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the subtle grace of gravity

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1.

Afterwards, Touko feels really bad for scaring him. She should've knocked. Normally she would have, because their new child is the most private person she's ever encountered, but having him in the house, silent and polite and smiling very conscientiously every time their eyes meet, just overwhelms Touko with the need to pour all the care she has over his head. For all she knows that it's impossible to change somebody's wary nature at once - she tamed plenty of stray cats in her childhood, picked up plenty of injured birds - she still wants to, sometimes so badly she can't sleep at night.

Takashi is so painfully thin and so implacably closed off that this impulse of hers naturally expresses itself in cooking up a storm, much more elaborate meals than she usually makes, enough that Shigeru goes from pleased to bemused to making "fattening us up for the oven" jokes. She doesn't mind. It gives her hands and her heart something to do, and the food presents a way she and her foundling child can communicate. Touko thinks he would be appalled to know just how much of himself he reveals at mealtimes. The way he's ready with praise and gratitude for her efforts, but never asks for a second helping, the way he's careful not to express preferences, the way he never wanders into the kitchen for a late-night studying snack or for something to take with him on his walks into the forest.

And if that just means that Touko learns his favorites, revealed in the slightest change of his expression, and cooks them more often, and leaves sweets on the table in the hopes of luring him over, and creates bentos as elaborate as she did when Shigeru was courting her, all those years ago... well.

But all of this thinking and planning and cooking and sheer feeling sometimes makes her hasty and careless. And so on that sweet sunny day she brings a plate of apples cut into the shapes of little rabbits to Takashi's room and opens the door without knocking, and so catches Takashi in the middle of playing with the fattest, ugliest, most ridiculous calico cat she's ever seen.

"Aww," Touko says out loud before she can catch herself, and Takashi drops the blade of grass he's been teasing the cat with and scrambles madly to his knees.

She knows his life was deeply unhappy before he came to them, she knows without him having to say anything, she knows his past troubles glide under the untroubled waters of his well-behaved placidity like whale shadows - but none of this prepares her for the shock of this scene. He goes from teasing and fond to chalk-white and tight-lipped in the space of one second, and he snatches the indignantly meowing cat and clutches it tightly to his chest as if he's trying to protect it from her.

Maybe he is. She furiously blinks the tears from her eyes, determined not to leave him space to begin apologizing, and smiles at the pair, as wide as she's able to.

"What a cute cat, Takashi! Does it have a name? Where did it come from? I'm so sorry for barging in and spoiling your game, I forgot to knock - I was thinking of what I should make for lunch tomorrow, and the laundry needs to be done, and I wanted to bring you - can you take the plate from me, please?"

Takashi scrambles to his feet, still clutching the cat to himself, and even amidst all Touko's worries it's easy to laugh in earnest at its short, fat paws furiously waving in the air. The plate changes hands, and Takashi stares at it like he doesn't know what it is. But Touko knows it's his favorite kind of snack, the one that makes his polite smile of thanks just a bit more real. So easy for her to make and bring up to him, to make his quiet afternoon just a bit more sweet.

He snatches a glance at her, a quick, darting look from under the eyelashes. Touko smiles at him, and adds a mental note to herself that he's likely to need a haircut soon, and probably another trip to the mall for clothes, because for all his careful fastidiousness, the boy's walks in the wood sure do a number on his pants and shirts.

The words burn on her tongue, wanting to spill out: of course you can keep the cat, of course I want to bring you your favorite food, of course I will take care of you, of course you're safe here. Of course I will not hurt you. Of course, of course. She should tell them - she should tell him about the cat, at least, to spare him the fear - but something keeps her still.

They're frozen like this, Touko and Takashi, bathed in the changing late afternoon sunlight. Even the cat stops struggling and seems content to hang in Takashi's grasp. It lasts and lasts - and then Takashi looks down, carefully studying the toes of his socks, one hand clutching the cat and the other the plate of apple bunnies like both are lifelines, and mumbles, so quiet she has to strain to hear him.

"His name's Nyanko-sensei. Please, can he stay with me?"

This time there's no stopping the tears from appearing, and she dashes them away as quickly as she can. "Of course," she says, dizzy with relief and joy. "Of course he can. What does he like to eat?"

When she leaves the room, mind buzzing with the idea of spoiling Takashi's cat, the cat that Takashi asked her for, the cat that Takashi trusted them with, and dying to tell Shigeru all about it, she can swear the cat winks at her.

2.

It takes Shigeru some time to talk Touko into going on a two nights trip with her old school friends, longer than it would normally take. He's emphatically not the kind of petty family man who requires the lives of all the household to revolve around him, or who gives out permissions or refusals. He knows how important it is to Touko to keep in touch with her network of old acquaintances, by letters and phone, and those rare but treasured visits. But he's fully aware of the root of her current indecisiveness too: the shadow-quiet boy who glides around their house on silent feet, trying so very hard not to be noticed.

He wonders how long it will take Takashi to come to terms with the realization that his chances of staying unnoticed by Touko or himself are basically nil.

As it is, by the early morning of Touko's departure the house is stocked with enough food to last them a month, and he has to practically push his wife out of the door, while she's still giving them last instructions, admonitions and good wishes. She straightens Takashi's collar with the hand not occupied with her bag and umbrella, keeping the litany of "don't forget to take your bento box tomorrow" and "the treats for Nyankichi-kun are in the third drawer", and the poor boy is looking a little wild around the eyes.

(But not, Shigeru thinks, unhappy or even embarrassed. Far from that.)

Finally Touko leaves for her hopefully uneventful two days of gentle gossip, sightseeing and onsen relaxation, and Shigeru slides the door closed behind her and smiles gently at the kid. He doesn't think Takashi has said more than three or four complete sentences to him in particular since the moment he's arrived, and he doesn't miss the way the boy's shoulders tighten just a bit when they're left alone.

He hung back all this time, letting Touko's gentle and unstoppable kindness do its overwhelming job first, but he has to admit that he's kind of been looking forward to having Takashi to himself for a while, if just so the kid could get used to him on his own.

"Well, Takashi," he says. "here we are. Breakfast?"

"I'll set the table," Takashi says, snapping to attention, and dashes away to the task before Shigeru can say anything else.

Ah well. Slow and steady wins the race.

They eat in mostly companionable silence, even though Takashi's ridiculously round cat, who's happily gorging himself on fish sticks in his bowl, is clearly the only creature in the room to be fully at ease. Takashi leaves a bit earlier than Shigeru does, his school bag slung over his shoulder and the cat trotting at his feet, and Shigeru sees him off and smiles in his wake.

The workday is long and exhausting, and when he makes it home, it's a pleasure to see Takashi's shoes carefully aligned by the door. The kid himself is nowhere to be seen, but Shigeru is used to him hiding in his room unless it's time for chores or meals, and there's still an hour or so until dinner. There are still papers in his briefcase that need his attention, and he resolves to finish up with them before they eat, so he'll have his evening clear. Maybe he can even lure Takashi into an after-dinner game of gomoku, and score some more full sentences out of him.

He discovers a tricky bit of a problem in an innocuous-looking document, and it absorbs his attention so much that his coffee grows cold, and he's way over the hour he's allotted to himself before dinner - and then a noise jerks him out of his reverie, and he looks up to see Takashi stumbling into the room, bleary-eyed and pale and swaying on his feet.

"I'm sorry," Takashi mumbles, "I'm sorry, I'll set the table now, I overslept."

His knees buckle when he leaves the support of the wall, and Shigeru lunges forward, scattered papers floating in his wake, and barely makes it to catch the boy before he hits the floor.

"Sorry," Takashi says again; he's shivering all over, tiny contained tremors, and Shigeru is shocked by the feverish heat radiating through him, even through his clothes.

"You're sick," he says. "Why didn't you tell me?"

He knows this is a stupid thing to say even before he closes his mouth. Takashi's round cranky cat, sitting in the doorway, starts licking its paw with an air of grumpy agreement.

"Nevermind," Shigeru says, climbing to his feet and pulling Takashi with him. "Let's get you back to bed, take your temperature, and I'll call Dr. Sato."

Takashi freezes under his arm, not quite in fear, Shigeru thinks, but rather in astonishment. "You don't need to," he says. "It's fine, I'm - I'm fine - it'll go away. Dinner..."

"Yes, yes," Shigeru says, towing him gently towards the stairs. "Teenage boys don't get sick, I know."

(He’d like to pretend it’s this kind of adolescent machismo, the boyish dislike of fuss. He knows he’s wrong, too.)

It takes some tugging and cajoling and talking nonsense to get Takashi settled down, the cat curled up on his chest and snoring within moments. Shigeru's pleased by how deftly he manages the whole thing, despite his lack of experience. Takashi is quiet and confused and scattered, obeying Shigeru's instructions while plaintively arguing there's no need for Shigeru to be doing it at all.

The thermometer beeps out that the fever is high but not frighteningly so, and so Shigeru unearths a bottle of cold medicine and decides that the call to the doctor can wait for tomorrow, as long as nothing changes.

He goes to the bathroom and returns to Takashi's bedside with a bowl of cold water and some compresses, and the utter lack of understanding in Takashi's clouded eyes just about breaks his heart.

"It's okay," Shigeru says. "I know you'd rather have Touko here right now, and she's going to be very sad for missing the chance to fuss over you properly, but you and I will do."

"You don't need to," Takashi says, quietly, his eyes fever-bright. "I don't understand."

"I know you don't," Shigeru sighs, and lays the first compress against the boy's hot forehead. "It's fine, Takashi. There's plenty of time, for you and for us."

The boy sighs at the touch of cold cloth, and closes his eyes, visibly giving in to the incomprehensible, and Shigeru smiles and settles in for a long wait.

3.

There's a special pleasure to going into town the day after a good May rain swept it clean and fresh the night before. The oppressive heat turns into something zestier and sweeter, and the air has a special quality, bubbly and new like freshly poured soda. Touko breathes it in and can't help smiling at everything she sees, from stray cats to kids playing on the sidewalk. It might be the weather, or the early morning - the whole day is free ahead of her, she doesn't have any big chores, and she's planning on buying groceries and checking out several clothing stores, and maybe a bookstore...

And of course, she's happy to have Takashi walking quietly next to her, Nyankichi-kun trotting proudly at his heels. Really, Takashi is the sweetest boy; she doesn't know a lot of teenagers his age who will take an invitation to go to town and help with the shopping without at least rolling their eyes. She asked him along mostly so they could look for some more nice sturdy outdoors clothes for him, but she doesn't really think that's why he agreed so readily.

She thinks Takashi might enjoy being out with her under the sun as much as she does; he's quiet, as he usually is, but it's a relaxed sort of quiet, with his brow untroubled and his eyes smooth and calm. He's smiling a bit, too, and not his usual, carefully constructed smile. She likes that he's gotten tan, too, looking like a countryside schoolboy who roams the fields and the woods in his free hours, and not like the pale, wan shadow who came into their house.

A signboard on the sidewalk draws her attention, and she takes Takashi's hand without thinking, excited like she's a schoolchild herself - and he doesn't flinch.

"Look, Takashi, a new ice cream place! Oh, look at that terrace they have. We have to go there after we finish the errands, what do you think?"

Nyankichi-kun sits up like he understands what she means, and agrees - really, the way this cat looks, sometimes you'd think it was human! - and Takashi, startled, still nods seriously at her without the anxious demur he would've given her just a month ago. The day is shaping up to be just perfect.

She's still absorbed in the pleasure of that moment when somebody greets them, and she has to blink and refocus on a vaguely familiar, sharply dressed younger woman before them. She's still trying to match a name to the face, when she feels Takashi stiffen next to her, going from being sweetly and quietly content to tense and awkwardly polite.

"Hi, Aunt Ito," he says, looking down at the ground, and Touko abruptly remembers that the woman is somebody from the far edges of Shigeru's family: they probably met at the wedding and never since.

"Hi," she says, brightly, "I'm happy to see you! Do you and Takashi know each other well?"

Takashi mumbles something indistinct and addressed mostly to the toes of his sneakers, and Ito, ignoring him, tells Touko that "it was their turn" with Takashi several years ago.

She laughs a bit, leans towards Touko with a conspiratorial air. "Did my cousin decide to pick up the family burden for now, Touko-san? Honestly, men can be so inconsiderate of their wives sometimes!"

Touko blinks at her, and decides she must have misunderstood the other woman somehow, and it's best to ignore it. Even so, the sweet morning perfection of the day seems to have dimmed.

"We're very happy that Takashi agreed to live with us," she says, just a bit more curt than she usually is.

"Oh, I'm sure you are," Ito says, and Touko definitely doesn't like her tone. She feels an absurd urge to shield Takashi from the woman's gaze - and then she decides she might as well be absurd if she feels like it, and steps a bit forward so she could stand between them.

"Excuse us," she says firmly, "we must run some errands while the shops are still empty. We will talk some other time."

Ito looks Takashi up and down, and her lip curls. "Clothes, probably? Are you still as careless with your things as ever, Natsume? You'd think by now you'd learn not to burden the people who have to take care of you that much."

There's a small, bitten-off sound behind her, not quite a gasp and not quite a sigh, and Touko can't help it, she just gapes at the woman. "It's always a joy to us," she says, finally, carefully pronouncing each word, "that Takashi is having enough fun outside to get his clothes dirty. A happy child is an active child, do you not agree? I never understood families that value clothes over children, although there must be some, of course."

She grabs Takashi's hand and marches them away from Ito, feeling too righteous to be appalled at her own rudeness. Nyankichi-kun bumps against her legs in a friendly fashion, as though he approves! But Takashi is practically stumbling, and under his tan, he's sickly pale. All of those things add up to the only possible decision, and Touko swerves them to the ice cream cafe and gets herself and Takashi seated under one of its pale-green umbrellas before he can protest.

"I think," she tells him, "we each need a very big parfait right now. Do you agree?"

He looks like he isn't sure, but doesn't contradict her - not that she thought he would, not right now - and so she makes an order, and makes sure to ask for an additional bowl for Nyankichi-kun, who climbed into Takashi's lap the moment they sat down, and whom Takashi-kun is already petting without looking aware of it.

"Honestly," Touko says, fanning herself with a napkin, "the sheer nerve of that woman."

Takashi is staring at his lap, but at this he peeks up at her through his fringe. "I'm sorry," he says. "Will Shigeru-san be angry that you quarreled? It's my fault she..."

"Takashi," Touko says, firmly. "How many clothes did she buy you when you were living with her and her husband?"

"...a shirt," Takashi mumbles after a long pause. "I was trying to hide - uh, I was careless and tore my school shirt."

"And how many of them did you have?"

"Uh," Takashi says, looking like she has absolutely no idea of where she's going with it, and she can't wait to talk to Shigeru about it. She doubts they'll ever see Ito again. "Two? That's why Ito-san had to go out and buy me one before the next school day. She was very annoyed."

Touko can't help a sound that she makes at that, and Takashi startles. Thankfully, the waiter comes over to distribute their parfaits, and gives her a bit of time to compose herself. It’s probably not good for Takashi to hear her uncensored opinion about that woman right now, she’d scare him.

"Really," he says, looking up at Touko in an earnest entreaty, "it was my fault, for such an inconvenience. And we don't need to buy clothes today, Touko-san! I swear I will be more careful with my things, and clean them better, and..."

Touko's ice cream turns sour on her tongue. She swallows it carefully, puts the spoon down. "Takashi," she says, "do you know why I was so angry with her, right now?"

He shakes her hand, and she reaches out her hand, very gently, and tucks the hair out of his eyes.

"Because she told you some very stupid things," she says, "and it looks like you believed them. But now I want you to believe me, too: it's never a burden to take care of you, and I will never care about your clothes more than I care about you being happy and having fun. Do you understand?"

He nods without looking at her, a tiniest possible movement, and Touko smiles at him. "Just for that, we're getting you a nice hoodie, too. What's your favorite color?"

4.

Shigeru doesn't really worry overmuch when Takashi skips dinner. It's a rare occurrence, but it does happen sometimes - he gets caught up in a visit to a friend or on a forest walk, and sometimes he gets one of his headaches and stays in his room to sleep it off. Very soon after taking Takashi in, Shigeru and Touko saw how much time he spent outside, exploring the countryside, and decided that giving him his freedom in this regard would do him some good.

Touko would probably still scold him, Shigeru thinks, and smiles at the thought. He doesn't know who enjoys those scolding sessions more, Touko or Takashi himself; you’d have to be blind not to see how much the boy blooms under the attention. No matter how often it happens, the idea that somebody misses him when he's gone is clearly still delightful to Takashi.

So; all said, Shigeru doesn't worry at first, but Touko does; she goes up to check up on him and discovers his room dark and empty, Takashi's shoes and bag gone, and returns with a frown on her face.

"Did he tell you he's going out, dear?"

"No," Shigeru says, "but you know he goes out in the afternoon. He's probably just gotten caught up."

Touko nods, but she remains pensive all through the dinner, frowning and hesitating over food, and by the end of the meal Shigeru, well-used to the two of them sharing moods and sometimes thoughts, is feeling restless himself.

"Why don't you call his friends? Nishimura, or maybe Sasada? I'm sure he's with one of them."

"You're right," Touko says, looking relieved. "They're probably at somebody's house, and he forgot to call - I'm going to tell him he should be more thoughtful, when he comes home!"

She goes to the phone, and Shigeru listens in, feeling the apprehension slowly unfurl inside of him. Nishimura hasn't seen Takashi since they parted ways after school. Same for Kitamoto; same for Sasada; same for the handful of other kids in the class Takashi is friendly with.

Touko's face is growing more and more troubled with each call, and Shigeru can't stand sitting in one place anymore; he gets up and goes to her side, hugs her from behind, and Touko leans into him, tense and small under his hands.

She’s muttering names under her breath, leafing through her notebook - "Tanuma," she finally says triumphantly, "the priest's boy - they're always over at his house, I'm sure he's there now."

The phone rings and rings, and Shigeru realizes that he's holding his breath, and it's ridiculous. They live in a peaceful, quiet bit of the countryside, where kids roam unchecked from morning to night, and the police never have to deal with anything more serious than pranks. It's ridiculous to think that anything might have happened; and yet he's starting to feel a breathless urgency, a fear that's stealing his breath.

Finally somebody picks up the phone, and Touko starts talking without even saying her greetings - and Shigeru, crestfallen, hears a clear "no" over her shoulder.

"Oh," Touko says; her shoulders droop. "I'm sorry, we just..."

There's a slight hesitation that Shigeru can hear over the phone; he's seized with the sudden fantasy that Tanuma knows something he's not telling. He squeezes Touko's shoulders and strains his ears.

"Could he," Tanuma finally says, every word carefully slow, "still be in the woods? He, uh, he spent a lot of time there lately."

Touko twists around to stare at Shigeru, and he fears his answering stare is just as blank. "Is there anything different? He’s out most days, and he knows the way around very well by now."

Tanuma's tinny voice over the phone is still hesitant - and definitely worried, too. "I just, I just had a feeling. I could come over and help you look?"

"No," Touko says, firmly. "One missing kid is enough, you don't want your father to worry, too. We'll go look for him. I'm sure everything is alright."

"Could you please call me when you find him," Tanuma asks, and Shigeru's misgivings turn into a full-blown surety that something is wrong, because teenagers shouldn't sound like this when somebody's late to dinner.

He hugs Touko harder to him, wordlessly, and goes to rummage in the kitchen drawers for their flashlights, his mind churning with questions. What can it be about? Takashi is private, if not outright secretive, and more accident-prone than any kid Shigeru knows, bad enough that he and Touko have discussed taking him for an inner ear check-up. He's nervy and jumpy, easily startled, liable to hide anything that bothers him under a bland, awkward smile. But none of this translates into the kind of worry he heard in Tanuma's tone. What can it even be? Drugs? Gangs? Shigeru snorts, amused at his own ridiculousness.

"He's fine, isn't it? He probably missed the sunset, and then got turned around, right, dear?"

"Of course he did," Shigeru lies, and gives Touko her flashlight; her fingers are cold and slightly trembling, and he knows they're both remembering sitting on the narrow hospital bench outside of Takashi's room, waiting to see if he would be alright, and fuming at the way his previous family did not even deign to show up.

(And come to think about it, Takashi never explained just how he came by to be injured, or what he was doing on the mountain in the first place. They've quietly assumed that he tried to run away from home because he felt unhappy and got into an accident, and didn't press him - but why, why would it happen now? Shigeru would've sworn he was happy with them, and so much easier around them.)

"Let's go find him so we can ground him forever," he says out loud, cutting himself away from his unhappy thoughts, and they set out, hand in hand.

They hurry through the neighborhood, and beyond the warm lights of its streetlamps. The woods, familiar and cozy through the day, seem sinister in the darkness. Shigeru clasps Touko's hand as they stumble through the forest paths, swinging his flashlight in broad arcs, calling for Takashi and straining to hear the answer. An unnamed, formless panic is overflowing him, him and Touko both. He feels like they're running out of time, and he does not know why.

Deeper and deeper, and still no answer; Touko stumbles over an unseen root, and as Shigeru catches her, the worry in her exhaustion-white face is nigh unbearable. "Dear," she gasps, "what do we do? Something awful - I don't know why, but something awful... And we don't know where..."

The beam of her flashlight falls on the dark bushes on the side of the path; in his own light, Shigeru sees her eyes go round. "Something white, there! - do you see? - ", and before he can stop her, she darts off the path, and Shigeru curses and follows.

He doesn't know what they're chasing, what white phantom she might possibly be seeing in the darkness under the trees, but she picks her way between the trees unerringly, calling Takashi's name, and he runs after her, stumbling and falling, catching his hands on the rough dirt, his heart beating wildly in his throat, until they burst into a small clearing lit up by a flat silver sheen.

(Moonlight, Shigeru tells himself, this is moonlight, and does not look up into the empty dark sky.)

His wife stops suddenly, throwing her hands up as if to protect himself, and makes a thin, reedy sound of horror that makes the Shigeru's hair rise - and then he sees it for himself. His child's pale, bloodless face, closed eyes. He grabs her hand, stopping in the same disbelieving horror - his eyes refuse to make sense of the scene before him - Takashi on his back, a dark shadow of something big pinning the lower half of his body down, the coppery smell of fresh blood in the air - it can't be -

A small white form launches itself off Takashi's chest, meowing madly, and Touko gasps "Nyankichi-kun!", and sprints across the clearing to drop to her knees at Takashi's side, Shigeru just a step behind.

Under Touko's frantically searching fingers, Takashi gasps in pain and opens his eyes, and Shigeru's lungs remember how they're supposed to work.

"Mom," Takashi says, faint and confused.

"Yes," Touko says without missing a beat, "yes, dear, I'm here, it's okay - it's going to be okay now - you just rest - "

Takashi's cat slips between Shigeru's unsteady legs and curls up next to Takashi's face, licks his cheek. It looks smaller than usual, haggard and exhausted, and there's blood and dirt on its fur.

Nothing about it makes any sense, and so Shigeru makes himself examine what's pinning Takashi down; his flashlight turns the dark shape into a fallen tree, old and half-rotten, and - he swallows, and drops to his knees hastily, making sure that his back is shielding Touko from the sight of one of its branches piercing Takashi's leg.

"Touko," he says over his shoulder once he gets his roiling insides under control and makes sure his voice is calm. "You need to get back to the neighborhood and call an ambulance. I'll stay with him."

"But... Dear, I'll stay with him..."

"Touko," he says again. "I don't know what's happened here, but I don't want you to be here alone, and we shouldn't - we can't move him. Can you find your way back?"

He shuffles over to face her, still careful to obstruct her line of sight. She stares at him, a small tremor in those lips he knows so well, and when she swallows and straightens her spine, he's abruptly filled with familiar, well-worn, endless love for her.

"Okay," she says. She leans down to Takashi to kiss his forehead, and whispers something too low for Shigeru to catch into his ear. "I'll be back before you know it."

He knows very well what it costs her to get to her feet and turn her back on Takashi, because he hears the kid's plaintive, terrified inhale as well as she does. But she does it anyway, and then he's the one by Takashi's side, struggling out of his coat and laying it over Takashi's slight form, before she disappears behind the trees.

"It's okay," he says. "Let's just wait a little more, can you? Just you and me. We'll get you to the hospital before you know it."

Takashi's eyes slide half-closed; it's a wonder he's conscious at all, and it's hard to say if he realizes where he is and what's happening. Shigeru waits and tries to rub some warmth into his cold fingers, while his brain keeps uselessly calculating the hours and minutes, trying to figure out just how long - while they were having dinner, while he was reading his newspaper, while -

"Shigeru-san," Takashi says suddenly, startling Shigeru half-out of his skin, clear and terrified. "What - why are you here? You can't, you can't be in the woods."

He's stirring, trying to rise on his elbows, his mouth going rigid with pain, and Shigeru, panicked, leans over him to keep him down. "Takashi," he snaps, "keep still! Keep still, you're hurt. Where else would I be? We couldn't find you!"

Tears start pooling under Takashi's eyes, slide down to his ears, and Shigeru wipes them with his fingers carefully, trying not to scare him. He brings his voice down with an effort. "It's fine, it's going to be fine, Touko's gone for help. I promise nobody's angry with you."

"It's too dangerous," Takashi says. "In the woods. Too... you can't..."

"It doesn't matter," Shigeru says. "Whatever happened, it doesn't matter. We found you, it's all going to be alright now."

Takashi stares at him in something like wonder and terror at once, and he looks so young and so lost that Shigeru wants to find every last person who's ever abandoned him in danger and strike them all down.

"It's okay," he says again, helplessly, and smoothes the sweat-soaked hair off his child's forehead. "It's okay."

Takashi's eyes slide closed, and Shigeru jolts in alarm. But then there's light and noise coming from behind the trees, Touko's voice calling for them, and there's nothing to do but wait and hold Takashi's hand.

5.

Natsume opens his eyes to a white ceiling, a cotton-dry mouth, and the unpleasantly familiar bite of a needle in the crook of his left elbow. The word "hospital" slides into his mind, along with fuzzy, slippery memories of Shigeru-san leaning over him, and Touko-san wiping his face with a cool cloth and crying, and before that Nyanko-sensei licking his cheek - in the woods - in the woods -

The thing in the woods! He gasps in horror, surging to get up, and gets checked by Nyanko-sensei warm, solid weight on his chest.

"Quiet, kid," sensei grumbles. We sealed it, remember? If it didn't manage to hurl that tree at you on its way out, you'd be home already."

"Oh."

Natsume leans back into the pillow, trying to marshal his fuzzy thoughts. Did they? It's all jumbled and tossed together - the fight, the trap they've managed to lay, the fury on the yokai's face when it realized it's been thwarted. The pain. His terror once they've realized Nyanko-sensei had spent too much of his powers to get into his proper form and get the tree off him. And then, improbably...

"And besides," Nyanko-sensei adds with a petty relish in his timing, "you'll wake him up."

Natsume whips his head around so fast it begins to spin, and spots Shigeru-san stretched out on the cot in the corner of the room, disheveled and fast asleep.

"Oh," Natsume says again. "It's - they really were there?"

"Yes, and I have no idea how they found you, they shouldn't have been able to. Maybe somebody in the forest guided them, who knows."

Natsume's still digesting that when the door creaks open, and Touko-san, laden with bags, tiptoes into the room. She looks just as ruffled as Shigeru-san, although her clothes are fresher, and there are dark bags under her eyes. Even under the numbing buzz of painkillers he can feel a merciless, miserable squeeze in his rib cage that doesn't have anything to do with an injury. She shouldn't have been in the forest; Shigeru-san shouldn't have been in the forest. There were so many things that could've brought them harm, on a night like this.

He opens his mouth to say - something, he doesn't know what, he doesn't know how to apologize - and she sees that he's awake and drops her bags in a rush to his bed.

"Takashi! Oh my, you're awake! Shigeru, Shigeru, wake up."

The next half an hour is a pure whirlwind of confusion, and Nyanko-sensei disappears somewhere, the traitor. Natsume is hugged, and scolded, and fussed over, and hugged again, and Touko-san keeps crying and then laughing, and Shigeru-san squeezes his shoulder; the nurse comes in and the doctor comes in, there's an examination and questions and explanations.

His leg is pretty badly broken, and he's going to be in traction for a while, and off his feet for a while more. This happened to him before, and doesn't worry him too much. But it’s weird that this time he won't be stuck into the far room of the house to recuperate on his own, with his foster family clearly begrudging every moment spent on his care when it's obvious to them he's at fault for his own injury. This time, he knows, there will be snacks and blankets and cups of medicinal tea, and hugs and offers for help. He doesn't know what to do with any of it.

"All your friends called," Touko-san says, smiling, when the doctors and nurses leave them alone, and Nyanko-sensei reappears from wherever he's been hiding and triumphantly plops himself on Natsume's chest. She's sitting next to his bed, holding his hand, and Shigeru-san is looking down at Natsume from beyond her shoulder, and the twin expressions on their faces make him want to cry. "Everybody's very worried! I told them you'll have to rest today, but tomorrow they can start visiting. I'm sure our poor hospital never saw so many teenagers in one place."

"It seems to me," Shigeru says, dryly, and something in his tone makes Natsume swallow, "that not one of them was particularly surprised. And Tanuma asked us to tell you that he’s very angry with you, for a reason you’ll know about."

"I..."

"Takashi," Touko says, and she sounds worried now, worried and tense, and Natsume hates, hates, hates being the one to put this worry in her face. "Takashi, what happened? The police thinks you were just playing around when the tree fell, an accident, but - "

"But you told us it was dangerous in the woods," Shigeru finishes for her. He pulls up his own chair next to Touko, and she leans into him for a moment, resting her head on his shoulder. "And - Takashi. Did somebody hurt you? Is somebody threatening you?"

He stares fixedly ahead of himself, fighting the rising urge to laugh and cry at once. What can he say to them? Nyanko-sensei uncurls a little, snorts at him in unimpressed amusement, and closes his eyes again, obviously indicating that he's on his own.

"I, uh," Natsume says when the silence becomes unbearable, and runs out of steam. "I..."

"Whatever it is," Touko-san pleads, "please tell us. We will help you. We could've gone with you this time, and - "

"No," Natsume immediately says and sits up in the bed, Nyanko-sensei sticking his claws into his chest with an annoyed mraow as he's dislodged. "No! You should never go into the forest after dark, never!"

"...Takashi," Shigeru-san says, carefully, and puts his hand on Natsume's shoulder. "Just what is there in the woods? If somebody's - threatening you - and you think even the police can't help, we still can do something. We can sell the house, move to another town, we'll figure something out. But you have to tell us. It's not your responsibility to try and deal with it alone, you know that, right?"

Natsume's brain goes completely blank; all his thoughts fizzle out.

"But it's your home," he says, helplessly.

"And you're our child," Touko says, gently, "and we need you to be safe more than we need this house."

The constriction in his chest comes back with vengeance, and even Nyanko-sensei's steady weight can't make it go away this time. There's a tinny, stretching out sound in his ears, and he begins to gasp for breath because the sheer - the rest he can understand, the rest he got used to, even got to rely on - the hugs, and the attention, and the food, and the fine clothes and the kind words and the dinners together and the beautiful bento boxes, the care, it's all because they're gentle people, loving people, generous people, generous enough that they can share it, even with somebody like him, even when he makes trouble and tears the clothes and returns home late and hears weird noises in the night. But the house. The house they love so much; Shigeru-san's job, the neighborhood, the...

And they're ready to lose all of it for him, when he's lied to them from the beginning. They're ready to lose it all, and even if he discourages them now, if he lies to them and then, later, they follow him to the forest, unknowing, unprotected - it's a miracle nobody bothered them yesterday when Nyanko-sensei was depleted and Natsume himself was too badly hurt to do anything to protect them. It's a nightmare, this gift, it's too much, it's -

Touko-san's hands are on his face, when did this happen? "Takashi," she says, sharply. "Takashi, baby, you need to breathe. Dear, can you call the nurse please?"

"No," he gasps, "no, no, I'm fine. I'm fine. I'm - "

He has to lose them. It's the only way to protect them from themselves, and it's unfair that he has to do it now, when he's so weak and so unprepared.

"I can see the yokai," he blurts out, and closes his eyes so he won't see the disgust or bewilderment on their faces. "Last night one of them dropped the dead tree on me before Nyanko-sensei and I banished it."

He drops his chin to his chest and squeezes his eyes shut, wishing they could just - leave without saying anything to him. He doesn't want to see their faces changed. He can't.

"Takashi," Touko-san says, finally, and her cool hand comes to his cheek again, gently makes him raise his head. "Can you look at us?"

He doesn't want to, but he can't refuse her anything, not right now. He blinks his eyes open, and they're still there, looking at him with - with - he can't explain. He doesn't understand.

"We don't understand yet," Shigeru-san says carefully, as if he can hear Natsume's thoughts. "But we want to, and we trust you. Can you tell us more, Takashi?"

"Please," Touko-san adds, and so he opens his mouth and - once he begins talking, it pours out of him like he's a broken cup that can't hold water. A jumbled mess of the story, he can't even say if he's making sense - the inexplicable and scary things of his childhood, all the lonely, angry, weird yokai dodging his steps, a new family every other month or so and eventually he doesn't bother unpacking his things or learning their names, he tried so hard, in the beginning, to be good, to be liked, to be understood, and then he knows it's useless, he'll scare somebody or mess something up within a week, and the world is full of dark and scary corners, and he's so lonely, and he's so lonely, and he lies and lies and lies but he doesn't, he just wants somebody to believe him, and sometimes it's beautiful and sometimes yokai are kind and he doesn't - he doesn't - he doesn't...

Natsume comes to himself abruptly to realize that he's doubled over, his head in Touko-san's lap, and that the soft cloth of her skirt under his cheek is wet with tears.

"Shhh," Touko-san is saying, "shhh, it's okay, it's okay," and her hand is moving through his hair, gentle and warm. "It's okay."

"It's not," Natsume mumbles. utterly unable to move, exhausted to the core. "You don't have to lie."

Shigeru-san's hand is rubbing his back, warm and heavy and safe, and it's unfair that he gets to have it and lose it all. "What do you think we lie about?"

"I know it's not - you don't have to pretend to believe me. Or keep me. And sometimes it's dangerous anyway, so it will be better if..."

"My poor child," Touko-san says, and does not take her hand away. "I wish you'd told us earlier, but it's hard, isn't it?"

Natsume raises his head from under her hand and glares at her, his despair morphing into a rage with bewildering speed. Why does she insist on making it so hard? "Don't pretend," he says again, louder. "I know you don't believe me, you're just - "

"The white raven," she says, and smiles at him. "Remember this story? And yesterday, in the woods, something led me to you, and I don't know who it was, but it was nothing human, I think."

"I can't say I've ever seen anything like this," Shigeru-san says, calm and unruffled as he always is, and Natsume stares at him and can barely hear him, over the loud beating of his heart, "but I know you, don't I? I know what kind of a person you are, Takashi, and if you say you see them, then you see them. Honestly, it makes more sense than the kind of trouble I was imagining. The question is, how can we help you?"

Touko-san gasps and brings her hands to her mouth. "Did you know there was a dangerous ghost in the woods yesterday? Why did you go alone, Takashi, how could you? You could've died! I didn't want to scold you while you're in the hospital, but Takashi!.."

The cadence of her voice is so utterly familiar, the exasperation and worry and something - something - something that Natsume always treasures and always forbids himself to think about, and -

"But," he says. "Uh. It's."

He's blinking, feeling like he's tried to force a closed door open and it gave under the smallest touch. His head feels fuzzy and his tongue is thick in his mouth.

And then Nyanko-sensei jumps back into his lap, licks his paw and yawns. "I can't take this ridiculousness anymore," he says. "Here, the brat is telling the truth, and I, the great and powerful Madara, can confirm it. Now can you stop gaping like a stupid fish, Natsume? Cease this nonsense and let your humans feed you tasty buns instead."

Touko-san makes a breathless, high sound of delight worthy of Taki at her finest, and says "I knew it! I knew you always understood what we were saying! Oh, it's so great. Are you Takashi's yokai friend, Nyankichi-kun?"

This launches Nyanko-sensei into a lengthy diatribe about how he's not a friend of any stupid human brat, and Natsume just hopes he's not going to mention eating him - but since Touko-san is already petting sensei's ears and he's wheedling her for a special treat, he thinks it might not be a problem.

He leans back and finds Shigeru-san looking at him, steady and smiling just a bit. "Was your grandmother like you, Takashi?"

"Yes," he says, simply. "I wish I knew her."

"I hope she found friends and companionship in her life," Shigeru-san says, and try as he might, Natsume can't find a single line of proof of change on his face.

He sucks the air in through his nose, breathes out through his mouth, clenches his fists in the blankets. "Shigeru-san," he says. "Can I stay? Do you want me to stay? Even now?"

"Yes," Shigeru-san says, simply and without the slightest hesitation.

"Because you believe me?"

"Takashi," Touko-san says, turning from her debate with Nyanko-sensei, and her face is so dear and so unchanged too. "Dear, of course we believe you, but even if we didn't - even if we thought that you were sick, or lying to us, or imagining things - why would it matter? You'd still be our child, and we'd still try our best to help you. Didn't you know?"

"Nobody ever did," he chokes out. "Nobody ever - "

"The more important question is," Shigeru-san continues, "whether do you believe us, Takashi?"

Yesterday, in the dark forest with the miasma of yokai's hatred still thick in the air, and the incredible, shattering pain in his leg, and Nyanko-sensei out of commission, Natsume was terrified out of his mind. He was so sure he was going to die there, helpless and in agony, and never see the daylight - his friends - never eat and laugh with Touko-san and Shigeru-san again - never sit in his room in the warm slanting sunlight, and he cried in bitter terror.

He thought it was the scariest moment in his entire life. But right now, he is so much more afraid.

They look at him, waiting as patiently as if they’re prepared to wait for him until the end of the world. Because they believe him. Because it doesn’t matter if they believe him. Because they found him in the dark and brought him back into the sunlight.

There’s only one possible answer.