Chapter 2:

[Yasuo] — Life at the Shrine Isn’t So Bad, Save for the Guilt

Questionable Days with Yokai — Volume 2

“First things first, are you a virgin?”

“No... but also yes probably, technically, I guess...”

I’ve definitely had sex. But that was with my old body. This body though...

“Heh heh, I’m just fooling with you. You can be a shrine maiden here, either way.”

How did it come to this...

Well, as it turns out, a lot can happen in three weeks. For example, you can begrudgingly break up with your girlfriend, venture off to an old abandoned mansion up in the mountains, swap bodies with some random classmate, enter a hidden realm full of yokai monsters, get roped into the shenanigans of three particularly dangerous yokai monsters, nearly get killed a couple times along the way, and get kissed by a kitsune. And then live with said kitsune at his hidden shrine. That was how things had played out for Yasuo Mizutani over the past three weeks, at least. He had hoped to make a change in his life this final summer break of high school, but this wasn’t what he had in mind.

And what this entailed at the moment, was trying to delicately step to and fro in the white kimono and red hakama skirt of a shrine maiden, and trying to gracefully wave a wooden wand with paper streamers back and forth. Yasuo wanted to call this the most embarrassing thing he had ever done in his life, but there were more than a few events this past month that had provided stiff competition.

Dancing alongside Yasuo in the spacious shrine room was a young woman with short, wavy white hair—and more notably—white fox ears and a white fox tail. This was Eisuke, the kitsune who had saved Yasuo from the gang of kappa, and who was currently protecting him within the magically-hidden and magically-fortified shrine grounds. Normally Eisuke was a fox man, but in order to teach Yasuo some special shrine rituals that supposedly could come in handy, the kitsune had taken on a female form and transformed his yukata into the garb of a traditional miko. Of course, this vixen-Eisuke was lovely—but Yasuo was admittedly a bit surprised to find she(?) carried a demure attractiveness, as opposed to a more straightforward sexiness.

“One step forward, turn to the left, slowly raise the gohei... Smoothly, Yasuo. With poise. Like this.” Eisuke demonstrated with her own wooden wand, which was also adorned with the zigzag paper streamers known as shide, ubiquitous to shrines. Yasuo followed her movements as closely as he could, but he couldn’t help but be distracted by Eisuke’s soft voice, confident posture, and pretty face. He had already more or less been won over by boy-Eisuke, and now he was starting to fall for girl-Eisuke...

Talk about the best of both worlds, Yasuo thought. He only managed to hold back a grin because he knew it’d upset Eisuke, who was always telling him to be reverent during rituals and to maintain good posture.

Eisuke made him continue waving the gohei wand around, but Yasuo’s attempts to find his inner comeliness kept coming up short. He repeated each movement as carefully as possible, with all the mindfulness he could muster—but his best efforts continually failed to please Eisuke.

“Here, like this.” The kitsune set her tasseled wand aside, then stepped behind Yasuo and slipped her arms under his. At first Yasuo thought he was about to be hugged, but Eisuke clasped her hands over Yasuo’s and began moving his arms, forcing him to calmly sway his gohei left and right.

“Back... and forth. Back... and forth,” Eisuke whispered into Yasuo’s ear.

Yasuo felt his entire face—then his entire body—heat up a little more with each repeated push and pull. The fox woman’s face was so close to Yasuo’s... and her chest was pressed against his back... and her, uh, pelvis was...

“In... and out. In... and out.”

“Aahh!” Yasuo cried, slipping out of the kitsune’s hold like a limp noodle and sliding a few paces away. His squeaky yelp surprised himself—and it made him blush even harder, realizing he’d let out such a sensitive noise right next to Eisuke. He was approaching a full month as a girl, but still the sounds his throat emitted would catch him off guard from time to time.

“Hm? Something wrong?”

Yasuo glanced back to find Eisuke with her arms folded, and her face scrunched up in a foxy smirk.

“I’m just...” Yasuo searched for an excuse. “Just thirsty. Ah! For a drink, a drink. I have to go. To make some tea.” He pointed awkwardly toward the next room over, then forced himself to walk away before he could melt into a puddle of sheer humiliation.

“A break sounds good. Then maybe we can finally start some of our other training together...”

Yasuo pretended he didn’t hear that. Ever since Eisuke kissed him a few days ago, things had been... not exactly awkward, but still pretty uncertain between them. Yasuo had accepted the kiss—but the next day he wondered if he had simply let himself get swept up in a moment of passion, blinded by unfamiliar hormones. It had only been about a month since he’d broken up with Kokone, and he wasn’t sure if he had ever fully accepted that in his heart. His attention had been directed toward a lot of other more pressing issues shortly thereafter.

And honestly... How much did Yasuo actually know about Eisuke? The kitsune had repeatedly shown him kindness, and had even accepted him after Yasuo revealed his true identity (i.e. not Kitamura). But there wasn’t much Yasuo could say about Eisuke beyond that. Well, that and the kitsune was handsome, and a splendid cook.

Is that enough for someone to fall in love? Yasuo wondered while waiting for the water on the stone stove to boil. He wasn’t sure if he really did like Eisuke in that way... This confusion wasn’t so different from how he’d been feeling regarding Kokone too though, he realized. Meanwhile, Eisuke seemed eager to move their relationship along, to take things to the next step. He wasn’t forcing anything, but he was certainly nudging.

It’s all a moot point... I shouldn’t be getting close to anyone when this isn’t even my body. Kitamura would destroy me if she found out I had gotten intimate with anyone... especially with a yokai.

Especially with Eisuke.

Of course, it was still up in the air if they were going to actually swap their minds back. Yasuo had no idea how things were faring for her currently. Had she acquired any more of the five magatama jewel beads? There was the one the snow woman had, the one the kappa had, and the mystery one that still needed to be found. And then Kitamura and Yasuo each had one.

But even if we do get them all...

Well, there was no guarantee things would actually work out the way they wanted. All they had to go by was the word of the otter Akemi, and Yasuo felt she was even more mysterious than Eisuke.

Whether Akemi was trustworthy or not, chances were Kitamura was giving her all for the sake of undoing the curse. She was out there risking her life, while Yasuo was hiding safe and sound on these shrine grounds. The guilt inside his heart grew a bit heavier with each passing day, but he had to accept reality. What could he possibly do against the likes of all those kappa, or the snow woman, or any untold number of other dangerous yokai? He was essentially helpless, while Kitamura could wield all sorts of incredible magical powers of an onmyoji. Perhaps a time would come when Yasuo could assist her in some small way, but at this point it seemed clear it was going to be up to Kitamura to be the hero and save the day.

Once the water finished boiling, Yasuo poured some of it into the teapot, and then into the teacups to warm them up for a bit. He looked at his reflection in his cup of hot water. It no longer surprised him to see Kitamura’s face—and instead of feeling despondent about it, he now felt ashamed. She was surely in great danger, and he had essentially abandoned her.

Setting this thought aside for a moment, he poured the water from the teacups into a bowl, added tea leaves to the teapot, and poured the slightly-cooled water from the bowl into the teapot. Yasuo sighed, louder than he'd expected.

It was true that Kitamura drove him up a wall at times, but it wasn’t fair that she had to carry the burden of saving everyone alone. Then again, what hadn’t been unfair about these past few weeks? Yasuo could only hope that she’d make it out of all this alive. Perhaps any prayers he gave at this shrine on her behalf could have some tangible effect in this strange, supernatural underworld.

After letting the tea leaves steep in the water for a minute, Yasuo poured all the tea into the teacups, careful to distribute it evenly between the two. He then brought the prepared tea on a tray over to a small room with a floor table, where Eisuke was already sitting seiza-style. The kitsune was back in his usual male form, wearing the everyday garb of a shrine priest: a white kimono with pleated light blue hakama trousers. Since he wasn’t performing any rituals, he didn’t have on any of the loose outer robes or one of the distinct kanmuri or eboshi peaked caps. He currently appeared to be in silent meditation, his eyes closed and his hands resting on his knees. Yasuo set the tray down lightly to not break Eisuke’s concentration.

Yeesh, he really is handsome, Yasuo thought. He knelt down at the table and took the opportunity to just look at Eisuke’s face for a moment or two. (Or three, or a hundred.) His features weren’t sharp or manly, but not exactly gentle or boyish either. The proverbial rose with thorns, perhaps. And yet it still took willpower on Yasuo’s part to keep from reaching out to pat the kitsune’s soft wavy hair, or to scratch behind his fuzzy fox ears.

Yasuo had to wonder what it was the fox man was thinking about. Or maybe he wasn’t thinking of anything—that was the point of many meditation practices, right?

“It’s impolite to stare,” Eisuke said, eyes still closed.

Yasuo realized he was leaning forward across the table, his face only a few centimeters from Eisuke’s. He immediately returned to sitting properly on his heels, back straight and hands on his lap. He glanced up toward the ceiling as soon as Eisuke opened his eyes.

“But I don’t mind,” Eisuke said. “You can be as impolite as you’d like around me.”

How am I supposed to respond to that? Yasuo was pretty sure he’d blush again if he looked at Eisuke now, so he picked up his teacup and closed his eyes, pretending to be focused on the warm invisible vapors emanating from the tea. “I was just making sure you were all right. I didn’t take you for the contemplative type.”

“Here, it’s hard not to be. These shrine grounds...” Eisuke tapped the side of his head a couple times. “You could say this place is directly tied to me, to my essence. My thoughts and feelings, my memories and reflections—they all can have an effect on this small dreamworld within a dreamworld.”

“I see. Is that why everything’s so pristine now?” It was true that Yasuo and Eisuke had been putting a lot of effort into cleaning and fixing the place up as best they could, but over the past couple days, most of the buildings had begun to look almost good as new. The shift was more drastic than could ever be expected of two individuals in this short a time.

“Yes. I’ve been thinking more and more about my time here, so many centuries ago... My most hopeful days, and my most despairing. Back when I was this hidden world’s head priest. Everything is starting to look as it did back then—as if nothing has changed in nearly a millennium.”

“Were you tied to a shrine in the world above, before you came down here?” Yasuo had seen many statues of white foxes at various shrines over the years.

“No, I was not that kind of kitsune. And I didn’t stay that kind of kitsune for long down here either.”

“You became a chef at some point...”

“I did.”

Apparently having no intention of elaborating, Eisuke sipped some of his tea.

Yasuo sipped some of his in return, but only to help make the next few seconds pass by. His days in this hidden realm were really making him aware of just how slowly time crawled when he didn’t have a bunch of school, home, and social-life tasks, responsibilities, and expectations to deal with every single day. Perhaps a part of him liked that sort of freedom, but honestly a much bigger part of him missed the stability of normal life.

Of course, he understood he couldn’t truly call himself free here. This was called an underground prison for a reason, and Eisuke’s shrine was essentially a smaller prison within it. Yasuo hadn’t given the notion of escaping it any thought, but now that the idea was planted in his mind...

How would Eisuke react if I tried to leave? To go find Kitamura and try to help her?

He didn’t know, and though it pained him to admit it, he felt afraid to find out. He had never seen Eisuke commit any kind of violence, or even get the slightest bit mad... But in a strange way, that also was a little disconcerting.

Yasuo opened his eyes, forcing himself to face Eisuke directly.

“Can you tell me more about yourself, Eisuke? Like, about your life?”

“I can, but I don’t think the time is right.” He said it so smoothly, it felt wrong to push the matter further.

“I... I can handle it. Whatever your past was like, I’d like to know about it.”

Eisuke stared back with a plaintive look in his eyes, taking his time to word his response. “If I say too much—even simply dwell on certain thoughts too much—there may be repercussions... These shrine grounds—and I, myself—may change in ways I can not foresee. Things are pleasant as they are now, don’t you think? I’d like for us to enjoy a season of peace, to weather the typhoon that threatens to engulf this underground prison. And once the storm has passed—as they always do... I’d like for us to have grown closer together, Yasuo.”

Yasuo didn’t want to give up, but it felt wrong to force Eisuke to speak further on matters he clearly didn’t feel comfortable opening up about. Especially when Yasuo had been turning down all of Eisuke’s advances ever since they kissed... An incident that might have been a false start, honestly. They had yet to kiss again, or even to hold hands or anything. And Yasuo had insisted—perhaps more strongly than he should have—that they continue to sleep in separate rooms.

Yasuo wasn’t going to pretend that deep down there wasn’t a part of him that wanted to give in to desire, but this just wasn’t the time or place for romance. The longer he lived in isolation with someone he liked (and who liked him back) though, the more likely their relationship was going to either progress or fall apart.

Both paths feel worrisome and intimidating, to be honest.

“All right, Eisuke. I understand. I won’t make you talk about anything you’re not yet ready to. But until then, in the meantime... I also would like us to grow closer together...”

Eisuke’s ears and tail perked up. “Splendid! I can promise you’ll be very satisfied with my finesse, my handiness, my dexterity, and my adaptability.”

Yasuo covered his face with his hands, partly in exasperation, partly to hide his blush. “I, I think you’re thinking too far ahead, Eisuke. Let’s take our time, take things slowly, okay?” He parted his fingers a bit so he could peek through.

Eisuke smiled softly. A genuine, and cute smile. “Of course. One step at a time?”

Yasuo lowered his hands and gave a light nod. His face was likely still a shade of crimson, but he wanted to give the kitsune a soft smile in return. “Yeah. One step at a time.”

* * *

After some more ritual practicing, the two enjoyed a cold miso and cucumber soup with rice, then ended the day with some more cleaning, repair work, and general groundskeeping. The work was tiring, but Yasuo never felt the least bit stressed by it. Most likely it was because he was in good company, and was never put under a lot of pressure.

It was an even hotter and muggier summer night than usual, but given his circumstances Yasuo felt he should continue to at least sleep in his white kimono undergarment, which wasn’t so different from a nightgown. But the lack of any kind of air movement in his small box of a room was really getting to him. Obviously there were no portable fans to plug in, and no air conditioning unit on the wall—so he lay on his futon without a blanket.

That made it difficult for him to sleep though. Perhaps he was just too used to always sleeping under a blanket, but it also didn’t help just how much uncertainty plagued his mind at the moment. Alone with his thoughts, question after question needled him restlessly.

Where is Kitamura right now? Is she safe? Has she retrieved any of the other magatama? Could she be trying to find me? Should I go look for her? Can I even leave this place? Would I be able to convince Eisuke of letting me go? Are these shrine grounds even as safe as he claims them to be? What if the kappa find this place? What if they get in? Would I have any way to defend myself? Could I count on Eisuke to protect me? Should I just make a run for it, and leave this hidden realm for good? That’s the only sensible thing to do, isn’t it? But I can’t just leave Kitamura behind, can I? Is there any way I can let her know I’m okay, at least? Am I okay? Maybe I’m okay for now, but how long can I reasonably expect to stay safe in a world full of monstrous yokai?

Running away now would obviously be the reckless thing to do, and would very likely get him killed should he encounter any kappa on the way to that long cavernous staircase leading back to the old mansion above ground. There were likely a lot of other yokai on the lookout for him now too, if the head kappa had convinced them he and Kitamura were humans that needed to be eliminated posthaste.

It also just didn’t feel right to turn his back on Eisuke, let alone on Kitamura. So Yasuo stayed put, trying to will himself to sleep so that he could think with a clearer head in the morning. Perhaps tomorrow or in a few days’ time he would work out a proper course of action to take and go from there, he told himself.

Just as he had begun to ease himself into a state of half-sleep though, an ear-piercing, high-pitched, and water-logged shriek thundered somewhere out in the forest. It was near enough to jolt Yasuo fully-awake, forcing him to sit up straight and clutch at his frantically beating heart, wide-eyed and sweating even more.

The gruesome cry into the night was followed by another, then another, and then many more, all overlapping with one another. Most sounded further away than the first, but the fact Yasuo was hearing any of them at all was absolutely a cause for alarm. This ominous howling had to be coming from a large group of kappa, and they were most likely out here searching for him. It was possible they were on the hunt for Kitamura as well of course, but that didn’t make Yasuo feel any better.

Yasuo shakily looked about the room, his mind racing. What do I do? What do I do? What do I do? It was difficult to form any other coherent thoughts, all worked-up like this. By instinct, he grabbed the nearest thing he could use as a weapon: his pillow.

The door to his room slid open, and Yasuo immediately hurled his pillow directly into the trespasser’s face.

“Guh!” cried... Eisuke.

Yasuo’s impromptu attack wasn’t enough to knock the kitsune back or anything, but it surely hurt more than a modern-day pillow of polyester or cotton would. These more blockish pillows were filled with beans or seeds.

“S-Sorry... I...” Yasuo wasn’t quite able to get any more words out of his throat. He remained sitting on the floor, feeling pitiful.

“It’s fine,” Eisuke said, putting on a weary smile. “I just wanted to let you know there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve scouted the area, and all the kappa are passing by completely unaware of our location. We might have to endure their vulgar growls from time to time in the days to come, but eventually they will grow tired of searching for us and return to their river.”

“They... They won’t find us?”

“So long as I am here, it will be impossible for them to either see or enter these shrine grounds. Even Shuhei or one of the other wardens can not override my rule of this domain.” Eisuke remained standing in the hallway as he spoke, as Yasuo had made him promise to never enter his room without permission.

“Th-thank you...” Yasuo managed to force out. He was still shaking, so he took a couple deep breaths to try hiding his jitters. The kappa outside were still roaring, and occasionally Yasuo would hear one that had to be pretty close by.

“I’ll be in my room if you need anything.” Eisuke turned around to leave, his hand on one of the wooden lattices of the sliding door.

“W-wait!” Yasuo cried. “You... you don’t have to go.”

Eisuke paused mid-step and looked back questioningly. “Do you... want me to enter your room?”

“N-no,” Yasuo couldn’t help but respond immediately. He couldn’t let this situation turn into another certain kind of situation...

But he had to admit it—he was afraid. He was deathly afraid. And why wouldn’t he be? He was surrounded by literal monsters that were specifically out for his blood. There was a chance Eisuke was wrong about these shrine grounds being impenetrable, and thus there was a chance Yasuo could be killed at any moment.

But he couldn’t think of what to say. He didn’t want to put his fear on full display before Eisuke. And he definitely didn’t want to cry in front of him again. But if he didn’t think of something to say, those pathetic tears would almost certainly start to spill over.

“I... I... I’ll allow a fox to enter my room,” Yasuo finally said, looking away. His throat was tight, but after taking a pained gulp he was able to speak again. “I’d feel a little more... a little more at ease if I had a guard fox for the, for the night...”

As he considered taking back everything he just said, he felt something soft brush up against his right arm. He flinched, pulling his hands back—but the next moment he saw there was a white-furred fox by his side, nuzzling its narrow snout against Yasuo’s open palm. Eisuke was no longer standing in the doorway, so the kitsune must have silently transformed and trotted across the tatami floor while Yasuo wasn’t looking.

Yasuo took a slow, quiet breath, and looked down into the fox’s dark squinting eyes. He wasn’t sure if the animal reminded him more of a cat or a dog, but either way, he felt safer having it here with him. Slowly, carefully, he stroked his hand down the fox’s back. Its fur was dense, and even softer than Yasuo ever imagined it could be. Was a fox’s fur really this silky smooth? He wondered if it might have been because Eisuke wasn’t just a regular animal—he was a yokai.

For a few minutes, Yasuo focused on the feel of Eisuke’s fur, trying his best to not listen to the bestial growls outside. It wasn’t like his fear disappeared, but the act of petting this fox somehow made him feel more... accepting of his circumstances. Perhaps that didn’t make sense, but feelings didn’t necessarily always follow a logical equation.

Without letting go of Eisuke, Yasuo lay back down on his futon. The fox shifted its position beneath Yasuo’s arm, offering its long bushy tail as a pillow. Yasuo accepted it, and after taking another deep breath, found he was no longer trembling. The cries of the vicious horde of kappa continued a while longer, but Yasuo imagined it as background noise from some neighbor’s awful horror movie. Having someone with him—someone who cared about him—was enough to calm his panicked heart.

Lying on his back, he brought in Eisuke close, letting the fox’s head rest between Yasuo’s chest and neck. Neither of them spoke another word. Yasuo hugged his arms around the fox, and the two simply breathed in sync together.

Eventually the monsters left, and at last they could drift off to sleep.

Kuromaru (クロまる)