It was late winter, and Kita had just finished cleaning up the kitchen, a pot of oden broth boiling on the stove. All that was left was to add all of the other ingredients: daikon, boiled eggs, kombu, octopus, konnyaku, aburaage and Nerimono. It was a dish that his grandmother used to make all the time during the winter. The broth would simmer with the ingredients on a low heat the entire day Kita was at school, and when he got home, there would be a snack waiting for him.
The gods are always watching, Shinsuke. Kita felt his lips curve up into a slight, gentle smile as his grandmother's words echoed through his head. It had been a couple years since her passing, and Kita had continued to work on the rice farm in her memory.
Kita was just drying off the cutting board when he heard a thump outside his door. Frowning, Kita glanced at the clock that read 19:37, and flicked his gaze to stare out the window. It was quite dark out, the only light source coming from the porch light. Kita was almost certain someone's face would pop into view through the window.
When no one revealed themselves and no second noise followed the first, Kita turned back to the stove, figuring it was just snow falling from the roof. Kita gently placed the ingredients into the now-simmering broth, and paused when he heard another noise. This time, it sounded like a child's cry for help.
Kita immediately set the plate of Nerimono down and wiped his hands on the apron he was wearing, striding over to the door. He undid the deadbolt and the lock, before swinging the door open. There, on the snow-covered porch, was a fox. It was gravely injured, a red-stained snow patch growing beneath it. It let out the same cry, and Kita quickly slipped into some boots to step out into the snow.
The fox seemed to startle when it noticed Kita getting close, and made a move to stand. Inevitably failing, the fox slumped against the snow, glancing up at Kita with a panic-stricken brown gaze. Kita held his hands up in what he hoped to be a less-intimidating manner, before he managed to slide his arms beneath the animal's body, easily lifting it.
"Don't bite me." Kita said, eyes flickering down to the animal. The fox froze, blinking once before it sagged, muzzle resting against Kita's shoulder instead. Kita stepped back inside, shouldering the door shut before neatly drying his boots before putting them to the side on the genkan. The fox's fur was matted and wet, and it was trembling in Kita's arms.
Kita wasn't entirely sure how to take care of an injured animal, but he brought the fox to the bathroom and settled it on the floor of the tub, before starting to run some warm water. The fox barely lifted its head, instead reaching out with a black-furred paw and resting it lightly on Kita's forearm. Kita did his best to clean the fox's pelt, getting rid of grime and blood, where he found a nasty gash near the fox's belly, reaching up to its left side.
"Stay here, 'n don't move, alright?" Kita stood, and the fox huffed through its nose. Kita scrubbed his hands and arms clean in the sink, threw his apron and shirt into the hamper, and left to put a microfiber towel down on the ground before the small fireplace. Afterwards, he went to check on the oden, sliding the Nerimono into the broth, he turned the heat down to low, covered it and went back to the bathroom to check on the fox.
The wound had stopped bleeding, but the puckered flesh looked painful. The fox whimpered when Kita lifted it again, wet fur pressing against Kita's bare torso. The fireplace was flickering merrily, a source of heat Kita enjoyed during the winter days before he put it out and used the internal heating for the night. Once the fox was settled on the towel, Kita patted down the wet fur around the wound, being mindful of the pressure he was applying.
After bandaging the wound as best he could, the fox was asleep, black paws tucked close to its body, ears twitching. Kita let out a soft sigh, and cleaned up the mess before he rinsed down the tub in the bathroom, taking a quick shower and throwing some new clothes on. The oden smelled wonderful, and Kita's stomach grumbled. He'd worry about getting something for the fox after he ate.
Oden during the winter was a perfect meal for Kita, and he found his eyes straying to the sleeping animal in his living room as he ate. The fox didn't stir when Kita washed his bowl and spoon, or when Kita carefully placed leftovers in the fridge, nor when the kettle screeched with boiling water. (Kita had to check to make sure the fox was still breathing - it was.)
The fox only stirred when Kita moved into the living room, holding a plate of leftover yakitori chicken and un-used tofu on the floor. The fox lifted its head, blinking at Kita, gaze shifting to the fire then to the plate of food. Wordlessly, Kita went to sit next to the fox, cradling his mug in one hand while he fed the fox. He was worried the fox would choke on the food, since it couldn't sit up, but it seemed that his concern wasn't needed.
The fox swiped a rough tongue across Kita's fingers when it finished, pushing its head into Kita's hand. It was a little odd that the fox was willing a human to pet it. Kita's fingers dug slightly behind the fox's ears, and its eyes curving up into little crescent moons. Kita hid a small smile by taking a sip of tea.
The fox recovered quite quickly, and Kita learned that the fox seemed to enjoy eating rice and with bits of yakitori chicken. He hadn't given a name to the fox, presuming that it would soon return to the forests surrounding the rice paddies. But, Kita let himself indulge in the temporary companionship. The fox liked curling up near Kita when he went to sleep, it liked scratches behind the ears, and it was curious. There were several instances where the fox would follow Kita around the house, watching him clean, cook, or even brush his teeth. The fox had even managed to get rid of the two mice Kita had seen skittering across the floorboards the other week.
"Yer gonna strain yer injury." Kita chastised, the fox staring at him with the dead mouse hanging by its tail from the fox's jaws. "If yer plannin' ta eat that, then do it outside." The fox's tail twitched, and padded to the door before turning back to Kita with an expectant look. The rice farmer sighed, before following the fox to open the door.
He waited, slightly surprised to see that instead of eating the mouse, the fox pawed at the ground until there was a hole, dropping the carcass before covering it. The fox looked pleased with itself as it trotted back to the door, butting its head against Kita's thigh with a contented noise.
By the middle of the second week, the fox no longer needed a bandage, and walked without a limp. Kita found that the fox was smart enough to be able to open the door by itself, so he started leaving the deadbolt and lock open during the day, before shutting them at night.
But the fox still stayed, curled up against Kita's chest at night, eating a bowl of rice with whatever else Kita had made for dinner that night, curling next to Kita by the fireplace as he sipped at his jasmine tea. It wasn't until the first signs of spring arrived that the fox left.
A silver fox had appeared in the rice paddies, and the red fox staying with Kita had opened the door with its paws, bounding across the snow to tackle the other canine. At first, Kita was worried it was a territorial move, but soon relaxed when he heard the happy chittering of both foxes. He watched, leaning against the doorframe as the foxes played together - almost like a reunion - and swallowed down the feeling of sadness.
The red fox looked up to see Kita staring from across the fields and tilted its head, lifting up on hind legs to wave a forepaw, as if bidding Kita goodbye. Kita simply smiled, lifting a hand in response, and the fox dropped back down onto all fours, chasing after the silver fox and disappearing into the woods.
The day after the fox left, Kita's dinner was interrupted by a scratching at his door. Frowning, Kita stood and moved over to the door, opening it to find the red fox sitting there, tail curled neatly around its paws. There was a neatly tied pouch in its mouth, and it settled it on the floor by Kita's feet. The fox let out a yip, bumped Kita's knee with its nose and darted off the porch, disappearing into the night.
Kita took the pouch, and returned inside. He'd untie it when he finished eating dinner, re-heated curry from the night before. The pouch was immaculately tied, an impossible feat for a fox with paws to do. Still, as Kita undid the tie on the cleared dinner table, he was surprised to find the leaf pouch was filled with acorns. A soft smile crossed Kita's face, and he swiped them into a jar, placing it on a shelf, before he moved to clean up the kitchen.
The fox returned the next day, with another neatly tied pouch in its mouth, this one full of chestnuts. It returned the day after that, and the day after that, each time carrying a small pouch or trinket, a gift that it would leave by Kita's feet before scampering off back into the forest. There were smooth stones that seemed to shine like an oil spill in the light, rare and edible forest mushrooms, bundles of herbs, acorns and chestnuts, and Kita's personal favorite, a tightly and intricately braided red and gold bracelet that hung loosely around his wrist.
How the fox got its paws on something like that, he wasn't sure.
The fox would always make it's presence known with a few light thuds around 20:45 each night, and Kita found himself looking forward to the short interactions to the point where he prepared a small snack of rice and yakitori chicken for the fox.
As spring came, Kita fell back into his usual routine of rice farming - wake up with the sun, have some tea and a light breakfast before going out to the paddies. He was grateful for the companionship that came with it, the small neighborhood he lived in came alive with the rice season, everyone working together to help farm and prepare the rice for shipment.
It was hard work, but Kita welcomed the familiar ache he felt in his muscles after a full winter of relaxation and time off. Sometimes Kita caught glimpses of a red fox tail from his peripheral vision when he was working near the edges of the paddies, and sometimes he heard exclamations of the children, talking about how they saw a pair of foxes playing together.
Kita's fox still came to visit, and tonight's visit would mark two months since it had gone back to live in the wild. Kita missed having another being in the house, he found himself remembering the silence that his grandmother left behind after her passing. It was a selfish thought, but Kita wanted the fox to come back to him, to live alongside him.
The gods are always watching, Shinsuke.
This time, at 20:40, not 20:45, instead of hearing a few light thuds of fox paws against his door, Kita was surprised to hear the sound of three sharp raps against the wood of his door. Figuring it was a neighbor, Kita went to open the door, halting when he took in the sight of a man he'd never seen before.
He was taller than Kita by a solid few inches, broad shouldered with blonde hair and a dark undercut. His eyes were a golden-brown, alight with curiosity and mischief, seeming to glow in contrast to the red and gold yukata he wore.
Although Kita had never met this man in his life, something about him was familiar. Kita's eyes fell to the man's hands, holding a small box, and an embroidered bracelet, much like Kita's, around his wrist.
"Are..." Kita started, voice trailing off. The man before him smiled, confirming any and all of Kita's thoughts, relieving the aching pain of loneliness.
"'m Atsumu. It's nice ta finally speak to ya." A flowery warmth bloomed in Kita's chest.