Taki couldn't remember when it started, this longing, the noise inside her heart.
Words weren't an issue; words she could control. But she would gasp a little, sometimes, looking at them. She was always looking at them. She'd hesitate, not wanting to intrude and then not even sure that there was anything to intrude upon. Or that there should be.
She knew ayakashi were real, of course; she had no difficulty believing in things most people thought were just wisps of the imagination, escaped into air. But she'd been lonely, and terrified, for a year. And now that she was mostly safe (who was ever safe around Natsume?), her mind was twisting that sense of safety and how much she wanted it, how much she loved having others around who understood such things. Exaggerating it into something else, something inappropriate and probably imaginary.
She was an overfull glass around Natsume and Tanuma: perilous, messy.
Tanuma couldn't see everything Natsume saw, but his father had shown him how to recognize love; Tanuma saw it in the silent grief that pervaded his father's life, in the fear, plain to see despite his best efforts, that he would lose his son as well.
What escaped Tanuma was how much the other two noticed.
And what they were all supposed to do about it.
He paced the grounds of the temple at night. The moonlight made the shadows overflow with the sort of motion and shape that he was used to noticing in half-glimpses, and the silence was marked by occasional gusts of what he thought was sometimes wind and sometimes another thing entirely. He didn't find any answers, walking back and forth, sleepless and heartsick. But he kept doing it, even though his father never failed to wake up and take his arm to guide him back inside, murmuring that Tanuma mustn't catch a chill.
Natsume didn't trust himself. I see youkai, he thought. I've never been normal. I don't understand humans.
The kindnesses he'd received since moving in with the Fujiwaras had begun to convince him that he didn't deserve to be alone. That there might be nothing bad about him. And slowly, like the unfolding of buds in the spring, there were people who had become important to him. That was a whole new danger. He'd find himself sharply moved by the spirits he met -- their hopes and fears so much like his own -- and then their paths would diverge. That spirits marveled at the brevity of the human lifespan struck him as distressing irony. Meetings and partings were now routine; the pain the latter caused him was his best clue that he was no longer traveling alone, self-contained, through the world.
Taki and Tanuma had not -- yet? -- moved on; he felt grateful for their presence every single day. They were his best friends, though it felt tremendously arrogant to claim them as such, even to himself.
Still, people had friends. It was ordinary. A milestone. A sign, perhaps, of balance between his two very different worlds.
Lately, however, he'd been feeling less and less peaceful around them. Residual skittishness, he'd assumed: learning to trust them while at every turn still expecting to be rebuffed.
Yet he accepted that they were truly friends now, and his disquiet continued. He'd look up, and Taki would be considering him, a question on her face. She was more talkative than when they'd met, but she would never be, he suspected, garrulous. She was pretty bad at hiding her feelings, though. Or the years he spent trying to predict and avoid trouble had trained him to read the things humans didn't say, after all.
It was the same with Tanuma: uncertainty, something Tanuma wasn't sure he could ask. Taki and Tanuma themselves, too, had started edging uneasily around each other.
Was he falling in love? With two people? He snapped awake one night, panting, sweating, as the idea wended its way to his conscious mind. It clicked. It felt right. Except that had to be wrong, a symptom of how little he still understood human relations. Or love.
Touko-san loved him, he thought, in the way that families were supposed to work.
This, though? It terrified him, more than any youkai. It couldn't be love. It must be gratitude for their friendship, just expressed in a crooked kind of way.
Then again, he didn't think he was falling in love with Kitamoto or Nishimura.
And he didn't wonder if maybe, somehow, they were both falling in love with him.
And with each other at the same time.
There were no rules for this, in the human world or the youkai one (as far as he knew). Should he try to move things forward (as if he'd have any idea how, or any courage to do so)? Or make them go away, make it all go away?
The thing that had never failed to sever relationships before, well, they didn't care. They had the same secret.
No, instead he might drive them off with this crazy wish about the three of them.
Something slow was burning there. And he thought maybe they felt it too.
But they could go on like this forever, circling around the issue without acknowledging it. It crushed him, that possibility, in a way that made it clear that if he had ever managed to stop hoping for human connection, those days were long gone.
Being alone had been a wound that wouldn't heal, but he'd managed to cultivate a certain numbness.
He'd changed now; he didn't think he could stand to have the comfort of others stripped away once more.
Nyanko-sensei made acerbic remarks about how distracted Natsume had become -- even clumsier and stupider than usual -- but at least he didn't seem to know why. Sensei meddling in his love life would ruin everything. It might be for the best if so, but nevertheless, Natsume wasn't going to broach the subject with the cat.
And when had he become the type of person who could even contemplate a love life?
"Let's go," Tanuma said, tapping Taki on the shoulder. School had just ended, and the three of them were going to walk home together as usual, stopping for whatever treat Natsume's cat (his adorable, adorable cat) wanted that day.
That touch as he'd spoken: did Tanuma's fingers linger? And did he ever touch Natsume that way?
She'd been over this in her head a thousand times, a million times.
Maybe it was just Tanuma and Natsume. Maybe she was an intruder. Maybe those moments -- tiny, hot points of contact, eyes fluttering away nervously -- had nothing to do with her.
"Taki?" Natsume said. "Are you all right?" His eyebrows were slightly drawn in worry; Natsume was nothing if not kind, despite all the reasons he had to be anything but. It was one of the things she loved about him.
Love? The word sent a jolt through her. She meant love in the way people could love boy bands or puppies or their friends. Right?
Natsume was still waiting for a response, and now Tanuma paused on the stairs, looking up at her on the landing. She flushed and then cursed herself for it.
"Yes, I'm fine!" she said, forcing a smile. "What kind of snack are we going to get today?"
"Taki," Natsume began, frowning.
She waved a hand frantically in protest. "It's nothing!" She pushed past, hoping he didn't notice her indrawn breath as she brushed against his arm. Catching up with Tanuma, she asked, "What about ice cream?" She heard Natsume give a little sigh -- only a little sigh -- and continue down behind them.
Later that night, Taki gave up forcing herself to do her homework. She put her head on the desk and squeezed her eyes shut.
She was pretty sure other girls didn't have these dilemmas.
Then again, most girls didn't run around for a year dragging an old stick in the dirt tracing arcane designs. And most boys didn't have their own run-ins with spirits.
Would she give it all up? If a spirit offered her a spell (would it be a curse?) to forget it all, would she? No more circles, no more impending death while dragging innocent people with her. No more Tanuma, no more Natsume. No more kitty.
No. It was too late to wish them away.
She could keep trying to live with this, stuffing it down, distracting herself, lying to both of them with word and deed. It was hard. It would get harder. But trying to break a curse had been hard too. And she'd gotten through it. (With Natsume, of course. She squelched the thought.)
She could do that.
Or she could change things. But how? One boy, one girl: she had lots of models for that. People at school, any old magazine from the convenience store, TV. Two boys, or two girls: less common, but still, she knew those relationships existed.
But the three of them?
One day after school, Natsume said goodbye to both of them early to run an errand for Touko-san. They waved as they left; he paused and stared after them. Taki's hair was bright in the sun, and Tanuma tipped his head down as he said something to her, his own unruly hair falling just over his eyes. She laughed, a sound that still filled Natsume with relief, though it wasn't a rare thing, these days.
"Love takes many forms," a voice said in his ear, and he jumped.
It was Hiiragi. She looked at him and then down the street. "Sometimes it just happens, and everyone else thinks it's wrong. But if it feels right to the people involved, there's no question, is there?" As she turned back to him, Natsume wondered which of the two of them she was speaking about.
"My master needs to speak to you about a youkai that's moved into Yatsuhara and appears to be preying on humans," she added.
He nodded, relieved at the familiar topic, and made arrangements to see Natori when his errand was finished.
"Don't forget," Hiiragi said as she swooped away. Natsume didn't think she meant the appointment they'd just made.
He sighed and continued to the supermarket.
He kept thinking of Taki and Tanuma walking away from him. Maybe they were falling in love with each other. He should encourage Tanuma. Not that he had any idea how to do that.
But if he couldn't have both of them -- shameful, selfish desire -- then they should find happiness with each other.
He spent the rest of the afternoon before his meeting with Natori trying to persuade himself, and then feeling guilty that he was focusing on that rather than the malicious youkai; it wasn't that long since Tanuma's father had been doing solo patrols in Yatsuhara.
All the time Tanuma had spent in a sickbed gave him ample time for reflection, to turn and turn over in his mind moments and could-have-beens, to stamp images and feelings indelibly on his heart. It had long become a habit.
Right now Natsume was looking at him, leaning on the windowsill in the hallway at school, like he'd done so many times since they met at that same spot. Not an obvious candidate for a memorable moment, but Tanuma realized, with a start, that he was unlikely to ever forget it.
Natsume seemed to glow. It wasn't that he was happier, no. Although maybe he was. Maybe he was just learning to let his feelings show a little more. Still, there was something extraordinary about him.
It was Tanuma's eyes that had changed. How had he never noticed how, well, nice Natsume was to look at?
He would say beautiful, except that would make him blush a little too much.
Taki came over to say hi, squeezing in between them and turning first to Natsume. Tanuma saw Natsume blink in nervousness at having her steady regard so close.
Then Taki turned to Tanuma, and he felt a little flustered himself. Taki was an odd girl -- he'd thought so since their first awkward meeting -- but she was a good person. Having heard her story, he'd been impressed by her tenacity. And she tried to help Natsume just the way he did, even though neither of them had his talent.
And oh yes, he'd seen her crossdressing for the school festival, and had blushed just like Natsume had.
I can't ruin this, he thought. Us here, like this.
While he'd never been as alienated by his own, weaker spiritual powers as Natsume had been, it was a joy to be able to speak freely about such matters. They believed him; he believed them. He could see, as he thought Taki did, how Natsume, while more comfortable with the youkai, still found them a burden. How could they not be? And so Tanuma and Taki worked to take as much of that weight on themselves as possible.
Tanuma saw, every day, the price Natsume paid for his power. Despite this, Tanuma was often still frustrated by his own limited vision. It was tiresome, like hearing half a conversation in a language he didn't speak, through a wall. He'd whip his head around to glare at shadows, even though he knew by now that looking directly at them yielded nothing.
He suspected he also craved Natsume's talents because it felt like another way to be close to him.
But that didn't explain the way his stomach did a flip around Taki.
He didn't want his friends to feel troubled. That was the most important thing.
When Taki was cursed, she worked grimly to find a way to win, but she'd also spent lots of energy trying to pretend she wasn't afraid to die.
Not many things scared her now, not even the dangerous youkai that were drawn to Natsume.
That year had also taught her the value of applied effort. She decided to do something.
It might shatter their friendship, but it was cracking daily against the weight of what they all felt but didn't dare say. Natsume and Tanuma had grown more distant with each other. Their eyes told a different story (she saw them looking at each other, trying not to be noticed), but even being around both of them felt precarious. Something had to change.
Maybe she should try and work on each of them individually. She considered this plan for a week, but abandoned it. How would she choose? The other one might get jealous. She already saw glimpses of it: Tanuma had a way of scanning the air around Natsume, straining his eyes for any threat that might be lurking, whether youkai or nosy questions from Sasada. And although he still was fighting his lingering conviction that no one would want to be around him anyway, Natsume wanted to grab Tanuma and hold tight. She could see it, in every moment where the two of them jerked away like the other person was a hot stove, in the terseness that had crossed from a natural disinclination for talkativeness to bad manners. Which each of them then berated themselves for.
They were brusque with her, too, which in turn made her snappish. The three of them were nothing but prickles and burrs now, taking offense and throwing out hasty apologies every hour.
While it became more and more difficult for the three of them to spend time together, Taki still watched them all the time. She knew both their faces by heart, line by line, as clear as the design her grandfather gave her.
There was a time for looking, though, and a time for action. And that last had long since arrived. Natsume was developing a permanently stricken expression. That in itself, that he was hurting so much he couldn't hide it, filled Taki with urgency.
She'd come no closer to establishing a plan, however, when the situation erupted anyway.
Natsume stumbled upon Tanuma and Taki in the schoolyard, sitting under a tree. They were conferring about a youkai incident last week. As usual, they hadn't been able to witness most of the action, even though they'd been present. Natsume had run off, with a malevolent spirit clearly in pursuit. Taki and Tanuma (who hadn't had as much practice as Natsume and were still building their endurance) had joined the chase, catching up in time to see Natsume fling himself headfirst into a small cave, with Nyanko-sensei appearing out of nowhere a second later and diving after him. There'd been a boom, and a light, and a frigid wind streaking out of the cave, and then it was over. As far as they could tell.
Natsume had been limping as they left, one eye turning black. "I didn't have time to check what was in front of me," he'd said, gesturing at the cave, strewn with rocks as large as his head.
A few heated whispers had passed between Natsume and his cat; Natsume had said, "No, it's fine; I'll make sure it's not a problem," and wouldn't elaborate when Tanuma asked.
So Taki and Tanuma were trying to figure out what was going on. Such discussions took place every few days. "We're his friends," Taki was repeating as Natsume arrived. "Trouble is what we're here for."
Natsume wrenched himself to a halt when he saw them, heads bent low, faces tense. "Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt," he said, hands held up in a mix of apology and defense. "I'll see you later."
They'd been waiting for Natsume so they could all leave together; earlier he'd run out of the building, saying he had to take care of something and would be back soon.
Taki leapt up and grabbed Natsume's arm. "Wait, you're not -- " He shook her off.
Tanuma jumped to his feet and tentatively put his hand on Natsume's arm, low, as if he'd wanted to take Natsume's hand instead.
Taki's lips quirked, even though it wasn't funny. "Natsume, please. Wait. Both of you." They froze and looked at her, Tanuma's hand still so close to Natsume's.
"This isn't a competition," she said. She could feel her face heating up; she extended a hand towards them and hated that it was shaking. She knew they noticed. "We don't have to choose."
Would they let themselves understand? She couldn't believe they wouldn't know her meaning, but seeing it and acknowledging it were two different things. They were all too used to swallowing words.
It was quiet; she could hear giggles and excited chatter from some distance away, as other students made their way home. A bird in the branches above gave a lazy cry. Natsume and Tanuma hadn't moved. She met first Natsume's eyes, then Tanuma's.
Abruptly she was annoyed. Weeks of tension, places where words failed and doubt grew and their precious, rare friendship stumbled: she wouldn't let it go so easily.
"Don't move!" she snapped, because they wanted to bolt; they were like birds, really.
She lowered her hand, which had still been reaching for them. Their gazes darted up, towards her, towards each other.
Here was a beginning. "It's... okay," she said, twisting her lips. "Us. This. It's all right."
Neither of them said a word. She noticed their hands were shaking too, and wished she could hold them, one hand each in hers.
"Natsume!" came a jovial voice, making them all flinch. Her heart sunk: it was Nishimura, meaning that Kitamoto would be right behind. She didn't usually mind Natsume's other friends, though Nishimura had a habit of staring at her that she didn't like. Natsume and Tanuma stepped back from each other in unison, the latter bumping into Kitamoto as he did.
Nishimura brightened when he noticed her. Taki threw her hand up as he opened his mouth to speak. "I'm very sorry, but I need to speak to Natsume and Tanuma. It's very important," she said, shooting the people in question a warning look. She aimed a big smile at Nishimura.
"Oh, of course! We won't bother you, then," Nishimura said, face red. "Natsume, put in a good word for me!" he hissed, as Kitamoto tugged him along. She couldn't decide if he was foolish enough to think that she couldn't hear, or if it was part of the game he was playing.
It made her even more frustrated. What Nishimura wanted was simple. The moves were clear and comprehensible, unlike what she was tangled in now.
Once the other two boys were out of earshot, she said, "Don't even think about running away." They winced in tandem, and she relented a little; they were so frightened. So was she. "We can't keep pretending nothing is happening," she said, softer this time. "Please." Natsume's eyes flicked up to hers, and he gave a little nod. He turned to Tanuma, though he couldn't quite meet the other boy's gaze, and nodded again. She caught Tanuma's eyes and held them until he nodded as well.
"Well, what did you do when you realized you could see ayakashi? You didn't know what was going to happen then, right?" Taki asked, intent on Natsume in front of her. He was leaning, arms crossed, against the wall in front of the school, Tanuma pacing next to him: three steps to the left, then three back to the right, over and over. Taki's hands were clenched at her sides. She was trying not to shout, trying not to cry. They'd been walking for hours, talking round and round what all of them could see happening, without really addressing it. It hadn't been talking as much as nervous looks and half-sentences not much louder than the muted sounds their feet made in the grass or on the sidewalk. They hadn't encountered any spirits; Taki wondered if it was coincidence or if perhaps Nyanko-sensei knew more than Natsume realized and had cleared a space for them, for this. She'd have to thank him (extra cuddles) if so.
"That's different," Natsume objected, his body a vague outline in the shadows between the streetlights.
"Just tell me," Taki said. "What did you do?"
Natsume was shifting from foot to foot and focusing off somewhere in the distance. He'd gotten so much more confident and relaxed around people, and now she was making him think about why he built those walls to begin with. It hurt her, too, seeing him shrink under her questioning.
"I wanted it to stop," he said.
"But it didn't," Taki said, gently. "And you couldn't make it stop. So how did you deal with it?"
"By trying to ignore it as much as I could."
"But when that didn't work," she prompted. "What did you try then?" She knew the answer, but he had to say it.
Natsume sighed. "I lived with it. I just... tried to live with it. And tried not to control it so much."
At last. "See? That's all you need to do. All we need to do," she corrected herself. She stepped forward, almost touching him, leaning in.
"Just see where this goes," she said, after a quick gulp of air. She darted her left hand out and took Tanuma's hand. He startled, and she thought he might pull away, but his grip steadied.
This was where it got tricky. Or trickier. Natsume had seen that something had bloomed between her and Tanuma. His reaction after school today had confirmed it. Was he letting himself believe he wasn't intruding at all yet?
She turned back to Natsume, almost afraid to look. But not as afraid as he must be, she reminded herself. And, yes, fear, and the expectation of exclusion, and longing, were so bare on his face that she almost cried.
There was no grace in the way she grabbed his hand with her right one, all her calculations abandoned. His hand was sweaty, but he didn't tense like Tanuma did.
"Both of you," she said, squeezing their hands. "We can try it, can't we?" She meant to give them a moment to reply, but blurted, "Nothing about us is normal. And it's okay. It's okay that we deal with spirits. You believe that, right?" A quick glance from face to face: they were still with her.
"So this is okay, too. We can keep going and see where we end up, right? It's just like..." She took a fast breath and said, "Leaping into the dark. Without looking. Or something." What a stupid thing to say, she thought. As if Natsume needed to be reminded of the cave.
It surprised a laugh out of Tanuma. She squeezed his hand as he said, "Not a favorite activity of mine."
"Me neither," said Natsume. "It's scary. Who would want to do that?" His hand, Taki realized, was trembling, almost imperceptibly, in hers.
"But," Tanuma continued, "maybe you get to feel what it's like to fly. For a second, anyway."
Taki grinned, all the emotion she'd been keeping off her face for weeks now ablaze. "Yes," she said, "you do."
Natsume was hesitating, she could tell, even though he hadn't removed his hand. Her own hand was getting clammy.
"Natsume," Tanuma said, putting his free hand on the other boy's shoulder and trailing it down his arm. He took Natsume's other hand, hesitation clear in the gesture, belying the boldness in the way he met Natsume's eyes as he did it.
There was a long moment when nothing moved, when the entire earth was silent and waiting. Then Natsume smiled, a true smile, nothing like the frozen, forced look he applied when he was trying to skirt around the truth. Taki's breath escaped her -- she didn't recall holding it -- and she smiled back. She thought she might never stop smiling, actually, and the way Tanuma looked right now, he might not either.
"Let's go home," she said.
"Can we? Like this? People will stare," Tanuma said.
Taki giggled, dizzy with relief. "They already do. Here," she said, freeing her hands and pushing the two of them apart. She took each of them by the arm. "We can walk like this. Everyone will just think I'm a terrible flirt. And I don't really care."
They gave her a skeptical look, and then, as if by unspoken signal, all three of them shrugged. Starting off down the street, their steps fell into easy synchronicity.
The evening was growing chilly, with a rising breeze, but they were warm.