When Kaname’s father tells him that he’s been assigned to a new temple and that they’ll soon have to move to a small town in the countryside, Kaname doesn’t feel anything but mild surprise, and maybe the tiniest flicker of excitement. They’ve been living in this city for over three years, enough for Kaname to attend middle school without having to transfer halfway into it, so he feels like he should be sad at the prospect of being taken away from the people and the places he’s become familiar with. Except he isn’t.
“I can try to work things out so we can stay here, if you want,” his father says, interpreting his silence as consternation. “You just started high school, and I know it must be hard for you to leave your friends behind and move to a new school all of sudden…”
Kaname smiles at him reassuringly. “I know it can’t be helped, dad. I’ll be fine,” he says, and he means it. He doesn’t care. They have lived in four different cities so far, from Hokkaido to Shikoku, and he can’t even remember how any of them looked like. Every place is the same to him.
“When are we leaving?” he asks.
“At the beginning of May, probably,” his father replies, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “There isn’t much time, so don’t forget to say goodbye to your classmates and to the kids at the dojo.”
“Yes, dad,” Kaname says obediently. He knows that neither his classmates nor the kids at the karate dojo where his father teaches in his spare time will miss him, but he doesn’t blame them. It’s not like they avoided him or made him feel left out, exactly – it’s just that he’s the kind of person that fades into the background, the quiet boy who always sits at the back of the class and that nobody really remembers because there’s nothing special about him. Kaname likes it this way. He likes his uncomplicated, unattached life, and doesn’t mind being alone.
“It’s an ancient temple near a forest,” his father continues, with a dreamy look in his eyes. “The area is called Yatsuhara, and I’ve been told it’s a beautiful place. You said you wanted to live in the countryside, didn’t you?”
Kaname doesn’t particularly care about that either, but the idea of moving to the countryside does have a certain appeal. He doesn’t like crowds, being constantly surrounded by people; it makes him feel trapped and uneasy. And he can see things, sometimes, grotesque shadows lurking at the corners of his vision, flickers of shapes that disappear when he tries to focus on them. Some of them don’t feel threatening or malicious, merely curious, and these are the ones Kaname likes best; but others are vindictive and hateful, and they’re drawn to, or born from – Kaname isn’t sure – people’s negative emotions. Their presence is the reason of his frail health, and staying away from people is often the only way he has to avoid getting sick. In a city, it’s not that easy.
“Yes, it would be nice,” he says, trying to convey some enthusiasm for his father’s sake.
He starts packing that night, realizing, with an odd sense of detachment, that most of his life fits inside two small bags. They leave the following week, and as his dad drives away from their old house and out of the city, Kaname never once lifts his eyes from the book in his lap.
Yatsuhara takes Kaname entirely by surprise, and that’s amazing in itself. He doesn’t get surprised often; most of the time he doesn’t really feel anything at all.
The temple is small, smaller than any of the temples his dad has been sent to before, and it looks old and neglected, but Kaname thinks it’s the most beautiful place he’s ever seen. The air feels vibrant, alive; the sky looks bluer, the tender green of the new leaves looks greener, and the old wisteria in the corner of the courtyard is a blooming cloud of violet flowers.
“I like it,” Kaname says, with unusual intensity. His father shoots a surprised glance at him, then smiles.
“I like it too,” he replies. “The temple will need some repairs before I can use it again, but it’s a good place.”
They stand side by side, looking at their new home in silence. Home, Kaname thinks, amazed. I’ve never called any place ‘home’ before.
“I’ll go unpack my stuff, which room should I take?” he says, eager to explore the inside of the house.
“You can pick the one you like better. There’s plenty of space, so it won’t be a problem. Just, do you mind opening the amado, while you’re at it? It must smell pretty stale inside.”
Kaname grabs his bags and goes into the house, stopping to push aside the wooden boards that seal it close while he wanders from room to room. Inside it smells like dust and wax and old incense, and it feels strangely welcoming; he pictures the house as a big sleeping creature, slowly blinking awake and sniffing curiously at him.
The last room he steps into has a nice view on the back garden, but otherwise it’s no different from the other rooms on this side of the house, at least until a flicker of movement catches Kaname’s eye and he looks up. What he sees is the reflection of a pond, a reflection he’s sure shouldn’t be there. He checks the garden again to make sure, but he sees nothing but grass and rocks; and yet there it is, the unmistakable shimmer of sunlight on water. There are ripples on the surface, stirred by a breeze Kaname can’t feel, and every now and then, the darting shadow of a fish.
Kaname stares at the reflection in wonder.
“Dad! Can you come here, please?” he yells. He’s irrationally afraid that the wondrous vision will disappear as soon as he looks away, so he doesn’t take his eyes off the ceiling even for a second.
His father gets there moments later, and his gaze automatically follows Kaname’s.
“Can you see anything… unusual?” Kaname asks. The trepidation he feels in his heart must bleed into his voice, because his father shoots him a concerned glance.
“I can’t see anything there,” his father says slowly. “Kaname, is it something bad?”
He moves to stand in front of Kaname and reaches for his rosary, the way he does when he’s chanting purifying spells. Once again, Kaname is touched by his father’s protectiveness, and grateful for the way he always takes him seriously when it comes to the unsettling things he sees.
“It’s nothing, dad,” he says, putting a placating hand on his father’s arm. “I just thought I’d seen something, but now it’s gone. And whatever it was, it didn’t feel bad.”
His father looks at him sharply, but Kaname holds his gaze. Then he sighs and puts the rosary back into the folds of his robe.
“I’m a bit worried,” he admits. “I’ve been told that Yatsuhara is the center of many local legends about youkai, but I was hoping they were only legends. Now I’m not so sure it’s safe for you to stay here.”
Kaname looks at the shimmering reflection floating just above his father’s head. There’s something heartbreakingly beautiful about it, and he can’t shake off the feeling that the pond has been waiting for someone able to see it – someone like him. He’s never cared much about his weird power before; most of the time it just makes him feel sick and miserable, but this – this feels like a gift. It makes him feel special.
“Please, dad,” Kaname whispers, gripping his father’s arm tight. “I want to stay.”
A few weeks later, Kaname notices a boy at his new school. The boy has a gentle smile but the loneliest eyes Kaname’s ever seen, eyes that are always looking at something far away. He learns that his name is Natsume Takashi, and overhears some of his classmates talking about him. ‘He’s always staring off into space, how odd,’ and ‘he’s so jumpy, there must be something wrong with him,’ they say, and Kaname’s curiosity is piqued.
One day he sees Natsume looking intently out of the window and follows his gaze, only to realize with a jolt that the boy isn’t staring off into space – he’s staring at something, something that Kaname sees too, two indistinct shapes silhouetted against the shadow of a tree.
His heart starts pounding faster in his chest, and for a moment he’s overwhelmed by a fierce, disbelieving joy. There’s someone else like me, he thinks. I’m not the only one.
His first instinct is to go to Natsume and ask him if he can see too, but then caution and shyness have the best of him. What if those shapes are just a product of his imagination? What if they’re not what Natsume is staring at? He’d told his elementary school classmates about the creepy shadow hand he’d seen hanging from the gym’s ceiling, once, and they’d called him a liar and a freak. That had happened again and again, until Kaname had wised up and stopped trying.
As if sensing his probing stare, Natsume turns sharply to look in his direction, and Kaname looks away hastily.
Tomorrow, he tells himself with a strange mix of relief and disappointment as he walks away. Tomorrow I’ll go talk to him for sure.
In the end, he doesn’t. It’s Natsume himself who comes to him, and that encounter changes Kaname forever.
Their fledgling friendship is still shy and tentative, but it’s getting increasingly harder for Kaname to remember how his life was like, before the beautiful boy with lonely eyes and a dangerous secret cautiously stepped into it and still managed to turn it upside-down.
Now he knows that Natsume isn’t like him at all. He can see the world that Kaname’s eyes can barely perceive, and Kaname’s just beginning to understand how much of a burden it is for Natsume. He can’t even imagine how a world where youkai are as real as people could look like, but it must be a frightening place.
The day Kaname realizes for the first time the full extent of the abyss that separates him from Natsume is a clear, lazy summer day, and he has finally worked up the courage to invite Natsume to his house.
“Oh, it’s almost time,” Kaname says as he hands Natsume a glass of iced green tea, feeling a little giddy with anticipation. “Look at the ceiling. Isn’t it pretty?”
Natsume looks up, surprised, and then looks back at him with a soft smile. “Is that a reflection of a pond in your garden?”
“No. Look, we don’t have one,” Kaname replies with a grin, pointing at the garden outside. “I think we’re the only ones who can actually see it.”
“Eh? But the pond is…” Natsume murmurs, almost to himself. His eyes grow distant, an expression Kaname has learned to know, one he’s growing to hate; and in that instant he just knows that Natsume can see a pond in his garden. He looks away from Natsume’s entranced face, feeling utterly, painfully foolish. He’d wanted to share his precious secret with Natsume, without realizing how pathetic and meaningless that secret was.
“Well, it’s not like you can see much,” Natsume’s fat cat – who is actually a youkai, the first Kaname has ever talked to – had told him. “You’re not very useful.”
Kaname knows he’s not. He can’t see youkai. He’s not good with people, he’s an average student, he doesn’t have any special talent. Even his health is weak. He’s fairly good at karate, but he doesn’t particularly love it – when he was little his dad had asked him if he wanted to learn, and he’d simply found no good reason to refuse.
He used to be okay with this. He knew he had nothing to offer to people, so what was the point in trying to get close to them?
Natsume’s presence has changed everything. Now Kaname knows that Natsume avoids him when he’s involved in youkai business because he’s afraid of putting him in danger, and this knowledge makes his heart hurt with frustration and anger, both directed at himself.
Sometimes he sees the bruises and scratches that Natsume tries to hide, and the exhaustion in his eyes when he falls asleep during lunch break while Kaname is talking to him, and cold fear claws at his gut. He wants to ask what happened but he knows it’ll just make Natsume feel guilty, so he doesn’t.
Then come the nightmares – frightening and far too realistic, nightmares in which Natsume is eaten by a youkai or possessed by an evil spirit or kidnapped or hurt or torn to pieces – and in the nightmares Kaname is always standing there, mute and powerless, unable to save him.
One night he wakes up with actual tears streaming down his face, and realizes how badly he wants to be able to see youkai. He wants to help Natsume. He wants to be someone Natsume can go to when there’s something troubling him. He wants to keep him safe. He wants to be strong, and he wants to make a difference. If in the past he never wanted anything, now he find himself wanting with all-consuming intensity, and it’s almost too much to bear. It’s pathetic, really, how much he needs Natsume, how much Natsume’s presence defines his sense of self-worth.
Natsume is different. He doesn’t need Kaname. He has powerful friends, far more powerful than Kaname will ever be, and yet… Natsume still seeks him out. They play shogi together and take walks in the forest or simply spend hours talking quietly in Kaname’s room, and it’s something Kaname has never experienced before. He knows that Natsume hasn’t either, and that makes what they have infinitely more precious. Natsume is Kaname’s first friend, and he wonders if all friendships come with so much happiness and heartache, or if Natsume is just special.
The last of the winter snow melts slowly into spring, revealing violets and anemones blooming under the greening trees in the Yatsuhara forest. With surprise, Kaname realizes that soon it’ll be a year since he came to live here.
“We should celebrate,” his father says one evening while they’re having dinner. “You’ve been getting sick less often since we transferred here. And you look… different. Happier, I think.”
“Happier…?” Kaname says, surprised. “Yes, I suppose so.” His father smiles into his bowl of rice and vegetables, but doesn’t say anything else.
Kaname is surprised because he’s never really thought about it, but he does feel happier than before. There have also been moments when he’s felt more miserable than ever, but what really surprises him is how strongly he feels, now. The past year has opened his heart and his eyes to all sorts of things; maybe he still can’t see youkai, but there are things he can see more clearly, now. He knows what it feels like to have friends; there are people other than his father that he cares about, people he wants to be with, people he wants to protect. There is someone who is really important to him, someone he wants to help, and this makes him feel like his own existence finally has a purpose. He’s still weak, but he doesn’t want to be useless anymore.
Later that night, after Kaname finishes washing the dishes, his father comes to his room holding their old shogi board.
“Kaname, do you want to play?” he asks, somewhat sheepishly. “We haven’t had a match in a while, you and I.”
Kaname grins. “Sure, but don’t think I’ll go easy on you. You’ll see how much I’ve improved since the last time!”
“You wish,” his father says, grinning back. He starts setting his pieces on the board with a determined expression on his face, which turns into almost comical dismay when Kaname beats him faster than he ever did.
“You really did improve a lot, huh? Your old man is no match for you anymore.”
“Well, I’ve been playing with Natsume a lot,” Kaname says with an apologetic grin, feeling a bit sorry but also very pleased with himself.
“I’m glad you found a friend to play with,” his father says, and his features soften into a wistful smile. “I used to play shogi with your mother all the time, even if she always defeated me. She was unbeatable at it.”
Kaname looks at his father, surprised. “Really? You never told me before!”
“Talking about her used to be really painful,” he replies earnestly. “And you never asked, so I assumed it was hard for you too.”
Kaname bits his lip thoughtfully, frowning. He doesn’t remember his mother very well because she died when he was little, and since then it had always been him and his father. Her photo smiles down at him every day from the small shrine they keep in the house, but he doesn’t really know what kind of person she was. Had his father felt useless when she’d died despite his prayers and purification rites, the same kind of uselessness Kaname now feels when Natsume is involved?
“Dad, do you hate youkai?” he blurts out, unable to stop himself. “For… for taking her away?”
And did you hate yourself for being unable to stop them?
His father looks at him. There are sadness and compassion in his eyes, and gentle understanding.
“ I did, at the beginning,” he admits. “I sat by her bed every day, praying and chanting sutras in the hope of driving off what was consuming her, but she just kept withering away in front of my eyes. I cursed youkai, and cursed myself even more for being unable to do anything.”
He pauses, twirling a shogi piece between his fingers absent-mindedly. Kaname thinks about his nightmares of Natsume, and a chill runs down his spine.
“What did she say about it?”
His father’s answering smile is a little watery around the edges, but a smile nevertheless.
“Oh, she used to laugh and say I was silly for trying, given that nothing had ever worked in all the years we’d known each other, but then she would always smile and thank me and say that she did feel a little better.”
“Maybe she was lying not to make you sad,” Kaname says bitterly. He thinks about Natsume’s silences, about the mortified look on his face whenever he realizes he’s said something that Kaname can’t see or understand.
“Maybe,” his father says serenely, putting the shogi pieces away, “but that never stopped me from trying until the very end. That’s why I have no regrets, now.”
The conversation with his father resonates in Kaname’s mind for days, and, little by little, an idea starts taking root in his head. It’s not the first time he’s thought about it – the first time had been when he’d met Natori-san and learned that such people as exorcists existed – but he’d never thought himself capable of accomplishing anything of that sort. He still doesn’t know if he can, but he doesn’t want to live with regrets.
He asks his father to teach him some of his meditation techniques in the hope of learning how to channel his powers better; he’s kind of naturally quiet and introspective by nature, so meditation comes fairly easy to him, to his father’s delight. He takes the habit of sitting on the wooden porch outside his room and staring at the spot where the ghost pond is supposed to be, trying to focus on his breathing and to clear his mind.
There’s still nothing there, or at least nothing Kaname can see, but every time he thinks about the loneliness in Natsume’s eyes as he looked at something only he could see, he tries again. He tries and tries, even if the only thing he accomplishes is to give himself headaches. Sometimes he thinks he can see something – the silvery ripples of a water surface disturbed by a quick fin, the concentric circles of a stone he threw – but maybe it’s just his strained vision playing tricks on his mind.
It’s frustrating, and often he thinks he’s just wasting his time on a foolish, hopeless idea, but little by little he feels himself change. Now there’s a core of strength and confidence within him that wasn’t there before; his perceptions are getting stronger, and he realizes he’s learning to pick up the otherworldly trails left by youkai, and to tell them apart. He still sees them only as shadows, but now their shapes seem more defined, somehow.
“Taki, can I talk to you for a moment?” Kaname asks, trying to hide the nervousness in his voice. Talking to Taki still feels a bit awkward when Natsume isn’t with them, but he’s waited for a day Natsume is on cleaning duty with Nishimura because there is no way he would approve of what Kaname is about to ask, if he knew.
“Sure, what is it?” she says, looking at him with curiosity.
“Well, it’s about your grandfather, kind of…” he says. “You said he collected a lot of information about youkai through the years, right?”
Taki nods. “Well, you’ve seen my storehouse,” she replies, and laughs when she sees Kaname’s expression. “That was pretty intense, wasn’t it? Everything in there is related to youkai in some way of another, and there are a lot of books too. Why did you ask?”
“Well, I was wondering if… if you could let me take a look at those books.”
Taki looks taken aback for a moment, but the surprise in her eyes is quickly replaced by a shrewd gleam.
“This is about Natsume-kun, isn’t it?” she says, looking around and lowering her voice conspiratorially. “You are trying to learn more about youkai to help him, aren’t you.”
Am I really that obvious? Kaname wonders, disconcerted by how quickly she saw through him.
“I… yes,” he admits, feeling the beginning of a blush spread across his face. He’s still trying to figure out his complicated feelings for Natsume, and it’s embarrassing to realize how noticeable they are.
Taki pats him lightly on the arm, smiling in that warm, accepting way of hers that makes Kaname suddenly grateful about having her on his side.
“You can come by my house tomorrow, if you’re free,” she suggests.
“Are you sure it’s okay with you?” Kaname replies, feeling that sense of vague awkwardness returning. He realizes how little he really knows Taki – she’s Natsume friend, and by extension his own friend, and she knows about youkai, but all they’ve ever talked about when Natsume wasn’t with them was, well… Natsume. Natsume is their connection, and without him around it’s like they don’t know each other at all.
“Taki! There you are!” a familiar voice calls out, and they turn around to see Sasada marching towards them with an indignant look on her face. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
“Sorry, Jun,” Taki says with a placating smile. “Tanuma-kun needed to talk about something , but we’re done now.”
Sasada shoots Kaname a suspicious glance and pouts at Taki, but doesn’t say anything. She does grab Taki’s arm with something akin to possessiveness, though, and Kaname wonders when the two of them became such close friends.
“See you tomorrow, then!” Taki says cheerfully, managing to wave him goodbye even while being dragged away by the other girl. Dazed, Kaname just nods and waves back, wondering what he’s just gotten himself into.
Taki’s storeroom is every bit as creepy as he remembers, even if considerably less dusty.
“Were you looking for something in particular? I’m afraid my granddad wasn’t the best, when it came to organizing his stuff,” Taki says, digging into the first of an impressive stack of boxes simply labelled “books” and taking out volumes at random. Soon there’s a pile of books precariously balanced on the floor in front of Kaname, with titles ranging from the mundane to the downright creepy.
“He had quite the collection, didn’t he?” Kaname mumbles, flipping gingerly through the first book that comes into his hands. He’s starting to reconsider the wisdom of his idea; it’s going to take him years to go through all this stuff, and most of it looks like useless drivel anyway.
“Found it!” Taki exclaims triumphantly, even if her voice sounds muffled by the cupboard she’s just crawled into. She comes out holding a smaller box that she places in front of Kaname, and then she kneels beside him.
“This was my granddad’s treasure,” she whispers, brushing away a cobweb from her hair as she bends over the box. “All the sealing incantations, the instructions to draw spell circles and to summon youkai, the protective spells… everything is here.”
Kaname takes the scrolls Taki hands him with reverence. They look ancient, and there’s something about them, a sort of aura, that tells him he might be onto something.
“That one is a spell for restraining wandering spirits,” she says, pointing at the scroll Kaname’s looking at.
“Did you read all of these?” he asks. “You seem to know their content pretty well.”
“Yes, I did,” she admits. Her eyes turn melancholy. “After my granddad passed away and my parents put all his stuff in the storeroom, I started sneaking into here secretly to read his favourite books… I couldn’t really understand much of them, but it made me feel like I was keeping his memory alive. These books are my connection to him.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to bring back sad memories,” Kaname says. He suddenly feels bad about wanting these books, now that he knows how much they mean to Taki.
She shakes his head. “I still miss him, but it doesn’t hurt anymore. He had a good life, and even if he never managed to see his beloved youkai, now I know that they loved him back. That makes me really happy.”
“But still… are you okay with me borrowing his books? They are precious memories for you.”
“Oh, I’m sure my granddad would be thrilled, knowing that his books are being read by someone who shares his interest in the youkai world,” she grins. “Besides, I’m sure you’ll take good care of them.”
Touched by her trust, Kaname can just nod. “I will. Thank you so much, Taki.” She blushes and smiles, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
“Just, Tanuma-kun…” she says quietly, “… nothing of this stuff helped my granddad see youkai, you know.”
Kaname smiles at her reassuringly. “I know. But we also know that some of it does work, like your circles and those sealing spells your granddad managed to cast by accident. I don’t know for sure, but maybe… maybe I have enough power to make them work. And even if I don’t, I’m not going to give up without even trying.”
“You’re amazing, Tanuma-kun!” she says, clapping her hands together, and she sounds so enthusiastic that it’s Kaname’s turn to blush.
“I’m tired of being useless. I… I just want to…” he stops, sighs, and takes a deep breath.
“To help Natsume-kun?” Taki suggests with a slight smile. Kaname nods.
“I want to help him too, but I know there’s not much I can do,” she says wistfully. “I have no power whatsoever, and spell circles are the only thing that ever worked for me.”
“You are helping me a lot,” Kaname assures her. “If any of this works, it’ll be thanks to you, too. And not just now… that time when I was possessed by a youkai, I was glad you were there. Natsume would get mad at me if he heard this, but I had lots of fun looking for those mirror shards with you guys.”
They grin at each other, and Taki goes back to digging books and scrolls out of the box.
“It’s still early, so if you want you can stay here and start looking the books,” she says. “I’ll go make some tea and then I’ll join you.”
“That sounds great,” Kaname says. “Oh, and Taki? Please don’t tell Natsume anything about this, ok? I know he’d worry, if he knew.”
“Considering what happened to me when I learned to make spell circles, I think he’d have a point…” Taki says mildly. Kaname sees the shadow that crosses her face at the mention of her past ordeal.
“I’ll be careful,” he promises. “Being careful is all I’m good at, apparently.”
“Not when it comes to Natsume-kun,” Taki comments, giggling in a way that makes Kaname’s face heat up.
She leaves to make the promised tea, while Kaname sits at a low table in the company of a stack of books. He doesn’t know if he’ll find anything able to help him, but as he flips through a thick volume with beautiful illustrations of youkai and deities from folklore, he realizes he’s actually excited to learn more about spirits. The youkai world has been with him since he was born – swimming at the edge of his vision and his consciousness, always just barely out of reach, but still a part of who he is.
Something small and soft lands heavily on his back, and Kaname drops the book with a scream.
“You scream like a girl,” a familiar voice says. Natsume’s pig-cat jumps from his back to the table, landing neatly between the books and giving him a look full of insolence.
“Ponta! What are you doing here? Is Natsume with you?” Kaname says.
“Stop calling me that ridiculous name already!” the cat youkai screeches. Kaname has to keep him at arm’s length to prevent him from scratching his face away, but he’s quite used to that.
“I’m here by myself,” Ponta says haughtily once Kaname puts him back on the table. “A powerful and noble youkai such as myself goes wherever he pleases, of course.”
“I thought you were supposed to be Natsume’s bodyguard,” Kaname says teasingly, poking his fat belly. Ponta tries to bite his finger, but Kaname pulls back in time, laughing.
“It’s not my fault if that brat wanders away on his own all the time,” Ponta says with a long-suffering sigh. “I was just passing by, and it looked like there was something exciting going on, so I decided to investigate. Turns out it’s just you and a bunch of musty old books, though.”
“Sorry for being so boring,” Kaname says, and starts scratching Ponta’s throat. The cat-youkai closes his eyes in bliss.
“What are you – nyaaa – doing with these – nyaaa – books?” he asks. “I can sense a powerful magic coming from – nyaaa – some of them.”
“Research,” Kaname says vaguely. Ponta opens one sly eye to look at him, and for some reason Kaname just knows that the youkai has him completely figured out. God, just how obvious is he?
“You have a long way to go, then,” the youkai says. “I’d start with this one, if I were you.”
A round paw pushes a book towards him, and Kaname grins. “Thank you, Pon– er, Nyan-Nyan Sensei.”
“IT’S NYANKO-SENSEI!” the cat youkai yells. In that moment the screen door opens, and a worried-looking Taki pokes her head in.
“Tanuma-kun, is everything okay? I heard a scream and– ”
She freezes mid-sentence, and Kaname can clearly pinpoint the instant when she spots Ponta and all her thought processes shut down. On the table, Ponta freezes too. Kaname, always the sensible one, takes a cautionary step back.
“OH MY GOD YOU’RE THE CUTEST THING EVER JUST LET ME HUG YOU,” Taki shrieks, and she’s clutching Ponta to her chest before the cat youkai has the chance to flee out of the window.
Kaname shakes his head in amusement, and goes back to reading.
The first rain of June surprises Kaname on his way home from school. When the first sparse drops hit him he looks up, grimacing because he’s forgotten his umbrella somewhere, but thankfully the canopy of leaves over his head is thick enough to shelter him from the worst of it. He’s walking home on the path that cuts through the forest , the one that has become his favourite shortcut, but his mind is elsewhere.
“Natsume! I can tell you’re lying by the look on your face!” he hears himself say for the umpteenth time. His brain has decided to replay this particular line over and over, and each new iteration makes him want to crawl under a rock and never come out again. It isn’t like him to be so forceful, but the idea of Natsume trying to hide the fact that he’d lost a picture of his parents because he didn’t want to bother his friends had made him really angry. But the way he’d said it was just so… so embarrassing! He’d been one step away from sounding like a lovesick schoolgirl. He groans at the memory, burying his flushed face in his hands.
A sensation like the world abruptly tilting on its axis and then righting itself again makes Kaname stop dead in his tracks. He can feel an odd shift in the atmosphere, and when he looks at his surroundings, he realizes with dismay that he doesn’t recognize them. The familiar path his feet were following almost on their own accord has disappeared, and everything around him looks eerily foreign. Mist swirls in lazy coils around his legs, and the forest looks… older, somehow. Instinctively Kaname knows that this is still the Yatsuhara forest, but at the same time it’s not.
He has no idea where he is and he suspects that in this place directions just don’t work the normal way, so he takes a deep breath and picks one at random.
He’s been walking for a while through the thick undergrowth when the light shower turns into an actual rainstorm, and he looks around frantically for shelter. Something catches his eye, a spot of vivid blue-violet outlined against the green and brown canvas of the forest, and in the middle of it something that looks like a building. He runs towards it, and with surprise he realizes it’s a tiny Shinto shrine, surrounded by countless blooming hydrangeas.
The inside of the shrine is chilly and damp, but at least the roof keeps the rain away. The place looks abandoned; the altar is empty, void of even the remains of past offerings, and the stone statue placed on it is old and worn. Kaname vaguely recognizes it as some rain deity he’s seen in a book, but its features are too ruined for him to be sure. It would explain the hydrangeas, though. They seem to cover every inch of ground around the shrine, but one in particular catches his eye, a small hydrangea half-crushed under a fallen branch just beside the entrance to the shrine.
Kaname looks at the plant, and a wave of anguish reaches him. It comes from the plant itself, he realizes; he can feel its silent plea for help, because it desperately wants to live but it can’t do anything to save itself.
Without thinking twice he gets out in the rain again and gently removes the branch, careful not to hurt the hydrangea further. He knows very little about plants, but this one doesn’t look too far gone.
“There you go, little one. Happy?” Kaname says, brushing his fingertips across the purple-blue flowers. In that instant he feels something soft and cool touch his face like a caress, and then a sudden, blinding pain in his head, and everything goes black.
When he wakes up, the shrine and the hydrangeas are gone. He’s lying under a tree near what he recognizes as a crossroad in the path that leads to his home, and his head hurts like hell.
A wave of relief floods him; the forest looks familiar again, and that feeling of uneasiness is gone. The rain has stopped, but he realizes with bemusement that he’s soaked to the bone, and that the sun is setting behind the mountain in a veil of golden mist.
“Did I just imagine that shrine?” he mumbles, massaging his aching temples with a wince. Maybe he just passed out and dreamed everything; the contact with a strong source of spiritual energy does that to him, sometimes. Sighing, he picks himself up and walks home, shivering into his cold, wet uniform.
Quite unsurprisingly, the morning after he wakes up with a burning fever and a splitting headache. He drags himself to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and sees that his father has made him breakfast and left it on a covered tray on the kitchen table. He isn’t hungry, but tries to eat a little nonetheless.
Halfway into his miso soup he gazes out distractedly, and what he sees makes him freeze with the bowl in mid-air. He puts it down slowly and rubs his eyes.
There’s a little girl standing in the middle of the courtyard, dressed like someone straight out of a period drama. An elaborate hairpin is woven through her glossy black hair, and she’s wearing a violet-blue kimono with a hydrangea pattern embroidered on it in lilac and gold. Oddly enough, her feet are bare and smeared with dirt, and she’s just standing there, looking at him with solemn, unblinking eyes.
“Um, hello,” Kaname says, approaching the child cautiously. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
She gazes at him in unnerving silence for a long time. Then her lips move silently, as if forming words for the first time.
“I’m… lost,” she says in a tiny, faltering voice. It reminds Kaname of rain.
“What’s your name?”
She tilts her head, looking like she is pondering his question. “I don’t know,” she says eventually. “Nobody ever called me before. You were the first to… talk to me.”
“I… what? I’ve never seen you before!” Kaname exclaims, gaping at her. Then an image flashes into his mind, of violet-blue flowers and a small plant crushed under a rotten branch.
“Wait. You are that hydrangea, aren’t you?” he says, surprised, but not too much, when she nods. It hadn’t been a dream, then.
“What happened after I lost consciousness, do you know?”
“I was… afraid something bad would happen to you. But I don’t have a lot of power, so I just took you back. To the border.”
“So it was you who helped me. Thank you,” Kaname says, smiling warmly at her. At first she looks confused, then she smiles hesitantly back.
“And then what happened? How come you didn’t go back to your shrine?”
“If the rain stops, I can’t go back. So I followed you here.” She looks at him timidly, as if she were expecting to be scolded. “Was it the wrong thing to do?”
“No, it’s okay,” Kaname replies, “but will you be able to go back, once it starts raining again?”
She shakes her head, and her eyes fill with tears. “I… went too far, and now I can’t find the way home anymore,” she hiccups.
Kaname wills himself to stay calm, even if inside he’s starting to freak out. He has no idea what to do with crying children, let alone crying youkai children. He settles for crouching in front of her until their eyes are at the same level and putting his hands on her shaking shoulders.
“Shhh, everything will be fine,” he says, in the most soothing voice he can manage. “Will it help if I take you back to the place where you left me yesterday?”
She thinks about it for a moment, then her tear-streaked face brightens a little. “Yes! If there’s rain to guide me I think I can,” she says.
“Then we’ll wait for it to rain and then I’ll take you there, okay?” Kaname says, relieved to see she’s not crying anymore. Thunder rolls among the dark clouds overhead, and he smiles. “It sounds like we won’t even have to wait long.”
They sit down on the porch to wait, because she seems terrified by the idea of going into the house. Kaname mourns his warm soup and his even warmer bed, and the prospect of going out again makes him feel faint, but he doesn’t want to leave his little visitor alone. After the initial diffidence, now she’s sticking as close to him as she possibly can; she looks lost in the human world, and remembering his own brief but disquieting visits to the youkai one, he can empathize with her distress.
“Hey,” Kaname says, struck by a sudden though, “what did you mean when you said I was the first one who ever talked to you? Don’t you have any friends?”
She stops gazing at the sky and turns her eyes on him. They look lonely, and a little sad.
“No,” she said. “It’s just us hydrangeas there. The god of the shrine went away a long time ago, and they don’t care about me.”
“That’s mean of them,” Kaname frowns.
“That’s because I am useless and weak,” she says emotionlessly. “I heard some of them saying that I was going to die soon, so I wasn’t worth talking to.”
Startled, Kaname looks at the calm acceptance on her face as she says that, and suddenly feels like crying. He used to feel the same, until not that long ago, and he used to say the same things, but it’s only now that he hears them coming from someone else that he fully realizes how terrible they sound.
“Maybe you are weak right now, but you aren’t useless. Nobody ever is,” he says, quietly but firmly. “And there isn’t anybody in the world who isn’t worth talking to.”
She looks at him, wide-eyed. Kaname himself is surprised at the strength in his words, and looking at her confused but trusting face, he feels compelled to explain himself.
“I used to feel useless all the time too. There was nothing special about me, so I thought I didn’t deserve people’s friendship and attention… until I found someone I wanted to protect at any cost, and that made me realize that no matter how weak I was, there was still something I could do.”
“Someone… important?” she says.
Kaname smiles fondly. “Yes. The most important person in the world.”
“You are lucky,” she says softly, and Kaname realizes that yes, he really is.
The patter of the first raindrops on the tiled roof of the temple breaks their moment of silence, making them look up at the same time and then smile at each other.
“Shall we go, then?” Kaname says. He holds out his hand to the youkai child, who looks slightly perplexed, but after a moment’s hesitation she grabs onto his sleeve. They start walking in silence, the only sounds the dripping and drumming of raindrops on Kaname’s umbrella and the splashing of their steps on the wet ground. Shivers run through Kaname’s feverish body, but he wills himself to ignore them and just go on.
After what to Kaname feels like forever they reach the crossroad, and she lets go of his sleeve. She closes her eyes, the tails of her obi fluttering delicately in the wind.
“I can feel it now,” she says, beaming at him. “I can feel the road home. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Kaname says. He holds out his hand, and this time she takes it in hers. Kaname remembers that soft, cool touch.
“Listen, will you do something for me?” he asks. She looks up at him in surprise, but nods. “When you go back, try to talk to someone, okay? They might end up rejecting you, but maybe all you need to do is take the first step. Someone once told me that the first step is always the scariest, but you can never gain anything precious if you don’t accept the risk.”
“I… I’ll try,” she says, and when she looks at him again her eyes are filled with unshed tears and gratitude. “Can I come to visit you again, sometimes? I won’t forget the road anymore.”
“Of course you can,” Kaname smiles. “I’ll be happy to see you again.”
“Thank you,” are the last words he hears, and a moment later she disappears from his sight. He opens his hand slowly, and a few hydrangea flowers scatter in the wind. He turns his back to the crossroad and goes home.
The result of his little adventure is one of the most draining bouts of sickness he’s experienced in years. He has a high fever for nearly a week, and, as an unpleasant side-effect, his nightmares are unusually gory and vivid. He asks his father not to tell Natsume anything and to pretend it’s just a regular flu; this time he’s pretty sure he isn’t possessed, so there’s no reason to make Natsume worry for nothing.
“Are you really sure you don’t want to see Natsume?” his father asks on the sixth day, with a touch of disapproval in his voice. “He’s been calling or coming here to ask after you nearly every day, you know.”
“I know, but… I want to be fully recovered before seeing him. I can’t tell you anything, but he…” Kaname looks up at his father with a pleading expression on his face, silently begging him not to ask for more. “He would worry, and maybe even feel guilty, and I… I don’t want to be a burden to him.”
The screen door behind his father slides open with a snap, revealing Natsume standing there.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he says slowly, looking at Kaname with stormy eyes. Kaname stares back, too stunned to reply.
“Well, I’ll just leave the two of you alone for a while, yes?” his father says quickly, taking a few steps back towards the door. Kaname can tell he’s trying really hard not to smile, the traitor, and he’s willing to bet he let Natsume in just to make this happen.
“How can you say that?!” Natsume explodes as soon as his father leaves. “It’s true that I was worried, but you avoiding me just made it worse! You… you told me not to lie if I don’t have to, so you shouldn’t lie either!”
Natsume’s body is shaking and his cheeks are stained red with anger, but it’s the look of utter misery and hurt in his eyes that hits Kaname like a ton of bricks. He’s never seen Natsume lose control this way before, and the thought of being the one causing him so much pain is devastating.
“Natsume, I –” he presses a hand to his face, drawing in a shaky breath. “it looks like I made another mistake, didn’t I? I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. I scolded you for always trying to hide your problems, and yet I keep doing the same.”
Natsume looks at him in silence, his mouth drawn in a tight, unhappy line. Kaname feels like he would do anything not to see that expression on his face again.
“It’s hard to get used to depend on someone, I guess,” Natsume says softly, and Kaname knows he’s been forgiven.
“Yes. Especially if… if you care about them so much that it’s hard to choose between being honest and keeping them safe,” Kaname replies as softly. He holds his breath, dreading and anticipating Natsume’s answer at the same time.
This time Natsume’s silence is even longer, charged with something that makes Kaname’s heart beat painfully hard in his chest. When he finally looks up, he sees that Natsume’s hands are trembling, his eyes filled with affection and regret.
“Tanuma…” he whispers. He takes a step towards him, then stops, then comes forward again. He kneels by Kaname’s bed, and Kaname waits for him to say something, anything, until a knot of panic starts growing in the pit of his stomach when Natsume just sits there in silence, hands clenched tightly together in his lap and golden bangs obscuring his eyes.
“Sorry, I didn’t want to say something so awkward,” Kaname starts, but the sudden warmth of Natsume’s hand on his silences him.
“Don’t apologize,” Natsume says, so softly that Kaname can barely catch his words. “It’s hard for me because you… are special to me too. I’ve never been so close to someone before, and it terrifies me. But you’re not a burden, you could never be a burden, and… I wish I was able not to make you feel like one all the time.”
Kaname’s breath hitches. He wants to cry, and he wants to laugh. What a silly pair they make – they both want to keep the other safe and happy, yet they keep unwillingly hurting each other with their well-meaning lies and awkward blunders. Sometimes he can read Natsume like a open book, but despite this he finds himself making the same mistakes over and over. He chuckles lightly, the irony of their situation not lost on him.
Natsume stiffens, probably misinterpreting his laugh, and tries to withdraw his hand. But this time Kaname is quicker on the uptake, and he turns his hand under Natsume’s so their palms are pressed against each other. Then, slowly, deliberately – giving Natsume time to pull away, if he wants to – twines their fingers together.
Little by little, Natsume’s stiff posture relaxes. He tightens his fingers into Kaname’s hold, and Kaname lets out a breath he didn’t know he was holding.
“Sorry. I laughed because I was thinking that we’re two hopeless idiots,” Kaname says.
“Yes, we are,” Natsume sighs, but he’s smiling. They look at each other with awkward, confused happiness, and this time if neither of them says anything it’s not because they don’t have anything to say.
“Took you long enough,” a grouchy voice says from the door, and Ponta trots into the room with an air of studied indifference. “Geez, you two are such a pain in the ass.”
Natsume and Kaname spring apart from each other, faces red. Ponta climbs on Kaname’s futon and sits right in the middle, then starts licking his paws clean as if he belonged there.
“… Sensei…” Natsume says with a sigh, but doesn’t even try to dislodge him. Silence stretches between them, this time a cozy, comfortable one.
“So,” Natsume says after a while, “are you going to tell me what really happened, now?”
They’re lying side by side on the soft grass, the summer night sky an endless dome of quivering stars over them. Natsume’s head is pillowed on Kaname’s arm, and he's so close that Kaname can feel the warmth of his body against his side.
“Look, there’s one!” Natsume exclaims, pointing at a fleeting flash of brilliance across the sky. Kaname looks up at the sky, then down at the outline of Natsume’s upturned, smiling face.
“Hey, what did you wish for?” Kaname asks, poking Natsume lightly on the side.
“It’s a secret, of course,” he replies. “Wait for your own star, so you can make a wish too.”
“Hmmm, I don’t really know what to wish for… I already have most of the things I wanted.”
Natsume props himself up on one elbow to look at him. “Really?” he says quietly.
“Yes, really.” Kaname reaches out to brush a golden lock away from Natsume’s face, and Natsume leans into his touch, closing his eyes. “I know it sounds really corny, but it’s true.”
“‘Most’ is not ‘all’ of them, though,” Natsume says.
“Yeah, but some things you can’t just wish for, can you? You keep wishing and wishing but nothing ever happens, and in the end it turns into something that makes you suffer.”
“Like seeing youkai?” Natsume says, looking at him with sudden sharpness.
“No, not like that. But you know that ghost pond in my garden? There was a time when I wished for the courage to ask you what color those fish were, but I just couldn’t find that courage within myself. It sounds like such a silly thing, now, but back then it felt really painful.”
Kaname can almost feel Natsume’s oncoming apology, so he puts a finger on his lips before Natsume has the chance to open his mouth. “Don’t even think about it,” he warns. “It wasn’t your fault.”
Natsume laughs, and places a shy, fleeting kiss on Kaname’s hand before pulling away.
“Tanuma, do you still want to know? About the fish, I mean.”
“Yes. But I’ll tell you myself, one day.”