A/N: This is an alternative universe that diverges from the events described in the Long Way Home arc (SPOILER WARNINGS FOR ANIME EPISODES 51-53/SEASON 4 EPISODES 11-13). In this AU, Madara was never sealed. I intend this to be a more traditional kind of story, with longer chapters. Of course, updates would probably be longer because of it, but I've been having a bad track record recently for my other work, so at this point I'm pretty pathetic. I'm hoping that by also having this to work on, I'll be able to alternate when I hit bad writer's blocks.
I have no intention of abandoning my other Natsume Yuujinchou piece, so rest easy. I'm merely er... expanding my repertoire. It is my greatest hope that you enjoy this piece as much as my other ones. Thank you.
Prologue: Calling For That Which Is Not There
He ran and ran, arms flailing wildly in his desperation to get away, occasionally slipping on the still-wet ground.
Shiromachi. Shiromachi. West down Shirokawa River. Down the river, and it will be there.
The home to where he truly belonged. Not back there, where he hurt everyone and everything, causing trouble for good people who did not deserve it. And perhaps if he went back…
"Daddy!" he cried, between gasps for breath. "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"
Surely his father would hear him. Surely he would come.
"Daddy! Daddy!" A choking sob, and then again. "Daddy!"
It became a chant as he continued to run, following the river ever westward. Houses moved slowly past him as he ran, shuttered windows glittering in a warm, orange glow. He knew, knew that once he got there, that there would be no warmth to greet him.
That empty house. My house. My home. And daddy… Surely daddy will be there. In some way, he will be there.
Daddy, who used to gently pat him on the head. Daddy, who would hold him on his lap in the warm summer afternoons, pointing out flowers in the garden. Flowers his mother had secretly planted, a mother he had never met. Will never meet.
But he remembered his father.
And so he continued to run. He ran until exhaustion finally overtook him, when his legs, trembling, could no longer carry him. Too weak to cry, he collapsed on the wet road, shivering in the cold. His thoughts became muddled, and he felt himself drifting away.
Daddy, daddy, where are you?
Above, standing on the roof of a human dwelling, Madara watched.
His lips curled into a sneer, as the human child collapsed, crying out for something that would never come. Foolish human child. Weak.
Reiko, Reiko. This... This is your legacy?
The child had none of Reiko's vibrancy, none of Reiko's fire and spirit. No, this was a child broken, soft. It would never reach Reiko's strength.
He should just go. He knew where the human child lived now, and there, he was sure, would be the Book of Friends. It would be a simple thing to just take it and go, leaving the human child to its fate.
Yet something drew him to it. Weak though the child was, there was power there, as vast and deep perhaps, as Reiko's.
In that moment, Reiko's laughter echoed in his ear. And with it, the promise Reiko had wrangled from him.
"Urgh, Reiko. You are annoying, even in death."
It was that, and not the human child, that eventually made him leave his place, descending to the ground next to the tiny crumpled figure that laid unmoving.
"Hey. Hey, brat. Get up!"
The human child did not stir.
With his paw, Madara reluctantly nudged it.
"Wake up! What kind of idiot are you, to fall asleep in a place like this?"
Slowly, far too slowly, it began to stir. The human child pushed itself up, enough that it could lift its head off the ground.
"Dadd—" the human child began, sitting up. In that moment, it caught sight of one of Madara's paws, and froze.
"Finally awake I see," Madara said, swishing his tail around the human child, securing all possible escape routes. The child began to shake, this time not from exhaustion, but in abject terror. Lowering his head until it was level with the child, Madara glared at him. "Well, what do you have to say for yourself?"
It began to make mewling sounds, similar to that of a whimpering dog.
A swish of Madara's tail sent the human child tumbling forward.
"Talk, you. I asked you several questions."
"… I… I… I…" Teeth chattering, the human child scrambled back up. "I'm s-s-s-sorry. S-s-sorry. S-so s-s-s-sorry."
"Idiot. I'm not asking for an apology," Madara said. As he paused, he could hear the child's heavy breathing, its gasps whistling between a steady increase of hiccups. In a moment the human child would become hysterical.
He batted at the child again, causing it to shriek in terror.
"Stop this idiocy. I'm not going to eat you," he said. Shaking its head back and forth, the child pushed back clumsily. Madara lowered his head again. "I said stop…"
A tiny fist struck out, smacking him on the nose.
Madara found himself in more pain than he'd ever experienced in his life. The sound of receding footsteps soon followed.
It was a while before he recovered, and when he did, it was with a mix of chagrin and embarrassment. With the sounds of footsteps earlier, the child had probably escaped.
But much to his surprise, when he was finally able to open his eyes, the child was still there. Its eyes were wide with terror, its thin arms hugging itself protectively, but it did not move away, though it did give a start at Madara's glare.
"Are… are you… are you okay?"
"Human child," Madara said. Something about the child's demeanor had shifted his initial assessment. "Human child, you called me."
The child's eyes, impossibly, widened even more.
"I was calling for my daddy," he whispered. "You're… you're not…"
"No," Madara said. That was a dangerous road to walk on, and was something he had no desire to be. "Yet you called me nevertheless."
"That, and I was sent."
Once again, Reiko's laughter rang in his ear.
"To take you away. You do not belong here," Madara said. It was not exactly true, but he could sense the doubts and feelings of guilt around the child, had caught flashes of memories and stray thoughts. Better to convince him now while those feelings were strong, before the child's better sense overrode everything else. Besides, it was not a lie either. "You… you've hurt the people around you, haven't you?"
A stricken look appeared on the child's face.
"So it was all my fault. Because I'm here…" the child whispered, mostly to himself. "If… if I go with you, will people stop hurting?"
Madara heard the thoughts beneath the words, but did not respond to them.
"Ah, and I'm powerful enough to keep other youkai away from you. You'll belong to me. Nobody would dare harm you."
"But, but if I disappear, the family I'm staying with right now. It would cause trouble for them. I don't…"
"That would only last for a little while. In a short time they'll be grateful," Madara said ruthlessly.
For a long time, the human child looked at him, but its gaze was drawn inwards, as if deep in thought.
Then it nodded.
"Get on my back. We will stay in a temple in the mountains tonight, but tomorrow we leave early for my territory."
The human child said nothing, instead obediently climbing onto his back.
"Oh. You're warm."
Madara grunted in response.
In a few moments, they were above the clouds.
That spring, the small community was wracked with the tragedy of a missing child, a tragedy that had been made all the more tragic because the child had in fact been missing and found earlier that day.
Plenty of sympathy was given to the family who had been in charge of the child in question. He was noted in the community as a troubled child, given to unpredictable behavior, with a tendency to lie. It was certainly not their fault.
Still others wondered if it hadn't been precisely because of that, that the child had disappeared in the first place. For a while, rumors had abounded that the child had been spirited away. After all, no body had ever been found.
But in the end, after investigations by the police turned up nothing, things quickly returned to normal. He had been a troubled child after all. It was perhaps, only to be expected. Probably for the best.
A few months later, nobody thought about Natsume Takashi.