Natsume Takashi was running for his life. Again.
If he'd had the leisure to do so, he would have rolled his eyes.
The deafening crashing and thrashing behind him as branches broke and trees fell under the onslaught of the gigantic youkai chasing him got closer and closer, no matter how much Natsume tried to further speed up and reach the edge of the forest. Admittedly, he didn't even see, not to mention know, where he was going with leaves and twigs whacking his face and thereby obscuring his vision. He was lucky he hadn't missed a step so far.
Long ago, it seemed, there had been a time when he had cursed and lamented his abilities and his fate, when he had no friends and no family who accepted him the way he was. He'd been lonely and afraid.
There was a particularly loud crash way too close behind him. Natsume's foot caught on a root or a rock or something protruding from the ground, and he stumbled, just barely managing to keep his balance. It cost him precious seconds, however, and he could almost feel the youkai's hot breath against his neck as its booming voice resounded in the forest around Natsume.
"Naaatsumeeeeee! I am going to eat youuuuuu"
Where the hell was Nyanko-Sensei when Natsume needed him?
Natsume picked up his pace again; the damn woods just had to end somewhere.
As he ran, he came back to the train of thought he'd started earlier.
He was afraid now, too (who wouldn't be when threatened to be eaten), but over all he had come to embrace the fact that he could see and communicate with youkai – and even more than that. He was able to help some of them them, free them, and now and then they even became friends (or allies, at least). Those youkai were a solid part of his life now, and he would not want to miss them and their friendship.
These exhausting chases through whatever unruly landscape with his life at stake, however, these he could definitely do without, in particular when – like now – he had no idea what it was all about.
The burn in his lungs slowly started to overpower his ability to think, so he dismissed his musings and concentrated solely on his body, urging it forward. The youkai behind him let out an ugly, gleeful laugh as Natsume stumbled again. The giant monster was certainly not the most intelligent youkai Natsume had ever met; it didn't even seem very powerful, but rather just incredibly strong with brute force. But that didn't make Natsume's current situation any less dangerous if only for the apparent single-mindedness of the youkai intent on eating Natsume.
Natsume felt as if he had been running for an eternity, and there was still no sign of Nyanko-Sensei. He was about to begin worrying in earnest when he suddenly heard a tiny voice somewhere to his right.
"Over here, Natsume, over here! Hurry, you're almost there!"
Natsume had no idea where "there" was supposed to be, but he had recognized the owner of the voice as one of the small, friendly youkai who frequently attended the infamous youkai drinking get-togethers. Natsume really couldn't get into much more trouble than he was already in, so he quickly followed the direction of the voice and hoped for the best.
His trust was rewarded as he noticed that the trees were getting lighter. With a last burst of of energy, Natsume sped up one more time, passed under a paper rope… and entered peace.
Though he had by no means reached the edge of the forest, the shrine grounds that occupied the small clearing spread around him, exuding nothing but peaceful quiet. He could still hear the youkai raging outside the barrier, spitting curses and calling Natsume's name, but the noise was strangely muffled as if coming from far far away.
Exhaustion took over and Natsume dropped to the ground in a boneless heap, just barely succeeding at rolling onto his back and stretching out in the soft grass. He closed his eyes and focused all his attention on his ragged breathing as he tried to slow it back down to a normal rhythm.
Natsume slowly came to his senses, and the calling of his name grew louder and louder.
Someone gently shook his arm.
Natsume opened his eyes and looked right into a familiar face that seemed to float above him.
"Tanuma?" he croaked.
"Natsume!" a slow smile spread over Tanuma's worried face, though a trace of concern clearly remained. The boy was kneeling in the grass next to Natsume, his hand still on Natsume's arm.
"What are you doing here?" he inquired, casting a searching look along the line of trees that circled the clearing. "There is something very unpleasant going around in this part of the forest today…"
Natsume chuckled warily, bracing himself and sitting up. "Trust me, I know… that 'something' has been chasing me. More importantly, what are you doing here?" he paused briefly, then added a bit sheepishly, "And where is "here"? I think I got kind of lost after being on the run for a while."
"We're actually not far from my house," Tanuma replied, jerking his head to the right, indicating the direction of his home. "This is a small shrine that we keep an eye on and take care of from time to time. Today, I just felt like I should have a look around here." He gave Natsume a quick little smile that danced all the way up to his eyes.
Natsume couldn't help but smile back despite his exhaustion.
"You seem tired," Tanuma observed, giving Natsume a scrutinizing look.
Natsume stared at him. "Well, of course I'm tired after all that running. I…" he trailed off as Tanuma shook his head at Natsume.
"That's not what I meant," he explained, giving Natsume a pointed, though not unkind look. "How much sleep have you had lately?"
Natsume winced as Tanuma hit the proverbial nail on the head. It had been a rough couple of nights, almost as bad as in the beginning when the news of his possession of the Book of Friends and his willingness to release youkai from their bond had first spread across the youkai world.
There had been a lot of late night visits and also invitations to meetings which he couldn't deny, and it was starting to wear on him. He sighed.
"Not much, to be honest," he confessed, scratching his neck ruefully.
Tanuma just lifted one inquiring eyebrow.
Natsume squirmed. He knew that he didn't have to answer if he didn't feel comfortable, that Tanuma would never really pressure him to confide in him, but Natsume had also learned that Tanuma truly cared and wanted to help. Moreover, Tanuma actually understood, especially considering his experiences during the possession incident a little while ago.
"There has been a lot of...otherworldly business of late." Natsume finally said.
The inquiring eyebrow rose a notch.
Natsume sighed again, "It's... complicated."
The one lifted eyebrow was joined by the other, but Natsume also realized that this would be the last active sign of encouragement, and that Tanuma would simply let it go after that as he had so many times before.
He looked into Tanuma's eyes for a long while and searched the other boy's face, but he found nothing but compassion and affection, and maybe a hint of gentle curiosity. He felt understood even though he hadn't even begun to talk yet. It was this notion of unconditional acceptance that made him go on.
"Very well. Are you prepared for a rather long story?" Without waiting for an answer, Natsume flopped back down onto his back, folding his arms behind his head. He looked up into the deep blue sky as he gathered his thoughts. He felt rather than saw Tanuma settle down next to him, mirroring Natsume's pose. He didn't know whether it was coincidence that their elbows touched ever so slightly, but it felt comforting and right.
"My grandmother," Natsume began his tale, "my grandmother was a very strong woman, who could also see and communicate with youkai..."
Tanuma listened with quiet attention as Natsume told him about his grandmother and the Book of Friends. In the beginning, there were a lot of pauses as Natsume struggled to keep his narration as comprehensible as he could, but the longer he talked the easier it became; he realized that as long as he could actually put it into words, Tanuma would understand. There were a couple of times when the other boy interrupted Natsume, asking for a specific detail or some clarification, but they were far and few in between and Natsume never felt pressured to say something he did not want to say.
He barely noticed when he lapsed into talking about his childhood. He relayed what had happened to him in a very factual, almost detached way, not bothering to elaborate on the feelings that had accompanied all those experiences; he didn't feel it was necessary.
At some point, Natsume's back started to hurt where an evil little rock was digging into the small of his back, so he sat up, stretching and twisting his upper body. Tanuma seized the opportunity to rummage through his bag that sat on the ground beside him, producing a small water bottle from it which he offered to Natsume.
Natsume accepted it with a grateful smile that was answered with a wink. That, in turn, made Natsume laugh.
"Aren't you bored of my stories yet?" He opened the bottle and drank thirstily.
Tanuma cocked his head to one side, giving Natsume a considering look. "You've moved around a lot for your age," was his rather cryptic reply; his eyes were full of warmth, though, letting Natsume know that Tanuma had heard the unspoken parts of the story, too.
Then Tanuma continued with a grin, "I am actually very much looking forward to hearing more. For example about how you came by the Book of Friends and how you use it. Because you do have it, don't you?"
Natsume nodded with a wry smile and a sigh. "Yes, that terribly troublesome book is indeed mine."
He took another sip of water before handing the bottle back to Tanuma. The other boy gulped down the remaining water, then lay back down, though on his side this time, shooting Natsume an expectant look.
Natsume shook his head, but more at himself than at Tanuma. "I'm really not sure if I'm doing you a favor by telling you all of this," he pondered. "But then, not knowing could get you into trouble just as easily. Well, here we go.
"I had just transferred here, barely a month before one day…" Natsume picked up his narration again, but this time it was about him and the youkai and the Book of Friends. About how he had literally stumbled into his companionship with Nyanko-Sensei, how youkai kept confusing him with his grandmother, and how some of them were friendly, gentle or even cute and funny while others truly were as evil as the legends depicted them.
He invited Tanuma into his world of nightly youkai visits, the importance of names, drinking get-togethers and how old loves never die. He told him about Natori and Matoba, about the fox child and the mermaid and the disappearance of old gods. Tales of wrath and revenge alternated with pictures of friendship, love, and helping each other.
This time, Tanuma appeared not only to listen with simple acceptance; he rather seemed to drink it all in, absorbing each and every one of Natsume's words, and Natsume more and more realized that his stories made Tanuma's perception of the youkai world more comprehensive, a world of which so far, the other boy had only gotten flashes and glimpses, forever remaining in the dark as it teased at the edges of his consciousness.
It was late when Natsume finally finished. He was still tired, and his throat hurt from overuse, yet he somehow felt refreshed, his heart light and at peace. He ran a hand through his hair, then glanced at Tanuma who slowly sat up, stretching and twisting as he probably tried to get the kinks out of his back, just as Natsume had earlier.
As if on cue, their eyes met and held while identical little smiles tugged on the corners of their lips. They remained like this for a long moment, simply enjoying the other's company and the feeling of mutual understanding in silence.
Before any awkwardness could arise, a very familiar, slightly nasal voice broke the quiet of the shrine.
"Natsumeeeee. What the hell do you think you're doing sitting on your lazy ass with this extraordinarily dumb and annoying species of a youkai rampaging through the forest and announcing to the world that he is going to eat you?"
Nyanko-Sensei appeared by the entrance to the shrine and waved imperiously. The rosy color of his cheeks, telltale of what he had been up to all afternoon, however, somewhat ruined the effect.
The boys broke into easy chuckles and stood up, patting down their pants to free them from dead leaves and little twigs.
"Duty is calling, I guess," Natsume spoke first, "now that my master and bodyguard has arrived." He winked at Tanuma. "Otherworldly business, you know."
Tanuma grinned but grew serious a second later. "Be careful, Natsume."
Natsume nodded. "I will. I'll see you at school tomorrow. And…thank you."
Tanuma mirrored the nod and turned to leave. "Thank you, too, and see you tomorrow."
Natsume watched him go, then turned to Nyanko-sensei with a headshake and a sigh. "Let's go, kitty-cat. We've got work to do." Without pause he started walking toward the approaching sound of falling trees with a smirk, followed by an indignantly sputtering Nyanko-Sensei.