+ this is a semi-alternate-universe fic, in which Natsume has his usual powers but also has to deal with living in a world where other people have other special abilities.
+ contains some minor own-characters by necessity, but I promise they won't be the focus of this fic, or eclipse any of the canon characters. any own-characters are solely for plot development.
+ diverges from anime canon around about season 4 episode 7. contains possible spoilers for all previous episodes.
+ this is a Natsume/Tanuma fic.
+ I tried to echo the narrative style of canon, so this fic may be a little more rambly and gentle and less plotty than my usual style. it still has plot, though. I promise.
+ warning for mild violence, alternating POV.
Tanuma's earliest memory is of working in the temple. Tottering along behind his father and watching all the people come and go. He remembers sorting all the visitors into two broad categories; happy and worried. Even at that young age, he used to avoid the worried people.
Adults worried about confusing things, like taxes and work and love. And big things, like money and children. What could a child like him possibly do for a worried adult?
So he stayed silent and watched and hoped and prayed. Sometimes things got better. And sometimes they didn't. Sometimes people suffered. And then, the illness came to their little town. An awful contagious pneumonia that killed babies and hospitalised toddlers and spread like wildfire.
There were no happy adults, after that. Only worried ones, clutching limp-looking, pale-faced children. Only scared ones, who spoke to his father in hushed tones, and wept.
"I don't want any more kids to die," Tanuma told him, over dinner.
"That is not for you to decide," his father had replied.
Tanuma remembers one little girl, with strawberry-blonde hair and sad, pained eyes. He remembers the way her mother screamed, and got on her knees, and begged the gods for mercy. He remembers his father's words.
Not more than three days left.
Nobody should ever have to die so young.
Something happened that night. Something important. Tanuma prayed for her to get better, over and over, clutching his pillow as he tossed and turned.
"Please," he whispered, clasping his hands together in front of his chest. "Please. Let her get better. I want her to be healthy again."
The next day, she got better. Not slowly and naturally. Instantaneously. As if the gods had listened.
It was then that Tanuma understood what he could do for worried adults.
A spirit shows up in Taki's house. Natsume goes promptly, heart in his throat, already gearing up for a fight. He's not a violent person by nature, but the more he cares for his friends, the less he tolerates the spirits that impact upon them.
Taki is his dear…his precious…his almost sisterly…
He can't form the words, even in his head. Taki is just important.
"You didn't have to run," she says, warmly. "I told you there was no hurry. Look, you've gotten a scratch on your arm."
"It's nothing," Natsume tells her impatiently, not even looking down. If he never fits in, if he never makes good, if he's useless and awkward until he dies, all of that will be acceptable if he can manage to protect his friends.
The spirit turns out to be the god of a peach orchard. He has curly red hair and pointy teeth and a huge golden scythe, but he speaks gently and does not threaten anyone. He is trying to find a way to stop his lands from being logged and sold as real estate.
"I knew your great grandmother," he tells Taki, wistfully. "Or maybe it was your great-great grandmother. Human lives are so short."
I know, Natsume thinks, wistfully.
Natsume is pretty powerless in the human world, especially against influential people like land developers. He and Taki tell the god that he must advise his spirit subjects to move on.
"It will mean that you'll get lots of new people visiting your shrine," Taki tells him. "Change can be a good thing."
Natsume doesn't always agree with that sentiment. It depends entirely on the type of change. There is definitely such a thing as bad change.
The rest of the day passes uneventfully. The god leaves, Natsume goes home, calls Tanuma, argues with Nyanko, eats dinner, and goes to bed. By the time he's drifting off to sleep, the scratch on his arm has healed completely.
When Tanuma meets Natsume after school, he doesn't say 'why do you always take Taki with you, and never me'. He never says problematic things, because he doesn't want to make Natsume guilty or sad.
Natsume can see, speak to, and interact with spirits. He's also very strong, able to fight off evil, able to defend the people he loves. He's everything Tanuma always wanted to be.
"I found a new fishing spot," Natsume announces, putting one hand on Tanuma's shoulder to better steer him through the forest.
"Teacher found a new fishing spot," Natsume corrects, with a wry, vulnerable little grin. "We tested it out yesterday. There are plenty of fish."
Tanuma isn't jealous of Natsume, because Natsume is amazing. He's kind and polite and softly spoken and noble-hearted. He's a hero. In fact, he's an honest-to-god superhero, saving society from unmentionable evil every single day, without anyone ever noticing.
Tanuma is lucky to be gifted with Natsume's secrets, Natsume's trust. He must never betray that confidence, no matter what. It is absolutely imperative that Natsume go on talking to him, sharing with him, mentioning all the tiny little details of his life.
Natsume doesn't tell Tanuma about the big things. Tanuma knows that. But sometimes, the small things are just as important.
Something has been bothering Natsume for a few days now, and Tanuma wants to know what it is.
"That sounds great," he replies, emphatically. Natsume's hand is still on his shoulder. Tanuma notices everything that Natsume does, like his every action is highlighted, underlined, magnified and bold font. Like there's a huge neon arrow right above his head, saying 'notice this person, this person is special'.
Natsume sees something on the lake, but he doesn't elaborate. He wants to keep the spirit world hidden from Tanuma. He doesn't consider that Tanuma is strong enough or competent enough to help him fight his battles.
And he's right. Tanuma is useless. The only thing he can do is be a good friend, a receptive friend.
"Well, whatever it is," Tanuma jokes, "it's scaring away the fish."
Natsume sighs and leans back against the tree.
"I need to bring home a good catch," he murmurs. "Touko needs the protein."
Tanuma notes the slight inflection in his voice, and suddenly Natsume's recent subdued mood makes sense.
"Is she not well?" he asks, quietly.
"It's not a curse, or anything," he tells Tanuma. "It's just an ordinary flu. There isn't anything I can do to help."
Tanuma smiles, as warmly as he can manage, anything for Natsume.
"I'm sure she'll get better soon," he replies.
That night, six spirits come to demand their names. Natsume returns the names willingly, without reluctance, but by morning he is completely exhausted.
"Oh no," Touko says, clutching her apron. "I've given it to you, haven't I?"
Her voice sounds normal, and there's colour in her cheeks. Natsume feels a sudden rush of relief.
"You sound good," he says, tremulously.
Touko pushes the hair from his eyes, and smiles.
"Of course," she says, with exaggerated indignation. "I'm tough. Isn't that right, Shigeru?"
Shigeru laughs and brings his coffee mug to his lips. And Natsume stands there, between the two of them, feeling like part of a proper family.
Natsume calls after school.
"I was going to come and see you," he says. "But Natori has asked for my help sealing a powerful spirit. I can't refuse."
"Don't refuse," Tanuma agrees. The world needs Natsume, and Tanuma will support him until the very, very end. "Phone me when it's over?"
"I'll visit when it's over," Natsume tells him. "You shouldn't be alone when you're sick."
"It's just a headache," Tanuma lies. "Call, okay? And good luck with the spirit."
He doesn't add 'and don't get hurt', but he hopes Natsume hears it, anyway.
Nothing happens for two days, and then Natsume gets into a fistfight with a strong, vengeful spirit.
"I'll kill you," it hisses, reaching for him with oar-sized tentacles. "I'll eat you for daring to take my name, Reiko."
Nyanko isn't around. Nyanko is off drinking alcohol at some sort of spirit-festival. So Natsume fights alone, ducking and weaving and punching, not fast enough to get away, too out of breath to explain that he isn't his grandmother.
The spirit hits him under the ribs, and Natsume drops to his knees, winded. It occurs to him that he might be killed, right here and now.
He thinks of Tanuma, messy-haired and smiling and ever so slightly cross-eyed. He'd die for Tanuma in a heartbeat.
The spirit pins him to the ground, cackling gleefully.
"Give me the Book of Friends, Reiko," it purrs. "Give it to me, and I promise to eat you quickly."
Getting killed like this won't help Tanuma. Natsume struggles with all his might. He has to get up. He has to go on. He has to see his friends again.
It's no use. The spirit is too strong. It squeezes him hard, stifling his breathing.
"What's the matter?" it taunts, grinning. "Have you lost your powers, Reiko?"
"I'm," Natsume gasps. "I'm…not…"
"That is not Natsume Reiko," an unfamiliar voice supplies. "That is her descendant."
"Aoi," the tentacle-spirit snarls, whirling to face the newcomer. "Do you know this weakling?"
"I know of him," Aoi says, coldly. "I know he is not in possession of the Book of Friends. But go ahead and waste your time, if you wish."
Natsume cranes his neck to get a good look at Aoi. She has the form of a human woman, with hip-length blonde hair, and a mask that looks like the head of a fish.
And suddenly Natsume can breathe again. The tentacle-spirit goes slithering off into the underbrush, grumbling to itself.
"Thank you," Natsume gasps. "Wh-why did you lie?"
"I have nothing to say to you," Aoi informs him, and vanishes into thin air.
"Where were you?" Taki asks, worriedly. "Tanuma and I waited at the store for ages, but you didn't come."
"Did something happen with a spirit?" Tanuma asks.
"No," Natsume replies.
Tanuma knows he is lying, just the way he knows Natsume will probably tell Taki about it later.
Natsume doesn't mean to choose between his friends. He honestly doesn't. Taki and Tanuma; there should be no difference at all. They both mean everything to him. They both make his heart ache, just thinking about them. Just thinking about the fact that Tanuma can get sick and Taki can get cursed and if he's not very very careful, he won't be able to protect them.
They ought to be equivalent, but they're not. Taki is…elevated. She's reliable in ways that Tanuma isn't. Not for tangible reasons, but for intuitive ones. Whenever Tanuma learns something about the spirit world, Natsume is struck by the horrible vision that he's going to get seriously hurt.
Taki makes Natsume want to tell her things and treat her like an equal. Tanuma makes Natsume want to wrap around him and annihilate anything that approaches him.
There are very distinct boundaries in Natsume's mind. Topics that are safe, and topics that are not safe. He must only talk to Tanuma about ordinary things, like schoolwork and sports and whether he's feeling well. He wants Tanuma to have the life he can't have, to escape the world of spirits and be happy.
Natsume knows, intellectually, that one day Tanuma and Taki will probably be together. That's what boys and girls do. But for now, he wants to keep Tanuma as close as possible. He wants them to spend good times together, when neither of them is worried or afraid.
He wants to make the world a better place for Tanuma. So while he gives the appearance of caring for Taki more, it's really the opposite.
Tanuma walks him home, close enough that their shoulders touch, and gives him a sad little smile when they say goodbye.
Sometimes, Tanuma's father looks curiously melancholy. Like he's worrying about some painful hidden thing, and Tanuma sometimes gets really sick and tired of people keeping secrets from him.
"You're ill again," he observes, resting his hand on the mattress. He never touches Tanuma, because he's not an affectionate sort of person. And maybe that's part of the reason that Tanuma finds Natsume so utterly entrancing.
"It's only a headache," Tanuma answers, and it's the truth this time.
"I had hoped that by this age you would be stronger," his father says, heavily. And then his gaze becomes unfocused and the corners of his mouth turn down. "Do you remember how your mother died?"
"I don't have a brain tumour," he says, as gently as he can manage. "You know this, dad. We had all the scans done last year."
"You have a predisposition," his father argues. "On both sides of the family. I'm going to make another appointment, just in case."
A doctor's visit will be inconvenient, but Tanuma can handle it.
"I'm not scared of illness, dad," he says, reassuringly.
"I know," his father replies.
"Those weren't tentacles," Nyanko says, licking at his paw. "Those were flagellae. That thing was a very old spirit that is said to have originated from bacteria and other microscopic creatures. You're lucky you got away with a few bruises."
"I didn't, though," Natsume says, yanking up his shirt and examining his own bare stomach. "The bruises are gone."
Nyanko gives Natsume a long, withering stare.
"And you're complaining about this?" he asks, skeptically.
"No," Natsume replies. "It's just strange, that's all."
The weather is fine, so they spend the afternoon outdoors, studying under the trees. Natsume helps Tanuma with mathematics, head bowed over the textbook, utterly focused. Tanuma fights down the awkward, inappropriate urge to touch his face.
"I think you divide by three here," Natsume says, softly. "And then…wait, let me check how I solved this equation."
He's the hero of the town – maybe even the hero of Japan – and he still finds time to help his friends.
Natsume is more than just a really great guy. He gives Tanuma purpose. Tanuma can put all his time and energy into Natsume and know that they'll be well-invested, no matter what. Personality doesn't even come into it, really. He could hate Natsume, and still know that this is the right thing to do.
Natsume groans and tips his head to one side, accidentally brushing his forehead against Tanuma's shoulder.
"I don't know. It made sense to me at the time," he says, dejectedly. "Oh, wait, is that a logarithm? I think it is."
Tanuma touches his hair, just briefly. He is so far from hating Natsume that it's kind of ridiculous.
Today is a good day.
"I'm sorry for leaving so quickly," Natsume says, bowing lower than is necessary. "I might not be back for dinner, either."
"I'm glad you're spending so much time with Tooru," she says, cheerfully. "She's such a nice girl."
"She's great," Natsume agrees, even though he feels a little strange saying it out loud. He's going to see Natori. Again. This time it's an honest-to-god demon, so strong that even Taki's limited power will be beneficial.
He wants to tell Touko that Tanuma is great, too, but he doesn't. Instead he comforts himself with the knowledge that Tanuma is safe at home and nothing bad can happen to him.
When Natsume visits, Tanuma doesn't pretend not to know where he's been.
"Did you manage to seal it?"
Natsume regards the ground.
"Taki told you," he says, quietly.
Tanuma raises an eyebrow.
"Was it a secret?" he asks, fighting down a wave of panic. He doesn't want Natsume to start keeping even more secrets from him.
"Not really," Natsume says, flopping down on the floor. "I just don't like talking about it, that's all."
He looks downcast and completely exhausted. The collar of his shirt is torn. The demon apparently put up quite a fight.
"I wish I could help you," Tanuma replies, wistfully. "I wish I could be of some use to you."
Natsume frowns at him.
"What are you talking about?" he asks, confused. "I don't understand."
"Don't worry about it," Tanuma says, forcing a smile. He should never have said it in the first place. "I'm going to make some tea, and you're going to tell me how Touko and Shigeru are, okay?"
"Okay," Natsume replies, the tension easing from his voice. "You look well today. I'm glad."
"I'm glad to have you here," Tanuma says, and then walks away quickly before he can say anything else stupid.
Natsume washes up after dinner and Touko lauds him with praise, as if he's doing her some tremendous favour instead of clumsily trying to express his own overwhelming gratitude.
"Ever since you started living here, things have been better," she enthuses. "Why, I was saying to Shigeru just this morning how much healthier I've been feeling."
"I'm glad," Natsume replies, automatically. But something doesn't feel quite right, so he presses further. "Did you used to be ill, Touko?"
"Oh, I used to get these headaches all the time," she says, waving one hand in the air as if to brush the very thought of them aside. "But they've eased up recently. I think you're making me younger, Takashi."
"That's good," Natsume says, sounding far more cheerful than he actually feels.
He needs to talk to Nyanko, and soon.
Tanuma spends the evening playing board games with Kitamoto. He learned from an early age to treasure the days when he feels healthy, so he always tries to do as much as possible.
"Natsume was commenting that you've lost weight again," Kitamoto says, conversationally. "I have to say, I'm a little surprised that you get sick so frequently."
Tanuma narrows his eyes ever so slightly.
"Why?" he asks. He likes Kitamoto. Kitamoto is a kind person, and a good friend to Natsume.
"Was I wrong?" Kitamoto asks, curiously. "Your father was the priest in Emukae, right? During that time when-"
"I wouldn't know," Tanuma says, politely. "He doesn't talk about Emukae."
Kitamoto is respectful enough to abandon the subject.
"Oh," he says, nodding. "Sorry for bringing it up."
"It's fine," Tanuma answers, smiling.
"Natsume does talk about you all the time, though," Kitamoto adds. "Please be careful with your health.
"Wh-what?" Tanuma stammers. "What does he say?"
"Ask him yourself."
"Is it possible," Natsume asks, carefully, "that there is a spirit watching over this house?"
"It's possible," Nyanko confirms. "Spirits can more or less do whatever they want."
"Is there a spirit guarding this house?" Natsume presses, because sometimes talking to his bodyguard is like pulling teeth.
"Not that I know about. Why? Did something happen?"
Natsume sits down on the floor.
"For several months now," he says, slowly, "pretty much every wound I get has healed up within a day. Touko's headaches have decreased. And Shigeru's cold stopped after two days even though he swears they always last for at least a week."
"So, I think there's a spirit healing us. And I don't know why, or what it wants."
"I'll tell you if I see anyone hanging around," Nyanko tells him, boredly. "But I think you're imagining things. Everyone has good luck some of the time. Even you."
The three of them attend a festival, with Nishimura and Kitamoto and Sasada in tow. Tanuma spends most of his time talking quietly with Taki. He's unwilling to talk to Kitamoto, and he's not really familiar with the other two. And he's…he's maybe avoiding speaking with Natsume right now.
He can't ask. He doesn't know why. He just can't.
At the end of the day, Natsume grabs Tanuma's wrist and tugs him forward until the two of them are walking side by side.
"Are you okay?" he asks, and it's dark, and the sky is kind of pretty, and Tanuma feels dizzy.
"Yeah. I'm fine."
"I'm sorry. There's nothing in any of my grandfather's books about healing spirits. I checked everywhere."
Natsume spends a lot of time talking to Taki. She doesn't know about the Book of Friends, of course, but she knows about his day-to-day dealings. He doesn't have to hold back the way he does when he's talking to Tanuma. He can relax and talk somewhat openly and know that Taki will listen.
So it's entirely illogical, the way he wants to be with Tanuma right now.
"That's okay," Natsume replies. "Thank you for trying."
"This is really worrying you, isn't it?" she asks, pushing her bangs out of her face.
"If there is a spirit," Natsume says, quietly, "then it is trying to go unnoticed. And it is powerful enough to hide from Teacher. That worries me."
Taki smiles and touches his shoulder. Her hand is small and warm and her touch is ordinary, not like Tanuma's, and Natsume doesn't really understand why one of his precious friends is so different to the other.
"But there's a positive side, too, right?" she points out. "Touko and Shigeru will be protected."
"Yeah," Natsume agrees. He doesn't want the spirit to stop, exactly. He just wants to know what is going on.
A few days later, a spirit attacks Natsume and Taki on the way home from school.
"What was it?" Tanuma asks, cradling the phone in his hand.
"Just…an ordinary spirit," Natsume replies, evasively. He'll say more if Tanuma presses. But if Tanuma presses too much, he might stop talking to Tanuma completely.
"Are you okay?" Tanuma asks. It's his standard question.
"I'm fine," Natsume assures him. "Taki sprained her ankle, though."
"Sometimes those heal up in a few days," Tanuma muses. "Still, maybe I should call her and see how she's going."
"She's doing better than the spirit," Natsume says, his voice uncharacteristically fierce. Tanuma smiles at the empty room.
"You're a good friend," he says, affectionately.
He still hasn't asked.
"I can't believe it," Taki says, cheerily. "This morning when I woke up, I could walk perfectly. No pain at all."
"I'm glad," Natsume replies, fighting to keep the tremor from his voice.
The healing spirit isn't just guarding his home. It is guarding his friends.
Secretive or not, Natsume is suddenly very relieved to have it around.
"Sick again?" Nishimura teases. "I think you're just faking it to skip class."
Tanuma laughs and pulls himself up on his elbows. Natsume pokes him Nishimura in the side.
"Don't say things like that," he says, crossly, and then smiles at Tanuma. "I'm sorry for bringing them along."
"It's no bother," Tanuma replies, hurriedly. "It's good to have visitors."
Natsume sits down on the edge of the bed, his posture stiff enough that he doesn't actually make contact with Tanuma's side.
"I brought you today's notes," Kitamoto says, handing Tanuma a binder full of papers.
"Thanks," Tanuma replies, gratefully. "Sorry for asking so much of you."
"It's fine," Kitamoto replies, grinning and sort of pushing Natsume towards him. Tanuma's gratitude evaporates almost instantaneously, and he glares at Kitamoto balefully.
He tries to ignore how warm Natsume feels. He doesn't need to be any more infatuated than he already is.
"I'm jealous of you," Nishimura announces. "At this rate you'll have to repeat the grade, and you'll get to spend another year relaxing at school while we tackle the real world."
Kitamoto smacks him.
"You can't say things like that," he hisses.
"Have you two decided on your career choices yet?" he asks. "Last I heard, Nishimura was going to become a butcher."
"Nope," Nishimura announces, smacking Kitamoto right back. "We're going to live with his grandmother in Tokyo, and study business."
Natsume raises an eyebrow.
"You've got it all worked out," he says. "I'm impressed."
"Taki is totally going to live with us too!" Nishimura insists, but Natsume doesn't seem to be listening. He stares at his hands.
"I still don't know what I'm going to do," he says, quietly, just to Tanuma.
There's no excuse for what Tanuma says next. Not the pain he's feeling, or the fact that he's tired, or his proximity to Natsume. No excuse at all.
"We should go to the same college and rent an apartment together. That would be fun."
His only saving grace is that he sounds light-hearted. Because he's asking…he's practically asking…
Natsume stares at him, like he's temporarily forgotten how to form words.
"I'm sorry," Tanuma says. "That was too presumptuous."
"No," Natsume manages, shaking his head violently. "That was…that would be good."
"Are we interrupting something?" Kitamoto asks jovially, looking right at Tanuma. Tanuma gives up and looks away, thoroughly embarrassed.
Natsume puts a hand on his shoulder and leaves it there for the rest of the evening, though, and that makes it difficult to worry much about anything.
+ stuff will happen soon, I promise!
+ also the title will actually become relevant
+ thank you for reading