Natsume found a book sitting on the front step of the Fujiwara's house on his way home from school. He crouched down to pick it up, brushing a light coating of dust off the top. It was a 1965 edition of Flower Tales by Yoshiya Nobuko, with library stickers on the spine. It was yellowed with age but well-kept. He flipped open the front page; it was from the local library, and had last been checked out by one Kaede Saito. It had been due back to the library ten years ago.
He stood, glancing around for whoever might have left it. There was no one nearby. Maybe one of the Fujiwaras had dropped it? Tucking the book under his arm, Natsume went inside. He called out, "I'm home!" as he sat in the entryway to take off his shoes.
"Ah, Takashi-kun, welcome home!" Touko called. He heard the sound of running water shut off. Sliding on his slippers, he stood to see her peering around from the door to the kitchen, wiping her dripping hands on a dish towel. "Homework?" she asked, nodding at the book he was carrying.
"No, I found it on the front step," Natsume said. "I thought it might be one of yours." He proffered it, and she glanced at the title, careful not to touch it with her still-damp hands.
"It's not mine," she said. "I haven't even been to the library in too long, I've been so busy lately. Maybe it's Shigeru's? Though I didn't think he's been recently, either." She dimpled a smile. "It's terrible, I know. Maybe we should go sometime? Have you been to the one here?"
"We went last year on a class field trip," Natsume said. It was a small, quiet library, with a reading area in the back. He'd spent hours in libraries throughout his childhood, dropped off by the family he was staying with to get him out of the house, or hiding from whatever youkai was chasing him, and this one had a warm, lived-in feel he'd really liked. "It's nice."
Touko dimpled at him. "We'll go back then, sometime." She glanced back in the kitchen, where something was grilling in a pan on the stove. It smelled like fish; Nyanko-sensei would be thrilled. "I need to get back to dinner-- Shigeru will be home soon."
"Do you need any help?" Natsume asked.
Touko shook her head, shooing him up the stairs. "No, the only thing I have left is chopping the radish for the side dish. Go do your homework!" As he climbed, she called after him, "Thank you for the offer, though!"
Natsume ducked his head, cheeks coloring.
Upstairs, he flipped on the lights in his room. Nyanko-sensei was flopped on a cushion, paws in the air and snoring softly; he'd been out drinking, then. Natsume leaned down and scratched his stomach. Nyanko-sensei didn't wake, just sighed heavily and relaxed deeper into the cushion.
Natsume settled in front of his desk and set the book down. As he did so, a maple leaf fluttered out from between the pages. He picked it up and it crackled under his fingers, dry as bone and more fragile. He wondered how old it was. Had it been there since Kaede Saito, whoever she was, had checked the book out ten years before?
He put the leaf gently back in the book and opened his math textbook instead.
"And so there I was, with the lanterns and the bucket, and not wearing any shoes-- Oi, Natsume, you falling asleep on me? You're going to land in your food."
"Hmm?" Natsume jerked upright; he'd begun listing forward in his chair. The summer sun was warm and golden on the side of his face, and he felt tired and relaxed-- then he opened his eyes, and remembered it was early November, and the light from the windows was gray. Nishimura mock-glared at him from across the cafeteria table; Kitamoto was smirking behind his sandwich, though his eyes held a hint of concern he couldn't quite hide. Tanuma had paused with chopsticks holding a piece of tempura halfway to his mouth, and Taki was chewing a mouthful of onigiri with her eyebrows drawn down.
"Ah... sorry, Nishimura," Natsume said, pasting a smile on his face.
"Didn't get much sleep?" Kitamoto asked sympathetically; the again was implied.
Tanuma and Taki shared a knowing look.
But for once, that wasn't the reason. "No, I slept fine last night," Natsume said, rubbing his eyes. Deep, languid sleep, and the only thing he'd dreamed about had been sitting under a tree with a book in his lap. He'd had a harder time than usual waking up; Touko-san had to come get him when the alarm hadn't done the job. "Maybe too well? I don't know."
"Hmm." Kitamoto seemed pleased by this, oddly. He glanced over at Nishimura.
Natsume saw this, and muttered under his breath, "Worrywarts."
"Hah! You get sick at the drop of a hat. Can you really blame us?" Nishimura snorted.
Natsume just sank deeper into his chair.
With a final glance at Natsume, Nishimura continued, "So anyways. I took the bucket, and threw the water on the fire--"
After lunch, Tanuma cornered him in the hallway. "Is it a youkai thing?" he asked quietly.
Natsume shrugged, and tried to answer honestly. "I don't know?" When Tanuma furrowed his eyebrows, Natsume elaborated, "Someone left a library book on the Fujiwara's front porch. That's weird, but not youkai levels of weird, I don't think?"
Tanuma nodded slowly. "Okay," he said. "If it does turn into youkai-weirdness, you'll let me and Taki know, right?" When Natsume hesitated, he said with more emphasis, "Right?"
"Right," Natsume sighed.
"Good." Tanuma looked like he was about to say something else, but just then the bell rang, indicating the next period was about to start. Tanuma set off down the corridor with a wave, saying, "It's a promise!"
There was another book on the doorstep when he got home. Natsume glanced around to see if there was anyone who might have left it, but didn't see anyone-- human or youkai. The only thing moving was a white moth fluttering desultorily in a weak beam of sunlight. He knelt to pick the book up more warily this time, tossing the end of his scarf over his shoulder to keep it from brushing on the ground. His breath puffed a cloud of steam into the air. One book could be chalked up to coincidence, but two?
This book was a copy of On Writing, by some American author whose name he couldn't pronounce. Once again it had been last checked out by one Kaede Saito and was due back on the same date as the first.
Natsume found Shigeru in the backyard, raking leaves. He straightened when Natsume approached, leaning on the rake, and he looked pleasantly surprised that Natsume had sought him out.
"You found a book...? No, it's not mine. I haven't been to the library lately." He accepted the book, turning it over in his gloved hands. "Maybe it's a discard? They do that sometimes, sell off old books no one's checking out anymore. Though why someone would leave it on our front step, I don't know." He glanced inside the cover. "Kaede Saito... no, I don't recognize the name."
He closed the book and handed it back, but not before another dried maple leaf had fluttered to the ground, red as blood against the black garden dirt. Shigeru ducked to grab it, but Natsume got there first. He had to hold it flat in his palm to keep it from crumbling.
"Thank you," he said. "Maybe I'll check at the library, then."
Shigeru looked at his watch. "They're probably closed by now, but I have the morning free tomorrow; I can drive you then, if you like?"
Natsume hesitated. Normally he'd walk, but it was cold, and he'd been feeling run down the past couple of days. "I don't want to bother you," he said slowly.
Shigeru just smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. "It's not a bother at all."
That night Natsume dreamt about sitting under the maple tree, leaves rustling softly overhead in the gentle breeze, hair brushing across his cheek. Thin white wisps of cloud punctuated the brilliant blue sky, though far in the distance storm clouds were beginning to pile up. He could smell dirt overlaid with the green verdant scent of high summer.
"She loved it here," he heard a voice say. When he craned his neck backwards, he saw someone perched in one of the branches high above. He couldn't see her face, but her hair was a shining black that glinted with red undertones in the dappled light, and the fabric of her yukata was patterned with red and gold leaves. Tiny white moths fluttered in the air around her and alighted on her hair.
"She'd sit and write, or watch the sky, or nap, but I liked it best when she read her stories out loud. I don't know if she knew somehow I was listening, or if she just enjoyed it. She had the most beautiful speaking voice. And the stories were wonderful."
He heard a sigh, soft as wind blowing through the leaves. "Then one day she left, and never came back. She'd even left behind her things... I kept them for her in case she returned." Nestled the grass under the tree, he saw a stack of library books intermixed with sheets of handwritten notebook paper. They had been somewhat weathered by the years but were still in good condition, as if someone had been caring diligently for them.
Natsume thought about the due date on the books, a decade gone.
The youkai had more to say, but the dream was fading as Natsume slipped under, deeper into true sleep. The last thing he remembered was the bright kiss of sunlight on his cheeks, and the sensation of paper under his fingertips.
"Natsume. Natsume!" Sharp claws pricked his chest, and Natsume made a vague noise of protest, rolling over and burying his head under his pillow. His room was cold outside the barrier of his futon. He didn't want to wake up. "Come on Natsume, it's breakfast time! Feed me!"
"Ask Touko-san," he muttered, pulling the pillow over his head.
Nyanko-sensei sighed, sounding exactly like an old man, and then Natsume heard the door click shut and silence descended.
He was just falling back asleep when the door opened again. He was too settled to react, even when he heard the sound of human footsteps, not feline. "Takashi, are you awake? You said you wanted to go to the library this morning, and it's getting late. Oh, and someone left another book on the front step overnight. Maybe you have a secret admirer?" Shigeru's voice was warm and gently teasing.
Natsume wanted to get up, but it was a struggle. Footsteps came closer, and then the pillow was sliding away from his grasp and a hand came to rest gently on his shoulder. "Takashi?"
Natsume couldn't summon the energy to respond. The hand shifted to brush across his forehead. It felt good, warm in the cool air, skin dry and a little calloused from years of work. Natsume turned his face into it instinctively. "Hmm," Shigeru said, and then stood, knees creaking. He went to the door and called out, "Touko? Can you come here for a second?"
Now Natsume struggled to wake up, because he could hear the undercurrent of worry in Shigeru's voice, and Touko was coming. But it was hard, and sleep was so, so sweet.
But along with Touko came Nyanko-sensei, and although the cat didn't speak, he clambered up the covers to sit on Natsume's chest, and made a noise that sounded very much like a soft rusty purr. Warmth and energy spread from his presence, and Natsume found the strength to open his eyes.
"Ah, Natsume," Shigeru said, sitting back on his haunches. Natsume rubbed his eyes, half-sitting up. Nyanko-sensei slid off his chest but didn't lose contact, settling into his lap instead and wiggling around until he was belly-up. Natsume let his hand come to rest on the cat's soft fur, feeling a rumbled purr under his fingers. "Are you feeling alright? You didn't seem to want to wake up."
Touko leaned forward and pressed her hand to his forehead, and then compared it against her own. "You're a little warm," she fretted. Natsume mustered a smile, fighting the exhaustion that wanted to drag him back under.
"Sorry to worry you. I'm fine," he said. "I was just deeply asleep." When he closed his eyes, red maple leaves painted a pattern across the back of his eyelids.
Shigeru exchanged a look with Touko. She said gently, "If you're getting sick, you should stay home and get some more sleep. The library will still be there tomorrow."
Natsume shook his head. "I don't think I'm getting sick. I was just up late last night," he lied. "Give me a few minutes to get dressed?"
Shigeru hesitated, but when Natsume started pushing the covers back he relented. "Alright. Just let me know when you're ready to go. And don't push yourself, okay? We worry."
Natsume ducked his head, feeling the hot flush of embarrassment and gratitude across his cheeks. "I won't."
As the door shut behind them, Natsume heard Touko say to Shigeru, "You'll bring him right back if he starts feeling badly, right?"
"I promise," Shigeru said, and then their footsteps were fading.
Once they were gone, Natsume glanced down at the youkai on his lap. "Purring, Nyanko-sensei?"
"Hah!" Nyanko-sensei hopped off Natsume's lap, stretching, claws extending to prick the tatami mat. "You only wish. I was deceiving the humans."
"Sure you were." Natsume rolled to his feet, though it took rather more effort than usual. He pressed a hand against the wall to keep himself upright. "What is wrong with me?" he asked, somewhat rhetorically. By this point he was quite familiar with the symptoms-- fever, exhaustion-- that pointed to some kind of youkai overexposure. But as far as he was aware he hadn't come within arms' length of a youkai he didn't already know in the last few days. It had been pleasantly quiet, actually.
His dream from the night before surfaced just briefly, a memory of dappled sunlight on the pages of a book. Then it faded again, leaving him cold and wavering, exhausted.
Nyanko-sensei leaned down to groom a stripe down his hind leg, voice muffled. "You can't feel it? Coming off those books."
Natsume's eyes were drawn to the stack on the corner of his desk. There was a third one on the top now, left by Shigeru when he'd come up-- Yellow Rose by Nobuko Yoshiya. He tilted his head. There was something about the books... it wasn't precisely the same as a youkai's aura, because he would have noticed that immediately, but they held a weight and presence disproportionate to their physical size.
"What is it?" Natsume asked.
Nyanko-sensei moved on to cleaning between his toes. "Some youkai has held those for long enough they've taken on some of its power," he said. "Been having weird dreams?"
"...Yes. But I don't remember many of the details." Natsume turned away from the books, went to the closet to find something to wear. He wanted a shower, but the thought of the effort it would take was too much. Besides, Shigeru was downstairs, and Natsume didn't want to keep him waiting any longer than he already had.
Nyanko-sensei harumphed. "That's the youkai's energy. I wouldn't keep them in the house for too long."
"What do you think she wants?" Natsume asked, shoving his feet through the pants legs. He layered it with a purple sweater-- one of Shigeru's hand-me-downs, but it was warm and so close to new you could hardly tell-- and pulled his brown jacket over the top. A light blue scarf knitted by Touko rounded out the ensemble, and Natsume was as ready as he thought he would manage. "Why does she keep leaving books?"
Nyanko-sensei padded over to sit by the door. "How should I know?" As Natsume reached for the books, he warned, "I wouldn't carry those too close to your skin."
Natsume dropped his hand. Glancing around the room, his eyes settled on his backpack. "This okay?" he asked, hefting it.
Nyanko-sensei sniffed. "It'll do," he said.
Downstairs, Shigeru was sitting at the dining room table, drinking a cup of tea. He raised an eyebrow when Natsume came down the stairs, Nyanko-sensei trotting at his heels, but he didn't comment; instead he finished the last of the tea in a long sip and stood. "Ready to go?"
Touko said from the kitchen, "Wait, Natsume-- shouldn't you have some breakfast first?"
Natsume wavered. He was hungry, but in the distant sort of way that would probably turn to nausea if he tried to eat anything. And Shigeru was waiting for him. But at the same time, he would worry Touko if he didn't eat, and he worried her too often. "Something quick?" he tried, and her expression lightened.
"There's miso soup, and maybe the onigiri..."
Natsume ate the soup, which was delicious but sat in his stomach like a rock, and took the onigiri for later, wrapped up neatly in a piece of cloth and tucked into his backpack. Then Shigeru, having waited quite patiently, led the way to the car.
Natsume opened the rear door to drop off his backpack, holding the door open a fraction of a second longer so Nyanko-sensei could jump in to settle on the floorboards, out of Shigeru's sight. Natsume shut the door and got in the passenger seat, buckling his seat belt.
The sound of the engine combined with the wheels on the road was soothing, and Natsume pressed his face against the cold glass of the passenger window, listening to the soft murmur of the news coming from the radio without really hearing what was being said. Shigeru was quiet, hands steady on the wheel. It was peaceful, watching the winter landscape flashing past, seeing people and the occasional minor youkai, knowing that even if he fell asleep Shigeru wouldn't mind, and he didn't need to be on guard. Natsume felt his throat tighten with some nameless emotion, grief and gratefulness mixed, on behalf of his past self who could never have imagined this kind of ease.
"We're here," Shigeru said eventually, settling a hand on Natsume's shoulder. Roused from his doze, Natsume didn't flinch.
The library was a single story red brick building, with a newer wing with large glass windows appended to the side. Natsume followed Shigeru in, hefting the backpack over one shoulder. It was much heavier than could be accounted for by the weight of three books, and Natsume suppressed a sigh.
"I'm going to look at the pottery books. I think they're in the other wing," Shigeru said. "Meet back here in a bit?"
Natsume smiled. "That sounds fine."
They split up, and Natsume made his way to the front desk. A woman behind the circulation desk looked up as he approached. The librarian? She was middle-aged, with a short haircut and warm eyes; several bracelets hung off each wrist and jangled as she moved. "Can I help you?" she asked.
"Ah... I hope so?" Natsume hesitated, then set his backpack on the ground, so it was just out of her view. When he opened the top to retrieve the books, Nyanko-sensei was inside, staring up at him. There was a piece of rice stuck in his whiskers.
"Those were mine," Natsume whispered as he reached around the cat for the books.
"You weren't going to eat them," Nyanko-sensei whispered back with a smug tilt to his whiskers, shifting to allow Natsume access to the books.
Natsume glared. "Not the point." The argument was forgotten, though, as his fingers brushed paper and wave of dizziness washed over him. He was forced to drop into a crouch to prevent himself from falling over.
"Are you alright?" the librarian asked, half-standing up from behind the desk.
"Sorry!" Natsume took the end of his scarf again and wrapped it around the corner of the books, picking them up carefully. With the barrier of cloth in between, he could still feel the energy radiating off them, but it didn't affect him as strongly. He wished he'd thought to ask Nyanko-sensei if it was safe to give the books to the librarian, but it was probably alright. Most people didn't have any problems with youkai energy.
"I found these in a box at a flea market," he extemporized, standing up with a hand pressed to the desk, and managed to set the books down without directly touching them. "The stickers say they're from this library...? I wanted to make sure you weren't missing them."
The librarian leaned forward and slid the books towards her. Natsume tensed, but she didn't seem to notice anything off about them. She flipped the top one over to look at the barcode on the back. "Yes, these are from our library," she said, and flipped open the front cover to examine the card in the back. She laughed. "Due ten years ago! I don't think I've ever seen a book out that long."
"Can you see who checked them out last?" Natsume asked, resting his crossed arms on the counter and letting it support some of his weight.
She just raised an eyebrow. "Yes, but I'm afraid couldn't tell you," she said mildly. "Patron records are private."
"Oh," Natsume said, temporarily stymied. He chewed his lip as he thought. What was it Shigeru had mentioned? "Can you at least check if they've been discarded? If they are, I'll keep them."
She shrugged. "That I can do," she said, turning to the computer and scanning the book's barcode.
While she was occupied, Natsume ducked down to peer into his backpack. "Quick, sensei. I need a distraction." He stood again. The librarian glanced at him, but didn't seem to have heard anything. Natsume plastered an innocent smile on his face. Below the counter, he nudged the bag with his shoe, hard. There was a grunt, and then he felt the fabric rustle. A cat paw stepped heavily on his foot, then vanished.
After a few seconds, and a couple mouse clicks, the woman said, "Yes, this one was marked lost in August of that year. I can go ahead and check it back in now. There's quite a fine on it, 7300 yen..." Her voice trailed off and her eyes widened as she stared at something behind Natsume. There was the sound of books being knocked over. "Wait, is that a cat?!?"
Natsume turned, wincing, to see Nyanko-sensei take off through a bottom shelf, sending books flying. A man yelped as the cat tore across the table in front of him, then jumped up onto the counter in between Natsume and the librarian and raced along the countertop.
The librarian hesitated, looking frantically between Natsume and the cat, then waved a hand at Natsume with bracelets jangling and said, "Please excuse me, I'll be right back--"
She ran off in hot pursuit. There was a shout as Nyanko-sensei ran across someone's feet.
Quickly, Natsume leaned over the counter and turned the monitor so he could see. On the screen was an entry for the book she'd just scanned, and at the bottom a field that said Last Patron. It was filled with just a card number, but when he clicked on it, the user's profile popped up. Kaede Saito, it said, and, crucially, there was an address on the account. Working quickly, Natsume wrote it down on a nearby piece of paper, then grabbed the books off the counter and shoved them into his backpack. On the other side of the library, he could hear shouts as Nyanko-sensei continued to sow chaos.
Wincing, Natsume went to pick up the books the cat had knocked over.
Nyanko-sensei was waiting by the car when Natsume finally came out of the library, looking very pleased with himself, even though he'd been kicked out of the library by someone wielding a broom. Shigeru was still inside, checking out, so Natsume leaned against the car and said, "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"I love playing with humans," Nyanko-sensei said, whiskers curling. "It reminds me of when I was younger."
Younger? Natsume tilted his head. "How old are you, sensei?"
"Hah! What's age to a youkai? More importantly, did you find what you were looking for?"
Natsume pulled out the piece of paper, smoothing it out on his leg. 16 Futotomachi, Hitoyoshi City, Kumamoto Prefecture, 868-0051. "I got her address out of the computer," he said. "It's near Yatsuhara. Not too far from where Tanuma lives, I think." Normally that was within walking distance, but not right now. He chewed on his lip, remembering the conversation with Tanuma the day before. It was hard asking for help. He would never forgive himself if Tanuma got hurt by something Natsume had asked him to do. But he had promised.
When Shigeru came out of the library, a stack of pottery books cradled in his arm, Natsume pushed off from the car and stood up straight, contriving to look as healthy as he could manage. He kept his scarf pulled up around his mouth to hide the flush of fever.
"Did you find out anything about the books?" Shigeru asked, unlocking the car. He took in the sight of Nyanko-sensei sitting at Natsume's feet without comment, dropping his books in the back seat.
"They said they weren't allowed to tell me who had checked them out," Natsume said, which wasn't a lie. He felt the paper with the address crinkle in his pocket.
"Hmm. So, no idea who left them?"
Natsume shook his head.
"Odd." Shigeru shook his head. "Well, maybe it really is a secret admirer." He opened the driver's seat. "Ready to head back?"
"Actually... I was wondering if you wouldn't mind dropping me off at Tanuma's," Natsume said. "We have a project due next week." Which even had the benefit of being true, though they hadn't been planning to work on it until later.
Shigeru paused in the act of getting in the car, hand on the door frame. "Are you sure that's a good idea?" he asked frankly. "You still look a little feverish, and if you push yourself, it'll only get worse."
Natsume was pretty sure it wouldn't help to be carrying the books around for much longer, either. "I'm feeling much better! And we won't be doing anything strenuous," he said, to Shigeru's skeptical look. He added, more truthfully, "If I am getting sick, I don't want to get behind on my schoolwork if I don't have to."
Shigeru eyed him, then sighed. "All right," he said. "I can drop you off-- do you need to call ahead?"
"I already did," Natsume lied.
This time Natsume forced himself to stay awake, digging his fingernails surreptitiously into the skin of his palms every time he felt his eyes closing; he had a feeling Shigeru would turn around as soon as he did. It was a very long drive.
Finally, Shigeru pulled the car up in front of Tanuma's house, tires crunching on gravel.
"Thanks for the ride!" Natsume said before Shigeru could have any second thoughts, opening the door and grabbing his bag. Nyanko-sensei jumped out, too.
Shigeru leaned out the window as Natsume walked away and said, "Call me when you're ready to come home!"
"I will." Natsume waved. He mounted the steps and knocked on the front door. He had a half minute to worry about what would happen if Tanuma wasn't home, and then the door opened.
"Natsume!" Tanuma said, surprised.
"Hey, Tanuma," Natsume said. He ducked his head lower into his scarf. "Um, remember that thing we talked about yesterday?"
Tanuma's eyes sharped. He lowered his voice. "The book? It's a youkai thing?"
Surprisingly, Tanuma smiled. "Please, come in." He held the door open and gestured Natsume inside.
"--So, I was able to get the address, and I think it's near here," Natsume finished, cupping his hands around his mug of tea.
"Hmm." Tanuma looked at the paper with the address, then rose and padded on socked feet into one of the other rooms. He came back flipping through an atlas, muttering, "Futotomachi, Futotomachi-- oh, here it is. You're right, it's barely a quarter mile away if you go straight through the woods." He set it down on top of the kotatsu, finger in the middle of the page. Natsume leaned over, squinting.
"So we're... here, by the road?" Natsume pointed.
"Right. You just take this path here, and it's right next to this hill."
The hill. Natsume frowned, a sudden flash of memory. He closed his eyes, and suddenly he was sitting underneath a maple tree, pen gliding over a sheet of paper...
There was the sharp prickle of claws on his leg.
Natsume came back to himself with an indrawn breath, shaking his head. He felt like he was underwater for a moment, then everything wavered slowly back into focus. Nyanko-sensei was a heavy weight on his leg.
Tanuma gave a relieved sigh as Natsume opened his eyes, settling back onto his haunches. "What just happened, Natsume?"
“You remembered the rest of that dream, didn’t you,” Nyanko-sensei said, curling up in Natsume's lap.
Natsume shook his head, in bewilderment rather than disagreement. "When you said the word hill, it brought it back," he said hesitantly, and gave a quick overview, scratching the cat absentmindedly behind his ears. “The youkai said she’d been keeping the books in case the girl came back, but…”
“But she never returned,” Tanuma said.
Natsume nodded. “Something must have happened to her. They were important, I think.”
“Did you look through them for clues?” Tanuma asked, picking up one of the books. Then he winced, rubbing his forehead with his free hand. “They’re very…”
“Strong?” Natsume finished.
“Yes.” Tanuma persevered, flipping through each book in turn. He discovered the maple leaves in the first two, and returned them carefully between the pages. Then he opened the third book, and a sheaf of papers fell out. Natsume sat up straighter.
“Did you see these?” Tanuma asked. Natsume shook his head. They were covered in row upon row of handwritten text. Tanuma held the top sheet up and read, “The maple tree in Saya’s garden was covered in the soft red buds of spring when Aoko first moved into the neighborhood…” He frowned, and scanned further, flipping through pages. “Her heart beat faster as their hands brushed… the soft curve of her neck… the sheets across the bed... um.” Now Tanuma was blushing. “I think this is fiction?”
Natsume couldn’t chalk the red in his own cheeks entirely up to fever, either. “It… seems that way,” he said.
Their eyes met, and then they were both laughing helplessly. Tanuma put the paper down to cover his face with his hands. “It’s really quite well written,” he said, voice shaking.
Natsume leaned over and scanned the next few lines. His face felt like it was on fire, but he said, “Yes, the imagery is very... vivid.”
Biting his lip, Tanuma took the sheet back and folded it up with the rest, tucking it between the pages of the book it had come from. “Should we go check out the house?” he suggested.
Natsume swung his legs out from under the kotatsu. “Let’s,” he said.
The wind had picked up in the intervening time, and even under the trees there was an icy bite where it touched Natsume’s exposed skin. He ducked his head into his scarf, breath warming the rough wool. He was too hot and too cold at the same time, and cold sweat trickled down his spine. He knew it was a sign his fever was getting higher. Somewhere off in the woods he could hear the sound of a creek, the near-subliminal susurrus of water flowing across rock. Nyanko-sensei padded along beside them.
The path wound around the base of a hill, leaves crunching under their feet, and then Tanuma said, “I think that’s it.”
Natsume glanced up, Tanuma’s words breaking through the fugue state he’d fallen into. A hundred yards ahead was a traditional Japanese one-story house. It would be practically invisible during the summer, swallowed by the trees and the high hill behind it, but in the bare winter it just looked lonely. There was a van parked in the driveway, though.
“Someone’s home,” Tanuma added, hiking the backpack higher on his shoulder.
Natsume nodded and started forward again. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” he said.
Tanuma bumped his shoulder companionably. “I’m coming.”
Natsume rang the doorbell with no clear idea of what he was going to say. The chimes echoed throughout the house, fading into silence. He and Tanuma looked at each other awkwardly as they waited for the occupants to answer. Whoever it was, they were taking a long time.
“Hey, where did Ponta go?” Tanuma said suddenly.
Natsume glanced around, frowning. “He was on the path with us--”
Just then, there was a shuffling sound from inside the house, and the door opened.
The woman who answered was in her late 30’s, dark hair cut fashionably short, and the beginnings of smile lines gathering around her eyes. The hand that wasn’t holding the door was holding a wooden cane. “Hello?” she said.
Natsume glanced at the cane, pieces falling into place. “Saito-san?” he asked.
She blinked. “Yes, that’s me.”
Natsume nodded at Tanuma, who dug the books out of Natsume’s bag. “We found these. I think they’re yours?”
Her free hand rose briefly to press against her mouth in shock. “Oh! Yes-- those are mine.” She looked back and forth between the two of them, and said, “Please, why don’t you come in?”
“--was in the hospital for so long after the accident, I completely forgot I’d left the books there. They must be terribly overdue,” Kaede said with a laugh, setting the kettle to boil for tea. Tanuma had offered to help, but she’d waved him off. “And then afterwards of course, I couldn’t make the climb. Though maybe someday, if my leg keeps improving...” She pointed out the window above her kitchen sink, which offered a good view of the high hill behind her house. “See? Isn’t it lovely?” Her voice was wistful.
Natsume leaned out, and Tanuma squeezed in beside him to see. A steep path wound up the side of the hill. About halfway up, a graceful maple tree arced up through the trees around it, dark branches twisting against the gray sky. It would be beautiful in the spring, Natsume could tell, a shock of bright red leaves against the surrounding green. It was beautiful even in stark late fall. He closed his eyes, seeing the tree from his dream. He wondered if the youkai was looking down on them even now, the same way Kaede was looking at it.
“It's beautiful,” Natsume said, and Tanuma nodded.
The kettle whistled, and Kaede set tea cups on the table for both of them, before sitting down herself and leaning the cane against the table. She flipped through the papers, hands gentle. She'd set the leaves carefully to the side. “It took me a long time to feel well enough to write again. It’s only been the last few years, really.” She brightened and turned, reaching for something on the bookcase against the wall. “Oh, but my novel finally got accepted by a publisher! It’s coming out in the spring. They sent me a few advance copies-- see?”
The book she handed over was titled Passing Years, and the cover was two female silhouettes back to back under a blood-red maple tree. Remembering the bits and pieces of the story he'd read made Natsume's cheeks heat.
“Congratulations,” he said, trying to hand it over to Tanuma, but he wasn’t paying attention. Instead, he was staring at something outside the window.
“Natsume, isn’t that Ponta?” he said.
Natsume stood and went to the window again, where-- yes, that was Nyanko-sensei in the tree next to the maple, chasing something through the branches. He sighed. “That's my cat," he explained to Kaede. "We should probably go get him. Thank you for the tea, Saito-san.” He tried to hand her book back, but she waved him off.
“No, keep it, please, in exchange for bringing these back. I never did finish this story. It's the sequel to this book.” She smiled wistfully, eyes going to the window. “Maybe I’ll do that next.”
Nyanko-sensei, when they found him, was hanging out on the thin end of a tree limb and trying desperately to catch a white moth fluttering just out of his reach. "Nyaa~! Come here, come here!"
"Sensei," Natsume called, with some exasperation. "Get down from there, you're going to fall."
Nyanko-sensei swiped again and missed, the branch creaking worryingly under his weight. Natsume was so distracted watching this drama he didn't notice the woman materializing out of the maple tree next to him until she said, in a quiet voice like the rustling of a thousand leaves, "You came."
Natsume spun. It was the youkai from his dream, face obscured by a long fall of dark hair and wearing a yukata patterned with red and gold leaves. As he watched, the moth Nyanko-sensei had been chasing fluttered down out of the tree to alight on her shoulder. Nyanko-sensei thumped out of the tree after it. Natsume remembered, suddenly, seeing a similar moth outside the Fujiwara's when he'd found the second book.
"You're the one who left the books," he said. He saw Tanuma shoot him a startled glance, then turn to squint at the space where the youkai was standing.
The youkai dipped her head in acknowledgement. Though it was hard to tell in the gray late afternoon light, Natsume thought she looked faint, almost transparent. A closer look at the maple tree behind her revealed several of the branches were blackened and dead, though the core of the tree looked healthy.
"I am sorry for disturbing you, but there was no one else I could ask, and I had to know," the youkai said. "Is she well?"
Natsume thought of the woman he'd met, hurt but still alive, still prospering. "She is. She was injured badly, but she's recovering. And she's still writing." Natsume pulled the book from underneath his arm, proffered it to the youkai. "She wrote this."
The youkai took it with pale fingers, gazing at the cover with the same wistful expression Kaede had had when she'd looked at the maple on the hill. "Thank you," she said, and pressed the book to her heart. "Thank you." With that, she stepped back, fading away around the edges until she was almost invisible. Natsume saw her silhouette merge with the maple tree, and then she was gone.
After a moment of silence, Nyanko-sensei grumbled, "Well, that was irritating," with a petulant expression. "That weak youkai dragged us out here, and for what? A book? Such a waste of time!"
"Sensei," Natsume warned, feeling suddenly very, very tired. Now that that was over and done with, he just wanted lie down and sleep...
"Natsume, are you feeling alright?" Tanuma asked. Natsume hadn't realized he'd closed his eyes, but it seemed like far too much work to open them again. Even if Tanuma did sound worried. "Natsume? Natsume!"
Natsume dreamed of a summer storm, rolling up out of the valley from nowhere. Kaede struggled up the path on the side of the hill, hunched over from the force of the wind, pelted by rain and leaves knocked from the trees. She'd left her latest draft behind when she'd gone down for lunch, and it was going to be ruined if she didn't get it out of the rain soon!
But the path was wet and slick, and when a great crack of lightning split the sky, she lost her footing.
Up on the hill, a youkai crouched over a set of books tucked under the branches of her tree, shielding them with her body from the howling winds and rain. Kaede would be coming back, and she'd be devastated if her work was destroyed. She had to protect them.
The youkai stayed there even as lightning struck her tree.
Natsume woke slowly to the sensation of someone's hand carding through his hair. He made a low noise in his throat and the hand froze before withdrawing.
"Are you awake, Natsume?" Tanuma asked.
Natsume hummed acknowledgement but made no other effort to move. He was feverish and aching, and exhaustion made his limbs feel heavy, but he was lying with his head in someone's lap and Nyanko-sensei was curled up next to him, and in the grand scheme he thought those things mostly cancelled out.
Cautiously the hand returned to his forehead, checking his temperature. "You're at my house," Tanuma explained. "You passed out, so Ponta and I brought you back. Fujiwara-san should be here soon to pick you up. Do you need anything?"
Natsume roused himself enough to shake his head, and coughed fitfully before managing to add, "Thanks for helping."
"He'll spend the next day sleeping, and then he'll be fine," Nyanko-sensei said sourly, adding a pointed, "Idiot."
"He's sick; be nice, Ponta," Tanuma warned.
"Nice! Hmph. I'm a fearful youkai, I don't do nice." Belying his tone, the cat squirmed up until he was tucked beneath Natsume's arm, and rested his chin within easy reach of Natsume's hand. Natsume obliged, curling his hand to scratch along his jawline, and thinking about that youkai protecting Kaede's work in the midst of a terrible storm.
Soon that quiet rumbling purr filled the room again. Deceiving the humans, hah, Natsume thought.