"...where the foul weather of the past few days have caused several incidents of collapsed and torn roofs. Households bordering to the forest have also reported loud noises, believed to be carried by the wind from the construction work around the pass..."
Natsume hesitated in the open doorway, his attention drawn to the news report on the radio. Kitayama looked up as Natsume's shadow fell over her and raised an eyebrow. "Weren't you going home this afternoon?" she asked and reached for the power switch.
"I am." Natsume edged to the side as a small figure attempted to slip past him into the room. "I just heard the news report -- my family lives in that area."
"Oh." Kitayama's face dropped. "Do you think you'll be able to go there in this weather? I heard the local trains are having problems with the wind."
There was a crash further down the corridor, followed by loud voices. Natsume glanced in that direction and barely caught a white rump careening around a corner. A group of students from the history department was staring in dismay at the floor, pools of liquid and crushed glass around their feet. "I can get off a station earlier if needed," Natsume said as he frowned at the scene. His fingers slid over the thin, textured paper in his pocket. "I'm sorry -- I need to go."
He didn't stay to hear Kitayama's answer, already striding down the corridor. The door to his room was ajar and he could hear the clink of porcelain inside. Nyanko looked up as Natsume stepped inside, eyes glinting and mouth broadened in a grin. "Natsume!" Nyanko shook the bottle in his hand. "Look what I found!"
Natsume let go of the paper in his pocket and sighed. "Stole is more like it. Stupid cat."
"I'm not a cat!"
Natsume ignored both him and the stench of sake in the room. His bag was still only half-packed and he needed to call Natori. He looked at the white traditional clothing, still on its hanger, and sighed. It'd have to wait. He grabbed his wallet.
"Try not to get into more trouble," Natsume told Nyanko.
Nyanko didn't answer, too busy wiggling onto the desk with his bottle.
The public phone was on the first floor and, as Natsume waited for Natori to pick up, he watched the people entering and exiting the building. It wasn't the most convenient place for a call like this, but he didn't have much of a choice. He couldn't ask Touko-san or Shigeru-san for money to buy a cellphone, and even if he did, Natsume didn't have the money to pay for a cellphone plan. Students his age usually had a part time job to pay for things like that, but he...
Startled, Natsume nearly dropped the receiver. "I'm sorry!" he said. "I was distracted."
Natori sounded amused as he replied, "It's not a problem." Something rustled on the other side and Natsume thought he heard a voice. "I thought you'd be on your way home by now."
"I am." Natsume hesitated, fingering the paper again. He didn't have many of them left. There was the other way, but he didn't like having to use it. "Have you seen the news?"
"I take it you came to the same conclusion as I." Natori sighed and there was the rustling of paper. Natsume could almost see the swipe of a brush as Natori worked. "At least tell me you'll be careful."
"Of course." Natsume ran his fingers over the ledge in front of him, brushing away tiny footsteps in the thin layer of dust. "Are you still coming?"
All noise on the other side of the line stopped. "By train, on Sunday. As promised."
Natsume smiled, hand dropping back to his side. "Thank you."
"Natsume," Natori said with a small sigh. "You..."
"I need to go," Natsume said. "The train leaves soon and I've not finished packing. Nyanko-sensei is drinking too."
"You'll need all the time you have then," Natori said dryly. "Go then. I'll see you on Sunday."
Nyanko hiccupped as Natsume returned to the room, waving a sloppy paw in Natsume's direction. Natsume ignored him and carefully took down the hanger and fold the fabric to prevent undue wrinkles. Touko-san wouldn't mind ironing it for him, Natsume knew, but it would be more work because of him. It was kind enough that she'd agreed to host them all. Natsume wrapped the clothing in the silk paper it had come in and then put it in a box.
"Why are you packing that?" Nyanko waddled over to him, whiskers twitching. Natsume grimaced at the strong scent of alcohol around him and quickly put the lid on the box in case the scent got stuck in the silk. "Is it a working holiday?"
"It's for Touko-san." Natsume ran his hand over the top of the box, then settled it into the bag and started to pile the rest of his belongings on top of it. "She sounded so happy when I told her. I wanted to show it to her."
Nyanko walked into the open top of the bag and spun thrice before he flopped down, nose on paws. "She won't understand."
Natsume flattened the top layer of items and pushed Nyanko off the top. "She doesn't need to." Nyanko couldn't understand, Natsume knew, but Natsume thought he finally was himself. Touko-san and Shigeru-san had been surprised when he'd told them he wanted to study folklore, but they'd accepted it. They'd accepted him.
He looked out the window. The branches of the trees outside swayed in the wind, black against the ashen skies. There was no snow.
The wind was icy as Natsume stepped off the train. It danced over his skin, sending chills through his body. He pulled his scarf up higher and wished he dared put on gloves. The bag was heavy in his hand and the strap over his chest holding the safely wrapped package across his back pulled against his chest as Nyanko scrambled onto his shoulder.
"This is not the right station," Nyanko complained. "Why, Natsume? I want Touko's food!"
"We have something to do here." Natsume looked around. The platform was empty, not a single passenger in sight. At the horizon, the forest hovered like a black shadow above the squat houses. He put his free hand in his pocket and counted the papers. There should be enough of them -- he'd spent the hour on the train doing more with Nyanko asleep in his lap.
He set off towards the forest.
The forest path was dry and hard; even the loose clumps of earth and dirt were frozen. The occasional leaf fluttered around Natsume's feet, but even most of those stuck to the white frost clinging to every surface. The air was nearly still amongst the trees, but even more cold for that. There were no sounds, no flickers of animals or ayakashi moving in the underbrush. It was as if the world had taken a breath and held it, waiting for permission to exhale.
Natsume came to a stop in the middle of a large glen -- he'd been there before. There were still a scattering of rope and white paper if he looked carefully beneath the large oak to the left, the glint of broken mirror glass scattered among the frozen grass. He put down the bag safely behind the thick trunk of the oak. Nyanko jumped down as well, then up on the largest of the roots protruding from the ground. His nose was twitching, eyes unerringly staring towards the east.
A voiceless rumble trembled through the forest, branches rustling before it. Natsume's hair whipped against his face and he pushed it away with his hands. It wasn't anything he'd felt before. It wasn't anyone he knew and he doubted this name was written in the dwindling pages of his grandmother's book.
"Nyanko-sensei," Natsume said.
Nyanko didn't move his head. His fur stood on end, his tail jerking back and forth. "They're strong," he said.
Natsume hesitated, then detached the strap across his chest. He didn't remove the covering but took the package in one hand, putting the other hand in his pocket. His fingers chose a paper, settled it carefully between two fingertips. "Do you think it'll listen?"
Nyanko went stiff. "Are you asking the Great Madara-sama if I can make one puny god like that listen?"
Natsume smiled and reached over to scratch Nyanko under his chin. Nyanko purred. "Of course not. I'm asking if you'd deign to help me if I need it."
"Mmm," Nyanko said, his butt wiggling as Natsume's fingers got him just the right way, "I'm still your bodyguard." He glanced Natsume's way. "Even if you don't need it quite as often."
Natsume withdrew his hand and squared his shoulders. "Let's go."
The being loomed huge over the trees as they closed in on its location. Huge and powerful enough Natsume could feel it in his teeth. He could barely see it between the tree trunks: white and a dark grey with spindly appendages and eyes that seemed to spin in a dizzying manner. Approaching it was like walking through molasses -- the world seemed to cling to Natsume's body and pull him back even as he walked. At the edge of the trees, Natsume stopped and muttered a simple spell; his fingers moved in the familiar patterns with an ease only practice could give. Natori hadn't taught him that one. That was his... other teacher.
The world lost its grip on him; Natsume walked onwards until he stood at one immense foot and stared up at a face that didn't see him. He was too small, too unimportant to register. Nyanko sat back on his haunches. "Do you want me to scratch him?" Nyanko said. His voice was full of annoyance that the big beast hadn't had decency to notice at least him, if not Natsume.
"No," Natsume said. "Let me try." He scrambled over the foot, squared his feet and punched the being as hard as he could. It felt like punching a rock, but he didn't think he imagined the shiver that ran through the being.
The sky seemed to fall and then there was a huge eye blinking at him. It held the whole of winter in it -- the swirling snow, the howling winds, the cold and the hidden ice. It blinked, once. Then it drew another breath. Natsume backed away, one step, two.
"Natsume," Nyanko said, fur standing on end. He growled, the sound wholly unlike anything a cat throat could produce.
Natsume didn't need the warning. This being was far bigger than anything he could handle from this close distance. His hand had slapped the paper tag onto the being's eye before he had time to think, then he was running. The forest bent along with him as the being roared, flashes of light following him as he ran towards the glen, towards the...
The tree to his left shattered. Nyanko threw himself between the sharp splinters and Natsume with a growl, the immense body a shield in itself. "Run," the great ayakashi growled. "I'll lead him away for now."
Natsume nodded and flung himself onwards along the path. The howl behind him veered to the side, heading after the crashing of trees behind Nyanko. He let the bindings around the package flutter to the ground. The dark wood settled into his grip without question. The glen flared in light as he crossed the boundaries, the blue nearly blinding him before he flung one arm up to protect his eyes. The rope was broken, but the circle built by mirror glass was not.
Nyanko roared and the crashing of trees started to close in on the glen. Natsume ran along the border, slapping paper to trees as he went. They straightened against the wood in his footsteps, securing the path behind him. He came to a stop beneath the great oak and the world went silent. Nyanko dropped down at Natsume's feet, licking one reddened paw.
"A great game," Nyanko said calmly, his grin feral.
Then the being fell from the sky, more teeth than eye now. The putrid breath from its mouth smelled of hot springs far into the mountains, of polluted streams and clouds drifting in from the coast.
"Who dares," it said, and its voice made the glass around the glen sing. "Who dares attempt to trap me in a circle as puny as this?"
Natsume pulled the bow, no string and no arrow in his grasp. "Why are you turning on the town?" he asked. "Why are you hurting people? Your home isn't here; you belong deep in the mountains."
Images of people, of ayakashi, of dwindling villages and broken shrines, grass growing onto temple ruins, swept before Natsume's eyes. A feeling of distances, of forgetting.
"I'm lonely." The being rose, the full height dizzying in its size. "So, so lonely." The world shifted, the wind beating against them changing direction, turning towards the town.
"He's too heavy to be here," Nyanko said, eyes glued to the being. "He's not meant to be all in one place. He presses down on everything, until the earth can't hold him anymore." He glanced at Natsume. "If you let me eat him..."
"No." Natsume lowered the bow. He didn't let go of it but he stepped forward, put his hand against the being's skin. "Would you go back?" He hesitated. "Or would you agree to...lessen?"
The being shook. "Lessen?" The rumble would've driven Natsume to his feet but for the bow. "Despicable human!"
Natsume hit the being as hard as he could, light flaring around his fist. "Listen, you stupid!" The bow in his hand shivered. "You can choose! I don't want to kill you! If you go, I will leave you. If you stay, I can bind you! You can live in this glen, where people come often, where ayakashi gather, where we'll visit you! Don't make me do this!"
The rumble faded. The great eye turned towards him. "That bow..."
Natsume tightened his grip around the wood. Its strength bit into his arm, pulled at him to raise it and shoot. "Don't make me do it," he repeated.
The paper tags around the glen shone as the being tested its strength against them, the song of the glass reaching a fever pitch. Then it all died.
"What's your name, human?"
Natsume smiled. "Natsume Takashi."
"Blast." Natsume stared down at the suitcase. It'd opened during the commotion, its contents spilling across the ground. The white clothing had fallen out of the box and now lay crumbled in the dirt.
Nyanko sat down on the open top. "You'll have to wash that," he commented.
Natsume didn't really think that would help. He picked it up and ran his fingers over the muddy patch in the middle of the chest. Touko-san had been looking forwards to seeing him in it and now it was ruined. He clenched his fist. She'd been so happy when she learned that he'd been apprenticed, even more than she'd been when he returned with the grades from his first term at university. This would've been his gift to her, to show her what he'd achieved because of them.
He repacked the bag, eyes stinging. The ruined piece of clothing went on top, carefully folded and put back in its box. Maybe it was salvageable in some way.
"Come," he told Nyanko. "Touko-san said she was going to be waiting with tea and cake."
Nyanko's eyes lit up. "Cake!"
Natsume turned once as they passed the outer limit of the glen. He touched the paper still stuck to the tree gently, feeling the hum in his fingertips. For a second, he imagined he heard Natori's voice. "You're too soft-hearted," it said.
"I know," Natsume replied aloud.
Then he jogged to catch up with Nyanko. When they passed out the forest some minutes later, Natsume looked up. Wetness hit his face and he smiled. It was snowing.
"Takashi!" Touko threw the door open, stepping onto the porch without a single thought for her socks or the cold. "I was so worried!"
Natsume smiled at she felt his cheeks, her hands scorching against her skin. "I'm sorry," he told her. "I decided I needed a walk. I didn't think it'd start snowing like this."
Touko shook her head and hurried them inside. She picked Nyanko up and deposited him in a towel all the while fussing over Natsume as he got out of his outer clothing and into a pair of slippers. "Shigeru would've picked you up," she said as she put out a plate of milk for Nyanko and a cup of tea for Natsume. "We really ought to get you one of those cellphones so I needn't worry so much."
"I can manage," Natsume said and nearly burned his nose on the steam from the cup. He closed his eyes briefly. "I'm sorry for worrying you."
Touko softened. "Well, at least you're here now. Shigeru will be home in a moment as well." She smoothed a hand over her neat bun, her eyes affectionate as she looked at Natsume. He couldn't look back at her, his chest feeling full to the point of bursting. "I'm glad you could both make it home this year."
Nyanko waddled off -- no doubt to see whether his stash of alcohol had kept since their last visit. Natsume remembered the mess in his bag and stood. "I'm sorry," he told Touko. "I fell on the way here -- I intended to show it to you, but..." He raised the box helplessly. "I'm so sorry."
"Oh Takashi." Touko touched the stain. "I don't need to see it on you to be proud, but you'll see: I'm sure we can get this out for you." She smiled. "I do admit I would like to see all three of you in your finest this year."
Natsume looked up, startled. "Tanuma's coming?"
"Of course." Touko smiled. "You didn't think I'd let that sweet boy spend New Year’s alone, I hope."
He really shouldn't have, Natsume supposed. Touko wandered away with the box, saying something about needing to soak overnight. Natsume went back to the table, closing his hands around the cup. It'd been too long since he'd been home. He should come back more often, not only on holidays.
The outer door opened, Shigeru's I'm home! echoing through the house. Natsume heard Touko greet Shigeru in the hallway, fussing over Shigeru as much as she had over Natsume.
"Is Natsume here yet?" Shigeru asked Touko.
Natsume didn't hear Touko's answer as he got to his feet. Shigeru smiled at Natsume as he appeared in the doorway and Natsume smiled back.