Chapter 1: Black
Being attracted to Natsume was like being attracted to the wind itself. One moment he was there and the next moment he felt like he might slip right through Tanuma's fingers. Every moment was as infinitely precious as it was heart-wrenchingly painful. Tanuma was beginning to fear however, that he might spill his soul sometime soon. Just...let everything leave his lips, say everything he's been holding back everytime he's anywhere close to Natsume.
He only cries when he's alone in his room, only lets the feeling of pain, of loneliness take him over when he's laying under his covers staring at the ceiling. The tears fall hot and sting at his eyes long after they're over and he knows he's in love, even if he doesn't say it outloud.
Whenever he had imagined falling in love, it had always been simple. Tanuma was a simple boy, the type that most never would take a second look at. He had expected he would find someone equally as ordinary, but special at the same time, and he would spend the rest of his life with her.
He had never expected THIS.
He has been up all night after waking from a nightmare about Natsume. He walks to school with a haunted look in his eyes and forces it away the moment he sees Natsume at the school gate. He can't bring himself to call out to Natsume, not right now, however. He feels fragile in a way he hasn't in a long time, his heart on the edge, his mind on the verge of breaking down into Natsume's arms--
And he can't do that. Not right now, not ever.
They meet up with Taki for lunch and Tanuma doesn't even have to force the smile he's wearing, despite the ache in his heart. Being with Natsume was equal parts wonderful and painful. Every look, every smile, every laugh—it was beautiful to him and he held every bit of it dear.
But at the same time, he knows that Natsume is so far out of his reach that any effort he makes to get close will burn him up. It helps, sometimes, that it seems to be true for most people, but Taki—he notices—seems closer than most and that burns in a way he doesn't like. Tanuma—he decides—cannot handle jealousy. He does not like that feeling in his gut whenever they give each other a secretive look when they think he's not looking. He knows that Taki is closer to Natsume's world than he is. Despite his ability to FEEL things, he is mostly blind to them. Taki has more power at her fingertips, the ability to see youkai when she needs to, while Tanuma is...
Useless. And it stings, to be the one left behind. He has always known this was coming, has since the moment he felt these feelings begin to bubble beneath the surface in his heart, but that does not make it any less painful for it to be reality.
Tanuma blinks out of his musings and the smile that crosses his lips is as reassuring as it is fake. He hopes that neither of them catch on. “Sorry.”
“You haven't touched your lunch.” Taki worries aloud and Tanuma internally winces. With the way his stomach is churning, he doesn't think he can manage food. So he shoves it away.
“--I'm...not feeling that great,” he admits quietly. “I don't want to eat. I just want to go home and sleep.”
“Should we take you to the nurse? Can your Dad pick you up?” Natsume asks, worry flashing in his caramel colored eyes, and Tanuma feels like the lowest being on Earth who is admitting his weakness in front of a God.
But he hasn't—not yet. Not completely. He can still smile. He can still pretend everything is okay. The world will keep spinning even if Natsume leaves him behind.
Even if it doesn't feel like it right now, Tanuma holds onto that thought. He needs something to ground himself when it gets hard.
“I'll go to the nurse and then head home,” he says with a quiet tilt of his lips upward and stands. “Sorry guys, I'll see you tomorrow.”
He goes home and cries himself to sleep.
He knows when he wakes the next morning that something is different. He stares at his hands for several moments, looks at the ceiling between his fingers. Everything feels different, like he's been seeing through a fog up until now.
And it's when he's getting ready, shirt half-buttoned, that he walks over to the sliding door and slips it open to stare into the yard—and comes face to face with a pond he's only ever seen in his dreams. The red fish swim around each other, forming a figure eight in the pond, and there's a black fish too, mingling in between them.
Tanuma drops to his knees and feels tears emerge in his eyes. He isn't sure why they fall down his cheeks, whether it be because of the beauty of the pond or just...this profound moment and the intensity of the feelings welling up inside him.
Tanuma is late to school that day, walking half-hunched over and knuckles white as he holds onto his bag for dear life. The youkai are everywhere. He nearly trips over the little ones walking across the bridge and scares them off with his pronounced gasp. There are big ones too, some hanging out of trees and others walking amongst crowds unnoticed.
Because most cannot see them.
But now Tanuma--
He spends the morning trying to get used to it, doing everything he can to just...let it sink in. His heart races at seemingly random intervals, his mind anywhere but his studies. He can't bring himself to concentrate no matter how much he tries.
This is almost too much to handle and for a small, brittle moment, he wonders if maybe Natsume is right about him, that he can't handle it, that it's better off that they're distant--
And then he forces the thought down. No, this is...this is wonderful. No matter the danger it puts him in, no matter how useless he is, he can at least SEE now. He wonders why, wonders if maybe being around Natsume, being close, is giving him power, wonders if maybe he is just coming into his eyes late due to his weakness...maybe he was always supposed to have them.
So many possibilities fly through his head and when he meets Tanuma and Taki for lunch he...promptly bursts into tears.
“Oh my gosh, are you okay?” Taki fishes around in her pocket for a handkerchief, which she promptly hands Tanuma. He wipes at his eyes with a muffled laugh and the expression he's wearing is the happiest, most delighted one he's worn in years.
“Tanuma...?” Natsume is quiet, uncertain, and it takes everything in Tanuma's will not to reach out and take his hands, squeeze them with all the affection he's holding back.
Even still, he feels like one burden has been freed from his shoulders and it's with tears still in his eyes that he turns to Natsume and says, “There's a black fish in the pond too.”
And Natsume stares at him with wide eyes that he doesn't know how to meet, so he lets his gaze drift away to Taki, who is smiling at him with glee. “Oh, Tanuma, I'm so happy—what happened?”
“I don't know, I just...I went to look out into the garden and...it was just...there...like it had always been.” Like it HAS always been. He'd just been too blind to see it.
“Tanuma,” Natsume leans forward. “We can...we can fix this...we can--”
Tanuma shakes his head before Natsume can continue. “No. I don't want to be 'fixed', Natsume.”
And he isn't sure whether Natsume looks horrified or frightened, or maybe a mix of both. Even still, the comforting smile never leaves his face.
“...I can see them now, Natsume. The youkai.”
He feels light enough to be carried away by the wind. And for the rest of lunch, he spends his time telling Natsume and Taki about all the youkai he'd seen on his way to school.
He pretends not to see the way Natsume clenches his fists.
Chapter 2: Walls Between Us
The walls between them seem thicker than ever.
Tanuma quickly discovers that Natsume's protective streak still extends to him now. In fact, it's only growing worse by the day.
He's enjoying himself, seeing all the youkai, having conversations with them on the way home. He knows there's bad ones out there, that he needs to be careful, but the way Natsume insists on walking him all the way to his house when he lives in the other direction is--
“Natsume,” Tanuma turns and sighs, giving a small smile. “I can walk the rest of the way alone, you know.”
Natsume looks stricken for a moment and Tanuma instantly feels guilty for having said anything at all, but it's gone quickly at Natsume's next words.
“No, I have to make sure nothing happens to you.”
“So you're allowed to walk around like this, but I'm not?”
Natsume opens his mouth and closes it quickly, averting his eyes. Tanuma stares for several moments, lips taut in a tired frown. “Natsume, you've got to stop this.” And it hurts him to say it, it really does. He enjoys having Natsume's attention, but right now it's for all of the wrong reasons.
“You're not going to be alone anymore Natsume.”
Natsume's gaze snaps to his and there's something so desperate there, like he's on the verge of tears. But it's gone in the next moment as if it was never there in the first place and Tanuma wonders how often Natsume's had to compose himself like that in front of others?
Tanuma reaches out and takes Natsume's shoulder in hand. Natsume winces when Tanuma squeezes it gently. Natsume never returns the touches, but Tanuma understands, he truly does.
Besides, he's the one feeling these things, not Natsume.
“But--” Natsume manages but Tanuma shakes his head.
Natsume bites his lip and stares at the ground and Tanuma smiles and turns, heading to his own home. “See you tomorrow, Natsume.”
The distance between them, somehow it feels...worse...and he doesn't understand it.
Natsume pets Madara like he's a real cat, staring out the window at the incoming storm. He sometimes wonders if the weather is responding to the mixed up emotions inside himself. It always seems to rain when something really bad is going on.
And he considers this really, truly bad.
“Stop moping. Jeez. It's not all that bad. It just means that he's not as weak as I thought he was.”
“Don't say things like that about Tanuma.” Natsume snaps quietly, pausing his rubbing of Madara's ears. “...Do you have any idea why...?”
Madara is quiet for several moments, staring up at him before sighing. “It's likely that being in close proximity to you when he already had a semblance of the sight caused him to absorb some of your power.”
Natsume stiffens, his gaze drifting down until his bangs cover his eyes. “...So it really is...it's my fault...because he's around me, he--”
“Don't you even start.” Madara tapped his leg harshly with his paw. “Natsume, he wanted to see youkai. This is what he wanted. Regardless of your feelings on the matter, shouldn't you be happy for him?”
“For what? This has been nothing but a curse!” Natsume snaps and glares at the lucky cat, golden eyes narrowing . Madara stares at him for several moments before turning and huffing.
“You humans are real stupid, you know that?” He grumbles. “I would've thought that you would put more care into it now. Don't you have youkai friends?”
Natsume pauses and frowns deeply, turning back toward the window. “That's...this is different.”
“How so?” The cat walks across the room toward the mat, curling up on it. “This is no different. You're just afraid of him getting hurt. Like you've always been.”
“....Nyanko-sensei...” He sounds put out, exasperated and down, but Madara doesn't take back what he said. He curls up further and promptly goes right to sleep.
Natsume turns back to the storm, recalling his conversation with Tanuma earlier that day. He knows, in a way, that Madara is right. Of course he is. Tanuma has always wanted to see youkai after meeting Natsume...and in a way, that's his fault too. He has to take responsibility for this by protecting Tanuma.
But...Tanuma doesn't seem to want that.
He clenches his fists and stares down at his knees, unsure about the sudden feeling of...anxiety and sadness that is stirring up inside him. It's confusing. He doesn't know what these feelings mean, hasn't known since he first started having them. It only gets worse when Tanuma is there, like he never wants to let Tanuma out of his sight ever. Like the air around him is warmer when Tanuma is there.
He gasps quietly and reaches up to grasp at his chest. A small flush was growing on his cheeks. His heart was racing...why was it racing...?
He doesn't notice that the cat has one eye open, staring at him in silence.
The next day is awkward as it can be. Tanuma has tried to talk to Natsume multiple times, but his efforts usually end in one to two words being given back to him. Tanuma winces as he leaves the classroom for lunch, wondering if Natsume will even bother coming to meet him and Taki when he obviously seems to be avoiding Tanuma.
Is it because of what he said yesterday? Is there a better way he could have put it? Tanuma has his head down and jumps when he suddenly sees...a large foot in his vision as clear as day. He stares up slowly, stepping back when he realizes he nearly walked right into a large youkai hanging out by a tree. He still has to go around the corner to reach Natsume and Taki.
He swallows thickly and holds his lunch closer to his chest, swerving around the youkai and walking in the direction he needs to...but he stops when a hand claps his shoulder and squeezes.
“Ow--” He tilts his head up and comes face to face with the youkai he had nearly run into. It's grinning down at him, large teeth making it look almost shark-like. Fear trickles down his spine, but before he can call out for help, he feels fingers tapping his forehead, clawed and sharp.
“You saw me, didn't you human child?”
Tanuma finds himself shaking, but he recovers fairly quickly, forcing a glare into his eyes. He stands his ground. “So what if I did?”
“Now that just won't do. I should eat you for that alone. But to find another human that can see youkai, such a rarity.”
“...Another...? You know someone else?”
“Well there's that boy, Natsume Reiko's Grandson. The one who has the Book of Friends.” The youkai hummed softly to himself.
“...The Book of Friends...?”
“Oh, you don't know, do you boy?” The creature leaned in. “Well, let me tell you. It's--”
Tanuma glances up at Natsume's voice and the youkai makes a noise in his ear before disappearing with a strong gust of wind that nearly knocked him over. Tanuma blinked, stunned by the pain behind his eyelids for a moment. He half expected that he wouldn't feel those headaches anymore...
He's still so weak...
He doesn't remember being on his knees. Natsume is kneeling beside him, Taki too. They're calling out to him and he realizes he has his hands pressed to his forehead. Slowly, he lowers them and offers a pained smile.
“It's nothing. Sorry.”
“It's not nothing! Tanuma, why didn't you call for me?” Natsume hurriedly asks, looking panicked, and it takes everything in Tanuma not to say what he's really thinking.
'Because you never do.'
“I wanted to try to handle it on my own.” Tanuma says finally, leaning back with a sigh as the headache begins to dissipate somewhat. It's still there, a mild throbbing behind his eyelids, but it's nothing serious. The youkai isn't too powerful, but it's powerful enough to hurt his head, so that's something to worry about. Hopefully it doesn't follow him home--
“What did it say?” Natsume presses and Tanuma frowns.
“Something about--” No, wait. That youkai was obviously referring to Natsume. And what was the Book of Friends that it mentioned?
Yet another thing that was being kept from them. The thought stings so much Tanuma finds himself frowning without meaning to.
“Ah...that I could see it.” Tanuma smiled weakly, forcing the frown off his face. Natsume's frown takes its place, but Taki jumps up.
“All right, time for lunch!” She ends up dragging them both to their favorite benches to eat. Tanuma still feels sort of sickly and doesn't eat much and he misses the concerned looks Natsume sends his way.
The wall between them hasn't come down at all.
Chapter 3: Bittersweet
‘I’m tired of Natsume looking down on me.’ He swallowed thickly, the thoughts that sprung to his mind scaring him. Did he really have such bitter feelings towards Natsume?
Once the Book of Friends is mentioned one time, Tanuma starts hearing about it everywhere. It seemed like every single youkai he passed new about Natsume and his infamous Book of Friends. And they were eager to talk about how much they either wanted “Natsume-sama” to call their name or how much they loathed being tied to a human. Tanuma was lucky to get out of some of these encounters unscathed. He was quick to learn that shrines were a fine place to hang out if he was unsure about his safety.
How many times had Natsume done the same thing? How many times had Natsume been afraid for his life as he ran from a youkai chasing him because of...this thing called the Book of Friends?
Tanuma didn’t really understand what it was, but he didn’t like it and he didn’t know why Natsume held onto it if it caused that much trouble. At the same time however…
‘I trust Natsume.’ He trusted that Natsume had his reasons, or at least, he was trying to convince himself of that.
‘Why didn’t he tell me?’ Because he was too weak. Because he needed to be protected.
Because no matter what Tanuma did, Natsume would never trust him.
Tanuma was quickly learning to live with the headaches. They were usually minor, something that sprung up when he happened upon a youkai by accident every few days or so, but Tanuma was beginning to believe he was being stalked.
Every single night, around one in the morning, he woke with a jolt of pain throbbing in his skull and a surge of nausea that had him clamping a hand over his mouth and swallowing nervously. He would tremble as the feeling passed and then be left with a cold, bitter anxiety in his gut that he couldn’t rid himself of.
He hadn’t told Natsume. In fact, he hadn’t really talked to Natsume in days.
He wanted to, oh so badly. His heart ached whenever he saw Natsume’s face in his mind, thought about Natsume worrying about him, but--
‘I need to do this. I need to prove that I can handle it, that he doesn’t need to protect me.’
Otherwise, Tanuma wasn’t sure he would be able to stand his own existence any longer.
And this was why, when it happened for the fourth night in a row, Tanuma stood and padded over to the door, opening it and peeking outside.
He saw nothing, but the presence was strong.
“I know you’re there.”
“Well then,” and the youkai peeked out of the trees, its large teeth arching with its smile. It was a disturbing sight, but Tanuma forced himself not to look away, eyes forged of steel as he stared at the youkai.
“What do you want with me?”
“You’re friends with that boy,” The youkai spit the words out like Natsume was a toxin that he needed to be rid of. It made Tanuma’s skin crawl.
“--So what? What does that have to do with you?”
“I want it, the book of friends.” The youkai spat before slinking over to Tanuma, towering over him. Tanuma’s knees trembled, but he forced himself not to back down.
“And if you don’t get it?”
“Then I’ll kill him.”
Tanuma clenched his hands into fists. “You won’t. Natsume’s too strong. You can’t kill him.”
The slits that Tanuma assumed were eyes stretched out in an amused glance. “And what about you?”
“What about me?” Tanuma’s heart was racing as the youkai circled him. He was beginning to realize that it may have been a good idea to call Natsume.
He was scared, he didn’t know what to do.
Natsume had always handled this all alone. The thought made the ache in his heart, in his bones, only intensify.
“If I use you, I can get him to give me the Book of Friends.”
“You can’t use me,” Tanuma spat right back. “I won’t let you.”
“You won’t ‘let’ me?” The youkai laughed softly. “You, a pathetic human with little spiritual power, dare defy me? Don’t make me laugh.”
“Go away! Leave Natsume alone!”
“You know what?” The youkai’s amusement seemed to fade. “Maybe I’ll just kill you instead. You’re angering me.” And Tanuma’s blood ran cold as the youkai grasped his shoulders. He heard a distinctive crack and felt blinding pain behind his eyelids. He knew his left shoulder was dislocated even without moving his eyes.
Those teeth were coming closer--
“You stupid boy!” And there was a bright flash of light. The youkai screamed before darting off into the foliage. Tanuma stared into the forest, eyes wide, knees shaking, and slowly sank to the ground, hand clasping at his dislocated shoulder with a pained cry.
There was a fat cat smacking his thigh. Tanuma winced. “Ponta?”
“That’s sensei! Nyanko-sensei!” The youkai hissed and despite the situation, Tanuma couldn’t help but smile.
“Thanks, Ponta. You really saved me.”
Nyanko huffed and glared hard at him. “You’re weak and stupid,” Tanuma flinched. “You should’ve ran. Why were you standing there like a fool?!”
And his smile was gone. A flash of anger filled him and he found himself snapping without meaning to. “Because I can handle it!”
He was being a little too loud. His Father probably would wake up soon. He needed to stop--
Nyanko narrowed his eyes. “If you could handle it, we wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.”
And Tanuma could have sworn his heart stopped. “...Why...exactly are you here, Ponta?”
“We both know the answer to that question.”
Tanuma ducked his head, bangs obscuring his face. So Natsume had sent Sensei to ‘watch’ him.
He was still so weak.
“Don’t tell Natsume.”
“What?!” Nyanko hissed, but Tanuma shook his head.
“Don’t tell him.” Tanuma said again, more firmly this time. “I need to handle this on my own. I’m tired of relying on Natsume.”
‘I’m tired of Natsume looking down on me.’ He swallowed thickly, the thoughts that sprung to his mind scaring him. Did he really have such bitter feelings towards Natsume?
Deep down...he did. And the thought was enough to make his eyes well up with tears, moreso than the physical pain. He clenched his jaw tight and looked away.
“And why should I keep this from Natsume? Why should I allow you to foolishly do this on your own?!”
“Because if you don’t, I won’t give you fried squid.”
There was silence.
“--Fine.” Nyanko jumped off the porch. “But if that youkai kills you, don’t come whining to me or Natsume.”
He felt sweat cling to the back of his neck. ‘If I’m dead, I can’t exactly do that, you know?’
Tanuma sighed as he stood and walked back inside, wincing as the pain in his shoulder intensified. He found himself staring in a bathroom mirror, a cloth in his mouth, and wondering if he could really do this.
His fingers trembled as they reached for his dislocated shoulder. He closed his eyes and clamped his jaw down on the cloth in his mouth to keep himself quiet.
The cloth kept his scream quiet enough not to be heard as he popped his shoulder back into place.
He could handle it. He would.
Even if it killed him.
Chapter 4: By Your Side
Natsume does some investigating and Tanuma spills the beans.
Natsume spent the night anxiously awake. He wasn’t sure what was going on exactly, but his mind wouldn’t shut off. He just kept thinking about Tanuma, about the dream he’d had when he had fallen asleep for a few hours.
“Don’t come near me!” Tanuma shouted, face distorted in an angry mess. Dream Natsume had stared on in a growing sense of unease, until Tanuma turned around and muttered the words he was tired of hearing after so long. “Freak.”
He had woken up with tears in his eyes, staring at the ceiling for several minutes before giving up on the thought of sleep entirely. He needed to calm down. Tanuma would never ever say anything like that to him, Natsume KNEW that for a fact. Especially now that Tanuma was experiencing the same thing.
His heart sunk deeper into his chest, accompanied by a sharp pain. Old wounds however, were good at opening up. And Tanuma had been avoiding him for days.
What if Tanuma didn’t want to be friends anymore?
Natsume sat by the window, wondering if he was just...being too anxious for his own good. Taki had seemed to think so, when he had expressed his fears to her earlier in the day. She was a good friend, a rational one, someone he could turn to when his mind created monsters that weren’t there. He was always afraid to turn to Tanuma in those moments. Tanuma was different, something about him made Natsume want to make sure he never suffered the way that Natsume had. He wanted to see Tanuma smiling and happy all the time. He couldn’t do that if he lived the way Natsume did.
And in that sense...Natsume had failed. Because now Tanuma could see youkai, was already experiencing danger at the hands of youkai, and Natsume couldn’t be there at any given moment to watch him. For all he knew, a youkai could have waited until the exact moment they parted to attack him and he wouldn’t know. The only link to Tanuma he had right now was his irresponsible Sensei, and as much as Natsume cared for the fat cat, he knew full well that he had a tendency to wander off in times like these…
Finally, Natsume decided around 2:30 in the morning that he couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and got dressed, grabbed his things, and snuck out of the window.
He would go make sure Tanuma was safe by himself, to calm his anxiety.
The walk to Tanuma’s was dark and honestly a little intimidating this early in the morning. It wasn’t like walking there during the daytime or with his ‘bodyguard’ by his side. It was a lonely treck that only made his anxiety worse in the meantime.
And when he got there…
His entire being was on edge as he walked through the woodland and exited toward the pond. There was a strong presence nearby and it certainly wasn’t Sensei.
“That damn cat,” he grumbled to himself. Where was Nyanko-sensei at times like these? It certainly didn’t feel safe right now to be here, which meant Tanuma wasn’t safe.
His heart began to race and Natsume clenched his fists, staring around at the yard. He needed to get rid of this youkai before it could harm Tanuma…
Determined, Natsume spent a good hour scouring every inch of the grounds that he could, checking behind every single bush, every pot--
He froze, caught in the light of a flashlight as he had approached the pond again, and slowly turned to face Tanuma whose...expression couldn’t really be read in the dark.
He knew the feeling surrounding him didn’t feel...welcoming, however. And it scared him, just a little bit, after that dream he’d had.
“What are you doing here? It’s late,” Tanuma began, eyes narrowing. He seemed almost...defensive. And he was holding his shoulder oddly, like it was injured.
“I should be asking you that, too. What are you doing out here? You should be asleep,” Natsume defended quietly, approaching Tanuma to better see his face. He looked like he was in pain almost, like he was trying to hide it.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he replied. “So I decided to go for a walk.”
“In the dark, with an injury?” Natsume’s eyes focused on that shoulder and the way Tanuma carried himself and yes, despite the way Tanuma was trying to act cool, that was definitely an injury. And after a moment, Tanuma’s eyes narrowed further and he looked away.
“I can handle it on my own.”
Natsume clenched his fists. “I felt the presence of a strong youkai. I’ve been looking for it. Did it already find you?”
“Natsume,” Tanuma sighed. “I’m guessing Ponta got you, right?”
“What? Ponta…?” Oh right, that was his name for Nyanko-sensei…he really needed to ask him about that one of these days. “--No, I came out here because I was worried and couldn’t sleep. But something did happen! I can tell!” He tried to keep his voice down, his whispers coming out hurried anyway. “--Let’s go inside, let me see your injury!”
Tanuma slowly lowered the flashlight and clenched his hands into fists, the look on his face...something dark, like in the dream, and Natsume’s heart skipped from the sheer anxiety of seeing it.
“...Fine.” Tanuma sighed and turned, leading Natsume to the screen door. “But you need to be quiet—Dad’s sleeping and he can’t know about this.”
Natsume followed Tanuma inside, feeling a little better to at least know that Tanuma was going to let him help. But a few minutes later, when Tanuma let his shirt slip off his shoulder, Natsume’s perpetual heart attack came back full force.
There were dark claw marks on Tanuma’s skin where he’d been grabbed and there were dark bruises splotting all over the skin. Natsume’s hands trembled violently as they rested on Tanuma’s shoulder and in the next moment, he hung his head, eyes widened as he stared at the floor.
This was it. What he had feared for so long was finally coming to pass.
“I’m sorry….” He whispered, sounding almost on the verge of tears. “I’m sorry—this is...this is my fault...this is my...”
“It is not,” Tanuma twists around harshly and reaches out to grab Natsume by the shoulder. Natsume shifts his gaze away, his eyes still too dark, too wide, not seeing him.
And all at once, Tanuma feels like a complete asshole for putting Natsume through this. He knew why Natsume did everything he could to protect him. He knew that...so why did he feel so…
Because he was jealous of Natsume’s strength. Because he wanted to be like him. He didn’t want to be weak anymore.
“It’s not your fault,” he whispered, giving Natsume’s shoulders a firm shake. “It’s going to happen, whether we like it or not. It’s a part of my life now Natsume.” Natsume’s eyes snapped to Tanuma’s and the look was so desperate Tanuma almost backed down.
But he didn’t.
“It’s something we both need to learn how to handle.” He winced, the throbbing in his shoulder making him lower one of his hands, but he kept the other on Natsume’s shoulder, giving a firm squeeze. “--But whatever you do, you cannot do this to yourself Natsume.”
“I won’t allow it,” Tanuma’s snap came out softer than he’d intended, but that was probably a good thing. Natsume’s eyes cleared somewhat. “I am not going to let you pull away from me, not after this. I am stronger than you think I am and I want to become even stronger, so that I can stand by your side.”
Chapter 5: Change
Something has changed between them. Tanuma notices.
My apologies for being gone for so long. I moved at the beginning of the year and handling everything has been a royal mess. But I'll do my best to update more often now.
There was a time when Natsume probably would have turned Tanuma away—out of fear, nothing but sheer unadulterated panic.
But..seeing the look in Tanuma’s eyes, hearing those words...his chest felt warm and he suddenly had the overwhelming urge to cry.
He ducked his head as the tears began to flow, embarrassed at himself for crying in front of another person, but then Tanuma’s hand was tracing his cheek down the path of a tear--
And his hand was so, so warm….
Natsume slowly let his eyes meet Tanuma’s, the blur from the tears not able to hide the smile on Tanuma’s face before he could see it.
“Tanuma...” He found himself softly calling out, bowing his head as he wiped at his tears. “Tanuma...” He said again, hoping that he could get words out this time besides his friend’s name.
But they just wouldn’t come out.
“Hey, it’s okay to cry you know,” Tanuma slowly turned and looked out the glass door. “You’ve probably kept those in for too long. You...need to learn to let yourself feel what you need to feel, Natsume. Emotions aren’t there to hurt you...they just exist.”
A soft gasp and Natsume finds himself smiling through his tears. His chest felt like it was burning, but it felt so good—crying felt so good—just letting it all out--
His head rested on Tanuma’s shoulder.
Tanuma tensed and for a moment, Natsume was afraid that he’d messed up, but then slowly he felt the other’s shoulder begin to relax beneath him.
Tanuma was almost afraid to move for fear of disturbing the moment. Every soft breath Natsume let out against his neck sent a chill down his spine. This was the closest they’d ever been and his heart was trembling, yearning for the need to wrap himself around Natsume, bury his hands in his sandy hair, and tell him everything he was holding back.
It was painful, so very painful, to stay still until Natsume eventually pulled away and smiled at him, tears no longer flowing. “Why don’t we go out and look for that youkai? Maybe we can get it to stop harassing you.”
Tanuma—despite the feelings warring inside his chest—managed a soft smile. We. He’d said we. Not just him.
In the end, they didn’t find him. Dawn was nearly upon them and they were both exhausted.
Natsume grinned at him, looking happier than he had in days as he waved, “I’ll ask Touko-san if you can stay over tonight. That way we can lure it out.” And hopefully Nyanko-sensei would be around to help get rid of it—for good this time.
“Yeah...” Tanuma forced his lips to move. Even in the dark, his entire soul lighted up at the sight of Natsume’s smile, and he watched as Natsume ran off, hoping that he wouldn’t be too tired today after a night of no sleep.
Tanuma certainly found himself struggling. He’d dropped his bag twice when his shoulder—which was unbelievably sore—spasmed and the bag slipped off his arm.
It was embarrassing, to have to lie and say that he’d injured his shoulder when he fell against a sharp rock the night before. But it always sobered him to remember that Natsume had lied countless times to protect himself and his secret.
To protect his own fragile heart.
A glimpse of which he’d seen last night.
Heart fluttering, Tanuma made his way to the benches for lunch. He was exhausted, but--
He couldn’t get the feeling out of his head, the way Natsume had felt pressed against him like that. Natsume...he’d never initiated a touch like that before or really any touch for that matter. He’d always seemed so distant, so far away from Tanuma that the dark haired boy felt like he would never reach him.
But last night...he had breached something, broken through a wall.
In the entire time he’d been friends with Natsume, he’d never managed to do that. But last night, he had.
And his heart couldn’t help the hope that welled up inside him even as he tried to stomp it down. It wasn’t romantic, he told himself. Natsume didn’t mean it that way. So stop it.
But the flutter in his chest just wouldn’t stop and--
There was Natsume already sitting with Taki, hair looking just as warm as the sunlight beyond it, grin on his face as he laughed at something Taki said.
Gods, this one-sided love was going to kill him.
They both had noticed him, it seems. He gave a little wave and walked over, forcing a smile. His shoulder ached something fierce and he was having trouble holding his bag up even on the opposite shoulder due to the occasional muscle spasm, so he just about collapsed onto the bench and let the bag slip off his arm with a sigh.
“Touko-san said you can stay over. You asked your Dad right?” Natsume peered worriedly at him, eyes focused on his injury, and Tanuma gave a small smile even as he winced getting his lunch out of his bag.
“Yeah I asked him. He said it was okay--” His lunch was snatched out of his hands. The offender? An irate looking Taki.
“You’re injured and you think you’re going to feed yourself?”
“B-But--” Tanuma actually flushed a little, embarrassed, but in the next moment his chopsticks were in his face, a sausage in their grip. Taki stared at him with a bright smile.
Tanuma blinked, looking to Natsume for help. Unfortunately, Natsume only smiled and laughed quietly, so Tanuma gave in and allowed Taki to feed him.
“You should get someone to carry your bag for you,” Taki worried over him afterward, when they were walking back to class.
“Ah, about that--” Besides them, he didn’t really have many other friends….
“I’ll walk him to his class,” Natsume took the bag out of Taki’s hands and smiled brightly.
“But--” Tanuma tried to protest, but was quickly silenced by Taki who pushed him down the hall. He waved goodbye to her with his normal shoulder, wincing still, and held his injured one as he walked with Natsume.
“You didn’t have to do that.”
He expected something along the lines of ‘it’s my fault’, but what he got instead made him shiver down to the bottom of his shoes.
“I wanted to.”
Tanuma swallowed thickly and forced the blush off his face as they walked to Class 1. Natsume might be late by doing this, he really shouldn’t, but--
Soon he was plopping down in his seat, Natsume setting his bag on the desk. Tanuma gave a quiet thank you, but Natsume merely shook his head. “I’ll come get you when class ends. Be careful not to strain it too much okay?”
“...A-Ah...” He agreed and watched as Natsume walked away, feeling like something had definitely changed.
It had. It wasn’t his imagination. It couldn’t be.
He liked it.
Chapter 6: Cursed Feelings
They prepare to take on the youkai, but is something more going on?
Meeting up after school had never felt like this. Normally, if there was youkai trouble, it would be the three of them—Natsume, Tanuma, AND Taki, or just Natsume and Taki taking care of it while Tanuma was left on the sidelines.
But this...it was different. And he couldn’t stop focusing on that as he waited for Natsume to come out of the building after school. Tanuma fidgeted with the bag strap—Natsume was going to scold him for carrying it on his own, but he didn’t want to bother Natsume.
“Tanuma, sorry to keep you waiting!” And then Natsume was there, concern on his face, but a smile was there too. “Are you okay? Why didn’t you wait for me to come out of the classroom?”
“I saw you talking to Nishimura. I didn’t want to interrupt.” Tanuma smiled back, a warmth in his eyes that he couldn’t hide. It was always there when he spoke to Natsume, whether he wanted it to be or not.
“Hey guys, mind if I join you?” Taki walked up to them, rummaging through her bag before closing it and giving them a small smile. “You both seem so stressed out with this whole thing, I thought maybe I could help.”
“Great, thanks Taki.” Natsume nodded and smiled softly and Tanuma was doing his very best not to let it be known that his world was shattering at his feet.
The walk there was a little more awkward than he wanted it to be. Tanuma watched them talk, but kept mostly silent, nodding here or there with a small smile to confirm that he was listening. But his mind was also a million miles away.
He shouldn’t be feeling like this.
This was Taki, their friend—they were the trio of friends...but Tanuma had already ruined that dynamic, hadn’t he?
By falling in love with Natsume.
His expression fell a little and he didn’t notice Natsume and Taki watching him out of the corner of their eyes.
When they got there, Tanuma’s Father tilted his head at the extra company. “...I thought just Natsume was staying over, Kaname?”
“Oh don’t worry, I’m not staying over, I just wanted to hang out for a bit.” Taki confirmed and Tanuma hated the little jump in his heart at her words—the confirmation that he would indeed be alone with Natsume.
He was both excited and terrified by it.
Sooner or later, she’s going to notice. He pursed his lips in a frown as he sat on his own while Taki and Natsume conversed over making tea in the kitchen. Since his shoulder was mostly out of commission, they were taking care of the task instead. What was that saying? Always put your friends first? Somehow I feel like that’s not it...but the point is…
If he didn’t put their friendship first, what sort of person did that make him?
Was he really so selfish that he couldn’t continue to navigate the friendship dynamic between the three of them while holding deeper feelings for Natsume?
“Tanuma!” Natsume and Taki entered the room, a tray in Natsume’s arms with three cups of tea. They all settled down, Tanuma forcing a smile.
The tea was calming and it took several sips for Tanuma to realize what he was drinking. Chamomile Tea?
“Chamomile?” He whispered, closing his eyes.
Tanuma and Taki both turned and smiled at each other before turning their gaze on Tanuma.
“You seemed...upset today,” Taki fidgeted with her fingers for a moment, before meeting his eyes again.
And his heart sank into the tips of his shoes.
This...wasn’t really right in the first place, was it? He realized, feeling the awkwardness in the room—it was almost stifling.
None of them had any idea what they were doing. They were just fumbling about, doing their best to make things work. And their dynamic...it had always been about Natsume and Taki, and not all three of them.
He might as well not be there, even when he was in the room.
“Nothing, my shoulder just hurts is all. We should work on our plan,” Tanuma firmly avoided the subject. After all, he--
He couldn’t do this.
“I don’t like this plan,” Natsume protested as the sun went down. Tanuma’s Father had already gone to bed, leaving Tanuma and Natsume to themselves. Taki had already left. “You might get hurt again.”
“This is stupid,” Nyanko spoke, having showed up a few minutes ago looking for Natsume. “Devising a plan without me—were you both trying to get killed?”
The pudgy ‘cat’ hissed. “That’s Nyanko! Nyanko-sensei! Insolent human!”
Tanuma scratched the orange and white cat’s back and the hissing turned into pleased noises. He shook his head with a small smile.
“It’ll be fine. I can see now, I can be of use--”
“Just seeing isn’t enough, twerp. You don’t have the spiritual power that Natsume does. You’ll get yourself killed trying to play hero.” Nyanko huffed and Tanuma’s fingers froze in the other’s fur.
Natsume was in the middle of scolding Nyanko when he realized that Tanuma hadn’t spoken.
Tanuma was silent for a moment, before he slowly raised his head and offered a smile. Pain was spreading from his heart to the tips of his fingers.
He was such a fool.
So foolish to believe that he’d bridged that gap between him and Natsume.
Such an idiot to believe that wall had tumbled down.
Nothing was different.
He was still...so...so...useless.
“I...have to go to the bathroom before we do this.” Tanuma’s smile wavered, but only slightly, and he slipped past Natsume without another word.
The bathroom was cold and Tanuma found it oddly comforting. It cooled down the heat on his cheeks from his shame and embarrassment.
He stared in the mirror, slowly slipping his shirt collar down to see the bruises.
The light that had been in his eyes earlier seemed to have disappeared. He felt...empty. His shoulder throbbed painfully and he clutched at it. Was it his imagination or was it getting worse?
Deep inside the woods, there was a chuckle. “Stupid human, thinking he could evade my curse so easily…”
The youkai paused, letting out a sharp, manic laugh.
“He’ll be dead soon. And I’ll use his body to trick that Natsume kid into giving me the book of friends. If he believes there’s a chance his friend can be saved, he’ll do it without question.”
Back in the bathroom, there was a knock on the door. “Tanuma? Are you okay?”
“Coming,” Tanuma responded and turned and left the bathroom narrowly without letting Natsume see what was inside it. He forced a smile. “Lets go.”
The sink was stained with blood.