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Touko-san has to halt him before he can rush from the house Monday morning.

“Don't forget your lunch,” she says. “I added extra parsley today, and a bun for Nyankichi!” Sensei rubs against her legs; Natsume often suspects the cat likes her more than him, especially when food is mentioned.

“Thank you,” he says, stalling long enough to take the box politely. Then he rushes outside; he wants to make a quick trip before going to school.

Natsume doesn't really need an excuse to wander through Yatsuhara forest, but today he moves with a certain sense of purpose. He keeps, alert, too, and his frown deepens as he moves. The forest is suspiciously quiet. At last he follows his nose, eventually stumbling onto an almost mundane sight.

Well. Mundane to Natsume, anyway.

Two robed youkai – one with a cow's face, the other with just a single, unblinking eye – look up at him. “Did you come to join the party, Natsume-sama?”

“Ah, no.” Natsume smiles faintly, wrinkling his noise as the smell of sake drifts across the small forest clearing. Nyanko-sensei promptly abandons his side to abscond with a bottle, and he stifles a sigh; it's hard sometimes to hide a lingering smell of liquor from the his guardians, the Fujiwaras, and he can hardly blame his cat. “I had a question, though.”

The two Chukyuu perk up immediately. “A question!”

“We are always glad to help Natsume-sama,” offers the bovine Chukyuu.

“Always glad, always glad!”

From experience Natsume knows that it's best to interrupt before the two really get started. “Why haven't I seen any youkai lately?” he asks, faintly puzzled. “You're the first I've seen in a few days, aside from Sensei.”

“Scared!”

“Yes, very.”

“Of the exorcist.”

Even Nyanko-sensei perks up. “Some punk is exorcising youkai?” he demands.

“Not yet,” the second Chukyuu hedges. “But the little ones are running. And there is something in the forest!”

Natsume frowns. There are a lot of things in the forest. “Something... bad?”

The youkai shrug unhelpfully.

“I would never call exorcists a good thing,” Nyanko-sensei mutters, swigging his sake. “Aren't you going to be late for school, kid?”


 

The past string of unusually youkai-free nights means that Natsume is alert enough to actually pay attention to his classes. Briefly he toys with the idea of trying to establish visiting hours when things go back to normal – maybe he could bribe Sensei to sleep around the house in his proper form, which would scare away the lower-ranks – but he sighs. He won't even try, of course. Many youkai don't even come out until night, and he would never dissuade anyone from reclaiming their Name.

“Natsume-san,” the teacher says. “Are you listening?”

Natsume drags his eyes away from the window. “Ah, yes,” he lies, and stands up.

Outside the window something large and red flashes through the courtyard.

Natsume starts to turn, but the teacher insists, “Come complete the question on the board.”

“Um.” Natsume cranes his neck. The creature outside has vanished.

Now, Natsume-san.”

The class snickers.

Predictably, Natsume can't answer the question. He listens to a verbal haranguing from the teacher, head bowed, and keeps darting glances at the window. Normally he wouldn't be bothered with a random youkai, but even the kappa down by the river has vanished lately. Maybe this one has some information.

At the end of the day he fends off Kitamoto outside class but gets side-tracked by Nishimura, who wants to visit an arcade and won't take refusal as a legitimate answer. Finally Natsume has to say, “Touko-san seemed a bit tired today, I wanted to help her around the house.” He feels immediately guilty for the lie.

Nishimura sighs loudly. Then brightens. “I could help you!”

“No, you don't need to.”

“...I'm not going to change your mind, am I? You work too much, Natsume! It's why you faint all the time, you know. Being productive is bad for you.”

“Yeah, I'll remember that,” Natsume agrees wryly. They walk together until their paths split, and as soon as Nishimura is out of sight Natsume runs into the nearest section of the Yatsuhara forest.

He still doesn't see any youkai.

Sensei is probably off drinking – again – but at least the old cat will be safe. Natsume is less certain about the forest's other inhabitants.

“Is anyone around?” he calls after a few minutes. Silence greets him, but that isn't so strange; smaller youkai will hide from him under most circumstances. “I just have some questions...”

He sighs and smiles when he glimpses a familiar dark robe behind a tree. He walks forward. A fox-faced youkai sleeps on the ground, sprawled without any concern for propriety. “Excuse me,” Natsume says, reaching down to shake his shoulder. The youkai shifts with his push and doesn't respond.

Natsume frowns. He taps the youkai's arm. “Are you awake?”

“I've found three others like that.”

He turns around. Sensei trundles out of the underbrush and hops onto his shoulder. “All wimps,” the cat clarifies, as though Natsume had asked a question. “But something is targeting them. You should get out of here, Natsume. Bet you're more tasty than some small-fry.”

“But I have to find out what's doing this.”

“You don't have to do anything! Why do you always get involved? You're going to get yourself killed if you keep throwing yourself into problems that have nothing to do with you.”

Smiling, Natsume moves the fox-faced youkai under the shade of a bush and keeps walking. “I thought that's what you wanted, Nyanko-sensei?”

“It's not good for my reputation if you die of stupidity.”

Natsume sobers a little when he finds a familiar mushroom-youkai asleep near a felled tree. Near a smaller branch of the river he finds the local kappa almost falling into the water.

“Maybe some of them ran,” he tells Sensei. “But something hurt the other ones. What do you know of that can make people sleep?”

Sensei scoffs. “Do you want a list?”

“Whatever might be in the forest.”

Sensei thinks about it. “A kanashibian,” he says doubtfully. “ - I think there's one a town over, but those mostly cause brief paralysis and nightmares. Nothing like this. Baku eat dreams, but they usually just wander around houses at night. They don't make people fall asleep.”

Natsume wraps his arms around himself. “It's nearby, isn't it,” he says more than asks.

Nyanko-sensei humphs. “Yes, but it's hiding from my glory. I don't think you'll find it today, Natsume-kun.” Agreeing with a faint frown, Natsume picks up the cat and starts to pick his way home through the forest.

Touko-san seems flustered when he arrives– apparently she's burnt the pork – but Shigeru-san is pleased to see him. They sit down for a late dinner and Sensei starts to beg for the overdone meat as Shigeru says, “Takashi-kun, you enjoy fishing, don't you? A colleague of mine invited us to join him down in Kagoshima for a few days. It would make a nice weekend trip.” Glancing at his wife, he adds teasingly, “Touko-san is afraid of the sharks.”

“Oh, I am not,” she laughs. “But I prefer solid ground... you'll go, won't you, Takashi-kun?”

“Ah, it, you don't mind?” he clarifies.

“I'd love for you to come along,” Shigeru smiles.

Natsume nods quickly and looks down at his plate. Somehow he still never knows quite how to react to these casual acts of kindness, inclusion. Last week Touko-san brought him a sweet pastry from the bakery, “Because you're so skinny, Takashi-kun!”, and he couldn't stop smiling for the rest of the day.

It's the weekend and Touko-san says they're sleeping in tomorrow, which is a relief; he wants to spend the day investigating the forest. He prods Sensei upstairs after dinner and the cat practically collapses, groaning with satisfaction on the floor.

“Good food,” the overweight beast approves. Looking at Natsume, he pre-empts him: “Don't look so serious! I want to sleep, we can talk about all the fainting princesses in the forest tomorrow.”

“Nyanko-sensei, they might not last until tomorrow.”

“Sure they will. You always fix the problem just in the nick of time – so if we fix the problem tomorrow, I'm sure that's the right time to do it.” Satisfied with his own logic, Sensei folds four stubby cat legs under his folds of fat and ignores Natsume's attempts to push him upright.

Natsume gives up. “I could go alone,” he mutters, and briefly considers it.

“You already having a reputation for keeling over, you don't need help. Get some sleep.”

Natsume glances longingly out the window, but he has to concede the point; he won't be any use to the youkai if he gets attacked, too, and he doesn't want to worry the Fujiwaras by getting hurt. He goes to sleep uneasily and listens to the deep whistle of Sensei's snores as the room darkens.


 

In the morning Nyanko-sensei is roused with only minor grumbling. It takes them about five minutes of stumbling through the forest to trip over the Chukyuu, slumped and silent under a tree with a bottle of sake between them.

Sensei nudges them, as though hoping the mid-ranks are just drunk, and then makes a faint hissing sound. “Hmm. This isn't good,” he tells Natsume, who bends to check their breathing. “Whatever this thing is, it's going after stronger youkai now. But I still don't know why.”

“They mentioned an exorcist, didn't they?” Natsume remembers. “Maybe it's working with him. Or her. Remember how the Matobas gathered up youkai... It would be easier for exorcists to capture them while they'll sleeping.”

“This doesn't smell like exorcist magic,” Sensei declares. Natsume finds it hard to argue with that.

Natsume wants to take their friends to a safer spot, but Sensei refuses to help and the youkai are too large to carry – even if he wouldn't look bizarre struggling under a limp, invisible weight down the road. He has to settle for pulling them under some foliage, as he did for previous youkai, and tries to remember the spot.

As he's settling leaves Nyanko-sensei suddenly hisses. Twigs crack and Natsume looks up. “Friends of yours?” asks a familiar voice.

Natsume smiles even as Sensei continues to mutter. “Yes,” he says, and only belatedly hears the faint tinge of sarcasm in Natori's voice.

But Natori only smiles a bit, bemused. “Well, at least we will not be at cross-purposes today.” Throwing an arm around Natsume, he beams. “I love when we can work together!”

“So you're not the one making the youkai sleep?”

The exorcist shakes his head. “I've been hired to investigate it – and possibly trap whatever is responsible. It makes people uneasy, having something so powerful around. It might move on to humans next.”

Of course – Natsume should have known better than to think that exorcists would be concerned about youkai.

“Will you assist me, Natsume-kun?”

“Of course.”

Natori beams again. He drops his arm to pull out a tiny paper figure. It stands on its hand almost of its own power – or, rather, Natori's power. “The youkai doing this actually just triggered one of my traps – I should be able to track it now.” The paper flies away suddenly, and he spins. “Follow me!”

Urihime and Hiiragi appear almost silently, joining them as they chase the paper's zig-zagging route. It keeps flicking toward the sky periodically, as if confused, before settling again and zooming on.

Finally Natori twists his hand and lets the paper fall. “It's somewhere close,,” he tells Natsume as they stumble to a halt. “This charm could bring us to it, but it would alert the spirit. We should be careful from here.”

Nyanko-sensei collapses with a groan. “This is too much running,” he complains, and plods far behind, reluctant, as the rest begin to spread out.

The paper has led them partway up the mountain; the ground is littered with rocks and small crags in the stone, good places for smaller youkai to hide. But Natsume would be surprised if this creature is small. Nonetheless, he picks an area away from the others and begins peering carefully around rocks and boulders.

He does find a rabbit-faced youkai sleeping on the ground. Perhaps their target is close, then.

A flash of red makes Natsume flinch, and with a start he remembers his day at school, the odd shape outside the window. He throws himself back just in time for a colossal, solid red figure to stream past.

“Nyanko-sensei!” he calls. The spirit turns. It isn't red, he realizes.

It's a stone youkai, but it's on fire.

“Natsume!” Madara sweeps him away in a rush of white fur, snatching him back as an odd grogginess comes over Natsume. He blinks and clutches his friend's neck as they rise into the air. Below he sees Hiiragi and Urihime darting around the unfamiliar spirit, Natori flinging out an ofuda and chanting.

A flash of light. The ofuda falls to the ground uselessly; the shimmering spirit darts away, moving through the forest at breakneck speed. Only a small, smoldering spot on the forest floor shows where it had been moments before.

Nyanko-sensei ignores his protests and circles the area a few more times before landing. Natori, never one to be put-off, seems thoughtful as he stares after the youkai's trail. “I'm not sure what that was,” he says. “Or why the binding failed; it didn't break the binding, it just wasn't effected at all.”

“Maybe it has some type of protection,” Natsume ventures, still clinging to Madara's back.

“That would imply it's working with exorcists, probably. Which I doubt. Well, let's try to find it again. There's one or two more things I might try.”

But the fiery youkai, it seems, does not want to be found. Nyanko-sensei even ventures to fly ahead a few times, now that he's grudgingly transformed, but they come up short. As night falls Natori waves away Natsume's apologies; “Don't worry your family on my behalf,” he smiles. “I'll continue looking if you want to join me tomorrow; good night, cat.” He waves at Nyanko-sensei, who sniffs.

Stars blink and glitter overhead as they walk home, leaves trembling in the trees without any indication of wind. It's unnervingly quiet; somehow the idea that there aren't spirits peeking out through the leaves is more strange than the opposite. Natsume turns to Nyanko-sensei as they approach the house. “You wouldn't be effected by anything this spirit can do, right, Sensei?”

But the cat, rather than defending his pride, stares straight ahead toward the Fujiwara residence. “I think I smell it,” he says suddenly. “That wimps gone now, but it was here. It must have been looking for you, Natsume.”

Natsume jerks and turns as though he, too, might see some hint of the spirit's presence lingering around. “But – it's gone?” he confirms.

Sensei nods. “We'll have to be careful tonight. But, forget about that. Touko-san was making salmon! Salmon, salmon...” His singsong voice drifts as he skips ahead. Laughing, Natsume follows.

Natsume sets his shoes aside in the entrance-way. Darkness drapes the hall. He follows Nyanko-sensei into the empty kitchen, frowning, and then looks on the counter. A few scattered vegetables and a cloth are still set out from last night, probably intended for today's meal. No note; he can't imagine why both the Fujiwaras would be gone.

Then Sensei says, a bit warily: “...Hey, Natsume? I think the spirit smell is stronger.”

Natsume runs upstairs.

Touko-san and Shigeru-san are both in bed, very still, and for a crazy moment Natsume wonders if they haven't slept in a bit late. Except it's night time, of course, and no one sleeps twenty-four hours unless...

“Touko-san?” he shakes the woman's arm first. Her body shifts limply. “Shigeru-san!”

Desperate, Natsume looks to his companion for answers. But the cat's eyes glow eerily in the room's darkness, and after sniffing for a moment he shakes his head. “I think you should call your human healers,” he says.

Natsume dials for an ambulance and sits huddled by the Fujiwaras' bodies until it arrives.


 

Natori

After Natsume leaves Natori only searches the forest for a few more hours before calling quits; his shiki can't detect the big red youkai they found, his tracking spells have suddenly stopped working, and frankly it's depressing to keep stumbling over tiny, robe-covered bodies in the forest.

The morning dawns a bit more promising now that he can look forward to Natsume's presence. Natori usually doesn't like working with others, but Natsume reminds him a bit of himself as a younger boy – except far nicer, he sometimes thinks wryly. Too nice, perhaps. Natsume is a great friend but Natori honestly hopes he never tries to become an exorcist. It would probably destroy him.

He shares this thought with Hiiragi as they walk.

“Or he might become a different kind of exorcist,” the youkai says, sounding like she has no opinion either way. “Exorcists need not be harsh, master.” This last part has an odd emphasis.

“Not always,” Natori agrees. “But sometimes we can't avoid hurting spirits. And we always have to do our jobs.”

“I think he would be interesting,” Hiiragi decides, and then falls silent. His shiki can be strange sometimes.

Natsume does not show up by noon, and Natori thinks cheerfully that he must be sleeping in, like a typical teenager. Good. Natsume could probably stand to be a bit more typical.

When the sun starts to set Natori feels a twinge of worry.

“It's not that I don't trust Natsume,” he tells his shiki. Hiiragi's mask encompasses her entire face, so it's rather impressive that she still manages to look skeptical. “But he always manages to get himself into trouble.” Especially when Natori is around. Hopefully only when Natori is around, or else this kid's luck must be truly terrible.

When he approaches Natsume's house, Natori realizes that his instincts were right.

Natsume is outside, on his porch, sitting with that fat not-cat wrapped in his arms. For once, the cat isn't managing to look disturbingly intelligent; it just stares up at Natori's approach, black eyes gleaming silently, while a slow and reassuring rumble fills the air.

Natsume is crying.

“Are you hurt?” Natori demands. He kneels beside Natsume, but the boy doesn't even look up. “Did something happen?” he looks to the cat for answers, but the beast-youkai doesn't respond either.

“...The Fujiwaras,” Natsume says at last. “It got them. The youkai that makes people sleep.”

Natori looks up at the house's dark windows. Dread fills him. “They're - “

“They're in the hospital. In comas. It's my fault, I should have known something like this would happen.“

“You couldn't have known,” says Natori firmly. Damn cat isn't helping at all. “Once we find this thing, I'm sure they'll wake up. Once I find it,” he corrects himself.

Natsume snaps up his head. “I'll help,” he says immediately.

“No. Stay with a friend for now. You shouldn't face any youkai like this.” Much as it pains him to deprive Natsume of that vengeance, it wouldn't be right; in this state he'll be vulnerable to all sorts of spirits that feed on dark emotions.

Natsume looks like he wants to protest, but the cat interjects, “I'll take him to the temple and make sure he stays there.”

“Nyanko-sensei!”

Natori ignores the cry. He places a hand on Natsume's head, shaken by his friend's tear-stained face. “I'll fix this,” he promises.

Hiiragi drifts behind him, silent.

She still seems doubtful.


 

He searches for four days.

It's a small amount of time, but it seems longer because he barely sleeps, barely eats. Just performs spell after useless spell. Natori calls up a few contacts to see if they know anything about a red, flaming spirit. If any exorcist would know why his tracking methods, which worked once, are suddenly failing him.

The spirit is probably dead, everyone says, like he's some amateur. Or it's already sealed away.

But neither of these things is true. Natori knows that in his bones.

On the fifth day he begins a wider sweep – the strange languor which followed that red creature has spread over Yatsuhara and beyond – when he practically trips over a small flower youkai. Except when he leans down to investigate it, seeking once again the magical signature of his prey, the flower opens it's seed-shaped eyes and screams.

Natori only jumps a little. “I'm sorry,” he mutters automatically, baffled, and then tries to grab the flower when it runs. It disappears into the undergrowth, and after a moment Natori shakes his head and continues walking.

And he finds youkai. And more youkai. Many of them, in fact, are familiar; a pair of groggy goat-youkai seem similar to two that had been sleeping just the day before.

“Hiiragi,” he calls. His faithful familiar sweeps to his side. “Go check on Natsume-kun. I'm going to the hospital.”

It's not too difficult to gain access to the Fujiwara's room. Even without his name, some exorcists seem to overlook the use of being friendly and personable. His charming smile opens many doors, and it only takes a moment to flatter the desk-worker into giving him directions.

The Fujiwaras are still sleeping.

They look like nice people, Natori thinks inanely. He bends over to touch the hand of the woman – Touko-san, he thinks – but she doesn't move. He sits down in one of the visitor chairs by the door.

Tries to figure out what he can do.

Not much. The youkai might be gone – is probably gone, if everyone in the forest is waking up. So if the Fujiwaras are still asleep...

He's taken out an ofuda from his pocket and started to chant quietly – he might as well ward the room while he's here – when the door opens. Natsume rushes in, face bright, his friend Tanuma a step behind carrying Nyanko-sensei.

Natsume looks at the Fujiwaras. Stops. Looks at Natori.

“ - I'm sorry,” he says honestly.

Tanuma winces. Natsume sways on his feet. “No,” he protests, quietly at first, and then louder again. “No, I was in the forest, all the spirits there - “

The cat saves Natori the discomfort of explaining. Though he isn't particularly tactful about it. “Spirits and humans aren't the same, kid,” he says. “We can take a hit and get back up. Humans are affected a bit differently.” He squirms out of Tanuma's arms and hops onto one of the hospital beds.

“...I understand,” says Natsume at last. “But did you find it? Natori-san?”

It's a last, desperate hope. “No,” he has to admit. “I'm sorry, Natsume-kun.”

Natsume practically falls into the second chair. “I did this,” he says, like before. Before Natori can argue, he adds, helpless, “Sensei, you have to stay here.”

“What?”

“They'll make me go somewhere,” Natsume says. “Back to – back with one of my other relatives. Whoever will take me.” Something in his face twitches, and Tanuma stops hovering at the door to step closer. “If that youkai comes back you need to be here.“

“The Fujiwaras won't be very happy if they wake up and you've been eaten, idiot,” Sensei sniffs. For once Natori agrees him. “Besides, you can't live with your relatives. Who will take you? The family that starved you? Maybe the one that hit you?”

Natsume flinches. “Some of them were nice,” he says, almost too soft to be heard.

“You'd be better in the forest.” The cat brightens. “Actually, that's not a bad idea. I could get Misuzu and Hinoe to help watch you, because you do need watching - “

Natori decides to cut off that thought mainly because Natsume looks still in a disturbingly thoughtful way. No self-respecting exorcist is going to let a teenager live with spirits. “You don't have to go away, Natsume,” he says quietly. “Do you remember what I offered when we first met? I told you to come with me if you wanted to stop pretending. If you don't want to live with your relatives, I can become your guardian.”

Natsume doesn't look at him for a moment. Tanuma suddenly grabs the cat. “I'm just – going to take Ponta outside a moment,” he offers weakly.

“Hey! No! This is getting interesting!”

The door shuts, and Natori and Natsume are alone. He waits for a response, patient, and watches from the corner of his eye as the ever-present lizard steps across his fingers and rests there.

“Why would you do that,” says Natsume finally. His voice trembles a little. “Natori, you – you said yourself I'm not exorcist material - “

“I'm not asking you to be an exorcist,” says Natori patiently. “You can, if you want; you could accompany me on jobs. Or you could stay with me in the city apartment – you've been there. Or, if you want to stay, I can simply sign the guardianship papers and give you a place here. You're old enough that you don't need to be dragged around to new cities if you want to stay with your friends.”

He has a feeling he knows which option Natsume will pick.

Natsume slowly reaches out and grasps Touko-san's pale, unmoving hand. “I'd like to stay,” he says finally.

Natori just nods. “We will find the youkai that did this,” he says. “Eventually.”

“Eventually.”


 

Natsume

By the time the papers are signed Natsume has cried so much that his eyes ache and his head aches and he feels like he has no grief left to give.

Natori holds his shoulder the whole time they talk to his lawyers. His shiki Hiiragi stands in the corner through the whole process, watching.

Natsume tries to give a faint protest when he realizes that Natori is buying a house, but he evidently doesn't argue quite enough, because the house is purchased and Natori waves away all his objections. “I come here often anyway,” the exorcist insists with a teasing half-smile that doesn't quite live up to his usual standard. “And I'm rich – it's no burden, Natsume-kun.”

But it is, it is, and Natsume tucks Nyanko-sensei deeper into his arms as they walk to his new home. For once the cat doesn't even protest. Natsume is tired, and he mostly just wants to sleep, but he has a feeling there's just going to be more talking. More helping, too.

Natori-san is – was – his friend. His only friend who can really understand the spirits, understand his life. He's going to leave now. Natsume must always be the the one to give, and when that balance shifts people leave.

(The Fujiwaras were an exception. The Fujiwaras are in the hospital because of him, Natsume, and he should have expected that).

“I'm going to have to go soon,” says Natori as soon as they enter the house.

The place is already furnished with plain, neat furniture and utilities. It isn't homely, exactly: it lacks the layers of use given to established houses, the knick-knacks and small items that give testament to residents' personalities. A single drooping flower sits on a table in the front room. Natsume stares at it awhile while Natori investigates the kitchen.

(Of course he's leaving).

“I have a shooting up in Fukushima,” Natori prattles as he opens cupboards. Wind ruffles through the apartment and Hiiragi sits herself on the counter to stare at Natsume. “I've put it off, though, for a few days while you settle in. Remember what I said – you can always feel free to join me, Natsume-kun.”

Bowing his head over Nyanko-sensei, Natsume nods. Natori has ignored work for him. One more thing.

“You seem tired. I had the movers put your things in the second floor – but you can change rooms if you want. It's a big place.”

“No, that's fine,” Natsume concedes. “I'm... a bit tired.”

“Of course.” Natori smiles. He keeps doing that, smiling, like everything is fine and normal and no one is - “We'll talk tomorrow then.”


 

They eat breakfast together in the morning and Natori doesn't actually seem eager for a discussion. Hiiragi cooks, which perhaps shouldn't be as strange as it is; she seems to get restless when she's not hunting something, unlike the other shiki who keep disappearing when Natori forgets them. Although they are here this morning, too. Urihime seems to be picking up food with her hair and vanishing it somewhere in her head. Natsume tries not to stare.

Suddenly Urihime turns, and Natsume gets a glimpse of teeth in the back of her skull. He yelps and jerks away.

“What?” asks Natori.

“...Um, nothing,” he says, figuring that asking about a youkai's invisible appendages is rude. Natori follows his gaze.

“Oh, did you not know about Urihime's second mouth? She's a futakochi-onna. Her hair is her best weapon, but stay away from her head, too. I wanted to ask, would you like Urihime to stay while I'm in Fukushima?”

“No! Thank you, Natori-san, Urihime-san...“ The youkai turns in his direction without reaction, “but...”

“I'll be here, why would he need another spirit?” Nyanko-sensei interjects. “Much less one of yours.”

“You don't really strike me as a caretaker, kitty,” Natori responds.

“I am a bodyguard! And I'm the best at everything I do!”

“Hmm. Well, if you're sure. Natsume-kun, I want to give you a few numbers before I go, just in case your esteemed bodyguard gets lost in sake again - “

“Oi!”

So they spend the day going through emergency contacts, which is almost-normal except for the way Natori says things like, “and here's the number of my agent, in case my phone isn't working”, or, “You can call this number if there's a spirit-related emergency and I'm not answering, but please call me first, I suspect he's involved with the Matoba's and might have killed another exorcist last fall - “

But afterward they walk to Nanatsujiya to eat and Sensei hops around begging for manju, which is so wonderfully mundane Natsume could almost pretend that it's a normal day and Natori is just on one of his surprise visits and nothing bad is going to happen at all.

They take a wrong turn on the way back, though, because the Fujiwaras lived the opposite direction from this new house and Natsume can't help but feel a bone-deep wrongness when he enters the sterile cleanliness of a home bought just for him.

To finish off the awkwardness Natori gives him a credit card, smiles, and says, “Don't let the cat get hold of that, Natsume-kun. He'll starve out the whole town.”


 

The next morning Natsume finds Natori unfolding strings of paper ofuda, a brush and bottles of ink spread on the plain kitchen table. Small characters pop out at him from the walls; he wonders if they would appear visible to normal humans at all.

“I'm putting up wards against youkai for when I'm gone,” says Natori, seeing him. “Your ridiculous pet and my shiki should be able to bypass it, don't worry.”

Natsume pauses. “Wards?”

“I can teach you how to make them, too.”

“Can you – not.”

Natori pauses, hands still in the middle of tying two ofuda together.

“It's just, maybe if you wanted to stop bad youkai from entering, but I get visits a lot.“

“And you want to let youkai visit you?” Natori asks, a hint of incredulity entering his tone.

Unable to explain the Book of Friends, Natsume says, “I, I like it better when I see my youkai friends during the day - sometimes we have picnics or go for walks – but they like to sneak into my room, sometimes...” Natori probably wouldn't mind, but the man is legally his guardian now, and it feels odd to say, 'to party and get drunk on sake with Nyanko-sensei'. “... I think they would get sad if they couldn't.”

Natori stands up. He reaches out and puts his hand on Natsume's head, faintly exasperated.

“Natsume, you... Alright,” he sighs. “I'll stop malicious youkai from entering the house... although it's a weaker ward, and something might still slip by occasionally. But when I'm using the house I reserve the right to put up temporary wards. You might be okay with unknown youkai traipsing around the property, but I'm not.”

“Of course!”

Natori mutters something that sounds like, “Picnics?”, and returns to the ofuda.

The wards are finished by nightfall; Natori has made quick work of them and small, shimmering sigils and circles can be found if one has the capacity of looking just right. Natsume thinks, wistfully, that maybe he can learn more about Natori's magics someday. He doesn't want to hurt youkai, but.

(Why else would Natori-san want him?)

“Remember to call me if anything happens,” Natori says. His three shiki have gathered for the farewell, too. “And don't worry, Natsume. I promise you, this won't be forever.”

Natsume nods silently and waits on the porch as Natori leaves. Waddling to his side, Nyanko-sensei tells him, unusually serious, “He's talking about the Fujiwaras, you know.”

“Sensei?”

“He means they'll be back. Because we'll find that red youkai, of course.” Sensei slants a look toward him. “That doesn't mean he's going to leave.”

Sighing and brushing some imaginary dirt away, Natsume stands and walks to the door. “I'll get you sashimi tonight,” he says. Nyanko-sensei doesn't seem all that happy about it, oddly.


 

Natsume walks downstairs in the morning and stops with his hand on the stair railing. The house is quiet. Sensei is still upstairs, probably sleeping, and all the lights sit dark and unmoving.

Natsume has become used to routine, he realizes. In-between completing bizarre requests for youkai and gods, there was this: the warm home, the daily meals, the bright house.

Touko-san. Shigeru-san.

But the routine must end, of course; it always ends. Natsume wishes he had remembered that sooner.

He walks to the stove to heat up a plain bowl of rice.


 

Natori

Perhaps it would be appropriate to say that everything changes immediately after Natori takes custody of Natsume. The thing is, that would be patently untrue. Natori returns to the film-set of yet another romance cliché and, as always, no one asks anything more prying than, “Anything exciting happen this week, Shuuichi-san?”

No one seems to understand that Natori is a good actor because he lies every day of his life.

He uses his charming smile to good effect during the day, then crashes to bed in his provided trailer after filming is done. In the early morning he wakes, practices a few magic circles and chants, and then it's back to filming.

He makes a note on his calendar reminding himself to call home and inform his parents that he has accidentally acquired a teenager, but it never seems like a good time. After a few days he strikes off the note altogether because he realizes it will never seem like a good time.

Susago and Urihime rapidly leave to seek out new jobs – and do whatever it is they're concerned with when not answering his summons – but Hiiragi stays nearby, as usual, and seems more and more disapproving as days pass.

About a week after leaving Natsume's town in Kumamoto, Natori finally finishes a particularly messy scene (the necessary break-up that must come before a dramatic confession and reconciliation is possible) and exits the filming area in the simple hope of getting a nap. Seeing Hiiragi hovering nearby, he sighs, and tells her, “Give me a moment, at least.”

She waits impatiently as he walks further away from civilization – from humans – and lies down bonelessly in the grass. Natori closes his eyes, the tall strands of vegetation tickling his head, and flops a hand toward his shiki. “Go on.”

“It is my understanding that humans need close contact with their caregivers,” Hiiragi begins. Is that what she's concerned about? Youkai never understand humans.

“With their family, I suppose. But Natsume will be fine. When I was his age I avoided my family – it was easier to study alone, to deal with things alone. Other people just don't understand, Hiiragi.”

“You understand. Both you and Natsume see us – you will not judge him, like how your family judged you.”

Natori ignores that comment, continuing, “Besides, we're friends. But just friends, not family. He won't want me around telling him what to do.”

“Perhaps. But now there is no one else who will even try,” Hiiragi notes.

A spider tickles across his cheek. Natori swats it away. “Enough. Natsume would let me know if he needed...” he trails off. Opens his eyes with a frown.

Hiiragi just looks at him.

“...Alright,” Natori concedes. “I'll make sure to check in soon.”


 

Natsume

“And who are you staying with, again?” Kitamoto asks.

“Some friends of the Fujiwaras,” Natsume lies. “Hopefully it won't take long for the doctors to...” he trails off. That's too far for a lie. “Well, they're letting me stay for now.”

“Are they okay? I want to meet them.”

Natsume stifles a smile, but his friend looks utterly serious. Nishimura, peering at him over Kitamoto's shoulder, nods in earnest agreement. “They're being very nice, Kitamoto-san. I don't want to impose by bringing people over.”

“Definitely don't like them,” Kitamoto decides. Natsume rolls his eyes.

And, behind his two friends, Tanuma trails along and watches him carefully.

It's difficult to lie with the knowledge that someone is seeing through you. Natsume rejects his friends' offers to stay the night, to go fishing, biking, walking – eventually he manages to find himself alone in Yatsuhara with just his own thoughts and the occasional shadow rushing overhead.

It's heartening – and painful – to see glimpses of youkai among the trees again. The little mushroom youkai and the fox-faced youkai are both awake; he passes them and waves while the fox tries to subtly escape his conversation. The mushroom-youkai doesn't allow this, and a moment later they walk away together, the fox muttering sullenly behind his smaller companion while carrying a book and a sack of supplies.

He comes across the Chukyuu when the sky starts to turn red. “Natsume-sama!” calls the one-eyed youkai. “We heard that you are being imprisoned by a terrible exorcist! Do you need help?”

“Yes, help.”

“Help that does not involve fighting?”

“We are not good at fighting.”

Nyanko-sensei has apparently been gossiping.

“No, thank you. I'm glad to see that you're both awake.”

“Ah, we had a nice rest,” the first Chukyuu agrees cheerfully, apparently unbothered by the memory of his brief coma. “But of course Natsume-sama would not let anything happen to us.”

“No, of course not!”

Natsume's smile falters.

“Oh,” the Chukyuu remember. “Chobihige wanted to find you.” They grab his wrists abruptly, and Natsume yelps when he's suddenly pulled along, small branches thwapping at his clothes. “It was very important!”

Chobihige is waiting by a dilapidated forest shrine. His unchanging expression doesn't, can't, alter when he sees Natsume. Somehow he seems relieved anyway. “Natume-dono, I am glad you came. There is an urgent issue in the forest that could use your attention.”

“I'm really not sure I can help.”

Nyanko-sensei has been urging Natsume to be less involved with youkai, and he understands the wisdom of this; he likes helping, but attracting supernatural attention just makes it more likely that he'll get eaten, or possessed, or at least heavily embarrassed when spirits stalk him to school and scare him into jumping and screaming. At least he has a reasonable excuse right now. It's getting dark, and Natsume needs to get home soon.

...Except he doesn't. No one is waiting up for him. Not anymore.

He hesitates only a second longer, than tells Chobihige, “Actually, I can meet your friends tonight.”


 

“My name is Uzoma,” the delicately masked youkai tells him. Legs folded in traditional seiza, she bows her head to Natsume. Likewise, he has to crouch just to see her well; she would barely approach the height of his knees. “I hoped you might help me retrieve something from Adetokunbo-san.”

“What do you want me to get for you?”

“For many years I have been working to make the perfect painting for my friend Kaede. I finally succeeded, but Adetokunbo stole it before it could be delivered. Adetokunbo is a thief!”

Chobihige interjects. “Natsume-dono, Adetokunbo-san is a spirit which steals valuable things. You should be in no danger talking to him if you approach without anything valuable.”

Natsume frowns a little. “Then why don't you talk to him yourself?”

“...Well, I don't think he'll want to give up the painting willingly,” Chobihige hedges.

Natsume sighs. He doesn't think he even owns anything valuable. He should probably figure out where Sensei is first, but he's tired, and this doesn't sound too difficult. “Alright. Where is Adetokunbo?”

Chobihige directs him to follow a youkai-trodden path he may never have noticed, and indeed Natsume wonders if he can only see it now because it was pointed out to him. Night has fallen swiftly and he finds himself stumbling, calling softly, “Adetokunbo-san? Adetokunbo-san?”

He doesn't expect the shape that leaps down from above, the flailing twist of legs that sends pain searing down his arm. Natsume dives away and finds himself caught – one impossibly grasping leg, curved like the black mandible of a spider, grasps the leather strap of his book bag with an unrelenting claw.

Natsume does have something valuable, after all.

“Natsume of the Book of Friends,” the shape hisses. It's teeth clash together and he glimpses whiteness flashing against the darkness. “So unique, so rare – I must have have it.”

Natsume grabs his bag. “I came for the painting you took from Uzomo.”

“A beautiful painting. Worthless! But is is mine.”

“Why do you want it if it's worthless?”

“Because it was precious to him,” Adetokunbo says. “Which makes it very valuable.”

“So you want things which are personally important?” The Book of Friends qualifies as that, certainly. It was his grandmother's – it's Natsume Reiko's legacy.

His arm is bleeding, he notices. A purplish taint spreads out from his elbow, but he can't get distracted.

“Yes. Give it to me.”

“But this isn't really valuable,” Natsume says. “Not to you. And neither is that painting. The most valuable things are memories, and companionship, and freely given gifts.”

“Freely given gifts?” This last one pauses Adetokunbo. He has many legs, Natsume sees now. He towers over the boy, peering down with three unmoving black spaces that serve as eyes.“But I do not have that.”

“I can give you a gift,” Natsume says. He slowly loosens his hold on the Book of Friends. The youkai lets him take it. “Would you like to walk home with me?”

Adetokunbo does, his long, spidery legs eating up the ground impatiently as Natsume wobbles back down a mostly unfamiliar path toward his new home. He thinks for a moment that he can feel Natori's wards shudder when Adetokunbo enters, but evidently the youkai does not qualify as 'malevolent'; he passes through easily and Natsume's arm only twinges a little.

Adetokunbo darts around the house when they enter. Natsume walks straight to his room and looks for something appropriate. “”Here,” he decides, and picks up a small, polished wooden box.

It's covered with decorations of flowering vines and peaches. The youkai takes it carefully. “You can put anything you get as a gift in there,” Natsume says. “And you don't have to steal anything now. You can keep that.”

“As a gift,” the youkai wonders. His fanged mouth curves in a wide smile. “Thank you, Natsume-dono. I will treasure it. And you may have that painting, too, as a gift.”

Natsume accepts it graciously. When Adetokunbo leaves he collapses back on his futon, clutching his arm.

He'll return the painting in the morning, he thinks, and then kicks his feet when he looks out the window. The sun is already rising.


 

“Did something happen, Natsume?”

Tanuma stops him before he can enter the school, squinting at Natsume like he can determine what's wrong about him if only he looks long enough. Maybe he can; Natsume shoulder his bag and tries to shift so his injured arm is hidden.

“I just didn't sleep well.”

Tanuma looks sympathetic. And suspicious. “I haven't seen Ponta much.”

Natsume tugs his bag strap. “I guess I can't cook quite like Touko-san.”

Tanuma winces.

But, as if the mention has summoned him, they don't even make it to the school doors before Nyanko-sensei appears.

“Natsume! You - “ the cat stiffens, hair standing on end, which immediately alarms Tanuma. “You idiot! I was only gone a day! How did you get attacked already!”

“Attacked?”

Sensei bounds over and stands on his hind legs, bracing himself against Natsume to sniff at his elbow. “That's a spirit-wound,” he accuses. “I can't leave you alone at all!”

“Where did you go anyway, Sensei?” Natsume tries to sound casual.

“I was looking for that red thing, of course, what do you think? I can't find it. And no youkai in the nearby towns have fallen asleep. But I told everyone I'd eat them if they see that creep and don't tell me, so maybe we'll get some news.”

Natsume hurts for reasons that have nothing to do with his arm. “Thank you, Nyanko-sensei.”

“Hmph. I guess I need to stay here, though, if you're going to get yourself attacked as soon as I leave.” Grudgingly, Sensei admits, “It doesn't seem to be cursed, though. You should be fine in a few days.”

“We have to go to class now.” Natsume pats Sensei on the head, much to his annoyance. “The Chukyuu are awake again if you want to visit them.”

“Ha! As if I want to see those guys!” But the lucky cat bounds off anyway.

Tanuma side-eyes Natsume when they walk inside, face taut. “You lied to me,” he points out.

“What?”

“You said nothing was wrong.”

“It's not a big deal, Tanuma. Sensei said it will be fine in a few - “

“That's not the issue, Natsume.” Tanuma stops walking. They're definitely going to be late. “I worry all the time, and I worry more because I know you're not being honest with me. I feel like you're just going to disappear or die one day and I won't have any warning.”

“Tanuma, you don't - “

“Just, please try and be honest. Or at least say you don't want to talk about something. I can respect that, but don't lie to me.”

Liar, liar.

Natsume ducks his head. “...Alright.”



“I can't believe we didn't catch anything.”

“Maybe the rain scared the fish.”

“It just started raining!”

Natsume smiles uncomfortably as Tanuma ducks under the gazebo, joining himself, Kitamoto, and Nishimura for an early dinner. The small structure brings back uncomfortable memories. Not long ago Matoba Seiji sat here threatening to tell the Fujiwaras about his gift. Nyanko-sensei seems to remember, too; instead of stealing food he's standing guard at the entrance, watching Natsume.

Rain smacks against the gazebo's ceiling like the ricochet of bullets. Everyone looks up as a thick curtain of water suddenly surrounds them. “Aw, come on,” Nishimura sighs. “I guess we're not fishing anymore today.”

“Maybe it will go away?” Kitamoto suggests hopefully. A rumble of thunder shudders through the sky. “Or not.”

Tanuma laughs and packs his food away. “We should go before the paths get muddy. I wanted to meet Taki, anyway. Natsume, do you want to come? You could stay with me tonight.”

“No, I think I'll just go home.”

“Are you sure?”

“Hey, how are your new parents treating you, Natsume-kun?” Kitamoto asks.

Natsume has never thought of himself as having parents since his own father died, but he doesn't argue the point. “Fine,” he says. “They're very nice – they were friends of the Fujiwaras, after all.”

Another crack of thunder.

“We really should go,” Kitamoto concedes. “See you next week!”

He runs out with Nishimura, fishing pole splayed out like a lance as they splash through the thickening mud. Tanuma remains for a minute.

“My dad's not home,” he presses. “Really, you can stay at the Temple, Natsume.”

“Thank you, but some youkai here want to talk to me.” Natsume nods downward. A tiny, shivering flower youkai with a purple bulb and seed-like eyes stares up at him from the bottom of the gazebo.

Tanuma starts and squints, but admits, “I don't sense anything.”

“She's very small. I'll see you at school.”

Sighing, Tanuma gives up.

Natsume crouches when his last friend has disappeared. “I'm sorry you got caught in the rain,” he offers. “Were you looking for me?”

“Only because it's raining.” The youkai's voice is high and trembling. “I have many brothers and sisters, Natsume-sama, but they can't bear the rain! And we can't walk well through the mud, either. I'm the tallest one in my family.”

She barely reaches the top of his ankle.

“What do you need me to do?”

“We need help getting somewhere dry before everyone drowns.”

“Pah,” Sensei scoffs. “They're a dime a dozen. Let them drown. Or I can eat them and make it quicker. Any spirit that can be taken out by water doesn't deserve another chance.”

The little flower squeaks indignantly. Natsume picks her up, ignoring his guard, and sets her carefully in his bag. “You'll have to show me the way,” he tells her.

It takes until the next morning to find all the flowers. He can only carry a few at a time, and when he does Natsume carts them back to the gazebo where it's mostly dry. But soon the gazebo is crowded, the rain is still pouring, and a thin layer of water has started to creep up the sides of the simple woodem structure.

“You can't stay here all night,” he realizes, sighing. There's a temple not too far from here, but it leaks occasionally, and – well. “You'll have to come home with us.”

Sensei rolls his eyes hard.

The flowers thank him profusely and Sensei grudgingly transforms to cart them back. It must be nine or ten in the morning when Natsume stumbles inside the house, purple and blue flowers clinging to his arms and legs, but at least he doesn't have to sneak in through the window.

The house is silent as Natsume walks back and forth between the door and his room, eventually carrying all the flowers inside. He carries Nyanko-sensei, too, who grumbles about his new-found duties as a pack mule. Finally Natsume enters his crowded room, waves a few damp flowers from his futon, and collapses.

Natsume finally closes his eyes.

Then he sits up. Looks at the door.

In the hallway, the floor creaks slowly as something walks toward his room.

“Sensei,” he hisses. The cat stumbles up, grumbling, and Natsume edges his way out of the mass of drooping plants curled around his arms. He stands up and braces himself when the door opens.

Natori sways in the doorway, wild-eyed. He holds two folds of paper in front of him and takes in the scene with several darting glances before his gaze finally settles on Natsume.

“Where the hell have you been?”


 

Natori

The cat is drinking a bottle of sake, which is, even for an exorcist, an uncomfortable and disconcerting sight. It's not the alcohol itself with disturbs him, but rather the way Nyanko's tiny, furry legs bend themselves at odd angles to grip the bottle. Like he's broken all his bones and been refitted wrong. This, he thinks as the cat sniffles and hiccups, is why people fear spirits.

Natsume, meanwhile, looks confused but otherwise unrepentant under his horde of flower-spirits – as though he hasn't been missing for two days, and as though there isn't a suspicious bloodstain on the kitchen floor.

Natori is mostly concerned about the bloodstain, honestly.

“Are you hurt?” he demands.

“No,” Natsume obviously lies. He tilts his head, baffled. His eyes are red-rimmed as though he hasn't slept in awhile. “Why - ?”

“I found blood in the kitchen.” Hiiragi appears by his side with bandages. Hiiragi is a perfect pillar of efficiency and an example for all shiki.

“The kitchen - ? Oh! I'm sorry, Natori-san! There was this... Well, I was going to clean that yesterday but the flowers distracted me.” Flustered, Natsume reaches down to touch one. His elbow is wrapped with bandages.

“Is that where it hurt you?”

“No, no. This is from last week.”

That. Doesn't help. “What happened last week?”

Natsume flushes. “Nothing,” he mutters.

“Some wimp attacked him in the forest,” Nyanko drawls. “And then he brought it home, apparently. It keeps visiting to thank him and ask him to play board games.”

Natori has no words.

“It was a misunderstanding,” Natsume says, mostly to himself.

Well, Natori can lie too. “I have some time before my next movie,” he says. Hiiragi glances at him but says nothing. “So I was going to stay here for awhile anyway. And update the wards, but I see now that I would be interfering...”

Natsume ducks his head. “Sorry, Natori-san. I can take them outside in the morning.”

“It's alright. I see now I'll have to make a few adjustments.” A lot of adjustments. Though preferably he can simply stop Natsume from thinking it's a good idea to bring in sad youkai like stray cats. “We'll talk more in the... afternoon.” He glance outside wryly.

It seems to be a good choice; Natsume is swaying just as much as the multitude of flowers. He rises and closes the door behind him, then says quietly, “Hiiragi. Watch the house, please.”

She bows and vanishes. Patrolling.

Natori sighs and goes to call his agent.


 

“You should have called me immediately,” Natori chides, carefully re-wrapping Natsume's arm. With a soft blessing the youkai wound has mostly disappeared, but it doesn't hurt to be careful.

“I can't call you every time a youkai attacks,” Natsume protests, as though Natori is being unreasonable. “That's almost every night.”

Natori pauses. “No matter how powerful you are, spirits should not be attacking you every night. Especially with such a powerful shiki.”

“I'm no servant,” the cat grumbles.

“But they should still fear you.” No denial to that. “So why don't they?”

The cat and Natsume seem to exchange looks. “...My grandmother made some enemies,” says Natsume at last. “She could see youkai, too. A lot of spirits mistake me for her.”

“I see.” That would explain a lot. It also means that Natsume is in more danger than he realized. “When does your school let out?”

Natsume seems confused by the subject change. “Two weeks.”

“After that, would you come with me to a shooting in Niigata?”

“What?!”

“It won't be permanent; I don't want to take you from your friends. But I would like to research more permanent barriers, especially if you insist on letting youkai visit you. You should not be alone, Natsume-kun. Especially without someone here. It could be a long time before someone noticed you were missing.”

Brow furrowed, Natsume turns to his cat like the beast will somehow provide an answer. But the fat youkai just watches him silently, and at last he sighs. “Alright.”

“You don't have to look so disappointed.” Natori smiles. “A lot of people would be thrilled to see my movies behind the scenes. Who knows – you might even have fun.”


 

Natsume

It has been two weeks and Natori-san is still here.

The house has been attacked by youkai four times, which is, honestly, a surprisingly low number. Natsume thinks the wards are responsible; it wasn't until he commented on this that Natori stared, astonished, and informed him that he'd begun to suspect the wards were broken.

It's never really occurred to Natsume how strange he is even among the ranks of other Seeing people. The four past attacks barely registered to him; one spirit was banished by Nyanko-sensei, two he punched away himself, and the fourth had the stupidity to stalk the hallways and was expelled by Natori-san himself. Natsume isn't really concerned by one-off encounters these days; as long as spirits don't try to stalk him or hurt other people they're not much bother. He regrets that Natori-san is getting mixed in with the youkai he attracts, but it never actually occurred to him that his life could be so much easier without the Book of Friends.

“Why do you think I said it shouldn't be owned by a human?” Sensei says at midnight. They're waiting for a mouse-faced youkai to arrive so his Name can be returned.

“Because you wanted it,” Natsume responds dryly.

“Well, yes. But I meant what I said! That book is too powerful to belong to a human. If not for the protection of my regal self you would have been eaten ages ago.”

A tiny tapping encourages Natsume to open the window. The mouse-faced youkai hops inside.

“Mmm.” Nyanko-sensei leans forward. “Looks tasty.”

“Sensei! Behave.”

“Thank you, Natsume-sama, for agreeing to see me.” The little youkai bows so low he touches the floor. “Please return my name!”

In Natsume's hands the book opens almost of it's own accord, a soft well of power blowing through the room. One page stands up from the book, rigid, and Natsume tears it away to place it in his mouth. He clasps his hands together, and says through muffled lips, “Yuu – I return your name. Please, take it.”

Light flashes.

The air settles. Natsume slides the Book of Friends into his bag. In front of him the mouse-youkai, standing taller, bows again. “Thank you, Natume-sama! Please tell me if you ever need anything!”

Sensei scoffs as Yuu hops out the window.

A moment later the door flies open. Natori stands at the doorway and stares inside for a moment, baffled. “...Did you feel that?”

“No,” says Natsume immediately.

“...Alright.” Natori glances suspiciously at Sensei. “...Get to sleep; the train leaves early tomorrow.”

“Good-night, Natori san.”


 

“Kouta, I've never felt this way before!”

A small lizard tattoo writhes its way across Natori's face, so somehow Natsume knows this is the take that the director will use. “I'm sorry,” Natori sighs, smiling wistfully. “But... this is it, Yuuki. I promise you'll forget me soon.”

The actress playing Yuuki weeps tragically for a moment. Then, cut, and the two part indifferently. They look to the director for new instructions.

That lizard is really distracting, especially with the knowledge that it will be viewed on-screen in front of thousands of unknowing people. Sometimes Hiiragi or Urihime duck in front of the camera, too, but Natori never seems bothered. He really is a professional.

Other exorcists must really hate his movies, though.

Natsume slumps to the side using Nyanko-sensei as a pillow. One furry foot twitches, but the cat doesn't seem to notice, lost in his own sake-laden dreams. Natsume dozes for a few minutes, wondering idly if Taki has perfected any more spells back home, if Nishimura has finally found a girlfriend. (Yes, and no, if he has to guess).

“You came here with Shuiichi-san, didn't you?”

Natsume blinks and sits up.

The women kneeling in front of him is wonderfully beautiful. She looks like she belongs on a movie set, which, well, makes sense. Soft black curls tumble halfway down her back, and she wears a pink-tinted kimono that perfectly fits the antiquated feel of the performance. Natsume wonders what her role is.

“Yes. Are you an actress?”

“Shuuichi-san has been very helpful to me.” She smiles at him. “You must be a cousin? You look quite like him.”

Natsume winces. “He's a good friend,” he evades.

“Natori-san! Eyes forward! Back from the start - “

Natsume looks over to where the actors are working again. Natori meets his gaze for a brief moment, brow furrowed, and then he's obeying the director with a bright smile.

“It is sometimes hard for me to tell,” the woman continues. “You - “

“Hey,” a man interrupts rudely. “You want to be an actor?”

Natsume blinks and glances at the lovely woman, but she seems unbothered. “No.”

“Why are you talking to yourself, then?”

Natsume flinches so hard his back smacks the wall.

The woman just keeps smiling, faintly bemused. Natsume puts a hand on Sensei's back and tries to breath slowly. He has no problem talking to youkai. But this feeling, the sensation that reality is shifting around him, is something he never likes. “ - Just talking to my cat,” he says weakly. The man shrugs and keeps walking.

He wonders if that's how Natori started his career. If talking to youkai and maybe even fighting with youkai was excused with a clever lie that became truth: I'm just practicing my lines! I'm just practicing a scene, you know, a fight scene, wasn't it real wasn't it authentic -

“Hey, kid, you want to help out? One of our extras is missing.”

Natsume startles. The director – a short, mustached man whose pointed head reminds him eerily of Chobihige – stands in front of him. “You don't need to know how to act. Just sit in the corner and look... depressed.” The director looks him up and down. “Kinda like that, actually, good work. And don't respond to anything anyone says to you.”

“Um.”

“You don't have to, Natsume-kun.” The director glares when Natori appears by his side. “We can grab someone off the street.”

“Hey, whose side are you on?”

Natori just smiles thinly and doesn't answer.

“It's alright,” Natsume says. He glances at the female youkai, who's still watching him. “I don't mind, Natori-san.”

So he sits and broods on-set instead of with Sensei, and doesn't even realize they're done until Natori throws an arm around him and says, “Good job, Natsume. We're done for today. Let's get your lazy hamster before someone calls pest control.”

They collect Sensei and Natori adds, “I saw you talking to one of the youkai here earlier – were you bored?” Natsume gives his reply quietly. “What was that?”

“I didn't realize she was a youkai.”

Natori says nothing for a moment. Then, “I see.” His voice is unexpectedly gentle.

It's odd, realizing that someone who understands is right here. Natori touches his hair briefly, then suddenly tugs him into a hug. Natsume ducks his head and fights the sudden burn of tears. It's not like he's never experienced this before.

“I have a headphone set for things like this, you know? I'll buy you one,” says Natori with great practicality. “Let's get lunch.”

They pass a dozen places that would be perfectly satisfactory as lunch sites. Despite the fact that he's hitching a ride on Natsume's shoulder, Nyanko-sensei apparently feels it justifiable to begin whining. “We've passed three ramen places! And a sushi shop! And did you smell the bread in that little bakery, oh, Natsume, let's get a sandwich - “

“We're going somewhere specific, Ponta,” says Natori with an absent pat.

“What did you call me?!”

To Natsume, Natori explains, “I thought you should know more about the exorcist community. There's a little place here run maintained by the Sasaki clan. They're fairly small now and... frankly, were never exceptionally powerful. But they've also been exorcists a long time. It's a sort of cafe-slash-library – there are some books here on youkai and magic you might find interesting.”

The entrance to the Sasaki's cafe is practically hidden inside an alley. Only the warm glow of a magic circle peering out from under the door makes its placement obvious.

“Contracted youkai can enter,” Natori says. “I'm not sure about your guard here.” His voice tilts up questioningly.

“I am certainly powerful enough to get past a puny circle,” Nyanko-sensei sniffs. But he clenches his claws tighter into Natsume's shoulder when they pass through.

Only a few scattered people sit inside. Two are reading books; a woman with scars covering her face is hunched over a bowl of purple soup. Two medium sized youkai, barely reaching Natsume's waist, chat against the wall.

Everyone looks up when they enter.

“Ah, Natori-san,” says the man behind the counter. “And you've brought a guest!” Despite the tone his eyes sharpen. “How – nice.”

“Natsume-kun, this is Goro-san.” Natori smiles stiffly. His smiles always seem less sincere around other exorcists, somehow. “Goro-san, Natsume is a member of my clan. Please treat him with respect.”

Goro's eyes glitter. “Oh? You're expanding, then?”

“We don't really have time to gossip.” Natori pulls out his card.

Everyone wants to gossip anyway. The other exorcists, if that's what they are, sidle up less-than subtlety within a few minutes to surround their table. Goro scrawls down their orders and asks, “What about the overfed mini-poodle?”

“I'm not a poodle! I am a cat!” Sensei snaps, then pauses. “ - Currently! I am actually a great and noble creature of unfaltering power!”

“Huh,” someone says. “Talking poodle.”

No one seems particularly bothered by this. Sensei pitches a fit under the table, so Natsume slips him a few pieces of food while they sit.

“Natori-san,” someone says, and Natsume startles to realize they are trying to address him. “How long have you been in training?”

“Ah – my name is actually Natsume.” He ignores the question.

“And I think we really would like some privacy,” says Natori pleasantly. “I'm sure you all understand.” Hiiragi appears suddenly by his side. Taking the hint, people back away with only minor grumbles.

“I'm sorry,” Natori tells him. “I should have asked you first, but it seemed like it would be easier – you looked so bored today, and this seemed like a place you'd be interested in during the shooting, but you need a name to be respected.”

Natsume remembers what Matoba Seiji told him months ago: the greatest clans often adopt people with talent to expand their bloodlines. It's why Matoba was so interested in Natsume. But Natsume has no interest in becoming an exorcist, and the thought of taking the Natori name in quite that way -

“I understand,” he says. He does. He doesn't like it.

Sensei leaps on his lap and starts purring.


 

“They're starting to type-cast you, you know,” scolds Natori's agent after the last day of shooting. “You need to stop taking romances for awhile. What other genre would you like?”

“Maybe fantasy. Science fiction. I could play an alien. Don't you think I could play an alien, Natsume-kun?”

“You're definitely like an alien,” says Natsume without thinking. He flushes, but the others only laugh.

“There, you see?” Natori beams. “Let's look for a science fiction casting, then. But, maybe not so soon.” His agent looks at him curiously, so Natori elaborates, “I'll call you with details later. Natsume-kun, are you ready?”

They walk back to the apartment in silence. Inside Natori asks, “Did you learn anything at the cafe?”

“Those books were old,” says Natsume. He wishes Taki could have been with him; she would have been thrilled to compare her grandfather's notes with legitimate exorcist texts. “A lot of them were biased against youkai.”

Natori brushes a hand through the air. “Yes, aside from that?”

“I tried to memorize a few circles. I think I could send messages now, but I still don't understand how you bind anything with paper.”

“That's a special Natori-family secret.” Natori smiles. “But I can teach you, if you like.”

Sensei leaps in front of Natori. His raised fur takes everyone aback and Hiiragi darts to her master's side. “Now, if you're trying to make Natsume a scummy exorcist just say it,” Nyanko-sensei demands. “First you said he's part of your clan, now this?”

“Sensei - “

“You know you're thinking the same thing!”

Natori shakes his head, eyes wide. He takes his glasses off. “Natsume-kun. I promise, that is not my intention. But you remember how many youkai attacked you by Yatsuhara – I just want you to be protected. Sometimes sealing a spirit is necessary. You know that; you have approached me for help in the past.”

“You said he's part of your clan.”

“Of course I did,” Natori says. “That does not mean he has to be an exorcist. Natsume, I hope you'll consider me family even when we wake up the Fujiwaras. I should have asked, so I suppose I should do that now. Will you be an official part of the Natori clan?”

Natsume doesn't think he could speak if he tried. It's the second time in his life someone has wanted Natsume for himself, and he throws himself forward so fast he nearly knocks Natori to the ground.

Natori hugs him back. For the first time since he saw that red youkai he feels like everything might turn out alright.


 

Natori

Natsume seems happy when they go back to Kumamoto, but Natori soon worries that he's hiding something.

It always feels a bit like he's hiding something, but. Well.

“Natsume,” groans the ghostly youkai on the edge of the property. “Natsume... Natsume...”

“It's been here for three hours,” Natori tells his wide-eyed ward. “According to Hiiragi. Would you like to help me seal it?”

“Seal – no! No. It's fine. I'll go talk to him.”

Natsume stumbles to a halt as Natori snags his collar. “Talk to it? Natsume, he's after you!”

“Natsume Reiko,” the spirit moans.

“He's after my grandmother,” the boy argues. “I might... I might be able to help. Some of them go away if I talk to them and explain that she's dead.”

Nyanko suddenly disappears in a puff, re-materializing as a vast white wolf with glowing gold eyes. “I'll watch him,” the beast rumbles. “Go back inside.”

- Are they trying to protect him? Natori doesn't even dignify that with a response.

He watches sourly as Natsume creeps toward the edge of the warded area. A slight, shimmering blue wall flickers where the weak youkai tries to pass. The white dog-cat-thing tries to nudge Natori back, but he hears the smaller spirit anyway. It continues its rumbling: “Natsume. Natsume. Return my name, Natsume Reiko.”

Wait, what?

Natsume laughs nervously and whispers something to the youkai. It stares at him for a long moment. Finally it nods silently and drifts away.

“Its name?” Natori asks slowly.

Natsume shrugs. “I don't know. I just told him my grandmother's dead – if he lost something he can't get it back.” He doesn't look Natori in the eye. “ - Weren't we going to Nanatsujiya today?”

Nyanko shrinks back into his hideous lucky-cat form. “Manju!” he cheers.

Natori trades looks with Hiiragi. Yes, Natsume is definitely hiding something.


 

Natsume

“There's a man waiting for you outside the school, Natsume,” Taki says. “He wouldn't tell me his name; does this mean you're not coming over?”

Natsume doesn't know why Natori would feel the need to walk him home; the actor has somehow managed to keep a low-profile so far, although magazines are starting to speculate about his whereabouts. Natsume wonders how long he plans to stay in Kumamoto; it's been months. “I guess not. I'll see you later.”

He walks to the front of the school with Nishimura at his side and then stops cold.

“Hello, Natsume-kun,” says Matoba Seiji. “It's been too long.”

There's absolutely nothing polite Natsume can say to that, so he merely stops walking. When Nishimura glances at him he says, tersely, “Good-bye, Nishimura-kun.”

His friend glances at him doubtfully. “Are you...“

“I'll see you tomorrow.” Hopefully.

Nishimura leaves – but he walks back toward the school. Matoba watches him go with amusement, then says, “Let's leave before your friends get suspicious, yes? That would be... quite a problem.”

Natsume trails him silently.

“I heard about your family,” Matoba says. “It's a shame. But not really surprising. I've told you before, Natsume, this is what youkai do. This is what happens when you have no one to protect you.”

If you go back to that house, won't you blame anything that happens there on yourself and the youkai?

“Why did you come here?” Natsume asks.

“To extend my offer again. You can join the Matoba clan, Natsume-kun. We'll keep you safe. It's where you belong.”

Natsume imagines, for a horrible moment, living on the huge Matoba estate with blank-faced shiki watching his every move. Having Nyanko-sensei taken from him, properly. Being made to exorcise youkai.

Someone would notice the Book of Friends. He imagines Matoba Seiji holding those names in his grasp; would he use the power of the book, or just destroy all its names in fire?

“I don't want to join you. And I don't need protection. I'm living with Natori-san now.”

Something ugly flashes over Matoba's face. His smile slips. “The Natori clan? So they are more ambitious than I thought – or, at least Shuiichi-kun is.” Matoba closes his eyes briefly. “Interesting. But the offer remains.”

Natsume just shakes his head.

“I suppose I cannot force you.” Matoba's tone says that he would very much like to. “Very well. It's a pity – the Matoba clan is very large, you know. I'm sure we could have found the youkai who enchanted your guardians in no time at all.”

Natsume's heart twists. But he knows this is a lie; Matoba would do nothing to let Natsume leave his grasp. He would never try to cure the Fujiwaras. As his silence continues the exorcist just shrugs. “Ah, well. No use dwelling on what could have been.”

Natsume walks home, after, and meets Natori inside. Hiiragi and Sensei are bickering about dinner while Natori makes new ink. After watching for a moment Natsume starts to help.

He doesn't say a word about Matoba Seiji.


 

“Thank you, Natsume-sama, for returning my Name.”

Natsume bows his head, smiling, as the pigeon youkai flies away. Nyanko-sensei watches sourly when he walks back into the house wards. “One day you'll regret letting all these guys take advantage of you,” he threatens. “You're only making yourself weaker by ruining that book.”

“What book?”

Natsume hastily shoves the Book of Friends into his bag as Sensei spins around. Natori, leaning against the house, watches them narrowly. “Natsume. You've been stepping outside almost every night – did you think I wouldn't notice?”

The Fujiwaras never did.

Of course, the Fujiwaras thought he was a good, responsible child; Natori has a much better idea of how he spends his time. “I just – it's nothing, Natori-san.”

Natori looks at him over his glasses. “Please don't lie to me.”

Sensei sniffs and strides ahead into the house. But Natsume wavers. Clenches his fists.

“...If I tell you,” he says, “Can you promise not to jump to conclusions? Or get angry, or – try to stop me?”

Nyanko-sensei whirls around. “Natsume!”

Natori watches him carefully. “...It depends what you say,” he says at last. “I won't get angry. I can't say I won't try to stop you. But I'll listen.”

That's probably the best he can expect. Natsume shifts his weight on the ground, feels the long grass tickle his feet. “This is a bad idea,” Sensei warns.

Natsume talks anyway. “You remember, awhile ago, you talked about the forbidden techniques some exorcists could use?” Natori looks confused by this opening. “My grandmother – she discovered one of those techniques. She passed down an item, an... an heirloom,” he has to call it that, emphasize that it's not a tool, not a weapon, “which she used when she was alive.”

“Something forbidden.”

“She collected the true names of youkai. She collected hundreds of names, and she bound them.”

Natori's eyes go wide. “You have - “ he turns to look at Sensei.

“Hey, I'm not stupid enough to get myself bound!” The lucky cat snaps. “Quit talking, Natsume!”

“It's called the Book of Friends,” Natsume barrels ahead. He pulls it out of his bag. His hands are shaking a little. He's never told another human about the book, he realizes. “I return their names when I can. Whenever the youkai come to me. I don't - “ he falls silent.

Finally, Natori cracks a faint smile. “Book of friends,” he says. “Natsume, that sounds... exactly like the kind of thing you would have.”

Natsume doesn't know what to say to that.

“But it's too dangerous. You realize that, don't you? That book must be why so many youkai are drawn to you.”

“I know. But it's not always bad – a lot of the youkai just want their names, and then they leave. I can't give it to anyone else, Natori-san. What if someone used the names? What if someone hurt the youkai inside?”

“There has to be another way.”

“He could give it to me,” Sensei sniffs. “But otherwise, no. And don't even try to take it, exorcist. I'll eat you before you do.”

“Please don't threaten him, Sensei.“

“It's alright. At least you have a strong guard – even if he is absent half the time.” Sensei bristles. “I won't insist on anything right now, Natsume. I'm glad you told me, but... please stay away from the forest for now. I need to think about this.”

Natsume rocks back on his heels. He can take care of himself, but he bites back the indignation he feels. Natori is just concerned, more than anything, and that truth will allow him to forgive a great deal. “Alright,” he sighs.


 

Natori

He sets Susago to watch Natsume. It takes less than a week for the teenager to sneak out, which Natori honestly expected.

He's not upset; it would be almost cruel to ask Natsume to stay in town, really. He's run into Natsume by accident a few times in the past year or two before their new arrangement, and always in forests. He just needed to give Natsume time to stop panicking about the book. And Natori, himself, has spent the week investigating True Names and trying to decide what to do.

He doesn't want to take the book from Natsume. Natsume is family now; he meant that (although he does need to inform his parents that he's updated the Family Registry; he'll get around to it). Stealing his grandmother's book, even for Natsume's own good, is something he can't quite reconcile himself with. But it would be worth all of Natsume's anger and despair if that theft ends up save his life.

Natori will never say this aloud, but once or twice he has thought of the Fujiwaras, resting alone in the hospital where only he and Natsume visit them now. Maybe the red youkai was after the book. They may never know. But how can he let Natsume run the risk of encountering that same tragedy again?

Does Natori have the right to stop him?

(He never meant to be so involved. He was supposed to be a name on a piece of paper, a legal loophole, and now he's eating dinner at a house each night, his house, and he's anchored himself to a home and an little odd family...

The strangest thing is, he finds he doesn't mind at all).

It's not hard to track Natsume. The teenager has been studying the clan's paper-magics just a little, but he still doesn't know how to block people from tracking him. Natori should probably fix that deficit in his education, at some point. Just as soon as it stops being useful for him. He follows one of his paper dolls for almost half an hour before he sees two horns and flowing white hair rising over the treeline – a huge youkai settled comfortably in a clearing.

The trembling paper doll indicates that Natsume is just nearby. Natori cuts the spell.

“Won't you have some sake, Natsume-sama?” a voice pleads. “You are older now, aren't you?”

“Not that old, mid-ranks.”

A squeakier voice says, “We promise we won't tell the humans!”

“I – stop that! You're going to spill it on... now I'm going to smell like sake.”

Natori ducks closer and peers into the clearing. What he sees makes his breath clear away.

Natsume, leaning comfortably against the lounging white form of Nyanko, is surrounded by over two dozen youkai of varying power. A few tiny sprites sprawl easily over his legs and a young fox-eared kitsune leans against his side, tail lashing happily. Across from him two formal-looking woman in kimonos chat while a small kappa argues with a pair of taller youkai, the 'mid-ranks', insisting, “Sake has plenty of water, and Natsume-sama wouldn't let me get dehydrated! Give it!”

The source of the horns and flowing mane is readily identifiable, too. A huge horse looms over the rest of the congregation, his twisted face frozen into a permanent grimace.

Even more unbelievably, a huge yellow tatsumi – a cousin to dragons – sits peaceably beside the horse. Three powerful spirits in one clearing. Any sane exorcist would run the other way.

Natori grimaces, stands, and walks in.

The whole field quietens ominously as he approaches. Natsume, unbelievably, doesn't seem to notice at first. He's stroking the hair of the equally oblivious kitsune kit, which squeaks when he sees Natori. That finally catches Natsume's attention.

“Natori-san!”

“Natsume-dono. Is this one of the exorcists who has troubled you in the past?” The horse-youkai rumbles. “I can eat him for you.” Some of the other youkai stand, too.

“No! This is a friend – ah, Natori-san, meet Misuzo-san.”

“One of your servants?” Natori asks.

“Yes,” says the horse, shocking him deeply. Natsume looks deeply embarrassed, which isn't the usual way exorcists show off incredibly powerful shiki. “Natsume-dono is the holder of my Name, and may call upon me when he wishes.”

“Natsume has... your Name?”

“Natsume-dono is a great human,” Misuzo rumbles. “I let him keep my name so he may call upon it as he needs. So that he is safe against twisted youkai and wretched exorcists.”

“Does Natsume have all your names?” His eyes linger on the tatsumi.

“We're Natsume's friends!” One of the mid-ranks chirps. “Did you want our names, Natsume-sama?”

“Of course not!” Natsume yelps. The assembled youkai look almost disappointed, and his omnipresent companion, Nyanko, snorts.

Well, at least Natori never has to be concerned Natsume will abuse the power of that book. He wasn't even aware he'd been worried about such a thing.

“Natori-san, why are you – oh. I know I wasn't supposed to come to the forest, but...”

“It's alright.” Natori smiles faintly. “I see now that I didn't have all the information I needed; you have good friends who can help you, don't you?”

“Of course he does!” one of the mid-ranks interjects.

“We wouldn't let anything happen to Natsume-sama!”

Nyanko scoffs. “Please. As if you useless spirits can do anything...”

“I think you're the perfect person to have the Book of Friends,” Natori says quietly. Natsume starts, then begins to smile. “ - But I am buying you a cell-phone. Please tell me when you're going somewhere, Natsume.”

“Ah, yes. Sorry, Natori-san!”


 

Natsume

“Are you going to be here tonight?”

“No – not until around midnight, probably. I have a job up in Oita. Do you need me here?”

“No, just wondering.”

“Ah.” Natori beams. “Bringing a girl over?”

“What – no!”

“Yes,” says Sensei.

Natsume flushes furiously as Natori laughs. “A few friends,” the teen stresses.

“That sounds even better.”

“Natori-san!”

Natori laughs. “ You can have people over anytime, you know. I wouldn't mind even if I were here.” Which is probably true, but Natsume doesn't want to explain that his friends don't know – and don't need to know – that he lives with the famous actor Natori Shuuichi.

Naturally, this backfires.

“Guess what I brought?” Nishimura declares. Triumphantly, he rifles around in his backpack and pulls out - “ - the new Natori Shuuichi movie!”

“Oh!” says Taki. “I haven't seen that yet... oh, Nyan-nyan, are you okay? Natsume-kun, your cat is breathing funny.”

Natsume buries his head in hands. “...Can we watch something else.”

“Eh? You don't like Natori Shuuichi?” Kitamoto demands.

“Yes, Natsume, don't you like me?”

Natori bestows a dazzling smile as he strides through the room, utterly unruffled by their gape-mouthed expressions. Natsume isn't awed – just resigned. “Natori-san, you said you wouldn't be here,” he says, and only after uttering the words realizes how rude that sounds.

But Natori, good-natured, just laughs. “I just forgot something,” he insists. Natsume shoots him a narrow look; the odds of Natori forgetting something, for a job no less, seems remarkably low. The exorcist swipes a box off the counter. “Don't do anything I wouldn't do, Natsume-kun!”

He snorts.

“What,” says Nishimura, and the door closes.

Everyone looks at Natsume. “What,” Nishimura repeats.

After Natsume explains (“Natori Shuuichi, Natsume! In your house!” “Actually..”) Tanuma has to back up his assertion that, yes, a famous movie star is his guardian.

“I can't believe you didn't tell us!” Nishimura exclaims for the fifth time. “You're really moving up in the world, huh?” Taki elbows him. Hard. “What – oh. Sorry.”

They watch the movie anyway.

“Natsume, you're in a Natori Shuuichi movie?!”


 

The shrine is a peaceful place, whatever the local youkai think. Natsume has always found refuge in shrines; when he was younger the one certainty he had was that he was safe on holy ground, even if he couldn't be safe anywhere else. The fact that Tanuma lives at a shrine is really a bit perfect, and the ground's shimmering, supernatural pond full of dark koi just makes it even more special.

“Do you really like living with Natori-san?” Tanuma wants to know.

“Yes. You know he's my friend.”

“That's different than being... whatever he is now. You looked so lonely the first few months after the Fujiwaras went in the hospital, Natsume.” Hesitating, Tanuma asks, “Are you sure he's staying?”

No. “Yes.”

“He won't leave you?”

Tanuma seems almost concerned as Natsume himself was, not long ago. But he thinks. Realizes: “Natori-san never had to take me. He's not a relative. And even as an exorcist... there are other clans that would have had me.” Tanuma tilts his head, but doesn't press. “...He just. Asked if I wanted to stay with him.”

So maybe there is no reason for doubt, after all. Natsume stares down at his hands, and finally Tanuma smiles. “I'm glad, Natsume. You deserve someone like that.”


 

Natori usually likes to set apart a small part of each day to study his sigils, circles, and other weapons of exorcism – just to make sure he doesn't get rusty. So Natsume is a bit surprised when he bursts into his room one day – not even bothering to announce himself – with one of his omnipresent paper dolls clutched firmly in hand.

“Natori-san?” Natsume asks, alarmed by the man's red face. “Is something wrong?”

Natori releases the paper. It flutters up, down, left, right, swaying and twitching erratically near the ceiling. “Do you know what this is?” Natsume hesitates. “Natsume, almost a year ago I set this to monitor the red youkai that attacked the Fujiwaras. It's never moved since then.”

Natsume jolts upright. “Natori-san - “

“It must be breaking it's seal,” Natori says. “Or something. Whatever is happening, Natsume, we can track it soon.”


 

Natori

Natori regrets getting Natsume's hopes up, because as the weeks pass his tracker twitches around the ceiling but never chooses a direction.

Determining that the magic has somehow decayed, Natori creates another paper tracker. This one acts precisely the same, however. He wonders if the red youkai is indeed sealed away, breaking out of its confinement only over the course of agonizing weeks. Or perhaps this is the closest it will ever come to freedom – maybe Natori's trackers will never work. Maybe the Fujiwaras will never be wakened.

Nearly a month after the tracker first moved, Natori is sleeping in his room when he starts at the sound of a dull, blank thwap.

Thwap.

Thwap.

He sits up and rubs his eyes. Stares. The paper is flinging itself uselessly against his closed window.

He goes to wake Natsume.


 

“It might be nothing,” Natori warns. Below them Nyanko shakes his oddly lean body and grumbles; flying is faster, but the beast still pretends not to like him. “And we might not be able to reason with this one, Natsume.” He places a hand on Natsume's head.

“I know. I know.”

But Natsume doesn't look like he's ready to be cautious. Face flushed with excitement, he leans forward as though he can somehow urge his companion to fly faster. Perhaps he can; the cold night wind slices against their cheeks, frost gathering and melting immediately on Nyanko's fur. The paper veers suddenly right and Nyanko dives after it.

They land on top of a mountain, in the middle of a crater, and the only color in the night-time darkness is the glow of the red youkai.

It yawns slowly, watching them with large, blinking eyes implanted on a craggy skull. Wisps of fire flutter around its boulder-like body. It leans forward slowly, and before Natsume can move Natori steps in front of him to pull out a paper circle.

But Natsume says, “Wait.”

For some reason, he does.

Nyanko growls as Natsume steps carefully toward the red youkai. It doesn't react – just watches, apparently confused, until Natsume is only feet away. Then the teenager asks, “Why did you do it?”

The rock blinks.

“You put my parents to sleep,” Natsume says. Natori inhales sharply. “Why?”

The rock tilts its large head slowly. Then he says: “They woke up.”

“No.”

The rock nods. “Yes.”

“No. They didn't.”

The rock regards him a moment more. “I borrowed the energy of many spirits,” he informs Natsume, in that same slow, considering way. “I needed it to return. I need it again, to return to the sky.”

“But you didn't give it back. They're still asleep.”

The red youkai shakes his head as though to clear it.

“They're still asleep,” Natsume repeats.

The red youkai shuffles its feet. Then he says, “Show me.”

So somehow they end up bringing a highly-dangerous spirit back to Kumamoto with them.

It's morning when they arrive, so they just walk in the hospital; no one even notices the two giant youkai. When they reach the Fujiwaras' room Natori holds Natsume's shoulder and stands aside.

“I did not mean to do this.”

“Can you fix it?”

“I just needed energy,” the spirit justifies. “I - “

“Can you fix it?”

The spirit nods. “Yes.”


 

They walk outside with the youkai, after. Natsume's pale face is streaked with tears, but the reason is justifiable; before they left Touko-san's finger had twitched.

“You have to be careful not to borrow from humans,” says Natsume. “And – can you tell me why you did it?”

“My clan is above the sky,” says the spirit. He points up. “We travel by this world only rarely, and it takes effort to fly that high again. So I must borrow energy for when I return.”

“Wait, wait,” says the again-shrunken cat. “You're an alien spirit?”

The youkai just stares at him, uncomprehending. “...Yes?” he guesses.

Natori tightens his grip around Natsume's shoulder.

Somehow he can't even manage to be surprised.


 

Natsume

“Oh, I'm so sorry, Takashi-kun!”

A year ago Natsume would have been embarrassed to be gripped so tightly by Touko-san; now he just hugs back, completely unrepentant, and laughs through his tears when Nyanko-sensei squirms into place beside them.

“What, don't I get a hug?” Shigeru-san teases.

He does. They prattle over practicalities for awhile; the doctors will be releasing them soon, but they need physical therapy, and, oh, isn't this all so strange, that they woke up at the same time? Natsume is still glowing with happiness when Touko-san asks, “Takashi-kun, what have you done for this last year? Did you... Did you stay with a friend here?”

“I hope you didn't go back to your relatives,” Shigeru-san murmurs.

“I did stay with a friend,” says Natsume, biting his lip on a smile. “I think you'll like him very much.”

(They do).


 

Before Natsume returns to the Fujiwaras' house he tries to find the words to thank Natori, but nothing seems right. So he just hugs him, too, and the exorcist ruffles his hair so much it will probably be ruined the rest of the day.

Then Natori says, “You should know – I ended the lease on my apartment. I think I'm going to live here now. It's a nice place. And it has everything I could want.”

Natsume blinks rapidly. He's been crying a lot, but lately all the tears stem from joy.

And he does have the words, after all. “Thank you, Natori-san. You'll always be my family, too.”