Questionable Days with Yokai
Every day in this hidden world of yokai was a tiring one for Yasuo. He was always being dragged along into new things he didn't sign up for, thanks to Kitamura's bizarre shift in training methods for the wheel monk's upcoming race. One day a large one-eyed priest helped them teach Naoya how to play the board game go, with Kitamura placing the pieces for him. This would help Naoya learn to better outsmart his opponents, Kitamura explained. Another day, it was breezy out so Kitamura found some kodama to help Naoya fly a kite for the first time. This was an exercise all about mindful control, Kitamura said.
Yasuo could see where Kitamura was going with all of this somewhat, as it was getting Naoya increasingly fired up in general. In Yasuo's opinion though, this made the wheel monk even more annoying than when he was just depressed all the time. Naoya was especially obsessed with the Pifusucha song they had taught him. He would make Yasuo and Kitamura sing the whole thing with him before starting every new “exercise.” Yasuo truly regretted suggesting that song.
When not getting roped into random activities with the wheel monk, Yasuo was often assisting Akemi in Kitamura's onmyodo training. There were some ofuda talismans Kitamura wasn't able to readily use, so she needed to practice and get a better feel for wielding magic in general. Yasuo was mainly tasked with setting things up, cleaning up messes, and offering whatever general combat advice he could come up with.
To be honest though, Yasuo had never been in any kind of a real fight before. All he was familiar with was kendo. The giant kappa Kitamura was going to be fighting soon wasn't going to hold back; he had made it very clear he intended to kill Kitamura. Yasuo had no choice but to worry. Kitamura could use powerful magical talismans, yes, but her opponent was a powerful magical creature. So who knew what would happen? Perhaps the kappa could withstand her onmyodo spells. Then what would Kitamura do? She would just die. And Yasuo would then obviously be stuck with Kitamura's body for the rest of his life (assuming he too wasn't killed by a yokai before escaping this place).
There was also the third warden yokai for Yasuo and Kitamura to be concerned about — the yuki onna. One day the erratic snow woman showed up during lunch to ask a lot of questions about modern-day summer festivals. Apparently she was in charge of big events down in this yokai realm... or perhaps more likely, she took charge whenever she wanted to, and nobody was really going to argue with her. What with her ability to skewer anyone instantly with icicles, and all. But regardless, she wanted to spice up this year's summer festival with new foods, activities, and events. Yasuo didn't think the yokai would be able to make a lot of the modern foods (chocolate bananas?), but some of the games would probably be manageable (like goldfish scooping).
Before sliding away, yuki onna reminded them that she was going to join them at the festival to see how wonderful of a couple they were. Yasuo was never one for festivals and the like, but he was especially not looking forward to this one. Kitamura had no experience with love, so her understanding of it only came from books and movies. Yasuo wished they had more of a game plan for the magatama of love, but it wasn't like he was an expert in such matters. Kokone had broken up with him after all, and he still wasn't sure if they had ever truly been in love.
Yasuo wondered what she was doing now. Last year they watched fireworks late one summer night, sharing a massive heap of cotton candy together. Kokone wore a pretty yukata for the occasion. This year it was Yasuo who was going to be wearing a pretty yukata, and it wasn't even going to be for someone he liked.
Amid all these day-to-day troubles though, there was one thing Yasuo enjoyed: mealtimes at the inn. All of Eisuke's carefully-prepared foods were luscious, and lately he had begun to join Yasuo and Kitamura for at least one of the day's meals. Of all the yokai in this hidden world, Eisuke was easily the most pleasant to talk to. He had a keen interest in what life was like for people in modern Japan, and it was fun to explain things like skyscrapers, bullet trains, movies, video games, and the internet to him. Or at least, try to explain them. These conversations were a nice reprieve from everything else Yasuo had to deal with. The sly kitsune had a talent for finding just the right thing to say when Yasuo could use some encouragement.
* * *
There were only two days left before the festival. Two days until the yuki onna's judgement of Yasuo and Kitamura's love for each other, two days until the wheel monk's big race, and three days until Kitamura's duel with the monstrous kappa. If by some string of miracles everything went smoothly, Yasuo and Kitamura would end up possessing four of the five magatama they needed, and nobody would die.
After breakfast, they met with Akemi for another round of onmyoji training. Since it was raining outside, they gathered in Kitamura's room.
Kneeling in a reposed yet elegant manner in her human form, Akemi held up a single paper talisman with a stately flourish. “This is the ofuda that shall be of greatest importance to you, Miss Kitamura. Master this, and the lost fourth magatama shall soon be within your grasp.”
“What does it do?” Kitamura asked, looking over its inscription closely.
“It should direct you to the location of magical objects,” Akemi said. “My hope is for you to feel some sense in your mind that will clearly lead you one way or another. I believe this is a particularly tricky ofuda to use though, so I shall not expect too much.”
“It's worth a shot!” Kitamura said.
So we're already looking for the missing fourth magatama then? Though to Yasuo, it felt more like the missing fifth.
Kitamura knelt down near Akemi and held the ofuda with both hands. She closed her eyes and held the paper talisman in front of her face, as straight and still as possible. Yasuo kept quiet so Kitamura could focus with her utmost concentration.
After what felt like three or so minutes, Kitamura sighed. Her hands fell on her lap and her shoulders slumped dejectedly.
“Sorry, I didn't really sense anything.”
“Perhaps to be expected,” Akemi said. “It is not the sort of magic that can be managed easily, regardless of how much spiritual energy is at your disposal. It will take much practice to get a feel for it, I imagine.”
“I'll practice then,” Kitamura said, raising the ofuda up with a sort of arm flex. “Once I start to sense something, I'll let you know.”
“It may help to try engaging with it in different locations within this underground prison,” Akemi said. “Perhaps if you were to be closer to the magical item you are searching for, the likelihood of your sensing it would increase.”
“Yeah! I'll add that to my daily schedule then,” Kitamura said. “I'll keep trying here for now though.”
“Good luck,” Yasuo said. “If there's nothing for me to do though, I'll be in my room.” He turned to leave, but Akemi raised a hand.
“Do wait, Mister Mizutani. There is indeed a way for you to help.”
He turned back and looked down at Akemi. “Hm?”
“Do you have your magatama? If you could be so kind as to give it to Miss Kitamura, her ability to manage difficult ofuda should improve. And for this ofuda in particular, it is sensible for her to have one of Ichijo no Shunzai's magatama on her person. With it, she will surely become much more likely to sense the location of the missing fourth magatama.”
“I see. So just let her borrow it for a bit?”
“No. What I propose is a transfer of ownership ritual. It is simple to conduct, but it will tie the magatama's energy to her spirit.”
“I... I see,” Yasuo repeated reluctantly. He lifted the magatama out from beneath his yukata, then slid the necklace up over his head and abundance of hair.
He looked down at the curved jade bead in his hand, and simply stared at it for a bit. He didn't want to give it up. But what choice did he have?
“I'm sorry,” Kitamura said. “I know that's important to you. It was your grandfather's, right?”
“Yeah,” Yasuo said. Or at least he thought it — he wasn't sure if any sound escaped his mouth. He just wanted to stare at the jewel a little longer. He didn't want to lose it, this last part of himself.
“I'll take good care of it,” Kitamura said.
Yasuo tried to say thanks, but his throat was too tight.
Akemi added, “It is most sensible for Miss Kitamura to hold on to all the magatama as we collect them. She will be able to make the most use of their energy, and is the most capable of us to protect them.”
Yasuo nodded. He agreed. It was most sensible for Kitamura to have the magatama.
He held it by its necklace and took a step toward her. Kitamura lifted up a hand to accept the magical jewel.
Tears poured out of Yasuo's eyes.
His whole body was trembling, and his face was wet with tears.
“Ah... ah... I...” He tried to say something, but he didn't even know what to say. He didn't know why he was crying. “I... I d-don't...” It hurt to breathe. A girlish sort of hiccup escaped his throat, which hurt his chest even more.
Akemi tilted her head a bit, clearly confused. Kitamura opened her mouth, but she apparently didn't know what to say either. Through his tears, Yasuo couldn't tell if she was more surprised or more concerned.
Yasuo wanted to apologize, but instead he found himself turning around and leaving. He hurried down the hallway, clutching the magatama tight against his chest. He passed his own room, and all the other rooms of the inn. He then passed through the restaurant, hoping nobody would see him like this. Especially Eisuke.
He slipped on his sandals at the entry and ran outside, straight into the rain. It wasn't a heavy downpour thankfully, just a light drizzle. Yasuo could find cover somewhere, once he put enough distance between himself and Kitamura.
Ugh... what am I doing? Why am I doing this?
He wasn't making any sense. He had fully intended to hand over the magatama to Kitamura. He wasn't that attached to the good luck charm, so it made no sense for him to keep it. And it definitely made no sense for him to run away like this.
But nothing made sense down here. He hated it here. He hated being in a land of monsters that shouldn't even exist, and being unable to do anything about it, and not being himself anymore, and being a girl, and getting emotional over nothing, and menstruating, and getting told what to do all the time, and having to just go along with everything no matter how ridiculous and embarrassing it was, and, and...
He ended up all the way over by the giant bridge. There was a simple bench beneath a tree close by, so he went over to that and plopped himself on it. He leaned forward and held his face in his hands, his elbows propped against his knees. The tears weren't flowing so much anymore, but his chest still hurt, and he couldn't stop sniffling.
Yasuo wasn't so tough that he had never shed a tear before in his life, but he had never cried like this. Not so suddenly, and not so much. He looked down at the magatama in his hand again.
Guess I just couldn't give it up. The last part of me I still have...
That girlish hiccup-like sound escaped his throat again. He really didn't want to hear that again, but it seemed out of his control.
This is too much, just too much...
Someone sat down next to Yasuo, holding an umbrella above them both.
It was Eisuke. He looked over to Yasuo with a concerned expression. He must have seen Yasuo run out of the inn, and followed him all the way out here with an umbrella.
Yasuo sat up straight, wiped his face, and forced himself to not look sad. He held that rigid pose for a few seconds, holding his breath.
Tears poured out of Yasuo's eyes, even more strongly than before.
He felt as if he were about to collapse. He arched forward and wept pathetically. He couldn't hold it in any longer. Thankfully his miserable sobs were drowned out by the rain and the rushing river.
Eisuke gently placed a hand on Yasuo's shoulder for support. The kitsune didn't say anything. He just let Yasuo carry on. Just let him bawl. Just let him whimper. Just let him cry it all out.
Eventually Yasuo did stop, at least enough to be able to talk again. He felt humiliated to be seen like this by Eisuke... but he was also thankful to have somebody there for him.
“I'm sorry,” Yasuo finally said. “I don't... I don't know what came over me.”
“No need to apologize,” Eisuke said. “I just wish I had reached you sooner. One could catch a cold in this rain.”
“Sorry to worry you...” Yasuo sniffed loudly. He wished he had a handkerchief.
“I'm fine. But you're clearly not. If you want to talk about it, I'm all ears.” He gave his fuzzy white fox ears a couple light flaps.
Yasuo smiled for a moment, and nearly laughed. But he didn't want to try explaining everything to Eisuke. He had no idea where he would even begin.
Eisuke gave a tender smile. “Of course, it is also fine if you don't want to talk about it.”
“It's just... hard to talk about.” Yasuo sat and thought it over for a bit. He didn't want to give away that he and Kitamura had swapped minds. But perhaps he could speak more generally about things. There was something he had learned about in school once that he couldn't recall the specifics of, but basically it was an ancient philosophical puzzle.
“Do you know about the Ship of... the Ship of... I think it's the Ship of Odysseus.”
“The name doesn't matter,” Yasuo said. “The point is, there's a ship, and over time parts of the ship need to be replaced. Eventually every single part of the ship is replaced with new parts.”
“I see, that makes sense.”
“But the question is... The question is...” It hurt to even ask it.
Maybe I'm... afraid to hear how Eisuke will answer.
He couldn't back away from it now though. “The question is... Is it still the same ship?”
“Of course not,” Eisuke said.
It was the exact answer Yasuo didn't want to hear. He frowned deeply, but he didn't cry. The emotion passing through him was more of a hopelessness, rather than a sadness. It was a kind of unfeeling yet absolute truth that he had no choice but to accept.
“But... what about a person?” Yasuo asked. “What if everything about a person changed?”
“That's normal,” Eisuke said. “Everyone changes constantly. Just like that river.”
“Sure. But I mean, what if a person changed a lot. Like, completely changed in every way.”
“It's rare I suppose, but it happens... I know you're going through a lot right now, but are you saying you've changed in some way you didn't expect?”
“I don't think I'm really myself anymore.” Yasuo didn't expound, of course.
“You never have been yourself,” Eisuke said. “Nobody is themselves. The concept of being oneself is an illusion.”
Yasuo blinked a few times. “What?”
“Individuals are just parts of one single entity,” Eisuke explained. “If you hurt somebody, you are only hurting yourself... That was what Ichijo no Shunzai taught me.”
“Oh. I see.” This sort of navel-gazing wasn't really what Yasuo wanted to hear, even if he could sort of see the kitsune's point.
“If this is about you though, Risako...” Eisuke looked down at Yasuo with those dark yet soft eyes of his. “I think the person you are right now is wonderful. The person you are right now is amiable, flexible, and sensible. The person you are right now is a pleasure to keep company with.”
Yasuo suddenly felt lightheaded, his face burning up.
Hey... don't say embarrassing things like that!
“I'm not that great,” Yasuo said. “I'm selfish. I don't go out of my way to help everyone, like, like Yasuo. I hardly ever know what to do at all. And even when I do, I never actually act on it.”
And even if I were to try, I'd probably fail.
“It's fine to be selfish sometimes. It's part of accepting yourself. You've got to learn to accept everything about yourself. It's the only way to get by in a world that constantly doesn't accept you.” Eisuke's smile widened just enough for his fangs to be visible. “In fact, I feel like being selfish now.”
“Wh-what do you mean?”
“I want to have some fun. And it'd be good for you to take your mind off things for a bit, don't you think?” Eisuke took Yasuo by the hand and stood up — and Yasuo found himself standing up too. “You've had so much to worry about. Let's go to your room, get you out of those clothes, and find something fun to do together.”
They started walking back to the inn, hand-in-hand, both under the same umbrella.
Yasuo's mind was struggling to keep up with everything, but he was especially confused by Eisuke's last sentence there.
Go to my room... Get out of my clothes... Find something fun to do... together?
He, he doesn't mean... that?
* * *
Eisuke didn't mean that.
He just wanted Yasuo to change into dry clothes, and to see what stuff Yasuo had brought with him from the human world above. Yasuo felt bad about showing the contents of Kitamura's luggage to someone else, but he was Risako at the moment and this Risako didn't mind sharing her stuff with Eisuke.
Kitamura and Akemi weren't around, incidentally. Perhaps they had gone out to search for Yasuo, or perhaps they went somewhere else for Kitamura's training, or to meet with the wheel monk.
Eisuke brought in a folding screen divider for Yasuo to change clothes behind. It was nice to get out of the wet yukata, but Yasuo wasn't sure what he should put on in its place. He didn't want to wear a skirt if he didn't have to. He rummaged through the clothes until he found one pair of brownish red slacks in Kitamura's luggage and went with that. At first Yasuo thought it would be nice to finally wear some pants again, but these were a real struggle to get on... Once he did, he worried they'd draw way too much attention to the curves of his hips — not to mention the, uh, roundness of his bottom. Perhaps he was just overconscious about it though.
He put on one of Kitamura's tiny blouses next (a black one with a large yellow moon imprinted on it), but one glance down made Yasuo realize he would probably want to wear a bra underneath. He managed to get one on, with some effort... He had seen how Kokone put on hers before, so he wasn't completely clueless about it.
Kokone's bust was much larger, for the record. Kitamura was something of a pipsqueak though, so it wasn't strange for her to be pretty flat-chested... Not that there was anything wrong with that, of course. (Honestly, Yasuo was thankful for that.)
He stepped out from behind the three-panel screen divider, not really looking forward to whatever Eisuke might say about this outfit.
He was sitting on the floor, looking over things like a water bottle, a pair of headphones, a toothbrush, and some toothpaste. He looked up at Yasuo and grinned. “So that is what women wear nowadays? It's so strange and funny!”
“Please don't laugh.”
Eisuke laughed. “Sorry, but it's so outlandish.”
“There are other types of outfits,” Yasuo said. He slid over Kitamura's luggage and started laying out all of her clothes. “These are dresses, skirts, shorts, and blouses.” Eisuke found the socks and underwear as well of course, and Yasuo also had to explain pajamas and swimsuits. Kitamura had packed a frilly pink bikini with the likeness of oversized sakura blossoms stylishly clipped to both the top and the bottom. Yasuo had to admit, it was very cute.
“None of them are like kimono,” Eisuke said. “Very interesting. Can you try on another set of these clothes? I'm curious to see how they work.”
“I'd rather not.” Yasuo didn't feel like playing fashion model.
“I'll try something on then.” Eisuke picked up a sports bra, a pair of panties, and a light purple summer dress, then proceeded to take off his yukata behind the screen divider.
“Wait, those are girl clothes,” Yasuo said. “You're too big for them.”
“Don't worry, Risako. They'll fit just right.”
Yasuo couldn't imagine how. Eisuke did have a rather slim frame for a guy, but Yasuo (as he was now) was still notably smaller than him.
“All right, did I put this on correctly?”
That voice wasn't Eisuke's... It sounded like—
Kitamura stepped out from behind the folding screen, wearing the purple dress Eisuke had picked up. She was wearing it backwards... but that wasn't the main concern here.
“Kitamura?” Yasuo exclaimed. “I mean, uh... Are you...” He knew that he was Kitamura right now, so this other Kitamura then was... Eisuke? There were no fox ears or tail to be seen though.
“No need to act so surprised,” the second Kitamura said. “I'm a kitsune with exceptional shapeshifting skills.”
So he had turned himself into Kitamura. Just when I thought things couldn't get any weirder...
“So you're like Akemi then?” Yasuo asked.
“I'm on an entirely different level than the otter,” Kitamura-Eisuke said. “The most she can do is switch back and forth between her single otter and human forms. Perhaps she could manage variations of the two — in terms of height, age, fur color, and the like — but nothing as drastic as becoming a different person entirely. I on the other hand, can look like any fox, or like any human.”
“That's neat,” Yasuo said. If only he could do that too.
After he got Eisuke to put the dress on the correct way, the kitsune started rummaging through Kitamura's other stuff. He found some magazines, and asked Yasuo questions about every random page he flipped to.
“What is this man with a bowl on his head doing exactly?”
“He's skateboarding...” Yasuo had to explain what skateboarding was.
“Who is this woman... and why is her hair red?”
“She's a singer, from Canada it says. It's a faraway place... In some parts of the world, there are people with red hair.” Yasuo ended up drawing a very crude map of the world on a notepad, and briefly went over each of the continents. Eisuke was impressed by just how many places there were in the world, and vowed to visit them all one day.
The kitsune turned to an article going over the basics of makeup. “Do you have some of this stuff?”
“Um, I do,” Yasuo admitted. During their first few days in the hidden world, Kitamura had wanted him to put on some makeup as part of some morning routine — but he refused outright each time. He had agreed to continue Kitamura's hair care and face washing while he occupied her body, but drew the line at wearing makeup.
Eisuke soon found a pink purse-like bag inside Kitamura's luggage and poured out its contents onto the tatami floor. Twenty small cutesy cosmetics tumbled out like gems, and Yasuo immediately knew he was in trouble. He had no idea what any of them were, save for the lipstick. He had seen Kokone put makeup on in the morning a few times, but he didn't pay close attention. The process seemed daunting — and though each step surely served some kind of purpose, Yasuo didn't really know what.
“This is all makeup?” Eisuke asked. “I never would have guessed you wear so much of it.”
“I actually haven't been,” Yasuo said. “To be honest, I'm, uh, not very skilled at it.”
“Really? Well, this guide should help then. Why don't we try it out together?”
“Wait, you want to put on makeup?”
“Why not? It seems interesting. But first...”
Eisuke suddenly held the sides of Yasuo's head, then pulled it in so close to his that Yasuo thought they'd kiss. Yasuo gasped, but Eisuke didn't do anything more. He just stared at Yasuo's face, as if studying it.
His face then shifted ever so slightly, and Yasuo realized that Eisuke was just wanting to make sure he got Yasuo's face right. The changes were subtle, but now Yasuo could say Eisuke looked like an exact twin of him. Well, an exact twin of Kitamura, who Yasuo was at the moment.
Eisuke let go of Yasuo's face and leaned back with a sly smile.
“Now, let's see which of us will look the prettiest.”
Yasuo couldn't believe he was going along with this, but now he was a bit curious how he and Eisuke would look with all those different cosmetics on. This was definitely not an experience he ever wanted to go through — or indeed, had ever thought would ever be even remotely within the realm of possibility — but the experience was presenting itself to him, and perhaps he needed to start seeing his unique situation as an opportunity rather than a handicap.
“We'll have to share this.” He picked up a large square hand mirror from Kitamura's luggage and held it up to his face. It wasn't his face, but it also was his face. At least for now. He smiled, ever so slightly.
“What a remarkable mirror!” Eisuke said, leaning in so he could look at his face too. “How does it reflect so clearly? It's not magic, is it?”
“Mirrors have just improved over the years, I think.” The two of them really looked like twin sisters, kneeling together like this.
Perhaps every part of Yasuo had been replaced with new parts, and perhaps that meant Yasuo didn't exist anymore. But somebody existed, here in this moment. This person Yasuo was now... this person mattered too. This ship could still sail.
* * *
Kitamura and Akemi still hadn't returned. Yasuo had no idea where they went, so it made sense for him to stay here and await their return. In the meantime, he and Eisuke read through the magazine article, figured out what each makeup item was, and tried applying them to their identical faces in a very long series of trial and error.
“So this powder is the foundation. Start with that, like its name implies.”
“Actually, your guide says to use a primer first.”
“Right... which one's that?”
“Actually, before that, wash your face.”
“What is this curious tool, Risako?”
“It looks like a pencil.”
“I'm not finding it in your guide.”
“I believe it's for drawing eyebrows.”
“You already have eyebrows though... Ah, we need to pluck out our eyebrows first, yes? And then paint new larger ones on the forehead.”
“That trend died a long time ago...”
“This thing curls your eyelashes... And then you swipe this stuff called mascara across them to make them look bigger.”
“I see. Is that a good thing?”
“Try it and see.”
“The eyelashes are all sticking together.”
“Yeah, it's really clumpy... I don't get it.”
“This blush powder goes on your cheeks, kind of reddens them. You brush it on with this.”
“Kabuki is still popular then, I take it?”
“No... I mean, it still exists, but that's unrelated to this. I think you're using too much, Eisuke.”
“Hm, I think it'd look better with even more.”
“Stop, that's way too much, Eisuke!”
“We need to use lipstick at some point.”
“Makeup for your lips? Your guide mentions a balm, right here.”
“I think that's this... Kind of looks like a crayon.”
“Let me try it, Risako.”
“Okay... The article says to trace the outline of your lips, and then fill them in vertically... Now just push your lips together, to kind of blend the lipstick.”
“Ah! It's sweet! What is in this?”
“I don't know. It's labeled curvy candy.”
“It's marvelous. May I take a small bite of it?”
“Please don't eat it...”
Shortly after they finished with the pink lip balm, a knock came at the door.
Yasuo glanced over at Eisuke, who glanced back at him. Perhaps Yasuo should have said something like, Not now, come back another time. But he didn't want to sound ornery.
“Hey, are you back? Sorry about earlier... I talked things over with Akemi, and we're fine with letting you hold on to your magatama for now.” Kitamura slid open the door and stepped into the room. “We shouldn't have—” She froze upon seeing two Kitamuras, kneeling together on the floor, each dressed in a different outfit of hers.
Yasuo was holding her hand mirror, and the floor around him was littered with all of her makeup supplies. Yasuo's and Eisuke's faces, of course, were fully-covered in the stuff.
Kitamura stared down at them, clearly at a complete loss for what she was seeing. She looked like she was struggling to solve the world's most difficult math problem, but in this case it was just one plus one.
“Welcome back, my dear Yasuo!” Eisuke said, confusing Yasuo just as much as Kitamura. But the kitsune continued as if this were the most normal thing in the world. “We could really use your help, my love. So please decide... which of the two of us would you say looks prettier?”