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“I was thinking,” says Aramaki. “It's been a long time – do you think people might want to get together for a baseball game sometime soon?”

Semimaru slides a smirk over at Natsu, and Natsu's face turns red. A baseball game means something different in the new world than it ever did in the old. Back then, it was just a sport – well, though maybe there were people who would disagree, and Aramaki was probably one of them. Still, back then most people could at least take it for granted that there would be eighteen people around to play it. Most people could take it for granted, too, that they wouldn't be kept too busy surviving to have time for play at all.

But symbolic celebration of community and joie de vivre or not, the fact remains that Natsu is beyond terrible at baseball. Everybody knows this. Matsuri always drags her out to be a cheerleader with her instead; the problem is that Natsu is also beyond terrible at being a cheerleader. That's why Semimaru is grinning, the jerk. But it'll make Matsuri happy, and Arashi and Hana too. Everyone is always happy to have the excuse to get together.

She clears her throat -- even after all this time it still sends a faint tickle down her spine, half gratitude and half anxiety, to have people ask her opinion on things -- and does her best to answer with confidence. “I think people would like that, Aramaki-san. Um – if you set a date, I can let anybody know who might like to join you there.”

Aramaki glances at Ayu, and smiles a little. “Better make it soon. Is two months enough time, do you think? Will everyone be able to get away?”

Semimaru frowns, ticking off dates on his fingers. “I think – yeah. No way you can make it any sooner, or you'll bump into the soybean harvest." He leans back in his chair and crosses his arms behind his head. “And for sure you can't have a party without us. No one else has any booze.”

“All right, then it's settled. Two months from now, in the Sapporo Dome.” The Sapporo Dome is just a relatively flat area of the badlands that's sheltered off from dehydrated dinosaurs, but Arashi and Aramaki refuse to call it anything else. Aramaki laughs and pitches an imaginary ball at Ayu, who raises her eyebrows but puts up her hand to catch it. “We'll all play ball!”

Three juvenile dogs from Kuroda's latest litter appear immediately to catch the imaginary ball. On discovering their mistake, they let out a series of disappointed yaps and then set to the serious business of chasing each other's tails. Natsu giggles, and Aramaki gives her a speculative look. “You know, I think Catcher likes you.”

“Ah,” says Natsu. “Aramaki-san, I appreciate it, and Catcher's very cute --” She glances down at Catcher, or the dog she thinks is Catcher; Aramaki has so many, and she's always had some difficulty telling them apart. She doesn't look at Semimaru, but she can see in her peripheral vision that he's quite literally biting his tongue. Semimaru thinks she should get a dog. “But, um, I'm not really a dog person.” She's never been a dog person. That's something that hasn't changed. Dogs chase cats. This world doesn't have any cats, but it's the principle of the thing.

Aramaki looks a little crestfallen. “Well. I understand. But they're really useful while you're traveling, you know.”

“Not everyone has to like dogs,” says Ayu, and that's the end of the conversation.

***

Ayu is coming with Natsu and Semimaru to Hametsu-cho. She has to consult with Ban about something.

“Yeah, and I bet I know why,” says Semimaru. “You and the senior citizen back there --” He grins and waggles his eyebrows. “Knocked up, yeah? Congratulations!”

Ayu acknowledges this with a distant nod, and walks a little faster, the dog Kuroda trotting patiently at her heels.

Natsu grimaces. She's never really spent any time with Ayu without Aramaki there. Aramaki (now that he's shaved, and socialized, and settled back into human company) is an easy person to be around. Ayu, not so much.

Aramaki had told Natsu once that he thought she and Ayu were alike. That was before Natsu had known about Ayu's history, and once she had heard, she had found it almost impossible to believe -- Ayu, so tall and beautiful and disdainful and cool, bullied like Natsu, an outsider like Natsu?

Now she's grown into the shape of herself more, she thinks she can see it better. Ayu, with her self-contained competence, her carefully remote distance – she's not anything like Natsu at all, but Natsu can see how she might have been. How Natsu might have been like her. If she'd been a different person to begin with.

Thinking about this gives her the courage to pick up her own pace a little, so she's walking next to Ayu, leaving Semimaru a few paces behind. “Um,” she says. “Ayu-san?”

Ayu glances at her. “If you're going to congratulate me, you needn't.”

“Ah,” says Natsu. “Um – oh?”

“It's not like biological processes are some kind of personal achievement.”

“Oh, er, well,” says Natsu, aware that she's about to wander into dangerous conversational territory. She glances behind her. Semimaru seems to be distracted by a yelling match with one of the loud mutant chipmunks. Or maybe he's just pretending to be distracted, to keep out of their way, but either way he's fallen far enough back now that if she speaks quietly, he won't hear. “Ayu-san, did you – did you not want to be pregnant?”

Ayu arches a beautiful eyebrow. “Children are still necessary for survival of the future. And Aramaki will be a good parent.”

“Um. Yes! I think so.” She feels back on firmer ground here. “It seems like he's very good with puppies. So are you, so...”

Ayu actually looks a little amused. “Natsu-san, I'm not experienced with infants, but I don't think they're much like puppies.”

Natsu feels her face burning, but she forges on. “Well, I mean – dogs need a lot of attention. They don't leave you alone very much. Children, too – I mean, I think they do. You have to take care of them both a lot. If you take care of them well, that's enough so they'll love you, probably.”

The distant amusement on Ayu's face shifts a little. “The only method of child-rearing I've been exposed to didn't involve much caretaking. But then,” she adds, so tonelessly that Natsu can't tell if she's being sarcastic or not, “it also had very mixed results.” She changes the topic abruptly. “Natsu-san, you don't like dogs. If you think dogs and children are alike, does that mean you also don't want children?”

“I don't – I don't not like dogs,” protests Natsu – more to Kuroda than Ayu; Kuroda seems like a nice dog in spite of her scary eyebrows, and she wants their relationship to continue good. “But you do have to take care of a dog a lot. I'm not sure I'm able to take care of anything that much yet.” She knows, now, that she's a person who can be relied on; she's learned that about herself, and she's glad to know it. But she doesn't know if she wants to be relied on all the time. “If it was a cat, then it would be OK, but...”

“I suppose I can understand your feelings,” says Ayu. “Since our population's become larger than we first thought, immediate expansion isn't as imperative.” She glances behind, and adds, a little dismissively, “And it's easier when you know you have a suitable companion.”

Natsu finds herself a little irritated by that. “Um, it's not that I don't think Semimaru is --” But that's a whole can of worms that she's not sure she wants to get into.

Where is Semimaru, anyway? She can't hear him yelling at the mutant chipmunk anymore. She turns around, a little alarmed, and sees him several yards back, leaning over the foot of a tree. As she turns, he straightens and puts his hands around his mouth to make a loudspeaker. “Hey! Natsu! There's kind of a neat plant back here!”

Natsu feels herself brighten visibly; is a little embarrassed for this to happen in front of Ayu the expert herbalist, who's surely too cool to get that excited just over finding a new plant, but hurries back to where Semimaru is anyway. Kuroda lopes along beside her, Ayu following behind at a more dignified pace. “What is it?” she asks Semimaru.

“The fuck-you rodent --”

“Semimaru named them that because of how they yell,” Natsu explains to Ayu, “but that doesn't have to be the name that sticks.”

“Ah,” says Ayu.

“-- dropped a freaking nut on my head,” says Semimaru, briefly indignant. “So I went to find something to throw back at it and I saw this.” He points to the weed next to the tree. It's about a foot high, with a very broad stalk, a cluster of seed pods on top, and yellow flowers scattered up and down its length. “I didn't notice anything like this when we came this way last year, did you?”

Natsu shakes her head. “No, never. It's kind of pretty.” She pulls out a glove from her pocket, puts it on her right hand and reaches out to poke the stalk. A few seed-pods float down. They don't explode on hitting the ground like the seeds of the last new plant they found, so that at least is a plus. “Is this the only one here? If it is I don't really want to take it, but if we see any more maybe we should bring a sample back with us?”

“Yeah! It's a cool plant, right?”

“Yeah.” Natsu returns Semimaru's grin. They've been back and forth this way several times before now, and they know most of what they're going to come across, but always a little bit of a thrill in finding something new about this world.

“May I see?”

Natsu has almost forgotten Ayu is there. Feeling a stab of guilt at her own rudeness -- of course the plant expert would want first look at the plant -- she steps hastily aside, and watches Ayu slide gloves onto her own hands and lean forward to inspect the flowers on the stem.

She's frowning. “This looks like...”

Semimaru turns his head to look at her. “You know what it is?”

Ayu pauses, shakes her head, uncharacteristically hesitant. “There's a plant that was extinct even long before the twentieth century. Before there was even photography, so I've only seen drawings of it in books. This looks like that, but it's hard to say.”

“So, what's the big deal about that?”

“Well … that plant, silphium, it had medicinal purposes. The Romans used it for treating coughs, fevers and pains. It could be used as a seasoning as well.”

“All that?” Unlike Natsu, Semimaru is never embarrassed by his enthusiasm – at least not about things like this. “Wow! Hell of a plant!”

“We don't know that this plant is really anything like that one,” Ayu cautions. “You can't assume anything.”

“But we should definitely take some to play around with if we see any more on the way to Hametsu-cho, yeah?”

“Yes,” says Ayu. She doesn't smile, but Natsu thinks, with some surprise, that she looks happy, too – or, maybe not happy, but eager. Like maybe this is the Ayu version of Natsu and Semimaru's excitement over finding something new. “We'll keep an eye out. We should.”

***

Natsu's never very comfortable in Hametsu-cho. For a start, calling the biggest settlement in this new world Ruin Town just seems like a bad omen. It's Ran's sense of humor, but Natsu's never very comfortable with Ran either.

But also, after so long traveling in groups of six or seven, even forty people at a time feels like a lot, and there are at least forty people in Hametsu-cho now – more than that, probably, since a few people have had babies in the last few months, and as far as Natsu knows nobody has died. Some of the survivors from the generation ship that crashed last year ago are still camped out by the shore near Aramaki and Ayu, but most of them have settled in Hametsu-cho, lured in by Ran's passion for infrastructure and stable houses. Which is very nice for them, and for the community, and probably for the survival of humanity – Natsu has heard at least three rants by now from three different people about viable population sizes and poor post-apocalyptic planning – but it still makes for a crowd, and Natsu was bad with crowds even before the end of the world.

Knots of chattering people turn to stare at them as they walk through the semi-streets (only dust now, but Ran swears they'll be paved soon.) Natsu can feel herself wanting to shrink in, out of habit, but she forces herself to stand tall like Ayu and Semimaru next to her.

“Hey! Natsu!” It takes her a second to recognize her name in the rest of the noise, but seeing Botan pushing through the crowd confirms it. “Semimaru! Welcome back, kids!”

Natsu doesn't like Hametsu-cho much, but a hug from Botan always makes her feel like she's home anyway. She hugs her back tightly, and then stumbles as Semimaru tackles them both, wrapping his long arms around them and squeezing.

“Come on, Semimaru,” laughs Botan, “it's only been a few weeks!”

“Any news?”

Hearing Ran's voice, Natsu squirms hastily out of the hug pile and brushes uselessly at her hair. It's amazing how someone who barely wears a shirt and is prone to tying people up in tents while cackling maniacally can still make Natsu feel like she's just walked unprepared into an exam she didn't study for.

...and if she fails the exam, she might end up tied up in a tent while Ran cackles maniacally. And consumes massive quantities of substances that used to be illegal back when there were laws about substances. And embarks on incredibly awkward public displays of affection. Natsu really doesn't feel comfortable around Ran. She coughs and tries to stand straighter. “Um – there's a little news, but --”

“Why don't we go to the town hall to talk about it?” Ran interrupts. She heads down the road-to-be towards the center of the settlement, and, with a shrug and a wink in Natsu's direction, Botan follows her. Semimaru sticks his tongue out at Ran's back before falling into step, which makes Natsu feel a little better.

“So,” says Ran, once they're all settled around the center table in the open pavilion they call the town hall. “What've you got for us?” En route, they've acquired Summer A's Nijiko and the three settlers from the generation ship who fill out the roster of Hametsu-cho's leadership. Ayu gives Nijiko a small polite nod of greeting; Nijiko returns it, curtly.

And then everyone is looking at Natsu, who takes a deep breath. She's gotten much better at speaking in front of people – this is her job now, this is what she does – but the initial lurch in her stomach never totally disappears. “I don't have anything bad to report. Repairs on the Liliuokalani are still progressing. Some of the people in the shore settlement think that if they can get all the engines running they might want to take the ship and return to being a floating colony, but they say if they do they would continue sailing around Japan, not go back out into the Pacific. They do want to stay part of the broader community.”

Almost before she's finished speaking, Ran launches into a translation for the Liluokalani settlers. The language spoken on the Liliuokalani has its roots in a combination of English, Hawaiian, and Japanese, and Natsu can only ever make out about one word in three. Ran, of course, has learned to speak it fluently. There's a little back-and-forth before Ran turns back to Natsu. “This is good news to have. Priscilla says she'll let the rest of her group know about it – some of them might want to go back on the water after all, if it turns out to be option. Thanks.”

There's no reason that Ran's approval should make Natsu feel good, but she can't deny that it does. She supposes there's a reason Team Autumn still considers Ran their natural leader. “Um – another thing,” Natsu says. “Aramaki-san suggests that we all – I mean, anybody who wants to can meet up for a baseball game. In two months?”

There's an excited murmur from the Liliuokalani crew. “Baseball?” exclaims one of them – Natsu is pretty sure it's the doctor, Keoloha-sensei. He mimes tossing a ball and hitting it, and then turns to explain something to Priscilla, who's looking bland.

Everyone else looks at Ran. Ran says, deadpan, “Keoloha-sensei's hobby is history. He's very excited about the opportunity to participate in such an interesting archaic cultural event.”

Botan laughs. “Well! The more the merrier – but really, Aramaki's not scared the Hametsu-cho team's going to kick his ass again?”

“It's likely to be different this time,” remarks Ayu.

“Oh?”

“Last time,” says Ayu, calmly, “I had a sprained ankle.”

“Yeah,” says Semimaru, “but this time you're --”

Natsu kicks him under the table. That news is Ayu's to tell, or not – whatever she wants to do. Though from the sardonic look that Nijiko shares with Ran, it might be too late. Neither of those two are stupid.

Botan, meanwhile, is still grinning. “Lots of big talk, Ayu-chan, but we'll see if you can live up to it. Two months, right? Should be fun. Ban-chan's new hospital building should be finished by then --”

“If everything goes according to schedule,” puts in Nijiko – the first full sentence she's spoken – “which may be difficult with all the ridiculous frills you've built in.”

This is directed at Ran, who scoffs. “Everything will go according to schedule. You can count on that.”

The intense way they glare at each other is making Natsu a little nervous, but Semimaru interrupts. “Hey, one more thing – we found a new plant on our way over here. Ayu thinks maybe it's medicinal.”

Ayu nods, and pulls out the sample box containing the plant. “With Ban-chan and Keoloha-sensei's help, I'm hoping to run some tests while I'm here.”

Ran peers into the box. “What makes you think it's medicinal?”

“It looks as though the local fauna have been eating these plants at a disproportionate rate. That's probably why none of us noticed the species before, and implies that it has some kind of beneficial properties. And the way it looks is similar to silphium. Did you ever hear of that plant? The ancient Romans used it for all kinds of purposes –”

The doctor Keoloha perks up again this. “May I see?” he asks, in stiff, awkward Japanese. Ayu passes him the box, and he, too, squints down at it.

Ran turns back to Natsu and Semimaru. “After the harvest, I suppose you'll be wanting to make the usual crop exchange --” She breaks off as Keoloha-sensei launches into a rapid flood of dialogue, gesturing excitedly with his hands. Listening, Ran goes still – and then suddenly throws her head back and starts to laugh. And laugh, and laugh.

“Ran,” says Nijiko, irritated. “Share.”

Ran wipes tears from her eyes, her ribcage still shaking. (Natsu averts her eyes politely; she tries to respect Ran and Botan's shared total rejection of the idea of the bra, but she's always thought it looked a little painful.) “Well! Medicinal! That's true enough. Keoloha-sensei's saying that to the best of his knowledge, silphium in Roman times was mostly used for birth control. If this is a similar plant, it may be a natural contraceptive.”

Semimaru, Botan, and Priscilla all start to exclaim at once, but Ayu's voice cuts through all of them. “Please don't jump to any conclusions, Ran-san. We'll have to do a lot of tests before we know anything about this species for certain. For all we know, it could be a deadly poison.”

Ran waves a hand dismissively. “Right, right, I know, I know. Still – if your hunch is right, this is going to be a very popular plant.” Natsu has always found Ran's smile terrifying; this time is no exception. “I hope it makes the stupid fucks who designed this project roll in their graves.”

***

“And what's she so excited about, anyway? It's not like it even matters for her,” says Semimaru. “She's hooking up with that Nijiko chick now, right?”

“Um,” says Natsu, who also has heard this piece of gossip. They're walking now through the farthest of the farms that surround Hametsu-cho, but the town's stucco buildings are still visible in the distance. “I think for her it's more the principle of it? Whether or not she's, you know.”

“'Oh, baby, that plumbing is integrated so elegantly!' And then they bang on top of the plans for a gazebo.

Natsu attempts not to giggle, and fails. Oh, well; it's just the two of them now, and Hametsu-cho is receding further away with every step. “Um, Semimaru, your Ran impression really doesn't sound like her at all.” Also, she's pretty sure gazebos don't have plumbing.

“So? Maybe I was doing a Nijiko impression.”

“That's not any better.” Natsu considers Nijiko's low, flat voice as compared against Semimaru's genuinely awful falsetto. “Actually, that'd be even worse.”

“Since when are you a critic? Since when do you do impressions, hey?” Semimaru reaches over to rub his knuckles into her head, but Natsu's quick these days and she flicks him in the side with her index finger while his arm's raised. Semimaru emits a theatrical groan. “Ugh! Bold move, Natsu.” He lets his hand drop onto her hair, palm down.

He keeps it there. Natsu doesn't mind. She lets her fingertips trail across the bark of the nearest tree as they walk by it. The arrangement of the foliage has a less orderly look to it now; at some point, they've passed over the invisible boundary line that separates Hametsu-cho's orchards from the wild land around it. Like always, it's a relief. She's been projecting her best self for the past week or so, with Ayu and then in Hametsu-cho; it's good that she can do that, but it's also exhausting. Now it's just them and the forest, and she doesn't have to worry as much about who's watching her.

...and just as she thinks that, she becomes aware that Semimaru is watching her. He glances away when he notices her noticing, and pulls his hand abruptly off her head. Natsu, suddenly self-conscious, tucks her hair fussily behind her ears. “What? What?”

“Nothing.” Semimaru's flush gives the lie to his words. “I was just thinking, you know...” His eyes dart toward her, then focus somewhere firmly ahead. “I was just thinking, if that damn plant does turn out to be a contraceptive, do you – I mean, do you think you'd ever want to ...” He interrupts himself, volume suddenly increasing. “It's fine if you don't! It's totally fine. It doesn't even matter at all. Just tell me to shut up if you – whatever! Forget it! Forget I said anything!”

Under all that stupid hair, his face is as red as Natsu's has ever been. It's actually a little bit cute. She finds that she's giggling, which turns him redder than ever and sends him stomping a few awkward paces ahead

It's maybe kind of mean, how much she's enjoying his embarrassment. That's the thing about Semimaru, actually. Before this future world, she'd never felt comfortable enough with anyone, close enough to anyone, to be kind of mean to them, like friends sometimes are. She never got into the habit.

It's not that she doesn't trust them now, her friends – Matsuri, Arashi, Botan, Hotaru. Her friends. That word might have felt impossibly fragile once, but it's not anymore; she knows that. In her head, she knows it. But all the rest of her – her stomach in the way it sometimes sinks her tongue in the way it sometimes knots up – keeps telling her it's still scary. Still a thing she can't risk.

Semimaru, on the other hand. Semimaru can be a real jerk. Not nearly as much now as he used to be, but still, old habits die hard – well, they die hard for her, too. Being around Semimaru is like selfishness training wheels. If he wasn't ever a jerk, it'd be a lot harder for her to feel all right with the fact that she sometimes wants to be a jerk too.

Like Ayu, Semimaru is someone that Natsu might have been, if she were different to begin with. But after all these years, she's gotten maybe a little bit more like him. And he, too – he's gotten a little bit, maybe a little bit more like her. Like right now, when he's stammering, and embarrassed, and doesn't know what to say – and scared, too; she knows how scared he is of other people, underneath the bravado. Like how she suspects Ayu is scared, inside her cool facade, put up to keep people away. Like how Natsu's always scared, even after all these years. Scared, still, that if people get too close, all they'll see when they look at her is worthless.

Semimaru had scared her so much, those first few weeks in this world. It's strange to think that now he's the person who scares her least. She runs a few paces to catch up with him and slips her hand into his.

For a second it seems like Semimaru's going to stop. Then his hand closes tightly around hers, and he starts walking again, face still red, staring at the ground. “If you think it's stupid, just go ahead and say so.”

“No,” Natsu says. She's still kind of fighting off an attack of the giggles. “I mean – no, I don't think it's stupid. I mean, yes. Sure. If it turns out that way, then let's.”

Semimaru does stop in his tracks, then, and turns to her.

However, whatever he's going to say is interrupted by the giant feathered raptor that leaps out of the trees and lands on his back.

He's bowled over immediately, his hand pulling out of hers. “Shit!” he shouts. He's rolling on the ground, trying to dislodge it; Natsu can see the fluttering of fabric where the talons are tearing at his shirt.

She shoves her hand hastily into her pocket, skipping backwards to avoid his writhing convolutions.

“Semimaru! Roll on your stomach and hold still!”

“This fucking dinosaur bird is going to peck my head off!” retorts Semimaru, but he does as she asks, grimacing as talons tighten on his shoulders. Natsu fumbles the seeds from the explosive plant out of their protective cushioning, jams them in the blowpipe and raises it to her lips.

One, two sharp breaths, followed by one, two small explosions – the first goes off a foot away from Semimaru, but the second makes a square hit on the raptor's back, in between its shoulders. It shrieks and looses its grip on Semimaru, who wastes no time in flinging it off. Natsu winces a little at the crunch of bone when it hits the ground.

At this point Semimaru whirls on Natsu. “See, this is why I wish you'd get a freaking dog! For shit like this!”

Stung, Natsu says, “I don't think a dog would have made a lot of difference. I'm sorry you're hurt, but-”

“Right,” snaps Semimaru. “I'd have been in the shit if you weren't around, so what happens to you when there's not another you around, huh? You should at least have an animal or something!”

“I'm not a dog person,” says Natsu, stubbornly. It may be stupid – it probably is stupid; a dog probably could save her life someday – but she doesn't care. She's a cat person. She'll always be a cat person, even if there aren't any cats in the world, ever again. “You don't even like dogs.”

“Dogs don't like me. That's different.” Semimaru sighs, and starts making a grudging inspection of his shirt. “Damn it! This is the worst. Ripped sleeves haven't been cool since a thousand years ago.”

“Is it bad?” asks Natsu – meaning the shoulders, not the shirt.

“I think it pulled out a giant chunk of my hair. Worst bird dinosaur ever!” Semimaru aims a vicious kick at the corpse.

“Don't,” protests Natsu. “That's our dinner.”

“Right.” Semimaru scowls, folds his arms, grimaces, looks down. “Right. Sorry. Thanks for killing it, anyway.” He sits down abruptly on a boulder, and rubs at his bleeding head. Natsu pulls off her pack and sets it down on the ground, rummaging for bandages, and for Fujiko's makeshift disinfectant.

These aren't the first scars either one of them have gotten on the road, and won't be the last. It's not the first or the last time they've had this conversation, either. It's always important to remember: things like this, too, are part of this world.

***

“Five or six attacks,” Semimaru is saying, “sometimes in groups, and we weren't even two miles from Hametsu-cho when it started. The stupid dinosaurs kept coming at us, all the way 'til we crossed over the grasslands. Botan didn't warn us when we left, so I'm pretty sure the folks in Hametsu-cho don't know how bad it's gotten.”

Natsu sips her tea and looks around at the circle of attentive, worried faces: Arashi, Matsuri, Hotaru, Chimaki. Team Summer B, almost complete, and expanded to absorb Hana, Fujiko and Chisa. The total population of Semimaru's Soybean Farm, Home for Miracle Sprouts. Everywhere else they go, she's the one who talks, the trusted messenger, but it's different here. Here she doesn't have to talk, except when she wants to. Even given the subject of the conversation, it's a good feeling.

Though the subject is certainly worrisome. “First those dehydrated dinosaurs, now this,” says Fujiko, in disgust. “Jeez, it's like Jurassic Park around here.”

“Been there,” mutters Semimaru, “done that, made that joke already.”

“I hope these raptors are not as intelligent as those.” Chisa takes a sip of her own tea, far more elegantly than Natsu. “Do you think there's a risk to Hametsu-cho?”

“I don't think they could pose a serious threat to Hametsu-cho, but for travelers...”

“Ran should know,” says Hana, firmly. “She'll want to be prepared, just in case.”

“We'll see them in two months at the baseball game anyway,” Arashi points out. “Do you think that's soon enough? They'll be traveling in a big group then --”

“Yeah. With kids.”

“The raptors in Jurassic Park,” Fujiko volunteers, “would probably be smart enough to know to target a three-year-old.” Everyone turns to glare at her, and she shrugs. “I'm just saying.”

Natsu raises her hand, a little hesitantly. “Um – I was planning to visit Gengoro-san next, to tell him about the baseball game, but should I go back to Hametsu-cho first?” The prospect of turning right back around doesn't thrill her. “Or maybe it'd be all right if I go once I get back from Gengoro-san's?”

Hana grimaces. “That's probably fine, I guess. But it makes me nervous.”

“You shouldn't go back that way by yourself, though,” says Arashi; “Definitely not,” says Semimaru, glowering. Matsuri nods vigorously, and Natsu doesn't contradict them. There's self-sufficient, and there's foolhardy. On the trip they just made, a person alone might not have been OK.

Hana fidgets in her seat. She's clearly itching for action – but the soybeans are ready for harvest now, which means all hands on deck. And Hana will be required in her role as Fearless Leader to take on the giant bean-eating locusts who show up every year, since Arashi and Semimaru will be busy screaming and clinging to each other as soon as they show up.

"I'll go with Natsu, when she comes back," says Hotaru.

Startled, Natsu turns to look at her. It's hard not to keep thinking of Hotaru as a little girl, but she's fifteen now -- almost as old as the rest of them were when they arrived. She's still small, of course, but but then, the same is true for Natsu. And you don't have to be big to blow an exploding seed-pod.

Still: "It'll be dangerous, Hotaru-chan," says Arashi, frowning, and Semimaru snaps, "I was thinking maybe someone a little taller?"

Hotaru regards them out of wide limpid eyes. "You can't spare anyone taller. And it's been a long time since I've seen Botan."

Before anyone else can speak, Natsu says, "OK. It's fine with me."

The others clearly still aren't happy with this, but there's something about Hotaru's serene gaze that makes arguing with her seem impossible. Semimaru holds out the longest, glaring at Hotaru, but eventually he scowls and and drops his eyes. "Botan! What the heck is Botan still doing living all the way out in Hametsu-cho, anyway?" he complains. Natsu smiles down into her tea; changing the subject -- to an old familiar point of irritation that nobody can do anything about -- is a clear sign of defeat. "What's even up with that?"

Matsuri makes a face. "She's a policewoman. I guess she wants to live somewhere there's stuff to police."

"Anyway," says Hana, "Ran needs her. You know, so she doesn't go mad with power."

Hana's joking, mostly -- Hana's fond of Ran -- but Natsu suspects this is probably true. Ran has a difficult job to do, and one she messed up badly before. She needs all the help she can get, and there's not very many people that Ran respects enough to let them give it.

For a long time, they'd been the ones who needed Botan. Them, Team Summer B. The loser team. The kids who failed at life.

If things were still like that, Natsu's pretty sure they'd have Botan there with them. But now they're doing OK. It's kind of an amazing thing, actually. They might have failed in the old world, but here in this new one, they're all doing pretty much OK.

***

“Hey! When you come back from Gengoro-san's, are we gonna have a night to work on your cheer moves before you head off to Hametsu-cho?”

“Um,” says Natsu, alarmed.

Matsuri laughs. “Nah, it's OK. We won't have time anyway.” She pulls Natsu in for a hug, and then leans down to whisper in her ear, “'Cause you're gonna spend the night in my room and we're going to talk all about this contraceptive plant thing, oh my god!

Natsu feels her face turn beet red, for a couple of different reasons. “Matsuri...”

Matsuri releases her and dances back. “Say hi to Gengoro for me! And Sexy Tsunomata! Okay, Semimaru –” Semimaru is leaning on the soybean fence with his arms folded, sulking. “-- take a chill pill, I'm done!” Laughing, she skips back to catch up with Arashi and Hana, who are already headed back into the house.

Semimaru is still sulking. It's always this way, when she goes on, and he has to stay – but he wouldn't want to be going all the time, not really. Semimaru loves his soybeans. There's nothing that makes him feel better than feeling like the harvest couldn't happen without him. In a way, it's probably kind of like having a baby. Or a dog. “If you get eaten by a dinosaur or something,” he says, “your hell is gonna be hearing me saying I told you so, forever.”

Natsu nods, seriously. “That'd be pretty bad. I guess I'd better not get eaten.”

“Well. OK then.” Semimaru pauses; Natsu waits. She's pretty sure Matsuri's watching from the window to see if they're going to make out. “Unlike some people, I actually have work to do, so … I'm gonna go do it. I guess.”

“OK,” says Natsu.

Semimaru takes a step in towards her. Leans forward, slowly. Raises his hand, and flicks her right in the middle of the forehead.

Then he turns on his heel and stalks off, back to the house.

Natsu hoists her pack, turns the other way, and sets off in the direction of Gengoro's ranch, alone.

She can't explain it to Semimaru – can't explain it to anyone, really, though she has a strange kind of a feeling that maybe Hana might understand – but as much as she enjoys the rest of her travels, she thinks maybe this part is her favorite.

For the Natsu who lived in the old world, being around other people was so scary, it wasn't even worth trying. But that was a long time ago. Now she can have a conversation; she can tell someone she cares about them, and hear it back, and believe it; she can even, on occasion, make a joke. Still, doing those things can be hard – and sometimes they're easy, but even still, they're tiring. There's always a small part of her that can't really relax, until she's on her own.

She doesn't think that's ever going to change. She's grown a lot, more than she ever thought possible, but she's still the same person, introverted Natsu. In a way, it kind of makes her happy to know that that's true.

She's OK being Natsu. She's really OK with it. She'd never really thought that would be possible either. The girl who first came to this new world was scared of Semimaru and Botan – even scared of Arashi – but most of all she was scared of being alone here. Of being alone, with only herself to rely on.

This world is amazing! It's amazing how things grow!

She shifts her pack on her shoulders, and lets herself hum a little as she walks – she's not even sure what the tune is that she's humming. Some theme song from a show she used to watch with her parents. She's totally off-key, but it doesn't matter. There's nobody else around to mind.

That's when she sees it, sitting alone by the side of the road. Daintily licking its paws, as if there was every reason in the world for it to be there.

Natsu stares. Stares some more. Bends over, very slowly; very, very slowly, holds out her hand.

She's hardly able to believe it; still, after all, it's a world of miracles. If you can find an extinct plant by the side of the road, and start a thriving farm on thousand-year-old soybeans – if dehydrated dinosaurs can exist, if giant ants can exist, if an Iwashimizu Natsu who actually likes herself can exist, then why shouldn't it be? Why shouldn't there be a cat?