“What do you mean a strike?” Ryuuji asks.
The lady in front of him doesn’t seem impressed in the least by his tone. It makes him feel faintly bad; she looks like she’s had to deflect the same question for hours, and technically, it’s not her fault the cafeteria is closed. His cheeks grow warm.
“I mean a strike,” she replies curtly. “No one’s going to be serving meals here until it’s over.”
He really wants to apologize now. His entire head feels like it’s been shoved into an oven.
“But then,” Shima says with acute despair, “how’re we supposed to eat?”
She looks like she wants to reply, Figure it out, useless boy. Shima’s shoulders drop so low he might as well be bowing under the weight of his disappointment.
The mess hall is awash with angry students. Ryuuji looks past the embarrassed twitch of Konekomaru’s lips as he comforts Shima and to the crowds asking the other kitchen workers the same questions—what about food? Isn’t this irresponsible? My parents pay a fortune for me to be here, the least this school can do is feed me right—
“Sorry for bothering you,” he tells the woman roughly, face still burning. He doesn’t know how to make himself nicer.
She just waves him off.
Ryuuji has to drag Shima behind himself as he leaves the building; he’s given up on slouching unappealingly now, and has started to complain, loudly. There’s a smarting retort about to leave Ryuuji’s lips, a call for better attitude that feels hypocritical in light of how he reacted himself only a minute ago. He chews it down before it can be voiced.
The air outside is nothing short of a bite, achingly cold, a vivid cut on every inch of exposed skin. It’s going to snow soon, and when it does, it won’t be livable. They’re alone on the steps; everyone else would rather sit unfed in the hall rather than brave the oncoming blizzard.
“It’s s-so cold,” Moriyama stammers behind them.
“Y-You’re just weak,” Kamiki protests, as if she isn’t shaking from head to toe.
“I can’t believe we can’t eat,” Shima exclaims then. His face is still slack with exaggerated despair. “A strike. What the hell? Don’t they get paid enough?”
“They said it’s because the kitchen equipment is too outdated and dangerous…”
“That’s just an excuse for being lazy, Konekomaru.”
“Shut up, Shima,” Ryuuji and Kamiki snap at the same time.
She glares at him, just to be contradictory. Ryuuji has never claimed not to be contradictory either, so he glares right back.
He’s more surprised than anything that he hasn’t heard of the strike before actually getting to the cafeteria. Judging by the outrage of all the other students, including the regular ones, this is a wanted effect. The cooks may look tired, but there’s a definite edge of smugness to their attitude.
He can’t really blame them. No more than he can blame the others for being idiots about it. He had really looked forward to eating something warm after coming out of class, especially with how draining P.E. was.
Kirigakure chooses this moment to step out into the freezing cold, dressed exactly the same as she always is, the ridiculously frail scarf at her throat the only sign that she feels any cold. The way Shima stares at her now has more to do with the fact that she isn’t folding herself into a ball trying to avoid frostbite than because she’s so provocative.
“Heh,” she purrs, looking over them. “Lost, kids?”
“We can’t eat in the hall,” Moriyama replies through her chattering teeth.
The look Kirigakure gives her might have been mistaken for sympathy by anyone who doesn’t know her; as it is, only Moriyama seems to fall for it.
“Well, that’s not my problem,” she says airily. “I got a date with free food.”
“As in an actual date?” Kamiki asks.
“Sure.” Kirigakure rubs her hands together, blows on them as if to keep them warm—as if she isn’t walking in shorts and a poor excuse for a tank top by below-zero temperature—there is no way she doesn’t know a trick to keep herself warm, Ryuuji thinks faintly. No way at all. “He offered to pay for the food. I wasn’t gonna say no.”
“You aren’t even interested in the guy?”
“Why are you going on a date in the middle of a school day?”
She ignores their questions and makes her way toward the next building over, where she’ll no doubt be able to conveniently disappear from all her responsibilities.
“Great,” Shima moans. “Now we don’t have food, we’re cold, and our only hot teacher probably won’t even be here this afternoon.”
Ryuuji kicks him in the shin.
“Where’s Okumura?” Kamiki mumbles, ignoring the cry of indignation Shima gives behind her. She’s looking around herself, frowning. “He should be here, if we’re all gonna suffer.”
“He never eats in the hall,” Konekomaru tells her. “He always makes his own food, remember?”
Kamiki meets Ryuuji’s eyes in the next second.
He doesn’t need her fleeting smirk to know they are thinking the same thing.
Okumura insults them with simple, straightforward expletives. He groans, and glares at Ryuuji especially hard—though Ryuuji makes a point of trying not to antagonize him—and his demon cat is by his feet the entire time, hissing and snapping his twin tails.
He says yes, though. Moriyama’s presence is very much to thank for that.
Ryuuji watches him prepare food with an itch under his skin; it takes him a long time to recognize it as the sort of unsettled he used to feel around his mother, when he knew she needed help—when she made sure to let him know—but couldn’t figure out how to offer it. Okumura looks exhausted. Ryuuji’s never seen him as anything less than perfectly healthy and bright, injuries non-withstanding. He wasn’t even sure his demon body allowed for something as normal as fatigue. But Okumura’s eyes are underlined by deep bruise-like circles. His shoulders are tense. His cat stays nestled against his neck the whole time he works, the color of its fur indistinguishable from that of Okumura’s hair but very stark against the pallor of his nape.
Ryuuji looks away after that. He doesn’t know if what he feels is irritation or concern, and he doesn’t know why his face is still warm. The flush almost aches after how numb his skin has become on the way here.
Around the table, Konekomaru and Moriyama seem equally subdued. The way Shima and Kamiki spit at each other is more nervous than truly heated as well.
“There you go,” Okumura mumbles a few minutes later, pushing a pan over the table.
It’s nothing fancy, just fried rice and vegetables. It’s still more delicious than any iteration of the dish Ryuuji has tried before. He tries to focus on that rather than anything else as he eats. Shima makes a show of moaning after each mouthful, practically melting into the table from the way the food warms him, the same way it warms Ryuuji.
He can’t help but look at Okumura, though. That he looks becoming with Ryuuji’s gifted hairclip pushing back his bangs is old news by now, and Ryuuji has enough experience with it not to let it make him blush as it once did, but the apron and slippers and flickering tail at his back make it worse somehow. Ryuuji can’t pretend that his irritation is only due to the cold or the strike or the sores of training. He eats his food, the food Okumura made for them when they asked in spite of how obviously out of it he is right now, and his chest feels tight, pressurized, strained in two directions at once.
“You wanna pet him?” Okumura asks Koneko, catching his cat around the middle and setting it atop the table.
Koneko jumps in his seat; Ryuuji almost snorts—he knows he was looking at Okumura, not the cat curled around his neck—but Koneko doesn’t say anything to deny it. He nods shakily. His first touch of the demon’s fur is hesitant, reluctant, but better, Ryuuji thinks, than asking what he really wants to know.
At least Okumura seems to relax after that. He watches with a small smile as the cat rolls onto its back, practically ordering Konekomaru to rub its belly. Koneko obeys warily.
Ryuuji drags behind when the others start to leave. Their afternoon classes won’t start for another twenty minutes, so he has enough time. Shima gives him a quick glance when he notices, but he’s the only one who does. The girls are too entranced in their conversation to pay attention to much else; Konekomaru is looking at his hand like he can’t believe he touched a demon and lived to tell the tale. Or maybe because the cat is just that soft.
Ryuuji wouldn’t know. He’s never touched it.
“Hey,” he says gruffly once he and Okumura are alone.
Okumura startles badly—Ryuuji’s quick reflexes are the only thing that prevent the pile of plates he’s holding from spilling over and breaking onto the floor. He curses, catching them before they can fall and resting them atop the counter.
“What’re you still doing here?” Okumura says under his breath. He’s not looking at him, and the tips of his ears are red.
“Aren’t ya coming to class?”
The unhappy look he gets is all the answer he needs.
“You can’t skip,” he says heatedly.
Okumura rolls his eyes at him. “You’re such a nerd. Yukio’s not here today, it’s not like I’ll get scolded if I—”
“I thought you were being fucking serious about this.”
Okumura doesn’t say anything.
“You came this morning,” Ryuuji goes on. Okumura had been a little silent, something he couldn’t help but notice because he can’t help but notice everything about Okumura, but nothing like this strange, withdrawn version of him standing here now. He looks almost drowsy. Slow and hesitant in a way so uncharacteristic of him it makes every hair along Ryuuji’s scalp tingle and rise.
Ryuuji takes a step forward. “What’re you,” he starts.
He can’t quite finish. His face burns at the words he wants to ask—are you okay?—but Okumura sighs before he can even try to find the composure for them, leans against the counter and lets his shoulder drop, more of a tired slouch than a sign of relaxation.
His tail isn’t flickering now. It hangs limply along his legs. Ryuuji’s never felt more out of his depth.
“I don’t feel good,” Okumura mutters.
“Are you, uh, are you sick?”
He doesn’t look sick. Okumura shakes his head. “Nah, I just—ugh, this stupid—you’re gonna make fun of me,” he accuses.
Ryuuji wouldn’t. Not now. But Okumura sounds insecure and bothered, and, well. Ryuuji’s not really given him reason to think otherwise. Just because he isn’t serious in his animosity most of the time doesn’t mean Okumura knows it.
Okumura’s used to animosity toward him being dreadfully serious. Recent events have led Ryuuji to this realization, and it still feels a bit like a slap in the face now.
“What happened?” he asks in the silence that follows.
Okumura takes a long time to answer. His demon cat jumps on the counter to rub against his elbow, and at least this much is enough to make him smile fleetingly. Ryuuji reminds himself that it’s ridiculous to feel jealous of a cat.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” he admits eventually. “Came here to take a nap and then I…”
He can’t seem to find the words. His lips close so tightly they whiten for lack of blood, and his brow furrows in anger.
“Did you have a nightmare?” Ryuuji asks.
Once more, Okumura jumps. There’s guilt on his face for the barest second, just before it’s replaced with defensiveness, with something fragile that makes Ryuuji ache with sympathy. “So what if I did?” he replies sharply. “Are you too good for nightmares or something—”
“I’m not,” Ryuuji replies.
He relaxes a bit. This isn’t something he likes to talk about, but anything’s better than seeing Okumura like this.
“I get nightmares often,” he says, looking at the ceiling. He licks his lips quickly. “It’s not—weak or anything. It’s fine.”
When he risks a glance in Okumura’s direction again, the other is staring at him with wide eyes.
“You get nightmares?” he asks. He sounds completely bewildered.
Ryuuji’s hands clench by his sides. “What, can’t I?” he replies, flustered.
“No! I just—”
Okumura pauses. He looks like he doesn’t know whether to ogle him or stare away; his fingers abort a move in Ryuuji’s direction, something that makes the breath in Ryuuji’s throat catch for a second; but then all he does is grin, widely enough that his eyes stretch at the corners and the couple hairs escaping from the clip shiver against his forehead, and Ryuuji finds himself unable to say anything at all.
“Sorry, man,” Okumura laughs. The room around them seems so much brighter all of a sudden, like the low winter light has lifted to make way for the sun. “I just, it’s reassuring, y’know? Even cool guys like you get nightmares.”
“Yeah,” Ryuuji replies numbly.
He can’t look away from Okumura’s smile at all.
“You’re right,” Okumura decides out loud. He makes a fist out of his hand in front of his chest, the other coming to rest around the cat, who purrs contentedly. “I better not skip and give you the chance to catch up with my awesomeness.”
“You’re the one who needs to catch up, dumbass.”
Okumura just laughs again brightly.
Ryuuji stays in the kitchen while he runs upstairs to fetch his bag. The cat on the counter stares at him, and the curve of its mouth is in the shape of a mocking, smug smile. Ryuuji can’t do anything but stare back and wonder if he’s seeing things.
“Sorry for the wait,” Okumura says once he comes back, bag slung over his shoulder. He doesn’t wait for Ryuuji before slipping on his shoes and jumping outside—though he does recoil at the cold, giving Ryuuji the time to regain some sort of control over himself and join him.
“It’s so cold,” Okumura whines.
Ryuuji nods, still wordless. The wind bites at him, but his face is so warm he can barely feel it.
He makes himself say what he wants to as they walk toward their class, lowly, hesitantly. “D’you wanna talk about it?”
Talking about his nightmares has always helped him. It’s unpleasant, it feels like admitting weakness no matter that no one has ever called him weak for it, be it his mother or his friends, but it helps. It puts them at a distance. He wouldn’t mind being the sort of friend Okumura feels he can talk to like this—and this realization is another blow, one that smarts below his heart in a rush of off-tempo beats.
Okumura looks at him with his lips lifted gently. “No,” he replies.
It doesn’t feel like rejection at all.
Ryuuji looks at the ground as they walk, too-aware of Okumura right by his side. This isn’t something they do. They are never alone like this with nothing pressing going on; silence has never stretched so quiet and easy between them, not as a weight, but as a comfort.
When they reach their classroom, Ryuuji almost regrets that they need to cut it short. He thinks he wouldn’t mind skipping class, if it means sharing the silence with Okumura for a bit longer.