"Kitzu, dear, don't wander too far! It's almost dinner time and I'm making your favorite!"
Kitzuna skids to a halt, looking over her shoulder where her mother stands, futon in hand and her sleeves tied back with a brightly colored tasuki (Kitzuna had taken the berries from the forest and dyed an entire pristine white cloth with them once upon a time. Her mother, laughing in delight, had turned the newly red and purple cloth into colorful strips for their hair ties and clothes). "Really mama?"
Her mother's laugh rings through Kitzuna's soul. "Of course! Did you think I'd forgotten, Kitzu darling? You only turn seven once!"
Kitzuna beams. "I just thought we'd wait till the festival," she shouts, spinning with delight. "Imma find some berries too, mama!"
"Just make sure you're back before the moon rises, dear! And don't go wandering too far up the mountain!"
Her mother's words echo after her as she takes to the forest, eyes bright with purpose; those berries would be hers and she would make those yummy mochi sweets her mother taught her to make last week!
With no other human presence in the forest, Kitzuna can hear the rustle of small animals darting away from her sudden appearance and the startled chirps of birds now quite annoyed at the small human child bursting into their peaceful autumn day.
But Kitzuna pays them no mind today, she has a mission.
She knows the berries are at the foot of the mountains, right where the rocks begin their jagged march upwards and where she fell last fall and scraped her knee so bad she couldn’t play outside until spring! Still, she’s not gonna go up the rocks today - she has no desire to be kept inside for the whole winter again. It’s easy enough to reach the berries without traipsing over the rocks and risking injury and bed rest.
Kitzuna veers right at the big sakura tree - bereft of all but a few fading ochre and sun-red leaves as fall takes over - then sets course for the large pine tree marking the base of the mountain.
When her foot lands on something round and unstable, Kitzuna squeals in shock, windmilling her arms in a desperate attempt to stay upright before her poor footing dumps her into a pile of leaves, spluttering and biting back a cry at her hard landing with the ground.
A startled squeak distracts her from the mild ache forming in her tailbone, and she looks around. “Hello?” she calls out, uncertain. “Did someone drop a…” she sits up and reaches towards her right, hand landing on the smooth, round object that had so rudely interrupted her. “A scroll?” She peers down at the fairly large scroll, frown twisting her small mouth. “Why’s there a scroll in the forest?”
Such a strange thing all the way out here. Kitzuna knows her home is really far from any shops or those big houses her mother tells her belong to the important people who make all the rules, so what would a scroll be doing here? No one besides her, her mother, and some of the elderly women and men from the village near the small river ever come up here, and no one besides her mother and the village elder can read. Kitzuna’s learning but it’s hard and she doesn’t know enough to read all the elegant characters on the side of the scroll. Maybe she can take it back to her mother to read, and then it’ll go to its owner.
Mind made up, Kitzuna stands up and brushes leaves and dirt from her hakama and makes sure the ties holding them up are still tied snuggly around her waist. Reassured she’s not ruined another set of clothes, Kitzuna turns, scroll clutched tightly in hand, and takes a single step back towards her home.
A cry of despair fills the quiet forest, then a small, strong force yanks Kitzuna backwards. She stumbles, holding the scroll to her chest, and plops down onto the leaves, bewildered. “What?” She whirls around, then blinks when she sees her assailant.
Barely the size of Shiro, the white cat that visits for scraps, is a red fox with a mouthful of her hakama in its mouth, amber eyes bright with tears. Still, Kitzuna’s seen foxes before, she lives next to a forest mountain, but there’s something strange about this fox.
“You have three tails!” Kitzuna cries, eyes alight in curiosity. “Mama told me stories of the kitsune of the forest!”
The little three-tailed fox whimpers, eyes darting to the scroll in Kitzuna’s hand. It spits out the mouthful of fabric and takes a step back, sitting as elegantly as a worried and frightened fox could.
“Is this your scroll?” Kitzuna holds the scroll up.
The fox nods, front paws tearing up the leaves.
Kitzuna tilts her head, frowning. “Why’d you bring a scroll to the mountains? There’s nothing up here, I mean, nothing I’ve seen. I can’t go up to the top yet, mama says I’m too young yet, but I’ve not seen anything.” When the fox merely whines, Kitzuna scowls. “I know you can talk, you’ve got more than one tail which means you’ve got magic and all.”
“Please, my scroll,” the little fox finally pleads. “I have to bring the scroll to my mistress.”
“Mkay, mama makes me take stuff to the village all the time too, is that what you gotta do? Run errands?” Kitzuna leans forward, keeping the scroll between her crossed legs. “I don’t like it cause mama can’t come with me, but I get sweets sometimes. Do you get sweets?”
The little fox huffs. “I don’t have to answer you, human child.”
“I tripped on your scroll, which means you dropped it and made a mistake. You’re supposed to say sorry when you make a mistake and someone gets hurt.” Kitzuna scowls her best copy of her mother’s scowl.
“You were running so loudly, you startled me!”
“I can run anywhere I want! I didn’t run over you, I know cause I’m always careful of the animals. But you dropped something and I tripped on it and now you’re not saying sorry.” Kitzuna huffs back at the fox, who growls. “Nuh-uh, mama told me you have to say sorry!”
“Fine, little human child, I am sorry.”
“What do you mean, for what? I dropped the scroll and you fell!”
“And you yanked on my pants and made me fall again!”
“Because you were taking my scroll!”
“I was gonna take it to mama so she could read it and bring it to the person it belongs to!”
“Your mother could not read such a scroll!”
“She could too! Mama can read anything, even Headman Yamagawa asks mama to read things for him! And I always see scrolls like this at home.” Kitzuna points at the scroll she’s holding captive. “I even know that this character means it belongs to someone important!” She points at the third character.
The fox huffs. “How could you know that? You are not of the nobility nor are you in a center for education.”
Kitzuna glares at the little fox. “Cause mama told me so! I’m learning to read!”
“And you can read Kitsune Scrolls?”
“Not really, I dunno what the other characters are, but I know this one!”
The fox tilts its head, considering the child, before it asks, in a much softer voice, “What’s your name, child?”
“And your family name, Kitzuna?”
Kitzuna shrugs. “Mama hasn’t said yet, but that’s okay. She promised to tell me tonight since I turned seven. What’s your name?”
The fox looks startled. “My name?”
“Uh-huh. It’s polite. You ask my name and I ask your name. That’s how it goes.”
“I am…I am Natzuki.” The fox shifts. “If you can read it, I write my name like this.” The little fox clears the leaves and sketches out two characters.
Kitzuna leans forward. “I know this one is ‘moon’ but this one…is it like a tree?”
Natzuki chuckles. “Yes, little Kitzuna. It is a special tree that never loses its leaves during the cold season. Do you, perchance, know how to write your name?”
“Of course! Mama made sure I’m really good at it!” Kitzuna leans forward and, tongue poking out from between her teeth, writes her name in neat strokes. “See!”
For a long moment, Natzuki stares at the single character, before looking at the child. “That is a very strong name, Kitzuna.”
Kitzuna puffs up, beaming. “I like my name lots! Well, since you said sorry and you told me your name, I guess I can give you your scroll back.”
Natzuki chitters, prancing forward a bit and bowing slightly. “Thank you, Kitzuna, for your kindness. I will be more careful in the future.” The fox takes the scroll from Kitzuna’s hand, careful to keep any sharp teeth away from delicate skin.
“Let’s play together again, Natzuki! I don’t live far, just in the house at the edge of the forest, so come and say hi! We can play tag or hide and seek!”
The little fox freezes, staring at Kitzuna with wide eyes.
“You’ll come play, right?” Kitzuna frets, worried she’d upset her new friend. “I mean, it’s not so far and if you’re delivering a scroll somewhere it means you gotta live somewhere close, right?”
For a moment, Natzuki says nothing, then drops the scroll onto the leaves. “I shall see you whenever you wish, Lady Kitzuna.”
Kitzuna scrunches up her face. “I’m not a lady!”
Natzuki chitters, amused. “Little Kitzuna, then. If you wish to play, just come to this sakura tree and call my name. If I am free, I shall visit you.”
“Yay!” Kitzuna cheers. “Bye Natzuki!” She waves to her new friend, then takes off for the berries once more - she could tell her mother all about her new friend as they made the jam for the mochi tonight!”
Natzuki stares, mystified, as the little girl takes off towards the base of the mountain. Such a strange little girl, to not only see her but to demand her name and then freely share her own. To see the characters on the scroll and even know how to read one of them.
Surely she must be imagining it, but Natzuki knows she isn’t. And with her destination so close, she can confirm her suspicions quite easily.
In almost no time at all, the woods clear and her destination is before her.
She bounds over to the feet of an elegant woman absently humming a tune older than the trees of the forest and hanging up a futon to dry. “Oh, little one. I did not expect a delivery today.” She leans down to relieve Natzuki of her burden. “And what is your name, little three-tailed?”
“I am Natzuki, Lady Raikou.” She bows, pressing her head between her paws.
“What a lovely name, Little Natzuki. I suspect you and my daughter will be quite good friends.” Lady Raikou smiles at her, eyes knowing.
Natzuki chitters. “Little Kitzuna objected to being called ‘Lady’.”
Lady Raikou laughs. “Of course she did! She does not yet know of her heritage, and I doubt her wild and carefree ways will change once she does.” She leans down to rub the spot between Natzuki’s ears. “Take good care of my daughter, Little Natzuki. She has quite a future in store for her and will need friends.”
“Of course. She was quite kind to me, despite my initial mistakes.”
“You are not much older than her, Little Natzuki. She will be good for you too.” A bright giggle echoes from the forest, and Lady Raikou beams. “My little Kitzuna will be the best of us all, Little Natzuki.”
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