A/N: So I did promise this week. And I did! Except now I'm going to be late for The Human Mask. Gaaaah. You guuuuys. This is so hard you guys. Writing this chapter was like pulling teeth. Both Takashi and Natori were being uncooperative. Anyway, I'm sure you have all waited long enough. Please read and enjoy.
To Retrace the Steps of What Had Been
"Here," Natori-san said, heaving a bag over his shoulder and handing it to Takashi. "It's just as well that youkai don't know anything about human food," he teased, as Takashi peered into the bag and stared at the contents with steadily growing delight. "They would kill me if they knew I was feeding you this much junk food."
"I won't tell them if you won't," Takashi said happily, grabbing a package of instant ramen. "Oh, you got more of the cheese curry flavor. I love this one." He looked up, and for a brief moment the two of them shared a conspiratorial look.
"I'll go heat the water," Natori-san said, standing up. "Neither Madara or Hinoe are here right now, right?"
"Mm. Hinoe-san left to deal with some issues that the low-levels raised with her over on the next mountain, and Madara-sama… well Madara-sama is probably somewhere drinking." Takashi rummaged inside the bag and began opening a bag of butter and soy sauce flavored popcorn.
"You're going to eat dessert before lunch?"
"It's not dessert," Takashi said, taking another bite of popcorn and closing his eyes with bliss. "It's the vegetable part of the meal."
"Cheeky brat, you're lucky that I'm in on this with you. Here," Natori-san paused, grabbing a large handful of the popcorn. "I'll try to minimize the junk you're eating."
"I only eat like this when you visit," Takashi said.
"I suppose," Natori-san said between bites of popcorn. He turned around and looked at the clay pot of water that was simmering over the fire. "Ah, the water's boiling."
Takashi began ladling the boiling water into his now open cup of ramen, while Natori-san began opening his own. They chatted about small nothings while they waited for the ramen to be ready—Takashi spoke of the neighboring bird youkai who had recently hatched a pair of twins, while Natori-san shared a funny incident that had happened at the studio he worked in. Takashi found the description both fascinating and repulsive, an unknown world for which he had only a smattering of memory. But here in the mountains, surrounded by youkai, things such as being an actor on television felt distant and unreal.
Then the ramen was ready, and all conversation abruptly stopped. For a while there was only the sound of chewing and slurping as the two of them concentrated on their meals. Natori-san was done first, and he sat watching Takashi, a faint smile on his lips.
"So what shall we do today?" he asked, when Takashi was finally done with his own meal. They burned the trash in the fire Natori-san had built to boil the water earlier, then scattered the ashes. In a place as wet and rainy as this mountain, there was no need to worry about a forest fire.
"Have you recovered from the last time when we went exploring?" Takashi asked, grinning.
"Hardly," Natori-san said, grinning in return. "It is hard enough climbing up this monster of a mountain week after week. Though," he pauses, for a moment thinking of other things, "it has done wonders for my stamina."
"Maybe you will act in action shows next time," Natsume says brightly, at which Natori-san bursts out laughing.
"No, no it is romances for me, hopefully. I have no desire to work that hard. The stunt men, the wait time…" Takashi waits politely while Natori-san goes off talking about things that was, as far as he was concerned, as distant as the stars.
"Maybe I will be able to watch them someday," Takashi said brightly.
"You brat, you weren't listening to a word I was saying," Natori-san said.
"Nope!" The smile on Natori-san's face faded slightly, and Takashi caught the change and wondered if he had, in that moment, hurt Natori-san's feelings. "Natori-san? It was just a joke…" he began.
"Do you never want to go down to see what it's like in the human world?"
"Huh?" Takashi's eyes widened, and then bit his bottom lip. The uncharacteristic expression on Natori-san's face, sober and filled with an undecipherable emotion, became too much for him. Natsume looked down toward the earth. "I don't… I wouldn't mind a visit once in a while. I guess."
"But not to live?"
"I don't belong there," Takashi said, feeling his emotions finally settle. This he knew for a fact. He was a person who could see youkai. He would never be able to fit in with other ordinary humans without confusing, terrifying, or hurting them. Especially hurting them. "Not with them," he added, putting more conviction into his words.
But Natori-san lives with other humans. Works with them. And then there are others… whole clans.
For a moment Natori-san was silent.
"As you are now, perhaps, you don't belong. You've lived away from other humans for far too long. Enough that you can't blend in."
Takashi nodded. This too, was also true.
"I can teach you how to blend in again." Natori-san sighed. "It will take work though. The lessons you have with your teacher now are nothing compared to the work we'll have to do. And, well," Natori-san laughed. "I'm no teacher. So it will be a learning experience for the both of us." He gave Takashi another look, but this time his eyes flashed with challenge. "Well, Takashi-kun? Shall we try? Or are you too afraid?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Are you going to live the rest of your life among youkai because you're too scared to try to live with your own kind?"
The words challenged him, wanted to make him stand up and deny the statement. But then he remembered that first night. The night Madara-sama had found him.
"I can't," he whispered. Tears welled up, startling Natori-san. "It's not because I'm scared. But I can't. I mustn't. I'm…" Takashi looked down, feeling too many contradicting emotions to face Natori-san. Guilt at who he was. Terror that Natori-san would reject him after this. And hidden beneath it all, there was hope.
Natori-san reached out a hand and placed it firmly on Takashi's head, who jerked upward, staring at Natori-san through tear-streaked cheeks.
For a long time, Natori-san simply looked at Takashi, his hand never leaving Takashi's head.
"Takashi-kun, human children don't have the power to cause misfortune you know. You're just a child. An ordinary, innocent child."
Takashi's eyes widened.
He wanted to believe. Desperately, with all his heart. And yet Madara-sama… But Natori-san was human, and had said himself that he had experienced hardship as a child, just like Takashi.
"Are you sure?"
With his other hand, Natori-san reached into his top coat pocket to take out a handkerchief, which he used to begin wiping the tears off Takashi's cheeks.
"It is not the child's fault that adults are unable to cope with someone who is different from them," Natori-san said, with the solemnity of someone who believed what he was saying, with all his heart.
He's gone through it before Takashi realized, as he watched Natori-san's eyes cloud over, as if reliving an unpleasant memory. He understands.
Unbidden, a feeling of intense kinship rose in Takashi, threatening to once again spill over into tears.
"Do you think… do you think I could learn to pass?" Takashi asked, hating the additional hitch at the end of his voice.
Natori-san smiled at him, placing an arm around Takashi's shoulder and drawing him close.
"I don't think, I know," he said. "Shall we try?"
"We'll start off small, shall we? Just short visits in the town where most people won't notice you. Like buying something at the convenience store."
Takashi nodded, his eyes still teary bright, a fact that made Shuuichi's heart wrench for just a second. It was hard to pull himself back, to remind himself that Takashi was not a younger version of him.
After all, Takashi, unlike him, was loved.
The lonely hours Shuuichi had spent growing up feared, cursed and hated had been but a brief moment in Takashi's life. Though others would claim that youkai were incapable of feeling love, to Shuuichi, that argument was a moot point. After all, the result was there for all to see. Anyone seeing Takashi would be hard put to deny that the child had been emotionally as well as physically cared for. The very picture of a happy child.
Yet the fear that Takashi was a cursed human, that his existence caused misfortune to others, particularly to other humans, had been an unknown wound that Shuuichi would not have suspected of existing even in his wildest dreams. Where had this fear come from? An inkling of suspicion rose, which Shuuichi quickly suppressed, to be examined later. If he was correct, then here was another wedge, a weapon that he could use to ultimately lead Takashi back to the human world.
To take up the life he should have had.
Shuuichi gave Takashi an occasional glance, watching as Takashi struggled to remember the basic characters that he should have already mastered.
"Need any help?" Shuuichi asked.
"It doesn't make sense," Takashi grumbled, puffing his cheeks out in a childish pout. "Youkai writing is a lot easier."
"Ah… is it now?" Shuuichi asked. Curiosity overcame him, for youkai writing was an occasional subject among exorcists, its existence proof that youkai were unreasonable and incomprehensible beings. It was generally an accepted belief that youkai script was impossible for humans to master.
Obviously, with Takashi sitting before him not only reading scrolls written in youkai script, but writing them himself, Shuuichi was having to reassess this long-held assumption.
"Yeah. You just… feel it. And then you know," Takashi said.
"Does it change then every time you write it?"
"Sometimes," Takashi said, as if a constantly changing script was perfectly normal. "But there are some words that are always the same." He paused. "Well, mostly the same."
"I see." Shuuichi smiled. "Well, how about I help you with human script, and you in turn teach me some youkai script?"
Shuuichi watched Takashi return to his lesson with a sense of growing fondness. In spite of their initial meeting, he was finding that he looked forward to spending time with Takashi. He had been an only child, and a cursed child at that. If he had had a little brother who also shared his ability to see youkai, perhaps he would not be so cut off from others now.
The child had an innocent, naïve air that Shuuichi found refreshing. It was something that was seriously lacking in the exorcist world, a fact that temporarily sobered him. With Takashi the way he was, there was no way he would be able to coexist peacefully with most exorcists. And yet, that the child would be eventually drawn into that world was a given.
It was Shuuichi's responsibility to ensure that when the inevitable happened, Takashi would be seen as an ally, not as an enemy.
When the glass doors opened, Takashi was met with a blast of cold air, followed by the chiming of bells. It was an experience that was both nostalgic and alien, and for a second he paused, blinking at the bright lights and at the overwhelming sensory overload. He felt himself pushed gently forward, then guided one stumbling step at a time to the closest aisle.
"Are you okay?" Natori-san asked.
"I… I think so," Takashi said, pulling the hood of the baggy sweater Natori-san had bought for him further down over his head. He was oddly self-conscious of the way he looked—though he knew that his hair was hidden by the hood, it had not escaped him that most boys did not have long hair. He wriggled his toes, unaccustomed to the feel of leather and fabric. The pants had to be held up by a belt, and the shoes were slightly too big for him, but better that than too small.
It was not like Natori-san had been able to take Takashi to the store to try on clothes, so Takashi did not complain. Natori-san had also added that bigger clothes meant that he would be able to grow into them, implying that there would be more trips after this.
At the moment though, Takashi was feeling doubt of ever coming back again. Feelings that he had thought he no longer felt were bubbling just beneath the surface, threatening to spill out into the open.
"You look fine."
"But I don't feel fine!" Takashi said, and pulled at the pants of his jeans. He wasn't willing to say out loud what was really bothering him. "They're too stiff."
"It'll soften the longer you wear it," Natori-san said, putting his hand once more against Takashi's back and maneuvering him away from the cluster of people who had just entered.
Takashi followed Natori-san obediently, but curiosity overcame him and he turned his head slightly to watch the people who had just entered.
It was a group of boys around Takashi's age.
They were laughing and shouting, chattering with occasional friendly shoves that were just short of being rowdy. Despite the nerves he was feeling, Takashi couldn't help but stare at them; his emotions, already chaotic, became too mixed for him to sort them out properly.
"Takashi-kun?" Natori-san asked, but his name came out as a whisper, as if Natori-san too was feeling some of what Takashi was experiencing, if further removed.
He probably did. After all, Natori-san too had grown up being rejected.
Takashi looked away from the boys, turning his head back to Natori-san with a visible force of will. Memories, painful ones, were playing in his head. Images of rejection, of taunting, snickers and sneering whispers.
The ones I live with now accept me for who I am.
But it didn't stop the memories of rejection from hurting any less.
"Shall we go take a look at the ramen aisle?" Natori-san asked, smiling faintly.
"Mm." Takashi nodded.
It did not take long for the two of them to make their selections. After the ramen and snacks, Takashi made a beeline for the breads, selecting a chocolate cream coronet and melon bread. He managed to pay for their purchases without too much trouble, though the clerk looked at Takashi's hood curiously. Seeing Takashi's discomfort, Natori-san came to his rescue, smiling charmingly at the clerk.
"My little brother got a bad haircut the other day," he said.
The clerk smiled in return, blushing under Natori-san's gaze, then gave Takashi a more sympathetic look as well.
"I've had that happen to me before. But it'll grow out," she said, smiling indulgently at Takashi.
Takashi opened his mouth, then closed it again, settling for glaring at Natori-san, who seemed oblivious to the attention.
"Why did you say that?" Takashi demanded later, when they were sitting outside on a park bench.
It was empty of people, a fact that he found relieving. There were tiny youkai scuttling around in the grass, peeking out behind leaves. He relaxed. There had been youkai on the streets and in the convenience store also, but he hadn't dared react to them. Here at least, he could be who he was without worry.
"It knocked you out of your mood, didn't it?" Natori-san said. He opened his packed lunch—udon noodle salad and a tuna-stuffed onigiri—and motioned for Takashi to eat as well.
"I wasn't…" Seeing Natori-san give him a look, Takashi paused. "Well, it…" He sighed. "It doesn't matter. Even when I was living with humans, I had never been able to be like that."
"Surrounded by friends. Nobody wanted to be seen with me." Never mind be his friend. He forced himself to smile. "But I have tons of friends now," he said brightly, giving Natori-san his best cheerful look. "And I have you too, Natori-san."
With that, he unwrapped the melon bread and bit into it, telling himself that he was going to enjoy the sugar encrusted cookie crust. Takashi ignored the sigh from Natori-san, and almost managed to get halfway through the melon bread before a gentle pat on the head from Natori-san started the tears flowing, and suddenly Takashi found himself enfolded in the man's arms as he began to sob.
He did not know how long he cried, but when the tears finally stopped, there was another long moment of silence, where Takashi simply allowed himself to be held. Natori-san's presence was comforting, yet different from what he was used to. Not overly affectionate, like Hinoe-san's, or protective like Madara-sama's, but good in its own way.
"I think we've had enough of an adventure for one day," Natori-san said, pulling away from Takashi enough to give him a good look over. "Ready to go home?"
Takashi nodded. He felt an ache in his heart when he thought of the mountains. Home—and the youkai who dwelled there—had never felt more welcoming.
He nodded again, and this time Natori-san gave a sad little nod of his own.
"It will get better, Takashi. And remember what I said about people like us."
"Are there… kids like me too?" he asked.
"Of course. Not as much as before, but there are. And there are others who can feel and sense youkai, but not see them."
"And I'll get to meet them someday?"
Natori-san seemed oddly strained with that last statement, but Takashi was too emotionally worn out to care. He stood up, pulling his hood back over his hair, the remains of his food stuffed into a plastic bag. Those would be eaten later, to be slowly savored.
"I want to go home, Natori-san."
"All right," Natori-san said. Again, the man's voice sounded oddly strained. "Let's take you home."
Though Shuuichi worried that Takashi would not want to go down the mountain after that first disastrous episode, the second time he asked Takashi, the boy surprisingly did not refuse.
"Shall we try going to a family restaurant this time?" Shuuichi asked. "We'll go to a noisy one."
"A noisy one?" Takashi asked. There was a barely hidden film of panic that colored the way the boy held himself—stiff and uncertain, as if trying to decide if escape was necessary.
"The noisier it is, the less likely anything strange you do will be noticed. There will be noisy children, squabbling teenagers… the wait staff will be too busy to care."
"Oh." Barely contained relief.
"I got you another change of clothes. Hopefully they'll fit better this time."
Takashi bit his bottom lip.
"You shouldn't have done that."
"Why not?" Shuuichi asked. That Takashi was sensitive about money, even after all his years spent with youkai, made Shuuichi wonder just what his home life had been before. It was one problem that Shuuichi had never had to experience. The Natori clan, though no longer prominent in the exorcist world, had never lacked for money. "I don't have anyone else to spend money on," he added. "And little kids aren't supposed to worry about money."
The worried look however, did not quite leave Takashi's face.
"Really." Shuuichi shrugged. "Trust me on this one. I'm an actor, remember?"
"But you said that you were still just starting your career."
"I'm also from a very old exorcist clan." He bent forward, putting his face close to Takashi's ear. "It means we're rich," he whispered, grinning.
A little bit more of the skepticism receded from Takashi's face. Shuuichi laughed, and put his arm around Takashi, dragging the boy forward. Takashi yelped and stumbled, then glared balefully at Shuuichi.
"What was that for?!"
"You're using money as an excuse to postpone the outing, don't think I don't know it."
"I am not!"
"Then prove it."
The challenge did what it was supposed to do. All traces of doubt and hesitation disappeared, and the imp returned in full force.
"Catch me if you can!" Takashi shouted, not so much running as leaping down the mountain in sudden spurts. Shuuichi laughed again, knowing that in the mountains at least, he had no hope of catching the boy. But once they were on the road, there would be nothing holding him back.
Which was exactly what he did.
They left the restaurant triumphantly two hours later, Takashi having managed to read the menu as well as successfully order on his own. The crowded restaurant had done what the convenience store had not—Takashi was in high spirits when he left.
"Can we have a parfait next time, Natori-san?"
Laughing, Shuuichi placed an arm around Takashi, then reached up to ruffle the boy's hair.
"Maybe next time you can come down and order on your own."
Takashi looked up, and Shuuichi could see the boy's current excitement warring with age-old anxiety.
"Now, why don't we stop by the bookstore on our way back to the mountains?"
"You'll be more excited about reading human books if you get to pick the books," Shuuichi pointed out.
But before Shuuichi could convince the boy, he saw a flutter of paper in the distance, and grimaced.
"No, that will have to wait for another day I think."
Takashi looked up in the direction Shuuichi was looking in, eyes widening at the paper hovering overhead.
"Normal humans can't see it you know," Shuuichi said casually, making a motion so that the paper floated down into his hands. Based on the shape of the paper… He unfolded the sheet, and frowned at both the message and the name of the sender. "Unfortunately it looks like I will need to go immediately. Are you going to be able to get back home on your own?"
The mountain that Takashi lived in was visible from where they were standing, and Takashi pointed to it.
"I can get home. So long as I keep it in front of me."
"Good. I'm sorry Takashi, I really have to go."
"I'm okay, Natori-san." Takashi smiled cheerfully. "I had a lot of fun today."
"I'll see you soon then. On the mountains as always?"
Shuuichi waited until he was sure that Takashi was heading in the right direction, then took off at a run.
"There you are."
"Matoba," Shuuichi said. There was an irritating smirk hovering in the corners of Matoba's mouth, as if Matoba knew something that Shuuichi did not, and was taking delight in the fact. Though Shuuichi was older than the other exorcist, it rankled that the man acted like his superior. Well, in many ways, Matoba had a right to it. He was one of, if not the most powerful exorcist at the moment.
Shuuichi tried not think that if Takashi had been born into an exorcist family, that particular title would have gone to him instead.
Matoba stepped out from the alleyway he had been standing in, the seal covering his right eye a silent reminder of the curse that hung over his clan. Compared to that, Shuuichi was grateful that the shadow lizard that lived on his skin did no more than occasionally move. Odd that Takashi had never commented on it, for he surely must have seen it.
Perhaps he had lived so long with youkai, that the sight of moving tattoos seemed normal.
"Since I was in the area, I thought I would greet you," Matoba said. What he was in the area for, Shuuichi did not know. The casually made statement sent alarm bells through his head though. Matoba never did anything without reason.
"You could have just come up and said hi," Shuuichi said, pretending to a lightheartedness he did not feel.
I'm an actor, Matoba. You can't fluster me the way you can the clans that are beholden to you.
"Now I could hardly interrupt your outing. A child, wasn't it?"
"Spying on me, Matoba?" Shuuichi said, showing his teeth in a mimicry of his best smile. "That is low, even for you."
"Hardly. Not when you were walking so openly with him on the street." Matoba tilted his head. "Who is he?"
"None of your business, Matoba."
"He had the oddest aura I have ever seen," Matoba said.
"The boy is human."
"And he lives around here?"
"As I said, that's none of your business, Matoba," Shuuichi said. "Now what did you call me over for? Surely not to talk about who I spend my time with outside of work?"
"There's a contract that's been posted about a powerful youkai attacking a town nearby. Several exorcists have been injured already." Matoba's smirk deepened. "Since we seemed to work well that first time, do you want to team up again?"
"What's the prize?"
"Six hundred thousand yen. I'll let you take it all. I hardly need it."
Shuuichi's instinct was to immediately turn Matoba down. The man was irritating enough without the additional drain of working with him. But then he thought of Takashi and his worry about money. Giving the boy some of his own pocket money—carefully doled out on regular intervals—would surely encourage the boy to become more adventurous.
"When shall we do this…?"
"Where is he?"
The lower level imps quailed underneath Madara's gaze, then squealed when a tail twitch sent dozens of them flying. Madara did not care. Takashi was nowhere to be seen, had not been seen since morning. While this was not unusual in the normal course of things—Madara was not usually around Takashi during the day—he had always been able to count on the lower level youkai to report Takashi's whereabouts to him.
"W-we saw him g-g-g-go down the mountain," one imp finally said. It was trembling so hard that it could not stand.
Down the mountain. The anger and irritation abruptly left him, and Madara dropped to the floor, sending more imps tumbling.
"Was he with the exorcist?"
Madara was aware of Takashi's recent trek down the mountain to the human world. This would be the second time that the boy was leaving the mountain without youkai supervision, which was something that he tolerated, though he had been very unhappy with the idea at first. Bad enough that the exorcist came up to spend time with Takashi as often as he did. Hinoe had finally needed to take him aside and tell him to stop growling every time Takashi mentioned his times with the exorcist brat. That Takashi evidently enjoyed it made it even worse.
"He's human, Madara. You can't have him avoid humans forever."
"Why not? He can live up on this mountain with us."
"As a child, perhaps. But Madara, you forget that Takashi will eventually grow up. Are we to deny him the chance to experience human things?"
"Such as what?"
Hinoe had sighed, then shaken her head. She had not mentioned anything afterward, but Madara had heard the silent rebuke.
Takashi, for his part, did not seem to be dissatisfied with his life on the mountain. His lessons with Misuzu continued as normal, and he certainly spent as much time with the lower level youkai as he could.
In fact, Madara remembered the first time Takashi had gone down the mountain with the exorcist brat with satisfaction. There had been demands for cuddling that night, which was an ordinary enough demand, but the thread of desperation in his childish pleading had been odd enough to cause alarm. It was as if Takashi had needed Madara to remind him that there were those who accepted him for who he was, that he no longer needed to fear rejection. How a short afternoon down in the human world could have done this, Madara did not know, but he had done his best to give what Takashi needed. Whatever it had been, Takashi had been shaken over something, and it had had something to do with humans. He had even harbored some hope that this meant Takashi would be discouraged from going down again.
But evidently that was not the case.
"I'm going to go out and look for him. He'll be easy enough to sense, with his strength," Madara said. "Tell Hinoe that this is what I'm doing. And if Takashi comes back before I do, tell him to stay put."
Muttering under his breath about the effort it took to watch over foolish human brats, he took off toward the sky.
Keeping the mountain constantly in front of him, Takashi was not paying attention to the area he had walked into. That he was no longer in the shopping area but a residential one made no impression on him.
Though today had been far more enjoyable than the last time, Takashi was more than ready to go home. Seeing the position of the sun in the sky, he frowned. It was far later than he had expected. If he got home after Madara-sama, Madara-sama was going to be very, very unhappy with him.
Under any other circumstances Takashi would get a growling lecture, but coming home late while doing something Madara-sama already disapproved of? Takashi shuddered. Though Takashi knew that Madara-sama would never harm him, when angry, he could be… scary.
He knew that Madara-sama was unhappy that he was spending so much time with Natori-san. Hinoe-san, when asked, had reassured him and said that Madara-sama was simply being jealous, but Takashi occasionally wondered if there was something more than that.
Did Madara-sama worry that Takashi would choose Natori-san over Madara-sama?
Takashi giggled at the thought.
No, Hinoe-san was right. It probably was jealousy.
The thought cheered him up immensely, and he picked up speed and began to run, enjoying the flat road before him. It wasn't half as fun as going through obstacles on the mountain, but it was nice to see how fast he could run. And the shoes Natori-san gave him had a much better grip than straw sandals.
It did not have enough grip though, to get him to stop before he ran into the woman who had suddenly appeared from a side street in front of him.
"Ah!" Stumbling backwards, Takashi stared in horror at the woman lying sprawled on the road. She had been grocery shopping. Vegetables were strewn around her, some having rolled as far as to the other side of the road. Some of the plastic bags had ripped, and more items peeked out from the holes. He felt himself starting to panic. What was he going to do? He closed his eyes tightly, suddenly wishing that he had never come down the mountain. Here was more proof that he was cursed, that he harmed humans around him. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. So sorry. I'm sorry!"
A soft hand touched his cheek, startling him enough that he looked up.
"Child, are you all right?"
Takashi stared, not daring to believe that the woman he had just ran into was not angry. But as he nodded, stiffly, he saw her give a sigh of relief, then smile.
"Oh thank goodness. Silly me, I really should watch where I'm going." She smiled. "And now look. Because of my carelessness, I've ruined the groceries."
"I'll help," Takashi said, the words out before he could think. "Where do you live? I'll help you carry them home." With the bags ruined, the woman would need the help.
"Oh no, it's so late, your parents must be worried," the woman exclaimed.
"No, it's really okay."
"Are you sure?"
She reached out to touch him again, this time on his shoulder. Takashi stared at the hand, then back up at the woman.
Her eyes are the kindest I've ever seen.
The thought, all unbidden, rose up in his mind. Takashi felt a warmth he had never experienced before.
"Where do you live?" he asked.
"Down this road," she said, pointing in the direction of the mountain.
Takashi smiled. Without thinking, he answered, "Oh, I live down that way too."
"You do? I've never seen you before though."
Realizing his mistake, Takashi paled.
"Ah, no. I mean, I on the moun—the other side of the mountain," he corrected himself.
"Hmm, I see." Takashi watched her worriedly, wondering if the woman was going to call him out on his obvious lie. But instead, much to his surprise, the woman decided to take his words at face value. "All right then. If it's on your way home, I suppose I could let you help," she said. The gentle words and kind expression on her face revealed nothing of what she was thinking. It was as if she instinctively knew there were some things that she shouldn't ask. "Oh, and since you're helping, let me introduce myself." She laughed softly. "I'm hopeless aren't I? Not only can I not watch where I'm going, I'm starting to forget my manners." Straightening, she looked at him and bowed slightly. "I'm Touko. Fujiwara Touko."
"Fujiwara-san," Takashi said.
"Touko is fine."
"T-Touko-san." Takashi bowed. "I'm Natsume Takashi."
"Takashi-kun, is that right? Well, let's start off by picking up these vegetables."
With two to pick things up, it went quickly, and soon Takashi found himself listening to Touko-san chatter about her garden and what she was planning to make with the groceries. He did not really listen to everything she said, but Takashi found himself enjoying just being with her. There was something oddly soothing about her presence. That she hadn't immediately rejected him out of hand was also reassuring. Strange, but reassuring.
They reached a large, cozy looking house, and Touko-san ran ahead to open the door.
"Put them down now." Seeing the place she was pointing at, Takashi set down the groceries carefully on the step above the entranceway. It had been many years since he'd entered a human home. The feeling was disconcerting. "Thank you so much for helping," Touko-san said happily. "Are you still okay? I could make up some tea."
"Oh… no. I really have to get going now," Takashi said.
"Oh my yes. Look at the time. It's nearly dinner time. Your parents must be worried."
Thinking of Madara-sama and Hinoe-san, Takashi smiled.
"It's okay. I'll probably get yelled at."
"Well, that won't do. Do you have a phone number I can call? I can explain to them ahead of time," she said, looking genuinely worried.
"No… I'll be okay. Really."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. I need to go now."
"Come for a visit next time," Touko-san said, waving at him as he headed back out the door. "Thank you so much for your help."
"It was no problem," Takashi said, waving back. "Good bye!"
As the door closed, Takashi found himself looking at the house one more time. The woman had invited him back to visit. Had she meant it? Surely not. And perhaps… He shook his head of the thought that had suddenly crept into his mind.
No, he no longer belonged with humans. His outings with Natori-san were just that. Outings. Practice so that he would be able to pass himself off as ordinary, but not to live among them. Not like Natori-san.
A shadow passed over him, making him instinctively look up.
"There you are. I've been looking for you."
Madara-sama landed in the middle of the street, the wind that had blown up from the speed of his landing sending the white fur ruffling.
"Madara-sama!" Takashi said happily, running toward the youkai. Before Takashi could hug Madara-sama however, a giant paw smacked him to the ground.
"Don't leave the mountains again without letting any of us know where you're going, do you understand me?"
"Owww…" Takashi stayed still, knowing better than to struggle when Madara-sama was angry. Only when he felt the paw move aside did he dare get up. "I'm sorry, Madara-sama." He couldn't quite keep out the sniffle. Madara-sama rarely punished him like this, and it had hurt.
"I was worried, and so were the low-level imps."
"Oh." He shifted from one now slightly scraped leg to another, now feeling genuinely contrite. He hadn't meant for anyone to be worried. "I'm really sorry, Madara-sama. I'll let you know when I'm leaving from now on."
"And you'll tell me where, so that I will be able to find you," Madara-sama added firmly.
"Okay. I promise."
"Now climb up. Let's go home."
It had been a while since Takashi had been able to fly on Madara-sama. He climbed up from Madara-sama's shoulder, using the paw and fur to steady himself while he settled on. Madara-sama took off without a warning, and Takashi squealed in delight. Takashi sighed contentedly, with no more thought than that he was heading home. Lost in the world above the clouds, the image of the cozy house, the neat garden, and the kind woman who lived there, dropped from his mind.
Takashi never noticed.
Chapter Notes: I wanted to talk about some of the junk food that I've mentioned in this chapter (they're really the only thing that might be confusing). In the beginning, Takashi eats butter soy sauce flavored popcorn. This is a real snack, made by Frito Lays in fact, called Mike's Popcorn, and it is delicious.Do not underestimate the power of butter soy sauce. Butter soy sauce popcorn is delicious. Butter soy sauce potato chips are awesome. Butter soy sauce corkscrew tornado potatoes? Heaven. I love Mike's so much that I have my Japanese friends pack a single luggage full of them to bring back to me (they're available on Amazon, but for an obscenely expensive price). On my own I make butter soy sauce potato salad (my own special recipe, that I made up on my own).
Don't judge me. Don't. Judge. Don't you dare.
On a similar vein, cheese curry ramen is also amazingly amazing, and yes it is also a real flavor. Japanese curry and cheese taste good together. I used to get a cup every two weeks at the local Lawson's. Again, don't judge me.
Melon bread was also featured in this chapter, and despite the name, it is not melon flavored (though I once saw melon-flavored melon bread. Mind blown). No, it's named that for the crisscrosses that cover the top, which supposedly resembles a melon. It's a cookie crust on top of a dinner roll like bread. Said cookie crust is often embedded with chocolate chips or sugar crystals. It is delicious.
The Chinese have a similar one, called pineapple bread, made pretty much the same, but apparently to the Chinese it looks more like a pineapple than a melon. I actually only just recently found this out, since the name for pineapple in mainland China is different from the mandarin we use in Taiwan. Lol. We call it feng li (phoenix pear), and the Chinese call it buo luo. Anyway. I was in shock for a day at this discovery. Catatonic in fact.
I still prefer melon bread though. Much prettier and tastier.