Xavier wasn't sure what he had expected the next day to bring, but it wasn't to be awoken by an over-enthusiastic cat-boy. «Rise and shine!» called Yukio as he burst into Xavier's room and whipped off his blankets. «Come on, Zabi-kun, we've got to get you ready to see the elders. The day's wasting!»
Curse introductory Japanese! Xavier had never wished so fervently that he knew how to swear in another language.
Yukio proceeded to drag him to a common room in the wayhouse where they ate a simple breakfast and then forced him out of the wayhouse and between the buildings, talking his ear off the whole way.
Eventually, they reached a large, low building without windows. «Where?»
«The bath-house, the bath-house! You are way too filthy to make a good impression, Zabi-kun.» Yukio barged through the entry, Xavier in tow.
Inside was an old goat lady seated beside a pair of large baskets, evidently folding towels. «A neko, eh? Never thought I'd see your kind here.»
«Oh, I'm not bathing, thank you grandmother!» said Yukio with great cheer. «No, I've got an even more rarified guest for you today.» He shoved Xavier front and center, and the old lady's eyes widened.
«A human? What is a human doing in Henka?»
«I would love to tell you about it, grandmother! But first—Zabi-kun. Go there. Wash.» Yukio mimed licking his own arm. «Go on. Shoo, shoo!»
Xavier went. Though he wasn't planning on licking himself, thank you very much. Did cat people actually bathe themselves that way?
Inside was a large tile-lined bath of water that was gently steaming in the cool temperature of the morning. Xavier was alone, although he could hear the old woman and Yukio chatting it up in the adjoining room. He'd never been inside a Japanese communal bathhouse, but evidently this was to be his maiden voyage. He vaguely recalled that Japanese tended to bathe in the evenings, which perhaps explained the lack of other patrons. Though did that even apply here? Sure they spoke Japanese, but isekai worlds were often more grounded in weird interpretations of medieval Europe. Plus, weren't they in the middle of a desert? Where did they get this much water? And how was it heated?
Xavier was eager to explore the bath house to try and see if he could find any answers to his questions, but the gently steaming bath water was reminding him far too clearly of the fact that mornings here in this desert were incredibly cold, and that he was absolutely filthy.
With a single glance at the benches where he was pretty sure he was supposed to wash himself before getting in the bath proper, he sloughed off his pajamas and waded straight in. Forget bowing to cross-cultural norms; he was suddenly afflicted with the burning desire to be clean.
For a while Xavier just sat and relaxed in the water, though after a bit the sheer amount of dirt that was detaching from him and floating into the bath encouraged him to get out and do a quick scrub and rinse with the soap at one of the nearby benches. That task complete, he hurried back into the bath and sat up against the warm tile along the edge.
Xavier sighed deeply, actually feeling halfway relaxed. The tension in his overstressed muscles slowly released in the heated water, and for the first time since waking up three days ago he had a chance to take a moment and think without a pressing threat to his survival stealing his focus and energy.
Any way he looked at it, this situation was dire. He was stranded alone in a strange world in one of the most hostile environments he'd ever experienced, and he had the sinking feeling that he wasn't an over-powered protagonist. That was a huge shame; while the OP protagonist route was one that was invariably littered with violence, harems, and other pitfalls, the everyman protagonist trope was one in which his choices would be far more constrained. OP protagonists typically had some level of choice if they were going to get into dangerous situations; if he'd been granted some crazy powerful artifact or skill, then he would have some leverage to push the plot in directions that were helpful for him. Since all he had going for him were two semesters of high school Japanese, a set of pajamas that was about to fall apart, and his wits he was going to have a much harder time influencing the plot in helpful directions.
Although, come to think—maybe he did have some sort of magical ability? Xavier lifted his hand out of the water and stared at it, remembering the sensation of a bird woman's talons scraping across his palm as they retracted. Sumiko-san had been obviously perplexed last night when the heat faded from the blanket he was holding so quickly. Maybe he had a cheat ability that he just hadn't explored yet? Like some sort of innate ability to counter this world's magic? At the very least, he appeared to be able to make animal people he touched become more human-like. That could actually be pretty over-powered on its own, depending on how it worked and whether he could improve on it with practice. He would definitely need to explore that possibility, as well as figure out if he would be able to do magic. He had a strong feeling that if he was going to make it back home, he was going to need some very high-level magic along the way.
Hm, how else did isekai protagonists tend to get ahead? They often had crazy good support networks that allowed them to grow and improve their abilities despite dangerous circumstances. Xavier wasn't sure if the animal people counted there; a lot of them seemed very leery of him. He absolutely needed to establish a place in this community somehow; that was arguably even more important than learning the language properly and getting magic figured out.
Unfortunately, he was drawing a complete blank on what he could contribute. From what he'd seen so far, the animal people were far more physically fit than he was, so the low-hanging fruit of physical labor was unlikely. He didn't have any particular skills in cooking or other domestic pursuits. He had never been very interested in engineering and knew next to nothing about deserts, so he was pessimistic that he would be able to come up with any ideas that would substantively improve their lives. He could attempt the dangerous game of trying to predict future events using his knowledge of genre tropes—except he could barely communicate his most basic needs.
Well, that could wait, he supposed. The nice thing about being a manga protagonist was that if he didn't take any specific action, something would inevitably find him instead. He'd just have to hope it wasn't anything too dangerous. That monster he'd run into in the desert had been horrific. If his weird ability to cancel magic or whatever turned out to be key to defeating that sort of threat—he wasn't sure what he'd do then, actually. Cross that bridge when he came to it, he supposed, and possibly keep running until he found a saner scenario.
If only his dad and mom were here; he was sure they—
Xavier's thoughts jolted to a complete stop as he unexpectedly fell over an emotional cliff. Mom. Dad. Vickie. Hayden. Rachel. Everyone he knew and loved, and everything he truly understood was absolutely beyond his reach. For the first time in his entire life, he was completely alone.
He didn't try to fight the wave of emotion that hit him then. In the midst of this giant, empty pool of water, he could definitely spare the moisture.
Silent as the caracal that was an ancient part of his heritage, Yukio slipped down the aisle between the stools and retrieved the filthy outfit the human had been wearing day and night since he'd stumbled into their battle with the youkai, leaving a clean set of clothes behind. He briefly paused to consider trying to comfort the human, but he still wasn't sure whether it was worth the effort to establish that level of rapport. Better to leave him for now. He was already admirably serving Yukio's short-term interests, and if he led to opportunities in the future…well, Yukio certainly wouldn't want someone to see him that vulnerable. Perhaps leaving the human alone for now was the right move in either case. His birth family certainly wouldn't have been able to resist the sort of emotional vulnerability the human was displaying at the moment, which was a solid argument in favor of quietly leaving the way he had come.
Plus he hated getting wet.
With a shake to settle his fur, Yukio quietly headed back outside, leaving Xavier to his loneliness and grief.