Here we are, at the final chapter.
When I first started writing this story, back in November 2013, I had not imagined that it would take me over two years to complete; that it would be hands down the longest and most complex writing project I've ever done; and I only hoped that it would be even a fraction as popular as it has become.
This story was one of the only things keeping me sane as I grew to hate my job and went through what is probably my worst bout of burnout yet; as I went through the stress of searching for a new one; as I've slowly adjusted to the new one I finally found. And it has taught me so much: about writing, about editing, about myself.
And I've loved it.
And I love each and every one of you, my readers, whether you've been here the whole time or just found the story yesterday. Thank you, for taking a chance on this story, for being consistently friendly and encouraging, for showing me that there are in fact people interested in reading a strange post-apolcalyptic Natsume AU that's mostly about the feels. XD Thank you for sharing in this journey.
And never fear: while this story may now be over, you won't get rid of me that easily! I'll still be around, just ... probably not writing anything quite this long for a while, lol.
... If I keep going too much longer, this note will become longer than the chapter itself. XD So I will just say, again: thank you.
# # # Chapter 32 # # #
The scent of newly fallen rain hung heavily in the air, and sunlight sparkled off puddles, cars, and the scales of the dragon Matoba-san had arrived on. Its companions – a couple of large, furred beast youkai who were nearly as large – just looked soaked and irritable.
Takashi watched as a handful of traditionally-clad exorcists worked to tie the last of the baggage onto their broad backs. The first group, who'd left the previous day, had apparently had problems with some of it falling off during the flight, so they seemed to be taking extra care today.
Several vans sat nearby, ready to transport the people. Takashi didn't know where Matoba-san had found them – maybe he had a fleet hidden away? – but they were large enough that after this second trip, everyone who had wanted to leave should be gone.
"I hope they don't regret it," he said quietly.
A few feet away, Natori-san snorted. "If they wish to avoid youkai entirely, there are few worse plans than placing themselves in exorcist hands. But they should be safe there. Perhaps that is their primary concern." A small shrug. "Either way, it's out of our hands now."
Takashi nodded. "And we'll see them again for Tanabata."
Yoshida-san had been thrilled by the idea of doing a festival, and when she'd brought it up during their evening town hall, the resultant excited discussions had lasted long past sunset. Matoba-san had accepted an invitation to join on behalf of both his clan and the former inhabitants of Yowake, proposing that those interested in attending return a couple of days ahead of time to help with setup.
Takashi wondered what the festival would be like, with so many youkai and exorcists there publically. Hopefully with so many normal people in attendance, neither group would act up too much.
"It should be … interesting," Natori-san said, smile wry. He hesitated. "Matoba asked me about Taki's circles."
"I doubt I told him anything he hadn't already deduced from looking at the design. I do wish we had the original source." Natori-san looked briefly wistful, before his expression smoothed back into solemn. "… I did not consider that, when sent my message."
Takashi thought that was meant to be an apology. "I don't think Taki ever believed it would stay secret forever," he offered. "And if you hadn't …"
"It was still far too close," Natori-san agreed.
"But if he tries to come after us – after Taki – for using a forbidden technique …"
"The opportunity for that is long past," Natori-san said dryly. "Now, if you'd been drawing those circles and leaving them as traps for the unwary –"
"Taki would never do that!"
Natori-san smiled down at him. "I know. And I personally have no problem with what she did. The spirit of the rules has always been about best protecting the most people, and in this situation, making it public was probably the best way to accomplish that goal."
He looked out towards where Matoba-san stood with his back turned, gesturing at one of the other exorcists. "I suspect he came to the same conclusions. You probably don't need to fear his interference."
"Hopefully he's done interfering."
Natori-san laughed. "I doubt that. If there's one thing Matoba's good at, it's interfering." He sounded surprisingly cheerful. "But we'll deal with that when it happens. Not much point in worrying about it."
"I guess so."
The dragon youkai launched into the air, its partner sitting up near its head, stacks of luggage tied on haphazardly throughout. It made a slow circle over the area, then flew off in the direction of the Matoba compound.
Not long after, the others followed its example, and the cars started – surprisingly loud – right after that.
When Natori-san turned and began to walk back towards the center of town, Takashi followed.
The silence that stretched between them was … mostly comfortable. He still kept expecting Natori-san to say something more about the Book of Friends, and hated that Sensei had turned out to be a little bit right after all.
But at least Sensei had stopped sticking to him quite as closely. The previous day, he'd followed Takashi everywhere, silently judging his decision to mention the Book of Friends at all. He'd glared especially hard at Natori-san whenever they were in the same room, as though daring him to do something.
Takashi was just glad that Natori-san seemed to have decided to be amused rather than annoyed.
They turned a corner and saw Fuyou, Aoi, Kai, and the two youkai from Seigen headed towards them.
"We thought we might find you here," Aoi said. "I assume they've left now?"
"The last of the group just departed," Natori-san confirmed. "You were looking for me? Or for Natsume?"
"For both of you, actually," Aoi said. "We wanted to let you know that I'll be going back to the shrine with Fuyou."
As Takashi reeled, Fuyou added, "I've been making good progress, but we both agree that it would be best to report back about the new techniques as soon and accurately as possible, and that's best done by Aoi himself."
Natori-san nodded. "I appreciate being informed. But as I assume you're not flying out right this minute, I'm not sure why you've sought me out?" He raised an eyebrow. "I assume you're not asking my permission."
Aoi smirked. "Why no, we are not," he said. Natori-san smirked back.
It was, Takashi suddenly realized, the first time he'd actually seen them interact since he'd left them both at Matoba-san's place. They seemed to be getting along a lot better than he'd expected.
"But since I assume you would rather not go running back to Matoba-san just yet," Aoi continued, and paused for what looked like a careful non-reaction on Natori-san's part. "I wanted to make sure that you have the technique learned well enough to continue passing it on to people here."
Not that there were many here with enough power to learn it.
"I'm far from perfect," Natori-san said, "but I'd say I have at least as good a grasp on it as I did on the reiryoku shield before I left. You need not stay on my account."
"I thought you might say that. And from what I've seen, I would agree," Aoi said. "Natsume?"
Takashi blinked and scrambled for words, not having expected the question. "I'm still figuring it out," he admitted. He made himself add, "But I'm sure Natori-san can help me figure out my problems, so you don't have to stay for me, either."
But. "—What about Kaoru?"
(It didn't seem right to ask Aoi to stay for his sake, but – he and Kaoru had seemed happy here.)
"She's staying," Aoi said. Takashi must have looked shocked, because he laughed. "It was her idea. We'll be flying fast on the way back, thanks to Takabane." He paused to nod thanks to Kai, who grinned in response. "Coming back, I'll most likely be alone, so I'll be able to cover the distance much more quickly if I can fly. And you know how she felt about the shrine. She'll be happier here, where she can mess with our apartment and concentrate on her own studies."
So you're coming back? Takashi wanted to ask, but feared that it put a few too many of his own insecurities on display. "How long do you think it will take?" he asked instead. (And wondered whether that was honestly any better.)
"I should be back in plenty of time for Tanabata," Aoi said.
"With company, probably," Fuyou said with a grin. "I know I'll be back if I can, and there are plenty of others in our cohort who love a good party."
"And of course the two of us," the steamed bun seller said, "perhaps some others from Seigen, should Kamuriki-sama approve."
"And I'll be back too, of course!" Kai chimed in.
"You're leaving, too?" Takashi blurted, and immediately regretted it. Kai – didn't quite flinch, but it had still clearly been the wrong thing to say. And he knew that, so why had he –? "Sorry, I've kept you away from your followers for too long already," he said. "It's selfish of me –"
"I'm the one being selfish," Kai interrupted. "Because I love it here, with you, and Taki, and everyone else." A glance to Natori-san. "… Even the exorcist."
"I'm honored," Natori-san said, smile a bit wry.
"If I could, I'd stay forever," Kai said. "But … my followers do need me, too. It's not fair to leave them alone for so long, and I need to tell them about all I've learned. But I'll definitely be back for Tanabata! Maybe some of my followers will come, too."
"I look forward to meeting them," Takashi said.
Kai smiled hesitantly, painfully reminiscent of when they'd first seen each other again, those weeks ago.
Takashi hesitated, too, before holding his arms open, but Kai wasted no time in accepting his invitation. "Even after Tanabata, I know the way, so I can come back and visit," he said. "… if you want me to?"
Takashi's arms tightened. "Of course I want you to," he said.
Leaving didn't have to mean forever. He and Kai had proven that once already, hadn't they?
"I hate to ask, but if you don't mind …"
Takashi ran his fingers lightly along the kitchen table, the gratin dish still sitting there surrounded by empty bags of chips.
He should probably do something about that before Touko-san came into the kitchen and saw it –
(Should have put it up before he left, really, but he'd been a bit preoccupied at the time)
– but was there a point, really? Sensei hadn't left anything for the ants, and it wasn't like they had an easy way to wash it.
… Touko-san would do it anyway, once she came in. Maybe that was reason enough.
He put the gratin dish in the sink and threw the empty bags in the trash. He didn't open either the refrigerator or the freezer – he had no desire to learn if a month was long enough to spawn some sort of rotten food youkai – but he did start digging through the pantry and pulling out the dried and bulk foods.
"You didn't have to start that on your own." Takashi looked up, startled, at Shigeru-san's words. "Do you have anything you want to bring with you? This trip isn't just for us, you know."
"I'm fine," Takashi said. He remembered the day they'd learned that they'd be moving. "I have the most important parts with me already."
"As do we," Shigeru-san said, the warmth of his smile making it clear that the quote had not gone unappreciated. "But we can still take other things, too. Are you sure?"
Takashi hesitated. "I'll go take a look," he said, bowing to the inevitable.
Upstairs, his room looked the same as ever, except for a thin layer of dust starting to settle on his desk. He didn't particularly care about any of the textbooks stacked there.
But in his closet, he found a scarf that Touko-san had given him. He might need that, when the weather started turning cold. (Though in the late June heat, it seemed like that time would never come.)
A couple of shirts that he'd always liked.
He knelt and un-taped them from the back wall of the cubbyhole beneath his dresser, stacking each one with care.
Goofy shots of himself, Nishimura, and Kitamoto.
A few quieter ones of himself, Tanuma, and Taki.
The horribly awkward photo of himself in the culture fair the previous year. (He wondered if Taki and Tanuma still had theirs, too.) (He'd hoped that the culture festival this year would go better, but.)
Touko-san, Shigeru-san, and himself, Sensei in his arms.
He wondered where he should put the pictures in his new room.
He thought he might be ready to leave them visible to everyone, now.
He pulled out one of the few boxes he'd never finished unpacking and dug through it until he found the book of insects that had been the home to his parents' picture for years. He slid it back in, along with all of the other pictures, and closed the book gently. A bit more digging around in his closet produced a bag large enough to hold his clothing and the book, with some extra space on top that he could fill with something of Touko-san's or Shigeru-san's, or with some of the dried food.
He was standing near the middle of the room, turning to see if he could see anything he'd forgotten, when Shigeru-san appeared in the doorway. "About ready?" he asked.
"Yes, I think so," Takashi said. "Do you or Touko-san need any help?"
He needed to leave before the memories overwhelmed him – there, the wall that he'd painted with cherry blossoms; on the ceiling, the two spots where Kemari had left bloodstains that he'd never quite managed to get out. He'd lived here for nearly two years. Not the longest, but this house, this room, was far fuller of memories, good memories, than anywhere else he'd lived.
(Perhaps his original home – but that was long gone by now, he felt certain, and he couldn't remember it clearly enough to matter.)
"No, we're about ready to go, too," Shigeru-san said.
The two of them met Touko-san in the front hall. She appeared to have already packed all the food, so he picked up a couple of the bags sitting at her feet. She smiled. "Thank you for putting up with our selfishness."
Takashi shook his head. "It wasn't a problem."
As they left, Shigeru-san pulled the door gently closed, leaving it unlocked. Back on the street, they all stopped and turned to look up at the house.
Takashi would miss it.
But they did still have each other.
"Come on," Shigeru-san said, smiling wryly. "Let's go home."
"Here is the tablecloth you requested," Takashi said. "We brought some extras, just in case – they'll be out in front of the library with the rest of the surplus supplies."
"Thanks, you're a lifesaver," Tanaka-san said, wiping the sweat from his brow. He stood in front of a mostly-constructed frame for a booth, though Takashi couldn't tell yet what he'd be displaying. "Oh – young Kaoru was looking for you. She said you should head over to the front entrance once you get back; apparently your friends are here?"
"Thanks for letting me know," Takashi said. He hoped his flare of excitement wasn't too obvious. "Did you need anything else? We'll probably do one last supply run in about an hour."
He must not have been terribly successful, since Tanaka-san laughed and waved him onward. "No, I'm good for now. You go on."
Takashi waved his thanks and dashed away.
It was honestly too hot to run, but he did his best. Kai had returned nearly a week ago, on Takabane with several of his other followers in tow, and Matoba-san, most of the former Yowake folks, and a few other exorcists had arrived a few days after that, so Aoi and the youkai from Seigen were, as far as he knew, the only ones left.
When he arrived, Aoi and Kaoru stood in a small clump with Fuyou and three other vaguely familiar-looking crow youkai. A short distance away, the two youkai from Seigen were talking with a third: a female youkai almost as tall as the steamed bun seller, who had long black hair swept up in a high ponytail and wore a beige yukata covered in looping black designs that reminded Takashi of brush strokes. All three wore some sort of large contraption attached to their backs, towering almost twice as high as the youkai themselves were tall.
The steamed bun seller waved. "Well met again, young one," he said.
"It's good to see you, too," Takashi said.
Their new companion looked around. "So this is a human town," she said. "It is much smaller than I had expected." She peered at him. "And are you the one who draws the circles?"
"No, that's my friend Taki," Takashi said. "I can introduce you to her later, if you like."
"I would appreciate it."
"And where is the festival to take place?" the steamed bun seller asked. He reached upwards with a burly arm and patted the contraption on his back. "I would not say 'no' to an opportunity to get this settled."
"I can show you where to go," Takashi said. He hesitated, looking towards Aoi.
The crow youkai waved him away. "No need to stay on my account. We were just about to leave, too – I want to get everyone settled at my place before we do anything else."
"Okay, see you later," Takashi said, and turned back to the youkai from Seigen. "Follow me, please."
He led them back through town, past the bustle of people dropping off and picking up things in front of the library, to the street they'd decided to take over for the festival.
It was in the northeast side of town, several blocks away from both Natori-san's place and where Matoba-san's contingent had set up camp. (Matoba-san had erected an additional layer of wards around a cluster of three houses – though he had at least informed their informal town council of his plans beforehand.)
The road was relatively broad, and curved about halfway through, eventually intersecting a small park.
Takashi led the three Seigen youkai to a position a bit past the curve in the road. "We thought you could put your stalls here." Taki had drawn two circles on the asphalt with pale green chalk, set about as far apart from each other as the human stalls going up elsewhere on the street. "I can find someone to draw a third circle; we only put two there to begin with because we weren't sure how many of you would be coming."
The third youkai knelt. "I see why you thought I might be interested in this," she said. "I haven't seen its like in … many years indeed." She ran a finger along one of the lines and looked at the greenish stain on her finger, clearly intrigued. "And what an interesting substance to use to build it."
"It's sidewalk chalk," Takashi offered. "We've got a lot stashed away, if you want to see it. Usually the circle is drawn on paper, but chalk works a lot better with the asphalt, even if it does wash away when it rains."
Taki and some of the adults were still discussing ways to make the large circle in front of the library – and ones at several other key points – more permanent, but for now, this was the best they had.
"Hm? Ah, yes, I'd appreciate it." She stood, wiping her finger off on her yukata in a startlingly casual move. "You two go ahead and get set up."
The steamed bun and mask sellers nodded. Each entered a circle and pulled the contraptions off their backs. Before Takashi's startled eyes, the bundles of wood and fabric transformed into quite serviceable – if somewhat fragile-looking – stall fronts. The mask seller picked up a bag from behind the stall and started pulling from it what seemed like an endless array of masks. He hung those from the horizontal beams across the back of his stall, while the steamed bun seller pulled out a stove that Takashi would have sworn was too large to fit in the bag it had come from.
Maybe youkai bags were just … different.
Takashi wasn't the only one looking. Most of the other people on this street were too busy setting up their own stalls, but a couple of the people running supplies slowed, clearly intrigued. The mask seller noticed first, and waved. Startled, the nearest of the watchers waved back.
The female youkai looked from the humans to her fellow youkai, frowned thoughtfully, and nodded once. She circled to the other side of the mask seller's booth, dug into the bag hanging off her still-folded stall, and brought out a pot of ink and a brush almost as long as Takashi's arm. With careful strokes, she painted a circle that looked very similar to Taki's. After putting her ink and brush away, she stepped to the center – avoiding the still-drying lines of ink – and nodded. "That should do." She looked up. "Well?"
"I can't tell the difference," Takashi admitted. He turned, looking, and ended up waving to the man who'd been staring before. "Um, if you don't mind – could you tell me how many youkai you see?"
He looked a bit surprised to be asked, but said, "Just those two over – whoa, where'd she come from?"
"Sounds like it works," Takashi said, and "Thanks for your help," to the man.
"You're welcome," he replied absently, still staring, then abruptly shook himself, briefly inclined his head, and continued onward.
"You need not stay with us, if you have preparations of your own to make," the steamed bun seller said.
"Just make sure you bring your friend by tonight," the female youkai said. "This … Taki. I am very interested to meet her."
"I will," Takashi promised. Hesitated, but all three of the youkai from Seigen turned back to their own business – the female youkai now setting up her own stall – and after a moment it was clear they didn't have anything else to ask of him.
He spent the next several hours running back and forth across town, carrying supplies and lending a hand where requested; breaking only for the promised second supply run. He ran into Tanuma twice, Taki once – but in a rush, so they barely had the time to smile hello – spent about half an hour helping Nishimura and Kitamoto make paper streamers to hang from the Kitamoto family stall, and immediately parlayed those new skills into helping several other people make their own.
He ran into most of the rest of their practice group, too, at one point or another – some working on family or group stalls, most running errands like himself. A couple of youkai interested in setting up stalls came to him to ask about getting a circle of their own, and he pointed them towards Watanabe-san, the first person he could find who knew how to draw them.
He ran into Natori-san once, deep in conversation with Aoi and the other youkai from Kagomedake, so he just waved at them all and continued on.
It seemed like the entire town – humans and youkai, people living there and guests alike – had turned out to make this festival a success. Had something like this ever happened before? He didn't know, but despite how much he wished the events that had brought them to this point had not occurred …
… He couldn't help but be glad that he'd been given an opportunity to see it.
Still, it was hot, and humid. So when he heard a hesitant voice say "Natsume-dono?" from behind a nearby tree in the park, Takashi was perhaps a bit more eager to follow it into the shade than he should have been.
"Can I help you with something?" he asked. She was a large youkai – probably half again his height, wearing a mask with fur coming out the back, and a yukata with both sleeves missing. "I hope the festival preparations aren't disturbing you? You're welcome join later."
"No, the festival is nice," she said quietly. "I'm glad to have arrived in time to attend."
"You're from out of town?" Takashi was a bit surprised. He hadn't thought many new youkai had moved here since the humans had re-settled it.
"I've been traveling a very long time," she said. "Since before the monsters came. Because I heard you were here, Natsume-dono, and were giving back the names you once took."
… Maybe someday Takashi would encounter a youkai that didn't automatically assume he was his grandmother. Maybe.
He touched his fanny pack in reassurance. He'd gotten back into the habit of keeping it with him – a couple of other youkai had also come in search of their names in the past weeks. "I have," he said, and lowered his voice, even though as far as he could tell, no one was within earshot. "Is your name in the Book of Friends?" The youkai nodded. "Maybe we should move someplace a bit less public, then."
Matoba-san and a number of his exorcist friends were here too, after all. And Takashi felt certain that he would have no qualms about taking and abusing the Book of Friends.
They cut northwest through the park – somewhat overgrown as everything in this area was, but still too sparse to provide effective cover. Back in another empty neighborhood, Takashi looked around carefully before leading her into a narrow alley that – as he'd hoped – wrapped around behind several of the houses. He listened, but could hear nothing out of place. They were probably safe.
He sat on the pavement, the youkai kneeling in front of him, and flipped open the Book of Friends.
"I return you your name –"
His dream afterwards was brief, warm, and mostly formless. He came out of it slowly, a bit regretful that he hadn't caught another glimpse of his grandmother, and slowly became aware that someone was staring at him.
"You really should get more iron in your diet," Natori-san observed calmly. He sat where the youkai had only just recently kneeled, wearing a dark blue men's kimono. The gecko skittered down the line of his neck and disappeared under one lapel.
Takashi jumped, grip tightening convulsively on the Book of Friends, and belatedly tried to hide just how startled he'd been.
"No one else has been through here since the youkai left," Natori-san said. "I just happened to see you at the right moment." He nodded towards the Book of Friends. "No one's touched that, either." He left the including me implied.
"I didn't mean to –"
His mouth quirked into a small smile. "I wouldn't blame you if you had. It's a very powerful artifact you hold. And a dangerous one."
"I know," Takashi said.
"And much as I'd like to protect you from it, I think it's in the best possible hands."
As Takashi gaped, Natori-san stood, and offered him a hand up. He silently took it, swaying a bit on his feet as the lightheadedness hit and then slowly melted away. He tucked the Book of Friends away, still not entirely sure how to respond.
"I was serious about the iron, though," Natori-san said. "I'm sure you know far better than I do just how much breaking contracts takes out of you. It's important to keep yourself healthy, if you don't want to go around passing out all the time."
"You're not going to recommend I eat liver too?" Takashi complained.
"Ahaha, it certainly wouldn't be a bad idea."
"But with the food situation the way it is –" They hadn't had to start conserving yet, and in fact had planted a crop of rice that they were hoping would give them an additional source come October, but the question of when and how, and how to avoid it, was always at the back of everyone's mind.
Not this winter. But next –?
"It's a difficult problem," Natori -san admitted, "But it does you no good to stunt yourself. Talk to Touko-san about it; she'll probably have some good ideas."
"… I will," Takashi said.
"And in the meantime, shouldn't you be getting ready for the festival?" Natori-san said, smile widening to a grin. "People are already starting to show up, and you wouldn't want everything to be gone before you got there."
"Right." Touko-san had asked that morning if he and Taki would come back to the house beforehand, so that they could walk over together. He hoped he wasn't too late. "I should go."
He stopped at the edge of the alley, and turned back. "Natori-san …" He still didn't know what to say. "Thanks."
Natori-san waved it off. "What else are friends for?" And made a little shooing motion. "Go on, enjoy the festival."
"I can't wear this," Taki said, voicing Takashi's own thoughts. "Touko-san, it's yours, and it's so lightly used, what if I ripped it, or got food on it –"
He looked down at the clothes in his hands: one of Shigeru-san's old kimono, a bit more faded of a blue than Natori-san's.
"They're meant to be used, and I haven't fit in that one for years," Touko-san said. "I hope you'll take good care of it, of course, but it's not a loan – I'm giving it to you."
"I couldn't possibly –"
"Unless it's too old-fashioned for you?"
Taki folded. "I love it," she admitted. "Thank you."
Takashi looked up at Shigeru-san. "Thank you," he echoed, knowing that he'd meet with exactly the same resistance – and probably fold even more easily – if he tried.
This must have been at least one of the reasons they'd wanted to go back to the old house, since he knew neither these nor the yukata that Touko-san and Shigeru-san were wearing now had been among the things they'd packed to bring here initially.
"Let me know if there's anything that doesn't quite fit right," Touko-san said. "It's a bit late for tonight – I'm afraid I wanted too much for them to be a surprise – but I should be able to fix them in time for Bon."
"I'm sure it'll be perfect," Taki insisted.
"And they do still have some growing left to do," Shigeru-san said, smiling fondly at Touko-san. "Don't worry so much, dear."
Takashi's, it turned out, was a bit long and loose, but nothing that tying the obi a bit tighter wouldn't fix. Taki insisted that hers fit perfectly.
When they left the house, they almost ran into Tanuma and his father.
"Oh good," Tanuma said, upon seeing them. "I was afraid I'd be terribly over-dressed." His dad smiled tolerantly at him.
"Instead, we match," Taki said, grinning brightly. "Come on, let's go see how it all turned out!"
The three of them ran on ahead, Takashi dimly aware of Touko-san, Shigeru-san, and Tanuma's father following more slowly behind.
The sun had started to fall behind the buildings, and a bit of a breeze had sprung up. Not enough to entirely cut the heat, but it at least felt better than it would have without one.
As they approached the entrance to the festival block, they slowed to a walk, joining the other festival-goers. About half of the humans Takashi saw were wearing yukata, and nearly all of the youkai. Tanuma adjusted his glasses and squinted. "There are a lot of youkai here too, aren't there?"
"There are," Takashi agreed. Mostly roughly human-shaped and -sized, but there were plenty of exceptions. "I didn't think this many lived here. Maybe word has spread? Youkai do love festivals."
"Who doesn't?" Tanuma asked. "Oh, there's the wish tree –"
Takashi had helped very briefly with the setup for that – cutting the strips of colored paper for everyone's wishes, punching holes and threading through bits of string. He wasn't entirely sure where the tree itself – a tightly tied bundle of bamboo nearly twice his height – had come from.
Several dozen wishes already hung on the tree, and the table next to it was surrounded by people and youkai alike.
Were the youkai writing wishes, too?
"Maybe we should come back later, once it's not so busy," he suggested. "Oh – Taki, one of the youkai from Seigen was really interested in meeting you. She drew a circle that looked a lot like yours."
Taki's eyes lit up. "Why didn't you say so before? Come on, let's go see!"
Takashi exchanged an amused glance with Tanuma and followed.
The steamed bun stall was already doing a brisk business, to youkai and humans alike. Fewer people patronized the mask stall, but there were still a few interested onlookers. And the female youkai appeared to have set up a stall specializing in drawn charms of some sort. Most of those browsing there were youkai, though a few curious humans had approached, too.
She looked up as they approached. "Ah, Natsume, you have returned. With – is this the Taki of whom you spoke?" She shooed away the one small youkai who was poking at her charms, and came out from behind her miniature storefront to inspect Taki's face.
"Yes, I'm Taki Tooru," Taki replied. "Natsume said you knew something about my circles?"
"A few things, though I don't know if it's the sort of information you desire," the female youkai said. "You do have her look, don't you?"
Taki blinked. "Whose?"
"The woman I encountered … I suppose it must have been long ago. Who first taught me of these circles. Was her name … Taira?"
"There were a few members of the Taira family who married into ours, a long time ago, I think," Taki said. "Maybe she was one of them?" She craned her neck, clearly trying to get a good look at the other circle.
The female youkai laughed. "Perhaps we should make a more direct comparison? Using … chalk? as a medium does the artistry of your circle no favors."
"I'd love to!"
As Taki followed the female youkai back to her stall, Takashi ducked over to the steamed bun stall, slipping in just as the latest group of customers wandered off. "Welcome again," the owner said, smiling broadly. "What can I do for you tonight?"
"How much would it cost for three?" Takashi asked.
"And two for me! Put it on his tab." A very familiar silver-haired girl appeared and said.
Takashi resisted the urge to sigh. "Sensei …"
"Five coming right up!" the steamed bun seller replied. "And it's all on the house today. Much as I'd love to, if I sat and listened to everyone's story, we'd be here all night."
"Oh. Well, thanks," Takashi said, as he gingerly accepted his three packets. They were almost too hot to hold. "If you want to talk at some other point while you're here –"
Sensei wandered off again, already gleefully biting into one of his two.
"Do not offer so blindly, or I may take you up on it," the steamed bun seller said. "You seem like you would have many interesting stories to tell."
"I'm not sure I'd go that far …"
"I've got a feel for this sort of thing," the youkai said. "Now, back to your friends, to share with them the delight of my steamed buns – we'll see each other again."
Takashi sketched a quick bow and did as ordered. He handed Tanuma one of the steamed buns, put the other on the edge of the female youkai's stall for Taki, and finally bit into the third.
It was just as good as he remembered it.
"Wow, this is amazing," Tanuma said, voice awed. "Do you think he'd be willing to stay?"
Takashi laughed quietly. "Probably not. He has his home to think of, too."
Tanuma sighed. "Well, I guess the only thing to do is enjoy it while he's here, then." He took another large bite.
"I would recommend you consume yours, as well," the female youkai told Taki. "I have heard that humans do not work as well without regular sustenance, and it would be a shame to let it grow cold."
"Oh! Right." Taki finally seemed to notice the steamed bun Takashi had left her. She picked it up and stepped back from the stall before taking a bite. "Wow, this really is really good."
"He will be pleased you think so."
"— Anyway, comparing the differences in strokes is fascinating," Taki said earnestly, clearly unwilling to be distracted for long, "but can you tell me anything else about the circle itself? Who made it, why, how does it actually work? We were wondering if it was kind of like making a tiny youkai world, but that seems like it would take a lot of power, and I have almost none –"
"It is not a youkai world, though I can see what might have prompted you to think so," the female youkai said, looking amused at Taki's enthusiasm. "You know, do you not, that youkai exist on a slightly different … I do not know the human word for it, but offset from the human world."
"A different wavelength?" Takashi offered, thinking of Kaoru and Aoi.
"Wavelength. Hmm. That seems as good a word as any. The degree to which we can interact with humans differs depending on both the youkai and the human in question – how many 'wavelengths', perhaps, that youkai exists across, and how many that human can sense. You," she looked towards Takashi, "can see many of these 'wavelengths', while young Taki here can see far fewer." She gestured to the circle at her feet. "And this simply … shifts those 'wavelengths', to ones that most humans can also see."
"Like a lens?" Taki asked. "That's so cool."
The female youkai smiled at her. "I feel certain your ancestor would be pleased to hear you say so."
Taki smiled back, and visibly hesitated. "Can you tell me more about her?"
"She was young – older than you, I believe, though I do not know by how much. Very curious about the world around her. I saw her only a few times, when travelling outside of Seigen, and was under the impression that she also traveled widely."
"She had some small amount of power – perhaps as much as your other friend." The female youkai indicated Tanuma. "She introduced me to these circles, and explained to me what I know of their workings, and she helped me out of a tight spot once, but we were not close. I do not know if I can say much more of her than that."
Taki swallowed. "I'm glad even to know that much." She bowed.
"And it pleases me to have the opportunity to tell you," the female youkai said. "I think your ancestor would have liked you very much."
"I think I would have liked her, too," Taki said.
"So this is where you guys were!" Kitamoto's cheerful voice distracted them all. "Been having fun? You should come by our booth, we're doing origami demonstrations."
"We?" Takashi asked.
"Well, Nishimura and Mana, mostly. I've been tasked with food duty."
"Then I know exactly what you should get," Tanuma said, and steered him over to the steamed bun stall.
"… We probably should go see everything else, though," Taki said reluctantly.
The female youkai smiled. "A festival is meant to be enjoyed. Do not worry, I will likely stay here for several more days before we head home. There will be other opportunities to talk."
Taki smiled. "I look forward to it."
The three of them wandered onward, walking down the street at a leisurely pace and stopping to look at almost every stall. There was a shooting contest, and someone who'd put together a makeshift goldfish-saving stall using small bath toys. "A couple of youkai offered to bring me fish. Very, um, enthusiastically," she said, looking confused but pleased. "I told them, maybe next time. It didn't seem like a good idea."
Taki and the others had peppered almost the entire length of the street in small to medium-sized circles. Takashi wondered what it would be like, to not be able to see – and yet see the youkai everywhere, fading in and out as they moved through each circle.
"Probably the right decision," Takashi agreed, thinking of the two mid-level youkai. "They might have brought you koi."
"I definitely wouldn't have known what to do with that!"
Craft stalls, other food stalls – eventually they reached the Kitamoto family stall, parents watching fondly as Kitamoto's little sister and Nishimura attempted to explain the art of folding a paper crane to one of the first-years.
And to a young youkai, small enough that he was practically hanging off the edge of the stall in order to see properly. "Taki, do you think you could draw a quick circle – right about there?" Takashi asked, as Kitamoto announced his acquisition of food. "Oh, but I guess you don't have anything to draw it with –"
"I do, actually," she said, and pulled a piece of sidewalk chalk – the same pale green that had been used to draw the circles for the youkai from Seigen – out of her small purse. She smiled a bit sheepishly. "I thought it might come in handy."
When asked whether they minded if she draw the circle, Nishimura immediately consented enthusiastically, around a mouthful of "You weren't kidding, this is the best steamed bun I've ever tasted!"
"It never occurred to me that youkai might be interested in this, too," he admitted, as they put a stool on top of the circle and the small youkai immediately climbed up it and took a seat.
"So you will teach me too?" the youkai said, looking thrilled.
Shouting drew Takashi's attention next, but by the time he got there – a confused Tanuma and Taki right behind him – the situation was already settled. Natori-san stood between a handful of exorcists – Matoba-san thankfully not among them – and a slightly larger group of youkai. Both groups looked equally disgruntled, and Natori-san was sparkling with all of his might.
"Is everything okay?" Tanuma asked, his attention on the youkai. It had started getting dark, so Takashi wondered just how much Tanuma could see.
"It looks like Natori-san has things handled," Takashi said. As though summoned by his name, the blond exorcist looked up and waved. The three of them waved back, and turned to leave.
As they walked back towards the entrance, they crossed paths with Matoba-san. Takashi wondered if he had also heard the disturbance. They nodded stiffly to each other and continued on their separate ways.
"Natsume! I've missed you!"
Takashi found himself suddenly surrounded by a distinctive floral scent. "Hello, Hinoe," he said. "Sorry, I haven't been very good about coming to visit."
"We would at least have appreciated an invitation to the festival," another familiar voice said, and Takashi turned to see Misuzu, once again in his human disguise.
"Sorry, I should have remembered. I'm really glad you two could make it. Are the others –?"
"The mid-levels are around, causing trouble I'm sure," Hinoe said disdainfully. Takashi thought of the goldfish-saving stall.
"You are well, Natsume?" Misuzu said, peering at him.
"I – yes. I am," Takashi said.
Sensei – when had he returned? – snorted, and muttered something about soft-hearted idiots. At his side, Tanuma and Taki smiled.
"Good," Misuzu said.
"You're doing all right too?" Takashi asked. "You and the others – you'd let me know if something was wrong, right?"
"We are all well," Misuzu said.
"Don't worry so much." Hinoe rolled her eyes. "Go … enjoy the rest of the festival or something."
Takashi smiled. "You too."
"I am certain we will." Misuzu inclined his head and turned away. Hinoe reluctantly detached herself and followed him, and soon both had disappeared back into the crowd.
And finally they found themselves back at the entrance, the wish tree lit almost equally well by the setting sun and a small lamp sitting on the table next to the paper strips.
Takashi caught glimpses of some of the wishes, as they rotated in the light breeze: for peace, for happiness, for a mild winter, for continued cooperation with the youkai of the town. A few – including one he thought was in Nishimura's handwriting – for the safety of missing loved ones whose fates were still unknown. And almost as many in youkai writing.
He wondered what they wished for.
He stared at the desk, and the empty slip of paper he'd claimed for himself.
What did he wish for?
Finally, he wrote:
I wish for the strength to protect those important to me, and the wisdom to recognize when to let them protect themselves.
It wasn't quite right. But he didn't have any words better than that.
He hung it on the tree, and only when they bumped elbows noticed Tanuma doing the same next to him.
I wish to be strong enough.
They shared sheepish smiles. "Yours is better," Tanuma said.
Takashi shook his head.
"Oh," Taki said. "Yours are both better than mine."
She held it out.
I wish to learn as much as possible about youkai, so I can understand them better.
"I think yours is just fine," Tanuma said firmly, and Takashi nodded his agreement.
She smiled. "Thanks."
Her smile faded away as she looked up at the wish tree. "My brother and I used to come to the Tanabata festival together, even when our parents couldn't make it," she said suddenly. "He'd write my wish for me, before I learned to do it myself – no matter how silly or pointless it was. And he'd lift me on his shoulders and I'd hang them both on the highest branch I could reach."
She swallowed, and swiped a hand across her eyes. "Sorry, I'm such an idiot. Getting worked up about something like this."
"You're not an idiot," Takashi said. "Don't ever say that. Family – memories – they're precious." He stumbled to a halt. Why didn't he have the words?
"I just … I haven't even seen him in years, it doesn't make sense." She scrubbed at her eyes even more fiercely. "Why do I still care?"
Takashi thought of a house he only remembered seeing once; of the memories he wished he'd had enough courage to retain. "Because it's important," he repeated, more quietly. "Because it's a lot easier to tell yourself to stop caring than to actually stop."
"… I don't think I could lift you alone," Tanuma said, and glanced meaningfully at Takashi. "But …"
Slowly, Takashi grinned.
Before Taki had quite figured out what was happening, they'd sandwiched her, each bending to grab a leg and lift her – well, almost simultaneously. She shrieked, half-laughing, and wrapped her free arm around Takashi's head for balance. "What are you two –"
"Can you reach it?" Tanuma asked, voice strained. "Could you move mine up there, too?"
"Mine too," Takashi agreed, somewhat muffled by the hand that covered his eye and part of his mouth.
"You two –" but she was definitely laughing, now. "Fine, I've done it, now let me down."
That part went a bit more gracefully than the initial lift; once her feet were both safely back on the ground, Taki wasted no time in pulling them both into a too-tight hug.
Takashi didn't complain.
"You two are unbelievable," she said, shaking her head. "… But thank you."
The three of them stared upwards at their three wishes, hung from a single branch higher than all but one that was covered in youkai script.
"I want to know."
Taki looked a bit surprised that she'd said anything, but something in her face firmed. "I want to know if my brother's still alive," she repeated. "I know it's really unlikely. I know we don't have a good way of getting all the way over there yet, that we may not ever. But. If there's a chance …"
"We've done other things that seemed impossible at the time," Tanuma said. "We'll figure something out."
"… Thanks guys," Taki said.
"… Didn't you say you thought one of your aunts might be alive, too?" Tanuma said.
"Aunt Hitomi!" Taki's eyes widened. "She'd changed her answering machine message," she explained to Takashi, who probably looked as lost as he felt. "I left a message, too, telling her to try and find purified ground, but … then we lost power, and the phone lines, of course, and. I hadn't thought." She bit her lip. "She lives in Shizuoka, but …"
"I don't think we have enough gas to get that far, and the gas stations definitely won't work anymore," Tanuma said, frowning. "It would take weeks on foot …"
Takashi smiled. "But not if we flew."
"Would Fluffy-sensei really do that?" Taki asked. "For me?"
"I wouldn't do it for you," Sensei grumbled, as they all looked down at him expectantly. "You'd probably strangle me or something."
Taki and Tanuma looked disappointed, but Takashi kept waiting.
"… But yeah, I guess. Just this once."
Taki lunged. Sensei ran.
"You're sure I can't convince you to stay behind?" Takashi asked. Though with both of them holding bags full of supplies for the trip, it was a bit late to still be asking the question, and he knew it.
"I'm sure," Tanuma said. "Like Taki keeps saying – I'd rather be there with you two, than here at home, wondering what might have gone wrong."
Taki pulled herself away from where she appeared to be attempting to bury herself in the fur of Sensei's chest – to his resignation, but at least not yet active irritation – to grin at Tanuma.
Takashi reluctantly smiled, too. "We shouldn't be gone more than a week," he said.
"I don't care."
Takashi gave up. It was easier than he'd expected. Maybe he was starting to grow used to the idea, after all.
"Besides, my reiryoku shielding is still better than yours."
"I've been improving!" Takashi didn't mention that he was the only one of the three of them who could do Matoba-san and Aoi's offensive technique. They all took that as a given.
"And if any of us need it, I'll be very cross," Taki said pointedly.
"Yes, do avoid heroics, if possible," Natori-san said as he approached. Touko-san, Shigeru-san, and Tanuma's father were not far behind.
"You're one to talk," Hiiragi murmured.
Takashi grinned as Natori-san shot her a betrayed look, but tried to bring his face back to normal before Natori-san's attention returned. He wasn't entirely successful. "We'll do our best," he said. "Keep an eye on everyone while we're gone?"
Natori-san inclined his head. "I will."
Takashi turned to Touko-san and Shigeru-san, and was enveloped in a firm hug before he could do more than draw a breath to speak. "Be safe," Touko-san said.
Tanuma's father seemed to be saying something similar to him. And Taki – Touko-san wrapped her in a hug, too, to her clear surprise. "Keep the boys out of trouble," Touko-san said, smiling a bit mischievously. "I hope your aunt is safe."
Taki smiled. "I hope so, too. And I'll do my best."
Touko-san turned back to Takashi, and he found the words stuck in his throat. So many things he could say –
But only one, he realized, that mattered most. "I'll be back soon," he said.
Touko-san and Shigeru-san both smiled. "We'll be waiting for you to come home."
The three of them climbed Sensei's broad back. Takashi leaned forward. Feeling Taki tucked against his back; knowing Tanuma was just beyond her. "Ready?"
Takashi smiled. "Let's go, Sensei."
They leapt into the sky.