Being sick is like fading at times. It isn’t just the way Tanuma’s health waxes and wanes--it’s other people. His mother died young; he has a weakness in him that echoes her passing. He was happy enough the first time he and his father moved, away from the eyes of her family. There was no blame, just--worry, then acceptance, expectation. They would look at him one day and instead of a boy, there would be another ghost.
They don’t look at him that way anymore. Too many false alarms over the years, and it’s not worse, but he thinks--it’s not better, either. They were never false alarms, he was never dying. And every time he came back, there was less relief. Like the smaller shrines on the roads, like the gods and demons Natsume reveals stories of, as slowly as drawing sap from a worn old tree--people stop believing, and they forget. That’s worse. Tanuma remembers sitting next to his father in the moving truck, every spare scrap of them tied down in the back. Pressing his hot face to the cool window watching the town disappear, and he could think: no one will remember I was here, so maybe I wasn’t.
Tanuma feels the knocking, more than he hears it. A tugging at his senses, an urgency that makes him stop, listen. His father is away on another job, but he would know, he’s sure, that it isn’t wooden sandals on wooden floors. The rain is a constant rush and hiss against the roof and ground, but this is sharper, broken. He almost forgets the umbrella on his way out to meet it.
It. Doubt shivers through him, and he’s startled by rudeness when he opens the gate, finds Natsume standing in the road with his hand raised to keep knocking. He’s soaked through, hair sticking to his face, not dressed for the weather, but. That doesn’t strike Tanuma as odd. It feels like it should.
Something is striking him as odd. “Natsume,” he states, staring for a moment. He’s letting his friend get rained on, but there’s just--
He thinks of the fox who comes to the festivals, the child he’s carried on his shoulders. Ponta, Kai; the shadows of fish and grass bending for more than the breeze. Natsume looks at him, dripping and expectant, but there’s no answer, no explanation. The boy he knows would be stammering excuses or looking back down the road, trying to spot what was chasing him without letting on he’s being chased.
This. This isn’t Natsume. The thought slots in and turns like a key, lets some of the tension out of Tanuma’s shoulders, though the ache lingers in his neck, his head. They can’t all come and go as they please, he knows: some need to be invited in. Usually the worst ones, but he can’t--
He can see this one. It wants to be seen, and--and a fox isn’t always a fox, a cat isn’t always a cat. They make him sick, they took his mother--but he can’t be unkind to them. He learned that from Natsume, or he always knew, that nothing good came of that kind of hate. Teach them hate, and they really will put him back in the hospital.
Something came to his gate wearing Natsume’s face. Something came to him, needing, wanting, with Natsume’s face.
“I used to think he was a ghost,” he says plainly, shifting the umbrella in his hands to lean on the gate. Whatever this is, it’s already making him dizzy. “He doesn’t like to come in uninvited either, and he felt so strange to me. And I felt like I never saw him enough, but that was my fault, too.” He smiles, but the doppleganger just takes a step back, raising an arm to protect itself, or to run. “Maybe I’m the ghost, huh?”
He pushes the gate wider, still leaning. “I never decided, one way or the other. But one day it stopped mattering to me. So don’t worry about convincing me, whatever you are. Just get out of this rain, please.” He shouldn’t be out here like this, in the damp, letting a doppleganger into his father’s shrine. But it’s raining, but his father is gone; but it needs something. “Come on,” he says, pushing himself away from the gate, leaving the umbrella for it, whatever it decides. “I’ll prepare a bath.”
Several steps into the yard, a cold hand closes around his wrist, stopping him with a wave of feeling, a flash of that weakness, unsteadying him. Looking at the hand, he expects it to start burning, for the trap to be sprung, but it doesn’t. It’s just cold. When he looks back, Natsume’s face is still there, worn over a wariness that suits it too well. Without a word, its cold hand draws him closer, back under the umbrella. He smiles, leaning into it, feeling no stronger, but better. “Thank you.”
The spirit stays for five days. Every morning, his head pounds and the lights way like sun through windblown leaves. He summons the strength to call the school and let them know he won’t make it in today, can hear the secretary’s pen scribbling and imagines that she can write his name without thinking about it, that she un-writes it a little with every scrawl on the absence list.
He shouldn’t think that way, especially with the small bit of power he possesses. Things like that can come true.
After he hangs up, the phone is still there, it would only take a few transfers to reach his father, but his father never stops worrying. He might come home, and they would lose money, and. And he would have to explain the boy.
Something about it slides nastily through his stomach, the idea of his father coming home, finding him. He wouldn’t sense anything odd about the boy at all, would just believe the illusion. The feeling lingers, making his skin clammy and hot. He leaves the phone on the table and slips back under his blankets, back into the soothing dark of sleep.
He feels cooler when he wakes up again. The spirit is curled up at his side like a cat, half-under the blanket in the clothes he gave it last night. Even after the bath, after laying close under the blanket, it feels cold, like it never came in from the rain. That means something, Tanuma thinks, trying to climb his way out of the fever.
It’s wearing his face for a reason.
It still needs something.
The secretary keeps un-writing his name. Every morning, he wakes up dizzy and tired. When he makes it to the washroom, his skin is pale, his eyes are bruised. It’s scary and comforting at the same time, like shrugging on a moldy old coat, found in the attic. It fits, it’s familiar; it turns his stomach.
Looking at the spirit is much the same. It still doesn’t speak, just stares, just smiles, but the smile is so perfect, so full of the things he’s seen on Natsume’s face in the last year. It never speaks, so it never asks, but the need radiates from it, cold and soft and sad. “Are you hungry,” he asks, voice strained by his sore, dry throat. They’re usually hungry, for food or company or entertainment. Preparing meals drains him, but eating usually helps, or, he suspects, feeding it helps. They eat in the garden, in the sun, and he watches the way its hand moves through the air at its hip, like it’s trailing those long fingers through water he can’t see.
Turning to look through the open doors, he sees the shadow of that hand on the ceiling, against the ripples of light. When he smiles, the hand flicks like it’s splashing him, but he doesn’t feel any water. Just--better, something cool moving through him. Something sweeter when he looks back, and there’s no sound, but the spirit is laughing.
In the evenings, when his energy waxes fullest, starts to wane, he sweeps the yard and draws a bath, lets the doppleganger sit silently at the bath’s edge while he soaks. There’s a bone-deep ache in his body, heavy like a sinus infection, but he breathes just fine. The steam clears his head, and while the spirit doesn’t speak any more than Natsume does--doesn’t speak at all--he finds himself speaking to it. About Natsume, about his father. About growing up in so many places, always moving to avoid ayakashi. His father’s trips and how he would turn to the books and journals for company, fill the empty rooms with his own voice, his father’s words, his rough cough.
How he grew angry with the books sometimes, the things he couldn’t see, almost didn’t believe in. “I knew they were making me ill, but I didn’t want to believe it. I wanted to believe the doctors, I wanted them to stop being real. I was never at school enough to make friends, and when they found out I was sick, some of them thought it was contagious.
“You can’t tell people the truth about something like this. There are only some people who understand, and I hadn’t met any of them yet. Not until Natsume.” He smiles then, always smiles when he brings him up, so the doppleganger will know he isn’t angry.
Tanuma knows there were times when he would have put on someone else’s skin, given the chance. Someone who saw more or felt less. Someone who didn’t get sick so easily. He’s comfortable in his own now, most of the time. If it were just a little stronger, if it just saw a little more.
The double reaches hesitantly for his shoulder, and he does his best not to flinch at the cold. Even in the warm, steamy room, that skin is cold. That skin is not Natsume’s. “I wish I knew your name,” he says, voice slipping away from him, too soft to his own ears. “I would call you that, and you could call me Kaname.”
As the room fades into the steam and goes dark, its mouth opens--no sound, but the shape of a word. He thinks it’s his name, his name and wide, light eyes, and cold hands pulling him out of warm water.
On the fourth night, he doesn’t bother rolling out his father’s futon while the spirit uses the bath. It’s always there when he wakes up, clutching at his bedclothes and sleeping fitfully.
He can’t help but wonder if Natsume sleeps the same way. What he dreams about, how it affects his rest.
He can’t help but wonder, if anyone misses him at the school.
Tanuma thinks being pale and tired is an old coat for him too. Maybe that’s how the spirit took his face. It just took the coat and put it on, wore it to the shrine, wears it to bed now. It has Tanuma’s green shirt on tonight, soft fabric and cold skin sliding in next to him. No pretending tonight, saying goodnight from separate beds and rolling away. Or a different kind of pretending, when its arms wrap around him from from behind, and he can feel the cold all the way through. Feel cold, dry lips on the back of his neck.
It doesn’t breathe. Maybe that’s why it can’t speak, or it just has a voice he isn’t powerful enough to hear.
It isn’t Natsume. It isn’t warm when he turns over in its grip, it doesn’t gasp when he clutches the folds of his own shirt and stares at it, too close. “Is this what you wanted,” he asks, the dizzy, shaken feeling returned. Shaking him. When it kisses him, the feeling is like a dry hot breeze pushing right through him. It’s like kissing paper, or.
Or a ghost with his friend’s face. It cradles his head in Natsume’s hands and brushes its mouth here and there, cheeks and eyes and chin, a cold that isn’t strong enough yet to burn. A cold that is crisp like Autumn or the first frost, wrapped up in that familiar skin, those familiar eyes. A cold that gets in like the rain and makes everything it touches cold, makes it hard to breathe and stay awake. The ache in his bones is so solid right now, so heavy, telling him to move.
For just a moment, when those lips touch his own again, Tanuma presses back. Just his face tilting into it, his mouth yielding to pressure. Tomorrow he’ll wake up sick and make a phone call, be too tired to make a second. The secretary will un-write his name and his classmates won’t even ask where he is. Cold hands move to his throat, petting it, smoothing over it and going tense. It could grab him by the neck and choke him right now, or just. Just keep touching and taking, erasing him with those fingers, that mouth. He’ll disappear, and it’s okay, because this time someone will remember.
He hears the knocking, this time. It tugs him out of the dark, into a dark room, getting louder and louder. It’s not closer or more urgent, just--he can hear better, open his eyes and roll carefully toward the sound. Natsume puts cool hands on his face, ghosts those lips over his forehead. The knocking quiets again, sounds like its in a tunnel, or underwater. He doesn’t have to answer, he can just stay there. He’s so tired, why not just stay, and go to sleep. Natsume will be right there, will be curled up under the blanket when he wakes up.
That’s Natsume’s voice, yelling his name. “He sounds scared,” Tanuma murmurs. His face is wet, like waking up from a nightmare.
He doesn’t think Natsume has ever let him hear that before. The one touching his face, it doesn’t speak. It doesn’t breathe.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers, pushing its hands away and swallowing the tears. “I don’t think I can help you anymore.”
Something growls, so loud and deep it travels through the floor, through his body, and the spirit crouches over him as light rips through the room. He can hear wood cracking, hear Natsume calling his name, but the heaviness in his bones is dragging him away.
Just before he sinks completely, he feels something, hears a voice in the dark.
I’m sorry, Kaname.
When Tanuma wakes up, the heaviness is gone, along with the spirit.
Along with the door to his room, replaced with a hole that makes him stare and blink--proves Natsume is the real thing by the way he holds the back of his head and laughs a little hysterically, saying he can explain.
The door doesn’t matter, is just a door: Natsume’s knuckles are bleeding when he folds his hands in front of him to start apologizing. “It’s fine,” Tanuma says, getting up and stretching. It feels like he’s been asleep for a very long time, only the hole in his wall and a welcome intruder to tell him it wasn’t a dream. “Let’s take care of your hands.”
They take the first aid kit outside, in front of the garden. It’s still dark, light barely visible at the edge of the trees. Natsume must have run or flown here in the middle of the night, and it’s the clumsiness of gratitude and surprise that makes Tanuma ask how he knew while he winds a bandage around his knuckles.
Natsume looks away, stammering again. “Ah, you see--it’s a bit silly.”
After a week of speaking to silence, Tanuma keeps winding the bandage, patient enough for Natsume’s pauses. Patient enough to let them grow until Natsume has to fill them. “I dreamt about you. I was worried when they said you hadn’t come to school, and then. I’ve had dreams before, when people were in danger. I dreamt there was a woman in your house, and. And every night she drank some of your blood.”
Tanuma stops tying the bandage, just sits, with Natsume’s hand in his. The cold, dry feeling moves through him again, carrying in disappointment. It hadn’t felt like that kind of trick: it had felt like. Like having a friend, who listened to him, who ate with him. Who pulled him out of the bath when he fell asleep, and kissed him because they wanted to.
Who kissed him.
Natsume moves his hand, touching Tanuma’s shoulder to get his attention. His hand isn’t cold, but through the shirt, Tanuma can’t be sure. The hand in his own is warm, though. Warm, and scraped at the knuckles from trying to punch his way through the barrier, through the door. He was that worried. He didn’t think it was a false alarm. “I’m sorry, it was my fault. She said she didn’t want to take too much, but I--my grandmother took something from her, she couldn’t stay here without it. And she liked you very much. She felt terrible, she didn’t want anyone to disappear.”
The feeling that moves through him now--it must be relief, but it grabs him and squeezes. “So it wasn’t a trick,” he says, and it isn’t until Natsume’s hand pushes at his hair that he realizes he’s crying again. Tears crowding hot and heavy in his eyes, ready to fall, and his throat tight and dry. She didn’t want to disappear either, because she wanted to stay. “What was her name,” he asks, reaching for Natsume’s wrist, squeezing, because it feels like he has to. “Did she tell you her name?”
Demuring, Natsume shrinks in his grip, but Tanuma holds on, waiting. That hesitance could mean no, could mean anything. He doesn’t want to give in to it anymore, wants to chase it across the foot between them and find out which it is. “Natsume.”
“Azumi. She guarded a house down the road, but it was sold and destroyed. She shouldn’t have been dangerous, but without the house, she was too weak to remain here on her own. She wanted to stay here and protect the shrine if she could.” Natsume still won’t look at him, still--he said it was his fault, didn’t he? Azumi needed what he had to survive. That or Tanuma’s power, and he doubts that would have kept her alive for long.
Chase it, right across the space between them. “She looked like you,” Tanuma says, voice rough and dry in his throat. “She looked like you, the whole time.” He wonders how much Natsume actually saw in his dream. How much the admission actually means to him. "I knew it wasn't you, but I invited her in, because--"
"No." He knows that voice. That tired look--like Natsume's speaking to someone younger, more naive. Like they just don't understand how worthless he is.
He's the one who doesn't understand. "It was you," and this is more how he exptected it. Natsume's gasp when he chases him, chases his hesitance across the foot of space to kiss him. The warmth of his skin, and his short breaths, his fingers tightening in Tanuma's hair. There are no ghosts here, just warm skin and air, his mouth touching Natsume's cheeks and eyes and throat as he says oh, oh, finally, finally understanding. She liked Tanuma. She came in Natsume's skin, and this time. This time he almost died, would have died, for that face. For something sad and lonely, who just wanted somewhere to stay.
When Natsume's hands move to his arms, warm fingers and cool bandages against his skin and a cautious mouth catching his own--he can't say it wasn't worth it.
He's kind to them: he never knows when they'll pay it back.