Author's Notes: Oh my goodness... has it actually been 3 years? Wow this chapter went through a really thick writer's block! This chapter really did not want to be written, and RL hasn't been very helpful in terms of giving me time to write. I haven't even managed to watch any of the latest Natsume Yuujinchou seasons. Excuse me a moment whilst I cry on the inside (my external tears have been spent IRL already).
Anyway! Without further ado...
Disclaimer: Natsume Yuujinchou is not mine.
Chapter 11 – Meeting the Families
Takako blinked, and looked at the billowing robe, being blown about as if it were a flag.
Is it supposed to only be one colour? She watched as the robe shifted between a rich, deep crimson and a sunset orange, with patterns fading in and out of sight on the cloth. The shifting tones painted against the cloth were too frequent to be a trick of the light, but the question posed by the stranger by her side definitely implied that the kimono should only be monotone.
"It is a simple question, young lady." The man drawled, "What colour do you see?"
"Erm…" Natsume hesitated, not sure if she should tell the truth. What significance did the colour of a robe have to do with anything?
"The faster you answer, the faster I will return you to Shuuichi, child."
Takako blanched a little at that comment – return her to Natori? As if she were a piece of property, or an errant pet? "It's currently a deep crimson. With a faint chrysanthemum pattern." She snapped, eager to take him up on the offer of being escorted to Natori – anything to get away from the man who had just tried to choke her.
Unfortunately, the gleam in the man's eyes told her that he was unlikely to keep his word.
"Currently? With a pattern?"
"Yes… it's now shifted to a dark orange – like the autumn leaves. The chrysanthemum pattern has faded." Takako elaborated in the hopes that he would leave her be. "If you could please lead me to Natori-san now, I would be grateful for your help."
That dark, empty eye regarded her as one would an interesting animal in a cage. Takako flinched away, reminded far too much of howyoukai would look at her before threatening to eat her.
"My, my… I wonder where Shuuichi managed to pick up someone like you. What is your name?"
Natsume froze. There was no polite method of side-stepping that particular question, and she doubted that Natori would appreciate her using his name as a pseudonym. Why did I follow him anywhere? The man tried to strangle me not ten minutes ago, and I stupidly followed him. Nyanko-sensei is never going to let me live this down…
"Hmm… hesitant to give up your name? It seems that you are not a stranger to spirits, if you have already picked up their habits." The gaunt person's tone made it clear how disapproving he was of the 'habit' she had 'picked up'.
"Sir, you cannot possibly hold precaution against me – you just tried to choke me for bumping into you." Takako replied, unable to contain her indignation.
"True, I cannot deny that you have some justification for not wanting to give up your name to me." The man smirked, "So I suppose that I will just have Shuuichi do it for me."
"Natsume-chan! There you are – you really shouldn't wander around like that. And you let your kitty run wild without you as well!"
Takako flinched. So that's what he meant.
"Natori-san… I'm glad that you managed to find Nyanko-sensei – I'm going to have to make good on my threat of a leash." The last part was directed quite firmly at the unrepentant cat that was being held by Natori. And it stank of rice wine, the glutton!
"It's good of you to join us, Shuuichi. I was just making an acquaintance of, Natsume-san, was it?" The one-eyed human said smoothly, placing a hand on Takako's shoulder. A chill immediately went through her torso, and it was only the strong grip of the stranger that kept her from running over to Nyanko-sensei and hugging him as one would a comfort blanket.
"Matoba! I didn't realise you would be here in person." The deceptively light tone of Natori's voice made it clear that even amongst exorcists, this man (Matoba, finally, a name to put to the half-a-face) was to be stepped around carefully. "Thank you for keeping my young friend here entertained. She's always been a little prone to getting lost."
"Not at all. Actually, we were just having a look at the kimono on the hill. You remember it, do you not? Curious that you have not shown it to her yet." Matoba drawled, relinquishing his death-grip on Takako's shoulders. She did not hesitate to half-run towards Natori, all but wrenching Nyanko-sensei into her own grasp.
It did not escape her that the maneki neko's frame was even stiffer than normal, and there was even an aura of what felt like fearsurrounding her self-professed bodyguard. And it certainly wasn't because of Natori. Well, at least I know it's not just me.
"I had meant to show it to her later on. She's a shy, retiring girl – I've meant to bring her for a while but her health and education kept on throwing up barriers. Now, if you'll excuse us, we had better be going." Natori replied, his tone still deceptively light, although his eyes had become sharp and calculating.
"Oh, didn't you want to hear about what she saw? It's really quite fascinating. She's done better than you did, when you saw it the first time." Matoba stated, his gaze fixed firmly on Natsume and Nyanko-sensei. "What an unusual cat – you should have said that you were trying to find your shiki. I would have helped."
"Nyanko-sensei isn't a…" Takako didn't get a chance to finish her sentence before Natori covered her mouth in his haste to stop her from talking.
"Oh dear, is that the time? We really must be going – Natsume-chan is a minor, after all. Come along now, and make sure to keep a hold on that kitty, Natsume."
And, with far more haste than was strictly necessary, Takako followed the exorcist out of the Hall, along a stone path that led to a toriigate. It was only once they were on the other side of the gate that Natori twisted around, and whacked Nyanko-sensei on the head.
"What were you thinking? Letting her get that near Matoba, of all exorcists!?" Natori hissed, his expression the scariest Takako had ever seen on him, "You reacted badly enough to me, but you let her just waltz into a rendez-vous with Matoba?"
"He… who is Matoba?" Natsume asked, her voice shaking embarrassingly.
"Someone that you really shouldn't be speaking to, Natsume-chan. He's the leader of the Matoba exorcist Family – they're infamous amongst these circles for shady dealings with both humans and ayakashi. I take it that you noticed his eye-patch?" At the confirming nod, Natori continued, "That's something each head of the family must wear when they take over the position. The rumour is that the original Head of the family made a deal with a powerful spirit in exchange for his right eye, but broke the promise. Since then, each and every Matoba family head has had spirits attacking them for their eye."
"Why did he show me the kimono? What significance does it hold?"
Apparently, this was not the right thing to bring Natori's attention to. He stood close – almost uncomfortably close – and glared at her.
"How is it that you showed so much caution when you first met me, but Matoba hardly had to say anything before you started to give him answers?"
"Because you don't give off an aura of killing intent every time I refuse one of your requests – that man does." Takako protested the older man's mockery, "I was exercising self preservation." She held a hand gingerly around her neck, inadvertently drawing attention to it.
"Natsume, you idiot! What happened to your neck!?" Nyanko-sensei exclaimed, his voice achieving a level of anger that Takako had never heard before. "Did that b*****d do it? I knew I shouldn't have let him walk off without taking a chunk out of him..."
"Nyanko-sensei, that's the sake talking – I think you've had enough for one day."
Now that she was out of the sightline of Matoba, she could feel her heartbeat calming, and the background instinct that had been screaming at her to run away had become quiet. But not silent.
"Natori-san, I am sorry about our impromptu visit – we were actually meeting another acquaintance within the boundaries of your meeting here. We didn't realise we were intruding until your barriers had gone up." Natsume explained, belatedly remembering her manners, "Could you possibly show us to the exit? I'm sure that the sooner Nyanko-sensei and I manage to leave this gathering, the better for all parties."
Natori seemed to regard her thoughtfully, before allowing a sly smile slide onto his face, filling Natsume with enough apprehension that the quietened voice of instinct came roaring back at her to run.
"What is it, Natori-san…?"
"Well, you're here already, and you've already garnered attention from one of the most prominent exorcist families at this gathering – it would be odd if the mysterious girl who caught the attention of Matoba Seiji were to suddenly disappear."
As comprehension dawned, so did the look of horror on both Takako's face as well as her maneki neko guardian's.
"We may as well take this opportunity to introduce you to society – don't look so upset! This is your big debut – look alive!"
Natsume was convinced that Natori was doing this as some sort of revenge for something entirely out of her control. It was the only reason she could fathom for why he was putting her through this torture that Natori had claimed was 'networking'.
"Ah, Meijin-san, it's been a while, hasn't it? May I introduce a young friend of mine – Natsume Takako-chan..."
Forcing another polite smile as she greeted yet another sneering face, she tried to shut her ears to the explosion of whispers in the background.
Natsume, they said…
As in that Natsume? Natsume Reiko?
Natori is introducing her… is he sponsoring her?
They introduced her as Natsume Takako… a relative?
"What are you playing at, you damned exorcist brat?" Nyanko-sensei growled, his pudgy body as tense as it could manage to be, "You'reexposing her to these vultures."
"I'm doing damage control, you ungrateful feline – you're the one who took your sights off her and let her get involved with Matoba, of all people." The exorcist hissed under his breath, nudging the cat back towards Natsume, "Now go do what you're meant to do and guard."
"I wish the two of you wouldn't keep assuming I need the guarding. I'm hardly a delicate flower – I've managed to not be eaten this far into life." Takako protested, managing to shake off the oily Meijin patriarch, who stared at her a bit too intently for her to be comfortable, "And what do you mean, damage control?"
Natori sighed, and waved Hiiragi and his other two shiki over to cover for their absence. "I'm sorry for the coddling, Natsume-chan, but you threw me for a loop when I saw you with the Head of the Matoba family. I had been meaning to introduce you to the exorcists at some point, but not this soon, and definitely not to Matoba Seiji until I thought you could defend yourself decently."
"I'm introducing you to as many people as possible at this event so that you at least have the protection of the Natori family name – it's not worth much anymore, but it's better than being a completely unattached person at a gathering like this."
At Takako's uncomprehending face, Nyanko-sensei scoffed,
"He's saying that instead of throwing you into a pit with no lifeline, he's become your lifeline." He aimed a disdainful look at the part-time actor, "You realise that she owes you no allegiance because of this? Just because you've staked a claim on her here, outside your world, she will not be associated with any exorcist name."
The death glares being exchanged between the two males made her almost wish she had stayed with the creepy Meijin-san.
If I could just get through this night without feeling the urge to strangle one or both of these two bickering nightmares… Natsume decided to separate from the two feuding males, and sequestered herself into a corner, trying to gather more information from the whispers surrounding her.
"Are you the rumoured Natsume Takako-san?"
The question came from a lady with a medium-bobbed, wavy grey hair. She wasn't imposing in height, but her stormy-grey eyes spoke of far more years of experience than Natsume had seen in any other person so far. She could see her own reflection in the round glasses that were so thinly rimmed it hardly seemed as if the woman was wearing them at all.
"Erm… yes, I am. I am pleased to make your acquaintance, ma'am."
"Nanase will do."
"So polite. So very… different from Natsume Reiko, even if you do share the same appearance."
Takako could feel her eyes widening to the point of looking almost cartoon-ish. She knew my grandmother!?
"You… you knew her?"
"Indeed. We were around the same age, and participated in the same… activities, shall we say?" A wry smile passed over her sombre visage for a moment before returning to a polite mask of a smile, "I never met her for long enough to call myself a friend, but the rumours that shook our little community for the time she was active… well. I suppose you have heard enough from your parents about her to make your own assumptions?"
Takako flinched, and bit out, "My parents are dead. I never heard much about my maternal grandmother except that she was odd, and that I took after her."
The polite mask slipped once more as surprise took the woman called Nanase suddenly.
"I am sorry for your loss – we had not heard of Natsume Reiko in a while since that incident, but I had thought it was because she wished to focus on having a family."
Takako took the opening offered to her. This may be my only chance to get answers without Sensei or Natori trying to be overprotective.
"Thank you, for your kind words, but what incident are you speaking of? I was not aware until recently that my grandmother knew others like her… like me."
"Oh? I thought someone would have brought it up already – it was a rather big scandal at the time." Nanase said, "I refer to the relation between the previous Matoba Head and Natsume Reiko, of course. Not that sort of relationship, young girl," Her tone became amused when Takako's face became one of apprehension mixed with disgust, "I mean that your grandmother was a single entity of great power, and unattached to an exorcist family. The Matoba family is famous for absorbing those sorts into their family, by fair means or foul. Natsume Reiko managed to avoid all those means, and stayed a single entity. I believe that she garnered quite a few admirers from our community, as well as within the youkai community."
"So then… what exactly happened between my grandmother and the Matoba family?"
"I am not privy to the exact details, but we all saw the aftermath. Suffice to say, it was a while before the main mansion was fit for human residence again."
Oh, grandmother Reiko. First the Book of Friends that has effectively made me a target for every power-hungry ayakashi we come across, and now this? Why couldn't you antagonise someone a little less terrifying?
"I must admit, I am surprised that Natori-san managed to track you down. From what I have heard, even the Matoba family with all its resources didn't manage to find your grandmother after she disappeared." Nanase continued, not noticing Takako's inner rant against Reiko.
"Well, it could be that they were trying to find someone who no longer existed – I was told that she died quite young." Takako replied.
"I see. That is a pity." The detached tone Nanase said it in made it sound anything but a pity. "Are you living in the same area as she did?"
"I… I'm not certain. I have been moved around amongst my relatives since my parents died. I'm currently close to the Yatsuhara Fields though, if you know the area?"
"Indeed – the place used to have quite an infestation of mononoke, from what I remember."
It still does – they've just gotten better at hiding. Natsume thought privately, whilst being rather alarmed at the casual way the lady referred to her friends as nothing more than vermin. Not that she knows that I call spirits friends… I doubt that she knows of the Book…
"Takako-chan! Honestly, you're just as bad as that neko-chan of yours. You both wonder off at the earliest possible moment… I see you have met Nanase-san?"
"Yes, Natori-san. I have made the acquaintance of Natsume Takako-san. We were just chatting about how her grandmother and I became acquainted."
Natsume wasn't sure why, but the hardened look in Natori's golden irises made her suddenly very wary of the situation she was in. As subtly as she could manage, she tried to go towards Natori's side, away from the increasingly daunting aura Nanase was emitting.
"I see that I've made our young friend uncomfortable with this atmosphere. I shall take my leave – it was a pleasure meeting you, young Natsume Takako-san. I hope to see you again in this sort of meeting."
Takako's nod was perfunctorily done, her attention more fixed on Natori's hardened gaze. She had only seen that particular expression on the usually happy-go-lucky exorcist's face once before, barely an hour ago when he had been in the presence of Matoba.
"Natori-san… does that person have something to do with Matoba?"
"In a manner of speaking… Nanase was reportedly very young when she was taken under the wing of the Matoba family. I believe they found her from a branch family and brought her into the fold, so her allegiances are well and truly with the Matoba clan." Natori turned to face Takako, and asked solemnly, "What exactly did you see, when you saw the kimono?"
Natsume was startled at the sudden change in the subject, but obliged him with the same answer she gave to Matoba – the ever-changing colours of sunset, with a pattern fading in and out of existence. Takako asked then what exactly the significance of the kimono was.
"Well, it's meant to measure the level of spiritual awareness you have, the level of potential you hold as an exorcist. The deeper the colour of red, the more powerful you are." Natori replied, his thoughtful expression hidden behind his glasses, "Matoba was correct – I have not heard of any exorcist seeing multiple colours from the kimono… and I've only heard of one person ever seeing a pattern on the cloth."
"Who was the other person?"
"Who was it…? No one of my personal acquaintance, I'm afraid. I only remember someone telling me about it many years ago, and the name must not have stuck… well, I'll remember it at some point, I imagine." Suddenly, the air was much colder, and Natori turned a rather sarcastic smile at his young companion,
"Now, Natsume-chan, I do believe that you were told to stay put and introduce yourself to the other families? What are you doing here, in the corner, putting yourself in yet another risky situation?"
Takako smiled sheepishly, apologising as she went back to rubbing shoulders with people who regarded her with cold disregard and smiled without it ever reaching their eyes. Later, she thought silently, later, I shall have to relay that information about my grandmother with Nyanko-sensei and see if he knows anything of it.
But for now, she would have to smile, make nice with humans who lived in the same world as she did, and try not to think about what sort of fate had met her grandmother when she became involved with this community of exorcists.
Nanase regarded the young girl coolly as she watched Natori lead her away. The girl didn't seem to be aware of it, but her sudden appearance at this meeting, which for all intents and purposes had only been a social event, had caused ripples of excitement and intrigue in their little community. Gossip ran like wildfire through the crowds when they saw Matoba-sama take interest in the small slip of a girl, with no name and no connection to identify her, but then the young leader of the Natori clan associated his name (and with it the protection of his family) with the youngster. Not that the girl's own name didn't hold any sway…
Natsume. A name that had not been spread amongst the exorcists for some time now – not since she was young and had just entered the tutelage of the former Head of the Matoba family. At the time, she had resented the name each time she heard it – always attached to feats that, at her own level of power, were extraordinary and impossible. The old Head had criticised her each time the name Natsume Reiko had appeared in the community, constantly comparing her own meagre victories to Natsume, who was a year younger than Nanase.
Of course, when the Matoba family (and all other families) failed to court Natsume Reiko into their fold, they had declared her rogue and hunted her with a ferocity that rivalled the Matoba family's hate for the mononoke that placed the curse on their right eye. Although Nanase hadn't been a part of the hunt, she knew that Natsume Reiko had given a good chase. But then, one day, all rumours, all whispers… had been silenced.
That it was just after Natsume Reiko had visited (and subsequently destroyed) the main mansion could hardly be a coincidence.
And now, that slip of a girl had returned, and although there wasn't the arrogant, boorish attitude of Reiko, she had the same atmosphere of power and intrigue surrounding her.
"Matoba-sama – you should know that sneaking up on me no longer works." She admonished the young man who had silently slipped behind her.
"You hurt me, Nanase. I see you have made the acquaintance of the young Natsume?"
"Indeed. She seems… very young. And very new to this world."
"She's certainly a very interesting specimen. Have you heard from the grapevine yet about her results with the kimono?"
"Oh? She's already seen it, has she?"
"I showed her. To have enough power that I could mistake her for a spirit – I wanted to see just how much power she had." He chuckled, a flat sound devoid of any real joy, "She didn't disappoint. She saw a pattern… briefly."
For the first time during the meeting, Nanase couldn't hide the surprise on her face. "A pattern? Briefly?"
"I know… only three people have ever seen a pattern on that kimono, and two of them are in this room." Matoba-sama smirked, "Did you ascertain her relation to the infamous Natsume Reiko?"
"Indeed." Nanase coached her face back into professional indifference, "I had suspected as much, with her facial features, and the girl herself confirmed that Reiko was her grandmother." Hesitantly, she asked, "What is it that you intend for this child, Matoba-sama?"
"Nothing so sinister as holding her responsible for her grandmother's penchant for destruction. She is just very… interesting. After all, I have never met anyone else who has been able to see the chrysanthemum pattern as well on that kimono, and the fact that the patternchanged as she was looking… well. It bears investigating, don't you think?"
Nanase frowned thoughtfully – it was truly a mystery, how Natsume Takako had managed to see a changing colour on the kimono, and without the knowledge of what seeing the kimono meant, there was no reason for the girl to lie about what she had seen.
And from the conversation… although the rudeness was absent, it was clear that the girl was just as straightforward as her grandmother. For someone who had probably become quite well-acquainted to lying to even those closest to her about what she could see, she wasn't very good at not wearing her heart on her sleeve.
"What would you have me do, Matoba-sama?"
"Keep an ear out. Whichever area she lives in… the next assignment that appears in the area, I'll take." The young man replied, his ownshiki gathering behind him. "I shall look through the records to see if I can determine a reason for why she could see a changing pattern on the kimono."
As she watched him walk away, she felt a twinge of pity, mixed with guilt about what she was doing to Natsume Takako, who was just a child. And although the twinge of emotion didn't last very long, it left a bitter taste at the back of her throat.
As long as they keep everything below building-destroying levels, everything should be alright. With that one last thought, Nanase returned to the crowds, an ear out for potential jobs around the Yatsuhara area.
The night was finally drawing to a close, much to the relief of Natsume and her guardian maneki neko. The entire evening had been a tense affair, with more than one curious eye wandering over to the bag she kept the Book of Friends in. She was especially wary since it was still difficult for her to distinguish between humans with spiritual power and spirits themselves, especially in such close quarters. From what Nyanko-sensei had told her before, the Book could be dangerous in the wrong hands, and deadly in the right ones.
It wasn't something she wanted to share with humans who seemed to regard youkai as either enemies or indentured servants.
She had been uncomfortable with that piece of knowledge that Nyanko-sensei had enlightened her with, and although it provided her with greater understanding of why her 'bodyguard' was so disgusted with Hiiragi since he found out she had signed the contract of a shiki, it had also made her aware of a much darker side to exorcists that didn't sit well with her.
"Natsume-chan? Is everything okay?" Natori asked, as he led her from the exorcist meeting towards the closest bus stop, "Was the evening a bit too much for you, or is it just being in my presence?"
Both Takako and Nyanko-sensei gave identical, incredulous looks at the narcissistic actor, who stared back with a completely straight face. I can't even tell if he's being serious or not…
"It's fine. It really is. I appreciate you accompanying me this far – Nyanko-sensei and I will be alright going from here." She turned and bowed politely to Hiiragi, "It was a pleasure to see you again, Hiiragi-san. We shall take our leave – sorry for the bother we caused tonight."
"Not at all – I was worried this would be a boring affair, since attendance is obligatory for me as the Head of the Natori family." The actor reassured the young girl, frowning at her use of polite speech, "And there's no need to be so formal with me. I'm not that much older than you."
"Natori-san… I am fifteen. From what your fans at school say, I believe you are already twenty-six. Eleven years to a human is plenty old."
"Well, at least I got you to stop with the formal speech patterns – your grammar is slipping, Natsume-chan."
"Please don't use that endearment." Takako retorted, before making to walk towards the bus stop.
"Natsume, please, wait." A call from Hiiragi halted her steps, and she turned to face the shiki. "Do not think worse of Natori-samabecause I am now his shiki. Although the contract has traditionally been used by humans to enslave ayakashi, believe me when I say that none of Natori-sama's shiki are indentured against our wills. We have chosen to serve him, and if we choose to leave, we are free to do so."
"I realise why you are hesitant about the nature of the shiki contract, but know this, Natsume. Unlike many others, Natori-sama has forgone making me write my Name into the contract. Truly, it is of my own volition that I still stay with him."
At the mention of a Name, Takako's grip on the Book of Friends tightened slightly. Although none of the Names were attached tocontracts, per se, they were still a binding on whoever owned those Names. But as long as I do not harm the pages, and as long as I have no desire to use their Names for any purpose other than to Return them, they may as well be an address book.
However, sensing the concern (or as much concern as Hiiragi had within her to give) coming from the masked ayakashi, Takako smiled weakly, and retorted, "Thank you, Hiiragi. It is some comfort to know that Natori-san is not forcing anything upon you or any of his othershiki. Although you telling me this isn't likely to change my perspective on the nature of contracts."
"Indeed – I did not hope it would. I only hoped that it would help you to see that, for all that Natori-sama claims to distrust ayakashi and asks for you to do the same, he is not cruel to us. He is… fond of you, and protective, since you are rather reckless in your actions. I do not wish to see him hurt because of your opinion of him."
"Oh!" Natsume thought about it, and realised that she had treated Natori a little more coldly after knowing of the shiki contract, "I meant nothing against Natori-san himself – it's more the nature of contracts, and the whole finding out my grandmother was a part of this unknown society… it's just been a little overwhelming." She rushed to try and explain, only to trip on her words, "Really, my attitude is more a reflection of my opinion on exorcists as a whole rather than Natori-san himself…"
"I'm glad to hear it, Natsume-chan… although I do believe that you're protesting a little too much. Come, Hiiragi – we should really leave Natsume-chan alone to go home. Although… before I forget… here." He threw a card to the young girl, "It's my contact details – the next time you decide to get involved in any odd activity in your area, give me a call first? Hiiragi is correct, you are rather reckless, and it doesn't seem as if your kitty helps to keep you all that safe either."
"What!? I dare you to say that to my face, you…" Madara growled, although in cat-form, it just sounded like he was croaking.
"I'm saying it to your face right now." Natori deadpanned, "But seriously, Natsume-chan, spirits will only protect you to a certain extent, especially if you have no contract with them. You should not trust spirits so easily, and nor should you throw yourself in harm's way to protect them."
But humans have proved that they are just as untrustworthy in my lifetime. Natsume thought wryly, although she did not dare to say it out loud.
"I'll be careful, Natori-san. And besides, I have Nyanko-sensei with me. Even just for selfish reasons, he wouldn't let me get into any dire situations."
"Hmph. At least I can claim you're not completely stupid, Natsume. Now come on! We need to get back for dinner tonight – it's ebi-frytonight!" Came the insistent nudging of her companion, pushing her towards the bus stop again. "Hurry, before we miss the bus!"
"Thank you, Natori-san, for escorting us out of the party. Sorry again for gate-crashing." Takako gave one last obligatory bow to the actor, before rushing off to try and catch the impending bus, Nyanko-sensei at her side, crowing about fried king prawns. Rushing onto the bus, she glanced out of the window to see Natori walking away, Hiiragi following in his footsteps.
For someone who is so determined to warn me against ayakashi, he seems to be closer to ayakashi than he is to humans. Natsume mused, watching as his other three shiki appeared to surround him. It was akin to watching a vanguard gathering around the exorcist. She wasn't certain what had happened to the mysterious man to make him so distrustful of those he surrounded himself with.
"You'll need to tread more carefully from now on, Natsume."
She was snapped out of her reverie by the croaking voice of the maneki neko on her lap. Startled, she glanced down at Nyanko-sensei. "What do you mean?"
"You're more foolish than I thought if you think that the exorcists will leave you alone now that you've been introduced to them as someone who holds power. The fact that you were clearly acquainted with Natori gives you protection from most of those vultures, but not from those aligned with Matoba." Nyanko-sensei explained matter-of-factedly.
"I am many things, sensei, but I am hardly the fool in our duo." Natsume groused, more annoyed at the accusation than usual, "At any rate, this doesn't help in the slightest. Everything's already happened, and in any case, there's very little chance they'll find me. My name was aired around, but I took great care in not revealing exactly where the Fujiwara's residence is. We live in a secluded enough area for humans to overlook, and it's not like I've been collecting more Names, so I doubt there are too many clues on where to find us."
"Didn't you mention to that Nanase-hag that you live near Yatsuhara?" The cat grumbled, settling into the crook of her arm, which was still resting against the bag that contained the Book. "It's close enough that they could track us down, especially if they manage to capture any of those drunken idiots that live in the area."
Takako frowned, glancing out of the window in contemplation. "I forgot about that. I did talk about the Yatsuhara Fields, but I think they'd pay more attention to the Tanuma family than my own. And even if one of your drinking buddies got caught, I don't think that they'd interrogate so randomly – besides, it's not like they can force me to do anything I don't want to do."
"Hmph. Your naivety is showing, human." Nyanko-sensei grumbled, "We're getting off at the next stop, alright?"
"Why? We've still got another six stops before getting to the Fujiwara's."
"Has interacting with exorcists made you forget our original purpose for the trip? That binding was a hindrance, but now it's just plain dangerous. I need Hinoe to take a better look at it – the sooner, the better." The disgruntled feline growled, "If you must insist upon drawing attention to yourself, you may as well be properly armed."
Takako was about to protest 'drawing attention to herself' (her very survival usually depended upon doing the exact opposite), when her Nyanko-sensei snapped, "And I can't afford to keep your spell work at this level and pace. Starting tomorrow, you're getting proper training. No more cotton wool teaching!"
The teenage girl was rather taken aback by the vehemence in her sensei's voice. She could not quite recall if the overweight maneki nekohad ever spoken in such a sharp voice before, not even when she was returning Names like he drank sake ('what am I going to be left with if you keep on returning Names!?).
It started the chain of events that led to Madara being sealed away, and losing my precious Reiko.
"Nyanko-sensei? What exactly happened between my grandmother Reiko and the exorcist families?" She asked tentatively.
The ayakashi gave her a level stare, his gaze revealing very little. "Nothing you need know about."
"I keep telling you, sensei, I'm at least a little smarter than you give me credit for. This sudden insistence on 'proper training' when I can barely even read the scrolls you give me was triggered by something – and it's no coincidence that it's happened right after meeting these families tonight, just like when you first insisted that I start learning these things right after we met Natori-san. I'm not entirely certain if you would have tried to teach me any of this if we hadn't met these exorcist families… it's like you're afraid of them, or something."
"Ha! This great ayakashi!? Afraid of mere humans!?"
As the autumn colours blurred past the bus window, Natsume mused that her self-proclaimed bodyguard must be shaken if his bravado was so thin that a toddler could see through it.
"Or is it that you're afraid of history repeating itself. That whatever happened to my grandmother and you last time will happen again to you and me?"
"You know, even if you won't give me answers, I'm sure Hinoe-san will be more than happy to give me the information…"
"I will give you the details when you are ready!" The cat hissed, his claws digging into her thighs painfully, "But until then, you do as I tell you, and maybe, just maybe, I won't eat you whole for irritating me!"
For all that she had never feared Nyanko-sensei before, not even when he had first transformed into a mass of fur and sharp teeth and claws, his tone at this moment in time sent shivers up her spine.
Suddenly, the fearsome reputation her sensei garnered from his drinking buddies made a lot more sense.
This is not the time to push boundaries.
The rest of the bus journey was made in silence. If nothing else, Natsume had her answer for why Nyanko-sensei was so unsettled by their encounter with the exorcist clans.
Whatever happened before with Grandmother Reiko, he's scared it's going to happen again. And whatever occurred before, it's not something he wants to let me know about.
So either it's something so terrifying it will make me want to run for the hills… or it's something that he's ashamed of.
Once the teenage girl hopped off the bus with her maneki neko in tow, she headed in the curt directions given by the disgruntled creature she called a protector.
"How do you know where to meet her again? This is miles away from where we met earlier." She asked, panting as she stumbled again on another fallen branch.
"We met at the earlier site because it was neutral territory for both me and Hinoe. Facially, you do bear a strong resemblance to Reiko, and I'm convinced that Hinoe tried on a number of occasions to spirit your grandmother away."
"Because she wanted to eat her?"
"In a manner of speaking… Hinoe liked Reiko, and I'm certain that if Reiko had let her, she would have kept Reiko to herself."
"Oh! You mean…" Natsume blushed as the meaning became a little clearer.
"Since you haven't even expressed that sort of interest for anyone of your own species, I thought it best to avoid her territory, since her charm is strongest there. Even I wouldn't have been able to pull you free if she decided to spirit you away somehow."
"That… that's much appreciated, Nyanko-sensei. But why are we now going towards her territory?"
"Hinoe's taken a look at you now. You're not nearly as vicious and cheeky as Reiko was, so I'm pretty certain she would have lost interest now."
Natsume decided to take that as a compliment and not look too deeply into it.
"Plus, we had warded the previous area against intrusion from lesser spirits… if we hadn't built it so close to a large exorcist gathering, it would have held. As it is, Hinoe's territory is well warded, and since I've never divulged where the Fujiwara's live to her, this is the best place to get that binding off you properly."
At that admission, Natsume startled slightly, her grip tightening perhaps a little too much on the maneki neko's head, causing her pseudo-teacher to yelp loudly.
"Ouch! Be gentler, you idiot student! What was that for!?"
"Sorry, my bad! But really, sensei, I was just… surprised! You've never mentioned anything about taking the binding off... only about proper training. I kind of thought you were just going to leave it, since I've lived with it for such a long time?"
"You've waved your tail in front of the fox, now you may as well learn to kick out as well as run." Nyanko-sensei scoffed, shaking his entire body until Takako let go of him. "Just having the power isn't going to magically give you the power to see into the past, nor does it suddenly endow you with ridiculous strength. With some luck and hard work, we might just get you through this without becoming dogs of that exorcist."
It wasn't the first time Takako heard a youkai refer to exorcists as if they were uttering some obscenity, although the amount of venom injected into that one word made for a fearsome picture of hatred. It was, however, the first time she had heard her own name associated with the exorcists, and not in a particularly flattering light either. Following the (surprisingly) sprightly youkai cat through the foliage, she stumbled at the last step, and was stopped by an elegant hand with a twenties-style cigarette holder balanced between taloned nails.
"Now, now - I know my charms are irresistible, but there's hardly a need to fall for them literally."
Takako glanced upwards, her face aflame with embarrassment. Although she was well aware and comfortable with the fact that her own looks were not anything to boast about, it was hard not to feel self conscious and rather like an ugly duckling when she was in front of Hinoe (who, by all appearances, was a beautiful twenty-something woman with an ample bosom). Scrambling up onto her feet again, she hurriedly brushed off the dirt on her skirt and tried to regain what little dignity she still held.
"Hinoe-san... sorry for the disturbance. Thank you for letting us intrude." The traditional greetings rolled off her tongue, and she had no sooner said the last syllable than the extroverted ayakashi had thrown her arms around Takako again and let out a squeal loud enough to deafen.
"Oh! Even though you don't have the arrogance or presence that Reiko had, your demure nature and politeness is so cute!"
"Hinoe! In case you forgot again, humans need to be able to breathe to live! Unhand her!" Nyanko-sensei snapped, smacking Hinoe upside the head, "We've got a much worse problem than we started off with! We need to get that binding off her... now."
That certainly got the spirit's attention. Abruptly, Hinoe let go of her death hold on Natsume, and pinned the maneki neko with a disturbingly neutral look. "I take it then that you were not so successful in escaping the exorcists?"
"To be fair to Nyanko-sensei, it is difficult for him to run when he's with me. I'm not familiar with his type of flight, but I imagine it's difficult to fly with me on board and trying not to let me fall off." Natsume interjected, defending the shape shifter. "I was the one who chose to try and hide instead of fleeing, and ended up running into Natori-san and Hiiragi, his shiki. I got swept along after that, and Nyanko-sensei ended up following along." She confessed, feeling her cheeks warm with yet another blush, "We encountered someone called Matoba Seiji. From the reaction of Nyanko-sensei and Natori-san the man is not good news."
"Madara. She has already encountered Matoba?" The voice was still strangely neutral
"Unfortunately. And it seems that she has attracted the Head of Family's attention, the creepy one-eyed cheat."
Silence followed this piece of information. Eventually, the purple-clad mononoke took a steeling puff from her cigarette, and blew out a billow of violet smoke. "I can see why you're in more of a hurry to get rid of the binding, Madara. Although her power level right now isn't anything to snort at, it's not on par to defend herself adequately. Let me speak to some contacts of mine - it is more than likely based on an ayakashi spell but it's not exactly within my scope of expertise."
"As we've discussed before - each time you use your power, you're flexing against the binding and you're wearing it down, if the increase in your endurance is any indicator. If we were to leave it, the binding will fade away naturally..."
"We don't have that sort of luxury to wait!" Nyanko-sensei interrupted, "She has foolishly revealed our general area of residence to one of Matoba's dogs. It is only a matter of time before they begin to sniff around Yatsuhara and they will eventually stumble upon this one's human residence. It's already taken months for some scrap of power to begin showing... we cannot wait months more for it to eventually wear down."
Natsume started at this - she had become accustomed to being amongst existences that did not concern themselves with the passage of time. After all, what need was there to concern oneself with time when one stood still within its passage? To hear her self-proclaimed protector grouse about the importance of time in this matter made her extremely nervous.
"Indeed. Then I shall seek out my best leads once you have left my clearing." Hinoe replied solemnly. She turned to face Takako dead-on, the expression in her violet eyes unfathomable. "Natsume Takako - you may continue as you like with the Book of Friends, but you may want to consider always having this pig," She nudged Nyanko-sensei with her geta, "around each time you choose to use it. Although there would be no spirit who would willingly give away the existence of the Book, you are still vulnerable when you use it. Do not put it past these exorcists to take advantage of you during that time."
Natsume was nodding along when Nyanko-sensei scoffed, "She doesn't use the Book of Friends as Reiko has done in the past - I said before haven't I? The most she's done with it so far is to return Names to their original owners."
"And yet rumours on the wind say that Misuzu still has his?" Hinoe interjected lightly.
The rumbling growl coming from the maneki neko did not sound as if it could emanate from such a small form.
"That traitor. He's no better than those exorcist brats!"
"Madara, you know as well as I that Misuzu is different from us - he has his subjects' needs and safety to attend to as well his own. You cannot hold the grudge against him still."
"I'm sorry, but this was mentioned before as well." Takako asked timidly, "What happened in the past to raise Nyanko-sensei's hackles so badly? The only other being I've ever seen him take so much objection towards was Natori-san."
Violet battled black for a moment as the two spirits glared at each other, before Hinoe sighed in exasperation and replied, "It is not my story to tell, and this idiot doesn't seem inclined to say anything on the matter. If you really want to know more, your best bet may very well lie with finding Misuzu yourself."
Natsume nodded, although from the expression on Nyanko-sensei's face, it was unlikely that she would be able to find Misuzu for some time yet.
"I'll be careful. Thank you, Hinoe-san."
Natsume found herself engulfed in yet another smothering hug from Hinoe, her nose planted firmly between the ayakashi's breasts, again struggling to breathe, "You're so sweet - if my preference wasn't for the fiery ones I would definitely steal you away from Madara, the old grump!"
"Hinoe! Let go of her, you cow!"
"You dare to insult my beauty, you blind old pig!?"
"For the last time, I am a cat! A cat!"
Natsume sighed, and allowed the two to continue squabbling as she attempted to extricate herself from the clutches of one of the more unusual spirits she had met before.
No spirit has ever hugged me before without threats of eating me. Although, is kidnapping better or on the same par? She pondered absently, letting a small smile tug on the corner of her mouth. Natori-san must be right, for it cannot be a sensible person who converses peacefully with beings that threaten to eat or kidnap them at every turn. It must be that I am reckless.
But if recklessness gives me these relationships, I will happily continue.
The next day saw Takako amongst a larger crowd than she necessarily felt comfortable in, smiling and nodding along with Sasada and Taki as they lamented their empty purses at the end of a day spent 'window shopping'.
"Ugh. I wish I hadn't spent so much money on study materials now - that dress was super cute! It would have gone wonderfully with one of my winter shoes!" Sasada bemoaned, her hands clutching around the warm cup of tea. "And I don't get anymore pocket money until next month!"
"And yet you seem to have managed to buy half the town's stocks already. What's with all the bags, ladies?" Kitamoto, Tanuma and Nishimura joined the table with their own drinks, having peeled off from the girls for some 'male shopping' after the first two hours of window shopping, "I swear when we left you only had the one bag."
"Haha, Kitamoto - it's only a few bags, don't exaggerate." Sasada quipped, frowning at her childhood friend, "I'm still trying to persuade Natsume-chan to buy something other than food!"
Takako felt her cheeks redden as the attention of her human peers turned on her, and muttered, "It's not for me, it's for my cat... and the Fujiwaras."
"Well, at least your bags won't be too heavy to carry - shotgun carrying Natsume's shopping!" Kitamoto teased, earning a sharp elbow from Sasada.
"Have you seen her cat? Her bag for the Fujiwara family won't be too bad, but whatever she's getting for the cat is going to weigh more than any of my items. Just be happy that I don't have enough money left to buy the last new book series I've been eyeing up."
As Sasada rattled off the number of items she still wanted (but didn't have the budget to buy) Tanuma settled into a seat next to Takako, and asked, "Not gotten anything for yourself?"
"Nothing really - I have some money but I'd rather save it up for later, in case I need it." And there's no point in buying nice things when I'm constantly running away from spirits and destroying my clothes anyway, went unsaid between the two friends.
"What food did Ponta want you to buy, anyway?"
"Sweet manju buns. I said only two, but after everything yesterday, I'll up the number to four. As a treat."
Takako froze, realising her slip too late.
"It's ok, Natsume-san. You don't need to say anything if you don't want to - just be careful, alright?"
Natsume smiled gratefully, "Thanks, Tanuma-san."
Although her stomach turned sour at the thought that she could not dare talk about the business of exorcists and bindings on her power and the mystery surrounding her grandmother's relationship to both with one of the few humans who were aware of her ability to See, she knew that divulging the information would mean endangering her friend.
And Natsume was nothing if not protective of the few she had.
"And remember, Natsume! We're going cycling next week, so make sure to keep the Sunday free!" Nishimura shouted from the bus as Takako exited it, causing a stern stare from the bus driver at the racket.
As she waved goodbye to her friends (what a novel feeling!) from her stop, she shouldered her ever-present bag carrying the Book of Friends, and re-adjusted her grip on the heavy Nanatsuji-ya bag filled with sweet manju buns, along with a Western-style cake that she had gotten for the Fujiwara couple.
I wonder when the best time would be to admit that I can't actually ride a bike? She pondered, walking the familiar road down to the house she was starting to think of as a home.
"Hmph. I don't understand why I couldn't come with you." The croaking voice of Nyanko-sensei called from the tall, overgrown grass peppering the footpath, "What if you were attacked and the Book was stolen? Then I'd have no choice but to eat you..."
"And who would buy you your sweet manju then?" Natsume asked dully, waving the heavy shopping bag in front of the maneki neko, who immediately went to try and snatch at it.
"Do I smell cake as well!? I demand a slice!"
"I thought cats couldn't actually eat cream? It's probably best if you keep away from this one." She teased, keeping the bag just out of jumping height for the feline.
"You know as well as I that I'm not actually a cat! My stomach is not that of a feline's, and my great self needs increased amounts of sustenance to keep your ungrateful behind safe! Now hand it over!"
"You need to learn to take a joke, sensei. The cake is for Tohko-san and Shigeru-san, and you know full well that they always put out a plate for you as well."
"Hmph. As long as we're clear on that."
Rolling her eyes as she walked towards the house, she crossed the threshold, set the bags down, and called out a greeting to her guardians. As she exchanged her shoes for slippers, she smiled as she heard the small, hurried footsteps of Tohko-san hurrying to respond to her greeting, and held out the cake.
As she set the table for tea and cake, Natsume felt her stomach lurch uncomfortably again as the unwelcome thought of a dark figure with one covered eye intruded upon her again. She thought back to how peacefully her day had gone by - no spirits disturbing her, nothing chasing her through the streets (she felt she had the local Yatsuhara bunch to thank for that) and human friends to socialise with.
It felt as if she were lying on a grass plain, staring upwards into the beginnings of a storm.
And she felt like she was in the eye of that storm.
Author's note 2
Thank you so much to all the encouraging PMs and reviews over the last two years - the only things that have kept this fic alive, not going to lie ^_^'
I really hope that the next one will come out faster but in the meantime, I need to catch up a little on the latest season of Natsume Yuujinchou!
Until next time,