WARNING! This story contains graphic M/M, cross-dressing, light bondage, and dubious consent. If any of these things are not to your liking, you would do well to avoid this fic. I've read up to chapter 44 of the manga, but if you've already met Matoba, this fic shouldn't contain any real spoilers for you.
Disclaimer: I do not own Natsume Yuujinchou or any of its characters. That honor belongs to Midorikawa Yuki. This was written purely for entertainment and no offense is intended. I am not and will never make a profit from any of this.
Natsume Takashi could see strange things ever since he was a small child. Things that others couldn't. You might call them "spirits".
That said, Natsume's day proceeded as normally as any other day. He woke to Nyanko-sensei entering (staggering into) his room through the window, the cat's pudgy face flushed as he muttered loudly to himself after a night of drinking. He ate breakfast with the Fujiwara couple, and only saw a few small spirits on his way to school. And now on his way home, he ran full-tilt downhill in a wooded area as a particularly hostile youkai pursued at his heels.
Natsume's feet flew over the underbrush with impressive ease, having had plenty of practice over the years. The youkai bellowed, mostly unintelligible save for "eat you" and "Book of Friends". It stood over twice as tall as Natsume, looking like a crouched body of a man with thick limbs that shook the leaves as they pounded after him. It didn't seem to have eyes, or at least Natsume hadn't looked close enough to see any past its gaping jaws lined with too-many teeth.
After surprising him on his usual path home from school, the demon drove him far off course and deeper into the mountains. Every break he made for the roads was quickly blocked and now he didn't know which direction he was running anymore except AWAY. Sweat rolled down his face and he gasped for each breath, barely dodging yet another swipe of the youkai's massive hand. His legs were burning with fatigue. Even with all his practice, he was only human and the youkai had kept up with his pace too closely to hide or escape. As far as he knew, Nyanko-sensei was sleeping off a hangover at home, and he doubted one of his punches would do much against this behemoth.
He could feel his pace slowing and his options were running out. Natsume spotted a large clump of brambles just ahead and made a desperate bid for it with the last of his stamina. He dove for a small clearing under the bushes, shredding clothes and skin alike on the thorns while wedging himself as deep into the branches as he could. The youkai howled in frustration, palming the prickly bushes and recoiling away. It pushed down on the branches violently at first, almost crushing Natsume under the foliage. Then, more tentatively, it reached underneath towards its prey's hiding spot.
Natsume curled up tightly, trying to push himself deeper despite the thorns digging into him. He would have thought after being constantly harassed for years by spirits that he would be numbed to feelings of fear, but being cornered never failed to draw it out. When the youkai's fingers finally curled around his body, he screamed.
The youkai burst into blue lights and scattered to the wind with a strangled cry. Natsume didn't move at first, afraid to believe it. Only his own panting could be heard through the blood thundering in his ears. He was saved, that much was clear. "Sensei?" He called hesitantly.
A human hand (or human-looking, at least) appeared through the brambles, palm-up as if offering assistance. Was it Natori then, or some kind of youkai? "Who's there?" Natsume tried again, but his rescuer remained silent. He considered staying put or trying to sneak out another way, but scrapped the idea. At that point, he was so hopelessly tangled in the thorns that he didn't think he could free himself without help. So, he took the hand and allowed himself to be hauled forward. The branches clung to his body and it took a lot of painful picking before he could move much. Upon clearing the leaves and looking up at the owner of the mystery hand, he released it as if burned and nearly backpedalled right back into the thorns.
"Matoba-san!" Natsume gasped.
"Natsume-kun," Matoba greeted. "We really should stop meeting like this."
It's not like I want to, Natsume thought. His eyes darted left and right before returning to the taller man before him, wondering whether he should be keeping an eye out for Matoba's shiki or paying attention to the enemy in front. Matoba watched him with a knowing smile that reached his uncovered eye, and Natsume realized it didn't matter either way. It was all he could do to avoid falling to his knees in exhaustion. More running was out of the question. "What are you doing here?" He asked instead.
"Business," the long-haired man replied pleasantly while inspecting the longbow in his hands. "There are many interesting ayakashi in this area, aren't there? That one chasing you made such a commotion I had to come and see."
Natsume's blood ran cold. Could Matoba have heard the youkai calling out for the Book of Friends?
"You did well to elude it for so long," Matoba continued. His eye did a once-over on Natsume's appearance. His school uniform was covered in small holes and leaves, while dozens of raised pink lines dusted his bare arms. "Why don't you come back with me? We can enjoy a cup of tea and conversation while you recover."
"No, thank you," Natsume responded too quickly.
"Natsume!" A familiar deep voice rang out from above and a flash of white flew into view.
"Nyanko-sensei!" Natsume cried.
The youkai's long, feline body settled between the two of them and he threw his head back with an angry snarl. "You damn brat, how many times do I have to tell you? Or should I teach you a lesson now!" Madara spat. Matoba didn't flinch. "And you!" He turned a large eye to Natsume. "I can't leave you alone for a minute!"
"Sorry, Sensei," said Natsume, though he couldn't hide the relief in his voice. Madara snorted in response.
Matoba spoke at last, "I see I won't be able to have a decent conversation with you as long as your…'guardian' is around."
"You're free to try," Madara dared.
"For today, I'll take my leave. But please consider paying me a visit in the near future, Natsume-kun. I admit patience isn't my best virtue."
On that note, Matoba turned his back on them and walked away at his own pace.
They watched until he disappeared into the trees. "Hmph. He gave up pretty easily," Madara commented.
Usually confrontations with Matoba involved daring escapes and avoiding his shiki. However, Natsume found himself too tired to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Let's go home, Sensei. I don't want Touko-san to worry," he said.
Traveling on Madara's back, Natsume arrived home only somewhat later than usual. Even so, he still had to explain to Touko-san that he fell into a thorn bush, accepting her worried chastising sheepishly. That night proceeded as normally as his day had, with a midnight ayakashi visit.
Natsume's eyes flickered open to a scratching at the window. He considered ignoring it. If an ayakashi wanted its name back, it could come back in the morning. Or preferably the afternoon, so he didn't have to go to school with his energy drained.
The sound persisted, however, and Natsume forced himself to his feet. He flicked on the light and looked to the window. A pair of small ayakashi waved at him with tiny stick-like hands. They appeared to be scrawny frogs standing on two legs, with ivory masks concealing their faces. Madara, now in his more familiar maneki-neko form, stirred at the foot of Natsume's futon when he opened the window.
"Natsume Reiko?" One of the ayakashi squeaked hopefully.
"No, sorry," Natsume repeated what he had for many other before them. "I'm Natsume Takashi. Reiko was my grandmother, but she died a long time ago."
"Ohhh…oh, Natsume Reiko isn't here?"
"No, but, if you need your name back, I can-"
"Oh, she isn't here. What do we do?" The ayakashi fretted to the other next to it.
"I don't know. How will we help the princess now? The wedding is in three days." The other lamented.
"Maybe it will still work. They look a little similar, don't they?"
"A little. Maybe? The princess is more beautiful, though."
"Oh, definitely. But if they don't look too closely…"
"Um?" Natsume had to interrupt. As much as he wanted to return all the names in the book, it was late and he had school in the morning.
"Natsume-sama, you must come with us!" The ayakashi cried in unison, grasped at his pant legs with their little fists, and tugged on him hard enough to make him stumble.
A light kick was enough to send them flying, and they landed in a heap on Natsume's floor. He prepared to return to bed, when Madara spoke up. "A wedding, eh? Natsume, you shouldn't be so rude. We should go."
"We don't even know what they want," Natsume pointed out irritably. "You just want to drink some more."
"There will be a fine banquet," noted one of the ayakashi, picking itself up.
"Nothing but the finest for our princess," the other agreed.
"Natsume, you're always butting into things like this anyway. At least this time you get a reward. You never want to have any fun!" Madara accused, waving his stubby paws.
"You're hopeless, Sensei," Natsume sighed. With the cat's pressuring, he settled down with the ayakashi and listened to their story.
"Our princess is being married to a mighty lord on the other side of the mountains," one explained. "The wedding procession must take her there tomorrow night, but…"
"There are human exorcists in the forest recently. They're after the princess, we just know it! If they attack the procession, it'll be a disaster."
"Our poor princess. She's so frightened!"
Natsume looked to his guardian thoughtfully, "Could it be the Matoba clan?"
"Who else?" Madara muttered, grooming a paw to feign disinterest in the way real cats do. "But what did you expect Reiko to do about it?"
The ayakashi nodded gravely. "Natsume Reiko looked very much like the princess," it explained.
"It was uncanny," the other added. "Though our princess is more beautiful."
"We want to trick the humans with a fake procession while we take the princess another way."
"This Natsume looks similar, too."
"Not as much."
"But if you wear the veil, no one will notice."
Natsume blinked. He was still half asleep, and wondered if he was hearing them right. "Are you asking me to dress up as your princess?" He questioned flatly.
"We would be very grateful," both of the ayakashi bowed low, their masks clicking against the floor.
Madara cackled out loud, "Well, what do you say, Natsume? Shall we help them?"
"W-Well," Natsume's face flushed and he hoped it wasn't too noticeable. It wasn't that he didn't want to help, so much as he had an appropriate knee-jerk reaction to dressing like a princess. His eyes darted from the two small ayakashi prostrate before him and Madara, seeking any kind of confirmation on his feelings. He couldn't tell from the cat's expression if he was laughing at him or just excited about the prospect of a great feast. Then again, perhaps such a thing wasn't as much of a problem among youkai? Natsume recalled that many ayakashi seemed to have a difficult time distinguishing gender, often mistaking him for his grandmother.
"Please, Natsume-sama!" The ayakashi begged, touching his bent knees desperately from their position, "Who knows what those people will do to our kind princess? Please, you must help us save her!"
Natsume didn't know what the Matoba clan would do with their princess either, but he knew enough that he couldn't possibly refuse. The little ayakashi cared so deeply for their princess that the feeling rubbed off on him. So, sighing deeply, he jerked his head in a nod.