Madara watched the boy blow the candles on top of his white-frosted cake. When the last of the flame went out, his friends around him blew their horns and threw the confetti while the Fujiwaras clapped in silence with smiles on their faces.
“Happy eighteenth birthday!”
“Happy eighteenth birthday, Natsume!”
Natsume couldn’t stop the smile breaking through his lips, a tinge of pink on his cheeks.
They set out to cut the cake and handed them out on white paper plates. Natsume had even saved a piece for him, placing it in his bowl on the floor. “Here’s yours, Sensei,” he said. Madara would rather have those fried shrimps he had seen on the table, but it was Natsume’s special day, so he offered no complaints and instead just dug in to the soft, fluffy, creamy cake before his eyes.
Madara had witnessed three birthdays in his time living with Natsume. The first was a quiet thing, when not even Natsume had remembered. It had been around the time they first met. Touko had started fussing around the house after the boy left—cleaning, cooking, nothing out of the ordinary but Madara could tell she was giving extra effort on everything. Then she left for the town, and he left for the mountains, and when he came back later that afternoon riding on Natsume’s shoulder, a strawberry cake waited for them in the kitchen, with the words Happy Birthday, Takashi-kun spread across the top and center on chocolate icing. Natsume’s shock had been a sight to behold.
The second was a boisterous event, mostly held by his friends from school. With cakes and cookies and presents, a banner and confetti and trumpets. You’d think they hadn’t seen each other for years with the way the loud bunch had thrown the party. They had talked for hours and hours until night fell, and they had to go home because they had school the next day. Natsume hadn’t been able to stop smiling for the rest of the night.
Birthdays. Madara never understood the meaning of it. The day of someone’s birth. Natsume had asked him once if he had a birthday. The beast living off as a house cat had scoffed and said he didn’t need one. Though, if Madara had been honest, it was more like he didn’t have one, at least as far as he was concerned. Madara didn’t even know how long he had been alive. For as long as he could remember, Madara had been roaming the sky and across mountains as a great white beast, cultivating power and terror, until all the ayakashi feared him and respected him. Until all he could do was wander and pass the idle days under patches of dappled sunlight or drinking under a bright moonlit sky.
Madara finished his fluffy cake with a burp, his stomach full. It was good, as always. Too sweet for his taste, but he had no complaints.
Natsume and his friends weren’t around. Only the Fujiwara couple were there, eating their slices of cake on the table in silence.
Touko gave a quiet sigh.
“What’s wrong?” Shigeru asked.
Touko brought a spoonful of cake into her mouth. It was a while before she spoke. “This’ll be his last year here,” she said, her voice quiet.
Shigeru looked up from his cake and stared at his wife.
“Time…seems to move so fast, don’t you think?” When Touko looked up, her small smile was tinged with sadness, and Madara took it upon himself to leave.
Natsume and his friends were holed up in his room. He could hear their screams and laughter from down the stairs. Madara couldn’t find the energy to join their raucousness, so he turned left toward the front door and exited the house.
An excitement seemed to brim beneath the silence of the forest where the ayakashi usually gathered. Whispers and hushed glee spread throughout the woodland creatures, leading him deeper to a dark clearing his ayakashi eyes spotted through a break in the trees. Familiar figures were rushing in and out, carrying little trinkets over their heads and dropping them at the center. And then he heard the voices, high-pitched and low, familiar and not.
“I found these.”
“Would he like it, though?”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure Natsume-sama will accept them nonetheless.”
The two middle-class youkai stood at the center by a pile of what Madara had thought were the trinkets but apparently was an assortment of stones and twigs, flowers and acorns. Many lesser ayakashi darted into the pile to drop their forage, only to leave in search for something else. Hinoe stood by, overseeing it. She was the first to spot him at the edge of the clearing.
“Madara!” she called, hand held up high in wave. If none of the ayakashi had spotted him, Hinoe’s call certainly put him under the spotlight, and most of the lesser ones bowed to him before dashing away.
Madara strolled over to the pile, eyeing it with great interest. He could feel power coursing through it, not enough to attract attention, but enough for someone with a keen eye to know that something was there.
“A gift, Madara-sama,” the middle-class youkai said. “For Natsume-sama’s birthday.”
Madara blinked. A retort was ready on his lips, but he was cut before he could say anything.
“No, these aren’t just trash,” Hinoe said. “They’ve been bathed under the moonlight for the past month and now, they’re at the peak of their power.”
“They’re said to bless humans with long life!” the middle-class piped in, echoed by his ox-face friend beside him.
Madara scoffed. He didn’t doubt the “gift” had some sort of power—he could feel it pulsing, like the throb of a beating heart. But he doubted the power was enough to bless “long life”, or if it would at all. He wouldn’t be surprised if they would take something from Natsume in return for it.
But Madara could already picture the boy’s face: a grimace, then a resigned smile. Natsume would still accept it, even when he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Too kind. The boy was too kind. One would have thought someone who had gotten into so much of youkai trouble had learned a thing or two about dealing with the lot, but in the three years Madara had lived with him, there hadn’t been a day when he was able to leave Natsume alone without getting into any trouble.
“All right,” the middle-class said after a short while. The kappa was the last one to drop a worn pebble on the heap. “I think we’re done.”
Every ayakashi in the clearing shouted and clapped their little hands. The gift pile glowed a dim blue in the dark, emitting a sort of warmth, as though the accumulation of moonlight-induced trinkets had produced a small fire deep within. Madara wondered how the hell they would bring these to Natsume. Drop them outside of his window? He could imagine Touko frowning at the sight of it.
“Let’s pack them up, everyone!” Hinoe said with a clap of her hands, but before anyone could move, Madara interjected.
“Give them tomorrow.”
“He’s with his friends right now,” he went on. “Or do you want them to see stones and pebbles floating around in the air?”
Silence, where each of the ayakashi present looked at each other and murmured among themselves. It wasn’t until Hinoe grinned at him and said, “Since when were you so attentive, Madara?” that his temple pulsed.
Madara ended up ordering the couple middle-class youkai to get him the best alcohol they could find, announcing they would hold their own celebration tonight, and shouts of consent and joy were thrown around. They brought him to a spring deep in the woods that seemed to glow even when there was no moon to be seen.
Madara lay on his back on top of a boulder at the edge of the spring. A gap in the foliage above him showed a fragment of the moonless sky.
After a night-long merriment filled with drinking and laughter and singing, and more drinking, everyone was dozing peacefully, spread across the clearing. Quiet wheezes and snores, hushed breathing and a silent whimper as someone shifted in their sleep, turning on their side to hug an empty bottle of sake, murmuring incorrigibly. Madara couldn’t sleep, staring at the stars strewn across the stretch of dark indigo sky, blinking back at him.
A stir among sleeping reveler caused him to shift his eyes toward the source of the sound. A particularly tall ayakashi approached him. Her feet barely made any sound as she stepped over the grass and her sleeping companions.
“You’re not going back, Madara?” Hinoe asked as she reached him, her blue hair swaying in the cool gentle wind.
Madara shifted his gaze back toward the sky. “I’ll return in the morning.” It’s not as though he had never stayed out late. He would open the window in the morning, and Natsume would berate, but the boy would leave him be.
Silence fell. Hinoe sat on the grass with her back against the boulder.
“Who came up with the idea for the gift?” Madara asked quietly.
It was a moment before Hinoe answered. “I did.”
Hinoe shrugged in the dark. “I don’t know. It just came to me that we have never given Natsume anything.”
Madara scoffed at that. “We don’t owe humans anything,” he said. “And besides, it probably would’ve been better to assemble something that would help him with his future rather than something as lofty as blessing him with long life.”
“What’s wrong with blessing him with long life?” Hinoe asked testily. “That’s what all humans wish for.”
“It’s stupid. No matter what blessing he receives, we’ll always live longer, and then one day, he’ll be gone, like a flower falling off its branch, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
He could feel Hinoe’s glare, even if he didn’t see it, before she huffed and turned her eyes away. “I only wish he would live longer than Reiko.”
Reiko. Now that was a name Madara always had trouble sorting his thoughts on. A human girl around Natsume’s age who had been such a pain that he had done all he could think of to avoid her relentless approach.
“Do you remember, Madara?” Hinoe asked. “The last time we saw Reiko.”
He remembered. It had been burned to the back of his mind. Though the scene playing in his head was probably not the same as the one Hinoe was referring to. Because Madara had seen the human again, once, years after she had come to them on that late winter day and challenged him to a match.
Come on! Reiko had insisted. This could be the last time.
He’d look at her then, this small defiant human who had seemed to have the backing of a thousand gods with the way she had been pestering him time and again. Bold. Daring. Or should he say fearless? Stupidly fearless. Didn’t she know that he could eat her alive right then and there and she would never be heard from again?
But Madara had scoffed, because he hadn’t believed it would have been the last time they saw each other. Though, if he were being honest, even if he had known, Madara probably would have still refused. So he had grunted and said, “Good riddance then,” and Reiko hadn’t returned the next day, nor the next, until he found her sitting on a set of stairs leading down to a small cemetery in the mountains, her features looking older than the last time he had seen her.
“What brings you here, Reiko?” he’d asked her. The human he had known to have harassed half the mountain dwellers had looked frail, and sickly then. He had seen it in the gauntness on her face, a weakness in her drawn shoulders, and the indifferent look that somehow looked tired.
She had been staring at a bouquet of white flowers on one of the cemetery gravestones. Camellias, she had said those flowers were. The red ones symbolized noble death. But the white ones, when they were brought to a graveyard, it was said to send out a message—that those who had died would live on in their hearts.
Madara had never seen Reiko look so forlorn. Her voice, small and quiet, talking about flowers and death had brushed him the wrong way. Something was off, he’d thought, but he hadn’t known what.
Until she decided to perk up and challenged him once more.
Madara had scoffed.
“Come on, you never accepted,” she had said. “For old’s time sake.” And before him had not been the sickly Reiko anymore, but the Reiko he had used to know, with that exasperating spark in her eyes. “If I win,” she’d gone on, “you’ll give me your name. But if you win…”
You can ask for anything you want, was what he had thought she would say. It had gotten to be like a spell, the way she kept saying the same thing over and over every time she met a new ayakashi. However, what she ended up saying had frozen him to the spot.
“I’ll give you the Book of Friends.”
Madara had stared at her and found her staring back—some sort of resolve swimming just underneath those amber eyes. He had heard right. She hadn’t been joking.
Of course, Madara hadn’t accepted her challenge. She had left with her young daughter shortly after he told her he would take the Book after she died. Reiko hadn’t given him any sort of retort or comeback, only smiled and said thank you. He didn’t know how many seasons passed until that one early winter day, when Madara was walking past the cemetery and he noticed something that made him pause, transfixed: hundreds of white flowers on the bushes and undergrowth blooming in unison.
“I heard Natsume’s leaving.”
Hinoe’s voice broke through his reverie, pulling Madara back to the present. The stars had slowly gone out one by one as the sky started to lighten in the distance. Dawn would come soon. Madara turned over to his side then leaped to his paws on the soft grass wet with dew.
“Rumors reach your ears fast,” Madara said, shaking himself free off the night’s ruminations. His eyes felt heavy. He needed sleep.
Hinoe straightened up her back. “What are you going to do, Madara?” she asked. Madara stared at all the ayakashi still sprawled throughout the clearing. “Are you going to follow him?”
Madara looked back at Hinoe. “I suggest you give the present after he comes home from school.” Madara turned around without another word and made his way home.
Natsume came home one day when Madara was dozing in the corner of his room. The door slid open, followed by quiet footfalls as Natsume made his way to his desk. Madara heard a soft thump—Natsume had sat down on the tatami mat. A moment’s pause before the boy drew out a heavy sigh, and Madara opened an eye to see him plopping down on his back, his hands stretched out on either side.
Madara waited for a moment, then, realizing Natsume wasn’t going to say anything as he stared up at his ceiling, decided to go back to sleep. His head was pounding from all the sake he had drunk the night before. However, not a heartbeat had passed when he heard Natsume sigh again and this time, Natsume spoke.
“The teacher gave us one of those future plan surveys again,” he said. “I don’t know what to write in it.”
“Didn’t you say you were going to college?” Madara said, his eyes still closed. Ever since the season rolled from summer to fall, Natsume had been staying up late at night, studying. A couple times, Madara had seen Touko and Shigeru helping him decide what schools to choose and what things he could study. Natsume had even talked to Natori that one time he visited town for another job.
“You’ll have more chances to land a good job if you go to college,” the exorcist had said.
“Did you go to college, Natori-san?”
Natori only smiled and said, “I did,” but had not elaborated.
“I could just look for a job here,” Natsume went on. “I’m sure there’s something I can do. Help out in someone’s store or something.” He paused. “What do you think, Sensei?”
Madara was silent for a while. He couldn’t believe Natsume was asking these things when he seemed to have been quite excited the last time Madara saw him talk with the Fujiwaras. And why was he even asking him about his future plans? And his head still pounded hard and the light filtering through the windows didn’t help at all.
A migraine was coming.
Madara turned around on his paws to shield his eyes from the light and plopped himself back down, desperately wishing for sleep to come.
“I don’t care what you choose nor am I obligated to help sort your human problems,” he said. “Whatever you go with, rest assured that I will be with you all the way.”
Silence fell. It was a moment before Madara realized what he had said, and it made him internally cringe. When he was about to take it back, his head hurt so bad that even lifting his eyelid was too much of an effort.
“Sensei…” he heard Natsume say, so soft he almost missed it.
He had expected a scoff or a laugh, but all Madara heard was a sort of wonderment in his voice. And maybe it was all right, this moment of sincerity. Or maybe it was the sake talking. Or the migraine talking. Just to get Natsume off his back and let him have his peaceful sleep.
But there was one thing Madara knew.
Once upon a time, Reiko had wanted to entrust the Book of Friends to him. Once upon a time, Madara had promised he would. He could say that was the reason why he said what he said. Or even the promise he had made Natsume on the day they first met, before he became the boy’s so-called guardian. But despite the quiet excitement brimming under the surface, Madara had seen the faraway look on Natsume’s face when no one was looking. A slight frown, drawn eyes, and furrowed brow—almost the same expression he had seen on Reiko’s face all those years ago, when she came to him and Hinoe and challenged him to a match.
This could be the last time.
He had thought Reiko as bold, and daring, and fearless. But after living with a human for three years, Madara had begun to see her persistence as a way to hide her loneliness and anxiety.
And maybe, Natsume felt the same.
Madara forced open an eye and found Natsume lying on his side on the mat, gazing at him. Silent. Expecting. And maybe a little apprehensive, though who was he to know? Humans were such complicated creatures.
“I’ll stay with you wherever you go, Natsume,” he said.
A moment passed, then another. Natsume didn’t say anything.
Madara frowned. That was the most cringe-worthy line he had ever said. He turned his face away and closed his eyes once again.
But then he heard it—a soft chuckle—and he imagined a small smile grazing Natsume’s lips as the boy whispered, “Thanks, sensei.”
Madara’s chest tightened and his stomach flip-flopped. A peculiar yet bothersome sensation he would rather not feel again, but it wasn’t bad. Madara’s ears drew back in contentment.
“Now leave me be!” he said instead. “I have a headache!” Natsume’s light laughter was the last thing he heard before he finally drifted into sleep.
~ END ~