Disclaimer: Not mine. You've got no idea how much it rends me to admit that.

Chapter 2 - In which Takako is still alone

The seasons were beginning to show signs of turning as the remaining cherry blossoms fell from the school trees. The formal winter-uniforms that they had started the year wearing had slowly converted into the lighter summer uniform of a short-sleeved white shirt and blue tie, with the usual mid-length skirt and black shoes.

Natsume was enjoying the relative calm that came with the shifting of the seasons – the comfortable warmth meant that she could doze a little at her window seat, letting the breeze tease the hair that stubbornly refused to stay tied in her pigtails. For the last month, whilst she hadn't really made any friends, she hadn't done anything to alienate herself from the rest of the class, which was a definite improvement on some of her previous records. After all, she didn't want the Fujiwara couple to be troubled by any school reports of strange behaviour.

Since she had been little, things that could only be called ayakashi would plague her for only being able to see them, and the more malevolent would often be heard muttering about wanting to eat her. That wouldn't have been quite so bad, perhaps, if other people could see what she saw – after all, when a person jumped and screamed with astounding frequency for no apparent reason, it would be considered 'creepy'. Talking to thin air was also a pretty good method of isolating yourself from your peers. If that wasn't enough, then the random explosions that the more violent youkai would cause would definitely be enough to label her as 'Avoid At All Costs'.

School, up until now, had been synonymous with isolation for Takako Natsume.

"Hey, Natsume! Natsume! Quit dozing – you've got a guest from next door." She blinked away the sleep in her eyes, and raised her pale-brown eyes to regard her classmate, Nishimura.

"Hm? Where?"

"Huh? I could have sworn he was… ah, well. It was a guy from class B – he's kind of like you, actually. You both blend into the background, you're so quiet all the time…"

"Oh. Er… sorry about that."

"What? No, no, I wasn't criticising – it's just your nature, right? Nothing bad about it. At least you're not like Kitamoto, who never shuts up."

At this point, Kitamoto, the taller of the duo, passed by, and slapped Nishimura across the head in such a natural way that Natsume couldn't help the small snort that managed to escape from her.

"And who exactly never shuts up? Pot, I believe that you have yet to meet my friend, kettle."

"Hey! That hurt, idiot!"

"Oh good – it was meant to."

"You're just jealous that I'm talking to a pretty girl and you're not, Kitamoto!"

"In your dreams, Nishimura, in your dreams."

At this point, Natsume could feel a slight blush scattering across her face, and let a smile creep its way onto her face. The muscular contortion that was needed for the expression was still unfamiliar to her, and felt really rather unnatural on her face. Hearing the warning bell that signalled the beginning of the afternoon period, she grabbed her Japanese Literature textbook and workbook, getting ready for the next two hours.

"Come on, you two miscreants, leave the new girl alone. Just because she doesn't know what clowns the two of you are, doesn't mean that you should take advantage." Sasada, the class captain, grabbed both of the boys by their collars, "Get back to your seats."

"Captain, you meanie!"

"Exactly! Why must you bully us so? Is it because we're flirting with Natsume-chan here instead of you? You don't have to be so jeal… Ow!" For the second time in so many minutes, Nishimura got slapped across the head again. This time, he only directed a sullen look at the class captain before settling down at his seat, sticking his tongue out at the girls.

Now if only Nyanko-sensei could learn half as fast as Nishimura-san…

Halfway through the droning class, where Natsume was having problems keeping awake despite having had a decent amount of sleep the previous night, her smokey-topaz irises sharpened slightly at the movement outside her window seat. Shifting her line of vision to see what was trying to get her attention this time, she was greeted with a truly terrifying sight.

A kimono-clad, skeletal body that wound around the window frame like a snake. Claws, in place of hands. Nothing more than a head of water-drenched, long black hair to frame the absent face… or rather, the absent head of something that could only be identified as…


Such was the force that Natsume used to push her chair away from the window, that she managed to not only scream out, but she managed to topple the chair over, right into the path of the classical literature teacher.

"Natsume-san, I know that you're not used to the lessons and teachers here yet, but you know, I didn't think we were so Spartan that you felt the need to do something so dramatic." Natsume could feel very clearly that blood was rushing to her cheeks, and it had nothing to do with how she was now practically lying on the classroom floor. "Try to last for the next hour, okay?"

Giggles littered the classroom. Natsume's face became even warmer.

"Thank the gods that that's over with!"

"I think there's finally someone here who feels that more strongly than you do, Nishimura." Kitamoto nodded towards Natsume, whose face still hadn't cooled down from the embarrassed flush colouring her face, "What happened there, Natsume-san? The only time anyone screams that loudly in this class is when Nishimura finishes a pop-quiz."

"Kitamoto, you bast…"

"Ah, it wasn't anything that bad. I was just feeling a little faint, and started to fall off my chair and couldn't stop myself. Sorry for causing trouble…"

"Natsume-san, don't feel the need to apologise to anybody here. Satou-sensei is a great lover of books, but even I think his lessons could use a little more livening up. Here! A present for giving us a break from Satou-sensei's droning." Sasada slid a clipboard in front of Natsume's vision, "Sign, please!"

"Er… what is this, exactly?" Ever since she had come into the inheritance of the Book of Friends from her grandmother, Natsume Reiko, she had become a little cautious of freely handing out her name, whether to humans or those who were not human.

"A bravery trial! When it's summer, we really should do something like this, right? We were planning on getting the entire A class together and anyone from class B who wants to come along, and we can go through the old school building at night."

"Oh. But… wouldn't we need permission to go in? The old building's due for demolition soon, isn't it?"

"Oh, I've already got permission from our homeroom-sensei. See, children? This is one of the many advantages that being reliable will get you. You should try it." That last part was directed towards the two boys who were now clowning around since the two girls had stopped paying attention to them.

"But then we'd all be class captain, Sasada! Then what fun would you have when you wouldn't be able to abuse your power?"

Natsume smiled brightly, again. She suddenly realised, as she exercised stiff muscles again, that she had never smiled quite as much as this before arriving at this sleepy little village.

"Natsume-dono… the Book of Friends…"

The smile was now being forced. Then again, she had never seemed to have quite as much trouble with ayakashi before she entered this village either.

"Here you go, Sasada. Sorry, got to run!"

Signing the paper with haste, Natsume grabbed her bag, forgot her homework in her hurry, and immediately accelerated out of the classroom and the school building, willing the ayakashi to chase after her. The frightening creature that she saw earlier had finally managed to buck up the courage, apparently, to approach a place that was crowded by humans.

That's it – I really need to listen to Nyanko-sensei's lessons on warding from now on instead of falling asleep, and then ward the classroom so that I can at least have an uninterrupted few hours a day!

Natsume found herself running once again. She really did think that, if it were not for the masses of ayakashi and youkai chasing after her day after day, she could easily join the athletics team for running. Gods know that she did enough of it every single day. This time, however, she wasn't totally unprepared.

"Take this, you menace!" She snatched an old fan from inside her school bag, and put all her power into whacking the wooden fan into the body of the ayakashi.

"Ow! What did you do that for, you meanie?"

… What on earth?

"Er… pardon me?"

"Why did you hit me? I just came to ask if you'd return a friend's name… you really are just as scary and cruel as rumours go!"

Oops. Misunderstanding.

"I am so, so sorry! You… you were… at the window… and you…" Shoot. There wasn't a way to make 'your face scared me' sound less insulting, "Just lead me to your friend. I'll return the name and apologise then. I shouldn't have… reacted like that."

Over the last month since Takako had received her grandmother's legacy, the Book of Friends (essentially the address book of her own private demon army), she had been returning the Names of whatever spirits she came across who wanted them back. Following the ayakashi out of school, trying to act as normal as possible, she kept a hand over her school bag, where the Book was hidden under her schoolwork and lunchbox. Again, she heard the croaking voice of her sensei (who, for unknown reasons, decided to stay in his maneki neko form), berating her for the meagre security she had provided for the Book.

Ignorant brat! What would happen if the Book of Friends was stolen? Remember that I get that when you get eaten, so don't you dare let it go to the hands of some lesser being!

Just thinking about that particular conversation was enough to evoke a sigh from Takako. Nyanko-sensei was sort of right – she had decided to return the Names of those who wanted them back. She could hardly afford to be eaten or have the Book stolen before she had managed to achieve even a fraction of what she set out to do.

"Natsume-dono? Is something wrong?"

Jumping a little, Takako looked again at the spirit that she had been following towards the forest. Realising that the situation might not be the smartest one to go through with, she turned to the terrifying, strangely polite ayakashi and asked sheepishly, "Sorry, if it's alright with you, I'd rather return a name somewhere where there's a futon. Could you ask your friend to come to me this evening, a bit before midnight?"

"Do you not trust us, Natsume-dono?"

"I apologise for my rudeness, especially after what I did to you." The unspoken 'no' resounded awkwardly between human and spirit, causing Takako to tense up again, readying herself for another sprint for safety. In the end, however, it turned out to be unnecessary.

"Very well. I shall inform my friend of your request. Another half-day is nothing for him, anyway."

"Thank you."

"And do not bother with the apologies – it is no less than what I expected from such a young human, even one who owns the Book of Friends."

The accusation echoed with her as she walked back to the Fujiwara's. Logically speaking, it was only sensible to run from those that could not be called 'human', especially considering that most of them fell into either 'indifferent' or 'wants to eat me' categories until recently. She really shouldn't feel very upset at what the spirit had said about her.

And yet, that was exactly what was happening.

"Why the long face, sakasama Natsume?" Nyanko-sensei, who had made himself really rather at home in her room, was playing with a ball of yarn that Tohko-san had given her when she found out Natsume had asked for permission to keep the cat.

"No, just something that an ayakashi said to me earlier. It's bothering me, that's all."

"Oh, is that all? Hey, when did you meet another spirit today? Don't tell me you returned another Name! Shoot… my Book…"

"Be quiet, Sensei – and it's not yours yet."

"So? What did they say? It's rare for you to actually speak with a spirit about anything other than the Book. Did you manage to get a Name, for a change?"

"You're mistaking me with my grandmother again, Sensei. No, it just made me feel a little… embarrassed, I guess. Am I really that paranoid about spirits, Sensei?"

There was no reply this time from the ceramic cat. Instead, Natsume felt a heavy weight on her lap, and a second later she felt a surprisingly firm grip on her chin, pulling her line of sight downwards to face the pudgy face of her self-appointed 'bodyguard' and teacher. Taking a surprised intake of breath, Takako immediately choked,

"Sensei! You stink of alcohol! Get off!"

"Shut up, brat! Just because you're underage and have no taste, doesn't mean I have to sacrifice the joys of middle-aged life for you! Now listen!" The cat forced her to look him in the eyes, holding her gaze until she settled down again, "Your paranoia is probably the only thing that has kept you alive until now. To trust and follow a spirit without thinking it over will get you into all sorts of trouble, from getting eaten to being spirited away. Forget whatever that low-level spirit said to you to get you thinking along these lines. Keep your paranoia."

Takako was startled – for once, the maneki neko was saying something profound and useful. It was really rather disconcerting.

"Now that your moment of pathetic self-doubt is over, lead the way to dinner! It's omu-rice tonight, Natsume! Make sure I get my fair share!"

"You mean nothing? Sure, I'll get right on that, you obese feline." Natsume retorted, glad to have her bad-mouthing, abrasive sensei back.

It didn't mean that she could forget how bad she had felt when she had refused to trust an ayakashi based almost solely upon appearance.

"Natsume-sama? I have come as you requested."

The frightening spirit's friend was far less intimidating. Admittedly, the presence of human-looking limbs helped, and the mask that concealed its identity from unfriendly spirits at least gave the illusion of a face, although the croaky voice that sounded far too much like a frog's call and the webbing between the fingers served as a reminder that they were decidedly not human. As promised, it was a little before midnight, when the moon had shone to its full potential, and both ayakashi were waiting outside her window.

"Please, come in. Make yourselves comfortable."

She brought out the Book of Friends again, and allowed it to fall open within her hands, whispering into the night,

"Ye who calls thyself my guardian,

Reveal thyself to me!"

The Book shivered, and began to flip page by page, gaining speed until at last, only one page remained upright, which Natsume gingerly took, and carefully tugged it free of its bindings to the Book.

"This is thy name. Accept it, Hoshikari!"

The characters written on the paper seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as they returned to their owner. As she blew the Name back to its original owner, she felt a part of her own energy follow after it, making her glad that she was still sitting. Although she was becoming better at the whole procedure now, and had stopped fainting right away, returning a Name still took enough out of her that she wouldn't have been able to run fast enough to save herself if any spirit decided to attack her after she returned their Names. It was part of the reason why Nyanko-sensei always insisted on accompanying her on these occasions, she thought.

Although, she was also very sure that he only insisted upon being present so that nobody else would be able to eat her whilst she was so exposed. At any rate, after his one-and-a-half portion of omu-rice (she had had a little left over on her own plate, which she had sneaked onto his plate) the fat pig-cat was now contentedly snoring away in the basket she had found and converted into a bed for the strange spirit.

From experience, she knew that it would now take an army to wake the lazy so-called guardian. Or more food. Or alcohol.

"Thank you, Natsume-dono. And, I must apologise to you."

Surprised out of her reverie, Takako raised her gaze to see both ayakashi bowing before her. A little flustered, since nobody had ever prostrated themselves before her, she hurriedly grabbed their kimono sleeves, trying to physically tug them upwards,

"What are you doing? Get up! What's there to be sorry about?"

She found out about a second later when two ice-cold hands clamped down on her wrists, tightening enough to be slightly painful.

"For this, Natsume-dono."

And, in a flurry of cloth and hair and confusion, she found herself sky-bound, her hands bound behind her and her eyes effectively blinded by the kimono sleeve covering her eyes. Taking a breath, she didn't even manage one scream of "Nyanko-sensei!" before her mouth was also covered, and she was taken, struggling, into the night.

When she regained her footing and her breath on the ground again, the first thing she decided to do was aim a kick at the two kidnappers. With her arms still bound, however, it meant that she lost her balance completely, causing her to crash into the ground again. She was satisfied to hear the cries of pain that her kicks caused for the two spirits. Scrambling to sit up properly and get a bearing of her surroundings, Takako glared at her kidnappers, before shrinking back cautiously as she caught sight of more and more figures that were being illuminated by the haunting moonlight.

"Wh… what do you want?" She was fully expecting to hear 'let us eat you' or 'give us the Book of Friends' at any moment now.

"Natsume-sama, please excuse our rudeness to you, but we beg of you! Save us!"

Well. That certainly wasn't what she expected.

"Strange way to treat someone you want to be your saviour. Untie me."

"Not until you hear us through, Natsume-sama."

"Where am I?"

Two figures stepped forward from the growing crowd. A Cyclops and a Bull-head, who seemed to command the most power amongst the ragged band of ayakashi who were coming into the open now. The spokespeople, obviously.

"The Yatsuhara Fields. A lot of spirits have made their homes in these fields because humans have not visited this place for so long. But, recently, the Temple nearby has been inhabited again by a human who is trying to kill us! Please, Natsume-sama, lend us your power!"

"A human? Who can see you?" Despite the situation, Takako felt some excitement at the prospect of someone who could see the same things she saw, understood what she had to live through.

"Of course! We want you to eliminate them, so that we can continue to live on here in peace. We have tried to send a mediator to that hateful human who has moved into the Temple, but our emissary was sent back so singed that she still cannot gather enough power to assume her original form!"

She raised her eyebrows at that, as the ayakashi who had so frightened her before released the binding on her arms. "Yes, Natsume-dono. It was I who tried to speak to the human. However, before I even came into his presence, he sent a purifying wave throughout our home. This is why I hate humans – they never listen, only look, and most of them can't even do that properly!" The venom dripping from her voice took Takako by surprise.

"So? Why the need for kidnapping if all you were going to do was to ask me for a favour? You could have asked normally without tying me up and throwing me over your shoulder like a sack of flour."

"When you reacted so negatively to our messenger, we thought that you wouldn't willingly come to us. And so, the honourable Hoshikari-sama offered to help in bringing you to us, so that you would listen to our request."

Natsume fell silent again, straightened her pyjamas hurriedly, and assumed an apologetic bowing position towards the ayakashi who had yet to give her Name, who had kidnapped her, "Please, allow me to apologise for my hasty conclusions this afternoon. It was wrong of me to be so suspicious of you based on your appearance alone. Please, accept my apology."

Silence weighed heavily on the field's occupants as Takako bowed her head towards the spirits, knowing that she was exposing herself to any and all attacks that might come her way. Slowly, the skeletal kimono-clad spirit Takako was bowing to also inclined her head, acknowledging the human child's regret.

"My name is Shinmichi. I would be honoured for you to call me by my Name."

And so, Natsume made another bond with the world of spirits, under the quiet summer moonlight.

"Seriously, though – I can't 'eliminate' a human being, so please, don't ask me to do such a thing."

The situation had diffused quite a bit, and Natsume was now sitting as one of a large circle formed by various ayakashi, politely declining any food or drink that came her way. One of the things that had stuck with her throughout Nyanko-sensei's rants was that partaking of any sustenance a spirit offered you usually ended with miserable consequences. Plus, having had a whiff of the liquid that was being passed around the circle, Takako reckoned that she knew where her Sensei would disappear off to every so often, only to come back reeking of sake.

"But… Natsume-sama, you have allied yourself with our emissary! Shinmichi has even shared her Name with you! Surely…" The talkative (and slightly tipsy, if the number of cups he had gone through was any indication) Cyclops exclaimed, waving his arms about. The ox-headed spirit followed suit, echoing his friend's sentiments (as well as last words, which seemed to be a rather odd habit the two had).

"Look, I'm not sure how things work in your world, but in the human world, someone going missing is kind of a massive deal! It's not something that would be easily dismissed as an accident." Seeing the kicked-puppy looks in the comedic-duo's faces, she steeled her heart as she said, "Look, I'm really sorry, but there's no way for me to get rid of a human. I doubt that he'd listen to a kid, and if he's really so aggressive that he shoots first and asks questions never, I can only suggest that the path of least resistance would be to move from the Yatsuhara Fields."

Clamouring protests ensued, causing Natsume to flinch slightly at the noise the motley crew of youkai created. It was surprising that the ruckus didn't wake the person who was apparently intent on purifying the area of youkai from sleep. Then again, with dawn fast-approaching, most people were probably deep enough into sleep that no sound would be able to wake them up.

What she would give to be one of the masses of sleepers right now.

"See now, I really have to go back. I need to be present for breakfast, at least, and then I'll head back here with Nyanko-sensei to see if he's got any good ideas. Tomorrow's Sunday, so I don't have to go to school, so it makes things easier for me to see what I can do, okay?"

The comedic-duo exchanged thoughtful looks, before turning simultaneously to face Takako, and nodded their agreement.

"Natsume-dono, allow me to escort you back to your dwelling."

"Not if you're going to blind and gag me again – it's a really very unpleasant sensation, Shinmichi. But, if you are able to…?"

With another rush of cold, summer's night air rushing into her lungs, she found herself once again launched into the dark sky. This time, she allowed herself to take in the scenery surrounding her, and breathe in the fragrant scent of the summer blooms that surrounded the Yatsuhara Fields. As they flew, Takako spied an old-fashioned, large building that seemed to be enshrouded in some sort of faint glow. Curious, she tugged at the clothes of her carrier,

"Shinmichi, is that where the human you need me to talk to lives? What's that faint glow?"

"Oh, you can see that as well? Seems that you have a bit more spiritual power than I first thought. That glow is what is left after each cleansing blast that that accursed human sends out. A lot of my friends have already had to flee their homes, and a few have been… purified. Completely."

The thought gave Takako some pause. As much as she had encountered terrible things in the past, and hadn't really had any good experiences with ayakashi, she couldn't quite bring herself to believe that any human who had experienced the same life as she had could be so heartless as to drive others out of their homes, ayakashi or not.

Well, it wasn't as if she had had many good experiences with humans either.

"Here you are, Natsume-dono. I believe that this is where you sleep?"

"Yes, thank you. I'll see you when it's a bit lighter out, although I might be a little slow if I have to bring Nyanko-sensei along with me. I'm pretty sure he's hung over from partying at your's."

"Ah, you mean that rude, fat idiot who got himself stuck in his sealing vessel? He does always overindulge – in fact, he's the one who told us where to find you."


"Oh yes – he started boasting one night about how he was as good as the owner of the Book of Friends, and a few more free drinks later, he had spilled almost every detail we needed to find you quickly. You really should consider leashing the beast, Natsume-dono." The matter-of-fact tone that Shinmichi had adopted rather irked Takako, as her gaze turned towards her betrayer. No sweet buns from Nanatsujiya for a month, Nyanko-sensei!

"You know, Shinmichi, this is the first time I've really spoken to a spirit."

"Oh? And how do I do as a conversationalist, compared to your human companions?"

"I'm not really sure – it's only recently that I've started having conversations with anyone. I tried to avoid spirits at all costs and most humans tried to avoid me at all costs." Tears came to her eyes, unwelcome, "It made it difficult to hold a conversation without someone to reciprocate."

A pause. She felt a skeletal hand rest upon her head, patting her gently,

"It must have been lonely, Natsume-dono."

Even though there is hardly any flesh on her hands, even though it still feels cold from the night air, why… why does it fill me with such warmth?

"Yes." Takako closed her eyes, and allowed the tears to fall silently onto the tatami mats, "It was."

"Takako-chan? Are you alright? I'm coming in!"

Blinking the sleep away, Takako peered blearily up at the kindly figure of Tohko-san, who was already in her apron, and smelling of miso and salmon, even though it was a rest day. Wincing a little at the harsh shade of blue that painted the sky, she sat up from her futon,

"Good morning, Tohko-san. Sorry, I think I overslept. Did you need any help in the kitchen?"

"Don't be silly, child! Your job is to eat whatever I put on your plate – when you grow a little more, then I'll start teaching you how to cook! That is, if you want to, of course."

"I… I'd love to!" She still wasn't very used to the kindness that Tohko-san lavished upon her, and still felt a pang of guilt every time she lied to the kind, motherly woman, but she did not want the Fujiwaras to know of what she could see, nor did she want to place any trouble at their door because of the world she lived within.

"Well then, sleepy-head, come downstairs and have some breakfast! Any plans for the day?"

"Er… yes – if it's alright with you and Shigeru-san, then would it be possible for me to head over to the Yatsuhara Fields? I'm visiting some friends."

"Of course! Oh, to be young again…" Takako smiled, letting the gentleness of her guardian wash over her, calming her senses. "Well, come and join us for breakfast, let Shigeru-san know when you're heading out, and if you're going to be there for dinner, give us a call to let us know, alright?"

Nodding, Takako waited until she heard the door of the kitchen close downstairs, before turning her attention to the idiot cat who still had the nerve to carry on sleeping after what he had put her through. Standing over the snoring creature, she lifted the old, wooden fan that she kept on her desk, and brought it down upon its head without hesitation.

Five times.

"Yowch! What was that for, you brat?"

"Revenge! Weren't you the one to appoint yourself as my guardian? You're doing a freaking poor job of it so far, you pig-cat!"

"You're still alive and here, aren't you?"

"No thanks to you! Where were you last night, when I was at the Yatsuhara Fields?"

"Hmph! So, those idiots finally plucked up the courage to ask you the favour? If you can't even handle spirits of that low level, then it's worthless for my beautiful self to protect you."

"You… do you even know what a guardian is meant to do? That's it! No Nanatsuji-ya buns for you!"

"What? How dare you!"

Ten minutes later, it was a very scratched-up Takako who managed to make it downstairs with a cat sporting several bumps on its head to have breakfast. Trying desperately to maintain a nonchalant smile at the dinner table, Takako ate, made her excuses, grabbed Nyanko-sensei by the scruff of his neck (not that he really had one, with the amount of weight the creature had put on since staying at the Fujiwara household) and practically ran out of the door. Really, who knew that trying to hide scratches made from porcelain paws was so difficult?

"Okay, I'll drop by Yatsuhara Fields first to give greetings and a head's up that I'm going to the temple, but then I'll head over to see if I can speak to whoever's causing the problem."

"If the guy is powerful enough to shoot regular bursts of purifying spells that have enough firepower behind them to make the Yatsuhara bunch worried, then you'd best be extra-cautious. You may be human, but those spells can still have an effect on you." Nyanko-sensei warned her, having to jog slightly to keep up with her brisk pace, "You've been doing fairly well with the whole caution thing – don't spoil your record now."

"I don't know, sensei – I still feel… guilty about misjudging Shinmichi as much as I did." Takako admitted, settling down on the bus stop bench to wait for the next bus, "I mean, I'm not going to be able to really return a lot of names if I continue to be so para… hold on a minute…"

She turned the full force of her pale-brown glare onto the pudgy cat that had taken up residence on her lap. Oh yes. She was that mad.

"You! This was your plan? To isolate me further so that the Book would still be full by the time I died? Which, by the way, is going to be pretty soon if your stupid 'guarding skills' are anything to go by!"

"Argh… busted already? I was hoping you'd get eaten before we had this conversation."

"Don't think I can't hear the sarcasm…"

By the time the bus arrived, both human and pseudo-cat were sporting new battle wounds, with no clear victor between them.

"Natsume-sama! You came!" The Cyclops, who had chosen not to reveal his Name to her, was there with the Bull-head to greet her and Nyanko-sensei, "And Madara-sama as well? Why, we are truly blessed this day!"

"Stop with the small-talk and hand over the alcohol, idiot." Takako startled a little at Nyanko-sensei answering to 'Madara' – she had called the cat by 'sensei' for so long that she had began to forget that, as a bakemono, he too must have a true name. She had to suppress the urge to snort – somehow, the pudgy form of her sneaky, self-imposed, useless bodyguard, having a True Name meaning 'brave'? It really didn't suit his image.

"I'm just here to let you know that I'm headed off to see whoever's at the Temple. They might be more open-minded to a human approaching for peace talks compared to a youkai." She informed the crowd, who had already settled down with snacks and drinks, filling the air with tantalising alcohol, making even Takako a little heady with its scent. "Are you listening, you guys?"

"You should have gotten dango from Nanatsuji-ya! Theirs is the best!"

Obviously not.

Sighing in resignment, Takako prepared to leave the rowdy bunch to travel to the Temple alone – after all, if the ground had really been properly consecrated, then most spirits would avoid the place like it was the plague. Not that it really killed them or anything – since spirits were a part of the Earth itself, it was nigh on impossible to actually rid the planet of any youkai ; it was, however, very easy to weaken one, as long as you had the right tools to do so. The right tools including consecrated ground, some level of power and preferably something to hit them with.

A reason why Takako still ran for shrines when she encountered unfriendly spirits.

Suddenly, she heard, or rather felt, a ringing noise ripple through the air. Glancing around for the origin of the sound, all she could see was the Yatsuhara Fields and its occupants, nothing that should fill her with such dread and ring like a harbinger of pain and suffering…

A wave of white, hot energy swept towards her. She could feel the panic… I can't get out of the way…!

"Natsume! Grab on!"

The next few seconds was a flurry of teeth, claws, and air, causing her to tumble and flail as Nyanko-sensei shifted into his sky-dog form, carrying Takako gently in his jaws. Below them, they watched as the merry gathering scattered, fleeing from the wave of energy that had, indeed, come from the direction of the Temple. Breathing heavily, she looked towards the Temple in apprehension and confusion.

How can a human who can see and hear spirit like me be able to do such a thing?

"Hmph. You really need to stop wearing your heart on your sleeve, brat. Not all humans who can see us come out the other end with a conscience like yours." Nyanko-sensei rumbled, depositing Natsume onto the ground a good few minutes after the wave had passed completely. The entire area felt… clean. No, not just clean. It felt as if the very air had been scrubbed and anti-bacced, giving it a far too artificial smell that left Takako feeling strangely empty inside. The air she breathed in now just… didn't make her feel as if she were still breathing properly.

Every breath she drew was so… bland.

"This guy really is something – such a powerful blast with no warning at all. Some of the weaker ones in the Yatsuhara area probably won't be able to come back for a while now." Nyanko-sensei commented, his face contorted into a slight scowl, "We'd better get going as well, in case another blast comes along. Your powers are similar enough to a spirit's to be affected by this purification wave."

Takako almost agreed, before she stopped herself from taking the easy way out. "Wait, sensei! I promised the Yatsuhara group that I'd at least try and negotiate with the human on their behalf. We can't just leave them to the mercy of that… that… gung-ho so-and-so!"

"You need to work on your insults, Natsume."

Being in his larger form didn't deter the slap to the nose that Takako sent his way.

"Natsume, even if you were to leave this situation alone, it would resolve itself anyway! What is a few decades to a youkai? In a few decades, this human will either be too old or too dead to do anything more, and the Yatsuhara Fields will once again be the playground for spirits. Let's just go and leave this whole mess alone – I'm not sure if I can get you out of the way of that blast next time." Nyanko-sensei growled, his green eyes piercing Takako's own pale-brown irises.

"If a few decades really is a short time for you, sensei, why don't you try going for thirty years without alcohol, or Nanatsuji-ya buns?"

"What? Don't be ridiculous…"

"Then what was your point?"

The silence that followed informed Takako that another point had been added under her name on the imaginary repartee scoreboard she had with Nyanko-sensei. Even in this situation, she took a moment to silently gloat.

"Shut it."

"I haven't said anything!"

"I can hear you silently gloating, brat. Stop it."

Ah. Well, so much for subtlety.

"I'm still going to go see this human and ask them why they're doing this, sensei."

"I know, idiot. Which is why I'm going with you." Now that was surprising. Takako didn't have any doubt that he was strong enough to set foot on consecrated ground without being fried like a piece of tempura, but it would still be painful enough to drain the bakemono of a good portion of his strength.

"Sensei, don't be ridiculous – the human can't do anything to me. Remember? Time has moved on now – if a human goes missing, there'd be a massive fuss, and…"

"And? If they mistake you for a youkai, they'll shoot you first before asking questions, and you don't have the same connection to the Earth that we spirits have. You. Would. Die. Instantly." Nyanko-sensei adopted a grave look on his ferocious face, "Even if you are human, your presence is that of our kind. And you don't have the same protection from humans that we have."

You are alone, was left unsaid.

Takako suppressed her tears, and whispered, "Even so… even if I am unprotected, and alone… I want to speak to them."

"Well then, I suppose that you'd appreciate some help?" A massive, crushing pressure appeared behind her, a deep, earthy voice ringing out. From the disgusted look on Nyanko-sensei's face, it was an old acquaintance.

"Misuzu. I can't believe that you're able to show your face, after your shameful defeat." Madara growled, his body adopting a protective stance around Takako, his teeth bared in warning against the gigantic, black bovine ayakashi known as Misuzu.

Author's Note: Thank you so much for the reviews, favourites and follows! I'm so sorry that it took so long to put this out, and I still didn't manage to get to what I actually wanted to put in this chapter... work has been a little hectic, so this is literally the product of several post-midnight sessions. I don't have anyone to check spelling and grammar and so on, so sorry for any glaring mistakes!

I'll try and put out the next chapter as soon as I can, and you'll be seeing more of Misuzu and the Temple issue will also be dealt with!

Please continue to review! It really encourages me to write!

Thank you! Fiametta xxx