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Ties That Bind Us

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"Taking the first step!" the group chorused.

Everyone jumped from the starting line toward Tanuma, whose back was turned to them as he faced a tree. Nishimura landed on one foot and held his arms out wide to balance himself, grinning like a fool. Natsume took a conservative hop and looked around at the others, still not exactly sure what he was supposed to be doing.

"The daruma doll fell over!" Tanuma called out, his back still turned to them.

Everyone but Natsume moved forward again during the chant - and when Tanuma reached the final word, spinning around to face them, they all froze on the spot. Once again, Nishimura had ended up balancing on one foot, striking an awkward pose. Ami and Hibiki giggled loudly, and Kitamoto shooshed them, flicking his eyes over to Tanuma and grinning.

Tanuma, seemingly satisfied with them all, turned back to face the tree and began chanting again.

"Natusme, you're supposed to move!" Nishimura urged as he hopped forward himself.

Startled into motion, Natsume took a step and-

"...over!" Tanuma called, spinning around as everyone froze in place.

Everyone except Natsume.

"Natsume!" Tanuma called.

"Uh, oh, you've been caught!" the twins sang, laughing.

Natsume looked from Tanuma to Kitamoto, then back to Tanuma. Did I lose the game already?

_________

"So, Natsume, what are you doing this weekend?" Nishimura asked, leaning back in his seat, his hands folded behind his head and his legs stretched out into the train aisle.

"I'm not sure," Natsume replied. "I didn't have anything planned, really." He glanced out the window and watched the last bits of town fall behind them as they raced down the track.

Nishimura slid his foot noisily across the floor and nudged Kitamoto's with it. "What about you?"

"My aunt's going to be in town."

"Oh," Nishimura said, looking disappointed.

Natsume asked, "So you'll be spending time with your family, then, Kitamoto?"

"Sort of. My aunt's coming to help my mom with some stuff," he rubbed his forearm and looked away for a moment. "I'll be in charge of watching my little cousins while she's in town."

"Can't your sister watch them?" Nishimura asked.

"My mom said they needed her to help them, so I'm in charge of the twins this weekend."

"I see," Natsume said, though he didn't really know what it was like to be in charge of children, to have younger family he was responsible for. He'd had some experiences with youkai, but those weren't quite the same - or were they? In his mind, he saw an image of a paper nest in the corner of his bedroom. No, they probably weren't.

"I was thinking of taking them into town to the arcade and maybe a movie." Kitamoto said. "Do you guys want to come along and keep me company?"

"Sure," Nishimura said, perking up. "How about you, Natsume?"

"Okay, yeah," he said.

_________

"Natsume's been caught," the twins continued chanting, sing-song.

Natsume swallowed hard and looked around at the group. Nishimura, still holding his bizarre pose, explained, "Now you've been chained by the oni, Natsume. Go stand with Tanuma until we can free you!"

Nishimura was having far too much fun with this game. Natsume rolled his eyes, smirking, and walked toward the tree that Tanuma was leaning on.

Tanuma smiled at him and took hold of his hand. This must be what Nishimura had meant when he'd said "chained by the oni." Tanuma's gaze lingered on Natsume, and he felt awkward for a moment, like he was doing something dumb and Tanuma was trying to be polite about it. Well, they were holding hands, but that wasn't a big deal, really. Was it?

He did feel awkward about not knowing the game at all. He didn't like to talk about his past much - he didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him, it wasn't their fault - but sometimes there was nothing he could say to hide the fact that he was different from his friends. Natsume looked down to the ground and folded his other arm across his stomach, hunching his shoulders forward.

"Natsume?" Tanuma asked quietly.

Natsume blew up a breath, his bangs popping up a bit as he did so, then looked back at Tanuma and squeezed his hand a little. Thank you for always looking out for me, he wanted to say.

Tanuma's eyes went wide, and he whipped around to face the tree again, burying his face in the crook of his elbow. He started reciting the chant once more, and Natsume tried to figure out what was wrong. Was Tanuma blushing?

_________

"Thanks for inviting me," Tanuma said as they exited the arcade.

"I'm glad you could come," Natsume said, and Nishimura and Kitamoto echoed agreements.

Hibiki, one of Kitamoto's cousins, whined, "I don't want to leave yet!"

Hibiki's twin sister, Ami, grabbed Kitamoto's wrist and wheedled, "I want to keep playing!"

"We can keep playing, just not at the arcade. Your mom only gave me so much money."

"Use your money!" they said in unison, each twin now latched onto one of his arms, attempting to pull him back inside. Even after spending the last few hours with them, Natsume found he was still amazed each time they managed to speak as one. Kitamoto had said it was a "twin thing," whatever that meant.

"Nice try," Kitamoto said, carefully removing himself from their collective grasp. "I've got enough money to buy you ice cones if you want, but that's it."

"Ice cones?" Nishimura asked. "Yes!" He punched the air gleefully.

The twins whipped their heads around and spotted the ice cone cart across the street in the park, their eyes lighting up. They looked back to Kitamoto and started bouncing in place and giving him plaintive looks.

"Okay then, hold my hands while we cross the street," Kitamoto said, offering his hands to them.

"I wonder what flavors they've got," Nishimura wondered aloud as he followed after Kitamoto. He turned around once he stepped off the curb. "You guys coming?"

"Yeah," Natsume and Tanuma said together.

_________

"The daruma doll fell over!" Tanuma called, drawling the first few words, then racing through the rest in a blur that Natsume couldn't understand.

Tanuma spun around to face the others, pulling Natsume's hand with his, their fingers laced, palms pressed together. Natsume turned slightly to look over his shoulder as well. Nishimura was very close by now, crouched low in some sort of attack pose. The twins' laughter shook their entire bodies while they were otherwise stock still, frozen not far behind Nishimura. Kitamoto stood normally behind them all, smiling wide when he met Natsume's gaze.

Tanuma turned back to face the tree and chanted again, this time running all the words together in an indecipherable string. Before either of them could turn around, Nishimura cried, "Cut free!" and Natsume saw him make a double-handed slicing gesture above he and Tanuma's interlocked hands. Tanuma squeezed Natsume's hand, then let go. Natsume caught sight of the corner of Tanuma's smile, his face turned toward the tree.

Nishimura grabbed Natsume's wrist and tugged him along as he raced away from the tree, laughing nearly as loudly as the twins.

_________

"So what do we do now?" Nishimura asked the group as he tossed his empty cone wrapper in the park waste bin.

"We do have some time to kill before heading home," Kitamoto said, checking his watch. He addressed the twins, "What would you two like to do?"

"Kick the can!" Hibiki cried.

"Kick the can! Kick the can!" her sister hopped up and and joined him in chanting.

"How about a game that doesn't involve potentially breaking things," Kitamoto said.

"Tag?" Tanuma suggested.

Ami said, "That's boring."

"I've got it!" Nishimura announced, one hand on his hip and the other held up over his head, index finger pointing to the sky. He paused for a moment, seeming to wait for everyone's undivided attention, then announced his idea. "Daruman-san!"

Daruman-san? Natsume wasn't sure he'd heard of that game before - but then, there were a lot of games he probably didn't know about.

The twins squealed and bounced. Natsume couldn't remember ever bouncing like that as a kid. "Let's play that!" they begged.

"All right," Kitamoto said.

"Natsume?" Tanuma asked.

Natsume looked up at his friends, who all looked concerned. He couldn't think of anything to say other than the truth. "I don't know how to play that one," Natusme said. "But don't worry about me, you guys can play."

"Nonsense!" Nishimura said, coming over and wrapping his arm around Natusme's shoulders. "I was the Daruman-san King! I'll teach you, it's really easy."

"Yeah," the twins agreed, "really easy!"

"Okay," Natsume said, feeling a little weird that once again, he was the odd one out, having missed yet another common childhood experience.

"Tanuma, you be the oni first," Nishimura said.

Tanuma would be the oni? What kind of game was this?

_________

As it turned out, Nishimura was pretty good at this game. Every time Tanuma would capture one of them, Nishimura would soon set them free. Tanuma never complained, but he'd been the oni the entire game so far, and Natsume was sure it would stay that way so long as Nishimura continued to cut them free.

However, the twins seemed to be losing interest. The giggling was much more subdued each time Kitamoto or Natsume were captured, and the elaborate poses became less and less so each round of chanting. Natsume wasn't sure the game would last much longer.

"Natsume!" Tanuma called again.

Natsume hadn't been paying attention - and had been caught once more. Nishimura laughed and promised to set him free. Natsume grinned at Nishimura's enthusiasm, and walked over toward the tree.

Before Natsume could make it there, Hibiki whined loudly,"I'm hungry!"

"Me too," said Ami.

"Yeah," Nishimura said, "what time is it anyway?"

Kitamoto checked his watch. "It's actually about time to go. By the time we get home, dinner should almost be ready."

The twins grabbed each other's hands and started hopping around, squealing and laughing.

"Nishimura, my mom said to invite you if you wanted to come. You too, Natsume and Tanuma." Kitamoto looked up at the pair of them and raised an eyebrow. Then he said, "So, do you guys want to come with us?"

"Touko's expecting me," Natusme said, "but thank you."

"My dad'll be waiting for me," Tanuma said.

"No problem," Kitamoto said, turning to his cousins, who were weaving in and around Nishimura and Kitamoto, still holding hands. Kitamoto attempted to gain control of them while Nishimura laughed and slapped his knee.

Tanuma laughed too, squeezing Natsume's hand a little. Wait... Apparently the two of them were also holding hands again? Natsume hadn't realized it until just now. He looked up at Tanuma, who glanced down at their entwined fingers and flushed red. Apparently, he hadn't realized it either.

"So we'll see you Monday, Natsume? Tanuma?" Nishimura asked.

"Yeah," they answered in unison.

"Okay, later," Nishimura said. Then, giggling, he added, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do," sticking out his tongue and looking to Kitamoto.

"Later!" Kitamoto said, a twin grasped in each hand, pointedly ignoring Nishimura's antics.

"Bye!" the twins chimed.

Natsume waved at them and Tanuma said, "See you later."

Nishimura saluted them as they turned and left the park. Natsume said quietly, "I should probably head home, too."

"Yeah, me too."

Natsume dragged his feet and looked down at the grass. It had been a good day, and he was sad to see it end - but Natsume knew better than to think these kinds of days would last indefinitely. Still, he was learning to enjoy them as they came more and more. Tanuma was similarly quiet as they crossed the small park. Natsume wondered if he felt the same as Natsume: if Tanuma was also mindful of when a happy moment would end. Natsume sighed and decided not to think about that anymore today.

They were all the way to the bus stop when Natsume realized they were still holding hands.