He could feel the anger in Natsume’s fingers, in the way they trembled and jerked as he carefully wrapped the bandage around Tanuma’s wounded shoulder, and in the terrible, stifling silence. Natsume wasn’t very good with anger, Tanuma had noticed. He had a temper, but it only came out with Ponta and the other youkai. With humans, it came out in flashes, like a dog that kept trying to get outside but was always quickly brought back in.
Natsume tied off the bandage. “Done.” He tried to sound cheerful, but the word curdled in his mouth. Tanuma wished he would just scream already.
He could understand it, really. Knowing what he did of Natsume’s past, it made sense that Natsume would be afraid of driving people off by admitting anger. He didn’t have to worry about that with the youkai - they wouldn’t go away even if (and when) he wanted them to. But the Fujiwaras, their classmates… He treated them so delicately, like they were pieces in a museum, and his job was to make sure they remained in pristine condition.
“Thanks.” His own voice was clipped. It took all of his energy not to grab Natsume’s shoulders and shout ‘I’m a human being, not a museum piece!’ Instead he focused on his shoulder, moving it gently, testing it as Natsume put away the emergency kit. But he couldn’t help playing arguments in his mind.
You should’t have done that!
That youkai could have killed you!
“Would you like to stay for dinner?”
It took a moment for Tanuma to register the question. “Hn?”
“Tohko-san is making beef curry tonight,” Natsume said. “I can ask her to set out an extra plate. It’s so close to dinner, and you’re already here.”
He spoke casually, with that quiet, friendly smile that had earned him the good will of all his classmates. He spoke as though they were normal students, and this was a normal day in their normal lives.
Tanuma was sick of it.
“That’s all you’re going to say?” he snapped. The anger in his voice clearly took Natsume by surpise.
“What do you mean?”
“I know you’re angry with me,” Tanuma said. “Just admit it.”
“Why would I be angry?” The tension in his shoulders belied Natsume’s confusion. “You saved my life today. Thank you.”
He spoke like a mother whose son had just destroyed her garden to make her a bouquet.
“Stop talking like that,” Tanuma said. “You didn’t want me to come today.”
“I was afraid you’d get hurt,” Natsume said.
“And I did!”
“What are you trying to say?” Some irritation finally escaped into Natsume’s voice.
Tanuma groaned, yanking his fingers through his hair. He hated this, the struggle for words. You could craft entire speeches in your mind, but they were never around when you needed them most.
“Takashi-kun!” Tohko-san’s voice floated up the stairs. “Is your friend still here?”
Natsume fled the room to call down to her. “Yes!”
“Tell him to stay for dinner! We have plenty of beef stew!”
Natsume shot Tanuma a questioning look. As angry as Tanuma still was, he was hungry too.
“Beef stew sounds good,” he said.
The Fujiwara’s kitchen was warm and inviting, and the smell of the beef stew almost seemed like a hug. Tohko-san bustled around the room, putting the finishing touches on dinner, and Shigeru-san sat at the table, paging through the newspaper. Tanuma felt a small stab of envy as he thought about his father and their big, empty temple.
“It smells delicious,” he told Tohko-san. “Thank you for having me.”
She beamed and set a bowl in front of him. “We always enjoy having Takashi’s friends over,” she said. “I hope you like spicy food! Somehow it’s become the theme of my meals this week.”
That explained why he hadn’t seen Natsume eating lunch. “Natsume, don’t you hate spicy food?” Natsume kicked him under the table, and he had to bite back both a yelp and a grin.
“Eh?” Tohko-san looked appalled. “Takashi-kun, why didn’t you say anything?”
“It’s fine, Tohko-san!” Natsume said quickly. “Your cooking is always delicious.”
“Takashi-kun doesn’t like to be a bother.” The affection was clear in Shigeru-san’s voice.
Tohko-san seemed less impressed with Natsume’s selflessness. “How am I supposed to cook food you like if you don’t tell me what you don’t like?” she asked.
Natsume hung his head a little. “I’m sorry, Tohko-san.” Tanuma’s gut twisted with guilt. He was mad at Natsume, sure, but he hadn’t wanted to hurt him.
“How about I put together a sandwich for you?” Tohko-san asked.
“Please don’t go to the trouble-“ Natsume swallowed the last word at Tohko-san’s look. “I’d like that. Thank you.”
After dinner, the two young men sat on the back porch and stared up into the night sky. Good food and good company had soothed both their ruffled spirits, and the silence between them was companionable.
“Tohko-san is a kind person,” Tanuma said at length.
“She is.” Natsume smiled as he agreed.
Tanuma hesitated. He wasn’t angry anymore, not really — it seemed pointless to bring back their earlier fight. But he still wanted Natsume to understand.
“Natsume-“ He quailed a little as his friend looked over. “About earlier —“
“I’m sorry, Tanuma,” Natsume said immediately.
“No!” Tanuma cut him off before he could apologize any further. “Just listen to me right now.” He took a deep breath. “I know I’m not as strong as you are, and I know you want to protect me. What I did today was stupid and reckless, and you have every right to be mad at me. So be mad at me!”
To his embarrassment, his voice broke, but Natsume didn’t say anything.
“Don’t try to protect me from what you feel,” Tanuma continued. “If you’re mad or sad or scared, I want to know. I don’t want you to pretend everything is perfect all the time. That’s not how friendship works. I’m not going to abandon you if you get mad at me.”
Tanuma felt hollow after delivering this speech, like he had pulled out all his insides and put them into the open air. He waited breathlessly as Natsume thought them over.
“What you did today was stupid and reckless.”
Tanuma fell back, laughing. Natsume grinned at him, his eyes affectionate but also serious.
“I was angry because I was scared,” he continued. “I know you’re my friend and you want to help me, but I need you to trust me. I have plenty of help and protection when there’s a problem with the youkai. But I don’t have a lot of human friends. If something happened to you, I don’t know how I would live with myself.”
“I’m sorry, Natsume,” Tanuma said quietly.
Natsume smiled. “Thank you.”
He leaned back as well, so that their shoulders were brushing, and in familiar, easy silence, they watched the stars.