+ this is a silly, plotless fic written for the Natsume Yuujinchou series. the pairing is Natsume/Tanuma.
+ based off those Five Things fics only I think there are a lot more than five whoops. also inspired by the fact that everyone seems to pat Natsume in the anime.
+ seriously no warnings for anything. I'm pretty sure I'd let my three year old read this*.
+ ridiculously, disgustingly fluffy and pointless. also I'm not even sure it's in character. I kinda wrote this while I was sad and half asleep and sick of writing angsty plot.
The first time it happens is purely because Tanuma is half asleep, exhausted from chasing invisible, silent shadows. And because Natsume is talking reverently about what he ate for dinner last night, eyes half-lidded and turned skywards, looking relaxed and unguarded like he never ever has before.
Everything would have been fine if Natsume had been his usual awkward, defensive self. If they hadn't just been running through a forest in the middle of autumn. If Tanuma had been using the brain he was blessed with, instead of drifting thoughtlessly.
Everything would have been fine if the sky weren't painted so many different colours; pink and yellow and orange all blending into one another like the most beautiful dusk Tanuma has ever seen.
He's hungry, too. Natsume is waxing poetic about Touko's homemade Miso soup, but Tanuma has only ever had the instant stuff from the store down the road. Natsume has a leaf stuck in his bangs, tiny and brown and crinkled. Tanuma wonders absently if leaves have associated spirits.
He swipes it free with one hand, only because he isn't thinking, only because he doesn't have his boundaries up today and neither does Natsume. He catches a strand of hair as well, with his stupid clumsy hands, and is instantaneously horrified.
Natsume stops talking. He blinks at Tanuma and then touches his own head.
"I'm sorry," Tanuma says, quickly, getting to his feet. The leaf crumbles in his grip, long-dead, no resistance at all. "I'm…I'm sorry. I shouldn't have."
His parents raised him to be polite. He doesn't…he doesn't take liberties. Touching people without their permission is almost a crime, and how would Tanuma like it if someone did that to him?
Unless it was Natsume, maybe.
Geeze, is this why he has no friends? Because he always, always messes up in the end?
"It's okay," Natsume says, but he looks kind of stunned.
"I'm going home," Tanuma tells him.
He walks away and doesn't look back.
The next day, Natsume is acting like it never happened; talking and smiling and meeting Tanuma's eyes in the middle of crowded hallways like everything is forgiven.
Tanuma is only too glad to join in the façade. Natsume is a good guy. He forgives a lot of things, and he cares for people, and Tanuma could probably write an entire novel on How Natsume Is Wonderful, so he's going to stop right there.
The second time it happens is completely Taki's fault. They exorcise a particularly nasty spirit that's eating a lot of other spirits. He's big enough and powerful enough that Tanuma can see him even without the help of the circle.
Afterwards the whole room is destroyed, including a wall-sized bookcase. Tanuma takes half a paperback to the solar plexis and sees stars for a good two minutes. But that's okay, because neither Taki nor Natsume get hurt at all. They both wind up with dozens of tiny shreds of paper in their hair, though, and even in his dazzled state Tanuma can foresee this ending badly.
Taki laughs and punches the air with her fist, and then begins tugging the debris from Natsume's hair. She makes it look easy with her gentle, deft fingers, and Tanuma thinks muzzily that maybe this isn't hard. Maybe he should be able to do this. Maybe it isn't something he should worry about.
The dizziness affects his depth perception, though, and he ends up just hitting Natsume in the temple.
Tanuma retracts his hand immediately, ignoring Natsume's worried gaze in favour of staring at the floor. Taki laughs at something, oblivious, and continues de-papering Natsume like it's the most natural thing in the world.
The third time – and really, there should never have been a third time – is because Taki isn't there. And it's kind of sad how much Tanuma depends on her, how he can't really connect with Natsume the way she does, how she's practically their translator.
They aren't even chasing anything. They're just walking along the river. Natsume has to duck out of the way of a wobbly-looking girl riding a small bicycle, and walks straight into a bushy tree. And Tanuma is motivated to go to him, to touch him, to make sure he's okay. And that's not new, either, that's just a part of Natsume being amazing and self-sacrificing and Tanuma worrying about him all the time. But Tanuma stays stock still, like he always does, because he has no idea how to offer comfort to this wonderful person.
And anyway, Natsume comes up grinning and ruffled. With twigs in his bangs.
"You look ridiculous," Ponta says huffily. Natsume glances at his reflection in the water and grins.
"I do," he agrees. He looks youthful and happy and small, and Tanuma is glad just to be near him.
"It's not something to be proud of," Ponta grumbles, leaping back onto Natsume's shoulder with improbable grace. "Oi. Tanuma. Fix this."
Tanuma chokes. He wants to point out that Natsume has a reflective surface and hands. He wants to argue that Ponta is actually some sort of massive invisible dog-fox creature who can surely defeat an inanimate twig. He wants to point out that he's inherently bad at this.
But he's never been good at expressing himself, either.
Natsume kind of stiffens, like he isn't happy about this either. But then he bows his head, hiding his eyes behind his hair, and doesn't come to Tanuma's rescue.
Tanuma grits his teeth. He braces his left hand against the side of Natsume's face, because he's never going to be gentle so he might as well aim for competent. Natsume's hair is like silk, smooth and slippery, and the twigs come free easily, even for Tanuma's shaking fingers.
"You want to skip stones?" he says, awkwardly, because he can't really apologise for doing something that was asked of him.
"Yeah," Natsume replies. "Thanks."
Later, Natsume mutters 'don't ever do that again' to Ponta when he thinks Tanuma isn't listening.
The fourth time, Tanuma has to cut bubble gum out of Natsume's hair because some spirit has a childish sense of humour.
"I'm sorry," he says, trying to steady the scissors. If anyone teases Natsume about his lopsided fringe, Tanuma is going to kill them.
Or probably just fantasise about killing them, because he's useless like that.
"That's the fifteenth time you've apologised," Taki says, quietly. "You haven't actually done anything wrong, you know. You're kind of doing him a favour."
Tanuma doesn't answer her, because he can't explain it. In a way, Taki is normal. She likes to be touched. Natsume doesn't like to be touched, and Tanuma doesn't want to be touched by anyone who isn't Natsume.
He apologises because he knows how bad this must feel, even if Natsume won't say so.
"S'fine," Natsume tells them, but his knuckles are white.
Tanuma goes home and cuts a bigger chunk out of his own hair, because if the bullies are going to pick on someone, it's not going to be Natsume.
The fifth time is when Tanuma gets sick and has to spend several days in bed. Taki and Natsume stay with him the whole time, even though he sleeps for twenty hours a day and is generally a terrible host.
When he finally starts feeling better, he realises that they've cleaned the whole house and weeded the garden and apparently sealed off an angry roach-spirit. And Tanuma just stands there in his pyjamas, feeling humbled and small and overwhelmed by his incredible friends.
"I made you dinner for tonight and tomorrow, too," Taki says, proudly. "It's in the freezer, okay?"
Tanuma ruffles her hair, too emotional to form proper words.
"I helped with the dinner," Natsume says, promptly, appearing next to Taki.
"No you didn't," Taki mutters. "You burned the rice. That isn't helping."
Tanuma lifts his hand automatically, and then suddenly remembers that this is Natsume.
"Thanks," he says, clapping his hand on Natsume's shoulder, instead. "I won't touch your hair. I don't want to hurt you again."
Gratitude makes him talkative. Tanuma closes his mouth quickly, forcing himself to shut up.
"You never hurt me," Natsume says, sounding confused.
The sixth time is when Natsume shows up at his front door at six in the morning, flushed and bright-eyed and radiating happiness.
"Touko and Shigeru," he says, breathlessly, without bothering to come inside. "They're…Tanuma, they're…"
"They're okay, right?" Tanuma asks, rubbing his eyes. The timing dictates that this must be an emergency, but Natsume's tone is all wrong.
Natsume takes a step closer, so that he's about three inches away from Tanuma, who is entirely too sleepy to deal with all of this.
"They're talking about making it official," he says, softly, with an awed little smile. "I don't even…I just had to tell someone."
Taki lives closer. Tanuma brushes the hair out of Natsume's eyes, trying to cram all his affection and joy into that one, tiny, meagre gesture. A strand snags on his nail, but Natsume doesn't seem to feel it at all.
"I'm happy to hear that," Tanuma says, warmly.
"Maybe it won't even happen," Natsume murmurs.
He briefly pushes his head against Tanuma's hand, like he's turning into Ponta, and Tanuma thinks he might die from happiness.
The seventh time is at school. It's become part of their routine to meet up in the morning and find a quiet place to talk about Reiko and spirits and anything else Natsume wants to talk about.
"You have a leaf in your hair," Tanuma tells him, awkwardly. "I think maybe the tree-spirits just love you."
It's a stupid thing to say, and he feels immediately stupid.
"Oh?" Natsume says. "Where?"
Ponta makes a noise that sounds suspiciously like chuckling. Tanuma reaches out clumsily and taps the top of Natsume's head.
"Here," he says.
Natsume just kind of looks at him, so Tanuma steels his nerves and sets about removing the leaf. This one has points and is stickier, and it takes him a thoroughly uncomfortable thirty seconds to work it loose.
"Thanks," Natsume says, even though a few strands get dragged out as well as the leaf.
"No problem," Tanuma manages. "Try not to walk under any trees tomorrow, okay?"
The eighth time is because Natsume forgets that he's not supposed to walk under any trees on his way to school.
Actually, so is the ninth time.
The tenth time, when Natsume arrives, Tanuma immediately eyes his hair.
"I think I'm okay today," Natsume says, cheerfully. "I was extra careful."
"Nope," Ponta announces. "Check the back of your head."
"I can't check the back of my own head," Natsume says, irritably, rolling his eyes.
"You're going to have no hair left, if you keep doing this," Tanuma tells him, steering Natsume around without really thinking about it. "Ugh, it's another sticky one, too. Where do you even find these plants?"
"I don't find them," Natsume tells him. "They find me."
Ponta makes another strange noise, but Natsume ignores him. If they're communicating in some way, it's not something Tanuma can understand.
The fifteenth time is different. Natsume comes to Tanuma's house to remove a bad luck spirit. He arrives cat-less, assuring Tanuma that this spirit isn't strong, and that he'll be able to vanquish it alone. And Tanuma believes him, because Tanuma believes everything that Natsume ever says.
The spirit turns out to be trickier than anticipated. It separates them, and Tanuma spends several minutes running around his house, until he finds Natsume sprawled on the floor in the spare bedroom.
"Are you all right?" Tanuma asks, panicked. He rushes to Natsume's side, already furious with himself for getting his precious friend involved in this.
Natsume doesn't get up, but he opens his eyes and smiles weakly.
"Sorry," he murmurs. "It was stronger than I thought, so I had to use up most of my energy. But you'll be safe now."
Tanuma sits down beside him, equal parts guilty and relieved. His right hand finds Natsume's hair automatically, offering what little comfort he can.
"Rest for as long as you need to," he says, unsteadily. "My father won't be home until late."
Natsume closes his eyes, and fists one hand in Tanuma's sleeve. He looks surprisingly relaxed.
"Thank you," he says, quietly.
Tanuma sits with him for a long time, until the sun goes down and the house gets dark.
The sixteenth time is the day when Kitamoto finds their early-morning school hideout. Tanuma chats with him while they wait for Natsume to arrive. Kitamoto talks about sports, about the weather, about popular music, and about a girl he cares for. He doesn't mention spirits, or fighting, or being lonely or ill.
Tanuma wonders what it must be like, to have a normal life.
When Natsume arrives, Kitamoto greets him loudly, drowning out Tanuma's own words.
"Good morning," he says, brightly, slinging an arm around Natsume's shoulders. And just like that, Tanuma is relegated to the background. He can only ever talk to Natsume when they're alone. He's too weak to compete for attention the way ordinary people do.
"What are you doing here?" Natsume asks, sounding surprised, and then looks right at Tanuma. "Hi."
"Hi," Tanuma replies, feeling his face heat up.
"I was just passing by," Kitamoto tells him. "Oh, you have a leaf in your hair."
He reaches for it, and Natsume kind of ducks away from his hand. Ponta makes his weird snuffling-laugh noise again.
"It's fine," Natsume says, uncomfortably. "But thanks for telling me."
Tanuma removes the leaf for him later, and manages not to pull out any hair at all. Sometimes he forgets just how privileged he truly is.
The eighteenth time, Natsume arrives first, and Tanuma overhears him having some sort of conversation with Ponta.
"Stop making those snorting noises," Natsume says, crossly. "It's inappropriate."
"I'm a cat," Ponta argues. "Cats make noises!"
"You keep telling me you're not a cat!"
"Are you going to drink all of that coffee?"
"Here," Natsume growls. "You're so annoying."
"And you're dishonest," Ponta snaps.
"I-I am not!" Natsume protests. "If you keep making comments, I'm going to let Taki babysit you."
"Hi," Tanuma says, a little louder than necessary. He doesn't want them to fight. He doesn't want Natsume to go through the whole day feeling bad.
"Hi," Natsume says, sounding kind of surprised. He jerks his head to one side, and the leaf that is perched precariously over his ear flutters to the ground.
"Well, that takes care of that," Ponta says, gleefully.
Natsume looks annoyed, though. Or maybe disappointed.
The next day, he has two leaves in his hair. And a couple of twigs. And this really strange expression on his face, like he's trying to prove something.
"If you pull out any strands today," Natsume tells Tanuma, "keep them. I need it to help make a seal."
"Understood," Tanuma says. It's the twenty-fifth time. Recently, he hasn't been accidentally depilating Natsume's hair as often as he used to. He's gotten better at this. He's not as clumsy and he's not as scared.
And…he loves the way Natsume always seems to brighten up after this strange little early-morning ritual. It's like he really hates the leaves, or something.
The twenty-ninth time, Taki is there.
"You two are adorable," she tells them, and Tanuma kind of freezes up and tugs on Natsume's hair really hard.
"I'm never adorable," Natsume informs her. He's wrong, but there's no way in the world Tanuma can have that particular argument with him.
Tanuma tries to force himself to calm down. It's just Taki, he trusts Taki, and he's not actually doing anything wrong.
"Well, maybe. Nothing is as adorable as Nyanko," Taki agrees, staring at the sky. "Mm. It's getting cold. Winter is coming."
"That's right," Tanuma says, thoughtfully. He actually is recovering. Or maybe he's just more comfortable around his friends. "You must be looking forward to it, Natsume. The trees won't be depositing things on you any more."
"Yeah," Natsume says, with a wide smile that doesn't reach his eyes.
"What are you going to do when winter comes?" Ponta asks, inquisitively.
"Be quiet," Natsume says, quickly.
He has six leaves today. Six.
"You'd better sit down," Tanuma says, soberly. "This might take a while."
Inwardly, he is dancing.
Every morning after that, Natsume comes to school with dozens of leaves in his hair. For a whole two weeks, Tanuma gets to touch him for at least five minutes a day.
This can't just be random. Seasons or no, Natsume never had leaves in his hair more than once or twice in the entirety of last year. He must have annoyed or befriended some sort of spirit. Or perhaps he's walking to school a different way. Something has changed, anyway. And whatever it is, Tanuma is grateful for it. Touching Natsume is one of the greatest joys in his life.
When he finishes, Natsume always sits there looking comfortable and kind of spaced out.
And then, on what should have been the forty-sixth time, Natsume shows up without any leaves at all.
"I guess its winter," he says, sadly.
"I guess so," Tanuma agrees. He wants to ruffle Natsume's hair, but he's painfully aware of how he doesn't have an excuse any more.
It takes another twenty-two days for Tanuma's fingers to stop itching every time he sees Natsume. Sometimes he feels like he's way too focused on Natsume's hair. Sometimes it feels like Natsume is constantly turning it towards him, constantly touching it, constantly putting his head on Tanuma's shoulder.
But after a while, Natsume stops doing those things. He seems exhausted all the time, too, like the chill is really getting to him.
It's hardly a surprise that the new girl with ice-blue hair turns out to be a spirit in disguise. She's not particularly troublesome. She has a mischievous streak, but she's mostly interested in finding a girl who attended their school some hundred years ago.
Natsume helps her, of course. He helps everyone. The spirit is completely beautiful, and very interested in Natsume, which does nothing for Tanuma's state of mind.
"You're very kind," she tells Natsume. They're walking side-by-side, close enough that their shoulders are touching. Thirty five minutes ago, she was trying to eat him. That's just the effect he has on people.
"Yes," Tanuma agrees.
"No, I'm not," Natsume replies, at the same time. And then they both stare at each other, like they sometimes do. Natsume's hair is fluffier today. He probably washed it last night.
The spirit sparkles - actually sparkles - to draw Natsume's attention back to her. And no matter what Tanuma does, he'll never be sparkly.
"I used to watch you all the time, you know," she says, and smiles. She's wearing summer clothes, even though it's cold enough that Tanuma can see his own breath.
An ordinary boy might be uncomfortable at this revelation, but Natsume is more at ease with spirits than he is with other human beings, and he smiles right back at her. Ponta frowns, though, which is strange. Tanuma wonders if things are going to turn sour. He's recently taken up jogging, in an attempt to improve his stamina. He wants to be useful in a fight. He wants to be able to help his friends.
"Maybe you should do this alone, Natsume," Ponta says, carefully. "Tanuma and Taki don't really need to come along, do they?"
"It's fine," Natsume informs him. "These people are my friends."
"I like your friends," the spirit says warmly, but she's only looking at Taki and Natsume. "But I like you more. You used to come into my forest every day. I thought you were so funny. But then you stopped, and I missed you. We missed you. My brother and I."
"Forest?" Natsume says, looking perplexed. "But I never-"
"Natsume," Ponta warns.
Tanuma feels like he's missing something, here. It must be one of those spirit-things that he can't possibly understand, because he's too ordinary.
"Yes, you did," the spirit says, happily. "Every morning. You used to take dying leaves from my sister's tree and put them into your hair. You were very amusing."
The colour drains from Natsume's face. He looks sick, like Tanuma on his worst days.
That can't be true, he thinks, and wonders why a spirit would say such a thing. Taki dashes over and grabs his arm.
"I've just remembered," she says, loudly. "I have to get home by five today. Tanuma, you can walk with me, okay?"
Tanuma lets her drag him away, feeling lost and confused and utterly stupid.
Tanuma doesn't sleep at all that night. He calls Taki twelve times.
"Okay, I've figured it out," he says. "It's some sort of ritual. For warding away…winter."
"You can't do something like that with just a few dead leaves," Taki says, knowingly.
"Are you sure?"
Half an hour later, he calls her again.
"What if it's the stress of being able to see spirits all the time?" he asks, panicked. "What if picking up weird habits is the first sign of something really bad?"
"You're clutching at straws," Taki announces. "Is there something you're trying desperately not to think about, Tanuma?"
Tanuma hangs up on her.
The next day, at school, Natsume isn't anywhere. Tanuma wanders around in a daze, looking for him.
Whatever this is, Tanuma can't let it ruin their friendship. And whatever this is, it's maybe huge and terrifying and Tanuma definitely isn't ready to deal with it yet.
He knows the words he has to say. He just has to find the boy to say them to.
"Where is he?" he asks Taki, resisting the urge to grab her by the shoulders. He can't take his mood out on his only other friend. "He's always at school by now."
"I don't know," Taki replies, with a sad little shrug.
Tanuma scrutinises her face.
"Don't know, or can't say?"
"Possibly a bit of both."
"But it's not your fault if I guess, right?" Tanuma queries, feeling strangely resourceful. "Is he hiding in the bathroom?"
Taki shakes her head.
"The, um, storage closet?"
"He's in the forest," Taki says, kind of explosively. "Go and fix this, Tanuma. Please."
Tanuma isn't certain he can fix this, but there's nothing he wouldn't do for Natsume.
Tanuma finds his friend sitting hunched and alone on a snow-covered stump. He manages to sneak up without Natsume noticing, which is testimony to just how awful Natsume must be feeling.
That spirit had no right to talk.
But it's not as if Tanuma didn't want to know.
No. Can't think about it. Too big.
"Natsume," he says, tremulously. "Please don't run away."
Natsume blanches and jerks, like Tanuma's words are physically painful. His eyes are cast downwards, and his hair is a mess. He looks like he hasn't slept, either.
"She was lying," he mutters, regarding the ground. "Really, she was lying. I never did that. The leaves were just a coincidence."
Tanuma exhales slowly. Okay. He can do this.
"I believe you," he says, gently.
Natsume huffs, his breath making his bangs move slightly against his cheeks. Tanuma still wants to touch him, more than anything else.
"Why would you believe me?" he asks, sounding uncharacteristically bitter.
"I believe you," Tanuma repeats, more emphatically. There isn't anything else to say.
Natsume gives him a tiny, miserable smile.
"Maybe," he says. "But…you'll always be suspicious. The next time I end up with something in my hair, you'll be looking at me and wondering-"
"No, I won't," Tanuma tells him. "I won't ever. If you come to school with something in your hair every single day, and you tell me it was an accident, then I won't question it. You are my friend, and I trust you, and I will always, always, always believe you."
"Oh," Natsume says, mouth dropping open like maybe he hadn't expected this at all.
The forty-sixth time is the next day, when Natsume comes to school with a sweet wrapper in his hair and Tanuma takes his time removing it and neither of them say a word.
The forty-seventh time is a cobweb. Since it's technically impossible to remove all of a cobweb, Tanuma spends several minutes with his fingers on Natsume's scalp, still grateful and amazed that he's allowed to do this again.
That maybe Natsume wants him to do this.
"There better not be a spider in here," he admonishes, cheerfully.
"Nn," Natsume replies.
The fiftieth time is a Wednesday. Natsume comes to lunch with string in his hair. It comes away easily, and Taki promptly seizes it and starts playing with Ponta.
"Hey, Tanuma," Natsume says, eyeing a spot on the horizon. "There's a spirit over there who looks just like Santa Claus."
"Really?" Tanuma asks. "Huh. That would make him a foreign spirit, right?"
Natsume kind of blinks at him, and then grins hugely.
"You truly will believe anything that I say," he says. He doesn't sound scathing or unkind. He sounds joyful and surprised.
"Of course," Tanuma replies, feeling a little offended.
Natsume puts his head down and butts against Tanuma's shoulder. Tanuma shoves at him affectionately, and that's the fifty-first time.
The day of the fifty-ninth time, Natsume suddenly dives behind Tanuma in the hallway, pressing up close to his back.
"Sorry," he says, quietly, and Tanuma can feel his breath. "The swamp spirit is here."
The swamp spirit simply adores Natsume, and tends to get excited and throw him around the room whenever it sees him.
"It's fine," Tanuma assures him, even though he feels kind of dizzy and weak.
The sixty-third time, Natsume arrives at school with glue in his hair. Glue. There's no way in the world Tanuma can remove it and not cause him pain.
"I don't think you should do this again," he says conversationally, gripping Natsume's hair away from the root, doing his best not to pull.
And then he remembers. Natsume isn't doing this on purpose. But Tanuma was careless with his words, and now Natsume might be thinking that Tanuma is suspicious of him after all.
"I mean, I don't think you should use glue again," he corrects, clumsily. "Next time you have to do an art project, you should use tape."
Natsume stays silent after that, even after Tanuma finishes, and Tanuma starts fidgeting and wondering what he's done wrong. Natsume turns to his cat.
"It's okay, right?" he asks, sounding polite and a little bit scared.
Ponta nods once. Tanuma wonders what they're talking about. Then Natsume takes a book from his bag and hands it to Tanuma. His knuckles are white again, which means this is a big deal.
"Book of Friends?" Tanuma reads. "Is this a spirit book?"
"No," Natsume explains. "It's a human belong. It belonged to my grandmother, and now it belongs to me."
Natsume takes a deep breath.
"On the pages are the spirits that she defeated. When she defeated them, she had them write down their names, as a promise that they'd go to her side whenever she called."
In the great scheme of things, this doesn't sound particularly important. But it is, obviously.
"Your grandmother had the same ability as you," Tanuma surmises.
"She's dead now," Natsume continues, and he doesn't sound sad, just rushed. Like he has to get this all out in one go. "That book is mine. I return the name to any spirit that asks, but there are still a lot of contracts remaining. And several spirits have attacked me to try and take this for themselves."
"You're in danger," Tanuma surmises. How long has this been going on? How long has Natsume been keeping this to himself?
Natsume shakes his head.
"I have my bodyguard," he says, gesturing to Ponta. "And I'm strong enough to fight most of them on my own. I just wanted you to know the truth. Sometimes, the trouble I get into is because of this."
Tanuma has dozens of questions.
What was your grandmother like?
What will happen when there are no names left in this book?
Why didn't you tell me earlier?
Will you take my name? I'll come whenever you call, I promise.
But he doesn't voice any of them. Instead, he passes the Book of Friends back to Natsume.
"Does Taki know about this?"
"Not yet," Natsume admits. "It's a big secret. I'll…I'll tell her soon."
"Does anyone else know about this?" Tanuma asks, surprised.
"Only Ponta," Natsume replies, with a lopsided little smile.
Tanuma wants to hug him, but that would be inappropriate. So he strokes Natsume's bangs instead, his fingers shaking and clumsy.
"Thank you," Natsume says, and closes his eyes.
The seventieth time isn't really anything at all, but Tanuma counts it anyway. It's eleven o'clock at night, and he's lying on a futon on the floor of Natsume's room, waiting to see if a nightmare demon is going to show up. They're supposed to sleep in shifts, but neither of them can seem to drift off.
"Touko is an amazing cook," Tanuma says, conversationally.
"Yeah," Natsume agrees, rolling onto his side. "She's really wonderful."
Tanuma wants to stroke his hair, but he's worried it might be inappropriate. In-bed petting is kind of intimate, after all, so Tanuma keeps his hands fisted resolutely under the pillow.
"I'm glad you found this family," he replies, instead.
"Me too," Natsume agrees. "You've still got the talisman, right?"
Taki made it for him. It alerts him when a spirit is nearby, thus making him slightly less useless to Natsume than before.
"Good," Natsume says, propping himself up on one arm. "Hey. I've been thinking. How would you feel if I set a spirit on you?"
Tanuma flinches, actually flinches.
"Why?" he asks, upset and confused. "What have I done?"
Natsume regards him curiously for a moment, and then looks embarrassed.
"Oh, the way I phrased that made it sound horrible," he says, sheepishly. "I meant as a bodyguard. Like Nyanko. You wouldn't be able to see it, of course, but I'd choose one that didn't make you feel sick."
"Why do I need a bodyguard?" Tanuma asks. No spirit has shown any interest in him since that lady with the mirror.
Natsume reaches across the floor and puts his hand on top of Tanuma's head.
"I don't want anything happening to you," he says, quietly.
Tanuma forgets to breathe for a moment.
"Okay," he manages, weakly. "That's fine, then."
The eighty-fifth time, Tanuma pets Taki with his other hand at the same time. They are both his precious friends, and he is lucky to have them close.
The first time it happens, winter is almost over, but the weather is still bitterly cold. It's early in the morning, the school is quiet, and Natsume and Tanuma are sitting on the bench near their old meeting place.
Natsume has nut shells in his hair. Tanuma picks them out, one-by-one, his fingers lingering in Natsume's bangs longer than is technically necessary.
"Your hands are always cold," Natsume comments, grabbing Tanuma's wrist.
"I have poor circulation," Tanuma explains. "Sorry."
Natsume seems strangely tense. His hand is shaking. Tanuma is mostly worried for him, but there's an annoying little voice at the back of Tanuma's mind saying 'it's time, today is the day'. Which is ridiculous, because this is an ordinary day. Tanuma is wearing ordinary clothes, and the breakfast he ate an hour ago was unremarkable. Nothing special is happening.
And then Natsume covers Tanuma's palm with his hand, his fingers sliding down between Tanuma's own. Tanuma feels his face heat up, feels his heart skid to a stop, feels the whole world pivot around him. Natsume's grip is vice-like, crushing and painful, but Tanuma really really doesn't care.
A full minute drags by, and neither of them move. Natsume stares resolutely at the ground. His face is as white as the snow.
"Are you okay?" Tanuma asks, worriedly. "You look pale."
Natsume glances at him timidly.
"And you're blushing," he murmurs, quickly looking away.
Tanuma tries to imagine what they must look like, sitting here in awkward silence in the shadows. And then he promptly bursts out laughing, because everything is ridiculous and he just feels so good.
Natsume joins in a moment later, resting his head against Tanuma's shoulder and giggling like a very small, very tired child. The sight of him makes Tanuma laugh harder, and the way he doesn't let go makes Tanuma stupid.
"Hopeless," Tanuma gasps, much later, when they finally manage to calm down. "Totally hopeless."
"Mm," Natsume says, sounding giddily happy. "Don't your hands get cold in summer, as well?"
"A bit," Tanuma admits. "They're cold pretty much all the time."
"Huh," Natsume says, thoughtfully. "Probably easier than finding bark and nut shells every day."
Tanuma thinks he might faint from happiness. It's not as if he didn't know. He kind of knew. The point was never whether Natsume was telling the truth. The point was that Tanuma needed to prove himself.
Tanuma still can't think about this, but maybe it doesn't matter.
"Probably," he agrees, and touches Natsume's hair with his free hand, even though he doesn't have any excuse at all.
+ thank you for reading.
* or at least I'd probably let him read it if he were not a parrot.