Chapter 7:

"As if you were on fire from within.
The moon lives in the lining of your skin."
― Pablo Neruda


A/N: Fast update is fast because I'm currently on annual leave. The next update won't be this fast.

The version posted to FFnet is the abridged, 'clean' version. To read the full Mature-rated version, please go to my AO3. My username is the same.


Even after Natsume let his resolve be known to Natori-san, nothing happened for a while.

"Summer is the Obon season, [1]" the exorcist had told him before they left the Natori clan's main estate, "with so many spirits around, it is less safe to hold a highly charged ritual like the one Otou-san suggested. Let's wait till fall."

Natori-san was still trying to buy them time, it seemed. For another solution to be found, maybe. Or for Natsume to change his mind.

The former would be welcome, but the latter was impossible.

Natsume spent the last two weeks of the summer holiday catching up on his homework. He was always at Taki's or Tanuma's, part of a make-shift study group that was sometimes joined by Kitamoto. Sasada and Nishimura had already started preparing for universities' entrance exams.

"That's…fast," Natsume remarked when he heard that the two wouldn't be joining them for the matsuri on the 15th of August, the height of the Hungry Ghost month.

"Depends on how competitive you are," Taki shrugged. "I have relatives living in Tokyo who started prep school in first year of senior high school."

Natsume had never felt connected to people like them, though he'd stayed with relatives who sent their sons to elite private academies before. Their worries were completely different.

The flaxen-haired teenager hesitated before he asked his friends. "How about you guys? Any plans to…?" he left the question hanging. A year ago, they could postpone the answer with a laugh, but Natsume's haven in Hitoyoshi, which had seemed endless, didn't seem so now.

"I'll be working," Kitamoto was the first to share his future plans, his answer firm. "After I'm used to my work, I may look into part-time courses." He was the most academically sound amongst them four after all, Natsume noted. His family circumstances were really regrettable.

"Hmm…I'm still thinking," Taki bit into her mechanical pencil. "There is a degree in folklore I am interested in…one of the faculty, Professor Doumeki, is a renowned name in the field." [2]

"Folklore? You didn't look it, Taki-san," Kitamoto appeared a little surprised.

Unexpectedly, Tanuma also perked up. Although for a different reason. "Folklore?"

"I have the brochures, if you want to see them," Taki took in her fellow student's interests, "I suppose, if you were to inherit the temple from your father, knowledge of Buddhism and folklores would come in very handy."

"I'll be really grateful," the black-haired tall teenager smiled widely at her.

Kitamoto turned to Natsume as Taki left to retrieve the reading materials. "How about you, Natsume?"

Natsume couldn't answer for a long time. The thought of studying wasn't appealing to him, even if the subject was essentially the youkai. He preferred to understand the ayakashi by interacting with them, imparting memories on each other. Also, college wasn't cheap. "I will probably be working," he finally said, sounding as unsure as he looked.

"Oh," Kitamoto grinned at him, "don't worry. We still have time."

When the sun nearly set and it was time for dinner, the three guys left Taki's home.

In the quiet of the deserted road, the sky a myriad of gold, vermilion and violet hues, the street lights flickering to life beside them, Tanuma abruptly blurted. "How's…Natori-san's problem?" hesitance was literally dripping from each syllable.

Natsume did not anticipate this from Tanuma. He'd only met the exorcist inside Omibashira's mansion, and Natsume didn't think Tanuma's impression of the exorcist was all that good, really. "Why…?"

"He saved me once," the taller teen looked uneasy. "Is it…something I shouldn't ask?"

Natsume pursed his lips to a thin line. Technically, it was Natori-san's affair, private in nature…but Natsume's involvement was Natsume's right to share with a friend, especially such a close friend as Tanuma, who had guarded Natsume's other secrets with a tight lid.

The flaxen haired teenager inhaled deeply. "We have a possible solution on hand."

Sensing his friend's reluctance, Tanuma raised both hands in reconciliatory gesture. "Natsume, you don't have to…"

"No, Tanuma, I want to," Natsume put his hand over one of the taller teen's hands.

His explanation was quick and vague, glossing over the spiritual details, but the gist was covered.

The two stood in the middle of the street in silence after Natsume finished. The sky above them had long since lost the sunlight.

Tanuma looked overwhelmed. "He…you…a child…"

Natsume waited patiently till his friend was coherent again.

"A child," Tanuma settled on that train of thought, "You'll be fathering a child."

Natsume stiffened. He knew this would be the point his friend would be most concerned of. In a way, Natsume was asking for Tanuma's opinions, but… "I've thought this through, Tanuma."

The dark-haired teenager looked at his companion in disbelief. "You're seventeen. Natori-san is twenty…what, twenty-two?"

"Twenty-four," Natsume corrected.

"Still a little young to be a father, don't you think?" Tanuma looked dismayed. [3]

"He may not have it any other way," Natsume felt ill to be reminded of this.

The sentence seemed to have packed a punch to Tanuma, too, from his expression. "Could the two of you, perhaps, wait? Until you're twenty, Natsume?"

He sounded like a birth control councilor from a developing country. The sudden thought made Natsume amused, but he stifled it. "We don't know if this will work. I suppose we are giving ourselves time to look into other methods in case it doesn't." Yes, Natsume used 'we'. He had made this his personal mission.

"Natsume," Tanuma's sigh was filled with helplessness.

Touched by his friend's concerns for him, Natsume patted the taller teen on the back. "You know, Tanuma, I never once thought that I will get to grow old."

Tanuma looked alarmed at the morbid thought. "Natsume-"

Natsume shot his friend a reassuring smile. 'Don't worry, I'm not suicidal,' he meant. "You know how dangerous the ayakashi could be."

Yes, of course Tanuma knew. The spiritual world is one where the golden rule is 'eat or be eaten'.

"Yet, I could not bring myself to stay away," Natsume's gaze strayed to the base of the street lamp near them.

Tanuma wondered what kind of youkai he saw there. The monk's son couldn't blame his friend. He too, wished he had more spiritual powers. So that he could see more of that world, which was wondrous despite its savagery. So that he could quench his infinite curiosity.

"And then, there's also…" Natsume trailed off. "I told you about my grandmother, Reiko-san, right?"

Tanuma nodded. And immediately caught on. "Even if she didn't marry-"

"I know," Natsume couldn't bear to hear anything untoward about her, even though it was a fact. He was still a little scared to hate her once he knew more of her. His always smiling grandmother, who looked exactly like him. Who hated both the humans and the youkai. "I'm different from her. Still, we're both not what the society would call normal. I don't know if I'll ever have a chance to father a child in my life." His gaze stayed firmly on the ground as he continued to speak.

"Natsume…" Tanuma's voice sounded strange. A little determined, a little scared, a little hopeful. Natsume couldn't understand the emotions behind it.

And he wouldn't get to, it seemed, for a familiar figure of a badger-like white cat appeared between them.

Both humans jumped back in shock. "Ponta!" Tanuma exclaimed.

"How long are you two slowpokes going to take, still?" Nyanko-sensei tsked. "Tohko-san is starting to get worried. And I'm very hungry!" The cat proceeded to crawl back toward the Fujiwara's, not caring if Natsume followed him or not.

The flaxen-haired teenager looked at his friend. "I will be all right, Tanuma," he attempted to reassure the other male one last time. "Thank you."

Natsume didn't hear anything from Tanuma as he ran after the not-cat.


September came upon them. Natsume donned the long-sleeved gakuran for his last second term, the pin 'III' neatly fastened to his collar. [4] "Itekimasu!" he told Tohko-san as he took the bentou she'd prepared for him.

"Itekimasu!" her smile was bright as she sent him off.

School was blissfully uneventful. Natsume lost himself to weeks of calculus, modern Japanese and English, until one day he met a familiar horned mask hanging upside down outside the window next to his seat.

It took everything Natsume had not to jump out of his skin and scream. "Hiiragi!" he hissed.

Natsume must have still given an outward indication of shock, because his teacher called him out. "Natsume-kun, is anything wrong?"

"It's nothing, sensei," he reflexively said, then added, "May I go to the toilet?"

"Ah, sure…" the bespectacled woman replied.

Natsume ran out and entered the first empty room he saw. He made sure nobody was around and whispered, "Hiiragi, are you here?"

The shoulder-length haired shiki appeared before him, one hand on the sheathed wooden sword behind him. "Natsume," she greeted him.

"Don't shock me like that," the school boy gave her a dead-panned stare.

Hiiragi ignored him. "I come here to pass a message from my master."

Natsume suddenly remembered, and felt guilty about forgetting. He quickly took the envelope on Hiiragi's outstretched hand. "What happened to Natori-san? Why can't he come here himself?" Like he'd done so many times before…?

"Master is preparing himself for the ritual. He can't move much," the shiki answered. At Natsume's worried expression, she added, "he's fine."

The message only contained a few short sentences and tickets. 'Please clear your weekend. I will call your guardians myself. I'm sorry I can't accompany you there.'

The tickets were for Shin-Osaka Sakura shinkansen [5], and busses connecting Hitoyoshi to Kumamoto. Scheduled to depart on Friday night, and return on Sunday night.

Natsume stared at the writing till they blurred.

He had already steeled his resolve. He thought he had. Yet…

"Master said if you need any rescheduling, or anything else, you can let me know. Master's father can arrange any necessary changes. Master is currently not near any human civilizations." Hiiragi's monotonous voice tethered him.

"Ah, no, this weekend is fine," Natsume smiled at the shiki, hoping that she couldn't look through the surface and glimpse the turmoil inside.

Her masked face was directed at him for a while, but she eventually turned away. "I will pass the message to my master."

By the time Natsume reached home, he could tell that Natori-san had made the phone call. Tohko-san looked happy. "It's really best to enjoy yourself before the exam frenzy starts," she remarked with a smile.

Nervousness must have shown on Natsume's face, because she unexpectedly called on him, "Takashi-kun," her serious tone surprised the teenager. She looked hesitant for a moment, but ploughed on determinedly. "You know you don't have to do anything you're not comfortable with, don't you?"

"Huh?" Natsume's heart was caught in his throat. Has she found out? How did she know?

"Even if the other person [6] is a famous actor, you shouldn't be afraid. If he truly loves you, he should give you the time you need, wait until you're ready. If not, he's not worth you," Tohko-san preached.

It took Natsume a couple of minutes to understand what his foster mother was getting at. His cheeks turned so red he looked like a tomato. "Tohko-san!" Natsume rose to his feet, "Natori-san is not my boyfriend!"

"Eh, he isn't?" Tohko-san looked embarrassed. "Gomenasai! The two of you are quite close! You take trips together, and you…" she paused, "Sorry to say this…but the two of you don't really have much in common, do you?"

To 'outsiders' like Kitamoto and Tohko-san, people who couldn't see spirits, Natori-san's and Natsume's friendship would seem a little suspicious. And the doubt would be cast on Natori-san's side.

Besides, Tohko-san's intuition wasn't very far off.

Natsume must be brooding, since Tohko-san sighed and placed her hand onto his shoulder gently. "Whatever it is, I believe Natori-kun is a kind gentleman."

That, indeed, he was. Natsume tried to brighten for his guardian's sake. "Thank you for your concern, Tohko-san. We're really just friends."

That Friday afternoon, Sumeragi waited at the gate of Natsume's school, dressed in ordinary long-sleeved white shirt and dark trousers. He looked just like any other salarymen. The girls in his class gossiped of the handsome man, regardless.

A couple of times before the summer holiday ended, the middle-aged exorcist had visited Natsume and continued teaching him defensive spells. Natsume had the impression Natori-san disapproved, but Sumeragi was stubborn. In any case, Natsume had reaped benefits from the visits, and gotten used to the older male.

Amongst the silence of the long, long journey, the hermit spoke, once. "Thank you."

Immediately, Natsume knew the words weren't for helping him buy a boxed dinner or place his bag on the overhead compartment. The teenager tightened his grip on the book Sumeragi lent him. "It's nothing."

Nyanko-sensei, which had been lying prone on Natsume's lap, pretending to be a stuffed animal whose head was sticking out of the bag, snorted.

Natsume dozed in the car Sumeragi rented in Osaka, having spent over ten hours sitting, and when he came to, it was a little hard to believe he was still on earth.

They were on a hilltop, surrounded by nature. That wasn't so much different from Hitoyoshi, but the air, the water in the lake, they felt so pure. And the branches were buzzing with sounds.

Prattles of the youkai, Natsume realized when he glimpsed the tiny hotaru sprites conversing over the daffodils.

"What is this?" Nyanko-sensei sniffed the air, bounced to his feet and took to running around the grasses, as though he was rapidly energized.

"Welcome to the place I was brought up," Sumeragi spoke, his tone both fond and proud. "It's probably one of the spiritually purest places left in Japan. It has a natural barrier against evil."

Natsume believed him. Even the mist felt different.

"Ah, Natsume," Natori-san was lying in bed at the only wooden building next to the lake. He looked slightly pale, the white yukata he was swathed in worsening his complexion. "Sorry for not getting you here myself. Are you tired?"

"Natori-san!" Natsume quickly approached the older man's bedside.

"I'm fine," the exorcist pushed himself up to his elbows and put one hand on Natsume's temple. "The ritual will only be held in the evening. Why don't you rest first?"

It was a dismissal. But Natsume understood vulnerability and the desire to not let anyone see. He nodded and let himself be seen to by an apprentice of Sumeragi, a teenage boy only a couple of years younger.

Natsume slept the morning away, and came afternoon, the apprentice brought him to the foot of the hill to eat lunch and go sightseeing. There were many shrines dedicated to the tengu and Dakiniten.

As they sat on a stone bench, Nyanko-sensei munching away on oyaki dango and soba [7], Natsume attempted a conversation with his guide. "Nagai-san, are you an Izuna user…?"

The thin boy didn't say anything for a while. Just as Natsume thought he was intruding, Nagai replied. "I'm learning to be. From Natori-san."

The name disoriented him until Natsume realized Nagai meant Satsuki-san. "You inherited it?" what a redundant question.

"From my grandmother," the close-cropped practitioner humoured Natsume, nonetheless. "Urahara chose me when she passed." He pulled back his sleeve, and there, a ginger-coloured snake rested, curled around a slender forearm.

"So you can see…" Natsume couldn't finish the sentence. There were tourists around.

Surprisingly, Nagai shook his head. "I can see Urahara because of our pact. I see spirits from Urahara's eyes through the connection we share. My family has been merchants since Meiji. Grandmother was married in."

Natsume imagined it could not have been easy for Nagai to have his life turned upside down by a familiar he had to inherit for the family to avoid a curse. And his family was normal, not one with a history of dealings with ayakashi. "Do you…" Natsume hesitated, "hate Urahara?"

Nagai shrugged. "When I was a kid, I didn't understand why I had to move to Nagano alone. I threw a lot of tantrums. Natori-san was very troubled, I heard from sempai-gata (the older apprentices)." The boy opened up to strangers very fast. Maybe it was because he didn't interact with a lot of people on a daily basis. "Now…" he looked at the furry familiar with tenderness. "I stopped thinking about the life I could have lived. I am just grateful Urahara introduced me to that world."

The spiritual world drew people in, despite the dangers. Taki, Tanuma, Shinichirou-san, they were all similarly hooked.

At around 4pm, Nagai led them uphill again. Sumeragi welcomed them at the wooden house, a white yukata folded over his hand. "Come, Natsume-kun," he handed the clothes to the teenager, "we shall start your purification."

The middle-aged practitioner led him to a small waterfall, where Natsume had to stand under while Sumeragi chanted some sutras. It was teeth-chatteringly cold, but fortunately the purification didn't last long. After Natsume dried himself, he had symbols painted on his torso in black ink. Over his heart.

"We're done," the older man pronounced as he made one last decisive stroke. "Stay still for a moment for it to dry. And here," a piece of paper was slipped into his hand. "In case anything goes…wrong. Later. Please bite this and tore it with your teeth."

Some of the burden that plagued Natsume's mind crumpled away. Earlier, he was worrying if there would be other people watching the ritual. But it seemed he and Natori-san would be left alone.

After the sun set, Natsume was told to enter the room at the corner, the one constructed over the lake, seemingly floating above the water. He stared at the shoji [8] for what must be a good minute before sliding the furniture open. "Pardon my intrusion."

The interior had been thoroughly redecorated, ropes tied over four sides along with candles at every corner. There was a large round symbol etched on the tatami, ofudas plastered all over the ceiling. The set up was more elaborate than the one at the inn of their first onsen trip. The room was full of spiritual energy, even the air felt highly charged.

"Welcome, Natsume," Natori-san sat in the centre, within the innermost circle of the symbol on the floor. He too was in a white yukata, but the symbols on his chest extended all the way down to his stomach, and places hidden by his clothes.

The exorcist's face was hidden in shadows, but whatever Natsume could see indicated that Natori-san was healthier than this morning. He was relieved.

The relief was short-lived however. "Close the door behind you," Natori-san said, and after Natsume obeyed, all of a sudden he felt trapped. The air felt hotter, although there really weren't enough candles to warrant such an effect. Natsume was frozen.

"Natsume?" Natori-san's face looked kind and understanding.

Even now, he was ready to let Natsume go. The realization only made the teenager felt ashamed. And helped him step forward, one foot at a time, until he too, was inside the innermost circle.

Natsume barely finished folding his knees when Natori-san got up to his feet. "You're too tense," he settled behind the teenager. "Please try to relax."

"Natori-san-" Natsume's voice was strangled when the older man placed his thumb on his companion's shoulder and pressed down. Hard.

"Shh," Natori-san whispered as his fingers continued to work magic on Natsume's spine, unraveling the knots on his lower back which had resulted from the overnight travel and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed. "Take a deep breath. That's it."

There was a floral scent permeating the room. Lavender? It was soothing to his nerves.

"Natsume," the word was spoken just next to his ear, fiery puffs of breath tickling the soft-boned shell. Natsume shivered, even with the heat of Natori-san's chest, pressed close to his shoulder blades. "Do you want something to drink? To help you…" the sentence was left trailing.

Natsume could feel the blush spreading under his cheeks. "I-" he turned around so fast his head felt hazy. His nose ended on Natori-san's neck. "I'd rather…not," his voice sounded so weak against the velvety warmth.

Natsume felt the pulse under his lips jump before Natori-san inhaled sharply and leaned forward even further. "Shitsure shimasu."

Everything passed in a blur of heat and friction of skin against skin. Natsume remembered being captivated by the symbols on the older man's skin, black ink gleaming blue and purple in the candlelight. Spiritual powers were working their magic on him. Natsume resisted the urge to touch the runes, lest he smudged them.

The gecko skittered over Natori-san's face, seemingly more in a frenzy than usual. Natsume absently noticed it could not crawl further south than Natori-san's neck, where a line of tiny symbols was drawn, like a noose, fencing the birthmark. Natsume sucked the hollow below Natori-san's Adam's apple, where the gecko currently stayed still, wondering if the mark would walk over to his face instead.

At the end of it, Natsume pressed his lips to Natori-san's in an open-mouthed messy kiss, overwhelmed by the urge to do so. "Natori-san-"

The room was bathed in bright light as he climaxed.

And Natsume knew no more.

TBC


Review please!

Notes:

1. wiki/Bon_Festival

2. I love CLAMP verse too much…

3. I know! I'm twenty five, and a child isn't in my agenda till at least 3-4 years.

4. Most Japanese schools run on a trimester system: 1st term runs from April to end July, 2nd term September to mid-December, and last term January to March (after 2 week-winter break for Christmas and New Year). Summer holiday duration and dates vary as summer vary across regions, but is typically six weeks. wiki/Academic_term#Japan

In the anime season 1 and 2 we saw Natsume wearing 'I' pin on his collar, and in season 3 and 4 he wore 'II'. In this fic, he was in his third and final year of high school.

5. wiki/Sakura_(train)

6. Another 'not sure how to translate' word. In Japanese, the word is 'aite' (相手) which literally means: a) Companion, b) Addressee, c) Opponent.

7. I have never been to Nagano. All information in this fic are from a site called go-nagano dot net

8. Sliding doors made of wood and paper. wiki/Sh%C5%8Dji