Nastume Takashi was a horrible liar. This was a painful fact his dear family and friends were all too familiar with. The way he can brush off something he was visibly upset about, the way he can furiously deny being sick with ashen skin and flushed cheeks, the way he can smile through gritted teeth and puffy red eyes- it was a part of Natsume that made his loved ones wince.
This part of Natsume was especially obvious when a certain exchange student arrived at their school.
"I'm Seta Mizuki, a pleasure to meet you all,"
Nishimura could've sworn he saw Natsume squirm at the sound of her saccharine voice. He forced his head down as she looked at him.
Nishimura poked Natsume's shoulder, "what's with the face? You know her or something?"
"It's nothing, she looks familiar, we might've had some history,"
Nishimura arched an eyebrow, "hmm?"
"N-not that kind of history!" Natsume flushed, shaking his head and waving his arms about his face, "we just went to the same school,"
"Ooooh," Nishimura said, unconvinced, "You seem really bothered by her though, what happened between you two?"
"It's fine, don't worry about it," Natsume feigned a chuckle.
On the contrary, Nishimura continued to worry about it. And rightfully so.
Next to notice was Kitamoto, who was already alerted by Nishimura that Natsume was hiding something, and kept his eyes peeled as the co-founder of the Natsume Protection SquadTM.
A few days after be began his stealthy eavesdropping, he saw Seta talking to the man in question in the hallway.
No, it appeared as if she was confronting him.
The girl, unblinking, whispered something inaudible in his ear. A ghost of a smile crept onto her face, and a stern scowl etched on his. Tears formed in his eyes as his trembling arm reached to cover his mouth. He looked so small and frail standing next to her, so much so that Kitamoto wished to pull him away from her to make it all stop. Before he could spring into action, the girl walked away once she dealt the damage.
Instinctively, Kitamoto rushed toward Natsume.
"Hey Natsume, you okay?"
He quickly regained his composure, giving Kitamoto a simple nod and promptly walked away at full speed.
"I can't let them know," Kitamoto heard Natsume whisper.
Natsume denied it, but his smile really did grow fainter and fainter ever since that girl showed up. Every time his friends tried to talk to him, he would always evade the conversation and make an escape. He looked unbearably miserable with Seta. He definitely didn't want to be there, so why was he doing it anyway? What was their relationship, really? Natsume refused to answer.
The final straw was when Sasada and Taki saw him weeping silently in the corner of the hall, quickly wiping his face when he heard a teacher call for him. They had to do something.
They rushed to tell Tanuma, including everything Nishimura and Kitamoto saw. Natsume would listen to Tanuma, they thought.
As expected, Tanuma was deeply shocked by what was happening. Why did Natsume have to keep everything to himself like this? A surge of emotions washed over him: annoyance, frustration, then overwhelming worry.
"I'll...I'll try to talk to him," Tanume told the girls.
Maybe it was another Yokai, knowing how Natsume could never say no to them. Then again, Natsume would have told him if it was. And based on the brief glances of her he stole occasionally, Seta seemed human. Could she have been Natsume's family? Another one of those relatives? What was it about her that made him so secretive?
Buried in his thoughts, Tanuma sighed as he sat down, only for the "bench" to snarl and hiss back at him. He jumped up and saw a very angry, slightly flattened Nyanko-sensei.
"Oi human! How dare you sit on me? The only reason I haven't eaten you yet's 'cause Natsume told me not to," the fat cat grumbled.
"Ah, Ponta, great timing" Tanuma said, ignoring Nyanko-sensei's fury, "I want to ask, what's wrong with Natsume lately? Is it a Yokai problem again?"
Nyanko-sensei sighed, "for once I actually wish it was,"
Tanuma frowned, "what's that supposed to mean?"
"I mean-" Nyanko-sensei jumped off the bench and straight into Tanuma's arms, "Natsume, that wimp, is being bullied,"
All the dots started to connect, the unexplained history, the running away, the pained looks.
Why Natsume refused to speak up made so much more sense. After all, most of the time, the people who hurt him were Yokai, or were indirectly affected by some sort of Yokai. There was an excuse for their inhumanity. This was different. Nyanko-sensei couldn't do anything and neither could Natsume. There wasn't any name-returning or special exorcisms he could do to make her stop. This was an intricate web of complicated history, each wound purposefully woven into another scar, forming layer upon layer of torture.
How long had Natsume been feeling like this, Tanuma couldn't bear to think of it.
He had to put an end to it, somehow. Natsume had finally started to open up to everyone, and Seta was pouring salt in wounds that hadn't even begun to heal.
Just then, Natsume came out of the classroom block and found Tanuma talking to Nyanko-sensei. There was something off about the way he walked, his left leg trailing behind his right like a loose piece of rope. Tanuma's eyes traced his body, from his boney legs to scrawny arms, to his small face and then-
a blue-black patch surrounding Natsume's right eye.
The image of Natsume so injured felt like a blunt knife in his chest, and it turned deeper when he saw his friend's failed attempt to curl the sides of his lips upward.
He couldn't even smile.
"Ah, there you are, Sensei," Natsume said.
Nyanko-sensei leaped out of Tanuma's arms and walked towards Natsume.
"Hey, Tanuma," he greeted politely.
A plastic flat tone sheathed his voice like cling wrap. It was suffocating to hear. Tanuma couldn't breathe.
He turned on his heel and prepared to make another escape, not wanting to engage in the conversation he had an inkling Tanuma wanted to have.
Nope, not happening. Tanume grabbed Natsume's shoulder.
"Did Seta do this to you?" He asked quietly.
Natsume looked away, "I really need to-"
Silence engulfed the air, fermenting the thickening tension. Natsume's arms went limp and let Nyanko-sensei fall through. The cat grumbled under his breath and trudged away.
"Look at me, Natsume," Tanuma spun him around.
As their eyes met, Tanuma saw hot tears streaming down his face, his lips quivering.
What happened next broke his heart. His friend, snivelling in sobs, pushing him and sprinting away. Never had Tanuma seen Natsume run faster, not when he was playing tag with Nishimura and the others, not when he was evading a Yokai, but here, away from him.
Out of helplessness? Fear?
"Natsume..." Tanuma said.
Tanuma told Nishimura and the others about what had happened, and Nishimura immediately called for an emergency meeting at the convenience store as soon as possible. Which was a few days later.
"Okay, I don't know about you guys, but I've just about had enough," Nishimura said, shaking his head.
The rest of the group muttered in agreement.
"There's gotta be something we can do," Tanuma nodded.
"It hurts, seeing Natsume-kun like this," Sasada said.
"Like what?" A cold voice hissed.
Everyone spun around and saw Seta standing in front of Natsume, as if she was clinging to an invisible leash that was wrapped tightly around Natsume. His eyes were hazy and unfocused, so close to them yet so far away. The bruise on his eye had almost completely healed. Almost.
"Don't you... D-Don't you know how sad Natsume has been?" Nishimura said, slightly unconfident but annoyed enough at what was happening to speak.
"Y-yeah!" Kitamoto backed him up, nervous but not nearly as much as he was concerned, "Natsume-kun, do you really want to be with her?"
Seta shot daggers at Natsume, who was whimpering and deathly pale.
"Stop making Natsume-kun so uncomfortable! He's clearly troubled by it," Taki said.
"Well," Seta scoffed, "I bet none of you would side him when you know what Natsume really is,"
Natsume let out a small gasp and looked at his friends with pleading eyes, but no words came out.
Sasada furrowed her eyebrows, "what are you talking about?"
"He's a freak," Seta said, holding up her index finger and swirling it around her temple "crazy,"
"Please," Natsume mustered a whisper he prayed someone could hear, "please don't tell them,"
"Oh my, it seems you've been been hiding something from your friends, Takashi," Seta chuckled.
The wrong person heard.
"That's not something a friend should do, keeping secrets like this,"
"please please please please please please" Natsume's slits-for-pupils were flickering about his glassy eyes.
"How about I share the truth about your friend?" A smirk plastered across her face.
"no no no no no no no" Natsume was breathing faster and faster, desperately clutching his chest because his lungs weren't doing their job.
"Natsume can see-"
A dull thud reverberated off the cold, hard floor.
Natsume thinks he can get a fresh start now that he's here with the Fujiwaras. But then,
"I heard you jumped off a cliff this time, what are you, suicidal?"
All the memories come flooding back. Seta Mizuki, his old tormentor whom he revealed his secret to. He regrets doing that more than anything.
Natsume hates her. He knows he shouldn't be judging her harshly, but for the life of him he can never understand why she does what she does. When it comes to his family, it's clear that he's the one at fault (or at least that's what he tells himself), but the lines here are blurred and fuzzy.
"You broke all the windows at your old school too," She whispers in his ear, "how crazy can you be?"
Like a leech, she latches onto him, releasing toxins and sucking up every last drop of happiness. After so long he assumes he'll be numb to her eventually, but it never happens. Her words sting and burn, devouring him like a ferocious fire.
"It would be such a shame if I told them everything-"
"Please," Natsume pleads, "I'll do whatever you want, just don't tell them,"
The muffled voice made Natsume stir. Gradually, he opened an eyelid, then both eyes. Two blurry circles came into focus, Touko and Shigeru. What were they doing here?
"T-Touko-san...Shigeru-san..." Natsume mumbled, looking around. He was lying on his bed with a moist cloth over his forehead.
Wait, he was at home? Wasn't he with...
The realisation soon dawned upon Natsume that his friends must have carried him back here when he passed out.
Ah, that's right, he passed out and made everyone worry even more.
"Takashi-kun, you're so pale..." Touko tut-tutted, reaching out to touch his forehead, "you're fever's down, that's good,"
"Ah, I'm so sorry for troubling you again," Natsume said, trying to stand up, but Shigeru protested.
"Your friends told us what happened," Shigeru said with a grave expression on his face.
Natsume sat back down.
"Is it true, Takashi-kun? That bruise wasn't from a fall, was it?" Touko fretted.
"Whatever it is, you can tell us, Takashi," Shigeru said, "we want to help you,"
But how could he admit it? And show that he was even more emotionally vulnerable than he had let on?
"I..." Natsume started a sentence he wasn't sure how to continue and trailed off.
"You don't have to lie," Touko squeezed his hand, "was it scary?"
Natsume gingerly touched the faint bruise surrounding his eye and flinched.
Maybe coming clean would be better, letting everything out could work. He could probably get Seta to apologise that way. No, what was he thinking?
The risk of having his past laid bare was much more painful. All the time spent building everyone's trust would go down the drain. They've been more than kind to him since the moment he arrived in this town. He knew it was selfish of him to only show the rosy parts of his life to his friends. But he didn't want to think about what would happen once they find out about everything.
Natsume winced, he was so pathetic. He wasn't strong enough and let this girl control him his whole life. There was no one he can turn to, not as long as Seta was here. He couldn't make anyone worry about this, but they were nice enough to constantly check up on him, it was all too much. He didn't deserve any of it.
His cheeks started to feel damp. Tears? Since when had he been crying?
"Oh, you poor thing," Touko embraced him in a hug.
"No...it's just...I-" Natsume could hear his voice breaking as he choked amidst ugly sobs.
"Shhhhhhh..." Touko cooed, "It's gonna be okay,"
"I was so scared," he breathed shakily, "I...c-couldn't do an...anything...I'm sorry...I'm sorry,"
"I'm calling the school," Shigeru said firmly as he stood up, "whoever did this shouldn't be allowed to get away with it,"
"I'm...I'm sorry," Natsume sniffed.
"No, Takashi-kun, you shouldn't be the one apologising," Shigeru said, "we'll fix this, together,"
And they did. After Shigeru made a report, followed by multiple eye witnesses (Natsume Protection SquadTM) affirming that it was the truth, Seta was expelled. Natsume never saw her again. Touko suggested a restraining order but Natsume insisted that it was a bit too extreme.
"Are you sure though? I mean she did a lot of stuff to you," Nishimura said as he accepted the cup of tea Natsume handed him.
Natsume shook his head and sat beside his friends, "no, she's just a kid like us, it'll put a bad feeling in my stomach,"
"Well, as long as she's not bothering you anymore I'm happy," Kitamoto said.
"Thanks, I'm sorry for worrying you all," Natsume said.
"Ugh stop being like that, we're always gonna worry about you, okay?" Sasada sighed.
"You better not hide things from us like that next time," Taki pouted, passionately petting Nyanko-sensei on her lap. The cat was not amused.
"Oh and Natsume, about what Seta wanted to say about you," Nishimura said.
Natsume's face turned pale, he was hoping not to have this conversation. He steeled himself and prepared for the onslaught of questions.
"You don't have to tell us,"
Natsume looked up at him and saw his friend's face beaming with reassurance.
"Yeah, you can tell us when your ready," Tanuma added.
Tears welled in his eyes, but he was determined not to let them roll down.
Natsume was a horrible liar, it didn't stop him from lying, though. But it was okay, because he had his friends and family looking out for him and slowly, he understood that it was alright to rely on them.