The Fujiwaras always worry when Natsume falls ill, but it's hardly unusual; one of their very first meetings was at a hospital, after all.
But when five days have passed and he still isn't better – that's different.
Nishimura and Kitamoto have been bringing his homework daily; it stays untouched by his futon. On that Friday Touko-san lets them into his room with only a reluctant warning, compassion and sympathy outweighing her worry about contagion. “I'm sure Takashi-kun will feel much better with you here,” she almost pleads, guilty. They assure her they aren't worried about getting sick at all and step inside the room.
Natsume barely notices.
His eyes are locked on a tiny, chittering tengu across the room. The little youkai stops its story-telling to warble in alarm when Nishimura nearly sits on it, the two boys gathering carefully next to Natsume's mat.
“Hey,” says Nishimura with faux-cheer. “What have you been doing, Natsume?”
And Natsume, so tired he can barely tell where he is, responds: “I was talking to that spirit.”
His friends falter.
“You're in the way,” he complains to Nishimura. Which is rude. He notices, then, that his friends look a bit pale. Belatedly he adds: “Sorry.”
“Um. No. It's fine?” Nishimura and Kitamoto exchange glances, and then Kitamoto laughs nervously. “We should have come by sooner, Natsume. You're getting a little strange locked up here with just Nyanko-sensei, huh?”
The cat peels away from the wall to curl against Natsume, eyes gleaming. The visitors shift again.
Natsume closes his eyes without responding.
He hears Kitamoto murmur, “The Fujiwaras are talking about taking him to a hospital, right?”, and Nishimura agrees, “Yeah... maybe we should tell them to hurry.”
Natsume hasn't had a cough in over two days; his lungs feel dry and worn, like they're too fragile to even force themselves into convulsions. But now he starts sputtering suddenly, chest heaving as air fails to comply with the demands of biology. Nishimura's yells fade away, and the last thing Natsume sees is the bright glow of Nyanko-sensei's eyes before his vision fades.
Natsume returns to school on Monday.
“I'm sorry for worrying you,” he tells his friends sincerely as they settle into homeroom. “I'm really better now, though.”
“You look way better,” agrees Kitamoto. “I can't even tell you were sick! But you were so skinny and pale - “
“You need to take better care of yourself,” Nishimura declares. “No going out in cold weather. Eating at every meal! Are you hydrated, Natsume?”
Natsume stifles a laugh. “I'm fine,” he repeats. “In fact I've never felt better. I think I might go biking tonight - “
“No!” his friends exclaim together.
Natsume laughs again as they enter the school.
He really does feel good, but it's hard to pay attention to the homeroom teacher. Natsume finds himself slipping in and out of sleep – or else daydreaming very seriously. He doesn't feel tired, but in one moment it seems like the teacher is on the right side of the room, talking animatedly about their latest reading assignment, and in the next instant he's at the front gesturing to different math problems on the board.
School is awful. Natsume lowers his head with a groan.
Nishimura and Kitamoto chide Natsume to go straight home after school, but Natsume still has energy. He goes to Yatsuhara forest instead. It's been over a week since he's seen any of the youkai he knows, and he figures it's only fair to visit them.
Natsume can't find the mid-ranks, though. The kappa that stays by the river seems to be gone, and when he visits Hinoe's usual haunts – she likes lounging in some of the forest's oldest trees – she's also elsewhere. Disappointing, but neither surprising nor unusual. They're probably off getting drunk together with Sensei.
On the way back home he does stumble across an unusual youkai – a large, twisted creature, furred and muscled like something between a bear and a yeti. If it's shockingly blue fur didn't make it clearly supernatural, the set of three dark-red eyes on it's forehead would serve as a good indication.
Natsume is habitually wary of youkai more than twice his size, so when he wanders next to this particular spirit he freezes briefly befor skirting it's resting-spot on the ground. It's no use, though; the youkai looks down at him sharply. Even sitting, it still manages to be taller.
“You smell like humans, little spirit,” it says.
Natsume just nods. It's usually not a good idea to correct spirits when they mistake him like this, in his experience.
“You smell like small humans,” the furred spirit continues. “Were they delicious?”
“No,” Natsume manages.
“Ah. Yes, humans aren't quite the same these days,” the youkai lets his words trail off wistfully, evidently lost in memories. It licks its lips with a barbed, overlong tongue.
Natsume walks home a tad faster after that.
Natsume doesn't feel hungry that night, but Touko-san keeps plying him with food anyway. The illness must have scared her, even though he gets sick all the time. Sweet dumplings turn to ash in his mouth. Maybe he's still a bit sick, but the food doesn't taste quite like it should.
But the Fujiwaras are at least tolerant when he wants to escape – probably because they keep insisting he needs to rest more. Once upstairs Natsume lays back on his futon, Nyanko-Sensei resting halfway across the room, and watches the ceiling.
“...Are you so tired you can't change your clothes?” Sensei asks.
“I'm already in my sleep clothes, Sensei.”
“Yeah, but you still have that ugly bag.”
Natsume blinks, automatically reaching down. The bag which carries the Book of Friends rests awkwardly against his thigh, but Natsume wouldn't have even noticed it if not for Sensei's wary rebuke. “I don't think I should put it away. Maybe I'm just worried about the Book,” Natsume says, laughing a little at himself. “But it just feels like part of me... It's weird to take it off.”
Sensei sounds a little uneasy.
“This way no one can steal it from you, Sensei,” Natsume teases. The cat seems doesn't seem amused.
“Why don't you put it down anyway.”
“No, Sensei,” Natsume tells him. More firmly, now: “I need to sleep with it.”
Nyanko-sensei stops protesting. But his green eyes watch Natsume, wide and unblinking, as the boy finally falls into a slow and strange sleep.
“You forgot your homework again?”
It's been awhile since Natsume was ill, and evidently his friends now feel comfortable in once again chiding him for his poor study habits. In his defense, Natsume's classmates don't have the added stress of dealing with rogue youkai who don't care about school schedules. Either way, Natsume feels that Kitamoto's current disapproval is entirely unjustified.
“We just got that assignment,” Natsume protests. “It's not due for a week!”
Kitamoto gives him a weird look. “It's been a week, Natsume.”
“No - “
“Please tell me you started your presentation for Friday,” Nishimura sighs.
“Presentation - ? That's not until the end of the month.”
“In two days.” Kitamoto looks vaguely horrified. “Have you been sleeping alright, Natsume-kun?” He reaches out a hand, which Natsume immediately bats away. His friends fuss like a pair of grandmothers.
“I'm fine,” he says.
And it doesn't feel like a long time later – there's a blur of homework and a walk with Sensei through the forest, where Natsume stops to watch flowers growing on a cliffside – when Nishimura teases, “You did remember the presentation, right, Natsume?”
Natsume blinks at his friend, confused, and grips his notebook. “You just said that's not due until Friday.”
Nishimura stares. Kitamoto turns around, too. “...It is Friday.”
“But - “
Except, yes, the sun has risen and fallen a few times since that conversation, hasn't it? But that can't be right. Natsume shakes his head. He was just talking to these two about homework.
“I'll tell the teacher you're sick again,” says Kitamoto after a moment. He looks slightly worried. “...He'll believe it. And you probably are. You should go home, Natsume.”
And then Natsume is home, just a minute later. He vaguely recalls walking down the road, making an excuse to Touko-san, cleaning books away from his futon – but it's only been a minute.
Natsume wishes Sensei were here.
“Hmm,” is what Nyanko-Sensei says when he explains the problem a few minutes later. It's night-time. Natsume doesn't remember when it became dark. Maybe he fell asleep. “...Well, your sense of time will come back eventually. I think.”
Natsume furrows his brow. “You know what's wrong with me?”
“Nothing's wrong,” says Sensei cryptically. “Say, is there anything in particular you want to do?”
Natsume looks at the cat oddly. Sensei never asks what Natsume would like to do; the youkai generally ignores what Natsume decides in favor of running off to get drunk or stuffing himself with stolen food. Or just criticizing all his choices in general. This odd solicitousness makes him suspicious.
Sensei looks at him flatly. “Humor me.”
Natsume shrugs a little. “I guess it'd be nice to go to the forest? I heard there was a lost youkai who can't find his way to his home, but I haven't come across him yet - “
Sensei put his face against the floor. “Of course,” he sighs. “Your entire existence is aimed at helping idiot spirits. I can't believe I'm surprised.”
“What do you - “
To his surprise Sensei hops onto his feet. “Well, let's go,” the cat grumbles. “You'll probably feel better afterward, anyway.”
Natsume helps three youkai with various small tasks over the weekend.
Sensei separates from him briefly after the third and starts grumbling that all this running is going to put him into withdrawal if he doesn't drink soon. (Natsume doesn't know if that's actually possible, but he doesn't question it). Naturally, that's when Natsume hears the echo of people – young adults, slightly older than he is – stumbling through the forest. They're laughing loudly and Natsume smells sake on the air; Sensei probably would have stayed if he'd had any idea he could just filch alcohol from some drunk punks.
Natsume glances around, sighing. He really doesn't want to deal with humans right now, much less random drunkards. It's been a long day. When the sounds get closer he steps back, pressing his back against a tree, and wishes fiercely that the group won't notice him.
It seems his wish will be in vain; a pair of men stumble out of the trees ahead of him, followed shortly by four others – one more man and three women, two of whom are half-supporting each other.
“I think the road's up ahead,” the man at the front declares. “Just a bit farther.”
“You said that ten minutes ago,” someone whines. The road is in that direction, Natsume knows, so he stays silent.
“Can we hurry?” another complains. “If my father learns I went drinking again - “
“Who's going to tell him?” the person at the front pauses in front of Natsume. He's standing just inches away, leaving them chest-to-chest. The stranger puts out an arm and braces himself against the tree, his hand a hairs' breadth from Natsume's shoulder. “...Come on. I'm getting dizzy.”
Natsume stays still as the crowd wobbles past him. He sits down on the ground when they're gone.
They're just drunk, of course. Probably half-blind. Just...
On Sunday – and Nyanko-Sensei was right, for whatever reason, because his sense of time seems better and better after he walks around the forest awhile – he meets with Tanuma to visit Taki at her huge, quiet house.
Taki is always well-prepared to receive guests. Specifically, she is well-prepared for Nyanko-sensei, which means she brings out entire platters of food after hugging the cat and cooing for a few minutes.
“I've been wondering lately if the school is being haunted,” Tanuma muses while they eat. “I don't know what it is, but I feel like I'm almost being followed in some classes.”
Taki looks immediately at Natsume.
“I haven't noticed anyone,” he shrugs. “Or, nothing more than usual.” He eats a bread-roll and starts serving more food onto his plate.
Tanuma frowns a little at Natsume. “Well, that makes me feel a bit better. I can still feel it right now – there's no youkai around?”
“Just Sensei,” Natsume says, poking the cat. Sensei mutters and bats his hand away. "Tell me if you keep feeling something strange, though."
Tanuma seems to hestitate. “Well... Alright. Taki, what was it you wanted to show us?”
“Right! I found this really old book in my grandfather's library about the origins of youkai. He covered it in a bunch of notes, so he must have thought it was useful...”
They discuss the book for a few minutes before Tanuma pauses again. He's staring at Natsume, just like Nyanko-sensei. “Are you... hungry, Natsume?”
“No,” says Natsume, eating another roll. A second later his chopsticks stab empty air, and Natsume realizes with a start that his plate his empty. And it's his fourth.
“...It's just good,” says Natsume weakly.
“Um. Well, be careful. You don't have Ponta's stomach.”
“I think it's a good thing,” Taki proclaims, and promptly shoves a few pieces of sushi in his direction. “Natsume never eats enough.”
Natsume tolerantly eats this new offering. He's not hungry; he's also not full. “Sorry, Taki,” he says uselessly.
“No, no, keep eating! If you don't Nyan-nyan-chan will just have it all anyway...”
“I think you've had enough,” Sensei interrupts airily, and promptly ruins the peaceful setting by jumping onto the table and scattering all the food to the ground.
Nyanko-sensei has a surprise.
Natsume is justifiably wary. His companion doesn't exactly go out of the way to do thoughtful things for Natsume, so he imagines that Sensei wants his help with something and would prefer not to say so. Which probably means that Sensei knows he wouldn't help of his own initiative. If Sensei wants him to threaten some poor youkais with his reputation and the Book, this is going to end badly.
But Nyanko-sensei delays his explanations, running ahead so that Natsume has to sprint just to keep his bobbing tail in sight. They finally stumble to a halt outside a small, abandoned forest-shrine.
They're not alone.
“...Natori-san? What are you doing here?”
“I'm here in case you get upset,” Natori says. Which doesn't make much sense. Natori, for once, isn't smiling. His whole body sags under some imagined weight, and he scans over Natsume soberly. Almost sadly.
“...Did you bring him, Sensei?” Natsume turns to his companion. Sensei doesn't really like Natori.
“This kind of thing can be tough,” Nyanko-sensei says. “I almost decided not to tell you. I don't want you to disappear. But that doesn't always happen. And you're pretty strong.” Sensei pauses. “I should have noticed that first, really. You've gotten stronger.”
Natsume twitches. He feels uneasy for reasons he can't explain. Natori and Nyanko-sensei wouldn't hurt him, after all.
So why is Hiiragi standing behind him?
“Natori-san,” says Natsume finally.
But Natori interrupts him. “We... might as well do this quick,” he mutters. “Natsume. I'm sorry – you died.”
Natsume can hear the birds who have made their nests on the temple. They seem suddenly loud, their squabbles screaming against his skull as the words slide around. You died. “What do you mean?” he asks blankly. But they all look so serious – did something happen that he can't remember? Maybe a youkai started to eat him and Natori-san helped bring him back. It's frightening, to think he could forget something like that.
Natori's face twists a little. Like he's in great pain. “You died,” he repeats uselessly.
And Nyanko-sensei adds, “About three months ago.”
Natsume waits for something more, but the two only look at him. From the corner of his eye he sees Hiiragi watching. Gray steel glints in her hand. “I'm obviously alive, Sensei. Natori-san, why are you really - ?”
“The cat says you got sick,” Natori tells him. His face would fit perfectly into a tragic movie scene, the very essence of remorse and sorrow. “You died in your sleep, Natsume, and took your body with you. It's been known to happen. In rare cases...”
“I was last sick two weeks ago,” he argues. “And youkai don't even get ill.” He doesn't think so, anyway.
“Youkai don't have a good perception of time at first,” Sensei says. “You're not really a weakling. But you're new. That was three months back, Natsume.”
Natsume scowls. “Is this a joke?”
“You know we wouldn't - “
“This isn't funny,” Natsume snaps. His hand is on his bag for some reason, the book firm and reassuring – threatening – under his hand. Not that he would use the book. Of course not. “You shouldn't make up stuff like this, Natori-san!”
“Natsume - “
“Why are you trying to trick me?” he demands. His head is buzzing strangely, flickers of memories pushing forward and being immediately discarded. Finally he spins around. “I'm going home.”
But Hiiragi blocks his path. It makes Natsume angrier; he can't remember feeling this furious before, and his skin prickles with heat, with electricity so bright it sparks blue in his periphery. “Move!”
Paper rustles behind him. Natsume turns again just in time to see Natori flinging an ofuda in his direction. The protection-spell flies forward and clings to Natsume's chest.
His scream resounds from somewhere outside his body, echoing off the trees and the shrine and peeling back at Natsume like a scratchy recording. Natsume scrabbles at his chest to remove the burn, and when the blue glow gleams brighter his skin bursts apart.
Natsume stumbles. Falls over. When he looks, his legs stretch in front of him – four legs, covered with thick fur that shines as golden as the sun. When Natsume jerks with surprise the legs follow him. They chase him again when he stands up, awkwardly, while a forked gold tail flicks wildly in his peripheral vision.
“You brat,” says Sensei, affronted. “A celestial kitsune? Why - how did that even happen?” And, “You're not allowed to be more powerful than me already!”
Natsume stumbles and falls to the ground. In front of him Natori has another ofuda raised, but he just keeps it tight in his hand and stares. Natori is a little smaller than him now. Which wouldn't make Natsume as big as Sensei's true form, but..
Natsume is a human – he is human. And, as he thinks this, it becomes true: he has two hands, and two feet, and his body is his own again, familiar and small.
Sprawled on the ground, Natsume raises his hands and stares at his slim fingers. He touches them together. The skin is soft and cold.
“Oh,” he says.
Natori drops the ofuda to the ground.
“I am sorry,” he says.
Sensei comes over to sit in his lap when Natsume starts to cry.
“You should leave,” is what Natori tells him. “You're powerful enough to be visible to humans, clearly. But that doesn't mean you should stay with them. People who deal with youkai bear a lot of misfortune.”
“You told me that's just a myth,” Natsume says. The exorcist looks uncomfortable.
“I don't see why he needs to go anywhere,” Sensei sniffs. “Not yet, anyway. Now that he's not crazy. Touko-san makes great shrimp. We're having some tonight. Don't you dare take away my free meals, Natsume.”
“I'm going home,” Natsume says.
“You don't have a home,” Natori maintains. “Don't you have friends in this forest...?”
“And I'll help them,” Natsume decides. “Maybe I'll even live here one day... But not now. Not yet.”
Natori glances back at Hiiragi and shifts his feet. Like he's thinking of arguing. Like he's thinking of stopping Natsume. So Natsume doesn't give him the chance. He picks up Sensei in his cold arms, breathes deeply of the air he doesn't need, and starts to walk.
“You'll hurt them one day,” Natori says behind him. But Sensei just huffs, and Natsume keeps moving.
Sensei was right; they do have shrimp that night. Touko-san chides them gently for staying out late, but Shigeru only laughs and says boys will be boys. The room glows with a golden light as they sit down together at the table. Natsume thinks briefly of Natori's warning again when he picks up his chopsticks. But he's not a danger to the Fujiwaras. The thought is ludicrous, and he knows that this is where he needs to be. He feels it, like the new ripple of fur and teeth under his skin, like the airy rush in his legs that tells him he only needs to leap and he can fly.
Below the table he sees that Sensei has stopped eating. The cat watches him with strangely wary eyes.
“You're going to make me sad if you don't eat, Natsume-kun,” Touko-san sighs. She puts a hand on her cheek. “Sometimes you look so far away... you can tell me if you don't want to eat with us, you know. I don't mind if you visit your friends for dinner...”
Natsume smiles at Touko-san. When he lifts his chopsticks the buttery shrimp slides smoothly down his throat before disappearing. He feels that, now. He takes another bite as Touko-san beams. “Of course I want to be here,” Natsume assures them warmly. The smile is fixed on his face, and Sensei sits tense under the table.
“ -And I don't plan on ever leaving.”