ink_stained: (natsume: book)
[personal profile] ink_stained
Day #16 -

Title: The Distance Between
Fandom: Natsume Yuujinchou
Characters: Natsume Takashi, Taki, Tanuma, Nyanko-sensei (Madara), Hinoe, Misuzu, and other youkai
Rating: PG
Words: (+/-) 2728
Summary: Natsume has hope that he can become human again, but now he has to ask himself - is that what he really wants?

Part 1 . Part 2

“You’re late,” Nyanko-sensei said, “and you smell like an exorcist. Go take a bath.”

Takashi didn’t say anything as he fell backwards onto the futon that the Fujiwaras had yet to put away. They still expected him to come home, and that meant leaving him a place to sleep when he did. He placed an arm over his eyes and sighed. “Sensei, why didn’t you tell me there was a way for me to become human again?”

He heard the cat pause in licking a paw and he peeked out to see Nyanko-sensei was closer than expected.

“What did Natori say?” the cat practically hissed. “That fool!”

Letting his arm fall away, he rolled over onto his side and allowed Sensei to curl up on the futon with him. With the cat so close, he raised a hand - and scratched behind Sensei’s furry ears. “He isn’t a fool. He just wants to make things right.”

“There’s no guarantee of anything, Natsume,” admonished the not-cat, “don’t get your hopes up if it doesn’t work.”

Takashi didn’t say anything again and closed his eyes. Then he admitted, softly, “Or it could work and things would return to how they should have been.”

“What!” Nyanko-sensei struggled out of the arms that encased him and reverted back to his true ayakashi form, growling. “Are you an idiot too? Do you want to die?”

“If there wasn’t a cure in the first place, don’t you think I’m just running away?”

A large white paw came down hard on Takashi’s chest, pinning him. “Aren’t you simply running away by taking the easier path?”

Kicking upwards with his legs, he shoved Madara off him. “You don’t understand what it’s like, Sensei. I can see them, I can touch them, I can hear them, but they don’t even realize I’m here. That I’m right there beside them. Why? Why am I so far from them?” He had realized the distance before, but that had been from a human’s standpoint.

He leaned back against Madara’s side and covered his eyes, wanting to hide how misty they had gone. “Do you always feel like this, Sensei? Like there is a wall between you and someone else? One that is too high to climb, too hard to break, too wide to go around?”

“All the time,” Madara said gruffly, turning his head to nudge Takashi none-too-gently. “Does a wall scare you that much? A wall between you and humans? Hasn‘t there always been one?”

“Not like this,” whispered Takashi, “never like this.”

Madara let out a sigh and flopped down onto the floor, taking Takashi with him. “Fine, if you want to get rid of that wall so badly.” He shook his fur to get rid of the tickling sensation of Takashi pressed against him, hugging him. “If it’s just a wall,” he added, a trace smug, “did you forget I could fly?”

Hidden in the white, silky fur, Takashi smiled. “Let’s go flying, Sensei.”

He didn’t feel so alone anymore. Not with hope in front of him.

--

Hinoe didn’t look impressed with Takashi’s decision and she made that clear when she blew a cloud of smoke straight into his face. “You’re an idiot, aren’t you? What human gives up immortality?”

“That’s what I said!” Back in his lucky-cat form, Nyanko-sensei was adamant that he was against this whole ‘get back to being human’ idea. Takashi saw through the lie, but that didn’t make the whacks on the head any less painful when Sensei said, “This fool! This idiot! This sub-ayakashi life form! Tell him just what he’s getting into, would you?”

“It’s not impossible, but …” She set her pipe aside and let the fire go out. “There is still a chance the disease will return. That is, if it wasn’t a curse. The water from Mount Fuji purifies and gives everlasting life - it was a good choice on your friend’s part. However, if it was something else … something mortal. You will die, Natsume. To become human again, that is what waits for you.”

Takashi took a seat beside Hinoe’s tree stomp and sat cross-legged on the forest floor, placing his elbows on his legs and his chin in his hands. “It would be a lie to say death doesn’t scare me at all, but I know it’s inevitable. For me, who is human. But right now, living as an ayakashi, living forever … it scares me more.” He dropped his hands back into his lap and sat up straight, meeting Hinoe’s questioning gaze. “Knowing how I feel,” he began, “tell me the truth. Do you think I should become human again?”

From his shoulder, he heard a ‘tsk’ and then Sensei’s weight disappeared. “This is stupid. I’m going for a drink.” Takashi didn’t try to stop him.

“I think,” Hinoe answered, once Nyanko-sensei was gone, “you are going to leave a few youkai broken-hearted. We wanted you all to ourselves.”

--

Takashi did his best thinking at Yatsuhara. The atmosphere was peaceful, relaxing, and it was a place where he could clear his mind. Hinoe had brought up a good point. There were youkai that didn’t want him to be human again. Being human meant there would be an end to the fun, and a human’s life was so short.

He had been too confused before to take it into consideration, but now that he thought about it, Misuzu and Hinoe were happy to have him as part of their world. So were the other ayakashi that he had met and befriended. Like the two he had helped here in Yatsuhara - and the same two that were guarding the field he was laying in, as if their lives depended on it.

The one-eyed, one-horned ayakashi that did the most talking was also the most vocal about his task, declaring it a ‘great honor’ to be of service to ‘Natsume-sama’. Takashi didn’t have the heart to protest and ask them to quit it. Their presence was a bit like a balm to his weary mind, and it was going to be a few days before Natori would return.

He wondered how long the wait would feel to an ayakashi. Or if it would feel like a wait at all.

A frog hopped up onto his stomach as someone said, “Natsume-dono, what are you doing here?”

“Thinking,” answered Takashi honestly, and then he picked up the tiny frog and placed it back where it belonged - on the ground. “Are you looking for something, Misuzu?”

For a second, it was as if the large, horse-like ayakashi hesitated, but his voice held no such weakness. “I am, actually. There is a human girl wandering around. I have been chasing off those who would harm her. If you’ll excuse me, I should be going, Natsume-dono.”

“Wait!” Takashi stood up quickly. “I’ll go with you. Maybe I can help.”

Again, there was that sense of hesitation. And again, Misuzu didn’t let it show. “If that is what you want to do, I cannot stop you.”

--

It was Taki. He didn’t know what she was doing here at Yatsuhara, but he guessed she was on her way to visit Tanuma, who lived close by. She should have taken another path, though. A safer one.

As evening crept into the surrounding field and forest, the darker everything became - and that darkness stirred the blood of the fiercer ayakashi. “Leave her alone,” he instructed, grabbing one such demon. It was small, about the size of his palm, but it was temperamental and its limbs flailed around restlessly. He only let it go when it grudgingly agreed to do as told and he put it down.

The little feisty spirit bounced off in the opposite direction, grumbling the entire time. He hoped it would spread the word that this area was ‘protected’, because he wasn’t sure he could handle a stronger ayakashi. At least not on his own, but he had Misuzu with him. Taki would be safe, he tried to reassure himself.

He may have been angry at her, but that didn’t mean he wanted anything to happen to her. She had to stay safe so he could yell at her properly.

Following Taki led them to the rebuilt temple where Tanuma lived, and his guess was proven correct. She was here to see Tanuma after all. Her pace quickened when she saw the temple, and they had to jog to keep up with her.

Outside, Tanuma was waiting for her. He waved and she joined him. Takashi felt his heart ache at the sight and wanted to join them.

“Go,” Misuzu suddenly spoke - and this time, the hesitation colored his voice. “You want to go, so go.”

“And you?” Takashi asked, unsure.

“I’ll wait,” promised Misuzu. “I want to see what face you will make upon your return.”

Takashi gave a slight smile. “A happy one, I hope.”

Before Taki and Tanuma could get too far ahead, he ran to catch up with them. No matter if I’m happy or sad, hurt or angry, I want to see them. Talk with them. Share everything with them. He would ran any distance to be able to meet with them again.

--

Taki’s concentration was devoted completely to the task ahead of her. First, she created the circle and then divided it up into the sections where the symbols would fit. When she was finished, she stepped back and scrutinized it for discrepancies. After finding none, she began to work on the symbols.

“Does it always take this long?” Tanuma questioned, but there was no ill-meaning behind his interruption and Taki didn’t take offense to it. Actually, she liked being able to share this part of herself, the part she had inherited from her grandfather, and Tanuma was the only one besides Natsume willing to watch her work.

“I want this one to be perfect,” she explained, determined. “I want to be able to see Natsume. I want this to work.”

“Ah.” Tanuma could probably understand her feelings. He probably needed someone to share a part of himself with as much as she did. “I … want to see him, too.” She stopped in her symbol-making and stared at him, wondering about the uncertainty she had heard.

“What is it?” she asked, urging Tanuma to speak up, to get what was bothering him off his chest. He had been too withdrawn lately.

“Well, what if …” he trailed off and lowered his head, his black bangs falling into his face. His eyes were shadowed when he said, “What if Natsume doesn’t want to see us?”

Taki went back to drawing. “Is that all?” She heard Tanuma let out a surprised sound, probably taken off-guard at her dismissive attitude. “There’s no use worrying about that. And besides, if I know anything about Natsume, it’s that he never abandons a friend.” Inwardly, she prayed that she was right. After going against his wishes, forcing him to drink blessed water from Mount Fuji - it was likely that Natsume was furious with them.

But they had waited long enough. Tonight, she was going to see Natsume.

Even if that meant bribing Natsume’s cat with manjuu and promising not to hug him for a month.

--

Tanuma had never seen one of Taki’s circles work before, so he stumbled back into the door that led to his room when something appeared out of no where. And that something was the youkai pond that Natsume could see, but he never could - only glimpses and only at certain times of day. He had forgotten to tell Taki about the pond, though, and now they were watching red fish swim around in circles.

“Um, Tanuma-kun, did you know that was there?”

With Taki’s gaze on him, he was too embarrassed to admit that yes, he did because now they would have to step into the water, erase the circle, and start all over again. He should have said something earlier. And the reason he hadn’t, the reason he had been distracted, it was -

“I thought you wanted to see me, Tanuma, not this pond.” Natsume was standing in the water, pants rolled up to his knees and his white shirt unbuttoned. He looked like he was ready to go swimming, or like he was about to catch one of those strange fish - but neither could be right. It wasn’t even springtime yet, and that realization reminded him that Natsume wasn’t human anymore. That weather was a luxury, not a worry, for an ayakashi.

Then Natsume bent down and tried to catch one of the fish. “Hey, don’t just stand there. Help me catch dinner!”

That jolted the two of them out of their thoughts and they moved closer to the circle at once. Questions spilled from their lips endlessly, and Natsume listened and replied and he was smiling and laughing and they felt a weight lift from their chests. Natsume was Natsume and nothing had changed - but that wasn’t quite true. While Natsume still looked like Natsume, talked like Natsume, and acted like Natsume, there was a haunted look to his eyes (but at least they weren't any dark circles around them). His body - his arms, his legs, his chest - seemed to give off a faint glow (but at least he wasn’t skin and bones). And there was something different, something unnamable (but at least there was no more coughing and Natsume was breathing, and that was all that really mattered).

The sun was gone by the time they finally managed to catch a fish - and it was Taki who caught it, holding it up proudly for them to see her prize. Then Natsume splashed her with water and she let it go. They looked at each other, looked at the pond, saw the fish swimming angrily in circles, and burst out laughing - loud as they could.

Tanuma, who was next to Natsume, wrapped an arm around his friend and smiled, proclaiming, “That was a keeper.” But any further laughter died when Natsume tensed and pulled away. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s -” Natsume didn’t finish his sentence; he was too busy pushing Taki and Tanuma down into the shallow pond water. “Stay down! And stay in the circle!” Above them, they saw a hand that was too huge to be human, and it was reaching for them. That was when Natsume stood up and attracted the thing’s attention. “Come and get me!” An eye opened up in the palm of the large hand, accepting the challenge.

Beneath him, Tanuma felt Taki shiver and he was torn between what he needed to protect. Natsume made the choice for him, shrugging out of his shirt and telling him to wrap Taki in it. He did.

By the time he looked up again, Natsume was gone.

--

Takashi panted and struggled to run a little further. Further, he needed go further. As far as he could from his friends.

The bag he had picked up in his haste slid against his uncovered chest and he knew raw, red lines would be visible on his skin when he returned home. At least Nyanko-sensei would be the only one to see them. There was something that still confused him, though - and that was how his belongings ‘disappeared’ when he wore them. Sensei had tried to explain it before, but he hadn’t been paying much attention back then.

The one good part, however, was the Book of Friend had theoretically ‘disappeared’ too. That was why he had to grab the bag before he took off running. It was still his responsibility, even if he wasn’t human. And like always, he was running from a youkai that wanted to misuse the Book. He shouldn’t have met with his friends; he had endangered them. Worse, he hadn’t been able to ask them what he wanted to know most. Why did you do it? He had been able to act like nothing had happened, but it had been on his mind the entire time, that chant of why, why, why.

His courage had failed him. He ran faster and further, trying to escape from something that wasn’t just the youkai pursuing him. If he went back to being human, the truth would be there, waiting, and he wasn’t sure he was prepared for it.

Part 4

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August 2012

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