Tanuma sighs and downs the rest of his espresso. He’s been up since 4 AM so he could get to the shop at 5, which is officially too early to pretend to be human. Usually he takes the evening shifts, but he’d been kind or stupid enough to offer to take over Nishimura’s shift because he isn’t feeling well.
He heads back out from the break room just in time for the lunchtime rush.
“Tanuma, can you grab more coffee mugs?” Taki asks as he steps into the front of the shore, hands full of a mocha-in-progress.
“Got it,” Tanuma says and heads back into the back to grab a bin full of mugs. He grabs the mugs and heads toward the front, swinging the door open by hip-checking it.
“Back with the mugs!” Tanuma says brightly, heading behind the counter when suddenly he slips on a dropped napkin and finds himself on the ground. The mugs fall with a crash, clattering to the ground next to him in a thousand sharp pieces. He bites his lip to keep himself from swearing and looks at the damage around him carefully, trying to find a way to stand without putting his hands in the shards of cups.
“Are you okay?” Taki yells from where she’s making yet another drink.
“Just my pride bruised,” Tanuma calls back. He probably could use to be helped up, but he’s not sure that either Taki, who is slammed making drinks, or Kitamoto, who is fighting a long line at the register, are able to help him right now.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” a soft voice comes from right in front of him.
When Tanuma looks up, it’s like looking into the sun. There’s a young man in front of him, he’d say about his age, and he’s looking at him so tenderly. His eyes are golden and Tanuma wants desperately to drown in them.
The young man leans down, carefully avoiding the shards of ceramic scattered across the floor, and starts picking some of the larger pieces up, trying to clear some space around Tanuma.
“It looked like a hard fall,” he says, not looking up from his task.
Tanuma shrugs as best he can sitting at such an odd angle. “It wasn’t exactly pleasant. I’ll certainly be feeling it tomorrow.” He tries again to figure out how to get up, and fails miserably. “Thank you for helping,” he says, trying desperately not to blush.
“Ah, sorry, do you need a hand up? All those pieces…” He looks at his handful of ceramic and seems at a loss for what to do with it. He decides to dump it into one of the still-intact mugs still in the bin, for easier cleanup later, and brushes his hands on his pants before standing and offering Tanuma a hand.
“Thank you,” Tanuma says, taking his hand and trying to ignore the electric shock that runs through his arm where they touch. He lets the stranger help him up, his cheeks flaming all the while. “You’re the only one who stopped to help, you know.”
“I couldn’t just leave you there to flounder,” the handsome stranger says. He squeezes Tanuma’s hand before he lets it go to continue cleaning up pieces. “With two of us it shouldn’t take too long—“ he cuts himself off with a hiss, but after a brief pause he keeps picking up the shards.
“Are you okay?” Tanuma asks. “Here, let me see.” He holds out his hand for the stranger, who places his hand in it palm-up.
“It’s okay, it wasn’t that deep,” he says, bashful, but lets Tanuma inspect the cut on his hand.
“You should really get that cleaned and bandaged,” Tanuma says. “Here, I think there’s a first aid kit in the back room.” He opens the door to the back and motions to the stranger to go in.
“Won’t you get in trouble?” the stranger asks.
“From Natori?” Tanuma shrugs. “He’s got better things to worry about than me actually taking care of our customers.” He turns and calls across the room. “Hey Taki? This guy cut his hand. I’ll be right back; can you make sure nobody steps here in the meantime?”
“Yeah, sure,” Taki calls back. “I hope everybody’s okay!”
“My name’s Natsume, by the way,” Natsume offers, face pink. “Thanks for, well.” He gestures awkwardly, one hand covering the other.
“No, thank you for saving me there,” Tanuma says, face equally flushed. “I’m Tanuma.” He gestures to his name tag. “Here, the break room is right through here. What do you think; is the back at a coffee shop as glamorous as you always pictured?”
Natsume snickers. “There are considerably fewer coffee beans than I’d pictured.”
“I know, right? I expected it to be coffee heaven back here. And yet!” Tanuma gestures to the not bean-free, but decidedly low-bean environment around him. He indicates a chair for Natsume, who sits hesitantly while he digs around for the first aid kit he knows is stashed somewhere. “Oh, here it is!” Tanuma says, and pulls out the kit from where it’s hidden under a box of paper cups.
“Really, you don’t have to go through all this trouble,” Natsume says. “I’m sure it’s already stopped bleeding.” A pause, while he inspects the cut. It hasn’t, in fact, stopped bleeding, and instead drips slowly now that he’s taken his other hand away. “Oh.”
“This is going to sting,” Tanuma says as he pulls out an alcohol wipe. He carefully opens it and then takes Natsume’s wrist in his free hand. “Sorry…” His voice trails off as he looks at the blood dripping down Natsume’s hand. “Oh,” he says, in an echo of Natsume, as he takes in the sanguine scene.
Right. He faints at the sight of blood. His periods made him dizzy before the testosterone stopped them, and the first, last, and only time he’d tried to donate blood, he wasn’t entirely sure what had happened before he’d come to reclined while being plied with juice and crackers.
“Are you okay?” Natsume asks.
“Yeah,” Tanuma says. His voice comes out tinny, and he feels like he’s looking down from a great height. “Let me just clean this up for you.” He reaches out clumsily to wipe the cut clean, and the tiniest droplet of blood touches his skin.
He doesn’t remember what happens next.
“Tanuma?” he hears. It sounds distant, or like he’s hearing from underwater. “Tanuma, are you all right?”
He looks up to see Natori leaning over him, Natsume standing just a bit behind him, looking down at him worriedly. Down? Oh. He’s on the ground with his feet raised. He takes a second to assess any potential damage, and realizes that there’s no pain in his head. He lifts one hand to feel the back of his head carefully.
“You didn’t hit your head,” Natsume says.
“Are you sure?” Tanuma asks. He really didn’t want to end up in the hospital with a concussion, but it’s better than ending up with a concussion and not being in the hospital.
“I caught you,” Natsume says.
And Tanuma will be damned if he doesn’t wish he’d been slightly less unconscious for that.
“Ugh, how long was I out?” he asks. He looks at Natori and groans. “Am I fired?”
“Only a couple of minutes,” Natsume says. “Natori, tell him he’s not fired.”
“You’re not fired,” Natori says, instantly. “But you are going to lie here for at least fifteen minutes so you don’t faint again.” Natsume nods behind him. He looks almost remorseful, for some reason, and is wringing his hands, one fully bandaged.
“I saw the color drain from your face and caught you,” he explains. “I panicked, and shouted, and Natori had just gotten here to meet me and came running and took care of you and then me and now you’re awake.” He won’t look Tanuma in the eye, but his rushed explanation clears up some questions, even if it raises a host of others.
“Wait, Natsume,” Tanuma says. “You know Natori? And what’s wrong? I didn’t hurt you when I fell, did I?” He tries to sit up but Natori frowns down at him and gently pushes him back down with his foot.
“I said lie down for fifteen minutes,” Natori said. “And I meant it. That’s your job now.”
“You didn’t hurt me,” Natsume says, looking alarmed at the implication. He frowns. “Natori’s a… family friend.” There’s silence for a moment. Natsume fidgets a little more. “I’m sorry you passed out. I could’ve bandaged myself up if you didn’t want to deal with the blood.”
“I wanted to help!” Tanuma protests. “I always think I’m over my whole...blood thing...and then I’m not. But you cut yourself helping me. And now I paid you back by fainting all over you.”
Natori sighs, loud and blustery and accompanied by a very dramatic eye roll. “Well now you can pay him back by taking him to dinner! Natsume, how did you hurt yourself in my coffee shop? Tanuma, can you give me a clearer story?”
Tanuma sighs right back at him. “Well, first I was trying to bring some mugs up front to Taki because it was the lunch rush, but I slipped on a napkin and the mugs all fell. Kitamoto and Taki were both really busy so I was going to try to clean it up myself, and then Natsume just...appeared? And helped me up and helped me clean up the mug pieces. Thank you again, by the way,” he says.
Natsume smiles, still looking a bit worried. “Of course.”
“He cut his hand on one of the shards, so I offered to take care of him with the first aid kit in the back. And then, well, I saw blood and passed out.”
Natori pinches the bridge of his nose and breathes deeply. “Okay, so everyone is fine?” He looks at Tanuma and Natsume and waits for them both to nod. “Tanuma, you’re sure you don’t need to go to the doctor?”
“It’s happened before,” Tanuma says. “They said I only really need to go if I hit my head or hurt myself some other way.” He squirms against the floor. “I really don’t need to keep lying here. I’m fine, and the floor is cold.”
“I’m an expert on fainting,” Natori says. “I just googled it, and it says you need to lie down so you don’t faint again. Normally I’d buy what you’re saying, but I happen to know you tend to do stupid things and claim you’re okay, like trying to take care of a cut when you faint at the sight of blood.”
“Okay, I get it.” Tanuma says, letting his head fall back against the floor. “I’m going to lie here unless I want to be fired.”
Natori breaks into a grin. “We understand each other!”
“Please don’t fire him on my account,” Natsume says.
“First, it would be on his account for being a rebellious idiot who won’t take care of himself,” Natori says.
“Second, he’s not actually going to fire me,” Tanuma continues. “He’s just going to be very annoying.”
Natsume hums in agreement. “He’s very good at that.”
Natori gasps in mock outrage. “I am wounded! How could my dearest friend say that?”
They keep on bickering amicably until an alarm goes off on Natori’s phone.
“Okay, Tanuma,” Natori says. “Your fifteen minutes are up and you’re free to go. Please go eat something—“
He stops, looks between them again. His eyes light up the way they do when he’s got an idea he thinks is particularly genius.
Natori shoos them with both hands. “All right, both of you get out of here.” He hands Tanuma his credit card. “I was going to treat Natsume to lunch anyway, so Tanuma, that’s your job now. Go on. Get.”
Tanuma follows a startled Natsume as Natori ushers them out into the dining room and then out the door. “You’ve got the rest of the day off, Tanuma, full wages. Get going!”
They get halfway down the block before Natsume stops. “Um,” he says, still looking a little alarmed and a lot confused. “Where are we going?”
“Ah, well, there’s a sandwich place a little further down I like to visit on my breaks?” Tanuma offers. “If you like sandwiches.”
“That sounds nice,” Natsume insists. “You don’t...have to go with me. I’m sorry Natori kind of forced you into it.”
“Forced? Natori wasn’t forcing me to do anything. You’re nice, and caring, and…” He stops and buries his face in his hands. “Pretty,” Tanuma chokes out.
Natsume blushes. “I think you’re pretty too,” he mumbles, looking anywhere but at Tanuma. He starts walking again slowly, waiting for the other to catch up.
Tanuma finally frees his face from his hands and drops his arms by his side. He wants to reach out and grab Natsume’s hand, but he’s not sure he has the courage.
“Natori is a good wingman,” Tanuma says. “He’s been bugging me about being single, which I tell him he’s got no right to do with how single he is, but this is the first time he’s set me up that I actually liked. At least he finally got the clue and started setting me up with guys.”
Natsume smiles softly. “Honestly, I’m surprised. Natori’s… protective. He must really like you.”
Tanuma blushes. “I like to think so? We’re pretty close-knit at the cafe.”
“I think that’s his favorite place. He kind of dabbles in several different businesses but that’s the only one that he’s invited me to. I think it’s the only place he visits regularly himself.”
Tanuma nods. “He seems to really like being there, not least because he can have all the white chocolate raspberry mochas his heart desires.”
“He’s obsessed,” Natsume says, shaking his head. “I think he bought a coffee shop just so he wouldn’t have to pay for his own any more.”
“That sounds like Natori,” Tanuma says. He turns as they reach the sandwich shop. The door jangles as he pulls it open and holds it for Natsume, who smiles and follows as Tanuma leads the way to his favorite corner booth, right under the window. They sit across from each other, the atmosphere a little awkward.
The waitress comes by, greets them, and asks for their drink order.
“I’ll have orange soda,” Tanuma says. “Thank you.”
“I’ll have a water.” Natsume says.
“Are you sure?” Tanuma asks. “It’s on Natori’s card, you know.”
He nods. “Water is fine. I don’t drink enough anyway.”
The waitress leaves, and the silence between them is almost palpable.
“So what do you do?” Tanuma says, and instantly regrets how awkward it sounds.
Natsume puts down his menu. “Oh, I go to the university in the next town over,” he says.
“That’s neat!” Tanuma says. “I’m thinking I might go to university next year, but I haven’t decided what I want to do with my life yet, so I’m just working at the coffee shop. What are you studying?”
“I’ve wanted to be a social worker since I was younger,” Natsume says. His head is down, and he’s tracing lines into the tabletop with a finger. “It just made sense to me, I guess. I want to help people, and help kids find good people.”
He stops and looks up, face red. “Sorry, was that weird? I didn’t mean to say so much.”
“No, no,” Tanuma says, laying a hand on the table, wishing it was on Natsume’s hand. “I like to hear about why people do what they do. Especially since I’m just drifting right now.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Natsume says. “It’s good to take your time to figure out what you want.”
The waitress returns with their drinks, diffusing whatever feeling had started drifting between them. Natsume returns to his menu, chewing his lip and looking nervous.
“What’s wrong?” Tanuma asks.
Natsume shakes his head. “Nothing’s wrong,” he says with another soft smile. “Just can’t decide, is all.”
“I don’t know what you like,” Tanuma says, “But I always get the turkey and bacon and ask for them to put it on sourdough. They bake their own bread here, and it’s amazing.”
Humming, Natsume tracks it down on his menu, reads the description, and chews on his lip some more. He startles when the server returns for their food order.
“Are you ready, Natsume?” Tanuma asks. “I can ask for more time.”
“No, no, it’s fine, go ahead, please.”
“I’ll have the bacon turkey sandwich, on sourdough please if that’s all right?” Tanuma says.
“Of course,” the waitress says, and nods.
Natsume chews on his lip a little more. “I’ll… have the same thing,” he says.
“I’ll have those right out to you!” the waitress says, smiling. Tanuma smiles back, as does Natsume.
“Thank you,” Tanuma says as she walks away. He turns back to Natsume, fumbling for words. “I think it’s really cool that you have something that you’re passionate about. I love the coffee shop, and Natori is great, but I wish I had something that put that kind of fire in my eyes.”
“I’m sure you’ll find it,” Natsume says earnestly. “For me, personal experience made the choice an easy one. It doesn’t work like that for everyone.”
Tanuma tries desperately not to pry too far. It’s only the first date. There would be time to unlock Natsume’s backstory if they went out again, and he wasn’t likely to get that far by being pushy.
“I’ve thought some about going into business--okay, so Natori has thought some about me going into business. He says I’m level-headed and would do well. But that’s not what I want to do with my life, I don’t think. When I was a kid, I always thought I’d just grow up to be a priest like my dad. But I don’t think I want that either. I want to be passionate about what I do,” he says, realizing belatedly that his last sentence came out a bit too fervently.
Natsume nods, having been listening intently. “If you don’t care about what you do, what’s the point in doing it?” he says. “I’ve had teachers like that. I never want to be that way.”
Tanuma smiles. “You get it,” he says. “In the meantime, I’m happy to work at the coffee shop. I love all my friends there, and Natori is great when he’s not micromanaging my life. Sometimes even when he is,” he says, gently brushing his fingers against Natsume’s in a rush of courage. Natsume flushes but gently grasps Tanuma’s fingers in return.
“I know what you mean about Natori,” Natsume says, not looking Tanuma in the eye. “He cares a lot, but his way of showing it can be overbearing sometimes. But he’s good when it matters.”
Tanuma nods. “He set us up, didn’t he?”
“He did,” Natsume says, smiling.
They’re interrupted by the arrival of their food, and Natsume lets go of Tanuma’s hand reluctantly as the waitress puts their plates down. They thank her and Natsume turns to his food.
He pulls open the sandwich, searching for the cheese. It hasn’t melted too much yet, so he carefully peels it away from the bread, looking sheepish.
“Oh, you didn’t have to get the same thing as me if you didn’t want it!” Tanuma says, worried that he somehow pressured Natsume into ordering something he wouldn’t like.
“Ah, no, sorry, I should’ve said. I’m actually lactose intolerant. I could’ve gotten it without the cheese, I know. The sandwich itself sounded good, though!”
“I’m glad it’s at least something you can fix,” Tanuma says. Natsume smiles and takes a careful bite of his now-cheeseless sandwich.
“It is good,” he says.
Tanuma smiles. “I’m glad you like it!” He takes a small bite of his own sandwich, careful not to just shovel it down like he usually would, not wanting to look uncivilized in front of Natsume.
Natsume eats half of his sandwich and some of the chips that came with it, and sits back in his seat.
“This has been nice,” Tanuma says as he finishes his sandwich. “I’m sorry I’m so awkward; I’m not used to having a lot of friends before the coffeeshop. I was sick a lot as a kid.”
Natsume stifles a little laughter. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m not laughing at you. I also didn’t really have a lot of friends. I… moved around a lot, so I never really got the chance to socialize with others.”
“Well you have a friend in me,” Tanuma says. “More, if you feel like it,” he says, staring intently at his leftover chips.
“I'd like that,” Natsume says. “I really would.” He gets the rest of his food to go.
“We still have Natori’s credit card,” Tanuma says.
Natsume cocks his head. “What are you suggesting?”
“He probably won’t kill me if I take you for ice cream. If you’d like that. I can always claim I needed to get my blood sugar up after fainting; it probably wouldn’t be an awful thing to do anyway.”
Natsume gives him a half smile. “I can’t eat ice cream, but if there’s a sherbet place or anything…?”
Tanuma facepalms. “I’m so sorry! I should have remembered!”
“You literally just found out,” Natsume says drily. “I don’t even remember every time. But I would like to go, even if I don’t get anything.”
“I think there’s a pastry shop a few blocks from here,” Tanuma says.
“Are you okay to walk that far?” Natsume asks.
Tanuma smiles warmly at the concern. “I should be all right, especially now that I have food in me.”
“Okay,” he says. “I do love pastries.”
Tanuma is right; the pastry shop is only a little ways down the street, and the distance seems even shorter once Tanuma works up the courage to grasp at Natsume’s hand again, curling carefully around the bandaging.
“Is this okay?” he asks, shy and breathless. Natsume squeezes gently and nods, smiling softly as they walk through the door, accompanied by the jangle of a bell announcing their arrival. Tanuma smiles back.
“I really like the orange passion fruit cake here,” Tanuma says, pointing it out in the pastry case.
“Oh, that sounds nice,” Natsume says, following Tanuma’s guide. “It looks prett—“ he stops, attention grabbed by a server carrying a frankly oversized hunk of bread covered in fruit and what looks like honey, ice cream slowly melting on the side. His eyes are wide when he turns back to Tanuma. “What is that,” he asks.
“Honey toast!” Tanuma says. “I’ve always wanted to try it but have never had the right occasion. Though I am pretty sure it’s not safe for you to eat.”
“It’s-is it just a sweet bread with toppings?”
“Oh you’re right!” Tanuma says. “We could just get it without the ice cream.”
“Ice cream separate? You could still put it on your side.”
“That works,” Tanuma says, smiling. “This will be fun.”
“Do you mind ordering?” Natsume asks quietly. “I’ll grab us a table?”
“Sounds good,” Tanuma says, and heads to the counter while Natsume wanders over to claim a table by the window. He comes back smiling.
“They said they can definitely put the ice cream on the side,” Tanuma says, sitting down across from Natsume.
“Thanks,” Natsume says, smiling. The silence that follows is less awkward than the ones before it, and only another minute or so passes before their bread comes to the table. Natsume’s eyes light up, though he waits for Tanuma to start.
Tanuma hadn’t anticipated how intimate sharing food would feel. He’s hesitant to take the first bite, and instead comes to a compromise, as Natsume clearly doesn’t want to start eating alone.
“Shall we try it together?” he asks.
Natsume beams. “Please!”
They start in on opposite corners, carving out a perfect bite of bread, fruit, and honey, Tanuma scooping ice cream onto his, and Natsume is thrilled, digging in for another bite immediately.
Tanuma smiles as he watches Natsume eat, and almost before he realizes it has pulled out his phone.
“Can I take a picture of you and it to send to Natori?” Tanuma asks. “It’s almost as big as your head!” He actually just wants a picture of Natsume on his phone, though he’d never admit it.
Natsume blushes, but holds still long enough for Tanuma to take it. “You have to send that to me,” he says, brandishing his fork at Tanuma. “It can’t go to Natori till I approve it.” He gives Tanuma his contact info and waits expectantly, shoveling another bite into his mouth. When he gets the picture he groans, leaving the fork in his mouth while he saves Tanuma’s info in return before he goes back to gesturing with it.
“Okay, you can send that to Natori, but only Natori.”
“You caught me,” Tanuma says, deadpan. “I was going to send it to everyone I know while bragging about my hot date.”
Natsume goes red and he mumbles something incoherent.
“Sorry, sorry,” Tanuma says. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
Natsume clears his throat and fidgets with his fork. “You think I’m hot?” he asks.
Tanuma sputters. “I, um, I mean…” His voice raises an octave. “Yes,” he finally says, face flaming.
Smiling, Natsume says, “That’s… good. I also think--you--you’re really handsome, too.”
Tanuma slowly lifts his head, smiling, his blush showing no sign of receding. “That...That’s good then,” he says. “That it’s mutual.”
Natsume fidgets with his fork for a little longer before putting it down completely and leaning back a little. “I think I’ve eaten too much.”
Tanuma takes a moment to actually listen to his body instead of just staring at Natsume.
“It’s a good thing you said that,” he says, “Because I was probably just going to zone out and eat this entire thing. But I am very full.”
“Should we take it back to Natori?” Natsume asks. “Minus the ice cream, of course.”
Tanuma and Natsume’s phones buzz. Tanuma looks down at his phone where it’s lying on the table and laughs.
“Bring me some!” Natori has texted.
“Looks like he’s answered that question,” Tanuma says. “Let’s get this boxed up, if you’re ready to go?”
When they leave the little shop a few minutes later, they walk shoulder to shoulder, free hands clasped as they head back to the coffee shop.
“I’ve really enjoyed this,” Tanuma says. “I’d like to see you again, if you like. Even if that means admitting Natori was right.”
“He’s going to be unbearable,” Natsume says, smile bright. “I’ll text you. I’d like that too.”
They arrive at the coffee shop and part reluctantly to get through the door, though they’re immediately accosted by Natori and dragged back to the breakroom.
“So?” Natori asks, grin insufferable. “Did you have fun?”
Natsume scowls halfheartedly.
“Don’t tell him anything, Natsume,” Tanuma hisses playfully. He looks at Natori, face angelic. “We brought you bread.”
“Don’t gang up on me,” Natori whines.
“Then you shouldn’t have introduced us,” Tanuma says, voice sing-song. Natsume is attempting to stifle laughter next to him.
“I’ve made a mistake,” Natori says. “Where’d my sweet Natsume go?”
Natsume leaves him to his dramatics for a second and turns to Tanuma. “I really did have fun,” he murmurs, reaching up to squeeze Tanuma’s arm. “We actually have to head out, but let’s meet again soon?” He looks hopeful.
Tanuma nods, smiling, and shifts to hold Natsume’s hand in his own. “Text me once you’re free later.”
“Really? Right in front of me?” Natori starts, working his way up to wailing. Natsume marches up to him and takes his elbow, pushing the bread box into his hands as he starts pulling him out of the room.
“Natori, we’re supposed to meet up with the Fujiwaras soon. I will not be late because you’re being dramatic,” Natsume says, firm but not unkind. He looks over his shoulder to throw Tanuma one last soft look before they’re out the door. Tanuma raises a hand to wave goodbye, heart full and hopeful.