Natsume doesn't stay till the end of the performance. When he gets up and leaves, none of his nii-sans stop him. Rei-niisan fixes him with a blood-red stare (curious, but not demanding), Kanata-niisan gently squeezes his hand, and Shu-niisan does not react at all.
"I'm going for a Walk," he says, in response to Rei-niisan's unspoken question.
They don't ask him anything else.
It's not as if him not personally witnessing the curtain call will change anything. Natsume might be a fool, but he knows that much. But there is admittedly a part of him that wishes, hopes against hope, that if he doesn't see it, he can pretend it isn't real.
For all humans, and especially for a magician, seeing is believing, after all.
As Natsume's mind wanders, so do his feet; he does not fight it, simply lets the magic guide him. Many things, he thinks, are out of his power. He's learnt that tonight. No, he should've already known.
He drifts aimlessly around the school grounds, only making sure to steer away from the cacophony of the crowd leaving the live.
Natsume abruptly realises, when his footsteps halt at the moonlit garden terrace, that he is heading down memory lane.
The magic tickles at his eyes, letting the laughter and banter of their midday rendezvous come flooding back to him. Images of Rei-niisan casually carrying Shu-niisan princess-style, much to the latter's dismay and in spite of his protests. Wataru-niisan, leaning in to kiss Kanata-niisan and making a face while remarking that he tastes like salt. Kanata-niisan, trying in vain to prevent Wataru-niisan's hair from tickling him.
Natsume's own, bashful but genuine, laughter, echoing off of the concave pavilion roof.
The air smells of flowers that aren't just from Wataru-niisan's tricks, and there's a gentle, cool breeze caressing their faces. The sun is warm, not scorching, and in this moment everything feels right.
There's a bitterness in his mouth that he can't quite keep down -- he swallows, but it only threatens to rise back up.
The magic fades, and the garden terrace is silent again. Only the moon gazes back at him now.
Natsume sucks in a breath and rubs at his eyes before turning away.
He visits a few more locations: the beach, the classroom they once danced together in, Shisho's theater club room, the handicrafts club room. Natsume still has a long way to go as a magician, but the energy that his four nii-sans have left in each of the areas they frequent is so powerful that he’s sure anyone can feel it radiating. His body tingles at the familiar sensations. Even if the people around them forget, the energy remaining is and always will be proof that they were here, proof of the time they’ve spent together.
It is a comforting thought.
Finally Natsume finds himself in the library, at the entrance to the secret room. The familiar smell of old, worn paper fills his nose like a gentle hug. It’s very late, but some lights are on, and there’s a commotion coming from the room.
“ Non ! It’s been far too long -- we cannot just sit here and wait for him to return any longer!” The aggressive worry in Shu-niisan’s voice barrels into Natsume, even from outside the room. He seldom feels energy of this nature from him. The proud sovereign’s emotions are almost always, at least on a surface level, collected and controlled.
“Shu, ya gotta calm down… I trust him to come back t’ us. Don’t you?”
“... Rei, are you not ‘worried’ as well?”
There’s the sound of a chair being pushed back, and Natsume hears Shu-niisan begin to pace the room, muttering under his breath. He freezes when he hears his nii-san choke out something like “you never know what someone who is desperate may do”, his blood running cold. He would never , Natsume thinks, but talk is cheap when he’s out here and Shu-niisan is in there. Natsume hesitates, back against the wall. He doesn’t know how he feels right now, and the last thing he wants is to break down in front of all of them. He’s caused them enough problems as it is. But staying out here is already causing them worry, and this is one of the few things within his control.
Four pairs of eyes dart to him as he opens the door. Shisho-- Wataru-niisan is gripping Shu-niisan’s hand, Kanata-niisan appears to be dozing off, and Rei-niisan is the first one to move to embrace him, gentle but yet powerful.
“Welcome back, Natsume-kun. You really kept us waiting for ya.”
Natsume would like to say that he is powerless to fight this hug, but there is a part of him that definitely does not want to.
He starts to say something, but then Rei-niisan releases him and Shu-niisan is upon him next, hugging him in an act of physical contact that is so unlike Shu-niisan that any words Natsume has conceived die on his tongue.
“Do not disappear like that ever again.”
He is no magician, or at least not a practised one, but the force behind Shu-niisan’s words rend into Natsume more forcefully than any spell would. Natsume can only nod numbly and murmur a “I’m sorry, nii-san” that is devoid of his usual enchantment.
Oh, how he hates the way his eyes are burning right now.
Kanata-niisan takes one of Natsume’s hands, hanging limp at his side while wrapped in Shu-niisan’s embrace, and wraps it in both of his own.
His nii-san’s voice is crystal clear, but like the ocean, it too has a hidden power within it. Natsume’s emotions actually settle for a moment, hanging back, waiting to hear what Kanata-niisan says next. Shu-niisan lets go of him.
“You are not an ‘island’, Nacchan. Please ‘rely’ on us more… It makes us sad to ‘see’ you struggling alone.”
“But-- but I..” He tries so hard not to let his voice waver, but in the end it is to no avail.
Wataru-niisan, who has been avoiding his line of sight all this time, appears in front of him. He sees the guilt in his nii-san’s eyes -- guilt for causing Natsume anguish -- another burden he has placed on his nii-sans . Wataru-niisan reaches to caress his face, and when Natsume doesn’t stop him or pull away, he gently angles Natsume’s face upwards to stare at his own.
A gentle kiss is pressed to his forehead.
“You will never be a burden to us, do you understand?”
A thousand and one things race through Natsume’s mind; how does Wataru-niisan always know exactly what he’s thinking, and no, his nii-san is wrong, he is a burden, because he’s weak, because all of them are handling things just fine on their own but here he is--
“This is not something you should be handling alone.”
He wants to protest, but when Kanata-niisan reaches a hand over to wipe away the tears he hadn’t realised had started leaking from his eyes, touch as light as the summer sea breeze, he notices the way his nii-sans look at each other. The way they stand within arm’s reach, and the way they hold on to each other. The way Shu-niisan leans ever-so-subtly towards Rei-niisan, and the way Kanata-niisan hovers near to Wataru-niisan and himself.
And that’s when Natsume realises (more strongly this time) that he is a fool, not just for not realising it sooner, but for pushing them away when they had tried to hold him close. He’s been so busy trying to find a reason for being there with them that he hasn’t bothered to let himself truly be there.
All of a sudden, the walls he’s put up have come crashing down, and he falls forward into Wataru-niisan’s sturdy but gentle embrace. His tears flow unbidden and his magic flares, but he has no will to fight it, nor the soothing touches and murmurs his nii-sans are bestowing upon him.
Natsume doesn’t need to be guarded, not here, in his secret room; not now, when he’s surrounded by the four people who have always been willing to stay by his side, never once considering giving up on him.
A part of his soul, without really realising it, had come to this room seeking solace. And he had found it, but it certainly hadn’t been a part of the room itself, but instead the people he had found within it.
Whatever he may feel about the title they’ve been given, and the incidents that have occurred following their meeting, Natsume knows this: that the Five Oddballs have given him a corner of this earth to call his own, that they have brought him solace like he has never known, and that nothing in the world can touch him when he’s with them.