Author's Note: I'm back! I've got a pretty good idea where to go with this story, so that's good news. I'll probably be able to get these done quicker, too. Anything else I can say is this: I hope people get this chapter. I may have been too stuck in my own head, so we'll see.
Chapter 16. Neya - Can You Trust a Fox?
The late summer sun shone on their heads with a vengeance; soon, the days would become colder and brisk for autumn, but until then Japan was bathed in scorching sunlight and suffocating humidity. Sweat soaked their necks and backs, and they could practically feel themselves breathing the water steeped in the air. Still the group continued to trudge on to their northward destination. Movement was further halted in order to take water breaks more frequently, leading Neya to believe the original one-month estimate was too short. Already it had been three weeks, so she anticipated at least a couple more.
All things said and done, though, she could not find herself all that bothered by the situation. Neya was back with her friends and Nao kept her entertained by running around her in circles or dashing ahead to explore his surroundings. It was utterly adorable how he would suck behind bushes and jump out to surprise her. Or when he went hunting, the fox cub would duck down close to the ground and inch forward carefully, then pounce! He was showing a great deal of progress in his technique. Afterward, similar to a cat, Nao would bring some dead rodent or other to her, showing off his achievement before he devoured it raw.
Unfortunately, the presence of the fox cub also worried the villagers, quite often frightening them away when he came near. Some of the women expressed suspicion that the fox was a spirit tricking her into caring for it only to betray her one day when her guard was mostly down. Granted, Neya had traveled with a talking tanuki for a fair amount of time so she herself could not discount spirit-creatures like tanuki and kitsune*, but she was not going to doubt the fox-child simply because of their reputation.
How could she, after all, with the human company she kept? Considering her companions, it seemed only fair to give people a chance and trust them because, really, that may be all that they need.
There was Iwashi, with a reputation of a selfish princess that banished anything that was not beautiful (i.e. all men). Once Neya got to know her (and got over the love rival thing), Neya found Iwashi to be a very considerate, hard-working person fully concerned about others. She even reminded her of Onihime, whom was thoroughly misunderstood.
Yakuma, although a doctor, was distrusted for his employment of surgery, yet he works earnestly to help save his patients even if he had been the one to inflict the damage to begin with.
Chouza was the child of a criminal, as his tattoos around his eyes gave away, which led to him being misjudged as a person and going down the path of a criminal, too. Now, however, she sees a caring, older-brother figure to Uzume and Minamo—a good person that had been pushed into being a criminal by others because that is what they had expected of him.
Like Chouza, Uzume also seemed to have his own history of being misunderstood as being less than human, teaching him to hate those people who hate him. Given a chance as he was to have people treat him as friend and family, he turned into an honest fool filled with compassion.
With them was Minamo, whom people pictured as a monster with demon eyes that always predicted horrible outcomes. The reality: a young girl seeking to help others with her powers by warning them ahead of time.
Hikae, Neya would admit, was a bit beyond her understanding. She had initially distrusted him, and the fact that he had murdered freely while allowing himself to be just as freely "killed" confused her greatly; nevertheless, enough time shared with the immortal made her realize he was probably lonely and yearning for people to be with as comrades, too.
And then there was Utsuho. A liar through and through. He tricks people at every turn, whether it be friend or foe. To top it off, he was a first-class itsuwaribito. Just by hearing that, people would immediately assume him to be a devious person willing to betray anyone and everyone. No one would be convinced that there was truly such a thing as a good itsuwaribito without seeing him work first-hand. Yet here she was, standing by that itsuwaribito's side through thick and thin, hopelessly in love. She knew that despite all the bad itsuwaribito out there, hers was more giving than most normal people. He comes through for his friends and those in need alike.
No matter what people may say to her, Neya would not turn her back on her companions. Same for Nao, she would take care of him and provide the love and care he needs.
"Ne, ne, Nee-chan," beckoned Uzume, bounding up to her and scaring Nao into hiding behind her legs.
"What is it, Uzume-san?"
"I've been wandering lately," he started.
"You mean 'wondering'?"
"Yeah, that! Since you were in Yoshiwara, you must know all about the things men and women do together, right?" he said eagerly.
It went without saying Neya began to blush. "W-well, I didn't really—"
"So kissing is what they do, isn't it?" Uzume pressed on more excitedly.
"Yes, at first." Neya was going to go on to carefully explaining to the rather naive teen, but did not bother when she noticed he was no longer listening.
"Then would you kiss me, Nee-chan?"
"I want to kiss a pretty girl, and so I thought of Nee-chan!" Uzume's face wore an achieved smile, as though he had figured it all out himself.
"No, Uzume-san, you can't. I can't. Kissing someone should be done between two people that like each other," she explained gently, hoping he would understand.
"I like Nee-chan. Don't you like me?" His face turned down, and Neya felt like she had just kicked a puppy.
"I like Uzume-san, but I don't like like you. And I'm pretty sure you don't feel the same way either about me."
"Doesn't like-like just mean you really like someone? 'Cause I really like Nee-chan!"
This approach was not working. Neya decided on a slight change of tactic.
"Do you really like Chouza-san, as well?"
"Yeah! But he's a guy, so I can't kiss him."*
"See, that's the wrong like, Uzume-san. When you like-like someone, you feel that way for only them. It's a special kind of like for that one person. Therefore, you don't really like-like me since you also feel that way about another."
"That's kind of complicated," he said, scratching his head as the information processed. "How do you get to like-like a person then?"
"I…don't really know. You're sometimes just around a person a whole bunch and, before you know it, it's happened for whatever reason." The memories of her being told by Yakuma that she treated Utsuho specially before she knew it came back to her, drawing from that experience.
"I see. So if I like-like Nee-chan, then I can kiss you?"
"N-no, because I have to also like-like you back." Uzume gave her one of his bright, carefree smiles, despite having been told she did not feel that way toward him. Ignorance certainly was bliss in some circumstances.
The boy left her to run back to Chouza; the visual of moving so quickly and exaggeratedly in that heat made Neya feel a few degrees warmer. A pressure on her leg brought her attention back down to the leisurely walking fox cub at her feet. She leaned down to pet Nao, his pleading eyes begging for attention. The staff-wielder may have taken her attention briefly, but she would never forget her precious fox.
For the remaining two weeks of dreaded sunshine and endless walking, Uzume stuck to her like glue. Wherever in the group she was, there would be Uzume next to her. If she went to gather ingredients, firewood, or water, he would accompany her. He even insisted on lying down near her when they slept! The boy had become her shadow, and she had a sinking suspicion she knew why.
When she had inquired to his constant presence for confirmation, he had replied that if he suck by her all the time, he would come to like-like her and she would feel the same. The women that overheard his reasoning giggled at his innocence, even going so far as to making use of his boundless energy to do some work while he hovered around Neya. Some had advised her to consider the white-haired teen (without fox yes, she would glumly add) given how kind and sweet he was. Many of the women knew him from when he had broken them out of burning brothels, so their opinion of him was considerably high. Who would not want such a straightforward and honest man like him?
Hazy orange dusk had been approaching when it had happened.
Only a day away from the village, the group had stopped in a clearing off the main road completely exhausted. Neya had just claimed her spot beside Minamo for the night.
"If Nee-chan's sleeping there, then I'll sleep right here!" he declared as he plopped onto the ground beside her. Honestly, she did not hate having Uzume sleep beside her, but he certainly chit-chatted a lot before bed and frequently shifted around, keeping her awake at times.
"Hey Bird Brain! If you keep sleeping next to girls, you'll turn into one." A sandaled foot pressed on the back of Uzume's head, connected to the black-dressed itsuwaribito standing behind him. His expression was neutral, one he used when showing some worry for people that were not Pochi.
"You're lying! There's no such thing, Utsuho!" he indignantly said, though his own face did not mirror his confidence.
"It's true. Do you really want to turn into a girl that bad? Because if that's so, then I'll just leave you alone," and Utsuho removed his foot to walk away.
Panic spread across Uzume's face, shooting up to follow Utsuho over to where the guys were laid out. If she were not so worried at how gullible Uzume was, Neya would have put more thought into why Utsuho would have done such a thing. Instead, she silently thanked the fox-like itsuwaribito for allowing her to sleep in peace that night.
Nao cuddled in next to her, soft fur sliding along her hand.
'Thank you, my dear foxes.'
Author's After-note: There! What'd you guys think? I kind of just wanted to do something cute like this to more thoroughly establish Neya's feelings toward the others.
kitsune: This is Japanese for "fox" and, like tanuki, can transform themselves and trick humans. I figured it would sound more like the spirit-fox if I left it in Japanese there to differentiate from normal foxes. Everyone remember a certain nine-tailed fox?
"Yeah! But he's a guy, so I can't kiss him.": Okay, I know I say I accept flames, but this I do not want any flames for. NO, I am not against boy-love and all that, but since Uzume is so clearly straight as given by the original manga (he's always on about Neya and Iwashi being pretty girls and whatnot) I am going with the logical assumption that he would not want to romantically kiss a boy. I'm sure that eventually, there will be plenty of yaoi fan fiction in this fandom, but this is not the place to find it. So do not get on my case about it. Thank you.