“Hey, what a cool dog.”
To Natsume's perspective the dog looks a bit wolfish. It can be called a dog in the same sense that a penguin can be called a bird, sharing only the slightest resemblance to a normal canine. A white and gold mask, vaguely reminiscent of some fox festival masks Natsume has seen, extends from its face and ends just above the mouth. It's also standing on two legs, wearing a robe, and staring at Natsume and Nishimura with disturbing intensity.
“I'm more of a cat person,” Natsume mumbles. He gives the youkai a wide berth.
“Uh, yeah, I know. Do you think it's lost? Nice doggy!” Nishimura ruffles the youkai's fur, hands smoothing down its dark neck. It's taller than Nishimura and opens its mouth to showcase an unnatural display of white teeth.
Natsume is about to drag his friend away and run when the beast says, “I am lost. Help me find my master.”
“Um,” he responds.
“We should help him,” says Nishimura cheerfully. He hooks his fingers around the beast's collar, forcing the dog – or wolf – to bow his head. He follows the tug complacently.
“...Okay,” sighs Natsume, and wishes Sensei didn't spend quite quite so much time drinking sake in the woods.
Which is how he ends up trailing his friend and a canine youkai, still carrying his school-bag, while Nishimura stops passerby and asks if they know who the dog belongs with.
“I lost my master,” the dog explains.
Natsume nods tightly.
“He needs me for the hunt,” the dog explains dolefully. It plods forward with Nishimura, apparently unconcerned by the boy's tugging. “We always hunt together, and we make offerings; but he has been missing. I have waited and he will not come. Help me find him.”
Natsume keeps his eyes on Nishimura.
“Will you help me find him, child of man?”
“Its getting kind of dark,” Nishimura says. “I hope we find someone soon. There's no way my parents would let me bring a dog home.”
“I can keep looking if you need to leave. And I'm sure the Fujiwaras won't mind letting him stay the night, if we need to take him to a shelter.”
Natsume has no intention of taking this dog anywhere near the Fujiwaras.
“Really?” Nishimura must be more perceptive than he lets on, because he appraises Natsume suspiciously before relenting. “Alright, I guess.”
Natsume waves good-bye to Nishimura a few minutes later. He does not take the dog's collar, and soon they stand alone on the road.
“Child of man,” the beast begins.
The dog directs him to a small house on the outskirts of the forest. Natsume isn't sure how he hasn't seen it before, so he immediately suspects magic. The house looks worn and abandoned. Half the shingles on its roof have fallen away and the windows gleam dully through a haze of dust and water-stains.
Natsume pushes some leaves from the porch using his foot. He asks, “How long were you waiting here?”
The dog ponders this. “...Long,” he concludes.
The situation is nothing new. Natsume bows his head, preparing explanations, platitudes, condolences.
But the dog adds, “I think he left.”
A flicker of something wisps over the dog's mask. A black shadow, gaping, that stretches out into a twisted after-image of fangs. “He left me. Abandoned me. Or...”
And then the dog is back, and small, and he bows his head quietly. Shakes out hand-like paws and folds them into outdated robes. “Or he died,” the dog says. “Humans do that. I'm told.”
Natsume's weariness falls away into hurt, pity. He should agree. Say that yes, the man is dead, the dog should move on.
“Let's look around first,” he suggests.
Dusty tarps cover molding furniture in one of the rooms. The small kitchen has a few plain plates, but it's bare, too. Cleaned out. The bedroom boasts only a single sheet crumpled on the floor with no sign of a futon or bed.
Natsume is ready to give up when he uncovers a tattered note by the bedroom door. He takes it to the dog. “I found something.”
“Oh, that's a human thing,” the youkai says, uncomprehending. “It won't help.”
Natsume reads the note. Reads it again.
“I'm sorry,” he tells the dog. “Your master died.”
The dog bows his head. Shakes his great head. “No, no, you cannot be certain - “
“It's a note about his funeral,” Natsume lies. The words catch in his throat, choking him. He watches the dog and tries to determine the right thing to say. Honesty is always better, isn't it?
But the note burns in his hand. It will not bring comfort. It will not bring closure.
“...I see,” the dog says. He blinks large, gold eyes at Natsume, unmoving for a long moment. Then, without any visible emotion, the dog says, “I have one more request, then.”
Natsume tucks the suicide note into his pocket.
Natsume retrieves rice from town and meets again with the dog youkai, who has somehow procured berries and a questionable bottle of sake from the forest. They together down a familiar path – the same route Natsume takes home everyday, the well-trod dirt enclosed in every side by trees and the threat of spying spirits.
“My master made an offering after every hunt,” the dog youkai tells him. “We walked together each day because I hunted, too. But then he stopped hunting; I think his arm hurt. He began walking to the shrine every day. And then, he stopped. He just sat at home. He seemed a little sad, and wouldn't play with me anymore...”
The spirit pauses briefly. “...I thought he had gone somewhere to be happy again.”
“I'm sure he'll be glad we visited the shrine for him,” Natsume says softly. The dog youkai stares down at the fruit in his own arms like he doesn't understand what he's doing. Natsume can relate.
The shrine the dog wants to visit is the same tiny, abandoned one Natsume passes everyday, and it hurts all the more to know that all pleas here will be empty. A girl is already kneeling before the small hokora when they approach. She looks up, meets Natsume's gaze, and scrambles to her feet, fleeing without another word.
“Wait, you don't,” Natsume starts, feeling inexplicably embarrassed; but he stops himself. He wishes the girl hadn't run, but it's also more convenient for them.
They place their offerings before the miniature shrine.
The dog says nothing for a long time.
“I'm sorry he can't walk with us,” the youkai speaks at last. “But I am glad to know what happened to him.” Natsume turns his face guiltily. “Thank you, child of man. Here.”
To Natsume's surprise the dog takes off his mask. The face underneath is more wolfish than expected, the golden eyes large, shining, and blatantly unnatural. Natsume has seen covered youkai shed their coverings and knows it's possible, but it's still rare.
The spirit holds out his mask.
“I am not a dog now,” the youkai sighs. “I do not want a new master; I will return to my old home in the mountain. Take this, as my thanks.”
Unsure, Natsume accepts it. The mask's cool, silky-soft material feels almost warm under his hand, as though the youkai's immaterial body is still connected and heats it with his own life. It feels like Natsume is accepting an arm or a leg, and at last he manages, “I will take very good care of it.”
The spirit doesn't seem to care. He turns and walks away into the forest, leaving Natsume by the abandoned shrine, alone, as the evening shifts into black twilight.
Natsume keeps the dog-mask in his room, on a table, and doesn't think much about it until about a week later when Touko-san enters his room one day to say she's going to the market.
“But, oh, when did you get that, Takashi-kun?” She smiles a brilliant smile, peering at the vibrant gold swirls along the mask's edges. “Is it for the next festival?”
Taken aback, Natsume says, “I'm – I'm not sure.”
“Well, you should wear it! I'm sure it would look very nice.”
After she leaves Natsume exchanges looks with Nyanko-sensei. “I thought humans couldn't see the mask,” he protests.
“Well, I guess it's yours now,” Sensei sniffs. “That makes it a human mask, doesn't it?”
“I suppose.” Natsume rises and picks up the mask. It feels smooth – like his fingers aren't quite touching air but have forgotten they're supposed to be doing something else. It's certainly not a paper mask, or even clay.
“You could use it,” Nyanko-sensei suggests. The cat stretches on the floor, narrows his eyes at the mask, and seems to decide against moving. “When you want to trick youkai into thinking you're a spirit.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“So they don't eat you, maybe? Sometimes I think you forget how delicious you are, except that would just be stupid.” Nyanko-sensei bares his teeth cheerfully.
“ - Maybe,” Natsume concedes. He tucks the mask into his bag. He's not sure he will ever use it, but looking at the mask makes him think of the lonely dog youkai.
Natsume wonders if he'll ever find that home in the mountains.
Nyanko-sensei spends the whole morning alternately whining about his hangover and begging for meat rolls. Natsume ignores him and keeps the cat tight in his arms on the path to school. Sensei swings limply and looks vaguely nauseous.
While passing the little forest hokora Natsume stops to watch a familiar girl.
She has long, dark hair tied in loose braids behind her head. Her traditional kimono makes him wonder for a second if she might be a youkai; then she turns, and he sees an ugly discoloration alongside her throat.
The girl looks at him, jumps to her feet, and rushes away.
“I've seen her before,” he tells Nyanko-sensei. The cat wriggles to be released and hops onto the ground, approaching the little shrine without concern.
“Someone probably died,” the cat notes, voice muffled by mouthfuls of fried rice; he's eating the girl's offering to the shrine and ignores Natsume's reprimand.“You humans are always praying when someone dies, like somehow we're supposed to bring back the dead.” He seems entirely unconcerned.
“She's not praying to you,” Natsume scowls.
“Nah. This shrine is empty, though. You know that. So I get to eat the food!”
Natsume has to bodily haul his fat cat to school even after the rice is finished; Sensei declares himself too stuffed to move.
“Ouch. Fail another test, Natsume-kun?”
Natsume grimaces at Kitamoto and snatches his paper away when Nishimura tries to get a look. “I just need to study more,” he mumbles, as though he hasn't been awake all night returning Names and staring out his window to monitor an odd bird-youkai that's taken residence in his yard.
It probably doesn't want to hurt him. Probably.
“You should go to a shrine!” Nishimura declares. “Lots of people I know go to shrines before tests. I went before last year's exams.”
“And you could use a little divine favor,” Kitamoto teases, reaching again for the test. Natsume stuffs it into his bag with a frown.
He waves off his friends and walks home alone, but he's still thinking of his bad grade when he starts through the familiar forest path. This might be why his attention is caught by the shrine – and the silent girl sitting, again, her knees bent and unmoving on damp earth.
Natsume pauses. In the midday light the marks around her neck are even more visible than before. She might be a youkai – likely is – but that doesn't really make a difference, in the end. Natsume walks behind her cautiously and sees that a small strip of paper has been tied to the shrine's front.
The girl is crying.
She stares at the paper like maybe it will transform, maybe it will move, maybe an otherworldly power will shift and answer her. One hand reaches up to touch her purplish neck.
Natsume starts to reach out. “Is something wrong?” he asks.
But the girl, still crying, just jumps up and runs. Natsume jolts to his feet and almost follows before he catches himself. Nothing is following her; it's not his place.
He looks down and spots the prayer the girl left in the shrine.
Natsume shouldn't pry. He's seen the girl before and she seems to value her silence, but her tears bother him, and it bothers him more to know that this shrine is empty. No one is around to hear her quiet pleas, or to care. He unfolds the paper carefully.
After a moment Natsume replaces the prayer. He needs to talk to Nyanko-sensei.
“You can't help everyone,” Sensei sniffs.
Natsume refrains from saying, I can try. “I can help her,” he says instead. “You didn't see her, Sensei! How sad she was... She can't talk. Can you imagine? If there's some way I can help - “
“A lot of youkai can't talk,” Nyanko-sensei dismisses. He wanders around Natsume's room with a lazy but suspicious stroll, idly checking the odd corners for food. “Some people, too. It's never harmed anyone as far as I can tell.”
Natsume makes a face. “A youkai tried to kill me once because I wouldn't give it a mouth.”
“Well, it doesn't hurt them,” Sensei amends. “Probably.”
“Sensei! She wants to talk.”
The cat huffs. “Fine,” he says. “But I really don't know any way to fix her.” He thinks for a moment. “Didn't your idiot pals in the forest help you once when you were sick? The mid-ranks? The note said her throat was damaged recently, right? Maybe they have some medicine that can help.”
“That's a great idea!” Natsume grabs his bag and scrambles to his feet. “Thank you, Nyanko-sensei.”
“Yeah, yeah. I have to do everything around here...”
“We are humbled that the great Natsume-sama asks for our help!”
“...But we cannot help.”
The mid-ranks explain, almost awkwardly, that they retrieved his fever-reducing medicine from a giant snake youkai named Ootsuno – a terrifying spirit of great power. “He threatened to eat us!” the bovine youkai exclaims.
To this, Natsume looks at them blankly. “Nyanko-sensei threatens to eat you every day.”
The mid-ranks wisely choose to ignore their crazy human. They will not go back, but they offer to give Natsume directions.
“We are always glad to help the great Natsume-sama!” the one-eyed youkai proclaims. “We are your servants!”
“If you were good servants you would get the medicine yourself, wimps,” Sensei sneers.
The mid-ranks exchange looks. “...We enjoy watching Natsume-sama talk to spirits,” one offers. “We can support Natsume-sama - “
“No, thank you,” says Natsume hastily. The mid-ranks like to support him by stalking his steps and literally cheering every action he takes. He knows that spirits sometimes don't understand boundaries, but it is a bit... much. “I'll go alone.” Seeing the expression of his companion, he amends: “With Nyanko-sensei.”
“And I bet you expect me to save you when Ootsuno wants a snack, too,” Sensei grumbles.
But they follow the mid-ranks' directions and delve deeper into the forest, eventually arriving at the entrance to a cave. Natsume's skin pricks with awareness. The youkai within must be powerful to exude such an aura around his home.
The ground starts to shudder.
“Sure. Trust the mid-ranks. Idiot.” Nyanko-Sensei vanishes momentarily, the small lucky cat replaced by a vulpine behemoth. A billowing white tail whips out and wraps around Natsume.
The head that emerges from the cave seems like it could be carved from stone, a huge, expressionless facade that peers down at Natsume without recognition. A loud shushing noise continues as the face appears, and scales follow. A snake's body drifts out behind the humanoid head, propelling itself forward and shifting aside rocks in its wake.
For a moment Natsume wonders if Ootsuno wears a mask, like so many youkai; maybe his mask is just this eerily accurate face. But then the hybrid-spirit opens its mouth, and says, “Why have you disturbed me?”
Natsume tries to stand tall. “Are you Ootsuno-san?”
The snake glares at him.
He continues: “My name is Natsume Takachi. I have a request - “
“I know your name,” Ootsuno interrupts. And then falls silent.
Sensei puts a paw in front of Natsume.
“Yes,” Natsume says, unsure how to respond. Now fumbling, he continues, “I wanted – there is a girl. A human, who is injured – her throat was damaged and she cannot speak. I heard you might have medicines to help her.”
Ootsuno lowers his great head the eyes are nearly level with those of Natsume. “I will give you this medicine,” he agrees, “In return for the Book of Friends.”
“- I can't do that,” Natsume says.
“Do you not care about this girl?” Ootsuno demands.
“I care about youkai, too – and I'm not sure what you want with the book, but I can't give it to you. I have to protect the names.”
Sensei mutters something like, no you don't, and then says, “Besides, that book is already mine, buddy. The kid and I made a deal.”
“...Very well,” concedes Ootsuno. “Then you will not have the medicine; but I think I will take your book anyway.”
Nyanko-sensei snatches Natsume away by the back of his shirt, leaving him stumbling when Ootsuno crashing his unhinged jaws into the dirt. The snake-youkai rears up and unrolls a forked tongue that wavers desperately for his scent. Ootsuno bunches his scales to attack again.
“That's enough,” Natsume snaps, and jumps forward to smack Ootsuno in the nose.
The snake spasms back, gasping, and Natsume hits him again for good measure. Nyanko-sensei likes to complain about his odd, spiritually-imbued punches; the skill seems to be holding well today, because Ootsuno slumps to the ground with a faintly dazed expression.
Someday Natsume needs to figure out how he can do this sort of thing.
Ootsuno cringes against the back wall and stares at him. Faintly he says, “Very well.”
“I will give you the medicine.” Shaking himself, the snake waves from side to side and lifts his placid head in the air. The expression has, again, smoothed out. “But you must promise to visit here each month – or I will put a curse on you.”
Natsume wonders if he can get away with punching Ootsuno again. “Why?” Sensei demands. “So you can grab my book?”
Ootsuno smiles a bland, unnerving smile. “Only if you are very slow,” he answers. “I look forward to seeing what you become, Natsume Takeshi.”
“You look ridiculous.”
Natsume ignores his self-proclaimed bodyguard while the cat runs to keep up with him. “Really,” Nyanko-sensei continues, “Humans just aren't meant for the majestic adornments we spirits use...”
“Spirits just wear outdated robes,” Natsume points out, pushing aside a branch. His own plain black kimono, bought at the far end of town, looks too modern to belong to a real youkai. “In a few hundred years you'll see old spirits wearing jeans and carrying cell-phones.”
Sensei sniffs. “Nothing you say changes the fact that your ugly face is going to scare this girl to death. How would you like it if a spirit suddenly appeared out of nowhere?”
Natsume stops in place and gawks. Nyanko-sensei pauses a moment, as though reconsidering, and then keeps walking with his head held high.
They can't take the path – not like this – so they reach the shrine after a circuitous walk through the forest. Natsume passes two youkai who barely glance at him. More than once he reaches to touch his own face and feels the familiar, unblemished smoothness of the dog mask.
The girl is at the shrine when he arrives. Somehow he knew she would be.
She evidently hears his approach, but doesn't look up – just ties a prayer to the shrine, with fumbling fingers, and quickly stands. Nyanko-sensei slips into the brush and disappears as Natsume stops her with a light touch.
Jumping, the girl whirls around. Her mouth opens in a silent cry of shock.
Natsume doesn't dare say anything, though – not when his voice will give so much away. He just holds up the medicine, instead – a light salve, lavender purple, which bleeds into his hands and gives his skin a silver glow.
The girl steps back against a tree and then stands very, very still as he touches the salve gently over her neck. He would like to explain, to take away the shock and bewilderment in her eyes, but this will be easier if she does not think he is human. Does not think miracles can be chased by mortals.
She immediately touches her throat when he steps away. “What – what did you - “
Natsume takes a step back. He watches the girl grasp and grope around he throat, wild-eyed, but she says nothing else, until, “Did you,” she manages. “ - Did – thank you, I -”
Relieved, he disappears into the forest before the girl can recover.
“It worked,” says Natsume happily.
He drops the dog mask on his table. Nyanko-sensei, settling on the floor, gives him a sour look. “Of course it did,” he responds. “I'm still not sure why you wanted to help her in the first place.”
“You didn't see her crying,” Natsume protests. “If we can make someone's life happier, why shouldn't we?”
“Maybe to avoid owing a debt to Ootsuno, of all youkai,” Nyanko-sensei mutters.
Natsume sits on the ground and ignores his companion's mood. “I'm glad I had the mask,” he muses. “It scared her a little, I think, but she didn't even seem to understand what I was doing... I thought the medicine would be pretty obvious.”
Sensei flicks his ear. “Idiot. The plants in that medicine can't be seen by humans.”
“You couldn't have mentioned that before?”
Nyanko-sensei just shrugs. “Would it have stopped you?”
Natsume wonders what the girl saw. Did it seem like her throat was healed by magic, by a touch? Just the brush of a strange spirit's hand?
The girl might prefer to pretend this was all a dream. But if she tries to tell anyone about what happened she'll be branded a liar. But she has a voice, now, where she didn't before; if she does talk about the incident it is, at least, her choice.
“Hey,” says Nishimura, catching up with the rest of them as school lets out. “Did you hear about that girl who says she saw a god in the forest?”
“Really?” Tanuma glances at him, knowingly, but he's probably wondering if the girl spotted a spirit – not Natsume himself. “What does she say it looked like?”
“She said it had a kimono and a face a bit like a wolf. And it healed her. Her throat was crushed by this guy, so she was mute before – the doctors thought it would be permanent. They can't explain why she's better, everyone's calling it a miracle!”
“A god,” Tanuma muses. “What god?”
“Zenken-kami, she said?” Nishimura shrugs. There are thousands of gods in Japan; it's not strange to be unfamiliar with a name. “Hey, Natsume, are you alright?”
“Maybe we should see if this mysterious god can help with your anemia,” says Kitamoto. “You look like you're about to pass out.”
Natsume smiles weakly and avoids Tanume's eyes. “I'm fine, but – I just remembered, I need to help Touko-san with something - “
“Eh? We were going to go fishing!”
It's fortunate, really, that his friends are so accustomed to his behavior; they only huff when Natsume spins around and flees into the forest.
He never gave the girl a name, never told her anything about himself; in fact it's a bit arrogant to assume the story has anything to do with him at all. Zenken-kami could be a youkai, he thinks.
Natsume slows to a walk, panting. Alright – he's never that fortunate. Zenken is definitely him.
He hopes the actual god for that little shrine doesn't come back just to haunt him.
Sensei doesn't laugh.
Natsume expected him to find the mix-up hilarious, but instead he stands up, walks over to Natsume, and starts sniffing – as though he's an actual cat and Natsume has betrayed him by petting the siamese down the street. After a moment Sensei makes a disgusted noise.
“Yup,” Nyanko-sensei says. “You're definitely a minor god now. You're still a wimp, though. Don't get any ideas.” And with that he starts to lick his paw.
“I'm – I'm what?” asks Natsume after a moment. “...Sensei?”
“You interact with spirits. You have humans who pray to you, youkai who worship and obey you, and you answer supplicants to your shrine.” Nyanko-sensei rubs his paw over his head, and adds, “All because you're an idiot. What other definition for a god do you have?”
“I - “
Natsume wants to argue that he isn't special; that he is human, for one thing. Gods are divine, gods are absolute, gods...
...But, Natsume has met gods. Fragile gods who wither and die with their followers, middling gods who can be fought, powerful gods who control the elements. Theirs is not a category easily defined. Natsume knows that the boundaries of spirit and man are mutable.
Sometimes, when he was young, Natsume wondered if the ability to see monsters meant he had to be a monster too.
“I don't want to be a god,” Natsume says at last.
“Tough,” Nyanko-sensei says. “Because that's what you are. And now you'll be a god until the day you die.”
“Mortal gods are the worst,” Sensei informs him. “Congratulations, I guess. I'll go tell the Dog-whatever and maybe they'll bring booze.”
He leaves out the window while Natsume continues to stare.
Natsume calls Natori, who does not know anything about mortal gods and is suspicious about why Natsume is asking.
“Ha ha,” Natsume says. “I just heard a rumor – it was nothing – I think Sensei is drunk again. Good luck on your next movie!”
He hangs up quickly.
Then he walks to Tanuma's house, panic growing. The priest isn't home, unfortunately, and Tanuma listens to his evasive questions with skepticism.
“Natsume, is there a god after you? Did you offend a god?” He asks bluntly after a minute of this.
“No! No, Tanuma, I – I didn't – it's nothing like that.”
“Does a god want to eat you?” Tanuma looks resigned and horrified at the same time.
“Not – not right now.”
Tanuma pauses, then apparently decides not to pursue that. “Then why do you need to know about gods?”
“I was just wondering about the youkai I've met,” he tries. “Many gods were mortal once; most gods I've met just could almost seem to be normal spirits, though. I know not all youkai used to be people, but were gods? Were they gods while they were alive?”
“...You might want to ask Taki,” says Tanuma, half-apologetic. “She knows more about youkai than I do.”
Natsume sighs and thanks him anyway. Taki is on a trip to Tokyo right now.
When he returns home the Fujiwaras greet him cheerfully, but Natsume stares at the ceiling. Raucous laughter echoes from the second floor. His room.
Touko-san and Shigeru-san don't seem to notice. Natsume hesitates before turning down dinner. “I think I'll go lie down,” he says. “I haven't been feeling great.”
They immediately look worried. “Oh, you shouldn't skip meals, Takashi-kun!” Touko-san exclaims. “I'll bring you some plain rice.”
“No, no, thank you.” He flees upstairs guiltily; he actually gets sick enough as it is, and doesn't need to be worrying the Fujiwaras more than normal.
The house shakes with cheers and shouted greetings when he enters his room. Half the attendees are already drunk, and Natsume sees more faces than he expects – this is not than the usual circle. The mid-ranks, kappa, Hinoe, Benio, and Chobihige he expects. Misuzu's great eye peers through the window, red-rimmed with a telltale glint of imbibed liquor. But a few other spirits have gathered, too. He recognizes a fox-headed youkai, a tiny mushroom the size of his hand that he helped not long ago, a flat-faced figure with whiskers like catfish, and several masked youkai with covered eyes.
Natsume barely has room to move.
“Why are you all here?” he despairs, quickly and quietly shutting the door behind him. Chobihige lifts his bottle in a toast while Hinoe tugs him to the ground; Sensei seems to be well on his way to drunkenness already.
He lets Hinoe stroke possessive hands through his hair as Misuzu rumbles, “We have come to celebrate, Natsume-dono. It is not everyday a god is made, especially in this era.”
“Of course, you'll be even more like us when you die,” says Hinoe wistfully. “A proper god!” Oh no. Well. That – that answers one of Natsume's questions. He ignores the ice in his stomach as she says, “Though you do smell much more like a spirit even now, Natsume-kun.”
“Maybe I should eat him,” Sensei hiccups. “Never eaten a god. Then he'd be a proper one, too.”
“Then I'll come back and haunt you,” Natsume says, and realizes glumly that this is a legitimate threat.
All the youkai go quiet when the door opens, like disobedient children ready to be scolded. But Touko-san, standing at the door with a steaming bowl of rice, of course cannot see them.
“Takashi-kun! You should be lying down. And...” she pauses, gaze sweeping the room. Natsume catches his breath as her eyes seem to linger on Chobihige's huge head.
“...Do I smell sake?” she asks doubtfully.”
The youkai cheer.
“What kind of god gets lectured by his guardians?” Natsume asks, mostly for the sake of argument. Because he still can't believe this. A god.
“You're lucky they didn't ground you,” says Sensei airily, skipping cheerfully along the dirt path toward the school. “You're too young for alcohol, Natsume.”
Nyanko-sensei runs ahead before he can say any of the more indignant things that come to mind – like, it wasn't even my sake and you're a drunkard CAT – but he has no motivation to pursue the point. They pass the tiny shrine where Natsume met the mute girl just days before. Flowers encircle it, and it looks somehow cleaner than before. Like loving hands have washed away the impurities.
“Were you talking to your cat again, Natsume?”
Kitamoto appears by his side and Natsume almost stumbles. “Just telling him to lay off the snacks,” he says quickly, and ahead of them Sensei makes a disgruntled sound before getting distracted by a passing butterfly.
As they walk a blur of black catches the corner of Natsume's eye. He turns his head and jolts a little to see a lanky youkai trailing them. His wide white face has only two pits for eyes, and a huge, gaping mouth nearly the size of Natsume's head.
It's staring at Kitamoto, gaping soundlessly and drifting closer.
That's weird – spirits always find Natsume more appetizing than anyone else. He lets himself fall back a few steps, waving his hand hastily.
The youkai sways. Looks at him.
“Get away,” Natsume snaps quietly.
“What?” Kitamoto asks.
After a beat of silence the youkai stops. And then it bows, waist and knees and nonexistent joints bending so that it spirals over and almost touches the ground with its head. A moment later it abruptly starts running away from them.
“...Um,” says Natsume. “Nothing. Sorry.”
He keeps walking and finds Sensei staring at him with smug green eyes. He walks faster.
After school Natsume tells Sensei, “We should go talk to Taki. She might know more about...” he hesitates, unsure how to label the problem. “About gods and youkai.”
“Hmm,” Nyanko-Sensei says. “I don't understand what you need to know, but sure. Are we stopping by your shrine first?”
Natsume halts. “My – what?”
“Idiot,” Sensei sighs. “The shrine in the forest! It's yours now. Obviously. And if that girl left any more food, I want it.”
“I can't have a shrine!” Natsume exclaims.
“You can accept being a god, but you don't understand shrines?” Sensei rolls his eyes. “Come on, I'll show you.”
The shrine is wreathed in small, pale blue bellflowers and yellow peonies. Natsume flushes a little – mostly because the sight is strangely pleasant. He wants to keep staring. He wants to fall to his knees and touch each flower, one at a time, because they are his.
Natsume steps back, suddenly wary. In his experience that sort of attraction is usually a trick, but the flowers just remain. Small, fragile, beautiful.
“Looks like that girl is grateful – at least for now,” Sensei muses. “Oh, Hinoe!”
Natsume jumps when the youkai woman appears.
“Are you guarding the shrine?”
“Someone must,” Hinoe reproves pointedly. She casts a pointed Look at the cat, then turns to face Natsume more politely. “We're taking shifts. Your dog-circle, I mean.”
Natsume opens his mouth to protest, or ask a question, or something. Sensei takes the moment to step hard on his foot, and his considerable weight tears away the words. “...Thank you,” he manages, wincing a bit. Hinoe smiles pleasantly before drifting back to an unseen spot in the forest.
Nyanko-sensei nudges Natsume forward, and when they're a good distance away Natsume demands, “Guards?”
“What, did you think the dog-circle was just a name? They're all happy to help. So use them. I would sure like a few dumb minions, but since no one has sworn themselves to me or started a cult in my honor...”
“I don't want minions,” says Natsume helplessly.
“Servants, peons, whatever you want to call them. That's your business.” Nyanko-sensei tilts his nose up and trots faster as Taki's house comes into view. “I'm better than that, of course. I'm just waiting to see if you die a mortal death despite all this fuss.”
Natsume sighs quietly, panic fading for a familiar sweep of fondness. “I know, Sensei,” he agrees.
Taki is pleased to see him when they enter – though more pleased to see Sensei. “Nyan-nyan-chan! Oh, come here!” Natsume steps inside as Taki runs after Nyanko-sensei, eventually dragging the morose cat inside. (He perks up when she mentions the exotic treats she's brought him from overseas).
They sit together in one of the living spaces. Taki presses Nyanko-sensei to her chest as she considers his halting questions.
“I'm not sure how gods are made,” she says at last. In response to his greatest query: “It doesn't seem likely that just being worshiped would make a god, though. I mean, plenty of people have started up cults or religions or whatever. They can't all be gods...” Taki pauses and looks down at Nyanko-sensei. “...Um. Can they?”
“No,” Sensei says. “It takes power. Spiritual power. You can get it in a few ways, or you need to just have it. And then you still need the worshipers, and the belief...” His glittering eyes latch onto Natsume.
Everyone always tells Natsume that his spiritual power is unmatched. He shrinks lower while Taki hums.
“I guess that makes sense,” she decrees. “Maybe I'll look among grandfather's books, it would be interesting to study gods... Oh, Natsume, are you alright?”
Natsume sees the girl the next day. She's at the shrine again, with her father, and like before they doesn't notice his quiet approach. Natsume doesn't want to be noticed either, he realizes. He ducks into the shade of the nearby trees and walks closer.
His hand drifts down to his bag. Without thinking he takes out the dog-mask and puts it on.
A moment later he stands right next to the girl, and she doesn't twitch even when her thoughtful eyes flicker right over him.
Her name is Aki. This knowledge falls over Natsume like a smoke; Yoshiko Aki, 14. His mind only twitches over the knowledge for a second before accepting it. Like the sight of a grin in the shadows, like the blurred gift of his grandmother's memories, he knows the information to be true.
Aki sits beside the shrine for a long time. She says nothing but Natsume hears her anyway – thoughts of thanks, and wonder, and fierce, fierce want that he can't quite grasp. When she places down a soft crown of flowers, yellow and blue and pink, Natsume lifts it from the shrine without thinking.
Aki gasps and stares at the place where the flowers had lain. Her father reaches down and clutches her shoulder. Still, they do not see him.
After a few tense minutes Aki, glancing around uncertainly, stands to her feet. Natsume curls his fingers around the soft band and the soft petals as he watches the pair leave.
She will always be special, he thinks.
And then he is himself again, the other gone, and Natsume takes off his mask.
He puts it in his bookbag, but he wears the flowers looped around his neck like a talisman.
“So you remember that girl?” Kitamoto asks as he, Natsume, Kitamoto, and Tanuma walk their bikes up the hill. “The one who keeps saying she met a god? Apparently her whole family prays to this Zenken-kami now. And some of their friends. They use that little shrine we always pass in the forest. Maybe you should pray, Natsume, and ask for better grades.”
Natsume turns his head and catches Tanuma watching him. He winces.
“My grades are getting a lot better,” Nishimura declares. He starts telling expanding on his experiences at Cram School.
Nishimura and Kitamoto start to pull ahead after awhile. Tanuma linger back and touches Natsume's arm. “Hey, are you okay?”
“Yes, I'm fine.”
Tanuma doesn't seem convinced. “Just, your face earlier... Is there a youkai at that temple? A bad one, maybe?”
“No. Not a – a bad one. I think.” Natsume can't look him in the eye. “There's a new god there.”
“A new - ? ...Is that why you've been asking about gods?” Tanama shakes his head. “I didn't know gods just appeared like that.”
“Neither did I,” Natsume mutters.
“But I guess that's good,” Tanama continues. Startled, Natsume meets his gaze for the first time. “A new god for a new period, I mean. As long as he's a nice one.”
Natsume keeps his eyes on the backs of his two friends in the front. “Tanuma,” he asks, “What would you do if you were immortal, do you think? If you suddenly became a spirit.”
If Tanuma is surprised by this question he doesn't show it. “I guess I would be a spirit,” he decides at last. “Time doesn't mean much to spirits, right? And I would do... whatever was important enough for me to stay behind.” With more consideration, Tanuma adds, “It's not like it would be forever.”
“But spirits do live forever. Exist forever.”
“They live a long time. You've seen spirits die – you've mentioned it before. They even eat each other.”
This is true. “It still seems so lonely.”
Tanuma actually laughs.
When Natsume turns, incredulous, his friend just explains, “You're the last person who should be saying that, Natsume! Spirits can't always talk to people, but they have each other, don't they?”
“...Yeah,” Natsume agrees. He wonders suddenly where Nyanko-sensei has gone.
“So they're fine,” Tanuma concludes.
Ahead, Nishimura shouts, “Hey! Pick up the pace or we'll leave you behind!”
Tanuma declares cheerily, “I think Natsume's feeling tired!” and Natsume squawks in indignation when his friends swarm back to demand if he's dehydrated. And, “Do you feel like you're about to faint, Natsume-kun?!”
As he waves away his friends, he catches a glimpse of a small, warm smile on the mouth of a youkai drifting past their group. Maybe Tanuma is right, then.
After all, Natsume never does feel alone anymore.
He goes back to the shrine with Nyanko-sensei.
They pass the mid-ranks lounging on a pair of rocks and exchange greetings. “Thank you,” Natsume adds, quietly, and the two youkai simply beam and bow in response.
He puts on the mask.
The mask itself doesn't do it, Natsume thinks. But it makes things easier – helps Natsume divorce himself from the physical and tap into something indefinably beyond. When he sees a group of students chatting next to his shrine he feels no concern. Natsume brushes past one as he walks, and she only tugs absentmindedly to adjust her sleeves as though a slow breeze has blown through.
The shrine is wreathed with flowers.
It's not the most frequent offering gods find in this country. But he picks up the flowers one by one, anyway, twining stems around his arms, his throat, and into the sleeves of a robe he doesn't remember wearing. The students go silent after awhile, then start murmuring in slow confusion as the shrine is plucked clean. They leave uncertainly, casting back glances through widened eyes.
Natsume is unabashedly cradling a rose between his fingers when Nyanko-sensei creeps out of the forest. “You look ridiculous,” the cat declares.
“Yeah,” Natsume agrees. He bends over and ties the rose-stem through Sensei's collar.
The cat grumbles for a minute. “Sappy gods,” the spirit accuses.
Natsume picks him up, still smiling. “I think Touko-san is making shrimp tonight,” he says.
Sensei settles into his arms complacently as they walk through the quiet, golden forest. Natsume doesn't think he would mind living this moment for a thousand years.
One day, he'll get that chance.