Subaru had always assumed that if he was to be called to Katsushika-ku it would be for the Tokyo Detention House and its execution rooms; he'd dreaded seeing the ward's name on an order sheet for just that reason. Instead he was being sent to a single-family residence almost on the border with Chiba Prefecture, which was both a relief and a bit of a puzzle. According to the data he'd received, the plot of land had recently changed hands and a new house was built after the old one was torn down. The previous family had always been prosperous and reported no problems--supernatural or otherwise--with their home; they had moved only because they wanted to raise their children in a more rural area. There had been no significant accidents during the construction, and the new residents--the Hasegawa family--had not experienced these problems in their previous residence. Subaru usually found that jobs went more smoothly when the cause of the haunting was known from the start, but this kind of muddled situation seemed to be more the norm, these days. Subaru bit back a sigh and rang the bell of the house.
A woman opened the door, and Subaru bowed in greeting. "My name is Sumeragi Subaru. You called for an Onmyouji?" The dubious look the woman gave Subaru was only too familiar, but he smiled as sincerely as he could. Some day he would look the part better and more people would trust in his experience. Probably.
The awkward moment passed and the woman returned his bow and his greeting. "I'm Hasegawa Sumire. Please, come in."
Hasegawa-san led Subaru through the entryway and into a living room; tea and snacks were laid out on the table and it all seemed very warm and inviting, though the house was so new it still smelled a bit of sawdust and plaster. Subaru sensed no strong evils in it, but still, there was something here, something that made him feel slightly unsettled. After a few more rounds of pleasantries while Hasegawa-san poured the tea, Subaru finally broached the subject the family's supernatural trouble. "May I ask you about what's been happening here, Hasegawa-san?"
"At first it wasn't so bad. Everyone felt a little off, a little quicker to snap at each other. We chalked it up to the stress of moving. But then there were these noises at night. Thumping, banging, scratching, dragging. And the children would wake up saying their bedclothes had been dragged off onto the floor, or their pillows pulled out from under them. They're scared to go to sleep now, and we're all just worn to threads by the tension." Hasegawa-san fidgeted with her teacup the whole time she was talking, but even so Subaru could see her hands shaking faintly.
That low level of mischief suggested Subaru's first instinct was right--whatever was here was not evil. But the general feelings of malaise the family was suffering, those were a bit more troubling. "And the noises, are they loudest anywhere in particular?"
"Yes, in the back room. Do you need to see it?"
Subaru nodded and followed Hasegawa-san to the back of the house. The vague feeling he'd been getting got stronger as they got closer to the room overlooking the back garden. "Do you happen to know what this room used to be, before this house was built?"
Hasegawa-san shook her head. "No, we never really saw the old house, since we weren't going to be keeping it. I can probably find out from the realtor..."
"Oh, thank you, but there should be no need. I was only curious. But if you'd step back out of the room for a moment, I'll find out what sort of spirit you have here." Once Hasegawa-san was safely out of range Subaru knelt in the middle of the room and focused his energies on getting a better sense of the presence hiding here. He was fairly sure this wasn't a standard exorcism job--or it shouldn't be--and if it truly was what he suspected then he didn't want to force this particular spirit to take form if it didn't want to.
After only a few moments Subaru dropped out of trance, loosing a faint sigh. He rose and went back to the living room where Hasegawa-san had gone to wait, trying to figure out the best way to tell her what was going on.
"What you have here is some type of zashiki warashi, probably an usutsuki warashi, judging by the sounds you've been hearing and the bad feelings you described. It's really quite harmless, and in fact they bring prosperity to any household they reside in--"
"Harmless? It's scaring my children! It's making us all feel terrible!" Hasegawa-san seemed offended and angry, and part of Subaru wanted to shy away from upsetting her, but for the sake of the usutsuki warashi he forced himself to try one more time to convince her.
"It's only a child itself. It just likes playing little pranks, and sending it away could result in any good fortune leaving this house, too. If you explain to your family..." Subaru trailed off, his heart sinking; if only he was more clever with words, with people. But he could see by her expression that he wasn't getting through to her at all.
Sure enough, Hasegawa-san shook her head firmly. "No, I want it gone! My husband and I already discussed this before calling you people at all. Good fortune? Don't be ridiculous! We worked hard to earn our prosperity. We finally were able to buy a house, after so much work! We don't need to rely on some spirit that's making us all miserable. Get rid of it!"
Subaru looked down at his hands, a little startled to realise he'd been clenching them into fists so hard that they were shaking. If not for his gloves, his nails would be cutting into his palms by now.
If he left now, if he refused to do this job, either the family would find someone less scrupulous to do it or, lacking the care and appreciation it needed, the spirit would leave on its own; one way or another, it would be gone soon. If he did this thing, at the very least he would be there to make sure it found its way home when it moved on. "... I understand."
He tried to tell himself, as he walked back to the room where once an unwanted child had been buried under a dirt floor, that there were no better options. The family that had cared for and nurtured the spirit was gone away, and the new owners of the land were determined to have the spirit gone. There was nothing he could do to protect it, in the long run. But no matter what he told himself, it didn't make him feel at all better about having to be the one to send it away. And when he walked into the room, the shy little spirit was waiting for him. He knelt beside it and asked, "You heard, did you?"
It--she, Subaru saw now--looked at him silently, and he could feel her sadness and confusion. "Why does no one want me?"
Subaru covered his face with his hands and swallowed hard around the lump in his throat. "I don't know. People can be... I don't know." It was hard enough to bear that someone, long ago, had killed this child because they couldn't afford another mouth to feed. For her to be rejected again, unwanted again, because she was inconvenient...
A tiny hand tugged on Subaru's sleeve and he looked down to find the spirit at his side. Standing on her tiptoes to reach, she stretched her hand out, touching the tips of her fingers to the tears streaming down his cheek. "Don't cry, mister." She smiled at him, and patted his cheek. That she would be trying to comfort him, in her own child-like way, made Subaru smile through the tears, and cover her little hand with his.
The spirit began to shine, then, shedding the outer shell she'd worn for so many years. For a moment he saw the shape of the infant she'd been when she died, and then she was gone, vanished into light. She'd smiled at the end. Was that enough? Subaru wiped his face with the back of one gloved hand and shook his head. It wasn't enough, but it had been beyond his abilities to do more.
Hasegawa-san was still sitting at the table in the living room when he had composed himself enough to face her again. He bowed to her, taking refuge in formality and distance. "It's done." He left without waiting for her response. If she filed a complaint with the family he would get an earful from Obaa-chan, but right now he didn't care.
Wrapped up in his thoughts, Subaru got a bit turned around trying to walk back to the station. He wished, now, that this had been one of the times Seishiro-san had been eager to ferry him around in his car. Not only would it have saved him from getting lost, but Subaru found himself desperately wanting to lean on those broad shoulders for a moment and let Seishiro-san convince him that he'd done the right thing, then lighten his heart with a silly joke.
As he was coming into a park--he couldn't tell whether it the same park he'd passed on his way from the train station to the house--Subaru heard children shouting and laughing in a way that could only mean trouble for someone. He sped his steps and came onto the scene just in time to see a lone boy stagger as if struck; a little trickle of blood snaked down the side of his face, and the boy started to turn to confront his tormentors just as a second rock flew.
The taunts and laughter faded to nothing as Subaru caught the rock one-handed, a bare moment before it would have hit the lone boy in the face. Subaru looked at the little knot of boys silently, trying to pick out which of them had thrown the rocks, but within the space of two heartbeats they broke and ran. He was tempted to follow after them so he could let their parents know just what they'd been up to, but the other boy was hurt and that was more important.
In fact, the little boy was trying to sidle away quietly when Subaru turned his attention back to him. "Hey, wait a minute! You're hurt. Come on, we'll go to the fountain and get you cleaned up, at least, okay?"
The boy just stared at Subaru for a long moment, his expression shifting back and forth between hopeful and uncertain, but eventually he nodded jerkily and let Subaru lead him to the fountain.
Searching through his pockets, Subaru realised that somehow he'd managed to leave the house without a handkerchief. "Uhm. I'm really sorry, all I have is..." He dipped the end of one of his shirt-tails in the fountain, then used that to dab at the blood on the boy's forehead. Even though it must have stung fiercely, the boy didn't even wince. Looking more closely Subaru noticed other injuries, in various stages of healing--skinned knees, scratched up arms and legs, the odd bruise--nothing serious, but a fair number of them. His heart went out to the boy, so young to be so inured to pain.
Trying to distract the boy from the pain of having his wound inexpertly cleaned, Subaru asked, "Do you mind telling me your name?"
Again there was a long, measuring silence, and then the boy said softly, "Natsume."
"Well, Natsume-kun, this cut doesn't look too bad now that it's all cleaned up. You'll probably have a little bump for a while, but I don't think you need stitches." Subaru doubted he could have convinced Natsume-kun to go to the hospital even if he had needed stitches, so it was just as well he didn't. Hokuto-chan was going to give him hell for ruining his shirt-tail with blood, though. "I don't suppose you want to tell me what happened with those other boys?"
Natsume-kun looked down at his feet, which didn't quite reach the ground from where he sat on the high edge of the fountain. After another of those long, tense silences, he finally said simply, "They say I'm a liar."
Getting even that much of an answer out of the reticent little boy made Subaru feel oddly blessed, but he was afraid of pushing too hard and driving Natsume-kun away entirely, now that the original job of cleaning up his cut was done with. So, pretending not to notice the way Natsume-kun watched him out of the corner of his eye, waiting warily for his reaction, Subaru looked up at the cloudless sky and said, "Many people get uncomfortable about things that are outside of their own experiences. They find it easier--less scary--to pretend it's not happening at all, rather than to try to understand. But that they do it out of fear and not out of malice doesn't make it right, or fair, and it doesn't make it hurt any less." He looked down at Natsume-kun and smiled, though even he could tell it was a sad sort of smile. "Everyone has their own experiences, and their own pains. Whatever those are in your case, they're true, because they're yours. Nobody has the right to deny that. But there are people out there who will try their hardest to understand you, even if they never totally can, and you'll find the right ones someday, I'm sure of it."
For a minute Subaru thought that Natsume-kun might burst into tears right there, the look on his face was so lonely and wistful, but instead the boy just jumped off the edge of the fountain and turned his back on Subaru, hiding his expression. "... Thanks for the help. I should be getting home."
"Do you want me to walk you there?" Subaru dearly hoped that he'd gained enough of Natsume-kun's trust to get a yes--and a chance to see if it was something in his home life that was hurting Natsume-kun so--but Natsume-kun only shook his head and started off alone.
Subaru called out after him one last time, wanting to insist on walking him home, but when Natsume-kun turned to look at him again something in his eyes stilled the words on Subaru's tongue. Helpless to truly help someone in pain for the second time that day, Subaru felt his shoulders sag a little in defeat and only asked, "Which way is Kanamachi station from here?"
With Natsume-kun's directions firmly in mind, this time Subaru found his way to the station without incident, though he did trip on his own feet a couple times as he lost himself in thought. It had been a difficult day, and an unsatisfying one in so many ways. He could only hope that the usutsuki warashi was happy now, and finding some kind of peace, and that little Natsume-kun really would find those true friends he'd promised.
But if a lonely foreign girl in Shinjuku could find Hokuto, and if Subaru could find Seishiro-san, out of all the people in Tokyo, then surely Natsume-kun would find the people who fit into his life like missing puzzle pieces, too. Surely, someday.
As the train took Subaru back into the heart of Tokyo, he felt the weight of the day lift ever so slightly from his spirit. Not long now, and then he would be home.