Chapter 12:

[Yasuo] — A Stranger to Myself

Questionable Days with Yokai

Yasuo told Kitamura and Akemi that he felt drained from the effort of trying to use the paper talismans, and that he needed to return to his room and rest. Kitamura offered to go with him, but Yasuo insisted he'd be fine. So Akemi continued to have Kitamura try out various ofuda while Yasuo went back to the inn.

The truth was, of course, that Yasuo just didn't want to stick around and watch Kitamura effortlessly perform one onmyodo spell after another, while he was unable to do anything. He recognized it was childish of him to not be supportive of her, especially when they both shared the same goals down here. But still, he couldn't help feeling at least a little resentment.

He sat on the floor of his room for a while, trying to not dwell on his negative thoughts. Much easier said than done though... His very existence was a constant reminder of all he had lost.

He stood up and paced around the room. Honestly, he wanted to scream. But obviously he couldn't do that, not when there were others around who could hear him. He didn't want to be written off as hysterical.

He stopped pacing and lifted his arms forward. He felt like swinging a sword.

Akemi had given Kitamura a wakizashi when they first came down to this hidden world. She kept forgetting to bring the short sword with her, but that was probably for the best when she had never had any training with it. Yasuo decided to go ahead and borrow it, and just place it back where it was before Kitamura returned.

He took the wakizashi to his room and unsheathed it. A fine-looking blade. It was much shorter than the bamboo shinai he used for kendo practice, but it was also heavier, obviously thanks to its steel metal. He held the sword out in front of him, and simply tried to maintain a basic fighting stance for a full minute.

It's... heavy.

Perhaps this wasn't a good idea. These arms weren't used to swinging a sword around.

Yasuo decided to ignore his common sense for once. He set the sword down a moment so he could loosen the skirt of his yukata enough to step forward and backward more freely, then picked up the sword once more.

Proper control, proper grip, proper coordination.

He started with a basic practice swing. He held the sword out in front of his waist, lifted it straight over his head, then swung directly forward, always keeping the sword centered with body. The tip of the blade approached the floor, but didn't reach it. Yasuo repeated this swing, careful to avoid stiff movement, and properly snapped his wrists at the end of each cut. Each swing needed to be made in a full arc, and pushed with his left hand — not with his elbows.

It took some time to adjust his swing to this body. It would probably take many hours of practice to really get used to it... and Yasuo was already wearing himself out. It didn't take long at all for his arms and especially his wrists to feel sore, and it didn't take much longer for him to start panting a bit.

Kitamura, your stamina... Couldn't you have joined the school's soft tennis team, or something?

This practice session was just going to have to be a short one. Yasuo added footwork to his swings, stepping forward with his right foot upon lifting the sword, then bringing in his left foot during the downswing. The following cut was then performed in reverse, and Yasuo continued on alternating between the two ends of the tatami mat he practiced on.

Eventually Yasuo managed to work up a good sweat, and once his breathing turned ragged he called it quits. He placed the sword back in its hilt, returned it to Kitamura's room, and then lay down on his futon. It felt off to be this exhausted so quick, but it also felt good to release all his pent-up frustration. He felt like he could think a little more clearly now, at least.

I'm going to need a bath... Just another thing he was going to have to get used to, along with changing clothes and going to the restroom.

A knock came at his door. “It's me,” Kitamura said. “Are you feeling okay?”

“Come in,” Yasuo said, sitting up. “I'm doing better.”

Kitamura entered, and Akemi (in her otter form) was perched on her right shoulder. Kitamura knelt down beside Yasuo and held up a paper talisman.

“That's good to hear! I've got good news too. I'm able to use all the different types of ofuda Akemi has gathered, including this healing one. So I can get rid of that wound on your leg, if you'd like.”

“Oh... I guess...” Honestly, Yasuo would have preferred if she didn't. The gash didn't hurt so badly now, and it should fully heal on its own soon enough. And though Kitamura could obviously access the power within each ofuda, Yasuo wasn't sure if she had perfect control over the magic yet. This was just her first day at it, and already she wanted to perform a procedure on someone...

“Do not fret,” Akemi said. “Kitamura has utilized this healing magic on herself already, and nothing was amiss. You shall be fine.”

“She healed herself...” Yasuo said, thinking this information over. “She got hurt then?”

“Oh,” Kitamura said with a faint chuckle. “I wanted to try the ofuda's magic out, so I cut my hand with a broken stick. It's all good now though.” She held her left palm forward to show there weren't any cuts on it.

Yasuo frowned and shook his head. “Don't cut up my hands! Even if you can heal them afterward. My hands are important to me.” It was a good thing he let off some steam earlier, because this probably would have set him off.

“Oh... I guess so, huh... I'm sorry, Mizutani.”

“You really need to think things through a little before you just start doing stuff.”

“Okay, sorry! Here, let me heal your leg and I'll be on my way. I just need to see your wound and place this ofuda close to it...”

I really would rather not. But I guess it was my fault you got this gash in the first place.

Yasuo sighed and pulled up the hem of his yukata so he could untie the bandage around his thigh. Then he stood up and turned around, still holding the yukata up enough for Kitamura to find the wound. It was right below Yasuo's butt...

This has to be the most embarrassing scenario of my entire life... But who knew what tomorrow would bring. Just a couple nights ago, he had thought pretending to be a cutesy zashiki-warashi was as humiliating as his life could ever get.

Kitamura held her paper talisman near the back of Yasuo's thigh. Yasuo craned his neck back to try and watch. The ofuda glowed a pure white for a few seconds, then returned to normal. He felt a slight tingling in his thigh — but again, just for a few seconds.

“There!” Kitamura said. “Not even a scar left behind.” She softly brushed her fingertips across where the wound had been.

Yasuo reflexively hopped forward, then shuddered. Partly from being tickled; partly from just, you know, the weirdness of it all.

“Ah, sorry.” Kitamura glanced away, looking embarrassed herself.

“You just surprised me, is all.” Yasuo tried to look at the back of his thigh — but, well. Something was in the way. So he just rubbed the spot with his own hand to confirm the gouge had completely disappeared. He had to admit he did already feel better, and that it was going to be nice not having to worry about the bandage anymore.

He fixed his yukata and turned back around to face Kitamura again. “Thanks.” He hoped he didn't sound too annoyed by everything, since he knew he should've been grateful for her help.

Kitamura stood back up and tried to force a smile, but didn't quite make it. “Ah, don't mention it.”

It looked like she wanted to say something more, but she ended up keeping it to herself.

* * *

Late that afternoon, Yasuo and Kitamura met up with Naoya (the wheel monk) at the same clearing in the forest they were at earlier.

“Are you ready to start training for your big race?” Kitamura asked him.

“Ready as I'll ever be,” Naoya said, not quite looking all there. His eyes seemed out of focus, like he had been drinking hard. He was leaning way back... But then he suddenly leaned way forward, over-correcting to the point that he fell flat on his giant monk face.

Yokai sure like their saké. Yasuo felt about ready to start drinking too, if it could take his mind off everything for a bit. He didn't like being this close to the wheel monk, who was always radiating a roaring fireplace's worth of heat. It was way too much for a day that was hot enough as it was.

Of course, Yasuo wasn't entirely sure why they were going out of their way to train the wheel monk in the first place. A human being trying to teach a wheel how to roll better only seemed like a fool's errand.

Kitamura pounded her right fist atop her left palm. “All right then! Get up, Naoya! It's time to roll some laps! Let's see some hustle!” She was really getting into this... Perhaps it wasn't surprising that she was this pumped up though, when she had experienced the exhilaration of controlling the elements through magic. How many people got to do that?

And to think, it should've been me.

Kitamura clapped her hands loudly in front of the wheel monk, who was still eating dirt. “Come on, Mister Naoya! If you don't believe in yourself, then you're never going to win the race! Now get up or I'll douse you in water with my onmyodo powers!”

The wheel monk stood up after hearing that. “Onmyodo powers? So you really are a chip off Ichijo no Shunzai's old block?”

Kitamura slipped out a paper talisman from her sleeve and held it up. “That's right! And if you follow my instructions with exactness, then you'll surely achieve victory!”

Yasuo knew there was no reason to counter Kitamura's claim as Ichijo no Shunzai's descendant, but he still wished he did.

Naoya wore a more serious, almost intense expression. “All right, I'll give it my all then. What advice ya got for me?”

“The most important thing is to believe in yourself. If you don't believe in yourself, then of course you won't win. So always, always believe in yourself, even when things look bad. Can you do that?”

“Sure. What's the second-most important thing?”

“The second-most important thing...” Kitamura folded her arms and looked up to the sky. “The second-most important thing is...” She glanced over to Yasuo. “You tell him, Kitamura!”

“Always believe in yourself,” Yasuo said. “It's both the most and the second-most important thing.”

Naoya spun in place a few times, and when he stopped he was completely upside-down. “Ya gotta be kiddin' me. Lemme guess, the third-most important thing is believing in yourself too?”

“No!” Kitamura said. “It's to never give up!”

“This is the dumbest shit!” Naoya bellowed. “I'm through with advice. How do ya want me to train?”

“I need to see just how fast you currently are,” Kitamura said. “How many laps can you run around this field before you get tired?”

“I never get tired. My fires can die out though, if I lose all my ambition. But my magatama keeps that from ever happenin'.”

“Okay, go ahead and give me a hundred laps then. Go! Go! Go!”

And off Naoya went. He dashed down the length of the clearing, turned sharply at the end of it, and in seconds started to make his way back down the other way. To call him fast was putting it lightly. He was more akin to a motorcycle than to a runner. And fortunately, it seemed the magical flames he exuded were kept under control, because the grass, bushes, trees, and pine needles never caught on fire.

It wasn't long before Naoya finished his first lap. The wheel monk shot in front of Yasuo and Kitamura like a bullet, a great wave of oven-like heat blowing through them in his wake. Yasuo's long hair flapped to the side, whipping directly into Kitamura's face.

Kitamura sputtered, and Yasuo attempted to fix his hair. “Sorry,” he whispered habitually.

Soon Naoya completed his second lap.

“Under a minute, I think?” Yasuo said.

“Yeah... about fifty seconds,” Kitamura said.

Naoya rushed through his third lap.

“Yeah, fifty seconds, give or take a couple seconds,” Kitamura said.

“I counted forty-five. I might be off though,” Yasuo said.

Naoya finished his fourth, fifth, and sixth laps.

“We're going to be standing here for over an hour,” Yasuo said.

“At least seventy-five minutes,” Kitamura said.

Naoya sped through his seventh lap.

“You didn't think this through either,” Yasuo said.

“I'm sorry,” Kitamura said.

As Naoya continued his hundred-lap journey, Yasuo and Kitamura found themselves pacing about a bit.

“What are we doing, Kitamura?” Yasuo asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Just... what are we doing.”

The wheel monk hurled past them.

Kitamura sighed. “I don't know.”

Yasuo stopped pacing so that he stood to Kitamura's right once more.

Kitamura stopped too. “I'm sorry, Mizutani.”

“For what?”

“Well, a few things I guess. Our body swap, for starters.”

“I told you to not blame yourself for that. That wasn't your fault.”

The wheel monk rushed by, and Yasuo's hair blew into Kitamura's face.

Kitamura brushed the hair aside. “I'm also sorry for not accepting the wheel monk's magatama, I guess.”

“It's fine. I'd probably feel guilty if he died there, right in front of us.”

“And I'm sorry for saying we were a couple to the yuki onna.”

“I don't see how we're going to pull that off. No offense, Kitamura. But you're not my type, especially with you looking like that.”

“I thought you were okay with guys?”

“I'm not okay with me!

The wheel monk rushed by, and Yasuo's hair blew into Kitamura's face.

Kitamura brushed the hair aside. “I guess going off of that... I'm sorry for kissing you.”

“Yeah, I might not forgive you for that one.”

Yasuo waited for Kitamura to continue, but she just stood there with her arms behind her back, staring off at the trees. She took a couple steps to the left, just before the wheel monk rushed by again. Yasuo's hair didn't quite reach Kitamura's face this time. He had long stopped bothering trying to fix his hair — not if he was going to have to do so like eighty more times.

“Honestly, what upset me the most though,” Yasuo said, “was when you punched that big kappa.”

“Eh? What was wrong about that?” Kitamura held out her arms in bewilderment. “I was just protecting you.”

“You didn't have to go that far. Seriously... I did say you could have some confidence in my body, but that doesn't mean you can go pick a fight with the world's burliest swamp monster.”

“Okay, I get it now. You're concerned about your body getting hurt. But don't worry, I know magic now! What can that kappa possibly do against a raging fire, or a lightning strike?”

She had a point, but Yasuo was still miffed. He took a couple steps toward Kitamura and placed his hands on his hips.

“Great, then go use your amazing onmyodo powers that you so rightfully earned, and magically solve everyone's problems!”

“That's kind of the plan!”

The wheel monk rushed by, and Yasuo's hair blew into Kitamura's face.

Kitamura brushed the hair aside, this time glaring at Yasuo. “Really, can't you just stand over here? Please?” She motioned to her left.

Yasuo smiled. “No, this is fun.”

* * *

That night, Yasuo and Kitamura found themselves sitting in a small hot spring together.

Obviously, since they were bathing, they were both completely naked.

They sat at opposite ends, but Yasuo wondered if that was actually more awkward than just sitting next to each other. It felt too late for Yasuo to move off to the side a bit. He wondered if he should be covering his breasts.

The racket of chirping cicadas was just as noisy down here as it was in the real world, Yasuo noticed. Perhaps even louder.

“Well, the water's... relaxing,” Kitamura said nervously, avoiding eye contact with Yasuo.

“Yeah, it is. Relaxing.” Or at least, it should have been. Perhaps any other time, Yasuo would have even found the steaming-hot water therapeutic and reinvigorating. But he never expected to bathe with a random classmate of the opposite gender like this. Of course, it was he who was the opposite gender right now, and the classmate was now himself. Which perhaps made it all okay, in the most roundabout manner humanly possible.

“How is everything this fine evening? The onsen is nice and hot?”

Yasuo and Kitamura turned to find Akemi in her human form, holding some white sheets and a bottle of saké. Perhaps the cloth was for them to dry with, in place of towels.

“Uh, yeah, we're hot,” Kitamura said. “Because the water. It's hot.”

“Then I shall join you!” Akemi said. She set the sheets and saké down, and immediately stripped right in front of them. Yasuo turned away out of instinct.

“No need to act so embarrassed, Mizutani. We are both women, after all.” She sat down in the hot spring right next to Yasuo.

“Kitamura's here too,” Yasuo said. “By your logic, she's a man.”

“She is a woman at heart!” Akemi said. “But setting that aside, what is the issue with mixed bathing? It is only in modern times that the humans became so prudish.” She picked up her saké bottle and took a swig.

Yasuo wasn't going to let himself stare at Akemi, who he had to remind himself was truly an otter. But he didn't really want to be gazing in Kitamura's direction either; that was super weird.

“Ah, is there nothing grander than a relieving dip in the onsen, after a long and demanding day?” Akemi asked.

“S-sure,” Kitamura said.

“I guess,” Yasuo added.

A huge monstrous snail emerged from the water directly between Yasuo and Kitamura.

“AAAAHHHHHHHH!” they both shrieked simultaneously.

With all his might, Yasuo reflexively kicked the creature in the side of its head, immediately knocking it out cold.