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If you teach me what love looks like, I promise I'll learn how to feel it

Chapter Text

It was a true testament to how well ever-jumpy Natsume fit in with them now when he didn’t so much as blink when Satoru barreled into their classroom and slammed a hand down on Natsume's desk. Atsushi didn’t need a testament, having grown up at his side, but Satoru still felt a little pleased at how unaffected Atsushi was as well.

“Let’s go camping!”

That elicited a blink from Atsushi and a confused quirk of the eyebrow from Natsume.

“Er…why?” Natsume asked, amusement and bewilderment bleeding into his voice in equal measure.

“Because summer break starts soon, and I want to go fishing and spend a night away from home and do dumb things like proper high schoolers!”

Natsume scrunched up his face a little, like he wasn’t quite sure what to do with that statement.

“You’re not really selling the idea,” Atsushi remarked, looking more at ease and amused than Natsume did.

Satoru pouted, “So you’re saying that doesn’t sound fun?”

“Where would we go, exactly?” Natsume asked, all hesitance and trepidation. About what, Satoru didn’t know, but he had long accepted that Natsume was a little weird about simple things.

“Two towns over. They have this neat fishing spot and you’re allowed to camp there, and it gets really clear at night so it’s easy to see the stars.”

“Huh,” Atsushi remarked. “You’ve actually thought this through a bit.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Exactly what it sounds like.”

Satoru puffed out his cheeks and then decided to ignore him altogether, focusing his attention on Natsume, because his approval would be the harder one to get and Satoru always felt a rush of smug glee when he got it.

“Well…” Natsume pondered for a moment more, before finally saying, “I’ll ask Touko-san.”

“Yes!” Satoru crowed, already making plans in his head.

“She hasn’t said yes yet.”

“She will,” Satoru responded, not an inch of doubt in his voice. Natsume looked a little startled at his conviction, but Satoru didn’t know why. It was obvious enough to anyone that the Fujiwaras thought the world of Natsume and would do whatever they could to make him happy. Why would they say no to a simple camping trip?

And sure enough, Natsume came in the next day with Touko-san’s seal of approval and they set the date for the next Saturday. When they walked home that day, Natsume looking pleased and a little anticipatory as he turned off towards his house, Satoru eyed Atsushi.

“What do you want to bet he’ll bring his fat cat along?”

Atsushi snorted, “That’s a loser’s bet.”

The Saturday found the three of them at the train station - Satoru openly excited, Natsume happy in his own quiet away, and Atsushi donning a content grin. After stepping off the train, Satoru bounded forward, leading the way and complaining as the two of them didn’t follow as quickly. They left the houses behind as they walked alongside the bubbling creek, sunlight glinting off the water and the breeze ruffling through their hair.

When they got to the clearing Satoru had in mind, he stopped, immediately pulling out the tent and fishing rods as Natsume look a moment to look around, admiring the scenery, then letting out a surprised yelp when he opened up his bag to see his ridiculous cat nestled inside. In no time at all, they had set up the tent and gathered firewood and created a little clearing for the fire they would use for the fish they would catch.

They spent the rest of the afternoon in amusement, the two of them smiling as Natsume struggled to properly hook a fish and Atsushi and Natsume outright laughing when Satoru ended up slipping into the creek, dripping with water and dragging the two of them in in retaliation while the pile of fat and fur that masqueraded as a cat looked at them haughtily from the shore.

Their clothes dried in the heat and sun as they cooked the fish (tossing quite a few to the cat), their laughter and conversation transforming into something peaceful and relaxed, Natsume looking more at ease then Satoru had seen in a while, even as his eyes darted around, looking at empty air and patches of grass and parts of the creek that held nothing but stone.

The sky faded from bright blue to gold which bled into deep violets before settling into an inky azure, only a shade above black, the wispy clouds adding to the colors of the sunset and hardly blocking the stars at all. Their conversation had tapered off entirely as they looked up to the moon and all its similarly colored compatriots.

Satoru could see, from the corner of his eye, Natsume turning away and looking to his left, staring at the trees. After several minutes of him looking into nothing Satoru huffed and craned his neck to get a good look at Natsume’s face and find out what it was he was looking at.

“Oi, Natsume...” Satoru trailed off when he properly saw him, silver-washed and still, luminous eyes gazing at something distant.

He looked like a moonbeam given life, ethereal and untouchable and gone the moment you looked away. Satoru reflexively reached out and grabbed his sleeve and Natsume started, turning to him with questions in his eyes.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he blurted out, not being able to feel even the slightest bit embarrassed, too overwhelmed with the panic from how much Natsume looked like he could just fade away at any moment. Natsume looked even more surprised at that and Satoru didn’t know if it was because it was such an out of the blue statement or if it was because no one had ever said something like that to him before - that they wanted him to stay. Natsume searched Satoru’s eyes and seemed to find something in there that answered whatever questions he had, and it made his eyes and smile go soft and fond.

“I won’t,” he said gently, moving Satoru’s hand from his sleeve and holding it in his for a long moment before letting go and donning an impish grin.

“I’m not Kaguya-hime after all.”

Satoru blinked and Atsushi laughed and the cat snorted, shattering the quiet and insubstantial night and turning it into something warm and familiar. Something a lot like home.

And Natsume was there in the middle of it all, smiling bright and easy, as at home in the moonbeams as he was in Satoru’s hands.

Chapter Text

The four of them – Takashi, Nishimura, Kitamoto, and Tanuma – had a lunch like any other, basking in the sun on the roof, their conversation inevitably including Nishimura squawking and flailing while Kitamoto calmly rebutted all the things he said without so much as a pause in his eating motion. This time, however, Kitamoto donned a smile as mischievous as Nishimura’s and retaliated, pulling out his cell phone.

“Then how about this?” Kitamoto pressed a few buttons before turning it around and showing the three of them a photo of what could only be a very young Nishimura looking thoroughly startled, a pile of noodles on his head.

“Why do you have that?!” Nishimura exclaimed, horrified, scrambling to pull the phone from Kitamoto’s hand.

“Blackmail,” Kitamoto said smugly.

“Yeah, well, I’ve got plenty of blackmail material myself,” he added petulantly as Kitamoto successfully kept the phone away.

“If this turns into a competition of who can bring out the most embarrassing childhood photos, I’m going to win hands down.”

Nishimura squawked and flailed as Tanuma and Takashi laughed, the sound prompting Nishimura to whirl on them.

“Don’t think I won’t ask your parents for –” Nishimura cut off abruptly, looking at Takashi. An odd sort of quiet settled over them, and Takashi hated it, hated that he could so easily ruin a cheerful mood even when he didn’t say anything at all.

“Do you…” Nishimura trailed off, all uncharacteristic trepidation. “Do you have any pictures from when you were a kid?”

Takashi pursed his lips, keeping quiet for a moment before deciding to answer him.

“Well I have the one of my parents that you all saw before, when my mom was pregnant with me. If there are ones of me as a kid, I’ve never seen them.”

“And there’s nothing more? No one who’d have any more?” Nishimura pressed on even as Kitamoto gave him a sharp jab, and Tanuma looked torn between curiosity towards Takashi’s answer and reproach towards Nishimura for asking the way he did (or maybe for asking at all). And sure, Takashi was a little uncomfortable with this, having learned long ago that people would want him less the more he talked and how painful it was to talk about these kinds of things at all. But it was different here. Every day scabbed over the wounds in his heart a little more, and he knew these questions didn’t come from a place of malice, could bring himself to believe that these people wouldn’t want him any less.

“There shouldn’t be. I didn’t see anything when I went to visit my parents’ house a little while ago before they demolished it. I have two boxes of things left from my parents and grandmother, but there aren’t any photos in there.”

“Two boxes?” Nishimura said, looking a little floored and horrified at how little Takashi had left of his family. “There isn’t any more anywhere?”

“Satoru,” Kitamoto hissed while Tanuma fixed Nishimura with a pointed look, seemingly deciding on reproach. Takashi smiled a little, these little actions, these little unconscious assurances of ‘of course we care about you’, making it easier to talk about what was normally too painful to even think about.

“There wasn’t really a good place to store everything, and they didn’t want it all to just stay in my parents’ house to collect dust and mold, and it was difficult having more than a few boxes to move each time, so I was asked to look through their things. I picked everything that seemed like it could’ve been important to them and the rest was thrown out or donated. I looked pretty carefully, and I don’t remember seeing any photos.” Takashi paused for a moment before adding thoughtfully, “I was only eight though, so it is possible I missed something, but even if I did, it’s gone now,” he shrugged, picking through his bento, looking up after he had swallowed a piece of chicken to see the three of them looking at him incredulously.

“What?” Takashi asked, a little self-conscious.

“So there aren’t any pictures of you with your parents,” Kitamoto said slowly. “What about people you’ve lived with?”

Takashi blinked a few times.

“Why would they take pictures of me?” he asked, genuinely baffled.

The three of them had dark looks on their face, Nishimura looking like he was a few seconds away from throttling someone, the other two not looking much better. Takashi grew increasingly alarmed the longer the silence stretched on, realizing he’d said something odd from their reactions but not knowing what it was.

“Um…” he tried breaking the silence. Kitamoto let out a breath so long it sounded like it hurt, and then grabbed Nishimura’s arm before he actually got up or said something acidic.

“Well, we can just take pictures now. It can’t be that difficult to get a good blackmail photo of you,” Kitamoto said lightly.

Takashi scrunched his nose, thinking of all the (dumb, according to Nyanko-sensei) things he did even when removing Ayakashi from the context.

“You’re probably right,” he grudgingly admitted, startling Nishimura into a laugh, the tense air dissipating as the conversation moved on, the spike of pain in Takashi’s chest fading into the dull, familiar thrum that had long taken permanent refuge in his lungs.

Later that night, Takashi crawled into his closet and looked at the pictures he had taped inside. Pictures of people he cared about who somehow cared about him as well. Pictures of all his friends, his…his family (he was allowed to call them family, right?), of Nyanko-sensei, and even pictures that would be mostly blank to others but were full of grinning monsters to his chartreuse eyes. The ache from earlier in the day was still there, but it was something of a pleasant ache now. He inched back out, looking at the boxes of things that was left of his parents and Reiko-san and hesitatingly reached out a hand to the lid closest to him, resting his fingers on the worn cardboard for a long, breathless moment before shaking his head and turning away.

No sense in looking for something he already knew didn’t exist.

A week passed by after that conversation without it being brought up again or alluded to in any way, and Takashi had thought that it was entirely behind them, forgetting about it for the most part. So he was surprised the Sunday after, when he opened his door to see the three of them standing on his door, Nishimura holding a camera with a determined look on his face.

“Did I forget we were doing something today or...” he trailed off.

“Nope!” Nishimura said. “We’ve just decided to go on an adventure.”

Takashi felt confusion cover his face and then heard a click behind him and to his left. He turned his head a little to see Touko-san there with a camera in her own hands. She lowered it, smiling.

“We’ll have to add that to our family album, won’t we?”

Takashi knew where all of this was coming from, the conversation on the rooftop not so long ago that the connection wasn’t anything but immediately obvious. Something, a laugh or a sob, got lodged in his throat before he settled for a smile.

“Okay,” he said shyly, and a little happily, at how easily Touko-san had said family, like there wasn’t anything else Takashi could be.

He had a feeling the inside of his closet wouldn’t be near enough space by the end of this.

And, for once in his life, he had a feeling there would never be an end.

Chapter Text

It was a particularly beautiful day, the kind that was warm and lazy and tempted those who took even one step out of their doors to shed their obligations and spend the whole day breathing in the thick scent of honeysuckle and listening to the laughing creek.

It was too beautiful a day for school, and all the students seemed disgruntled to even show up for class, shooting longing looks at the sun-seeped world on the other side of the glass panes, wishing they could be like the responsibility-free animals they saw out there.

It was particularly bad for Nishimura who was generally disgruntled to come to school, no matter the day, and had a penchant for spending as much time as possible tumbling through the meadows and forests, no matter the weather, the way a proper countryside-bred boy did. This, combined with his usual disregard for completing his assignments in a timely manner saw him very sullenly doing his math homework during the lunch break as Sasada, Taki, Tanuma, Kitamoto, and Takashi cobbled together desks and chairs to eat and chat, decidedly ignoring Nishimura in a futile bid to convince him to finish his work.

After not even two minutes of this, Nishimura let out a loud groan and threw his pencil across the room, earning rolled eyes from the classmates that had remained in the room and a scolding from Sasada, which Nishimura ignored flawlessly, banging his head against the desk.

“Ugh, math is dumb and I’m never gonna use it and this homework is too damn hard so whatever,” he complained, voice muffled.

“How could you possibly know the homework is too hard when you never even do it?” Takashi quipped back without thinking, having spent so much time around Ayakashi lately that the way he acted around them just slipped out. Then, all of a sudden, he realized what he’d said to his very human companions and looked up to see all of them staring at him with gaping mouths.

“Oh, uh, sorry, I didn’t mean to –” he stammered out, flushing. He didn’t have to flounder around much longer before Kitamoto nearly doubled over in his laughter as everyone else soon joined in, even Nishimura who was the butt of the joke, making it Takashi’s turn to imitate a fish.

“Man,” Nishimura chuckled, flinging an affectionate arm around Takashi’s shoulder. “Who would’ve thought that quiet, polite Natsume was actually hiding so much snark.” He snickered once more before adding, “Now that we know about it, you aren’t allowed to keep it hidden.”

Oh, Takashi thought, it’s okay to make fun of your friends. Maybe that was a weird realization to fill him with so much warmth, but it did anyway, and he let it. Oh, he knew that there were boundaries, knew all too well the way words could dig into skin and hurt more than claws, even when they weren’t meant maliciously (which was admittedly not often during Takashi’s childhood), but that this gentle teasing he had seen between children in all the schools he had been to, that he saw between Kitamoto and Nishimura, was okay for him to do, was even welcomed, was something of a beautiful thought. He had always thought that that, the casual way you could make fun of and be made fun of, was a true sign of acceptance and friendship – one he had never thought he could find for himself.

“Natsume, are you alright?” Tanuma suddenly asked, not just him, but all of them looking at him, concerned.

“What?” he asked, a little bemused.

“You’re crying,” Kitamoto said, as gentle as always. Takashi reached up, and sure enough, his fingers met slight dampness on his cheeks.

“Oh.”

They looked all the more concerned at his monosyllabic answer.

“Natsume?” Taki asked, soft and sweet and slow.

Takashi just looked at them for a while, at their concern and love, and suddenly laughed, startling them and painting thoroughly bewildered expressions on their faces.

“Don’t worry, I’m just happy.” None of them pried more into that, moving on to poke more fun at Nishimura, as if they could tell he didn’t want to expand on it, and he loved them all the more for it.

I’m happy, he thought to himself, the way he never thought he would before, sincere and much more than desperate attempts to convince himself to get through another day. He looked at his laughing friends, at his familiar classmates that filled him warmth instead of dread, at the miniscule Ayakashi giggling as they ran across the floor, at the dragonflies reflecting sunlight off gossamer wings as they fluttered by outside, and he grinned.

It was a beautiful day.

Chapter Text

One of the most pleasant things in Takashi’s life was doing chores alongside Touko-san. Maybe it was a strange thing to feel so happy at, but this kind of domesticity wasn’t something he’d felt before. If the people before the Fujiwaras had decided he wasn’t so destructive as to not be allowed outside of his room, he’d be saddled with chores to earn the right to be there, to be more than a burden and a mouth to feed. He’d never do them alongside anybody and the slightest mistake would bring consequences, some more severe than others, depending on the family and how long he’d stayed there at that point.

So being able to stand by Touko, pulling fluttering laundry off the lines outside while talking idly to her, or not talking at all but standing in companionable silence as Nyanko-sensei enjoyed the sun at his feet, sent a kind of contentment through his veins he didn’t think he’d be able to properly explain to anyone else.

Today, Touko-san had been filling the quietness by asking him about his friends.

(This was also a new kind of experience, someone having so much genuine interest directed towards him, having understanding towards his inability to articulate himself, and having the patience to ask more questions to get better answers from him.)

“Nishimura ended up tripping and rolling the entire way down the hill though,” Takashi said, still amused by the very image of it, Touko-san picking up on that and answering with her characteristically gentle laugh.

“I’d been afraid he hurt something, so I carried him back to his house. He was complaining the whole way there, especially when it turned out he really was alright.”

Touko laughed again, pulling a sheet off the line in a way that harmonized with the wind. “You really are such a kind boy.”

“Oh, I’m not,” Takashi responded reflexively. “It was just what I should do.”

“Takashi-kun,” Touko-san said, suddenly firm in a way that had Takashi instinctively straightening and turning towards her with all his weight on the balls of his feet. Touko-san softened at that and Takashi immediately felt shame settle into his bones. Touko-san must have seen that in him too as her eyes became touched with something sad.

“You’re a good person, Takashi-kun,” she said, still firm, but soft and sweet and so, so gentle the way Touko-san always was when she looked at Takashi, the way that made parts of him he didn’t know he had ache in a way that hurt as much as it soothed.

Nice people make nice friends. He remembers saying that once, to Kitamoto. Takashi had never particularly thought himself a nice person, but the only people who called themselves his friends, his family, were truly some of the nicest people he’d known. Of course, Hitoyoshi was a place like that, small and sleepy and full of people who felt awful for even a single thorn in their words, so Takashi had naturally thought they were just feeling bad for the poor orphan and were kind enough to include him. In this moment though, he was suddenly overcome with the thought that that might be insulting them more than himself. After all, there was no pity in their eyes, and they included him whenever and wherever they could, whenever and wherever they wanted. None of them held back on teasing him or complaining or any of the other things that came with friendships but not with pity.

Takashi knew, had started to learn, that he did himself disservice more often than not, but he couldn’t really help it when other people or Ayakashi were at stake. He hadn’t thought he’d been doing others a disservice by thinking about himself that way though. But in this moment, with the way Touko-san was looking at him, he thought about it again, about how he would feel if any of the people he had held dear hated or doubted themselves the way he did himself, and he felt nauseous.

Takashi looked away from Touko-san and breathed in for a long moment, the sweet countryside air mixing with the scent of the fabric softener he had learned to associate with home, and held that breath for a longer moment, looking back into Touko-san’s eyes, finding warmth and sadness and conviction in equal measure there. He released his breath, more measured than he ever had, feeling something undefinable leave his chest with it as he nodded his head slowly and saw her eyes brighten in turn.

“Okay,” he said. It was a simple thing to say, but Takashi felt something shift and settle with the faintest of sighs inside of him.

Nice people make nice friends.

As if reading his mind and feeling his heart, Nyanko-sensei lightly bumped his leg in what felt like a reassurance he would never admit to giving. Takashi couldn’t help the smile that unfurled ever so softly at that. Maybe he would try loving himself as much as he loved everyone else.

Madara closed his eyes and purred.

Chapter Text

It was a thoroughly normal occurrence: Nishimura struggling over homework while kind-hearted Natsume, unable to deny anyone anything, patiently guided him through it, but this time Nishimura suddenly stopped and looked at Natsume for long enough that Kaname felt uncharacteristically ready to pull him away by the scruff of his shirt.

“What?” Natsume asked, looking deeply uncomfortable at the prolonged stare.

“Natsume…are you maybe super smart?” Nishimura blurted out.

Natsume looked at him, startled. Not that the two of them were doing any better, even Kitamoto looking at Nishimura like he had no idea what he was saying. Which, fair, Kaname himself felt that around Nishimura at least half of the time, so who was he to judge, really, even if Kitamoto had known Nishimura his entire life.

“Wha…” Natsume trailed off, looking as lost as Kaname had ever seen him.

“I mean, you moved around a lot when you were a kid right? It’s not like every school you went to could have been going at the same pace or covering the same things at the same time right? Plus, you fall asleep in class a lot and get sick so often and miss school ‘cause of it, and I bet that happened even more often when you were a kid, cause kids, y’know? I was just thinking that it wouldn’t be weird if you had to repeat at least one grade with all that, but instead you get average grades in the year you’re supposed to be in.”

They all blinked at that, more than a little surprised at Nishimura’s surprising display of rational logic (as opposed to his usual brand of logic that was irrational to everyone but him).

“Huh,” Kitamoto said thoughtfully. “I never thought about it that way. But yeah, Nishimura’s right. I wonder how good you’d be if you had gone to just one elementary, middle, and high school and didn’t get sick as often.” He started a little after he said that, realizing how it could come off and sending an apologetic look Natsume’s way, but Natsume didn’t seem to notice it at all, deep in contemplation himself.

“I…don’t think it’d be much different?” Natsume said hesitatingly. “I mean, I usually didn’t have a whole lot to do when I was a kid other than walk around and read, so I was usually pretty on top of my work, though it’s true sometimes it would take a little bit before I was up to where the rest of the class was. But I don’t think I would’ve spent any more time on it even if I didn’t move? Or understand things faster than I understand them, at least. I think average grades in an average high school is pretty much as good as I’d get.”

The two seemed more or less convinced by this, although Kaname could definitely see hints of them holding onto the belief that Natsume was actually quite capable academically. Kaname, however, felt a little conflicted, especially when he heard Natsume say he had nothing to do other than walk and read, because he knew Natsume probably spent half his life running from Yokai and humans alike.

So, more than Natsume staying in one place and not getting sick, Kaname wondered if all the pressure of the Yokai – of running from them and being afraid of them – and all the pressure from humans – the bullying and however the people Natsume stayed with had treated him – if all of that were gone, if Natsume had the chance to grow up in an environment void of fear and pain and hate, what kinds of things would he have been able to do.

Natsume was already incredible, the most incredible person he knew, and he wondered how he would have been able to thrive if he grew up not just surviving but living. Then again, if Natsume had been free of that his entire life, would he even be the same person?

When Kaname first met him, Natsume had been a boy touched by winter, not just in his coloring, but in his expressions and voice and body. Now, he was something like spring, something warm and beautiful for it. Kaname would like to think Natsume would have been like spring his whole life without all the stressors, but he knew all too well that pain molded a person more thoroughly than anything else did. People were made up of their happy and sorrowful memories both, but it was often the latter that left sharp and permanent marks, the kind of corners that could be smoothed over with time, but never erased altogether.

Kaname couldn’t help but wish, of course he couldn’t help but wish, that Natsume hadn’t gone through all the things he had, but then he looked at him, at the way Natsume smiled fondly at Nishimura, and thought maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. That wasn’t to say that all the things that happened to Natsume was anything less than horrific, or that the way people had treated him was even a little okay, but the past wasn’t something he could change. And if Natsume had to go through all of that to get here, to be the person he was, well, maybe the end result wasn’t so bad.

Kaname wanted to believe it, wanted Natsume to believe it, to believe that coming here, coming home to here, was worth all of it, and when he saw him let out a bright laugh, eyes incandescent, he thought maybe Natsume did believe after all.

Chapter Text

After they came home from the burning mansion no longer in the care of two grieving dragons, Madara settled himself down and stared at Natsume. Eventually Natsume got tired of waiting for him to say something and was driven half by exasperation and half by curiosity (because he knew very well that Madara never stayed quiet about his opinions) and asked him what he was thinking.

“You told the sparkly brat about the book.” It wasn’t quite a question, but Natsume seemed to take it as one, slightly tilting his head in contemplation.

“I’ve been thinking about doing it for a while, and at that moment, it felt like the right thing to do. At any rate, there wasn’t really any good way to cover it up anymore.”

“That doesn’t mean you should have trusted him with the whole story.” Madara did not have a petulant whine in his voice, but Natsume gave a noiseless laugh to it anyway.

“I want to trust him,” he said after a long silence.

“That’s not the same thing as trusting him.”

“But I want to,” Natsume responded in an indirect confirmation of ‘I don’t totally trust him yet’, his face looking oddly vulnerable at the not-quite-confession.

“You can’t get everything you want,” Madara replied, eyes hard.

“That doesn’t stop me from wanting it.”

Madara snorted, “Maybe it should. You’d be easier to look after that way.”

Natsume hummed a little in response.

“It’s hard to stop humans from wanting. That’s just the way we’re built.”

“Seems impractical.”

Natsume laughed at that, “Surviving is practical, but nothing about living is.”

Madara didn’t quite get that – humans lived so differently from Ayakashi, thought so differently, that things like this, he couldn’t really grasp emotionally, not even intellectually sometimes. But he thought again about Reiko and Natsume, about their lives and personalities, and the people in their lives and the choices they made because of them.

He saw Natsume living where Reiko was surviving, and the boy certainly wasn’t practical at all. He had about as much self-preservation and selfishness as a clownfish swimming through anemone just to make a shelter for their unborn children. Natsume lived half in fear of humans finding out about Ayakashi and of Ayakashi (or that bastard exorcist) doing something to his humans. Madara wondered if living was really all that great then, compared to surviving.

But then he looked at Natsume again, whose eyes and smile held a peace Reiko’s never did and thought that maybe humans were constantly seeking the impractical because there was something they couldn’t get otherwise, something so great it was worth all the pain, even if they had to spend their entire lives chasing it.

Madara wanted to say he didn’t understand but he was the bodyguard of a clownfish human, chasing after a reward the both of them knew he wasn’t really after anymore. It wasn’t really all that practical either and he himself didn’t know (didn’t admit, even to himself) why he kept at it.

Surviving or living – somehow he felt like he understood after all.

Chapter Text

It was perhaps a strange thing to say, but one of the happiest moments, one of the most relieving moments, in Shigeru’s life was when Takashi-kun brought an animal resembling a cat into their home and asked if he could keep him. Up until then the boy had been an unobtrusive ghost, haunting lonely corners and giving out pale, meaningless smiles to them when they gave him attention. He’d been there for weeks but still looked like he could disappear at any moment, still living out of his boxes and approaching the two of them with the politeness you approached acquaintances who’d helped you but who you were distant to all the same. He’d never asked for anything, never expressed displeasure, would take things only when they insisted he do so, even when it was the second helpings the boy clearly dearly needed with the way his already small clothes hung off his frame. His only flashes of emotion had been surprise at acts so small they couldn’t be considered kindness and brief moments of fear that were quickly hidden behind his perfect mask when either of them, especially Shigeru, approached him quickly or surprised him.

So hearing Takashi-kun actually ask for something, and something as big as a pet at that, nervousness dripping off every inch of him, almost made Shigeru want to laugh in the relief of it all, but he knew that would only confuse or even hurt the boy. Truthfully, Shigeru wanted to grant the boy permission right away. Shigeru had learned more about trauma than he ever thought he would in the weeks Takashi-kun had been staying with them, and Touko had approached him with the idea of getting a therapy cat if only so the boy would feel comfortable around something in the house.

Touko gave a bright smile to Takashi-kun, which seemed to ease some of his worries as much as it seemed to confuse him.

“We’ll have to make sure he isn’t a lost cat and get him checked out at a vet, but if it all turns out okay, of course we can keep him,” Touko said, sounding as happy as Shigeru did at having the boy come to them.

A look of surprise stole across Takashi-kun’s face before his shoulders sagged in sheer relief and he looked at them with an expression that was so grateful, it was staggering. That, more than anything, proved that this was the right decision.

“Thank you,” he said quietly.

Touko’s eyes softened the way it did when Shigeru first realized he loved her all those years ago.

“You’re welcome.”

Nyangoro was truly a godsend for Takashi-kun. He opened up more around them and started making more friends almost immediately after. He spent even more time outside, clearly the place he felt most comfortable, but came back every day looking a little more at peace with himself and with them. There were still good days and bad days of course, but he finally looked like he was truly settling in. He unpacked his boxes and lost his look of surprise at being given so much food at the dinner table and looked safe in a way that made Shigeru realize that up until that moment he hadn’t truly felt safe living there with them. It made something in him hurt as much as it made him happy that the cat was in their lives.

That being said, Nyangoro was truly a strange thing for a cat. He refused to eat any cat food, and where eating that much human food (and being that round) should have been a problem, he seemed to have every bit the agility and health a cat a quarter his weight did. But the strangeness wasn’t just in how he looked or even how he behaved, but something about him that seemed apart from them and a part of the world itself. Shigeru supposed that was why Takashi-kun felt so comfortable around the cat. Takashi-kun was human through and through of course, but he held that slight sense of otherness and mystery the cat shared. Both of them seemed less living creatures than they did embodiments of nature, and Shigeru often thought to himself that Nyangoro, more than anything or anyone else, was the one that understood Takashi-kun most in the world.

The strangest things seemed to happen around Takashi-kun and the cat, even when they were separated. Nyangoro warmed up to Touko almost right away, as she was the primary food-giver, but always studied him with luminous, wary eyes. It wasn’t the wariness cats used when they thought they could be hurt (and of course not, Shigeru was somehow certain Nyangoro could easily beat should he ever feel the need to). No, it was a kind of wariness that made it seem like the cat was trying to see if he was worthy, and, oddly enough, it seemed like it was judging if Shigeru was worthy of Takashi-kun. It somehow made him feel better about the cat, that something was constantly around the boy protecting him.

The day the (what should he call it – a standoff?) between him and the cat stopped was one of the oddest moments since Takashi-kun had joined them, and one of the oddest moments of Shigeru’s life, made all the odder by the fact that exact same thing had happened to him before, when he was a young boy, with a girl whose face he couldn’t remember but whose colors reminded him of Takashi-kun.

In the middle of a room that looked like it, and only it, had been ravaged by a tornado, Takashi-kun had looked at him, terrified, but oddly not apologetic. Oh, he looked sorry that the room had been destroyed, but not that he had done it, like it was some kind of necessity. Somehow, Shigeru didn’t have any trouble believing that, didn’t have any trouble placating the boy that it was okay, because he somehow believed that Takashi-kun could tear up the entire house and it would be for a perfectly good reason, even if he never told them what it was. It was a startling realization for Shigeru, that the boy hadn’t been with them for very long, hadn’t talked to him much out of the wariness that was the way cats studied those they thought could harm them, but Shigeru loved and believed in him all the same. He knew he didn’t understand the boy, would perhaps never understand him, even if he ever parted with all his many secrets, but, without realizing, Takashi-kun had become his son along the way.

When he left the room to give the boy, his son, some much-needed space, he found himself locking eyes with Nyangoro, his eyes having lost the wariness and shining with a kind of intelligence that had Shigeru suddenly realizing why Touko swore up and down that the cat understood them.

The next day, when Shigeru came home from work, the cat had greeted him at the door, gently bumping his head against Shigeru’s leg with a short purr before strutting away in a manner that made him seem like the master of the house. Shigeru couldn’t help it and started laughing, startling Touko out of the kitchen to peer at him as hearing him laugh so loud was odd. He looked up at her reassuringly and fondly and found her smiling at him in turn, laughing eyes sparkling, not understanding why he was laughing but happy all the same.

Perhaps the cat and the boy weren’t the odd ones, Shigeru thought to himself. Perhaps an old man who learned more about himself and the world from a cat and a boy than from anything or anyone else was truly the odd one. Perhaps the cat and the boy seemed so a part of the world because they truly were, because they understood something he as an ordinary human would never be able to.

Shigeru didn’t know and found he didn’t care. Whatever it may be, this place was his, this family was his, and he wouldn’t trade it for a thing.

Chapter Text

They had been trying to have kids for so long. Too long, because they had been married for years and where all their other friends had had at least one child, they were still desperately hoping to see the slightest bump in her abdomen. Touko knew in the back of her mind that something was wrong, something had to be wrong, but she didn’t want to voice it until it was no longer possible to pretend, and she and Shigeru found themselves at a fertility clinic, hoping for a miracle. After a series of tests, they’d been given a date to come back for the results and found themselves there again at a blindingly sunny time and day, horror and hope swirling in their hearts. But when she saw the doctor, her heart plummeted, because she knew. She had perhaps always known, long before the two of them had admitted they needed to come here.

Touko didn’t quite understand what the doctor was saying, technical jargon floating over her head that she might have been able to understand another time with enough attention and effort, but her heart and head had turned too numb for that. What she did understand was that there was nothing wrong with Shigeru, but there was something wrong with her, and it wasn’t something they could fix. The doctor ended it with a slightly sympathetic look, one that almost looked manufactured from how much he probably had to use it and left them with, “I’m sorry, but you can’t have kids.”

Touko walked out with Shigeru, not sure how they made it out of that pristine white office, how she found herself in the car, her head filled with static and white noise and numbness so intense it had turned on itself and become painful.

“I’m sorry but you can’t have kids.” It followed her in the ride back to their well-loved house.

“I’m sorry but you can’t have kids.” It followed her onto the porch, where she sat blankly, not truly seeing the flowers in front of her.

“I’m sorry but you can’t have kids.” It followed her as Shigeru sat quietly next to her, so, so still, even for him.

“You can’t have kids.”

Touko wrapped shaky arms around her stomach, trembling and choking on something that could have been a sob or inappropriate laughter. Shigeru was looking at her with so much concern and so much love even though it was clear he was just as devastated as she was and that…that did it for her.

“I wanted…” her voice broke and she needed several deep breaths before she kept going because even though it hurt, she had to keep going, and once she started again, the words wouldn’t stop tumbling out.

“I wanted a child that had your eyes and my smile. Who had the wildness we both had as children. Who we could laugh with when they did well on tests and scold when they stayed out late with their friends,” Touko gave a short laugh, tinged with hysteria the way she knew it would. “I wanted…I wanted to learn their favorite colors and foods and see how those things would change at their whims. I wanted to see them grow and change and fall in love and…” Touko was shaking now, her whole body was shaking, and her hands clung ever tighter around her stomach, like she could punish it somehow. She wasn’t even sure when he had started, but she could feel Shigeru grasping her shoulder tightly, fingers white with a slight tremble of their own.

“I wanted a child,” her voice completely fell apart at that, finally giving into the sobs that had been curling like a vice around her lungs and Shigeru tugged her fiercely into his hold, tears falling into her hair and crawling down her face alongside her own tears. She cried even harder at that.

“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, oh Shigeru, I’m so sorry,” she wailed like she hadn’t done since she was a child and she felt Shigeru stiffen at her words, causing her to wonder for a moment if this was it, if this would tear them apart because of course someone as loving as Shigeru wanted a child. Of course someone like him would be a wonderful father, and here she was, failing him. Shigeru didn’t let her think it for long though.

“It’s not your fault,” he said haltingly, and then barreled on like he could hear the protest she hadn’t yet voiced. “I love you. I’m bad with words and maybe I don’t say it often enough or explain why I love you well enough, but I love you. Nothing in the world will ever change that. Even if we can’t have a child, I love you,” Shigeru’s voice hitched and Touko’s breath did as well at how he said “we”. It was her fault, it was her body that was broken, but he didn’t say “if you can’t have a child”, he said “we” like they were in this together just like they were for everything else.

Touko cried so hard she couldn’t breathe, love and relief and guilt and so much heartbreak, unable to say anything, and Shigeru seemed just the same, the both of them not saying a word, just letting endless cries fill the air as they rocked in each other’s arms. But it wasn’t silent and still outside of their grief the way she wanted it to be. The birds still sung, the cicadas still trilled, the bees still hummed. She couldn’t help but irrationally hate all of it – that the world wouldn’t stop, that it would keep steadily turning, that the moon and the sun and the stars would keep a silent watch over everything that happened below them, just as they always had and just as they always would.

After what felt like hours, and what looked like hours judging from the position of the sun and the increasingly violet sky, their cries settled into sniffles which went away entirely with the help of handkerchiefs, and Shigeru’s grip had migrated to her hand, still just as tight, still just as comforting and steady. Shigeru was her anchor, her strength, her port when she was drifting at sea, and she loved him so much that she knew she was just like him, that she would never be able to really put it into words.

“I don’t believe in fate, and I’m not…I don’t feel glad this happened, but it will be okay,” Shigeru said slowly, carefully, like he was picking up each word and examining it before putting it out into the world. “Maybe not now, maybe not next month, maybe not next year, but it will. Something will come of this. Something that will make all of this worth it will come.”

Touko squeezed Shigeru’s hand tighter even as a traitorous part of her heart whispered ‘no it won’t, nothing will make this better, time doesn’t heal all wounds, it just makes you better at living with them, this will hurt, it will hurt forever, and even Shigeru won’t be enough’.

Time, however, proved Shigeru to be half-right. It wasn’t okay, but it wasn’t as bad anymore. She found herself falling even deeper in love with Shigeru after that day, and told herself that this was the thing that was worth it, but sometimes, in the dead of night, she would think guiltily to herself that being even more in love in Shigeru wasn’t necessarily worth it. That she would always love him and would have fallen more deeply over time regardless. But she would quickly push that thought out of her mind, and as time went on, it became easier to do so. She found herself more and more at peace with the way the world continued on, with the world the two of them had created. Oh, it still hurt the way she thought it would, but, while not okay as Shigeru said, was increasingly close to okay.

She had picked up a habit over the years of nursing injured animals back to health, letting them go when they were fully healed, Shigeru helping her do it, carefully bandaging broken appendages and not-so-secretly reading books on what wild animals could eat. They found some peace in that, and, while they didn’t fully heal like their temporary feathered and furred inhabitants, they did manage to heal a little, scabs over open wounds, and scars over scabs. Touko found herself happy with her life, even if the want for a child still hummed in the back of her head from time to time.

And then, suddenly, one day, Shigeru turned odd, making hushed phone calls and roaming through the house and carrying out quite the spring cleaning despite it being winter, but she knew him, and so she waited patiently for him to come to her. And he did, with a proposition that catapulted her deep desire to have a child right into the forefront of her mind, welling up so fiercely it startled even her. So she immediately went to go meet the child, because she couldn’t tamp down the hope, but didn’t want to burden herself with too many expectations.

But when she met him, scrawny, afraid, and impossibly good at lying, she knew. She knew with absolute certainty, the way she did that day in the clinic, that this child was hers. He hadn’t come from her womb, and didn’t have Shigeru’s eyes, and they were meeting him so late he would only be with them for a few years before graduating and moving on, but this child was hers and Shigeru’s. And sure enough, he came home with them some weeks later on a bright and sunny day.

It was difficult, living with Natsume Takashi, made both tough and brittle by the world, filled with suspicion and terror and little peeks of hope that would be smothered as soon as they came. He was unlike any of the injured animals they had brought into their home, the wounds so deep and unseen that she and Shigeru constantly struggled to find the best ways to heal him (because there weren’t any books for this, or at least not any good ones), to convince Takashi that they loved him – that they were here to stay and he was here to stay. Touko could sometimes see flashes of pain in his eyes when he couldn’t quite keep his walls up, and she hadn’t been through the things he had, but she recognized the bone-deep pain that she had once thought would never go away, but was receding like the tide after a storm the longer Takashi stayed with them, the more she loved him.

After that terrible day in the clinic, Touko had thought that she would never cry like that again, would never cry as often as she had in the months that followed, but Takashi proved her wrong. Her heart broke constantly around him and she would cry out of his sight, Shigeru joining her, still gripping her hand as tightly as he always had. But, no matter how many times that happened, she couldn’t bring herself to regret it for even half a second. She had loved Takashi from the very first time her eyes met his and had never stopped since.

And, as time went on, Touko got to see Takashi blossom more and more and truly become their child. Watched as his smile looked more and more like a mix of both hers and Shigeru’s. Watched him develop a mischievous glint in his eyes as he got into trouble with his friends. Watched as he brought home tests he was proud of and shuffled when he stayed out much longer than he said he would. Watched him eat more and more until he developed preferences, leading her to scour every recipe book she could get her hands on so that she could make them so well that Takashi would say that her food was his favorite no matter how old he got. Watched him hit a growth spurt and shyly accept new clothes. Watched him become even more kind and happy and wonderful.

Touko thought about all this one warm sunny day, the way it had been when they first heard the devastating news, and the way it had been when they first brought their son home. Takashi was by her side, drying the dishes she washed, looking so comfortable she could scarcely believe he was the frightened little boy he was when he first came.

“All that’s left is for you to fall in love,” she commented a little absentmindedly. Takashi nearly dropped the plate in his hands in surprise and confusion before stammering and flushing a pale pink that crawled all the way down to his collarbones. Touko laughed and cupped his cheek in her hand, and where he once flinched at the contact had him leaning into her palm instead, eyes fluttering shut – long, pale eyelashes kissing his cheeks, an expression on his face amusingly similar to the one his cat got when he found a particularly satisfying patch of sun.

Touko looked outside to the world that had kept singing and watching; that had kept turning until it brought Takashi to them, and she laughed again.

“Something that will make all of this worth it will come.”

She should have never doubted Shigeru after all.

Chapter Text

Kaname had somehow managed to cajole Natsume into actually talking about Yokai. Maybe it was an unfair thing to do, using the guilt Natsume surely felt in the aftermath of the crazy mansion, but Kaname had to know more, and, oddly enough, he felt most curious about something that wasn’t even the Yokai themselves.

“So…that exorcist is the actor Natori.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Huh.”

There was a short silence at that, somehow feeling a little amused on Natsume’s end.

“Something about him felt kind of familiar, but he also felt kind of shifty,” Kaname admitted finally.

Ponta snorted, “That’s because he is.”

“Sensei,” Natsume said reprovingly, before turning back to Kaname.

“He’s a good person.”

Kaname just hummed a little before finally saying, “It’s just…it’s interesting that you two are friends, he seems like…well he seems like he hates Yokai. And humans, for that matter.”

Natsume looked a little conflicted and pained at that. “Loving or hating Ayakashi, loving or hating humans…it’s not that simple. It’s hard sometimes for people, especially people who can See, to remember that knowing bad humans isn’t the same thing as all humans being bad and knowing evil Ayakashi doesn’t make all Ayakashi evil.”

Kaname could understand that at least, not to the degree that Natsume did, judging by the dark, resigned tone in his voice, but he could remember feeling so tired and sick of sneering kids who uncovered the parts of him he hated and of being laid up in bed from phantom headaches given to him by shadows that he would forget to look at all the good things, the good people, around him.

Natsume continued on after giving Kaname time to digest that. “And he really can do some pretty selfless things, even for Ayakashi.”

Kaname raised an eyebrow at that and Natsume took it as the disbelief it was and explained further.

“Natori does things like that a lot. He says he doesn’t like Ayakashi, but he’ll still take things into consideration and not exorcise them, even do things for them, if he thinks the situation calls for it. Even though he doesn’t think he’s a kind person, he does kind things.”

“Ah, I guess that’s the part of him that feels familiar.”

“Hm?”

“Ah…no, never mind.”

They sat in companionable silence for a while before Kaname broke it with the question that had been burning on his tongue from the first moment he met Natori.

“Is he actually trustworthy?”

“I’d trust him with my life,” Natsume said immediately, with the surety of someone who had firsthand experience and none of the reluctance that accompanied a confession of something no one else would understand. Like that sort of thing was a common experience.

(And it was for Natsume, wasn’t it?)

But Natsume was always like that, saying miserable things and simply taking them as fact, not even realizing what it sounded like. Kaname didn’t know if he wanted Natsume to someday realize all the ways he had been treated badly so that he could learn how to be treated well or if he wanted Natsume to live like this forever, not having to suffer even more in the aftermath of all the injustices he had felt in his life.

Ponta snorted, breaking Kaname’s train of thought, “Not that that means much. This brat’ll put his life in the hands of anyone.”

Natsume opened his mouth then closed it again, taking a long moment to think on that.

“Well then, I’d trust him with the Fujiwaras’ lives, with Kitamoto’s and Nishimura’s and Taki’s and yours,” he said quietly. Ponta didn’t say anything to that even as his ears flattened and eyes narrowed in disapproval at that sentiment, as sure as Natsume that that was the highest praise he could give. Kaname’s chest ached with the ready admittance of how many people’s lives Natsume valued over his own (but could Kaname truly say he wasn’t the same, rushing into anything and everything for Natsume’s sake, even when the other boy didn’t want him to, even when it endangered his own life?).

Ponta sniffed, “You’re just a bad judge of character. If you were a good one, I wouldn’t have to work as hard as I do.”

Natsume smiled at that, soft and warm.

“That’s true. But I’d rather trust easily than not at all.”

And there it was again, that quiet surety born from hard-fought victories and pain.

Something inside Kaname clenched and he wondered if he’d ever be able to prove to Natsume that there was a middle ground between trusting too much and not at all. He wondered if he’d ever be able to prove to Natsume he was worth more than the air he apologized for breathing.

Kaname didn’t know if he could do anything but take the hand Natsume so carefully extended and never let him shake it off. Kaname didn’t know if it was enough, but hoped it helped convey to him that someone, that he, trusted and valued Natsume as much as Natsume did others.

“I trust you,” he blurted out, caught up in his own train of thought. Natsume turned and gave him a bemused look as Kaname felt a flush crawl on his skin.

“Where did that come from?”

“I just…” Kaname flailed his hand a little before realizing how stupid he looked by how Ponta looked at him, his surprisingly expressive eyebrows (especially considering he was a cat born from porcelain) showing him that he was judging him thoroughly. “I don’t know about this Natori guy, and even if I did, I’d still trust you over anyone.”

Natsume went quiet for a long, long moment.

“I lie to you,” he said softly, like he was afraid of admitting it even though they both knew it.

“You do,” Kaname said, because there wasn’t really anything else he could say to that. “I wish that you wouldn’t and that you’d someday learn to tell me anything that bothers you, but I know you only lie when you feel like you have to so you can protect me. I can’t always trust you to tell me the truth about something terrible or frightening or worrying happening in your life, but that’s different from being able to trust you.” Kaname felt like he wasn’t explaining himself well but didn’t know how else to word it, so he just watched Natsume contemplate his words in silence.

“I trust you too,” Natsume said. Kaname blinked and, well, he knew that, but Natsume’s insistence on not telling him the truth on several matters made him feel a little uncertain sometimes, so hearing Natsume say that, so quiet and sure, took his breath away and caused him to automatically give a (probably odd, giddy-looking) smile in Natsume’s direction.

But if he looked weird, Natsume didn’t say a thing, just smiled gently at back at him, eyes opening up like spring flowers after a long winter.

Chapter Text

Madara had lived a great many years, had seen the Earth before the humans claimed it, had seen water create land, had seen mountains form.

Madara had lived a great many years, and the most humiliating moment of it had to have been when he was sealed. Some two-bit exorcist that thought Madara was some kind of mindless monster fit for extermination (the nerve) gathered together several exorcists who weren’t quite as lacking but shared his conviction nonetheless, and he found himself caught off-guard and overwhelmed by numbers and locked away in darkness until something with a familiar scent broke the seal.

The first thing he noticed was that the something that broke the seal was familiar because it was an amusement he liked to follow around from time to time: Natsume Reiko.

The second thing he noticed was that he had been sealed in the form of a lucky cat. He, the great and powerful Madara, had been turned into a round porcelain object that humans used as trinkets for tourists. Madara hoped that those who sealed him were still alive so he could devour them all himself.

The third thing he noticed was that the something that smelt familiar smelt that way not because it was Natsume Reiko but because it was related to Natsume Reiko.

The first thing he learned was that her only remaining kin had the Book of Friends and was every bit as powerful as her.

The second thing he learned was that brat wasn’t as willing to use that power as his grandmother, only using it when he was likely to die if he didn’t, and not very effectively at that, instead of flaunting it the way Reiko did.

The third thing he learned was that this form was actually quite comfortable. Sake and food were all much more enjoyable at this size and when he was done with that, he could plop down in the sun and roll around until he felt like doing something else.

(He wasn’t a cat, Natsume, thank you very much)

The brat was an amusement just like his grandmother but needed much more looking after and was much more frustrating for it. Madara’s life was certainly never boring around the idiot, and there was good food to be had from the boy’s guardians, so he decided to stay a while before making another go at the book.

He didn’t stay because he was fond of the kid. Madara was a great and powerful Ayakashi, half a step away from godhood, should he choose it, and he didn’t get attached to irritating little things like humans.

(Because one day soon, Natsume would die, and getting attached would mean nothing good.)

Not only was the boy irritating, but his humans were as well, perhaps even more so for all their stupidity. The nearly powerless son of a monk who was both more and less powerful than his father. An even more powerless girl from a dead line of Onmyoji who believed anyway. A man who hid every intention, be them good or bad, behind a smile, an untrustworthy exorcist that the idiot trusted with his life. And an exorcist so untrustworthy, even the boy had enough sense to fear and dislike him, though it never stopped him from getting tangled up with him.

Simply put, the brat was a nightmare. Even his human friends that weren’t involved with Ayakashi had the brat on his toes, him constantly making sure they wouldn’t be exposed to or hurt by the Ayakashi in his life, no matter if he had positive or negative relationships with those humans.

(Natsume’s dreams made Madara wonder why the boy hadn’t ever just let the Ayakashi eat the humans around him, but Madara had long since accepted that humans were generally foolish and that Natsume could take the crown for it.)

With all the times Madara had snatched him from the call of the beyond, he wondered how the brat had the nerve to complain to him about his disappearing to drink sake. The boy obviously didn’t understand the merits of a good drink to wash away stress.

(Dull thuds and bloodied lips in Natsume’s nightmares said he understood something about it, but Madara wouldn’t think about that, wouldn’t bear his teeth at a human.)

But for all he complained, it wasn’t all that bad, and the boy must certainly think the same. After all, he would save him his fried shrimp and rub his head in soft stretches of afternoons with a smile that melted in his mint eyes.

(He wasn’t a cat, Natsume.)

The brat pulled him into more excitement than he’d had in a long time. Madara watched as the boy changed and changed the world around him, changed Ayakashi around him, and would never admit to feeling any pride at seeing him do that from the position closest to his side.

(Because, one day soon, Natsume would die as Reiko did before him, as all humans did before him, and all Madara would have left would be the water and the mountains and the memories of silver and green.)

Madara stayed for the food, for the excitement, not because he thought the memories made it all worth it, because Madara was a great and powerful Ayakashi and the brat was, no matter how powerful, just a human.

Natsume was just another human.

Chapter Text

The thing about being friends with Natsume, Atsushi had discovered, was that you had to be prepared for totally nonsensical things to happen at a moment’s notice. It wasn’t Natsume’s fault really, because most of it (all of it really) was just nature being…odd, but it always happened around him, so Atsushi was always more or less prepared for any outing with Natsume to turn into the kind of adventure he would look back fondly on as an old man. That being said, even he was caught totally by surprise when they were walking by the river and, out of nowhere, water suddenly surged up like some giant decided to jump off the bridge into a cannonball and then proceeded to soak him, Satoru, and Natsume. It was silent for all of five seconds as they processed what happened before Natsume turned to them, his mouth already open on an apology (because he always apologized when nature greeted her favorite child). He didn’t get the chance as Satoru doubled over in laughter, pointing at the two of them, sputtering something about how the two of them looked like drowned cats, as if he looked any better.

“Right then,” Atsushi said, chuckling himself as he shook his head and sent water droplets soaring through the air, faint impressions of rainbows glittering around him. “Let’s get to my place since it’s closest and change, yeah?”

“And then let’s watch movies and steal all your good snacks!”

“Satoru!”

Satoru just grinned brightly, hooking an arm around Natsume, who had an amused glint in his own eyes, and pulled him along. Well, it didn’t really matter in the end anyway, even if Satoru hadn’t said anything, they definitely would be going through the snack stock.

Atsushi was pretty glad when they got to his apartment and found no one else in his family home, because Mana would take a thousand pictures and show them at his wedding or something, and set out to grab some towels and dry clothes while the other two created small puddles outside. A quick rub and the two of them stepped into his house, a soft “Ojama shimasu” from Natsume (of course) and an excited yelp from Satoru (of course), and some clothes Atsushi offered. Ever shy Natsume headed to Atsushi’s room to change while Satoru stripped right there, changing in the time it took Natsume just to get to Atsushi’s room and close the door. Atsushi, the normal person that he was, took half a minute longer, ignoring Satoru’s increasingly fast-paced bouncing.

“Oh my god, he’s taking so long,” Satoru whined, bounding over to Atsushi’s room before Atsushi could even take the time to tell him to be patient (not that that would really do anything, but it was the thought). Satoru yanked open the door and then stood stock-still, the part of his face that Atsushi could see paling instantly. Curiosity getting the better of him, Atsushi walked up and peered around Satoru’s shoulder, seeing Natsume with his head hardly through the shirt, back bared to them. Atsushi’s heart leapt up to his throat and stopped beating.

“What happened to you?” Satoru whispered, sounding horrified.

Natsume whirled around and then flushed, hurriedly yanking the shirt all the way on.

Atsushi just stayed quiet, his breath having frozen at the sight. He knew that Natsume got hurt often, but he hadn’t expected to see scars. If there were one or two, he could pass it off as one of his odd, clumsy episodes that resulted in more damage than normal. But this wasn’t one or two, it was dozens, some smaller and faded, but far too many all the same.

He knew that Natsume had been passed around like an unwanted stray, had probably lived with people that made no secret of how little they wanted him, had been bullied by other kids growing up, but it was one thing to suspect (to know) that in the back of his mind and another thing entirely to see so many scars, too many to even try and start guessing what they were born from, not that Atsushi had the slightest intention of doing such a thing.

Atsushi felt nauseated and beside him, Satoru looked like he was actually going to be sick.

“Natsume,” Satoru said again, voice warbling dangerously. “What happened to you?”

Natsume just looked down at his feet, the flush still on his face, looking like something born from shame and Atsushi felt a rush of anger because Natsume wasn’t the person who should feel ashamed. Whoever had done that to him was the one (and god, he hoped it was only one) who needed to feel ashamed, but he was smart enough to know that they probably didn’t. That they hurt a child, one who had lost his family and never had a chance to put down roots anywhere, and felt themselves to be in the right.

It stayed quiet for what felt like an interminable amount of time, though in reality was probably not even half a minute.

“You don’t have to answer that,” Atsushi said in a bid to break the silence, surprised at how steady his voice came out. Satoru had the beginning hints of genuine rage on his face and Atsushi was feeling the same, wanting very much to track done the person (the people) who had treated Natsume so terribly and hurt them in turn. That was a dangerous thought though, so he squashed it and tucked it away.

“I…” Natsume trailed off, uncertain, still looking down. “I’m sorry.”

Satoru took three strides across the room and Natsume jerked his head up, getting only a moment to look surprised and a little afraid before Satoru enveloped him in a tight hug.

“Don’t you dare apologize for the sick people who did that to you.”

Atsushi saw Natsume’s eyes widen in shock at that, and he swallowed around the lump in his throat, fighting the urge to cry. Natsume’s arms slowly came up and then he was hugging Satoru back, his face turning into something painful and sad, but also full of awe and warmth.

“Thank you,” he whispered into Satoru’s hair.

Satoru let out a miserable sounding laugh. “Don’t thank me either. It’s like saying I’m doing something super nice just because I’m treating you the way a human should be treated.”

Natsume’s eyes widened impossibly more at that.

“He’s right,” Atsushi said softly, stepping forward until he was next to them. “Don’t make excuses for people who treated you any less than that.”

Natsume slowly pulled out of the hug and took a step back, his body not nearly as tense as it was before.

“I know it looks bad, but it wasn’t really. It was never all that bad,” he said, like it wasn’t the saddest thing Atsushi had ever heard. At that, Satoru looked furious all over again and Natsume took one alarmed step back, so Atsushi put a hand on Satoru’s shoulder and gave him a hard squeeze. Satoru deflated at that, closing his eyes before he spoke up again.

“That’s not normal, Natsume, this is normal. Let this become what you think of as normal.”

Atsushi had never seen someone’s eyes go so wide or seen someone look so astounded at the idea that people cared about them. Fury and sorrow roiled inside of him in equal measure but all he did was let out a breath and give, what he hoped, was a gentle smile.

“We love you,” he said calmly, and in any other context, hell, with any other person, he would have felt too embarrassed to say something like that, but the way Natsume’s eyes kept getting large and lamp-like and full of wonder convinced him that embarrassment was a small price to pay if he could get this small boy in front of him to love himself as much as they loved him.

“We all love you,” he continued. “Touko-san and Shigeru-san and me and Satoru and Tanuma and Taki and Sasada – our whole class, this whole town. You don’t ever need to feel afraid here and if anyone ever treats you in a way that could make you feel like that even slightly, you just need to let us know so I can sic Satoru on them. And Taki. And your cat. And a lot of people really.”

That got a hint of a smile out of Natsume, shy yet bright and warm the way it was after a storm, when thunderclouds were still in the sky, but the sun was doing its best to peek out from behind them. Satoru seemed to take encouragement from that and reached up to sling an arm around Natsume, the way he always did, like nothing had changed. That quality of Satoru’s – to reach out unhesitatingly and unthinkingly, the way he did earlier when he pulled Natsume into a hug even when the latter looked a little alarmed, probably stuck in his memories – elicited both exasperation and admiration from Atsushi. But it seemed to be the right thing for Natsume right now. Maybe it wouldn’t have been months ago, but Satoru’s easy acceptance of everything Natsume was, every memory he had brought with him, his fierce love and protectiveness was exactly what Natsume needed at this moment. Atsushi watched as a flush stole over Natsume’s face and couldn’t resist reaching out and tousling his silver hair the way he did to Mana’s sometimes, brotherly instinct kicking in.

“Come on,” he said affectionately. “Let’s go watch that movie.”

Satoru and Natsume stumbled after him, due to the former’s arm still keeping Natsume close, causing Natsume to laugh free and easy in a way Atsushi hadn’t heard before, and it caused his heart to finally settle, warmth blooming in his chest. Okay, he thought to himself, we just have to tell Natsume we love him until he doesn’t excuse other people for treating him like shit. It sounded almost impossible given Natsume’s normal behavior, but he could see how much Natsume had progressed from the shell of the boy he had been when they first met and smiled to himself. It would take time, but it wasn’t impossible. And Natsume was worth all the time in the world.