The therapist's room was a disjointed mess, Takeo thought. He'd been in enough of them to know. There were the rooms that looked like a physician's office, all sterile hard lines and clinical, high-backed chairs, with nothing to focus on but the people inside. There were the industrial ones, with functional chairs and inspirational posters on the walls you could look at while the therapist went through the same, standard checklists. There were the ones that tried to impress with wealth, thick carpets and solid oak desks and all sorts of fancy degrees in fancier plaques hanging on the walls. There were the experimental ones, generally distinguished by the complete lack of any rational furniture.
And then there were the cozy rooms. These were the ones Takeo hated the most. Those were the rooms filled with cushy couches, warm, yellow lights and pretty paintings on the wall. Takeo hated these because they always had older, fatherly men who would sit on the opposite couch, lean forward, polish their eyeglasses, and, with an affectionate smile, ask why oh why would a good kid like him start screaming in the middle of a store. Or break all the windows in a house. Or hold his breath until he had to be taken to a hospital.
Or, in this case, why would he lie down in the middle of a bakery and refuse to get up until the baker himself came over to help. That one was the worst since the baker had also given his mother the name of a therapist, which was why Takeo was sitting in this chair.
This office was kind of weird. It looked like an attempt at the classic I Am A Rich Important Therapist You Must Respect look, only without the money. The high-backed wooden chairs were scuffed at their feet, the fancy carpet was threadbare in one corner, and the art on the walls in gold painted frames looked amateurish, even to Takeo's untrained eye.
Despite this attempt at mimicry, there were also hand-drawn pictures and notes taped all over the wall by the desk and a cat as large and round as a beach ball sleeping in a basket by the corner.
The therapist walked in, flipping through a large stack of papers stuck in a clipboard. "Hello. Takeo, is it?" he asked, sticking out a hand. Takeo shook it reluctantly. "Nice to meet you. Why don't you have a seat? I'm sorry, I only just now got your records from the other office, so I'm a little behind."
Takeo took the seat that put his back to the window, so all his mother could see was the therapist. The therapist gave him a cursory smile and went back to flipping through the papers, murmuring, "Age twelve, history of…recent medical…" Takeo instantly felt sorry for him. The therapist was really pretty in a boyish way, and Takeo bet that a lot of adults didn't give him a lot of respect. Takeo had no idea how old he was, but guessed it was somewhere between twenty and forty.
"Just so you know, I work under the standard confidentiality agreement, meaning that unless you tell me otherwise, nothing you say here can be legally repeated to anyone, including your parents, unless there is an immediate concern for your safety or I receive a court order," the therapist said. He continued with the usual patter, which Takeo usually made a point to listen to, but his interest started to drift.
There was something in the window. It reminded Takeo of the time he had woken up just after sunrise and found a bird on his windowsill, just behind his curtain. It had been perfectly silhouetted, from the tip of its beak to the ends of its tail feathers.
This shape was the same except that there was no curtain, just sunlight and glass and a perfect, miniature outline of a man dancing in the window.
"Takeo, do you understand what I've said?" the therapist asked.
Takeo sat upright, looking back to the therapist. "Yes," he said obediently.
"Good. You should know, I occasionally use some unusual techniques, such as animal therapy or roleplaying in order to…"
The shape in the window was waving its arms around, bobbing up and down as though it were doing jumping jacks. When Takeo turned his head so he was looking out of the corner of his eye, he thought he could see a puff on the top of the shadow creature's hat swinging back and forth as it jumped.
"Takeo? Are you paying attention to me?" the therapist asked.
Takeo snapped to attention again. "Yes, sir."
"Or are you paying attention to the little dancing man in the window?"
Takeo's heart leapt into his throat. "What?"
The therapist gave him a calm, measured look, and got up out of his chair. He walked to his desk, flipping through the clipboard once again. "It says here that last month you got in trouble for insisting that you saw a small, blue dog outside your house?"
Takeo stared down at his shoes. "I was just saying things."
"Could you describe it for me?" the therapist asked. When Takeo remained silent, the therapist said, "Okay, then. If you were to imagine a blue dog, what do you think it would look like?"
"Blue," Takeo said obstinately.
"Light blue, royal blue, sky blue?" the therapist prompted.
"Royal blue," Takeo said, "and a really wide mouth, and, and fur that bushed out around its chin like a beard, and," his voice dropped to a whisper, "and two tails." He stuck his chin out at the therapist, preparing himself for one of the inevitable responses—either a reprimand for telling stories at his age, or a compliment on his imagination. He bet it would be the second; the therapist looked like the touchy-feely kind.
The therapist offered a paper he had picked off his desk. "Is this what it looked like?"
Takeo took the paper. On it was a rough sketch someone had done of a dog with a wide, flat-toothed mouth, scribbled hair around its chin, big, round eyes, and a double tail, all drawn with a bright blue pencil.
"How did you—"
"Another one of my patients used to play with him a lot," the therapist said. "She nicknamed him Aoichan. He's probably a little lonely, since she moved to another city a few months ago. Next time you see him, you should say hello."
Takeo tried to respond, but his brain seemed to have forgotten how to make words.
The therapist sat back in the chair across from him and gave him one of those calm, encouraging smiles. Takeo found it somewhat less infuriating than usual. "It's okay," the therapist said, "take your time."
"They're..." Takeo's voice broke. "They're real?"
The therapist nodded. "Of course they are. Just because other people can't see them doesn't make them not real."
"And...and the thing in the window?" Takeo asked.
"Would you like to talk to him?" the therapist asked.
Takeo blinked a few times. "They can talk?"
The therapist actually laughed at him. He turned to the shadow at the window. "Kaeryu, would you mind?"
The shadow blurred for a second, leaving the window. A moment later, a tiny man with a frog's head and a pointed hat appeared on a piece of paper that was lying on the table between them. The frog creature doffed its cap and gave a bow.
"Nice to meet you," Takeo said, bowing back automatically.
"Pleasure, I am sure," it said in a croaky little voice. "Did you enjoy my little dance?"
Takeo leaned in closer. "So this is what they look like," he whispered.
"Yes, yes, feast your eyes on my glorious visage," Kaeryu said, preening. He turned around and said, "Note the detailed embroidery on the back of my apparel."
Takeo turned to the therapist. "Do they all look like this?"
Takeo expected the therapist to laugh at him again, but he just shook his head and said, "There's a big variety."
Kaeryu sniffed and said, "Quite rude, addressing others."
"I'm sorry," Takeo said to Kaeryu. "I haven't…spoken to someone like you before."
The frog seemed somewhat mollified. "I should imagine not. Very well, though as a matter of course, you will always get better results with a bit of polite speech mixed in with your incessant staring."
"Sorry," Takeo said again.
"Well, you are young. You will learn," said Kaeryu sagely.
"These will help you see them more clearly," the therapist said, offering Takeo a pair of glasses. Takeo put them on and was surprised to see they were made of plain glass. "We'll tell your mother they're part of your therapy. Do they work?"
Kaeryu hopped off of the paper. His shape blurred a little around the edges, but Takeo could still make out the major shapes and colors much more clearly than before. He moved the glasses that he peered over them. Kaeryu returned to a strange dark shadow. He moved the glasses back, and Kaeryu became distinct once again. Takeo laughed and kept flipping the glasses back and forth, watching the image change.
"I'll take that as a 'yes,'" the therapist said, standing up. "Now, if you're going to go around wearing those, there's someone I need to introduce you to. We have to make sure you're on the right side of the right spirits if you want to safely interact with them. Are you okay with going out for a bit?"
Takeo stood up, then cast a worried look at the window where he could see his mother casually flipping through a magazine.
"Good point," said the therapist. "Sensei?"
The enormous cat that had been sleeping in the corner gave a big yawn. It stretched its front legs and arched its back.
"Fine, fine," it said and popped into the therapist's shape. It settled into the therapist's chair waved a hand airily and said, "Your problems are clearly Jungian, not Freudian psychosomatic, now tell me about your feeeeeelings," in a voice that was exactly like the therapist's, only ten times more snide.
Takeo's jaw dropped.
"Don't worry, kid. That's not nearly the weirdest thing you'll see today," said the cat therapist. "Now why don't you get out of here before your mom looks up and sees double?"
Kaeryu jumped onto Takeo's shoulder and said, "Excellent advice. Shall we?"
The therapist opened a door at the back of the room. There was a narrow staircase beyond it. He headed down the stairs, and Takeo had to jog to keep up. There was a strong, warm scent of bread and sugar that got stronger as he went down the stairs, and then they were in the kitchen of the bakery next door.
"Just passing through, Tanuma," the therapist said.
A tall man with a white bandana tied over his hair waved at them. Takeo recognized him as the baker who had helped him the day before. "Would you mind helping me out, Sensei? We had a couple stompers here yesterday, and I think one or two might still be hanging around the storage room."
To Takeo's surprise, the therapist made a face. "It's so weird when you call me that. Fine, I'll be back in a minute." He walked into the back, leaving Takeo with the baker and the frog. Kaeryu hopped off Takeo's shoulder and jumped to a shelf where dozens of cookies were cooling.
"Are you doing okay?" the baker asked. "It looked like the stompers got you pretty bad yesterday."
"I'm okay," Takeo said, belatedly adding, "thanks for helping."
"No problem," the baker said. He squinted at Kaeryu, who was lifting a cookie. "You'll have to pay for that, you know."
"You may put it on my tab," Kaeryu said, and ate the cookie in one bite, mouth stretching impossibly wide.
The door jingled, and a little boy who was maybe four years old rushed in. Anything he was about to say was cut off when he gasped, ran for the shelf, and yelled, "Frog!"
Kaeryu bowed and said, "How do you do, young Yasuo?" Yasuo snatched him up in his hands.
"Yasuo, play nicely with Mister Frog," the baker said gently.
"'kay, Dad," Yasuo said. Kaeryu sat down in Yasuo's hand, turned his head to the left, and, with a strange belching noise, spat out a tiny fireball. Yasuo cheered and jumped up and down, jostling the poor frog. Takeo and the baker looked at each other and laughed.
Takeo laughed and laughed and started to cry.
"Hey, it's okay, it's okay," the baker said softly, placing a hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry," Takeo said, hicupping. "I don't know, I don't know, I just—"
"It's okay," the baker repeated. "Natsume…he's always seen the spirits really clearly, much better than you or I can. I don't think he really understands how overwhelming this all can be."
"I always thought I was the only one!" Takeo cried, rubbing furiously at his eyes, smudging his new glasses. "And I didn't know what they were, and I..."
"I know, I know," the baker said, squeezing Takeo's shoulder. "That's what I used to think, too."
"It's stupid, I'm sorry," Takeo said. "Everything's so different, I should have…I'm sorry."
"Tooru is so much better at this than I am," the baker muttered to himself. He passed Takeo a sweet roll and said, "Eat this; it'll make you feel better." Takeo choked it down between hiccups, and he did feel better after.
"Thanks," Takeo said. He wiped his eyes one last time, and no more tears came.
"You're going to have to meet Misuzu. It's one of the deals Natsume made in order to help people like you. Just as a warning, he's very big, but you should be fine so long as you've been nice to his frogs," the baker said.
"Okay," Takeo said. He took a deep, shaky breath, and let it out. "Okay."
The therapist came out of the storage room. "Looks like everything's fine in here," he said.
Yasuo ran up to him, still clutching Kaeryu in his hands. "Sensei!"
The therapist smiled fondly at him and ran a hand through the child's hair. "Hello, Yasuo. Could you please give Mister Frog back to Takeo now?"
Yasuo toddled over to Takeo and held the frog out, saying, "Here!"
"Thank you," Takeo said, settling Kaeryu back on his shoulder. Yasuo grinned at him. He smiled back.
"Ready to go?" the therapist asked, walking to the kitchen's back exit.
"Chin up, boy," Kaeryu murmured into Takeo's ear.
"I think I'm ready," Takeo said, and strode out the door into the strange new world.