Disclaimer: All recognizable characters belong to Tachibana Higuchi. The rest is mine. :)
Maelstrom: A restless, tumultuous state of affairs.

-

Dedicated to:

Sarah Patrick
(The Hopeless Wanderlust)

Happy Birthday!
Hope you like this.

-;-

They feel like empty words. Or perhaps he is just an empty person.

-;-

-;-

When he is old enough to wonder about the flash, Natsume is six years, nine months, and twenty three days old.

His father works in an office at home and his mother… well, Natsume isn't quite certain what she does. All he remembers from the earlier years of his life is his mother's bright red eyes, tumbling black hair and a mischievous, beautiful smile on her lively, pale face.

He remembers days at the beach and a curious little sister; he remembers ridiculous fables as bedtime stories and chaste kisses on foreheads; he remembers lazy television screens and tree houses; he remembers rough calluses and Pokemon band-aids; he remembers pink sunsets and mud pies and lots of photos and—

—Natsume remembers smiling.

-;-

When he is seven years, five months and nine days old, Natsume wakes up to hear sirens at the dead of night. His eyes are wide and he looks immediately to the Naruto night light by the door before his heartbeats slow and he sits calmly against his pillows.

The sirens continue to wail and from the other side of the wall, he hears Aoi get up from bed. He doesn't wait long before she knocks tentatively on his door and peeks in after he allows her to.

"Natsume," she whispers quietly, wide red eyes afraid and looking for comfort, "—what's going on?"

He doesn't know how to answer her without dimming the admiration that glows in her eyes. Instead, he lifts up the cover of his bed and turns to look out of his window where lights—reds and yellows and flashes of blue—are flickering against the pale white of his room walls.

The moon shines hazily.

He feels the bed sink as she sits (too) close to his side and searches for his hand.

He lets her take it.

"Natsume," she calls softly, squeezing his hand anxiously, "—I heard dad going downstairs. Are we allowed going down too?"

"It's past our bedtime," he replies after a moment. "Mom doesn't like us up after bedtime. You know that. If they wanted us downstairs, they'd come and get us."

"But—"

Natsume cuts her off, before she can argue, with a shake of his head.

For some reason, he doesn't feel right. The last time this happened, his mother had come barreling into his room with Aoi in one arm, cursing (even though she wasn't supposed to!) about how she'd beat whoever was causing such a racket when her babies were sleeping.

He doesn't say a word to his sister though, as she curls into his side with both arms clutching his left. She falls asleep after a handful of moments but Natsume is incapable. His eyes are transfixed on the flashing lights against his window and he can hear people talking from downstairs.

There is something wrong.

Natsume knows something is amiss before his father peeks quietly in the room to see if they're awake. He half waves before his father steps silently into the room and goes to Natsume's other side.

He finds he is slightly alarmed to see faint tears on his father's face and to feel the tremble in his hands as they take Natsume's free one and holds on tightly. His voice is soft and strained. "Natsume…" He stops but doesn't continue.

Natsume looks down at his sister's face. "It's mom, isn't it?"

There is a hint of hesitation before his father's head bobs. "I'm sorry, Natsume. I'm so, so sorry."

His father doesn't say another word and Natsume doesn't ask.

Instead, he lifts up the cover to his right side and after a moment of shifting and adjusting, Natsume lays in between his father and his sister, the former who has an arm around both kids and the latter who clutches onto him like she never wants them to be apart.

Aoi sleeps soundly for all of six hours—Natsume doesn't even remember sleeping—before morning comes and everything has changed.

Where the night before, they hold each other and feel each other's aches, morning has made them strangers.

Natsume wears black three days later and after that night, he forgets what it feels like to smile.

-;-

At nine years, Natsume is given his first camera.

He has had the second hand camera that used to be his mother's since she had stated it in her will, however after his father sees just how much he likes taking pictures, he drives Natsume to buy a camera of his choice.

Natsume doesn't know much about cameras but the first thing he does when he enters the shop is walk up to one of the salespeople and ask, "Which camera takes the best black and white photos?"

His father asks him, "Why black and white, Natsume?"

Natsume merely looks at him with bottomless red eyes and his father nods, as if he understands. He doesn't, Natsume thinks. He doesn't understand a thing.

When he gets his hands on the camera, the first picture he takes is one of flashing trees and houses as his father drives him back home.

-;-

When Natsume is fifteen years, five months and three days old, he comes home from school, dragging his book bag by one strap. The house is quiet, but then again, the silence isn't much of a surprise these days. Aoi is frequently out with the suspicious girls she calls her friends and his father has started taking work to the office.

Natsume has never been one to make friends. His classmates seem to be… Natsume doesn't know how to place them, but one thing is for certain: they are too different, so much livelier than he is and just being in the same classroom as his peers is something of a chore.

And the girls… he will never understand the girls in his class.

Natsume places his shoes and book bag by the door before he walks past the kitchen and spies his father at the dining room table with a stack of envelopes spread out in front of him. When he sees Natsume at the doorframe, he stands and beckons his son over.

"Three schools, Natsume," his father says proudly, handing him three rather thick envelopes. "These are letters from the three biggest art schools in Japan."

Natsume takes them in his hand, but doesn't bother to look at them. Instead, he keeps his eyes calmly on his father's. "How?"

The older man merely shrugs his shoulders and looks around at the dozens of black and white photos framed around the house. "I sent some copies of your photos around Japan," he says rather proudly. "You're smart, Natsume. All of your teachers say you're a precocious student and that you'll be a great doctor or a great scientist someday." He pauses shortly and taps the top envelope in his hands. "—but I know you. You like photography. You like art."

Natsume blinks. "You can't make a living off photos, Father," he says, matter-of-fact. "You know this as well as I do."

"Natsume, are you planning on doing something you don't enjoy just because you'd make a lot of money, or will you grow up and do something you love without earning as much as you'd like?" His father asks, slightly irritable.

Natsume opens his mouth to tell his father just how foolish he sounds but the front door slams shut and Aoi plunks down at the kitchen table, nodding at the envelopes. She smells of cigarettes and musky perfume. "What're those, Natsume?" She asks, grabbing an apple from the centerpiece and taking a hearty bite.

Natsume merely narrows his eyes. "Why do you smell like you've just come back from some sleazy bar?"

Aoi doesn't respond, nor does Natsume except her to. Instead, she plucks the top letter from his pile and looks at the sender. "Alice Fine Arts Academy," she reads aloud, raising a mocking eyebrow at him from over the top. "Fine Arts, Natsume? Seriously?"

She looks a lot like his mother, Natsume remembers vaguely. She has the same, piercing red eyes and the messy tumble of thick black hair but what is different is the dark eyeliner around her eyes and the stark red rouge of her lips. Natsume hates to think it, but his sister looks like a common whore.

But she still has that wounded look in her eyes like before, the one of desperation and longing. She doesn't want him to leave. Of that, Natsume is certain.

His father scolds her, but Natsume just shakes his head. "It isn't certain," he responds to her unasked question. "I have yet to open the letter, as you can see."

Aoi rolls her eyes and locks her jaw. "Oh, c'mon, Natsume. You've won how many community awards? Of course you're going to get in. You could take better photos with a disposable camera and still beat out the snot-nosed kids attending this prep-school," Aoi throws the letter down at the table. A disgruntled snort follows.

Natsume merely picks up the letter and takes the three of them to his room.

All three letters start the same way:

Our school has taken a real interest in your work and would like you to consider attending…

Natsume doesn't bother to read the rest.

Instead, he takes his oldest, first camera and slides open his window. He lives in a neighborhood where many of his peers live. It's small and it's cozy and it gives a great view of the setting sun. He watches silently, pondering, until the sky is pink, yellow, orange and blue.

He lifts up the camera, focuses the lens, waits four breaths and swallows before capturing the sky.

-;-

When Natsume steps foot into his dorm room for the first time, he is sixteen years, four months and sixteen days old.

The atmosphere is different, fresh and full of possibilities. He is still wary about this path, but as he grows older, he finds his attachment to pictures growing with him. A final push from his father makes him accept the offer from the most prestigious art school in Tokyo.

Classes for him start quite early and even though those in his class are interested in much the same material he is, Natsume finds he is still isolated. For some reason, no one quite gets it. His professors croon all over him, praising his shots, but they feel like nothing to him.

They feel like empty words.

Or perhaps he is just an empty person.

Natsume ponders this as he walks around the school campus. It is big and flashy, much like the impression he'd gotten from his father's constant informative remarks and persuasive pushes, but it's nothing special. He wonders if it was a mistake to come here.

There are tons of students milling around the school grounds but Natsume passes unnoticeably. Whereas he has been revered and looked upon with admiration at his last public school, here he is nothing. He passes unseen and unheard of.

There is something very appealing to this place.

This thought quickly disintegrates when he passes a group of girls who are chattering idly at one moment and are giggling and gossiping and blushing in the next, once they see him.

No matter where the girls are, whether at public or private art schools, they will always be barmy, Natsume supposes.

For an unfathomable reason, Natsume finds comfort in this; the lack of change.

-;-

It has been four months and his professors are waiting to see him work; but Natsume, for the life of him, can't find something to capture. He's done sunsets and mountains, trees and raindrops against windows. He's done a bird's eye view shot of Tokyo Square and a sea of birds scattering; he's done pollution and rock formation.

He's done much of everything that's interested him.

And he refuses to reuse photos he has already taken and can't seem to find the inspiration to catch any other scene.

Natsume fears he has run out of juice.

He sees her for the first time with her brown hair in a messy bun and her clothes smeared, not splattered, with paint. She stands, barely noticeable from where he is, within the thick foliage of the trees around what has been deemed the "Northern Forest". Her canvas is out and there's a palette in her right hand and a paintbrush in her left.

Deftly, her left hand strokes, true and sure, against the stark white of the backdrop. Natsume watches as a sea of green paint follows her wake. He can only see her profile, as she pushes back a mess of tumbling hair from her face, leaving a streak of green in her otherwise very dark brown hair, but what he sees makes something within him stir.

She is lively.

She is pale.

And there is green.

Natsume's hands itch for a camera.

-;-

He manages to catch her at lunch with Hotaru Imai, a girl in one of his photography classes who specializes in portraits. The girl is quiet, sturdy but calm and Natsume finds a comfort in this girl who reminds him a little of himself.

To think, this female version of him is Green Paint's best friend.

Green Paint is what Natsume refers her to. Ever since he'd seen her painting with green, Natsume hasn't been able to associate anything else to the color but her.

She smiles wanly when she sees him and sits down with a simple bagged lunch. "Hello," she smiles. Her voice is soothing in its own way and bright in another. "Hotaru talks about you. You're Natsume Hyuuga."

Natsume nods, somewhat glad he doesn't have to introduce himself.

She sticks out a hand and immediately, his eyes flit to the dried blue and pink paint at random places on her hand. Vaguely, his brain registers just how charming he thinks it is. "I'm Mikan Sakura," she says timidly, glancing at her best friend. "I'm a painter."

Natsume smirks, looking pointedly at the paint dried on her sleeves and the smears on her jeans, "I guessed."

She flushes slightly and mock glares at him. "You know what? Judge all you want. Photographers are far too careful," she sniffs. "Painters aren't afraid of getting dirty."

From somewhere to his left, he hears Imai snort.

"Dirty, huh?" Natsume feels something bubble in his throat.

It feels foreign, but not totally unfamiliar.

She reddens, and then laughs. "You know I didn't mean it like that," she responds easily, tossing an apple lazily with her left hand. "Get your mind out of the gutter, Hyuuga-san."

Natsume, he wants to say.

She looks at him curiously when he opens his mouth, but Imai says something and Mikan is caught up in a storm of protests. Curious things are happening to him, Natsume thinks. Why else were words getting caught and bubbles filling up his throat?

-;-

When the semester ends, Natsume's portfolio is full of photos and he carries a report full of A's. All students are given two weeks off before the next semester starts and Natsume walks quietly up to the girl's dormitory, waits a second and then takes his cell phone from his pocket and calls her.

"You're early!"

Natsume merely rolls his eyes. "You said you wanted to see me," he states blandly, leaning against the wall and watching as people stroll by.

"Yeah, but I'm not done getting my things ready! I can't possibly show you my earlier, crappy paintings! Wait five more minutes and I'll feel better."

Natsume thinks she's being ridiculous and tells her so. "Leave the paintings, Sakura. I'm coming up to your room right now."

"No, Hyuuga-sa—"

He listens to her babble as he walks up to the second level, notebook tucked under one arm. He knocks twice before he hears a little shriek and the other end of the line goes dead. She opens the door a smidge and peeks out apprehensively. "No!" she hisses, "I told you to wait."

Natsume stares at her dismissively. "You do realize you asked me to do this, right? What's the big deal?"

She frowns at him. "Because some of my paintings are really bad and if I'm going to show the freak-ass that gets almost one hundred percent in all of his classes, then I'm going to pull out the decent ones! Geez, stay out, Hyuuga. I'll tell you to come in when I'm through."

And then she slams the door in his face.

Natsume doesn't know whether he wants to pull at his hair because she's being so ridiculous or laugh at how endearing she is. He pulls for the latter, because it's been too long since he's last laughed or smiled. He thinks it's almost impossible for him now.

—the door slides open and she beckons him in, stealing the folder from underneath his arm. "This is your stuff, right? May I?" she asks, even though she's already looking.

Natsume grunts and steps into her room, filled to the brim with finished canvases.

The first thing he notices is color: there are bold reds and chilling blues, warm greens and stale pinks, crashing waves and looming mountains. Upon closer inspection, he sees sharp detail and careful strokes, expert shading and appropriate shadows. They're all beautiful, in their own way.

He turns to tell her so but stops when he sees her hand is covering her mouth and silent tears are coming out of her eyes. She looks up, large and bright brown eyes glittering with something that makes Natsume's insides stagger.

She holds up the photo one of his professors, Narumi, had forced him to include in his portfolio.

It is the one of her amongst the trees with the palette, brush and canvas. Her back is to the beholder, but it is a beautiful shot nonetheless.

Natsume shifts uncomfortably. "Why are you crying," he asks, curious and blunt.

Mikan only shakes her head and laughs a bit, commenting on how ridiculous she must look.

Natsume wants to tell her, on the contrary, you're beautiful.

-;-

When Natsume is seventeen years, eleven months and… he doesn't quite remember how many days—he merely knows it is almost his birthday—he finds himself lying on his back with one of his cameras in his hands while she doodles on an odd napkin lying forgotten on the ground.

"Why do you only take photos in black and white?" Mikan asks suddenly, looking up from her spot on the floor. "I mean, not that they aren't pretty and all, but it's always black and white. I've never seen any of your photographs in color. It's like everything you see, you want to see it colorblind."

Natsume shrugs a bit, slightly bothered by her assessment, and takes a picture of the open pizza box with odd slices, the television and the striped socks of a strange girl before he answers, "Everything has been in black and white for awhile."

The pen in her left hand stills and she blinks.

He doesn't understand why the expression on her face changes so dramatically. He can't quite pinpoint what exactly happens, but she smiles a small, knowing smile and says, "Okay, emoboy. For that, you're going to buy me that purple paint I've been eyeing from Opus."

Natsume, slightly confused, merely shrugs in response.

Arguing with her is futile, he has learned.

Plus, even though the purple paint has nothing on that green color he likes so much, there is something about her paintings that leave him feeling understood.

She continues to doodle as he continues to fondle his camera. "Narumi wants me to try portraits," he starts casually, resting the camera on his chest. He looks at her from the corner of his eyes and sees that she's stopped to look at him.

"Cool," Mikan props herself up on one elbow, peering at him curiously. "What do you think? Are you up for it? I think you should ask Sumire Shouda or Luna Koizumi to be your model. They're at the top of their class and are so pretty, too. They'd make your photos look phenomenal."

Natsume scowls away from her. "Not that your photographs aren't phenomenal in the first place!" she finishes hastily.

"Beautiful girls don't make beautiful pictures," Natsume says calmly, closing his eyes against the image of his mother flashing through his mind. "Any girl can look beautiful if the photographer's able."

"Oh, well sorry," Mikan sniffs, throwing the pen at him childishly. "Sometimes I think you wallow way too much. I mean, yeah. We're artists but we don't exactly have to fit into the emotional and depressed stereotype, Natsume."

Natsume sighs. "Sakura, you—"

"Mikan," she interrupts smoothly, grinning from ear to ear, "—I think it's about time you start calling me, Mikan."

"Sakura," Natsume ignores her, "—will you be my model?"

There's an incredulous pause before she says, somewhat indignantly, "Are you trying to make fun of me? Because you are not funny."

-;-

The more she refuses, the more Natsume wishes to photograph her.

It's strange, the fact that he's known her for almost two years and has yet to take a photograph of her, a real photograph. He's taken ones of Imai and even Ruka, the kid whose been stirring up offers from big name producers wanting him to act their roles. He's taken pictures of his aging father and his slightly deranged sister, several of Narumi with the class and tons of others.

He doesn't quite know why he doesn't have one of her.

"I'm not a model, Natsume," she says wryly, slightly exasperated when he asks her again. She is painting the school from the trees as he lies lazily on the grass. "Again, ask Sumire or Luna. Maybe even Yura Otanashi. She's on the strange side, but she's incredibly beautiful. Nobara and Misaki-senpai too." She pauses, her left hand stills on the canvas before she turns abruptly to face him. "You should photograph Rui-senpai! I know you don't think he's that bad and ever since he's come out officially, he hasn't been able to get much work, you know? Maybe you could help him out?"

She looks earnest, but Natsume merely shakes his head. "The only portrait I'll take is yours. I want you."

She blinks, looking torn between two different entities. She rubs at the bridge of her nose and brushes her fly-aways back with a frustrated hand and Natsume feels his heart warming slightly, just slightly, when she spreads a healthy line of blue in her hair.

"You've got strange tastes, Natsume," she says finally, shaking her head. "I don't model. It's just too weird." She places her palette and brush on the ground before brushing off her pants and flopping onto the grass beside him. "Besides, didn't you say earlier that you'd never do portraits? Why on Earth would you consider it now?"

Natsume briefly wonders the same thing before he catches her gaze and looks at her, really looks at her. Her hair, as usual, is all over the place and she's got paint all over her clothes but today, she looks different. She has a spray of light freckles on her cheeks and impossibly smooth skin. Her eyelashes brush her cheekbones when she blinks and her eyes, though usually more brown than hazel, look a light shade of green.

He says something he immediately regrets and watches warily, with his heart pounding in his chest, when her eyes sparkle with delight.

A strange smile is on her lips and before he knows it, his pulse is pounding in his ears and his lips are firm against hers in a confused mess of lips and warmth. Oddly, it feels… right, as if a piece of a puzzle has been fitted into the right place.

-;-

When he is finally able to convince her to model—just once—for him, the picture is simple.

She sits on one of the rocks on the beach with her brown hair, for once, blowing freely in the wind and a whimsical smile on her lips. The water sparkles just slightly in the background and the sun is dipping low against the horizon.

It isn't quite a portrait, but more of something he's always been used to.

When she sees it, she smiles.

When Narumi sees it, he claps him on the back and wipes a stray tear from his eye.

When his father and sister open up the wrapped parcel, they see a photograph unlike anything Natsume has ever taken.

You make me want to try.

Because it's light and covert, but most of all, it's in color.


Sorry, this was a bit long.
I hope you guys liked it.
If you're bored, there are two things you can do. One, there's a poll on my profile. Two, there's a green button below. :)
Go crazy,

MHR