Kokona didn't know why she was still standing there. Just how long had it been since the storm had passed?
At the top of a hilly ridge, a building stood in ruin. Once, it was a temple, a home, a sanctum. Now, it was nothing. Wooden walls had been dashed into twigs and splinters, stone columns had been toppled over, rooms caved in on themselves, and possessions had been scattered across the countryside.
A female figure stood before the defiled remains of her home, her former sanctuary. She shivered and slipped her hands into the sleeves of her blue kimono, which did little to protect her from the elements. Blonde hair cascaded down to her shoulders, frazzled and messy. A pair of fox ears jutted out from the top of her head, gloomily drooping. Eight fluffy, tan-colored tails slipped through a hole in the back of her kimono, hanging limp and lifeless. The tips of the lower ones drifted across the puddles and mud, becoming wet and filthy.
Kokona had been standing at the collapsed entrance to her shrine for hours, motionless. She blinked for the thousandth time, unable and unwilling to look away. Sighing, she finally turned away and approached a damp boulder that overlooked the valley beneath the ridge. She used her tails to swat away most of the water, and sat down, taking in the sight beneath her. The abandoned village beneath her shared the same fate as her shrine, being torn to shreds by the raging storm. Only a scant few houses escaped total destruction, but even those had their roofs ripped off and their insides flooded.
The typhoon had been ferocious beyond measure, a physical manifestation of nature's wrath. A storm reaching this far inland was a once-in-a-millennium disaster, and yet Zipangu's most southern island had been fortunate enough that the storm had broken after ravaging only a single, abandoned village. Kokona sighed again, her breath leaving condensation in the chilly morning air.
Should this really be called a disaster?
In truth, this storm may have been for the best. Kohuni village had been dead long before the storm had arrived, its former occupants having moved to larger cities or having died of old age. Kokona had lived here alone for nearly a year, pretending to busy herself with meditation and prayer, but these were all mere distractions from truths that she refused to acknowledge. Now, seeing the corpse of her once prosperous village, she swallowed, having no choice but to face what she had been trying to ignore.
"It's gone," she muttered. "It's really all gone."
No one came bearing offerings for her, no one asked for her guidance or her blessings, because there was simply no one left. Even now, no one had come to see if she had survived the storm, because she had been forgotten.
Perhaps this storm was meant to be an awakening, a sign of disapproval from the gods meant to shake her from her stupor. With her home destroyed and the town below now truly gone, there was no longer any excuse she could use to anchor herself here.
It was time to leave.
Kokona stood up, dusted herself off, and began to tread down the path into the valley. From there, she would follow the old, faded roads that led elsewhere. She had no destination, her mind too awash with apathy to care where she ended up. So she just...walked. She shuffled along in slow steps along the decrepit path out of the village, head hung low. Her tails left marks in the mud and dirt as they dragged along the ground, making serpentine patterns that would soon be washed away.
She lost her sense of time. She walked until the grey blanket blocking the sun became patchy, allowing rays of sunlight to break through. She walked until her feet began to ache, unaccustomed to such extensive use after decades of relative inactivity. She walked until the the wind began to blow again, heralding a new set of dark clouds across the horizon, which promised not a devastating storm but dull, unending rain.
Kokona did not care. She just kept moving, even when the wind blew her hair into her face, flicking drops of water off the grass and into her tails. She welcomed the rising pain in her feet, for it was the strongest reminder that she was still alive. Eventually, even that realization began to fade, and she kept walking in complete silence, not even allowing her mind to wander. She just continued treading down the path, assuming an almost zombie-like state, her conscious mind unaware of her surroundings.
Kokona did not care, and she just kept moving.
Eventually, after many hours of walking and not encountering a single soul, Kokona's sense trickled back into her, coaxed by the unfamiliar sounds of a new environment. The first drops of the new rain were beginning to fall, but they had yet to erase the sounds of city life. Glancing at her surroundings, she saw men dashing around, eager to make it home from work before the rain worsened. A raiju mother peered out from her home's doorway, beckoning her kits home with a stern voice. An oni blacksmith continued to hammer away at a red-hot ingot, her outside workspace covered from the rain by a sturdy overhang. She spared a glance at the mud-covered Inari walking past her shop, her brow raising when she saw the number of tails, then she turned her attention back to her work.
At that moment, the heavens opened, the gods finally commanding the rainclouds to begin their deluge in earnest. She shivered as the cold rain bombarded her, the water quickly seeping through her clothing and onto her skin. It would have been easy to protect herself with her power, to form a barrier that would block the rain and keep her dry. But she just...couldn't. She couldn't motivate herself to lift her head, let alone cast magic. So she held her arms close to her body as she shivered, and she continued shambling down the street.
No one paid her any attention anymore, which she was fine with. She didn't want their looks of pity, their unspoken assumptions when they counted her tails.
She kept moving, but her mind began to fill with questions. Why was she still walking? Why wasn't she looking for shelter? Why wasn't she protecting herself with magic? Why had everyone left her village? And why had she felt unable to leave, lingering for so long?
Emotion slipped through. A single, exasperated sob escaped her mouth, stopping her in her tracks. Tears began to well up behind her emerald-green eyes. She turned her gaze upwards for the first time in hours, facing the rain.
"Where did I go wrong?" she croaked, not expecting an answer. Her voice was quiet, and was swallowed entirely by the rain. The heavens replied with a deep rumbling, as thunder sounded high above.
The skies held no answers for her.
"You there, miss!" a male voice cried, having to shout over the rain.
Kokona turned her head in the direction of the voice. Surely, whoever it belonged to couldn't have been talking to her.
"Do you lack shelter?" the voice asked. Finally identifying the source, Kokona saw a man waving at her from the side of the road. He was protected from the rain by an overhang above his head, one of many along a great row of houses.
Kokona blinked. She glanced around, but saw no one else. He really was talking to her.
"You're going to freeze to death if you stand around in a downpour like that!" he shouted, beckoning her to come towards him. "I'd be happy to offer you shelter!"
"I, I don't..." Kokona's voice croaked again. She shook her head as she realized that there was no way that he heard her. So, she swallowed her anxiety down, locking it away for a time, and approached the man. As she stepped under the overhang and out of the rain, she realized just how wet and cold she was.
"W-were you talking to m-me?" she asked, shivering.
"Of course," he frowned. "Was there anyone else around? But listen to you, your teeth are starting to chatter! Come on, we need to get you warmed up at once!"
Not waiting for an answer, he pivoted to his side and opened the door of his house. He held it open, turning back to look at her and gesturing her forward. Kokona stepped forward and crossed over the threshold of his home, hurrying inside. Feeling the warmer air inside, she was starting to regret her decision to not protect herself from the rain. Her host followed after her and closed the door. Kokona glanced around, taking in the man's home. It was decorated very sparsely, with almost no furniture, and everything seemed to have been arranged in a very orderly and deliberate manner.
But what immediately caught her attention was the warm glow of a lit fireplace. She hurried over and crouched down, taking in the heat.
"Go and warm yourself by the fire," her host instructed. Turning back to look at him, Kokona saw him holding out his right hand, dragging his palm and fingertips along the wooden wall of his home as he walked with measured steps.
"I'll go and bring you a warm blanket," he continued. "And take off your clothes, or you aren't going to warm up."
"I-" Kokona started, unsure what she was planning to say.
"This is no time for modesty," the man said sternly, cutting her off. Using his hand to guide himself, he reached the corner of the wall. He gripped it tightly, pivoting around the corner. "Don't put your health in jeopardy. Those soaked clothes will make you freeze."
She couldn't bring herself to say anything, and undid her clothing with unsteady hands. She whimpered as she did so, feeling the heat more freely on her naked body. She slid forward even closer to the fireplace, holding out her shaky hands. She tried to wrap her tails around her body and cover her hips and rear, but they were so waterlogged and filthy that she yelped at the sensation, giving up and returning them to their original position.
Footsteps indicated the man's return. Too ashamed to turn her head towards him, she pulled her limbs in as close to her body as possible, inching even closer to the fire. Guilt and shame welled up within her, making it feel like she needed to retch. How could she have been so foolish? Why had she let this happen?
"Here," the man said gently. She felt him crouch down near her right side. Kokona waited, but...nothing happened.
"Ah," the man hummed awkwardly. "You'll need to take the blanket yourself..."
"Geh!" she yelped, unable to form proper vocalizations. She leaned over and took the blanket from him, quickly wrapping herself up in a tight bundle. The shock of suddenly being warm again made her gasp, and she pressed the warm blanket around her as tightly as she could, the force of her grip making her fingertips turn white.
"Th-thank you," she managed to stammer.
"Of course," he said warmly. "Just hold on. You will feel better soon, I promise."
She heard him stand up and begin to walk into another room.
"I will be right back," he explained. "I'll bring you something warm to drink, and something to eat, too."
"Thank you," she repeated, more clearly as her body started to warm up. His kindness soothed her nausea, comforting her like a ray of warm sunlight.
The man returned in a few minutes, carrying a tray of food and drink with him. Crouching down a few feet away from her as he had done before, he placed the tray onto the floor, gesturing for her to partake.
"Go slowly," he advised, moving to sit down in a cross-legged position.
Kokona's hands had stopped shaking, making her feel comfortable enough to try grasping the cup he had poured tea in. She gripped it carefully, so as not to spill anything. She brought the cup to her lips, blew onto the hot liquid, and took a measured sip. The warmth of the beverage seeped into her, and she shivered with delight as her insides took in the beverage. Before she knew it, she had finished the entire cup, her tongue protesting at being subjected to the heat.
"Ahh," she sighed satisfactorily, placing the cup back onto the tray.
"Not bad, eh?" the man chuckled.
"It's good," she affirmed, moving to take a bowl of soup. She tipped the bowl to her lips, and drank. The flavor was foreign to her, but she devoured it eagerly. Every drop that made its way to her stomach filled her with warm gratitude. Goddess, she had never felt so hungry in her life!
"Hah!" she exclaimed, falling into a gentle fit of giggles. "Ha, ahaha...it's so warm! So good!"
"You can have it all," her savior smiled. "Just don't choke, alright?"
"Thank you!" she breathed, louder and more sincere than before. She smiled brilliantly, eyes shining with the simple joy of being warm and fed again. And then...she noticed something odd. Something that, under normal conditions, would have stuck out like a sore thumb.
The man had a strip of cloth wrapped around his head, completely covering his eyes.
"Ah!" she exclaimed, finally realizing. "Are you...?"
"Blind?" the man finished with a grin. "Indeed. I was wondering when you were going to notice."
"I'm sorry," she said, lowering the bowl of soup.
"For what?" the man asked, tilting his head inquisitively.
"For imposing. For...misunderstanding."
She felt so foolish. For wandering around in the pouring rain, for feeling guilty for accepting hospitality, for blushing and attempting to cover herself from a man that could not even see her.
"Now, now," the man chided, rubbing his stubble-covered chin. His calm, patient demeanor reminded Kokona of one of her old teachers, gently scolding one of his students. "I will accept no such apologies, for you have done nothing wrong."
That wasn't true. She had done a lot of things wrong...if she hadn't been a fool, she wouldn't be here now.
"Right," she nodded, putting the thoughts aside. "I'm..." she was about to apologize again, but stopped herself. "Right. Thank you. Truly."
"Wait," Kokona added, coming to a sudden realization. "If you're blind, how did you...?"
"How did I see you?" the man finished. "Well, it's true that my eyes no longer work, but that doesn't mean that I am entirely helpless. I simply sensed your spirit."
"Is that...even possible?" Kokona frowned. "I have never heard of a human having this ability."
"The ability lies dormant in every human, but for those of us who have spent the majority of our lives near yokai, the power is easier to access," the man explained. "I simply rely on it a great deal more than most, so my ability to detect souls is rather keen as a result."
The man hummed in contemplation and continued. "The phenomenon was not well known until the last few decades, but I am surprised that you have not heard of this. Where are you from, Miss...?"
"Kokona," she finished. "And I'm from...well. Nowhere important, now."
"An inari with your power, hailing from nowhere?" he chuckled. "I'll believe that when I hear my neighbor's raiju kits come home the first time their mother calls for them. You must have...six, seven tails?"
"You could discern even that?" she blinked. "Your ability is even stronger than I imagined. And...it's eight."
"That might explain things," he said, nodding wisely. "Do you know why I was able to see your aura so clearly? It wasn't simply your power."
She didn't want to answer that, so she looked away and said nothing.
"It was grief," he said solemnly. "Pain...and great sorrow. You tried to contain them, but they bled through. They stained your colors."
Her jaw dropped. How could he have seen through her so easily?
"My...colors?" she asked, trying to keep the emotion from leaking out of her voice.
"A powerful soul shines brightly," he explained. "A soul filled with joy is like a gleaming rainbow. Misery and pain...are like inky blotches on that rainbow. They block the light that shines out."
Kokona didn't know how to respond to that. This man...just what in the world was this power of his? As a yokai, she too possessed the ability to sense spiritual power, the manifestation of the soul. But what this man described...it wasn't like her own ability. She had never heard of anything quite like it, even among her own mikos. Was her old village truly that isolated? It seemed that her knowledge was obsolete. Just how much had the world at large changed in the last century? She would need some time to think about this, before she could converse further.
"Perhaps humans and yokai perceive these things differently," the man said, sensing her trepidation. "Perhaps that is why this seems so strange to you?"
"Was your mother a spirit medium?" Kokona huffed. "Or perhaps your father was a psychic? It feels as if you're reading my mind."
"If I could read minds, I'd be a very rich man," he chuckled. "No, I'm just good at reading people, such as it is."
"What is your name?" she asked.
"Kaito," he answered. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Kokona."
Kaito continued to help Kokona recover through the next hour. He brought her another serving of soup, and a spare robe. It didn't fit her especially well, and the lack of a hole for her tails meant that they had to hang down, pressing against the inside of the robe. Still, it was clean and warm, which was all she could have asked for. Mercifully, Kaito didn't press his guest for any details, and let her eat and warm up in comfortable silence. After that, he brought her a handtowel and a large bowl of warm water, allowing her to clean her tails.
After cleaning herself up a bit, Kokona realized just how tired she felt, letting out a long yawn. She clamped a hand over her mouth, cheeks flushing in embarrassment, which intensified when she remembered how pointless the gesture was. Thankfully, Kaito didn't notice, and told her that she could sleep in his bed - he would be fine using a mat to sleep on the floor in the other room. She tried to protest, of course, but he adamantly refused. As soon as her head touched the pillow, she fell into a deep, comfortable sleep, the most peaceful one she had experienced in a long time.
She awoke the next morning, blinking and yawning. How strange that she actually felt well-rested. When was the last time that had happened? Shrugging off the blankets, she shuffled into the next room, where she heard faint cutting and chopping sounds. Kaito was already awake, preparing meat and vegetables for some kind of breakfast dish.
"Good morning," he greeted, without pausing or looking back.
"Good morning," she returned, stifling a yawn. "How long was I asleep?"
"Almost thirteen hours. You must have been quite exhausted."
"I think I really was," she said humbly. "Thank you again, Kaito. I don't know what I would have done without you."
"You are welcome, again," he chuckled. Kokona liked the sound of his laughter - it was pleasant. "Breakfast will be ready in a moment."
Kokona's ears twitched, focusing on some distant sounds.
"It's still raining?" she concluded.
"Indeed. It hasn't stopped pouring since I pulled you in last night."
That...made Kokona pause. Kaito was right, she realized. If she had continued to wander about aimlessly, she really might have paid some dire consequences for it. But...she would have stopped eventually, right?
She shook her head. No, she had been in a dark place, one where she was not thinking clearly. She should focus on the present. Kaito would likely suggest as much.
"I see," she said neutrally. "If it's alright, may I stay and watch you?"
"By all means."
Kokona stood behind Kaito and observed him. With one mistake, he risked cutting himself with the knife, but he moved swiftly and without hesitation. Fascinated, Kokona kept her distance, so as not to disturb him. She felt an urge to ask him about how he learned to cook for himself, but kept quiet. Eventually, he finished the cooking, serving a helping of piping-hot meats and vegetables onto a plate, along with a serving of rice. Kokona's mouth started to water at the sight, and she leaned over the bowl and let the wonderful smell waft upwards.
"It looks delicious," she said, beginning to grin. The scent of the food was making her loopy, she couldn't wait to eat! But, she was a guest. Her manners would not allow her to begin until her host was ready, as well.
"It's nothing special," Kaito said humbly, handing Kokona a plate. "But food presentation doesn't mean much to a blind man. Besides, the ingredients here in Akyo are high-quality, so I think you'll like it."
He handed her a pair of chopsticks and they sat down on the floor.
"Let's eat!" they said, offering a small, customary nod.
Kokona took a piece of meat and placed it in her mouth. Warmth and happiness filled her as the food's flavor burst into her mouth.
"Mm!" she said, stopping and letting the flavors dance across her tongue. Her tails gathered together in a corkscrew as she chewed, savoring the texture of the meat.
"It's great!" she gasped. "You're quite the chef, Kaito!"
"Thank you," he said, returning her smile. "It's good to know that I've improved." They ate quietly and contently, the muffled sounds of the rain now feeling comfortable, instead of oppressive. They finished their meal at the same time, sighing contently.
"So," Kokona started. "Tell me about yourself, Kaito."
"A vague request," he chuckled. "But alright. I'm an only child, I suppose. My parents were traveling merchants, each from a small village at the corner of Zipangu. They met during their travels, fell in love, and settled down in the capital."
"They passed when I was around sixteen," he sighed. "An infectious disease swept through the capital. A cure was developed, and ultimately, not many succumbed. My parents were the exception, I'm afraid."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Kokona said, nodding sympathetically.
"Your kindness is appreciated. Anyway, it was about that time that my sight began to fade. I consulted with people that my parents had connections with - priests, scholars, even exorcists, but none could offer a solution. My vision worsened, day after day, until it was eventually gone completely. And while none could help me, it was around that time when I became involved with a temple in the capital."
"They sheltered me," Kaito explained. "My parents did not leave me a beggar, but I could not yet care for myself. I provided whatever odd labor I could, honing whatever skills that I could. I spent three years at that temple, and in that time, I learned two things."
"What were they?" Kokona asked. Her tails gently swayed side to side as she listened intently.
"My greatest lament was that I was no longer able to read," Kaito smiled. "But that loss presented another opportunity. I spent a great deal of time talking with all manner of people. At first, I mostly just loved to hear the stories of travelers. But that soon grew into a love of conversation with all sorts. I would talk with anyone who wanted to. I became good at it. I liked it, and people apparently liked talking to me, too. There were even a few times where people would come back just to see me again, as strange as that sounds."
"I asked someone about that once," he explained. "And they said that talking with me...helped. I didn't really understand how, but I learned to respect the power of simple conversation. And over time, as I got better at talking, and such events became more regular. I would help people by talking with them, easing their woes and anxieties as best I could. That was the first thing I learned - the power of conversation."
"I think I can guess the second thing," Kokona said. Kaito nodded, prompting her to go on.
"Is it your ability to see people's colors?" she asked.
"Indeed. It was around that time, when I was becoming better at talking with people, that I realized that I could 'sense' people. And not just by hearing the sounds of their approaching footsteps, or the displaced air as they passed by me. I started to find that I just...knew where people were, even seeing their auras through walls. And more than that, I could roughly understand how they were feeling, without even talking to them. This too, grew stronger over time. Eventually, I was able to discern colors, which let me read people more accurately."
"When I shared this information with the temple's priests, they were quite happy," Kaito smiled. "They had heard of similar cases before, but never had the chance to study the ability before. So as to thank them for taking care of me, I took on a new responsibility - helping them document this soul-seeing ability, while continuing my 'counseling' of visitors in the process."
"I see," Kokona said, nodding alone. Then, her ears flared straight up. "Oh, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to say that-"
"It's fine," Kaito said, waving her off. "You are perhaps the thousandth person to think that would offend me."
"Honestly," he laughed. "Do you think a blind person could have thin skin? With how many times I tripped and fell as I adjusted to my new life, I'd like to think that I built up some durability."
"Right," she said, blushing and smiling. "You're right again, of course."
Their conversation fell into a lull, and Kokona took the moment to finally examine her savior more thoroughly. Kaito had short, black hair, which was actually quite clean and orderly. While Kaito may not have cared about how his food looked, he certainly took good care of himself. He was about a head taller than Kokona, and his simple gray tunic was unbuttoned at the top, revealing hints of a lean and disciplined body. Kokona figured that it made sense that he took such good care of himself - losing one of your senses must surely fill you with a deep appreciation for the others.
Kokona blinked, suddenly feeling very grateful for the gift of vision.
"So what made you leave the capital?" Kokona asked.
"I felt that I could accomplish more," he shrugged. "The scholars and priests had plenty of records about me. I suppose I wanted to see the world...or its people, more accurately. The capital was an excellent place, but it did not see many new faces. That is why I choose to come to this city, to Akyo."
"Because it's a trade crossroads," Kokona finished. "You would get to meet many more people this way."
"Precisely. The temple at the capital was kind enough to notify the temple here about my skills, and Lady Hana, the resident inari of our local temple, was more than willing to provide for me, if I would help her in return."
"So you really do just...have conversations with people," Kokona said. "And you talk them through their problems?"
"I do a bit more than that," he chuckled. "I've performed more than one exorcism, you know. It turns out my ability to see and read spirits applies to the deceased, as well. Helping spirits let go of their grudges and move on is perhaps the deepest satisfaction I have ever felt."
He rubbed his chin and turned away, as if looking off into the distance. "Actually, it was during one such experience that I first met a certain someone..."
Kokona's ears twitched.
"A young nekomata," he explained. "The spirit that I helped to move on was her father."
"That's awful," Kokona lamented, silently shaming herself for jumping to conclusions.
"I have a strange feeling that you'll meet her soon," Kaito hummed. "Anyway, I ended up taking her on as an apprentice...of sorts. I would hardly call myself a professional, but I would like to see others recognize the merits of my abilities and take them up for themselves."
"I'm even writing a book about it," he said, puffing his chest out proudly.
"A...book?" Kokona questioned. "How so?"
"It is a book read not with the eyes, but with the sensations of touch," Kaito explained. "Small dots form bumps on the page. The arrangement of the dots determines the letters. It is a slow process, but it has allowed me to read again...even if it is merely my own writing."
"That's incredible!" Kokona beamed. "What a clever method! I would very much like to see this!"
"Sure," Kaito smiled. "Let me go fetch it. Would you mind cleaning up in here?"
"Leave it to me!"
Kokona set about clearing off the table, setting the dirty bowls into a basin of water and washing them off. She made quick work of it, using her magic to manipulate the water and move it according to her will. She scrubbed the bowls and knives throughly clean in a matter of seconds, then wiped them dry with a towel. She had grown used to preparing her own food and cleaning after herself, having been alone for the better part of a year. But there was something different when another person was involved. It... just felt good to be around someone again. To be useful.
Perhaps this is what Kaito felt, when he found a new purpose after feeling helpless for so long.
Her host soon returned to the kitchen, carrying a thick, hardbound book in hand. He sat down on the floor and opened it up, inviting Kokona to sit next to him and take a look. He opened to a random page, revealing a vast array of little black dots.
"Wow," she muttered. "It's like an entirely different language. I can't even begin to read this."
"It is a different language," Kaito agreed. "It's based off a foreign language. Our own is not compatible with this system."
"You are a man of many talents, Kaito," Kokona said, smiling gently. "I am thoroughly impressed."
"Thank you," Kaito said, returning a smile of his own. "If I may, Kokona, there is something I would like to ask you."
He frowned, hesitating a little. "Let me preface by saying that you are welcome to stay here as long as you feel you need to."
He cleared his throat. "I will not ask you to talk about your past, if you do not wish to share it. But...what of your future? Do you have a plan? Something you would like to do?"
"I still need to think about that," she admitted. "I...I had no plan whatsoever when I came here. I was just...walking. Without thinking."
She gripped her arm with her other hand, squeezing it tightly. She looked away, her expression gloomy.
"There's nowhere to go back to," she said quietly. "I lost everything. I don't have any family or possessions..."
Ears twitching, she held up her hands in protest. "D-don't get the wrong idea, it's not like I escaped some bandit attack or something. I...lived alone. And...my house was destroyed by a storm, along with everything in it. So I just...left. And I ended up here."
"I think I'm beginning to understand," he nodded. "However, you said that you lost everything? Well, that is simply untrue."
"Eh?" Kokona tilted her head quizzically.
"You are still alive, are you not?" Kaito smiled. "I'm rather good at identifying ghosts, you know."
"I'm not..." Kokona mumbled. "I mean, yes, I'm still alive..."
"Then take comfort in that," Kaito said, slapping his palms onto his knees, enunciating his point. "Loss is naught but an opportunity to reflect, a chance to gain again. The solution to your problem is simple - just try to think of this as an opportunity to get a fresh start."
Kokona bit her lip. "I don't think it's going to be that easy."
Kaito smiled and gently shook his head. "Oh, no. I didn't claim it would be easy, only simple."
Kokona's brow crinkled. "What's the difference?"
"It will be difficult," Kaito nodded. "But as long as you can keep the idea in your mind, even if you're just tricking yourself, that idea will eventually become your reality."
"I'm not sure I believe that..." she frowned.
The corners of Kokona's mouth curled up into a sad, yet honest, smile. She owed it to him - and to herself - to at least try.
"But I will try to follow your advice. Thank you, Kaito."
After breakfast, Kaito suggested that Kokona take a bath, as she had not had the opportunity to fully clean herself up yesterday. The bath was small and plain, not much more than a smooth, wooden box. It was a far cry from the luxurious hot spring that Kohuni village once had, but...that didn't matter. That hot spring was long gone, and this bath was here now. Silently, she offered her gratitude to Kaito once more.
She sighed blissfully as she submerged herself in warm water. She wondered where this water had come from, and how it had been heated. Kaito seemed neither rich nor poor, but how did he managed to have a running source of warm water? She shook the thought away, she could just ask later. No doubt the answer would reveal some other way in which the world had advanced.
Kokona scrubbed herself with soap and cloth, wiping away the muck and grime. As she dipped her tails into the water, she shuddered at the sensation. She began to wring them with her hands, smoothing them out and cleaning them more thoroughly. After a while, she sank down to a more comfortable position, her head inclined up towards the ceiling. The sounds of rain could be heard through the building, still relentlessly falling.
She recalled Kaito's words. He was right, of course - she needed to make a plan. He had offered to shelter her for as long as she needed, but there was simply no way she could accept that as a long term solution. She could not abuse his generosity. As her skin took in the warm water, her mind took in the thoughts that she had put off for so long.
Kohuni village was well and truly gone.
It had been great, once. Over the course of her century-long patronage of the village, it had bloomed marvelously. The population flourished, and people were happy. The lives of the villagers were simple ones, with almost everyone being farmers. But their lives were fulfilling and rewarding, and Kokona did her best to foster their joy, using her magic to protect it and help it grow. And in return, the villagers showered their patron inari with gratitude, offering words of praise and humble offerings.
The power behind those signs of respect - the faith - had empowered her, making her all the more willing to continue guiding them. Eventually, some of the women of the village had taken up full-time positions caring for her, becoming her first mikos. She had taught them as best she could, instructing them in the ways of spirituality and academics alike. After many years of loyal service, Kokona had imbued some of these women with her power, making them kitsune-tsuki - yokai, like herself. Their new status had elated her attendants, many of them finding lovers and husbands to share their joy with. The love that bloomed from those bonds, the intense passion that only a yokai could truly understand, could never have happened without Kokona's influence. It was the love and admiration of these couples that had truly begun to swell her power, and with that power came new tails.
When Kokona first took up her position, she had five tails. After a decade, she had six. After a century, she had eight. And then...nothing. She never got the ninth, and final, tail. An inari with six tails was powerful, with magic capable of matching great heroes. An inari with nine tails was tremendously powerful, having ascended to the level of demigods. They could perform great feats, such as communicating with the spirit realm, curing a plague, or summoning rain.
Kokona sighed and adjusted her position in the bathtub. It had always felt a bit strange to her, to have received eight tails in such a short timeframe. Most of her species did not receive their eighth tail until their fourth or even fifth century. And yet she had received hers just after her two and twenty second birthday, a remarkable achievement made extraordinary by the fact that she did not have a husband. An inari's primary power source was the mutual love shared with her husband, after all.
Kokona often wondered why she grew her seventh and eight tails. Did she truly deserve it? Her village was prosperous and happy, yes, but it was simple and relatively small. She had not really performed any truly heroic feats befitting an eight-tail. She had discussed this with her shrine attendants, who had suggested that it was perhaps because the village and its people were simple that she had grown so quickly. Something about...the purity of it all. She had smiled and nodded, but had never been able to shake the feeling that she didn't deserve her tails. And over time, that guilt grew into bitterness, which festered into resentment.
She hadn't asked for those tails, for the assumptions that came with them. Everyone knew the rumors about nine-tailed inari. The villagers waited with bated breath. What incredible feat would she perform? What would this brilliant, beautiful being do for them, as she approached the threshold of ascension? The villagers waited and waited, eager to see the day their beloved patron shone with divine radiance. They knew it would take time, and even as the first generation of the village succumbed to old age, they passed on their expectations to the next generation.
Nothing broke her will so much as the children, their innocent eyes and questions piercing right into her heart. She didn't deserve these looks, this unconditional love. She hadn't earned it, and she hadn't earned her tails.
The years stretched on into decades, and the day of her ascension never arrived. Kokona swore that she could physically feel it, the first time someone had lost faith, finally assuming that the day would never come and ceasing their prayers. The realization bit her deep, stinging at her, but she couldn't deny that she also felt some relief. Now they didn't expect anything of her, at least.
In truth, there was no singular cause of her village's decline. It simply...stagnated. As their patron started to shut herself away, the blessings affecting the fields and rivers waned. More and more people lost faith in her, causing a runaway effect. Some went up to her shrine and pleaded with her, asking why she was shutting herself off, why she was abandoning them. She didn't have the heart to meet them.
The population stopped growing. The fields started producing less, traditional festivals seemed less appealing to the people. In time, most simply...left. They migrated to greener pastures, leaving to find new homes in the big cities that had been seeing rapid growth in recent years. Some took longer than others. Even up until the final years, some continued to make the pilgrimage up the hilly path, leaving offerings and kind words at the threshold of her shrine. But when they were greeted with uncomfortable silence, day after day, year after year, even these holdouts eventually had to leave. Kohuni village had simply become unsustainable, it's population too small to support itself.
And so Kokona had been alone, with only her last, most loyal attendant, a kitsune-tsuki named Yuko. She had tried again and again to convince Kokona to leave with her, but never succeeded. And then, one day, with tears in her eyes, Yuko left, leaving Kokona alone. She had been a hermit for almost an entire year, a living embodiment of desperate apathy. She had tried to busy herself with the pretense of magical research and meditation, but she had always known that she was lying to herself. She knew that ignoring her feelings was a mistake. She had always known that, even back then, but...she hadn't been strong enough to face the truth.
And then the gods had made their disapproval clear, sending a mighty storm to tear down the walls she had built up, putting an unquestionable end to Kohuni village and her delusions.
Kokona arched her back, rotating her neck. She could think of at least one goal, she realized. She was fairly certain that, in her final speech to convince her to leave, Yuko mentioned that she was heading to Akyo - to the very city she was in now. It may have been too late, but she owed it to her to try and find her, to make amends for her mistakes.
Yes, she would do that. She would never be able to turn back time - she had abandoned her village and herself, and there was no way to undo that. But a fierce determination started to well up inside of Kokona - she had to find at least one person. She had to apologize, she had to prostrate herself before them and beg for their forgiveness. Kohuni was long gone, but some of its people still remained.
She could set things right. After all, she was an eight-tail! There was nothing that someone like her couldn't do, right? It was like Kaito said...as long as she kept believing that in that idea, one day, she could make it happen. Kokona smiled, nodding to herself, offering a silent prayer to the gods, thanking them for creating Kaito.
As if in response, the door to the bathroom suddenly opened and Kaito walked in, holding one hand to the wall to guide himself and holding a stack of clean towels with the other. Kokona yelped at the sudden entrance, moving to cover herself as she leaned away, sending drops of water over the edge of the tub.
"Oh!" Kaito exclaimed, quickly back-stepping. "I apologize! It was so quiet in here that I thought you had finished, so I came to replace the towels."
Kokona winced and mentally berated herself. Stupid! He couldn't even see her, what was she getting so worked up for?
"I'll just leave these here," Kaito said, crouching down and placing the towels on the floor. He turned his head away from the bathtub, concealing a faint reddening of his face.
"Thank you," Kokona mumbled, settling down as Kaito closed the door and left.
She groaned and slapped herself, sinking back down into the water.
"Pull yourself together," she scolded. "You're two hundred years old, for goodness sake..."
Kokona left the bath shortly after, feeling refreshed and clean for the first time in a long time. She ran into Kaito again, who was boiling water for tea. He apologized again for walking in on her, but she shook her head and assured him that it was fine. As she helped him make the tea, she realized something that something was missing, and went to his house's exit to check something. Peeking through the window, she confirmed that she was right.
"When did the rain stop?" she asked, peering upwards. The sky was still filled with dark clouds, but cracks were forming in the blanket of clouds, letting blue sky shine through.
"About half an hour ago, when you started your bath."
Goodness. Had she been in there for that long? Kokona looked at her fingers - it was surprising that they hadn't become wrinkled from all the water.
Kaito announced that the tea was done, and she returned to the kitchen. They shared the beverage along with some comfortable, soft conversation. They learned new things about each other - Kaito revealed that he had a deep love for music, sharing his delight at the flux of new songs, instruments, and musicians that found their way to Akyo. Kokona listened intently, happy to learn more about him. She let him take lead of the conversation - she wasn't quite ready to talk about herself.
After a while, Kokona's ears perked up, hearing footsteps approaching from outside. Someone knocked three times on the door.
"Ah," Kaito chuckled. "I think I know who that is."
"Sensei!" a young female voice cried. "Sensei, I'm coming in, okay!"
Kokona and Kaito turned in preparation to greet the new voice.
"I came to check on youuu...huh?" a young nekomata rounded the corner of the house, stopping in surprise when she saw Kokona. She had short, brown hair, and a large pair of feline ears crested the top of her head. She wore simple, white clothing that covered her body, keeping her warm in the chilly air, and a tail that split into two ends poked out from behind her, drifting around absentmindedly.
"Nyeh?" she hummed, tilting her head like a cat. "Who are you, miss fox?"
"Yui," Kaito greeted, nodding in her direction. "This is Kokona, my guest. She was caught in the storm last night, so I offered her a place to stay."
"Hello," Kokona offered, trying to give a genuine smile. She wasn't sure if she succeeded or not.
"Hi," Yui said plainly, her expression unreadable. She tilted her head the other direction, looking at Kokona curiously. "Hmm. Okay."
Kokona was about to ask what she was doing, but Yui answered first.
"Okay!" she exclaimed cheerfully. "I like you. Let's be friends!"
"Wha-huh?" Kokona blinked. "Just like that?"
"Yeah, why not?" Yui sat down and leaned her body side to side, smiling.
"Yui moves rather quickly," Kaito chuckled. "I'm afraid if she's taken a liking to you, you won't be escaping. I speak from experience..."
"Ah," Kokona nodded, her tails curling up and flicking around. "So this must be the apprentice you mentioned."
"Yep yep!" Yui nodded. "Sensei is teaching me how to talk to people and make them happy again!"
"I use the word teaching loosely," Kaito clarified.
"I see," Kokona said. "Okay, Yui...we can be friends if you want to."
"Woohoo!" she cheered. "I made another friend!"
"Well done, Yui," Kaito smiled. The expression made him look...fatherly. "Ah, that reminds me. Now that you're here, Yui, would you mind doing me a favor?"
"Yep yep," Yui nodded. "What can I do, Sensei?"
"Two favors, actually," Kaito corrected. "First, miss Kokona's clothes were soaked through last night. Would you mind putting them up to dry?"
"Sure sure," Yui said. "I can ask my mom if she has anything that would fit you, miss Kokona. She's about the same size as you, and really pretty, like you! And she makes nice clothes for a living, so I'm sure you'll like it!"
"That's very kind of you, Yui," Kokona smiled. "Thank you."
"And the other thing," Kaito continued, clearing his throat. "I think it's safe to say you'll be spending at least another day here, right?"
"If you would be so gracious, I would not refuse," Kokona said politely, inclining her head.
"You can take as long as you need. I meant that." Turning back to Yui, he continued. "So, Yui, do you think you could borrow a book or two from the library? I don't really have anything for miss Kokona to do here."
"Ooh, yeah!" Yui beamed. "I can do that. I can bring you a fun game to play, too!"
Launching herself to her feet with youthful energy, she placed her hands on her hips with confidence.
"I'll go do it right now!" she declared proudly, pouncing and moving towards the door.
"Ah, Yui!" Kaito called out to her, but it was too late. "Ah, she forgot your clothes."
"It's alright," Kokona smiled. "I have no urgent need of them."
There was a brief pause. Kokona scratched an itch behind one of her ears.
"It was nice to meet your apprentice," she added. "She seems like a very nice girl."
Kaito nodded thoughtfully. "She's come a long way since her father passed. Her mother has told me on many occasions how much happier the girl has become."
"It seems like she really looks up to her 'sensei'," Kokona giggled, covering her laughter with one hand.
"Perhaps she's grown a little too energetic," he grumbled. "Makes me feel like an old man, sometimes."
"You seem like you would be a very good father," Kokona said softly. When she realized what she just said, her tails twisted together as her cheeks flushed.
Kaito seemed taken aback, yet considered her statement with aplomb.
"Think so, eh?" he chuckled. "That's flattering of you, but I doubt it'll ever happen. I'm just a blind fool who talks a lot."
"You're not a fool!" she exclaimed, much louder than she meant to.
The statement hung in the air, creating an awkward mood. Kaito looked in her direction, eyes concealed by the blindfold. His mouth opened, but closed without saying anything.
"Don't say that," Kokona said, much more softly. She gripped her arm with one hand and looked away, ears drooping. "You're not a fool, so..."
"I'm sorry," Kaito said honestly. "I was only speaking in jest. I didn't mean to upset you."
"I-it's fine," Kokona said. "I spoke too quickly, as well. I just...didn't want to hear you talk about yourself like that. Because...I know how subtle these things can be."
"Ah," Kaito hummed. "I think I understand. Do you want to talk about it?"
"Not yet," Kokona said, shaking her head. "But I will...soon. I just need some more time to reflect."
"Of course. But, if I may...I have a suggestion."
"There's a big festival coming up, the day after tomorrow," Kaito explained. "It's a new tradition that Akyo celebrates annually. This is only the fifth one, but it's become very popular. The entire city goes all-out for it."
"Tomorrow," Kaito sighed, "I think you should go and visit Lady Hana, the inari in charge of the temple here in Akyo. Explain your situation to her - I know she will be more than willing to take you in as you find your feet again."
"And you think I should busy myself by helping her prepare for this festival," Kokona surmised.
"Precisely," Kaito nodded. "I really do think it will help you, to get out and see the city for yourself, to meet some new people and work towards a shared goal."
Kokona frowned. She didn't relish the idea, but Kaito was probably right, as he had always been since she had met him. There would never be a perfect time to reveal her past, there would never be a time when she was perfectly prepared to share her feelings. But still, she needed just a little more time. Tomorrow...yes. That could work. She would need some time alone to meditate, but she would have her thoughts ordered as neatly as they could be by tomorrow.
"Very well," she said neutrally. "I concur, that would be a good idea. I will go and meet Lady Hana tomorrow."
"Good to hear," he smiled. "Now, I think I'll go take a bath, myself. You can sit wherever you like and do your thinking. Just...make a noise if I'm about to walk into you, alright?"
"Of course," Kokona giggled. "Thank you once again, Kaito."
Kokona spent the remainder of her day in quiet contemplation. Yui returned about an hour after she left, offering Kokona a stack of three books that she thought Kokona might like, a wooden box that apparently held a game called 'nyan-cala', and a simple box that held a set of plain red robes in it. It fit her surprisingly well, keeping Kokona warm and comfortable. When she asked Yui how she had managed to find something that matched her form so well, Yui just stuck up two fingers in a V shape and proclaimed that she had a good eye for taking measurements, a skill finely honed by growing up as the daughter of a tailor.
Yui stayed and talked with her for a while, but the sky rumbled, threatening to rain again. Yui departed not long after, dreading the idea of being caught in the downpour. Kokona smiled at the girl's kindness, and waved at her as she left. She decided to sit outside for a while, under the cover of the overhead roof. She sat down and watched people walk by, taking in the atmosphere of the city. She smiled as she watched the neighbor's raiju kits playing out in the street, their mother coming out to fetch them. She remained outside as the first drops of rain began to fall, watching the people dash back to their homes. Eventually, the rain intensified, and she withdrew back inside.
She spared a glance towards the game and books that Yui had brought, but shook her head. Those could wait. She returned to the living room, sitting down next to the fireplace cross-legged. She inhaled deeply, and closed her eyes. She had a lot to think about. She let her mind drift to the past - considering how she had acted, and why she had done so. The memories were painful to dig through, but she pressed herself forward. She needed to do this.
She spent her entire evening like that, having lost track of time. She blinked, waking from her trance-like state, and stifling a yawn. It wasn't especially late, but she found Kaito and told him that she was retiring for the night. Taking one of the books Yui gave her, she slipped into bed. With a snap from her fingers, a blue, ghostly flame - her foxfire - came to life, floating above her head and illuminating the pages. She had done enough thinking for now...any more introspection would just have her going around in circles.
"Tomorrow," she mumbled. "Tomorrow is the day."
She tried to read, but only made it a few pages before falling asleep.
The next morning unfolded in a familiar manner, Kokona waking up after Kaito and watching him prepare breakfast. They ate together and shared a pleasant conversation. When they finished, she suggested taking a walk around the city, seeing how the storm had finally passed. He was surprised at her initiative, but accepted with a warm smile. Kaito fetched a white cane, holding it with his right hand. He hummed in surprise when Kokona laughed and took his hand in her own, offering to lead him around. He brought the cane just in case, tucked under his armpit, and allowed the inari to lead him out of his home.
"Where should we go?" Kokona asked.
"There's a nice park a few blocks away," Kaito suggested. "To the west."
It was decided. They proceeded towards the park, walking slowly and carefully, still getting used to each other. Many people had a similar idea, strolling outside to enjoy the sunshine. Interestingly, a great deal of these people recognized Kaito, offering him respectful greetings as they passed. Kokona was impressed as he managed to identify each person by voice alone, returning their greetings with good cheer.
A few people sent curious glances and greetings her way, as well. She was suddenly grateful that the clothing Yui had brought her didn't have a hole for her tails, which kept the expectant looks to a minimum.
"Ah," Kaito hummed. "Just to the left, if I'm not mistaken. A red house?"
Kokona looked to her left. Sure enough, there was a red house there. He must have created a very detailed mental map of his neighborhood.
"Yes, there is."
"Knock on the door," he suggested.
"And then what?" she asked. "Who lives there?"
"Just trust me," he chuckled.
Sighing, she knew it was impossible to deny him after hearing his laughter. She led him to the door and knocked twice. Footsteps followed not long after. An adult nekomata with black hair, paws, and ears opened the door, dressed in an elegant kimono.
"Hello?" she asked. "Oh, good morning, Kaito. And...you must be the mystery guest my daughter seemed so enamored with."
"A pleasure to meet you," Kokona said, bowing respectfully. "My name is Kokona, and I cannot thank you enough for your generosity."
"Yumiko," the nekomata replied. "And think nothing of it. I owe Kaito a lot, so his guests are my guests."
"Good morning, Yumiko," Kaito greeted. "We're just stopping by. I thought that you two should meet."
"Feel free to stop by later," Yumiko suggested. "I'll see if I can adjust that robe to make it more comfortable for your tails."
"Oh, that would be..." Kokona briefly faltered. "Most welcome, thank you."
Bidding Yumiko farewell, the pair continued on to the park, greeting more people as they walked. Eventually they came upon a public park. It was quite beautiful, featuring willow and cherry trees, a moderately-sized pond with fish in it, and many benches and tables to sit at. A red, wooden bridge spanned the length of the the pond, although it already held a pair of human women talking about something. Kaito and Kokona found an empty bench at the corner of the park, reasonably isolated.
"I'm ready," Kokona said as she sat down. "I...want to tell you."
"You're certain?" Kaito asked.
She took a deep breath, and nodded. "Yes."
"Have you ever heard of Kohuni village?" she asked.
"Hmm..." Kaito rubbed his chin in deep contemplation, but shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not."
So Kokona told him. She explained how she had been the patron of the tiny village, building it up over several decades, how she grew in power as a result of the villager's love. She explained how she felt about receiving her eighth tail abnormally quickly, how her guilt and resentment caused her to shut herself away, and how that had caused the people to lose faith in her. She explained how she lived as a hermit for nearly a year, doing her best to keep herself apathetic, distracting herself with research and prayer.
And she explained how the storm had put an end to that, forcing her out of the ruined village. She explained why she had been walking in the rain, how she felt like she couldn't even motivate herself to bring up her hands to protect herself. Tears began to fall from her eyes, but she did not suppress them, for they needed to fall.
Finally, Kokona had acknowledged and accepted it all. The storm, her grief, the loss of her village - everything. She would pretend to ignore it no longer.
Kaito listened all the while, never interrupting. When Kokona began to choke up and openly sob, finally grieving for all that she had lost, he rubbed her back soothingly, telling her to express whatever she needed to. A few people noticed this and looked at the pair, but nodded in understanding when they saw Kaito. He had helped some of those people before, or their family members, and they knew of his reputation for helping people overcome grief. The other people in the park gave them plenty of space.
Eventually, her tears of grief became tears of relief, her body finally relenting and easing the stream of tears.
"Thank you," Kokona sniffed, dabbing at her eyes with her wrists. "For listening. For..." She almost said, 'for saving me', but she knew that wasn't right. She predicted what he would say to that, that he did not save her, but merely helped her to save herself.
"Thank you for helping me," she said, smiling tearfully at him.
"You are very welcome, Kokona," he nodded, returning her smile. "I am glad to have helped you. You already sound better, more free, than you did before."
"You're right," she said, wiping away the last of her tears. "The only way to move on from the past is to accept it. I just wish I had done so years ago."
He started to say something, but she cut him off.
"No, no. I know what you're going to say," she explained. "That I need to accept that too, right? I know. I'm...I am done, living in the past. And...I want to focus on the present. The future."
"It makes me very glad to hear you say these things, Kokona," Kaito chuckled. "It reminds me of my own place in life. I am deeply fortunate to have met you."
Warmth flared through her body, and her tails started worming around like they had a mind of their own.
"K-Kaito, that's...a very kind thing to say. Thank you."
"You're welcome, Kokona. And we can stay here as long as you want to," he nodded. "But I can think of one other thing that might help you."
"It's up to you if you think you're ready for this or not," he frowned. "But what about visiting Yumiko next?"
Kokona hummed in contemplation. Maybe...was she ready for that?
"Your tails are beautiful, Kokona," he smiled. "I wish you didn't feel like you need to hide them."
B...beautiful? Kaito liked her tails?
"You...really think so?" she asked, turning her head and running a hand through her blonde hair. "Why...or, how?"
"Where do inari store most of their power?" he laughed. "Your tails shine very brightly, Kokona. And each one has its own set of colors, radiant and wonderful."
Kokona had to cover her eyes with her fingers, too embarrassed to even look at him. She was deeply grateful that he couldn't see her acting like this.
"I...okay," she relented. "I'll...stop hiding them. If you really like them that much, I think I can handle a few looks."
The pair stayed at the park for a bit longer before leaving. They walked hand-in-hand back to Kaito's house, where Kokona departed from him, leaving to visit Yumiko. The nekomata warmly welcomed her inside, moving away to prepare some tea. Kokona took the opportunity to look around the home, thinking that it was perhaps exactly what she expected a tailor's house to look like. There were partially finished garments everywhere, with all sorts of sewing and stitching equipment. It seemed that she not only made and sold clothes, but also ran a repair service for tears and stains.
"Here you are," Yumiko said as she returned, carrying a cup of tea along with another clothing box. "Something for you to get changed into while I alter those robes. You can drink the tea while I work, too."
"You are too kind, Yumiko," Kokona said. "Thank you."
"It's nothing, really."
Kokona changed out of her clothes, handing them to Yumiko.
"Huh," Yumiko remarked. "Not bad."
"I'm sorry?" Kokona asked, embarrassed to be changing in front of a relative stranger, even if it was a yokai. Yumiko's eyes traveled all over her body, examining her.
"My daughter, Yui," she explained. "She did good work, figuring out your measurements. She even got the number of tails right."
"Can you really tell all that with just a glance?" Kokona asked, changing into the spare clothing.
"Yep," Yumiko grinned. "A family skill. But your bust is a little bigger than she measured, so I have to knock off a few points for that. Hang on while I go make the adjustments, this should only take a minute."
Kokona blushed and offered her gratitude again, not sure what else to say. She drank the tea in silence, looking around the room. Her eyes drifted to a picture of a younger Yumiko, with a foreign-looking man with brown hair. Her late husband, she presumed, feeling a rush of sympathy for the widow. Looking at her daughter, who had received her husband's hair...it couldn't be easy, being reminded of him every day like that. On some small level, she could relate. She knew that what she felt couldn't have possibly matched the pain of losing your most intimate and trusted partner, but she knew the bittersweet feeling of remembering something that was gone. That, she knew all too well.
True to her word, Yumiko returned after only a minute, carrying the altered dress.
"All done," she laughed, handing her the garment. A new hole, sizable enough to fit all of her tails comfortably, was present in the back of the robe.
"This was your handiwork," Kokona muttered. "How much do I owe you?"
"Eh, for that simple alteration? You don't really need to pay me."
"That's not what I meant," Kokona said, shaking her head. "You made this, yes? With the intention of selling it. So how much do I owe you?"
"Do you even have any money?" Yumiko frowned. Seeing Kokona wince, she sighed. "Yeah, I thought so. Look, just take it, alright? If you really want to pay me back, you can do so later, when you actually have money. It's really not a big deal for me to give away the odd piece of clothing now and then."
"I promise," Kokona said seriously, standing up and holding her hand over her heart. "I will return this favor someday."
"Okay," Yumiko blinked, taken aback by the serious display. "It's important to you. Got it."
"Sorry," Kokona apologized. "It's just...I can't keep accepting gifts and hospitality. I need to do something for all of this. So all I can offer you right now is a promise, but..."
"It's fine," Yumiko sighed, giving a sad smile. "I get it, really. You can pay it back whenever you're ready."
A living whirlwind of energy took that moment to burst through the door.
"Mom! Mom!" it cried. "I just got back from visiting Sensei, and there was this nice Jorou-Gumo lady at the temple, and she said that-"
Yui paused as she realized that her mother had company.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, bouncing up and down. "Hi, miss Kokona!"
"Hello," she offered, already feeling overwhelmed. Her mother must have had the patience of a goddess, to raise a child like this.
"Yui," Yumiko frowned. "What have I said about about bursting in through the door like that?"
"That it's going to get damaged," Yui sighed, grinding to a halt. "Sorry, Mom..."
"Nope," Yumiko shook her head, clicking her tongue. "Sorry's not cutting it this time; I've warned you about this. No dessert for you tonight. And a double serving of vegetables."
"Ah!" Yui faltered, her expression aghast. "But!"
"No buts," Yumiko said, withering her daughter with a fierce stare.
Well. Now Kokona knew how the nekomata managed to raise her daughter, at least. Even she was scared of that gaze, and it hadn't even been directed at her!
"Now, what were you trying to say?" Yumiko asked her daughter.
"Oh," Yui sighed, her earlier excitement replaced with a gloomy monotone. "There was this Jorou-Gumo lady at the temple...she said she was here for the festival, getting ready to set up a stall...I thought you might want to visit her, since she had cute scarves and stuff..."
"Oh!" Yui beamed, instantly happy again. "Miss Kokona! Did you want me to show you the way to the temple? Sensei said that you wanted to visit Lady Hana, right?"
"Yes, that's right," Kokona nodded. "Would you give me a minute to change clothes? Then we can go."
"Okay!" Yui saluted. "I'll wait outside!"
As Yui left, Kokona gave her mother a sympathetic look.
"I've never met anyone so energetic in my life," she said.
"It's exhausting," Yumiko agreed. "But I love to see her like this. She's so full of life."
As she changed clothes, a question slipped into Kokona's mind.
"Yumiko, may I ask something?"
"Shoot?" Kokona's ears twitched, not understanding.
"Uh," Yumiko scratched behind her ears. "It means yes. Like, shoot the question. Go ahead."
"Oh, right. I was wondering, if...if you..."
Yumiko looked at her expectantly. Was...was it really okay to ask this?
"Go on," she prompted.
"What exactly is your relationship with Kaito?" she blurted out.
Yumiko blinked at her, as if she wasn't sure she had heard her correctly. Then she burst out laughing.
"Ahaha, really? That was the question?" She laughed heartily, then covered her mouth with a paw to calm herself down.
"Oh, honey," Yumiko said sympathetically, smiling at blushing Kokona. "Kaito is an amazing man, he really is. I have the utmost respect for him, and he'll always be welcome in my home for what he did for us. But no one will ever be able to replace my husband. So, you don't have to worry about me."
"Besides," Yumiko laughed, intertwining her paws above her head. "You two looked really cute together, holding hands like that."
"R-right," Kokona stammered, feeling like her face was burning up. Gods, she had never felt so embarrassed in her life. "Thank you again for your kindness. I won't let you down."
"Yeah, yeah," Yumiko said, shooing the inari out of her home. "Go on. I'll be here if you want to talk again."
Yui led Kokona to the temple, which was only about ten minutes away. She supposed that made sense - Kaito wouldn't have lived where he did if it wasn't reasonably close to his workplace. The temple was an impressive sight - the entrance to the building marked by a giant gate, whose symbol spelled 'faith'. The building had multiple, curved rooftops made of black shingles, and the walls of the building itself were made of a deep, dark wood. The steps leading up to the temple were filled with travelers and locals alike, coming to offer prayers or to just admire the architecture.
Yui led her right to the chambers of Lady Hana, the five-tailed inari who managed the temple. Hana had red hair and tails, a rare sight, which she later explained was a result of her mother meeting her red-haired father while overseas. Hana greeted Kokona very respectfully, bowing deeply and giving her a traditional greeting befitting a revered, eight-tailed elder. Kokona explained her situation to her, albeit without the emotional outburst that had accompanied her with Kaito in the park.
To her shock, Hana actually knew of Kohuni village, and even knew who she was. When she asked how, Hana explained that Yuko, the last attendant to leave her, had come to Akyo, explaining the decline of the village as best she could. Unfortunately, Yuko did not stay in Akyo, having left for the capital several months ago. Still, Hana took the kitsune-tsuki's words to heart, and waited expectantly for the day an eight-tailed inari would come in from the abandoned village. She was all too happy to offer food and shelter to Kokona, expressing her honor at having an inari of her power in the temple. Hana seemed very excited, already beginning to plan a celebration.
It hurt Kokona to put a stop to her well-meaning plans, but she knew she wasn't ready for that yet. It was much too early for her to take on any kind of position of authority and power - she still had much to learn and resolve.
Understanding, Hana nodded and agreed to keep things quiet. Then, she suggested that she could send out a search party after the festival, to help scour the wreck of her old shrine for any sentimental or valuable items. Kokona considered that for a moment, but refused. Perhaps she would return one day, but her home and village were gone. She stated that she didn't want any mementos, other than hopefully to one day find the people that she had wronged, so she could make amends.
Impressed by her humility, Hana smiled, nodded, and asked if she would like to help her assist with the preparations for the upcoming festival. She readily agreed, finding that she was actually looking forward to it. However, she asked for a moment to write a letter. Hana agreed, offering to have one of her temple hands deliver it. So, Kokona held the pen to the paper, and composed her letter to Yui...
After finishing the letter, Kokona threw herself into the work of preparing for the festival with vigor. She painted signs for stalls, helped hang banners, used her magic to uproot weeds and light fires, built paper lanterns, and personally helped Hana bake some kind of dessert treat, which Hana would prevent from going stale with her magic. The younger inari delighted in her companionship, and happily told her all about her temple and its people. Kokona found out that Hana had only come to manage the temple five years ago, when the previous leader had decided to move elsewhere. And it turned out to be Hana herself who originally proposed the idea of the new, multi-cultural festival, using her resources and attendants to spread the news and help prepare. The festival had been a huge hit, with far more people attending than expected.
"The food stalls ran out of stock in barely an hour!" Hana had laughed.
Each year, the festival had more and more people, with more cultures represented every iteration. This year, the festival had a sizable number of stalls coming from overseas specifically for the occasion, offering new technology, clothing, and foods. Hana's enthusiasm proved contagious, and Kokona found herself quite looking forward to attending the festival. She wanted to see the fruits of her labor, at the very least.
At the end of the day, Kokona tiredly fell into her new bed, a comfortable room within the temple, graciously provided by Hana. If Hana's temple hands were as reliable as she promised, Yui would have already received her letter and ferried the message within to Kaito, so she wouldn't need to go explain why she hadn't returned to his house. She did feel bad that Yui had gone to fetch those books and that game when she had barely touched them, so promised herself that she would make it up to her at the festival...somehow. She still didn't have any money.
She sighed and cast the thoughts away. Those were tomorrow's worries. Kokona let herself fall into a comfortable sleep, spurred on by the first day of honest work in a long time.
There was still work to be done the next day. After waking up and having a quick bath and breakfast, Kokona once again set out preparing for the festival. At the festival grounds, there was a great deal of people there, setting up their stalls hours in advance. They seemed to be quite serious about this, the new tradition having caught on to the hearts of all in Akyo.
The hours passed by quickly, and before she knew it, evening was approaching.
"Enough, Kokona," Hana smiled sweetly, placing a hand on her shoulder. "You've more than done your part. Please, rest. You won't be able to enjoy the festival if you exhaust yourself."
"I might be getting a little tired," Kokona admitted. "But I've haven't felt this excited in a long time. I can't just stop now!"
"Hmm," Hana hummed, putting a finger to her lip and giving her a sly look. "I wonder how Kaito will feel when the lovely inari that invited him is too tired to actually do anything."
"Wha?!" Kokona reeled back. "How did y-"
Hana burst into a fit of giggles and puffed out her chest triumphantly, placing her hands on her hips.
"So I was right!" she laughed. "I knew it! You do like him!"
Kokona's shock turned into an annoyed pout. She had fallen hook, line, and sinker for that one.
"Heehee," Hana grinned. "Sorry. I didn't read your message or anything, I just put two and two together. Yui, the tailor's daughter? She's kind of...loud. I overheard her talking about the beautiful inari lady that Kaito had sheltered from the storm."
Hana tapped her finger against her lips, looking up thoughtfully. "Actually, there's something I want to show you. Come on, follow me!"
Hana grabbed Kokona's hand, pulling her along with an excited giggle. She was only a few decades older than the five-tail, but the difference in their levels of energy was making her feel like an old woman.
Hana led Kokona to her personal quarters, which struck a careful balance between opulence and practicality. She took the older inari over to her closet, and unfolded a partition for her to change behind.
"Clothes?" Kokona muttered weakly. "Oh, no, I can't accept anything else..."
"Stop right there!" Hana shouted, striking an imposing stance. She placed one hand on her hip, and held the other out, fingers splayed. Her tails stuck out from her body, arranging themselves in a fan like fashion. It was as if she was making herself seem larger, like a peacock.
"I'll hear no more of this drivel. I will not allow you to protest!" she declared, voice strong and full of authority. "I am the caretaker and symbol of this temple! I am Hana Yatsumoto, and for as long as you shelter under my roof, I order you to accept my generosity without complaint!"
Kokona's jaw dropped. Where had this come from? Who was this inari, and what had she done with the Hana from earlier?
"O-okay..." she mumbled, nodding her acceptance.
"Great!" Hana cheered, clapping her hands together and instantly dropping the facade. "Now come on!"
"Quite the assertive little trickster, aren't you?" Kokona smiled, arching an eyebrow.
"Hey, I have to remind people that I have a serious side every now and then," Hana grinned. "Now, ooh, what do you think of this one?"
Hana held up a red dress with a floral pattern. The design was asymmetrical, revealing a significant amount of the wearer's right thigh. It was clearly designed for yokai, having a hole in the back to accommodate tails. The hole was also a bit larger than it needed to be...
"That?" Kokona gasped. "Isn't that a bit...revealing?"
"Haha, yeah," Hana giggled. "I just wanted to see your reaction. Even I don't wear this one."
"Besides, he wouldn't even be able to see your butt," Hana added with a frown.
"Everyone else certainly would," Kokona said with an unamused look.
A moment of clarity washed over Kokona. She looked over at Hana, who was smiling as she rummaged through her closet. It was refreshing, seeing how easily she fit into her role. When she looked at Hana, Kokona saw things that could have been. The younger inari was so informal, so cheerful and open, and yet she possessed a powerful sense of authority all the same. In another world, could she have been like her?
"You're putting me to shame, here," Kokona chuckled. "I'm afraid I haven't been able to laugh and tease like this for a long time. It...I think it will take me some time before I can keep up with you."
"Don't worry!" Hana cheered, reaching over and giving Kokona a tight hug. "I'll have you feeling tricksy and foxy again in no time! Then you can really put the moves on ol' Kaito, huh?"
"About that," Kokona sighed. "I'm...not sure I should do that."
"Eh?" Hana paused and looked at her, becoming more serious. "Why, what do you mean?"
"I've had...doubts," Kokona explained. "I've been wondering if...if I really feel for him, or if I simply 'latched on' to the first man I saw after being alone for so long."
Kokona bit her lip. "And...I never had a husband, so I'm not sure if I can even trust myself about this."
"Oh, geez," Hana sighed. "Come on, Koko! That's not very fox-like at all!"
"Koko?" Kokona blinked. Was that her nickname, now?
"You've just been away from people for too long," Hana said softly, offering a gentle smile. "You're been letting those ninetail blues get you down. Come on, trust your instincts! You're a yokai, and an inari at that. We just kinda know these things, you know?"
"Nope!" Hana interjected. "Okay, I'm going to prove it to you right now! Are you ready?"
"I...guess?" Kokona had no idea what she was talking about.
"Ahem," Hana cleared her throat and leaned forwards, placing her hands behind her back. Her ears twitched cutely as she looked at Kokona.
"Do you feel grateful towards Kaito?" she asked.
"Of course I do!" Kokona exclaimed, fists clenching. "He practically saved my life!"
"Yep, that was an easy one," Hana nodded. "Okay, do you think Kaito is smart?"
"Incredibly smart," she nodded. "He practically invented a new language, and is using it to write a book all about helping people."
"Do you think he's handsome?"
Kokona hesitated, but nodded. "Yes. Very."
"Do you find it hard to look away from him? Do you feel warm and happy when you're near him?"
"I..." Kokona swallowed, trying to overcome her hesitation. "Yes...I think so..."
"You only think so?" Hana frowned.
"Okay, I know so!" Kokona blurted.
"Do you like spending time with him?"
"Of course I do!"
"Do you think he likes spending time with you?" Hana asked, tilting her head curiously. Her tails started to sway back and forth.
"I think so..." Kokona nodded. "I mean, I'm pretty sure he does..."
"Do you wanna see him naked?" Hana grinned, hopping up and resuming an upright posture.
"H-Hana!" Kokona protested. "That's-"
"You didn't denyyyy it~" she said in a singsong voice, waggling her finger through the air. "Yay, then that proves it! You're in love with Kaito!"
Once again, Kokona's jaw dropped. This girl was too much!
"Is it really that simple?" she asked aloud, locking her fingers together and looking away shyly.
"Koko, c'mon!" Hana pouted. "It's okay to trust your own feelings! Believe in yourself, okay? That's an order!"
Kokona stared at Hana. She blinked, then tears began to well up, and she lunged forward and wrapped Hana in a tight hug.
"Thank you," she said, voice choked with emotion. Hana, she...she was such a pure, kind soul. To offer such kindness to someone she had only just met...she was a shining example of what an inari should be.
"Gack!" Hana gasped, struggling for breath under the hug. "Too...tight!"
"Sorry," Kokona laughed, pulling back and wiping away her tears. "You're right. I...I just need to trust myself. That's all it's ever been."
"Thank you, Hana," Kokona said earnestly. "Thank you for reminding me of that. I think you really are an amazing person."
"Geez," Hana blushed, interlocking her fingers and fidgeting around with her tails. "You can be pretty intense too, you know?"
"The first step towards getting my foxiness back," she giggled, smiling conspiratorially.
"Now that's more like it," Hana grinned. "Come on, we've spent enough time with the mushy stuff. Let's pick a nice dress that really shows off how fluffy your tails are."
Kaito arrived at the temple, Yui having carefully guided him through the gathering crowds. It was impossible to discern anyone's individual footsteps, but he still could pick out many familiar voices.
"Kaito, you made it!" a welcome voice declared.
"Kokona," he greeted. "Of course. I would not want to miss your kind invitation, no?"
He couldn't see it, but Kokona was wearing a black dress, lent to her by Hana. It was called a cheongsam, which was a type of dress popular over in Mist. It was similar in design to the first dress Hana had showed her, featuring a white floral pattern, but was far less scandalous. It fit her body comfortably, but not too tightly, and allowed her tails a reasonable amount of breathing room through the back of the dress.
"Thank you for bringing him, Yui," Kokona said, leaning over and patting the young nekomara on the head. "I'll bring you a nice treat later as thanks, okay?"
"Yep yep!" she beamed. "I really like your dress, miss Kokona!"
"Thank you, Yui," Kokona smiled. "Miss Hana was kind enough to lend it to me."
"I'm gonna go find my mom, now," Yui announced. "I have to help with the stand. Have fun, sensei!" With that she left the pair, and Kokona took Kaito's hand in her own.
"I can't identify too many voices with all of the background noise," he admitted.
"Take care not to lose me," he added with a chuckle. "It would be rather difficult to find my way back home."
"I won't," she nodded. "I promise."
Kokona stepped forward, gently leading her partner around the festival grounds. She went slowly, pausing frequently to describe whatever she could see. She forced herself to articulate more than usual, not wanting to leave anything out that she would normally take for granted.
"There's a stand to our left selling apples," she explained. "But the apples are impaled on sticks, then dipped in this brown, sticky substance that makes them taste like candy, apparently..."
"There's a Jorou-Gumo and her husband selling clothing over there. Oh, she's wearing a really lovely yellow dress, it matches her stripes very nicely. And...they have lots of hand-made scarves and kimonos, it seems. They're very nice...I wonder if Yumiko has met her, yet?"
"Oh, and over there there's a man with red hair and a big beard...I'm not sure what he's selling. It looks like some kind of mechanical device? It's called...a portable 'electrickery generator'? That sounds fancy..."
"There's a Yuki-Onna over there, relaxing by the pond with her husband. It looks like they brought a blanket to sit down...that was probably a good idea. Oh, and they're even feeding each other...how very romantic."
"I think I see your raiju neighbor over there...she seems to be happy to have a moment alone with her husband. The poor dear must be exhausted, raising such energetic children."
Such scenes went on and on. Kokona kept talking until her voice started to get parched, and she had to take a break to find some water. She reluctantly left Kaito on a bench, but he assured her that she would be fine. She broke away and got in line for one of the food stalls - Hana had been kind enough to lend her some money to spend, insisting that it was a gift, and that she would refuse any attempt at recompense.
The line was long, but moved quickly. Soon enough, it was her turn.
"Hello," she greeted to the vendor. "I would-"
"Hey, Koko!" the vendor beamed. "Fancy seeing you here!"
"What?" Kokona rubbed her eyes, making sure she wasn't seeing things. Sure enough, Hana Yatsumoto, the caretaker and symbol of her temple, was looking at her from behind the stand. She was dressed in a festive kimono, with a large black X mark painted on her left cheek.
"Hana?" she asked incredulously. "You're running one of the stands?"
"Welllll," she fidgeted, "kinda sorta. I wasn't planning on it, but I ended up losing this bet with one of my mikos." She pointed to the black mark on her cheek, a sign of defeat that her opponent had placed on her. "So I'm taking over for the owner of this stand for a while."
"But, grr!" Hana grabbed the edge of the stand with her hands and pushed herself upwards into the air like an acrobat, sticking her tails out high into the air. "You're holding up the line! How very un-foxy of you! Hurry up and pick something!"
Kokona laughed and picked out some food. First, something sweet for Yui - she had a promise to keep. Then she picked out some other items for herself and Kaito. She wasn't even sure what some of them were, but she felt like trying some new things. That was the whole point of the festival, after all! Hana handed her a tray and Kokona gave her a few coins.
"It feels extremely bizarre to pay you with your own money," she muttered.
"Sorry, did you say something?" Hana smiled sweetly. "I thought I almost heard some complaining or something. But that couldn't be the case, right? Anyway, hurry up and scram! People are hungry!"
Kokona laughed and walked away. As she left, she heard Hana greet the next customer.
"Welcome to Hana's, whaddaya want?"
Before she returned to Kaito, Kokona made a quick stop at Yumiko's stand, which her daughter was helping her manage. She handed Yui one of the baked treats that she had made with Hana the night before, and the little nekomata expressed her thanks and gobbled it down in a matter of seconds. With a sigh, Yumiko smiled and shooed her daughter away, telling her to go enjoy the festival.
"Thanks for looking out for her," Yumiko said, nodding respectfully. Then she broke out into a proud grin. "And nice outfit. I'd recognize my own handiwork anywhere."
Kokona chatted briefly with Yumiko, then let her get back to attending her stall. She returned to Kaito, who was still waiting patiently.
Kaito and Kokona shared their meal without conversation. Frankly, she needed a little break from narrating everything she saw, and Kaito didn't seem to mind. Some of the new types of food she found odd and bland, but the majority of them were very memorable. She found that she particularly liked the candy apple from the stand she saw earlier.
"Listen to all that," Kaito said, pausing and putting his food down.
"To what?" Kokona asked, putting her own food down.
"Everything," he said plainly. "The conversations, the laughter, the sounds of people sharing food."
Kokona stopped and listened. Her ears flicked around, trying to pick up as much sound as she could. She couldn't make out many individual noises, but she nodded as she took in the background sound of the festival.
"Hana is incredible," Kokona concluded. "She put all of this together."
"Indeed, and the town loves her for it. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if she gains her sixth tail by the end of the night."
"Say, Kokona," Kaito mused. "Can I ask you something?"
"Well, this may sound rather strange, but...would it be alright if I touched your face?"
"Touched my face?" she repeated.
"Yes. I understand if it's too strange, but this is how I can really understand someone, that..." Kaito trailed off.
He swallowed, and exhaled through his nose, donning a strange smile.
"That I really care about," he finished.
It felt like her heart had skipped a beat. Kokona's tails began to twine themselves together.
"Do I...fit into that category?" she asked cautiously.
"Of course," Kaito said hastily. "You...mean a great deal to me, Kokona."
Her ears flared up.
"T-thank you, Kaito," she managed to get out. "Here...give me your hand."
He quickly wiped off his hand with a towel, making sure that it was clean, then extended it towards her. Kokona took it into her own, and gently guided it towards her face. Kaito reached out, hesitated for a moment, then brushed his fingertips against her. He smoothed them across her features, experimentally pushing into her with very light force. It was strange, admittedly, but...she liked it.
"Ah," he muttered, maintaining his strange smile. "Now I understand."
"Understand what?" she asked.
"Your colors have shifted," he answered cryptically. "Your blemishes. Your dark spots. They are...fading."
"How does touching my face tell you that?"
"Hah. Blind man's secret."
"Hmph," Kokona pulled back, feigning mock annoyance. "One might think that you just wanted an excuse to touch me."
"Perhaps one is correct," he countered, his smile growing.
"Kaito," she said softly, dropping the act. "May I try something?"
"You allowed me," Kaito nodded. "And if I'm right...I have no objections."
This banter felt...good. Really good. She was starting to feel like a proper inari again.
Now it was time to put it all on the line. Kokona slowly leaned forward and wrapped her hands around his head, inclining him towards her.
Then she brought her lips to his, and gently kissed him. She only held it for a few seconds, but she could feel the magic between them - literally. Vestiges of her power, long dormant, flared to life and energized her body with warm fuzziness. The power flowed through her and into Kaito, making the sensations of the kiss snap and burst with magically enhanced passion, making the moment seem to last far longer than it actually did.
Finally, they both thought.
When she finally pulled away, she couldn't resist releasing a small giggle.
"So?" she asked. "Were you expecting that?"
"Yes and no," he explained, smiling brightly. "I was fairly sure that you felt the same way about me, so I thought you might do that...but I wasn't expecting that level of intensity, certainly not!"
"Want to do it again?" she asked.
"Yes. Very much so."
As they kissed again, Kaito saw the most beautiful colors he had ever seen, shining brilliantly from Kokona's soul. He had already noticed that her dark spots were vanishing some time ago. Now, he saw that she was actually brighter than before, and that gave him an idea.
I love her, he thought. I love Kokona.
There! He noticed it. Almost imperceptibly, she grew the tiniest bit brighter. He laughed inside of his head, the experiment a success. He pulled away, to which Kokona made a confused, disappointed sound.
"Kokona," he said calmly. "I love you."
A flash of color. She gasped, beginning to well up with emotion. It made her shine, bright like a star.
"I love you too," she said, tears of unadulterated joy falling from her eyes. "Kaito, I really love you!"
He saw it. This overwhelming light, this beauty beyond measure...this was her. This was the Kokona she could be, the person that she had been keeping away from herself.
He leaned in and kissed her again, taking the initiative. There had to be some way to share this light with her. She had to see it, she had to know how he saw her! He wasn't sure if it was even possible, but he tried his very hardest, repeating the words over and over again inside his mind.
I love you...I love you...I love you...
Kokona's magic was sending fireworks into his head, thousands of miniature little explosions of sensation occurring in tandem.
When they pulled away again, a distant boom rumbled above them. Kokona looked up, and gasped in awe.
"What is that?" she asked, looking at the fading explosion of color.
"A firework," Kaito chuckled. "If you look closely, you can see them flying up into the sky. They're little rockets packed with chemicals that make them explode in different colors."
"It's beautiful," she cooed. "I've never seen anything like them. Oh, that one was red...and that one was green!"
As she watched the fireworks, Kaito was content to watch her colors, flaring every time another firework went off with a bang.
With a chuckle, he doubted that anything would ever be able to top this festival.
Drowsiness clouded Kokona's senses like a fog as she woke up, blinking and yawning. Where was she? And why was she so...warm? When she realized where she was and who she had curled around in her sleep, she stamped out the urge to react.
She was...in Kaito's bed. With him. And while they were both still clothed, she had apparently reached over to him in her sleep, hugging him. Her tails had certainly taken a liking to him, having wrapped over his torso. He must have turned in his sleep, because part of his body was on top of her tails, pinning them to the bed. Despite her attempts to pull herself free of this entanglement, her tails stubbornly refused to give up their prize.
"Damn it," she whispered.
Kaito stirred. Had she woken him? No, it didn't seem so.
Sighing, she resigned herself to her fate, lying back and remaining still. It wasn't like she found the situation disagreeable. Still, how had she wound up here? She was still clothed and didn't feel anything, so it seemed that they really had just slept in the same bed.
And where had that dull ache in her head come from? It throbbed intermittently, reminding her that it was still there.
"Mm," Kaito mumbled, stirring again. "Good morning. I think, anyway."
"Sorry," she replied. "It seems I woke you. Would you mind lifting your hips a bit?"
Kaito raised an eyebrow as he realized the fluffiness brushing against his left hand was not, in fact, his bed.
"My apologies," he laughed, lifting his hips to free her tails. "I've never been a particularly calm sleeper."
"It's fine," she said. "But, um...how did we...get here? We didn't...did we?"
"Wow," Kaito mumbled, clicking his tongue. "You really were out like a rock."
"What happened?" she asked, intertwining her fingers with his own. She squeezed his hand, taking comfort in his presence.
"You got drunk," he chuckled. "Turns out years of solitude doesn't do much for your alcohol tolerance. Lady Hana had one of her mikos carry you back here...something that she sounded abnormally happy about, mind you."
"Ah," she sighed. "I may have had a chat with her to...help me work up the confidence to reveal my feelings to you. It seems like she quite enjoys playing matchmaker."
"Wait," she added. "One of her mikos carried me back here? By herself?"
"A jinko," Kaito clarified. "Apparently it was quite trivial for her. She seemed amused at how easily the eight-tail was defeated by some rice wine."
"I hope I didn't make too much a fool of myself," Kokona sighed again. "Oh well. I'd probably do it again...whatever it was."
"Nothing to worry about there," Kaito said. "You just sang a little...and not too awfully. Hardly worth gossiping about. And...to answer your question, no, we didn't. It would have been rather hard to put both of our clothes back on by myself."
"I see," she said neutrally. Her words hung in the air for a moment. but Kokona refused to allow an awkward silence to take root.
"Do you...want to?" she asked.
"It was only proper to wait for you to regain your senses," he stated. "Do...do you want to?"
She was quiet for a moment. This was not an insignificant decision, but...she already knew her answer.
"Yes," she whispered.
"Then so do I," he said.
She leaned over and kissed him, ruffling a hand through his hair.
"Kaito," she breathed, pulling away, "will you let me take the blindfold off? I want to see your eyes..."
She slipped her hands around his head and pulled the cloth over his head, giving his hair an affectionate ruffle. It didn't feel right to simply toss his blindfold aside, so she placed it under her pillow.
She found herself spellbound. His deep blue eyes drew her in, sparkling like gemstones.
"This...isn't fair," she said, voice breaking at the cruelty of it all. "How? How could the gods give you such perfect eyes, and take away your sight?"
"How?" she asked again, eyes feeling hot.
"Hush, now," he soothed, reaching out to stroke her cheek with his index finger. "No more tears. It is what it is."
He shushed her, leaning forward and kissing her again to silence her. His lips met with hers, brushing against her with the lightness of a feather.
"I love you, Kokona," he said, smiling. "As long as you feel the same, that's all I really need."
"I do," she sniffed, holding her tears back. "I love you."
"Then show me," he said.
Kokona got off the bed and undid her robes, letting her clothes fall onto the bedsheets. She folded them reverently, not wanting to ruin Hana's lovely dress, and tucked them off to the side. Then she walked around the bed, where Kaito had moved up into a sitting position on the edge of the bed, already shrugging off his top. She crouched down and assisted him in discarding his clothing, taking the opportunity to run her hands over his chest and back. Her initial impressions were right - he had a well-balanced body, with just the right amount of muscle for her tastes. Then she moved downwards, resting her eyes on a sizable bulge straining against his trousers.
She pulled them down along with his undergarments in one motion, smilingly lovingly as she saw her effect on him. She took his length in her hand and began to squeeze and stroke him, leaning forward to kiss him while she did so. He groaned softly into her mouth, and she felt him rapidly grow harder in her hands. She pulled away and took one of his hands, guiding it to her breast. He squeezed her gently, massaging and rolling her flesh. Then he leaned in and planted a kiss on her nipple, before taking it into his mouth and sucking on it ever-so-slightly. She moaned in delight, and increased the speed of her stroking in return.
"Don't hold back your sounds," Kaito urged. "I need to hear them to know how I'm doing."
"You're doing wonderfully," she cooed, before pushing him backwards onto the bed.
"Kokona?" he asked curiously, before she climbed on top of him.
"Hush," she said, placing a finger on top of his lips. "You told me to show you that I love you, so I will."
She gave him a gentle push, silently instructing himself to adjust his posture and lie on his back along the bed, rather than across it. Then she moved to a position near his knees, and lowered her gaze to look at his manhood. She had never seen a man's parts before, let alone been romantically involved with them. But she had read plenty of books on the subject, and was a yokai, to boot. She was confident that her instincts would guide her through this.
"This looks painful," she said adoringly, reaching out and stroking it. "Do you need me to take care of it for you?"
"Please," he groaned.
"Okay. Give me lots of feedback."
Kokona scooted back, and brought her head down, opening her mouth and taking his shaft inside of her. Her tails shot up as she got her first taste of him. Fireworks exploded inside her mind, her memory flashing back to their kiss the night before.
She eagerly began to slurp along his length, bobbing her head up and down while working him with her tongue. The effects were obvious, Kaito groaning deeply and placing a hand on her head, gently pushing her back downwards. He started rubbing the spot behind her ears, which made her hum in delight. And the vibrations of her hum sent waves of pleasure into Kaito's body, making him groan even louder.
Pleasuring her lover came easily to her - she was right to trust her instincts. She reached her free hand down to her own wetness, slipping a finger inside and beginning to play with herself. She kept licking and sucking on him until his grip tightened, and he warned her that he couldn't endure her much longer. She came off him for a moment to gather her breath, then smiled at him.
"Don't hold back," she urged him. "I want to taste you."
Then she returned his cock to her mouth, sucking and slurping with renewed vigor. It pushed him over the edge, and he grunted as he came, his manhood throbbing and pulsing into her mouth. As his warm release spilled into her mouth, her eyes shot wide. If her first tastes of him were like a firework going off, this was like the mighty eruption of a volcano.
Somewhere, deep in the recesses of her mind, she realized why she thought Kaito's soul-sight sounded different to her own. While all yokai could sense spiritual power, it was primarily used for mate selection, and was locked behind different senses - primarily, taste.
And oh, how did he taste! The flavor was indescribable. There was no word for it, other than 'perfect'. It was as if all the admiration and love she had for him, all the things she respected and appreciated him for, had been condensed into a single thing and given a physical form. She devoured his essence like it was ambrosia, for with every drop that she swallowed, she was only affirming her love for him more and more. She sucked and sucked again, desperate to receive everything he had to give. When he was gasping for breath, his orgasm finally over, she released him from her mouth, and set about cleaning him off with her tongue. He groaned again, but was unable to ask her to stop, even as the pleasure started to grow unbearably intense.
As if sensing his growing discomfort, she stopped just when it became uncomfortable.
"How was that?" she asked sweetly. "Do you believe me now?"
"Do I ever," he groaned. "Come over here, it's my turn."
He sat up and beckoned her forward, to which she obeyed happily. She lay down next to him, and Kaito moved around, coming to rest in between her legs. She spread them eagerly for him, inviting him to explore her. He reached out cautiously, as if afraid of hurting her.
"You don't need to be so cautious," she giggled. "Touch me."
"So much for putting on an air of confidence," he sighed. He reached out and began to play with her, slipping a finger inside her folds while running his other hand along her lower stomach and thighs.
"That tickles," she laughed.
He delighted in the sensation of her skin. With one hand, he slipped another finger inside of her, making her moan as he rubbed her from the inside out. With his other hand, he reached around and grabbed her rear, lifting her up slightly.
"What are you-" she tried to ask, gasping as she felt his hand grasp one of her tails. She whimpered as he pinched the tip of her tail, rubbing it in between his fingers.
"Should I stop?" he asked, confused by her noises.
"No!" she burst. "Don't you dare!"
"Ah," he chuckled. "In that case..."
Kaito grabbed a second tail, taking them both and bringing them around her body. He leaned his head over, and took the tips of both of her tails, placing them in his mouth - and he very gently bit them.
"Gyah!" she gasped, arching her back.
"So sensitive," he laughed.
"Again," she begged. "Please!"
He complied, biting her again and making her moan even louder.
"It's hard to pick a favorite part of you," he mused. "Every part of your body feels so different. But I think your tails are a strong contender."
She started to say something, but Kaito chose that moment to pull his fingers out of her, and replace them with his tongue. Sensitive as she was, she practically screamed. Her yokai energy was building up inside of her, crackling with power and threatening to burst.
"I can see it, you know," he said. "The power in you. You need this as badly as I did."
"Yes," she whined. "Please, Kaito, I need you..."
"Then give it to me."
He stuck his tongue deeper inside of her, drawing invisible letters with his tongue. She writhed and screamed, gripping his head with both hands and pushing him into her. She felt the power surge, and as heat and light rushed through her entire body, she clenched her jaw to at least partially muffle her orgasmic scream. Bliss rolled over her mind, smoothing out any other thoughts and leaving only pleasure. She writhed and squirmed, and Kaito never stopped licking at her, even at the height of her orgasm. As she came, power flowed freely from her in invisible waves.
While he couldn't taste the energy of her soul, not as she could taste his, he could certainly feel the effects that her energy had on him. It made him feel strong, made him feel manlier than he had ever before. He grinned and laughed into her as she empowered him, redoubling his tongue's efforts as she peaked and began to wind down. He felt himself grow hard again as she panted - the effects of her energy, no doubt. She lay a hand over her eyes, chest heaving as she cooled off.
Goddess, she hoped she hadn't been loud enough to wake the neighbors.
"K-Kaito," she breathed, gasping as he started stroking her tails again. "I love you..."
"I love you too, Kokona," he smiled, getting used to the effects of her energy. "Will you do something for me?"
"Anything," she said readily.
"Give me that blindfold back."
"Eh?" she tilted her head. "What for?"
Kokona leaned over, retrieving the blindfold from under her pillow. Then she returned to her previous position and handed it to him.
He leaned up and into a sitting position.
"Sit up," he commanded. "And...bring my free hand to your face."
She did so, closing her eyes and nuzzling her cheek against his hand. Then, he leaned forward, and began to wrap the blindfold around her head.
"Kaito?" she asked, seeking assurance.
"I want us to be true equals in this," he explained. "I want you to experience this as I will."
As he finished wrapping it around her, he pulled the blindfold down over her eyes, and her vision was gone.
"I wish I had thought of that," she laughed. "You're right. We should do this as equally as possible."
He leaned in and kissed her, then pulled back with an excited smirk. Oh, this was going to be fun.
"I'll start," he growled, wrapping his arms around her and pushing her back onto the bed. One of her tails reached around her body, coiling itself along Kaito's shaft. Her fluff tugged along his shaft, gripping him and making him gasp at the delightful sensations.
"Take me," she pleaded, guiding him towards her with her tail.
So he did. Inserting himself inside her with one powerful thrust, they both gasped out as they gave their virginities to each other. The clenching warmth of Kokona's folds immediately threatened to overwhelm him, her body gripping him needily and constricting around his shaft with a comfortable tightness. He pulled out slowly, then thrust back in again. A trickle of blood fell out of her, but there was no pain involved with her first time.
"Kaito," she moaned into his ear. The lack of vision made the sensations even more intense for her. Their worlds were reduced to just the shared feelings between them. He felt so good, filling her, loving her. When she moaned out again, she clenched her folds, squeezing her lover even harder and making him groan out. They adored the sounds that they could draw forth from the other, being encouraged to try again and again.
Kokona wrapped the rest of her tails around Kaito's back and rear, rubbing them up and down along his back. They didn't have the strength to pull him down, but it did have another effect on him. Magical energy built up like static electricity, like rubbing on a balloon. And when it reached a certain point - it burst.
"Gyahah!" Kokona cried out, wrapping her legs around Kaito and pulling him deeper into her. The magic-induced orgasm made even more of her power seep out, flowing easily into her lover. He grinned as he felt it empower him once again. By the gods, he had never felt so alive, so powerful! He felt like he could do anything!
Her magic coaxed his primal, almost bestial urges to the surface. He wanted to take her more roughly, and he knew that she would let him. With a masculine growl, he pushed himself up a little, taking a better position. He grabbed one of her breasts with one hand, the other going to her head and bringing her up for a kiss. He pinched and rolled her nipple as his tongue dipped into her mouth, and he fiercely thrust into her at the same time. The triple attack was too much for the sensitive inari, and she came again, her yokai energy surging forward and exchanging between them as they kissed.
And so it went on for some time. With every one of Kokona's orgasms, with every one of her blissful moans, Kaito was again bathed in her power. It gave him the stamina he needed to keep going - he knew he would have been done for some time ago if he hadn't been supported by her energy. As an eight-tail, Kokona had a tremendous amount of power to give. He was infused with so much energy that he became almost crazed, driven to only a few primal desires, no longer capable of rational thought.
Satisfy your female, his instincts screamed. Make her yours.
Lust built up within him, raging and boiling. Not even Kokona's magic could hold it off forever, and as he felt seed build up within him, he roared and pressed her down roughly, pinning her to the bed and locking her in a deep, passionate kiss. And then all the pressure that he had been resisting exploded. The magic in his body was like fuel for the fire, being caught up in the wave of his climax and being forced out with it. Kokona moaned into his mouth, pulling him deeper into her with her legs, arms, and tails. She gave even more power to him, which was instantly consumed by the inferno of his orgasm. His brain gave up on trying to comprehend such an insane level of pleasure, every part of his body tingling with bliss.
If Kokona's earlier orgasm was like the eruption of a volcano, this was like the supernova of a star. Kaito could no longer even discern colors, her soul becoming so colossally bright that there was only white. Loving, adoring, all-encompassing white, which became his everything as he released deep into her. His essence was fuel to her own fire, being instantly consumed and making the white flash even brighter.
Then, everything faded to darkness as he passed out.
"K-Kaito?" Kokona asked, looking at him. She had undone her blindfold when she realized that Kaito wasn't moving.
He groaned as he regained consciousness. He was only out for a few seconds - he was still on top of her, still inside her.
"Are you okay?" she asked worriedly, in-between her panting. "I'm sorry...too much power came out, I couldn't stop it!"
He didn't feel ready to talk yet, still winding down from her lust-inducing power. So he simply kissed her again, answering her without speaking. Then, with reluctance, he pulled out of her, making them shudder from the sensation of separation. He got off of her and lay next to her, the both of them rotating onto their sides and facing each other.
"Sorry," Kaito panted. "I know I wanted to be equals, but I kind of ended up taking all the control, didn't I?"
"Don't be," she said softly, interlocking her fingers with his. "That was perfect. Besides, you...didn't really have a choice, did you?"
"You're so strong, Kokona," he said lovingly. "Your power...I don't know if I can even begin to describe it. It made me feel...alive. Strong! Like, I could pick up and throw this entire house if I wanted to!"
"Hearing that made me realize something," she giggled.
"What's that?" Kaito asked.
"That I can never go without this, now," she admitted. "I've never felt so alive, either. Gods, I wish I had met you a century earlier."
"Well, I rather like being in this time," he said, laughing once. "But I'll go anywhere with you. Past or future."
"Speaking of the future," she sighed, coiling her tails around her lover. They ran along him very slowly, this time seeking to express love, not lust. "I believe I know what I want to do."
"Oh? Do tell."
"I want to go to the capital," she said seriously. "Not immediately. Maybe in a month or two - I still need to repay my debts here. But..."
Kokona donned a sincere smile.
"There's so much that I've missed out on," she explained. "The world has changed so much. I...want to get caught up. To learn about everything that I've missed. The capital's scholars and academies will let me do that. And...there's a chance that someone I really need to apologize to is living there. I need to try and find her."
"What comes after that?" Kaito asked softly.
"I don't know," she admitted with a laugh. "The future's a blank canvas. But I can say one thing for certain - you're in it. Always."
He smiled and squeezed her hand. She looked deep into his eyes, having a one-sided staring contest. This still hurt her. What had Kaito done to deserve being struck blind? Why did it have to happen to such a kind, brilliant, loving man?
No, she supposed. Perhaps it was because he had been struck blind that he had become this way? She would ask him later about what he was like as a youth. Whatever the case, she loved him, and he loved her. That was all she needed.
"Green," he muttered.
"What's that?" she asked, not having heard him.
"Green," he repeated. "You never told me."
"What didn't I tell you?" she blinked. "Sorry, I'm lost."
"Your eyes," he said simply. "They're emerald-green."
"Eh?" she mumbled. "D-did someone tell you that?"
"No, I..." Kaito's voice drifted off as he came to a realization. "I...I saw you. When I regained consciousness! Kokona, I saw you!"
Kokona sat up, her jaw slack and her eyes wide.
"H-how is that possible?" she asked. "Are...you're certain? You really saw me?"
"Yes," he croaked. "I...I really saw you. Only your eyes, but...I know that it was you!"
"Oh, Kaito, this is amazing!" she cheered. "It's a miracle!"
"No, it's not," he chuckled. "It's you."
"What? I don't-"
Ah. Now she understood. This...was her power. Kaito, infused with so much of her love, had defied whatever malady had claimed his sight, if only for a second. Kokona herself was the miracle!
"Loss is naught but an opportunity to reflect, a chance to gain again," Kokona said, recalling his words.
"Kaito," she smiled. "Do you mind if I make a little prophecy?"
"A prophecy? Now I'm intrigued."
"I know how I'm going to earn my ninth tail," she declared. "I'm going to work a real, genuine miracle, a feat that will prove my worth, without question. Do you know what it is?"
"Dare I hope?" he grinned.
"I'm going to restore your sight," she promised, leaning in and planting a sweet kiss on his head. "I don't know how long it will take to fully restore you, but I swear that I will."
"I swear this to the man that did not judge me," she continued, placing a hand over her heart. "I swear it to the blind man who offered his kindness to a stranger, without pity or judgment. I swear it to the man that I fell in love with, to the man that I know loves me."
"Kaito," she breathed. "With you by my side, I know that I can stand on my own. Your faith has rebuilt me. Will you accept me? Will you let me restore your sight?"
"You needn't even ask," he smiled, squeezing her hand again. "I'll be with you for as long as I can, Kokona."
"Then let that be a very long time," Kokona beamed. "My husband."
A/N: Well, here we are again. As always, I'm trying something different. In this case, the work was a special challenge that I did with another author - Tachaerus. We assigned each other a species and a rough prompt for the story. I assigned Tach the Roper, since the poor girl doesn't have any stories of her own. She's also a bit of a hard sell for a lot of people, so I wanted to see if it could convince people of her merits. I was given the Inari, since Tach likes the lovely ladies of Zipangu. There was also a 20K wordcount cap imposed, as a test of our brevity. Which only one of us managed to do, I might add! Excluding the author's note, this story comes out to 19947 words, seriously toeing the line.
Excuse me while I blow a raspberry at Tach.
The idea of the man she falls for being blind came from me, when my mind fell upon the idea of 'blind faith', which of course had to become the title. It was a fun story to write. Admittedly, the MGE Inari doesn't really have any traits that distinguish her from general foxgirls, so I focused on her personality and blossoming relationship with Kaito. I really like this couple; I think that they're great for each other. I tried to focus on social aspects, like her anxiety and worries regarding her ninth tail, and the expectations people would have for her.
When it came time for lovemaking, I focused on the aspect which I found most interesting about her - the energy transfer. The idea that all this power that the inari has built up over the years is shared with her husband is really sweet, so I tried to portray that. But her lust also gets transferred, making her husband powerful and primal, and getting more dominant with her. I mixed this in with Kaito's ability to see 'colors', and I think it turned out rather well.
And to be honest, I just wanted some really fluffy sex that cured his blindness with the power of love.
I also wanted to express some of Zipangu's culture, so I included ideas like the yokai children running around happily, and human-yokai couples being romantic with each other in the park. Zipangu is a land of tolerance, after all, so the idea of this multi-cultural festival sprang from there.
You know, I guess the idea of mamono and yokai feeding on spirit energy actually does make them into soul-sucking monsters. But is that really such a bad thing? I mean, who really needs their soul anyway, right? Besides, it grows back...and it's not like it hurts, quite the opposite. Ah, what a beautiful idea.
I think that's about it for this one. Thanks for listening, chillldren! Let me know what you thought of this story! I'll be back soon with Nightgaunt and Shoggoth stories!