Mishio's Return

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10

Chapter 3: Hellos and Goodbyes

"Tch."

The lonesome kitsune named Mishio-no-Sae kicks a freshly-emptied drink carton across the darkened road, watching it sail across the glow of a street lamp. She's found nothing on any other Yōkai out there. The shrines are empty. Too empty. For once in her life, she feels genuine dread of being on her own.

And to further add to the complications the local humans have started to weigh down their garbage bins, so scavenging about for any extra food or usable goodies without causing a din has become harder. While they did initially try padlocks, those things would usually be found broken or dismantled by daybreak.

Also, it's been a few days since two of those three girls stopped visiting her… Misuki and Mizaki? Whatever. Their names all sound the same. At least a grateful Honoka still shows up time to time to tidy the place, bring Mishio a bun or two and clean and refill her water bowl, but she still has to help her mother out at the same time so it hasn't been easy. That just leaves all the other humans who started seeking Mishio out for her 'services'.

It started off with humans approaching her for blessings and luck. When word spread around of what she was (and wasn't) actually capable of her audience quickly changed in demographic. Now it's a whole load of jilted lovers, jealous co-workers, students who'll do anything to have their grades higher than their rival's… Then when she started threatening those who sought to use her purely for their own spiteful gain, it's safe to say she doesn't really have any support.

Hmph! Just what kind of fox do they take me for…? These things aren't just cast freely on anyone.

Mishio sighs and enters her alleyway, which has begun to acquire a bit of a lived-in feel. She parts the discarded towel propped over her box with sticks, and slinks back into her fox shape. Mishio gingerly rifles through the plastic bag of her latest haul: three functioning pens with a good bit of ink left, a dirtied 100 yen bill, two plastic shells that press together to form a tight-fitting ball, a dirtied mug that just needs a wash… An assortment of discarded paper, some coloured, some with writings on the other side.

Paper, paper… She thought of the Shide, the paper streamers swung in her face as the local Shinto priest tried exorcizing her at the behest of the locals. It went nowhere, of course, and that priest just so happened to slip over the river bridge and take a spontaneous bath for his efforts. Being swept downstream to the outskirts of town, though? That was purely the river's doing.

But that memory of paper streamers tied to a stick, swung about left and right…

Ahaha! Mishio, Mishio! Look, my very first Ōnusa! I made it myself!

Oi, Shiomi. Okay, okay! Stop waving it in my face!

Hahahaha! Sorry, Mishio! Do you think this will help me give out better blessings?

Only if it can flip an upside-down tortoise back up!

Mishiooo! Stop being mean!

Mishio looks down despondently, the paper pieces sliding from her paws. She didn't see her sister in that foul cave. What if… What if Shiomi was in the deeper reaches of that cavern that held all the Kitsune? But Old Fox Hakishi's words…

"Seek help, seek your… sister…"

Surely that meant he also did not detect her prescence within there as well? Hakishi may have been a bit of a geezer, but his senses were far from dull. Mishio scratches her head in frustration as she tries to dispel her worries.

Mishio reaches forward to part the towel, gazing towards the starry night. She quietly hopes once more that Shiomi is all right, wherever she may be. Yet, like the waves of the sea that inevitably return, worry washes back towards Mishio's heart as she pictures a shivering and frightened Shiomi forced to fend for her own.

Mishio slaps her face and dispels her worries harsher. Her paper sentries by the roadside entrance towards the alleyway were going off. Now is not the time for melodrama. She focuses her hearing, and detects the low murmurs of a man's voice.

"This is Okuda. I am at the zone of interest. Standing by. Are contingencies prepared?"

Mishio narrows her gaze and cocks her ears. This does not sound like how one of the locals would speak. The sentry also alerts her to the continued rumbling of a vehicle. Louder, deeper. It's one of those larger ones. Just then, the sentries lining the other end of the alleyway go off. Footsteps, then a female's voice.

"This is Hikagi at the opposite end. Traps have been set. U-RPC has nowhere to go."

Mishio holds back a snarl. Just who do these amateurs think they are that they so arrogantly believe they have her cornered to rights? And yu-ar-pe-se? Is that what they're calling her?

She reassumes her human form and peeks out the towel and spies a stranger pressing a hand to his ear, standing in the middle of the streetside entrance. That stranger's carriage has been parked right up against the walls with only the door exposed, restricting escape attempts in that direction. Crawling underneath it could still work, if she had no other option. The man pulls a roll of wire mesh out of the van and drops it to the floor, jamming the gap shut.

Never mind that possibility, then. She focuses upon his movements, watching him stoop his head down in conversation.

"Acknowledged. Final check: Subject's abilities is presumed supernatural in nature. Is your RPC-886-1 on hand?" Mishio furrowed her brows in confusion.

Just what exactly is an ar-pe-se-eight-eight-six-one? Mishio watches the man's body language, noticing how he asked the question while gazing at a particular object in his hand before affixing it back to his waist. That had to be that thing, whatever it is.

"Affirmative."

"Good. I am now approaching entity's site of residence."

Mishio glares. This stranger is behaving in a starkly different manner compared to the other locals, neither approaching her with fear or ambition. She notes a cautious pause between each pace, a tensed body language indicating the man is expecting danger. This curiosity kept her from making use of her other escape routes that lady most likely did not know of. Soon enough, this man stares down upon her, half his eyes covered under his cap.

"Good evening. Might you be the 'Fox witch of Takachiho'?"

Definitely NOT one of the locals. Mishio scowls at the moniker she's picked up as a result of her activity. "Witch is a bit much. What's it to you?"

"You can call me Okuda. I come from an organization of humans who are concerned about the wellbeing of entities such as yourself. Your effects and actions draw unwanted attention to you, and possibly open you up for misuse and potential abuse by many humans out there who would seek to exploit it."

"Such as yourself?"

"No. We are no such exploiters. Our goal is to seperate both sides of the natural and the supernatural in order to maintain a semblance of normalcy for all." Mishio softly grits her teeth. He was telling the truth, but something about him suggested that wasn't the everything he could have said.

"By 'seperate', I imagine you want to take me away from here? But the question remains: Where to? A cave, perhaps?" Mishio watched Okuda pause ever-so-slightly. He knows. She rises from her box, pouncing to drive the metaphorical knife deeper.

"I'm no fool, human. I've been exploring and trying to find others like me. But to no avail. Why? Because they're all locked away in that damned cave!"

"No, you misunderstand-" An angry finger points straight towards Okuda, almost jabbing into his chin.

"So you intend to throw me back in and be done with it, is that it?!" An object whizzes past Mishio and impacts against the van's window, shattering in a small burst of glass and fluid. The sentries at the opposite alley end picks up cursing - Hikagi didn't intend on missing, though Mishio made it so. There are also the sounds of an object being manipulated - presumably to fire another such projectile.

Without averting her gaze towards Okuda, Mishio raises and points a hand backwards. "Call your partner off. The second time she tries that is only going to end badly for her." Okuda gestures frantically then looks back towards Mishio, speaking hoarsely under his breath.

"We are not the ones responsible the cave. We knew nothing about it until just now! The humans who managed it, tended to it, they are all gone. We are just as much in the dark as you are, and it is not safe for you out here." Mishio glared and held her position. All was silent for the next few seconds save the rustling of leaves under the wind. Satisfied, she retracts her gestures and returns to her box, arms crossed.

"Your concern is noted, but I can take care of myself just fine." Okuda looks before Mishio's sorry makeshift hovel and rests his hands on his hips.

"Please give thought to coming with us. You will be cared for; food, shelter, security…"

"Cut the cowshit. Are you certain you want to keep talking in such a tone? Your kind of human doesn't seem like the sort who'll accept 'no' for an answer." Okuda flippantly gestures towards Mishio's box.

"Well, you live in a slump and you appear to scavenge rubbish for a living. Do you really think this fine?"

Mishio curls her ears back as she snaps at him. "I can always pack up and move to another place!"

"And repeat the cycle of bringing about unwanted trouble as people begin fearing you or harassing you to do things to others, then going back to scavenging waste? Can you really keep repeating this all on your own?"

"What do you know of me and loneliness?!"

"Perhaps not you, but I do know of one of your kind under our care who has been lonely for quite some time." Mishio froze. It couldn't be-?

"You're lying."

"I'm not. In fact, I'm not even sure if you're supposed to know about this." Mishio strokes her chin and assesses Okuda once more. Nothing in his body language implies deceit, though the nagging feeling persists that he may know more than he's letting on.

"…Fine. I'll cooperate, but only on one condition."

"What's that?"

"Show me the Omamori on your belt." Okuda was clearly taken aback.

"I can't give it to you. It's an important piece of my-" Mishio wagged her hand impatiently.

"I don't care. Just show it to me. Satisfy this one request to me, and I will give my word that I will come along quietly." Okuda looks behind Mishio, presumably at his partner. While no words were spoken, it's pretty obvious that Hikagi was most likely gesturing back towards Okuda. He exhales, and slowly unclips the talisman, dropping it into Mishio's hands.

She looks it over, watches its thread gleam under the reflected light of the nearby lamp. She makes out the word on it: 'Protection'. She sniffs it.

Power! There is power in this thing! Mishio's heart jolts. There is another spirit out there, and it's a shrine spirit, too! But why would this spirit be making talismans for people like these two? Also, the way the talisman is threaded, the particular smell of the magic coming off of it…

No… No! It can't be… Could it really be? Mishio breaks character, rapidly gesturing all over her own self.

"Wait-wait! This spirit you claim to know, does she look like me? Is she as tall as me, but with, well, a crybaby's face? Is she scared and shy all the time? Does she have four tails like me? How about her hair, is it lighter than mine-"

"No, she looks a bit older and taller than you, and has seven tails-"

"ARGH!" Mishio punches the wall.

"…But she does have lighter hair, cream coloured?"

Mishio raises and waves a hand in defeat, her tails drooping. "Doesn't matter, it's someone else."

There's just no way a dependent scaredy-cat like Shiomi could grow seven tails.

"Can I… have your name by the way? Pardon my impoliteness."

"Whatever. It's Mishio. Pleasure's mine, blah blah bluh…" Sinking in her despondency, Mishio failed to notice the man's pause of recognition.

"Mishio… Mishio… Okay! I know I don't have much to prove as of this moment, but if you come with us, we can ensure your continued safety and wellbeing. Again; You'll have fixed meals, you'll have clean water, you'll have a roof over your head…"

"You can stop with the incentives, I already gave my word. I'm coming. Just as long as I get to get to the bottom of… Whatever the hell's happened…"

Mishio! I'm telling you…! I don't know why or how, but everyone is gone! It's just us both left now!

S… Shut up, Shiomi! Stop crying! I can't think with all your wailing! …It's got to be a prank, isn't it? Everyone else has to be playing pranks on us! I mean, our birthday is soon, right? That's it, they've got a surprise waiting for us!

No way… No way everyone would be going to this length…!

Just… Just calm down, Shiomi. I'll get to the bottom of this!

Please don't go too far from my shrine, Mishio…

Somewhere on a moonlit forest road whose existence isn't shown on any map, a van slowed to a halt. Its driver, a man in his 40s, yawns and stretches. He pushes the younger woman stirring by his side.

"Hey. Hikage. Your turn to drive." Senior Agent Okuda hops out of the door as the Junior Agent attached under him parts the hair over her eyes and rubs them.

"How far are we to HQ?"

"About 30 minutes of driving left, at your speed." Okuda walks to the back of the van, making sure the doors remain intact and locked. He gazes into and below the window, seeing their latest acquisition curled up in the corner, sleeping away. All's well. He kicks a small stone out of the way before hopping into the passenger's side, Hikage already placing her hands on the steering wheel.

"How is our princess at the back, is she still sleeping?"

"Seems like it." Okuda yawns as the van begins moving once more. "But what a relief, huh?"

Hikage quickly glances at her handler before looking forwards once more. "What do you mean?"

"I was a bit afraid that so much could possibly go wrong. I'm used to seeing that sort of thing happen all the time. We all know what 886 can do if she gets angry - remember what she did to that drunk foreign woman? It seems HQ was right after all to send just the two of us! The URPC has been cooperative, things should proceed smoothly from here on."

"Hah! Don't go pushing the luck while I'm stuck with you, old timer." Okuda harrumphs, and begins tapping on his Authority-modified phone.

"In any case… Another Kitsune, huh? Just a standard humanoid containment chamber should do, as long as she behaves… Four tails, brown hair, a bit dirty and unkempt. She doesn't seem to need a shrine, unlike 886. Just been running around cursing people in her free time… Most likely the opposite of 886, then. A field fox." Okuda rubs the back of his phone - seems a bit bumpy. He pays it no mind.

"Has HQ generated her Registered Phenomena Code yet? …Wait, what did she say her name was again?"

"Mishio… Mishio… Rings a bell… Oh, confound it. You think she could be the sibling 886 never stops talking about?"

"Ssh! What if she could hear us?"

"Hm. Do you think she can our mumbling properly through the wall and the sounds of driving?" Okuda glances through the glass pane behind them, affirming that a ball of curled fluff remains immobile at the back of the van. "Besides, she's still asleep."

Hikage sighs in relief. "Still. If this really Shiomi-san's long-lost twin sister, we may have to keep them away from each other."

"Agreed, we'll let the labcoats worry over that." Okuda rubs his phone pensively, only to hear crinkling noises and feel something coming loose from the back.

"Wait… What's this piece of paper stuck to the back of my phone?" He peels it off, expecting to see a receipt. Instead, he sees a dirty piece of paper cut into a rectangle, with crude calligraphy writings smeared across in pen ink. Okuda's honed senses warned him that this little piece of paper did not bode well. His thoughts cut out as the van violently lurched.

"Hey, Hikage! Watch how you're driving!" Hikage swears under her breath as her steering shakes in desperation, the van's swerving becoming wilder.

"The wheel! The pedal! They won't respond, I'm losing control!" Okuda grabs the handbrake and pulls it up, the bottom of the van screeching as it applies… only for a loud snap to ring out from below as the brake line snapped, the van resuming its wild swerving. The van veers off the road as it strikes a rock with a banging sound, and Okuda sees a cylindrical object fly away from the side of the van.

"What?! A wheel fell off! This couldn't be-?" Okuda looks to the back compartment once more and he sees a very furious pair of eyes staring straight back at him, the 'ball of fluff' at the back shimmering away with its purpose served.

"I. HEARD. EVERYTHING."

"We're skidding! Watch out, watch ou-" Hikage's shrieking was cut short as the van's tumult was ended by a tree, causing an echoing din to resound across the silent night for a mile.

"Arg…! Ow, my leg… Shit, shit shit…" Okuda gasps in pain as he clutches at his shin, sucking in air and trying to fight off the agony of something within having ripped in the impact. He begins crawling across the grass, using his arms and remaining good leg. Even while tearing away at the agony roaring through his leg, he attempts a chuckle, his RPC-886-1 firmly clutched in his hand. He tries hard to think of gratefulness towards the charm at least preventing him from encountering a far worse fate.

"This is… totally coming out of our paychecks, isn't it…?" Okuda's attempt at brevity was met with silence. He stares at the wreck of the van.

"Hikage? Hikage! Are you okay? Damn it! Say something, girl!" That was right as a hand seized his vest from behind and forcefully turned him the other way around, and Okuda suppresses a pained cry as his bad leg twists from the motion. Mishio stands before him, panting as her own blood trickles down her brow.

"You… human. That other fox called eight-eight-six. WHAT. WAS. HER NAME?!"


"Miss Fox…? It's me, Honoka." The schoolgirl bows before she steps tentatively into the alleyway under the evening sun, bringing with her a black garbage bag. "Pardon the intrusion."

Honoka sighs at the junk littering the alleyway. She pulls a dustpan and a hand broom out of the bag and sets them aside, starting off by picking up discarded wrappings and cartons.

"A mess like always! You really need to clean up after yourself, if you don't mind my saying." Honoka begins sweeping the floor, raking in bits of spat-out seeds, an apple core, fish bones…

"Mom is getting better. Dad… Him not being around now to throw things and… do things to us…? She's getting better. I'll have an extra hour off next week from helping to run the shop. I could…" Honoka pauses her sweeping and sniffles a bit.

"I could spend a little more time with you, Miss Fox. You do seem a bit lonely." Honoka bites her lower lip, wipes an eye and looks up.

"But don't get me wrong! Mizuka and Misaki are good friends! It's just that I've… I can't bring to tell them everything thats's happened to me. They live carefree lives, they… they don't deserve my burdens weighing down upon them."

Honoka pulls out a fresh bottle of water from her backpack. She empties the bowl next to the box into the drain grate, and fills the bowl with fresh drinking water.

"There are rumours in school, you know? They say I've been 'fox-touched'! People are scared of me now, but… It's good. When people are interested in me… They don't-it usually doesn't turn out well for me. What you did was still a bit extreme, but… But my life has changed so much for the better, I just don't know how to-"

Honoka gazes silently towards the draped cardboard box. "…Are you there, Miss Fox?"

Honoka slowly parts the towel. Silence greeted her. A plastic bag with various bits of litter is strewn across the newspaper lining. Honoka sighs and smiles.

"My my, leaving a mess even inside your sleeping box!" Honoka scoops the litter into the plastic bag and takes it out. She stands once more, looking at the box, her shoulders shivering.

Grateful tears slide down Honoka's cheeks as she hics and her sniffles return fiercer, instinctively understanding that this time, the Fox Witch of Takachiho won't be coming back.

"…Thank you so much for everything you have done for me, Miss Fox."



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