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"Once again, no one has been either foolish or inventive enough to trap your mail." Hiiragi announced as she entered the apartment. A muffled thump heralded her most likely nudging the door closed with her foot – I should talk to her about that – and then a quieter, more diffuse thump likely indicated her dumping the mail on the table next to the phone.

“You could try to sound less disappointed.” I suggested, though not with any particular expectation that my words would have any effect. I wonder what it would be like to have shiki who actually obeyed me properly?

“Well, it’s not like we’ve been doing anything else of interest lately.” She retorted. Rustling. “Bill. Bill. Fan letter. Oh, this next one’s pink, that’s unusual.”

“… You’ve been working on your sarcasm, I see.” I didn’t bother to tell her I could sort through my own mail; that was yet another battle not worth fighting, particularly when my sprawled position on the couch was so very comfortable.

“At least it doesn’t appear to have any glitter pasted on.” I cracked a grin at Hiiragi’s disgruntled tone, remembering the choice words she’d used the last time that had happened. “I swear it must be alive, to be able to find every possible crack to crawl into.” I attempted to suppress a snicker at the thought of glitter-possessing ayakashi. That would be either truly troublesome … or simply very annoying.

Either my attempts were successful, or Hiiragi had decided to ignore me. “Junk mail, fan letter – this one in a properly colored envelope – exorcism request …”

“What sort of request?” I asked, trying to decide whether I was in the mood to gather enough motivation to be interested. At least whoever it was, was being quite polite about it. I do get rather tired of people summoning me as though I was their shiki, acting like I should be grateful for being the one they chose to bestow their request upon.

An off-white envelope arced overhead, landing neatly in the middle of my chest. … I should really talk to her about that, too. “Now you can read it yourself.” She said, before going back to sorting. “Junk mail, bill, junk mail …”

“You say it like you’re doing me a favor …” But having landed in my lap – about as literally as possible, given my stretched-out position – it seemed a shame not to take a look. (In a battle between exhaustion and curiosity, I fear that my curiosity almost always wins out.) “… Huh.”

A sudden cessation in the rustling of papers over by the table heralded Hiiragi’s reappearance at my side, hanging over the back of the couch, half blocking out the overhead light. “Weren’t you sorting through the mail?”

“This just became more interesting than that.”

I suppose I can’t fault that logic. I spread the letter wider, and flat, so that she could see as well. Then resisted the urge to smack my forehead. I always forget – human script is about as foreign to ayakashi as ayakashi script is to us.

Hiiragi is good at making me forget. She rarely ever guesses wrong when sorting the mail.

“It’s a request to meet with the guardian kami of a nearby forest.” I summarize. “With regards to a group of ayakashi who have moved into the edges of the forest and are causing a great deal of trouble to the local humans.” I let my hands fall slack back against my side, and my head fall back against the armrest again, looking towards the upper corners of the room as my thoughts crawled like molasses. “This is happening more frequently, lately. I never used to get requests to liaise with ayakashi.”

“It shouldn’t be such a surprise.” Hiiragi said. “You’ve been developing a reputation among the ayakashi for being almost reasonable, for an exorcist. For being more willing to resolve things peacefully instead of just exorcising off the bat. It’s no surprised that your compatriots have noticed, too.”

I covered my eyes with an arm, not entirely avoiding the urge to groan. “I’m going soft.”

Silence. I removed my arm far enough to open one eye and glare up at Hiiragi. “That was your cue to say ‘No, Master, of course you’re not going soft!’”

Another beat of silence. Then, “Would that be normally?” She asked, falsely polite. “Or when Natsume is blinking those big amber ‘ayakashi are people too’ eyes of his up at you?”

I quickly covered my eyes again, not bothering to try and suppress my shudder. “Can you not do that?” I – well. There’s not really an appropriate word for it other than ‘whined’. “Now I’m feeling guilty and I haven’t even done anything.”

A brief, almost musical sound. If I had been moving, I probably would have stilled, not entirely sure I’d heard what I thought I’d just heard. Did Hiiragi just … giggle?

If she had, it stopped quickly. Pity. It sounded – nice. She straightened. “So do you think you’ll take the request?”

I blinked down at the letter. “Oh, probably.” Then yawned, jaw-crackingly wide. “It has been a bit boring around here lately.”

“… And do you think you’ll actually make it to bed tonight instead of crashing on the couch again?”

“Ahaha. I make no promises about that.”

Two days later, I stepped off the train at a station a handful of stops down the line. According to the preliminary investigation my shiki had done, tonight Aomori-gami would be holding court; it was likely to be the least flashy chance I’d have to contact him for a while. And for an assignment where I’ve actually been asked to play nice ...

I was still getting used to that part. Normally ‘play nice with the ayakashi’ is somewhere on clients’ priority list between ‘sure, as long the job gets done’ and ‘we’d really rather you didn’t’. ... That said, with the ayakashi I normally get requests to deal with, ‘playing nice’ is usually not on anyone’s list of priorities.

I stretched as I stepped outside into the evening sun; by my calculations I was still running perfectly on time. “You know the way?” I asked; quietly, since even another person who could see would not have seen me talking to anything other than empty air. Sasago poofed into existence and nodded curtly, then set off at a rapid clip towards what looked like the center of this small town – and beyond that, the forested area that I assume was our eventual goal.

The crisp late summer breeze felt good against my face, though it made me glad for my light jacket. The town itself had a quiet, almost sleepy air – not unlike the town where Natsume lives – and of the few people I passed by on the street, no one appeared to recognize me in my customary hat and sunglasses.

Just as well – I hate it when one of my jobs bleeds over into the other. It’s never anything but trouble.

Near the edge of the forest – just far enough into the trees that the town was out of sight, though I could still hear the occasional sounds of passing vehicles – I rifled through my duffle bag with practiced efficiency, swapping my light jacket for a kimono I’d had my shiki prepare for me the previous night, my sunglasses for the ones with plain glass that I typically wear when on an exorcist job, and pulling out a simple paper mask that I fit over my face. The best way to play nice with ayakashi, I’ve found, is to appear to be one of them.

I looked over at Sasago. “I will stay here to keep watch and ensure that none of the weaklings supposedly infesting this area make mischief with your belongings.” She said. “Hiiragi will accompany you.”

... I really should keep better control of my shiki. But it was a sound enough plan. “Fine.” I handed her the sports bag I’d used to carry the kimono, which now held my jacket, hat, and sunglasses. “Stay safe.” Then, because this is Sasago, and like all my shiki she shares my temper, “Or at least don’t pick any fights you can’t win.”

Sasago smiled, thin and prim. “Of course, Master.” As though she would never dream of doing such a thing.

I suppressed a sigh, knowing that to say anything further would be pointless; centered the paper mask I wore more thoroughly on my face; and nodded to Hiiragi, who had appeared as Sasago mentioned her. She nodded back, then fell into place a few steps behind me and a bit to the side with no further comment.

We still had time enough before I expected the festivities to start that there was no need to run, so I kept our pace at a brisk walk. When my knowledge of our path ran out and Hiiragi moved ahead to guide me the rest of the way, she kept to the same pace.

Only a few stubborn rays of sunlight remained, doing their best to force their way through the thick forest surrounding us, when we reached our destination – a wide clearing already half-full of ayakashi, mingling and talking in small groups, apparently peacefully. Someone had set up a handful of torches around a stage at one end of the clearing, built from haphazardly stacked logs and wooden planks that looked evenly cut enough that I suspected they’d been snatched from a human lumberyard.

I suppose the best I can hope for is that they’ll put them back afterwards. Some battles, even I was willing to admit weren’t worth fighting under certain circumstances, no matter how much it grated. I can try bringing it up to Aomori-gami, I suppose, if I have the chance.

Supplementing the fading sunlight and the torches, which one of the ayakashi in the clearing lit as we watched, I also spotted several ayakashi who glowed faintly. Hotaru, I suspected – ayakashi who had once been fireflies.

Most of the breeds of ayakashi in the clearing looked familiar, with a not-unexpected majority of them being various forest breeds. If it is town ayakashi causing trouble, they won’t be that easy to pinpoint, it seems. I saw a handful of ayakashi that most likely came from the town – a chawan rattling around a group of ayakashi I whose variety couldn’t place exactly, but who looked a lot like monkeys, being the most notable – but none that appeared to be of the size or in the numbers that I would have expected given the scale and rate of incidents that Urihime had reported.

Then, near the middle of the clearing, I spotted someone very familiar. Unfortunately, not an ayakashi. I pinched the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes briefly as my glasses rode up on my face. “Please tell me I didn’t just see that.”

“You mean the pair of ayakashi sitting by themselves, one a pale-haired humanoid, one looking remarkably similar to a certain pig-cat of our acquaintance?” Hiiragi asked, perfectly deadpan.

“… Yes.” I settled the mask more firmly across my face. “Those would be the ones. Isn’t this a bit far from their typical stomping grounds?”

“Apparently your people aren’t the only ones calling in favors.”

“Apparently not.” As much as I would have preferred he not be here – Natsume appearing is generally a guarantee that a job will not be nice, smooth, business as usual – it was good to see him again, and to see that he appeared to be in fine shape and – as far as I could see – about as happy as one could expect a human surrounded by ayakashi to be. At least, I doubted he would be having the sort of low-voiced argument he currently seemed to be engaged in with his companion if he did not feel at least somewhat secure.

“Greet or avoid?” Hiiragi asked quietly.

A fair question. Usually when I ran into Natsume on jobs, the ‘running into’ part was rather more literal. Still, “Greet.” I said, after a moment’s thought. “He’s less likely to accidentally interfere with my plans if he knows I’m here and the vague outlines of what those plans are.”

“We have plans?” Hiiragi asked politely.

I rewarded her with a grin. “Playing things by ear is a perfectly legitimate plan.” I prefer something a bit more exact, true, but when working on a tight deadline with limited information, sometimes one had to make do with what they had.

Hiiragi made a sound that I thought might be an amused huff, but didn’t justify my comment with any additional response. She followed behind me readily enough as I made my way down into the clearing and slowly worked my way over to where Natsume and his companion sat. Any greetings called out to me on the way I responded to in friendly but brief fashion; about halfway there we were delayed by one of the hotaru, who engaged Hiiragi and myself – mostly Hiiragi – in an enthusiastic discussion of a handful of nearby streams. I mostly contented myself with smiles, nods, and the occasional simple query; Hiiragi had apparently pooled notes with Sasago and Urihime (or investigated this area far more thoroughly than I had expected or asked her to), and was able to sound sufficiently knowledgeable about the area that if I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought she was also a resident.

Once we reached polite conversational distance from Natsume, I stopped and cleared my throat. “Might we join the two of you? You seem to have found an excellent place to sit.”

The boy stumbled to his feet, rolling his companion off his lap in the process, to the other’s strongly expressed displeasure. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see – Hiiragi?” The last word had come out more loudly than he intended, to judge by how chagrined he looked immediately afterwards.

Hiiragi stepped forward, even with me, and inclined her head. “Natsume. It is good to see you well.” Her voice, on the other hand, was pitched to carry only little more than the distance that separated us.

His eyes turned to me. “Then that’s – Natori-san?”

I tipped the bottom of my paper mask up with a finger so that he could see my full smile – the boy’s masks always go lopsided faster than anyone else’s I’ve ever seen – and nodded. “The very same.”

He laughed, still looking a bit embarrassed. “I almost didn’t recognize you without the sparkling aura.” Then stiffened. “Oh! You were asking about seating. Please, do join us.”

My smile morphed into one of my trademark grins as I settled into an easy seated position close to where he had been sitting before. That particular mask has always been uncommonly quick to come to come when called. “Oh, well … blending into the crowd is terribly difficult for me, but a proper actor should be able to play any role, even one so very unsuited to him.”

The expression on what I could see of Natsume’s face turned to the sort of ‘why did I even bother to ask?’ amused horror that was his typical reaction; I wondered if he’d ever figure out that part of the reason that I pull this particular act on him so often is because watching him react is just so much fun.

“Great.” Natsume’s companion muttered. “I could be at home eating manjuu, but no, not only have you dragged me off into some mess that shouldn’t concern you, now your most annoying friends are showing up as well.”

“I’m touched.” I turned my grin on the ayakashi that Natsume calls Sensei, and was treated to the unusual sight of a very rotund cat-like creature rolling its eyes.

“You could always go home now.” Hiiragi offered as she settled on my other side; seeing us sitting, Natsume finally sat back down as well. “Master and I should be able to handle this on our own.”

Natsume’s companion lurched to his feet. “All right! Come on Natsume! If we hurry, we might make it home before all the shops close, and maybe get some –”

Natsume rolled his eyes. “You already ate a couple of hours ago. And no. We’re staying.” He darted an apologetic look my way, or perhaps Hiiragi’s. I lifted one shoulder in a half shrug to show I took no offense.

“I wonder who will win a private audience with Aomori-gami-sama this time?” A passing ayakashi – from the mask and color of his skin, some variety of tree spirit – wondered in a tone a bit too loud for conversational. Then again, from the sway in his steps and the large jug he clutched, he also appeared to be well on his way to truly smashed.

Movement out of the corner of my eye refocused me on our little group; Natsume’s companion had stood again, eyeing that ayakashi – or, more likely, his jug of sake – with naked desire.

“No, Sensei.” Natsume said, a resigned look on his face as he nudged the pig-cat. “You’ll have plenty of chances later.”

“Hmpf. Idiot.” He grumbled, but settled back down. “Don’t know why I didn’t just eat you when I had the chance. Always dragging my noble self into these ridiculous situations.”

“You’d be bored without me.” Natsume replied comfortably, apparently unphased by his companion’s offhanded threat. “And you can always eat me later.”

“Hmpf. Fair enough.”

Not for the first time – and I’m sure not for the last – I wondered what exactly it was that kept the two of them together. I certainly wouldn’t be eager to keep an ayakashi around who had expressed explicit interest in eating me; my personal attitudes toward such behavior had always tended more towards ‘exorcise with extreme prejudice’. It took a certain amount of self-control to not attempt just that right now, given that the thought of a threat to Natsume’s life bothered me almost as much as a threat to my own.

What stayed my hand was mostly the knowledge that Natsume had been dragging that pig-cat of his around since before we met; Natsume still being alive today was a pretty good sign that his comment was most likely a joke, if an extremely tasteless one. Surely even Natsume would not react so matter-of-factly if it was not.

Natsume caught me looking – though thankfully not until I managed to school my expression to something more polite than murderous – and flushed slightly, ducking his head to avoid my eyes as he nudged his companion again. The pig-cat looked up at Natsume as if to protest his treatment, over at me briefly; his eyes narrowed and I could not help my own doing the same (though mostly hidden by the mask, their effect was likely muted); and then away from us both, nose turned up in a silent huff.

“—Rakugo?!” The loud ayakashi asked, then roared with laughter as he gave his companion – one of the monkey ayakashi, holding a much more reasonably-sized jug of sake – a vigorous slap on the back that sent him stumbling forward, almost making him lose his grip on his drink. “Don’t be ridiculous! Rakugo is so out of fashion that it’s come back into fashion and then left it again! There’s no way that someone doing rakugo would win!”

“Win?” I asked, more talking to myself than expecting an answer. Didn’t he say something earlier about a private audience with Aomori-gami? That could be ... useful.

“The evening’s entertainment.” Natsume said quietly, tilting his head towards the stage. “A lot of ayakashi participate, and it’s apparently also a contest: the rumor is that whoever’s act Aomori-gami-sama likes best, he’ll grant them a private audience.”

“Oh really …” Now that had possibilities. I glanced over my shoulder at Hiiragi, and saw she was leaning in, clearly listening intently as well. “What sort of entertainment does he like?”

“I don’t know.” Natsume looked frustrated. “From what I’ve heard, everyone has their guesses, but no one knows for sure – though apparently the last few years the winner was a more traditional act.”

“Traditional, huh ...”

My young friend cast another frustrated look at his companion. “Someone claims to know how to juggle five balls simultaneously, but has refused to participate.”

I shot the pig-cat a frankly disbelieving look. “Where on Earth did you pick up that particular skill?” I was about to ask how it even worked, but remembered his previous foray into human form. Though why, when he was apparently not overly fond of the notion, from what I remembered, he’d take human form long enough to learn to juggle …

He turned up his nose again. “Even beings as noble as myself occasionally get bored.”

… That would explain it, I supposed.

I tapped my chin as I thought, quietly repeating “Traditional, huh …” to myself. What sort of traditional arts did I know that could be accomplished with two – or perhaps three and a pig-cat.

“… Come to think of it, why are you here?” Natsume suddenly asked, looking a bit suspicious. He looked around. “You’re not here to …” he hesitated, then drew a finger across his throat, apparently wary of even whispering the word ‘exorcise’ in this particular company.

“Haha. No, for once I am only here to talk.” I smiled at him. “I suspect we have the same goal, simply requested by rather different clients.”

He relaxed. “Oh, good.”

A quietly cleared throat turned me to look at Hiiragi again, who tilted her head slightly and offered, “Momijigari?”

Both my eyebrows rose – though with my mask, I suppose I was the only one to know. “That’s … a good idea.” Not only was it a very well-known kabuki play – traditional indeed – but ‘Autumn Foliage Viewing’ was one of the few that I knew well enough to have a hope of pulling off. I had more than a few fond memories of sneaking out of the house with just enough pocket change for a ticket and – if I’d saved up – perhaps a snack, to see the shows. My favorite part had always been the end, where –

Ah. That might be problematic. Particularly if I were discovered to be human.

Although … now that might work …

First things first. “Do you know it? I know you three were watching over my shoulder when we went to see that show several months ago –” and that had been a nostalgia trip if I’d ever been on one “—but –”

“—I know it.” She said, quietly confident. “Will it work?”

I ran through the high points mentally. “With only the two of us, neither would have proper retainers, so that’s certainly non-standard. Hopefully that will turn out to be a positive.” I grinned. “Hm. The chorus bit might be a bit dicey – having us play our retainers is one thing, but if we’re both on stage …” I turned to Natsume. “I don’t suppose you’re familiar with it?”

Natsume looked very uncertain. “That’s … it’s a noh play, right?”

“That would be a no, then. Although yes, it is a noh play.” I turned back to Hiiragi. “I was thinking of doing it as kabuki – that’s the version I’m most familiar with, and I suspect it would be less likely to bore the crowd.” The dancing was what worried me, as I didn’t know the movements nearly as well as I knew the script. But – well, we’d be making up enough of it as we went along, anyway, hopefully no one would notice the difference.

She nodded. “Makes sense. I should be able to fake my way through either.”

I turned back to Natsume. “If I write out the lines for the chorus and hints as to when they’re spoken, do you think you could stand off to the side and chant them at the proper moment?”

Natsume looked even more uncertain. “I think so?”

“Don’t worry about it.” His companion said unexpectedly, pouncing up onto Natsume’s shoulder in a move I was frankly astonished his rotund body was capable of (and my shoulder ached in sympathy at the weight he must be putting on Natsume’s), and looking me in the eye. “I’ve come across enough renditions of the play that I should be able to make sure he says his lines when he’s supposed to.”

“What, now you’re helping?” Natsume asked, looking justifiably aggrieved.

The pig-cat shrugged. “His plan sounds more entertaining than yours.” He turned up his nose. “And since you have yet to mention Takeuchi-no-kami, I suppose I shall deign to take up that role personally.”

I laughed. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a less god-like form. But at least that was one more worry removed. “Sounds like we have a plan, then.” I pulled out paper and a pen – properly applied ink from a properly prepared brush is necessary to make charms and exorcisms and the like really stick, particularly for ayakashi stronger than the most trivial, but for the trivial ayakashi, being reasonably strong (which I like to think I am, though I’ve not got Natsume’s raw power) makes up for a multitude of shortcomings, and a pen is far quicker than properly inking something out, so I usually carry around a small supply.

Besides, I never know when someone might want my autograph. And it would certainly look strange if I tried to do that with a brush!

Halfway into the second scene involving the chorus, as I paused to wrack my brain and make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything, I looked down and really saw the words on the page. … Well that’s troublesome. We’ll certainly be caught if someone sees this. They might not be able to read human script, but most ayakashi can at least recognize it.

I shook my head and went back to writing. If they do, they do. No sense in borrowing trouble.

It was easier than it probably should have been to put aside my worries, given my growing excitement.

This? This ought to be fun.

“Oi.” I turned to look at the speaker, another humanoid ayakashi wearing a white mask painted with several partially overlapping black circles. “You’re the kabuki group, right? You’re up after this joker.” He jerked his head towards the stage, where an ayakashi doing rakugo – perhaps even the one the drunk had mentioned – appeared to be building towards the climax of his story. To the interest of … well, to be honest, almost no one.

I nodded, Hiiragi thanked him, the pig-cat ignored him completely, and Natsume just sat there, quiet and looking very, very pale under his mask.

I considered him for a moment, then, with the hope that the gesture would not be taken amiss, nudged his shoulder gently. His head whipped to face mine, and the eye that his mask had slipped away from looked a bit wild. “Stage fright?”

“I’m not …” His voice trailed off; he swallowed and started again. “I’m not very good with crowds. Being in front of them.”

“Few people are, at first.” I said; though that had never been one of my problems. Well. Not for a very long time, at least. “I hear people say that imagining your audience in their underwear sometimes helps.”

“Do ayakashi even have –” Natsume started, then buried his face in his hands, sending his mask even further askew. “Never mind. Forget I asked. I don’t want to know.” Somehow, despite the fact that both eyes seemed to be firmly covered, he knew the exact moment to point at his companion, who’d opened his mouth with a look of mischief on his face, and say, “No, Sensei. I really don’t want to know. Thank you.”

Then he brought his other hand away from his face as well to glare at me. “How is that supposed to help? Now I’m going to be so distracted wondering if – so distracted, that I’ll flub my lines even worse than before.”

I laughed quietly. “I think the idea is that an audience in their underwear is less threatening than a fully clothed one.” Then nudged him again, since the first had seemed to go well enough. “Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. And your role is a pretty easy one – all you have to do is sit there and say your lines at the right times.”

“Yeah. All …” He muttered.

I pretended not to hear; standing once I saw the current inhabitant of the stage stand, take his bows to lackluster applause, and start to exit the stage. “No more time for worrying – it’s show time!”

I set off towards the stage, trailed by the rest of our group. “He doesn’t have to sound so happy about it.” Natsume muttered, only just loud enough for me to hear, so I suspected I wasn’t supposed to have.

“He’s like this on set, too.” Hiiragi sounded – I wasn’t sure. Amused, I thought. “You get used to it after a while.”

Once we reached the stage, I leapt onto it rather than go to the end and take the makeshift stairs. I raised my hands, already falling into my stage presence, and the crowd slowly quieted. Not all the way – I suspected it would take something truly stunning to do that much – but mostly. A fairly receptive audience, then. Good. Those were the best. “Tonight.” I intoned, watching out of the corner of my eye as Hiiragi got Natsume settled in a good corner; at some point he’d picked his companion up and now appeared to be clutching him as tightly as he clutched the notes; I suspected that would be straightened out soon enough. Hiiragi looked up at me and nodded, starting to move towards the stairs. “We would like to perform for you all the kabuki play, ‘Autumn Foliage Viewing’. I hope you will enjoy it.”

Then, before Hiiragi could reach the end of the stage, climb up, and ruin my surprise, I began to dance.

I started slowly, taking deliberate steps and slow turns, drawing forward my memories of the play, not entirely certain I had the steps correct. I had never formally practiced it, after all, and there’s only so much one can see from the audience side of the stage, even if I had managed to weasel my way into front-row seats more than once. On the other hand, I suspected that few of the ayakashi here would have seen it at less than a distance, if at all; hopefully they would not notice the difference.

It felt strange, and more than a little bit lonely, to be holding the stage there alone. I missed the presence of the two companions that, in a more traditional rendition of the play, would be there at my back, dancing to the same beat, retainers to my young noblewoman in search of beautiful fall scenery. The accompaniment, too, I missed more than I expected – there was the dull roar of audience members more interested in their sake than their entertainment, but that was not enough to keep the stage itself from feeling silent without the beat of the drums and high-pitched interjections from the flute. And it felt strange to be dancing with both hands empty, rather than having one holding a fan, one holding a small bough of autumn-colored leaves.

Although I did my best to fall into my character, I could not help but notice on my first turn that Hiiragi stood, one foot still half-raised, about halfway up the steps, her mask pointed unerringly towards me. Had I been able to see her face, I suspected she would be glaring.

The second turn, she was gone, and no matter how out of character, I could not help the slight sigh of relief or the reduction of tension in my shoulders (though that, at least, helped my movements to feel more fluid). I had sprung the role reversal on her in this way because I did not wish to deal with the arguments, but it relieved me more than I expected that she seemed to be willing to play along.

Halfway through the third turn, stooping, I caught sight of her again, a shadow hovering at the back of the stage, just out of easy illumination by the lights – and holding a small tree branch just about the right size, her head tilted in silent question. I risked a small nod, with my head turned away from the audience, and extended my left hand slightly. She tossed the branch to me, and I caught it as I straightened, feeling a little bit more right now that at least one hand was filled properly (the leaves hadn’t turned autumn colors yet, of course, but one can’t have everything), and more heartened than I expected to have Hiiragi there at my back providing active support.

External worries sorted out for the time being, I wrapped my character more firmly around me, and by the time I started the first monologue of the young noblewoman, I’d almost forgotten why I had ever been nervous in the first place. “As the autumn drizzle falls, it darkens the leaves …”

As I continued my monologue, I continued to turn and dance my way around the stage, imagining in my mind’s eye the two retainers I should have had, and the way we would have danced between each other, forming intricate patterns. Continuing my chanted words while not letting them affect the pace or pattern of my dancing was … an interesting challenge, but I’d faced worse. I shifted my voice about half an octave higher to chant the parts that should have been said by my retainers; still well within my comfortable vocal range, but different enough that it prompted a murmur of interest from the audience.

I could feel myself lightly sweating by the time I ended my dance towards the back of the stage, and was glad that the kimono I wore was comparatively lightweight. In lieu of having a curtain to close in front of myself and my imaginary retainers, I simply stepped backwards off the end of the stage, landing lightly in a crouch. I half-stood, though still careful to keep the top of my head below the edge of the stage, and turned to the last place I had seen Hiiragi, thinking to perhaps offer her a quick word of encouragement before she went onstage herself.

Only to see her passing me, head pointed straight forward, staff unslung from her back, and wrapped in an intensity unlike what I usually saw from her. If she was anything like me when I reached that level of focus, even if I said anything she wouldn’t hear me, so I silently stepped out of the way and backed away from the stage until I was in the same shadows she’d previously inhabited; just far enough to give me a good view of the entire stage as she reached the edge and leapt, landing in a perfect stance, her staff held out horizontally in front of her with a confident attitude that made it very easy for me to imagine the sword that would otherwise have been in its place. Her entire posture and attitude so transformed that it was equally easy to see Taira no Koremochi, the young nobleman out hunting for deer, in her place.

She was, in a word, magnificent.

She owned the stage completely, her danced movements slower and more deliberate than my own, but more graceful and even more precise; if she felt any of the same uncertainty I had felt at the beginning of my dance, I could not tell. I kept finding myself having taken a few steps forward without really thinking about it, wanting to see it closer, and then forcing myself to return to my former position, lest I step too far into the light and inadvertently distract anyone’s attention.

A few stanzas into her dance, a slow drumbeat began, and I was again impressed when the sudden noise – which had certainly caused me to start – had no effect on Hiiragi’s dancing except for when she very subtly adjusted her steps to match the beat. Soon thereafter, two more drums joined, and I even started hearing the voice of a flute occasionally, though it did not appear to be played by as expert a player and so weaved in and out of the music in not quite the right ways and times.

And when she began her first monologue, I forgot myself enough to stare outright – the voice that came out of Hiiragi’s mouth was deeper than my own. Another murmur, of surprise and appreciation, from the crowd, though that quieted more quickly and more thoroughly than I had expected.

Watching Hiiragi – who made the stage her own so thoroughly that I barely missed the fact that she, too, should have had retainers – reminded me so strongly of other times I had watched the play, even if the location and the costumes and the audience were all so very different, that I almost missed my cue.

I briefly took on the role of retainer to the noble lady as she took on the role of retainer to the lord, then stepped back almost, but not quite off the stage, as she expertly portrayed the conversation between retainer and lord. (She, too, modulated her voice differently for the different parts; the retainer’s voice was higher, much closer to – though still different from – her normal speaking tone.)

Then a pause that went on just a hair too long, before Natsume’s voice – shaky, though slowly growing more certain as nothing worse than rapt audience attention happened to him – chanted the first of the chorus’ parts. The tones in the chant were all wrong, of course – I had had no hope of that being correct when he’d never seen the play before – but it was a respectable attempt nonetheless.

I sat towards the back of the center of the stage, doing my best to wrap my character back around myself; it was both easier and harder than usual, as on the one hand, I could feel the actor in myself rising to the challenge of meeting Hiiragi’s performance, but on the other, it was almost painful to tear myself away from simply watching. We exchanged introductions and pleasantries; I attempted to induce her to stop in and have a drink with me; she at first demurred.

“Oh, how cold.” I proclaimed. “Won’t you drop in –”

“—under the same tree –” Hiiragi responded, hitting her entrance perfectly even in this, when we were finishing each other’s sentence.

“—and shelter from the rain?”

She accepted, of course, and Natsume’s next part – entrance much better this time, and strong from the beginning; perhaps there was something to be cultivated in him as an actor as well – but that was a thought for another time – went off without a hitch.

The noblewoman’s part here was essentially to sit in one place and look pretty, so after demonstrating that by settling to a seated position briefly, I stood back up and switched to the role of attendant, gliding over to take Hiiragi’s staff from her, two hands to her one, and set it down to the side. I then mimed picking up a sake bottle, pouring it into the bowl that she mimed holding. We danced around each other, and it was a little bit like fighting with her at my back with the way that I remained hyper-aware of her position and adjusted myself to her even as I could feel her adjusting to me, completely confident in her support, and a lot like nothing I’d ever experienced before.

It was electrifying.

If I had been tired – not that I was, I’d filmed for far longer than this before, though usually in less athletic situations – this weaving dance Hiiragi and I engaged in, a little bit like courtship and a little bit like battle, and she managed to make it feel so clearly like both that for once I found myself struggling to catch up, would certainly have driven any thought of tiredness away.

Patches of the audience began to laugh, as Hiiragi’s dance began to stumble here and there, miming drunkenness as artfully as she had done everything else thus far; I continued as graceful and sure as ever, occasionally refilling her nonexistent bowl with my nonexistent sake, as her stumbles grew larger and more obvious.

Her movements slowed, and slowed further, and my dance shifted to helping her to a spot towards the back of the stage, getting her seated with the imaginary sake that now she poured into her imaginary bowl herself, before I made my way back to the center of the stage and began, once again, to dance.  

I found myself strangely conscious of Hiiragi’s attention on me, almost self-conscious, in a way I hadn’t been during my original solo dance. That, too, I shoved to the side, narrowing my focus back down to myself and my dance, each step, each movement of my hands (and again I lamented the lack of a fan) as precisely positioned as I could make it; each movement flowing into the next in a way that I hoped appeared natural.

With each turn that brought me to briefly face the back of the stage I took a quick glance at Hiiragi, still alternating between drinking her imaginary sake (and honestly, anyone who’d consumed as much real sake as she had consumed imaginary by now? Was either Natsume’s companion or overdue for a pretty severe case of alcohol poisoning) and watching me with the sort of posture that would usually accompany a rapt expression. How did she learn to act so well?

Not important right now. Keep your mind on your own business.

Natsume began chanting again, now sounding downright comfortable in his role. He was not … entirely synchronized with the beat of the drums, which grated, but – well. I hadn’t expected miracles.

“Do not awaken from your dream.” Natsume’s voice intoned, wrapping up his chant, and on my next turn I saw that indeed, Hiiragi had slumped over, as though she had been overcome by the alcohol at last, drawn into a deep sleep. Natsume repeated, softly, “Do not awaken from your dream.”

With exaggerated movements, I checked to see that Hiiragi was actually ‘asleep’, then flew into a much faster version of my earlier dance. I made sure to keep it to a sustainable pace, since I wanted to make sure I would have some energy left for the climax, but from the audience reaction it seemed to have left a reasonable impression nonetheless. Towards the end of the dance, as my back was briefly turned to the rest of the audience, I slid onto my head a second paper mask I’d prepared along with Natsume’s notes – this one properly with my brush and ink; there’s no way pen writing would be visible as far out as it needed to be – boldly emblazoned with the character ‘oni’, for the demonic temptress I had just revealed myself to be. As I turned back towards the crowd, there was a murmur in response – more interested than offended, as I had hoped.

Another couple of turns, working my way slowly backwards, and I was within believable reach to mime throwing something – a net, perhaps, or ropes – over Hiiragi’s supposedly-sleeping form, trapping her there. Then I exited, again, from the back side of the stage, though this time I stayed crouched for several moments longer, attempting to catch my breath, before half-rising and making my way back into the shadows that ringed the stage.

For a moment, the silence was complete, and I reached towards my second mask, on the verge of taking it off and climbing back onstage. He had better not have gotten distracted by the food and alcohol and wandered off –

Yet even as I stepped forward, ‘oni’ mask half-removed as in the back of my mind I scrambled to come up with an appropriate sword, Natsume’s companion poofed into quite impressive existence above center stage, holding what looked like a branch only barely longer than his jaws were wide, which as he set it down gently at Hiiragi’s feet showed itself of have been expertly stripped, with a variety of ribbons and leaves and other adornments attached near one end. How did he manage to pull that off?

Then he launched into a very credible rendition of Takeuchi-no-kami’s monologue, exhorting Hiiragi to wake up from her alcohol-induced sleep and defeat the terrible demon, in a deep, resounding voice that even I had to admit suited the part admirably. I pulled the ‘oni’ mask more firmly back into place and took a few deep breaths to calm myself for the finale.

“Excuse me?” A quiet voice interrupted my thoughts. I looked to both sides, saw no one, then looked down. A bit off to the right, a handful of leaf ayakashi clustered around another branch, this one decorated more simply, with just a garland of flowers in pinks and reds around where the guard of a sword would be. Once they saw they had my attention, the one in front piped up again, “Madara-sama asked us to give this to you.”

Madara – oh right, that’s the pig-cat’s real name, isn’t it? Interesting that even ayakashi in this area knew it – though that could just be a case of him having spoken in third person, I suppose. I smiled down at them, though between my masks and the uncertain light I don’t know whether they actually saw it. “Thank you for your part in bringing this to me.” I picked the branch up and hefted it, trying to hide my amusement as one of the ayakashi who had been standing closest to it startled and fell over with a squeak. I could make do with this … quite well, actually. “And I will be sure to thank him as well.”

My attention was then attracted back to the stage as Hiiragi woke up, declaiming her regret at having been fooled, which merged seamlessly into a dance to show off her new sword. I brandished my own one last time – I may not know much about swordsmanship in reality (it’s really not as useful a skill for an exorcist as TV might lead one to believe), but I’ve had enough parts enough in historical dramas to make my indiscriminate sword-swinging at least look good.

Then, even as her posturing wound to a close, I leapt up onto the stage, sword in hand, only barely holding back a roar. (It’s what a proper demon would have done, after all.)

This epic battle was very much unlike the ones I had taken part in in those historical dramas. There was stomping and circling and threatening, but our swords (such as they were) never actually touched. It was like the drinking dance, but better. I felt so in tune with Hiiragi that it felt almost as though we were a single person; even when one of us varied our steps from what was expected (what I, at least, thought I remembered), the other was just there, as though the dance had been supposed to go that way all along.

I was, in fact, enjoying myself so much that I almost forgot that my role in this little drama was to lose; it took a genuine falter in my motions (all that stomping and circling and waving of swords really takes it out of one after a while) that Hiiragi took advantage of rather more pointedly than entirely necessary to remind me.

After that, I played up my increasingly real tiredness, letting Hiiragi get in more and more mock blows as the drums beat faster in anticipation of her upcoming victory, then finally folded in my properly dramatic defeat.

As the closing monologue was given, I used the opportunity to just lie there, half-crouched, half-prone, and breathe. Hiiragi, of course, did not appear to be at all affected. (I sometimes think it would be nice to have an ayakashi constitution. That’s one of those thoughts I try not to even think too loud, though, lest someone or something take me at my word. I’m even fonder of being properly human, thanks.)

Still, that break was enough to allow me to appear my normal, unruffled self by the time I rose to take my bow. One by one the others walked to the edge of the stage to give their bows as well: Hiiragi followed me, then the pig-cat in his beast form, followed most reluctantly of all by Natsume. (I thought I heard, and studiously ignored, threats on the part of his companion about what would happen if he didn’t come out to take his bows of his own free will.)

And now, for the first time since Hiiragi’s dance, I had a chance to take a proper look at our audience. It was … rather larger than I had expected. Both in terms of sheer number of attendees – it looked like more than a few had come in late to the party – and in terms of the number who appeared to have been actively watching our little play. There were still pockets of ayakashi here and there talking quietly amongst themselves or carousing … not so quietly. But the majority of the audience, to judge by the applause, had in fact been watching.

The applause died down into an oddly respectful (relative) silence as we stepped off the stage and headed back towards our previous seats (which, happily, had been left empty), then gradually built back into its usual dull roar as they lost interest in our group, beginning to turn their attention either back towards each other or back towards the stage, to see what the next act would be. On the other side of the clearing a scuffle broke out – by which point I had sat back down already, and from that position I couldn’t see about what – which had the happy side effect of diverting most of the rest of the remaining lingering attention away from us.

Natsume flopped down bonelessly beside me, letting out a deep sigh of relief. I smiled down at him fondly. "Now that wasn't so bad, was it?"

He lay there, silent, for so long that if not for the obvious look of consideration on his face, I would have begun to think he was pointedly ignoring me. Finally, “... I suppose not.” He admitted, very grudgingly. “Though I don’t know how you could have possibly managed remembering your lines, delivering them convincingly, and all that jumping around the stage you were doing.”

I waved a hand dismissively. “Practice.”

“But I thought you'd never –”

“One’s ability to observe also improves with practice.” I pointed out. “Think about it. You’ve always been able to see, sure, but what about noticing the ayakashi who don't go out of their way to bring themselves to your attention?” I kept my voice low, though given the distance from our group to the next nearest in any direction and the volume at which they were all carousing, I probably needn’t have bothered – I couldn’t properly see the next act from my current position, but it clearly wasn’t holding the attention of many of the attendees.

Natsume looked thoughtful. “Now that you mention it …”

Speaking of small ayakashi … And of those who go out of their way to attract attention, come to think of it … “Thank you for the sword.” I said to Natsume’s companion. “It was well done.”

The pig-cat tossed his head. “Of course it was. And it would hardly have been proper for the demon in the story to have just some random branch he picked up off the ground.”

“My thanks, as well.” Hiiragi added quietly from her usual place by my side, her mask so clearly facing towards the pig-cat – as it had faced nearly everything but me since we left the stage – that I began to suspect it was her way of pointedly ignoring me.

At least she’s willing to wait to yell at me until we’re in private. I thought, not without a certain level of amusement. ... It was worth it.

He huffed. “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to let myself be caught handing over a sub-standard sword, fake or not.”

For a being as arrogant as he acts, he’s surprisingly awkward about accepting genuine thanks. … Much like a certain mutual acquaintance of ours.

I turned back to Natsume, and jokingly asked, “Well, now that you’ve gotten a taste of it, have you been bitten by the acting bug? Interested in becoming my competition?”

No.” He said at once, looking more horrified than I really thought was warranted. Then, quietly enough that I suspected I wasn’t supposed to have heard, “I have a hard enough time just being myself.”

… That’s the point. Rather than replying and potentially embarrassing him further, I leaned back on my hands and turned my head upwards, idly counting the few stars that I could see through the trees. It’s far easier to be someone else than to properly be yourself.

Happily, my dark contemplation of the yawning abyss that often seemed to lie between myself and Natsume (you’d think that, as an actor, I’d be better with people …) was handily broken by a sudden hush that rippled across the entire audience, quieting even the loudest of the carousers (though in a few cases, only after liberal application of their drinks and/or drink containers to their heads). I sat up and, when that still gave me a view too blocked to be useful, stood, looking towards the stage just as the ayakashi standing there (about half again as tall as me, about half of that its long legs, with arms that looked long enough to reach the ground and mottled green-brown skin – another breed of tree spirit) announced, “And the winner of this year’s contest is … the kabuki troupe who did ‘Autumn Foliage Watching’.”

I allowed myself a brief moment of elation and relief – It worked! – then set my shoulders, made sure my kimono was straight and my mask properly centered, and strode up to the stage to take another round of bows to another smattering of applause. Hiiragi followed close behind, Natsume and his companion not far behind her, though the pig-cat had had to have words with him, again, to get him moving.

There did not appear to be any physical award. Just as well, really, since I had no idea what I’d do with one if I had it, other than throw it away – display in my exorcism supply room? I certainly wouldn’t have been able to leave it out in public. Instead, the tall ayakashi gestured with one of his long arms for us to follow him out of the clearing along a narrow path that I could have sworn had not been there before.

Several minutes later we exited into a much smaller clearing, populated by only a single ayakashi. I had expected him to be surrounded by retainers – still-powerful kami usually were – yet this presence was so strong that it could hardly have been anyone but Aomori-gami, and he was undeniably alone.

Perhaps this will be even easier than I expected. Much like humans, ayakashi tend to be far more recalcitrant in groups.

I went down on one knee – no full obeisance from me unless absolutely necessary, thanks, but this ought to be sufficient for the foreign ayakashi I was posing as to the lord of the current area – and saw Hiiragi do the same out of the corner of my eye; from the thump behind me I assumed that Natsume had followed our example. Such a pity. He would have made such a good apprentice. … Except for the ways in which he would have been an absolutely terrible one.

Aomori-gami chuckled, deep and warm, such a human sound that I had to catch myself on the verge of relaxing. He’s dangerous. And not just because of his power. Power that I knew instinctively could flatten me, were I unprepared and unwary. But then, there was nothing particularly new about that, either. Focus on the request. “No need to stand on such formality.” He said, spoken voice as deep and warm as his chuckle. “I simply wished to meet such inspired actors.”

I bowed my head in acknowledgement of the compliment, then stood. Once again I saw Hiiragi following suit, a careful couple of seconds after me. “We are glad that you enjoyed our paltry attempts.”

“Such a unique rendition of the play, with such a small cast!” He enthused, spreading arms covered in layers of flowing, colorful fabric. “Yet so well-choreographed! Tell me, how long have you practiced together?”

I couldn’t help the helpless glance I turned Hiiragi’s way; her mask turned my way made me think that she was at just as much of a loss as I. So, with a mental shrug, I told the truth. “We haven’t, Aomori-gami-sama. Although she” I inclined my head briefly towards Hiiragi “and I are both quite familiar with the play, this is the first time either of us has danced the part in front of an audience, either alone or together.”

The long-beaked bird mask that covered most of his head tilted sideways for a handful of seconds before straightening as he erupted into laughter. “Even better! Kabuki as it was done in the old days! I like it!”

I decided to refrain from pointing out that most kabuki actors, even ‘in the old days’, had practiced their own parts extensively (and more formally than the dancing around abandoned fields that I had done as a child), even if they often danced together with the other actors for the first time when they took to the stage. Aomori-gami struck me as one of those who would be fairly tolerant of that sort of impertinence, but I had no real reason to push my luck.  

“I don’t suppose I could convince you to stay here as my private performance troupe.” He said wistfully. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a chance to watch some proper dancing.” His beak pointed towards Hiiragi. “Particularly you, my dear. Even among such company, you stood head and shoulders above the rest.”

I found myself wondering idly what sort of kabuki he used to watch, that our half-assed attempt, cobbled together literally at the last moment, qualified in his mind as ‘good’. Though I certainly could not argue with his assessment that Hiiragi had done by far and away the best of all of us.

Nor could I fight the burst of entirely irrational panic that seized me for a moment at the thought of losing Hiiragi. Even though the shiki pact meant she couldn’t leave me – at least not easily or comfortably, not without my permission.

(I like to think that if she asked me to dissolve the pact, I’d do so willingly, if not entirely happily. It disturbs me that I’m not sure.)

“I appreciate the offer.” She said calmly. “Unfortunately, I’m afraid I must decline. I would hardly be a proper – partner, if I left his back unguarded.” She tilted her head slightly in my direction, and now I found myself fighting an equally ridiculous swell of pride and relief.

Aomori-gami sighed, sounding disappointed but not surprised, and happily not angry, either. (Dealing with angry kami is even more of a pain than dealing with them in general.) “A true pity.” He said, then with another tilt of the head, clearly dismissed the subject. “So what would my most excellent troupe of dancers wish of me?” He asked.

Then, as though in response to something – perhaps Natsume had looked embarrassed – he waved one hand in a grandly dismissive gesture. (I took note of the angle of elbow and wrist, the sweep of the arm – it was a masterful gesture, and one I wouldn't mind adding to my own repertoire.) “Oh, come now, you must want something. Those who care enough about my little contests to exert themselves to win always do.”

… And from there, the conversation went remarkably smoothly. We made our case, Aomori-gami made a show (or perhaps was even being sincere) of not having known and being distressed by the trouble being made on the border of his domain, and promised to do something about it. Formalities were observed, and we began to turn, on the verge of leaving. A motion that was arrested when Aomori-gami raised his hand and said genially, “You are a very interesting exorcist, to allow your shiki to call you ‘partner’ and be willing to take on the role of a demon yourself. I would know your name.”

I did my best to avoid stiffening as my adrenaline levels spiked, and hoped the too-long pause while I controlled my reaction wasn’t just as big of a giveaway. “I’m sure I don’t know what you –”

He threw his head back and laughed. “A robe and mask do a lot to mask your scent, human child, but I would ask that you not lump me in with those who trust only what they smell. You and the pale-haired one – you are both humans. And your ayakashi companion – she acts well, but when she slips, she is entirely too deferential to you to be anything but a shiki, which would make you an exorcist. If, perhaps, the oddest one I have encountered in quite some time.” A tilt of the bird mask; if his face had been uncovered I suspected one of his eyebrows would have been raised. “Am I wrong?”

My skills at bluffing have saved me more than once before, but sometimes it’s best not to try. I turned back to face him, removed my mask, and made a flourishing bow. A flicker of darkness at the bottom edges of my vision made me suspect that the gecko had chosen this as a perfect time to crawl across my nose; I did my best to ignore it and was pleased that Aomori-gami appeared willing to do the same. “It appears you are even more clear-sighted and wise than the rumors claim.” A miscalculation on my part. “My name is Natori Shuuichi. This is Hiiragi.”

“Natori.” The god sounded worrisomely thoughtful. “You, on the other hand, appear quite different from how rumors paint you.” Another grandly dismissive wave. “No matter. Know, Natori and Hiiragi, that you and your companions here are welcome in my court, so long as you continue to abide by the standards of proper behavior you have shown yourself to be capable of adhering to this night.” He shook his head and said quietly, as though to himself. “Things must have gotten even more out of hand than I thought, if exorcists are getting involved.”

Then his mask raised again to point towards us, and I could almost feel his renewed focus. “Of course, I would appreciate it even more if you would perform for me again, should you find yourself back at my court.”

The idea sounded … more appealing than it had any right to. Though I really didn’t think I had either the time or the energy for a third job, much less one so absurd as being part of a kabuki troupe for a kami, particularly one who did not precisely live in my backyard. (Though for that, I was certainly thankful.) I flashed my brightest smile, and thought I heard Hiiragi sigh quietly. “We will consider it.”

The beak bobbed sharply in a nod. “Very well. You may go. I shall have my retainer show you the quickest path to the edge of the forest – I assume that suits you better than returning to the party?” It did, in fact. “I would suggest you put your mask back on, however. No sense in causing a fuss unnecessarily.”

I threw in one last bow, before following his advice. “Thank you, Aomori-gami-sama.”

He waved an absent acknowledgement, and though I had not seen his means of summoning, not long thereafter the tree spirit returned to lead us to the edge of the forest, as the kami had promised.

Hiiragi disappeared to find Sasago, Urihime, and my duffle bag; Natsume and his companion engaged in a low-voiced but rather vehement conversation about the time of night, his foster-parents, and the food in the fridge; I stared up at the stars – now no longer blocked by the trees, although here and there clouds covered them just as effectively – and just breathed, as the adrenaline drained from my system and I started to feel truly tired.

Did the client know that Aomori-gami was that good at recognizing humans? Was this, too, a trap, simply one more subtle than the Moon-Splitting Festival? I tried to thrust the thoughts aside, knowing they were likely simply paranoia, and that even if there was a grain of truth to them, I would be far better able to recognize it at some later point, with rest and food and Hiiragi to discuss the problem with.

“Natori-san?” I turned my attention to Natsume. Noticed I was still wearing my mask, and removed it, so that I could see him face to un-covered face for the first time that night. (Though as dark as it was, in the dim light of far-off houses and the stars and the half-moon that sat half-hidden by one of the clouds, I could hardly see him at all. And even if I could, it had never been our physical masks that prevented me from understanding him properly.) I thought I saw a dim shrug. “Sensei’s insisting – Touko-san left gratin in the fridge again, since she didn’t know I’d be missing dinner, so he wants to get home sooner rather than later –”

I made a shooing gesture. “Go on. And thank you for your aid tonight.” I considered, then dismissed, a joke about making him my apprentice. Not when I suspected I wanted that to happen about as much as he did.

“No, thank you. I don’t think I would have succeeded without your help.” He hesitated, and once again I got the impression that he was talking to himself. “So exorcists sometimes do that sort of work, too.”

“Not often.” I replied. I politely ignored the start that I thought I saw. “The other work you’ve seen me do, the things you’ve seen Matoba” may he go somewhere far, far away where I never have to deal with him again “do, are far more representative of our work than what happened tonight.” I’d already drawn Natsume far enough into our world to realize what a terrible idea it had been to introduce him to it in the first place. I did not need to draw him in even further by giving him false impressions.

“… I know.” He said. “I’ll see you later?”

“Oh, I have no doubt that we’ll run into each other again.” I said dryly, though I hoped he could also hear the warmth in my voice. When he laughed, I thought I had probably succeeded.

Then his companion poofed into his giant beast form, fur so pale it almost looked like it glowed in the dim moonlight, and Natsume dashed away with one last wave, to jump and climb up onto his back as nonchalantly as though he did it every day, clinging in far too precarious a fashion for my peace of mind as the beast leapt up and away in the general direction of his home.

I took a moment to savor the quiet, firmly crushed the thought that it was almost lonely, with no one around, then started the walk back towards town. My shiki would find me. I had faith in that much.

All three caught up with me as I stood at the station, waiting for the train. (Not quite the last train of the evening, but cutting it closer than I usually preferred.) I accepted my bag back from Sasago, unconcerned with the fact that it would appear to normal people as though it had appeared out of thin air; the only other person on the platform stood down near the other end, turned away from me, and from the bobbing of the back of his head, was almost certainly listening to music loudly enough to tune out the rest of the world.

After a couple of minutes Sasago unceremoniously announced that she’d wait for me at home and flitted off – she’d never had much patience – and Urihime returned to standby mode, leaving just Hiiragi standing quietly at my side. I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye just in time to see her mask turn slightly towards me, then back away. Whatever thought was behind that look, though, she seemed disinclined to share at the moment. Though that could simply have been that she, more than the other two, has always been more aware of when speaking with me might be unwise, given that I would be unable to respond without sounding crazy.

… Though given the current population of this train platform and their likely level of interest in what I was doing, she could just as easily have been using the presence of another human as an excuse to delay. (It was certainly my excuse for not starting the conversation myself.)

The train pulled into the station almost precisely on time, and the three of us boarded; my head-bobbing companion moving to a different car without more than a cursory glance at me, leaving me alone in the car Hiiragi and I had boarded, currently populated by two salarymen looking like they’d had a few too many, who used each other for support as much or more than the seats they sat in, and one person of indeterminate gender who lay sprawled across one of the seats with a newspaper covering head and upper torso.

Usually in trains as lightly populated as this, Hiiragi – if out and about – would sit beside me; this time she appeared to have chosen to stand, swaying gracefully with the movement of the train in a way that bordered on mesmerizing.

I must have dozed off; I awoke to her hand on my shoulder, timed just before the announcer called out our stop. I smiled my thanks – people are much less likely to notice a random smile – and stood, using the last couple of minutes to stretch the kinks out, then picked up my bag as the doors began to open.

Hiiragi remained silent even as we exited the train station onto a genuinely uninhabited sidewalk – save the two of us and a flickering along the fence that could either have been some small ayakashi clearing out of the way or a trick of the light – as I began the walk towards home half on autopilot. When several blocks later she still hadn’t said a word, I gave in to my own impatience and ducked into the small park we’d just started walking beside, heading straight for the stand of woods that was arguably a shortcut home, though not enough of one that I ever bothered to take it.

She fell behind at first – surprised at my decision? – but quickly caught up; then ended up a few feet in front of me as I came to a stop just inside the wooded area. She turned back around to face me, cocking her head slightly.

I responded with my best smile. (Or ‘most sparkly’ as she would probably dub it.) “I think tonight worked out rather well, don’t you?”

One long moment passed in continued silence before she responded, voice heavy with sarcasm, “If we’re discounting the part where I almost marched up onto the stage, demanded to know what you were doing, and ruined the whole thing, then yes. I suppose it went moderately well.”

“I knew you wouldn’t.” Which was … not entirely true. But I’d been fairly certain.

She took one swift step back towards me and punched me in the arm – hard enough to feel it, but not enough to really hurt, and certainly nowhere near her full strength. (I knew if that had happened I would likely have gone flying into the nearest tree.) “That,” she said, “is for not warning me ahead of time.”

I thought maybe I should consider having a talk with my shiki about the proper time and place for physical violence against one’s master. That is to say, never and nowhere. But it was … kind of nice, when she forgot to be so terribly respectful of my dignity all the time. “But where would the fun have been in that?”

“… Fun.” She said, striving for a flat tone but ending up somewhere between resigned and reluctantly amused. “Sometimes I despair of ever understanding your sense of humor, Master.”

“Ahaha. Though really, you should have seen the look on your face – well, not your face precisely, since that was hidden by your mask, more’s the pity, but –”

She wound up for another strike, moving quickly, but not fast enough to miss my notice. I shifted to the side, hand coming up under her arm as though to guide her into one of any number of throws I could have used from that position; relaxed enough to be able to change to an effective block should she try to track me, or otherwise –

I felt the slight relaxation to the muscles in her arm in response, and, hardly thinking about anything but my heady enjoyment of the moment, swept my hand down to capture hers in a loose clasp, bringing the back of her hand to my lips, as though I was one of the courtly gentlemen I played occasionally in dramas. “You were – magnificent.” That, too, was truth. A more sincere one than I usually was willing to allow to see the light of day.

She stiffened – though slightly enough that I don’t know that I would have noticed if I hadn’t felt it through her arm – particularly since when she spoke several seconds later, her voice was light. “You must say that to all the girls.”

“I do not!” I protested immediately, genuinely a bit offended – she’d been watching over my shoulder often enough, for long enough, that she should know better, after all. “I tell them that they’re beautiful, or that we have excellent chemistry together, or that they are doing a great job of following the director’s instructions –”

Hiiragi laughed. “I still can’t believe she thought that you were complimenting her.”

I grinned. “Does this look like the sort of face that would underhandedly insult a coworker?”

“Yes.” She replied immediately. “Two, to be precise.”

That had not been one of my favorite projects. Particularly since that director had also been overly fond of long hours and excessive re-takes ... but unlike my current director, he never seemed to garner any additional quality from all the extra time and effort spent. I'd been quite happy to see that job end.

Also, that was beside the point. “Anyway, my point is, you were. Magnificent.”

A light breeze rustled its way through the trees. “Well. Thanks?” She said, sounding almost unsure. “You were … also good. Much better than I expected.” And now her voice sounded controlled, too controlled, and not for the first time I cursed the way her mask prevented me from seeing any facial expressions.

… Though knowing Hiiragi, she would probably have learned to control her facial expressions as well as she can control her voice when she puts her mind to it.

Her mask dipped slightly. “I –” She shook her head. “Never mind.” And tugged the hand I hadn’t even really noticed I was still holding out of my grasp, turning to continue down the path towards home that she knew at least as well as I did. Leaving me clenching my fist in an attempt to ignore how empty it now felt.

It didn’t take more than several quick steps to catch up – she might be in a mood, but Hiiragi was still my shiki, after all. “Was it something I said? If you don’t like the word ‘magnificent’, I’m sure I can come up with something else. ‘Brilliant’?”

She stopped, half-turned towards me. “Do you seriously not –” And that was anger in her voice, or pain, raw enough to drive me to a stop, still several feet away. Then she shook her head, and when she spoke again, her voice was back to normal; so normal that I wondered for a moment if I’d just imagined her other words. “My apologies. That was unnecessary of me. It will not happen again.”

“Hiiragi –” Now I was beginning to feel genuinely worried. I could not remember a time when she’d ever been truly angry with me. Though now I began to wonder if I simply hadn’t noticed; if she’d simply been far better at hiding it than I’d ever suspected.

She turned away, starting to walk again. At a normal pace, so it wasn’t a matter of more than a handful of longer than usual strides for me to catch up, catching her by the forearm. In a loose grip – if she really wanted to pull away again I saw no point in inflicting undue injury on either of us – but firmly enough, I hoped, to get across the point that I was serious. It must have worked, for she stopped, face still turned away. “Hiiragi. What’s wrong?”

She turned towards me slightly, free hand coming to rest, after a brief hesitation, on top of my own. When she spoke, her voice sounded oddly resigned. “Nothing.”

I tried for levity. “If you’re going to lie, I’m sure you can do a better job than that.”

That garnered a huff of amusement and – I thought, though it was so slight it might have been just my imagination – a tightening of her fingers around my hand. “You shouldn’t ask questions whose answers you don’t want to know. Master.”

“What if I do want to know?”

She barked a bitterly amused laugh. “If it’s not obvious enough for you to figure out yourself, perhaps that’s for the best.” Her hand closed around my own, almost convulsively – but then next thing I knew, my hand had been removed from her arm and dropped, to once again hang uselessly by my side. Her mask pointed directly at me, and I fancied that I could feel the weight of her stare. “Some boxes are best left unopened. For the sake of everyone involved.”

Before I could come up with another retort, she turned and dashed off, short hair and kimono streaming behind her. Beautiful. Popped into my mind unbidden. Except – it didn’t seem quite enough, somehow. Magnificent was a far better fit. So why …?

The rest of the walk passed in silence, Hiiragi staying always just near enough that she could easily return at the first sign of trouble – of which, happily, there was none – but just far enough away to be out of range for proper conversation. I made no particular attempt to catch up this time, half out of the suspicion that if I did so she’d simply speed up again, and half because I was preoccupied by wondering what it was that I had missed.

Back home I was tempted to drop the duffle bag in the entrance and head straight to bed – we’d be shooting again the following day, so I could certainly use all the rest I could get – but made myself unpack the supplies, put them away in their proper places, and take a shower to wash off the evening’s dirt.

I considered briefly coming back out to the living room to collapse on the couch, instead of making the slightly longer trek to my bed. Wondered if Hiiragi would chide me for it if I did.

… Decided against it because I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer to that question.

Another day, another overly long filming session. I hear the rustle as Hiiragi moves about the room from my position on the couch, eyes covered by an outflung arm, and relax despite myself.

“Two fan letters.” She reports, sounding normal. “A form letter of some kind.” Then amused disdain. “Someone who thought it would be cute to send a cursed letter.”

I move my arm just enough to open one eye and stare at the ceiling. “‘Cute’?” Worry doesn’t even occur to me – if it were something truly troublesome, Hiiragi would have sounded a great deal more uptight.

“It seemed like the best word to describe a curse you could probably have unraveled on your own when you were six.” She replies, a shrug in her voice. “– Another fan letter. You’ve been getting a lot of those lately. People must really like that new movie of yours.”

“I suppose.” I can rarely be bothered to read my fan mail, and even what little I go through I rarely remember much beyond finishing the letter. Acting is, in the end, only a job, after all.

“– An invitation from Aomori-gami-sama to a party he’s holding – about two months from now.” She stumbles a bit on the conversion to human time; ayakashi definitions of dates tend to be in terms of cycles of the moon, seasons, and the like.

“How did he manage to find out this address?” I consider indignation, but am not quite able to summon the motivation.

“You gave him your name. Our residence here is not precisely a secret.”

“… True, I suppose.”

“– Junk mail, and two new exorcism requests.”

“Two?” I ask, lifting my arm off my face just in time to use it to help catch the letters that come arcing over the back of the couch towards my chest.

“Your reputation continues to grow.” She says.

With your help. I consider saying, but I don’t really want to deal with the uncomfortable silence that is probably all a comment like that would net. So instead I say nothing at all, opening the first of the letters and trying not to let it bother me that she never comes and leans over the back of the couch anymore, making her pithy comments – if any – from a distance.

I … miss our old camaraderie, much as it pains me to admit it. The way we interact still looks mostly the same on the surface, but inside it feels hollow and full of pitfalls, of things not said because I’m no longer entirely sure of how she’ll react to them.

Something has broken, and I wish I knew what it was or how to fix it. Except then I remember the end of our conversation that night, and wonder – is this a question that I really want answered?

In the end, I’ve always been a coward, after all.