"Kantarou?" Haruka whispers .
"Hmmm…?" A soft, inquiring hum is the only response Kantarou, crouched down in front of Haruka , deigns to give.
"WHAT are we doing here?" the ogre-eating tengu inquires, still hushed, but with a slightly annoyed undertone.
“We are waiting for a youkai to appear,” Kantarou answers matter of factly, not bothering to look at Haruka.
When Kantarou hears the rustling of leaves behind him he does turn his head, seeing Haruka rise from their hiding spot in the bushes near a pond.
“Get down!” the folklorist urges his companion quietly.
“No!” comes Haruka’s short but stern reply.
“We’ll never catch the youkai if you’re standing out like that,” Kantarou reasons.
“We’ve been waiting here since sunset. Nothing has happened,” Haruka counters stubbornly.
“You should know it sometimes takes time until a youkai shows itself. We’ve been only here,” Kantarou looks up into the clear, starry sky, considers the time and continues, “for a few hours. Let’s give it some more time. It's not even past midnight.”
Haruka crouches down again, Kantarou nods approvingly and then fixes his eyes again on the pond in front of them.
They had traveled all the way from Tokio to Toono village in order to find the truth behind a growing number of stories about a mysterious creature who appeared to be bothering villagers near rivers and ponds.
The first day Kantarou spent mostly asking the villagers about the incidents, trying to collect as much information as he possibly could. At times he had trouble, though, as not all the town's people were willing to talk to total strangers about the occurrences.
Haruka mostly accompanied Kantarou, but occasionally, when he got bored tagging along listening to people repeating almost the same stories over and over again or got too worked up about people’s behavior towards them, he would take off to look for anything abnormal as he flew over the Toono area.
In the late afternoon Kantarou finally returned to their accommodation. One of the local farmers, whose wife and daughter had been involved in one of the first incidents, had offered them the spare rooms in their house for the time it would take to investigate and solve the mystery.
Kantarou wasn't really surprised to find Youko hanging the laundry when he came back to the farmer's house. He quietly observed his little fox-youkai for a while before making himself known.
"You did all the laundry, Youko-chan?" he asked, approaching Youko.
"Yes. There was a huge pile of it and I guessed that the people are afraid of approaching water after what's happened. So I just did the seemingly most useful thing," Youko replied, happily straightening a sheet with her hands.
"I guess nothing happened to you while you were at it?" Kantarou inquired.
"No, nothing at all," the fox-girl answered. Then she continued, dropping her voice and making a face, "But then again, I'm a youkai. Maybe the perpetrator feared running into a strong, mean youkai like me? Grrrrrr…" For a split second her ears popped out as she growled.
They both laughed.
"Ne, Kan-chan, did you find out something?" she asked, now more serious again.
"Hmmm, yes, yes. A bit. A lot. But I'm not sure whether it'll be enough just yet," Kantarou answered.
"You were running around all day, asking as many involved people as possible, ne? There must be something..." Youko went on.
Kantarou nodded and sighed: "Yes, but I haven't found any pattern yet. It's… unnerving." He absently rubbed his neck and stared into the distance.
Youko put the cloth she had been about to hang back into the basket, stepped closer to the pondering folklorist, and slapped him on the back: "You'll figure it out, Kan-chan. You always do. Want some tea?"
Surprised, Kantarou looked at the fox-girl, then nodded.
"You sit down on the porch then, I'll get the tea," she commanded, ushering him towards the porch, and disappeared into the house.
When just a few minutes later Youko returned, Haruka was sitting next to their master. She put the tray with the teapot and cups down next to the two men and asked the ogre-eating tengu: "Found anything, Haruka?"
Youko sighed. Apparently, she felt there was nothing more she could get out of them for the time being, as she just went back to hanging the laundry without any further prodding.
"Nothing, huh?" Kantarou spoke first after they'd sat in silence for a while, sipping their tea.
"No, at least nothing obvious," Haruka answered. Looking at Kantarou, he added, "And you're not surprised."
"Not really," the folklorist shrugged.
"Did you at least find something after you made the effort to talk to all those people?" Haruka inquired, a snide undertone in his voice.
"Bits and pieces. But nothing concrete, I'd say," Kantarou answered, rolling the cup between his hands. Almost lost in thought, he continued: "Haruka, don't be mad at the people here. This situation is very disturbing for them. There might not have been any deaths so far, at least not any known or recent ones. But from what I've gathered today, it is clear that the incidents have become more and more violent since the first one was reported. They’ve also gotten more frequent. People's imagination tends to run wild, so naturally the villagers are afraid. And we are only foreigners to them. We might tell them that we are here to help, but I'm pretty sure they're wondering if we're really here to help them. Or if it's not more likely that we are here to abuse their situation to our own profit."
"To our profit, huh?" Haruka raised an eyebrow and opened his mouth to continue, but before he got the chance to do so, Kantarou put his cup down onto the tray and stood up: "Let's go, Haruka. I'd like to try something."
"I thought you said you hadn't found anything yet", Haruka countered.
"Well, nothing tangible, no," Kantarou turned around and winked at Haruka, a boyish grin playing on his lips, "But there are always hunches to follow."
And that's how they ended up hiding in the bushes near a pond.
"Kantarou," Haruka shakes the folklorist, "wake up."
"Eh?" Sleepily, Kantarou looks around, rubbing his eyes. "What is it, Haruka?"
"Something's approaching the pond, over there," the ogre-eating tengu points towards the bushes on the other side where something appears to be moving around.
It's still night and all the light there is for Kantarou to see is coming from the stars and the moon above them. Nonetheless, his eyes focus on the movements across the pond in an instant, all remnants of his little snooze gone. He leans forward slightly, narrowing his eyes to slits.
After a few more moments, a haggard creature slinks from the bushes, approaching the edge of the pond. While appearing to be about the size of a child, it also features a carapace, as well as a beak, making it obvious that it can't be one of the town's children roaming through the night, lost in play. The small being briefly shakes off a few leaves, seemingly careful not to bow its head while doing so, sniffs the air, and then totters further towards the water.
Before it can reach the pond though, Kantarou emerges from their hiding spot and cheerfully calls out, "Kawatarō-kun!"
The youkai on the other side slowly turns his gaze onto Kantarou and their eyes lock. Neither one moves for several seconds, and the folklorist is almost tempted to drop his stance, when all of a sudden the youkai's features start to change.
"KANTAROU, WATCH OUT!"
Haruka, who has still been hiding until now, jumps out of the bushed and towards Kantarou - but he's already too late. He can only watch helplessly how a hand formed by water grabs the exorcist, envelops him entirely and drags him over the pond, closer to the flickering shape of the creature.
Haruka immediately spreads his wings to take up the chase and free Kantarou when he suddenly hears Kantarou's muffled chant through the water bubble: "Namu fukashigi-ko Nyorai!"
The water around the folklorist dissipates, and Kantarou falls to the ground, coughing and dripping wet, but with a tight grip on his beads. Before he can even get back on his feet, however, Haruka lands in front of him, blocking a second attack with his shakujou.
"You okay, Kantarou?" the ogre-eater asks over his shoulder after dissolving yet another water attack with one of his thunder strikes.
"Yes," Kantarou splutters, scrambling back to his feet, the bells around his wrists ringing.
They both face the creature now, Haruka standing in front of Kantarou, shakujou raised. Only a short distance separates them from the youkai, who not only has changed its appearance, but also its behavior to a more menacing one.
"This is bad," Kantarou gasps, grabbing at his chest.
"Your scar?" Haruka asks alarmed.
"Ye.. Rin Pyō To Sha Kai Jin Retsu Zai Zen!"
Kantarou's chant repels several water bursts homing in on them, but while he’s able to protect himself and Haruka from the water, he gets hit by an invisible force and thrown back a few meters.
Haruka sends a thunder strike towards the other youkai as a distraction. He moves towards Kantarou, but when he actually grabs the folklorist to get him away, he feels resistance.
"No Haruka, we have to solve this," Kantarou urges, "now."
"Can you do it?" the ogre-eater asks, concern clear in his voice.
"With your help," a brief, sincere smile appears on Kantarou's face, "I can."
Haruka helps Kantarou back on his feet. They look at each other, nod in mutual understanding, and then Haruka takes off towards the youkai while Kantarou stays behind, protecting himself, as well as the ogre-eater, from multiple attacks with warding spells.
When Haruka finally manages to strike after several evasive maneuvers, Kantarou shifts his attention towards their opponent, too, chanting: "On baishiramantaya sowaka." *
Hit simultaneously by the ogre-eater's thunder and the exorcist's spell, a dark aura seeps from the youkai's body and disappears into the wood. Once all of it is gone, what is left behind is the childlike, haggard creature that first staggered towards the pond. Overwhelmed by the joined attack and bereft of the dark power, it drops to the ground.
"That was a scary experience, ne, Kawatarō-kun?" Kantarou speaks amicably as he kneels down next to the kappa, wringing out his still dripping sleeves over it to help it recover.
It only takes a few drops until the little creature at least sits up and nods at Kantarou.
"Thank you," it says shyly, ducking his head, "I didn't want to hurt anybody."
"It's okay now," the folklorist replies, "Just don't get caught by any evil spirits again, okay?"
The kappa nods, gets on his feet, and then shuffles back into the bushes.
"That was very kind of you, to let it go like this," Haruka says as he lands next to Kantarou.
"I'm not all that bad, after all, am I?" Kantarou asks playfully, to which the ogre-eater only 'tsks'.
Kantarou laughs. "Let's get ba…"
Something suddenly rustles through the bushes closest to Kantarou and Haruka, and at once the folklorist is flung back into the pond.
"Kantarou!" Haruka instantly takes off after the human to hover closely over the water, but Kantarou doesn't resurface. "KANTAROU!"
The ogre-eater looks at the pond from various heights, searching for any traces of the human. The pond's surface has quickly calmed again, almost eerily so, and the waves of Kantarou's impact are nearly gone.
"KANTAROU!" The ogre-eater is getting more and more worried by the second, nervously flitting over the small body of water. "Where are you...?"
Out of the corner of his eye, he registers a brief flash of light underwater, instinctively dashes for it and is just in time to catch Kantarou's hand when it reaches out of the water. Haruka tries pulling the folklorist out of the water, but something tugs at the human from below.
"Haruka," Kantarou breathes pleadingly.
The ogre-eater sees the fear in Kantarou’s eyes and pulls harder, managing to free Kantarou. However, Kantarou's body has barely left the water when several hands shoot out of it and grab for him, attempting to drag him back down.
Haruka growls, pulls Kantarou closer to him and sends a powerful thunder strike towards the pond while at the same time trying to gain height.
Kantarou wraps his arms around Haruka's torso. He turns his head and watches the pond below illuminated by Haruka's thunder, the electricity still dancing over the surface.
"Haruka," he murmurs, hugging Haruka tightly.
"You're safe," Haruka reassures Kantarou, returning the other's hug. "Let's get you back home."
Kantarou nods weakly.
"You're safe…" Haruka repeats again, more to himself though.
It doesn't take Haruka long to get them back to the farmer's house.
He's barely landed and about to put Kantarou down when Youko appears.
"What happened?" the fox-girl exclaims and immediately helps Haruka to keep Kantarou steady. "He's completely soaked! And freezing! You'll explain later. I'll go grab some towels while you get him out of his robe."
Youko dashes off, leaving Haruka and Kantarou alone.
Kantarou fumbles with his clothes, apparently trying to get out of them himself, but Haruka stops him: "We should get you into your bedroom first."
"It would ruin the tatami," Kantarou replies.
Haruka raises an eyebrow, but Kantarou quickly explains, "I wouldn't want to cause our host trouble… or explain why I went swimming in the middle of the night. And with my clothes, at that."
Haruka shrugs at this sufficiently reasonable argument and helps Kantarou getting out of his robe. It's a very slow process, because Kantarou barely manages to stay on his feet yet still tries to undress himself. Once they're down to the undergarments though, Haruka halts, "Now we can get you to your bedroom."
Kantarou nods, and with Haruka's help they do make it to his room without too much stumbling.
Youko catches up with them on the way there, carrying several towels. Once in the room, she puts them down and then picks the biggest one from the pile, wrapping it carefully around a shivering Kantarou.
"Undergarments off," she orders and while she holds the towel in place, Haruka swiftly rids Kantarou of the last remains of wet clothing.
Kantarou flops onto the futon, wrapping the towel tighter around himself, and lies down on his side.
Youko picks up a smaller towel, returns to Kantarou's side and quickly rubs his hair dry as best as possible.
"There's a towel for you too, Haruka," Youko points out while folding the used towel, "you got wet from carrying Kan-chan."
"I don't need it, I'm not that weak," he snorts.
"It's not about weakness. Since I've got Kan-chan's soaked clothes to take care of, I can as well take care of yours at the same time," the fox-lady explains, giving the ogre-eater a stern look.
Haruka sighs, but complies by taking off his wet coat and dress shirt nonetheless.
Kantarou gets up, covers Kantarou with a blanket and picks up the wet clothes: "I'll take care of your clothes. You take care of Kan-chan."
She quickly leaves the room, a smirk on her face.
Haruka gazes after Youko with a puzzled expression but then shrugs and turns back around. Kantarou in the meantime has curled up under the blanket but he’s still shivering.
Not entirely sure what to do, Haruka settles down next to the human. He sits there for a few minutes simply observing the other. The shivers don’t appear to cease, and the ogre-eater wonders if Kantarou is really freezing that much even after he's dried off and under a warm blanket.
He reaches out to touch Kantarou's forehead to check his temperature when the other suddenly opens his eyes. Startled, Haruka retracts his hand, but Kantarou grabs it and places it on his cheek instead.
Kantarou closes his eyes again, murmuring softly: "Thank you, Haruka."
Baffled, Haruka remains in this position until Kantarou's grip slackens. After a while, he bends over to check on the human. Although Kantarou has dozed off, the trembling has still not subsided entirely.
Haruka looks around the room for more blankets but can't spot any. He almost desperately wants Kantarou to get warmer, but he doesn't want to leave Kantarou’s side to search for more blankets, either. He looks at the sleeping folklorist - and suddenly has another idea.
He stretches out next to Kantarou and slips under the cover. Once comfortable, he carefully unfolds his wings and wraps them around his human. Eyes flicking back and forth, he worriedly watches for any signs of distress.
As if aware of the scrutiny, Kantarou stirs slightly but doesn't wake up. He does, however, snuggle closer, murmuring Haruka's name again in his sleep.
Haruka instinctively wraps his arms tightly around Kantarou, pressing their bodies closer together.
Soon enough Kantarou's shivering ceases. His slow breathing soon lulls Haruka into a sleepy daze, as well, and before long, they are both fast asleep.
Without a sound, Youko closes the door. For a short moment, she just stands there, a satisfied little smile playing around her lips, before she finally makes her way toward the laundry room.