Disclaimer: As much as it would please me to say I had the creative prowess as Midorikawa-sensei, I cannot claim credit for any of the characters. Blast.
Chapter 3 - In which she finds she is no longer alone
"Ah, Madara. I see that you're still hanging around." The gigantic, black-skinned youkai chuckled, showing off two rows of shining, white teeth that looked like they could crush Natsume in one motion. "I would have thought that you'd be too humiliated to let Reiko-dono see you again since you were sealed in a maneki-neko, of all vessels."
"Look carefully, you blind old cow, this isn't Reiko!"
Takako had to force herself not to flinch or take cover behind Nyanko-sensei as the giant, somewhat horse-like face came closer to her own, its breath misting in the warm, summer air. The cold that emanated from the creature made her suppress a shiver. Its pupil-less eyes observed her, then crinkled slightly in amusement,
"Ah, I see... Reiko's descendent, correct? Hoshikari here did mention that Natsume-dono seemed a little different from the last time they met."
"Hoshikari? The ayakashi whose Name I returned yesterday?" Takako was surprised out of her frozen moment by hearing a name that she had spoken not twenty-four hours earlier, "You know her?"
"Indeed – she served me for many seasons, before absorbing enough of my energy to be able to become a youkai. She does, however, prefer her original state during the daytime." With that, he held out his only human hand, revealing a small, green frog in its centre. Although the appearance was extremely different, Natsume recognised the unique presence of the webbed-fingered youkai who had come to her room the other night to ask for her Name back.
"Hi there, Hoshikari. I hope none of my kicks gave you too much trouble?"
The wince she got in return was answer enough. Oops.
"Er… sorry about that. But, really, you and Shinmichi didn't need to bind and gag me to get me here. I'm a reasonable person, you know."
The tilt of the head and a raise of a non-existent eyebrow spoke volumes.
"Okay, maybe not at the time, but…"
A tap of one of its hind legs indicated that it decidedly not impressed by her attempted excuses.
"Hey! There's no need for… great. Now, I'm talking to wildlife. Sensei, I think the shock of the last hour has gone to my head." Natsume sat down on the grass, glad that she had chosen to wear a pair of old jeans that had so many grass stains and scuff marks that one more couldn't hurt. "Misuzu, did you say?"
"Yes. I heard from Hoshikari here that Natsume-dono was returning the Names she had taken before. I believed that this would be a good opportunity to ask you to return mine."
Takako raised her eyes to the heavens and sent out a plea to her grandmother, Reiko-san, what possessed you on the day that you challenged this spirit to a duel? And how on earth did you win? "Misuzu, I'm afraid that I've got a few problems to sort out right now – if you come by later, I'll be happy to return your Name…"
"Don't, Natsume! There was a reason why Reiko took his Name in the first place!"
"Don't interfere in my dealings with this Natsume-dono as well, Madara! Or have you already staked your claim on this one as well?" The two beasts were now facing each other, their teeth bared in hideous grins, snarling and growling at the other party. Clutching to Nyanko-sensei's massive foreleg, Takako jumped at how tense the muscles were beneath his fur.
"Misuzu! I will give your Name back, as long as you let me deal with the issue here at Yatsuhara first. There's a human here who is disturbing the residents…"
Immediately, the massive youkai turned its full attention onto Takako, who almost wished she hadn't stepped in between the two spirits at that point. Forcing her shaking knees to stand their ground, she turned her smokey-topaz glare onto Misuzu's own intimidating gaze, "I will not acquiesce to any other agreement, Misuzu." Well, at least her voice alone wasn't shaking.
"Natsume-dono, you say that the one who is disturbing these fields is a human?"
Before Takako could reply, Nyanko-sensei cut in with a smirk in his tone, "Oh yes – why don't you take care of it now? After all, the faster everything is dealt with, the faster you might get your Name back…"
"Sounds interesting! Consider this as advance payment for returning my Name, Natsume-dono!" And, leaving a trail of dust behind him, the giant ayakashi took off, leaving a gobsmacked Natsume behind him, staring dumbstruck at his enthusiasm.
"Sensei… when you said 'take care of'…"
"We ayakashi usually mean in the permanent sense, yes."
Having spent quite a bit of time with Nyanko-sensei now, Takako knew that this could only ever spell trouble. Scrambling to find purchase on the grass with her worn-out trainers, she yelled in desperation towards the rapidly disappearing Misuzu,
"Wait! Misuzu! You can't just randomly kill people…!"
I can't run that fast… there's no way on earth that I can run that fast! Right. Switching tactics!
Takako started to run towards the direction of where the purifying blast came from, hoping that it took Misuzu longer to find the human who shot the purifying wave than it would take her to find them. She could still feel the faintly pulsing energy coming from the direction of the Temple grounds, and quickened her pace. Diving into the thick foliage that blocked off the Temple grounds, she tried to ignore the painful scratches that the bushes inflicted on her forearms, feeling that the branches snagged at the already-frayed edges of her clothes. Ignore it, ignore it, ignore it, just keep running, don't stop don't stop don't stop…
"Natsume, you idiot! This is the best solution – that fat horse is going to eliminate the human, and you don't have to do anything!" Madara, still in his giant form, sloped leisurely by her side. Later on, Takako would spend an entire mealtime glaring at her shape-shifting companion, hating the fact that the idiotic guardian could outstrip her struggles with such little effort. For now, she was so out of breath that all she could do was pant desperately, refusing to take her concentration from the pulse of energy that was beginning to build up again from the Temple. "What is the point of trying? You'd better start getting out of the way before the human decides to start shooting again."
"I… can't… I need… to warn them…" Black spots were starting to build up in the corners of her vision. The building pressure added onto her running as fast as her legs would work was almost impossible – it was getting difficult to keep focussing on the job at hand.
A second later, she felt her body being lifted into the air, feeling secure in her sensei's grip. "Sensei! Don't you dare try and sto…"
"I'm not, idiot, I'm just making sure that you don't die because of something as stupid as trying to save a human."
"But… blessed ground?"
"Hmph. Like that sort of thing could hurt me." Madara snorted contemptuously, shooting off towards the shadowy figure that stood in the middle of the field. Takako could just about make out a monk's garb, and then the unmistakable chanting of a Buddhist prayer. About two seconds later, she felt the pressure that Misuzu had emitted. Right behind them.
"You realise that his Name is in the Book of Friends, Natsume?"
"What difference does that make?"
"Just order him to stop – with the contract that his Name binds him to, he must obey any command you give."
We are so going to need to have a talk after this. Takako seethed at her tight-mouthed companion, and leapt from Nyanko-sensei's back down to the fast-approaching figure, not caring anymore how dangerous and reckless she was being, and screamed, "Stop! Misuzu!" in her desperation to prevent a fellow human's death.
After the dust had cleared from the rather spectacular dive she had performed, she realised that she had landed on a fairly soft, clothed mass, which she quickly scrambled off of. Looking beside her, she saw that her order had worked, if in a more extreme method than she had originally planned. The large youkai was flat on the ground, knocked out and no longer a threat. Nyanko-sensei had placed himself between her and Misuzu, effectively shielding her from the large ayakashi.
"Natsume, there was no need for you to put quite so much power into your words. Anymore and you'd have exorcised him."
"Er… can I help you with anything?"
Both teenager and ancient spirit looked at the rather plain, rather portly man who was staring at Natsume as if she were a ticking time bomb. At first, she didn't think that anything was amiss – after all, most humans looked at her in that way, especially when she acted as if she were running for her life from nothing. Then, she remembered why she had been running at all,
"You… can you not see them?"
"Them? It's only the two of us in the field… is there something else around…?"
After repeatedly apologising to the monk, who had introduced himself as Tanuma, Takako sat cross-legged in front of the bemused monk, with Nyanko-sensei still in his sky-dog form, Misuzu still looking rather green as well as the Cyclops and Bull-Head of the Yatsuhara crowd. But, even with the strange beings surrounding her, Monk Tanuma's gaze was focused solely on her, a look that she was more than used to in her life.
"So… if I may ask, what exactly were you just chanting?"
"It's just a simple prayer, to cleanse the area a little. My son has always been a little sensitive to spiritual vibes – I'm just clearing the area to give him some peace of mind."
Natsume didn't have to turn her head to see that the spirits were gaping incredulously at the spiritually blind, ridiculously high-powered monk who had been unknowingly terrorising the residents of the Yatsuhara Fields. Meanwhile, Misuzu had started to rouse from his unconscious state, and Takako was still half afraid that he would go straight for the monk before she had the chance to explain the situation. Keeping a tight grip on the Book of Friends, as well as a fist in Nyanko-sensei's fur, she asked tentatively,
"So… again, if I may ask, can you see anything… out of the ordinary here, in this field?"
"Other than you and myself? I'm afraid not." The monk replied mildly, although he wasn't wearing the look of incredulity that most people had when she asked things like that. "Actually, if you live in this area, does that mean you attend the High School over by Nanatsuji-ya, the Kitagawa High School?"
"Yes, I do, sir. Why?"
"My son just started there at the beginning of this month. It was a bit of a sudden change for him, but I was hoping that being in a smaller community would help him."
"…Help him? You mentioned earlier that he's 'sensitive', but you didn't specify in what way."
The monk looked at her, then at her two hands, one which was clutched on a travel bag, and the other grabbing what looked like grass at first glance, but on closer inspection, seemed to be fisted in thin air.
"I think it might be better if you come into the Temple with me to meet my son."
She was sitting on the edge of the tatami-covered veranda, looking out toward the small, rather pretty pond in the middle of the patch of ground that the Tanuma father-and-son-pair stayed at. They had gone over to the Temple at first, but since the grounds had been consecrated, her entire entourage of youkai, ayakashi and bakemono had refused to let her walk another step onto ground that they could not follow onto. Trying to fight against the massive sky-dog alone was already too much of a challenge for her five foot four stature, even without the added force of the Yatsuhara bunch and Misuzu on top of her massive sensei.
What she hadn't predicted was how hard it was to try and explain to the Blind Monk (Nyanko-sensei had been a larger influence on her than she had thought) why she couldn't step past the gates into the Temple.
Fortunately, the grounds on which their accommodation was built had not been consecrated, and he had led her through to the tea room. When she had seen the light shimmering on the wooden ceiling, she had pulled the screen door open to see the pond, with water so clear that she could see the multi-coloured koi fish swimming around at the bottom of the pond. Nyanko-sensei had finally shifted back into his pig-cat form, and the other spirits had positioned themselves around the water, bathing in the sun.
"Ah, Natsume-san. My son, Kaname, is on his way – I think he may have actually mentioned you before."The monk came back in, carrying a tray of green tea with him. Setting it down on the table, he glanced at Natsume, who was still staring at the pond, lost in its tranquillity. "You know, you are very much like my son in some ways – he spends hours staring into space as well. He usually sticks a book in front of himself, but I usually come back an hour later and he won't have turned a single page."
"Hm? Oh, sorry – you have a lovely garden, by the way, sir."
"Thank you – it's nothing special. Now, you were asking me earlier about seeing things that were out of the ordinary?"
"Erm… yes… you can ignore that, if you like. It was just a random thing – I'd had a little scare, back in the Fields."
The monk's attention was then caught by the dozing cat that had suddenly appeared in his house. "Is that a… cat?"
"This? Oh, it's just Nyanko-sensei. He follows me around."
"When did he get here?"
"He's always been with me." Takako added cautiously, "He was with me when we first met, as well."
"Really? I didn't see him…" Suddenly, the penny dropped, and the way he stared at the Nyanko-sensei became altogether more inquisitive. "I see that you have more in common with my son than I had first presumed."
"Dad? You called for m… oh. We have a guest?"
"Yes – this is Natsume Takako-san, a girl from your school. I'll leave you two kids to chat, shall I? I need to go and attend to the shrine…" With that, the elder Tanuma left the two teenagers in the room, showing altogether more trust in adolescent hormones than any self-respecting adult should.
Natsume stood to greet the boy, and had to tilt her head back quite a bit to try and meet his eyes. Tanuma was tall and had the look of a gangly teenager who was only just beginning to fill out. His hair was a little shaggy, rather obviously unbrushed and not at all remarkable. In fact, nothing really stood out about the young man – his features, although regular, were almost painfully plain. The only thing that stood out on his face were his eyes. They were bright – almost too bright – and an unnatural shade of brown.
The colour of topaz jewels. Just like her own.
"Natsume? From class A?"
Here, Nyanko-sensei roused himself from his afternoon nap, and glanced at Kaname Tanuma. Then, he emitted a disappointed sigh, and muttered, "Let's go home, Natsume. This guy's next to useless in terms of being able to see us."
Tanuma's reaction to this was almost as funny and satisfying as the punch she delivered to Nyanko-sensei's head. "Did… did that thing just talk?"
"How dare you call the great me a thing? Rude, useless human brat! OW!" The cat glared balefully at Natsume, whose fist was beginning to hurt a little from the force of the punches that she was giving her sensei.
"Oh good G… that wasn't just me, right? It… the maneki neko just talked!"
"Shouldn't you be more surprised that I can hear the cat as well?"
Both teens paused, absorbing the new information. Then, Tanuma suddenly glanced at the ceiling, and back at her, his eyes questioning. Following her schoolmate's gaze up to the patch of ceiling he was looking at, Natsume saw the shimmering reflection of the pond in the garden. Confused, she looked back at Tanuma, and asked, "Why are you staring that shimmering light? It's just the reflection from the garden pond."
"Natsume… there isn't a pond in the garden. I've been the only one who can see the light since we moved here."
Takako's eyes widened in shock, and little bit of horror. She had thought that she was getting so much better at differentiating the world of humans from spirits. Evidently not.
"Hey… can you see anything outside?"
"Well… nothing too specific. I don't really see anything out of the ordinary,I just get hints, and shadows, and sometimes I hear things, or feel things that nobody else can."
Natsume felt her heart sinking; although she had been nervous about meeting another person who could share her view of the world, she had also been so excited about being able to finally talk to another human who might even have a chance to understand the hardship she had gone through over the years. And, now, with a boy who could hardly even be called sensitive to spirits, she could hardly drag him into a world that he could barely even sense.
"Oh. Well then… I should probably head back home. It was nice meeting you."
"Wait! I… I want to… no, I need to know if this is all just in my head. I've heard… rumours about you. They said that… that you had problems at old schools. Problems that were a lot like my own." The topaz eyes that mirrored her own bore into hers, pleading with her, "Please. I have to know."
Natsume paused, hesitating. Even if she couldn't tell him any specifics, she should at least lay his mind to rest about the limited things that he could touch in the spirit world.
"I know what you're thinking, Natsume. Don't you dare tell this brat anything. I have enough problems just looking after you, and you've actually got some meagre power in you!" Nyanko-sensei snapped, losing what little was left of his patience.
"Hold on, Nyanko-sensei. I still need to talk to his father about the Yatsuhara bunch. I don't plan on telling him anything that he doesn't have to know."
"Exactly, Natsume-sama! You have promised to help with our problem!"
"If you recall correctly, I made no such promise. I only said that I'd see what I could do. There's no way you can take what I said as a promise." Takako bit out, glaring at the comedic double act of the Cyclops and Ox-head. Misuzu had taken to sitting there and exuding disapproving auras once in a while towards her general direction. Frowning, she turned back to Tanuma, and explained calmly,
"I only came today to ask your father to stop purifying the land. There are supernatural beings around here, but I don't think they have any malevolent intent. Your father is making life very difficult for them."
Silence reigned. The tense atmosphere remained between the two teens, both of whom were looking at the shimmering light thrown onto the ceiling by a pond that only one of them could see clearly. Just as the weight of the atmosphere was becoming next-to impossible to withstand, the tall, black-haired teen suddenly snorted and guffawed,
"I'm sorry, Natsume. It's just that… well, I don't think I've ever met anyone as young as you speak with such old-fashioned wording and expressions!"
The tense atmosphere dissipated immediately.
Takako felt a blush spreading across her cheeks, as she realised that he wasn't exaggerating. Since she had spent more of her childhood speaking to spirits than she had to humans her own age, she had picked up their mannerisms and vocabulary as well, outside of 'unworthy human' and 'I'll eat you!'. Now that she thought about it, this was the first time she had really interacted with anyone her own age outside of the families she had stayed with over the years. Suddenly, she became horribly aware of the fact that the person her own age was a boy, and that they were very much alone in the room. The fact that she had at least three chaperones, even if Tanuma could only see one of them, did not comfort her at all, since their grasp of human sensibilities were poor, at best.
"Well, it happens when the only real company you keep speak in rhymes and riddles and formal language all the time." Natsume offered, the corners of her mouth twitching upwards, "Were you the one looking for me yesterday, at school?"
"Oh, yes – I had heard from a guy in my class that a girl called Natsume behaved a lot like me. Anaemic all the time, jumping at random times. The folks in this village are really nice – even though I behaved so weirdly, they all seem to shrug it off, and treat me just like any other person."
"I know." The atmosphere had brightened, and both humans were at ease, "I know."
"Dammit, Natsume!" Nyanko-sensei screeched, "I told you not to entangle another brat into this world! I can't afford to look after all of you!"
The fact that he had seen and heard the maneki neko talk not ten minutes ago did nothing to abate the gobsmacked reaction that Tanuma had. Sighing, Natsume guided the shocked-looking teen towards the tea table, and motioned for him to sit down,
"This is going to take a while, so you may as well sit for the story."
"So… you can see spirits as solid things, not just as shadows, or as ghosts?"
"I'm not too sure if ghosts really exist, although I've got my hands full just being able to see spirits, so I'll pass on being able to see any other supernatural things." Natsume replied, nursing a half-full cup of green tea, "But that's pretty much it for my story. Nyanko-sensei is a fairly new addition into my life, and I think he's already plenty mad at me, so I'd rather avoid telling you the full story."
"And your… Nyanko-sensei… sorry, but is there anything else I can call him? Calling a cat 'sensei' is a bit embarrassing. How did you even come up with the name, anyway?"
"That's an even longer story that I don't think you'd be able to stay awake during," Not to mention Nyanko-sensei would skin me alive, agreement or not, "But feel free to call him anything. He'll respond to pretty much any name."
"Don't make it sound as if I have no standards, stupid child!"
"Nyanko-sensei, if you allow me to continue calling you by that embarrassing name, it kind of implies that you have no standards without me saying, don't you think?" Takako commented drily, poking the abnormally round head of her sensei in reprimand. She glanced back at Tanuma, who still seemed to be suffering from a case of shock at the fact that her cat could talk, "Please, Tanuma-kun. Continue."
"Right… er… so, Ponta? Could I call you Ponta instead?"
It was Takako's turn to chuckle, "It really suits you, sensei, you and your over-inflated head."
"Anyway, Ponta here took it upon himself to teach you about the world of spirits, and agreed to become your bodyguard? But why? Is there something in it for him?"
Shoot. Apparently, having blunted spiritual sense did not blunt Tanuma's wit at all. As she scrabbled a little for a reasonable explanation, Nyanko-sensei interrupted, "Well, at least you're sharper than Natsume here in brains, if not in eyesight. I'm accompanying her because she's interesting, and when you live as long as I do, you take your entertainment where you can. As soon as she stops being entertaining for me, I'll eat her faster than a Nanatsuji-ya sweet bun."
Takako could tell from the disbelief radiating from her year-mate that he refused to believe such an outright admission of regarding someone as disposable entertainment. It was almost painfully obvious that he hadn't met too many ayakashi before, or at least, hadn't been on the receiving end of countless 'I shall devour you!'s. And I intend to leave it that way.
"Hold on, Ponta's only with you so that he can eat you when you're done? Are you… are you serious?" Tanuma exclaimed incredulously, staring at the roll of fat that only vaguely resembled a feline, "I mean, he doesn't look as if he could do that much damage."
"What?! I take back what I said about your wit! It's just as blunt as this idiot's!" Nyanko-sensei snapped, swiping a claw towards Tanuma, only to be restrained by Natsume, "I could eat ten of Natsume if I wanted to!"
"Sensei, that's only admitting you're a glutton, you know that?" To her embarrassment, Takako let a giggle escape from her throat, the first time she had ever made such a noise after her father had passed away.
"What? Let's see if you're still laughing after I'm through with you…"
Five minutes later, the tea room looked more like a warzone, albeit with tea stains and crushed pastries rather than blood and guts strewn around, and the two teenagers were collapsed on the floor, laughing until they had no breath left. Dragging herself back into an upright position, Takako gasped out, "I think this is the most fun I've had with a fellow human… ever!"
"Well, this is the most fun I've ever had, period." Tanuma replied, equally out of breath, "It's kind of hard to talk with someone you can't see, and it's difficult to speak to people who avoid you like you were the plague."
"Tell me about it." Takako responded, suddenly realising how much more lonely Tanuma must have felt when he was growing up. Granted, she had been terrorised and terrified to the point where she had wished everything in the world would just disappear, but she had still been able to speak to the odd spirit, although it was usually because she simply couldn't tell the difference between that which was human and that which was not. "It's actually surprisingly easy to get along with you, you know that?"
"Why, thank you. It's good to know that I'm not totally repulsive to girls." Tanuma commented sarcastically, laughing a little at her straightforwardness, "But I must admit, you're easy to talk to as well. Much easier than others, and even my dad."
"It's obvious why, you brats." Nyanko-sensei grumbled, now recovered from the punch to the head Natsume had delivered earlier, "You're at ease around each other because it's the first time that either of you have met someone so close to your own nature. It's a wonder that the attraction hasn't led you down to path to procreation yet." He threw in casually, causing Takako's blush to rear back with a vengeance, and Tanuma to choke on his own spit.
"Nyanko-sensei! What are you saying?" Takako exclaimed, her flush now reaching her ears. She had gotten so flustered that she couldn't even bring herself to slap the blunt cat, "That's considered sexual harassment, you know."
"Hmm… Reiko used to say the same phrase, 'sexual harrassment', a lot. I've forgotten now what she said it meant. OW!"
This time, surprisingly, it was Tanuma's fist that was throbbing from punching the cat's surprisingly hard, ceramic head. "That's oddly satisfying. I see why you do it so often, Natsume."
And that set off the laughing all over again.
"You said there was a pond outside?"
"Yes – how do you think there's water reflecting light onto your roof? Spirits are mysterious, but they're hardly illogical."
"Says the girl with a talking maneki neko for a pet?"
"You make a good point."
"Are you going to take it?"
"Not a chance."
Takako and Tanuma had been sitting there, chatting for almost an hour now, comparing childhood experiences. Whilst she had not revealed the extent of her dealings with youkai, especially not the Book of Friends, but it seemed that explaining to her new friend how most of the supernatural beings he could sense were harmless and would ignore humans who couldn't see them made Tanuma feel a far sight better than he ever had about his latent powers. Part of her regretted not being able to share everything with her schoolmate, but at the same time, it was a relief to find someone who had had similar experiences with humans as she had. After all, most people she had confided her borderline-hatred for the blind humans to had either been shocked, horrified or 'not people'.
"Didn't having spirits bothering you all the time distract you from studying at all? I mean, you look like you actually belong in the first year of high school, unlike me."
"I may not look like it, but I'm actually almost a month older than anyone in our year." Takako smiled faintly, cursing her lack of feminine curves, "My birthday is in March, which means I should be in the year above you, as one of the youngest in the year, but what with being moved from place to place, and having spirits jump out at you at any random moment of the day, it was almost inevitable that I was going to be held back a year."
"So you're seventeen years old? I didn't think that you'd be a year younger than me…"
"I was usually safest on consecrated ground, so I used to do a lot of self-study in abandoned shrines and run-down temples. No one ever goes near those kinds of places, so it was quiet enough for me to get a good deal done. If it wasn't for one of the families deciding I was too much for their family to look after right before the high school entrance exams, I would have been your senpai."
"If I hadn't been so distracted by… well… I would have been yours. My birthday is coming fairly soon now, and I'm turning eighteen, so technically the seniority belongs to me." Here, Tanuma frowned a little in confusion, "Hold on – if consecrated ground prevents spirits from entering, then how is it that my old home seemed to be infested by them? My father definitely blessed the ground as part of an annual ritual, and it didn't seem to deter spirits in the slightest."
"I'm not sure about that, either. Sensei?" She turned towards the cat, who had long since started to ignore the two chatting teens in favour of dozing in the early afternoon sun.
"Hmph. Go bother someone else with that curiosity of yours. And I thought I was meant to be the cat here…" The cat grumbled, rolling over to face away from his charge. "Misuzu! You take over for a bit!"
Misuzu, the gigantic horse-headed ayakashi who had been pummelled into the ground by Natsume's spiritual pressure not two hours before, turned to face the two humans. Natsume had to suppress a wince at his face – the disapproving look was enough to make anyone flinch. The spirit was obviously unhappy about her revealing so much of the supernatural world to a half-blind, half-deaf fellow human. Whether it was out of impatience for her to return his Name, or because of genuine hatred of humans in general, she couldn't tell.
"The consecration of earth is not an act a normal human can do. It is true that the monk has spiritual power obtained through dedication and training, but it is only those who have the potential to be a part of our world who can bless an area of land and keep it free of spirits. Even then, the ritual usually requires a live sacrifice, as your sensei well knows."
"A sacrifice? You mean that every shrine that's been safeguarded required the imprisonment of a youkai?"
"Hardly an imprisonment in most cases, Natsume-dono. Enshrinement is usually considered a privilege for us – being enshrined does limit our movement, but it essentially deifies us." Misuzu corrected, "Unless you're sealed. That's usually because the spirit in question wreaked havoc on the general population, and were sealed in the hopes that enough offerings would appease them, or at least persuade them not to escape and completely devour the humans who commissioned the imprisonment."
"Well, thanks for the explanation. It's just because the ground wasn't properly consecrated by someone who was born with our sensitivity, Tanuma-san." She repeated towards her fellow teen, who looked rather relieved to be included in the conversation of which he could only hear one half of.
"Just call me Tanuma – I'm not great with formality."
"Aren't we getting cosy here?" A different voice, distinctly female, cut in between Takako and Tanuma, who jumped at the sudden intrusion. A honey-brown haired, glasses-wearing girl popped her head through the opened screen door, smiling disarmingly, waving what looked suspiciously like a school assignment at the two other teenagers, "Jun Sasada here, special delivery for one Takako Natsume-san!"
"Sasada-san! What are you doing here?" Takako exclaimed, startled by the sudden appearance of her class captain. She could almost feel the mask she wore for the sake of social convention snap into place in response to the appearance of a completely unaware human.
"What do you mean, what am I doing here? You left half of your assignments behind when you suddenly took off yesterday from school! It took me all of yesterday to track down your student record to see where you lived – then, when I visited this morning, the Fujiwara couple told me you had already left, for Yatsuhara, of all places. So, I had to wait for the bus for an entire hour, before getting on, and then I managed to fall asleep, so then I had to wait another half-hour for the next bus…"
"Er… Sasada, is it? How did you get in? I thought my father was out on business?"
"Huh? Well, I did knock, but nobody answered for a while. Just before I was about to knock again, the door opened on its own, so I assumed that somebody must have opened the door and let me in before returning to work or something… was that not the case?"
Natsume glanced towards the courtyard, noting the definite absence of one of the comedic duo, and the guilt-ridden expression of the remaining one. That's what I get for neglecting to keep an eye on them, I guess.
"Anyway – you'd better get these done right away. The literature assignment is easy enough, but the Chemistry and Maths ones are really difficult. I'm still trying to get through them."
At the words 'Chemistry' and 'Maths', Natsume froze. It was rare for her to feel this kind of stomach-tugging terror when no spirits were actually involved, and the nausea was definitely a new experience. Wonderful. One of her first experiences of a normal high school student had to be something like this. Maybe whatever made her so appetising to youkai also attracted bad luck?
"Natsume? Are you alright? You've turned… even paler. Like a ghost. Do you need a lie down or something?" Tanuma asked, genuinely worried that his newfound friend was about to faint then and there in his tea room. Sasada had the same look of concern on her face. Suddenly, she found both her shoulders gripped by surprisingly strong, slim fingers, looking into terror-struck topaz irises.
"Sasada-san! You have to help me! I don't understand Chemistry or Maths at all, and I need all the credits I can get to be able to pass this year!" I can't give the Fujiwaras any more trouble than I already have, she added on silently.
"O… okay. That's fine – I haven't gotten very far on the assignments yet either. Although, if you had been at home like any normal adolescent would have been on a holiday morning at nine-thirty, we could have done this at your home."
No, we wouldn't. Of that, Natsume was certain. Even though the change was subtle, it was still there; before meeting Tanuma, she would never have considered asking a fellow human for help on anything. After all, throughout her sixteen years of existence, she could count the number of times humans truly understood her feelings on one hand – the walls she had built to protect herself from cruel, human prejudices against anything outside of the social norm had long since been established. The feelings of resentment, hatred towards humans who judged her without knowing her circumstances had morphed through the years into a single thought:
There will never be another human who feels the same way as me, because there are no other humans who can live in the world I see.
I am alone.
But, after speaking to Tanuma, at least about her interactions with humans, she found someone who empathised, who could understand. Knowing that someone who wasn't even fully connected to the spirit world could still understand her seemed to weaken that protective wall. She wasn't afraid anymore to reach out to another human for their warmth, their company. Their help.
"Let's all grab one assignment each – Natsume-san, you take literature, it seems to be your best subject… I'll take Chemistry, and Tanuma-san, you can take Maths."
"Hold on, how come you're in charge, Miss Bossy?"
"Because I am the class captain – that means that in the absence of an adult, I am the default leader."
"Yeah, the default leader who looks through students' personal details – even I know that only teachers are meant to see those files!" Tanuma retorted, reaching for the Maths worksheet and cringing at the complicated maze of 'x', 'y' and various other letters. "And I'm not even in your class, so why should I help you with this?"
Sasada's eyes glinted mischievously, "Because, my dear Tanuma-san, whilst we have different Maths teachers, it's well-known by those who went to the nearby middle school that whatever one class does as an assignment, the other class will get as a surprise test during the next week. So, unless you want to be held back another year…"
"I like this human, Natsume-dono. Her skills of extortion are most impressive." Misuzu snorted, sending a short, hard blast of air towards them, blowing Sasada's hair into her eyes.
"Woah! What was that sudden wind?"
"It's nothing! It's an old house – bound to have a few draughty areas, right?" Tanuma supplied quickly, grabbing the Maths textbook from Sasada's hands, "Come on, back to work, right?"
Sasada nodded slowly, her expression barely trying to hide her suspicious glare, and turned her attention back to her classmate, "Before we go ahead and get stuck in, I've just got one question, Natsume-san, Tanuma-san."
"Hm?" Takako was only half-listening now, whilst ruminating on the first paragraph of the fourth chapter of Taketori Monogatari.
"Are you two dating? Because if so, you really shouldn't let it distr…" She was interrupted by two cushions being thrown into her face, but not before she got a satisfying view of two visages that would have put a tomato to shame.
The next several hours was only punctuated by the protests of the three teens' stomachs, which called for a quick trip to the local shops for some store-bought lunchboxes, and toilet breaks. By three in the afternoon, they had all finished their individual assignments, and by four, they had been double checked by another member of their impromptu study group. At five now, with Tanuma's father still at the shrine (since it was a rest day for office workers, the Temple was being rather overrun by customers at the moment, it seemed), both girls had phoned home to say they were staying at Tanuma's for dinner as well, but that they would definitely be back before nine, when the last bus was due to run between the two areas.
Sasada had insisted on checking the pieces of work one more time before copying each other's answers. She was now sat at the desk, eyes desperately scanning the Chemistry assignment she had given to herself as the remaining shreds of natural light began to dissipate into the darkening sky, bathing the landscape in a golden glow. Tanuma had taken to staring at the slowly-disappearing invisible shimmers on his ceiling, at peace now that he knew it was simply a youkai carp pond in the middle of the courtyard, rather than anything more sinister. At some point during studying, Nyanko-sensei had decided that the hard, wooden floor was not as comfortable a spot as Natsume's lap, and had promptly crawled onto her thighs, earning an 'oomph!' out of Natsume, as well 'awww!'s from the two who did not have over ten kilograms of maneki neko crushing their femur shafts.
And, as Takako took in the sight before her, with Sasada going through the homework (again), Tanuma staring at the carp-pond reflection on the ceiling, and felt the reassuring weight of her constant Nyanko-sensei, she knew one thing.
I am no longer alone.
How… alarmingly refreshing.
Madara wasn't a sloth, by any meaning of the term. Sure, he enjoyed the odd alcohol-binge, since his body could take the battering, and human food always seemed to satisfy his taste buds in a way that spiritual energy taken from a human couldn't, but when the situation called for speed, he could outstrip even the fires of hell to fulfil his task.
This was one of those situations.
Once the troublesome brats had separated and Natsume had finally gotten back to the Fujiwara home, he was proceeded to place a few protective talismans in the four corners of her room. Satisfied that they would keep the child safe for the few hours he would be gone, he crept uncharacteristically stealthily out the window. Glancing backwards, he noticed a slight frown on the girl-child's brow. Although he knew that she had nightmares, and could guess what they were about, they had never spoken about them during their short time together.
"I'll be back soon, brat." He muttered under his breath, making the jump from the windowsill, launching himself into the clear night sky.
He didn't see Takako's brow relax, her sleep once again peaceful.
Flying through the air as he wished, he realised that he hadn't been able to fly so recklessly since the girl had released him, since he was almost always carrying excess baggage in the form of a ridiculously breakable human around with him. Oddly enough, he now felt uncomfortably light without that extra weight. Well, that was what he got for letting a human use him as a mode of transport for the first time.
Spotting his destination, he landed in the middle of the recently-cleaned Yatsuhara Fields, facing the one who had called him out to this location. Misuzu.
"Hmph. Too bad the brat was too tired to return your Name, right, traitor?" Madara spat, his hatred for the spirit in front of him showing clearly on his savage face.
"Do not speak to my master like that, impudent cat!" The frog, Hoshikari, was in her humanoid form once again, defended Misuzu fiercely. "It's already unacceptable that you have gained influence with another human as gifted as Natsume-sama before Misuzu-sama again!"
"Hoshikari, that is enough. Whilst I am unhappy that Madara has decided to involve Natsume-dono to such an extent, with the amount of power she has under her skin, it may be for the best that she has the Book in her possession." Misuzu turned his unblinking stare onto the significantly smaller Madara, "Although she is still unworthy, she may keep my Name for the time being. It may help her in the future."
"You mean if that disgusting exorcist clan approaches your territory again and threaten your servants? Believe me, traitor, I will not hesitate to make the brat burn your Name and you along with it when history repeats itself." Madara retorted, his stance still aggressive.
"We are not like humans, Madara – we do not repeat the same mistakes."
"I'm not willing to take my chances. This Natsume is not the same as Reiko – they both came out of their experiences scarred and hurting, but where Reiko attacked, Takako defends. She lacks the self-confidence that Reiko had. If she encounters those scum from the Matoba clan, she will more than likely fold to their demands."
"And yet, you gave the Book of Friends to her, instead of destroying her before she has the chance to grow into her potential as our greatest enemy?" Misuzu questioned.
"I let her have the Book because it amuses me. I only ever get involved with humans for amusement." Madara paused, pondering his answer, "As soon as she dies, I will take the Book for myself – that is our agreement."
"And? If she turns on you? On all spirits? You know as well as I, Madara, that that Book is the golden egg for all exorcists. If the wind blows in the wrong direction, it won't just be the Matoba clan who will be seeking your young human out. It will be every single exorcist family that still remains in existence, and not all of them will be using vinegar to catch Natsume-dono."
Madara growled lowly at the truth in Misuzu's words. He spoke the truth – if any exorcists managed to pull Natsume over the edge of the fence she was sitting on at the moment onto the side of humans, then the Book he was leaving in her care would quickly become a very dangerous tool. However, even in the short time that he had known this child…
"That will never happen. Even if she were to become an exorcist, I have faith that she would not use the Book as a tool of the trade."
"How can you be so sure? Humans change so often in such a short period of time."
"I can't say for certain – just a feeling. An overdeveloped sense of duty, or some such nonsense. I'm not sure where she learnt it from, but from the short time I've been with her, I can tell you now that she doesn't have the ruthlessness needed for being an exorcist, so you can rest easy." His golden eyes sharpened, his pupils contracting in warning to the giant bovine youkai, "But I will promise you this, Misuzu. If I catch any rumours of you associating with the Matoba clan, or any other clan, I will destroy you. Even if it meant my own destruction, I will not let you betray another one of mine."
"I did not intend to betray Reiko-dono, Madara." Misuzu sighed, "The Matobas had cornered me, and had captured one of mine, and demanded to know the whereabouts of the most powerful human in the area. I offered the deal of exchanging the information for the vessel that held my servant. I did not know their intentions towards Reiko-dono would be so…"
"Well, thanks to your betrayal, I was sealed in that shrine for a half a human lifetime, and Reiko was left to those vultures in human guise! We'll never know what happened to her, Misuzu, but knowing how the Matoba treat those who refuse their demands, I'm sure that even with your limited intelligence, you can imagine that it was not pleasant." Turning away from master and servant, Madara did not even look back at the two spirits before throwing an afterthought at them, "I will not let another one of mine to become a plaything of those vultures. Unless you have a death wish, do not stand in my way." Having delivered his promise (because he always followed through with his threats) he launched himself back to the comfort of his new abode, to take advantage of the nest that Natsume had put together for him.
"Master, is it really alright to leave your Name in Natsume-sama's hands?"
"It is not alright, but it is necessary. We cannot afford to let her out of our sights." I cannot afford for her to become an underling of the Matobas, because all who are contained within those covers will also follow, including myself.
If she is unworthy, then I will test her until she becomes worthy to hold my Name.
Author's Note: I am so sorry for the delay, for any still reading this story! This chapter just did not want to be written - I'm still not happy with the finished product, but I've given this chapter up as a lost cause. Hopefully the next chapter will be a little better. I'll be introducing Natori in the next chapter, although the Matoba clan will have to wait a while until my version of Natsume learns a few new tricks.
'Kitagawa High School is just something I made up, since I couldn't remember if the manga or anime ever mentioned the name of the school - it means 'Northern River'.
'Taketori Monogatari' is a classical piece of literature, which tells the story of Kaguya-hime. For those curious enough, google it!
Thanks for reading and please review! Who knows, it may even make me write faster ^_^.