Inside the warm room, under the kotatsu, Mutsu comfortably rested. Sometimes, she would look at her phone, only to close her eyes again. As she passed the time like that, Mutsu’s pack of cigarettes was emptied in the blink of an eye.
“Say, young lady-”
“Why are you calling me a young lady? My name is Mutsu.”
“Yeah, yeah. Mutsu, is it okay for you to be like this? Idling about? You came here to investigate, didn’t you?”
Mutsu lied on her stomach, happily stroking the tail of the big fox who slept next to her in a similar posture.
“Let’s rest a bit longer. That reminds me, didn’t any human beings come here before me?”
“Just recently, there was a man who came to ask similar questions I believe.”
Mutsu broadly grinned as she played with the tail, thinking that Shirou-chan must have come here after all.
“Hmm, I wonder if that’s him…”
The unhurried sound of an approaching car could be heard. One of the kitsune went out to take a look.
“Do you know the guy who came here before? He said he was from the police and he seemed to know about us.”
“Yes, we could be called childhood friends.”
The kitsune came back in tow with Toushirou. The latter stared at Mutsu as she laid on the floor, stroking the tail of the kitsune next to her, and at the kitsune who let her do so and was quiet for a while.
“I’ve been waiting!!”
Mutsu stood up from the kotatsu and went to receive the bag that Toushirou had brought with him. Then she retrieved several boxes from it and distributed them to the kitsune.
“So you weren’t the one waiting for the cigarettes and the castella, but rather the kitsune?”
“Yes. They told me what they know and will cooperate with us.”
“Huh? Are we going to cooperate more?”
“Oh? Was I wrong? Then this isn’t needed, I guess. Shirou-chan, let’s go back.”
Mutsu quickly started taking back the boxes and prepared to leave with Toushirou, but the kitsune flocked before the door to stop them.
“Wait, we’ll cooperate!!”
“Really? Thank you!”
Mutsu gave a satisfied smile and gave back the cigarettes and cakes, and promptly sat down.
“Well then, kitsune-sans. I want you guys to find out what the strange presence you were talking about is.”
“Isn’t that dangerous for us?”
“Aren’t you all supernatural beings?”
Mutsu’s words swayed the kitsunes’ opinions. The one holding the boxes of castella cake suspiciously turned around and scowled at Mutsu and Toushirou.
“What is it?”
“What’s with the weird color?”
Toushirou instantly caught the thrown box that had been aimed at Mutsu and looked inside. To the two of them, the contents looked like an ordinary pale green castella cake.
“Has it gone bad?”
The fur of the kitsune stood on end in anger.
“Oh, it’s because I was going by Mutsu’s preferences.”
“Shirou-chan, you remember my preferences! I’m touched.”
“Huh, Mutsu-dono likes spoiled castella cake?! Humans are weird.”
Despite everything, the kitsune turned their eyes towards Mutsu, their gazes tinged with pity. Without noticing that, Mutsu stared at Toushirou, her cheeks faintly tinted with red.
“You’re wrong, kitsune-san. It’s matcha flavor. Mutsu has liked matcha since we were kids.”
Toushirou had bought it because he thought that Mutsu wanted to eat the cake, but now he regretted it and thought it had been unnecessary.
“Then I’ll eat them.”
With these words, Mutsu tried to take the boxes, but the kitsune immediately went to take them back-
“It’s fine if it’s matcha.”
The tails of the kitsune who had opened a few of the boxes wagged in delight.
“Mutsu, isn’t the favorite food of kitsune deep fried tofu? Or is my perception outdated?”
“It probably is.”
The kitsune gave Toushirou, who attentively watched them and worried that Mutsu might not reach an understanding with them, a few sidelong glances as they shared the castella cakes among themselves.
“Well then, kitsune-sans, I hope you’ll keep our agreement. We’ll be leaving now.”
As Mutsu said this, she left the shrine office together with Toushirou.
“At the end of the day I still needed you to come again. Did it cause trouble with your work?”
“Nah, it’s pretty lax in that regard. Where are we going next?”
After he waited for Mutsu to fasten her seatbelt, Toushirou slowly reversed out from the narrow road and carefully backed out onto the prefectural road.
“There is a local museum, right? So there, and also where people have disappeared.”
“Towards the populated areas then. Hakonou is like a fairly spacious village, with several populated areas. It’s only a town in name, in reality it’s very much a village.”
When they returned to the traffic light where Mutsu got off the car before, they turned left and saw houses scattered on the sides of the single lane road.
The intervals between the houses were large, and the scene gave off a lonely and desolate feeling, maybe because there were many plots of land and fields.
“The population seems to suffer from declining population.”
“Yeah, but don’t all mountain areas give off that feel?”
Following the winding roads, they could see an increase in households with cattle barns among the houses. The tallest buildings around were two story private residences. And then they reached the rice fields. One could see them completely, from where they started to where they ended, and beyond them, the lined up houses were visible in the distance, with a mountain towering behind.
“It looks a bit like our hometown, doesn’t it?”
“There were more houses and people back there. Do you go back there sometimes, Shirou-chan?”
“Only for New Years and the Festival of the Dead. You should visit sometimes too. My mother worries about you.”
“I’ll do it sometime.”
The car Toushirou was driving passed by the fields and headed for the mountain, before it finally stopped at a crossroads.