Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I do not have the imagination to come up with something like Natsume Yuujin-cho on my own T_T. Woe is me. Not mine, if you didn't get that.

Natsume Takako no Yuujincho

Chapter 1 - In which many questions are raised

Everyone experiences it. That sensation of losing sight of why you're running, or what you're running from.

Natsume Takako, teenage girl, sixteen years of age, would have given anything at that point in time to be able to experience that feeling.

"Reiko! Give it back… return it to me!" A grotesquely large, purple-skinned something was chasing her. Pushing carelessly past the rough foliage around her, not caring if her hair got snagged in twigs or if the hemline of her skirt was getting increasingly frayed, she continued to flee from what could only be called a youkai. A spirit.

"…and you know, I really think I've got a chance this time!"

"Don't kid with me…!"

Voices? Human? Or…?

Bursting through the thick forest onto what seemed to be a main road, she knew what a mess she must look to the two high school boys. Glancing briefly at them, she recognised them vaguely from the sea of faces she had faced not two weeks ago at her latest transfer. Names, on the other hand, escaped her rather more easily than she would prefer.

"Er… hi! I'm Natsume – the transfer student." She smiled tentatively, glancing once in a while behind her. She could feel the spirit hesitate on the edge of the forest.

"Oh! Natsume… Takako-san, right? Are you okay? You look like you just ran a marathon."

"I'm fine, really!" This was bad… the spirit had started to pick up speed again. "Sorry to ask, but do you know of any shrines nearby? Anything will do."

"Shrines? There's an old abandoned one up that hill by there, but it's not much to look at…" The taller of the two gestured at the hill on the other side of the footpath, "See that entrance arch? It's right there."

"Thank you! See you in class tomorrow!" Natsume yelled, her mind racing and trying to calculate the probability of that spirit wanting to devour humans – even humans that couldn't see it.

"Hey… Nishimura? Who was that?"

"You really don't pay any attention, do you? She's the new transfer student that came at the beginning of the month. She's really pretty, but she doesn't talk much."

"Hmmm…?" Kitamoto stared up at the clear, endless blue sky, "I'll agree that she's cute, but what was she running like that for?" The next moment, he was forced to close his eyes to the dust cloud that was stirred up by the sudden gust of wind that followed the footsteps of his new mysterious classmate. "Geez… crazy weather we're having now…"

Keep running… almost there… just keep going… Natsume was beginning to run out of breath, but she tried to comfort herself with the knowledge of the abandoned shrine. She wasn't normally so lucky to be able to find consecrated ground so easily. Then again, it was a rather mixed blessing: since moving to this area, it seemed that these… things that nobody else could sense or see became more and more aggressive in nature. Perhaps it was because this was the first time that she had lived in such a rural area, a place where modern cities and their renovations had left behind in time, and where youkai still felt welcome and safe.

It was amazing what ran through a person's mind whilst they were in imminent danger of being eaten…

Ten feet… seven… so close!

Her elation came far too soon. Not five feet away from the steps leading up to the shrine, she felt a force slam into her, far too quickly for her to be able to react, pinning her to a tree not three feet away from safe ground. Damn. Even closer.

"Return it… give it back to me!" The giant Cyclops was crushing her windpipe. As oxygen-starved as her brain cells were, she still had the energy to waste on silent mockery: if you would let up on my windpipe, you selfish spirit, then I might actually be able to figure out what the hell you want me to return to you! Of course, since she had no way of expressing her sentiments, she settled for trying her best to glare at the vast youkai that had her pinned to a tree.

"Reiko… return it to me!"

Reiko? Who was this Reiko that the monster wanted to pummel into an unrecognisable pulp?

Oh boy. Dark spots had started to appear in front of her eyes. It was a sure sign that she was about to pass out from lack of oxygen. Desperately, she tried to free herself from the giant hand that pinned her to the tree. Unfortunately, being all of fifty kilograms of adolescent human female, she found that she rather lacked the strength to physically force the youkai to let her go. She did, however, draw the attention of the rather more humanoid figure with a fox's face.

"Better rip her tongue out, just to be safe. What if she decides to call your name out and destroy you?" Even in her hypoxic state, Natsume recognised the threat and, with one final bolt of strength she didn't know she had, she forced one of her legs into an unnatural angle, and willed her strength into her wildly aimed kicks.

The cry of pain and the jolt of force down her leg told her that one of her kicks had landed. She didn't know how, or why, but the power behind her kicks, whilst useless against a human opponent, were super-effective on all manners of youkai. One kick had the purple Cyclops reeling backwards, clutching its eye in pain, whilst the thin, humanoid fox-face cursed and made another grab for her legs. Without stopping for the spots to disappear from her vision, Natsume continued to run towards the temple building.

Experience had taught her that not every priest had been very meticulous in the blessing of temple grounds.

Finally making it onto consecrated earth, feeling the reassurance that so often came with the presence of blessed ground, Natsume allowed herself to collapse and breathe again. The return of oxygen made her feel as if she were among the living again, and slowly, vision began to return. When it did, she regretted it almost immediately, since the first thing she had to see was a broken binding-rope.

"Please just be for show, please just be for show…" She wasn't sure why she was praying – the gods that she had encountered up until now were either hostile or indifferent to her pleas, and had often ignored her prayers – but she did know that she did not have the energy at this point to run from something else. Something that was dangerous enough to be sealed away in a shrine.

"Brat, I should thank you for freeing my bonds." A deep, booming voice sounded from the small offering box next to her, "I was just beginning to become a little hungry."

Of course. Nothing could ever be that simple. Not when your name was Natsume Takako.

The rumbling she felt in the earth did not bode well for her – the rattling feeling she got in her bones shook every fibre of her being, and it all came from the direction of the small enclosure. Swearing, she scrambled towards the broken rope, desperately hoping to be able to mend the binding somehow.

The shrine doors burst open, sending a massive shockwave through the entire shrine. The feeling of safety that Natsume had always experienced in shrines fizzled out like a candle that had had its oxygen cut off. Looking up carefully, she tensed her muscles again in preparation for another sprint, wincing as her lactic acid-filled muscles screamed in protest. What kind of monster was coming out of that shrine? It had to be fearsome, for it to be enshrined like this…

As the smoke cleared, Natsume glanced around with confusion. After all that song and dance, there wasn't anything… very large to gawp at. Peering back into the small hut, she spotted a maneki neko, albeit without the traditional bell collar, and rather more podgy than a conventional shop-bought statue.

She couldn't help it. Natsume snorted. Quite loudly.

Another (tamer) explosion later, and she found herself pinned down by a very heavy, albeit concentrated mass over her chest. Colouring a little when she thought about the next-to-non-existence of her chest, she shoved as hard as she could against whatever was sitting on her.

"Oi! How dare you treat such a great entity such as myself with such roughness!"

The nasal, old-man voice directed Natsume's attention downwards. She blinked. Twice. The image of the formerly still maneki-neko was talking. Wow, I really should feel more surprise, but I can't quite bring myself to do it.

"Oh? Scared speechless, are we? Well, I hardly blame you… wait, you're Reiko, aren't you?" Now that shocked Natsume somewhat. "What's with that stupid spaced-out expression? From the looks of it, you were chased around and messed up a bit too. What? Lost your strength already? Pathetic human…"

"Erm… I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not Natsume Reiko. She was my grandmother. On my mother's side." Natsume explained, her expression remaining unchanged in front of this impossibility (well, in the realm of the majority).

"Hmm? You're right, now that I look carefully, you look much shorter than she was. Your scent is duller as well, like something is masking it."

"It should be obvious anyway – it's been at least thrity years since my grandmother passed away. Even if she were alive, she wouldn't look anywhere near my age." Natsume frowned – she had been described as pixie-ish, scrawny and unattractive before, but never had she been compared to an old lady, much less one that she had never met.

"Oh. Natsume Reiko has passed away already? She must have looked like a hag by the time she kicked it?"

"I don't know. She died very young – I doubt that even my mother remembered her very well. I never met her, myself. She didn't leave any photographs behind, so I'll have to take your word for it that I look like her."

"I didn't say that you looked like her, human. It is only that you smell like her, although not quite as appetising." A glint came from the cat's gaze, "Did she leave you anything?"

"Huh? Well, yes – various things. Knick-knacks, mostly."

"Anything called 'The Book of Friends'?"

Frowning as she tried to recall images from the box she had only ever opened a handful of times in her sixteen years, Natsume admitted, "Maybe? I can't really remember… what do you need to know that for?"

But it was too late. In the next moment, the cat-like ball of existence disappeared in a rush of air, taking the last vestige of spirituality with it. The disappearance of the youkai (for it could not have been anything else) seemed to leave the air around her empty in some way, as if just breathing the air was not satisfying enough to sustain her body. Sighing, she dragged herself onto her feet, and looked downwards to survey the damage she had done to her clothes.

The damage to her body was something she had learnt to live with.

The grass and dirt stains she had sustained were the worst of the lot. She knew there were a couple of grazes along her arm and her knees, but it wasn't anything that wouldn't heal up in a few days or so. She dreaded to think what her hair looked like by the stage – she really needed to start carrying a mirror around to check. Half heartedly trying to drag her fingers through the nest she called hair, she dragged a few more unsatisfying breaths of mundane air, and braced herself for the long walk back.

"Oh, Takako-chan! What happened?" Were the words she was greeted with. It was a rather novel experience for her to hear those words without exasperation underlying them, although the genuine concern behind Tohko-san's mannerisms. "Look at you! Are you hurt anywhere? How did this happen? Is someone being mean to you?"

"Oh, nothing of the sort! I just slipped and fell – I wanted to explore the area a bit and ended up falling down a fairly steep hill. I'm really sorry for worrying you. I'll mend my clothes right away…"

"Oh, don't be so silly, dear!" Tohko-san had already started to push her towards the stairs, a determined look in her eyes, "You go up and get cleaned up. Do you remember where the first aid kit is? I'll wash your uniform now before dinner, and it'll be ready for you tomorrow morning, if we hang it out for tonight. Oh, I do hope it won't rain… oh, before I forget, Takako-chan, I just got a massive watermelon from the Matsudas from the top of the hill. Make sure to come down after you get changed for a few slices, alright?"

"Yes, ma'am. Thank you very much!"

Smiling softly, Natsume treaded lightly up the stairs, still listening to the soft worrying of the female half of the Fujiwara couple. It had been a little over two months since she had moved in – longer, at least, than her rather abrupt stay at some of her other relatives' houses. Being cursed with her eyes meant that she could often see things that others either could not or would not – she had learnt to distinguish the two early on in her life. Humans were not a race known for their embracing nature, nor their tolerance for difference.

No. It wasn't quite fair to pile all the blame onto her relatives – although some of them were so distant that the term was a bit of a stretch – after all, they opened their homes to her, took her in as their own, and all she seemed to do was attract these… things. Some were relatively harmless, only observers, it seemed, but others were far more aggressive. Over time, it became commonplace for her to randomly hear whispers of 'I'll eat you!' from nearby bushes. She had never stayed to find out if they would actually carry through with their promise. She reckoned, if they were solid enough to push her over a bridge into the river, they could probably carry through with the promise of eating her as well.

After she had changed out of her uniform, and checked that the damage wasn't too bad (no rips, at least) Natsume entered her room (which was, by far, the largest room she had ever been allowed to stay in), and proceeded to search for the small box of family memorabilia that had been handed down to her from her mother. Dragging it out from the bottom of her sliding wardrobe, she began to drag things out of the old, just-this-side-of-rotting cardboard box. Between a few wads of what looked like ofuda charms and what looked (worryingly) like a wooden rounders bat with more charms stuck to it that still resonated with residual power, there was a worn-out, faded-blue book. Pulling it out, she blew the dust off, revealing the rough calligraphy on its cover.

"Yuujin-cho? That thing was right – my grandmother did leave me a Book of Friends. An address book, maybe?" Wait a minute, what on earth would a youkai want with an address book? Curiosity won over, and Natsume began to flick through the aged pages. At first, all that seemed to jump out were pictograms – nothing that made much sense. Soon though, she began to understand… or rather started to see… the names. Hundreds? No, there must be thousands in here… names of youkai?

The realisation hit her over the head like the rounders bat she had found in the box. Her grandmother had been able to see the same things as she had! Did that mean that her mother could as well? No, that couldn't be possible – the stories she remembered others telling her about her mother painted her as a gentle soul – not abnormal at all, not even eccentric in any way. Then how was it that she had inherited this curse from her grandmother, Natsume Reiko?

"I see you've found it. The Book of Friends."

The croaky, old-man voice startled her out of her reverie. Whipping around so fast that she thought she must have given herself some neck injury, she came face-to-face with the animated maneki-neko that she had inadvertently freed earlier that day.


"That is not something that should be in the hands of a human."


"Hand it OVER!" At this, the soft, pudgy face suddenly distorted, morphing into something hideously dangerous, and, although Natsume couldn't make out the exact details, but she could see the massive, SHARP teeth being bared at her.

She acted on instinct. Kicking out, she rolled over and grabbed the only weapon really available to her. The charm-covered rounders bat.

Downstairs, Fujiwara Tohko was humming a small tune, wandering what she should do for dinner that night. Rummaging through her fridge, she frowned at what was left. She had wanted to make some rice and few side dishes, but it looked like she was out of parsley – it seemed to be the only thing that didn't want to grow properly in her herb garden outside. Glancing at the clock, she decided to go to the local vegetable stall – they shouldn't close for another two hours, at least.

Continuing to hum, her happy mood restored, she grabbed her coat and her bag. Just as she was about to call Takako-chan (such a sweet child!) to ask her to watch the house for a while, she was startled by a loud crash from upstairs.

"Takako-chan! Are you alright?"

A few shuffles, something that sounded like a scramble and her charge's face appeared over the stairs. "Yes, ma'am! Sorry for worrying you again! Are you going out?"

"Yes, dear – just for some groceries. You'll be alright on your own, won't you?"

"Yes, I'll be sure to look after the house for you. Have a safe trip!"

"I'll be back soon!"

Such a sweet child, if a little distant and polite, but so clumsy! "She must be going through a bit of a growth spurt. Oh dear, I should get a few more things if she's growing now!" Fujiwara Tohko went on her way, thinking of what else she should cook for dinner.

Re-entering her room, Natsume breathed out in absolute relief. Glaring at the source of her problem, she went back downstairs to find a plate with five watermelon slices on it. Glancing around for a smaller plateful, and failing, she grabbed it and returned upstairs to a grumpy-looking cat that was sporting a rather large bump on the head. Shoving her unwelcome guest out of the way, she began to patch up the paper screen that the maneki-neko had battled with. Personally, Natsume reckoned that the screen door had won.

"Eat that and get out."

"How cold! You dare to be so rude to this great demon…?"

"Considering the fact that I'm actually feeding you, even after you destroyed my room and tried to eat me, be glad that all I did was hit you over the head." Grabbing the first aid bag again, she searched for a coolant band the size of the cat's head, hoping that it would do some good, "Do youkai get infections from cuts? Do you want any disinfectant?"

"You… you're treating me?"

"Of course. It seems that the bat I used on you did more damage than I actually intended. I just wanted you to get out of the house." Startling a little at the softness of the seemingly ceramic fur, she continued to clean the tiny wound. "You said something about the Book of Friends? Why do you want it?"

"Like I would tell you, unworthy human!"

"Fine. I'll just go ahead and recycle it, if it's that unimportant…"

"Don't you dare! You have no idea what you'd be doing!"

"Well, unless you tell me of the significance, I have no way of knowing, do I?"

"Fine, ignorant human… ow!" The maneki neko rubbed the new sore spot that had appeared on its head, "What was that for?"

"Every insult earns you another well-deserved bump. You have been warned, Nyanko-chan." Natsume replied detachedly, fighting to keep a smirk off her face.

"I am not a cat!"

"I call them as I see them."

"How dare you insult the greatness that is I! Puny brat… ow!"

"Either your hearing isn't very good, or I need to put a bit more power behind these bumps on your head, Nyanko-chan."

"You should at least bow your head to me and greet me as 'sensei', seeing as I will have to educate you in our world and ways." The maneki neko conceded, knowing when he was beaten.

"Okay, Nyanko-sensei. But I honestly don't think that educating me is going to make much of a difference in whether or not I hand this thing over to you."

"Hmph! Your ignorance coupled with your power is inexcusable, as well as highly dangerous. How you've managed to get this far along without getting killed or eaten is beyond me. You want to know about the Book of Friends?" A tentative nod. "Then we best begin with Natsume Reiko."

"My grandmother? She could see the same things as me, right?"

"Indeed. Even for a human, she was a very beautiful specimen. Note, of course, that we judge by spirit, rather than by appearances. It's part of the reason why I mistook you for her at the beginning – the taste of your spiritual power is very similar.

"Of course, with great power comes separation from normal human society. We are far gone from the era when most humans could still see us, and those who could not would acknowledge us to explain the inexplicable. Because Reiko could see us, she became someone who treaded the border between humans and spirits without knowing who she really belonged with."

"So… my grandmother was a human, when all was said and done?"

"Yes. As much as her power tasted like one of ours, she was irrevocably human, and thus never entirely welcome in our world. It was that isolation, perhaps, that drove her to make the Book of Friends."

Takako glanced down at the book, resting so innocently upon her lap. She didn't know why, but the pages seemed to be whispering to her, some of them benevolently, some with malicious intent, whilst most was with indifference. What stories lay behind those names?

"A name, a True Name, is not one to be lightly handed over, nor lightly spoken. What you hold there is a Book filled to the brim with the True Names of thousands of youkai, and some are significantly more powerful than others. The Book allows you total command of all these spirits, whether willing or not."

"How… how did my grandmother come to own this Book? If, like you said, a True Name is something to be held onto?"

"How do you think? She would issue challenges. Sometimes as much as ten times a day, to youkai who either caught her interest, or looked powerful enough to be a fun challenge. The prize for them if she lost would be whatever they demanded, and her prize was always the same: she demanded that they sign their true names on a piece of paper, and it eventually accumulated to that."

Natsume Takako stared at the book in front of her. This was the inheritance that her grandmother had left her? It was grand, to be sure, but it was more than just a little creepy. Although it was a chance to pay back as good as she got for twelve years' worth of bullying, she knew that it was wrong to hold that much power over anyone. Or anything, for that matter.

"So. I assume that that's why you want this book?"

"Of course! It's far too dangerous to be in the hands of someone who doesn't even know how to call forth its abilities!"

"And I think that it's far more dangerous in hands such as yours, who know exactly how to use it. I'll be keeping it in a box, until I can figure out what to do with it."

"What? Stupid human child… ow!"

Well, the cat had to learn eventually.

"Excuse me? Is anyone home?"

The sound of a visitor startled Natsume out of her annoyance at the stubbornness of her decidedly unwelcome guest and forced a 'Yes, coming!' from her mouth, more out of habit than anything else. The voice certainly wasn't Tohko-san's.

"Be careful. If you really decide to take the Book of Friends for yourself, it comes with more danger than you are prepared for. Not all spirits who seek the Book are as benevolent as I am."

Natsume snorted disbelievingly. If there was one word she had never associated with her meetings with youkai, it would be 'benevolence'.

"Excuse me?"

"Sorry, be just a second!"

"You're in danger, you know."

Shaking herself out of her staring contest with the cat (and when had that started?) Takako hurried downstairs to open the door, before pausing. This presence… it was definitely not human. The silky, oily voice was familiar, although not entirely recognisable. Cautiously, she slid the door open, revealing the fox youkai that had suggested for her tongue to be ripped out not two hours earlier.

"Ah, good. Now, if you would be so kind as to hand over the Book of Friends, I'll make eating you a far less painful experience."

Natsume didn't need any further encouragement. She slammed the door shut, not bothering to lock it, and ran back up the stairs as fast as she could. Grabbing the Book (was having command over an army really that desirable?) and the cat that had attached itself to the Book (and thus to her), she tried to take the conventional way out.

If you asked her later, Natsume would try and excuse her foolishness by saying that it really had been a long day, what with two attempts at her life, and learning that she had inherited her burden from her grandmother, who had, coincidentally, amassed what was effectively a demon army and then dumped the key to it all in Takako's hands. She really shouldn't be blamed for how she had stupidly thought that the stairs would still be free from spirits.

Twisting around with more force than was healthy on her spine, she barely managed to avoid the massive purple claw that came at her from the bottom of the stairs. Scrambling back up the stairs, she dashed to her room again, and slammed the screen door shut, breathing heavily.

"See? I told you that not all spirits were as benevolent as I am."

"Nyanko-sensei, do me a favour? Shut up?"

"Have you at least warded your door?"

"… How do I do that?"

The incredulous look on her new 'sensei's' face was all she managed to get a look at before the screen door became blown open, and a single eyeball glaring at her.

"Reiko… why won't you give it back…?"

Takako didn't bother to stick around for the continuation. Keeping a tight grip on the Book that seemed to be the root of all her current problems, she leapt across the room in four leaps, and threw herself out of the window.

It was sad to admit, but she had long developed some immunity to high jumps – sometimes, it was the fastest route out of a place where a spirit was threatening slow digestion. Luckily, the Fujiwara household was built on a plot of uneven ground that meant that the roof at the back of the house, where Natsume's room was, was about a metre closer to the ground than the roof in front. It meant a less nerve-wracking drop.

"You fool! You can command the wind sprites but can't even do the simplest wards? It's like you're doing everything in reverse, simpleton!"

"Sensei? You're still there?"

"Of course. That Book is mine when you die, and I'm going to be the one who eats you, no one else."

"When did we agree on my will?"

Youkai logic. Not something she expected to become acquainted with.

The fox-like spirit was, unfortunately much smarter than the purple, one-eyed monster, and had anticipated her alternative means of exiting the house. Twisting to avoid crossing paths with the fox-eyed youkai, Takako was rather shocked when the pig-cat swerved to keep up with her. Unconsciously, her hands tightened around the Book once again, holding it as close to her as possible.

"Nyanko-sensei, is that what the purple demon is asking me to return for her? Her name?"

"More than likely. I cannot imagine what else such an ayakashi would want with you."

"How do I return it?"

The resulting exclamation from the cat drove Takako to seek further shelter elsewhere, as the disbelieving yell made their position in the forest quite clear.

"You… you idiotic child of man! You… you don't even know how to form a simple ward, and yet you want to return a name? Why would you even want to do that? Why would you return power to one who would use it against you?"

"I… I don't know. Is this even the time to be philosophical? Just tell me if it's possible or not!"

"You're right. This is the time to be sensible. And, as you have seen, the most sensible thing to do is to get rid of that thing there." The cat morphed again, smoke billowing out from its smaller form, and proceeded to pin Natsume to the ground, and slowly began to increase the pressure on her chest, "So why don't you just hand it over now and stay in your safe little bubble, human child? It's not like you can do anything anyway, with that pitiful human shell…"

Inside her, Takako felt something else breaking in her navel. Well, crumbling, rather than breaking. Struggling for breath now, she forced one arm free of the giant paw that seemed intent on crushing her ribcage, and mustered her remaining strength,

"Let go, you pig-cat!" And, with that, she socked him one on the nose.

The impact was enough to knock the paw off her, allowing sweet, sweet oxygen back into her lungs, and a puff of smoke later, the youkai was back in its maneki neko form, nursing its nose.

"You… you hit me!"

"Nyanko-sensei, I've hit you at least three times since we first met, and you chose now to be surprised? And I thought I was slow…" Gripping the Book of Friends even tighter than before, keeping her body as a shield between it and the youkai who desired it, she asked again, "How do I give back a name?"

The cat became oddly silent. For a longer period of time than she had experienced since making its acquaintance. Finally, the strange creature nodded to itself, as if it had come to some kind of a decision, and answered her question.

I was acquainted with Reiko, your grandmother, when she was around your age. Since I was the one who taught her about true names and how to bind ayakashi, she said that she wouldn't try and steal my name. Nonetheless, she also told me later on how to release those she defeated and commanded from their contract.

You must first find the ayakashi in question, and find their name. Hold the book, calm your mind, and command the name to reveal itself to you…

Continuing at a hasty run, knowing that she had to time this accordingly unless she wanted to be eaten, Takako let the book fall open within her hands, and did as Nyanko-sensei had bade her do,

"Ye who calls thyself my guardian,

Reveal thyself to me!"

The book gave a shudder, as if it were shaking off a long sleep, and grudgingly began to turn its pages.

Next, you need Natsume Reiko's breath and saliva – tear the page out, CAREFULLY, mind – and hold your hands together, and recite the incantation…

There! One page stood to attention, apart from the other pages of the book. Being careful not to touch the part of the paper with the name inked in, Natsume Takako ripped the page free from the bindings, and placed the paper between her lips,

"This is thy name. Accept it, Hishigaki."

And breathed out, slowly, evenly.

Even as she did so, she felt the crumbling that had started in her navel earlier overtake her entire body, and shattered rather than crumbled, shaking her very core. I'm falling. Oh dear. Her last thoughts as the ground came ever closer to her.

I'm so hungry…

So lonely…

For so long…

The offerings stopped so long ago… but still I cannot bring myself to eat humans…

"Hey, you there! You're hungry, you say? Tell you what, I'll give you these sweet dumplings, if you win against me. If you lose, then you have to become my underling. That sound like a deal?"

"What?" Ow! That had definitely hurt… even more than the hunger.

"Right then, that's another point for me… now write your name down!"

"This hardly seems fair…"

"A duel is a duel, no matter if it's one-sided or not. Now stop complaining and write it down!"

The human (girl?) was smiling. A smile that didn't quite touch her eyes. And her face didn't seem… quite right. Hishigaki may not have observed humans very often, but she was sure that they shouldn't have so many purple and red blotches on their faces. Reaching over to touch one of the marks gently, she asked, "Does it hurt?"

"Oh, these? Don't worry about it. Some of the neighbourhood kids were throwing stones. I didn't have anything on me to deflect them." Before Hishigaki could ask more, the human girl had snatched her name, and placed it roughly in between two thicker pieces of parchment. "You've got a lovely name, Hishigaki. Better than mine, anyway. My name is Reiko. Natsume Reiko. If I call for you, you'd better come quickly!"

When will she call me?

Seasons come and go.

When will she call?

Another spring. Another summer. More autumns. Another winter.

Why don't you call me?

The loneliness. It was unbearable before. Now it's crushing.

If you won't call me… then why did you take my name in the first place?!

So painful… so much more painful… return it… RETURN IT!

Takako gasped as she returned to consciousness. She felt, rather than saw, a giant fur-covered paw supporting her weight off the ground. Bringing her eyes up to meet the demon's, she felt tear trails down her face, as she came out of the memories of Hishigaki.

"Reiko? Are you… alright now?"

"I'm sorry, Hishigaki, I'm not Reiko. I'm her granddaughter." Takako smiled, the gentle concern rolling off the ayakashi touching her somewhere deep, making the tears well up even more. "But I don't think she was ever really lonely. Not when there was someone so kind looking out for her."

"Will you… be alright?"

"Yes." Glancing behind her, she felt the reassuring presence of Nyanko-sensei in the form a giant, white-furred beast that definitely wasn't a cat. "I think I will."

A gentle hand came to rest upon her cheek, wiping away the tears that had made a road down her face. "Do not cry, child. I will return."

"I know. But I don't know if I will be here when you do."

Hishigaki chose not to reply to this last statement, but Takako knew that she had heard it. It was the painful truth. It was not meant for a human and an ayakashi to walk within the same time, and a single lifetime of a human was akin to an afternoon nap for the unearthly. It was more than likely that this was the only time the two of them would meet in this lifetime.

But, Takako thought as she watched Hishigaki ascend into the air to travel away from the village of humans, it didn't mean that they hadn't become friends. Nor did it mean that Takako could not go searching for Hishigaki someday.

"Goodbye, Hishigaki. Goodbye, gentle friend of my grandmother's."

"Hey, sensei, what happened to the fox that was chasing after the Book of Friends? He kind of disappeared in the whole frenzy."

Having snuck back into the house, Takako had proceeded to change again to hide the scuff marks she had managed to get on her jeans, and the maneki neko had helped itself to another three slices of the watermelon, and had been staring at the final piece, as if it was debating whether or not the tummy-ache would be worth it. Takako decided to be nice and eat the final slice herself, so that the cat would stop arguing with itself.

"Hmph! You should have asked much earlier! Your wonderful sensei chased it off whilst you were swooning like an idiot – I drained quite a bit of its power, so it won't be able to come after you for a while now."

"Hmmm… I guess you're not quite as useless as you look."

"What? What did you just… and after I helped you as well!" The cat silenced itself again, and seemed to shift its demeanor towards formality with great rapidity. "Tell me, Natsume. Why did you want to return the name?"

"Er… well…"

"You had power over that Hishigaki. You didn't have to give that power up. If you had commanded her to, she would have torn her own eye out. Why did you give that power up?"

"I… because it's the right thing to do? Even if you ask, I don't think I can give you an answer…"

"You don't want revenge for years of mistreatment you suffered at the hands of our kind?"

Natsume paused. She couldn't say that she hadn't been tempted. In fact, the cruelty she had suffered through her childhood as a result of simply being able to see had been traumatic enough to still give her nightmares. Nevertheless…

"Then I'd have to give the same treatment to humans as I do youkai – and I don't think that I have the power to make humans do my bidding at all." She said slowly, chewing over her response. It was difficult to explain, the desire within her to do something right, something for someone, rather than something easy. "Or we could blame it on my twisted personality?"

"Well, whatever. I don't care why you're doing this, but your stumbling around is annoying me! How can you know how to call on air sprites but not how to do seals? From now on, you're Backward Natsume! You won't be Natsume again until you learn all the things you can from me! You are now Sakasama, you idiot!"

Five seconds later, Nyanko-sensei sported another bump on the head, and Takako had gone downstairs for dinner. Pausing before she exited the room entirely, she turned back to face her new sensei, and pointed out,

"It would be a lot easier for you to eat me if I remained uneducated, Nyanko-sensei. So who's the idiot now?"

Nyanko-sensei watched as his new student went out of the room, and allowed himself to reminisce about his last student, who had said almost exactly the same thing.

Reiko… you died far younger than I expected. Not even fifty years have passed. How disappointing, that you did not show me how far you have come. The youkai heard the quiet murmurings downstairs, the gentleness of the latest humans who had taken Reiko's granddaughter in. No matter – I'll repeat the experiment I did on you on your granddaughter. And I'll stay by her side until the experiment has been completed.

But still, Reiko… how did you put a seal on your granddaughter when the two of you had never even met…?

Author's Notes:

Well, that's the first chapter! Depending on the review response, I'll consider pulling a couple of hours sleep out from my normal routine to finish Chapter 2 faster ^_^.

I decided to make this fiction include a bit more of the human interactions Natsume has to deal with, although our favourite youkai characters will be making several guest appearances. As for making Natsume a girl? Well, I think that if he were one in the original story, he would have approached some problems a little differently, and his relationships with friends would certainly change. Okay, that wasn't really the reason - it's just that I am a girl, and making Natsume a girl makes it so much easier on me as the writer. It's actually surprisingly exhausting trying to write from the point of view of a man ^_^'.

Anyways... hope you enjoyed my attempt at a gender-bend piece! Love it? Hate it? Any pointers? Only... no flamers, please!

Thank you!

Fiametta xxx