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Crow is haunted by dreams of her past, struggling to remember her last visit to Kitsune Mori. Unable to sleep, she sets off into the forest on her own in search of the poachers' whereabouts.
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When the sun has long since begun to dip past the trees, and twilight eclipses a deep orange horizon, Crow stands from the porch encircling the inn with a sigh. She departs for her room, the shoji snapping shut behind her. A light rain drums the roof of the inn as she sits, finishing a fourth of her sake jug before she’s realized it. She falls onto her futon and sleeps like a stone, so exhausted she barely shifts. The dreams take hold and don’t let go.
Jiaying approaches the deer first, slowly, but not as slow as Crow expects. It meets her, hesitant at first, its hooves gentle on a bed of ferns. It stands still as Crow creeps toward it, low to the ground. Its ear swivels to the side.
“Like this. Keep your hand flat. See?”
They walk through thickened undergrowth that smells like fresh spring rain, where the deep green needles of sugi grow denser. Maple trees with wide, star-shaped leaves the color of blood encircle a pool with cyan waters at the center of a clearing. Their bark is bone white, dotted with small, glowing motes that wink out when she squints. The moss is soft beneath her bare feet. It’s familiar, like something she has pieced together in a dream, something grasped and cradled until it slips through her fingers.
Jiaying laughs, pushing aside a branch. “Come on. Closer.” Jiaying takes Crow’s forearm, her profile is a blur at the corner of her vision. When she looks at her, no matter the white slants of moonlight from the canopy, her face is a smear of red and green and white, features she can't quite make out.
A sika deer lifts its head from the pool, velvet strung across its antlers. It stares at them.
“Do you -- think we should? What if your sister finds out?”
A laugh, small and light, unworried. Jiaying sits up leans in, smelling like moss and sweat.
“Does it matter?”
They lay in a clearing a distance from Kitsune Mori Mura, where Crow can barely see its smoke rise above the trees.
“I’m sorry, Inari. I have to… Grandmother says I… I have to take our time together away from you.”
It goes black.
“But please don’t forget me.”
Crow has trouble sleeping following the evening in the sake house. She isn’t sure if it’s dreams or just anticipation, but she rises well before the sun and struggles to fall back asleep. When an hour passes and she has no luck, she gives up the notion and goes through her morning routine.
Stretches. Bath. Tea. Breakfast. By the time she's downed a bowl of rice, the sun is still a ways off, and Kitsune Mori Mura is still quiet. She isn't sure what she searches for, but a morning walk in the woods sounds nice enough by itself - even if she doesn't find what she unknowingly seeks.
She is glad enough to slip out unnoticed, palm rested on the hilt of her katana as she makes her way toward the northern border of the village, into the surrounding trees.
Very few are out and among the sprawling village. Some of the villagers linger near tea and sake houses, their eyes glowing in the dark. Others yet begin their morning routine. Animals are the ones most often nearby: Sika deer graze fearlessly near the center of the village, a small bird flies, the fat tail of a mujina retreats into the brush.
The trees near the village are thinner than the deeply wooded areas near the very center Kitsune Mori. That, at least, Crow can recall with confidence. That the forest grows denser as one grows inward, with rocky outcroppings and the odd jutting hill. Crow walks slowly, carefully, not afraid but mindful of the dark forest around her.
An occasional clearing gives way to a small shrine and a scattering of birds, a congregation of tiny monkeys that scatter into the trees. One of them remains, brown and very small, young, sitting on a tree branch and eyeing her.
The shrine is small and very old, its carved rock chipping near the edges and covered in a layer of moss. Several offerings of sake, rice, fruit, and small trinkets sit beneath it.
The first, faint light of dawn filters through the trees, just enough for her to see the monkey. She smiles and approaches. Slowly. She pulls a berry from within her kosode and offers it carefully.
The monkey eyes her, wary and unmoving for a moment. Approaching slowly seems to help. Its eyes dart from the berry, to Crow's face, to her hand, back to the berry. It reaches out plucks it from her palm, head tilted, then shoves it in its mouth. It chews, its cheek bulging.
Crow laughs, watching it eat.
"I'm sorry, that was my last one." She apologizes, even bows apologetically, before she turns to inspect the shrine, trying to determine what it is a shrine to. She’s careful not to disturb the offerings. The lack of fox imagery makes her doubt that it is for Inari, more likely for the forest spirits or anything that might happen by. Instead of risking a poor offering, Crow stands in quiet reverence.
The monkey finishes eating. It wipes its mouth with small, spindly hands, and stares at her in a clear prompt for more. When more doesn't come, and Crow turns away, it sits, watching. Eventually, it reaches out and prods her sleeve, her pack, bumps her sake jug. Crow turns to look at it with a laugh.
"I don't have much else!" Another laugh. She takes a chance, reaching out to give it a pat on the head. She fishes around in her bag - finding nothing. She gives the sake jug a shake, pulls the stopper out, and offers the wet end in case he wants a lick.
For a moment, the pat seems like enough. But he doesn't want the sake. At least, not at first, and anything pointed toward him is enough to get curious about. Once she's distracted enough, he worms a hand inside her pack. Eventually, after some picking around, his fingers close around a string of zeni. A koku is of more interest. He palms it, holding it with both hands, fishing out the meager remnants of her money. Crow laughs, disarmed, torn about doing something about it.
Ultimately, eating is more important...
"Hah, you're a clever one!" She says amicably, slowly reaching to fish the koku back out of his palms, careful not to be forceful.
The monkey inspects the gold coin, holding it out as far as it can, tapping it on the tree branch. Its tail swishes. It chitters, pleased in its gain, but then Crow reaches. It bolts, hopping off the tree, into the grass, northward into the trees.
Crow calls out in surprise, not quite ready for a chase through the woods.
"Wait! Wait! Please!" She struggles to keep up through branches and underbrush.
The monkey chatters as it runs. Is it a game? Probably. But it’s determined to make off with its loot, hopping easily from branch to branch.
After a distance through underbrush and slowly thickening trees, they come to a clearing. From here, Crow can barely make out the very edge of Kitsune Mori Mura’s sprawling homes, or see the smoke above the tall, tall treeline.
A woman sits on a rock at the edge of the spring, calves in the water, running a wet cloth along her neck and wrists. Her skin is tan and her hair black, save streaks of white near the front. The monkey hops onto the rock beside her.
Crow stumbles into the clearing. Stray branches have opened a few fresh, shallow cuts on her cheeks. She nearly falls over from the shock of seeing another person, but when she realizes she isn't in danger, she stops to catch her breath. The woman in the spring shoots up in alarm.
"You--are you one of them?"
"One of...?" When she straightens, she gets a better look at the woman. She struggles to keep the redness from her cheeks. Sudden embarrassment overtakes her. She bows apologetically.
"You mean... You mean one of the poachers?" She breathes heavily, her hair wild around her face. “No. I am not.”
For a moment, she doesn't seem to believe her. There is something strange about her appearance that makes it difficult to determine her age. Maybe twenty two springs, maybe a year or two younger, older. Her face is thin, her eyes brown. She reaches out. The monkey flattens the koku in her palm. She gives it a look, inspects its lion-headed brand. Lion lands. Her lips thin a hair. She looks back to Crow.
"Yes. One of them." The woman says quietly, eyeing Crow’s fur-lined clothing, her long hair -- she fits the profile, but something else draws her brows together. "What is your name?" [after a long pause] "And is this yours?" She holds the koku out with a tiny smile.
Crow can't blame her for her suspicion. All the same, that's not the impression she wants to give. Slowly, she lowers to her knees and bows her head.
"’I’ve actually been sent to take care of them. I am called Crow."
The name stirs something in her face. It is quickly bedded down beneath a small, careful smile.
Crow slowly stands and chances a step toward. Then another. "Yes, it is mine.. I'm afraid it's all I have, too." Crow laughs, trying not to stare at her too much. She averts her eyes.
"What is your name?" Crow glances at her long enough to smile.
The monkey chitters and tilts its head, hiding behind her, looking as apologetic as a monkey can. She carefully adjusts the floral-patterned obi around her waist. It's red and orange, set apart from a simple, tea-colored robe.
"I am called Umeko.” [After a long pause] "I apologize for his... interest. He must have taken a liking to you."
"Umeko." Crow smiles a bit wider, bowing her head, feeling the adjustment of her kimono is good enough permission to stop averting her eyes.
"There is nothing to apologize for. He's quite charming." Crow laughs and shakes her head, then slowly, slooowly seats herself at the edge of the rock, a good distance from her. She takes a moment to familiarize herself with the clearing, then seeks her face.
"Have you encountered them? The poachers."
Umeko laughs, quietly, retreating a half-step as Crow draws closer. "I’ve seen their tents, but not their numbers. You said you would take care of them?” [pause] “Where do you come from?"
Umeko moves away. Noted. No more of that. Crow's expression might be classified as a silent apology, but she doesn't say anything. She tries her best to be inoffensive.
"We've just come from the north, if that is your meaning. My... friends and I. Hasako has asked us to handle them." There’s a brief pause as Crow looks distractedly around the clearing. Something familiar...
"You said you've seen their tents? Where?"
Crow withdraws, but not far. Eventually, after what seems like a very long eventually, she seats herself at the edge of the wide, flat rock. Umeko adjusts her tabi, setting her geta aside.
"Hasako!" [with recognition] She scratches her nose with her little finger, "I see. The tents are through there." She lifts a tan hand and points directly ahead of them, what is likely west. Crow stands.
For a moment Umeko watches her go, smiling and yet a little unsure. Then snaps out of it.
"Wait!" She calls after her, a moment or two after Crow has begun to advance toward the treeline. Her cheeks puff out in frustration. Umeko picks up the koku and starts after her, bending to adjust her geta mid-stride. "Your money!"
Her money? Her money. Suddenly Crow remembers, and embarrassment reddens her cheeks. They turn even redder as she turns to take the koku with a laugh, her head bowed.
"I - I forgot. Thank you. Thank you so much." Another bow of her head, and with her this close, she isn't as inclined to run so quickly. Crow's smile is as delayed as it is stupid. After she’s pocketed the money, she rubs the back of her head and laughs again.
"Otherwise I would have been begging for scraps when I returned to the village!"
Umeko smiles, her laugh light, but when Crow moves closer she's a little on-edge. Not by much, though, and in the end her smile endures as she hands the koku over.
"So...you came from the Lion lands, then?" [venturing] There is a seemingly perfect split between jet black hair and the white, skunk-like stripes toward the sides and front of her head.
Umeko is timid. With poachers in the woods it's no wonder, though it does lead Crow to ponder what she is. Kitsune? She doesn't have those eyes. And the hair reminds her of Shio... But not the rest of her. Regardless, she seems as though she wants to prolong the conversation. Crow is more than happy to do so.
"Well, not originally. I was Ki-Rin. Only traveling through the Lion lands." [apologetic] She’s almost apologetic, as if being Ki-Rin is somehow inherently less exciting than the alternative. "I'm sorry. I was unclear before."
Umeko seems to desire conversation beneath the timid, slightly nervous exterior and twitches of her stance. Umeko nods, adjusting her pack as the monkey hops, hops again, and ends up on her shoulder, rooting through her things.
"Ki-Rin.“ Crow nods once. Then twice. Something like recollection creeps into her face. She forces it away and smiles. "I see. You have been to the forest before -- or never?"
The monkey hops closer, and for a moment Crow is afraid he's going to steal her koku again. She eyes it - trying not to seem terribly wary. When he’s sated by a berry it finds in Umeko’s pack, she breathes a quiet sigh of relief.
"Yes. I have been to the forest once before. Several years ago. I was happy to return." Crow straightens, looking around the clearing, scouring her memory in the conversational gaps, trying to discern why it's so familiar...
"Do you live here? By this spring? I can't shake the feeling that I have been to it before, but surely I would have remembered a face as pretty as yours." Crow’s stance is more relaxed as she eases into what she's most familiar with: shameless flirting. She even winks.
Umeko blinks, unsure how to handle the flirting, The pink embarrassment on her cheeks is evidence enough of that, and a light, halfway-to-nervous laugh follows.
[nervous laughter] "I--I do. Not precisely here, but--nearby." Pause. "I think I have heard of you before. You helped with poachers here. The last time."
Umeko's blush is as much encouragement as it is discouragement. For now, Crow settles on a sly smirk and a slight shift in her weight, allowing her arms to relax enough to fold over her chest.
"Heard of me?" The notion is ridiculous. Crow can't help but laugh and shake her head. Soon her arms are at her sides, fingers fretting at her palms. She knows this place. She remembers the poachers. And then...
"I was not here very long at all, and there were so few of them... I doubt it is me you've heard of."
"Ah.” Umeko smiles. "Perhaps I was mistaken. But I know that word does spread." Umeko's smile renews. The early morning light filters through the trees. Birds chirp and trill. Something rustles through the brush.
"Don’t let me keep you, Crow-san. I apologize."
It's difficult not to feel as though that wasn't the answer that Umeko wanted, but it is the one she feels is most earnest.
"You aren't keeping me. It is certainly quite the contrary. Thank you for your help, Umeko-san." A slow bow follows, and she seeks her gaze when she is low enough for their eyes to be level. A small, private smile before she straightens.
"I hope you keep your distance from the poachers. We will take care of them before the day is out. I promise."
Umeko smiles. It's less a small and private thing than before, and she lingers in place of knowing really what to say. There's a sense that she doesn't quite want to move on, but is too embarrassed otherwise.
"Thank you, Crow-san. Please be careful!.” [pause, before saying decisively:] “Perhaps I will see you in the village." It's not really a question.
Umeko's less constrained smile inspires a similar one in herself. She even laughs.
"I am always careful!" It's not a lie, but it's not entirely true, either. Taking a bold leap, she reaches up to press her finger gently into the tip of Umeko's nose.
"I hope we do meet again."
Crow moves past her, palm rested on the hilt of her katana, until the ferns and undergrowth brush her knees. When she turns back to bid her another farewell, a small rabbit sits on the rock instead, black and white stripes divided perfectly along its body.
Another smile, a nod of her head, and continues on into the trees. Northward.