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Everything comes back to you

Chapter Text

Tsuji may have assigned Satoru and Natsume out of turn cleaning duties to get back at them for being chatty, in the passive aggressive way of all overly-cheerful class representatives, but Satoru doesn’t really mind. Hanging out with Natsume beats going home any day—and since it’s more or less his fault they’re in trouble, he can’t exactly complain to his friend about it without sounding like a total heel.

“This is the worst,” Satoru says with feeling, hauling the heavier of two trash cans outside. “Tsuji’s got in for me, I swear.”

He can’t complain more than usual, anyway.

Dumping his half of the trash, he turns to glance at his quiet companion. Natsume is next to him but he may as well be miles away. The half-empty bin is hanging loosely from his hands and his head is tipped back, round eyes trained without blinking on the sky. Satoru follows his gaze, nonplussed.

There are thunderheads rolling in, dark and foreboding as they build up in a gray sky. He hadn’t noticed before, but now that he’s paying attention, the air definitely smells like rain.

“Oh, wow,” Satoru says, eyebrows shooting up. “It’s really gonna storm. No wonder my brother bullied me into taking his umbrella this morning.”

Plucking the trashcan out of Natsume’s hands, he dumps it for him, then stacks it inside his own empty bin. Natsume seems out of it, but Satoru is no stranger to his vacant moods—the guy zones out a lot—so he simply hefts the stacked bins under one arm, grabs Natsume’s hand in his free one, and leads the way back inside.

“If we hurry, we can make it home without getting too wet,” he says, all but dragging his unresistant friend up the stairs. “I mean, there’s no way we can beat the rain, but—you have an umbrella, right? I can walk you home with mine if you don’t.”

“No, that’s okay,” Natsume finally replies. “I have mine with me.”

He’s keeping pace with Satoru on his own now, but he doesn’t tug his hand away. Satoru takes that as implicit permission to keep holding it. The only sounds that accompany them as they run through empty hallways are the echoed stamping of rapid footfalls and the faraway rumble of approaching thunder.

In a little under ten minutes, they’re back at the front doors. Satoru is shoving his school slippers in his locker and yanking on his sneakers in their place, a little out of breath from tearing through the school—and glad no staff had caught them, because that would have given Tsuji a whole heap of disciplinary material to work with if he was still in a bad mood tomorrow.

“Alright,” he says with a triumphant grin, as a light rain begins to fall, “it’s barely started out there. Come on, Natsume, and we can—”

He trails off as his eyes move from the doorway to his classmate. Natsume is still in his uwabaki, jacket and umbrella bundled under his arm. He hasn’t even stepped down into the entry area yet, lingering on the raised floor a few feet away, with what looks like absolutely no intention of taking another step.

“Go on without me,” he says with a smile. “I forgot something.”

Satoru blinks at him. “What? Just go get it real quick, I can wait.”

“I might have to look for it,” he deflects easily. “It could be awhile. You should go ahead though, before it gets too bad out there.”

His expression is empty and serene. It stirs something uneasy to life in the pit of Satoru’s stomach.

This is what Natsume looked like when he first came to this town; agreeable and indulgent without giving an inch, without letting anyone in. Satoru remembers the slow, painstaking work of extracting a childish, sarcastic, endlessly earnest personality from where it was hidden neatly behind a pretty face and a distant smile.

He doesn’t like that Natsume can so easily revert back to what he used to be.

He doesn’t like that there must be a reason for it.

Lightning flashes outside, illuminating the room for a split second. Natsume goes stiff. Satoru takes a step towards him, frowning. Uncomprehending, but he wants to understand, and so he reaches out with a bewildered, “Natsume—”

Thunder cuts him off. It stops him cold. Because Natsume flinches, full-body, and Satoru’s voice gets stuck in his throat. The distance between them inches wider somehow, even though they’re both standing still.

He’s never seen Natsume so transparent before. He didn’t expect it to be hard to look at him, when for so long he thought it would be nice for Natsume to bear his feelings every once in awhile.

“You,” he says slowly, and pauses. “You’re scared of the storm?”

The next handful of seconds feel like an hour. Natsume is silent as he dips his head in a nod, hair hanging into his eyes. Satoru stares at him.

“And you weren’t gonna say anything?” he asks, incredulous. “You were just gonna let me leave you by yourself?”

The rain outside is beginning to pick up, drumming against the roof and the windows, and another roll of thunder cuts through the air only moments after the first. Natsume shudders, hugging his coat to his chest.

“It’s so stupid,” he mutters. His hands are shaking. Satoru gravitates closer to him helplessly. “Ever since I was little, I’ve always—”

He winces again at another streak of lightning across the windows, folding in on himself in time with the accompanying thunder. He drops his umbrella and his jacket in favor of clapping his hands over his ears, and he’s shaking, and Satoru crosses the rest of the space between them in a second.

He wishes Kitamoto was here. Or Tanuma. He’d even take Tsuji.

Because he can’t just leave this alone, there’s no way he could, but he desperately doesn’t want to do the wrong thing. Not when Natsume is so pale and frightened, curling up into something tiny and trembling and fragile.

Kicking off his shoes and dropping his bag on the floor, Satoru steps up to join Natsume in stocking feet and hooks a hand around his elbow. Tries to ignore the way Natsume’s breath hitches, and instead tows him back down the hall.

There’s a classroom on the first floor no one ever uses, not that anyone is still around to mind them making use of it themselves. Satoru shoves the door open with his free hand and tugs his friend inside, shutting it behind them. It’s a small room with wide windows, and Satoru leaves Natsume by the door for as long as it takes to draw the curtains closed.

A fresh crack of thunder has him hurrying back with the last window left bare, because Natsume makes a sound uncomfortably close to a whimper and Satoru is physically incapable of anything else but putting both arms around his shoulders and squeezing him tight.

“How’d your foster parents usually help you get through storms?” he asks, desperate to be useful. Natsume doesn’t uncurl even slightly, but he leans forward in the circle of Satoru’s arms, leans into him, and Satoru will take anything he can get. “Natsume, hey. How do I help?”

“I—I don’t know, I—no one’s ever—”

He’s drowned out by the storm. Satoru could very quickly learn to hate thunder. And pointing his hate in that direction instead of towards all of Natsume’s shitty former foster families is probably a much safer road to travel in the long run. Even if it’s a hundred times less satisfying.

Satoru does his best not to think about how many times it’s stormed since Natsume moved here.

“Okay, that’s okay,” he says, in what he hopes is a reasonable tone. “We’ll just figure this out together, then. No big deal. Let’s just—here, Natsume, let’s sit.”

There’s a shelf pushed sideways against the blackboard wall, and it creates a comfortable little corner in the front of the room. Satoru sits, and tugs Natsume down beside him, their backs to the cabinet doors, facing the wall opposite the windows.

It’s dim and cool, and probably not entirely comforting, but it’s the best he can think of. Satoru keeps an arm around Natsume’s shoulders, and picks up one of his hands in one of his own, and tries to impress warmth and comfort and support into his cold body.

He can feel Natsume flinch with the next heavy boom of thunder. He wishes he had his phone on him, so he could look up how long this ugly weather is supposed to last. He’ll sit here all night if that’s what Natsume needs, and he’s happy to do it, too—but it isn’t fair that his friend should be so miserable just because he was never taught how not to be afraid when he was growing up.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about, you know,” Satoru tells him over the sound of the wind and rain. “I mean, I wasn’t scared of thunder growing up, but I slept with a nightlight till I was like, nine. I was certain there were monsters in the dark, and nothing anyone told me convinced me otherwise. Pretty silly, right?”

Natsume makes a soft noise against his shoulder, and murmurs, “I don’t think so.”

“You wouldn’t,” Satoru says fondly. “I swear, any one of us could tell youanything, and you’d just nod right along like it made perfect sense.”

It’s like blanket acceptance, given freely and without reservation, when for so long the singular person Satoru could expect anything unconditional from was always only Kitamoto.

“Is that weird?” Natsume asks. His hair is soft under Satoru’s cheek, and it smells good, and it’s distracting. Satoru has no idea why, and pushes the intrusive thought to the back of his brain.

“A little bit. But it’s not bad.”

“Still,” his friend says in a small voice, “that was when you were a kid. You stopped being afraid of the dark. I'm—I’m still—

“Okay, I’m gonna stop you right there,” Satoru says right over him, a little too loudly, because he knows he’ll get heated if Natsume says literally one more word. “You get a pass on this, okay? I don’t care how old you are. You are officially allowed to be scared of thunderstorms. And I’ll tell you why.

“Because I’ve seen you fall off a bridge before. Off a bridge—like, into the river—and all you said was pretty much just “Sorry for getting you wet” when me and Kitamoto fished you out. That jerk Shibata showed up out of nowhere to make trouble for you, and you dealt with him on your own, even though you obviously wanted nothing to do with the guy. And there was that time in the woods,” he adds, frowning a little as he tries to sort through fuzzy memories, “right after you transferred here, remember? Something happened to me out there, and you came and found me, and carried me all the way back to town. You never even batted an eye.”

Thunder cracks outside the window. Natsume doesn’t react to it, absorbed in Satoru’s long-winded ranting instead.

“Natsume, all of that is—really cool. Well, maybe not the bridge thing—don’t ever do that again. But the rest of it? You have yet to meet your fear quota, and at this rate, even if it storms every day for ten years straight, you probably never will. So, this?” Satoru gestures at the room at large, trying to encompass the last half hour as a whole in a wave of his hand. “This is nothing. No big.”

He can feel Natsume’s heart beating fast through the tight press of their hands. Lightning illuminates the room through the window on the far end that Satoru didn’t get to cover, casting long shadows for a few flickering seconds. And he thinks it makes sense, objectively, to be afraid of things like this. Of darkness and storms. It makes sense to be scared when you’re alone and there isn’t a light or shelter to keep you safe. 

“It’s not nothing, Nishimura,” Natsume finally says. His voice is stronger than it’s been since the storm started. He wavers a little when the windows rattle with a particularly fierce gust of wind, but rallies himself and presses on, “It's—a really big deal. It means a lot to me that you—that you’re here.”

“You’d do the same thing for me,” Satoru says comfortably, because he doesn’t doubt for a second where they would be if their positions were reversed. Natsume is quiet beside him, but his hand in Satoru’s squeezes tight.

The rain is still coming down in heavy sheets, and each new roll of thunder is still as loud as the one before. Natsume is still leaning into Satoru’s side, and Satoru still has an arm around Natsume’s shoulders.

Natsume isn’t shaking anymore. For a person who can seem so delicate at times, Natsume is impossibly resilient. Satoru manages to forget that every now and then, but never for very long.

It’s one of the things he loves most about him.

Chapter Text

When Satoru finally musters the impossible courage required to look Natsume in the eye and ask him out on a date, it doesn’t exactly go as well as he’d hoped. 

Natsume looks startled, and then hurt, and then he doesn’t look anything at all. His expression goes as closed and faraway as it was the day he stood in the front of their class and introduced himself. 

And Satoru does the only thing he can do at a time like this – he panics.

“Sorry!” he blurts, heart in his throat. “Sorry, Natsume, I didn’t mean to – I mean, I didn’t think – I’m really sorry, I won’t ever ask again, okay?“ 

The other boy seems to relent a little, softness coming back to his eyes and the line of his mouth. But he’s so obviously unhappy that Satoru desperately wishes he could rewind time and go back to five minutes ago and kick himself before he opens his stupid mouth. 

“It’s okay,” Natsume says, like a liar. His voice is careful and particular, picking out the words like someone picking their way across an unstable bridge. “Who put you up to this?”

Satoru blinks. Goes still, to give that question time to settle and permeate. His hands, clutched anxiously in the front of his jacket, forget why they’re there and slip to his sides. 

“Wait,” he says, slowly. “Wait, hold on. You think I’m playing a joke on you?”

Natsume wavers a little, uncertainty stealing into his face, but he doesn’t answer and that’s all the answer Satoru needs. 

And he feels cut, gutted like a fish cooked for dinner. He’s been nauseous all day, worrying in endless circles about all the ways this conversation could go terribly wrong, but now he’s sick for an entirely new reason.

It must show on his face because Natsume takes a little step forward, hands drifting up like he wants to reach out but isn’t sure how to. His eyes are round now, round and surprised and maybe a little bit horrified, too, like he’s taken a mental step back for a second look and realized what this is doesn’t add up to what he thought this was going to be. 

“They did it a lot in middle school,” Natsume blurts, stricken. “Pretend to confess to me, to see what I’d do. They said it was funny. I’m – Nishimura, I’m sorry. I should have known better, but it’s just – the first place my mind went – oh, please don’t cry.” 

“I’m not crying,” Satoru snaps, voice breaking. “And those guys from your middle school are the worst. I don’t care what they said, it doesn’t mean shit. They’d be lucky if you loved them, got it? The luckiest in the world.”

How anyone could look at Natsume – sweet, infinitely caring Natsume – and be cruel to him is a concept Satoru can’t swallow. His blood is burning, and he can feel that heat in his throat, behind his eyes. Something that sits between righteous anger and secondhand hurt, with nowhere to go. 

“I’d get them back for you if I could,” Satoru goes on, aching for him. “I mean it. I’d do it right now if you’d let me.” 

And Natsume warms the rest of the way, finally, like flowers unfolding to meet spring. He drifts the last few inches between them, until they’re standing together instead of apart. His smile is so pretty it makes Satoru want to turn around and pick a fight with everyone who was ever unkind to him.

“I know you would,” Natsume says, soft, brave. “But I’d much rather go on that date with you, instead. If you’re still – if you still want to.” 

Satoru snatches up his hands with a scowl. Of course he still wants to. 

They’re eye to eye now, chest to chest, their hands cradled together boldly in that space between their hearts. Natsume’s expression is much nicer to look at when it’s wide open like this, any trace of that years-old hurt discarded somewhere behind him.

“It’s gonna be the best date, Natsume,” Satoru tells him firmly. “Just you wait and see.”

Chapter Text

The borrowed shirt Satoru is wearing is two seconds from ruined, but that’s a worry for another life.

Because Natsume looks gutted, like this is the worst thing that’s ever happened, and Satoru is reacting before he even knows what to say.

“It’s just a little water,” Satoru assures him over the pounding rain, bumping their shoulders together. “Lucky we found this spot to take cover in, huh?”

Luck has nothing to do with it, unless Natsume’s fat cat is as lucky as it looks. Nyanko-sensei led them to the relative shelter of a thick overhang of tree branches and then took off again into this sudden storm, like a man on a mission.

Satoru doesn’t know what the hell is going on — the forecast said tonight was supposed to be clear, that’s why Natsume wanted to go on this walk in the first place — but it’s not Natsume’s fault. Natsume was looking forward to their fourth date as much as Satoru was, after all. Taki told Satoru in a conspiratorial way, ruined by her delighted giggle, that Natsume was talking about it all the time.

So when Natsume says, miserably, “I’ll call Shigeru-san, he’ll give you a ride home. I’m sorry about this,” Satoru says shortly, “No.”

Natsume blinks, perplexed. “No?”

Satoru gives him a Look perfected from all the times he’s seen Tanuma talk Shibata out of something stupid or, more usually, embarrassingly romantic.

“Yeah, no, I love you too much to let you walk away like this, weirdo. We’re still in the middle of our date! Who raised you?” Natsume is staring at him like he’s a ghost, so Satoru goes on, a bit more gently, “Besides, I’m still having a good time.”

If anything, his main concern is the inevitable cold Natsume is going to catch out here. He’s pondering how to be smooth about giving his boyfriend his jacket when Natsume’s expression takes a turn into dubious.

“You are? You’re soaked.”

“Haven’t you heard the saying ‘dripping with good looks’?”

There’s a beat, the frank skepticism on Natsume’s face fading into puzzlement, and Satoru can’t help grinning when it finally clicks and Natsume says, “That — that was terrible. Nishimura. You got that from an anime, didn’t you?”

But he’s smiling, if only a little bit, and that awful, bleak look in his eyes is gone. Satoru takes his hand, tangling their fingers comfortably, and says, “So what if I did? You gonna tell me I’m not? That would mean you’re dating me for more than just a pretty face, Natsume, that’s serious. Could this be… love?”

Natsume groans and shoves half-heartedly at Satoru’s arm. “You told me you loved me like thirty seconds ago. Why are you like this?”

“It’s all part of my charm.”

To be fair, he tells Natsume he loves him almost every day. Natsume has never said it back, because that type of thing is hard for him, but Satoru doesn’t need to hear it.

Satoru sees it, in the look in Natsume’s eyes, and the way his face goes soft and pink when Satoru finally shrugs out of his jacket and wraps it around Natsume’s shoulders instead.

“I think I know a place we can go,” Natsume says, even though there’s nowhere to go from here but further into the forest, away from the rain-soaked road. His fingers find their way back to Satoru’s again, clasping tightly. “Come with me?”

His eyes are impossibly bright in the shadow of the trees and the gray of the rain, like beacons in the dark.

Sometimes he makes Satoru think of will-o’-wisps or fox fire, those false lantern lights that guide foolish travelers off the beaten path. Satoru is pretty sure he’s just the type of idiot that would follow Natsume exactly anywhere, ignoring any and all warning signs every step of the way. He’s the moral of the story, the ‘what not to do’ that’s passed down in parables, but —

He’s always thought, privately, that maybe those ghost lights were just a little lonely. Maybe they just wanted company, when they went looking for travelers in the night.

So he says, “I’m a little insulted you have to ask,” and the dark woods ring with the sound of Natsume’s laughter, and Satoru’s lips are busy with a kiss, and the insect chatter that picks up around them almost sounds like the good-natured tittering of nosy friends.

Glad this date is back on track, he thinks cheerfully, imagining the look on his brother’s face when he details how he ruined Kiyoshi’s second-favorite shirt.

Chapter Text

Somehow, they got off on the wrong station. Kitamoto’s voice is loud where it’s coming out of Nishimura’s cellphone on speaker – not quite frantic but certainly agitated, because it’s late and it’s getting dark, and Nishimura and Takashi are more than a little lost. 

“Just,” their friend says, “find someplace and stay there, okay? Like, an internet cafe or something. We’ll get off at the next station and double back.”

“Tell him we’re sorry,” Takashi puts in quickly, anxious at how upset they’ve made him. Nishimura just rolls his eyes. 

“It was an accident,” he says instead, with deliberate enunciation, like it’ll change Kitamoto’s perspective to hear that excuse for the fourth time. “Jeez, Acchan, lighten up.” 

Before Kitamoto can reply to that the way Takashi can guess he would like to, Tanuma takes over from the other end and says, “Natsume, you left Ponta,” like the fat cat is a shield or a talisman he wandered off into certain danger without. Despite himself, the note of worry in his friend’s voice over so small a thing makes Takashi smile.

“Keep an eye on him for me,” he leans in to say, and he doesn’t know if he’s talking to Tanuma about Nyanko-sensei or perhaps the other way around. “I’ll see you soon.” 

It isn’t unsettling to be out in the dark. Takashi has spent a lot of nights by himself in parks or the woods or just walking through empty streets, and it’s never really bothered him. There are just as many monsters around when the sun is out, after all, that’s something he knew as a child. 

So when they pass under a flickering streetlight, and the shadows jump and stretch like a living thing, and Nishimura shivers a little and presses into his side, Takashi just smiles.

“Cute,” he says mildly, purely for the sake of Nishimura’s deeply offended squawk, and the way he blushes so hard it’s easy to see even in the low light. And then Takashi can’t help laughing at him, and that only makes it worse.  

“You’re a jerk,” Nishimura mutters, not nearly as annoyed as he would like Takashi to believe. “Hold my hand, you jerk.” 

So they head down the street hand-in-hand, and Nishimura jumps at every innocuous nighttime noise, and Takashi is still smiling as they round the corner and almost walk headlong into a couple of strangers. 

“Oh, sorry,” he says automatically, and the man lifts his head from where it was buried in his phone and – 

Oh. Not strangers. Takashi goes tense before he can help it, staring up into a pair of faces that haunted him for months after he left their care. His breath stutters. 

“S- “ He swallows and tries again. “Sorry. We’ll just – “ 

“I don’t believe it,” the woman says, sounding surprised in an unpleasant way. She’s a cousin, he thinks. Her name was – Kotone? He can’t remember, she didn’t like when he called her by her name. What was he supposed to call her instead? Obasan? 

He’s floundering. His chest hurts. 

“What the hell are you doing back here?” her husband says. Kenta, and his voice is – a nightmare, given shape and sound, and Takashi ducks his head before he can think better of it. 

The years fall away and fall away and he’s seven years old again, small and scared under their cold eyes. The air between them is tense, and they seem to be waiting for an answer from him, so he says, “We got lost.” 

“Of course you did,” Kotone says, world-weary. “You never change, do you? Good for nothing kid.” 

Takashi stares, unseeing, at the pavement beneath his feet. 

He’s lived in Hitoyoshi for two years now, has found a loving family, made friends with wonderful people, cultivated the kind of reckless courage he needed to ask Nishimura out on their first date nearly six months ago. He has more now than he ever has. His days are warm and sunny and infinitely precious, like pages torn out of some fairy tale book.

But he still has nightmares.

Sometimes he dreams that he never left those dark places that plagued him as a child. Sometimes he dreams he’s still with Kenta and Kotone, that he still has to wear long sleeves to school and go to bed hungry, that he stays out long after the street lights come on and plays with stray cats in empty parks until a concerned passerby makes him go home. Sometimes he dreams Shigeru and Touko don’t want him anymore, or can’t keep him anymore, and he goes back to that cold house because no one else will take him, and he loses all the wonderful things he has now.

And yet – despite how many bad dreams he’s had that started this way, despite all the variations of this same scenario that he’s envisioned in his lowest moments – this one is almost immediately something new. 

Because Nishimura is jolting a step forward and his expression is so angry it takes Takashi’s breath away. It cuts through the dark cloud of noxious fear in Takashi’s brain like a bolt of white lightning. 

“What did you say?” Nishimura demands, his voice too loud in the still of the night. They’re in a residential neighborhood, all but standing in front of someone’s home, and Takashi knows what it sounds like when he’s only going to get louder. “Good for nothing?”

It’s like they didn’t notice him beside Takashi until he spoke up, because Kotone and Kenta both shoot him startled looks. 

“Hey, tone it down – “ Kenta starts, eyebrows furrowing, but Nishimura is having none of it.

He was terrified of every dark corner a moment ago, but he’s fearless now, standing between Takashi and two of Takashi’s biggest fears like it’s the only place he belongs. 

“Say it again,” he says, scowling up at them. He never let go of Takashi’s hand, and his grip is so hard it almost hurts. Speechless, Takashi holds on just as tight, like he might fall if he lets go. “Go ahead. I wanna hear everything you have to say about Natsume, so start from the beginning. How old was he when you knew him? Ten? Eight?”

Something uncomfortable is settling on their faces now, and Kotone glances over her shoulder, as if expecting a judgmental neighbor to be watching the altercation from a row of hedges.

“Tell me,” Nishimura goes on, heated and fierce, too loud, all but filling the empty street. “Tell me what he did that was so terrible. Tell me what he did that made you hate him.”

“That’s enough,” Kenta says, sharp, trying to wrestle back control of this rapidly spiraling conversation. “Didn’t anyone teach you to respect your elders?”

“Nope,” Nishimura says with mean glee. “My big brother only taught me to respect my betters. Tough luck.”

Takashi stops breathing. Even Kotone’s face goes slack with shock at this russet-haired slip of a boy’s daring. Kenta’s mouth twists into an ugly frown, but at about that time a light goes on in the house nearest them. Kotone grabs Kenta’s arm, her desire to leave transparent. 

Heart in his throat, Takashi tugs Nishimura back and away from them as they shove their way past. “Go back to wherever you came from,” Kenta spits out, and then he and his wife are gone. 

Nishimura is trembling in the circle of Takashi’s arm. Takashi thinks he’ll have bruises on his hand tomorrow, an imprint of this moment, of how hard Nishimura held onto him. When he risks a glance at his boyfriend, he’s startled to find tears in Nishimura’s eyes. 

“They’re wrong about you,” he says, and his voice breaks. The brightest thing in Takashi’s whole life, and he’s crying, pressing the heel of his free hand into his eyes, like he can push back the wetness there if he digs in hard enough. “Natsume,” he sobs, helplessly angry, and Takashi pulls him in as close as he can. 

Shaken, but for a different reason than he might have been otherwise. 

“You’re – impossible,” he barely manages, wide-eyed and wondering. “I can’t believe you.” 

The gate behind them opens with a whine, and a middle-aged woman leans out with a look of concern on her face. She glances behind them sharply, and back again, and says, “Are you boys okay? I heard shouting. Was someone giving you trouble?”

“They’re gone,” Takashi tells her. A few more reassurances send her reluctantly back inside, and Takashi can focus on the task at hand. He rubs his hands up and down Nishimura’s back, trying to coax him back. “Right, Nishimura? They’re gone, we’re okay.” 

“Don’t comfort me,” Nishimura snaps wetly, rubbing harder at his face with his sleeve. “I’m – I should be – that’s my job.”

It should be impossible after what just happened – and if someone asked Takashi ten years ago, he would have told them so – but somehow, despite himself, Takashi laughs. It starts shaky, but it finds its feet as it goes, and it leaves him smiling. 

When Kitamoto and Tanuma find them an hour later, seated outside at a late-night cafe with a bubble tea and a plate of soft cream buns split between them, Nishimura’s eyes are still puffy and red-rimmed, but they’re watching a video on his phone that has them leaning on each other in their laughter, so their friends roll their eyes and assume the sorry state they’re in is their own fault. 

And if Nishimura holds onto him a little tighter than usual on their way back home, it’s not so strange. Everyone knows that Nishimura is afraid of the dark, and that Takashi is indulgent enough to hold his hand. 

Chapter Text

It’s a rare disease, almost unheard of anymore. There’s only been about five hundred reported cases in Japan in the last ten years. 

There used to be health screenings, a hopeful half-dozen preventative measures, but the children’s vaccine is no longer required of parents, hasn’t been since Satoru’s own parents were young.

It’s something he heard them fighting about once when he was a kid. He remembers sitting at the top of the stairs in the dark with his brother, holding Kiyoshi’s hand and listening anxiously while their parents argued in the kitchen.

“It’s antiquated,” Satoru’s mother kept saying that night. “There’s no need for it anymore, it’s the twenty-first century!”

But Satoru thinks he knows why his father was so adamant, even if that was a battle he ultimately lost. Satoru has seen the flowers pressed between two pages of his father’s favorite book. They’re camellias, discolored and brittle with time, but once they must have been a shocking red. They must have been beautiful.

Satoru wants to know the story behind those dusty, long-dead treasures.

He wants to know, because he’s seventeen now, and he’s never been vaccinated, and his throat itches every time Natsume smiles at him. And flowers grow where flowers shouldn’t, ghostly white blossoms unlike his father’s red camellias, blooming with every breath he takes. 

“Why did you let it get this bad? ” Natsume stares at the flowers on the ground between them, shaken. “There’s a cure – all it takes is one surgery – “

“But the feeling goes away, too,” Satoru explains as best he can, cold to his core at the very idea. “They – they cut the flowers out and the feeling goes with them. I don’t want to forget.” 

Natsume picks up one of the flowers, even though it’s soggy and probably kind of gross to hold. It sits perfectly in his palm, a delicate anemone. He’s got that stubborn shine in his eyes, one that makes Satoru think even a hurricane wouldn’t be enough to sway him.

“Nishimura.” Natsume says his name the same way he always says it, the same way that is literally killing him softly. “Who are they for?” 

Satoru feels wrong-footed by the question, and looks at him dumbly. It takes him a beat too long to think of anything to say that isn’t “You, obviously.”

Apparently, saying nothing says enough. There’s a long, heavy moment of mutual silence, and Satoru can feel himself flushing red to the roots of his hair, and if the blossoms are going to kill him now would be a good time, please.

“I’m telling everyone about this,” Natsume finally says, a complicated expression on his face. “Everyone. Kitamoto, Taki, Tsuji. Especially Tsuji. They’ll beat you up for being this stupid, and you’ll deserve it.”

“Wow,” Satoru says, for lack of better thing to say, “that’s not exactly how I expected the ‘I’m actually dying’ conversation to go.” 

Shut up,” Natsume bites fiercely, looking pained. His eyes are burning. “You’re not dying, you idiot.” 

He reaches out with the hand not holding the anemone, and touches the side of Satoru’s face. Satoru is prepared for the tickle in his chest, the velvet flutter of lungs in full bloom, but it doesn’t come. 

And when Natsume kisses him, Satoru’s heart pounds and his breath quickens, but not because of any flowers.

“You idiot,” Natsume says again, torn somewhere between exasperation and concern and ridiculous affection. “How could you possibly think I don’t love you?”

Chapter Text

Satoru is shaken awake by a hand on his shoulder what feels like five minutes after he went to sleep in the first place. 

Burrowing deeper into his pillow and grumbling incoherently doesn’t make the insistent hand go away, so he resigns himself to using people words. 

“What do you want?”

“Nishimura, stop being a brat,” Kitamoto says impatiently from somewhere above him, voice rough with sleep. “Natsume needs you.”

It’s a little annoying that Kitamoto knows exactly how to set a fire under him in three words or less, and Satoru will definitely find time to complain about that later. 

But for now he moves upright mechanically, rubbing his eyes and crawling over Kitamoto – unapologetically digging knee and elbow into very soft places, even though it makes his best buddy swear under his breath and shove him – to get to Natsume’s futon. 

“What’s going on?”

“I think he’s having a bad dream. He’ll be embarrassed if I wake him up.” 

Well, that’s no good. Satoru squints through the semidarkness at his dusty-haired friend – boyfriend, of four months now, an inappropriately cheerful voice pipes up from somewhere in the back of his still-waking brain. 

Something soft and squishy happens to his heart at the distress written plainly across Natsume’s flushed face, and he sighs, hoping it sounds put-upon, knowing it probably doesn’t.

Natsume’s cat is unhappy, slitted eyes gleaming in the dark. But it’s curled up by Natsume’s shoulder, and Satoru can hear it purring from an arm’s length away. Its small attempt to be of some comfort softens the usual suspicion Satoru has about its general everything, and for once he doesn’t shoo it off the futon. 

“Thanks,” he tells Kitamoto, stifling a yawn. “Go back to bed, I got it.” 

Satoru tugs at one corner of Natsume’s crooked duvet until he can get the edge out from under the other boy’s arm. Natsume’s scrawny, and Satoru’s not much bigger, but it’s still a snug fit. 

He’s happy to compensate by sliding an arm around Natsume’s waist and scooting closer – purely for the sake of consolidating space, and not in the least because Satoru is greedy for any excuse to hold him.

Natsume’s breath hitches at the weight of his arm, even the slow gesture enough to wake him with a sudden start, and Satoru assures him, “Just me, Takashi. Is this okay? I got cold.” 

There’s a moment of weighted silence, and then Natsume whispers back hoarsely, “You liar. I woke you up, didn’t I?”

“Nope,” Satoru says, “Kitamoto did. But it’s okay, we’ll get him back for it tomorrow.” 

Natsume turns over on his side to face Satoru, moving closer under his arm. 

His eyes are wide awake, still the smallest part scared, and tracing the lines of Satoru’s face like they’re committing him to memory. 

“Stay until I’m asleep?” Natsume asks quietly, and Satoru scoffs through a yawn.

“You’re stuck with me way longer than that, idiot.”

And Natsume laughs, a near-silent thing in deference to their sleeping friends, and still enough to fill Satoru’s chest with aching warmth. The pale shadows of that nightmare lose their grip on Natsume and fall away, and Satoru smiles to see them go. 

“Much better,” he says, pleased. Natsume smiles back helplessly and leans in to kiss him. 

Chapter Text

“Nishimura,” Natsume says in a very particular tone of voice that Satoru has only heard once or twice. It’s not a good tone. Satoru scrambles to make it better.

“I’m sorry! I panicked!”

Tsuji’s out for blood because Nishimura skipped classroom duties yesterday– but he had a good reason! It was raining and Natsume forgot his umbrella, so obviously he had to walk him home! Nevermind that Kitamoto and Tanuma and Taki were all there, too, and any of them could have shared their umbrella just as easily– it had to be Satoru. Had to be. 

So, really, it’s thanks to Natsume that they’re in this situation. If he hadn’t forgotten his umbrella yesterday they wouldn’t be here. And he’s acting like it’s Satoru’s fault.

“I get that we’re hiding,” Natsume goes on evenly, “but why here? There’s an empty classroom two doors down.”

“Tsuji would check an empty classroom, he wouldn’t think to look here.”

“That’s because this is a utility closet barely big enough for one person, let alone two!”

“I told you I panicked! He was right behind us!”

Natsume rolls his eyes and starts to squirm into a more comfortable position. He shifts and a broom handle pokes into Satoru’s ribs hard enough to make him yelp, and Natsume hisses, “If you’re noisy, he’ll find you anyway.”

“Us,” Satoru is quick to correct. “You’re an accessory now.”

And then he has to swallow hard, because Natsume puts a hand on Satoru’s chest to steady himself, and he ducks his head to glance down at whatever his foot seems to be stuck on, and he’s very very very close. And his hair brushes Satoru’s cheek like the delicate silver moss he found on a tree once. And his eyes are really green. 

Natsume starts to say something like “We can probably sneak out in a minute or two,” but his hand on Satoru’s chest is burning through his shirt and it’s all Satoru can focus on. He wants to demand “Why are you doing this to me?” but what comes out is, “Why did you forget your umbrella?” 

For a moment, Natsume doesn’t answer. He looks surprised, and then contemplative, and he taps a finger against Satoru’s jacket while he comes up with a response. He’s giving it more thought than Satoru expected. Satoru isn’t sure what he expected. 

But he definitely didn’t expect for Natsume’s expression to warm into a smile, a little bit sweet, a little bit shy; or that he would admit, in a tone more suited a confession, “I wanted you to walk me home.”

Chapter Text

“So, the thing is, I need a favor,” Nishimura says stoutly, with that manic gleam in his eyes that Kaname remembers from their high school days. “Natsume, you’re my trusted roommate and one of my very best friends, and that makes you the best man for the job.”

Natsume looks unmoved. Kaname thinks cohabitation with his lively counterpart in the heart of the city has been good for him. Good for them both, really. Natsume has opened up and Nishimura has slowed down, and they’ve managed to meet neatly in the middle, in this cramped, comfortable little student housing apartment they share. 

“I’m listening,” Natsume says dryly. Nishimura paces a few steps away and then back again, and rubs a hand through his already tousled hair. 

“My mom keeps trying to set me up with people,” he blurts. Kaname notices the way Natsume’s shoulders go stiff, but Nishimura plows on ahead with all the finesse of a summer storm. “She thinks I should be dating at my age. We’re having a big family thing next week, back home, and I know she’s gonna have people lined up for me.”

“That sounds like something you should be looking forward to,” Kaname says, since it looks like Natsume has no words. “You’ve been complaining about being single for as long as I’ve known you.”

“Tanuma! You think I want to date someone my mom wants me to date?” Nishimura looks offended. Natsume lets go of a ghost of a laugh, and Nishimura rounds on him, as if on cue. “That’s where you come in, buddy.”

“I’m afraid to ask.”

“It’s simple! Just pretend to be my date,” Nishimura says plainly. Kaname just barely has time to think oh my god before the auburn-haired man barrels on, “We’ll go together, make a splash, stick around for as long as it takes my parents to disown me, get at least a dozen pictures with my brother’s adorable kid, and then head over to the Fujiwaras so Touko-san can feed us before we leave. It’s pretty much the perfect plan.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, and Kaname watches Natsume struggle with where to start. “Nishimura, that’s – a really bad idea? For a lot of reasons, actually?” 

“Natsume, please? When have I ever asked you for anything?” 

“Like, in general?” Kaname can’t help teasing him. “Or just this week?”

“Ha, ha.” But Nishimura gets serious, brown eyes round and troubled, and he moves around to sit on the edge of the table in front of Natsume’s seat, and Kaname knows Natsume is in trouble. “I just – I know it’ll be okay if you’re there. It’s always okay when you’re there. And I’ll totally chicken out by myself, Natsume, you know I will. I’m a hundred times braver when you’re with me.”

Wow, Kaname thinks, faintly impressed. If Nishimura knew what he was doing, Kaname would call it unfair. As it is, Nishimura just looks wide-eyed and beseeching and as earnest as when they were still sixteen, and Natsume has grown a lot since then but he’s never grown any kind of backbone when it comes to this.

“Okay,” Natsume says lamely, looking dazed. “Yeah. I’ll go.” 

Nishimura gasps, and lunges forward to drag him into a hug, rocking them side to side a few times in his glee. “Natsume I love you so much, you’re the best friend anyone could ask for! Don’t tell Kitamoto I said that! Oh, man, I’m gonna go call my brother!”

He’s out of their tiny living room what feels like a heartbeat later, and Natsume is sitting as still as stone where Nishimura left him. Kaname trades a weighted look with Ponta, then shifts the fat cat off his lap and onto the floor. Moving around to sit next to Natsume, Kaname bumps their shoulders together lightly.

“I thought you were gonna tell him.” 

Natsume whirls to look at him, a flush claiming most of his face. “I was going to, but I can’t now!”

He slumps forward, buying his face in both hands. Kaname pats his back sympathetically, and makes a mental note to text Shibata about this new development as soon as he leaves. 

Nishimura and Natsume are the only two people Kaname knows that haven’t realized they’re both hopelessly mutually in love with each other. Everyone else has placed bets on when one of them might figure it out.