Spring showed up late that year, driven off by persistent cold winds sweeping in from the northwest and a thick layer of clouds that kept the sun from setting the resting seeds to sprout and grow. Tanuma ended up walking to school wearing a scarf well into the beginning of cherry blossom season due to the lingering cold. He knew that both Natsume and the others were keeping a worried eye on him as the sniffles of a cold caught during the last snowfall stayed past any reasonable amount of time. He held his friends off as well as he could with smiles and deflecting answers as he took medicine and rested at home to ward off the worst of it. Exhausted from school, he spent most afternoons reclined on his bedding and watching glittering water and the shadows of large koi play over closed screens.
“Will your friends visit?” his father asked him from time to time, the furrow between his brows a rebuke as Tanuma shook his head. His father usually sighed then and pulled the covers further up Tanuma’s body. He never asked Tanuma two days in a row but Tanuma could still hear the question echo in the room far after his father had left. Why don't you want your friends to know?
The cherry trees were in full bloom the day when Natsume stopped listening to Tanuma's excuses and came to visit. Tanuma had finally been allowed outside for the afternoon, curled up on the deck with hot tea and thick clothes as he enjoyed the sun spilling down on him through the clouds like a yellow blanket. He could hear Natsume before he saw him – the exasperated tone reserved for Ponta, the almost nasal voice of Ponta replying.
“Tanuma!” Natsume said as he came into view, eyes flickering briefly behind Tanuma before returning to Tanuma’s face. “I thought you would be inside.”
Tanuma smiled and tried not to wonder what (who?) was sharing the deck with him. “I’m better,” he said and gestured towards the tea. “Want some?”
“Thanks,” Natsume said reflexively and sat down. Ponta disappeared beneath the house, his voice growing faint as he chased something Tanuma couldn’t see among the gravel and leaves. “I’m sorry about Nyanko-sensei – I said he didn’t have to come, but he insisted and—“
“It’s all right.” Tanuma smiled and tossed a few crumbs from his lap into the grass. A half-shadow scurried through strands and snatched them away with a noise that had Natsume choke on his tea. “I thought you said Touko-san needed you for an errand this afternoon.”
Natsume rubbed the back of his head, looking away. “Ah… I told her you were sick. She… insisted I come here.”
He'd been worried, Tanuma realized, more than he'd showed. He smiled, a sudden warmth in his chest that made it impossible not to. “Thank you for visiting.”
Natsume took a sip of his tea, spinning the cup in lazy circles. “Are you really all right?” he said quietly. “Even Nyanko-sensei said you don’t look good.”
“I’m fine.” Tanuma looked out over the garden, at the blue sky stretching out far above them. “It’s… I get like this every year.”
Natsume’s eyes darted to Tanuma, the cup still in his hands. “Is it…” he began to ask, but broke off before he finished the sentence.
Tanuma shook his head. “It’s not the youkai.” He almost wished it was – then the solution would’ve been clear. “I just have a weak body.”
Natsume’s shoulders slumped and he began to spin the cup again. "Ah."
His father appeared as the sun began to set, taking the dishes inside and thanking Natsume for keeping Tanuma entertained for the afternoon. Tanuma got to his feet with a little help from Natsume, his hands careful and steady as if with someone far more sick than Tanuma. “Can I come again?” he asked quietly as he followed Tanuma inside. "I don't want to bother you."
The ‘yes’ slipped out of Tanuma’s mouth before he had the time to think about it, an instinctive reaction to the thought of Natsume not being welcome. The smile Natsume gave him in return was large and wide and it made the butterflies in Tanuma's stomach fly off in wild chaos.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Natsume said at the door as Tanuma saw him off.
The door closed behind him and Tanuma let out a deep breath, trying to calm the almost nauseating flutter of his heart.
"He's a nice boy," his father said as Tanuma walked back to his room. "I don't know why you didn't want him to visit."
Tanuma smiled a little. "Neither do I."
Natsume didn’t come the next day, but Tanuma didn’t expect him to. He’d heard from Kitayama that a series of windows had exploded as Natsume passed them on his way to class and it was easy enough to extrapolate from there what had happened. He still found himself keeping an eye out as he sat on the deck, listening as if he would hear the sounds that usually accompanied Natsume’s encounters with less than genial youkai. At one point, looking towards the gates, he thought he saw Ponta run past but it was impossible to tell.
When he went to bed that night, he found himself staring at the ceiling and wondering what had happened. It took a lot for Natsume to give up on a promise and even more not to show up afterwards full of apologies. He's all right, Tanuma thought, he'll be in school tomorrow and you'll just feel silly. It'll be all right. He forced his eyes closed.
There was something tense in the air as Tanuma walked to school the next day. Strange shadows leapt across the road and he could feel a chill running down his back that had nothing to do with his lingering cold. He tugged his scarf further up his face and quickened his step as he passed a small shrine nearly covered by growing spring weeds. As he reached a bend in the road, he heard a great breaking noise behind him, as if a branch had cracked and fallen down. When he turned, there was nothing there.
Arriving to school felt like arriving to safety; tension seeped out of his shoulders like drained wound. Tanuma changed his shoes, then checked Natsume's cubby and found his shoes there. He was in school then.
Tanuma looked up, ready to go searching, and found Taki heading his way. He stepped into her path and she looked up with a questioning look. “Have you seen Natsume?” he asked.
Taki nodded slowly. “In the classroom.” Then: “Tanuma, are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” He waved at her as he darted past her and set off at a jog. “I’ll see you later.”
Natsume wasn’t in the classroom and his desk was empty but for a lone pen rolling towards the edge in the breeze from an open window. Tanuma frowned. Gone, again.
The bell rang and Tanuma was forced to class without making sure that Natsume was all right. There was a thick knot lodged awkwardly in his chest as he sat through lessons, the wind beating against the windows in a high-pitched whine that set his teeth on edge. He's all right, he told himself and ducked when the teacher looked his way. There's nothing wrong.
No one had seen Natsume when he asked around at lunch and at the end of the day, he walked home alone with the feeling of something ominous at his back.
He woke up cold and a fever patch across his forehead, his father kneeling beside him as he measured out pills from a handful of bottles. “What time is it?” Tanuma mumbled, throat too thick for him to speak properly.
“Near noon.” His father held out a glass of water, then the pills, and watched as Tanuma took them all. “Kikuta-sensei says that you’re to stay at home a few days if the fever keeps past midday.”
Tanuma sighed. He’d missed enough school as it was and… there was also Natsume. Had he come to school today? Was he all right? As his father left, Tanuma curled up on his side and stared at the screens across the room. The koi swam, their tails pushing them in lazy circuits around each other.
When he next opened his eyes, he was hot and oddly hungry, blanket pulled up to his chin and fever patch gone. He could hear crickets outside, the distant sound of chanting. The sound of breathing, coming from within the room. He pushed himself to his elbows, heart beating hard, and found Natsume sleeping against the opposite wall. There was a drool stain on his shirt and shadows under his eyes. Next to him sat a plain pot, filled with moist, black dirt. Someone had gone to the length of tying a ribbon around it and Tanuma didn't think it was Natsume.
“Hey,” he said softly. When Natsume didn’t stir, he raised his voice. “Natsume.”
Natsume blinked slowly, then stared toward him. “Tanuma…” Then he sat up straight, eyes growing wide. “Tanuma!”
Tanuma sat up and shoved sweat-damp hair out of his face. “Why are you sleeping here?” Where have you been?
Natsume made that face that said he was going to lie and Tanuma clenched his hand beneath the covers. “I heard you asked about me yesterday. And then I heard you were sick.”
“Where were you?” Tanuma didn’t dare to breath as Natsume visibly deliberated what to say.
“There was a youkai,” Natsume finally said and met Tanuma’s eyes. “He needed help.”
“Are you all right?” Tanuma couldn’t help but ask even though Natsume looked fine. Felt fine.
Natsume looked startled. “It was nothing.” He grabbed the pot. “Here. I got it – the youkai said it’d help you and Nyanko-sensei said it’s OK. I asked Natori-san too and he…”
Tanuma took the pot gently, peering down at it. “Thanks. What is it?”
“A seed.” Natsume smiled softly. “A tree I think.”
Tanuma saw a hint of green in the soil and touched it gently with a finger. The soil parted and he found a small bud pushing against the pad of his finger. A shoot of warmth ran through him and he shivered.
“I forgot you’re sick,” Natsume said softly and suddenly he was beside Tanuma, easing him back down on the bedding. He placed a hand on Tanuma’s forehead and Tanuma had to look away in fear of what Natsume might see in his eyes. “It doesn’t seem like you’ve got a fever anymore.”
“I’ve had medicine,” Tanuma said and hesitated a moment before adding: “Will you come visit again?”
Natsume looked as startled as Tanuma felt at letting the words slip out but his expression immediately settled. “I will.”
The seed grew quicker than anything Tanuma had ever encountered, even in spring, and it felt as if he and Natsume spent as much time repotting the tree as they did playing shogi or doing homework. It spent most of its time sitting with Tanuma on the deck as he read books or did homework, waiting to be allowed back to school. After a week of tender care, the sprout had turned into a miniature sapling and Tanuma’s father gave it thoughtful looks as he came to bring Tanuma food or medicine.
“Don’t you think it’s time you planted it in proper soil?” he asked one day as Tanuma dangled his legs over the edge and wondered if the morning dew would be as cold as it looked.
Tanuma looked up. “I thought I might get it a bigger pot.”
His father shook his head. “It needs to be planted now or it will be far too big to handle.” He gave the tree an bemused look. “I will go get a shovel and you can pick a spot for it.”
Tanuma gazed out over the yard, then slid off the edge. He hissed as his bare feet hit the grass, then padded out to stand a little to the right. He would see the tree even from his room from there and it would give him some shade to rest in during the hot summer.
“Good spot,” his father said as he returned, shovel firmly held in one callused hand. “If you get out of the wet grass, I’ll see if I can’t get your tree into place.”
Tanuma did as asked, settling back on the deck with his feet tucked up, and watched. “I hope you’ll like the spot,” he told the tree, stroking a gummy-like newly-sprouted leaf. A breeze danced through the garden and the tree shivered against him as if in reply, then stilled again to soak up the sun.
Tanuma was allowed back to school on a Tuesday and he couldn’t deny it was with a certain relief he pulled on his uniform, wound the scarf around his neck and shouted a goodbye towards his father before stepping out of the gates. He blinked a little as he saw Natsume standing outside, Ponta sitting at his side with his tail wiggling at a speed that rivaled the flutter of the early spring butterflies dotting the landscape.
“Natsume?” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I thought we could walk to school together.” Natsume was smiling as always, but Tanuma thought there was something different about it today. Just like there had been something different about it every day during his visits. “It’s been a while since you came.”
Ponta visibly rolled his eyes and scampered off – Tanuma didn’t think he imagined the chant of sakesakesake as the cat demolished the underbrush to get into the forest.
“Your cat is really strange,” he said, watching the white tail finally disappear.
“But a good friend,” Natsume said firmly as they started off towards school. “Did you finish the math homework?”
They talked about school as they walked, easy things that didn’t need deeper thought, and Tanuma found that the smile didn’t want to leave his face. When they reached the larger road, however, the smile dropped as he caught sight of the small shrine he’d seen that day when Natsume had been gone. A fallen branch had crushed it and shards of wood littered the roadside.
“Oh,” Natsume said sadly just as Tanuma stopped. “I thought that maybe it would make it.”
Tanuma crouched down and brushed away the debris that covered a small clay vase, filled with dried flowers. He’d thought the shrine was abandoned. He righted the vase and removed the flowers. Natsume handed him a handful of bright spring weeds and Tanuma put them in the vase, then stood.
“We’re going to be late,” he noted.
Natsume’s eyes widened as he checked his own watch and grabbed Tanuma’s hand as he set off. “We’ll have to run!”
Tanuma didn’t have the heart to tell him that they would be late no matter what they did, so he just ran beside him, Natsume’s hand warm around his.
By late spring the tree looked like it had stood in Tanuma’s garden for thirty years and Tanuma had long since discarded his scarves in favor of an open collar. It looked rather dorky on him but on Natsume, it made it hard not to stare. Natsume didn’t seem to notice anything though, so Tanuma let himself indulge from time to time, looking away when Natsume raised his head or looked towards Tanuma.
It had become somewhat of a habit to walk together to and from school, even if Natsume didn’t show up at his gate anymore. Ponta followed along sometimes, but mostly they walked by themselves in silence or quiet conversation. It was nicer than anything Tanuma had ever had and as Golden Week came up on them, he found that he didn’t really want to lose it for even that short time.
“Are you doing something for the holidays?” Tanuma asked on the way home the last day of school, shuffling his feet as they turned onto the main road. He knew that he wouldn’t be going anywhere – his father had enlisted Tanuma’s help with work around the temple. Their small group of friends had discussed going somewhere, but in the end, Tanuma thought it had petered out as no one could agree on the where and when.
“No,” Natsume said without hesitation. When Tanuma darted a glance at him, Natsume was smiling softly – a real smile, bright and lacking the layers of lies that covered Natsume’s true emotions like a blanket. “I thought I should stay with Touko-san and Shigeru-san.”
Their eyes met by accident as Natsume darted a glance of his own towards Tanuma and Tanuma hastily looked away, cheeks heating up. “Ah, that’s good then.”
“You’re staying at home too?”
“Dad needs help and I need to take care of my tree.” Tanuma smiled to himself as Natsume made an amused sound. The wind shook the trees lining the road and Tanuma stiffened slightly. Natsume didn’t even twitch though, and Tanuma slowly relaxed again.
"Have you figured out what it'll be?" Natsume asked as they passed the place the shrine had stood. It'd been cleaned away, but there was still a small vase with flowers standing there.
Tanuma shook his head. "There's flowers on it though, large white ones."
"It sounds pretty," Natsume said with a half-smile.
They parted at their usual place, Natsume watching as Tanuma waved and walked off in his own direction. When Tanuma turned around before walking out of sight, Natsume was still there. Tanuma waved again, then continued home, ignoring the dull thumping in his chest. It was a holiday, not parting forever. He’d see Natsume soon enough again.
He woke up to the smatter of rain against the roof and the sound of distant thunder moving down from the mountains. The chimes he’d tied to the sturdiest branch of the tree sang gently as the rain hit them, joining the sound of croaking as the frogs dared to come out to play. There was something restful about it and he didn’t really feel the need to get out of bed just yet, so he stayed like that, closing his eyes and just listening.
“Wake up,” his father eventually called from further into the house. “Breakfast is ready.”
Tanuma stretched, toes peeking out from beneath the comfortably warm covers. “Good morning,” he called back, then got to his feet and went hunting for his slippers. They never seemed to stay in the same place overnight; this morning he found them neatly standing beneath a trio of pictures on his wall, toes pointing towards the middle of the room. He fished a few berries out from them, popping them into his mouth as he shuffled out of the room.
“You’ll be alone today,” his father said as they ate while listening to the rain together. “I’ll be home early evening but Shige-san will be around if you need anything.”
Tanuma nodded. “I’ll make dinner.” It might end up being ramen with an egg and a few vegetables put in for taste, but at least he could manage that.
The rain continued to pour down and towards midday, Tanuma took an umbrella and walked outside to his tree to see how it was doing in the downpour. The branches were heavy with rain, the leaves glistening and the budding flowers drooping towards the ground. He touched the trunk of it, the bark oddly warm against his skin. “Don’t break,” he told it and gently shook water out of the flowers.
There was a dull thump against the ground behind him and Tanuma turned around to find Ponta crumpled on the ground, face first into a muddy patch of grass. His tail wiggled furiously as he propelled himself back to his feet, face scrunched up and dark.
“Are you all right?” Tanuma asked and bent down to brush a hand over Ponta’s back, removing a few muddy leaves.
Ponta didn’t have the time to say anything as there was another dull thump and Natsume landed crouched on the ground at almost the same spot, then slipped and fell on his butt in the mud. Tanuma covered a smile.
Natsume looked up, his face flushed. “Ah, hi.” He pushed to his feet and dusted fruitlessly at his clothes. “Nyanko-sensei decided we needed to take a shortcut.”
Tanuma looked between them. “I think I have something you can borrow,” he said diplomatically.
Natsume smiled sheepishly and followed Tanuma inside, picking up Ponta on the way.
Ten minutes and some of his spare clothing later, they sat in their usual place on the deck, Ponta having taken up residence in Tanuma’s bed. Tanuma was rather sure Ponta had muttered something at Natsume as the two of them went outside, but he hadn’t caught what. From the expression on Natsume’s face, he could guess what kind of comment it had been though as Natsume hadn’t looked at him since, fiddling with a cup of the tea Tanuma had brewed for them both.
“I didn’t think you’d come today,” Tanuma finally said.
Natsume didn’t answer for a few seconds, looking at the tree stretching its branches across the ground at the garden. “You know,” he said, “the youkai that gave me the seed told me that it would protect the person that owned it. It’s supposed to give someone good health and long life.”
Tanuma thought of heat against his skin, of the way his stubborn cold had finally faded. “Ah.”
Natsume turned towards him, face open. “Tanuma, I…”
It wasn’t really like him to take a chance, Tanuma thought as he leaned in, but it wasn’t really a chance anymore. They’d been walking this path since that first visit a few weeks ago and now, it just felt…right.
When they parted, Natsume had a red flush stretching over his nose and cheekbones. Tanuma traced with his eyes, watching it spread. “I didn’t think I’d have this,” he finally said.
Natsume smiled slightly. “It’s the things you don’t expect that’s the most important,” he said quietly and didn’t look into the distance but met Tanuma’s eyes. “The most precious.”
Tanuma felt his face heat up but didn’t protest when Natsume leaned in again.
They ended up staying like that, warming each other as the rain continued to fall. It would stop eventually, Tanuma knew, letting the sun through and drying the world again. For now, however, he was content just being here with Natsume. It was spring after all, with all the new beginnings that meant.