Hey All! Sorry for the long wait between updates. My life suddenly got really hectic and, honestly, there's no end in sight. But I finally managed to churn out a chapter. I'll try to get out another as soon as I can to make up for the time off. Please comment if the fancy strikes you, because that is my fuel.
Chihiro fell into her new routine effortlessly. She would arrive in the early morning to do her chores, now doubled in Hinata's absence, and then she would spend the hours before night fell with Natsume. Discussing the various wonders of modern society, enjoying Amaya's premium selection of junk food and alcohol, and occasionally indulging in a few (mostly drunk) games when they'd consumed a bit too much of those. Natsume was a poor loser, especially at cards.
She didn't mind the extra work she had to do, any time at the shrine was time well spent, but she had to admit that she was rushing through the labor, just a little bit. Whether she was hurrying to see the spirit, or trying to escape the creeping feeling of being watched, she wasn't sure.
For seven days, whenever she worked outside, she could sense it. A cold shiver would race up her spine, and she found herself whipping around to see if she could catch a head peeking around a corner. More than once she heard the rustling of fallen leaves or a creak in the old wood and likened them to soft footfalls. She'd even searched the complex in her baseless fear, but had found nothing but a new leak in the kagura-den and a very territorial squirrel.
She tried to ignore it as best she could. Afterall, she'd just been through one horror movie rigmarole with the whole monster in the closet scenario she'd played out last week, and that had turned out basically fine. She was probably just jumpy because she was functionally alone at a creaky ancient shrine in the middle of nowhere in particular. Allowing Amaya to blackmail her into watching Cabin in the Woods may have also been a mistake. Knowing she'd end her day with a foul-mouthed, abrasive cat was a soothing thought, in comparison.
They had formed something of a truce, if not an uneasy friendship, though he would vehemently deny any relationship if asked. He was too proud to admit that he was friends with a "stupid human", but seemed to have absolutely no qualms about taking her food, using her stuff, and actively participating in conversation with her whenever she was around. Which, Chihiro thought, was close enough. He always griped whenever he saw her; scrunching his nose at her human scent and pretending like he couldn't care less about her visiting him, but not once had he asked her to leave him alone. In fact, he had taken to sitting himself by the door near the same time every day so he could insult her that much sooner. It was almost sweet. Almost.
As she swept the steps with a little too much vigor, staring off into the middle distance and imagining how Natsume would react to heavy metal music, she heard the slightest shuffle of footsteps down below and immediately snapped to look. But it was only Ms. Tanaka, hobbling with slow labored paces up the flight of stairs. Chihiro couldn't help the huff of relief at the sight of her.
She rushed to help the old woman, taking her purse and allowing her to lean her weight on her as they went up. She was thanked profusely, and they chatted amicably as they climbed. Apparently she'd just gotten her first great grandchild, and she'd come to ask Tamayama no Eihei to give a blessing to the newborn. Chihiro privately doubted that the deity in question would do any such thing, but helped her along to the altar anyway to throw her coins in anyway.
After she was done, Chihiro led her to a little bench tucked away near the auxiliary shrines so she could rest, and chuckled when she almost immediately fell asleep. It wasn't unusual for Mrs. Tanaka to spend the entire day there. She prayed at the altar, and would occasionally buy charms for her grandchildren, but much of the time she spent snoozing peacefully in the shade of the tall maple trees. Chihiro didn't mind, she liked Mrs. Tanaka. And it was hilarious to see her hit on Ito-sama.
Her phone buzzed in her hakama, and she hurried a few steps away before taking it out of the waistband of her hakama. She was delighted to see Kouji's name under the caller ID.
"Is that you, Kouji? It's been so long, I was beginning to think you'd abandoned me to become a j-pop star." She answered with a light chuckle, moving farther off so she would not disturb the sleeping woman.
"Laugh all you want, I'm going to be the next Jun Matsumoto. You'll see." He sniffed haughtily. "So everything's alright over there? You haven't burned the place down or anything?"
"As a matter of fact I have, along with the Tokyo Tower, Himeji Castle, and your entire manga collection."
"Not the manga!" He lamented dramatically, swooning into the microphone. Chihiro could hear Ito-sama asking who he was talking to in the background.
"It's Chihiro, Gramps!"
"Well put her on speaker then, how have I raised such a selfish grandson, keeping her to yourself like that? It's completely against Buddhist principles."
"You must take wisdom from many sources, Kouji. Like from your grandfather."
Chihiro coughed delicately into the receiver to interrupt their squabble as she wandered over towards the altar to collect the meager offerings for the week, peering at her screen. The cat had been using it too much. "My battery's about to die, so we gotta get to it. Sooo… how's the trip going?"
"Oh, that's why I'm calling! We've been consulting Gramps' lawyer and we think we've hammered out a pretty solid legal strategy to protect the shrine. We're coming home tomorrow, so we can get you up to speed then."
"Oh that's great! I was a little worried about managing the place by myself. It's a lot for one person." She sighed. The solitude was making her a little nuts. Even now she thought she saw something bright white flash in the corner of her vision.
"One person? Chihiro, where's Hinata?" Ito-sama asked urgently, all traces of humor gone from his voice, but Chihiro's attention had wandered away from the conversation. Because this time she wasn't imagining things. A stiff, cuffed sleeve disappeared around the corner of the haiden and she slowly followed after it, her heart racing.
"Didn't I tell you? She's here in Tokyo at some tech geek conference or something." Kouji continued in the background. Chihiro pressed herself to the side of the wall and crept silently along the edge, feeling foolish but unable to dispel thoughts of secret cult members in underground labs.
"No you did not! She shouldn't be there alone!" Ito-sama sounded genuinely upset. Chihiro tuned back in abruptly at these words. She was surprised at her mentor, and a little bit disappointed. She had been working at the shrine for eight years, did he really think she couldn't do the job by herself? It had been fine so far, hard work, but it's not like anything had happened!
Besides pretty much everything that had happened.
She could handle it.
She says as she peeks suspiciously around the corner like a ninja.
But it turned out all her creeping was for nothing. It turned out to be a rather unremarkable man in simple business attire; white button down shirt, black slacks, black shoes. He probably just got off work at some menial desk job by the looks of him. He was thin, sallow, and stooped in the shoulders like he was terribly uncomfortable, but he didn't look lost. In fact, his plain face was pinched with a sort of disgruntled interest behind thick horn rimmed glasses, his gaze locked on the doors of the honden. Behind which sat a very secret cat spirit. But surely he couldn't know that, right?
"You there Chihiro?" Kouji's voice sounded in her ear. Ito-sama was talking in the background about train tickets.
"Oh uh, yeah. What were you saying?" Chihiro said distractedly as she watched the stranger's head cock to the side, eyebrows furrowing over the bridge of his spectacles.
"Gramps wants you to close up early today. We'll be there to open tomorrow. Geez, but the old man is going senile I think, the way he keeps going on about-"
"I need to talk to her!" Ito-sama interrupted.
"Ow, that was my foot…!"
"Stop holding it above your head like that then you juvenile…!"
Chihiro's giggle of amusement turned into a choke of panic as she watched the nondescript business man suddenly straighten his shoulders and take two purposeful strides towards the honden, expression determined.
"Gotta go guys. See you tomorrow!" She rattled in a single breath, already running towards the unassuming man who was about to stumble upon a grouchy and unprepared mountain deity.
"Chihiro, wait...!" But the priest never got to finish, she'd already ended the call. She skidded to a halt behind the man just as his fingers met the sliding door.
"Hey you! You can't go in there!" She shouted, her stomach still around the corner. The man whipped toward her sharp command, surprised, before immediately turning his gaze away from hers and to the ground.
"Oh, uh, pardon me. I wasn't aware...I was looking for...I thought I heard...Is the head priest here?" He said haltingly. His eyes kept darting up to hers sporadically, before hiding once again beneath his unkempt fringe, so she never really got a good look at him. Was he shy?
"He's out of town. Why do you need him?" She demanded. She was still getting over having her heart lobbed forcefully into her throat. The man flinched at her tone and shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot, wringing his hands until they turned pink.
"Oh, I-I'm with the, uh, police. N-not that he's in trouble, or anything, j-just wanted to, um, talk to him. Nothing urgent. I can just go, a-and come back later." He stuttered. Chihiro surveyed his spindly arms and painfully subdued posture. She tried to picture this guy taking down criminals with all of Satoru's considerable 6 foot something bulk, and failed miserably.
"If that's the case, I'm sure I can take a message?" She pressed. The man blanched like he suddenly couldn't remember why he was there, his face flushing as he finally looked her in the eye. No, that wasn't right. It wasn't a blush, but a large splotchy, violently red birthmark that stretched across one half of his face. He immediately looked back down when he caught her staring at it. Her irritation crumbled at the sight.
Poor guy, he must be self-conscious. Maybe I should go a bit easier on him.
"There's a uh...prowler in the area ma'am. Yes! Just come to warn people, you know, in case they see anyone being, well, suspicious." He mumbled. Chihiro immediately recalled the sensation of being watched all week and shuddered. Could someone really have been snooping around here, spying on her? Some sort of weird, forest dwelling pervert? Should she tell him about it? But she hadn't actually seen anything. How would she get him to take her seriously?
You know officer, now that you mention it, ever since I found a mythical creature living in this little hut, and my coworkers all left me here alone with him, I've been feeling like someone's watching me. I just watched this scary movie where that happened and I think it may have scarred me for life. Don't worry, I'm probably not crazy, though I doubt that fact on a semi-regular basis.
Yeah, that would go over splendidly.
"Well, there's nothing to worry about for now at least. I'm closing up the shrine early today, and when the priest gets back tomorrow morning we can post a bulletin or something." She told him with a kinder tone. The man immediately perked up.
"Really? You're going now then. T-that's good. Great!" He looked more enthused than he ought to be by the idea. "I-I'll just be on my way then. Be safe going home today ma'am." And he turned without another word, hurrying away like his ass was on fire. He stumbled over a cobblestone while trying to rummage through his trouser pockets for his cellphone.
Chihiro watched him go. Now that the danger of discovery had passed she felt very bad for having been so short with him. She'd practically screamed at him. She should have at least offered him a cup of tea to calm him down before he left.
She turned to the source of her near panic attack. The door to the inner sanctuary looked as innocent as it ever had, but she knew better. Natsume sat behind those doors, waiting for her to come in so he could make fun of her for fussing over him. The jerk. She really should take the officer's advice and head home now that she knew there actually was some weirdo lurking around but...this would be her last full night with Natsume. Tomorrow morning, Kouji and the head priest would be back and it would be harder to visit without them getting suspicious and she just...wasn't ready for that yet.
Practically overnight he had become her center, her sanctuary, the last vestiges of a time she was equally reluctant to let go. If she didn't have him, she wouldn't have her memories, she wouldn't have the spirit world. She wanted to cling to that fragile connection with all her might.
Plus, she liked him. You know, a little.
And besides, it wasn't like she had to worry about some creepy stalker while she was in there. She had a very ill-tempered cat demon with pointy swords to back her up. Probably.
Thoroughly convinced by her own logic, Chihiro turned and slipped inside.
Natsume was precisely where she expected him to be, lounging comfortably with legs crossed beside the heavy wooden door that barred him from the outside, casually balancing his short sword on the tip of his index finger. He didn't even have to look at it to keep it perfectly perched on his long fingernail, making the most miniscule of movements to keep it upright while regarding her with an expression of lazy amusement. She pursed her lips and crossed her arms over her chest. "You are rather predictable, did you know that? I was very mean to some poor sod while trying to protect you, the least you could've done is hide."
"Oh I heard. The walls aren't that thick. Plus, you know, there's also the fact that I happen to be a powerful spirit with enhanced senses and the ability to disappear into my statue at will. But I have to admit, hearing you make that guy nearly wet himself was loads better than that." He flicked his finger, and the sword went spiraling through the air before he caught it effortlessly behind his back. He glanced at her as he twirled it, a cocky smirk on his lips.
She rolled her eyes, but couldn't help a small smile as she asked "Do you always have to be such a show off?"
"That would imply that I feel the need to impress an insignificant human, and I'm offended by the very idea." He responded, sheathing his sword with a flourish. Chihiro knew that was rubbish, or he wouldn't keep bragging so shamelessly.
"Insignificant am I? And here I thought you were starting to like me, waiting by the door for me like a cute little puppy…"
Natsume gagged dramatically as he pulled out one of the sodas she brought for him yesterday, discarding the silver tab in favor of using his own claw to puncture the top. "I know you didn't just compare me to some mangy mutt. Disgusting, slobbering, obsequious animals. No dignity at all."
Chihiro watched with disgusted fascination as he chugged the sugary drink in the span of three seconds before crushing the can into a neat little aluminum golf ball. He tossed it with precision onto the pile of identical metal spheres that was slowly filling up the wastebasket in the corner.
"Oh yes, how could I have ever insinuated those things, majestic creature that you are."
He did not seem to notice the inflection of heavy sarcasm, instead carding a hand through his long unkempt orange hair, scraping it up into a messy knot on top of his head. It was terribly lopsided, with pieces falling down haphazardly here and there, but he still managed to carry it off with infuriating ease. Chihiro had spent nearly a half hour that morning taming her waist length locks, and still hadn't managed to get it to look half as decent as that. She should have just put it up…
A glint of sparkling purple caught her eye from among the tangled mass atop Natsume's head. A closer look revealed that the git had used her hairband. The one her friends had made for her before she left the other world. She felt an itch in her palm and a rather uncharacteristic urge to rip the accessory from his hair and put it back where it belonged, but stopped herself just in time, disconcerted with her own thoughts. It would be terribly rude to just yank it out.
"You've kept my hairband long enough. I think it's about time I have it back. And besides, that color clashes with your hair." She said patiently. Natsume smirked and tossed a piece of dangling hair with all the swagger of a professional model.
"No? I thought it was rather more well suited to me. A nice charm like this is wasted on weak mortals like yourself." He responded in a teasing manner. Chihiro felt an irritated vein pop in her forehead. She knew he was just baiting her like he always did, but she couldn't bring herself to respond as lightly as she usually would.
"My friends made that for me, it's important, and I want it back." She explained slowly, but with every word, his smirk grew, along with her annoyance.
"Well then you'd better take it then." He snickered, inclining his head towards her so that the sparkling accessory was within reach. She eyed him with suspicion, but when he didn't immediately pull away, she lifted a hand towards the untidy knot of hair.
Faster than lightning, he snatched her raised wrist out of the air and pulled. She didn't even have time to scream before she was wrenched to the ground, the floor hitting her knees with bruising force.
"Ow! Natsume what…?" But the words crawled back into her throat when she looked up and found herself face to face with the cat spirit. He hovered scarcely an inch from her, and his eyes, so contracted they were mere slivers in vast pools of gold, were terrifyingly intense. She tried to pull away, but the inhuman grip on her wrist kept her immobile. She drew air in shallow, panicked gasps as she tried not to even so much as breathe on him. She felt like a mouse that was about to become lunch.
"How important is that little trinket to you?" He asked in a deep voice that smelled incongruously like Dr. Pepper. She swallowed the dry lump that had suddenly decided to attempt to asphyxiate her.
"Very." She managed in a sort of croaky wheeze. He leaned impossibly closer, until she could feel the miniscule hairs on her nose brush his.
What's breathing again? Is it really necessary for survival? How long can I get away with not doing it?
"Enough to trade for my freedom?"
Chihiro's heart plummeted from her ears to her stomach so fast she thought she might pass out. They were back to this again. Chihiro had done her best to push this particular scenario out of her mind, freeing him, but now that it was happening she was sorely regretting not giving it more thought. Her original reason for not letting him go was because she wasn't sure whether he would murder her immediately after she'd served her purpose. Maybe massacre a local village or something. But after getting to know him a little, she knew he wouldn't. So why did the thought of letting him go still fill her with such anxiety?
Oh yeah, because she would miss him.
Not just his connection to her past, though that was a major factor, but him specifically. She liked the time they spent together. She had so much fun introducing him to music and literature and food and technology. She liked seeing the wonder spread over his face, so innocent and childlike for his usually salty demeanor, when he discovered something fascinating. Like her kindle, which now permanently lived in his hut so he can pass the time when she, and consequently her phone, weren't there. She liked the way he scrunched up his nose when she sang along to music too loudly and told her how terrible she was. She liked it when he pouted after losing to her at cards. She even liked it when he insulted her humanity, because she could tell he meant it less every day.
She thought they could be friends, eventually, and if she let him go she would probably never see him again. This whole strange, experimental, teetering whatever would be over. And she didn't want that.
She opened her mouth to say something, but nothing came out, so she closed it again. That hesitation was enough of an answer for Natsume. In a move so fast her eyes could barely track it, he had released her and shot to his feet, circling like the trapped animal he technically was. Chihiro watched him silently, trying to come up with some words, any words, that she could throw in front of him to stop him from pacing.
"So, what? I'm just supposed to be trapped here forever while you prance along with the rest of your paltry, human life? Do I mean so little to you?" He shouted, and Chihiro jumped at the sound. He had been angry with her, sure, even threatening. But he had never yelled at her. She scrambled to her feet to catch his sleeve as it fluttered upwards, following his nails as they raked along his scalp.
"Of course you mean something to me, I spend every day with you!" She tried to reason, but he tore his arm away from her, twitching agitatedly. If he'd had fur, like a normal cat, it would've been standing on end.
"Yeah? For how long though? How long until you tire of your new pet? How long until you die?" He accused, and it slashed at Chihiro like a knife, because she heard the question that was hidden between the ones he spat aloud.
"How long until I'm left alone again?"
Chihiro's anxiety immediately faded and softened into understanding. Their fears were the same.
"I'm not going to leave you Natsume." She nearly whispered. He gave her an ugly scowl that lifted just enough to see his gleaming white canines poke out at the edges.
"I heard what you said to that man outside the door. The old priest comes back tomorrow. You won't have to babysit me anymore. Things can go back to the way they were for you." He sneered, but beneath it Chihiro could read the insecurity there.
She huffed a laugh at his insinuation, to which he threw her the dirtiest of glares. "You think I come here every day — spend hours and hours of my time with you, bring you food and play games with you — out of some misguided sense of responsibility? If that was all I cared about I'd be leaving sake and mochi on the altar with a quick prayer and be done with it. Natsume, those things, it's what friends do with each other. I plan on spending the rest of my life at this shrine, however paltry and short it may be. And I plan to continue visiting you every day, if you're still here."
Natsume's hackles visibly deflated, hope and hesitance warring for dominance in the gaze that searched hers. He took a step towards her and clenched and unclenched the fabric of his hakama. "If?"
Chihiro cast a glance at the center of the room, where a stone cat adorned with a luminous string of jade beads hissed silently atop the altar. That seemingly insignificant statue was all that kept him in that dark, musty room. One swipe of her hand, and she would sever his ties to this shrine, this world. Did she keep him trapped here, where he was close and harmless? Or did she set him free, so he would be happy, but inevitably leave her?
They say if you love something, let it go. But it had only been a week and she wasn't even sure she trusted the spirit, let alone love him. She needed more information. But she doubted it would make choosing any easier.
She licked her dry lips, unsure of where to start. She had never asked him any personal questions before. She wasn't sure she'd get a straight answer. But she had to try.
"Natsume, I need to know…" She swallowed thickly, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. The creaking floorboards were deafeningly loud in the heavy silence. "Why are you here?"
They stared at each other for a long moment, gold meeting steel with a metallic clang. A muscle beneath Natsume's tanned cheek popped as he ground his teeth, chewing his response before spitting it out.
"It's a long story." He whispered finally, unwillingly.
"You've got all the time in the world."