Akinori looked up at the sound of fluttering feathers, smiling to see his friend taking a seat across from him. How well he knew that look of supposed boredom on Hazuki's face. He also knew exactly how to play this game, pouring a cup of tea for his guest. A tray of savory snacks appeared between them as they exchanged the usual pleasantries and banter. As curious as Akinori was, he knew better than to rush his friend. Whatever was on his mind, Hazuki would tell him when he was ready and not a moment sooner. It was how things had always been between them.
“Have you been down the river lately,” Hazuki asked at last, as if it were just another meaningless question.
“Not very far,” he confessed, shaking his head. “I've had enough to keep me occupied around here.”
“Well, the next time you get bored, you should definitely give it a try,” Hazuki said as he rose to his feet, a familiar smirk curving his lips. “There's someone new in the area, someone I think you should meet.”
“Oh? What makes you say that?”
Another rustle of feathers and Hazuki was gone. Akinori glanced out his window to the river beyond. Just like Hazuki to only give him a few hints, a few crumbs that wouldn't be nearly enough to sate Akinori's innate curiosity. On the other hand, it was fine day for a walk. So few clues, he wasn't sure how he was going to find this new neighbor of his, but perhaps that was the point. He would just follow the river and his nose.
Reo had to admit, moving out of the city had been one of his better ideas. The country cottage was a bit more rustic than he was used to, but on the other hand, he was a good twenty minutes' hike from the closest village, quiet and isolated. Just the sort of environment he needed to focus on his studies if he was ever going to finish his book.
Not that he was either studying or writing just then. The rector had offered to keep coming to the house to tend the garden himself, but Reo had insisted it was no trouble. True, he didn't have much experience with growing things himself, but he had always wanted to try. Only a few days since moving into the cottage and already he found he rather liked spending time taking care of the grounds. A peaceful break in his day.
A soft cough drew his attention, and Reo was startled to see a young man standing at the cottage gate.
“Sorry, I was trying not to startle you,” the young man said, grinning and holding up a basket. “A friend said I had a new neighbor and, well, I thought I should be friendly?”
“Neighbor?” Reo echoed, pushing up to his feet and glancing around in confusion.
“Oh my house is even more remote than this,” his unexpected guest said, gesturing towards the river. “Half the village swears it doesn't even exist. Nishida Akinori, pleasure to meet you…?”
“Koga Reo,” he said, wiping his hands off on his pants before opening the gate. “Sorry, I didn't realize … I mean I wasn't expecting anyone else.”
“Oh it's fine, sorry for interrupting … whatever it is you're doing,” Nishida said, flashing him a brilliant smile. “I won't keep you, just wanted to say hi. See you around?”
“I, um, perhaps? I have a lot of work to do; I don't know that I'll be in the village often,” he said, accepting the basket from his strange neighbor almost on autopilot.
“Oh, are you a lay-priest, too, like Masuhara-san?”
“A priest, yes, but not like Koto-san, no,” he said, a little surprised at the other man's words. “I'm more of a historian. Are you…?”
“Catholic? Oh heavens no,” Nishida said, chuckling. “Masuhara-san made the worst coffee, but sometimes he could tell a not half bad story. Oh, but I said I wasn't going to keep you … another time though, Koga-san? I think I would love to hear your thoughts on the history of your church.”
“I … certainly,” he said, a little taken aback by the younger man's charming grin.
The rector hadn't said anything about a curious neighbor or about any neighbors at all, really. As a church historian, Reo's focus had always been on things other than tending a parish. But if a non-believer was interested in coming to him with questions, wanting to learn and be saved, who was he to turn him away?
Hazuki had been right. Akinori found his new neighbor to be really quite fascinating, both physically and intellectually. He absolutely disagreed with Reo's theology, of course, especially the parts that he knew to be utter nonsense just based on his own lived experience, but he couldn't help a little respect for the man's faith. And even more for his willingness to engage with that faith critically – Masuhara had regularly brushed off Akinori's more 'troublesome' questions without a second thought while Reo would actually admit it if Akinori challenged him on something he hadn't spent the time reasoning out or studying personally.
But perhaps the most thrilling was the day Akinori got the man to admit that his Bible didn't address everything.
“At some point, the desire for provable facts must give way to faith,” Reo explained with a slight smile. “After all, who are we to claim to know the mind of God?”
“You are not like any Christians who have come here in the past,” Akinori said, shaking his head.
“Oh? And yet I can't help the impression that you still aren't sure you believe me,” the priest said, setting a plate of yakisoba in front of Akinori.
“That you book offers the one true path to salvation?” Akinori asked, a rhetorical question that he didn't give the other room to answer. “Because I don't.”
“And yet you keep coming, keep listening to my words.”
“You're a better conversationalist than you give yourself credit,” Akinori said, shrugging before picking up a couple slices of cabbage. “And your cooking is far better than my own. You'll make someone a very good wife some day with those knife skills or yours.”
They both laughed, but for the first time, Akinori thought there was something else under his companion's amusement. As if the joke, hardly new at this stage, had suddenly hit closer to home than in the past. How curious, especially given a priest's vow of celibacy. Well … perhaps he would have to watch to see if it happened again.
Reo told himself that entertaining Akinori, talking with him, answering his questions, was just the neighborly thing to do. He was falling behind on his studies, but he also couldn't seem to make himself care. And that was a problem.
Simply put, Reo was having a crisis of faith, though he was careful to do everything he could to keep that crisis to himself. Worse, he couldn't figure out how it had happened. He only knew that, as the days had turned into weeks and months and now nearly half a year, he found himself thinking about Akinori in ways that felt … ungodly. Inappropriate to a man of the cloth and a life of faithful service. And yet who was there for him to confide in? The rector? Koto was old and set in his ways, Reo could already hear everything the older priest would say to him. A part of him longed to go back to the city … except he wasn't sure he would find what he needed there, either.
The knock on his door was so unexpected, jolting him out of his own confused thoughts. He was halfway across the cottage before it even occurred to him that it was an odd hour for anyone to be coming to his door. And still he opened it without hesitation, standing back in shock as Akinori stumbled across the threshold, struggling to hold up another person.
“Please, help me,” Akinori pleaded.
“What happened? My God, is that blood??”
“We weren't paying close enough attention. Someone decided he didn't like the way we were walking,” Akinori said, bitterness dripping off of every word.
“Pssh, 's'just a flesh wound,” the stranger slurred.
Reo wasn't sure why Akinori was trying to minimize the seriousness of the situation, but now was not the time to confront him about it. Instead he silently started his kettle and fetched the first aid kit, cleaning the head wound while Akinori checked his friend for other injuries. When his kettle whistled, he left Akinori to it while he made them a nice pot of herbal tea and fried some gyoza out of his freezer.
“Sorry, they're pork,” he said apologetically as he presented the warm snack, “but he should eat something before taking the aspirin.”
“It's fine. And … thank you,” Akinori said, a hint of pink in his cheeks. “Sorry to be such a burden.”
“You needed help. That's a burden I would always gladly bear,” he said, pouring them both tea. “I'll find you some more blankets.”
“Oh we … we don't mean to put you out….”
“It's fine, Akinori-san,” he said, waving off the protests. “You're welcome to stay the night, it's no difficulty.”
For a moment, Reo thought the younger man was going to argue further. And then Akinori's injured friend grabbed his wrist and the fight seemingly drained right out of him.
“Thank you again, Reo-san,” Akinori murmured.
Late as it was, once Reo was satisfied he had gathered enough blankets for his unexpected guests, he excused himself to his own bed. He still had questions, but they could wait for morning.
Akinori looked up, a small smile tugging at his lips for the rumpled state of their half-asleep host.
“Sorry, did we wake you? We were … sort of trying not to, at least not just yet.”
“Breakfast is nearly finished,” Hazuki added, “though Nori says my coffee isn't as good as yours. Tanaka Hazuki, by the way, and thank you for taking us in last night. You didn't have to do that.”
“You needed my help, Tanaka-san,” Reo said, going to his coffee pot first. “I am just glad to have been of service.”
“It's not much,” Akinori said a few moments later when he presented the priest with a full traditional breakfast, “but we wanted to, you know, do something to show our appreciation.”
“I'm sure it's – wait, you aren't staying?”
“We've already imposed too much,” Akinori said, shaking his head briefly before gesturing in Hazuki's direction. “Besides, that one's been up since dawn. Thank you again, though. Have a good day, Reo-san.”
Tucking an arm around the tengu's shoulders, Akinori hustled the two of them out of the priest's cottage. Leaving was hardly his first choice, but staying would be too much like tempting fate. Or rather, tempting Hazuki into trying to do something matchmaker-y.
“I can't believe you still haven't tapped that yet,” the tengu said, almost as if on cue.
“Hazu!! He's a Catholic priest!” Akinori protested, rolling his eyes.
“I think you mean he's drop-dead gorgeous and unattached,” his friend said, smirking.
Sometimes Akinori really hated his friend's high healing factor – anyone else would have still been recovering from the multiple stab wounds Reo didn't get a chance to discover (thank all the gods) instead of teasing Akinori about his lack of a sex life.
“I am not going to ask him to go against his moral code just because you think he's hot.”
“Why not? You're a fox, aren't you?” Hazuki countered.
“That is … completely besides the point!” he protested again, swatting the tengu's shoulder. “You're horrible, you know that? Completely horrible.”
“I'm just saying,” Hazuki drawled, shrugging and strolling over to the riverbank. “He's hot, he's interested, even if he's not aware of it yet. Not like you're in a relationship with anyone yourself right now.”
“And … what? Expose myself for the demon he would think I was? Shatter his faith when the exorcism he'd try next inevitably failed to have any effect on me? Just what kind of monster do you think I am?”
“The kind who thinks too much,” Hazuki said with a sigh. “You take things too seriously sometimes, Nori.”
“Just because I'm a fox, that doesn't mean I don't know how to take important things seriously.”
“Who said anything about important things? It's just sex.”
“It wouldn't be to him,” Akinori countered, crossing his arms over his chest. “I mean it, Hazu. I love you, but don't meddle in this. I'm asking you. Let it be.”
Akinori could feel the tengu's eyes following him as he turned and followed the river back up towards his own house. He could be a lot of things, but even he had his limits. He valued Reo's friendship too much to risk ruining things between them.
It really had been an accident, the sort that sounded like it belonged in a bad joke or mediocre television drama. But Reo had been tired and distracted … and never would have noticed if he had been making coffee just for himself. At first sip, Akinori gagged, dropping his mug and scrunching his face in distaste.
“What did you do?” his friend rasped, gagging again. “Oh that was horrible! Swamp water tastes better! And that has dead frogs in it!”
Reo blinked, at a loss – his own coffee tasted the same as always.
“It … tastes like coffee to me?” he said, still confused.
He took another sip from his own mug to confirm it, then extended it to his perplexed friend. Akinori hesitated a moment before accepting the mug. And yet when he took a sip, his reaction was the same, though he at least managed to set the mug down instead of dropping it on the floor.
A beat and then a deep sadness appeared on Akinori's face, the young man slowly getting to his feet.
“Was it Hazu then?” he mumbled, shaking his head a little. “If you didn't want to see me anymore, you could have just said so. Testing me wasn't necessary.”
“What? Akinori-san, I don't … I don't understand what's happened.”
“Was it the water or the beans? Not that it matters, I suppose. I'm sorry things came to this.”
“Came to what?”
But instead of answering, Akinori just bowed and started towards the front door. It was not a satisfactory answer and yet Reo was still surprised at himself when he grabbed the young man to stop him from leaving.
“Akinori-san, I don't understand what it is you think I've done or why, but I assure you, your assumptions are wrong. I don't know why the coffee tastes off to you, but it's fine, I'll make a fresh pot. Or you can make it? Either way, I don't want you to leave, especially not like this. Please.”
Akinori hesitated, brows scrunching together as he studied Reo's face. As if he could read the truth of his words just from that. Maybe he could? Whatever he saw on Reo's face, it was enough to make him willing to stay, at least.
“The last time I made coffee, it tasted like mud, but if it really was a mistake … I'll just watch this time, no talking.”
Reo nodded, dropping Akinori's arm and going back to the kitchen. He was just about to put water in the coffee maker when he noticed the two jugs sitting next to each other. Filtered water and holy water. He pulled them both out, setting them on the kitchen table. The sudden pensive look on Akinori's face didn't explain things, but it at least confirmed the first part of his sudden hunch.
“Do I want to know why you keep holy water in a plastic jug in the fridge?” Akinori asked, but his attempt at humor couldn't hide his unease.
“It's the rector's,” Reo said, trying not to frown as he poured out a small measure of the holy water into a plastic cup. “But there's something I still don't understand.”
It was stupid, ridiculous even, and no matter how he looked at it, Reo was certain he was going to feel like an idiot in a moment, but … it was an accepted next step in the testing process. So he took a deep breath … and then threw the holy water in Akinori's face. The relief he felt when Akinori didn't scream didn't ease his confusion, however.
“Words! Oh my god, just use your words!” Akinori protested, sputtering and rubbing at his face.
“That. That is what I don't understand,” Reo said, frowning. “If you aren't a demon, it should just be water. And if you were a demon, it ought to be burning you, not … whatever it is it's doing.”
“Oh gods, it's in my eyes,” Akinori whined, rubbing at his face still. “At least offer me a towel, you sadist!”
Reo supposed he ought to feel bad for laughing, offering Akinori a tea towel. It didn't make any sense, but the way his friend was bristling like a wet cat was just too funny to him. But since he was also making disgruntled yuck noises, Reo carefully finished setting the coffee to brewing, then brought his friend a sealed bottle of juice.
“So … explain?”
“There is more to the universe than what's in your book of Genesis,” Akinori mumbled as he dried himself. “And apparently Catholic holy water tastes like swamp mud mixed with crude oil to a three-tailed kitsune, knowledge I could have happily gone my entire life without.”
“Three-tailed kitsune,” Reo repeated, disbelief in each word.
At first he had expected Akinori to laugh and then offer up a more reasonable explanation (never mind that he had no idea what a more reasonable explanation would even be). And then Akinori was stepping away from the table and from one beat to the next, his friend's familiar form was replaced with, indeed, a fox with three tails. A kitsune, just like the stories of his grandmother. The two just sat there looking at each other for a long moment before Akinori shifted back and retook his seat and still Reo wasn't sure what to think. A fox. His friend was a fox. With three tails.
“… I don't understand any of this,” Reo said at last, shaking his head.
“What's to understand. We're neighbors who became friends.”
“But … you're a fox.”
“And you're a Catholic priest. Your point?”
“I don't know, I … maybe I don't have one, but … you've spent a lot of time in my kitchen, drinking my coffee and listening to me … well, not preach, exactly, but….”
“Just because the cosmology is a little hinky, it doesn't mean they aren't good stories,” Akinori replied with a shrug. “And you are a much better cook than I've ever been.”
“I thought … in the stories, kitsune were always perfect wives. A fox would come to a lonely man and be his perfect companion and….”
“Are you suggesting your perfect wife would be a man?” Akinori asked, humor twinkling in his eyes.
“What?? No! Akinori!” Reo sputtered, his ears going hot as his friend broke into an honest-to-God giggle.
“Obviously I'm not here to be your wife … but if you wanted to stay with me….”
“As what, your wife?”
Reo had expected Akinori to make another joke, to assure him that wasn't at all what he had meant. And yet that wasn't the look on his face just then.
“I'm a Catholic priest,” Reo said into the heavy silence between them.
“I know,” Akinori said softly. “I'm not asking you to change who you are or what you believe. I'm not even really asking you to marry me. But … your sabbatical ends soon, doesn't it? If you wanted to stay … I've enjoyed your company, Reo-san. I'll miss it if you leave.”
“I … I'll think about it,” Reo mumbled, not sure what else he could say.
To be honest, he had forgotten his time here was coming to an end. There was so much he hadn't done yet, including most of the writing on the book he was supposed to have been here to finish in the first place. Perhaps he could ask the church for an extension? Although he wasn't sure that wouldn't just be delaying the inevitable. Perhaps it was time he started seriously thinking about his future, what he intended to do when he was finished with his book. And where he wanted that future to happen. And with whom.
According to the old grannies who were the entrusted keepers of such stories, their forest was unique in all of Japan for being protected by both a Catholic saint and a silver fox. How it had happened, no one could agree. Some said the saint had come to save the village from a terrible curse. Some said the fox had cursed the village out of spite, but that the saint had convinced him to lift it. Some said the saint even converted the fox to Christianity and that was why they were always safe.
Of course other stories said the curse had been laid by some shadowy demon or other and that only by working together, the saint and the silver fox, were they able to save the village. Some said the fox and the saint had formed such a strong bond of friendship that not even Death could separate them. Some said if you were very brave (and very stupid), you could walk into the forest in the dead of a moonless night and follow their song to a secluded house in the heart of the forest, where the two dear friends still lived even now. But if you stayed for tea, you would never return.