"Open the door and we'll take you away."
"Think about it. He hasn't come back, has he?"
"Those two and the cat are laughing as they trick you."
"You're lying, get lost!"
The words and taunts triggered something else. Natsume wasn't sure if it was a memory or not but he was angry now and also scared. If they were telling the truth, Taki-san and Tanuma-san were dangerous but if they were lying, what would happen now that he refused. He suddenly pictured a monster in a house, hovering over a faceless person that was telling him off for lying. The tan-cat monster had said the other two couldn't see them but they had seen the cat monster. Either way, he didn't feel safe anymore and tears started to form in his eyes. He needed to get somewhere safe and then maybe, if, Taki-san and Tanuma-san were in danger, they had still been kind of, well, nice to him, they'd be safe without him there. He started running as he heard Tanuma-san call out to him but didn't stop, going back to where they had come in. He knew a place he'd be safe, he thought. It came to him that a shrine would be safe and Tanuma-san had pointed out a set of steps leading to one. That's where he'd go.
Tanuma looked around the corner, having hesitated a bit longer then he intended to give Natsume time to realize he had offered to get towels without asking where they were. Natsume yelling about someone lying had drawn him faster but his friend was no longer in the hallway, footsteps retreating had him yelling back to Taki to help him catch Natsume. Something was wrong, he knew it, and it wasn't just that his friend had shrunk.
"Natsume! Natsume, where are you?"
Natsume stayed by the door a moment, the concern in the voices he heard tugging at something inside him. A longing for friends, even just one friend, someone that actually cared about him instead of just tolerating him briefly. That thought brought another feeling, a mixed one of fear, sadness... and pain. He whispered a polite 'thank you' for what they had done; he didn't remember smiling before but it had felt wonderful and he'd hold onto that forever.
The path back they way they had come was easy to follow. He crossed the field and reached the stairs but the sounds of someone following him made him go faster. When he chanced a glance behind him he tripped, hearing someone curse as he hit the stairs hard. He rolled to the side, hiding in a bush and fighting to hold his breath, not daring to look at whatever was out there and hoping it would leave. There was more grumbling and a huff right outside his hiding place. Natsume rubbed his eyes with his sleeve when everything became quiet again and crawled out if the bush. Or tried to. His jacket tugged back, stopping him from continuing on. He struggled, twisting and turning only for the jacket to get tighter. He managed to free himself from it and ran again, leaving it behind. He had to get the shrine so he'd be safe.
Tanuma hated that he had let his friend disappear and felt sick that he was out there alone. The feeling increased until he realized he heard murmuring. Something about almost being stepped on for the second time.
"Excuse me, who was it and where?" Tanuma was sure it seemed like he was speaking to nothing and saw Taki looking at him, unsure but hopeful. It took awhile to convince whatever youkai was there to answer but he had a direction and it gave him an idea.
"Taki, this way!"
Natsume's arm hurt but he was at the top of the stairs and hurried over to the shine, stumbling several times as one of the pant legs had unrolled but he didn't stop to fix it. He curled up on the porch by the door, holding his arm to his chest and searching the area to make sure there were no monsters. He was crying, flashes of being in places like this, but surrounded, with the monsters waiting for him, kids teasing him, adults telling him off for lying, a few, in houses, doing more than that, and him just wishing it would all stop. The fairy tails Taki-san and Tanuma-san had told him were just that. Had to be. No one ever believed him or liked him. That was just how it was.
Tanuma's eye caught a flutter of fabric about halfway up the stairs to the shrine and reached for it, crouching, lowering his voice to not frighten the boy, his friend.
"Natsume? It's OK, it's Tanuma...-san," he added the honorific after a second since it had made him so uncomfortable the first time. He touched the fabric and realized the hooded jacket was empty. It took a sharp tug to free it and he realized Natsume may not have been able to do it himself. He cursed and straightened, running up the stairs and ignoring Taki's calls instead yelling himself, avoiding yelling the name again.
"I'm coming, just hold on!"
Natsume was feeling tired now, wanting to sleep but too scared to close his eyes since, every time he did, fuzzy half-formed images haunt him. He shoved the heels of his palms into his eyes, rubbing them either to get the sleepiness out or just cause enough discomfort to keep himself awake.
"There you are!"
Natsume gasped, jerked and looked up as a blurry figure ran past the line and to him, a second one further back. He raised his arms to protect his head without thinking about it, apologizing over and over but doubting it would matter.
Tanuma dropped to his knees on the wooden step, his heart not liking the position Natsume had assumed at his approach. He reached one hand out, slowing easing one arm down.
"Hey, it's OK. Natsume, no one will hurt you."
"T-Tanuma-san?" Natsume blinked up before frowning and shaking his head. "That's not true."
"It is. Why would you doubt me?"
"Because others have. I had told a monster to go away but he called me a liar. He...it."
Tanuma glanced at Taki briefly before looking at the little boy in front of him that was no longer meeting his eye. His friend had never told him anything like this but a few more words coaxed a disjointed story out of him and he was sure his face was as tear streaked as Taki's.
"They were the ones in the wrong. That is not what family does and we would never do that."
"Yes, just promise you won't hide these things from us. We're here for you," Taki knelt beside the small form of her friend and slowly touched his shaking shoulder.
Tanuma silently nodded when Natsume looked at him following Taki's soft but firm answer. What happened next surprised him more than being told the child was Natsume. The little boy threw himself forward, burying himself against Tanuma's chest, shaking but clinging to his shirt which was fast becoming damp. He froze, looked at Taki, then, as though they had a mind of their own, his arms wrapped around the boy, his best friend, and held him close as Taki rubbed his back.
"What did you say?" Tanuma asked when Natsume mumbled something sleepily into his shirt.
Natsume turned his head to look up and smiled but he looked ready to fall asleep in his arms. The words, though slurred in sleep, made Tanuma blush but he realized he felt the same way, no matter how much Taki's giggled over it.
"Whe'er we're the same age 'r not, you'r' a great brother."