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Almost Spring

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This was not a banking presentation.

Takashi hadn’t been paying attention when the man entered the classroom, all perfunctory bows and unobtrusive greetings to their teacher before he started setting up, but now he wished he had. He might have caught sight of the charms inked on slips of paper, or wondered why a visiting speaker had to place things at all corners of the classroom, or thought it was strange how many large bags the man had. Unfortunately, Takashi and the rest of his classmates were diligently finishing up a test and he was keeping his eyes on his own paper when he wasn’t sneaking peeks outside the window. The cherry blossom buds were just starting to redden.

Now, the classroom was filled with shadowy monsters. Probably manmade shiki, Takashi thought with some distaste- they reminded him of Matoba’s identical mindless servants, except these were robed in black. But that didn’t make them any less dangerous; it only meant they were under the control of whoever had lied his way into the school. And the distinction probably wouldn’t be appreciated by any of his classmates, since it wasn’t particularly soothing. It would only bring him unwelcome attention. Takashi decided he had every right to keep his mouth closed.

“I’m looking for someone named Reiko,” said the man, and Takashi tried not to flinch too obviously. He glanced over the room, but none of his classmates displayed any hint of recognition. Also, no one looked interested in speaking up. Good. Maybe if they all stayed like that, the man would give up and leave.

The man did not give up and leave. He hadn’t bothered to introduce himself. The teacher had a business card, but Takashi doubted it was real: it was probably either forged or stolen. Hopefully forged; Takashi didn’t want to think about the man taking it forcefully from whatever poor businessman had been scheduled to instruct them in the merits of savings and stocks. He didn’t want the elaborate threat the man had set up to have any real violence behind it.

Because his classmates were silent probably out of shock. The enspelled papers fixed around the classroom had blazed in a way Takashi knew from experience meant they would be difficult to touch, let alone take down or destroy. The class had murmured in surprise, warily interested, because what kind of financial lecture had effects like this? Then they’d recoiled, as the man reached into his bag and flung something out that made dark creatures loom.

Takashi had been dismayed enough that youkai were once again interfering in his life, and in school, no less. He didn’t recognize the man from any of Matoba’s gatherings, but he was probably an exorcist of some sort, with his equipment. Takashi had tried to look casual as he eyed the shiki fanning out to encircle the room, but something was off. It took him a few moments to realize that his classmates were also looking at the shiki, and seeing them. He watched one classmate fix his eyes on a creature, and then follow its movement. Takashi looked to another classmate and saw the same awareness. And another. And another. The runes that had shone with power must be something like Taki’s circle.

Takashi’s heart was in his throat. His classmates were shrinking into their seats. He didn’t dare to turn and look at Nishimura, but he didn’t like the way he could hear the desk creaking, as if it were caught in a tight grip. So far the shiki hadn’t come too close to anyone, but they were everywhere. If the exorcist insisted on an answer and didn’t get what he wanted, he could order them to do anything.

“Reiko could be very old by now,” the exorcist said pointedly. When that didn’t prompt anyone to speak up, he added, “You must at least know about her family. I know they lived here.”

Nobody said a word. Takashi couldn’t breathe. If the man knew about Reiko’s family, then he might be able to identify him, and who knew what he wanted? Maybe he was just on the kind of insane errand Takashi often found himself on, trying to do a favor for a youkai. But the shiki shuffling around the room were muttering a low susurrus and his classmates were looking paler by the minute. Takashi felt a pang. He’d wondered how they would react to seeing the same things he always had. He’d wondered about all the classes he’d ever been in. Now he had his answer.

Maybe Takashi could spare his classmates this horror if he spoke up. He’d be in a whole new world of horror himself, though: his classmates, who Takashi would tentatively go as far as calling his friends, would abandon him. And he’d be left alone to face whatever this exorcist wanted from him, too.

“If you don’t have anything to say about Reiko… what about the Book of Friends?”

The Book of Friends was in Takashi’s bag, inches from his hand.

“It was Reiko’s,” the exorcist continued. “You don’t have to tell me anything about Reiko if you can get me the Book.”

That was out of the question. Takashi had denied the Book to youkai, and he wouldn’t hand it over to exorcists either. He carefully didn’t let even a finger twitch toward it. Luckily, no one else was saying anything either. Takashi didn’t think the Book was a local legend, except for among the youkai, but it was possible some rumor had spread, in which case Takashi was thankful his class seemed to have decided to stubbornly remain silent no matter what the man demanded.

“Really?” said the man. “No one has information on the Book of Friends? I find that hard to believe. Back to Reiko, then. Natsume Reiko?”

No one spoke a word or even turned to look at Takashi, but he felt the atmosphere change. Now the class was locked not only in a pact of silence, but of stillness, and it showed.

The man smiled. “Finally,” he said. “You know something about the Natsume family? Say something!”

This was directed at a girl in the front row, but the entire class jumped. She didn’t say anything, instead staring past him and breathing in deliberate, measured gulps.

The exorcist clicked his tongue and turned away from her. “Well, I didn’t make all of these for the fun of it,” he mused, seemingly to himself. “Perhaps they can loosen your tongues.”

He snapped his fingers and the whispering from the shiki abruptly ceased. Their expressionless heads turned as one toward him; or rather, toward his hand. The exorcist slowly extended his index finger and pointed at Nishimura. “Seize him.”

“Touch him and I’ll read every name in the Book.”

Takashi didn’t remember standing, but he was on his feet, and clutching the Book of Friends. His face felt flushed and his voice sounded too loud for him to recognize it as his own. He vaguely remembered having to go through some kind of ritual in order to actually summon youkai whose names were in the Book, but he was too angry to let that hold him back. Takashi would summon them with nothing but his will and their names if he had to. As long as the exorcist knew the book was powerful and took him seriously- and from his gasp and sudden speechlessness, he was- everything would work out. It had to. Right now, all that mattered was that he was standing between Nishimura and the approaching shiki who hadn’t been as taken aback as its master.

A girl in front of Takashi reached out and tried to hold the shiki back, but it stepped out of her hold with no apparent effort. Another girl got up to shove it back, but she bounced right off it and didn’t even slow its momentum. Then it was in front of Takashi.

Takashi threw a punch, aware that it had no coordination and probably wasn’t very strong, but he wanted the shiki gone and it immediately crumpled and dissolved at the impact. Once again, it seemed whatever spiritual powers he had inherited were more than enough to make up for his lack of physical strength, at least when it came to youkai, and this wasn’t even a real youkai.

The exorcist was staring at him. So were his classmates, especially the ones who had been unable to stop the shiki. Then Takashi realized the man was less concerned about the shiki and more interested in what Takashi had announced and was holding. “The Book of Friends,” he breathed. “Take it!”

All of the shiki flowed toward Takashi, mobbing him. He kept a firm grip on the Book and flailed his other fist; he felt it connect over and over. Each time, the mass of black robes trying to converge on him thinned. Finally there were no more shiki for Takashi to fight off. He looked around the room: the shiki truly were all gone. Unless the exorcist decided to make more, of course.

“No matter,” the exorcist said. “I wasn’t relying on those anyway. Now you leave me no choice but to unleash this savage youkai!”

He whipped a sheet off of a large bag- and really, how had they thought this was a normal thing for a school speaker to bring for a banking presentation?- to reveal a cage. Inside was a youkai wearing a pale pink robe. Its skin was gray and instead of hair it had two small tree branches growing straight up from its head.

“Please,” the youkai whispered. The class gasped and murmured, still hushed but no longer cowed into silence.

“My name,” the youkai said, and Takashi understood.

“You can’t mean-“ the exorcist started.

“That which protects me, reveal thy name,” Takashi said, and his classmates turned to watch him as if seeing the pages of the Book turn on their own was more interesting than the living, breathing youkai right in front of them.

“No!” cried the exorcist, but he wasn’t moving to stop Takashi as he tore out the page that stood straight up and folded it.

“I return your name to you, Tsubomi,” Takashi said, and then, acutely aware of his classmates watching him putting a piece of paper in his mouth, he clasped the page between his lips and blew, clapping his hands. The inked characters breezed over to the caged youkai and dissolved with a soft glow into her forehead. Her features were vague, like the half-imagined face in a woodknot, but Takashi thought he saw her smile.

Tsubomi stepped forward out of the cage, somehow leaving it fully intact and locked. Behind her, belatedly and unnecessarily, the door clanked open. One of the branches on her head grew a very small flower. Then she began drifting slowly upwards as specks of light, disappearing in a matter of seconds.

“What did you do?” the exorcist shouted.

Takashi had the delayed realization that the exorcist had probably expected him to command the youkai to fight, since he’d threatened to use the Book, and now Takashi was ready for a nap even though the exorcist was still at large at the front of the classroom with plenty of bags left.

“The Book of Friends if for commanding youkai, not freeing them! Give me that!”

Takashi shook his head. He hadn’t moved from beside his seat since he stood up. If he did, he might have to turn around and look at Nishimura.

The exorcist twisted his face into a snarl, then reached into yet another bag to draw out a handful of paper dolls. He muttered over them, and they darkened and loomed upwards, becoming the shadowy creatures that had formerly surrounded the classroom.

For a moment, Takashi was pleased: he’d been right that these shiki were nothing but constructs. He’d been feeling a little bad for not even trying to negotiate, but they’d struck him as senseless, and he could no more reason with one of them than a sandbag. As for the exorcist himself, there was no way Takashi was going to hand over the Book of Friends, and anyway he wasn’t interested in connecting with someone who started a conversation by threatening children.

Then Takashi remembered he’d already given back a name. He really was getting tired. He could dispose of the shiki again without much effort, but what if the exorcist just kept making more? Eventually Takashi would need to stop.

All he had was the Book. Takashi didn’t want to summon a random youkai he’d never met and throw them into a fight, but the only name he knew belonged to a youkai too big to fit into the classroom.

A dozen shiki surrounded the exorcist. “Go!” he shouted.

“Misuzu!” Takashi called, gritting his teeth. He struck at the approaching shiki and they went down. Takashi was tiring rapidly, but he was mostly sure it had nothing to do with summoning or fighting and everything to do with returning Tsubomi’s name. He smothered a yawn. He would be fine as long as the exorcist didn’t realize all he had to do was accost Takashi himself.

When all the shiki were gone, the exorcist fell about making new ones. Takashi didn’t know why he hadn’t continued to make them while Takashi was struggling against the last batch. Maybe he’d thought they would be enough to take him down, but Takashi didn’t know where the man could’ve gotten that idea. He was trying not to think about what his classmates must be processing, but hopefully they could see the difference between these constructed servants and a living youkai like Tsubomi. Takashi didn’t want this experience to make his classmates hate youkai, and if they realized these shiki weren’t really alive, maybe it wouldn’t be so traumatic to see Takashi tear them apart. It was a desperate dream that Takashi had always had in some form- that the people around him would see the world like he did- but for once there was a real chance of it either coming true or turning into his worst nightmare.

Takashi mentally brushed that off; he was tired and with luck, Misuzu would be there soon. He hadn’t felt anything when he called his name, and he hadn’t used the tools or rituals that seemed to be necessary for every exorcist he’d ever met, but Takashi just couldn’t see it not working. Takashi slid the window open a few inches in preparation; even if Misuzu physically wouldn’t fit inside the classroom, Takashi would need to talk to him and in the best case scenario, Misuzu would bring someone who could come in.

The exorcist let him, watching from his place in the front of the room. “You know,” the man said, “you’re going to need to cooperate with me. If I left right now, you’d never get the spells down. This classroom would forever be a place where anyone could see youkai.”

He smiled triumphantly, as if he’d made some devastating point, but Takashi didn’t get it. His classmates had already seen youkai; there was no going back from that.

“Youkai could disrupt class,” the man elaborated impatiently when no one reacted.

“From what I’m seeing,” Sasada muttered, “it’s not youkai doing the disrupting.” A few students snickered appreciatively, and Takashi wondered if maybe, just maybe, his old daydream wasn’t impossible after all.

“Anyone who came into this room would see youkai!” the exorcist said. “There would be panic!”

“Panic? Are we panicking?” someone else said, and more people laughed, but quietly. There was some truth to what he was saying. Takashi placed a hand on his desk to lean on it, trying to appear nonchalant. The classroom might be seen as haunted, and if no one managed to take down the spells, someone might decide drastic measures were in order. They could lose the school, if everything went wrong.

“You’ll never get rid of them without me,” the man gloated. “Go ahead and try.”

Several people did just that, standing up and moving to the nearest paper plastered to the walls. The charms glowed as the students reached toward them, but most people were able to touch them. Taking them down proved to be a different matter entirely; no one was able to pry even a corner away from the walls or tear the paper at all.

Takashi reached out and ripped down the nearest spell. The ink didn’t even have a chance to shine before he shredded it for good measure.

Once again, everyone was staring at him. The exorcist’s mouth was open.

“To take down the spell,” the exorcist said after a moment, “you would have to destroy every last one of the charms.” He reached into yet another bag and pulled out more inked papers, then snapped his fingers. The latest shiki he had created took the papers and flitted around the classroom, placing them on every surface available. Takashi saw them go on the ceiling, on the underside of desks, and on top of other papers.

This wasn’t hurting anyone, so Takashi shrugged mentally. He’d get all of them destroyed eventually. In the meantime, he would let the exorcist spend his energy as he liked. Takashi looked out the window.

He squinted. Sure enough, something was approaching. Takashi thought he recognized the violet of Misuzu’s robe, and relaxed. Then he realized the rest of the class was also looking out the window. Were they paying that close of attention to whatever Takashi did? He hoped not; that would be embarrassing. Or maybe, they could actually see Misuzu. As Misuzu got closer, Takashi decided that the latter must be true. The spell must affect the sight of the people in the room, not just make the youkai in the room visible, then.

“Natsume,” Misuzu rumbled, hovering just outside the window. “I’m glad you’re finally asking for help.”

Takashi sighed deeply. His classmates were whispering again. He’d hoped they’d had enough to process and wouldn’t analyze anything that he or any youkai he summoned said too closely, but apparently he’d underestimated them.

Misuzu was gazing solemnly into the classroom, eyeing the exorcist as if he’d already pinned him down as the cause for Takashi’s call for aid. “Shall I eat him?”

Takashi sighed again. He knew Misuzu knew perfectly well that Takashi didn’t want his youkai friends eating humans, or even other youkai, and was joking, but no one else knew that. “Can you get Sensei?”

“Yes?” his teacher said, startled, from behind his desk. Face on fire, Takashi hastily turned away from him, but then he turned too far and accidentally made eye contact with Nishimura and had to jerk his head back to stare fixedly out the window.

“And leave you here alone?” Misuzu said gravely.

“It’s fine,” Takashi said, but Misuzu shook his head. A frog hopped from his back into Takashi’s hands; Takashi smiled at it before it hopped down to the ground. A few more frogs emerged from Misuzu’s hair and robe, spilling into the classroom. The exorcist edged back carefully. His shiki, incapable of concern, continued to carry out the last order they’d been given and put up papers. There were already too many to count.

“Thank you,” Takashi said, and sat down as Misuzu left. He had to concentrate just to stay awake. The frogs weren’t powerful and probably couldn’t do anything against the exorcist, but they were the bluff he needed.

The shiki and the frogs were the only things moving. The frogs were scattered, in no real formation, but they were everywhere and theoretically ready for anything, as far as the exorcist knew.

It occurred to Takashi that Nishimura and Kitamoto were supposed to come over that day. What would he say to them? Or would Nishimura just cancel it? Of course, Nishimura would tell Kitamoto everything. Everyone in the class would probably want to share their crazy day. If Nishimura did come over, would he tell Touko and Shigeru? Takashi was uneasy enough with confronting the fact that all of his classmates knew that youkai were real, and that Takashi had some history with them. He couldn’t even begin to imagine how horrible it would be if his family knew the truth too. Takashi didn’t want to move again.

It seemed like no time passed at all before Takashi spotted Madara in all his youkai glory streaming toward the window. The great white beast entered the classroom like a flood, curling his body around the edges of the room. The shiki melted at a flick of his claws.

“Hmph,” Madara snorted. The force of it knocked the exorcist back. “Is this it? Usually you don’t need help with weaklings like this, Natsume.”

“I didn’t know what else he brought with him,” Takashi said.

Madara whisked all the bags next to Takashi’s desk with a sweep of one massive paw and coiled a little tighter around the classroom so that Takashi was at his shoulder and the exorcist right in front of his nose.

Opening the bags, Takashi found that they all contained stacks of paper. Some were prepared to become shiki, and others were inscribed with the same sigil that was plastered to the walls.

“You could destroy them,” Madara suggested. He spared a glance at the class; Takashi knew he’d noticed they could see him, but the youkai didn’t say anything. The class was as silent as they had been for the exorcist and his shiki when they first appeared.

“How am I supposed to do that?” Takashi asked. “Half the time I can’t even touch these kinds of things without them catching on fire.” He paused, realizing what he’d said. “Oh.” Takashi poked a finger into one of the bags, then quickly withdrew it. Sure enough, something blazed white for a second, then the entire bag seemed enveloped in white for a moment. When it disappeared, Takashi peered inside the bag. It was empty. He repeated the process with the other bags. Finally, the exorcist was harmless. Takashi let himself yawn.

“You idiot!” In a cloud of smoke, the beast transformed into his smaller lucky cat vessel, his voice changing from deep and powerful to a squawking caterwaul. “You gave back a name, didn’t you? The Book’s going to be useless by the time I get it!”

“I will have the Book,” the exorcist insisted weakly. Nyanko didn’t even look at him as he hopped onto Takashi’s desk.

“That guy’s only an ordinary human who knows how to draw,” the cat scoffed. “Anyone could just grab him and take him away.”

The teacher, apparently taking his word for it, picked up the phone on his desk and quietly asked for security.

“So, Natsume,” Nyanko said. “I assume you have a plan so that no one remembers this?”

Takashi was barely keeping his eyes open; he didn’t have the energy to look at his fellow students and try to gauge how they felt about this idea. “Uh. No.”

Nyanko groaned. “What about you?” he barked to the exorcist sitting dazed on the floor.

“I don’t know how to do anything like that,” the man said. Takashi hoped no one really wanted to forget what had happened. He could probably find a way to do it, but it would be troublesome and even if he was too tired to really process what had happened, he kind of liked the idea of not having to lie quite so much anymore.

“Huh,” Nyanko considered. “Well, I could always eat them.”

“You will not,” Takashi mumbled. It was a statement, not an order. Then the security team entered the classroom, and he had enough presence of mind to curl himself over his desk to hide the cat who wasn’t supposed to be in school. When they left, Takashi barely shifted, keeping his head down.

“We can keep a secret, you know,” Sasada said firmly. “We won’t tell anyone.” The class was nodding. Takashi didn’t know if he could believe them, but he wanted to. Even if some of them weren’t trustworthy, there was nothing he could do about it. It was out of his hands now.

“Yeah!” Nishimura said from behind Takashi, and Takashi would have flinched if he had any energy left. “We’re your friends.”

“Go to sleep, brat,” Nyanko sighed. “You’re safe.”

“I still need to take down all those spells,” Takashi muttered, fighting sleep. “They’re stuck on like seals.”

Nyanko rolled his eyes. On his forehead, light blazed in a pattern identical to the red mark on his youkai form. All of the inked slips of paper in the classroom- on the walls, ceiling, and desks, and even the bottom of the door- simultaneously dissolved in bright showers of sparks. The class murmured appreciatively at the spectacle.

Takashi smiled and it felt like ice thawing. Maybe he hadn’t scared off his classmates after all. “Thanks, Sensei.”

“So that’s why he calls that ugly cat Sensei,” Takashi heard someone mutter. It wasn’t the nasty accusation he was half-expecting. Other murmurs rose up around the classroom, but for once Takashi wasn’t scared of them. He watched the frogs hop out the window. Already a few of them were starting to sing at night; soon there would be more.

Nobody was panicked. The teacher rummaged for something in his desk, as if he expected to continue on with class as usual. No one told Takashi to sit up, or tried to talk to him. Nyanko had said he could rest, and the rest of the class must have taken him seriously. No one was trying to pry Takashi apart. There would be questions later, he was sure, but for now the classroom was peaceful and it might even stay that way.

Still, Takashi felt unresolved. He twisted in his seat and laid his cheek flat on his desk so he could look with one eye over his shoulder at Nishimura. “Promise?”

Takashi wasn’t sure what he was asking, but Nishimura smiled at him like it was easy. “Promise.”

And as easy as that, Takashi let his eyes close and fell asleep.