“Natsume listen. Listen. You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Natsume is grinning widely, amused and affectionate and maybe pleased, too, if the pink in his cheeks has anything to say about it. Nishimura is holding him by the shoulders with both hands, hopefully impressing upon him just how big of a deal this is.
“I can’t believe you got us into a private screening of Natori Shuichi’s new drama. How do – I mean – what kind of connections do you have?”
“It’s nothing impressive, really. Natori is a – friend,” Natsume says, and stumbles over the word. More like he’s not used to saying it than because it doesn’t truly apply, and that makes Nishimura want to drop his shoulders and wrap him up in a hug instead. “He was happy to have us here.”
‘Happy’ seems like too mild a word.
“Natsume! Thank you for coming!” Natori beams, as though Natsume was doing him a favor, instead of the more obvious other way around. He’s a pretty great actor, but his delight seems sincere as he looks over them all. “And you brought your friends, after all. Did you all enjoy the show?”
Tanuma coughs delicately into his fist, and Kitamoto quickly finds something else in the room to look at. That’s okay, though—Sasada and Taki and Nishimura himself are way more than enough to make up for the wet blankets’ lack of interest.
Natori indulges them warmly, answering their dozens of questions with equal enthusiasm, and patiently signing posters they thrust up at him, and posing for selfie after selfie. The girls are absolutely besotted, and so is Nishimura honestly, and he glances over his shoulder to find Natsume to thank him again, because wow.
Except Natsume isn’t where they left him. Nishimura blinks, and forgets Natori exists, just a little bit; turning to take in the rest of the room in search of a familiar head of dusty blond.
“Man,” he mutters to himself, frowning when he doesn’t spot his wayward friend right away. “How does he do that?”
Tanuma and Kitamoto are coming back from the refreshments bar, carefully balancing drinks for the whole group in their hands, and Nishimura says, “Hey, did Natsume go with you?”
“What? No,” Kitamoto says, pausing in passing out cans of cold tea. “Wasn’t he just here?”
They all take a moment to appreciate the Natsume-shaped absence in their party. Tanuma’s expression does something bizarre, shifting slowly from confusion to alarm, and he trades a weighted glance with Taki that Nishimura can’t make heads or tails of. Natori’s perfect smile fades.
“Oh, there he is,” Sasada says suddenly, pointing Natsume out of the crowd.
He’s been sequestered into a corner by two women who look about Touko’s age. They’re well-dressed and only slightly taller than him but they seem to loom, and Nishimura can’t make out what they’re saying or what their faces look like, but he doesn’t like the tight way Natsume’s shoulders are curved.
He shoves his canned tea back towards Kitamoto without looking. “I’m gonna go, uh – “ Rescue him wouldn’t sound right, but Nishimura is moving forward automatically to do exactly that anyway, without second-guessing himself for a second. “ – I mean. I’ll be right back.”
Someone says his name, but he’s already halfway across the room at that point, and he doesn’t want to hear whatever the women are saying to make Natsume look so small, so he pointedly doesn’t listen.
(Still, he makes out a “–can’t believe this, what are you thinking coming here–” and feels ice gather in the pit of his stomach.)
“Natsume!” Nishimura says sternly, interrupting as obnoxiously as he knows how. The women frown at him, but he has loads of scary aunts and older cousins – these people don’t phase him in the slightest. “What the heck? You can’t just wander off like that. This isn’t a supermarket with a service desk where I can make a lost child announcement, you know.”
He doesn’t know what’s going on here, he doesn’t know if he’s maybe misreading the situation, but he knows Natsume. And Natsume blinks round eyes at him, and Nishimura hates – really, hates – how dark those eyes are, like it’s the beginning of their friendship all over again. It took lots of hard work and dedication to brighten this guy up, and one conversation is enough to tarnish that?
Something swells in Nishimura’s chest, something white-hot and toothed, ballooning under his ribcage with what feels like enough force to crack bone. The arm he slings around Natsume’s shoulders is less of a tease and more of a guard.
“So who are you talking to over here?” he says, as if noticing Natsume’s company for the first time; and he can’t help the acid turn his voice takes. “Do you know them?”
“They’re,” Natsume says, and his voice is so small. “Um. Relatives. I stayed with once.”
Pieces come together with all the force of tectonic plates colliding, and Nishimura’s eyes narrow. He can’t help it.
The last time he remembers feeling this protective was probably back on the day he and Kitamoto taught Natsume how to ride a bicycle, those pleasant hours of late afternoon that swept by so fast. He had been unprepared for how thin Natsume’s shoulders would be, how fragile his back would feel under Nishimura’s hands. This quiet, gentle ghost of a boy, who laid in the grass with them under a darkening sky and laughed, eyes bright with happy wonder – like he had never laid in the grass and laughed with friends before.
His fingers curl into Natsume’s shirt. He opens his mouth, and he’s not sure what’s going to come out but he knows the words are shaped like something he’d get smacked for saying at home, something mean for the sake of being mean.
“My, my,” a familiar voice says, from behind and above Nishimura’s shoulder. He turns, and finds himself looking up into Natori’s smiling face. “What have we here?”
If there’s anything Natsume’s relatives were expecting, it wasn’t for the actor of the hour to appear out of thin air next to their former charge. Their eyes widen, and the disdain drips out of their faces like a leaky faucet.
“Nothing,” Natsume says quickly. There’s color rising in his face, and the dart of his eyes is ashamed. “I was just – talking. To my cousins.”
“Your cousins?” The chill in Natori’s pleasant tone of voice brings the temperature of the room down whole degrees. “Wonderful. You know how pleased I am to meet your relatives, Natsume – the Fujiwaras were absolutely charming, after all.”
The tables have turned. Two against one turns into two against seven, as the rest of their group is only steps behind Natori. Taki slips her arm through Natsume’s, hugging close to his side, and Tanuma’s hand finds a home on the small of Natsume’s back. Kitamoto and Sasada are an unflinching presence on Nishimura’s other side, and Nishimura thinks, Ha.
He’s not as easy to bully anymore, is he?
“You don’t have to introduce us, Natsume,” Natori says, with that same cold kindness, and his hand lands lightly on Natsume’s hair. “Why don’t you go meet my co-stars, I’ve told them all about you. I’ll be along in a minute.”
It’s a dismissal if Nishimura’s ever heard one, and Tanuma and Taki are already tugging Natsume away. Loathe to lose his prime spot at Natsume’s side, Nishimura scuttles along, only casting a single glance over his shoulder. Kitamoto hasn’t budged, dark eyes bright with the same protective fury Nishimura felt before, and Natori doesn’t send him away.
“What was all that about?” Sasada asks quietly. She’s not a usual fixture in their group, she isn’t sure of the dynamics. Nishimura can feel Natsume go tense under his arm, so he shrugs, even though this is the least shrug-appropriate situation that he can think of.
“I dunno. Just sounded like Natori wanted to have a talk with them, that’s all.”
Color comes slowly back into his pale face after that, the shadows in his eyes burned slowly away by that brighter something Nishimura missed so much. He manages a smile, and it’s small and limping but it’s sincere, and Nishimura likes to think it’s because of them. At least a little bit. For being there, for standing like a wall between him and potential hurt, even though he never asked them to
“Sorry,” Natsume offers softly, when Natori rejoins them later. Natori’s face does something gentle, and his smile is warm again, without any sharp edges.
“Don’t be,” the man replies. “If anything, I’m sorry. I’ll make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
“Yeah,” Kitamoto says, sounding impressed. “He blacklisted them. Indefinitely. From like, everything. I think they’ll have a hard time buying one of his CDs from now on.”
“Natori,” Natsume starts, in some surprise and some protest. Natori waves it away, cutting him off without any cruelty.
“Good,” Taki says decisively, and Sasada nods, but Natsume looks stunned.
He asks Kitamoto about it later on, when both of them are sitting on the riverbank near home in the early dusk, with convenience store ice cream melting in their hands and no real need to rush in for the night.
“It just seems kinda obvious Natori would do something like that, you know? I mean, he loves Natsume, and he doesn’t care about those other people, so it just – makes sense? But Natsume looked totally blindsided by it.”
“Well, I don’t think he’s used to it,” Kitamoto says slowly. “That – pettiness. Pettiness for a friend.”
At Nishimura’s blank stare, Kitamoto rolls his eyes and resigns himself to further explanation.
“It’s like – imagine you saw someone throw my bookbag into the river. Then later on in the day, it starts raining really heavily, and that person asks you if they can borrow your umbrella. What would you say?”
Hackles rising at the hypothetical, Nishimura scowls. “’Drown.’”
It makes Kitamoto laugh, warm and fond. He’s grinning as he says, “See? It’s petty, but it’s for my sake. Getting back at them for me, in the smallest way you can. And it’s something good friends just do. And I just – don’t think that Natsume has ever – y'know. Had good friends to do that for him.”
Nishimura thinks about that, and finds himself nodding. “Yeah,” he says, warming to the idea, “okay. I can do petty.”
Kitamoto leans back in the grass, and his expression is a familiar blend of amusement and affection that Nishimura can trace back all the way to their preschool days.
“You do plenty already, Satchan.”