Disclaimer: Not mine. And I certainly do not make a profit writing this

Chapter 10 – The Gathering

Mid-terms had come and gone for the teenagers of Kitagawa High School, and Natsume was among those who had breathed a massive sigh of relief when the last of the papers had been taken in. Nishimura was already celebrating as if he had passed everything, but Sasada seemed to adopt an even more anxious manner to what she had been like before the exams had started.

Taki had integrated herself into their friendship group, by the encouragement of both Takako and Tanuma, and to the unhidden delight of Nishimura. From Natsume's perspective, it was either that Taki was thickheaded, or strangely cruel, but she didn't seem to acknowledge (or, indeed, notice) Nishimura's overt attempts at courting her.

"I think, in celebration of finishing our mid-terms, we should go on a trip." Tanuma mentioned at lunch, half a week after the end of exams, "I was thinking over in the hilly area – take a picnic and make a day of it on Sunday. What do you guys think?"

"Agreed, agreed, agreed!" Nishimura exclaimed, "We haven't really hung out outside of school before." He stated, glancing at Natsume and Tanuma, "We can just take our bikes out to the countryside."

"I don't have a bicycle though." Takako admitted, refraining from admitting that she had never learned how to ride a bike growing up.

"Easy enough – I have an extra seat on the back of my bike, you can sit with me." Tanuma offered, "Or you could ask Tohko-san – I'm sure that they won't mind letting you borrow one of their bikes."

"Thank you for the kind offer!"

The group of friends chatted amiably whilst their honour roll classmate became increasingly frustrated, until finally, like the proverbial kettle, she blew her top.

One could almost see the steam coming out of Sasada's ears.

"Aren't you at all concerned about the results!? What am I going to tell my parents if I can't get the grades I need to get into college…" Sasada bemoaned, cradling her head amongst her arms.

"Er… Sasada – we're still in the first year of high school. College exams are two years away still." Nishimura pointed out tentatively, trying not to provoke the sleeping lioness, "Relax a little – you know what they say about all work and no play…"

"Urgh. I guess you make a fair point." Sasada pointedly ignored Nishimura's protest of 'can't you just admit when I'm right!?' and turned to Natsume, "There's a new shopping district opening up next to the hilly area as well. What say you to having a bit of girl time?"

Takako was a little torn – on one hand, she didn't want to spurn Sasada's friendly offer and create an awkward tension between her and one of her only girl-friends, but on the other, she had never enjoyed going shopping. Not when she could hardly concentrate on mundane items when ayakashi followed her constantly around shops. Luckily, she was rescued from leaving too long a pause for response by Taki, who burst into their classroom, a large smile on her face and waving her revision flashcards in the air.

"We're free! Now, who wants to go shopping?"

Natsume allowed a small smile sneak onto her face as she watched Taki enthusiastically engaged a far less reticent Sasada in a discussion over the new shopping district opening. After the whole debacle with Stone Grey, the initially quiet teenager bloomed back into a cheerful, friendly young girl; quick to smile, easy to amuse. There were still moments that Natsume could see Taki tensing, looking over her shoulder, fear colouring her gaze; however, Natsume knew that those moments were becoming few and far between, and she had confidence that eventually, what had happened with that youkai would become nothing more than a waking nightmare for the otherwise normal teenage human.

"Natsume? Wake up! I know exams were hard, but you can't just doze off when you want." Taki's voice broke through her reverie, "Do you want to come with us shopping tomorrow? It'll be fun, we promise!"

"Ah… sorry, Taki. I promised that I would go and meet someone tomorrow afternoon – perhaps another day?" It wasn't even an excuse – she had indeed been asked (well, ordered might be a better term for it) by Nyanko-sensei to go and see his 'provider'. Since she still needed to thank the benefactor for lending the sealing mirror for the last ayakashi, she did not protest against going. "If it were the day after, I could consider it…" She amended at the sight of her classmates' faces falling in disappointment.

"Then it's decided! We'll go for a girls' day out this Sunday to the new mall!" Taki grinned, looping her arms around the taller girl's shoulders, "We're going to have a great time! One of the stores sells such cute keychains…"

"Hold on! Why are we being left out?" Nishimura cut in, a little put out at the plans for an all-girls' day out, "Natsume agreed to hang out with us guys first. You girls need to wait for another weekend!"

"What? Why should we wait? The sales only last for another week. Your plans can wait, Nishimura – the hills aren't going to move away anytime soon." Sasada drawled imperiously, "If you must hang around with us, you may come along and carry our bags."

"Ho… how is that fair? Kitamoto! Save me from your dictator of a childhood friend!"

"How about this – this weekend, we'll go shopping and for karaoke afterwards. Next weekend, we will all go to the countryside and have a picnic – that includes you, Sasada, since you're making us guys come with you." The tall teen attempted to mediate between the two feuding classmates. "Besides, Nishimura – it's meant to rain this weekend. Do you really want to explore the woods in a cloudburst?"

The teenager conceded grudgingly, and quickly regained his enthusiasm when Taki beamed at him and began gushing about how much she was looking forward to spending the day with him. As much as escaping the shadow of that awful ayakashi had improved Taki's temperament and mood, Takako hadn't had her pegged as a girl who gushed.

And then, as her friend turned towards her, Takako caught a quick wink, so quick that she would be hard-pressed to say if it had been present.

I seem to have become acquainted with a dangerous species of human girl… Takako mused, suddenly glad that Taki was already in the know about her dealings in the world of the Unseen. She had a feeling that her secret wouldn't have stayed secret if Taki was the one investigating rather than Sasada.

"Hmph – an outing with the half-blind brat and the circle-drawer? Well, as long as you bring some edible souvenirs back with you, I wouldn't mind. We're meeting with my provider the day before, so it doesn't interfere at all." Nyanko-sensei groused when Takako told him of her Sunday plans. "You'll just have to avoid the rice wine being passed around."

"I graciously decline your offer, Nyanko-sensei." Takako replied, her expression deadpanned. "What makes you think I'd even think about accepting alcohol whilst in the company of youkai, anyway? I get into enough trouble as it is when I go into their company sober."

"Well, maybe when you're older. You're too much of a brat right now to appreciate the finer things in life."

"You sound like a sixty-year-old man, sensei."

"Take that back, idiot!"

Tohko was in the kitchen, wondering what to make for dinner when she heard a resounding 'thump!' from upstairs. She hurried up the stairs, aware that the room right above the kitchen would be Takako-chan's room. The sight that greeted her was one that she wished she had a camera for.

Takako-chan and her kitty seemed to be locked in a mock-fight of sorts, with the kitty set atop her stomach, repeatedly smacking her head as she pulled on its ears. Neither seemed to be hurting the other, and Tohko came to the conclusion that this rough-and-tumble was likely how the two deepened their friendship.

My, my – who would have thought under all that formality and politeness, Takako-chan has a tomboyish side?

Humming to herself in content, Tohko proceeded back to the kitchen, reassured that her young charge was flourishing in her new home.

"Get off, sensei! You weigh a ton!" Takako grunted, trying to pull the stupid cat off her torso, "Get off!"

"Not likely! I'll teach you once and for all to respect your elders!"

"If that were the case, I would have been eaten years ago, now get off before I asphyxiate, you pig-cat!"

Saturday arrived with a blast of dry, cold wind from the North. Having put on two extra layers at the behest of Tohko-san, Takako was following the surprisingly rapid footsteps of her cat. The cold chill permeated through the four layers she was wearing, and Takako was currently regretting her decision to leave her gloves behind.

"How much farther, sensei?" She asked, trying her hardest not to sound like a petulant child (even if she was starting to feel like one).

"It's just through those trees – that nuisance wanted to meet you where she and your grandmother met for the first time."

"Er… she's not another who I need to return a Name to, right?" Natsume didn't relish the thought of Returning a Name at this point – she had Returned another two Names the previous night, and although her endurance levels had increased greatly since the first time she had Returned a Name, she was still prone to collapsing if she tried to do too many at once.

"Don't worry, weakling – this one was one that evaded even Reiko, like myself. Of course, I was simply too powerful, whereas my provider evaded due to sneakiness…" Although the maneki neko continued to blow his own trumpet, Takako managed to tune the ayakashi out (something that she had honed into an art skill). Continuing along the path, she interrupted her teacher's reverie.

"How does your provider get their hands on half the things you show me? The scrolls you get are from spirits, but that mirror and the few protective charms you've had me put up around the Fujiwara household are definitely human."

"We'll speak of it at more length after my provider has a look at you. It's safer for both of you to know as little as possible until you meet in person."

Frowning a little, but trusting her teacher (grudgingly, but still), Takako continued to follow him down what was no longer a path through the forest. He had led her off the well-trodden trail a fair ten minutes previous, and she was starting to have a hard time following the surprisingly nimble pig-cat. "Sensei, could you slow down a bit? I didn't exactly dress for trekking."

The cat spared the young human a glance before replying that it was only another few minutes' walk. Twenty minutes later, the unlikely pair stumbled onto the edge of the forest, with Takako internally swearing never to trust Nyanko-sensei's word again when it came to time.

"We're here. You hold on here – I'll see where that nuisance has sequestered herself."

Waving the cat on whilst she caught her breath, Takako took in the sight before her eyes. A lake, untouched by pollution, reflecting the dull autumn sun serenely. The leaves on the surrounding trees were almost exclusively red now, and even the crow-song that had followed them throughout the forest died down around this lake. Takako took in a breath of the crisp, clean air, so full of… of something she couldn't quite put her finger on…


Natsume was jolted out of her reverie when someone hurtled into her side, grabbing her into a full-body hug. Having never really hugged anyone other than Tohko-san, she immediately tried to curl away from the stranger.

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, having her arms pinned to her side and no room to manoeuvre her legs into a kick meant that she didn't have much of a choice in the matter. The narrow view of the stranger she had revealed a head of blue hair, and an indigo kimono, but not much else. Her face was squished against what definitely felt like a woman's bosom, and she could hear squeals of 'Reiko!' from a few inches above her head.

"Stop that, you blind hag! I've told you before – this is Natsume Takako, Reiko's grandchild. It's not like they look identical – even their smell is different." Nyanko-sensei was trying to drag her out of the stranglehold the other youkai had her in, with limited success, "Let go before she suffocates!"

Just as suddenly as she was engulfed in the hug, she was released by the well-endowed youkai and was bodily spun around to face her. Takako was faced with what she thought was probably one of the most beautiful faces she had seen so far, with wide eyes, prominent cheek bones and a small, pointed nose, all framed by purple hair that was so dark it looked like a more conventional black. Having been set back on the ground, she realised how much taller the woman was as well, standing at least two heads taller than her own modest five foot four.

"Well, she's certainly shorter, and her eyes aren't quite as brilliant, but she's still absolutely beautiful! And a girl!" And, with that, Takako found herself struggling for breath again as she was squished against a purple kimono.

"Pl… pleased to meet you… I… it's difficult to breathe…" She managed to get out. Again, she was released from the grip, much to her relief (as well as her lungs').

"Ugh… well, Natsume, this is who we're visiting today. This is Hinoe. She knew your grandmother when she was just starting out getting Names for the Book." Nyanko-sensei introduced the tall woman reluctantly, "She's been my source for those scrolls and that mirror from the last incident."

"Why, I'm shocked at your show of maturity, Madara. I was sure that you would claim all responsibility for finding those materials." Sarcasm dripped from each syllable coming out of the lady's mouth. Natsume took an instant liking to her.

"Credit where credit's due, Hinoe. And your pestering was wearing on even my infinite patience." Two scoffs of disbelief were heard, leading to a rather sulky maneki neko. "I'm not here to be scoffed at, Hinoe! We have stuff to discuss!"

"Indeed, Madara, but don't you think that involving Natsume…"

"Hold your tongue, Hinoe! Honestly, you and your gossip." The feline exclaimed, aiming a paw at the woman's ankles, which she neatly side-stepped.

"Actually, Nyanko-sensei, I'd very much like to be involved in whatever it is the two of you have to discuss. Especially since it seems to have something to do with me." Takako said evenly, "And, I reckon that it has something to do with those odd looks you've been throwing my way since the Stone Grey fiasco."

The surprise in Nyanko-sensei's eyes made it clear that he had not expected Takako to be quite so perceptive of his recent calculating stares, and Natsume would have found it insulting if it weren't for the rare opportunity to use the 'so you don't know everything' smirk on the cat. "I may be human, Nyanko-sensei, but that doesn't mean my head is made of wood. You've been letting your guard down."

Next to them, the ayakashi introduced as Hinoe had broken down into raucous laughter, clutching her middle as she doubled over from the force of her chortles, "Madara! You really are slipping into your dotage if such a young girl can see through your defences! Never mind that she's Reiko's grandchild, she's still a child! And… and…"

"I'm glad that you find the situation hilarious, Hinoe! Never mind the danger she continuously puts herself in without knowing anything, imagine what kind of trouble she would get into if we told her more than she needs to know?" Madara snapped, his eyes sharp and furious, "Kid, if you want to get through this without serious head injuries, you'd be better off forgetting that you know anything."

"You're the one who dragged me kicking and screaming further into this mess, sensei. I think I should at least be armed with the knowledge of why you've been insisting that I learn those scrolls, and why you've been looking at me funny since I applied that Seal on Stone Grey." Natsume frowned (she didn't pout, no matter what Nyanko-sensei said later), "I doubt that these incidents are going to decrease as long as I hold onto the Book of Friends, and as you keep saying, knowledge is power. I would have thought you'd want me to be a bit more powerful to at least decrease your workload in protecting the Book." And me.

"The girl has a point, Madara. She's better off knowing at least the bare basics, if not the minutiae." Hinoe reasoned, producing a smoking pipe from the sleeve of her kimono, "And who knows, maybe she'll be more sensible than Reiko was and heed our warnings."

"Hmph. Fat chance – she's twice the headache Reiko ever was as a charge. Too soft-hearted, helping whatever sob story comes our way. Have you seen the Book lately, Hinoe? It's getting thinner and thinner under this waif's guardianship! I think I should just eat her and resolve this whole problem." The fat cat grumbled, his tone making it clear that he had given in. "Fine. But I'll have you promise me five sweet manjuu buns in advance as payment!"

"One. You're getting too heavy lately to even sit on my lap."


"Two. Final offer."

"Tch. Fine." The grouch settled on the grass, and motioned for Hinoe to start.

"As you know, we were acquainted with your grandmother, Reiko, when she was perhaps at your stage of growth as well." Hinoe began, taking a deep puff from her pipe, "She was a troubled youth – not many human friends to call her own, which is perhaps why she began to collect the Names of spirits, to try and fill that hole where she lacked companionship. She started small, making weaker spirits write their Names on parchment that she would carry around in that bag of hers along with those human schoolbooks, but pretty soon she was taking on bigger and better youkai. Of course, the more Names she gathered, the more notoriety she garnered in this area, and that's when Madara and I happened upon her."

"She was powerful, for a human. Brimming with energy that usually only exists within ayakashi, so much so that we would wonder if she was a changeling at times. Madara tried to steal the Book a few times, but after the fourth time Reiko repelled him, she offered a deal. That, if he were to teach her better methods of fighting ayakashi, and introduce her to stronger opponents, then she would feed him her life force until she died."

At this, Natsume's eyebrows almost shot past her hairline. My grandmother did what now?

"Hmph. That was the original agreement between us." The disgruntled cat protested, "As time went on, I concluded that the entertainment she provided me with would satisfy me far longer than eating her would."

"And so, Reiko learnt the spells and crafts of our kind, much as the first exorcists did when they first began to interact with spirits," Hinoe continued, taking another deep breath of her pipe, "She was the first of her family to have the spark of power, as far as she knew. It might be why her power was so strong – undiluted by time and the inbreeding that some exorcist families seemed to favour."

"But, as she gathered Names, she gathered notoriety amongst our circles, and eventually her existence was discovered by exorcist clans. Things… deteriorated from there. The result of everything is standing in front of me."

Natsume frowned at this – there was a definite jump in the timeline that she wanted to enquire further into, but she was afraid that any pushing would result in being told nothing at all.

"Madara tells me that neither of your parents had any spiritual powers?"

"That's correct. I don't remember either of them very well, but I have been told that both of them were normal, and led quiet lives."

"Have you noticed anything about your powers lately?"

"In what way?"

"How long did it used to take you to recover from returning a Name?" Hinoe asked lightly, watching a look of understanding come over Takako's face, "Your powers are not like a muscle – they will not grow simply because you use them. The only way for a human's powers to grow is if they had been repressed in the first place."

"But…" Takako began to protest.

"When I first met you at that shrine, you were too weak to even fight off those weaklings without the help of sacred ground." Nyanko-sensei interrupted her, his features uncharacteristically serious, "I assure you that as you are right now, you have plenty of power to defeat such small fry without my assistance."

"You mean… like when Stone Grey put a dampener on me?"

"No… as you noticed, as soon as you sealed that youkai, that dampener was lifted, right? The binding that was on you was designed to be permanent – almost like someone was trying to curse your family line." Nyanko-sensei explained, "Hinoe and I have been discussing the possibilities, and the most likely one so far is that Reiko herself placed the bind.

"Since your parents were both powerless, we're guessing that whatever Reiko did only took for the one generation. The only spells that Hinoe and I could come up with that might have done this weren't meant for humans, which might explain why your powers have surfaced." Nyanko-sensei concluded.

Natsume was stunned. She hadn't thought of her decreasing tiredness when returning Names as anything more than increasing endurance, and had thought of the increased power behind her punches and kicks as part and parcel of that endurance. To be told that her grandmother Reiko had purposefully bound that part of her bloodline…

"Why did she try and bind my powers? If the stories the spirits whose Names I returned are true, then Reiko doesn't seem to be the type to run and hide, and yet that's what the binding spell looks like."

"You have already made contact with the Natori household, have you not?" Hinoe asked, taking another deep puff of her pipe.

"Yes… I have. Why have you brought him up?" Takako asked warily, reminded of the ferocity with which Nyanko-sensei had initially reacted to the exorcist.

"It's not so much a person, but the House of Natori that raised Madara's hackles." The tall, elegant ayakashi explained calmly, "I mention Natori because the last time we came across someone with that name, it started the chain of events that led to Madara being sealed away, and losing my precious Reiko."

Natsume was silent. Hinoe took this as an invitation to continue.

"It's a rather long and, looking back, tedious story, so I'll make it short. There are several prominent exorcist families throughout Japan, and most humans with any semblance of power come from those houses, and if not, are usually absorbed quickly into one of those families. Reiko was too powerful to not be attached to a family, but when she shunned each offer to join an exorcist house, it was decided to remove any non-human influence from her sphere. Natori was one of the households who hired the exorcist who sealed Madara in that shrine."

No wonder sensei's hackles were raised when he first encountered Natori, Takako mused, making a note to be far more reserved in future, if she ever saw the flashy actor again.

All in all, the story was rather fantastical, although from a woman who collected Names as a way of finding companionship, Natsume wasn't entirely surprised by the drama in her grandmother's life. It also explained a lot about why Nyanko-sensei was so keen for her to keep away from other humans with similar talents to her own.

"That still doesn't explain why my grandmother effectively cursed her family line."

"To be frank, Natsume, we're not sure. It's mostly why I brought you here today – I never had the time to learn the subtleties behind seeing spells. Hinoe has had enough time to learn the art to a reasonable level, so I wanted her to take a look at your binding."

"That's his version of 'I have no talent in this, but Hinoe has tons of it and I bow down to her superior skills', I feel." Hinoe winked, taking another deep puff from her pipe, "And as we've been prattling, I've got a pretty good idea of how things stand. Your initial theory was correct, Madara. I suspect that whenever she's been flexing that power, it's been stressing the binding like a horse pulling against a worn rope. It's still strong enough to suppress her full potential, but weak enough that she's going to start attracting attention sooner or later."

Natsume frowned, "Surely we can talk it out with them. I'm not sure what things were like with my grandmother, but humans change far more readily than ayakashi."

Nyanko-sensei pinned her with a flat stare, "You've missed the main point. They sealed me away to limit Reiko's contact with ayakashi she counted amongst friends, in an attempt to gain control over her and her powers."

Natsume's face must have communicated something along the lines of 'so what', because she immediately got a much rougher-than-necessary swipe of the maneki neko's paw. "It's highly significant, especially now. It wasn't widely known that I was a friend of Reiko's, mostly because my Name wasn't in the Book." The penny started dropping, and Takako's stomach dropped along with the proverbial penny, "A spirit may not have the same pressure points as a human, but they still have them. It only took one spirit to be sufficiently pushed to reveal the relationship between myself and Reiko. "

"It only takes one unlucky ayakashi for the whole exorcist community to know about the Book of Friends, Natsume."

Imagine what they could do with it went unsaid, but heard nonetheless.

The teenager frowned, and dug her nails into her palms, a habitual response to stress that she thought she had left behind years earlier. "I don't want to assume the worst, sensei. And we've already met with Natori-san, and he hardly batted an eyelid when he heard my family name. Surely, even if previous generations had heard of my grandmother, they didn't manage to hand the information down to the current head?"

"Did you hear anything that Hinoe was saying earlier?" The cat scolded, "There are exorcist families in existence. As in plural. The Natori family, as far as I've been able to tell, has lost enough power to be of little more than an annoyance to us. The head," The word was said with such venom that Natsume was surprised poison wasn't dripping from the feline's jaw, "of the family seems to be… fond," Again with the venom, "of you. It offers you some protection against more vicious machinations of that particular House."

"So… I take it that you're more worried about those other families?" Natsume ventured, one eyebrow raised in scepticism, "Again, humans change, especially throughout generations. I doubt that they would treat me as they treated my grandmother, especially if I made it clear that I want nothing to do with… whatever they do."

"From what Madara tells me, you've already interfered with an exorcism. It's only a matter of time before you run into another case where your ideals will conflict with their job." Hinoe stated calmly.

Natsume could feel her cheeks colouring rapidly at that statement. Apparently her mentor was quite the gossip himself.

"Well, you've said yourself, Nyanko-sensei, and Hinoe-san has confirmed it. My power is under a binding – I'm surely too weak to be of any particular interest to these families?"

"We've had confirmation that you are not weak, despite what I may call you on a regular basis." The maneki neko admitted, earning himself a sharp tap from Hinoe's pipe, "Hey!"

"That's for bullying a young girl. I expected better from you, Madara." Hinoe turned her attention to the bemused teenage human in question, "Someone with weak power would not be able to see us to the level of detail you do, let alone interact with us to the level that you do. A person with weak power would not have been able to pull the spell out of that mirror I provided Madara with."

"I may have… fudged a couple of lines and inflections, but it was the spell that came with the mirror. It's still not pulling a spell from the mirror – I assumed it was something with a binding embedded within it, and the incantation was the trigger."

"No. Triggers must be recited perfectly – or else they do not work, especially not for humans. It's why many exorcists favours paper so much; they don't need to memorise a new trigger for every vessel they use. You pulled the embedded spell and forced it to work – that's an alteration of a spell." Nyanko-sensei paused. "Usually, the next step would be to introduce you to spell creation. But considering that you managed to jump from using ready-made human spells to altering them, I'm expecting you to stumble across how to create spells by absolute accident in the near future."

Natsume got the distinct feeling that her ad-libbing wasn't particularly appreciated by her teacher. The smirk from Hinoe, on the other hand, seemed to be encouraging her to do things along similar lines in the future to mess with the feline's composure.

Natsume was about to ask another question – the first of many – when she was cut off by a flock of sparrows, swarming around Hinoe. One landed on her hairpin, and seemed to whisper into her ear. Whatever was whispered, it seemed to hold quite a bit of significance for the ayakashi, since the purple-clad female promptly stood up to her imposing full height, and announced abruptly,

"We must reconvene in the next location sooner than I predicted. It seems we are sitting in close range of another meeting." She levelled her gaze at the suddenly full alert maneki neko, "An exorcist meeting."

Given what she had heard in the last hour or so, she wanted nothing more than to turn tail and run, as far away from the exorcists as possible, as least until she could get more information on what exactly had happened to her grandmother when she had interacted with the exorcists. After more than a decade of surviving purely because of running away from possible threats, she had learned to have no shame in a hasty retreat.

"Come on, Natsume. Hop on." Apparently, Nyanko-sensei also had little use for heroic stands. He had already shifted into his sky-dog form, offering a paw for Natsume to clamber up on, "We're getting out before they notice our presence."

Takako did not need a second prompt. Hinoe was already on the back of the giant sky-dog, and reached out a hand to help her scramble up onto her sensei's back. She did so with all the elegance of a new-born foal (she really needed to improve on that) and clutched onto Nyanko-sensei's rough fur like a lifeline with seconds to spare, before the great ayakashi leapt into the sky. Even with the danger on the ground, Natsume relished the wind whipping her hair into a frenzy, the taste of freedom…

Right before Nyanko-sensei reverted into his usual state of maneki neko roundness in a large puff of smoke.

Natsume couldn't decide what was more painful – the initial meeting of the ground, or the full weight of Hinoe crashing into her stomach.

"Wh… what happened?" She gasped with what little was left in her lungs. She was already tentatively wriggling her extremities to try and determine if she had broken anything – so far, so lucky.

"Damned exorcists – they must have set a barrier to stop uninvited spirits from entering. It has the unwelcome side effect of also keeping any uninvited spirits in." Madara growled, so irritated that he neglected to even scold Natsume (and Hinoe) for landing on top of him. "I wasn't expecting it quite so suddenly."

"Can you make it through the barrier?" Takako asked worriedly, struggling to a standing position. "Is there something that needs to be removed?"

"No! We need to approach the barrier from another place – the collision that Madara just had with that barrier was large enough to warrant an investigation. We have to move before they get here." Hinoe urged, glancing towards the clearing, "We need to move. Now."

With that, the tall spirit took off with surprising speed and agility for someone clad in a purple kimono and wearing geta sandals.

Natsume struggled to her feet, grabbed Nyanko-sensei by the middle, staggered the first couple of steps forward, before breaking into a run. Unfortunately, since she had fairly recently fell from at least a few metres in the air, the running was more of a limping trot than anything else.

"Idiot Natsume! Run faster!"

"If you were lighter, maybe I would be able to run a little faster!" Takako hissed, before giving up altogether. Taking a detour, she dove into a bush that looked thick enough to hide the two of them. "I can't run. Hiding is pretty much the next best thing." She reasoned, trying not to breathe too heavily.

"Hmph. That will only work if they only send a low-level human to search the area. Any spirits will be able to sense us almost immediately." Nyanko-sensei whispered, crouching closer to his human charge.

Several tense minutes passed, before both human and maneki neko peeked out of the foliage slightly to try and assess the situation. The sight that greeted them, however, was somewhat surprising.

"What are you and the pig-cat doing here, Natsume?" A newly-masked Hiiragi was standing in front of the bush, arms folded, looking as if she had been waiting for the pair to emerge from the bush for a while. "May I assume that you are responsible for the clamour earlier?"

"The assumption would be a sensible one." Natsume replied sheepishly. This could be worse. It could have been someone we didn't know. "Please, Hiiragi-san, we didn't mean to stray so close to an exorcist meeting. If you would just let us slip away, pretend that the collision was from the outside and…"

"No. It's too late for subterfuge." Hiiragi looked behind her, before tugging Takako out of the bush altogether. "The easiest way for you to get out is by following Natori-sama out of through the entrance. The barrier there allows spirits to pass through so long as they are in contact with an exorcist."


"I have not yet repaid the debt I owe you for my life, Natsume. If you do not trust my word, then at least trust my honour." Hiiragi stated dryly, and looked to Nyanko-sensei for support.

The cat was reluctant, but gave his nod regardless. "It is as this disrespectful spirit says, Natsume. The easiest and safest method for us to get out of here will be to attach ourselves to Natori and slip away quietly. Just don't do anything to get yourself noticed, and we'll be fine." The last bit was meant as a warning. Takako doubted that Hiiragi missed the message.

"I can see that close proximity to exorcists is making the cat nervous – he has stopped most of his rude remarks." Hiiragi commented, whilst pulling the smaller human to her feet.

"Careful, Hiiragi. I am not so ancient that I have forgotten the stench of a newly-bound shiki." Nyanko-sensei spat, shaking loose a stray twigs and leaves from his fur, "I trust you and your honour as much as I trust this one to keep her nose out of trouble. I'm going along with your plan because it is the safest way out whilst avoiding detection. And because I have no need to hold back on eating you if you betray us to your leash-holder."

"Sensei! I'm sorry Hiiragi, he's just surly because I landed on him earlier."

"It is alright, Natsume. Many unbound ayakashi would react similarly to my new contract with an exorcist."

Takako made a note to ask Nyanko-sensei what exactly a shiki was, and why other spirits seemed so antagonistic against them. She sensed that it would be a rather controversial issue to discuss at this point.

Hiiragi escorted the odd duo towards a traditional Japanese house, and as they drew nearer to the house, the more crowded it became. Soon, the air was crawling with the presence of so many ayakashi that it became impossible to distinguish the humans from the spirits. Natsume resisted the urge to shrink away; usually, the presence of this many spirits spelled trouble for her.

"You and the cat should stay here whilst I find Natori." Hiiragi advised, leading them to a relatively quiet corner of the main hall. "Try to stop the cat from doing anything stupid while I'm gone."

And, with that, Hiiragi disappeared from the crowd, leaving the duo on their own on foreign soil. Natsume surveyed the room with curiosity: it was the first time she had seen so many humans and spirits gathered in one place. It was also the first time she had been around so many people who could see the spirits.

It felt rather surreal, in a terrifying way, and if she hadn't just been told the story of what befell her grandmother when she fell on the wrong side of the exorcists, she would have been more excited. She was finally amongst people like herself. Even though Tanuma and Taki had made her feel more accepted amongst friends than she ever had before, they could never be allowed to step as far into the world of the spirits as she had. Not without protection that she still couldn't provide. Her meeting with Natori had given her a taste of hope – the hope that she had met someone that understood her world fully, whose life she didn't need to fear for – but then Natori turned and revealed his views on spirits, a view that differed vastly from her own.

But surely… with so many gathered here, there must be at least one or two who could understand her relationships with ayakashi.

"Sake! Natsume, they have spirit's rice wine here!" Sensei's excited voice broke her own reverie, and she looked down just in time to see the maneki neko sprinting off, presumably following the scent of his favourite alcoholic beverage.

"Nyanko-sensei! Get back here!" She chided, chasing after the thrice-damned cat. "Hiiragi won't be able to find us if you get lost!"

She hesitated for a moment before going forward into the crowd. So far, no one had paid her much mind, and she was counting on that continuing to be the case. With so many with similar powers to her own gathered here, it was the first time she felt as if she could blend into the crowd. No one ever told me it blending into a crowd makes you so invisible, or how great it is, she mused silently, her eyes stuck firmly downwards, trying to track down her wayward sensei.

Her eyes were stuck so firmly downwards, in fact, she didn't notice the tall, dark-haired man until she collided with him straight on.

Before she had time to splutter an apology, however, she felt her windpipe get blocked by a firm hand, fingers squeezing her neck, before letting go just as abruptly. Choking on air, Natsume raised her head to see a young, gaunt face staring back at her, with one black, emotionless iris staring down at her. The other was covered by parchment that had sutras - dozens for protection, just as many for concealment.

"I apologise." He sounded anything but apologetic. "I did not realise you were human at first. You should really look where you are going."

Natsume remained silent. Anyone whose first instinct was to try and get a chokehold on a spirit was obviously not someone she wanted to be acquainted with.

"It is only polite to accept someone's apology once they have offered it, child."

"I apologise for colliding into you, sir. I should be on my way." Takako tried to keep it short and sweet, before moving to try and sidestep the man, only to be blocked in her path.

"I have not seen you before at these gatherings." The demand for a name hung in the air.

I'd rather be rude than have Nyanko-sensei scold me six ways to Sunday about how easily I give out my name.

"It's my first time attending. I am here with Natori-san." It wasn't quite the truth, but she hoped that it wasn't quite a lie either. As long as Natori went along with the story Hiiragi gave.

"With the Natori family? They are quite a secretive bunch, especially since Shuuichi became the head." He knew Natori-san? Takako could feel a cold sweat sweep over her – what if he already knew her story to be a lie?

"Well, if it is you first time at one of these meetings, why are you not with your sponsor? Surely Natori would not want a first-timer wandering about on her own. There are some… unsavoury spirits lurking here." The stranger smirked, his condescending tone denoting exactly how weak he thought she was.

"I lost my cat. I was just going to retrieve him."

"A kitty? How very… girl."

Indeed. It sounded like a rather girly thing to do, to bring a pet to a meeting, but Takako failed to mention that the feline was also a shape-shifted gigantic sky-dog.

"Well, in that case, you can spare some time. Follow me." The strange man commanded, beckoning Takako. "There is something you should see, as a first-timer, unless Shuuichi has already shown it to you."

Takako raised a curious eyebrow in spite of herself. "I've seen many things since arriving. Which might you be speaking of?"

"The kimono, of course."

Like a moth to a flame, Takako's interest was piqued, and despite her reservations about the man, she was tempted to follow. However…

"I'm afraid I really must be going to find my cat. Or Natori-san. Whichever I find first."

The gaunt man turned to stare at her, disbelief being the first emotion she had seen colouring his features since they started the conversation, "I said, to follow me. I shall return you directly to Shuuichi once I have shown you that kimono. As for your cat… well, perhaps next time you will not bring a pet with you to these gatherings. It's probably become food for one of the spirits lurking in the shadows."

If he has been eaten by something, Nyanko-sensei would probably be eating it from the inside out for disturbing his precious saketime. Takako had to bite back a snort. Nyanko-sensei, eaten by an ayakashi? There was a better chance for her to get him to write his Name in the Book of Friends.

She followed the man to just outside the main hall, to an open window that gave a view of a nearby hill, and distant mountains. The sun hung low in the sky, although it had not dyed the sky the colour of dusk yet. And, on top of the small hill, she saw a pole, on which there was…

"Are you referring to that kimono? Why is it on a flagpole?"

"The why is not important." The man retorted, his eye boring a hole in the back of Takako's skull. "What is important, is what colour the robe is."

Author's Note

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear... I am so sorry to the readers who are still reading this story and waiting for this update. It's been a year since I updated, and I wish I had a better excuse than writer's block coupled with RL, but I don't...

This chapter was horrible to write, mostly because it's the first one where I've diverged quite a bit from the canon. I spent ages trying to get the backstory straight, and I hope that it reads well, although this is unbeta-ed, so please forgive the gaping plot holes/mistakes/grammatical errors etc.

A special shout-out to xenocanaan, who has given me encouragement and shown concern when I hadn't updated for such a long time.

Thank you all for being so patient! I really will try and update sooner this time.

Until next time,