notes/warnings

+ I'm using the Japanese naming system (last name followed by first name) in this fic.

+ warning for stuff actually happening :/


Part Fourteen

They do organise to spend time together. Natsume invites Taki and Tanuma to sleep over at the Fujiwaras' house.

He needs them both close.

Before his friends arrive, Touko goes out and comes back with armfuls of drinks and snacks. She's so happy that Natsume has friends staying over. Natsume loves her with every inch of his heart, and even manages to muster up a weak smile for her when she touches his shoulder.

He's never had any idea how to deal with the people he loves.

Touko leaves, and Natsume spends the next half hour pacing his room, miserable and worried.

"All this stress is pointless," Nyanko points out comfortably. "The plan is already made. There is nothing left to do."

"I know," Natsume replies, sadly. "But I can't help it."

He goes into his cupboard after that, and crouches with his arms wrapped around his head. All he ever wanted was to protect the people he loves.

Well, and to live with Tanuma.

Maybe this is his punishment, for being selfish. For wanting something extra, when he already has more than he's ever had before in his life. Even if that isn't the case, this is still all his fault. Without him, Taki and Tanuma would never have gotten involved with the spirit world. Not really. Taki would have stuck to fantasising about her grandfather's stories and Tanuma would have learned to ignore the things he saw out of the corner of his eye.

Natsume bows his head between his knees. His spine aches and his hands are shaking. He is scared and he just wants tomorrow to be over so he can go back to imagining the future without feeling like his heart is going to break in half.

Natsume makes an involuntary, strangled noise at the back of his throat. And then someone knocks on the door.

Natsume freezes, and tries desperately to think of an excuse. He was looking for something. Yes, that sounds like a normal thing that won't worry Touko and Shigeru. He…he dropped his wallet in here.

Perfect.

"I'm coming," he says, unsteadily.

"It's only me. Can I come in?"

Tanuma.

Natsume's heart skips a beat.

"Yeah," he replies, quickly.

Ordinarily he'd be ashamed of being found like this, but today is a bad day and being with Tanuma in a safe, confined space feels like exactly what he wants right now.

Besides, Tanuma already knows most of his secrets.

Most of his non-spirit-related secrets, anyway.

Tanuma opens the door. He's smiling warmly and holding Nyanko back with one of his feet.

"Sorry to interrupt," he says, apologetically. "Mrs Fujiwara let me in."

He's really beautiful, and now is pretty much the worst possible time for Natsume to be noticing that. Although really, he's always noticed that.

Always.

"I'm sorry," Natsume says. "I was just, um, looking for my wallet."

It belatedly occurs to Natsume that that excuse doesn't make any sense, either. Nobody loses their wallet in a cupboard.

"I understand," Tanuma says, calmly. "I'm always losing things in weird places, too."

He holds out a hand to help Natsume up, and Natsume takes it gratefully. And then Tanuma pauses, eyes focusing on something slightly to the left of Natsume's head.

"Oh," he murmurs.

Natsume waits patiently and tries not to think about the fact that they are essentially holding hands right now.

"One second," Tanuma says, and lets go without any preamble.

He dashes across the room, and comes back with one of Natsume's pens in his hand.

"You're going to do something ridiculous, aren't you?" Nyanko says, delicately grooming his paw.

"It's either something ridiculous, or pushing you out the window, Ponta," Tanuma replies, easily. He and Nyanko actually get along really well. Natsume is busy marvelling at that fact when Tanuma suddenly leans over Natsume's head.

And then Natsume understands what caught his attention. The page from the catalogue is still stuck to the wall, amongst various photographs of Nishimura and Kitamoto.

"Oh," Natsume whispers, thoroughly humiliated. "It's nothing. I just."

Tanuma scribbles something, just beneath the picture of the precious cheap green plastic table. Natsume squints at it, struggling to make out the words.

"Hi!" Taki says suddenly.

"Hi," Tanuma replies, and suddenly Natsume is being hauled out of the cupboard and into the brightly-lit bedroom.

Taki is standing in the doorway, overnight bag slung over one shoulder, hair pulled back into a ponytail. Tanuma is holding Natsume up and grinning at her. For a moment Natsume is singularly happy.

They're here. They're both here.


First, Natsume talks them through the plan tomorrow one more time. Taki and Tanuma will walk to a specific location in the forest, and stand on either side of the trap. Natsume will split off from them and go somewhere else.

He's cagey about his own part in the plan. But Ponta will be with him, and that must mean that he'll be at more risk than either Tanuma or Taki. Tanuma notes this and files it away. He makes his own private plans to swap with Natsume every thirty seconds or so, to make sure he's safe.

Tanuma would die for Natsume in a heartbeat.

There will be other people around. Exorcist friends of Natsume. Natori and some person Tanuma has never met. So they'll all have people to rely on if things go wrong. And there will be someone to tell them once the sickness-spirit is trapped.

It's weird and frightening, fighting things he cannot see. But at least he will be with his friends.

"I think we have enough sweets to feed a whole army," Taki comments, inking the insignia onto Tanuma's wrist.

"Yeah," Tanuma agrees, trying to keep very still. "Even Ponta couldn't make much of a dent in the pile."

Then Taki gets a little starry-eyed and starts chasing Ponta around the room. Tanuma goes and sits next to Natsume, and they make bets on who will get tired first. And Natsume grins, honest-to-god grins, and Tanuma just wants to be with him forever.

They sit around for hours, eating the snacks and browsing through Natsume's pitifully small comic book collection. Taki eats an entire box of chocolates and tries to entertain them with her best Sasada-impressions.

When she bossily orders Ponta to stop being fluffy, Natsume even laughs.

They eat dinner with the Fujiwaras, and Tanuma and Taki both pretend not to hear when Touko points out how sad Natsume has seemed lately. Natsume blanches a bit and stares at his plate. Tanuma changes the subject to schoolwork at exactly the same time that Taki changes the subject to very small chickens.

Touko grins at both of them. Tanuma is glad that Natsume has this family now. He's glad for everything.

After dinner, they go and sit outside under the stars. Taki leans against Tanuma's shoulder and drowses. Natsume reminds Tanuma that nobody will be expecting him to heal anyone tomorrow, so he should just relax and focus on working the trap.

"Thanks," Tanuma replies.

He's not really listening. He's too busy fidgeting with the sleeve of Natsume's shirt, and savouring the fact that his world is wonderful right now.


They lay out three mattresses in a row. Natsume stares at Tanuma awkwardly and Tanuma stares back, until Taki shoves at both of them.

"I'll sleep in the middle," she announces. "You two are hopeless."

"Thanks," Natsume replies.

He isn't sure whether he's disappointed, or grateful. But he's pleased to be here tonight, and he's terrified about tomorrow.

He never had any friends at all, before he came to this place. He's so, so lucky.

Nyanko leaps from the windowsill and hits Natsume's chest with a dull thud, knocking the wind out of him. Nyanko then proceeds to fall asleep before Natsume has even recovered his ability to breathe, and Taki drifts off shortly afterwards.

Natsume closes his eyes, and runs through the plan for tomorrow again, checking for weaknesses and loopholes. He tries to imagine everything going okay, and the sickness-spirit being trapped forever, but the scenario keeps devolving into horror and destruction and injury and things going terribly wrong.

"Hey."

I tried so hard to protect you both.

How did it end up like this?

He tries desperately, for the umpteenth time, to think of a way to capture the spirit that doesn't involve Taki and Tanuma. But there isn't anything. There isn't anything he can do, except stand by and hope his precious darling friends aren't hurt.

"Hey, Natsume."

And he wants to hate Natori and Matoba for causing all of this, but he has no-one to blame but himself. He never should have told either of them about the spirit world. He should have kept his dealings and struggles to himself. He should have stayed alone, like the orphan he is, and never spoken to either of them.

"Natsume."

If anything happens to either of them, he will tear himself apart. And it still won't be enough. He can't even imagine what his life would be like if he'd never met them, but it will be a thousand times worse than that if he loses them.

"Takashi?"

Natsume suddenly realises Tanuma is talking to him. And using his first name.

"Sorry," he blurts out, his worries temporarily quelled. "Um. Kaname."

Tanuma leans towards him, over Taki's head, and grins. Natsume tries to smile back. Even on this dark night, when he has so much to fear, Tanuma makes him feel better.

"Things will be okay," Tanuma tells him, softly.

"Yeah," Natsume manages. "I just…"

He doesn't know what to say. Tanuma is beautiful. Natsume is so glad to have met him, and so grateful to be with him right now.

And so, so scared.

"Hey, we should sleep over tomorrow night, too," Tanuma declares. "Once this is all over. Just the three of us."

"Yeah," Natsume says, and he's getting choked up now.

Tanuma reaches out and takes his hand, slipping his fingers through Natsume's own. Tanuma's hands used to be bigger than Natsume's, but now they're almost the same size. Natsume guesses he must have grown.

Also he is completely in love with Tanuma Kaname.

Kaname.

"Sleep," Tanuma suggests. His grip is warm and gentle. Natsume wants that table so badly that he is pretty much ready to go to the store right now – in the middle of the night and half asleep with an incredibly dangerous spirit wandering the streets – just so he can have it.

But no. He has to wait.

He really hopes everything goes okay tomorrow. Otherwise, he doesn't know what he'll do.

"You too, Kaname."

This, right here. This moment is amazing.

"Takashi."

"Yes, you both have first names," Nyanko growls. "Now shut up and go to sleep."

"Ponta," Tanuma says, in exactly the same tone of voice, and he and Natsume both start laughing.

"Idiots," Nyanko announces.

Natsume falls asleep easily after that.


Tanuma is woken by Taki tripping over his arm. Which means that by the time his brain starts working properly, Natsume is leaning over him and touching him.

"Tanuma! Are you okay?"

They're back to last names again. Tanuma is okay with that. He's okay with anything that Natsume wants to do. What he isn't okay with is the way Taki is clutching her head and standing hunched against the wall.

"Yeah," he tells Natsume. "Taki? You okay?"

"Please don't talk so loud," Taki whimpers, removing her hands from her eyes long enough to briefly press them over her ears. "Um. I may have had too much sugar last night."

Tanuma frowns. Taki doesn't usually get headaches. And he would know. He's swapped health with her often enough.

"Do you have a migraine?" Natsume asks, quietly.

"Yeah," Taki says. "I haven't had one in years. I'm usually more careful. Um. I should be fine to work the trap, though. If I can just borrow some sunglasses."

"You could take something," Tanuma suggests. He's testing out the options. It isn't good for one of them to go on this mission with a debilitating headache.

"My migraines don't usually respond to painkillers," Taki tells him, pitifully. "I can handle it, though."

She probably can. But Tanuma has had the most experience with dealing with illnesses, and it would be stupid to let her go on like this.

But he needs to be careful. Today would be a bad day to get caught.

"We should all wear sunglasses, anyway," he decides. "A disguise can't hurt, right?"

"You can't go out like this, Taki," Natsume says, firmly. "Your guard will be down. We'll have to find someone else."

"I won't make any mistakes. I can still function, I promise."

Tanuma goes to her and gently lays a hand on her shoulder.

"Hey," he says, softly. "Give me five minutes. I can take care of it."

Taki peers at him through her fingers.

"You sure?" she whispers. "It won't weaken you?"

"Nah," Tanuma says. "It's fine."


Tanuma showers, and Natsume paces the room, waiting for Taki to recover. In a way, he'd be happy for an excuse to call off the whole mission. He wants to keep his friends here and safe until the world ends.

He wants so many things.

"Hey, Natsume," Taki calls, brightly.

"All better?" he asks.

"All better," she replies, pumping the air. "Let's do this!"

So they do. Tanuma comes back, and they go over the positions again. Natsume runs through every step of the plan in painstaking detail. He cannot have anything go wrong.

Then they go outside. Aoi shows up, and Natsume tells her to protect Taki and Tanuma with everything she has. She nods, seriously, eyes only on him. Natsume does feel sorry for her, in a way. It must be hard, for a spirit to be in love with a human. Natsume finds it hard to be in love with a human, and he's a human.

Nyanko takes on his true form and Natsume throws the blue thread over his head.

"Behold," he says, dramatically, waving his massive tails around and damaging the edge of Touko's beloved vegetable garden.

"This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life," Taki says, tearing up. "Nyanko, you are even more fluffy than before."

Tanuma doesn't say anything at all, which is sort of weird. He just stands there.

Natsume grabs his wrist and checks the insignia. The word Kaname floats through his head, a little spark of comfort cuts through his stress.

Tomorrow, they will still all be together. Natsume will make sure of that.

"Thanks for letting me come with you," Aoi tells Natsume. "Even though you didn't really give me permission, I'm glad to be here."

"Just don't cause any problems," Natsume tells her. "Please."

When he meets with Natori and Matoba in the open forest, that should be enough to summon the sickness spirit. Then it's only a matter of running very fast, and relying on Nyanko.

Taki is frowning at the ground, like she's trying to figure something out. Natsume turns to speak to her, but Aoi grabs his arm.

"I swear I won't," she says, earnestly. "I'll be so useful. You'll be glad you brought me along."

"You are unnecessary," Nyanko tells her, regally.

"No, I'm not. I'm helping!"

Taki goes over to where Tanuma is standing, and then claps her hands together. Loudly. In his face.

Tanuma flinches away from her and kind of crumples. Like he's in pain.

"Hey!" Natsume says, almost automatically. He doesn't want anyone to upset Tanuma, ever. "Hey, what are you doing?"

Taki doesn't answer him, though. She just looks terribly sad.

"Do you have a headache, Tanuma?" she asks, quietly. "Did you get one after mine got better?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Tanuma says, and Natsume doesn't know, either. "I get sick all the time. What was that for?"

"It's just," Taki says. "Well. The last few days I've had this tiny cut under my thumbnail. Nobody would really notice it unless they knew it was there. But it keeps disappearing and reappearing again. And I think-"

"Come on, you guys," Natsume says, because this conversation is weird and kind of pointless. "There are things we need to do."

"I think Tanuma can't heal people," Taki tells him. Tanuma just stares at her, and Natsume almost wants to yell at her for saying something like that. "I think he can only swap. His health for someone else's."

Swap? Swap? But that means…

That means.

Natsume looks at Tanuma. At his best friend in the world and his fellow table-owner-to-be and possibly the love of his life. Tanuma doesn't look at him, though. Tanuma stares at the ground, like he's been caught doing something wrong.

If he can only swap, then that means he's suffered. All of those times. And Natsume thought he was okay.

Oh god. He's suffered for Natsume.

"No," Natsume says, in abject denial. "No. No. No."

This can't be happening.


tbc


a/n

+ thank you for reading

+ my apologies for the late updates. I've been working on my other fic, and this one kind of took a back seat for a little while. hopefully I'm back on track now. :)