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"I hear there's going to be a new student!" Kitamoto told Nishimura and Natsume as they met up on the way to school. "A girl!" Any new student at their school, way out in the country, was unusual. Kitamoto had already tried to attract the interest of every girl in their class he might have a chance with, without luck.

"Dibs!" Nishimura shouted.

Kitamoto and Natsume both laughed. "You can't 'dibs' a girl," Kitamoto said. "Anyway, if anybody gets dibs, it's me!" They laughed and pushed each other playfully, wrestling to see if they could get the other one to fall into the canal beside which they walked.

Natsume just smiled, enjoying the spring sun and the last of the cherry blossoms on the trees, the sounds of morning in the country, the teasing of his friends ... everything. This was his life now, and every day seemed like a blessing.

"Or Natsume," Nishimura said then generously. Natsume hadn't been a candidate in their minds for reasons obvious to Natsume: he never talked about girls, or asked them out, or even participated in his friends' discussions about various female classmates' merits. It never really crossed his mind. He was too busy with schoolwork, helping out Touko and Shigeru, spending time with his friends, and all the various adventures and misadventures brought on by his ability to see yokai, some of which were troubling and dangerous. Anyway, he was a weirdo and everyone knew it. The girls in their class were polite to him, as he was to them, but to his knowledge, not one of them had ever shown any romantic interest in him whatsoever. "Maybe it'll be Natsume she likes."

Kitamoto latched onto this as a way to smooth over things with Nishimura, as their battle over this girl had grown increasingly intense. They were close friends, and seldom fought, but the prospect of this new person was inflaming jealousies sight-unseen. "Yeah, she'll like Natsume, and we'll be left out in the cold again." They both laughed self-deprecatingly, now teasing Natsume good-naturedly.

In this way, they were in good spirits again by the time they reached school, friendly once more, and eager to see what might happen, because there was no chance in anyone's mind--no chance whatsoever--that it might actually be Natsume she liked.

She was cute, Natsume noted as she stood before the class and introduced herself. Little, not shy, with curly black hair, she'd come from Tokyo, which earned awed "oohs" from the class. The seat behind Natsume was empty, and the teacher directed her to sit there. Natsume gave her a polite smile as she passed, before returning to look out the window, where there were two yokai battling mightily over something they'd found in the bushes. He smiled at the sight as the girl, Rin, settled in her seat.

"Did you really come from Tokyo?" another girl in their class asked her eagerly. "What's it like?"

"Small," Rin said. "Small and boring. There's nothing to do there."

Natsume turned his head slightly. He'd lived in Tokyo, among all the various places throughout Japan he'd lived, passed from relative to relative growing up. Everyone had a different experience of a place, but Natsume was pretty sure there was no one in the world who could find Tokyo small, boring, and devoid of opportunities for entertainment. He saw the classmate who'd asked, who sat right next to Natsume, look confused and subside, turning to face forward again. Natsume glanced back at Rin, who smirked at him. Already filled with mirth over the sight of the yokai war going on outside, he chuckled at her little joke and looked forward again, listening as the teacher started class.

By lunchtime, Kitamoto and Nishimura had already made overtures of friendship to the new girl, who rebuffed them in favor of some friendships she'd made with some other girls (not the one who sat next to Natsume, who seemed offended at Rin's teasing response to her question). "Whatever," Kitamoto declared breezily. "She's kind of mean." All the fun and hope of romantic opportunities was already gone, the battle for her affections that caused a rift between the two of them this morning long forgotten. "Natsume's the one who has to sit by her. That sucks. I hope she doesn't tease you," he said, and there it was, his friends' precious kindness: that was a note of genuine concern in Kitamoto's voice. They knew Natsume was kind of fragile.

"I don't really ... find her that mean," Natsume had to say. He'd been dealing with yokai all his life. They were much meaner. Heck, his yokai cat said worse to Natsume every day. He threatened to eat Natsume on the regular. This was nothing.

Kitamoto sighed heavily, looking out glumly across the fields toward the horizon. "I'm gonna be single forever."

 

Rin continued to tell tall tales about Tokyo to their naive classmates who'd only known this small country village their whole lives. She claimed, variously, that she had a swimming pool in her backyard, that everyone at her school rode a helicopter to school every day, and that she had a robot butler--and that everyone in town did. Natsume just sat there covering his smile with his hand, listening. He kind of wanted to inform his poor classmates that they were being taken for a ride, or tell her to cut it out, but they would only be humiliated and hate Rin ever after, and anyway, it was mostly harmless. They certainly were awed and entertained by all her ridiculous stories. Eventually, someone remembered Natsume had lived in Tokyo. "Did you have a robot butler?" he asked Natsume, wide-eyed.

Natsume just shook his head.

"Well, not everyone has one," Rin amended. "Poor, scruffy kids don't."

Everyone looked at Natsume nervously. Natsume just chuckled lightly, so everyone else did, too, relaxing. Somehow Rin had pulled it out, as everyone knew or suspected that Natsume had been poor before he came here, and he was certainly known to be kind of scruffy, coming to school after some encounter with a yokai covered in dirt or leaves, his clothes torn, his hair mussed.

"I can't believe you didn't have a robot butler," Rin said breezily as she caught up to walk with him after school. "That's so lame."

Natsume laughed. "If you thought Tokyo was small and boring, you'll die of boredom here," he told her. Natsume was the only one in their class who wasn't intimidated by Rin. It was just that she was so much like so many yokai he knew--to the point that he began wondering if she was a yokai masquerading as a human, but Sensei checked her out for him and assured him she smelled entirely human.

"You don't seem bored," she declared in her brazen way. "You seem to find all sorts of mischief to get up to. How do you manage that?"

He smirked, but there was a dark tinge to it now. "Just ... lucky that way, I guess," he murmured wistfully.

"Well, take me to it!" she insisted. "Let's go together to do all the stuff that has you so excited and scared and running around all the time, running away from things ... what, are there yakuza hiding in the bushes around this town or something?" She peered exaggeratedly into the bushes.

She really was hilarious; Natsume just kept laughing, which come to think of it, wasn't something he did often. Usually, there wasn't that much to laugh about. Other kids walking home from school near them seemed surprised. She kept looking at him expectantly for his response, so finally he lied, "It's my cat. He gets into a lot of trouble, so I get into scrapes getting him out."

Was that an irritable huff he heard nearby? Was Sensei near? He was known to get drunk and abandon his body-guard duties at times, but for the most part, he did seem to be close by when Natsume really needed him ... like a doting kitty who followed its owner to school and home again every single day. Natsume smiled to himself at the outrage such a suggestion would produce were Natsume to say it aloud to Sensei, who insisted he was definitely not a cat, even as he pounced instinctively at whatever makeshift cat toys Natsume dangled for him.

Anyway, his lie wasn't that far from the truth. Sensei certainly did cause a lot of trouble for him.

"You're such a bad liar," Rin told him, unimpressed. "Like, I could have come up with five things better than that in half the time I gave you. If you're gonna be such a liar, you should get better at it."

Now Natsume was intimidated. What could he say to that?? It wasn't like he liked lying; it was simply necessary in order to protect humans from all his yokai problems. He did his best to only lie by omission, except when someone demanded an answer, as Rin just did. He didn't want to get good at lying.

"I'm gonna make you buy me a drink just for coming up with such a stupid lie and seriously thinking I'd fall for it," Rin went on, indeed dragging him to the nearest vending machine and picking the most expensive thing in there. Those students walking past on their way home witnessed the whole humiliating thing. Rin even made him get something for himself and sit there drinking with her until she was finally done.

"How long does it take you to finish a drink?" Natsume complained. It was the most expensive thing in there, but it was smaller than most of the other cans! Some kind of gourmet coffee.

Rin laughed. "Everyone around here is so serious, so goody-two-shoes. I like you. You're a bad boy."

Natsume scowled. "I am not! I do my best!"

"We all do our best to be good," she told him, like this was something everyone knew. "But for kids like you and me who are bad by nature, it's too hard to succeed at it."

Natsume was most annoyed when she finally let him go home, her final words ringing in his head. Was he really a bad boy?? He got into trouble a lot. He caused trouble for poor Touko and Shigeru, too, but it was all because of the yokai! Yokai were bad, and they dragged him into stuff against his will. He did his very best to be good; it was just that the circumstances of his life made it impossible.

Proven out when a yokai slinked out of a stand of trees to accost him in a wooded section of the path. "Reiko!" it cried. He only knew it was a yokai because of how it addressed him, as so many yokai did, by his grandmother's name. Yokai lived a very long time. The lives of humans were short to them. They didn't realize generations had passed since the last time they saw his grandmother, and that she was long dead. This yokai looked like a very beautiful human, in an ornate silk yukata and traditional wooden sandals, mother-of-pearl holding its hair in an elegant style. "It's been so long!"

Natsume was in no mood for this nonsense today. "Reiko was my grandmother," he hissed. "She's dead. If you want your name back, I'll do it tomorrow. Not today."

"Oh, but why would I want my name back?" the yokai asked ... sensually? "Reiko and I did so enjoy playing master and slave." Natsume frowned. This was more than he wanted to know about his grandmother. "You look just like her. Smell like her, too," it said, definitely sensually, stroking back his hair as he dodged. "So beautiful."

"If you don't want your name back, then leave me alone!" He started toward home again. How many days had he started down this path with good intentions of getting his homework done early and helping Touko with the housework, only to be waylaid, coming in dirty and bedraggled after bedtime? Touko only looked concerned and ran him a hot bath.

It followed him. "I saw you talking to that human back there," it said, bemused. "Why were you doing that?"

"I'm human," he growled. "Why wouldn't I?"

"Well ... because. Reiko didn't. Humans are so terribly cruel. Bad hearts. Bad intentions. I remember once, she and I were dancing and playing in a field, and they came and attacked us! Her. She got up and brushed herself off after it was over like it happened all the time." The yokai shed a tear, brushing it away nostalgically. "Brave Reiko. I tended all her cuts and bruises left by your abominable kind."

"Well, some people think it's yokai who are abominable. Pretty much all people!"

"And you? What do you think?"

"I think you're all kind of jerks, human and yokai both." It's not something Natsume would admit aloud almost ever, but today, he couldn't hold it in anymore. These days, he had precious friends on both sides of the etheric veil, but before he came to this town, he'd been cruelly tormented by humans and yokai alike. And now Rin, and now this guy--girl? The yokai was perfectly androgynous.

The yokai suddenly grabbed him and held him tight. He struggled, but for once, the grip of a yokai wasn't painful; rather, tender. "I missed you, Natsume," it breathed into his hair. "So very much. I was heartbroken when you disappeared for all those years. I looked and looked for you, and finally gave up ... and here you are again! Returned to me. I'll take care of you, as I did then."

Natsume managed to struggled free. "You must not have taken all that much good care of her, since she died so young! How did she die, anyway? Did a yokai kill her after you abandoned her?"

It regarded him seriously with its beautiful eyes. "I don't know," it said at last. "Reiko was very secretive. She wandered a lot, interacted with yokai elsewhere. I didn't even know she had died. I'm ... not convinced she really did," it said, eyeing him lustfully. "Maybe she just reincarnated directly into you."

Natsume scowled. "Leave me alone!" He was close enough to home now that he could run all the way there, and he didn't stop until he was inside, up the stairs, in his room, where he flung himself down on his futon and breathed, just breathed, trying to process all the events and news of the day. Just what kind of relationship had his grandmother had with that yokai? And why ... why did it feel so warm and safe when it held him tight? He couldn't really just be Reiko in a new body, could he? The thought that was left after thoughts of the yokai were done spinning in his mind was ... was he really bad by nature?

 

The school was abuzz with new gossip when he arrived the next morning ... and the gossip was about Natsume! Oh, no.

"It really is Natsume the new girl likes!" Nishimura and Kitamoto said to him when he got to class, trying to staunch their jealousy. "Or vice versa."

Natsume looked around, bewildered. "Huh?"

"We heard you bought her a drink on the way home from school, laughed at all her jokes ...." said Nishimura.

"Don't walk home with a guy for one day ...," added Kitamoto.

"I bought her the drink because she made me!" Natsume protested. "It was the most expensive one, too! And she was only punishing me because-- Well, anyway, it wasn't what you think."

He'd hurried to school, trying to make sure to avoid that yokai, only to find this when he arrived. Now he hunkered down in his seat, hunching under all the looks of his classmates. Natsume, the subject of romantic gossip?? Of all the things he thought he'd ever have to deal with in his life--and there was plenty he figured he might have to deal with--this was not one of them. The gossip wasn't even true!

... Or so he thought, until at lunch, when he went to buy some bread, Rin cornered him down an unpopulated hallway and said, "So that festival this weekend ... wanna go with me?"

Natsume was stunned speechless. Was she teasing him? Playing some kind of prank? She couldn't seem to look him in the eye, and her cheeks ... they were pink. Even she couldn't fake that.

When she finally brought herself to peek at his expression, she said casually, "Well, think about it and let me know. I already have a kimono." She took off down the hall.

He staggered to the concessions table and bought the last thing they had left, everyone's least favorite, including his. He hardly even noticed, wandering as if in a dream to the roof where he sat down with Nishimura and Kitamoto, who were just then discussing that same festival and whether they would go. "Are you going, Natsume?" Nishimura asked.

Kitamoto frowned then, concerned. "He's got that look. Did something happen, Natsume?"

Just then, Sasada joined them. "That new girl asked him to go with her. I just heard her telling all the girls that she has ... dibs." She rolled her eyes. Sasada didn't like her any better than most of the people in class did.

Oh, the ribbing he was going to be enduring for the next couple of months, he could tell--even if he didn't go with her to the festival. Kitamoto and Nishimura didn't even think the new girl was nice, but because they had set their sights on her before they even met her, they were still jealous now that Natsume was the one who got her attention. He tried everything--downplaying it, suggesting maybe she only asked him as a friend, promising he wouldn't go if it upset them so much--all to no avail. That girl came to town and promptly turned his life upside-down. Maybe she really was a yokai.

 

Natsume pretended he had something he had stay after school for so he could avoid Kitamoto, Nishimura, and Rin. He headed toward home once he was pretty sure they were all safely away ... only to run into that yokai!

"Natsume," it purred. "My life is filled with joy since you finally came back."

"I told you, I'm not Reiko," he growled. "Whatever kind of relationship you had with Reiko, you're not gonna have with me. I'll give you back your name, and you leave me alone from then on, got it?"

"Never! I won't take it back. I always want to be available to help you if you call."

"I won't call, so get over it! I never use the Book of Friends."

The yokai looked charmed. "Aw. Is that what she called it? So Reiko. You should listen to your grandmother. She knew yokai were her only friends in the world."

This felt all too true right now, as Kitamoto and Nishimura's jealous ribbing had at times that day felt downright nasty. Natsume scowled. He tried to go past the yokai, but it swept him up in another of those embraces that felt so ... so undeniably warm and safe. So loving. After his parents died when he was young, he never had any family show him the slightest bit of affection, until he came to live with Touko and Shigeru. Maybe Touko would even hug him, if he wasn't always so awkwardly reserved, but he was a teenager now, the time for cuddles and physical demonstrations of parental affection over even if he had grown up with a loving family, and the way he'd grown up, so despised by basically every family he ever lived with, he just couldn't overcome his stand-offishness. He hadn't been hugged in a decade, and it felt so ... irresistible.

The yokai could feel it. It carried him effortlessly to a nearby tree, which must be hollow inside, as soon it was dark and private where they were. "I understand you," the yokai breathed. "I understand you as no one else ever could. I know how it was for Reiko. How she couldn't tell even the most basic truths of her existence to the other humans, how they hurt and attacked her when she tried. I know it must be so for you, as well. Humans never change. But I'm here, and ... you can tell me everything."

He shouldn't be doing this. Rin saying he was a bad boy rang in his mind. As weird as his fellow classmates already thought he was, what would they think if they could see him now? There was a girl at school he might be about to go out with, for the first time in his life, and yet here he was, all tangled up in the dark with some forest demon. He made a token effort to fight off its affections, to fight his own desires, but it knew him too well, knew his weaknesses, held him tighter, and he lost all will to resist.

"I love you," it whispered. "I love you, Natsume, as I have always loved you. As I will always love you. Humans will forget you once your life is over and your body is in the ground, but I will remember you for all eternity." Natsume wept there in the dark, and surrendered.

 

Natsume couldn't bring himself to go to school the next day. He pretended to be sick, and hid in his room, overwhelmed with everything that had happened ... everything he had done. Everything Reiko had done, which he'd been able to perceive, as he often could, through the yokai's memories. "I was man enough for Reiko," the beautiful yokai had told him flirtatiously. "I can be woman enough for you."

The yokai side of his life as fraught and confusing and troubling as ever, the human side of his life seemed no better when he turned his thoughts to it--jealous Kitamoto and Nishimura, expectant Rin, gossippy classmates. There were all too many times in his life when he had felt like this, utterly overwhelmed, helpless to how things were playing out, just having to live through whatever came, however traumatic, whatever disastrous consequences it all had for his future.

Tormented by these worries, the only comfort was that yokai, who said its name was Suzu. He really could tell it--her--anything, and she seemed to understand. In any case, she was all comfort and warmth. She had a sense of humor; they could laugh about anything. She was strong enough to protect him from low- and mid-level yokai who tried to accost him when she walked him home. All the gossip about Natsume from his past, about how he was a liar, mainly, and in the few schools where they actually believed he could see yokai and consorted with them ... if they could see him now, all their most outrageous accusations would be proved out. What kind of human, indeed, found refuge in nature monsters? Well, his grandmother, for one. Not that it did her any good. She was not well-remembered by humans, and her life was short and sad. But maybe it was in his blood and there was no escaping his fate. Maybe one day he really would walk away from the world of humans entirely, as Reiko did, and disappear into the woods.

But for now, he still lived under Touko and Shigeru's roof, and attended his human school, and had to decide what to do about Rin's invitation. The fact was, Rin would probably torment him if he said no. That's what a yokai would do, and she was so much like them. Kitamoto and Nishimura would probably be even madder if he didn't go with her than if he did; they'd feel like he was squandering and devaluing an opportunity they greatly desired. His classmates would probably decide there was more to the rumors than there really was if he didn't go; if he went with Rin, and everyone saw they just walked around talking and maybe bought a couple of snacks, everyone would realize they were just friends, nothing more, and maybe the gossip would die down. Anyway, he kind of wanted to go to the festival.

Sensei hopped into his room through the window, and took in the state Natsume was in. Sensei teased him relentlessly on an average day, but on days like today, when he could tell Natsume was hurting and overwhelmed, sometimes he was something approaching kind. Sensei seemed to notice something about the way he smelled, and sniffed him. "Suzu," was all he said before curling up against his side and going to sleep.

 

The next morning at school, Natsume accepted Rin's invitation. She beamed, excitedly telling him all about her kimono, insisting he also wear a yukata. He promised he would.

Outside for gym class later that morning, each friend group loosely gathered together, Rin was bragging about getting to go to the festival with Natsume.

Her female friends might have thought Natsume was absent again today, as one said, "He's so ... weird."

Nishimura and Kitamoto looked anxiously at Natsume. Just moments before, they'd been going a bit over the top with their jealous teasing, and now suddenly they were all gentle solicitous worry. They tried to say something to drown out anything else the girls might utter, but couldn't seem to come up with anything. The cool morning wind brought another girl's words right to their ears: "He seems, like ... I dunno, dark and brooding."

"I hear he sees ghosts," said another. "Like he's not really human or something. Like he only hangs out with dark, creepy things."

Nishimura and Kitamoto's expressions were so sweetly contorted with concern for their friend's feelings, when in fact, Natsume found what was being said about him kind of ... obvious. He'd heard much worse at other schools. If he'd been here all this time and that was the worst being said about him, he was reassured, if anything.

"Well," said Rin unconcernedly, "maybe that's what I like about him."

 

Nishimura and Kitamoto weren't jealous after that. Anyone who overheard that conversation would have been left with the strong impression that Rin was the only girl around who might ever have the slightest bit of interest in Natsume, and only because she was a weirdo, too. Add to that the accurate reputation she was developing as kind of a bad girl, and not a nice one, either, Nishimura and Kitamoto seemed to have decided Natsume was no candidate for jealousy; rather pity. This didn't thrill Natsume, either, but it felt good to have his friends acting like friends again. And hearing that Rin saw these things in him that turned most people off and that she especially liked those things about him made him feel more happy that they were friends, and more relaxed about their upcoming date at the festival.

Things were actually working out on the human side of his life ... and he couldn't help wondering if it was all thanks to Suzu, thoughts of whom gave him real comfort when things were starting to look ... well, like they might go the same way everything had for him at every other school he'd ever attended. He was in class in body, but his mind was far away in the hollow tree with Suzu, telling her his secrets, receiving comfort for his sorrows, hearing stories about other times and places that were fascinating and edifying, great battles and troubles from times past, remembered by yokai but forgotten by humans, that made all his personal troubles pale in comparison.

Learning more about his grandmother also helped. When he confessed that consorting with yokai felt wrong and evil, Suzu dismissed it. "But you are yokai," she said kindly. "If you can see us, you at least partly are us. Half us. Let yourself be this being you are, whatever it is. Don't push it away and try to pretend it doesn't exist. Of what good would you be were you not fully yourself?"

"I don't think I'm much good to anyone, anyway," he sighed, clutched in her embrace. "But Rin said ... that I'm bad. A bad boy."

Suzu grinned, most amused. "Ah, humans and their judgments continue to make not the smallest bit of sense, I see. It's probably the cruel ones abusing you and Reiko who are saying you're bad, isn't it? You are kind, Natsume. I smell it on you. You're good."

"Maybe, but I'm always ... doing bad things, making trouble for Touko and Shigeru, just .... The life I live is nothing like the lives of the good kids at school. It's so much darker and more complex."

"You are dark and complex. It doesn't make you bad."

"But being here with you ... I can't think of a person who wouldn't think it's the strangest, darkest, baddest thing there is. ... Except maybe Rin." If she wasn't disgusted, or angry feeling like he was seeing another woman, she'd probably think it was awesome. "Except she asked me out, so now it feels ... like I'm cheating on her."

"Well ... are you?"

"Not to my mind. But maybe to hers. So I shouldn't, but I can't ... make myself stop. I ... need this too much."

"Does it feel wrong?"

"No. It feels good. But maybe only because I'm bad."

Suzu shrugged. "So you're bad. Good, bad ... what do these judgments accomplish? You are what you are, and what you are is what I need."

 

This gave Natsume much food for thought. To be what someone needed .... Touko often expressed her joy that Natsume had come to live with them, and Natsume had never really been able to absorb it. Someone, delighted by his presence? People had only ever been bothered by his presence before. He had a hard time not believing she was lying to save his feelings. He appreciated her attempts at kindness, but they couldn't touch him, especially since he knew for a fact he caused her so much trouble. Who could like that?

Rin could. Suzu could. They saw all the worst parts of him, the parts rejected and reviled by everyone else, and were especially attracted to them. Even Nishimura and Kitamoto ... clearly the other kids saw the weirdness and darkness in Natsume, but though probably half the class heard those girls say those things, it didn't make them like him any less. They didn't like him because of those aspects of him; they just didn't make them like him any less, which was as good in its own way.

He often had to stop himself from thanking Touko and Shigeru profusely just for tolerating him. If he started saying those words, he would start crying, and hours later, he'd still be sobbing and thanking them and apologizing for being all those dreadful things he'd always thought he was. Yet maybe, like Nishimura and Kitamoto, Touko and Shigeru saw those aspects of him and weren't troubled by them. Maybe they even liked them, like Rin and Suzu.

Rin was trouble. She'd caused Natsume trouble from before he ever even laid eyes on her. But he liked her. Suzu, too. Maybe Suzu was right. Maybe he could stop putting labels on different aspects of himself and just let himself ... be whatever he was, and let people like whatever they liked, as hard as it might be for him to believe they really liked some of those things. As hard as it might be for him to believe they could really like Natsume.

 

The lights of the festival glittered in the night, showing the details of the blue clouds all over Rin's white kimono, lined with gold.

Their time at the festival went just as Natsume had imagined, walking around, buying a few snacks, talking and laughing. It all seemed very normal, and he felt that old pride he'd always felt whenever he managed to pass as a normal kid, however briefly it lasted. They greeted their classmates, and he thought they were seeing him and Rin together exactly as he'd hoped, just a couple of casual friends, having a little fun together.

"Ugh, this is boring," Rin suddenly burst out. "I thought you'd be way more fun. I thought at least if I got you out here at night, some kind of monsters would appear, or you'd turn into some kind of fantastical animal, or ... something." Natsume couldn't help but laugh. Of course the second he started being proud of his normalcy, it got thrown in his face. "Anything but all this ... ordinariness."

"So you had ulterior motives for inviting me."

"Of course! You think I care about a stupid festival? You see one, you've seen them all. Anyway, every festival I ever went to in Tokyo was way better than this."

Now he sighed. All his hopeful thoughts about being liked just the way he was ... of course he couldn't be so lucky. "Here I thought you asked me because you liked me."

He really hadn't meant anything except exactly what he said. Even if he was the type to try to guilt somebody into saying something they didn't really mean just to save his feelings, he was sure Rin wouldn't be the type to give into it, so he was most surprised when she grabbed him by the hand and turned him to face her. "I do!" she insisted.

He tried to smile, but he knew his hurt showed on his face. "No, I meant ... like like."

"So did I," she said, leaned forward, and kissed him!

It felt completely different from when Suzu did it, so much more ... physical, real. A girl! A real human girl kissed him! He truly never thought such a day would come. If it hadn't been for Suzu, he might have frozen up or run off at this most unexpected event, but as it was, he was able to be present and fully experience it.

He'd spent so much of his life ostracized and outcast, he couldn't help but wonder, was it a trick? A joke? He peered closely at her face, and there it was again: she was blushing. This was real. He smiled, their faces still inches from each other.

"I can see things," he suddenly blurted out. "Yokai. I see them. I talk to them. I even ride them sometimes. And ... other stuff." It was all that time with Suzu where he could say whatever he wanted, be exactly who he was, Suzu, who'd made him want to be able to be who he was, freely, within view of the whole world, or at least of those he cared about, and who said they cared about him. He hadn't admitted these things to a human in years, unless they'd seen yokai too.

It was a mistake. Surely it was a terrible mistake. All those times he'd tried to tell people about his abilities flashed through his mind, and all the horrible consequences. He was twelve when he tried last, and on that day, he swore, never again. Yet hope springs eternal.

He raised his eyes to her face, ready to see the disgust, the bewilderment, the revulsion yet again.

Her eyes lit up. "I knew it! I knew I needed to invite you tonight! Let's go talk to some yokai right now!"

He kept scanning her face for signs of fear or hatred, finding only delight and excitement. She'd never seemed so animated and happy, so ... normal, as she was right now, dragging him toward the forest by the hand.

She suddenly turned to scowl at him. "Liar! Pretending you couldn't see cool stuff when I totally knew you could! How long did you intend to keep this from me??"

He saw classmates see her dragging him into the forest, and suddenly realized what they must think they intended to do there. It's not like he could tell them what they were really doing there, either. It was also not like he hadn't done that there ... with Suzu. But he kept letting Rin drag him along, because ... this was what he wanted right at this moment, more than anything. Intimacy with Suzu was amazing, but to actually connect to another human ... he'd wanted that more than anything for so long, and it always seemed so far out of reach .

"Are we to where there's any yokai yet?" Rin asked excitedly, and he was somehow startled anew that she couldn't see the many yokai all around them, in the bushes and trees, watching them, just like their classmates had watched them.

"Well ... yeah. We're in the forest. They're here all the time."

She dropped his hand, turning around and staring at the forest around her with awe. "Awesome," she breathed. "What are they saying?"

"Nothing, just watching."

She bowed to the trees. "Konbanwa," she said, uncharacteristically polite.

Some of the yokai tittered, delighted. Some had a less wholesome reaction, like ... like they thought she'd make an easy meal.

"You know what? This was a bad idea. Let's go back." He took her by the hand and started to lead her away.

"They're that dangerous?"

"Some of them."

She followed him, but before they got within reach of the festival lights, she stopped him and announced, "I can tell you're not really there. In class, all any of the rest of us sees is the classroom, the teacher, the other students. You see ... so much more. I wish ... I wish I could, too."

"No, you don't."

"Of course I do! Everything's so boring! The first twenty-two years of my life were laid out for me before I was even born! I wish I had an exciting life like yours."

"Well, I wish I had a predictable life like yours."

"I wish I could see ... magical things too."

Natsume smiled wistfully. "Yokai are just nature demons, Rin. They look like animals, and like demons, and occasionally like humans. And they act a lot like humans. Mean ones. It's not that exciting. Scary, sometimes. Annoying sometimes. But not magical the way you seem to imagine it."

"Ugh. Sounds exactly like life now, just ... twice as much of it."

Natsume sighed. "Pretty much."

Rin drew near and put her face close to his, her eyes shining with excitement. "But there's some magical stuff, right? Magic that could ... make me like you? If you want what I have, and I want what you have, maybe we could exchange bodies, or lives, or at least abilities. Do you know any yokai who could do that?"

Natsume put on his best poker face and gazed at her, thinking, expressionless in that way that creeped some people out. Little did she or any of his friends know he knew some of the most powerful yokai in Japan. Maybe one of them really would have that ability. Stranger things had happened to him. He'd been made small and trapped in a bottle, for one. If something like that was possible, wasn't what she was suggesting possible?

Suzu peeked out from a tree behind Rin. Natsume didn't mean to let his eyes rest on Suzu, but he must have inadvertently, because Rin suddenly turned to look. "What is it?" she asked eagerly. "You look like you're seeing something amazing."

He smiled and forced his eyes to remain on Rin's. "No," he said. "I don't know any yokai who could do that."

 

Natsume walked into his classroom Monday morning after the festival, to a rising howl of scandalized excitement from his fellow classmates. "Rin kissed Natsume!" a girl burst out. "I saw it!"

"I saw it, too!" cried someone else, and a third person echoed it.

Rin wasn't there yet; Natsume had to shoulder this alone. He walked to his desk, trying to hold his head high, and sat down, only to see Suzu waving at him from the lawn.

He smiled, aware suddenly of what it must look like to his fellow classmates, since Rin had so straightforwardly talked about how he came across: seeing mysterious things, living in another realm. They weren't exactly wrong.

Before all that had happened in the past couple of weeks, he would have tried ineffectually to deny it, to pass it off, to try to make it sound different from how it was. But the truth was, he went to the festival. He held hands with Rin; they kissed. Right or wrong, that was what he did, what he wanted to do, who he was. The tension suddenly left Natsume.

It was tempting to believe that his ability to see yokai was the source of all his problems, but it was also the solution. If he couldn't do that, he wouldn't have Sensei, or Suzu, or any of his other yokai friends. He wouldn't have this window into his grandmother's life, which mirrored his own, to help explain to him who he was. For that matter, maybe one of those relatives he first lived with would have been satisfied to let him stay and he would never have met Touko and Shigeru ... or his human friends here, or Rin.

He looked up and saw Kitamoto and Nishimura burst into the classroom and look for him, then when their eyes landed on him, their expressions became hilariously outraged, having obviously already heard the rumors. They stormed over to rib Natsume about getting to kiss the new girl, and Natsume couldn't help but chuckle, even enjoying his friends' jealousy a little. Some people thought he was weird and creepy, sure. Rin thought he was cool and mysterious. And at this moment, his friends thought he had it made.

Let people think what they wanted to think. Let them like him, let them hate him. He was who he was. And being what he was, somehow, he had everything he needed.