"I told him to talk to you, sometimes," Tanuma's father had said, beaming at his son. "I told him you see things. Maybe the two of you could be friends. He probably could use a friend." His eyebrows had drawn down for an instant before a smile returned to his face. "You could use a friend too, right?"
Tanuma's answering smile had quivered.
"Talk to him," his father had advised, placing a hand on Tanuma's shoulder.
This week Natsume is the barest of presences; he ghosts through school like he's a youkai himself, slipping away from Tanuma with a wave and an apologetic nod.
Sometimes Tanuma sees him in his classroom, Nishimura darting around him, arms waving as he tells some story -- probably about a girl -- and Kitamoto, more restrained, leaning on the next desk, still turned towards Natsume. Tanuma's glad someone else is looking after Natsume, trying to tether him to the same world the rest of them live in. But he struggles to appreciate Nishimura's antics and Kitamoto's calmer observations when all Tanuma gets these days is a glimpse of the back of Natsume's head from down the corridor.
Tanuma knows grief, can recognize it in others as it must've looked on himself, as he's seen it look, so often, on his father. There's the grief of knowing a goodbye is coming, a farewell just days or hours down the road, mixed with a kind of guilty impatience no one wants to admit exists. There's the grief once a loss has happened, relief and guilt and hollowness tangled up in the heart. Some losses happen in stages. There's only one loss that's final, Tanuma thinks, but then, who knows what's possible?
One thing he can tell, even from the scant moments he sees Natsume, is that there's something Natsume is trying to cover up. His face contorts into the fake smile, the stiff smile, the one that he thinks no one sees isn't genuine. Tanuma notices. He's been watching Natsume the whole time they've been friends. Is it presumptuous to call them friends? Sometimes he's still not sure.
But there's grief; Tanuma knows that. Tanuma can tell. That's not difficult. It pulls at him, familiar like his reflection.
"I haven't seen you much this week," Tanuma ventures on Wednesday. He's managed to catch Natsume in the hallway during break; they're both leaning against the windowsill, not looking at each other.
"Yes," comes Natsume's reply. "I've... I've got a goodbye to make."
Tanuma whips his head around, sees tears in Natsume's eyes, finds his fingers reaching out before he can think better of it. Natsume edges away, and Tanuma lets his hand drop. There's no satisfaction in knowing he was right.
Tanuma doesn't see Natsume much after that, to his frustration; Natsume seems more determined than ever to keep away. And Tanuma himself is distracted by the most mundane of matters: math class, in which something particularly irksome has just been introduced. His father's been nudging him, gently -- always gently -- suggesting that perhaps he should try to focus more on school now that his health seems to be improving.
So Tanuma's even gone so far as to ask Sasada to explain things, since of course, according to Kitamoto, she was the only one in their class who understood the concepts from the beginning. She's helpful -- really helpful, actually, and not nearly as frightening as Nishimura insists that she is -- and Tanuma feels more hopeful. About math, anyway.
The following week, after his test, Tanuma sees Natsume, staring out the window like there's something out there no one else can see. Which there probably is. "You've been busy lately," Tanuma says, resting his elbows on the windowsill in turn and gazing at the school grounds, though he knows he'll never see whatever Natsume does.
Natsume seems more there, somehow, more solid: whatever's been tugging him away has given up, has lost, has left. "You too," he says.
Tanuma jerks his shoulders in surprise. "Yeah. Math. Sasada helped."
"That's good." Until class starts again they stand there, close enough that Tanuma feels the warmth from Natsume's arm on his own skin.
Natsume's over at Tanuma's after school. It's quiet, but this time it feels unsettling. Tanuma leaps up. "I'll get us some tea," he says, dashing into the hallway. His footsteps are far too loud. He's sure everything he does in the kitchen can be heard from the bedroom. The teapot clinks against the counter, and he almost drops a cup, saving it only by clattering it against the tray, horrifyingly noisy.
Natsume looks worried when Tanuma returns, but doesn't say anything. There's a bird outside; both of them jump at its sudden bright bit of song.
"It's... it's quiet, sometimes," Tanuma blurts, because the silence is curling around him and tightening around his chest. "Especially when my father's away. Not that it's very lively... anyway," he says, lips twisting. He closes his lips against the urge to fill the air with more words, any words.
Natsume shakes his head. "It's all right. It's soothing." He wrinkles his nose. "You'd think the Fujiwaras' house would be very peaceful, but Nyanko-sensei has a way of making things exciting."
Tanuma snorts. "I can imagine." Ponta coming in drunk, as Natsume once swore he did; breakfast with Ponta clamoring for food: maybe Touko-san gives him his own bowlful? Tanuma could believe it.
"It's not like that here," Tanuma says, creasing his forehead. Most of the time it's all right, him and his father. The temple has its own kind of serenity.
Sometimes he still wonders how things might have turned out differently.
"What was your mother like?" Natsume claps his hand over his mouth as soon as the words escape. "I'm sorry. You don't have to answer that."
"It's fine." Tanuma sits a moment, giving Natsume a nod and an intake of breath to indicate that he's thinking about it. It feels okay, the question. It feels like one he could answer. Maybe that's because no one ever asks it. "She was..." he starts, and pauses again, to see what that feels like. His chest is a little tight, but it's the kind of ache that feels right, like muscles stretching after they've been resting too long. "She was quiet, too. Sometimes. She... she laughed more than my father did." No, that's not true; it's just that she laughed more than his father does now.
Natsume's staring into his face, eyes wide. Tanuma blinks and looks away. "Once when I was a kid, I tripped on the way home from school. I didn't hurt myself, but my shirt ripped, and when I got home, she thought someone had beat me up." He swallows. "That's the only time I've seen her angry." At the time, he hadn't known whether she was angry at the bullies she thought existed, or at her son for allowing anyone to beat him up. He still isn't sure.
He glances back over at Natsume, whose eyes are damp, now, and Tanuma wants to kick himself.
"That's good. To have someone who notices." Natsume straightens; it looks almost like he's bracing himself. "You know I said last week that I... had a goodbye to make?"
Tanuma nods, the tiniest, least disruptive indication he can give. Please, he thinks, please, father, don't come home right now. Not just yet.
"Maybe -- " Natsume shifts, eyes going off to the side. Is he going to flee, after all? "Maybe... I could tell you about it." His eyes are firmly to the ground, now, and his face flushes. "Not that it's... I mean, it's probably boring. You don't have to listen," he concludes in a rush.
Tanuma sees him tensing to stand up and throws out a hand to stop him. "No," Tanuma gasps. "I'd like to hear it. Really." And now it's him that can't bear to meet Natsume's eyes, afraid of seeing a polite rejection there, a kind distance, the look that means Natsume is going to drift away again, become something only half-seen and never touched.
There's a sigh. Tanuma looks up in alarm, but Natsume's got a tired, wistful smile on his face, and his body's uncoiled a little, like he'll stay there, in one place, for now. "All right," Natsume says. "I'll -- I'll try. A couple of weeks ago I was coming back from Nanatsujiya, and..."
Tanuma, relieved, slumps back to listen. It's not too quiet after all.