Yoh was starting to suspect that his grandfather did this sort of thing to him on purpose. Admittedly, this was only the second time, and Yoh couldn't really imagine why his grandfather would do something like this to him, unless this was some sort of particularly bizarre family tradition, or he thought it was funny - but still. It had to be on purpose.
It was the last day of school before the winter break and Yoh had come home with the blissful air of someone who wouldn't have to go back again, for weeks. He dumped his backpack on the floor with a satisfying, resounding thump (or at least, more resounding than usual) and prepared to forget it ever existed.
Then his grandfather looked out of the living room and said, casually, "Ah, you're back. Your grandmother and Anna are arriving by the train at 6, your mother wants you and Tamao to go and meet them, she's busy."
Yoh blinked. Stopped. Stared. "Ah?"
"Anna. Your fiancée, remember? You met her last year when you went to visit your grandmother?"
That was one way of putting it. If you ignored the parts about nearly getting eaten by giant oni, and Anna being officially the scariest person, dead or alive, Yoh had ever met, and Matamune...
"They're coming?" he protested weakly.
"Yes, of course they're coming. Why else would they take the train here? You should be happier about seeing them again," his grandfather said absently, mind already wandering as he turned back to whatever he'd been doing before he'd dropped a small bomb on his grandson. "Be sure the two of you are on time!"
And the door slid shut with a thump that suggested no one open it unless they wanted a taste of Yohmei's leaf spirits.
You should be happier about seeing them again.
Yoh stared dazedly at the door. Easy for his grandfather to say; had he even met Anna? ... Not that Yoh was unhappy, but a little time to... to, well, know would have been nice! And he'd done the exact same thing last year! He had to be doing this on purpose...
Though then again, all the time in the world probably wasn't going to prepare him for seeing Anna again.
The next time you meet, she may be different again. Maybe even more difficult. It'll be all up to you, then...
He wondered how the past year had gone for her.
So at five fifty, Yoh and Tamao stood at the platform, waiting for the train to arrive. Between general nervousness on both their parts and the realisation that Yohmei hadn't told them which train to look for and wasn't likely to tell them now, they'd come much too early.
Yoh stared at the train tracks and tried to think of something to say just to break the silence. Conchi and Ponchi had been persuaded to stay at home, which was just as well, he thought. Given the opinion Anna had formed of them just from his memories... well, he didn't think a face-to-face meeting would go at all pleasantly.
But they were the only people on the platform, two children standing silently side by side, and having the two spirits around would have at least made the waiting pass a little faster.
The younger girl stared nervously at her clasped hands. "I... don't mean to be rude, but I was just wondering... what... Anna would be like... What was she like when you met her?"
Scary. Beautiful. Strong and strange and... Yoh sifted through his thoughts, trying to weld them into something that would make sense. He'd never really talked about it, because it'd been well, too weird. It hadn't been just about Anna, after all, but Matamune as well, who he'd befriended and lost in three days that would forever after stand out in his mind as an untouchable patch of eternity. And Anna herself... what could he say?
"She's..." Terrifying would probably be a bad word to use. It wasn't always true, and besides, if she ever found out he'd called her that, maybe she'd try to kill him properly this time. "Er. Different? She can be... fierce, but she's not always all that bad, and anyway, things were very difficult for her, so I guess you couldn't blame her... And she saved my life... She's very strong."
He latched onto that, glad to find something concrete to say. Because to have the power she had, and do what she'd done, and to have picked up the pieces again afterwards, she had to be strong. And she was probably stronger now, because she'd said she would be, and if Anna decided to do a thing, he thought, it would be done or she'd know the reason why.
"Oh," Tamao said softly and Yoh realised that he'd stopped talking.
"I'm sure it'll be okay..." he said, vaguely trying to reassure her and failing because well, this was Anna. You couldn't say things like "She's nice, really!" or "You'll get along great!" because it... probably wouldn't be true. Not most of the time, anyway. "Don't worry about it too much..."
The train came then, in a convenient roar that put an end to the conversation as they stepped back from its rush and watched it draw to a stop. Doors slid open and they scanned the platform anxiously - they needn't have worried, only two left the train. An old woman bent with age and a girl in a plain black dress stepped onto the platform and Yoh and Tamao broke into a run to hurry towards them.
"Grandmother!" "Grandmother Kino!"
Kino looked up as her grandson skid to a halt before her, followed by Tamao, and smiled at them. "Yoh, Tamao. So Yohmei sent the two of you instead of coming himself. I'm not surprised," she observed dryly.
"He said he was busy... Mother, too," Yoh explained. "He didn't even tell me you were coming until I got back from school today," he complained.
His grandmother chuckled. "Really." She looked past Yoh to smile at Tamao, who was hanging back shyly and trying not to stare too hard at the brown-haired girl standing behind her. "Tamao, this is Anna. She's been my student for the past year." She turned to Anna. "Anna, this is Tamao. She's been with us since she was four."
Tamao smiled nervously under the older girl's icy stare and bowed. "It's very nice to meet you, Anna."
Anna nodded in return. "Nice to meet you," she murmured, polite and distant.
There was a pause; before the silence between the three children could grow awkward, Kino turned to leave. "We'd better get back then. It's time for dinner and we didn't get much lunch on the train. The rest of our things are being sent down later, so don't worry about them."
They followed her, Tamao walking next to the old woman, leaving Yoh to stare at Anna for a confused moment. Her dark eyes were unfathomable and he saw that despite what his grandmother had said, she was in fact carrying a small bag in her hands. It looked heavy, from the way her fingers curled tightly around the handles.
She placed it on the floor and looked at him. "Don't drop it," she warned and started walking. Yoh blinked and stared after her. Stared at the bag. Why wasn't he surprised? With a sigh, he picked it up.
He'd been right. It was heavy.
Later that night, after dinner, his mother mildly suggested that Yoh show Anna her room. It was the one beside Tamao's, she said with a smile at Anna. It hadn't been used in a while but it'd been given a thorough cleaning and airing today, so she hoped Anna would be comfortable there.
Anna, who had said very little so far, nodded and murmured something polite. Keiko studied her thoughtfully but said nothing; Kino had probably already told her what the girl was like, and maybe she thought Anna felt shy on her first day in the Asakura's ancestral home.
But Yoh, glancing at her when he could, could not imagine Anna being shy. The dark eyes were steady, already studying her surroundings coolly; he didn't think she was going to be lost here for more than a few days, large as the house was. He watched her gaze pass over people, over his mother, his grandfather, over Tamao, but could not tell what she thought of them.
Abruptly, he realised that they were the only family she had now. Maybe had ever had.
Her gaze finally glided to him. He blinked as their eyes met and found himself leaning back, as if it were a physical presence to be reckoned with. He half-smiled at her, tentative, even though her expression didn't change as she looked away again.
He wondered why his mother didn't ask Tamao to show her the way instead, since the rooms were beside each other, but nodded anyway, getting up to pad to the door, turning to see her follow. Tamao was getting up to help his mother clear the tables, while his grandparents talked quietly.
They left the light of the room, Yoh sliding the doors shut, to walk in moonlight and shadow through the long halls. The silence was loud between them, a looming, unseen wall. Yoh supposed he ought to try and break it down somehow.
"Er. You look well," he said, even as a movement made the rosary of beads around her neck swing out to gleam in the dim light. "You're an itako now," he added, almost surprised.
The words came out before he could think how stupid she would find them. Of course she was an itako; she was training under his grandmother. And she'd already been wearing the beads at the train station - he suddenly wondered where she'd gotten them from; an itako's rosary was important, and thusly, a difficult matter.
She didn't answer, only glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. There was a long, awkward moment before she suddenly spoke. "I don't read people's hearts anymore."
It took a moment for the words to sink it. Yoh stopped and blinked in confusion. "Really? They stopped? But... that's great!" He grinned at her even as his brow furrowed. "But... why'd they stop? We didn't get to make a wish at the temples after all... Did grandmother come up with something? Did you learn how to make it stop?"
They'd stopped walking; Anna looked away. "I don't know why it stopped," she admitted. "It started growing less after you defeated the oni... the last time I heard it was on the train."
Yoh still remembered that short train ride together all too well. "Oh... well, it's great that it's stopped anyway. I guess it makes things much easier for you now." He smiled again, easy and open; she looked at it and turned away abruptly.
"It's not that big a deal," she said irritably, stalking away from him.
"Isn't it? Ah... Well."
The two children walked on, quiet, passing halls of empty, echoing rooms until they finally reached the room that would be Anna's. Opening the door and fumbling for the light switch, electric light flooded them with an audible click and buzz. The room looked bare and unlived in, with a faint tang of strong soap in the air that said it had been very recently, vigorously scrubbed.
"So... this is your room. It's next to Tamao's; hers is over there--" he gestured vaguely at the door next to hers. "Er. Ponchi and Conchi can be a bit noisy sometimes, but I don't think it'd be too bad... and if you need anything you can go ask her?"
Anna studied the room and nodded, briskly. Bent to pick up the bag Yoh had forgotten and dropped on the floor, stepping into the room as if she had always owned it and there wasn't, despite his mother's and Tamao's best efforts, still a faint taste of dust in the air.
The door slid shut behind her with a thud.
Yoh stood and stared, reaching to absently shove his dark hair out of his face. She hadn't changed at all, he thought with a resigned grin as he turned to head back to the kitchen where if he was lucky, there might still be some dessert left.
The next morning, everyone in the house was wakened by the racket of Ponchi and Conchi's terrified screams. They'd made the mistake of trying to sneak into Yoh's fiancee's room to, so they later claimed, just take a "peek" at her.
Tamao shot out of her room apologising wildly, even as the rest of the family straggled in to investigate, only to find that the screaming had stopped even as the two spirits cowered and grovelled at Anna's feet, promising eternal servitude, under the awful force of her glare.
Needless to say, they never tried that again.
The problem with living in a house large enough to comfortably hold a small army, Yohmei had long since discovered, was that it gave his grandson far too many places to wander off to when he tried to slack off training - and it made Yohmei do far to much walking to find him.
Walking through the halls, Yohmei glowered to himself and wondered what he could have done to deserve this; he was an old man and you'd think he'd deserve a little rest in his old age. Instead, he had a grandson with a thousand-year-old burden, and an (understandable) inability to not worry about the Shaman Fight and possible end of the world and Yoh.
Not to mention aching bones and a long day ahead of him. Maybe he'd done something particularly heinous in a past life.
He finally found the boy after a ten minute walk. His grandson sprawled on the back porch, eyes half shut with his arms behind his head, headphones over his ears. Yohmei sometimes wondered if he should have given Yoh Mikihisa's music collection after all - if the boy kept this up, he was going to turn deaf before he was 20 and that would not sit well in a shaman fight. But it had been Mikihisa's idea and Yoh had so little of his father...
What was done was done. He'd just have to keep his grandson too busy to have time to ruin his eardrums, that's all, even if it meant much harder work on his part. Yohmei sighed and set off towards the unsuspecting boy, still oblivious to the thump of his grandfather's footsteps.
Someone else got there first.
Yohmei stopped, curious, as he saw Anna, daughter-in-law-to-be, stalk across the porch, bare feet whispering against the panelled wood of the floor. She loomed over Yoh, who started as her face appeared, upside-down and frowning, in his line of vision.
"Anna!" He sat up and hastily scrambled to his feet. "What are you doing here?"
The narrow-eyed look she was still giving him probably looked only slightly less intimidating seen standing up instead of lying down. "Why aren't you training?" she asked.
"Ah... well. Grandfather didn't say anything about it at breakfast, so I was hoping he'd forgotten..."
The weight of her disapproval was so impressive, Yohmei could feel it all the way across the room. It silenced his grandson quite effectively. "You're lazy," she stated.
Yoh had heard this in various forms from his grandfather a good thousand times. It'd never particularly bothered him before, but under Anna's frown, "Grandfather says that too..." he admitted sheepishly.
"You're never going to be Shaman King if you don't train," she said flatly.
"Grandfather says that too," Yoh said gloomily.
"Because it's true." She looked around her for a moment, taking in the size of the house and garden, and apparently decided to take matters into her own hands. "Run 10 rounds around the house now."
His grandson blinked. "What? The house is huge!" he protested without thinking.
A deaf man could have heard the slap all the way at the front gates, Yohmei had no doubt. Fifteen seconds later, Yoh disappeared around the corner of the house, jogging, even as Anna followed at a more leisurely pace. Yohmei watched the two children leave and drew a long, thoughtful draught from his almost forgotten pipe.
"So what do you think?" He didn't even have to start or turn as Kino strolled up from behind him.
He paused, considered the possibility that from now on, Yoh's training, at least, would no longer be his problem - it was in the hands of a far more capable taskmaster now. No more long walks, no more irritated arguments with a reluctant student, no more worrying that he was too soft on the boy... And this was just her first day here.
"I like her already," he decided.
Anna watched Yoh stagger to a stop and collapse dramatically in a tangle of tired limbs. Crossing the garden to stand beside him, she looked down on the panting boy even as he shoved himself off the ground and warily looked up at her.
"Anna." It didn't seem to bother him when she didn't answer, only looked down at him; he focused on getting his breath back, forcing enough strength into his legs to stand up again.
This was the boy who would be Shaman King. A boy. A part of her could well see the improbability of it all, the same way it had seen the improbability of anyone defeating the demons her hatred had spawned, or anything silencing the monsters within her.
But he'd done it. Even now, she could reach into the still new silence within her and hear only the beat of her own heart. She didn't dream someone else's dreams, feel someone else's rage, hear the screams of someone else's pain.
She'd watched him try to stand up to a demon armed with nothing but an old man's sword, even watched him lose a friend to save her and still smile even as he cried and struck a final blow.
Now, she watched him stagger to his feet and nearly fall over again.
This was the boy who would become Shaman King.
"You're hopeless," she observed, but her heart wasn't in it.
"It's only nine in the morning," he pointed out (probably wrongly; he'd spent the past half an hour running, how would he know?), as if it being morning were any excuse. She pointed out that it wasn't.
"Well... don't you have any training to do?" he asked. The boy still hadn't gotten up; he seemed perfectly comfortable talking to her while sprawled all over the packed dirt of the garden.
"Your grandmother doesn't have any tasks for me to do this morning. She asked me to look for you. My training is up to her; I don't try to shirk it," she snapped repressively. "And you should get up, not talk to your wife like that. It's rude."
"But I can't get up. I'll fall over again," he said quite reasonably.
"Hmph. You obviously haven't been training hard enough."
"I guess not," he agreed and grinned at her, inviting her to laugh at him if she wanted, even though he knew she didn't laugh, hardly even smiled.
When she'd stopped reading people's hearts, their voices within her falling silent at last, it had felt like going deaf. Going blind. It had been a part of her for so long - a hated part of her, but still hers - it had hurt to lose it anyway. She had lain for hours in her room, listening for whispers that were no longer there, drowning in the silence around her.
She'd never felt peace before.
And now she looked down at him, at his easy smile, and thought, he had no idea. He didn't understand, didn't know what he'd done, didn't know what it meant.
No one had ever tried to reach out to her before.
"Idiot," she said, crossing her arms. "If that's all you can take, I'm going to have to draw up a training schedule for you to follow."
He blanched at that and she prodded him hard in the ribs with one bare foot. "And don't complain either. You have promises to keep." Her eyes fell on the necklace of black stones around his neck.
Following her gaze, he looked down at it to finger the long, tooth-like beads, dark and smooth in his slim, brown fingers. "Ah. True."
He was nothing like what anyone could imagine a future Shaman King being. He probably wasn't going to be a particularly successful husband either. But she knew him and she knew why he did the things he did, even if she still thought him mad; and she thought, maybe a part of him understood, the part of him that made him reach out not just to her but to everyone, to the whole world. The part of him that refused to let him give up, no matter what the cost.
She'd gotten used to the silence, eventually, learned to make it a part of herself again. It had given her refuge where she had never had any before, something to hold still and steady within her.
"And not just to me either. Now get up," she glowered as he obediently got up with a groan.
Well. She supposed she'd get used to him too. Eventually.
The evening shadows in the garden were spreading, drawn long and thin in the light of the setting sun, when Tamao finally huffed a small sigh and sank wearily to her knees on the side porch to watch it.
She spent a few minutes just staring at the gold stained sky, mind blank and tired after a day of household chores and trying to study and stop from Conchi and Ponchi from wrecking their usual havoc. It wasn't fair, she thought glumly; why was she always the one stuck with them?
Not that she didn't know the answer. They stuck to her because they knew quite well she couldn't stop them. Master Yohmei could eaily get rid of them with his leaf spirits; Grandmother Kino was, if possible, even worse and they knew quite well that just because Mistress Keiko was nice didn't mean she couldn't make life hell for them if she felt so inclined.
Yoh was, according to them, just not as fun to tease, so that left her. And as of yesterday, Anna, but after this morning, Tamao was fairly sure they weren't going near Grandmother Kino's student again even if you paid them. At the thought of the older girl, Tamao sighed again.
What had Yoh said about her at the train station? He'd said she was fierce. And strong. Tamao didn't doubt it. He hadn't mentioned that she was pretty, or terrifyingly regal, but she was, which Tamao found even more depressing.
"It's not like I don't try," she said out loud. But was it any wonder Grandmother Kino had chosen someone else? Tamao couldn't even make two comparatively well-meaning (if perverted, rude and annoying) spirits listen to her, never mind help Yoh become Shaman King. She'd probably be more of a burden than a help.
It wasn't like she didn't know that. After all, she'd know for years that the Asakuras needed Yoh to be Shaman King, even if she didn't quite know why. And to do that, he'd need to be strong, he'd need the people around him to be strong. Whoever married him would have to be strong enough to see Yoh through, to carry him through if need be.
Tamao had tried very hard to be that strong. She worked hard, never complained no matter how difficult she found things, and if her best often wasn't good enough, well, she tried harder next time. It wasn't her fault if she wasn't cut out to be the powerful shaman the Asakuras needed.
At this point, the door behind her opened. Tamao jumped violently and tried to turn and stand up at the same time, with the result that she nearly fell off the porch into the garden behind her.
"Mistress Keiko says that dinner will be ready soon," the older girl said, taking no notice of her flustered clumsiness.
"Oh... I must have forgotten the time! I'll go help her set the table, then." Message delievered, Anna turned to leave. Tamao found herself following her down the hall towards the kitchen, tracing the measured fall of her footsteps. Staring at the straight back of the girl before her, she found herself wondering. Too many things.
Passing the back porch earlier this afternoon, she'd stopped in surprise to gape at Yoh doing situps with a singularly pained air while Anna stood by him, watching and ruthless.
She'd felt rather sorry for Yoh, really, even if she supposed she shouldn't. But it was a mantra that kept her going; no matter how difficult things might be, they weren't so very bad really. After all, the Asakuras treated her very well and never blamed her for not doing things she couldn't do. Yoh had it worse, because he had to be strong, even though all he wanted to do was listen to music and be left alone.
But he never complained, and she didn't either. At least she could be strong here, she told herself. And now, she wondered.
What did Anna think of Yoh? What did Yoh think of Anna?
She found her thoughts flicking over Master Yohmei and Grandmother Kino, Mistress Keiko and Master Mikihisa. Asakuras didn't marry for love; they needed to survive and love is a questionable foundation to build your future generations on. But... they weren't unhappy either. Yoh didn't seem unhappy, really, except for the part about being ordered to work when all he wanted to do was be left in peace.
So where did that leave them? The younger girl stared thoughtfully at the girl before her. Somewhere in between, a vague, half-formed thought whispered.
And there, they found their own balance.
It was still early when she woke, so that when she looked out, the skies were dark and grey. Not even dawn yet, but she knew what had wakened her. Left her futon to walk noiselessly through the house she knew so well, she could trace her path without a light, could have even walked it asleep.
Standing at the door, the woman looked out into the silence.
"You're a bit early for breakfast," she said mildly.
A shadow in the darkness shifted, gliding to a stop beside her. "Did I wake you? Sorry," Mikihisa said
He did sound almost apologetic. In the dark, his mask made no difference; she had always read him more by instinct, gathered over the years, than any signs he chose to show. Keiko shook her head. "I was going to get up soon anyway. Coming in?"
"Not just yet. Maybe later."
"My mother and Anna came down from Osorezan a few days ago. But I suppose you already know that?"
"I know, I saw them." A pause, when she stayed silent. "So how is everyone?"
"Fine, as always. Yoh might not agree though; his fiancee has decided to take charge of his training. I don't think I've ever seen him worked so hard in his life," Keiko said, smiling in the darkness. "Father has been very cheerful about it."
"I see." There was just the faintest hint of amusement in the words.
They stood together, quiet, watching the sky slowly lighten. Finally, she shifted and spoke. "You're here for Tamao?"
"Yes. I'm a little late this year, I got delayed on the way..."
"It's New Year's eve tonight; you could wait a day. I think she'll like to visit the temples... she usually misses them because of the training." She looked up and added, "You could come with us."
Mikihisa shook his head at that, as she had known he would. "I'll come again in a few more days, then."
Tilting her head back, she sighed. "Come in. I'll make you breakfast before you leave."
Before he could reply, she reached up to brush the weathered wood of his mask with fingers chilled by the misty morning air, drawing it over his head in a careful, deliberate movement to finally meet his eyes.
He did not refuse.
Kino looked up from her tea even as brisk, noisy footsteps thumped the wooden floorboards.
"Grandmother?" Yoh looked in through the open door. "We're going to the temples. Do you want to come?"
He asked every year, even though he knew his grandparents never went (what was the use of having your own shrine if you were then going to trek all the way to someone else's?); Kino suspected that Keiko told him to, out of sheer politeness that he wouldn't have otherwise thought of.
"No, my old bones would rather stay in. It's nice of you to ask anyway; take care of yourselves," she said with a half smile.
"Okay. And we will. Bye, then!" he said cheerfully and ran off again, the beat of his footsteps drowning the sound of his grandfather's more deliberate walk behind him. Her eyebrows rose as she watched Yohmei slide the door shut behind him and slowly seat himself at the table, opposite her.
"If he'd apply even half that enthusiasm he's got for that singer to his training, I'd worry ten times less," he grumbled. "I could hear them all the way in the next room arguing about which team was going to win. He didn't even give up when she slapped him, and you could have heard that all the way at the temples."
Her smile radiated wry amusement. "If I remember right, you weren't exactly hardworking either when you were his age."
Yohmei huffed. "I wasn't that lazy either."
"No, you weren't," she agreed. "You did want to impress your mother's students..."
He gave her an exasperated look and she chuckled; something he hadn't heard her do in quite a while. Pouring himself tea, the old man found himself thinking of a long ago youth. Found himself wondering if his feckless grandson would live to one day sit in this room drinking tea while his grandchildren went to the temples to pray; argue about The Red and White Show with his wife.
It seemed so very unlikely.
"At least they're getting on well," he said (with 'well' being defined as neither party trying to kill each other).
"It's more than I hoped for," she said, looking at him. "We took a very big risk last year." Yoh could have gotten hurt, even killed, once, twice, three times. The girl could have been lost forever, like the Asakura they fought and must one day fight again.
They had not expected it to succeed; had only tried because they had thought one wild gamble better than no gamble at all. They had not even dreamed that it could work to this level of success.
"Maybe it means something. It gives us a chance," he said, and barely hoped it was true. He had not forseen that Yoh would be able to help the girl with the terrible power they needed, make her accept him; but it had happened, had it not? Maybe...
"Maybe it does. Matamune believed in him."
"I know." He would not have done what he'd done otherwise; he believed in Yoh enough to believe that his grandson would one day be able to call him back.
"Well, worrying about this now isn't going to help either," she said calmly. "The New Year is here. I might as well get some sleep. Coming?"
Finishing his tea, he sighed and got up to follow. She was right: no use worrying now, there'd always be plenty of time for it later. Another year was here; for one night, they could let themselves hope.
His left cheek still stung a bit when he rubbed at it absently; if this kept up, Yoh thought to himself, he was going to end up with a permanent imprint of Anna's hand on his face. Swallowing back a yawn, he heard the bells, thin, high notes ringing faintly in the night air.
"We're halfway there already," he said out loud into the quiet.
Anna, who had not said one word since they'd left the house, didn't look up. He glanced at her, at the shadow of a frown in her set eyes.
"Everything will be fine," he told her. When she looked at him, startled, he grinned. "It's not like last year anymore, right? So don't worry."
Wide, dark eyes met his, then turned away to stare ahead again. "Who said I was worried?" she asked irritably, pace quickening.
Yoh matched it easily. "I just thought you looked a little gloomy," he explained.
"Hmph. Then you shouldn't assume such things."
He let the matter drop, but thought she looked... well, not happier exactly; this was Anna, but at least less grim.
The road stretched before them, long and black and deserted except for Yoh and Anna and Tamao and his mother. He could see them walking just ahead but for the moment, didn't try to catch up with them yet.
It felt like they'd been walking forever, trapped in a single point of time; the Asakura home had been built in the days when they had no need to seek out civilisation; civilisation came to them. Today, that left it a long, long way from everything, temples included.
"Too bad it doesn't snow in Izumo," he said. "It makes it feel more like winter. Last year at Osorezan was the first time I'd seen that much snow! But it's nice here too," he finished contentedly.
"There are stars," Anna said quietly, looking at the sky, brilliant pinpricks scattered across the clear, cloudless sky. He blinked and looked up too.
"Yes. There are."
Paper lanterns lined the paths to the temples, a blanket of light between the soft, heavy darkness above and the people thronging below them in bustling parades of elaborate kimono and light coats. Lost in the crowd, they let it pull them past the noisy stalls and up the long, steep stairs to the temples above.
Keiko took firm grip of Tamao's hand to make sure she didn't get lost in the crowd, only letting go when they stopped outside the temples and decided to meet back here, exactly, when they were done with their prayers, so they could visit the stalls together.
Tamao slipped into the nearest shrine. Around her, the air hummed with murmured prayers, ancient chants; ritual older than the buildings that housed it, an unchanging point in a shifting world. Kicking her sandals off at the door, the girl crossed the large, open room to the altar.
Her prayer was swift, if only because she had been praying the same prayer ever since she'd come here, even during the years when she didn't visit the shrines.
Please let everyone be well and healthy (especially Yoh, a traitorous thought whispered before she could push it away), and let me work hard and be a better shaman this year.
When she came out, the only other person waiting was Anna. They stood waiting silently by the path, Tamao looking down the steps at the bustle below as she wondered, curious, what the older girl had prayed for.
Then Anna said, even as she stared indifferently at the people passing them, "You like Yoh, don't you?"
"Ah?" Tamao flushed to the roots of her hair and spun to face the older girl, who was studying her with a look that made it clear that she had not been asking Tamao a question, she had been stating a fact, and Tamao was not going to contradict it.
She tried anyway. "No! I don't like Yoh! Well, I don't dislike him, but I don't like him that way, I don't! I mean, I know that I'm not good enough to marry into the Asakura family, and..."
Anna huffed irritably. "Don't talk nonsense," she told Tamao. "And stop panicking like that, it's silly. I didn't say it was a bad thing, did I?"
The younger girl stopped at that to stare at her in shock. "What?"
"Why should it be a bad thing to like Yoh? I am his wife, you are his admirer. The both of us want to help him do well and be Shaman King, don't we?"
"Ah... yes, of course..."
"Then I don't see why it should be a problem so long as we remember our roles," she said with a calm look that said she was sure Tamao would because if she didn't... "He's going to need all the help he can get."
Mouth still slightly open with shock, too stunned to speak, Tamao felt the heat in her cheeks deepen. Had she been so... obvious? she wondered. Anna had only been here three days. She... well, she supposed that Mistress Keiko knew that she... admired Yoh, but she'd thought that no one else had really noticed, and...
"Don't worry, the idiot wouldn't notice unless you told him," Anna added, turning her attention back to the crowd.
"Oh... er... ah... um..." Tamao realised that she really wasn't going to kill her; having made the matter prefectly clear, she was letting it drop. "... Do you like Yoh?" she asked softly.
Glancing over her shoulder at the younger girl, Anna calmly said, "I love him."
And she meant it. Tamao could feel it in her bones, feel the strength the words implied. Looking down at ground, she clasped her hands and stared at them. A part of her almost felt relieved - for Yoh, because he had someone like Anna to help him, and she did love him, so that had to make it all right, make it at least slightly better.
And Anna didn't laugh at her or even get upset; to her, it was just something they had in common, had to do. As if she thought of Tamao as someone approaching an equal, someone strong enough to play in role in what Yoh had to become.
Tamao clenched her hands, suddenly determined. And she was. She might not be a great shaman, or beautiful, or even very brave, but... in this, she could be strong.
Yoh spent a long time staring absently at the temple while the crowd swirled irritably around the unmoving boy. Then, removing his hands from his pockets, he finally wandered into the shrine. He came out soon enough - he wasn't exactly the sort to make long prayers, after all, and strolled to the steps to be sheepishly realise that he was the last and everyone was waiting for him.
"Sorry! I was just thinking about what to pray for, and I forgot the time..."
"It's all right. We still have plenty of time," his mother said with a smile and they went back down the steps.
Looking at the rows of brightly-lit stalls, Yoh paused. "I wonder where Matamune is now..." he said to himself.
Anna stopped just before him, so that all he could see was her back. He wondered if she knew; she was an itako after all. Where did they call the spirits back from? "It's useless to wonder. You can always ask him yourself when you call him back."
"Hm, maybe I could. I don't know; none of the spirits I've seen ever talked about it... But yeah, I'll ask him," he said, struck by the idea. Come to think of it, he'd never tried asking any of the spirits he knew about it; it felt irrelevant and rather prying. But Matamune wouldn't mind him asking, he was sure.
"... He's going to have to wait a long time though. I think it'll be very hard for me to become stronger than whoever it was who gave him his form," he trailed off, almost uncertain.
"Does it matter?" He looked at Anna, startled, but she was still staring ahead. "You promised him. It doesn't matter how long you take so long as you keep it, and he knows you will. He'll understand."
She looked at him then. "Are you afraid?" she demanded.
A long pause. "Well... A bit, I guess. I mean, I don't know how, and it seems so difficult. Like being the Shaman King, really, it feels so far away. But there'll be a way, I promised him I'll find it, so..." He laughed then. "I think he'll tell me I'm just worrying too much."
"There'll be a way," Anna said. She met his eyes, calm and decided. "That's what you told me last year, isn't it? And he helped save me. I owe him. I promised I'll help you be Shaman King; I'll help you bring him back too."
At least... the person waiting for you won't let you be lonely.
He still wasn't sure he understood what the poem Matamune had written to him meant, but well. Maybe that part was right. "... Ah. Thank you."
The girl nodded briskly in answer and stalked off to catch up with Keiko and Tamao, who'd reached the stalls already, while Yoh followed.
Every year is a new beginning to some other beginning's end, in a pattern old as time's passing.
High above, the stars watched. And somewhere very far away and very, very near, he smiled.