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Seven Year Promise

Chapter Text

Seven Year Promise

by Fox in the Stars

based on Natsume Yuujinchou
by Midorikawa Yuki and Brain's Base

*

Chapter One: The Drowning Dream

The little river Takashi crossed on the way to school ran clear as glass, showing rocks and water plants and even glimpses of fish between the glitters of reflected sun — and this morning, the sight of it gave him a deep sense of dread. It pulled his attention as he walked down the path alongside it listening with half an ear to Nishimura and Kitamoto and guiding himself by their backs in the corner of his eye.

“Hey, Natsume!” Nishimura’s voice snapped him back to his senses.

“Huh?”

“You okay? You were all spaced out and you look kind of pale.”

“Oh, sorry,” he said. “I didn’t sleep so well last night.”

“Did something happen?” Kitamoto asked.

“Worried about how you did on the test?” Nishimura suggested.

“No, I... I just had a bad dream,” Takashi told them. “I dreamt I was falling into water, so, that’s why...” It had to be, although it hardly explained this feeling. The river tugged at him like a cliff’s edge, but the bridge was in sight. Once he was across it...

“Falling in the water...” Nishimura rubbed his chin. “I don’t remember what Freud said about that one.”

“I don’t want to know!”

“Maybe it’s from the time you fell off the bridge here,” Kitamoto offered. “That scared me just watching it — we’re lucky you didn’t hit your head.”

“Yeah, that’s probably it,” Takashi agreed; they were just passing that spot, where a too-playful youkai had once backed him up over the railing. He knew that wasn’t really the reason, but it was a chance to back out before he let on too much. Falling into water was safe enough to say — innocuous as his dreams went — but there was no way he could tell them the rest.

*

It was the same dream again. Not the ones Takashi usually had, the nightly ghosts from the past, but lately it had always been the same. He was running through darkness. Something was behind him; he didn’t know what, but he had to get away. This time he felt the weight of a backpack on his shoulders, and he tried not to slow up as he wrestled his arms out of the straps. It crashed to the ground behind him, and he put on a burst of unencumbered speed, but he knew what came next...

One of his pounding feet landed on nothing. The sense of falling gripped him, then cold water struck him and swallowed him. He struggled for the surface, but the instant he got his face above it, the current snatched him downward in a cascade just high enough to throw him under again. His mouth filled with water — he was drowning —

“Natsume! Natsume!!

Nyanko-sensei’s voice gave him enough of a hold to pull himself awake, and he came up off his pillow gasping for air.

The lucky cat was there waiting for him. “That dream again.”

Takashi nodded breathlessly.

He didn’t even know when the recurring nightmare had started. At first he had thought nothing of it; the falling sensation had roused him for a moment and he had quickly fallen asleep again, just noticing the sense of deja vu as if this had happened before and been forgotten by morning. A few nights later he began feeling himself hit the water, which jarred him more rudely. Little by little, the dream had grown longer and more detailed — tonight it had added the backpack — and now, more frighteningly, it was getting harder to wake up from.

“This is getting serious,” Nyanko-sensei told him. “Your spiritual energy is always unstable when you’re having your bad dreams, but this one is pulling it much too low. Something’s causing it.”

His breath paused for a moment. “What do you think it could be?”

“Hmm...” Sensei scratched his painted whiskers, then paced around Takashi and sniffed him embarrassingly. “Well, we should have noticed something by now if you were possessed. Maybe you picked up a curse somewhere.”

Takashi couldn’t think how that would have happened but admitted to himself that he might not have noticed. “In the dream, something’s chasing me. Maybe if I could see—”

Sensei bounced up and smacked him in the head with a paw. “Don’t even think about it, moron! The more you see of that dream the more trouble you’re getting into! Just leave it to me!”

*

At school that day, the Math test came back decent but not impressive. He didn’t want to say it — especially not in front of Nishimura, who worked harder for similar scores — but with all the youkai distracting him, when it came to schoolwork Takashi felt like he was hanging on by his fingernails. To think there’d been a time when he answered test questions wrong on purpose to avoid the attention of high marks, the jeers that his invisible people had told him the answers...

On the way home, the group included Taki and Tanuma. As they came to the bridge, Takashi tried to focus on anything but the water and ended up staring at the back of Tanuma’s head. The thought crossed his mind of asking if his friend had felt any unusual presence lately, but he quickly brushed it aside. He didn’t want to risk getting Tanuma involved in whatever was happening; besides, it was no use making him worry when there was probably nothing he could do.

Tanuma turned his head and noticed the gaze, and they exchanged awkward smiles. Takashi cast about for something else to look at.

He was keenly aware of the river for as long as he could see it, but he arrived home safely, and Touko welcomed him as usual. Nyanko-sensei, on the other hand, was nowhere to be seen; probably he was out investigating.

Takashi felt that dull pang. Of course he didn’t want to do it to Tanuma when he knew so well how it felt, knowing that something was wrong and not having anything he could do. Sensei had told him to just stay out of it... He could at least take advantage of the quiet to do his homework and bury his worries that way; only occasionally, when his mind wandered, he looked up at the angle of the sunlight slanting into the room, checked out the window to see if Sensei was coming back, and wondered if he ought to go searching after all. After dinner, if he’s not back yet, Takashi told himself.

When the afternoon sky had just begun to soften, he heard a breeze rustle across the yard, and a sudden chill gripped him. The same threatening gravity he felt from the river — It’s here! He scrambled back from his desk, ran downstairs and headed for the door. If whatever it was had come to the house—!

“Takashi-kun?” Touko’s voice from the kitchen brought him up short. “Can you check that the door’s closed? I feel a draft.”

The door was closed. He turned in a panic toward the kitchen and through the doorway he saw it: a robed figure so tall it had to hunch under the ceiling, looming over Touko with a hand on her shoulder. It noticed him and turned its face toward him — a high black hat, a white Okina mask with a long beard and a dissonant kindly smile. Takashi sprang forward and snatched at its robes, but his fingers went straight through and closed on nothing, like snatching at smoke.

A sudden alien sensation shot through him, like a tether snapping taut at an angle he’d never known existed — and then the cold water hit him. He was plunged into darkness and felt it close over his head —

 

 

 

 

“Takashi-kun? Takashi-kun!”

He found himself sitting on the kitchen floor and Touko shaking him by the shoulder. The Okina was gone. He looked around, but he couldn’t see it or feel its presence.

“Are you all right?” Touko asked.

“Uh, yeah. I just slipped and I— it kind of stunned me.” He picked himself up and headed for the door. “I’m going to go outside and get some air...”

“But dinner will be ready in about twenty minutes.”

“Twenty minutes, got it!” he called as he slipped his shoes on and rushed outside.

That cliff-edge feeling was gone, but his mind was still in a whirl that he couldn’t find his way out of; he wanted the air to clear his head but barely knew where he was going.

And then he realized: something was behind him.

*******

Kaname had picked up an order for his father at the bookstore and was walking home when he saw Natsume coming toward him, running fast with his head down. With a shock, he realized that something must be chasing him — And I probably can’t even see it to help him — but he strained his eyes further down the path, if he could even catch its shadow...

As it turned out he could see it just fine, because it was Ponta.

“Natsume,” he called, “why are you running away from your cat?” He could still be missing something...

Natsume cast a glance over his shoulder and skidded to a stop with a strange, wild look. “You can see him?”

Kaname was struck speechless. Before he could find his voice, Ponta caught up with them. “Idiot! Of course Tanuma can see me! What are you, half-asleep!?”

Natsume turned toward the cat, then back again with a blank look in his eyes. “...‘Tanuma’...?”

“Natsume?” He doesn’t recognize me!?

“Oh, good grief!” Ponta huffed, and launched himself at Natsume’s head.

Natsume cried out in alarm and cringed, guarding his head with his arms, and Kaname suddenly realized what he was seeing. It wasn’t just the look on his face; there was something strange about his posture, the tone of his voice — and now it fell into place.

He’s acting like a kid.

Ponta bounced off him and sent him tumbling into the grass beside the path, where he blinked and sat up and his gaze properly found Kaname at last. “Tanuma? What happened...?” he asked, looking around. “Was I acting weird?”

“Were you ever!” Ponta scolded. “Running away from your own bodyguard — are you stupid!?”

“It was like you had amnesia for a minute,” Kaname said, offering a hand up. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m—” He suddenly froze.

The next instant Kaname was struck with such a sudden hard blow of a headache that his vision went blank. When it cleared, Natsume was staring past him, eyes wide with terror.

TANUMA!!

An old man’s voice rang out above his head — “At last I’ve found you!” — then a violent gust of wind...

*

“I’m home!” Natsume called as Kaname followed him in the door of the Fujiwaras’ house.

Touko and Shigeru came out from the kitchen to meet them.

“Welcome home,” Touko greeted. “Takashi— Oh, Tanuma-kun.”

“Sorry I’m late,” Natsume explained, “but I ran into Tanuma, and he wasn’t feeling well. I know it’s short notice, but would it be all right if he stayed with us tonight?”

“I’m sorry to bother you,” Kaname added, bowing politely.

“It’s fine with me,” she said. “Have you had dinner yet?”

“No.”

“Well, you’re welcome to eat with us. I made extra thinking I’d pack lunches tomorrow...”

“I can buy my lunch, then,” Shigeru offered. “But Tanuma-kun, are you sure you shouldn’t get home if you’re not feeling well?”

“No, I’ll be fine, I just need some rest. Could I please use your phone?”

“Oh, yes, yes, do call your father!” Touko insisted.

Natsume and Shigeru went upstairs to get out the extra futon, and Touko showed him to the phone and set another place for him at the table while he made the call.

As he listened to it ringing, the feel of the receiver in his hand was strangely fascinating and intense, and he found himself stroking it a little with his thumb just to take in the sensation. It wasn’t entirely his own doing — rather, someone was inside his mind looking, listening, feeling over his shoulder. It wasn’t like this before, with the one who was looking for the mirror... Well, at least you’re not sneaking around, he thought toward it.

Terribly sorry to trouble you, Young Man, the Okina replied.

The phone picked up. “Hello?”

“Hi, Dad.”

“Kaname. Is something wrong at the store?”

“No, I’m at the Fujiwaras’ house. On the way home I wasn’t feeling well and I ran into Natsume...”

“Oh. Should I come get you?”

“No — no, that’s okay. They said I could stay here tonight. I’m sure I’ll be fine in the morning, I’ll just come home early and get changed for school.”

“Well, all right then... Can I talk to Fujiwara-san?”

“Okay.” Kaname looked up. “Touko-san? My dad wants to talk to you.”

He handed over the phone and sat down at the table, listening to the now-halved conversation.

“...Oh, it’s no trouble; he’s welcome anytime... ...No, not at all. In a way it makes me happy, to tell you the truth; Takashi was so shy when he first came and now he feels like he can ask so suddenly... ...Is there anything I should call if...?”

Kaname tried to be surreptitious as he ran his fingers over the surface of the table, the dry grain of the guest chopsticks, the glazed stone edge of the pottery plate, feeling half as if he’d never known anything like them before. The sight and smell of the food, however — chicken kara-age with rice, green salad, and sautéed vegetables — was only normal. It’s just my sense of touch, then?

That was what he thought until Natsume and Shigeru got back, everyone sat down to eat, and he took his first bite of the kara-age. The crisp, delicate crunch of the surface and the burst of succulent flavor from the meat were so stunning that he had to stop and remember how to breathe around the morsel in his mouth.

Forgive me! the Okina pleaded. I can’t eat, myself, you see. I always could smell these things and wonder what it was like to eat them, but this is... It’s too incredible...!

The taste moved the youkai to tears — tears which began rolling down Kaname’s cheeks.

“Is it too hot?” Touko asked him.

He shook his head, managed to swallow, and fumbled for an excuse. “No, it’s... it’s just... We don’t eat meat at my house, so...”

“Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize! You don’t have to eat it, I can find something else!”

“No, no, I mean it’s kind of special, um...” He dabbed his eyes with his napkin in utter defeat. “I’m sorry, I’m just really tired...”

“It’s all right, take your time,” Shigeru assured him.

The Okina seemed to find the embarrassed wash of heat in his face novel and interesting, too.

*******

Takashi barely let himself taste the food, just cleared the plate as quickly as he could without looking impolite and pushed back his chair. “Excuse me, I have to straighten some things up in my room.” He grabbed Nyanko-sensei and hurried out.

Bringing a threatening youkai into the house was the last thing he would have wanted, but he couldn’t send Tanuma home to his father like that; he didn’t want to take his eyes off him, either — not when it was so obviously affecting him over dinner, not when he could still feel that pull of danger — but he did need a moment to talk to Sensei alone. He stopped out of earshot of the kitchen, but where he could still see the doorway.

“I don’t think you have to go investigating that dream anymore,” he said softly.

“So it’s that Okina, is it?”

Takashi nodded. “I saw it earlier and touched it, and for a second it was like I was in the dream again. ‘At last I’ve found you’... Could it have been after Tanuma all along? There’s no telling what his father might have purified by accident.” But that wouldn’t explain the dreams, or why it would have gone after Touko — he really didn’t like leaving the others alone with it and crept closer to try to see...

“Calm down. I don’t feel that kind of malice from it.” Sensei squirmed out of his arms and strutted off up the stairs so that he had to follow. “There is something strange about its energy, though. I’d almost say it’s puffed up to look bigger than it really is, only...”

“‘Only’...?” Takashi questioned — if Sensei didn’t feel malice, then what was he feeling?

“Nah, nevermind. It’s nothing I can’t handle. —More importantly, what was wrong with you back there!? Running away from me like that!”

“I don’t really know,” he admitted, following into his room and sliding the door shut. It had been such a bizarre break that he could hardly get his mind around it to remember it, let alone explain it, but there had been that sense of something behind him he had to escape from... “Maybe it was still from the dream, after I touched the Okina...”

“So you’re a kid in that dream?”

“Huh?”

“You were acting like little rugrat before I snapped you out of it.”

Takashi blinked at him, then remembered the backpack in the dream the night before — an elementary school backpack. “Yeah, I must be.”

“Hmm...” Sensei rummaged in the bottom desk drawer, emerged with a box of Pocky and started munching. “Do you remember anything like that really happening?”

Takashi sighed as he stepped around the guest futon and let himself drop to a seat at his desk. It was the opposite problem; too many things had chased him when he was in elementary school, in memories he’d forced down into a worming compacted mass that he didn’t want to touch. “There’s no way I could pick out just one,” he said. “Do you think it’s after the Book of Friends? That might not be ‘malice’ exactly, depending on why it wants it...”

“Maybe. I’ve never seen it around here before but rumors have been spreading. Of course if its name was in the book it would make things easy.”

“Could it be there?”

“Who knows?” Sensei snapped off another bite of Pocky. “Like I said, I’ve never seen it around here before, but even Reiko left her own backyard sometimes.”

Since Takashi had seen its face, it couldn’t hurt to check, but he had only just gotten the Book of Friends out of his school bag and begun to open it when he heard footsteps in the hallway and a knock at the door.

“Natsume?” It was Tanuma.

Takashi stuffed the Book back in such a rush that his bag flopped over on the floor. “I’ll be right there!”

*******

The vicariously-intensified dinner left Kaname deeply drained, and when he went up to Natsume’s room he was more than ready to lie down and sleep.

“Thanks again,” he said, looking up from the guest futon as Natsume set the alarm clock for him. “Sorry I got you mixed up in something...”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“He’d have gotten himself mixed up in it anyway,” Ponta opined, the last stick of Pocky waving from his mouth.

That’s right, Kaname thought. This stuff happens to Natsume all the time...

He was just about to say “good night” when Natsume spoke again. “Say, Tanuma?”

“Hm?”

“Have you been having any weird dreams lately?”

He considered it. “No, I don’t think so. Why?”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Natsume told him, averting his eyes and flashing an intentional smile.

Kaname looked at him — there was obviously more to it than that, but he hesitated to press the issue.

He felt the Okina shift soberly. As I feared, we haven’t much longer...

What do you mean?

Follow me, Young Man. I will tell you everything.

The Okina’s presence in his mind grew heavy, weighing him down toward sleep. He rolled over and pulled the quilt up around his shoulders. “’Night.”

“Sleep well,” Natsume said.

“Don’t let him eat you,” the cat added.

*

Kaname first became aware of the white roar of a river in the distance, then the smell of wild running water, earth and cedar. His vision was near-total darkness, but gradually he realized that it didn’t matter; he could see without light. His body felt strangely abstracted, and his viewpoint swayed dizzyingly high above the ground as he moved — toward home, he felt — up a sloping gravel road through the trees, under the cloud-swathed sky of a gentle autumn night.

Okina-san?

Yes, came the answer. This is my memory of a place long since past...

He heard footsteps on the path up ahead, and as he came closer behind them he found a young boy walking along, dressed in a hooded jacket and carrying an elementary school backpack, his eyes to the ground to find his way in the scant light.

The Okina’s memory of recognition came to him. This child... This child will return my name.

Kaname didn’t have time to wonder what that meant as he saw — or maybe felt — a stream of continuity flowing from the boy through a space that wasn’t really space until it reached...

Natsume? This is Natsume??

The boy looked back over his shoulder, and the glimpse of his face wiped away any doubt. He had the same overgrown flaxen fringe, his features were childish but already recognizeable, and that forlorn expression wasn’t like Natsume now, but it seemed that at some time in the past he must have looked like that...

His eyes widened from sadness into fear as he saw that he was being followed, and he turned back to the path and quickened his pace. The Okina moved more quickly in turn to follow him; Kaname felt its innocent curiosity, but watched with a tightening of apprehension.

Natsume tripped on a tuft of grass and stumbled. In an instant the distance between them vanished and the Okina was standing directly over him.

“Young Master?”

He gasped and looked up at it, eyes wide, pupils full-round and black in the darkness. Then he screamed and ran.

He sprinted away through the dark, barely slowing to wrestle off the backpack. The Okina, following close behind, was distracted for a moment as the bag fell at its feet. When it looked up it saw a great outcropping of rock — the rock, somehow — jutting out over the river, and Natsume running straight toward it.

“Young Master, stop! Come back!”

But he was too frightened to listen. Kaname, watching, felt the plunge inside himself as the younger Natsume vanished over the edge with a cry and a gut-wrenching splash. Faster than thought he was just above the water where the boy was struggling, reaching out with the Okina’s arm until their desperate searching hands met —

And he felt nothing. Natsume’s fingers closed on nothing, like snatching at smoke, and the water swept him away.

I can’t touch him — can’t save him! Kaname recoiled, trying to pull away from the dream. No no this can’t be —

This shall not be!” The Okina’s voice overtook him. “Young Master, I promise I will save you!” An unexpected power stirred from within it and exploded outward, catching up the drowning child together with the water, rocks, trees in an earthquake of that space that wasn’t space, lifting all away into white emptiness...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then Kaname was back in the mundane dark, with his face pressed against the pillow. He half rose and looked around to get his bearings in the not-quite-familiar room. Natsume was lying on the other futon beside his, but he shifted fitfully as if struggling in his sleep.

Something’s wrong... “Natsume!” Kaname started to reach toward him, but something stopped his hand.

Natsume suddenly sprang up, gasping and coughing like a drowning person who had just been pulled out of the water.

“Natsume! Are you okay!?”

“...Wha? Ugh... Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, but at the same time he massaged his temple, suggesting a serious headache. “Sorry I woke you up...”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Natsume sighed and muttered something that sounded like “physician, heal thyself.”

“What?” Kaname asked him.

“Mm... It’s nothing...” He stretched out and settled in again, and turned onto his side, facing away. “’Night.”

“’Night,” Kaname replied numbly. He stared at his friend’s back in the dark for a long moment. If he even thought about reaching toward him or saying anything to him about what he’d seen, something held him back.

I’m sorry, Young Man, but you mustn’t, the Okina told him.

He didn’t know if he should, anyway. As he he began to settle back in himself, he noticed Ponta sitting on the desk looking down at him with narrowed eyes; It would actually be less creepy if they glowed like on a normal cat... He could feel the Okina in turn regarding the cat with suspicion, but all he could do for the moment was turn over to face the other way, pull the quilt up around his head and try not to think about being stared at.

When he closed his eyes, the room soon melted away, and he was back in the scene from the dream, the rock where the younger Natsume had fallen. Now he stood there in a peaceful forest scene, with the Okina seated on the rock facing him — it was so tall that its face was still a little above his.

“What happened back there — er, here?” he asked.

The Okina looked up at the sky; at that angle its kindly smile flattened into a more somber expression. “It happened just as you saw.”

“But you promised you’d save him! How did you...?”

Kaname trailed off as the Okina gave him a quizzical look and a feeling as if he were asking a beggared question, but after a moment it let that slide past and set about to explain.

“Perhaps you have noticed that I cannot touch this kind of space,” it said, spreading its hands apart to demonstrate. “I can only touch this kind

 

 

 

of space.”

At the Okina’s words, the world around Kaname rippled unsettlingly along a dimension that he had caught glimpses of in the dream but only now recognized — “Time! You have power over time!”

“Ah, is that what you would call it?” it said. “I only know that when I make or acknowledge a promise, I can open a place where it will be kept. That night, I saved the Young Master with such a promise, but...”

“But you still haven’t kept it — so he’s been having dreams about it. When I saw him earlier, it was like he was back in that time.”

“Yes,” the Okina admitted. “My power is reaching its limit.”

“And if we don’t do something, then Natsume will... be erased?” Kaname guessed. That was how it worked on sci-fi shows, and it sent a heavy chill through him. The world changing so Natsume died back then, and the Natsume I know never existed...

“No,” the Okina corrected. “The pillars of fate that have been laid since then cannot be moved now, but his life does depend on that place, as if he were tied to it by a thread. Already he can feel it in the night when he is most vulnerable. If my power is stretched beyond what he can endure with the promise still unfulfilled, a night will come when he will never wake from that dream — and then that too would become a pillar of fate. If Death once claims its place, I have no power against it.”

The horror of that sank down in Kaname’s stomach with even greater weight; he imagined Touko calling Natsume down to breakfast and having to come upstairs to see why he wasn’t answering...

“As you saw, it was not a thing I could do myself,” the Okina said. “After it happened, I went to the humans’ dwelling places in search of the Young Master, but he had disappeared. Ever since then, I have searched for him, and for the one who will help me keep my promise to him. I had hoped to find him before now, but... When a thread pulls taut, it becomes easy to find the other end of it...”

Kaname struggled to take it all in. “That’s why you said ‘at last’ you’d found...?”

“Yes, indeed!” it brightened up with excitement and relief. “When I approached the Honored Lady of this house, I felt certain that she would have wanted to help me, but she couldn’t hear my voice. Then when I saw you, Young Man, I knew that you were the one!”

He had half-realized it already, but to hear it directly drew him up straighter.

“So then, will you also promise to save him, in that place?”

“Of course I will!” It was no time to hesitate. The instant he had spoken, he vaguely felt something fasten around him in the Okina’s other space — likening it to a thread... I guess I’m tied up in it now, too...

Only then did he let the dizziness of the commitment wash over him. After all, he couldn’t say that the last time he’d run to Natsume’s rescue in that jar incident had exactly gone well. He didn’t even have any guarantee that the Okina was telling the truth. If it was a trick, he might have just made things worse — but it was more dizziness than real doubt; he already knew that he couldn’t walk away...

“Good, you take your promise very seriously, I can feel it,” the Okina said. “But now I should tell you, there is a small dilemma as to how we should proceed...”

You really should have told me something like that before you made me promise, Kaname thought, although he knew it wouldn’t have made any difference. “What kind of dilemma?”

“We cannot go there now. I am too weary, and we are too near to the Young Master,” the Okina explained. “I fear he suffers more if I am near him or touch him, and when I showed you the memory, you saw how he was caught up in it. To make the journey in his presence would be far too dangerous for him, but there is also danger in leaving him alone.”

“He might collapse and we wouldn’t know?”

“He might think to himself and remember me. He does not yet know that he has seen me before. If he tries to recall what happened, he will be pulling against that place directly, and that would also be very dangerous for him.

“Even if he doesn’t remember, he might send me away from you, or even away from this world,” the Okina said. “He has that power.”

“But Natsume wouldn’t do something like that,” Kaname protested.

“Oh? He seemed quite displeased with me for troubling you. As matters now stand, he could even do it without meaning me any harm.”

“How?”

“He owns my name,” the Okina said.

Kaname remembered that first moment from the dream — “This child will return my name.” He’d nearly forgotten it amid everything that happened afterward, but now... “What does that mean?”

“Some way back, further than the place I showed you, I wagered my name in a contest and lost it to a human named Natsume Reiko.”

“‘Reiko’??” That name had stayed in Kaname’s mind ever since the incident at Omibashira’s mansion: the name Ponta had mentioned then suddenly brushed aside. Something I’m not supposed to know... He wanted badly to know, at the same time feeling that he shouldn’t know if Natsume didn’t want him to, but now maybe he had to know...

“She was an ancestor of the Young Master,” the Okina explained. “It seems she was quite famous for collecting spirits’ names and gathering them together in a book known as the Book of Friends, which I believe is now in the Young Master’s possession. A spirit’s name in that book represents its very life; whoever owns it can command the spirit at will or even destroy it.

“...Have I spoken out of place?”

The sudden question gave Kaname a jolt as he stared off into the trees, stunned. “No, it’s...” Natsume has something like that?? To think that his friend could enslave or kill youkai any time he wanted, and had never said anything about it... A moment’s doubt flitted through his mind that he could be wrong, that Natsume could have kept it a secret because he would do such a thing, but every moment he’d known Natsume had taught him better than that. Did he even know he had it? But why else would Reiko’s name be such a secret? Of course it was always hard for him to open up, and he was always trying to keep his friends out of anything that could be trouble...

“He wouldn’t do something like that,” Kaname repeated, trying to shake off the unidentifiably-muddled feeling that clung to him.

“No, I believe he wouldn’t,” the Okina agreed. “But for a spirit’s life to reside in that book has another side, also. Whatever else may happen, the spirit will remain in this world as long as its name exists there.”

Kaname felt more than understood the significance of what it was saying and looked at the figure in front of him with new eyes. Its surface form was the same, but now he realized that it was only a shadow of the Okina he had seen in the memory; there were no more massive earthquakes of time hiding inside it.

“I left my home, and have spent most of my power to make this journey and hold my promise,” it said. “If my name were not in another’s hands, the strength I have left would not be enough to sustain me.”

“And... you know he’s going to return your name,” Kaname realized. “You knew that as soon as you saw him.”

“Yes. I know that he will, but I do not know when. Perhaps we can only pray that it is not too near at hand...”

Kaname sank to a seat as he sifted through it and the implications revealed themselves. This youkai was saying that it had sacrificed its life to save Natsume, and it was still doing everything it could to save him knowing that he was likely to kill it, however innocently, and maybe it could survive itself if it just let him die. “Why... Why are you going that far...?”

The answering feeling it gave him was unexpectedly bemused. “You share my promise; surely you must understand. Well, perhaps because I’ve held the promise for him so long, even if I wasn’t near him, I’ve grown attached to him in my own way...” The Okina tucked its chin, turning its smile brighter and more impish. “He is an adorable little creature, is he not?”

That wasn’t quite how Kaname would put it, but it forced a grateful, awkward smile from him. “Yeah, I guess he is.”

“It is true that I wish to regain my name, and I do not fear what may come after as a mortal creature might,” it added, more seriously. “I am also obliged to make amends. I had seen such things happen, but never had I been the cause... Truly, though, one can hardly look at him and abandon him to such a bitter fate.”

“No,” Kaname agreed. That was certainly true.

Like exhaling a breath, the Okina let the melancholy reverie give way to the full sense of its exhaustion, and the scene of the rock, river, and forest faded away. “Well then, if we are in agreement, let us rest for the journey ahead.”

Kaname felt it fall asleep, settling into an inert but obvious lump in the back of his mind.

We’re quite a pair, aren’t we? he thought to himself. His own fatigue weighed him down so that even the agitation of everything he’d learned couldn’t lift him out of it. He held on just long enough to hear Natsume breathing behind him before he, too, slid down into slumber.

*

But it was an unquiet sleep. Whenever its drift brought Kaname near the surface, the churning revelations and dangers needled him, and he had to half wake up and reassure himself again with the sound of Natsume’s breath before he could sink back into something restful. He lost count of how many times it happened before he came up feeling a pale light beyond his eyelids and pulled himself up and opened his eyes.

The room stood in the diffuse blue of pre-dawn. He looked up at the clock — twenty minutes before they’d set the alarm. No point going back to sleep now... But he didn’t want to wake Natsume, either.

He quietly looked around. Ponta was nowhere in sight. Natsume had at some point rolled over toward him; his sleeping face was indistinct in the dimness, like a picture just vaguely smudged in but with every hazy shape arranged in a perfect image of peace. The feather-shadows of his eyelashes didn’t even twitch. His heedless breath was the only sound.

It could come upon him just like that, and he might never wake up... Kaname couldn’t even tell him the danger he was in and risk reminding him of what had happened...

Kaname folded his arms over his pillow and settled his chin on them to sort through it all again — and then Natsume’s school bag caught his eye, slumped over awkwardly beside the desk. It struck him as odd to see it like that, and he realized that he had heard it fall over. When he’d knocked on the door, he’d heard the rustle like rummaging in a bag, and then the flump alongside Natsume’s footsteps as he came to the door.

Why didn’t he just say “come in”?

Something he wasn’t supposed to know about... The Book that could keep his friend from being saved... Kaname crept closer and reached for the flap of the bag.

At the shuffling sound of the futon and quilt, Natsume drew a sharp breath. Kaname hastily sat back as he raised a hand to his face, opened his eyes and levered himself up from the pillow. “Unngh... You’re awake? What time is it?” He looked up at the clock and gave a bleary, comprehending moan.

“Sorry. I was having trouble sleeping.” Kaname said.

“The Okina?”

“Kind of...”

Thinking of the Okina, Kaname felt that it was still there as that lump in the back of his mind — still asleep. There was nothing stopping him from speaking now. It might be dangerous to remind Natsume of what had happened, but surely it would be safe to say that the Okina had something it needed to do for someone before it got its name back, just offhandedly as if he were talking about someone else. Surely that would be better than sneaking into something Natsume didn’t want him to know about...

“Um...” Kaname began hesitantly, “...it said something about a book—”

Natsume gasped; his eyes snapped wide and his voice pulled tight. “What... What did it say?”

Against that look of cold terror, Kaname instinctively retreated. “I... don’t really know, I didn’t understand it... Excuse me...” He got up and headed for the door.

Thankfully he’d visited enough to know where the bathroom was, but that wasn’t the only reason he needed to escape. Aargh, that didn’t work! He should have realized from the start what he was up against, but he hadn’t, and now he had to decide if he could do it...

On the way back, he was still trying to get his bearings when Natsume passed him in the hall.

“...I’ll be right back...”

“Okay.” When Kaname heard the bathroom door close again behind him, he hurried back to the room, and his eyes went straight to the school bag beside the desk — it was standing up straight again. Natsume must have just now checked inside it. That had to be where the Book of Friends was, if he just hadn’t moved it.

Talking to him hadn’t worked, and Kaname didn’t have time to pretend that he could make it work. He might only have a minute before Natsume got back, and he checked again that Ponta wasn’t there watching...

*******

When Takashi came out of the bathroom, Tanuma was already there in the hallway; he even had his father’s books in the shopping bag tucked under his arm. Looking at him this morning, it hardly seemed that he was possessed at all, but he was still understandably nervous.

“You’re leaving already?” Takashi asked him.

“Yeah, I may as well get home...”

“Will you be okay?”

“I think so.”

“You might want to call in sick today,” Takashi suggested as he walked his friend to the door. He wanted as many of their schoolmates as far away from that Okina as possible, but it wasn’t up to him...

“Yeah, I probably will stay home,” Tanuma agreed.

“I’ll come over after class and hopefully we can get it sorted out.”

“I hope so...”

Tanuma was putting his shoes on at the door when Takashi suddenly felt that sense of dread pull at him again and knew that the Okina had started moving. Tanuma must have felt it, too; he paused for a moment, but then quickly pressed forward.

“Well, I’m heading out. Thanks again.”

“Take care.” Takashi waved and watched him go, and still stood looking out into the dew-sweetened air even after he was out of sight. There was no excuse to keep him here any longer, but still, sending him home like that...

He was just about to close the door when he saw Nyanko-sensei waddle purposefully past the gate in the direction Tanuma had gone. That was enough to put his mind at ease, and when he went back up to his room, he reset the alarm clock for the usual time and went back to bed.

続く…
to be continued...