“What are you doing?”
Hana jerked her trekking pole away from the wolf pup she had found, swinging it blindly in the direction of the voice. A strong hand closed around the shaft of the pole. A young man was attached to that hand, making no attempt to move other than to prevent it from hitting him. He may have been her age, mid-twenties, with high cheekbones and narrow features. His hair was hidden under his dark hood, but the shaggy locks that framed his face were so blond they were practically white. He was taller than her by at least six inches, and even through his zippered hoodie and jeans, she could tell he had an athletic build. When she looked up, she was startled as ruby eyes stared back at her. He smirked at her reaction but raised his free hand in a placating gesture.
“If I release your weapon, are you going to try to strike me again?” His voice had a musical baritone to it, with a lilting accent that she couldn’t place. She felt a flush of embarrassment but she refused to let him fluster her.
“That depends. What were your intentions, sneaking up on a woman alone in the woods?” She almost thought she saw his strange eyes glow, her pulse quickening as his grin spread.
“What are you doing alone in the woods?”
Hana yanked the pole from his grasp, pointing the handle right at his face, a loop of rope swaying with the movement.
“I was hiking. Now, answer my question or I swear I will run you through with this.” She realized the ridiculousness of the threat but kept it from her face. The smile never left the man’s face as he gave a slight bow, like a fencer acknowledging an opponent’s touch.
“My apologies, ohimesama. I was hiking as well. I saw you and was curious what you were doing hunched over there.”
Hana frowned at the unfamiliar word, not entirely certain if she should be offended or not. She glanced over at the pup tangled in the vines just off the path, the stranger’s eyes glancing from the pup to the pole.
“Ah, you are looking to put the cur out of its misery. A rather crude method,” the indifference in his voice chilling, “but, who am I to interfere.”
Hana’s eyes snapped back to his in horror.
“What? No!” she cried. “Are you insane? Of course I’m not trying to kill him. What is wrong with you?”
She watched his brows rise in surprise, the color of his eyes darkening as the shadows of the trees shifted in the wind. He glanced down at the pole in her hands, a graceful finger lifting the loop at the end as he tilted his head in a question. She let out a disgusted noise and hastily lowered the pole from him.
“Oh don’t be stupid. I wasn’t trying to strangle him with this. I was trying to make a catch pole.” He glanced at her in confusion and she hurried to clarify. “To keep him from biting me while I cut away the vines.”
Again, he looked at her in surprise. “Most humans would just leave the cur to its fate.”
“Well then, those humans are asses. And stop calling him that. It sounds derogatory and just look at him, he’s adorable.”
“She,” the man corrected, “is nothing more than a wild dog resigned to her fate. Just let nature take its course.”
Hana no longer felt afraid of this man, just offended by his lack of compassion. She pushed past him, and returned to the pup, slowly moving the loop to the pup’s head.
“You still intend to help her?”
The pup flinched at the sound of the man’s voice and Hana hissed at him to be quiet.
“If you aren’t going to help,” she whispered, “then shut up and go away.”
She saw him take a step forward, crouching as he waved his hand for her to proceed. She bit back her thoughts, resuming her attempts at easing the loop over the pup’s head, wondering why the stranger had guessed the pup was a female. It wasn’t like it was obvious with her tangled up in the vines. Once the loop was over the pup’s head, she tightened it, the pup making a meager attempt to struggle, clearly worn out from being trapped.
Careful not to pull too tight, she wedged the pole between a rock and a log giving a quick shake to make sure it was secure. Satisfied it would hold, she grabbed her knife and slowly approached the injured pup. The pup tried to turn and snap at her, and Hana was relieved to see the pole worked as intended. She caught an impressed look on the man’s face, but quickly turned her attention to the task at hand. The pup growled and whimpered, eventually settling into a panting stillness. As Hana cut away the vines, realizing the pup was in fact a she wolf, she could feel the weight of the man’s gaze on her. It was distracting. She whispered in a low soothing voice so as not to startle her charge.
“If you’re going to sit and stare, at least tell me your name.” There was an almost unintentional smugness to his voice, though she was grateful he mimicked her tone.
“I have gone by many names.”
Hana glanced over at him in exasperation.
“You may call me Kit.”
“Well, Kit, has anyone ever told you that you are a very weird guy?”
He chuckled, ruby eyes dancing with genuine amusement. When he didn’t answer, she rolled her eyes, turning her attention back to check the pup for any injuries. There was a small cut and she rinsed it with water from her canteen, tying a bandage around it.
“You are well prepared for this type of thing.”
She shrugged. “Most experienced hikers are. Though I mostly have these things for me, not a wolf pup.”
Her heart skipped a beat as Kit leaned in close, inspecting her work. She could feel the heat from his skin, his scent as rich as the woods around them. There was approval in his red eyes, sending a wave of warmth rushing over her body. She knew she should have been more concerned over a strange man engaging her alone in the woods, but there was something about him that set her mind at ease. Well, at least when he hadn’t been so close. She cleared her throat, asking the first thing she could think of to break the awkward silence.
“So, what’s with the contacts?”
“What do you mean?”
Hana finished her work on her furry friend, arching an annoyed eyebrow at her strange companion.
“You can’t possibly think I believe ruby is your real eye color.” Understanding spread on his face, lips curling in a mischievous grin.
“And what makes you think that these eyes are not natural?”
Hana gave him a flat look, wondering if he really thought she was an idiot. When he didn’t elaborate, she took the opportunity to shift a few feet away to retrieve the knife from her pack. This was the difficult part, she would need to cut the rope from the pups neck without slipping while making sure she herself did not get bitten. She was grateful to put a little distance between herself and Kit, but was still keenly aware of his gaze on her as she hesitated.
“So what, you’re some kind of albino?”
His chuckle was soft, his breath tickling her ear as he reached over, warm hands gently taking the knife from hers. He murmured softly to the pup. Then in one fluid motion, Kit cut the rope from her neck, backing away swiftly but calmly. He placed a protective arm in front of Hana as the wolf pup stumbled, getting her legs under her. With the realization she was not longer trapped, the pup glanced quickly back at her rescuers before bounding off into the woods. Hana just stared in amazement, her question forgotten.
“That was amazing, what if she bit you?” Kit just smiled, assuring her he had it under control as he helped gather her things into her pack. She hefted it onto her back taking in the sky for the first time. A dark blue was creeping from east to west, the twilight reds and oranges starting to fade in the evening sky.
“Damn it. I didn’t realize how late it was. I need to get back to my camp before my friends start to worry.” She looked over at Kit. “I am sure your friends or family are waiting for you as well. Are you at the Pinegrove campgrounds too?”
She watched his gaze shift somewhere in the distance, his voice gaining a hint of sadness.
“No, my friends are - I am headed towards a different part of the woods. Pinegrove isn’t that far from here and, as it happens, it is in the same direction I am headed. I would be happy to walk with you till our paths part ways. You know,” he said, regaining his early self-confidence, “You never did tell me your name.”
“Oh,” she stuttered, embarrassed, “ah, it’s Hana. And yeah, I guess we could walk together, you know, since it’s in the same direction.”
Kit flashed her that mischievous smile. “After all, we wouldn’t want you to be attacked by another ferocious wolf.”
She glared at him, not sure how effective it was in the fading light. “Your just lucky it wasn’t you stuck there. I would have left you resigned to your fate.”
Kit’s laugh echoed through the woods, disturbing the birds that had been roosting above them as he made an ‘after you’ gesture. Hana moved past him, hoping he only saw her annoyance on her face. The truth was she was grateful he was there. She knew she wasn’t that far from the camp, however it would have been very easy to get turned around in the dark and she didn’t want to be alone if that happened. She glanced up, guessing that if they kept a consistent pace, they should make it back before the sun fully set. They walk in silence for a few minutes, Hana busy searching the path for roots to avoid while Kit strolled along as surefooted as if it was full day light. When Kit did break the silence, his question surprised her.
“So, what kind of friends are yours that would let you wander a potentially dangerous forest by yourself?” It was said in a light tone, but she thought she heard an undertone of dissatisfaction. He kept his face carefully neutral and she turned her attention back to the path to hide her smile.
“First of all, I am an experienced hiker and I often hike on my own. I’m not some delicate flower you know.” Kit snorted. Hana glanced over in surprise, the inelegance of the noise at odds with his up till now graceful behavior. His eyes found hers for a moment and he cleared his throat, adjusting his hood so that his face was deeper in its shadow. But not before she saw a hint of pink color his cheeks.
“Well,” he mused, as if nothing just happened, “that is ironic given your namesake. But what is the point of travelling with friends if you are not going to do things together?”
Hana ignored his jibe at her name, wincing a little at the mention of her friends. She had actually forgotten why she was out hiking in the first place.
“Ah well, these friends are dating and got into a pretty big fight earlier. So, I was giving them some space to talk things out.” She half expected another comment about nature taking its course but he just looked at her, a curious expression on his face. Without taking his eyes from her, she watched Kit step around a trail marker and come to a stop. She stopped next to him, recognizing the sign as it pointed down two paths. If she continued down the left side, it would lead her right to her campsite.
“As promised,” Kit said, “I have protected you from the evil demons that haunt this forest.” She tried not to laugh at the deep bow he gave her. Despite the initial circumstances, she found that she had actually enjoyed Kit’s company. And oddly, she found herself lingering, searching for something to talk about for even just a few more minutes. As if reading her thoughts he spoke, his eyes focused intently on her.
“You know, you reminded me of a story I heard, of a guardian fox spirit from long ago. He was his forest’s protector, keeping it and all who dwelled in it safe. For thousands of years, nature thrived in his forest, the circle of life rising and falling as was its course. In all those years, the fox had never felt anything other than the joy of caring for his land. Then humans came, felling the trees for their homes and killing the animals for their food. This upset the fox spirit, but he believed that this creature known as man was not dissimilar to the other animals of the forests. That they hunted and made shelters as any other animal would do, so he decided to leave them be.
“It wasn’t long until the fox realized that these creatures were no true animal at all. They were greedy and selfish, taking more land than was necessary, killing for sport, and driving the other creatures from their homes.”
“What happened?” Hana whispered, ensnared by the story. She was conscious of the seriousness that had darkened Kit’s face, but something in her tone must have caught his attention. His ruby eyes focused back on hers, his voice returning to its normal grandiose tone.
“The fox attacked in a rage, and destroyed the town. Swearing never again to allow a human to take advantage of his home.”
Hana thought on the ending, incredulous as she said, “I remind you of that?”
Kit’s features softened, a gentle smile warming the chill she had felt as he wove his tale.
“You, ohime- sorry, princess. You reminded me that perhaps the fox was too quick to condemn all humans simply for the transgressions of the few. There is great beauty in what you did today. Your compassion for the wolf pup and your selflessness to be on your own for the sake of your friends. I think the fox would be humbled by your actions.”
“Oh,” was all Hana could say, hoping the dark was concealing her blush. She had never before been so thoroughly complimented and it left her at a loss for words. It also called her attention back to how incredibly handsome this young man was. She fidgeted as he tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear.
“Now you best be off, before all the light fades and you lose your way.”
Hana started to protest but Kit took her hands in his, his face inches from hers.
“Should you ever come back to my woods, I am certain we will see each other again.”
She watched as he took a few steps down the right path, the wind sweeping back his hood to reveal a pair of what looked like white animal ears. Hana squinted, certain that the lingering twilight was playing tricks on her. Kit gave her a knowing wink and with a flash of blue light, Kit vanished into the night.
The walk back to the camp was a blur, Hana only coming back to herself as she stepped from the woods. She took in her campsite in a daze. Judging by the sway of the tent and the sounds from within Rachel and John had clearly made up. She looked down and noticed that her hand was clenched around something. When she eased her fingers open, it revealed a necklace with two charms on it. One was a flower, and the other a mask in the shape of a white wolf. She stared at the gift in disbelief. How had she not noticed Kit giving it to her. How could anything that just happened be real? Just as she started to believe she was hallucinating, a tiny yip pulled her attention to the shadows at the edge of the firelight.
She grinned as the tiny wolf pup yipped at her, tail wagging as she gave one tiny howl. Movement behind the pup drew her attention and a massive animal stared back at her. At first, she thought it was the pup’s mother, but its features were sharper and she realized that it was a giant fox. Its white fur shone with blue foxfire, his tails waving lazily behind in the night and… tails? She looked again and was dumbfounded when she counted nine tails. She found a pair of familiar ruby eyes, Kit’s eyes, staring back at her. She knew how unbelievable it seemed, but she was certain she was right. He flicked an ear at her, as if to confirm that those were in fact ears she had seen. The two canines paused a moment more before retreating back into the dark, the fox’s mouth dropping open into a grin as he winked at her.
Form that moment she knew she would never forget that night. She slipped the necklace over her head, its weight strangely familiar, as if it had always belonged there. She pulled a blanket from her tent and set it next to the fire while she pulled out her phone to do some research. After a few minutes she settled in to begin reading about the nine-tailed fox, or as they were known in Japan, the kitsune.