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and every single step of the way

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He was on his back on the ground, and the darkness lay over him like a cold, slightly wet, and generally uncomfortable blanket. Whether his eyes were open or closed didn't matter, except that if they were open they started hurting from straining to focus in the dark, so he kept them closed most of the time.

He couldn't tell how long he had been in the cave where the youkai had left him. It brought him food and water, but at irregular intervals; sometimes it would give him more food as soon as he had finished one meal, and other times the youkai wouldn't appear until hunger pangs had him curled up around his empty stomach. The water had a strange, mineral taste, but at least there was always plenty of it. Once in a while he considered moving, but where would he go? He had been feverish and unconscious when the youkai had brought him to the cave; he assumed that there was a way out, but he had no idea where it was or how to find it. All he could be certain of was the damp rock under his back, the damp rock to his right when he stretched his arm out, and the darkness.

He didn't think about the sun, or the wind blowing over fields of grass, or the faces of his friends. There was no point. He wouldn't see any of them again; better to forget as soon as possible, and let their images fade into the dark. All he would ever see was the faint, ghostly glow of the youkai's face as it leaned over him, whispering taunts in his ear and drinking in whatever expressions it saw on his face.

Sometimes, Natsume thought that he might have made a mistake.



Laying around and doing nothing had a way of sapping one's energy; the longer Natsume stayed still, moving only to eat or when he grew uncomfortable, the less he felt like moving. He accepted this with his usual resignation, but then the next meal the youkai brought him included, among other odds and ends of convenience store food, a bar of chocolate. Eating it sent warmth flowing through him, and a little while after the youkai had left, he reached out to touch the wall of stone to his right and used it to guide himself to his feet. If he was going to spend the rest of his life in this cave, he might as well be able to find his way around...

Natsume slid his feet along the ground as he went, in case there were sudden drops, and waved his left hand out in front of him to feel for any obstructions as he kept his right hand on the wall. He moved through the cave in this manner for some time, trying to remember the twists and turns as he went, and then as he began to explore a new room his foot slipped and he went tumbling down a slope he hadn't felt, rolling over and over until he crashed into something wide and rounded.

He lay there for a little while, trying to catch his breath, and then sat up and checked himself. He had gotten damp all over, with occasional patches of something slimy, but he didn't feel any liquid with the warmth of blood, and only a few spots on his arms and legs that felt bruised; the Book of Friends, concealed in an inner pocket of his jacket, felt dry and intact. Whatever he had rolled up against was, he quickly found, taller than he was and too thick for him to reach his arms around. He could feel a similar column quite close to it, and something just beyond that one which seemed broad enough to be the wall, but with a strange rippled texture. The ground still had a definite slope, but it didn't seem as steep as the one he had fallen down; with his back against the stalagmite that had caught him, he slid one foot forward until he felt a sudden sharp rise. There was no going back that way, then. There was no going back at all, he realized, and for a moment his chest and throat tightened. He would never find a way back, he would never even recognize the room he'd been left in if he did find it again, the youkai would never find him and he would - wait, no, what was he thinking? The youkai could find him anywhere. Darkness didn't disturb it, and it had to know its way around its own caves.

Relief swept over Natsume, and his whole body felt lighter despite the damp and slime. Getting lost didn't matter, so he could explore all he wanted; it was a sort of freedom, even if it was only the freedom of the dark.

He sat down again and took a little more time to rest, and then he began to feel his way along the rippled wall.

Natsume wandered until his stomach began to growl again, at which point he paused. He had gone through several more narrow passages and followed more walls with all sorts of strange textures and shapes to them; he had tried to be more careful, but he had still tripped a few times - not as disastrously as the first time, at least - and another time had caught himself but twisted his ankle, so he was limping a bit as he went. He thought that he should find a spot to rest and wait for the youkai to find him, but a little rebellious spark flared up. He was tired of waiting and resting; he wanted to go a little further, and maybe he would be the one who found the youkai first. That would certainly change things up a little...

He was currently in a room with a low, jagged ceiling and uneven floor. If he got to the other end and there was no passage, he decided, he would stay in this room and wait for the youkai, and if there was a way out, he would keep going. He made it to the other side of the room safely, and thought for a moment that it was a dead end; then as he sat down his right hand slipped into empty space. He felt around the wall and found an opening that was only about waist height, but wide, with a smooth floor.

Well, he hadn't tried any passages that he couldn't stand up in before, but he wasn't ready to give up yet. He got down on his hands and knees and began to crawl. He had only gone a short distance when his questing hands found that the tunnel took a sharp curve to the left; he cautiously felt his way around the corner, and blinked.

He could see.

He couldn't see much; just the faintest hint of grey light touching the curved wall of the tunnel ahead of him. He blinked again, then sat and rubbed his eyes, but the pale light didn't disappear.

The tunnel twisted around twice more as Natsume followed it, and the light grew brighter and brighter. Finally it opened up, but he didn't stand up right away; he could only sit back and stare.

The cavern before him was immense, stretching up and out of his sight. The ceiling was a fantastic maze of long stalactites and thin ribbons of stone, translucent and shining in the light of small, pale blue-green flames that hovered in the air. Beneath the labyrinth lay a still, smooth lake, broken only by glimmering spires reaching up to their partners; the water itself seemed to glow, and below its surface Natsume saw pillars threaded through with silver, and the shadows of white fish darting through tattered limestone veils. He could see other passages in the wall beside him, most of them taller and wider than the tunnel he had crawled through. Just his luck that he'd found the hard way to this place.

He stood to get a better look at the cavern, and realized the youkai was there as well; it was sitting on a low mound of stone, watching the lake. Natsume hesitated, then stepped forward to stand next to it. "This is a beautiful place, isn't it?" he said, and immediately wished he hadn't spoken. His voice sounded terrible, rough from disuse and cracked from thirst; it was a disgrace to the peaceful silence of the cavern.

"I know that, stupid boy," the youkai said, without turning to face him, but it didn't sound as angry as it usually did.

Natsume decided to try his voice again. "Do you come here with other youkai often?"

"No," it said; it turned its giant head and its one-eyed paper mask gazed at him, heavy and disdainful. "I don't want anyone else to see it. I've eaten the fools who tried to come here, and I'd eat you too, except I'm not done with you yet."

"Oh - sorry," Natsume said, and smiled an automatic, apologetic smile. "I didn't know."

"Hmf."

They watched the shining lake in silence for a while longer before Natsume said, "It feels nice to share a sight like this with someone, though. Don't you think so?"

Another moment of silence; then the youkai snarled, "No, it doesn't. I didn't tell you to come down here! I don't want anyone here besides me!" It sprang up, looming over him with bared teeth, and he stumbled back, towards one of the larger passages. "Get out of here, stupid human, or I'll eat you!"

Natsume fled.



Eventually he had to stop. His initial rush to get away had lasted only until the light from the lake had faded out, when he had slowed down and begun to feel his way again, but he had kept moving, uncertain of how far away from the youkai's fury he needed to get to be safe. Now his head was light and throbbing as his stomach growled with hunger, and his arms and legs were shaking; his last meal with the chocolate had been small, and felt like a distant memory. His throat was parched, too, which was the bigger worry. He should have tried to get a drink at the lake before he'd angered the youkai.

Natsume found a small, round, reasonably dry alcove off the passage he was in, and curled up inside it. It seemed like a good place to rest a little and wait for the youkai to calm down, and maybe remember that it needed to feed him. He hoped it wouldn't be angry for long; he was so very, very hungry, he probably wouldn't even be able to fall asleep...

Something was tickling his face. "Natsume. Natsume. Wake up, Natsume!"

He didn't want to wake up. What was the point? It would only be dark and he'd be hungry again - better to keep sleeping and forget.

"Wake up, stupid human!" A rough, clawed hand grabbed his shoulder and shook him, and his eyes cracked open just enough to see the youkai's face a few inches from his own, its hair hanging down and brushing against his cheek. "Get up, Natsume," it said, and yanked him to his feet. "We're going somewhere, don't dawdle."

Natsume made it all of two steps before his legs buckled under him. "I can't," he said, hanging onto the wall to keep from falling, "hungry - can't go..."

"Worthless," it hissed, and pushed something wrapped in plastic into his hand. "Eat this. Hurry up, let's go!"

Natsume let the youkai drag him along as he unwrapped the plastic to find a rice ball. He ate it, relishing the slight moisture in the rice and the pickled plum in the center, and tried not to trip too often as the youkai rushed through dark tunnel after dark tunnel.

It came to a sudden stop and put its hand over his eyes. "Don't look yet," it said. "Go forward a little - now right - right again..."

Exhausted, he closed his eyes and followed its instructions without question until it said, "Stop there," and took its hand away from his eyes. "Look now, Natsume."

He opened his eyes and looked up - and up, and up, and up.

The wall in front of him stretched far above into the darkness, but as much of it as he could see was strung with globes of the blue-green youkai light reflecting from glistening falls of stone. Cascades of stalactites flowed downwards to the water-rippled floor; some were thicker than tree-trunks, others thinner than Natsume's little finger. In the silence he could hear the occasional drip of water, as if he were listening to the world's slowest, quietest waterfall.

"This is - it's really incredible," he said. "Really. This is amazing..." He felt himself swaying, and leaned against the wall behind him.

"I know that, stupid Natsume," the youkai said smugly. "No one else has ever seen it - at least, not without me eating them. It's spectacular, right? Those weak friends of yours could never show you anything like this. Just me."

"I - I guess you're right." The wall of stalactites wavered and blurred, and no amount of rubbing his eyes would fix it; in the ghostly light, the stone seemed to flow like real water. "Thank you - for letting me see it..."

He slid down the wall, and the lights went out.



Icy water slapped him across the face, and he woke, gasping and blinking in the dim light. He recognized the ceiling of the cavern with the lake, and turned his head to see the edge of the water close by, and the youkai sitting next to him with more water cupped in its hands. "Sorry - guess I was hungrier than I thought," he said, then licked his lips and swallowed. "And thirsty. I didn't mean to trouble you..."

The youkai held its hands out, and after a moment Natsume pushed himself up to sip the water from them. The water had picked up no warmth from the youkai's hands; it was cold and heavy with minerals, and he still drank every drop. When it was gone, the youkai said, "I don't have any more human food. You humans are so greedy - always needing food, needing water, needing sleep, needing people around you, needing everything, all the time..."

"Sorry," Natsume said. He lay back down and tried to smile at the youkai. "I've just ended up being a problem for you, too."

"A big problem," said the youkai. "A big, stupid, stinky, worthless human problem. Go back to sleep, problem Natsume."

He did.



Natsume woke up again when he felt a weight on his chest, and saw three bento sitting on it in a neat stack with a bottle of juice on top. He lifted the stack off his chest as carefully as he could with his wobbling arms and sat up. The youkai was a short distance away, gazing across the lake; it glanced over at him, then looked away again.

He unwrapped the first bento - he could just make out the shape of a cartoon character on top - and forced himself to eat slowly, as much as he wanted to empty the entire box directly into his mouth. When he was a few bites into the rice, the youkai said, "Come over here, Natsume."

He didn't trust his legs just yet, so he slid over without getting up and pulled the other two bento along with him. The youkai didn't say anything else, so he kept eating until he was finished, and took a drink of the juice; he began to open the second bento, then stopped and held it out to the youkai. "Would you like some?"

"No. I don't like that kind of food."

Natsume finished opening the bento and picked through it; the worst pangs of hunger had been satisfied, but he was glad that there was a third bento anyway, just for back-up. He ate a bit of rice, a bit of omelette, a few vegetables, and then he found a sprig of parsley. He held it up and twirled it around, then swallowed the sudden tightness in his throat and offered it to the youkai. "What about parsley?" he asked. "Do you like that?"

"Parsley?" it said. It looked at the slightly wilted sprig, then took it. "Why don't you eat it?"

"Oh, well... It's a little bitter, I don't like it very much. Anyway, there's still plenty of food."

"That woman made you eat the parsley. I saw it."

His chopsticks hovered over the rice. "I know," he said. "I know I should eat it, but - I don't want to, if she didn't make the bento I don't -" He took a big bite of rice to stop his own babbling and nearly choked on it, but at least choking took his mind off the memory of Touko-san's smiling face.

"I'll eat it," the youkai said. It put the parsley in its mouth and chewed, and its face twisted. "It's bitter. If there's more, I don't want it."

"Okay," Natsume said, and kept eating, pausing occasionally to look at the lake. It was sort of an odd view to have while eating, but he thought he could get used to it, if the youkai didn't chase him away from the lake again. Every time he looked, he found strange formations that he hadn't seen before. He scooped up the last bit of omelette and said, "Thank you for the food - I feel a lot better now."

"Why did you come with me?"

"Eh?"

"Why did you let me take you away?" the youkai demanded. "You were happy there. I saw it. Why didn't you chase me off?"

"I don't know," Natsume said, and picked up the third bento. He felt full, but maybe just a few more bites... "I didn't want you to hurt anyone - it seemed easier to come with you, to keep them safe."

"But it doesn't even matter." The youkai turned and leaned in closer to him. "You'll never see your weak family again anyway, so I might as well have eaten them up, right? It'd be just the same for you. So why did you come?"

"Well - it is different, though," said Natsume. He put the bento down and drew his knees up, resting his arms on them. "I know they're still alive somewhere, and that's all I need. I don't have to see them, as long as I know..."

The youkai shoved him onto his back. "What if you didn't know?" it said. "What if I went out and left you here and ate them, and you never knew?"

"You promised not to hurt them," he said. "I'd just have to keep trusting you, I guess."

The youkai hovered over him for a moment longer, and then sat back. "Humans are stupid," it said, "and I think you're the stupidest one I've ever met, Natsume."

"I know."

He didn't open the third bento.



At some point he must have fallen asleep; when he woke again it was to movement and darkness, and the rather uncomfortable position of being tucked under the youkai's arm, his feet dragging along the ground. He would have liked to phrase a reasonable, articulate question regarding this change in his circumstances, but all that came out was, "Huh?"

The youkai seemed to get the gist of what he meant. "I'm sick of having a pet," it growled. "You're too much trouble, you might as well go back to your useless friends. Or wherever you want. I don't care, I just want you to go away."

"Oh," Natsume said. He felt as if he ought to say thank you, but then his feet hit something hard and bruising, which dampened his gratitude for the moment.

The youkai darted through the cave with the ease of long knowledge while Natsume tried not to be sick. Finally it slowed, and Natsume looked up to see golden light washing against a jagged stone wall, shining through a narrow crack. The youkai dropped him. "There, that's the exit," it said. "Get out of here. Just go. I'm tired of looking at your stupid face."

Natsume got to his feet and bowed. "Thank you for taking care of me," he said. "And for letting me see your caves. They're really beautiful."

"Go away!"

He went. His legs weren't as shaky as they had been before, but as soon as he had squeezed through the crack and out of the cave, he thought he might collapse again.

The crack opened onto a clearing in the side of a hill. The sun was out and high in the sky, and after so long in darkness and the dimness of youkai lights, its brilliance made him squint and shade his eyes; the wind was brisk but warm, and all around him there was so much noise, so much texture, so much color. All he could do was stand with his hand on the mouth of the crack and try to adjust, soaking up warmth and light. He breathed in, savoring the clean taste of the air, and saw a flash of white against the sky, moving faster than the thin clouds and getting closer -

"Natsume!"

A fat, colorful ball barreled into him and knocked him flat on his back. "You idiot! Stupid! Fool! Foolishly stupid idiot!"

"Nyanko-sensei?"

"Don't you dare call me that when you can't even listen to me!" Nyanko-sensei shouted, but his paws kneaded Natsume's chest furiously. "What the hell did you think you were doing, you soft-headed brat? The old lady's been worrying herself sick - she put posters up all over town and dragged me with her, the creepy girl and the weak guy were skipping school to look for you, even that shifty good-for-nothing Natori was worried!"

"But not you, right?" Natsume said, scratching behind the cat's ears and smiling.

"Of course I was worried! You didn't even have the courtesy to leave me the Book of Friends! That's a breach of contract, Natsume, you'd better hand it over right now or I'll eat you. Stupid boy. I'd eat you anyway, but you're too damn skinny to be worth it!"

"Sorry, Sensei."

Nyanko-sensei submitted to the ear-scratching for another minute, grumbling curses and purring all the while, and then he began hopping up and down on Natsume's chest, his paws like tiny hammers. "Get up, get up!" he said. "Don't even think you can get away now, Natsume, I'm dragging you home before you can run off with any more weaklings!"

"Okay, okay..." It took a little effort to get to his feet again once Nyanko-sensei had jumped off. "Um, Sensei," he said, "I know you're mad, but - would you mind giving me a lift? I don't know how far we are from home..."

"Too far," the cat said, but he shifted forms and allowed Natsume to climb onto his back.

As Nyanko-sensei leaped over woods, hills, and the occasional road or railway track, he said, "Why did you run off, Natsume? I could have scared that weak youkai away easily - why would you go with it like an idiot?"

Natsume rested his head against Nyanko-sensei's fur. "Did I tell you I met it before?" he said, and Nyanko-sensei nodded. "I thought - I don't know. I thought that maybe it liked lonely people because it was lonely, too... Maybe it just didn't know how to make friends. I wanted to help it, if I could, now that I know a little more about having friends."

"Well? Did it work?"

"I'm not sure," Natsume said, and closed his eyes. "I guess not. It was worth trying - at least it let me go when it got bored, that's not so bad."

"Careless fool," Nyanko-sensei growled. "Next time, just let me handle it, or who knows where you'll end up. Idiot."

"Sorry," Natsume said again, and the rest of the journey passed in silence.



Once Natsume had been scolded, hugged, cried on, scolded again, washed off, fed, lectured with deep disappointment, fed again, bathed, shouted at (by Taki, over the phone, with the promise of further shouting at school), grounded, and finally allowed out of Touko and Shigeru's sight long enough to go to bed, he thought that he ought to be tired enough to fall asleep at once. He lay awake instead, marveling at the amount of light that could find its way into his room: starlight, a little moonlight, light from the street-lamps, light from the neighbors' houses... He had never realized how bright his room could be, even at night.

Nyanko-sensei was snoring already, a furry loaf next to Natsume's futon. Natsume stroked his back once, then went to dig the Book of Friends out of his jacket. The jacket was a complete loss, torn at the elbows and covered in dried mud and slime from the cave, but as he leafed through the book it seemed to have survived without any damage. Thank goodness; he would hate to have accidentally harmed any of the youkai named in it. At least the youkai who had taken him hadn't found it, he thought - who knew what kind of mischief it might have done - but then the book's pages began to turn on their own. He watched them flip past, confused, until a sheet at the very end stood up straight.

Natsume gently took hold of the page and read the name silently to himself. Of course, he didn't really know most of the names in the book, but this one didn't sound familiar at all.

Beneath the name was a scrawled note: Don't call me or I'll eat you.

"Even though it's a beautiful name?" Natsume said, and then he smiled, closed the Book of Friends, and went back to bed.