“Sometimes,” Tanuma murmurs, “I think he’s still alive. I turn around but no one’s there.” He leans against Tooru. Their spines curve into the grooves of the tree.
Taki dips her head down and scuffs a foot against the dirt. Her legs extend fully. “Sometimes,” she mimics, “I set up circles. It’s silly. As if that one day Natsume will step into it and I could see him again.” She pauses with a wry smile. “As if he ended up a yōkai. I know that’s not how it works.”
The days after Natsume Takashi’s death is the purest manifestation of emptiness that Tanuma Kaname will ever experience, is experiencing, and has ever experienced. Grief hollows him out and replaces his heart with a chasm. The wind whistles through his chest cavity and howls of loss.
The springtime bloom loses all vitality in Kaname’s eyes. The world is a desaturated caricature of reality. It is not real, he hopes. The cold arm of reality tightens around his chest and forces air out of his lungs. The enormity of his loss strikes him again and again. He cannot fathom the intensity of his grief ever dying down.
But his father says that he only needs time—time enough for grief to make its home and never leave. His father says that the grief becomes a part of you until you do not even notice it in the same way that you do not focus on moving a limb. Grief becomes instinct until even joy returns to fill that hollow cavity. Humanity is not meant to languish in only one emotion.
Ponta avoids them. Kaname catches glances of him in his peripheral. Inaudible grumbling always accompany these sightings. To whom does Ponta speak? He knows not. It does not matter. Takashi has always been the bridge between yōkai and humans. There is no interpreter here to indulge Kaname’s queries.
Ponta continues to avoid them. Direct eye contact makes him flee. There is guilt in that ceramic facade. He grants a secret safe harbor, Kaname knows.
What do you hide, Ponta? Why do you avoid us so fiercely? Takashi’s death was not your fault. Come home. The Fujiwaras miss their Nyangoro, their Nyankichi—their last tether to Takashi.
Kaname visits the Fujiwaras often with Tooru, and occasionally with Nishimura and Kitamoto. It is then and only then that Touko-san smiles. Sadness transmutes the previous comfort of her smile into a pitiable sight. She misses the liveliness of children. Her house is too empty and they can never fully fill in that gap.
It is a month after Takashi’s death. Kaname lays supine in bed. A month, he marvels. How perverse that Takashi could be dead for so long and yet the world turns. The death of one person is a localized phenomenon.
Dark eyes flicker over to fluttering curtains. He had left his window open. The fresh night air is disturbed by a breeze. Moments later, a chilly warmth arises on the right side of his body. It’s that burning feeling a person gets when they are so cold that even room temperature exposure is enough to set nerve endings wailing with an uncomfortable warmth. It is not a pleasant feeling.
The scent of cherry blossoms smothers Kaname. His skin prickles with gooseflesh. That overwhelming feeling is reminiscent of his yōkai encounters. Could it be that a yōkai lays with him in bed? He cringes away but that chilly warmth follows.
Night after night, that chilly warmth plasters itself to Kaname’s side. His cringing and fleeing gradually turns into acceptance. He starts to think of how nice it is to no longer be alone. In the daytime, there is an empty space next to him that renders him so alone that even Tooru’s company is no comfort at all. If Takashi were still here, then he would likely be scolding Kaname, so overwhelmed with worry. But the world does not run on if-then statements, only certainties and Takashi’s death is a certainty.
At night, Kaname dreams of simpler times. Going to class with a group of friends and participating in school events. Despairing over exams and homework in tandem. Adventuring together. Going fishing. Going biking. Eating together. Never being alone. Spending hours upon hours together.
He dreams of Natsume Takashi with all his troubles and reticence.
It’s been a year since Takashi’s death and 11 months since that chilly warmth has appeared in Kaname’s bed. Against all common sense, he speaks to it nightly, even in the new location of his university dorm. He’s studying accounting. It’s a stable job and his father is growing old. What a pious son, relatives approve. Kaname has always believed in duty and responsibility to family and friends. He wonders for what duty does this yōkai linger for.
“I wonder why you’ve stuck around for so long. I don’t even have the sight, not like Takashi did.”
The curtains flutter in an unseen breeze.
“How bored you must be to watch me every night.”
A furious gust of wind scatters papers from his desk.
Telling Tooru about his yōkai situation is a mistake. Her composure abandons her for panic. She remembers her own fatal incident with the yōkai. And she remembers being saved by Takashi. But who would save Kaname should he become further embroiled in that foreign world? The only exorcist she knows is Natori Shuuichi and she only sees him on screens now. He never returned to their town after Takashi’s death.
“Ask your dad to purify your room!” Tooru says urgently. “I can’t believe you let this go on for months.” She looks oddly guilty.
“Nothing has happened to me,” Kaname says mildly. He eyes her in contemplation.
“Not yet.” Tooru frowns as she visually inspects Tanuma for any injuries. It would be exactly like him to downplay his injuries. Kaname, Takashi, and Tooru had that in common, she recalls wistfully. They had never wanted to be a burden. Any problems they had they would have tried dealing with themselves. When they were together and one of them would act up, two of them would have been able to interfere. A lot more pressure than just her right now.
“How sad,” Taki whispers with her characteristic optimism and vibrancy dimmed. She lingers in Natsume Takashi’s room. Cherry blossom petals cover the floor. Curtains swing in a breeze. A familiar presence stirs her hair into motion. A chilly warmth presses briefly on her shoulder.
Touko sighs. “I wish that he could be free,” she says, “but I’m selfish enough to also wish that he not leave again.” The strength of her maternal love had blindsided her. Her grief had warped her ever so slightly.
Shame fills her up with a sickening warmth. It would be better if her son moved on, instead of lingering for so long. But she will take any scrap she can get. Who knew love could be so hurtful? They are all in pain.
Graduation approaches. Kaname sits at his desk. He stares blankly at the white wall.
“An office job,” he laughs out. How mundane. He already has a job lined up. He’s moving back home and planning to commute to work. It’s been four years and the specter of that town deadens his limbs. Or maybe it’s the chilly warmth that makes it home in the crook of his neck and seeps into his back. If he focuses hard enough, he can perceive a weight to presence pressed up against him. His faithful presence.
Tooru had confided in him a month earlier that something haunts Takashi’s room at the Fujiwaras. Touko-san had slipped up and said how Takashi is such a dutiful boy. “Is”—that verb tense haunts them.
Kaname moves home. High school friends and acquaintances who had had never left come out of the woodwork to welcome him. Tooru, of course, visits. She still lives in town in the house her grandfather had bequeathed to her. She’s an artist. Her days of spellwork had left her with a certain finesse in drawing. She draws of the fantastical—of the yōkai.
On that first night home, he is not alone.
There are shadows twisting on the ceiling and skittering across the floor.
He does not fall asleep that first night.
Kaname walks deep into the woods alone. It is a mistake, he knows, but he cannot help but make it. The woods were Takashi’s domain. Such a trouble magnet, Takashi was. That forest had often played the setting for Takashi’s troubles.
The beauty of the woods is enhanced by the springtime bloom. The atmosphere is more livelier and lovelier than Kaname recalls. A sublime sense of awe overcomes him. He takes a moment to consume this visual feast.
Broad trees span across the firmament with leaves and branches that crisscross in a lattice. The sun filters through the leaves and leave the ground dappled with flickering light. A light breeze circulates fresh air and rustles trees. Mammals scurry in the underbrush as birds hop in branches. The song of spring soothes Kaname’s heart.
But peace does not last long in this forest. The rustle of a bush is far too loud and heralds a larger shadow that leaps out at Kaname. It is powerful enough that Kaname can perceive its shape and hear its moaning. Garbled words are heard with all the comprehension of static interrupting the radio.
Retreat is not an option for Kaname because the earth comes alive. Roots fracture the ground and coil around Kaname with a flexibility contradicting the stalwart nature of trees. Suddenly, another form is outlined in the sunlight. It is shorter than the first yōkai.
The scent of cherry blossoms diffuses in the air, swift and heavy. The earth shakes as more roots crawl out. They encircle the first yōkai, who squirms in its grasp.
“Leave him alone!” the shorter yōkai shouts. The voice is so clear and powerful that even Kaname can hear it. Emotions can heighten the powers of a yōkai and bleeds off, thus heightening human perception.
The voice is… familiar. It scoops out the scar tissue in Kaname’s chest and exposes an open wound that bleeds and throbs. A gasp, a choke stifles the breath out of him. The roots around his chest recede quickly, as if panicked.
Heavy footfalls distract Kaname from his pain. The vaguest outline of a beast yōkai on four limbs lumbers into view. When it speaks, Kaname can not comprehend its words. He only feels the reverberations in the earth that climb up his limbs. A light emanates from that beast and banishes the bound yōkai. Its presence feels as familiar as the short yōkai.
A muffled discussion does little to enlighten Kaname. It is then that he resolves to speak.
“Who are you?”
The short yōkai recalls all roots from Kaname. In answer, it holds out a hand. Golden light coalesces in the palm of his hand. A flower bud forms. It blooms sweetly pink with an unnaturally strong fragrance. It is a sight more real than the hazy outline of its form.
Formless, the short yōkai dissolves with a faint sigh. There is a pain in the small sound that resonates in Kaname’s chest. The beast yōkai lingers a moment longer. It prowls nearer to Kaname. Its maw gapes open and releases a heavy gust at Kaname. He topples over and succumbs to a sudden onset of sleep.
Kaname wakes up on the edge of the forest. The sounds of nature do little to alleviate his loneliness. His mind is hazy with more than slumber. He has awoken from a dream he cannot recall. Gossamer strands of memory dissolve in the sunlight of the waking world.
There is a longing within Tanuma Kaname that transforms into pain.
It is alright.
Pain is familiar.
“You should go back to that flat cap of yours,” Kaname murmurs. “And that trenchcoat.”
Tooru flushes. She slaps at Kaname’s shoulder. “Kaname,” she hisses, “you swore to never bring that up again!”
Kaname chuckles in that quiet, sedate manner of his. He does not overwhelm. It is not in his nature. The bedrock beneath her feet, Tooru knows.
They stumble with the coordination of alcohol-stricken bodies. Their flushed faces meld together. It is an unexpected joining but it fills the emptiness in their chests. Their formative experiences in life overlapped such that only they could know each other down to the fundamental atoms that comprise their transient forms. Too spirit-touched to connect with the normal.
Resplendent in marital attire, Kaname and Tooru retire to bed. They leave a gap in between. It is the perfect size for a slim form to fill up. And it does fill up. Chilly warmth presses against their sides. Their hands blindly reach for that insubstantial form between them.
They know that presence so well that even in its invisibility, they connect so palpably. The warmth fluctuates with emotions. It is a language they have learned to interpret over the years. And now they notice uncertainty in those hands that clench and unclench in a motion desperate to cling and free. The light pressure of that grasp fluctuates.
“It’s alright to be selfish,” Tooru says. “We don’t mind.” She gazes up at the ceiling. Minute cracks establish a maze that her eyes follow. There is no escape—only dead ends.
“We’re selfish too. We’ll take anything we can get from you. We love you,” Kaname declares. He stares at the ceiling and watches small shadows flutter. They are never alone in this house of theirs.
Laughter fills the forest and subsumes the birdsong with a sweeter melody. Kaname chases after a shadow as Tooru trails after. Further and further into the forest, the presence leads them.
“Even now, I still have longer legs than you!” Kaname calls out.
Tooru stops flush against Kaname’s back when he abruptly halts. She understands the sudden pause. They are in a clearing so unlike any others that her mind jumps to the supernatural. She smiles.
There is no birdsong nor the rustle of animal movement in this clearing. It is a world cut off from reality. The grass is high with a lavender tint. Wildflowers bloom and release pungent fragrances. Despite the uncharacteristic strength, it is still a pleasant aroma in this clearing of theirs. Moreover, these flowers sway in an unseen wind. A delicate susurration reaches their ears. The wildflowers are speaking and they know not what they say, but it is enough to extract a high, clear laughter from the presence.
“Takashi! Don’t draw on the walls,” Tooru groans out. She runs a palm across her face. A giggle, soft and sweet, answers her.
She bends down and unfolds a tiny hand clutching a red marker. It’s permanent, she notes.
“Sorry, mama,” a high voice says. It’s falsely penitent, she knows. Tooru is fairly sure that Takashi is baffled at the lack of standing ovations for his stick figure family art. The whole world is his canvas, he thinks. And his fathers do little to disabuse him of the notion. Too soft, she inwardly scoffs.
Young Takashi often wanders into the forest. He is corralled by an unseen presence. He never comes to harm in that forest. A chilly warmth leads him by the hand to an isolated clearing. He picks flowers; he chases butterflies. In this clearing, he creates a whole world that bends to his imagination.
He pretends a great deal of roles, and the world, oh, the world manifests these dreams.
When the Fujiwaras die, spring comes in late, and not only for their town, but for the whole country. It is a frightening display of power for those who know the truth. And they begin to wonder, what will happen when they die? And when their children and their children die? It is then and only that they begin to comprehend why the joining of yōkai and humans is never an auspicious occasion. There is a divide between them that consists of the finalities of living.
It is fortunate then that when Kaname and Tooru die, they die together in the arms of their beloved. It is lucky then that they are spirit-touched. It is remarkable that their beloved has enough power and resources to transform them.
(Though all things come with a price.)
Kaname and Tooru cannot help but cry at finally seeing Takashi with all the clarity they recall of his human form. So long had they spent with only touch to know him fully. To look upon his divine beauty is the thrill of the sublime and the realization of all their desires.
“Takashi,” Kaname breathes out. It is the first time they truly acknowledge their lover’s identity. Takashi had always cringed at the beginning syllable of his name, as if it did not feel right now that he was no longer human. He was a secret stored split between their chests.
“Takashi,” Tooru whispers hoarsely. She laughs wetly. Perhaps it is trite, but she feels complete. She had lived such a lovely, full life but a part of her had ached to be sundered so wholly from Takashi. Maybe it’s unhealthy to be so caught up in other people, but this is the only love she knows. She is still her own person, separate from their union. The world now mourns the loss of an artist, but she had always mourned the loss of her faithful companion.
They are no gods and goddesses, like Natsume-sama, he of the springtime bloom. But there is power in their union that elevates them from common yōkai. Tooru is the winter melt that sets rivers bursting. Kaname is the trees that endure and peak in spring.
They watch over their friends and their child, and their child’s children. They linger in this town of theirs. Natural disasters are soothed by the unseen. The seasons render the town picturesque. It is such a lovely town that its citizens are so hesitant to leave. Moreover, outsiders do not understand the fascination with the flowering shrine near the edge of the forest. They attribute it to rural superstitions.
Madara often grumbles at how crowded it is with these two new yōkai. But he is pleased by Takashi’s happiness and often indulges Tooru’s fierce cuddling. Even in his greater form, she takes great pleasure in manhandling him.
“I was named for my parents’ friend, Natsume Takashi,” Tanuma Takashi explains to his children with a secret amusement. He remembers the presents left in his room with nary a footfall or a creak. He remembers chilly warmth combing through his hair and hand-shaped pressures on a crying face. He remembers flowers blooming and decaying in a second’s span, all for his amusement. He remembers the faint lights he had seen upon his parents’ deaths.
His children clamor at the source of their names in turn. He smiles, looking out the window. The forest is near and nature reclaims all in time. There are vines climbing up the house, thick and resilient to cutting.
Cherry blossoms drift lazily through the air outside in the garden. Trees are alternately heavy with leaves or flowers. In the distance, a brook burbles merrily. Their garden has always been the best in the town, only superseded by the old Fujiwara house.
Spring is in full bloom.