“Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of their heart.”
Natsume looked down at the paper clenched between his trembling fingers once more. He had applied for a seminar about mythology and lore, a course that would go over excruciating details of the world that wasn’t seen as clear as a towering tree in the forest, or a rushing stream of water. The class was meant to talk about what lived in the branches, what dwelled beneath the swirling depths of a river. Natsume wanted the validation that he was not alone in what he knew to be there, what he could see.
The paper in his hand, telling him that he was accepted into the class despite the late entry was everything. He didn’t want to move too far ahead of himself in expectation, but he wanted change.
Natsume walked into the small classroom- it felt less like a classroom and more like a meeting room. The chairs looked more comfortable than any of the other chairs that he had seen in his other classes. The room portrayed an air of exclusivity that the class was known for. It was extremely selective in who was allowed to register- at least it had been. Apparently the instructor had been too tight fisted to the point where there would be semesters where the class was empty because there was no one worthy of joining. The department had eventually threatened to have the class discontinued entirely if there was not a certain quotient of students passing through. After that, the class was always packed, always quick to fill. By the time Natsume had managed to register for the class, there were no more spaces to fill, and he had gone to the department to plead his case. He had not even been able to meet with the instructor themself, but an aide. He had been interviewed, and told that his information would be passed onto the instructor for review.
When it was all said and done, Natsume found himself unable to leave things to chance. In the moment it had felt much more than just a need to be in class. He had gone directly to the library, found the instructor's email address, and composed an email with shaking hands. The day before the class, he had found a reply stating that he would be added- it hadn’t come from the professor himself, but Natsume took his victories where he found them.
He was not the first into the class- which was mildly surprising as it was an early morning class. Most of the twenty seats were already taken, and he had to settle for one further away from the instructor’s desk. Two minutes into his being there, the door opened again and the last of the students stepped in taking up the rest of the seats. Natsume looked about him, wondering if the professor would actually be late for the first class of the term until he saw a man walk up to the professor’s desk.
When the man addressed the class, Natsume’s eyes narrowed in confusion. The man could not be more than five years older that Natsume himself- he looked like a student as well.
“Good morning, everyone.” His voice was lithe. The student’s chorused the greeting, their voices high in excitement. Natsume was struck with a brief thought, he wondered if this youthful man before him was not in fact a spirit. Who else would find sense in teaching such a class in the open without fear of being deemed insane beside a spirit itself? When Natsume saw the bright ruby like tint to the professor’s eyes, he only grew more resolute in his musing.
“I didn’t know it was him teaching this class.” An exasperated sigh escaped someone behind Natsume, making him turn in his seat. It was one of the students who had wandered in after him, a boy around Natsume’s own age with black hair parted down the centre of his head. He looked quite serious, and when his eyes caught Natsume’s he turned back swiftly in his seat.
Beside him, someone shuffled too much and Natsume’s eyes were drawn to them next- they were restless in the way they adjusted the brim of their hat to sit lower on their forehead. He couldn’t tell whether they were male or female at first, the slight of their shoulder was no proper indication as he- begrudgingly - passed for more feminine than masculine in his own looks.
He knew it was rude to stare, moreso as the person’s movements seemed to grow in discomfort- Natsume looked away to his notebook in front of him.
He did not know what to feel of the class atmosphere, there seemed to be two distinct feelings enveloping the room. His mind tried to urge him to think upon it, and he was lost in his thoughts until the person beside him hesitantly prodded at his shoulder. He looked up to see them, see her as her eyes looked to him then to the direction of the instructor pointedly. Natsume followed her gaze, and startled when he noticed the entire class’ attention on him.
“Self-introduction.” A voice mumbled behind him and he recognised it as the boy who had spoken before.
Natsume slowly stood from his seat, a wave of self-consciousness washed over him. The gazes all around him pierced his skin and burned on the insides. “My name is Takashi Natsume. Thank you for having me in your class.” He made to sit before the professor spoke causing him to pause.
His laughter tinkled throughout the room, and the very air around him seemed to blossom. Natsume was not sure he liked the sound, it seemed false somehow, but he was grateful that the sound had captured some of the attention, and Natsume had less pairs of eyes boring into him. “Why don’t you tell us why you decided to take this course, Natsume- kun .”
His heart clenched. How was he to say that he had joined because the class had spoken to him, that he felt that he needed to be there because not being would eat at him.That he hoped to gain answers. He needed to know that he was not alone, but how much of himself was he allowed to bare.
“I joined…” His hands tightened into fists at his sides, and he waged internally before they relaxed at his sides. “I want to know more about the spirits, the bonds between us and them. I-”
A sharp noise like the abrupt end to a sneeze cut through Natsume’s words. But when he looked at the direction it had come from, he knew it had been laughter- the person’s face was still contorted with an amused grin. They held up their hands, and quickly apologised, but their looks showed that it had not been sincere. Natsume lost all his words.
The professor opened his mouth to speak, but the girl beside Natsume had gotten the words out first.
“I want to know more as well.”
Natsume could only think that she was making fun of him as well, until he saw her face clearly. The smile on her lips was much more different then the sneer that had been over the other student’s. Her’s was a smile of kindness, and solidarity. When Natsume had recognised it for what it was, it had startled him just as much as the ill intended one had been.
“And why don’t you introduce yourself.” The professor spoke just as kindly back.
“Yes. U-um, I’m Tooru Taki. My grandfather was a priest who studied a lot about spirits, and I,” she took a calming breath “I want to learn about them too.” She turned back to Natsume giving him another warm smile that said your reasons are validated before sitting again .
“Thank you Taki- san, Natsume- san. Thank you so much for sharing. We’re all in this class to learn about the same things, so let’s all work closely together.” He sent a smile at the girl who had snarked Natsume’s response, and she flinched, aware enough to know that the words were directed to her just as much as anyone else.
“Yes, professor Natori.” The class echoed her sentiments before the session proceeded.
The boy behind Natsume seemed to be the last to give his introduction, and stood without needing to be told. “My name is Kaname Tanuma. My father is a monk, and I wanted to take this class to learn more about what he has to deal with.”
“Thank you Tanuma- san . I’m happy that everyone had something to share. And so, I’ll tell you all about the syllabus for the semester.”
Natsume let the words wash over him. His hands didn’t shake as much anymore, the nerves that still bundled around inside him were anticipatory- anxious to know what lessons the semester held for him.
He was utterly exposed in the classroom, there were no divisions that blocked him from the gazes of anyone who decided to look, no walls that stopped whispers from meeting his ears. But the spaces beside, and behind him felt oddly warm and comforting.
And just for a moment he imagined he was not alone.
"The loneliest moment in someone's life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly."
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Natsume found himself second guessing his decision sometime during the second week of class. He had come into it with grand thoughts, he knew, but he still thought that he would learn something. Instead, the class only seemed to continuously brush the surface of a door, that if opened could unveil mysteries unfathomable. Instead the door stayed close, with only the mind to fill in the gaps of what could be on the other side.
For anyone who wanted to take a class on commonplace myths- some little morsel to tingle one's senses without completely delving into the unknown- this was the class for them. But Natsume wanted more, he wanted explanations, answers.
Natsume went to the library to look up professor Natori's office location and hours. When he had everything he needed he hurried to find the professor. He thought that if he could actually meet face to face, he would be able to find out something.
When Natsume arrived at the office he saw two girls standing nearby as if they were placed on guard. One of them he recognised from class, her smile etched into the fabric of his mind as it had leered at him the very first day of class. Her laughter was careless, boundless, and her eyes shone like splintered glass until they settled on him. Natsume had tried to step back around the corner, out of sight, before he was spotted but he was not quick enough. The twinkle in the girl's eyes immediately dimmed as if it had only been in his head. He tried to look away before they could make eye contact but he saw the sneer that marred her face.
He slipped back behind the wall, the only thing between them as he waited. They had probably come to see the professor, with appointments, so he would wait til they were done.
The wall didn't cover their words, and he could hear everything that passed between them.
"Oh, he was cute." The girl, the one not from his class spoke. An excited tint coloured her voice.
There was a beat of silence. Natsume fooled himself into thinking that would be the end of the discussion, that he would not have to stand by and hear people talk about him as if he didn't matter. After all, people usually didn't have much to say about him, or rather they didn't want to talk about him as if he was contagious.
"Don't waste your time." The girl from his class answered flippantly.
"Oh, does he already have a girlfriend? I-I was just making a comment. I didn't expect anything." Her voice got smaller with every sentence, nearly fading to almost inaudible at the end.
"I don't think so." His classmate's laugher was sarcastic. "He seems like such a weirdo, anyone with him would probably be weird too."
"You should have heard him in my Myths and Lore class. I think he actually believes there are monsters walking around with us." She laughed again.
Natsume sank into himself, his shoulders hunched as he leaned further into the wall. He wanted to blend into the wall so seamlessly as if he were part of the paint.
When the other girl hadn't responded after a while, Natsume's classmate filled the silence with more chatter. "Anyway, enough about him. I still can't believe Shuuichi Natori is my professor." She squealed in delight. "Urgh, he's even more gorgeous in real life."
Natsume was at least happy that the conversation had switched from him being the subject of focus. His heart felt constricted, and his lungs didn't seem equipped to carry the capacity of air it was used to. The topic of their professor seemed safe enough. Though, why he would garner such a reaction from a student, Natsume could not be sure. He knew the professor was popular, or rather, he knew the Myths and Lore class had been a popular seminar. Once again he found it odd that a class could have such a reaction while focusing on such a topic. After all, Natsume was deemed a freak for taking the course. He wondered why he was different, why he was always singled out. What made the professor so different?
"Oh, well you're lucky I guess. You always seemed to like him."
"Lucky?" Natsume's classmate nearly shrieked. "I don't get why you're not more amazed. Shuuichi Natori is one of the greatest actors of our time."
Natsume's eyes widened.
"He's been nominated for so many awards, and won over half of them. He was the best upcoming male actor, and never stopped succeeding."
Natsume's pulse quickened.
"I...don't watch his movies…."
"I don't understand why!" Natsume's classmate shrieked, indignant. "He's perfect, and I can't believe he teaches at our school. I've tried so many times to get into this course and now, finally, I get to see him twice a week and during office hours when I want."
Natsume could imagine her bouncing in spot, unable to contain her excitement. He could imagine that she had other things to say about professor Natori but he couldn't hear them. His mind had started for an immediate shut down by the time his classmate had mentioned what Natori did.
It made sense. How else could someone waltz into class every time with a smile on their face as they began to delve into the world of "mythical" beings?
Natsume had been wrong to think that only a spirit would be crazy enough to do such a thing. No. Shuuichi Natori wasn't a spirit. He was an actor. No wonder Natsume had been foolish enough to slowly think he could find a place in the class. He was fooled into feeling a sense of security, into feeling whatever he needed to feel. Isn't that what the job of an actor was?
Growing up, people thought Natsume was nothing but an attention seeking brat that spoke about things that no one else could see. They called him a liar. No wonder he'd thought that he and the professor had a lot in common. His professor was clearly nothing more than a liar too.
Natsume's nose burned, his eyes itched and pricked with tears. He wondered if Natori possibly took the job as a way to research for his acting. Did he even believe in any of the things he spoke of in his class? Maybe it was just another way to get money. Some of Natsume's relatives in the past only took him in because they knew there would be support payments attached to him. He knew they didn't want him, sometimes he'd hear them whisper when they thought he couldn't hear, sometimes the varying looks of disgust and disappointment was enough. Natsume knew from a young age that some people could do anything for money, even when they didn't like it.
Natsume wasn't brought back to the present until he heard some sort of noise to his side. He didn't know what it was. Couldn't discern it. He looked up in the direction and saw the two girl from before, standing on his side of the wall. They both looked shocked to see him, as if they had not been in a public space, but the privacy of their own homes. His classmate's face seemed to colour in shame as well. Even if her conversation had strayed, and lingered on Professor Shuuichi Natori, it had once dissected Natsume. And she knew from Natsume's presence that he must have heard it all.
Natsume saw a small tightening at her jaw, as if she was making herself steady in determination. Whether she was about to say more, or expected Natsume to say something would be left unknown.
He ran from the looks, from the words. He ran from everything because he was good at running.
Sceneries blurred around him- wet mixes of blues, greens, yellows. When Natsume finally stopped, his legs trembling beneath him, he was out of campus grounds. He spotted a bench at side street and allowed himself to sit and feel now that he was alone.
"Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
Arthur C. Clarke
Natsume tried to stop counting the amount of days since he had stopped going to class. But he knew the exact number. He didn't want it to, but guilt ate at him with every absence. He'd tried so hard to get into the class, and now he was throwing it all away. He was a coward. If for nothing else, for running away.
He walked back to Professor Natori's office during his off hours. Natsume hoped he would meet with an aide to formally withdraw. He could not face his professor. He didn't want to. If the actor only saw the class as some joke, then Natsume wanted no part of it. He found himself angry, hurt, and confused, and he knew that distance would help him mend.
Natsume walked into the department while lost in thought. It was still rather early in the morning, too early for there to be anyone milling around the building. Natsume felt like he had the entire building to himself, but he walked toward Professor Natori's office with the hope that he could simply get everything over with.
The professor's door was one of the furthest away from the entrance of the building. He had to ascend a flight of stairs to reach it. By then, Natsume began to feel unease, his guard rising without him knowing why. He knew why he usually felt that feeling when he was off campus, but a university was much too modern, too populous. Most spirits didn't like such conditions, and avoided it if they could. Natsume only really encountered them when there weren't many people around and-
His hands balled into fists at his sides. He had come to school early when there weren't many people around, and if a spirit chose to visit the university it would be now.
Natsume's feet still carried him forward as his mind raced over the possibilities. He stood much closer to the professor's office now, and could hear voices if he focused.
"-I told you not to come here didn't I?"
Natsume couldn't hear the exact feelings behind the words. He could hardly distinguish if they were male or female.
He thought the first person to speak had been on the phone until he heard a second voice.
"There is no one else present."
"That's not the point. Coming onto campus is reckless."
Natsume could hear some annoyance now. The words were harsh and tight.
"I have gotten the information for the case you requested."
There was a pause.
"Alright then. But this isn't the time to discuss this. Though something tells me you won't leave until you've told me."
Natsume could tell the voice was Natori's now. If he reached his hand out he could touch the door handle. He could turn it and open it slightly to see who the professor had been talking to. Natsume did not recognise the other voice.
He opened the door a sliver while the professor was still talking. When Natsume peeked in, he saw Natori as unearthly as he remembered him from the first day of class- with his carnelian red eyes.
There was someone standing before the professor, their back toward Natsume. He tried to contain his gasp but could not- the person was dressed in a yukata, a katana strapped across their back.
"Hiiragi? What's the matter?"
Natsume was brought back to the present at the sound of his professor's voice.
Master? Natsume's brow furrowed as the word repeated in his mind. He didn't have the opportunity to think further on it as he saw the person's head move toward his direction. He tried to shut the door as quickly and quietly as he could, but he stopped short. There was a mask hiding Hiiragi's face from view, Natsume didn't know why he hadn't noticed it before, but he could see the two horns that stuck up from the mask as well.
His eyes widened, but his mouth clamped shut. He didn't scream as he tried to make his retreat, not until Hiiragi simply vanished before his eyes. By then Natsume turned tail to run, but his escape route was cut off when Hiiragi appeared right before him. He screamed then.
He fell on his bum as he stared at the spirit before him. He backed up until his back bumped into something firm and he looked up to see Natori looking down at him with a strange look in his eyes. For the briefest of moments, Natsume thought that Natori was judging him the way other people had judged him when they saw him freaking out about things they couldn't see. However, the moment quickly passed when Natsume remembered that Natori himself had been conversing with the spirit.
"Natsume, was it? Is there something I can help with? Though, my office hours haven't started yet." Natori spoke, his voice light as if none of what had just happened had. A sunny smile even spread across his lips.
"Master?" Hiiragi spoke, but Natori pointedly ignored them. He didn't even glance at the sound of their voice. Natsume once again questioned if Natori truly knew what was happening.
Natori held out his hand for Natsume to take. Natsume was hesitant but he grabbed his professor's hand and was pulled to his feet.
"Are you alright?" Natori spoke up again, the smile still on his lips. His gaze was searching.
Natsume opened his mouth to speak when his voice died in a gasp as he looked at Natori's arm. A shadow slithered around his wrist and settled along his veins into the shape of a lizard as if it was testing Natsume.
Natsume failed horribly as he reacted to the creature. Natori's grip on his hand tightened.
"What did you come here for, Natsume?"
"I-I wanted to drop the class…"
Natori's grip loosened. "Is there something wrong with the class?" He spoke and his smile finally fell from his face. He grimaced as if he knew exactly what was wrong.
Natsume glanced nervously behind him. Hiiragi's attention was fixed upon him. He heard Natori sigh, and turned back to him.
"Why don't you come into my office?" Natori asked beseechingly.
Natsume wanted to say no, he wanted to run. But there seemed to be answers staring him in the mouth. He nodded.
Natsume had followed Natori into the office and they sat across the desk from each other. The atmosphere still lingered tense between them before Natori finally sighed.
"Hiiragi. Why don't you go now."
Natsume finally chanced another glance at the spirit hovering right beside him.
The spirit made a noise that was neither here nor there, but something about their presence made Natsume think of stubbornness.
"You're probably scaring the poor boy."
"Um. It's okay. I don't mind." Natsume spoke to Natori before turning to the spirit. "I'm Takashi Natsume. You're called Hiiragi right?"
Hiiragi glanced toward Natori and got a slight nod of his head before turning back to Natsume. "Yes."
Natsume was quickly realising that the spirit was not intentionally trying to be standoffish or rude, they seemed simply curt by nature.
"Nice to meet you then, Hiiragi."
"Likewise, Natsume." It was the first time that she directed her words to Natsume himself. He couldn't help the smile that came to his lips.
Natori cleared his throat drawing Natsume's attention back to him. Before either of them could speak again, the lizard that made its home in Natori's skin darted into his shirt sleeve, and seconds later exited from above his shirt collar causing Natsume to stiffen.
"Just to be certain," Natori pointed at the spot on his neck where Natsume had been staring, "You can see this?"
Natsume nodded before he once again found his words, "Yes." He looked Natori in the eyes. "Does that mean that you are a spirit as well?"
Natori laughed a hollow laugh. "No. I'm nothing but a humble professor."
Natsume frowned. "But you're an actor as well…"
Natori's easy smile slipped back onto his face. "Yes, I wasn't aware you watched my movies," his smile grew bigger, "I guess-"
"I don't." Natsume spoke, cutting him off bluntly. Natori's smile faltered as Natsume carried on none-the-wiser. "I heard it from a classmate...I thought. I thought that you…." Natsume couldn't bring himself to continue. He didn't yet have the words to express what he wanted to as emotion washed over him.
"Hmm, you thought perhaps I was an actor who was fulfilling frivolous needs for teaching? That maybe I needed money in between jobs?"
Natsume's eyes widened in surprise. He had thought all of those things at one point or the other, and he looked between Hiiragi and Natori wondering if somehow they knew what he was thinking.
Natori laughed, it was small and brief, but it seemed genuine. "Relax Natsume, it's just that your face was a bit easy to read. Can I be honest with you?"
Natsume's brow furrowed in confusion. Was Natori about to tell him that he actually did have less than savoury reasons for teaching the class after all?
"I didn't want to teach this class." Natsume tensed. "At least, not like this."
"What do you mean?"
"I suppose I had my own grand ideas of what a class should be, and the university decided to remind me of the reality of it."
Natsume looked at his professor through narrowed eyes, the man was speaking vaguely and Natsume's confusion only mounted.
"I don't understand, Professor Natori."
"Sorry." Natori leant back in his chair. "I just never meant for my class to be such a spectacle."
And then Natsume felt like he did understand. When he had registered, the class had been full and it seemed to be competitive to get in. It had confused Natsume because with his mindset, he couldn't believe that people would want to take classes on spirits for knowledge. Instead, it had only made sense when he'd found out the real identity of his professor- that students would simply want to be taught by someone famous, or rather, interact with that fame. The divide between logic and reality only widened when Natsume thought about the interviews students had to do to receive entry into the class. Natori clearly had deeper motives.
"You wanted a smaller, more manageable class for a reason." Natsume spoke, voicing his thoughts.
"Not smaller, just a more selective group of students."
Everything clicked. "Students who could see the things you taught about."
Natori's smile was real. "As I expect is the same reason that you joined the class. You know, Natsume, after reading your personal statement on wanting to get into the class I'd hoped I could speak to you one on one like this. But then you stopped coming."
Natsume remained silent.
"That only shows me what I thought to be true. That a class like this isn't the way it should be."
"You've met others who could see spirits like Hiiragi?" Natsume said changing the flow of conversation.
"Well, Hiiragi isn't supposed to be on campus to be seen." Natori gave her a playful look. "But I have. Though, not in the way that you can, Natsume. But it's easy to scare students off if they are in an environment that won't treat them kindly." He looked at Natsume pointedly.
Their thoughts both aligned. Natsume had felt unnerved from his every first day in class. But Natsume also knew why Natori hadn't gone on to have the class he'd wanted. The class had almost been shut down altogether because of Natori's strict policies.
"What about an independent study?" Those classes either happened or they didn't. It was up to the students to plead their cases, and the professor's decision to mentor them. It was the perfect situation that left Natori still teaching a class, and then gave those...those like Natsume a safe space to have their questions answered.
The weight of it all settled on Natsume so fully, it left him breathless. He could finally get answers. He finally found someone who knew what he did. It was scary, it felt like it was the beginning of some unknown. And it thrilled him because he was no longer alone…