that the burden of this troublesome task had befallen him. It was going to be boring, being alone up there, surrounded by the forest. Sure, the villa was at the edge of a town, but it was small and the people there were villagers who would more likely be fascinated by the novelty of his presence than be interesting conversationalists.

Regardless of however he felt about this though, Hisashi knew he had no choice in the matter. As he gave his father a reluctant nod of resignation, he heard an approving grunt from his father.

"Good, I'm glad you're agreeable to this," his father said as he got to his feet. "It will be good for you to refresh your knowledge about the herbs. Local trade may have diminished in recent years, but if all goes well, we may very well have made a returning customer for this side of our family's business."

Barely listening to whatever his father had just said, Hisashi grunted again and stared at the familiar sight of the garden outside his room. After next week, it would probably be months before he could see this view again. It would likely be winter by the time he comes back. All the lush green foliage would be gone, replaced by dry brown leaves.

Hisashi sighed and at the back of his mind, he wondered to himself: would that cat still be around when he returns?

Chapter Text

The grace period of one week passed quickly and before Hisashi knew it, he was trekking up the steep mountain trail to the town where his family's villa was situated. Frankly speaking, it was more like the old family home than an actual villa. They moved into the capital about a decade ago but they kept this place for getaways, or rather, harvesting season. He remembered his childhood days spent running around in the forests surrounding the place, happily plucking whatever he was supposed to get. Now he knew what he considered a fun game back then was really just bothersome menial work for the adults.

His kiseru swung at his hip as Hisashi cursed silently and wiped the sweat off his brow. He didn't remember the path being this steep back in the day, neither did he recall this place being so hard to get to. It probably didn't help that it was technically still the middle of summer. Neither did it help that he was carrying the travelling pack this time around. He sure never had to carry anything like this as a child. But why was it so heavy? All he brought was clothes, some dried snacks, a few reference books and scrolls, and his shamisen.

Doing a little hop, Hisashi adjusted the pack and suddenly felt a weight dislodge from his load. Alarmed, he spun around quickly, trying to find what he dropped but he saw nothing. He frowned. Come to think of it, he didn't hear anything hit the ground either. Could he have imagined it? Maybe the heat was getting to him.

Hisashi pressed the sleeve of his yukata to his forehead, dabbing it dry again as he shuffled back around to continue on his way. Instead, he stopped, finding the sand-coloured rosette-furred cat from last week sitting in the middle of the path, blinking its large golden eyes at him as its thick, fluffy tail tapped the ground.

Hisashi blinked back in surprise. It didn't show up again after its first appearance but now, here it was. He muttered, "Where have you been? Don't tell me you were the one weighing down my pack all this while."

At his statement, the cat seemed to smile and blink at him slowly.

Hisashi covered his eyes with a hand as he pressed his temples. He must be imagining things. Perhaps the heat had truly gotten to him. Shaking his head, he removed his hand and looked down at the ground again. The cat was still there.

"Were you following me?" he asked. What was he doing? Did he really expect a cat to respond-

The cat nodded.

Hisashi felt his heart stop for a moment, startled by what he just saw. Did the cat really understand what he said? He stared at it, unsure of what he should do now. Thinking about it, the cat did display some rather odd behaviour when it first appeared too. But responding to his questions? This was getting absurd.

Seemingly tired of waiting for Hisashi to do something, the cat trotted over to him and started weaving itself between his legs. Hisashi watched it happily rub its body against him and coil its bushy tail around his shins as it moved. It didn't look like it was going to leave him alone.

Hoping to see what the cat would do, Hisashi took a tentative step forward, expecting it to run off startled. Instead, it followed his footsteps, moving forward to brush against his leg again as it looked up at him with its golden eyes. Hisashi took another step forward, and another, and another, and the cat kept following him, keeping pace with him.

Hisashi pressed his lips thin. It looked like the cat was sticking with him for now. Well, there wasn't much he could do about that. He honestly didn’t mind the company either.

Shrugging to himself, Hisashi continued on his trek, walking up the last stretch of slope before the elevation plateaued to a relatively level section of the trail. There were even paving stones laid out here. Perhaps it meant that he was getting close to town.

Hisashi looked down and found that the cat was still with him, now happily walking by his side while letting itself get distracted by little occurrences along the way; like this black-winged butterfly that it was now chasing after. With a leap and a bound, the cat followed the butterfly off the path and into the forest foliage.

"Hey!" Hisashi called after it, but the cat had already disappeared. He sighed, feeling disappointed that it had gone and left him alone again so suddenly.

Standing at the spot where the cat had disappeared, Hisashi was faced with a dilemma. Should he wait for it or should he just move on? It should be able to find him again if it wanted to, right? He sighed again. He hoped it wanted to. It seemed like a pleasant creature to have around.

Hisashi looked at the path ahead and then back at the indistinct green foliage before him. He couldn't exactly go after it now. Who knows how far it could've gone. Reluctantly, he began to slowly turn away, changing his direction back towards the road to the villa.

Hisashi continued on, climbing up a gentle incline and crossing an old stone bridge before entering a bamboo forest. As he trudged forward, he suddenly heard a rustle off the side of the path. Excited, Hisashi snapped his head towards the noise, expecting the cat to come out but instead, a dishevelled looking man staggered out onto the path before him. Startled, he stared at the man and the man stared back. Before long, the stench of alcohol and an unwashed body hit Hisashi's nose and he instinctively scrunched up his face, wiggling his nose against the smell.

With Hisashi’s movement, the man's eyes darted down to Hisashi's hip, where his silver kiseru hung. The man stared intently at it. Alarm bells sounded off in Hisashi's head and he took a step back, intending to distance himself from the man but instead, the man darted forward, grubby hands reaching towards his hip. Hisashi took quick, wide strides backwards, careful to maintain his balance and not trip over anything while avoiding the lunge.

The man stood in the middle of the path and snarled, "Give me that kiseru. It's silver, isn't it?"

"Nope," Hisashi immediately denied. "It's mere steel."

"Steel does not shine like that."

"Ever seen a brand new kitchen knife?"

Doubt flickered on the man's face and he furrowed his brow. His eyes flitted between Hisashi and the kiseru. "Doesn't matter," he dismissed, stalking forward with his stare fixed on the kiseru. "Bunch of scrap steel still gets me more money than nothing."

Hisashi continued retreating, keeping a wary eye on the man while cursing his luck. He never recalled such unsavoury types showing up around this area. Perhaps things have changed. Or perhaps this was happening simply because he was now travelling alone.

"Give it to me," the man repeated, stumbling, probably due to whatever alcohol was left in his system, before resuming his approach.

"No," Hisashi muttered. If the man was still drunk, he might just have a chance of losing him if he made a run for it.

"Then I'll take it from you by force," the man declared, lunging forward.

Hisashi turned tail and ran, sprinting down the uneven path as fast as he could with his travelling pack weighing him down. He could hear the man growling and panting as he gave chase, somehow keeping up despite his inebriated state. Hisashi cursed. He could go faster if he didn't have all these things to carry but if he cast it aside now, he would definitely end up with nothing at all. This man seemed dead set on getting money, by hook or by crook.

Nearing the bridge, Hisashi chanced a glance behind him, hoping to see the man a good distance away but instead, he was only almost an arm's length away. He swore harder, willing his already tired legs to go faster.

Luck, however, did not seem to favour him. Going onto the bridge, Hisashi stepped on a particular spot that was covered in slippery moss, causing him to lose his footing. He did not fall but that brief moment of faltering cost him. He knew that it would and his fears were confirmed when he felt a force pulling him backwards by his pack.

Hisashi cursed again as he watched the world move in reverse. Toppling to the side, Hisashi hit the floor hard and scrambled to detach his kiseru from his hip, rushing to stuff it under his clothes as he instinctively curled up on the floor, trying to protect himself.

The straps of the pack dug hard into Hisashi’s arms as the man tried to yank it off. Hisashi could only grit his teeth against the pain. Peeking to the side, he kicked out, hoping to strike something and he did. He probably hit a shin or something but after some hissing and cursing, the man quickly recovered and this time, he grabbed Hisashi by his shoulder and turned him over.

Hisashi tried to kick again but he missed. The man had already figured out how to avoid it. Staring wide-eyed at the disgusting snarling face before him, Hisashi could only mentally curse again. What was he supposed to do now?

The man’s eyes darted wildly as they searched for the kiseru. Finding nothing, he growled, “Where is it!?”

Hisashi’s lips were sealed and his muscles were frozen. What should he do?

“Where is it, you stubborn brat?!” the man questioned, grabbing Hisashi by his collar and lifting him up.

Hisashi felt the kiseru move against his skin. Perhaps the man heard it move, or perhaps the shifting of Hisashi’s clothes allowed the kiseru to catch the light of the sun rays. Whatever it was, the way the man’s eyes grew large gave away that he found out where Hisashi had stashed it.

Rough fingers snatched at Hisashi’s clothes as the man tried to tear his way to his prize. Hisashi squeezed his eyes shut, blindly yelling and flailing against the assault when suddenly, it stopped. Warily, Hisashi cracked his eyes open, trying to see what caused everything to cease, but all he could see was the man looking straight ahead in the direction of the bridge. With his eyes as wide as dishes, he seemed afraid. In fact, his hands have started to shake. Now Hisashi was really curious. What on earth could scare someone like him so badly?

Hisashi tried to crane his neck around, but the moment he moved, the man let go of him, dropping him back to the ground. Hisashi instinctively shut his eyes again and grunted against the impact. In that split second, the man started screaming in what sounded like… terror. Hisashi could hear his footsteps frantically thumping further and further away, and when he opened his eyes again, all Hisashi saw was a blur of movement that came from behind him, dragging the man into the bamboo forest with frightening speed.

Hisashi sat frozen on the ground, staring after the fading screams of the man which ended in one final cry before a deafening silence rang out. It felt as if it took a while before the murmuring of the stream under the bridge and the rustle of the bamboo leaves filled Hisashi’s ears and once again, he was left alone on the path.

Gathering his thoughts, Hisashi let out a breath that he did not realise he had been holding and his shoulders slumped, losing tension as he pushed himself to his feet. Now upright, he dusted himself off and looked around. Everything seemed perfectly normal, the same as how it was when he first came through here. It felt as if whatever just happened had never happened. And yet…

Hisashi fished the kiseru out of his clothes and fixed his appearance. He didn't want anyone questioning why he looked the way he did. Holding the kiseru in his hands, he stared at it for a moment before attaching it to his hip again. He then looked up at the sun, squinting against the glare of its rays and the heat which he felt anew.

Judging by the sun’s position, Hisashi needed to hurry up now. He shook his head and hurriedly resumed his walk. Perhaps the heat really did get to him…

Chapter Text

Hisashi stepped into the bath, sighing with relief as the warm water soothed his aching muscles. He rolled his shoulders and leaned back, settling into a corner. Gazing at the scenery outside the window drenched in fading daylight, the day's events automatically began running through his head again.

Upon his arrival at the town, things were… more eventful that Hisashi would've liked. It appeared that his father had notified some of their old neighbours about his arrival and sojourn; they were all ready to welcome him with comments about how much he has grown since his last time here and how pleased they were to have him back. Hisashi sighed at the memory and covered his eyes in the crook of his arm. They'd be sick of him pretty soon. That he was sure of. You can only rely on such pleasantries for so long.

Hisashi lay like this for a while, letting the comforting heat work into his body. It was pleasant here. But what was more pleasant was finding this old house and grounds as well maintained as it was. It turned out that his family's old retainer still came up once in a while to keep things nice and tidy.

Hisashi remembered the meticulous woman from his youth and how his parents had wanted her to come with them to the city. It was too bad she preferred staying in this peace and quiet with her family. Her presence would have eased the teething pains that happened right after their move. Her hospitality, on the other hand, was something Hisashi could rely on. After all, she had always been the one looking after him when he was still a waddling toddler.

Hisashi raised his arms above his head and stretched. Arching his back, he felt his joints pop and crack with his movements. He then exhaled, letting his body relax again as he dropped his arms down. But instead of the side of the tub, his left hand hit something soft.

Startled, Hisashi snapped his head around to see what he hit only to get a face full of fur. Before he could react, a familiar mew sounded in his ear as the fur pressed against the side of his head.

"Ah, it's you," Hisashi muttered, bending his arm to extend a hand in the creature's direction.

Golden eyes blinked slowly at him as the cat came back around and pushed its head into Hisashi's palm. Curling his fingers, Hisashi could not help but smile when the cat closed its eyes while he scratched the top of its head. But the cat eventually tired of it and ducked away. It didn't go far though. Instead, it simply settled down on the window sill, tucking its paws under its body, lying within his reach.

"Where did you go this afternoon?" Hisashi asked the cat. Almost immediately, he felt sheepish for speaking to it. It wasn't as if the cat could respond to him. The cat did, however, turn to look at him with a twinkle in its eyes.

Bemused, Hisashi huffed and continued, "Some weird things happened while you were away, wherever you were." He sighed and ran a hand down his face, going quiet as he stared at the water before him. He hadn't mentioned this to anyone yet. He wasn't sure if he should at all.

Hisashi could feel the man's hands on him when he grabbed and groped in search of the kiseru. He splashed water at himself, running his hands over his arms and torso again in an attempt to erase the ghost of those sensations.

"Honestly, I'm not even sure what happened," Hisashi muttered to himself as he rubbed his face. "Or if it even happened."

Something furry brushed against Hisashi's jaw and tapped his cheek. Swivelled in the direction of the sensation, he saw the black tip of a fluffy tail curl and brush against his face again.

A smile tugged at Hisashi's lips as he huffed. Turning to look for the cat, he said, "When did your tail get so long-"

Hisashi felt his heart stop. While the same golden eyes blinked at him, the face they belonged to had no fur, was pale-skinned, and was framed by long, midnight black hair.

Mouth agape, Hisashi was too stunned to find his voice. Where did this person come from? And where did the cat go? He blinked. The cat blinked at him. He sat up. The cat sat up too.

Hisashi looked around, eyes frantically scanning the bath area. Where did that person go? He looked at the cat again. It sat in its spot quietly, watching him intently.

Hisashi swallowed and slowly slumped back down into the water. What was that? Splashing water onto his face, Hisashi tried to clear his thoughts. He had to be mistaken. There was no way another person could have appeared and disappeared from outside the window so quickly and quietly. The only other possible explanation for this could only be that his eyes were playing tricks on him again.

Sighing, Hisashi slid lower, letting the water rise to his chin. He cast a sideways glance at the cat which opened its mouth in what looked like a yawn and let out a soft 'ah' sound.

Hisashi turned around and brought his hand to the cat. When it didn't move, he scratched the top of its head and smiled again as it closed its eyes and came closer. How strange that it seemed so harmless like this.

That said, Hisashi hoped that his eyes would function properly tomorrow. He wouldn't know what to do if he couldn't identify the herbs properly.

Suddenly, the cat ducked its head away and stood up, ears pricked and alert. It took a moment before Hisashi heard the crunch of footsteps on the gravel outside. It was probably just the retainer or one of the younger men helping her with groundskeeping or something but the presence of another person spooked the cat and it quickly darted away, disappearing into the foliage outside the window without a trace.

Hisashi sighed. No matter how comfortable it appeared to be with him, it was still a skittish cat after all. Looking up at the sky, he noticed that it was almost completely dark now. Perhaps it was time for him to leave the bath as well.

Stepping out, Hisashi dried himself and dressed before exiting the bathhouse to go back to the main building. The structure itself was old. Unsurprising because his family had lived there for generations, but it took some getting used to seeing a sunken hearth right in front of the entrance area. Back home in the city, his family had traded that for a separate kitchen area in the back of the house.

As Hisashi slipped his geta off, the family's retainer, who he had always addressed as Aunty, looked up and smiled. "Oh, there you are. Dinner is ready," she said, rising as Hisashi approached.

"Thank you," Hisashi said with a quick bow before settling down in front of the food that had been laid out. Noticing that Aunty was leaving, he asked, "Aren't you having dinner, Aunty?" 

"Oh, no, dear," she said, untying her apron. "I have dinner prepared at home too."

"Oh." Hisashi looked out the window. It was pitch black outside now. "Isn't it dangerous to be out when it's dark?" he asked absentmindedly. After all, this house was a little distant from the rest of the town and considering what he had experienced on his way here…

"I appreciate the concern, dear, but nothing happens around here," Aunty chuckled with a dismissive wave of her hand. "My boy will be meeting me on the way back too. I won't be on my own. Don’t you worry," she added as she hung her apron up. Turning to Hisashi, she said, "When you're done, just leave the dishes where they are, dear. I'll be back in a jiffy to clean those up."

"Ah, you don't have to rush back, Aunty. I can clean them myself," Hisashi said quickly. Was it really so safe here that she could be out and about like that at night?

Aunty raised her eyebrows in surprise. "Are you sure, dear? I clearly remember you were the one who protested against cleaning up the most," she teased.

"I don't want to trouble you to keep going to and fro like that, Aunty," Hisashi muttered, trying not to cringe at the memory of his tantrums. "And your family needs you around too," he added. "Coming back here would just-"

"Alright, alright," Aunty chuckled. Smiling fondly at Hisashi, she sighed, "You've really grown up, haven't you?"

"Ah, uhm…" Not knowing what to say, Hisashi grew flustered and looked down at the food.

"Since you've insisted, I'll come back tomorrow morning to check on your handiwork," she said with a playful smirk.

"Uh, yes," Hisashi nodded.

"I'll see you tomorrow, dear," Aunty bade as she stepped down to put on her geta in the entrance area. She slipped them on, then paused. "Oh, I should probably mention this."

"Yes, Aunty?"

"Just so you know, the house makes a bit of noise at night," she informed. "You know, since it's so old and all. The wood creaks and things like that. It's normal if you hear a few noises, so don't worry about it."

"Ah… okay." Hisashi wasn't sure how he was supposed to feel about that.

"Well, have a good night," Aunty bowed. Smiling amiably, she stepped out, slid the main door shut and left Hisashi to his own devices.

Chapter Text

Dinner was simple; rice with grilled fish, a side of vegetables and a bowl of miso soup. Simple it may have been, but it was undoubtedly satisfying. Aunty's cooking was still as tasty as Hisashi remembered, putting him in a good mood for the night.

After cleaning up and putting the cutlery and utensils away, Hisashi still had one more thing to do. When he arrived that afternoon, he found the room which was prepared for him too big. He had decided that he would fix that after dinner, and that's what he was going to do.

It was easy enough, removing the fusama from the rails and rearranging them, but all the moving made Hisashi work up a sweat in this warm summer night. Perhaps he should have just done this earlier before he decided to take a bath. He dabbed his brow with the sleeve of his yukata and looked around at the resized space. It's now half of what it originally was. And that made Hisashi feel a whole lot more comfortable. He didn’t know what to do with that much space anyway.

Now with that done, Hisashi unfolded the futon which Aunty placed in the room by his belongings and thought about settling down for the night, but perhaps he should really quickly wash once more. The sticky sensation on his skin was getting uncomfortable.

Striding out of the room, Hisashi made his way to the entrance, put on his geta, and pushed the door open. The darkness outside seemed almost impenetrable. Even the light from the house only reached a couple of meters ahead of him, at most. Hisashi could see small winking lights straight ahead in the distance. Those were probably from some of the houses in town but they were too far away to affect the darkness here and the trees that surrounded the property did not help either. And considering what happened this afternoon…

Pressing his lips thin, Hisashi forced himself to swallow his apprehension. He fixed his eyes on the incandescent light in the bathhouse and he quickly shuffled over, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping his eyes on his destination. He didn’t feel particularly inclined to look at the scenery.

When Hisashi finally opened the door and stepped into the bathhouse, he let out a sigh of relief. Thankfully, nothing happened. Then again, it was of course that nothing would happen. Aunty said so herself.

Hisashi huffed at himself, annoyed at how disturbed he was as he stripped off his yukata and hung it up. In the low candlelight, Hisashi dumped cold water on himself, shivering even as he enjoyed the relief that it brought. This would be terrible once chillier weather moved in though.

Eager to return to the house, Hisashi gave himself a quick scrub before towelling himself dry and dressing again. He already felt better than before. Fastening his yukata close, he stared at the door and grimaced, mildly dreading making his way back to the main house.

Steeling himself, Hisashi slid the door open and stood at the entrance. It felt as if the night had become even darker than before. There was barely any light outside aside from the moon and the lamp that lit up the front of the house. He thought of extinguishing the bathhouse's light but immediately, he decided against it. He would have an easier time if he needed to come back out in the middle of the night. Besides, more light around the place made him feel better.

A soft meow suddenly came from his right. Hisashi snapped his head down in the direction of the sound and saw the large yet slender figure of the cat seated right outside the bathhouse. It’s returned.

"Where did you go?" Hisashi asked with a huff.

The cat meowed again. Hisashi couldn't figure out if it was just him or if the sounds were beginning to resemble more and more like someone yelling ah's at him. Maybe that was just how cats vocalised. He couldn't exactly say that he had ever spoken to cats this much until now though. He was more of a dog person.

The cat cocked its head at Hisashi then looked out towards the main building. Hisashi sighed and pulled off his hair tie. Frowning, he scratched the top of his head. He heard another little 'ahh'.

"I know, I know," Hisashi grumbled. "I'm gonna go just… don't rush me."

The cat paced, walking to and fro and bumping its head against the back of Hisashi's legs as it forced him to move.

"Hey!" Hisashi stumbled as he hastily reached back to shut the door to the bathhouse before letting the cat nudge him back to the main house. Entering, Hisashi looked down at the cat and grumbled, "You're real pushy, aren't you?"

The cat's golden eyes flashed at him and it turned away, flicking its fluffy black-tipped tail as it stalked off into the house. Hisashi stared after it. Was it offended?

Suddenly realising that he had just let a stray in, Hisashi quickly went after it, calling, "Hey! Where are you going?"

Running through the house, Hisashi scoured the rooms, going through every possible hiding spot he could think of but after much searching, the cat was nowhere to be found. He sighed and shuffled from the back of the house to the front again, trying to look for it once more before giving up. How was such a large creature so hard to find?

As Hisashi passed his room, a low light glowing through a gap in the fusama caught his eye and he heard a page turn. He stopped and frowned. That was odd. Aunty did say that the house would make noises but this didn’t sound like a sound that the house would normally make. Another page turned.

Curious to know the source of the noise, Hisashi peeked into the room and froze. There was someone in there and he recognised who it was from the hair. It was the person he saw for a split second in the bathhouse earlier this evening and he was now in Hisashi's room, lying on the floor as he read one of the reference books Hisashi brought with him.

Hisashi stared mutely at the scene, eyes taking in the long black tresses sprawled out on the tatami flooring and the unfamiliar style of the robes that shifted so fluidly as the person moved to flip a page. As entranced as he was by this person's ethereal qualities, questions echoed in the back of Hisashi’s head: where did this person come from? How did they get in?

The person suddenly sat up. Hisashi could see slim, elegant eyebrows angled in a frown as golden eyes stared intently at something on the page. Those eyes gave Hisashi pause. He had only ever seen eyes like those on one other being; the cat.

Dropping the book, the person started grumbling in a foreign language with a low voice as they turned away and began digging in Hisashi’s bag. Alarmed and affronted, Hisashi slid the door open with a loud snap, widening the space to step in and intervene with an offended, “Hey!”

The person froze and snapped their eyes over their shoulder to cast a wary glance back. Their pupils looked large and round until they lay their sights on Hisashi. At that moment, their pupils shrunk to a more normal size and gold irises glittered again.

“Who are you and what do you think you’re doing?” Hisashi questioned, feigning authority to hide the fact that he was slightly unnerved by the eye movement. That made it clear enough that this person was… not exactly human.

Gesturing at the book with obvious frustration, the being began speaking in their language, their voice sounding somewhat male despite the elegant facial features and slender physique as they continued rummaging through Hisashi’s bag.

As Hisashi hurriedly strode towards them, his brain struggling to decipher their words. It sounded like the Chinese trader’s tongue, but at the same time, it sounded so different that he could not make head or tail of it. Squatting down in front of the person, Hisashi put his hand on his bag, intending to repossess it when the person looked up at him and paused their rambling.

"Ah," the person blurted as they furrowed their brows and hit their forehead with a fist. After what seemed like a moment of difficulty, they said, "Mmh… Uh, you… speak like this?"

Like this? "… Yes." Hisashi nodded before snapping, "Stop touching my things."

The person raised their eyebrows, eyes growing large in surprise at Hisashi's harsh tone. But that expression soon disappeared in a split second and they released Hisashi's pack, folding their arms and crossing their legs as they sat down on the floor with a thump. "I just wanted to correct that book of yours," they pouted.

" Correct ?" Hisashi frowned.

"It's got wrong information in there," they said, pointing at the book they were reading.

"That's not possible," Hisashi dismissed. "My great-grandfather dedicated his life to compiling those notes."

"Well, he's still wrong," the person argued, turning his nose up indignantly. "How could you even compare the knowledge of one human's lifetime with mine of more than a thousand years?"

"Fine then. Write your own book," Hisashi snapped again without thinking as he snatched his reference book back and rearranged his things. A thousand years or not, his father wouldn't take kindly to revisions made to the books anyway.

… A thousand years? Hisashi froze and turned stiffly to stare at the being who was now opening the sliding door to the garden outside the room. "A thousand years?" he repeated aloud.

“Hm?” Upon hearing his question, the being turned around, clothes and hair swishing. “Yes?”

"A thousand years, you said?"

"You're not hard of hearing, are you?" the being retorted, cocking his head to one side in concern.

"No person lives for a thousand years," Hisashi muttered.

"No human, you mean," the being corrected.

“… What are you?” Hisashi asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Flashing sharp canines, the being gave Hisashi a toothy grin and said, "Make a guess."

"Not human," Hisashi muttered lamely. There was no doubt about that.

The person beamed at him and hummed, "Very good, you're not stupid."

Hisashi paused and waited but it didn't look like an answer was going to be offered by them. Slowly, he sat down to face this being while contemplating his next action. The other mirrored his actions, sitting back down to watch him too

Hisashi stared at the simple, yet elegant clothes that they wore. He didn't know what material it was made out of, but from the way this being moved, the deep red fabric, embellished with gold embroidery wrapped around his body looked both weighty yet light enough for effortless moving at the same time. Their inner white robes looked very delicate in comparison, appearing wispy and almost weightless under the outer red robes.

Noticing what Hisashi was focused on, the being smiled and asked, "Do you want to touch it?"

Hisashi immediately answered, "No."

He knew from superstition that he should never say yes to a non-human being. Especially when he had no idea what he was dealing with nor what this being wanted. Come to think of it, where did he come from? Did he take up residence in this old house after Hisashi's family moved out?

"I came from a mountain far from here," the being suddenly answered.

Hisashi felt a chill run down his spine. The being could read minds?

"I do not normally make the effort to but your silence and unblinking stare bothers me," they said quietly with a hint of what looked like uncertainty in those alluring eyes.

“Where,” Hisashi blurted, attempting to skip the thinking, “exactly did you come from?”

“Far, far away from here,” the being answered, pausing as they gazed into the distance with a wistful smile on their face. “From across that large, turbulent body of water that was crossed. From a place of endless plains and mountains and grasslands and very, very few humans," they ended pointedly.

"You don't sound like you like us," Hisashi remarked.

"So noisy, and you think you're so good, destroying all my resting places and having the audacity to be angry when I return," the being hissed, wrinkling their nose in displeasure.

Hisashi swallowed nervously. Even if the being seemed to dismiss it all with a huff, he couldn't tell if that anger was going to be directed at him or not. "Then, why… would you leave your home? If you don't like us that much," Hisashi asked warily.

"I got bored," they shrugged as they idly braided their hair. "There had to be more to life than waiting for lost souls, I thought."

"Lost… souls?"

"My home is so vast that people lose their way sometimes," the being said. "I'm a kindly person who provides food and shelter," they added, giving Hisashi a strange, unsettling smile. 

"You don't sound like a wanderer," Hisashi swallowed, trying to dismiss the churning in the pit of his stomach.

"Yet wandered I did," the being laughed, a soft pleasant sound. "On that trader's pack, I finally found my way here, to a whole new world."

"You'll be continuing on your travels then?"

The being looked up to the ceiling and hummed, "Maybe…" Golden eyes darted towards Hisashi's direction. "Not."

"No?" Hisashi felt his heart lurch. Was this being latching on to him?

The being's smile grew wider.

"You followed me here, didn't you?"

An affirmative hum.

"Why?"

Still smiling, the being got on all fours and approached Hisashi, gushing, "The scent of your soul smelt so tantalising that I just had to ."

This didn't look good. Hisashi retreated. " Excuse me ?"

"Won't you give it to me?" They asked, reaching a hand out to Hisashi.

"What, are you stupid? No!" Hisashi blurted, slapping the hand away.

"Of course you'd say that," the being chuckled, expecting that reaction. Tapping a slender finger on their cheek, they smirked, "But you owe me."

"I-I, what?"

"This afternoon," the being grinned, coming ever closer. "Who do you think saved you?"

Hisashi's eyes grew large with realisation. "What did you do?"

"I made a meal out of him," they answered nonchalantly. "But that soul tasted disgusting, bland and dry," they added scrunching their pretty features up at the memory.

"So… he's…?"

"Dead," they confirmed. "And dry," they repeated again with that same look of distaste.

"Why'd you kill him?!"

"I didn't like what he intended with you," huffed the being.

"And now you're going to kill me too?!" Hisashi presumed, dread squeezing his chest as he retreated until his back hit the wall. He was cornered.

"Oh, no, no, no." The being shook their head, long hair swishing from side to side as they came closer. "A soul forcefully taken is not as delectable as a soul willingly given."

"Well, I'm not giving it to you," Hisashi declared.

"I don't mind waiting," they giggled, tapping Hisashi's nose with an extended index finger. "One day, you will."

"What makes you think so!?"

"I've seen a lot in my life and that's how it always ends," the being said with a shrug. "Once I have set my sights on you, it's unavoidable."

"Why are you even telling me this?! It's not as if I'll say yes and give it to you any sooner," Hisashi retorted. "I have every intention to live a long life!"

The being covered the lower half of their face with a sleeve and squinted their eyes in a chuckled. "There's more to this than the simple act of me taking your life force away and leaving you for dead," they elaborated. "I can take portions from you. Like… stealing little sips from a bottle of well-cultivated rice wine," the being went on, tracing a finger along Hisashi's jaw. "You won't feel any difference when I do, and if I like you enough I'll even help you live that long, long life well."

"Why would you do that?" 

"Makes the soul taste better," the being smiled. "And if one tasted that good, I'd want to enjoy it for as long as possible."

Hisashi paused, surprised. This wasn't exactly a life or death situation… was it? 

"I'll do everything in my power to give you whatever you want," they added in a singsong voice.

"Wait. No," Hisashi muttered to himself, shaking his head. "You- You're trying to convince me to say yes, aren't you?" he accused. "No. No. God damn it, no."

"Ah, well," they pulled back with a smile. Clothes fluttering as they settled down, they added, "My offer still stands, if you ever change your mind."

"I won't ever change my mind!" Hisashi stressed. "Just go and leave me in peace!"

The being promptly laid down on the floor, stretching as he began to relax.

"Alone. Leave me alone," Hisashi emphasised, crossing his arms as he pressed his lips thin.

"But I won't bother you," the being said, rolling onto their stomach to look up at Hisashi. "You won't even notice me."

"I want. To be. Alone ."

The being looked glum and for a moment, Hisashi wondered if he was being too harsh. But this… entity wanted his life, for goodness' sake. He watched as the being picked themselves up and slowly slinked towards the sliding door, exiting through an opening and heading out into the garden without a word.

Hisashi stared at the opening for a moment, waiting to see if the being would pop back in and call it a ruse. When nothing happened after a while, he swallowed and cautiously walked to the door. Opening it wider, Hisashi half expected to see the being outside, perhaps lounging around on the edging strip, but the only thing that greeted him was the impenetrable darkness of the forest that lined the border of the garden outside.

Just looking at it made Hisashi nervous. He didn’t like that he couldn’t see anything. But if he wanted to smoke, he needed the door open to let the fumes out. He pressed his lips thin. He would just have to get used to this.

Going inside, Hisashi unpacked the rest of his belongings and set them up on one of the low tables that he brought into the room. By the light of a candle, Hisashi put a ball of tobacco into the bowl of his kiseru and lit it with a match. As he took the first puff, Hisashi moved to lean against the door frame, bringing the candle with him to put it by his side. Using a candle was a tad bit troublesome, but it couldn’t be helped that this place was too rural for the use of electricity to have spread here.

Hisashi got comfortable and leaned back. Holding the kiseru in his right hand, he rested it on a knee propped up and cast his eyes to the sky, preferring to look at the stars than the forest.

After everything that happened in this one day, today was finally ending and tomorrow, Hisashi planned to head into the forest and refamiliarise himself with his childhood playground. Maybe he could see how many herbs he could find and identify too; perhaps pick a few and get started with that list his father gave him.

Taking another puff, Hisashi closed his eyes and let his muscles loosen up. Breathing out, he heard the soft rustle of leaves and grass in the mild breeze and picked up the songs of cicadas in the distance. All of this made his environment feel a little more familiar, more comfortable.

When Hisashi opened his eyes, a shadow in the garden to his left caught his eye. He turned and saw the cat looking at him. Unlike the confident advances all those previous times, this time, it, no, they looked hesitant. They took a step forward. Hisashi huffed and turned his attention back to the sky, deciding to ignore them.

But within moments, Hisashi heard the soft thumping of paws on the wooden skirting. He looked to his left again and the cat now had both front paws on the timber. Gazing at Hisashi with their golden eyes, they ‘ah’-ed at Hisashi.

“What do you want?” Hisashi grumbled.

They ‘ah’-ed again as they looked at Hisashi with large forlorn eyes.

“Don’t act cute with me,” Hisashi hissed, folding his arms across his chest as he sucked on his kiseru.

The cat came closer and meowed again. Hisashi ignored them, closing his eyes with a furrow in his brow as he tried to ignore the being. All he heard was another ‘ah’.

“Why are you so persistent?!” Hisashi snapped, glaring at the cat which pulled his paw back with a pitiful look. Hisashi grimaced and sighed heavily. He had half a mind to shove the cat away but how was he supposed to do that without feeling guilty?

Warily leaning forward, the cat kept a cautious eye on Hisashi as they nudged Hisashi's left hand with their head. Hisashi stared at them, frowning when the cat found a space between his hand and his thigh and began burrowing their head in, only stopping once they had Hisashi's hand on their head. Lying down, the cat meowed and tapped Hisashi's hand with a paw. Hisashi moved his hand, lifting it up and the cat followed, clambering into Hisashi's lap to stretch higher.

"Hey!" Hisashi snapped.

The cat 'ah'-ed back, pushing their head against Hisashi's fingers to mimic scratching and every time Hisashi’s fingers moved, the cat would reposition themselves, making sure that Hisashi would end up scratching them no matter what. Scowling at the cat, Hisashi put his kiseru between his teeth, biting the mouthpiece as he put his hands under the cat’s front legs and lugged the big feline into his lap.

“You simply loooove scratches, don’t you?” Hisashi muttered angrily with gritted teeth.

The cat looked up at him, eyes wide with bewilderment at Hisashi’s sudden gesture.

“Then you’ll be stuck here until I’m done,” Hisashi declared.

Taking the kiseru out of his mouth with a puff, Hisashi trapped the cat between his legs and started kneading the top of their head with his fingertips. He could feel the tension in the cat’s body as if hesitant about Hisashi’s change in demeanour. As much as the cat looked like they wanted to enjoy the massage, they remained stiff until Hisashi finally leaned back against the door frame and relaxed, sucking on his kiseru and exhaling swirls of white. It was only then that the cat, too, softened their body and curled up against Hisashi, rumbling with soft purrs as Hisashi stroked him idly.

It was easy to turn away the being in their human form but as a cat, Hisashi found it impossible to be harsh with an animal which gave him such earnest looks. Hisashi sighed to himself. He was still more of a dog person, though.

Chapter Text

Hisashi opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling, feeling slightly dazed. It took him a moment to recall that he was in his childhood home instead of his family's residence in the city. Sighing, he kicked the covers off and sat up. Just then, he felt something slip out of his hand. He looked down and found one of his reference books resting on the floor. It looked like he was reading that last night when he fell asleep. 

Nearby was a candle holder with half a candle still sitting in the melted wax which had now hardened. Hisashi frowned, surprised that it didn't melt all the way down. He didn't recall putting it out before he went to sleep. Did someone-

The cat… person?

Hisashi turned sharply, snapping his head around in search of any sign of the cat, or being, but he was alone. It appeared that they left while he was asleep. Or perhaps… there never was anyone with him. Well, it was possible that the cat did visit, but the being… Looking back now, the whole situation felt absolutely ridiculous. Like a hallucination of sorts.

Hisashi looked around again and noticed that all the doors were closed. That gave him pause. Even if a cat did come and leave, it couldn't have closed the doors. He groaned and ran his fingers through his hair, scratching his head in frustration. This was all so confusing.

With a huff, Hisashi put his book aside and got to his feet. He didn't want to think about it anymore. It was time to get up anyway. He had a lot to do.

Exiting his room, Hisashi headed to the front of the house and put on his geta to head out and wash up in the bathhouse. By the time he got back, Aunty was by the hearth, placing breakfast on a low table for him.

Hearing his return, she turned to greet him. "Good morning, dear. How was your night?"

"Good morning. It was, uh… quiet," Hisashi replied. Well, it was quiet, wasn't it? He did manage to relax and read after all.

"I trust the quirks of the house didn't bother you too much then," she smiled as she stood up and moved aside.

"Uh, quirks?"

"The little creaks and groans in the wood. The dark corners," Aunty specified, raising her brows with a knowing look in her eyes.

"Ah, no. Not at all," Hisashi said, shaking his head as he sat down. Did she know about how darkness made him uneasy? "Thanks for the meal," he muttered before starting to eat.

"Ah, that's good," Aunty remarked. "I know how staying in a big house like this on your own can be unnerving but I'm glad you're unperturbed by it."

"Mhmm," Hisashi hummed as he chewed his food. "Say, Aunty."

"Yes, dear?"

"Do… wild cats live around here?" Hisashi asked.

"Wild cats?" Aunty echoed as she cast her eyes to the ceiling in thought. "Feral strays, perhaps, but not actual wild cats. But there have been sightings of wild boar, raccoon dogs, and the occasional fox once in a while," she answered. "Why do you ask?"

"Ah, well, I thought I saw something outside last night so I thought I'd ask," Hisashi said, concocting an excuse on the fly. Huh, so the being might have really come from abroad. They were definitely too big to be a feral stray. "And since I'd be spending time in the forest, I might come across wildlife, maybe," he quickly added.

"Well, the wildlife around here tend to avoid human contact," Aunty said. "So it's odd that one would come so close."

"Maybe it got used to the idea that no one lives here?"

"Perhaps," Aunty nodded. "That does sound likely."

Hisashi nodded as well.

"But let me know if you see it again, dear," Aunty suddenly said. "If it's bold enough to hang around, it might be dangerous for you."

"Uhn?"

"Let me know and we can organise a little hunting party to chase it away or get rid of it before it starts hurting people," Aunty said again, seriousness in her eyes.

"Um, okay," Hisashi muttered. He wasn't quite sure of how he should feel about this unexpected outcome from his innocent question. Sure, he wanted the being to stop bothering him, but he didn't exactly want them dead .

Hisashi ate quickly, scarfing down the rest of his food with a quick mumble of gratitude before darting back to his room to grab his bag. With the satchel by his side, he was ready to go.

"Ah, heading out already?" Aunty asked as Hisashi made his way through the front of the house.

"Yes, I'll be familiarising myself with the forest again. I'm not too sure if things are as I remembered them to be," Hisashi nodded as he thought aloud.

"That's a good idea," Aunty agreed. "Do stay safe, and remember to let me know if you see anything," she added as she walked him to the entrance. Handing Hisashi, a small box wrapped up in a furoshiki, she said, “Here, take this with you.”

"Thanks, and I will," Hisashi promised, taking the box from Aunty and then putting on his shoes.

"Your mention of an animal reminded me of the time when a crazed fox was attacking some of the villagers who ventured into the woods," Aunty said as she folded her arms with concern etched into her face. "That was a few years ago now, but you never know what happens up there in the mountain. I wouldn't know what to tell your father if something happened to you."

"I'll be careful," Hisashi promised, standing up and dusting his pants off. "At least I've got the cutting knife with me."

"Don't hesitate to use it," Aunty nodded. "I know you like animals but wild ones are nothing like strays."

"Got it. I'm going now," Hisashi said, bowing slightly as he walked out the door.

"Travel safe, and I'll see you later," Aunty bade, waving to Hisashi before closing the door behind him.

Walking the short path out of the property, Hisashi made a right turn, veering away from the straight road which would have led down into town. He followed the path, venturing into the forested mountain that the house sat at the foot of. As far as he knew, even the mountain belonged to his family since three or four generations back.

Hisashi kept his eyes out for herbs as he walked down the winding path. He was glad to find that memory still served him well. Scanning the vegetation, he was easily able to pick out a good number of common varieties but those were not what he was asked to find. The rare ones were rare for a reason after all.

Hisashi continued on his way, going up the gentle incline as he went deeper into the forest. Even though he only tasked himself with scouting out spots today, with the way he kept pausing to pluck a few stems and flowers, it felt as if he had already started working on harvesting. His eyes were still on the prize though; kudzu roots.

While those can be abundant, the size and location were key issues. The roots had to have grown to a certain size before they can be harvested. They would be too young otherwise. But before Hisashi could evaluate that, he had to get to where they tended to cluster first; steep mountainsides. He hoped that there would be enough growing on accessible terrain that he wouldn't need to venture to such extreme parts though.

As Hisashi scaled higher, he began to spot bloodwort flowers, the roots of which his father asked for too. He made a mental note of where he was. He would have to come back later for them after the flowers have withered and dried off. They would be just right for harvesting then.

Continuing on, Hisashi’s pace eventually slowed to a stroll as he continued spotting more flowers and distinguishing between the leaves. While he was glad that he had less of a problem identifying them than he expected, it was also nice to see that the plants have been thriving despite his family’s time away and that supply was still bountiful here. He had yet to spot any of those distinctive magenta kudzu flowers but they might be further up along the way. 

Arriving at a small clearing, Hisashi looked up at the sky and raised his eyebrows in surprise. Was it already past noon? It felt like he had only been here for an hour tops. As if on cue, his stomach growled, indicating his need for food. He sighed. Maybe he should take a break by the stream a little further ahead. With that in mind, Hisashi went on his way. 

While nature had her way in some places, there were still recognisable formations and landmarks which he remembered from his youth. Some were oddly shaped rocks, some were trees which he or his siblings left their carving marks on. But these were smaller markers which required prior knowledge.

Others were more distinct, like a huge rock face that Hisashi passed just moments ago, now more mossy than he remembered. There was also a clearing at the edge of a cliff which overlooked the town. That would be further up the mountain. Hisashi remembered how he sneaked up there once during a festival just to watch the fireworks. And then, break his ankle in the dark on the way down, causing his family to organise a frantic search party. Hisashi wrinkled his nose at the memory. That was something he would very much forget.

Casting that aside, Hisashi turned his focus to following the narrowing path, weaving through the trees towards the sound of water. As the murmurs of the stream grew louder, he suddenly felt a wave of heat coming from his right. Surprised by the odd sensation, Hisashi froze in his tracks but he began to relax when he realised where it came from; the hot spring. It was but one of many on the mountain but it was the most accessible one, and the one he used to visit as a child with his family.

A smile plastered on his face, Hisashi turned away from the path and headed in the direction of the heat. He was eager to see if it was still in the same state that they left it in. If it was, he could come up here for a dip once in a while. The closer Hisashi got, the warmer it became, and the more Hisashi perspired. Of course he would. It was still summer after all.

Then, Hisashi saw something that made him stop. Hanging by one of the low hanging branches was clothing. And it was clothing he had seen before. Thin white fabric lying atop the thicker red silk robe which seemed to be entangled with a wispy, delicate maroon and gold outer garments. … Was what happened last night real after all?

Hisashi’s mind raced as he struggled to understand what it all meant. Out of nowhere, a soft, melodious hum reached his ears, effectively snapping him out of his thoughts. Hisashi snapped his head in the direction of the unknown tune. Without as much of a second thought, he slowly crept closer, stepping through the foliage until the hot spring came into view.

The humming continued, singing a light tune as Hisashi’s eyes carefully looked across the pool in the shadow of a twisted, gnarled tree trunk. The strength of the midday sunlight was no match for the steam that the hot spring emitted, turning the scene before Hisashi into an especially warm and blurry splodge. But he did manage to make out the vague shape of a person. Or, at least, a head of dark hair on a set of pale shoulders.

Hisashi watched as the person bathed, languidly pouring water over themselves with cupped hands. They seemed oblivious to his presence. This didn’t feel quite right. What he as doing didn't feel quite right. In a moment of clarity, Hisashi looked away and frowned at himself. What on earth was he doing? Was he really hiding in a corner to watch someone bath? This felt terribly wrong.

The sound of loud splashes and water breaking drew Hisashi’s eyes back towards the hot spring. The person stood up. With bated breath, Hisashi watched as the person, who still faced away from him, pull something out of their hair and to let long dark locks cascade down their back.  Hisashi instantly felt his insides shrivel up. Only a woman had hair like that and watching a woman bathe… If she reported him… But the clothes! It had to belong to the cat- the being! But what if he was mistaken?

Hisashi found himself rooted to the spot as the person looked over their shoulder to cast their eyes at him and smirk, “You pervert.”

Despite the accusation, Hisashi almost laughed from relief. Their eyes shone gold. It was the being. Suddenly released from the tension, Hisashi leaned against the tree trunk and bent over, his hands on his knees as he sighed heavily. He could hear water sloshing around, indicating the being’s approach. They didn’t step out though. Leaning out from the rocky edge of the pool, the being stopped and waited. When Hisashi looked up, the first thing he saw was the being’s flat chest. The being was a man?

“I simply prefer this form for most occasions,” the being responded.

“… I thought you said that you don’t normally read minds,” Hisashi recalled, taking a moment to recover from his uneasiness.

“You looked very disturbed,” the being replied. “I wanted to know why.”

Hisashi clicked his tongue and asked, “Can you stop doing that to me?”

The being simply nodded and shrugged, completely nonchalant to Hisashi’s discomfort.

Hisashi looked at the being’s chest again and then at their face. His eyes naturally darted down lower, in search of the being’s crotch but that was hidden by water and steam.

“Pervert.”

“I’m not-! Don’t call me that!” Hisashi snapped. “It’s not deliberate-”

“Then, what is it?”

“I’m just trying to figure out if you’re a man or a-”

“Does it really matter?” the being huffed.

Hisashi gave the being a pained look. “It's very confusing when you're coming at me the way a woman would but you're actually…"

"What? Can't stomach liking a man?"

"Whoever said I liked you?!"

"Ah. Of course. You don't, do you?" the being muttered, sounding somewhat forlorn as he backed away.

"Wait, I don't mean it that way!" Hisashi blurted, suddenly realising that he might have offended the being. He stepped forward towards the being who proceeded to ignore him and sink down to disappear underwater. "Wait!" Hisashi called again, standing at the water's edge in confusion. Did the being really submerge underwater? Wasn't it too hot to do that?

"I know what you meant."

Hisashi spun around to find the being behind him, casually fastening his sheer white robe around his slim waist. Surprised, he stuttered, “W- Weren’t you just…?”

“Yes, I was,” the being replied, turning around to reach for his thicker robe.

“Then, how did you get dry so quickly?”

“It is beyond your comprehension,” the being smiled, squinting his eyes in a shallow smile. “Do you enjoy watching me dress?” he asked as he put on his clothes with a flourish.

“What’s wrong with a man watching another man dress?” Hisashi retorted quickly.

“Ah, well. I suppose this is nothing to a pervert who hides and watches another bathe,” the being teased.

“That was not on purpose!” Hisashi denied. “How was I supposed to know there was someone else up here on this mountain?!”

“Oh, there are a lot of ‘someone else’s around here,” the being laughed softly, hiding his smile behind a sleeve. Walking away from the hot spring, he added, “That aside, I hung my clothes up, didn’t I?” 

“And you were watching me bathe last night, weren’t you?” Hisashi accused, following the being. In the back of his mind, the being’s brief mention of other people’s presences here unnerved him. Or… were those he mentioned not actual people per se?

“What’s wrong with a cat watching a person bathe?” the being replied, grinning from ear to ear. He was clearly enjoying the banter.

“There’s something wrong when that cat is not just a cat ,” Hisashi huffed.

"But you didn't chase me off, did you?" the being pointed out.

"I didn't know what you really were, did I?" Hisashi retorted.

"And what am I? the being asked, looking intently at Hisashi.

"You…" Hisashi paused, surprised by the sudden question. In all honesty, he still didn't know. Maybe he should ask a local priest… After a moment's thought, he decided to answer, "Not just a cat."

The being let out a short laugh and turned away. "Indeed."

"Come to think of it… you didn't chase me off either," Hisashi muttered.

"Neither did you run away," the being smirked. "Pervert."

Hisashi's eyes flashed and he clicked his tongue, upset by the label. "Stop calling me that! I'm not a pervert!"

The being simply laughed, thoroughly amused by Hisashi's exasperation as they arrived back on the path. "Can I ask you a question?" he asked.

Hisashi shot him a wary glance, feet turned in the direction of his original destination; the stream. “What?”

“Why do you talk to me?”

“Um…” That was a good question. So good that Hisashi didn’t quite know how to answer him either.

“You said you don’t like me, and you know what I’m after, so why do you still interact with me?” the being asked again.

“I don’t… quite know,” Hisashi answered, meeting the being’s inquisitive golden eyes. “I prefer you as a cat, though.”

“Aren’t you more of a dog person?” the being smiled.

“What?” Hisashi blurted. “Who told you that?”

Once again, the being giggled lightly and, instead of replying Hisashi, disappeared into the forest with a flutter and a rustle, leaving Hisashi alone once more.

Chapter Text

"Ouh! Imai!" 

Hisashi found himself faced with an enthusiastic greeting and a clap on his back the moment he entered the local izakaya. He turned to look at who swept him up with an arm and was now steering him towards a table.

"Matsumoto! You're here!" Hisashi greeted, surprised that his old friend with a penchant for flashy dressing still remained in this town. "It's been a while!"

"Sure has," Matsumoto grinned. "I'm glad you still recognise me! Come, come, sit!”

“I’d know that smile anywhere,” Hisashi said, settling into the seat he had been shown to. “But what are you doing here? I thought you wanted to move to the capital. What happened to that plan?”

“Actually, I did go over for a bit,” Matsumoto revealed as he stuck a hand into a concealed shelf nearby. “But I couldn’t stand how lonely it was, so I came back,” he went on while pulling out a bottle and opening it. “People in the city aren’t as friendly as I thought they would be.”

“Why didn’t you come look us up?” Hisashi asked, chagrined that Matsumoto had such a bad experience where he called home. “If you told us beforehand…”

“Well, I didn’t know your address, for one,” Matsumoto chuckled as he put a small drinking cup down in front of Hisashi and began pouring him a drink. “And I honestly didn’t expect the capital to be that big. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in one place before.”

“It’s definitely something else compared to here,” Hisashi laughed. “I bet you thought you could easily find us.”

Matsumoto nodded with a self-deprecating laugh. “I did! Foolishly,” he said before gesturing at the cup while putting the bottle down next to it. “Drink, drink,” Matsumoto urged.

“Hey, I came here on a budget to work,” Hisashi told even as he reached for the cup.

“Bah! Don’t pretend to be so hardworking,” Matsumoto quipped, waving a hand as if dismissing the idea. “We both know you're not like that.”

Hisashi smirked, humming in agreement before he drank it all down in one shot. Slamming the cup down on the counter, he let out a satisfied exclamation and said, “That hits the spot!”

“That’s right!” Matsumoto spurred. “Isn’t it great to be back?”

“It sure is,” Hisashi concurred, pouring himself another cup. “It’s so nostalgic, the way things stay the same. Yet some things are different…” he added to himself as the thought of the cat being came to mind.

“Oh, yeah? What’s different?” asked Matsumoto.

“Well…” Hisashi paused. Should he mention the cat being? … “You’re taller for one.”

“T'cha! Well, I can’t stay child-sized forever, can I?” Matsumoto laughed. “Ah… you never change,” he sighed, smiling as he shook his head. Looking at Hisashi, Matsumoto said, “Make sure you drink your fill, alright? This bottle’s on the house. Call it your ‘welcome back’ drink.”

“Oh? On the house? Says who?” Hisashi asked, surprised.

“Says me,” Matsumoto beamed, jabbing a thumb at himself.

You? ” Hisashi blurted, incredulous. “Who would let you run a business?”

“Well, my old man can’t quite run the place like he used to any more since he got sick so it’s not like he’s got a choice, you know,” Matsumoto chuckled a little less cheerily now.

"How's he doing?" Hisashi asked, sitting up and handed the filled cup to Matsumoto. "Have a drink."

"Thanks," Matsumoto mumbled, accepting it. Swallowing, he assured, "Honestly, he's doing better now, I think. He's rather antsy that he can't work. Convinced I've run the place into the ground."

"I'm honestly surprised you haven't," Hisashi joked with a smirk.

"Oy, have a little faith in me, won't you?" Matsumoto huffed, passing the cup back to Hisashi. "On the other hand, I can't believe your father would trust you enough to send you here on your own."

"Ah, well," Hisashi grimaced. "He probably thought of this as a way to keep me from causing him any more embarrassment," he muttered. "Probably thinks that I'd be under more supervision here among everyone."

"Oh ho? I smell a juicy story there," Matsumoto wriggled his eyebrows with a lopsided smile.

"Eh, there's not much to it. It's just my father being my father," Hisashi grumbled, drinking the next cup of rice wine himself. "I'm not complaining, though. About coming back here," he added as he leaned back in his seat, finally feeling the alcohol working in him.

A short yell sounded from another corner of the izakaya, catching Matsumoto's attention. Matsumoto turned around and raised his hand, indicating that he would go over. "I guess I gotta get to work. Tell me more later, alright? Don't get too drunk before that," he said quickly, leaving Hisashi's side to tend to another table.

"Right, don't worry about that. I can drink all night if you asked me to," Hisashi responded with a smile as he poured himself another drink.

Just as Matsumoto left, Hisashi was quickly approached by one of the waitresses in the establishment. "Good evening, sir. Would you like some food to go with your drink?"

"Uh, no, I'm good, thanks," Hisashi muttered. He was still full from finishing the dinner that Aunty prepared before he came out into town.

"Or would you like some company instead?" She asked.

"Huh? Oh, no, no," Hisashi quickly denied. That wasn't what he came here for. "I really just came here to catch up with Matsumoto-"

"Ah. Are you two close?"

"Huh?" Hisashi blurted, surprised by the sudden change in topic. "Well, we did spend much of our childhood years together."

"You must know quite a lot about him then," the lady remarked.

"Um… I don't know if you can really say that," Hisashi mumbled. Was she interested in Matsumoto?

"Oy! Hanako! Stop flirting and get moving!" Matsumoto's voice suddenly cut across the room.

"I'm not-! Yessir…"

Hisashi watched with amusement as Hanako's face changed from shock to mild indignation, and finally, to resignation before she hurried away. It looks like she really did have a thing for Matsumoto. Hisashi looked over at Matsumoto who was happily chatting with other guests while bringing them more and more drinks. He didn't seem to be aware of it.

Matsumoto looked up when another person entered the izakaya and his face lit up. Hm? Curious, Hisashi turned to see who it was. He didn't recognise the slender, delicate-featured man but judging from they way Matsumoto greeted him with an enthusiastic hug, Matsumoto sure did.

Watching the two of them interact was interesting. Hisashi couldn't recall a time when Matsumoto was ever this… touchy with anyone. Hm? Matsumoto spoke to the man in quiet whispers and the next moment, Hisashi earned a glance along with what seemed like a pleasantly amused ‘oh’ from the man. Not expecting it, Hisashi blinked and turned away, gulping down his drink. What on earth did Matsumoto tell him?

Hisashi thought that the stranger’s look meant that he was going to come over, but instead, nothing happened. He looked across the izakaya once more and realised that he could find neither Matsumoto or the stranger anywhere. Where did they go?

Shrugging to himself, Hisashi decided to mind his own business and enjoy his drink. Now left to his own devices, Hisashi’s mind was free to wander, to contemplate the past few days since he came back.

While his return started out rather… eventfully, it had been three days since Hisashi last saw the cat being. He thought the cat would come looking for him during his time on the mountain or visit his home more but he seemed to have disappeared completely. Hisashi sighed and took a drink. That last time…

Hisashi could still see the being's silhouette in his mind's eye; that luxuriant dark hair, unmarked back, delicate waist, slim hips… Clearing his throat, Hisashi took another drink and swallowed. Well, it wasn't as if those weren't things he didn't have himself. Maybe except for the hair.

Hisashi shifted in his seat at the memory, annoyed at how his mind fixated on that scene and the being's terribly attractive face. He had seen other men in the buff loads of times before during his many trips to public bathhouses so what was so special about this particular body that made him-

"What the-!" Hisashi jerked away the moment he felt something touch his face from the side, almost spilling his drink. Heart in his throat, he stared wide-eyed at the smug-looking, golden-eyed 'cat' sitting next to him as it wrapped its tail around itself to cover its paws.

"Where did you come from?" Hisashi asked in a whisper, his eyes darting around with silent anxiety to see if anyone had noticed the cat as well. It seemed like everyone was too occupied with their own business to notice. "I don't think they allow animals in here."

"Oh, I don't think they'll mind," the cat said in a voice Hisashi recognised.

"What the fuck," Hisashi swore. Facing the table he quickly poured himself another cup and drank it immediately. "What the fuck," he repeated to himself, shaking his head. Did he just see an animal speak?

"Is it so surprising when you already know that I'm not a mere animal?" The cat asked with a smile.

"Please don't do that," Hisashi mumbled, rubbing his temples. This was getting a little too much.

Instead of hearing that voice again, Hisashi heard the cat's familiar 'ah' and felt the cat stepping into his lap. Immediately, he looked down and began protesting, "Hey, hey, hold it there. Who said you could-"

"Where'd that animal come from?!" Matsumoto's exclamation cut in.

The cat seemed unperturbed, simply curling up against Hisashi as Matsumoto approached with the stranger.

"Hey! Hey, shoo!" Matsumoto hissed, flicking his hands at the nonchalant cat. "God, that's a huge cat," he remarked when he came closer.

"With a gorgeous coat," Matsumoto's friend added.

Upon hearing that comment, the cat raised its head and looked up at Matsumoto and his friend peering down at him.

"And beautiful eyes too," Matsumoto's friend beamed.

The second compliment made the cat sit up with interest and blink his dazzling eyes at the stranger.

"Still, we can't have an animal in here," Matsumoto maintained with his hands on his hips. "Imai, did you bring it in?" he asked.

"What? Me? Did you see me come in with anything?" Hisashi questioned indignantly.

"Is it a stray, then?" Matsumoto's friend asked.

"Huh… I've never seen a stray which looks like that, Hayashi," Matsumoto muttered. "It looks more like a wild thing."

"But it's so tame," Hayashi gushed, reaching a hand out to scratch the cat's head.

The cat didn't retaliate. He simply squeezed his eyes shut, sort of smiling as he enjoyed the scratching.

“Look at it,” Hayashi cooed. “Can we keep it?”

“Actually,” Hisashi piped up as he put an arm around the cat, “I think he might’ve followed me here from the capital. I kind of remember seeing a cat which looks like him in our garden a couple of weeks back.”

“Hm?” Hayashi hummed, intrigued. “A city boy with his city cat?”

"How did you know I came from the city?" Hisashi asked.

But his question seemed to have gone unheard as Matsumoto said, “Why didn’t you say so earlier?”

“It just came to mind,” Hisashi answered vaguely.

“Do city cats look like that?” Matsumoto asked Hayashi.

“Not that I know of,” Hayashi replied, looking intently at the cat. He was obviously still very interested in the large animal. “They tend to be a tad smaller too.”

“You’ve been to the capital?” Hisashi asked.

“I’m from the capital,” Hayashi smiled.

"Hunh?" Hisashi blinked, surprised. "What are you doing in a place like this then?"

Hayashi's eyes flitted to Matsumoto for a brief moment before answering, "I needed a break, and your old friend here told me about this quaint little place."

"So you intend to go back someday?" Hisashi asked.

"We'll see," Hayashi smiled, giving a vague answer of his own. "Now, about the cat…"

"I guess I'll take him home," Hisashi blurted. He could sense the cat looking up at him. "You can't have cats in here, right?"

"I mean… you could just put it outside," Matsumoto suggested.

"He'll probably just come back inside after a while," Hisashi raised as the cat stood up and put his paw on Hisashi's chest. He tried to remove the paw but the cat seemed set on touching Hisashi.

"Or I could take the pretty thing home," Hayashi said.

"Uh…" Truth be told, Hisashi didn't quite like that idea.

The cat seemed preoccupied, pawing at Hisashi's chest until his paw slipped between the folds of Hisashi's kimono. Hisashi looked down in surprise as the cat pushed its paw between his clothes and began to step in.

"Hey!" Hisashi barked, intending to catch the cat's attention and stop whatever it was doing but instead, the cat ignored him, proceeding to get under his clothes and curl up against his body. "What do you think you're doing?" he huffed.

The cat stuck his head out, bumping against Hisashi's chin as he rubbed his furry face all over the protesting Hisashi.

"I think it intends to stick with you, Imai," Matsumoto observed, laughing at Hisashi's predicament.

“I guess it’s made its choice,” Hayashi sighed wistfully.

“I’ll take him home,” Hisashi repeated with resignation, supporting the weight of the cat with an arm as he stood up.

Matsumoto plugged a cap on Hisashi’s sake bottle and handed it to him, saying, “You can finish it at home. But bring the bottle back when you’re done, won’t you?”

“Thanks. Will do,” Hisashi promised, taking the bottle from Matsumoto. “Well,” he sighed, looking at Hayashi. “Maybe we’ll get a chance to speak properly next time.”

“Argh, yeah, I wanted to introduce you to him, but the cat…” Matsumoto muttered. “Anyway, Imai, Hayashi. Hayashi, Imai.”

“Nice to meet you,” Hisashi bowed, formally greeting Hayashi and he was met with a similar formal address. Before Hisashi could say anything else, the cat ‘ah’-ed and hit his jaw with a paw. “Argh!”

“Alright, get going before your face gets clawed off,” Matsumoto chased, ushering Hisashi out of his izakaya. “I heard you’ll be here for a long while so we still have time to catch up.”

Hisashi nodded and was about to bid goodbye when the cat meowed again as if in agreement. Hisashi glared down at the cat while he looked up at Hisashi from under the clothes with his large eyes. "How dare you look at me like that when I'm getting kicked out because of you."

Matsumoto laughed and smacked Hisashi on his shoulder, nudging him to go as Matsumoto himself turned to go back into the izakaya. "Right, have fun dealing with that," he laughed. "See you around."

"See you around," Hisashi returned, commencing his walk home with the cat.

As Hisashi strolled through the town, the cat spoke, "To think that someone who told me to get out of his house three days ago is taking me back now."

"Whoever said I'm letting you in?" Hisashi retorted without looking at him, keeping his voice low. It was still early enough in the night that people were still out and about. "I could just toss you outside the forest once we get back," he added, glancing down at the cat as they passed a stone lantern.

When Hisashi turned his attention back to the path ahead, he could feel the cat moving in his arm without a word said. Hisashi looked down. The cat no longer faced him lying belly up. He had turned around and now hid his face. Was he upset?

"So, where have you been?" Hisashi asked, hoping to break the silence.

"None of your business." Great. The cat was upset.

"Hey, I was just joking, alright?" Hisashi said, shaking the cat with his arm as his muscles started to burn. The cat was seriously heavy.

"Don't lie. You meant it," the cat replied.

"Oh, come on," Hisashi groaned.

"I should've chosen to go with that Hayashi guy instead," the cat went on. "At least someone appreciates my beauty."

"Why did you even come to the izakaya?" Hisashi huffed in exasperation. Now that they were surrounded by rice fields, he didn't need to worry about being seen. 

"Because someone was thinking rather intensely of me," the cat snapped. "I should've just ignored him."

"Who?" Hisashi asked, feigning ignorance even as he felt his cheeks grow warm.

"I could hear your lecherous calls from seven worlds away, you pervert," the cat hissed.

“My- my what?!” Hisashi stuttered at the accusation. “I’ve never-! How is it even possible-?!”

“Don’t even try to pretend you didn’t think like that,” the cat huffed, sticking its tail out of the opening in Hisashi’s kimono. “I’m sure you’ve heard that people know when someone is thinking of them. It’s a thousand times easier to sense for beings like myself.”

“You make it sound like it’s impossible to keep my thoughts to myself,” Hisashi muttered.

“It’s not impossible,” the cat informed. “I’ve already agreed not to read your mind but you’re the one who was yearning so loudly.”

“I didn’t mean to-”

“Do you really mean anything you do or say?”

“I do!” Hisashi stressed.

“First, you told me to get out of your house, then, a mere few minutes later, you let me back in-”

“You were very insistent-”

“You’ve also said you want me to leave you alone, but you pull me into your lap and start petting me,” the cat went on, shifting around to sit up.

Hisashi looked away. “Well, I… uh…”

“You say you prefer dogs but look at what you’ve been doing with a cat,” the cat intoned as he narrowed his eyes.

“I never told you that!” Hisashi exclaimed.

“You think of me but you deny it-”

“My mind just went there, I didn’t deliberately want to!”

“You acted like you didn’t know me in front of your people then you say you do. And then you say you’re taking me home even though you said you didn’t want me… around…”

The cat’s voice suddenly faded away, turning silent as he snapped his head to Hisashi’s left. Finding it odd, Hisashi, too, looked in that direction, following the cat’s line of sight to the old temple located right at the edge of town between the Imai family’s residence and the main town area. The temple grounds were typically closed by sunset and at this time of the night, it should be empty but something seemed to intrigue the cat.

Hisashi felt the cat putting his paws on his shoulder, stretching up to a higher vantage point to look at whatever he was fixated on. It was dark in that direction and it took a while for Hisashi’s eyes to adjust. When they did, he finally saw what the cat did.

Next to one of the two fox statues guarding the entrance to the temple was someone standing in the gloom and from what Hisashi could see, that someone was looking back at them.

A chill ran down Hisashi’s spine. “Hey,” he nudged the cat. “Let’s go home.”

The cat didn’t respond.

Hisashi fixed his eyes on the largely unlit path ahead, leading straight out of town and up the short slope to his residence. “Let’s go home,” he repeated, hugging the cat and gripping his sake bottle a little tighter as he began to walk briskly. “Let’s go home and I’ll give you all the scratches you want.”

Even as they left the area, Hisashi could tell that the cat was still staring at whoever was at the temple. This was getting rather unnerving. He shook the cat again, hoping to get it to respond and give him some sense of reassurance. “Hey, I’ll even let you bathe with me if you want,” he added.

“Oh, really?” the cat finally spoke.

Hisashi felt a wave of relief wash over him when he heard that voice. Still hugging the cat, he muttered into his fur, “Honestly, I prefer it if you stick to meowing when you’re in this form.”

“Shall I bathe with you in my human form then?”

“No. No, thank you,” Hisashi quickly replied.

“Ah, oh well,” the cat sighed, resting his head on Hisashi’s shoulder now.

“Please meow,” Hisashi asked again and he heard a soft chuckle followed by a gentle ‘ah’ from the cat. “Thank you,” he muttered, kneading the back of the cat’s neck as he started ascending the slope, eager to get home.

While Hisashi knew that the cat had ulterior motives, after what he saw earlier, he would very much rather not be alone tonight. He had no idea what that could have been, but perhaps it was his good luck that the cat being had taken a liking to him while Hisashi was still in the capital. After all, the cat being had already saved him once.

Chapter Text

Hisashi rolled tobacco leaves between his fingers, turning it into a ball before putting the sphere into the bowl of his kiseru. He struck a match and when it flared up, he noticed the way the cat's eyes shone with interest as he watched Hisashi light the leaves.

Waving the match to extinguish it, Hisashi took a couple of quick puffs from the kiseru, getting the embers going before finally relaxing against the support beam on the engawa outside his room. He reached for the bottle of sake and opened it as he exhaled white smoke. Seeing the smoke swirls, the cat raised a paw and reached up, batting around as if trying to catch the smoke or wave it away.

Hisashi smiled at the cat's carefree antics and took a swig from the bottle. It was a good sign for him to see the cat like this. Considering how tense he became when they passed the temple earlier, Hisashi figured that if the cat was this blithe, he could relax too.

It wasn't that Hisashi had forgotten that this cat was a creature which was after his soul. He had simply come to the conclusion that the cat being would have to keep him alive and well if he truly desired what he sought.

Hisashi realised this earlier when he was bathing while the cat lounged and watched him. It was weird, being watched, but he decided to bear with it. He wanted to keep the cat around tonight. Just in case whoever was at the temple decided to come up and pay him a visit.

Hisashi sucked in a deep breath through the kiseru and exhaled in an attempt to soothe the unease that crept in with the memory. The way the dark figure seemed to watch them was chilling. That the silhouette looked foreign didn’t help. And to add to that, the way the cat reacted, the way he suddenly turned so still and silent, acting as if Hisashi didn't exist…

Bringing the bottle to his lips once more, Hisashi took a long drink from it in an attempt to wash away his apprehension. He felt a weight on his lap and looked down. The cat was now flopped on his side with his head on Hisashi’s thigh. Hisashi couldn’t help but let a small smile onto his lips. Reassured, he put the bottle aside, switching it for the cat’s head as he gave him his promised scratches.

Hisashi could feel the cat's warmth in his palm along with the gentle vibrations of his soft purring. After a couple of nights without him, it felt nice to have the cat's company once more. But he had been wondering…

"You know, you never said where you've been these past few days," Hisashi thought aloud.

Suddenly, fur turned to skin and the being asked, “Do you really want me to answer you?”

Hisashi snapped his hand away in surprise. Staring wide-eyed that the smug face in his lap, he muttered, “Don’t lie on me like that.”

“Ah, but didn’t you enjoy stroking under my chin like this?” The being said, mimicking the movement of Hisashi’s fingers on said spot.

“Stroking a cat and stroking a person are two very different things,” Hisashi replied stiffly, keeping his hands a good distance away from the being.

The being hummed and sat up, clothes swishing with his movement. Gathering his hair up, he ran his fingers through the locks, bringing it to his front as he said, “So. Do you really want to know? Or did you not mean it, again?”

“I… I’m just… curious,” Hisashi answered. “A bit.”

“Were you worried?”

“Huh?” 

“Were you worried that you haven’t seen me?” The being asked with a strange smile on his face.

“Uh… Not… particularly?” Hisashi replied hesitantly. He wasn’t quite certain that there was a correct answer to such a question.

“Oh,” the being mumbled, his smile immediately replaced by a rather glum expression.

Hisashi thought that the being would say something else, perhaps answer the question, but instead, he remained silent, idly fidgeting with his hair while staring into space. Taking a puff from his kiseru, Hisashi asked again, “So… Did you go anywhere special?”

The being turned sharply and looked at Hisashi, as if snapping out of a trance. Hisashi tensed, watching as the being blinked and gradually reverted back to normal. “Anywhere special…” the being mumbled. “Nowhere special. I was up there,” he pointed up at the mountain, “and maybe around the other side, exploring.”

“Hm,” Hisashi responded, taking another puff. “I don’t think I’ve ever been that high up or to the other side,” he mused

“I could take you there,” the being offered, sounding a little more lighthearted and a little less absent.

“Wouldn’t it take more than a day to climb or cross?” Hisashi estimated. “I don’t know if it’s worth the trouble. After all, I’m here to fulfil orders.”

“It would,” the being agreed. “But I could take you there without the need for you to spend that much time or energy.”

Hisashi gave the being a long look. “… How?”

“It is beyond your comprehension,” the being winked, repeating that line he said before.

“It sounds more like you can’t be bothered to explain it to me,” Hisashi scoffed and folded his arms.

“That,” the being grinned, “is also correct.”

Hisashi sighed and rolled his eyes, sucking on his kiseru once more as the being laughed at his reaction.

"So?" The being asked. "Interested?"

"Only if there's anything that's worth your effort," Hisashi specified. If he didn't need to trek or take any time to travel there, it must be at some sort of expense to the being.

"Hmm…" The being lay on his side, head propped up against an elbow as he thought about it. "Well… There are a few friendly natives I met," he recalled.

"Natives?"

"A couple of tanukis… A dog… A fox… Some deer… A troupe of monkeys… I think there was a boar too," the being listed, counting them on his fingers.

"… Animals," Hisashi concluded flatly.

The being gave him a thin smile and a soft laugh. "Perhaps… more."

"Probably not worth the effort then," Hisashi shrugged, drinking a mouthful of sake.

"I think you'd like them if you met them," the being said, watching him.

" I think having you around is more than enough," Hisashi returned.

"I'm not an animal," the being muttered, raising a disgruntled eyebrow.

"You're… more, right?" Hisashi smirked, reusing the being's words.

" Much more," the being glared. "Do I look anything like an animal to you?"

Hisashi looked the being once over. "No. But yet you're not human either," he remarked.

"Because I'm more than that and both combined," the being said, looking down his nose at Hisashi as he sat up and switched to a more regal posture.

"What are you, really?" Hisashi asked.

"Depends on who you ask," the being said, casting his eyes to the sky. "Some say I'm a spirit. Some say I'm a deity. Some say I'm a demon. Some say I'm a god."

"But what do you think you are?"

"An immortal," the being shrugged. "Simple as that."

"An immortal who's after my soul," Hisashi added.

"We all have our vices, don't we?" The being smiled.

"I guess…" Hisashi muttered, taking another drink. He thought about what the being said so far and after a moment, he surmised, "I suppose eating souls makes you feel good for you to call it a vice, then."

"It's less of 'eat' and more of 'drink'," the being corrected. "And yes, it does feel good," he went on, leaning forward. "But how good depends on the quality of the soul itself. Which is why I'm very much looking forward to yours."

"What if… I let you have a taste and you don't like it?" Hisashi asked. Maybe he would be free of this if the being found him disappointing. But, on second thought, wouldn't that also mean that the being might leave for good?

"Oh, don't you worry about that," the being smiled, crawling closer. "I have confidence in my ability to sniff out a tasty one."

For some reason, Hisashi didn't feel the urge to back away from the encroaching pretty face this time around. Instead, he stayed in his spot and puffed on his kiseru before saying, "But what if I really do taste so bad that I'm no better than that man who attacked me?"

"Then, I guess I have no reason to stay," the being said with a hint of melancholy in his voice. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Would he really? Hisashi looked away and drank deeply from the bottle. It was almost empty now. Staring into the distance, he considered his options. He could give the being his permission now, following which he would either be tied to the being or free of him. On the other hand, he could wait… But there was no guarantee that the being would stay.

Warm fingers touched Hisashi's cheek. "You're considering it," the being breathed, almost in awe. "Did my absence convince you? … Or did it worry you?"

Hisashi met the being's amber eyes for a brief moment before looking down at the kiseru glowing in the moonlight. He wasn't sure either.

Maybe it was the companionship. Even with Aunty in the house, it was lonely wandering the mountain on his own. He had only been at it for four days and he already felt like this. He couldn't imagine keeping at this for months more.

Or maybe he liked the idea that there was someone looking out for him. While Hisashi was familiar with the town, he still felt alone here without his family. And he couldn't quite rely on the townspeople either. None of them knew the mountain well enough to come and look for him if anything were to happen.

"If I were to give you my permission now, can I revoke it whenever I want?" Hisashi asked.

At this, the being scrunched his face up with distaste. "You… could," he acknowledged. "But…"

"But?"

"That… might… be irrevocable," the being answered reluctantly.

Well, that sounded like a fine deal to Hisashi. All of it seemed to depend heavily on him and somehow could work in his favour however he liked. But it couldn't be that simple, could it?

"What happens if I do that?" Hisashi asked.

"You won't," the being assured, his usual confidence returning. "I'll make sure you're happy enough that it'll never cross your mind. After all, no one has ever revoked theirs."

"Huh. I guess I'm not the first one you've proposed this to then," Hisashi muttered, feeling a little put off for some reason.

"Unfortunately not," the being chuckled. "I've lived far too long for you to be lucky number one," he teased, stroking Hisashi's jaw with his finger. "So? How about it?"

"I guess…," Hisashi looked down at his kiseru, observing the moonlight reflecting off it as he pondered. This really didn't sound like too bad a deal. "It can't hurt if there were others who have done this before me, can it?" He eventually surmised.

"I promise to make sure it doesn't," the being beamed. "So, is that a yes?" he asked again.

Hisashi met the being's hopeful golden eyes for a brief moment before darting away towards the forest again. Did he really want this? It was as good as selling his soul away to some sort of entity. It didn't sound like a good idea put like this, but the being hadn't done Hisashi any harm during this time. Instead, he somehow seemed like he sought to help Hisashi.

Hisashi gave the being a once-over, purposely avoiding his gaze. He didn't want to be swayed by those captivating eyes but he noticed how the being cocked his head to one side, intrigued by what Hisashi was doing. Hisashi couldn't help but wonder what if this… innocence was all an act by the being. What if he turned into something sinister after Hisashi gave his permission? Well, the being did say that he could revoke it. But what if that was a lie?

"It's a tough decision, isn't it?" The being remarked.

"I don't think I've ever thought so hard about anything before," Hisashi muttered.

The being laughed lightly. "You don't have to decide now," he said. "I'll still be around."

"No," Hisashi said before downing the last of his sake. He didn't quite want to dwell on this any longer. "I'll let you have it," he decided.

"You'll… Really?" The being mumbled, amber eyes large with surprise.

"Yes, really," Hisashi repeated firmly, looking into those golden eyes this time. "You can have it."

"Well, I… thank you," the being blinked as Hisashi's words sank in.

"So? What happens now?" Hisashi asked, looking around to see if anything strange was happening. "Am I supposed to sign a contract or something of the sort?"

The being burst out laughing. "Oh, no," he chuckled. "This isn't that formal a procedure."

"Then…"

"I'll take my first sip of you then," the being said, kneeling in front Hisashi. "Would you prefer it if I refrained from touching you?"

"I don't particularly mind," Hisashi muttered. Was such a question necessary?

"Good," the being smiled. "If that's the case, I can make it a little more enjoyable for you."

"Huh?"

Taking hold of Hisashi’s hand, the being took Hisashi by surprise when he placed it on his waist and leaned forward. Before Hisashi could say anything, soft lips pressed against his own as the being kissed him slow.

Hisashi was too stunned to react. His first instinct was to push the being away, but he was afraid that he might offend him. He didn’t quite know what else to do now. Although, honestly, this wasn’t unpleasant. In fact, he could possibly, as the being said, enjoy it. This was despite the fact that the being was supposed to be a man. Maybe he could ignore that.

Hisashi closed his eyes and allowed himself to respond to the being’s kiss, parting his lips and moving with the being as he snaked his arms around the being’s slender waist. But just as Hisashi was getting into it, the being broke the kiss.

Hisashi frowned when he heard the being’s laughter. “Do you do something?”

“I haven’t done anything,” came the being’s reply along with a caress on Hisashi’s neck.

“Then what was that for?” Hisashi asked, opening his eyes as the being shifted onto his lap.

“I wanted to know how repulsed you would be by me,” the being answered, eyes wandering around Hisashi’s face from a mere inch away now.

“And?”

“It appears that you are not,” the being said with a soft smile on his face. “I’m glad.”

Feeling embarrassed for some unknown reason, Hisashi cleared his throat and looked away, avoiding the being’s eyes as he muttered, “So, are we doing this or not?”

“Are you ready?”

“I suppose,” Hisashi replied, swallowing the nervousness that has begun to build. “Is this going to do anything to me?” he asked. It would be bad if this left him incapacitated and unable to do the work he was here for.

“You would likely feel tired, maybe a little light-headed,” the being revealed as his fingers traced lines on the back of Hisashi’s neck. “Nothing a good night’s rest won’t remedy.”

“Right…”

“Don’t worry,” the being reassured. “I’ll be careful. I don’t want you unwell either,” he added, now fidgeting with Hisashi’s hair as he came in for a kiss once more.

“Wait!” Hisashi suddenly burst out.

“Yes?” The being asked, unperturbed by the exclamation.

“I just realised I don’t even know your name,” Hisashi mumbled.

The being squinted his eyes as he laughed. “Does it really matter?”

“Feels a bit rude to not know at this stage, doesn’t it?” Hisashi replied.

“Well, then, I’m sorry that I don’t have a name in your language,” the being said, his laughter dying away. “But you can call me whatever you wish.”

“Um… then… Acchan?”

“Acchan?” the being echoed, cocking his head to one side curiously.

“Because of how you meow. It sounds like you’re going ‘Ah~’, ‘Ah~’ so… Acchan,” Hisashi explained.

This earned Hisashi another bout of laughter from the being. “You really like my cat form, don’t you?” he remarked. “Shall I turn back into a cat for this?”

“I have no interest in kissing a cat, though,” Hisashi said quickly.

“You don’t have to,” the being giggled. “Ah, but I’ll explain that another time,” he sighed, still smiling. “I guess that settles it. I’m Acchan,” the being, or rather, Acchan concluded.

“And I suppose I should introduce myself,” Hisashi said, scratching the back of his head. “I’m-”

“Imai Hisashi,” Acchan nodded with a knowing smile.

Hisashi froze. “How did you…”

“Your friends and acquaintances very nicely provided your name many times over,” Acchan divulged with a grin.

“Right,” Hisashi huffed. He should have guessed Acchan had been listening.

“Now.” Hisashi felt hands cupping his face again as Acchan looked into his eyes and asked, “May I?”

Hisashi could feel his heartbeat racing. It could be the nerves from the idea of having such a questionable relationship with an immortal like this. Or it could be the close proximity between Acchan and him. Or it was both. It was most likely both. In any case, Hisashi was the one who put himself in this position. He did agree to it after all. Well, time to lie in the bed he made for himself.

Taking a deep breath, Hisashi nodded and said, “Yes.”

Wasting no time, Acchan kissed him again. It started out the same as before, pleasant and sweet-tasting, but this time, once Hisashi had grown comfortable, he began to feel a gentle tug against something deep inside him that left him somewhat breathless.

The pull gradually grew stronger and along with it, Acchan’s hug grew tighter, holding Hisashi in a firm embrace as he felt something, possibly Acchan, coaxing out whatever was in his core. Hisashi had no idea how Acchan did any of this, but as Acchan mentioned, he started to feel fatigued and light-headed, as if he was about to float away and the instant this happened, the pull quickly eased and subsided.

As the strange tugging sensation faded away, Hisashi felt himself getting lifted up and moved, and moments later, laid down and wrapped up in a comfortable warmth. In this state, it all felt so good that he fell asleep almost immediately, but not before sensing Acchan hugging him and settling in with him for the night with a soft, satisfied, “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Hisashi heard soft breathing as he gradually woke from a dreamless sleep. It felt warmer than most mornings. But that was probably because someone was lying on him with their arms around his neck. Hisashi furrowed his brow. Wasn't he supposed to be living alone?

Hisashi moved slowly, trying not to wake the other person as he opened his eyes to figure out who he lay with. Once his eyes adjusted to the morning light, he was immediately met with a head of long, jet black hair resting on his chest. The sight of it roused in Hisashi a sense of familiarity but he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.

Grunting softly, he lifted a hand and carefully brushed the hair aside to reveal elegant features on a fair-skinned face. The moment the light hit the person's face, eyelashes fluttered and eyes cracked open to… brilliant golden irises.

Hisashi sucked in a sharp breath and stiffened. Was it…? How did this happen?

Tense as Hisashi was, the being didn't seem to notice it. Instead of waking up, he simply breathed deeply and turned away from the light, burying his face in Hisashi's clothes before falling asleep again.

Hisashi, on the other hand, lay wide awake and utterly confused. Lying in bed, he silently searched through his memory of last night for answers. Hisashi recalled visiting the local izakaya, the one which was once run by Matsumoto Senior but now had Matsumoto Junior in charge. He recalled getting a chance to chat with Matsumoto for a bit and hearing about his purportedly brief experience in the capital. That was followed by a friend of Matsumoto’s from the city coming in, and after that, the cat announcing his presence and asserting his claim of Hisashi’s lap.

Hisashi huffed as he remembered the way Matsumoto’s friend seemed particularly interested in the cat. He recalled that he initially wanted to deny any familiarity with the cat but the intensity of that Hayashi’s intrigue towards the cat bothered Hisashi enough to make him take the cat home with him.

Hisashi glanced down at the being’s hand lightly gripping his collar, noticing in the back of his mind the way his fingernails were angled in a way which resembled claws. He definitely had some kind of a soft spot for this feline being for him to bring him home.

As Hisashi listened to the being’s calm breathing, his mind continued replaying his memories on its own, reminding Hisashi of the unknown figure at the temple causing odd behaviour by the cat which resulted in Hisashi rushing home with him and then drinking the remainder of his sake from the izakaya outside his room. He knew for sure that cat was with him the whole time from when he got home until he slept. That was probably why the being was sleeping on him. But wouldn’t the being usually depart before Hisashi wakes up? Why was he still here?

“Hey,” Hisashi whispered, jerking his shoulder to shake the being. He needed answers.

Stirring, the being made a soft noise which resembled something between a meow and purr in the back of his throat.

“Why are you still here?” Hisashi asked.

The being looked up at him blearily with a, “Muh?”

“Shouldn’t you have left by now?”

“Can’t I stay?” the being petulantly asked back.

“Well… sure, but… why?”

The being frowned and buried his face in his arm as if irritated by the light. With a muffled voice, he said, “Just… let me… for a bit more…”

“What happened to you?” Hisashi asked, suddenly struck by concern at the way the being was behaving.

“You…” The being’s golden eye peeked out at Hisashi. “You don’t remember?”

“Remember what?”

The being’s frown deepened and he slowly sat up. “Last night?”

"Last night?" Hisashi echoed. "Did we… do something?"

Worry instantly marred the being's elegant features as he gently clasped Hisashi's face in his hands, golden eyes searching for something in Hisashi's own. Hisashi thought he would be unnerved by those eyes but oddly enough, he wasn't.

After a time, the being let go of Hisashi and muttered softly, "You… You're not lying. You do not remember."

"What don't I remember?" Hisashi asked again, growing frustrated at the being's non-answer.

"You gave me a name to address me by," the being replied, pausing for a moment before adding, "for one."

"A name…? But why would I do that?" Hisashi wondered. How could he forget something so significant?

"You asked for my name and I told you I don't have one in your language-"

"Acchan," Hisashi blurted as the name suddenly surfaced in his mind. "Was it Acchan?"

The being's expression brightened as he smiled in relief. "Yes," he nodded.

“How drunk was I to give you such a name,” Hisashi mumbled to himself as he rubbed his face with a hand.

“You think it’s bad?” the being huffed.

“Wha?” Hisashi looked up, surprised at the being’s tone.

“What’s wrong with ‘Acchan’?” the being questioned.

“Well… it’s not exactly a proper name,” Hisashi muttered as the being folded his arms and narrowed his eyes at him. While the being’s earlier gaze was fine, this was scary. Quickly wracking his brain, Hisashi said, “Um… What about Atsushi?” 

“Is that a proper name?” the being growled.

“Yeah,” Hisashi nodded. “It’s a proper name.”

“Atsushi… Acchan…” The being mumbled to himself as if thinking the two names over. “They’ve got different rings to them…”

“Which do you prefer?”

The being scrunched up his face and decided, “Both.” He looked straight at Hisashi with enthusiasm shining in his eyes. “I want both.”

“So, what do you want me to call you?” Hisashi asked, quietly amused by the being’s interest in this seemingly mundane detail.

“I’ll be Atsushi,” the being said. “But you can call me Acchan.”

“O… kay then,” Hisashi half nodded and shrugged at the same time. He couldn’t understand why the being, Atsushi, was so attached to ‘Acchan’ but that was up to him, wasn’t it? With that settled, Hisashi raised, “You said this was one thing I didn’t seem to recall. So, what was the other?”

At this, Atsushi turned wary. "You're a forgetful drunk, aren't you?"

"Unfortunately," Hisashi grimaced. It had gotten him into trouble more than once before.

Expression terse, Atsushi glanced at Hisashi and looked away multiple times as he reluctantly answered, "You… said 'yes'."

"I said yes?" Hisashi repeated, confused. "To what- … Wait… Is it that…?" He paused as sudden realisation struck him. He couldn't have, could he?

Atsushi met Hisashi's eyes and nodded firmly. "Yes."

"No," Hisashi muttered, disbelieving.

"Yes, you did," Atsushi insisted. "You even let me have a taste," he claimed.

Holding his gaze, Hisashi could tell that Atsushi was not joking. Cursing softly, he groaned, "Way to take advantage of a drunken man."

" I did not ," Atsushi hissed as his face contorted with indignation. “Don’t you accuse me of that.”

Hisashi winced. “I’m not-”

I told you that you could take your time but you wanted to make the decision last night,” Atsushi stressed. “And you said ‘yes’.”

Hisashi sighed heavily, grimacing as he struggled to find a way out of this mess. He had done stupid things before when drunk, but selling his soul to an entity? This probably topped the list.

Considering his options, Hisashi didn’t really see anything viable. He could tell Atsushi his word didn’t count or take it back, but that would likely upset him severely. He could barely imagine what might happen to him then. On the other hand, he could let this be; have Atsushi stick with him for the rest of his life, consuming his soul as and when he pleased.

Hisashi resisted the urge to scowl. What on earth was he thinking when he said yes? There must be something that happened which convinced him to agree to this. But whatever it was, his mind was simply refusing to yield it.

Atsushi stood up, drawing Hisashi’s attention back to him. "I've had enough. I should have never believed that you mean anything you say," he muttered, disappointment evident in his eyes as he turned to leave.

"Wait!" Hisashi exclaimed, scrambling to his feet in a panic. But why was he panicking?

Atsushi didn't wait. All he did was pause at the threshold between the room and the garden outside to add, "Know that you were exquisite. It's a pity that you have to be like that." With that, Atsushi went out and closed the door behind him.

"Wait!" Hisashi rushed after him and slid the door back open with a loud snap but Atsushi was already gone. Where did he go? He couldn't have left for good, could he? It sounded like that, but… 

"Is something the matter?" Aunty's voice came from inside the house.

Hisashi turned and saw her worried face at the entrance to his room. It looked like she might have heard the commotion. How was he to explain this? Still in shock at Atsushi's sudden departure, his mouth was agape but he had no idea what to say.

"I heard you yelling and shoving the door open," Aunty said with a quick glance at Hisashi's unmade futon. "What's got you so worked up this morning?"

"I… Cat…" Hisashi muttered, struggling to form a sentence.

"Cat?" Aunty echoed with raised eyebrows. "There was a cat?"

"He… left," Hisashi said as it slowly sank in, leaving a hollow feeling in his chest. What is this? It was a curious feeling. Shouldn't he be glad that he was free of Atsushi? "I think I lost him," he added breathlessly.

"Oh, don't you worry, dear," Aunty chuckled upon seeing his misery. "If it's a cat, just leave some food out for it and it'll come back soon enough. I can prepare it for you if you want," she offered.

But Atsushi wasn't just any other cat. Hisashi was the food. "No," he mumbled, slowly shaking his head. "I think… I'll wait and see…"

"Alright, then," Aunty nodded with a smile. "Now, go get washed up. Breakfast is ready," she informed as she walked away. "And stop worrying about the cat," she added. "It should be able to take care of itself."

Hisashi nodded to himself with a sigh. That was true. Atsushi was definitely capable of that. But he was still worried.

Crouching down, Hisashi started making his bed, sighing again forlornly. He couldn't figure out what was going to happen now. His had supposedly pledged his soul to Atsushi but if Atsushi was really gone for good, what was to become of him?

Hisashi pursed his lips and huffed at himself. He was truly too good at getting himself into trouble. Maybe all he could do now was waiting for Atsushi's return.

Out of nowhere, the temple at the edge of town suddenly came to mind and a light went off in Hisashi's head. Perhaps he should pay them a visit. Maybe he could find some answers there. If not… If not, then what?

Chapter Text

Hisashi groaned as he sat down on a rock by the river. He had been at this for a little over a week already but his body still ached like it hadn't gotten accustomed to this lifestyle of trekking around the mountain and picking things. Maybe he needed a day off.

Removing his pack, Hisashi set it aside and dipped his hands into the cool water. He washed his face and slapped his wet hands on his exposed skin to and cool off. Stretching his legs out, Hisashi let out a long exhale as he leaned back and made himself comfortable, supporting himself with his hand behind him while he looked to the sky.

The moment he began to relax, a small voice in the back of his mind started reminding Hisashi of his intention to visit the temple. He grimaced and hummed to himself. He knew that he should, but while he did feel an urgency to do so a few days ago, he started thinking that it might be fine if he didn't go anyway. After all, nothing out of the ordinary had happened since Atsushi took his leave and Hisashi felt perfectly fine, so… he should be alright.

Although, it wasn’t that Hisashi didn’t want to go. He simply had been too caught up with all this exploring and mapping and picking. And by the time he realises how much time he had spent here, the sun was already setting, which meant that the temple would have already been closed by the time he descended the mountain. Hisashi either constantly lost track of time or found himself so worn out that he couldn’t summon the energy to go over.

Stretching his neck to the left, then the right, Hisashi felt the strain in his shoulders and groaned. He should probably take a break tomorrow. That would give him time to relax with his reading or his shamisen or visit the town during the day. And the temple.

Hisashi narrowed his eyes as he considered it while cloud gazing but after a moment, he shrugged to himself and decided that he would see how he felt about it tomorrow. He was fine after all. He hadn’t seen or experienced anything out of the ordinary in the past few days aside from coming across a couple of tanukis and a wild dog while in the mountains.

Although, now that Hisashi thought about it, for some reason, he did glimpse those animals quite a few times. But… well, they belonged on the mountain, didn’t they? This was their home. It was only natural that Hisashi would see woodland creatures while walking around here.

Except… Why would the smaller tanuki be sitting next to Hisashi and looking at him now? He had just spotted out of the corner of his peripheral vision. But even if he didn't see it, he could practically feel the stare.

Hisashi dared a glance and it stood up.

Startled, Hisashi quickly looked up at the sky again and pretended that he didn't see the tanuki. Maybe if he ignored it, it would go away-

"You're Hisashi, aren't you?"

Hisashi felt his heart stop. Was he mistaken? Did the tanuki speak? It couldn't have, could it? But as far as Hisashi could tell, there was no one else around here.

"Acchan said that you were more of a dog person but… you don’t look very much like one," the same voice added.

Acchan? The mention of 'Acchan' could refer to anyone else, but it piqued Hisashi's curiosity enough for him to succumb to it and slowly turn his head to face the tanuki's direction, which was also the direction from which the voice sounded. However, instead of seeing a tanuki, he saw a petite man squatting next to him. His sudden appearance scared Hisashi enough to make him freeze.

"Huh, Acchan wasn't jesting then," the man remarked as he ran his hand through his straight, black hair. “He did say that you'd respond if we mentioned him.”

Staring at the man, all Hisashi could manage was, "… Who…?"

"Ah," the man blinked. "Acchan did say that mentioning the name 'Atsushi' would-"

Hisashi's heart skipped a beat at the proper mention of the name and without a second thought, he interrupted, "You know him?"

"Yeah," the man nodded with a sparkle in his eye. "He hangs out with us."

"Us?" Hisashi echoed.

"Us other inhabitants of this mountain, of course," the man elaborated while Hisashi looked at him with a  blank stare. Pursing his lips, he muttered, "Acchan never said you were daft."

"I am not ," Hisashi snapped. Fueled by that indignation, he asked, "Who are you?"

“Acchan said he’s mentioned me to you,” the man said.

“Huh?”

“Acchan did say you probably wouldn’t remember though,” the man added with a jesting sigh and a shake of his head.

Further miffed by that display of disdain, Hisashi growled, “Where did you come from anyway? Don’t you know you’re not supposed to be up here? This is private property.”

“Pft, private property!” The man burst out laughing, falling back to sit on the ground. “I’ve been living here long before any of you even set foot here,” he guffawed.

“What?” Hisashi blurted. The man’s words were giving him pause and his annoyance gave way to confusion.

‘Long before’? Could it be that this man was something similar to Atsushi? That would be a first. Although, the man said that Atsushi had mentioned him before. But, when? … Was it the night when he supposedly sold his soul to Atsushi? Hisashi felt a nagging sense that they did talk about what Atsushi came across on the mountain. He mentioned a few animals, didn’t he? Was it… 

“Tanuki?” Hisashi eventually said, his mind immediately linking back to the tanuki watching him just now. If this man was the same as Atsushi, then that was the most likely answer.

“Mhmm,” the man beamed as he nodded. 

“But… wait…” Hisashi muttered, thinking hard about the myths and legends he used to hear about as a child. “Do you… shapeshift?”

“Of course! We all shapeshift,” the man grinned, holding up a… paw.

Hisashi stared hard at it, wide-eyed as the man stretched the digits of his paw, waved it around and put it away. The next thing he knew, the man had two hands again.

“Hasn’t Acchan ever shapeshifted in front of you?” the man asked.

“Well…” Technically, he did but… “I never saw it happening.”

The man folded his arms and hummed. “He must be fast then,” he remarked, sticking his lower lip out. “As expected of someone his age,” he added, as if it meant anything to Hisashi.

Hisashi frowned at that but he decided not to ask about it. Instead, there was something else he wanted to know. “Is there something you want from me?” There had to be a reason why this shapeshifting tanuki approached him. Did it have something to do with Atsushi? … Before the man could answer, Hisashi quickly added, “Or are you after my soul as well?”

The man burst out laughing again. “Nooo,” he denied, slapping his knee as he crossed his legs. “I can’t do anything with souls anyway.”

“But Atsushi…”

“Ah.” The man looked at Hisashi. “Did Acchan call it ‘soul’?” he asked.

Hisashi nodded.

“Hmm…” The man scratched his chin and squinted his eyes as he pondered. “I think…What he truly meant might have been lost in translation.”

Hisashi cocked his head to one side in confusion. “Meaning?”

“Rather than your ‘soul’… I would say what he’s after is more like your ‘energy’,” the man explained. “After all, it’s something that you can replenish over time with rest. You can’t really do that with a soul.”

Listening, Hisashi felt a weight of worry he didn’t know he had lifting. “So… I didn’t sell my soul?” he surmised.

“Hah, nope,” the man chuckled. “That’s not possible for our kind anyway.”

“Your kind?” Hisashi echoed, growing confused again.

"You know, those like Acchan and me," the man said.

"So... like, gods and all?"

“No, not exactly. Well, they're the strongest ones way up there,” the man raised a hand up high. “Those you humans worship as gods and then there are the weakest of them all, regular plants and insects and whatnot,” he continued, brushing his hand over the grass. “And we’re in that range somewhere in between,” the man finished.

“So… where do humans stand?” Hisashi asked.

The man kept his hand hovering over the grass and stared at Hisashi.

Hisashi raised a sceptical eyebrow in return. Was that it? “You’re kidding, right?”

“Hey, there’s a lot to fit in this small span of a range,” the man justified.

“Then, where do you stand?”

“Maybe… somewhere in the upper range-”

“Oh, come on,” Hisashi scoffed, disbelieving. “You’re just fucking with me, aren’t you?”

“Hey! You can’t shapeshift, can you?”

Hisashi grumbled. The man was right but he didn’t like it. "Why are you here anyway?" he snapped.

"Acchan was curious," the man shrugged.

"About?"

"The guests you hosted a couple of days ago."

Hisashi blinked, surprised. Was Atsushi watching him? "What does he want to know about my guests?" he asked.

"Who they were, and why they visited. Things like that," the man said, waving his hand around casually.

"What's it to him?" Hisashi questioned.

"I dunno," the man shrugged again.

"Did he ask you to find out or what?" Hisashi asked, puzzled by the man's nonchalant attitude. He didn't seem interested in whatever he was asking about.

"Nope," the man replied.

"Huh?" Hisashi frowned. "Then, why would you come-"

"Because Acchan seemed exceptionally bothered by it," the man cut in. “He kept stomping around and muttering to himself.”

“Atsushi was?” Hisashi blurted. After how Atsushi left the last time, he didn’t expect him to care at all. “I thought… I thought he said he’s had enough?”

The man made a noise and shrugged. “If you ask me, I’d say he’s a fickle one,” he remarked. “And from what I’ve heard from him, you’re fickle too.”

“I’m not fickle,” Hisashi huffed indignantly.

“That’s what Acchan said too,” the man chuckled.

"How’s that funny?" Hisashi glared.

"Ah, no, well," the man's chuckle grew into a proper laugh. Hisashi continued glaring at him until the laughing fit eventually subsided and the man said, "Anyway. Are you going to free me from the discomfort having a disgruntled Acchan around or not?"

"Let Atsushi be disgruntled," Hisashi retorted. "If he's that curious, he can ask me himself."

"Oh, come on, you know he won't. He's too stubborn for that," the man huffed, folding his arms. "But, maybe… if you drop him a little hint but leave out the juicy details…" he said with a suggestive look at Hisashi.

"I don't know what's 'juicy' about my sister tagging along with my brother to visit," Hisashi said flatly. "It's going to be a regular thing so-"

"No, it's not your siblings Acchan's bothered with. He knows who they are," the man interrupted with a wave of his hand. "It's that other person who came with them."

"Oh!" Hisashi realised. "Honma?"

"I don't know his name," the man shrugged.

“Well, I’m telling you it’s Honma,” Hisashi emphasised. “Is that juicy enough a piece of information for you?”

“Maay… be?” The man squinted his eyes as he looked to the sky. “What’s your relationship with him?”

“He’s a good friend of mine from the city,” Hisashi answered. “He’s staying with me while he’s here to-”

“Ah, don’t tell me that,” the man interrupted with a hand held up. “We’ll let Acchan find out about that himself,” he said with a smirk.

“You sure he’d be curious enough to ask?” Hisashi questioned, sceptical of the man’s plan.

“Well, that Honma’s living with you now, isn’t he?” the man pointed out. “That’ll get Acchan upset enough.”

“… Why would Atsushi be upset?”

That question earned Hisashi a blank stare from the man. “Because… that will make it difficult for him to get you alone?” he replied as if the answer was obvious.

“What?” Hisashi muttered in confusion. Was Atsushi’s goal to isolate him?

Before Hisashi could ask about it, he heard a huff that sounded like a grumble coming from behind him. “Huh. You really spoke to him, huh? Yutaka,” a voice mumbled.

The petite man, supposedly Yutaka, looked past Hisashi and his face lit up. “Hidehiko!” he greeted enthusiastically. “You’re here!”

“We should go back. Your older brother’s looking for you,” Hidehiko said as Hisashi turned around to look at him. Without a doubt, his person was taller and bigger than Yutaka, and he had thick, messy hair instead of Yutaka’s smooth, straight locks. Furthermore, to his surprise, Hidehiko was fully clad in unmistakable karuta armour unlike Yutaka, who was dressed in a normal kimono.

“Alright,” Yutaka said as he stood up and dusted his clothes. “You know, I think Hisashi might like you more than Acchan,” he commented.

“Huh?” Hisashi blurted. Hidehiko, too, looked equally bewildered by Yutaka’s words.

“Acchan did say that Hisashi preferred dogs,” Yutaka said, as if reminding Hidehiko.

“But I’m not a dog,” Hidehiko muttered.

“I’m pretty sure being an inugami qualifies you for the dog category,” Yutaka said, walking past Hisashi to go towards Hidehiko.

“Then, what about you?” Hidehiko returned, walking away alongside Yutaka. “You’re technically a raccoon dog .”

“But aside from that, I’m in no way related to dogs,” Yutaka argued back.

The two men seemed to have forgotten about Hisashi as they continued their banter. Casting his gaze back to the sky, Hisashi sighed. How odd that he kept attracting such strange characters. He cast a glance backwards again, expecting to see the silhouette of the two men in the distance, but instead, he saw a large, dark-furred dog walking into the forest with a tanuki curled up on its back.

Hisashi let out a soft grunt of surprise. Were those the two men’s actual forms? He blinked. They disappeared. He blinked again. The forest was all he saw. He was alone once more. Hisashi pressed his lips thin and hummed to himself with concern. Considering all the spirits or non-humans he had been in contact with… perhaps taking a break to visit the temple tomorrow would be a wise choice.

Chapter Text

The heat of the afternoon sun immediately dissipated when Hisashi stepped past the first torii gate and into the canopy of the ginkgo trees which lined the stone-paved path towards the temple. The cool shade of the trees was a wonderful respite from the late summer heat as he went up the gentle incline and climbed the occasional stair, passing more torii gates, stone lanterns, and the kitsune statues guarding the entrance to the temple.

It was quiet here. That was to be expected. The temple rarely had visitors unless it was festival season. Hisashi remembered those occasions fondly. Stalls selling candied treats and finger food or offering games and prizes would line the way in and he would get to stay up past his usual bedtime. He wondered if it was still the same after all these years.

Stepping through the final and largest of all the torii gates, Hisashi finally arrived at the temple's grounds. He took a quick glance around and saw no one. Hisashi pressed his lips thin. Maybe he should pray a bit first.

Following the stone path to the main building, Hisashi went up the short flight of stairs and stood in front of the offering box. From that spot, he peered into the darkened hall and saw the ancient Kannon statue that this temple was dedicated to. It still looked the same as it did in his memory.

Nodding to himself, Hisashi tossed a coin into the offering box and put his hands together, eyes closed. He intended to pray but instead, he found his mind going blank. He didn't know what to ask for. No, well, he did have things to ask for but the words weren't coming.

Hisashi frowned and opened his eyes. He let out a sigh of resignation as he backed away and descended the stairs. Maybe the words will come to him when he gets to the adjacent shrine.

Strolling, Hisashi was crossing the well-maintained space to head towards the shrine when he spotted bright red fur by the cedar trees lining the grounds. The shock of colour against the muted browns and greens of the forest gave him pause. Instinctively reacting, his eyes darted towards it and he found them focusing on a fox. He expected it to run away the moment he met its eyes, but instead, it just sat there, still as one of those kitsune statues, staring.

Hisashi stared back, his brows furrowed. After meeting Yutaka and Hidehiko yesterday, he knew to expect by now that when animals watched him, they weren't just animals. So what did this one want?

Considering that it was a fox, it was probably a kitsune. Maybe a guardian of these sacred grounds. But if it was… Why did it feel vaguely hostile? Unless it was something else?

Just as Hisashi started wondering if he should stay or go, the fox turned to its left, tail twitching as it looked at something behind a building. Curious, Hisashi craned his neck and tried to see what caught the fox's attention but within moments, the fox stood up and trotted away in that direction.

Intrigue fueling him, Hisashi took brisk strides towards where the fox sat and looked around the building, hoping to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, what he found was… nothing.  The fox had disappeared.

Hisashi sighed to himself as he returned to the main path. Perhaps he should have expected this. Animals did have a strange tendency to disappear without a trace.

Sandals crunching on the gravel, Hisashi went through a small path between the trees and crossed over from the temple's space into the shrine. He first went to the purification fountain and washed his hands and rinsed his mouth with the fresh, cool water. Once done, he replaced the bamboo ladle by the edge of the fountain and shook his hands dry.

Looking around, Hisashi casually proceeded to the shrine and glanced up at the bell over the offering box. He still hasn't seen anyone but ringing the bell should alert the resident priest or a warden that he was out here.

Now, Hisashi stood in front of the offering box of the shrine and tossed a coin in. He then bowed, clapped his hands twice, and bowed again before putting his hands together in prayer. This time, he decided that he would ask for the usual good health and hope for things to go smoothly during his stay here.

But instead of all those things coming to mind when Hisashi closed his eyes, Atsushi’s face appeared. He frowned. What did Atsushi have to do with anything? Granted, he originally came here to ask about Atsushi, but this wasn’t the time for it.

Hisashi mentally shoved the image of Atsushi aside, but try as he might, Atsushi wasn’t leaving his mind. Letting out a heavy exhale, he dropped his arms and once again, gave up. He looked listlessly into the dim interior of the shrine. Perhaps his mind just wasn't in the right place for this. But regardless of whether he did successfully pray or not, he should still sound the bell to complete the ritual.

Wrapping his hand around the thick cord which hung from the bell above-head, Hisashi pulled it towards him and shook the rope, sending the hollow yet melodious sound echoing throughout the grounds. It felt as if the serenity of this place was enhanced by the sound of the large Suzu bell, as if clearing the air.

Soon enough, the unmistakable scrape of geta on the worn stone pavement reached Hisashi's ears. Turning around, he came face to face with a shrine maiden looking at him from the foot of the shrine's steps. Her red and white robes stood out like a beacon in this environment. At first glance, there was nothing odd about her but after a moment, Hisashi started getting a peculiar feeling that he couldn't quite place. He brushed that aside. He must be overthinking things. Whatever it was, she was someone to ask about his predicament.

Eyes wandering to take in her large eyes and braided, jet black hair, Hisashi descended the steps and muttered, "Um…"

Almost immediately, she gave him a curt but quiet, "Yes?"

"Um, well, I was wondering…" Hisashi paused. He hadn't thought of how he would present his problem. "Uh…" Judging by how the shrine maiden was staring at him, he should probably get to the point. "There's this… cat youkai…"

"A nekomata? Or a bakeneko?" the shrine maiden asked.

"Um… Maybe…?" Even as he said that, Hisashi frowned and scratched his head. Weren't those supposed to be malicious in nature? Atsushi didn't come across as malicious.

"I don't sense anything evil latching onto you," the shrine maiden responded.

"Ah, really?" Hisashi was right then. Atsushi didn't mean harm. Just then, another question came to mind. Was the shrine maiden's answer because Atsushi left him?

The shrine maiden then asked, "Did you see it?"

"Yes," Hisashi answered.

"Did you interact with it?"

"… Yes," Hisashi replied with a little more hesitance. She was probably going to say that he shouldn't have.

"You shouldn't interact with anything otherworldly." There it was.

"Uh… yeah…"

"It can't be a nekomata or bakeneko then," the shrine maiden concluded. "Otherwise, you wouldn't have been able to step in here so casually."

"Huh, really?"

"It wouldn't have let you," the shrine maiden explained simply.

"Ah, a visitor?" A spry voice came from behind Hisashi.

Slightly startled by the contrasting lively tone, Hisashi snapped his head around to find a cheery-looking middle-aged man who, judging by his clothes, appeared to be the priest. He thought that he would at least have some recollection of the priest but he didn’t recognise this person. Then again, he didn’t recognise the shrine maiden either. He had always assumed that someone from the town would take up these roles, but apparently he was wrong.

“I should probably introduce myself first,” the priest smiled. “I’ve only recently taken up residence here as the local priest since my predecessor passed away last year. You can call me Takahashi,” he said with a bow.

Bowing back, Hisashi awkwardly introduced himself too with a mumbled of, “Imai Hisashi.”

“Ah, yes. I’ve heard of you,” Takahashi beamed. “You were the talk of the town last week. You and your return.”

“Oh.” Hisashi didn’t know what to say. To think that he had become such popular gossip material.

“So, what brings you here today?” Takahashi asked.

"Well, I was just talking to the shrine maiden-"

"Shrine maiden?" Takahashi interrupted as his smile disappeared, replaced by a look of confusion. "We don't have any shrine maidens here."

"Huh?" Hisashi jabbed a thumb behind him and as he turned, he said, "She's right… Huh?"

The shrine maiden had disappeared.

Hisashi looked at the priest and then back at the spot where the shrine maiden stood. "I was just talking to her…"

"Aside from a couple of other groundskeepers, I'm the only one living here. We don't have shrine maidens here," the priest repeated, observing Hisashi with his brows furrowed with concern. "Are you alright, young man?" he asked.

Hisashi brought a hand to his forehead as his eyes searched the grounds. He could have sworn the shrine maiden was right there. She couldn't have disappeared so quickly without making a sound. But if the priest said that there wasn't anyone else aside from himself and those he mentioned, who had Hisashi been talking to?

Suddenly, Hisashi caught a flash of red along the nearby treeline. It was a fox. Again, it was looking at him. Was it the same one that he saw earlier? Could it be…? His eyes still fixed on the fox, Hisashi blurted, “You have foxes around here?”

“Well, yes,” Takahashi said as he followed Hisashi’s line of sight. “We believe them to be divine messengers so their presence is appreciated.”

“I just… don’t remember seeing foxes around here back when I was a child,” Hisashi mumbled, watching the fox yawn and trot off as if bored.

“Hm, I wouldn’t know what things were like back then, but indeed, you don’t often see these creatures out in the open like this,” Takahashi nodded in agreement. “Well, at least, I definitely didn’t, growing up in the capital.”

Hisashi cast him a glance. Another city dweller? “Say,” Hisashi began. “I was wondering about cat youkai…”

“Youkai?” echoed the priest.

“There’s a cat that had been hanging around my home and I was wondering if-”

“You don’t actually believe in such superstition, do you?” Takahashi interrupted.

“Uh…” Hisashi held his tongue. Superstition? Knowing what he had seen, felt, and experienced, Hisashi knew that this was definitely not mere superstition. But if this was how the priest reacted, it didn’t sound like he was going to give Hisashi any useful answers. “I just thought it was odd,” Hisashi eventually muttered.

“There might be something at your home which attracts it,” Takahashi reasoned. “Or perhaps it had taken up residence somewhere nearby while your house was unoccupied.”

“Mm, yeah, probably,” Hisashi reluctantly agreed, feeling slightly disappointed that he had met with a dead-end here.

But that shrine maiden… She said she didn't sense anything wrong with him, right? Though, considering that the priest said there were no shrine maidens here, should Hisashi really trust what she said? 

"Maybe I've been overthinking things," Hisashi mumbled, turning to walk back to the temple. He decided that there was no point in consulting Takahashi if disbelief was his stance.

As expected, priest Takahashi chuckled and said, “Coming from the city, I don’t blame you for letting your imagination go wild. It can be a little too mundane for the mind here.”

“Hm, I guess,” Hisashi responded absentmindedly as the priest walked alongside him.

“But if you ever find the need for some stimulation, feel free to visit our library,” Takahashi offered, crossing the path back behind Hisashi. “There’s quite a significant collection of scriptures and references here which might interest you.”

“The library?” Hisashi raised his eyebrows. Now, that might help.

“It’s right around the back of the main hall,” Takahashi said, pointing past the building which housed the statue of Kanon. “I leave it open to visitors in the daytime, but I’ll lock it up once the sun sets.”

“Hm,” Hisashi hummed. “I guess I’ll have a look some other day,” he said, stopping in front of the towering torii gate. They have returned to the entrance. “I don’t think I have enough time before you close up to peruse anything today,” Hisashi added with a glance towards the sky.

“Of course. You can come by any day,” Takahashi nodded with a smile. “It’ll be open.”

“Thanks for letting me know,” Hisashi bowed. “I’ll be on my way then,” he said, stepping away towards his descent. “Thank you again for your time.”

“And thank you for visiting,” Takahashi bowed back. “See you again, and take care.”

“Likewise,” Hisashi responded, bowing once more before finally leaving the temple.

Following the same way down, Hisashi immediately began thinking about what happened just now; about the priest and his words, and, of course, the not-shrine maiden as well.

It was surprising to him that the priest didn’t seem to believe in youkai and the like. But perhaps that was a sign of the times changing. That, and the fact that he came from the capital like Hayashi and himself. Even Honma came to join him here, even if temporarily and from what Hisashi had seen in town, they weren’t the only ones either. He thought that the town’s population would be growing smaller, that most would choose to move out and stay nearer to the capital, but looking at how things were, it didn’t seem to be the case.

That aside, Hisashi had begun to wonder if the supposed shrine maiden he met was, in fact, one of those youkai in her own right. Atsushi, Yutaka, and Hidehiko could all shapeshift. So, could it be that he had come face to face with yet another sort of youkai? On the other hand, if she was one, did she have an animal form?

Or… What about that fox Hisashi had been catching glimpses of around the temple? Its red fur… Her red hakama? Hisashi paused in his tracks. Did he actually just meet a kitsune?

Out of the corner of his eye, Hisashi caught a flash of red in the green of the forest and his head snapped towards it. A good distance away was a red fox on the forest floor, waving its bushy tail in the air as it nuzzled against a… particularly familiar-looking, rosette sand-coloured furred cat.

Staring at the sight before him, Hisashi’s mind reeled with even more questions. Was that really Atsushi? Who was that fox? Were they acquainted? Or rather, how well-acquainted are they? Why were they being so affectionate with each other?

Perplexed, Hisashi took a step towards the two, hoping to get a closer look, but the moment he blinked, they disappeared.

Further taken aback, he spun around on the spot, eyes scanning the forest around him for any sight of the fox’s red fur. Trying to look for Atsushi might be too much of a challenge since he would likely blend into the forest, but that bright red would easily stand out. Logical as it sounded, Hisashi was, however, unable to catch sight of the fox again it was truly gone.

Stunned still, Hisashi stood in the middle of the path and stared into the distance. He began to wonder if he really did see Atsushi just then. Was it real? Or was it just his imagination? Or was it a trick played on him by a kitsune, if it really existed?

Covering his face in a hand, Hisashi sighed. He had hoped to solve his problems by coming here, but instead, it looks like he had only found more.

Chapter Text

“I think the priest is right,” Honma said as he took a long drink.

“What?” Hisashi slurred, lifting his head from the table. He had intended to go home after his visit to the temple this afternoon, but he bumped into Honma on the way back and got dragged to Matsumoto’s izakaya.

Although Honma was supposed to be staying with Hisashi, Aunty said that he didn’t come back last night. Hisashi thought that this might be a good chance to find out what happened from Honma before he disappeared again. Instead, Hisashi found himself drunk-telling Honma about his predicament at the temple while getting inundated by alcohol. It had been too long since the last time he drank like this.

“I said, I think the priest is right,” Honma repeated, slamming his empty cup down and leaning forward. “Your city-accustomed mind must be bored silly by your time out here in the sticks.”

“Tch,” Hisashi clicked his tongue and sat up. He was beginning to feel the effects of the alcohol fade. He knew that it was only temporary, though. “I’m telling you that’s what’s happened,” Hisashi insisted as he sipped his freshly filled cup. It felt as if it was never empty. “I swear I spoke to a shrine maiden-”

“Were you daydreaming? Did your head conjure up a pretty lady for you to talk to?” Honma teased. “Have you opened your eyes and noticed that there’s no shortage of pretty ladies in this town?”

“Is that what you’ve been up to? Have you been scouring the town for ladies to pick up?” Hisashi returned.

Honma gave him a weird laugh.

“I’m warning you, it’s a small community here,” Hisashi said. “One wrong move and the whole town will know your name.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Honma muttered, waving his hand dismissively. “Matsumoto said the same thing, anyway.”

“Aunty said you didn’t come back last night,” Hisashi raised, side-eyeing Honma as he sipped again.

“What?” Honma blurted.

“Where’d you stay?”

“Uh… I guess I… passed out on the street or something…”

“Who’d you hook up with?” Hisashi surmised, smirking inwardly at Honma’s flustering.

“Gah! You aren’t even half as interested when we’re in the capital, so what’s with all this questioning now?” Honma grumbled as he took another long drink. “You really must be too bored with life here.”

“I really did speak to a shrine maiden!” Hisashi insisted.

“You sure you’re not smoking something weird in that kiseru of yours?” Honma asked.

“It’s just tobacco leaves,” Hisashi huffed.

“No ‘herb’ you found?” Honma smirked.

“Oh, please,” Hisashi rolled his eyes. “This isn’t the climate nor the location for such a thing to grow naturally,” he added in a low voice.

“Didn’t bring any with you?” Honma wriggled his eyebrows.

Hisashi glared at him.

Honma held up his hands and leaned away at his reaction. "I'm just kidding, you know?"

Hisashi grunted as he downed the rest of his glass. "We done here?" he asked, reaching towards the bottle on their table to shake it. It was empty.

"Yeah, I think I need an early night after… Yeah," Honma's voice trailed away as he tried and failed to suppress a grimace.

Hisashi chose to pretend he didn't see that. Let Honma grapple with the consequences of whatever he did himself. Hisashi wanted no part in it.

Pushing himself up, Hisashi almost toppled over some of the bottles in his haste, or rather, in his drunkenness. A pair of hands grabbed his arm to steady him. "You alright there?" Matsumoto's distant-sounding voice asked. When did he appear?

"Yea," Hisashi answered curtly as he made eye contact with Matsumoto who was right next to him now. Staring intently at the izakaya's exit, he forced himself to stand upright and eased his arm out of Matsumoto's grasp.

"Make sure you take him home proper before you go out cavorting again," Matsumoto said, supposedly addressing Honma.

"Make sure you take care of the tab too," Hisashi added.

"What? Me?!" Honma exclaimed, part stumbling himself as he stood up.

"Remember I'm here on a budget, Honma," Hisashi reminded.

" You're the heavy drinker, aren't you? I think you drank at least two-thirds of whatever's on the table," Matsumoto pointed out.

"Hey, hey, don't let this guy fool you," Honma said, pointing a finger at Hisashi. "This guy drinks way more than me-"

Hisashi leaned forward, letting himself fall far enough before he had to take a step to stop himself from hitting the ground.

Matsumoto, as expected, grabbed onto him and said, "Oh, come on. Look at him. He's barely standing right."

Head hanging low, Hisashi made eye contact with Honma by the corner of his eyes and smirked.

Realising what Hisashi was playing at, Honma puffed up with indignation. “You-!”

Hisashi dropped his weight against Matsumoto in response. With a groan, Matsumoto huffed and pushed Hisashi towards Honma, “Gah, take him home. We’ll settle the tab another time. I don’t want him hurling up all over my floor.”

Honma began to protest. “But-”

Hisashi made a noise that resembled vomiting.

“No but’s!” Matsumoto immediately shoved them out the door. “Out, out! No puking in here!”

Almost falling over each other, Honma and Hisashi found themselves outside the izakaya in a matter of seconds.

"Remember to come back and pay," Matsumoto added as Hisashi clutched Honma and shifted his weight.

"Yeah, yeah. I'll see your face tomorrow anyway," Honma said with a wave of his hand and a tug on Hisashi. "C'mon, pull yourself together for goodness' sake."

"Make sure you take him home," Matsumoto repeated as Hisashi heard the scrape of his shoes on the sandy ground. "I'll see you tomorrow," he bade and his voice disappeared back into the izakaya.

Hisashi let Honma struggle with dragging him for a couple of steps before he got tired of it and righted his feet. "You guys meeting tomorrow?" he asked Honma without skipping a beat.

"Did you have to fake being drunk?" Honma huffed as he glared at Hisashi.

"Well, I actually did have a bit of trouble getting my feet to work, though," Hisashi shrugged with a lopsided smile. Setting off for home, he beckoned Honma to follow, "C'mon, let's go home."

"But I intended to stay out a little more," Honma complained.

“Shall I lie in a ditch then?” Hisashi asked.

“Huh?”

“I’ll let Matsumoto find me lying there in the morning-”

“Fine! Fine, I’ll go back with you,” Honma grumbled, throwing his hands in the air as he walked ahead of Hisashi. “Why are you so insistent on making me go home?” he questioned. “Can’t you go on your own?”

Catching up to Honma with a self-satisfied smile, Hisashi shrugged and said, “Can’t I ask for a little company? That’s what you said you were here for, right? To keep me company?”

Honma folded his arms and scoffed, “You took that seriously?”

Hisashi laughed, “I’m just saying-”

Kicking a bump in the road, Hisashi stopped mid-sentence as he tripped and almost face planted. The only thing that stopped him from falling was Honma catching him.

“Maybe Matsumoto was right to insist I take you home,” Honma muttered to himself as Hisashi gathered himself together.

“Doesn’t help that it’s dark as hell out here at this time of the night,” Hisashi gestured around him. Looking down, he tried to see what caused him to trip, but the floor didn’t seem to have anything jutting out of it. No rocks, no uneven pavement. Strange.

“Yeah,” Honma agreed. “It’s definitely much darker at night here in the countryside compared to the capital. It’s kind of creepy too, how quiet it gets.”

“Hn, tell me about it,” Hisashi muttered, suddenly reminded of that figure he saw by the temple’s entrance some nights ago. Would he see it again?

"And now there's a cat staring-"

"Cat?" Hisashi turned sharply. "Where?"

"I mean…" Honma lifted his eyes in surprise at Hisashi's reaction. "It's just sitting right there, by the stone lantern near the bridge," he said, pointing.

Hisashi snapped his head towards that direction but all he glimpsed was the dark shadow of a tail tip flicking as the aforementioned cat disappeared under the bridge. In the dim light, he couldn't quite tell if it was Atsushi or not. Turning to Honma, he asked, "What did it look like?"

"Huh?"

"What colour was its fur? How big was it?" Hisashi interrogated.

"Whoa, whoa, relax," Honma said, a cautious look in his eyes. "It was just a regular-sized cat, I suppose? It's too dark to see what its fur looked like, though."

A regular-sized cat? It couldn't have been Atsushi then. Shoulders slumping, Hisashi pressed his lips thin and sighed.

"What? Are you looking for a cat or something?" Honma asked.

"Did I ever mention that there was a cat which followed me here from the capital?" Hisashi muttered, feeling slightly dejected.

“… Are you sure it’s the same cat?” Honma questioned with blatant scepticism.

“How many cats do you know that are this big?” Hisashi asked as he spread his palms open and held them a little wider than shoulder-width apart.

Honma stared at the space for a moment then asked, “Are you sure it’s a cat?”

“Yes, he is a cat,” Hisashi sighed. "You can tell if you see him."

"So… You're looking for this cat."

"Yes," Hisashi nodded, reluctantly continuing on his way. There was no point standing around here if Atsushi wasn't around.

"Why?" Honma asked as they walked. "I thought you weren't all that fond of cats."

That was true. Hisashi furrowed his brow and folded his arms as he pondered. He knew there was an urge in him to find Atsushi and talk to him but if Atsushi really did put a clean break in their relations, there was no need for Hisashi to seek him out, was there? Yet even if there was no actual need, the desire to seek Atsushi out was still there.

“I guess…” Hisashi mumbled absentmindedly as he eventually came to a conclusion. “I guess I grew fond of him?”

Almost immediately, Hisashi felt a hard grab at his elbow and he turned to find Honma clasping his arm with his eyes wide open. Pointing ahead, Honma asked in a low voice, “Is- Is that thing your cat?”

Even though he was following Honma’s finger, it still took Hisashi a bit of time squinting in the darkness before he finally spotted what Honma was pointing at. Crouching just off the main pathway at the edge of the rice fields was a rather large, rotund shape. As Hisashi was staring, it moved and eyes briefly flashed in the darkness. Narrowing his eyes further, Hisashi took a step forward towards it, intending to get a closer look when Honma tugged him back.

“What are you doing!?” Honma hissed.

“Trying to find out if that is my cat?” Hisashi hissed back.

“You can do that from here!” Honma stressed.

“I can’t see well enough from here,” Hisashi argued, tugging his arm free of Honma’s grasp to continue his advance.

Instead of walking forward like he intended to, Hisashi felt a sudden wave of lightheadedness come over him and knock the world onto its side. Eyes level with the ground, Hisashi blinked and tried to focus his vision. Or maybe he was the one who got knocked onto his side.

“Good lord,” Honma blurted as he picked Hisashi up and put his arm around his shoulders. “Let’s just forget about that thing and go home, alright?” he said, dragging Hisashi. “You’re in no shape to investigate-”

Honma suddenly went still. His pause gave Hisashi time to gather himself together and ask, “What is it?”

“It’s coming,” Honma whispered.

Hisashi lifted his head and saw a large shadow approaching. The closer it came, the better he could see its shape and appearance, and the more certain Hisashi became that it was indeed Atsushi. Sliding his arm off Honma’s shoulders, he stumbled forward towards the cat only to find himself rolling on the ground again. Hisashi let out a frustrated grunt. He wasn’t all that drunk, was he?

Tucking his arms under him, Hisashi struggled to push himself up but he did manage to cast his eyes in the direction of the approaching being. The moment he did, though, he got a face full of fur.

“Acchan?” Hisashi managed to ask as a thick, fluffy tail curled around his face.

Instead of a vocal response, the tail flicked and brushed over Hisashi’s eyes while the cat stepped onto his back. 

“Hey,” Hisashi called softly, trying to turn around against the weight on his back.

It was difficult, but the weight eventually lifted and Hisashi could sit up. When he did, though, the cat had disappeared.

Confused, Hisashi stood up and spun around, looking for him. “Where’d he go?” he asked Honma.

“It slinked off the path and disappeared into the rice field, I think,” Honma replied quietly.

“He’s gone?” Hisashi asked as his eyes scanned the pitch-black fields.

“I guess so,” Honma muttered. “You're right though. That was one huge cat.”

Hisashi looked at Honma. “I told you he was big.”

“It kinda gave me the stink-eye or something, though,” Honma said with a worried frown.

“Don’t be ridiculous. He’s very friendly,” Hisashi dismissed despite suddenly remembering that yesterday, Yutaka said Atsushi seemed miffed by Honma’s presence. Honma didn’t need to know that.

“And…” Honma trailed before hesitantly continuing, “Am I imagining things or is there…”

“Is there what now?” Hisashi asked, confused by Honma’s sudden hesitance.

His eyes fixed on something past Hisashi, Honma asked, “Is there someone standing at the entrance to the temple?”

Hisashi felt a chill run down his spine as the memory of that yet unknown figure came to mind. Slowly, he turned to look over his shoulder. This time, he spotted what Honma was pointing at almost immediately. He couldn’t miss it. Not when it stood at the edge of where the light from the temple’s stone lanterns reached.  Hisashi could feel his blood rushing through his veins as his heart beat faster. Was that why the cat left? Because that figure was there?

“I see that too, Honma,” Hisashi managed to answer.

“Someone you know?” Honma asked hopefully.

“No,” Hisashi replied curtly. He wasn’t feeling too good about this. He didn’t even have Atsushi with him this time.

The figure moved.

“Hey, let’s go home,” Honma quickly said, grabbing Hisashi by the arm and pulling him down the path.

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go,” Hisashi nodded, walking briskly as he averted his eyes and focused on the road home. Now he really wanted to seek Atsushi out and talk to him.