Part 7 - Last
I hope you enjoy the rest! :)
Six Years Later…
Whether it was to work, to an appointment, or some social event, Seiji always wished he could take the long way into the city. None of those occasions ever left him with enough time to walk down the long country road through the rice fields and scattered houses, but he longed for the chance of peaceful walk in the breeze. He'd looked for an opportunity to take this road ever since moving away from Chiba and into this quieter, remote community.
Today was hotter than usual, cicadas rattling off a shrill chorus all around him, but at last he had time to take the long walk before going into the city for shopping. His mind wandered as he gazed across the dirt road, lined on both sides with rice and summer wild flowers. For a second, he almost forgot about the cell phone pressed to his ear.
"Tsubaki? Did you catch that?" The simple, husky voice was still the sweetest he'd ever heard.
"Oh! Sorry, Megumi, yes. I - uh… spoons?"
She stifled a laugh on the other end. "Mm, the silicone scoop ones. They'd be in the same section as baby food. But that was three items ago…" she laughed again and Seiji sighed ruefully.
"I'm sorry, I got distracted."
"It's fine. The main thing is the diapers and wipes. We won't get far without those, right?"
Seiji winced. "I know. I should've bought them weeks ago."
"Oh, don't worry about it," she reassured. "He's not due for three weeks. I'm sure you have enough time to get to the store and back."
The familiar nervousness rose up inside Seiji. He stopped in the middle of the road. "Megumi… I don't think… I'm not -"
"Yes, you are," she replied firmly. "You'll see. I know you, so I know that he's gonna be the luckiest baby in the world."
Seiji felt a smile push onto his face and he ran a hand down the back of his head. There was sweat collecting on his neck from the heat. "Yeah… thanks."
"Anytime. Sorry to interrupt your walk."
"The juku kids will be here any minute, so I better go. Happy shopping! I love you."
Red warmth surged through Seiji's cheeks an ears. "Ah… Mm." He nodded, even though she couldn't see. Another giggle came from the other end, and then a beep before the line fell silent.
He pocketed the phone and started walking again. A wave of hazy air drifted over the road in front of him, making the flower colors swim together.
His thoughts had been in a similar haze ever since he'd taken Megumi to Shibuya just under two years ago. He still didn't know where he'd found the nerve to ask her to become his wife, nor had he any idea why she'd agreed (especially so quickly).
Everything after that; moving, changing schools, even the news that he would be a father in nine months, had fallen into that haze, making him feel warmer all the time. But he'd never felt ready for any of it. He certainly didn't deserve it.
That voice, the eyes he couldn't forget and everything he'd regretted since those few short days in the fall; all of it remained ever at the back of his mind, cold and full of guilt.
"If I tell you… will you believe me?"
Seiji nearly had a heart attack on the spot. He kicked the heal of his left shoe with the toe of his right as he came to a immediate halt. There had been a few people strolling down the road when he'd been on the phone with Megumi, but now there was no one. Had he just imagined it?
"Sensei! Slow down! Where are you going?"
Just as Seiji managed to determine the voice was coming from his right, there was a shuffling in the rice plants on the same side. A patch of wild flowers were smashed to the ground as a huge, orange and white ball rolled out onto the path.
"Heh?" Seiji took a step back, staring down, wide-eyed, at lumpy object. It stared back. To his horror, he saw it had a set of narrow, dark eyes and small flecks of red in the fur around what appeared to be a face. It was alive. It cocked its fat head to the side and made a noise almost like mewing. "A… cat?"
Then suddenly, with another rustling of reeds, a pair of sneakers hit the ground on either side of the catlike thing and the young voice Seiji had heard before said triumphantly, "Ahah! Got you."
Seiji watched the blonde-haired teenager bend down and scoop the hideous furry thing up with both arms. He straightened up quickly, but to Seiji, time spun down into slow motion. The young face came up, less pale but unmistakable. As the nearly transparent yellow bangs blew aside with the movement, the familiar set of full, golden eyes met his gaze.
They were exactly the same; penetrating, clear as day, as if he was seeing everything. Perhaps he was seeing too much.
"Natsume…" Seiji couldn't hear his own voice, but he felt the words like a breeze between his lips. He spoke again, a little louder. "Natsume-kun? It is you, isn't it?"
The boy stared back blankly for a second. Then his eyes widened, mouth falling partway open. "Tsu - Tsubaki-sensei! I - Ah… um - it's been a while…" he trailed off awkwardly, gaze falling on the cat dangling from his arms.
Seiji could understand his feelings; he wasn't sure where to go from here either. Still, as the adult, it was his responsibility to do something. "It has indeed. Is that your, um…" he gestured uncertainly at the lumpy animal in Natsume's arms.
"My cat," he replied ruefully. "I'm sorry, he just ran off all of a sudden."
"Oh, no trouble. Are you… staying nearby?"
Natsume nodded. "The Fujiwara's house, just up the road. Do you…?"
"Not very close. I'm taking the long way into the city today." He smiled, watching Natsume's nervous expression. This reunion was quite a bit more awkward than the one with Natori. "Do you mind if we walk together as far as your house?"
Natsume looked up at last. Slowly, to Seiji's relief, the nervousness faded and he gave a small smile. "Mm. I'd like to."
The first few minutes were filled the scraping of their shoes and the reverberating cicada song. Seiji had no idea where to start. Perhaps he ought to ask only polite questions and avoid being nosy. And yet, he'd been waiting for this chance ever since the day Natsume had left Kioroshi Elementary.
To his surprise, however, Natsume spoke up first.
"Have you been well, Sensei?"
Seiji had to hold back a grin. Always so polite. "Very. I'm married now."
Natsume turned his head with a genuine smile. "Really? Congratulations!"
"Thank you." He laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. "But I don't know what to do. She's giving me a son in less than a month - I've never been so nervous! What do I know about babies?"
Natsume laughed, too. The sound almost made Seiji jump and he glanced sideways at the boy. He'd grown so tall in what seemed like days. And now he laughs?
"What about you, Natsume-kun?" He watched the young face a little tensely. "Have you been… alright?"
Natsume's arms tightened slightly around the orange and white cat. "Mm."
"You said… you're staying with the Fujiwaras. I don't know them very well. Are they - ah… are they good to you?"
He awaited the automatic, hasty reply; the nodding and the assurance that they were "very nice people". But instead, Natsume remained silent, hugging the cat against his chest. He kept his eyes on the path as they walked, nodding slowly.
"Yes," he said softly. Seiji could see the smile, the half-squinted eyes, and heard him swallow. "Yes, very much."
Ah, A voice in Seiji's mind soothed. That's the real thing, then.
So he'd finally found a home.
"Takashi-kuuun! Welcome back!" A woman's voice drifted through the hazy air. Seiji suddenly realized they'd come to a stop under the shade of some tall trees.
To his right, there was an open gate and a narrow stone walkway, leading up to a beautiful, old, two-story house. Gardens lined the ground just beyond the porch and woman with graying brown hair, tied back in a loosely, was standing among them. She waved a hand to Natsume.
Natsume shifted the cat to one arm so he could wave the other over his head. "I'm home!" He called. The smile was still there, looking so natural.
Seiji watched his profile in silence, feeling the tightness in his chest return as if it'd never left. That conversation on the train six years ago was always playing in his mind. It went on in a loop, like shrill background music.
"…. will you believe me? Do you promise?"
He wasn't afraid anymore.
No. It wasn't that. It was that his fear wasn't important anymore. Even if he couldn't go back, even if he could never make it right, at least he could do this.
Natsume turned at the sound of his name and Seiji reached out with one hand. He rested it on the top of the boy's head, spreading his fingers through the pale yellow hair.
Natsume's eyes grew big and his mouth opened a little in surprise.
"I'm sorry." Seiji closed his own eyes for a moment and let out a deep breath. "I know it doesn't mean anything now… and I'm not asking you to give me another chance. I'm not asking you to tell me anything, but…" He opened his eyes and looked straight down into the clear, golden gaze; the face that had been so white and desperate all those years ago.
"But I want you to know… if you did tell me - if you told me now, I'd believe you." He nodded hard. "No matter what it was, I would definitely believe you."
"Sen…sei." Natsume's wide eyes continued to look at him, unblinking. He squeezed the cat until it gave a growl of protest and leapt out of his arms. Its paws made light tapping noises on the ground. "I…"
Seiji let his hand slide away and took a step back. "You don't have to say anything. I just wanted you to know that." He managed to squeeze out a smile, nodding toward the old house. "You belong here now. I'm very glad about that. I just wish…"
He shook his head and turned back toward the road. "Thank you for the walk," he said over his shoulder, waving a hand. "Maybe can do it again sometime, yes?"
His chest still felt tight, but he couldn't do anything more about it. He fixed his eyes on the path and waded out into the hot, hazy sunlight. Soon, quickened his pace. For some reason, he wanted to put some distance between himself and the Fujiwara's house.
"Sensei, wait - one five three, two seven six three!"
Seiji came to an abrupt stop. He heard the sound of running feet behind him and turned around as just as Natsume caught up. "What?"
"One five three, two seven six three," Natsume repeated quickly. Seiji already recognized it, but still felt confused. Why his old cell phone number? Then slowly, the memory brought his eyes down to Natsume's right hand. The boy had it curled into a tight fist at his side.
"That night…the night I was - when I was at the school…" Natsume stammered, panting a little. "When I called you on your phone… No one ever - I never had someone to call like that."
"Natsume-kun," Seiji murmured.
"Then when you came… I - I shouldn't have been, but…" All of a sudden, Natsume brought his eyes up to meet Seiji's. "I was happy! I was really… really happy."
All Seiji could do was stare.
That was it? The smallest, most insignificant thing he'd done; writing his stupid phone number an a little boy's hand. Had it really mattered that much?
"Maybe…" Natsume looked down at his feet again. "Maybe we could do it again. Walk together, I mean."
Well, even if he hadn't made a difference, he knew one thing for certain; somehow, the tightness inside him had eased away completely. He felt a real smile take him over. "Yes. Yes, definitely."
Natsume returned the smile with a grin so wide, it squinted his eyes shut, transforming his whole face. "Great!" He nodded his head in a bow and turned back toward his house. Some ten feet away, he stopped again and spun back around. "Sensei… you don't have to be nervous."
"Your son - being a parent." He tipped his head with the glowing smile. "If you don't mind me saying… I think you'll be really good at it."
Seiji laughed under his breath, rubbing his neck again. "Well… thank you very much, Natsume-kun."
Natsume nodded once and waved mid turn.
Seiji waved back. He watched the boy run back through the gate. His voice carried through the heavy air with some indistinct greeting to Fujiwara-san. Her voice, much lighter and harder to hear, replied cheerfully.
Then all at once, a breeze came out of nowhere, lifting the hazy air and blowing coolly against the back of Seiji's sweaty neck.
Inexplicably, the memory of that first day in the classroom at Kioroshi ran through his mind. Natsume's strange murmuring to the thin air before throwing his own head against the desk. Then in the silence, a strong breeze through the window.
Again, in slow motion, he saw the curtains billowing out through the window, the desk papers peeling up at their edges.
All of it, blowing toward the window. Not away from it.
The breeze had come from inside the classroom.
Seiji's heart raced. He stood motionless in the middle of the path, staring at the now empty gateway of Natsume's home.
"You know what's going on Sensei? You're sure?"
The smile came back. Then he felt a laugh in his throat and shook his head. It was all crazy. Ayakashi, Yokai, spirits and ghosts, all of it; completely insane. But even if he didn't believe it, he still believed Natsume.
Whether that made any sense, or not.
A big thank you to everyone who read and reviewed this, for all your encouragement and kind words! The warm fuzzies are deeply appreciated. ^-^
Yonde kureta arigatou gozaimasu! ;)
Some random language notes:
han groups: Student small groups within Japanese elementary school classes.
"Moshimoshi": Japanese telephone greeting.
juku: Cram School
Kioroshi and Inba Highschool are both real schools in Japan, however, I've never attended nor visited either one. ;)