The wolf bakuhito squad leader insisted that Xavier and Kahina wait until they had completely cleared the street of others before they allowed them to begin the long walk back to Isei Wayhouse. While they walked the mononoke disturbed Xavier—not to mention every bakuhito in their escort—by crawling around his torso until it finally settled on his left shoulder.
Xavier tried his best to ignore the feeling of small tentacles dragging a three-pound flower monster around his body, and focused on Kahina, who for the first time since he had met her was walking far enough away that they wouldn't touch.
«What is a mononoke?»
«Myths,» she grumbled. «Or so I thought until I visited the Tachigare.»
«But what do they do? Why is everyone so afraid of it?»
«Mononoke invade a host, and then pump them so full of Vigor that they become a kami.»
«What is 'invade'?»
Kahina looked troubled, and the bakuhito squad leader spoke over his shoulder. «Mononoke force their way into your body and wrap their roots around your internal organs. They're impossible to remove without killing their host.»
Xavier looked askance at the flower that was sunnily perched on his shoulder. "What? Do I have something on my petals? Oh, you don't have to worry about the whole internal organs thing. Like I said, before I was conscious I gave that a shot with you and it didn't work out. Drained me as soon as I came into contact, and it completely disrupted my ability to penetrate your skin properly."
«You are sleeping on the floor tonight,» said Xavier.
"Uh, right, so that might not be the best idea, given that I turn into what is evidently these nice doggie's worst nightmare as soon as I'm out of contact with you for a few minutes."
«You're still staying outside the blankets.»
"Fine, whatever, it's not like I want to cuddle up with your squishy meat-self anyway. We'll just hold hands. All. Night. Long." And the plant wrapped a tendril around Xavier's upper arm and gave it an affectionate squeeze.
What was with everyone—or in this case, everything—wanting to hold his hand in this world? Sure, manga tended to play up the whole "other cultures are so touchy-feely" thing, but this was getting silly.
Xavier turned away from the mononoke to find Kahina staring intently at him. «That thing is seriously communicating with you?»
Xavier nodded, and the giantess gave him a speculative look he couldn't otherwise interpret.
"Oooh, pretty sure she just wants you for your body," said the mononoke.
Xavier didn't dignify that with a response.
The group arrived at Isei Wayhouse to find Sumiko arguing with the bakuhito who had been sent ahead outside the otherwise-empty building.
«No, I will not leave!» the racoon-girl was saying as they approached. «You should leave if you're so afraid of a human who can't even transfer heat from a rock to keep himself safe at night! Yes, I'm very well aware he's come into contact with a mononoke. You think you Henkan wolves are the only ones who have ever encountered mononoke? Get out of my wayhouse!»
Xavier stopped in surprise. He'd never seen Sumiko so angry before; her hair was actually bristling. As the wolf she'd been berating retreated with his tail literally between his legs, Sumiko caught sight of the rest of them.
«You look awful, Zabi-kun,» she said, running a hand over her hair and smoothing it back down. «Do me a favor and pick that thing up off your shoulder for a moment, would you?»
Xavier complied, the mononoke letting go of his shoulder slowly with what almost seemed like regret.
Xavier didn't see it, but Sumiko was suddenly right in front of him, having covered the distance between the two of them fast enough he hadn't been able to track it.
«Hmm, good.» She plucked the vine off the side of his head, but let it go as soon as it completely cleared his hair and stepped back. «Thank you, Zabi-kun.» She turned to the rest of the group while Xavier just gaped at her with his hand and the mononoke still held up in the air. She'd grabbed the thing so casually when everyone else who had seen it had kept him at arm's reach. What the hell?
"What the hell?" said the mononoke. "That tanuki girl is crazy rude! Just man-handling me like that!"
"She's a racoon," said Xavier under his breath, thankfully remembering to speak in English this time. He was finding it difficult to switch languages.
The mononoke subsided on his shoulder, grumbling to itself as it reasserted its grip on him.
«Zabi-kun and the Antean—I am sorry, it's Kahina-san, correct?—are welcome to stay here, but I will be staying, as well.»
«Who are you, anyway?» asked the squad leader, annoyance turning his voice into a growl.
«My name is Sumiko. I am the caretaker of this wayhouse.»
«Sumiko…ah. Formally of the Araiguma traders?»
Xavier noticed Sumiko's hair was starting to fluff back up again, but she nodded curtly.
«Um, very good. We will leave the mononoke and the human here with you; the Antean will need to stay here tonight, as well. If you need anything, please call. We will be posting sentries around the building tonight, and I expect the elders will want to talk to the human in the morning.»
The wolves gathered themselves into a pack and dispersed around the wayhouse, the squad leader giving orders and sending off runners as they went.
After they left, Sumiko turned to Xavier and sighed. «Zabi-kun, what have you got yourself into?»
«He saved me,» rumbled Kahina from behind Xavier, making him jump as her left hand came to rest on his right shoulder.
«Ah, Kahina-san,» said Sumiko. «Right this way, please. I'm sorry, you'll have to crouch, Isei Wayhouse wasn't constructed with Anteans in mind. Zabi-kun, if you'll wait for me in the dining room, I will get Kahina-san settled and bring food for both of you.»
Sumiko bustled off with a bemused Kahina in tow, and for lack of anything better to do, Xavier headed to the dining room. Once there, he sat down at one of the tables and placed the mononoke in front of him, though it kept its single vine running up to rest gently against his head.
"Alright, talk," said Xavier. "What exactly are you? And why is everyone except apparently Sumiko-san deathly afraid of you?"
"Ah, well, this is embarrassing, but you'd probably have to ask one of those fearful types. My social life has been nonexistent for—a while now—and honestly I don't remember a lot of details for the intervening years. Until I ran into you I wasn't much for cognizant thought."
"Why is that? I mean, I get that the way I unintentionally siphon «Vigor» from living things that I touch, but why would that allow you to think?"
The mononoke didn't answer for quite some time, and Xavier finally reached out a hand and gently brushed its petals. "Hey—come to think, what should I even call you? Do you have a name?"
The plant shook itself slightly, and tilted its flower at him. "Mononoke works. I'm not entirely sure I agree with the connotations, but I have no idea what else my kind is being called these days. And given the reactions I've gotten so far, that might be the nicest term."
"I get that's what your species is called, but what about you as an individual? There's more than just you out there, right?"
"I'm not sharing!" said the mononoke, its vine tightening around Xavier's ear for a second. "But no, I'm not the only one. I suppose you could give me a name, if you really care about it. I've never needed one before."
"Huh, okay." Xavier closed his eyes and thought. "I'm pretty terrible at naming, honestly. My sisters always vetoed all my ideas whenever we needed to name a pet. How about Bob? Or Dave?"
"Excuse me?! Does it look like I've got stamens? I am a lady!"
"Ah, right, right." He'd forgotten. Damn it, why did the flower have such a masculine-sounding voice? "Girl names, girl names. Maybe Daisy? But that's so corny. Princess is honestly what comes to mind, but that's right out—"
He'd been muttering to himself, but the mononoke visibly perked up. "Princess? Ooh, that's a good one! Let's go with that."
"—You're kidding, right?"