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jars and jars of jam

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It starts, innocently enough, with homemade jam. Just one jar, then three, then pickles.

“Pickles?” Shuuichi asks Natsume, after he produces the jar from his schoolbag and sets it on Shuuichi’s kitchen counter. “Why are you giving me pickles?”

“It’s pickling season,” Natsume shrugs, like this should be obvious.

“I see.” Shuuichi’s not really a pickle person, but he can’t refuse Natsume or his foster parents without feeling an incredible, inexplicable guilt, so he accepts the offering to later hide it in the deepest empty pantry of his kitchen.

After the pickles, it’s natto, fresh farm vegetables, pickles, a canister of tea, homemade sweets, more pickles, and a bargain bag of rice.

“Your parents do realize I am a grown man and not, in fact, a college bachelor in need of feeding, right?” Shuuichi asks, cradling the rice like it’s a child and politely ignoring the strange emotional acrobatics Natsume’s face performs on the word parents. “I can and do feed myself. On a daily basis, even.”

Natsume stares at him, unreadable. Natsume’s monster cat peeks over his shoulder, ears flat and judgmental. Even Hiiragi, lurking in the kitchen, levels him with her unblinking one-eyed stare.

“Okay,” says Natsume neutrally. He sets his books down on Shuuichi’s countertop. “Are you any good at history? There’s a quiz tomorrow and Nishimura still hasn't read the chapter.”

Shuuichi is not good at history, but it turns out Hiiragi is. She quizzes Natsume on the Tokugawa shogunate while Shuuichi tries to puzzle out when, exactly, Natsume lost faith in Shuuichi as a figure of adult authority.

 

 

Actually, if Shuuichi is honest with himself—and he tries very hard to be, since he can hardly be honest with anyone else—it starts before the jam.

It starts in May, when his grandfather passes away.

He’s on set when it happens, so he misses the call. He only finds out when he checks his phone at the end of the day and finds a voicemail from his father, who stiffly informs him that his grandfather is dead and would he please stop by for the weekend.

They hold the overnight service in the house.

It’s nice. It’s small. There aren’t many Natoris left these days, just Shuuichi and his father and a few married cousins, so the bulk of the mourners are from his grandfather’s shogi society—older men already comfortable with loss and grief and armed with plates and plates of food.

His father is clearly in shock. His face crumples at apparently random moments and he frequently disappears into his room only to return stoic and red-eyed.

Shuuichi remains calm and collected during the entire service. He guides and thanks the mourners, runs interference between his father and an unruly guest, and rearranges the refrigerator at least five times in order to fit all of the food. Whenever someone checks on him (not infrequent), he assures them that no, thank you, he doesn’t need another glass of water. He feels perfectly fine.

For once, he doesn’t even have to lie.

 

 

The thing is: Natori Shuuichi knows his life is the existential equivalent of a very handsome trash fire. Despite his intelligence, hard work, and dashing good looks, Shuuichi barely manages to balance two extremely demanding jobs, one of which involves rubbing elbows with some of the most high-profile people in Japan and the other which depends on the utmost discretion and secrecy. He has no close human friends over the age of sixteen and a string of unsuccessful but well-reported romances to his name, and he hasn’t spoken to his father in eleven months. The most complicated dish he knows how to make is omurice and he honestly does eat all the food Touko sends him.

He knows that he only barely meets the requirements of adulthood by virtue of having a job, what some might call a home, and enough common sense to not accidentally poison himself more than two times per year. Still, there had been a brief and wonderful window of time when Natsume actually looked up to him—in dismay, mostly, but in an upwardly direction nonetheless.

“They grow up so quickly,” he tells Urihime mournfully one afternoon, when they’re alone in the apartment.

She looks at him, then at the pile of fresh paper messengers in his hands. “They are simply paper dolls, Natori-sama,” she soothes. “They are lifeless and, as such, cannot change or grow.”

And, well. Shuuichi can relate.

 

 

Shuuichi and Natsume fall into the habit of meeting up on a semi-regular basis—Shuuichi insists, in fact, after the nonsense during the moon-splitting festival, as a compromise with his conscience for the Fujiwaras’ ignorance. They carve out time in cafés, local parks, and, when Natsume can manage the trip to Shuuichi’s apartment in the city. He likes to believe that more frequent meetings will compel Natsume to be more open about his experiences with youkai, but so far he’s just learned a great deal about two troublemakers named Kitamoto and Nishimura who he suspects (but has yet to confirm) are entirely human.

Natsume has made it clear that he has no interest in exorcism, which ideally would have marked a plateau in their relationship where Shuuichi and Natsume kept in polite touch as distant colleagues who only spoke out of necessity or happenstance.

But Shuuichi then sees Natsume masquerading as a god in lavender and thinks, wow this kid is going to get eaten. If not now, then some day soon, doing something unbelievably kind and stupid, like trying to pet a bakeneko or hand-feed a kamaitachi, and when it happens, Shuuichi will be the one who has to tell the Fujiwaras, so he starts spending time with a high schooler and is forced to remember a good deal about algebra and Japanese literature and for a while, that’s the end of it. Natsume shows up at Shuuichi’s apartment every other Friday, usually with homework and always with food that Shuuichi doesn't need. Shuuichi asks casually prying questions that Natsume answers in nebulous and ultimately useless ways, and then Shuuichi drives or walks him home.

It’s a reliable pattern only somewhat resembling a friendship. Shuuichi likes it, his shiki allow it, and even Natsume seems to be warming to it.

Eventually, though, something gives.

Shuuichi invites Natsume to raid an old mansion because he doesn’t really know what normal people do for fun. They meet a dragon. Natsume tells Shuuichi about the Book of Friends.

When the dragon fires finally burn out, leaving the Hakozaki mansion untouched but for the scattered ashes of research notes, the sun is nearly set and it’s too late for Natsume to walk home alone.

“He’s not alone,” puffs Natsume’s monster cat, but Natsume picks it up and scratches it behind the ear, silencing it, and nods for Shuuichi to lead the way. He slips past invitations from the other exorcists with pre-prepared excuses, his shiki falling into step like shadows.

A few blocks from the mansion, Natsume tugs off his mask and hands it back, revealing a face smudged with soot and knitted with apprehension.

“Something on your mind?”

Natsume shakes his head. “Just thinking about something the door dragon said.”

The door dragon. Honestly. “It’s incredibly unusual to see a dragon shiki. Most exorcists would go to great lengths to bind one to their service,” Shuuichi says. “They are among the most powerful and extraordinary youkai—I’ve only encountered one other.”

He'd nearly been eaten, but that doesn't bear repeating. Most of Shuuichi’s knowledge on dragons is practical: strengths (there are many) and weaknesses (illusive), last known sightings, useful rumors. None of it likely to be well-received by Natsume, but he remembers a bit of trivia from an old manuscript that seems germane, so he offers it up: “They used to say seeing a dragon was a mark of good luck and coming rain.”

Sure enough, Natsume smiles a bit. “I’ll have to remember my umbrella tomorrow, then.”

After that, the walk is companionable until they finally arrive at the gate of the Fujiwara residence. “Well, have a good evening. Say hello to Touko-san for me.”

Natsume blinks. “You can just tell her yourself,” he says, and points to the front door. Sure enough, Fujiwara Touko is coming to greet them in her apron and house shoes.

“Natori-kun! Come in, come in. We’re eating fried shrimp for dinner and—oh, you will stay, won’t you? It’s much too late for you to get dinner in the city, although I suppose—you might already have plans?” she finishes breathlessly, hands clasped in front of her.

Shuuichi is acutely aware of the half-burned sheaf of Hakozaki’s notes in his coat, waiting to be transcribed and studied. He knows he needs to research the implications of sealing and returning youkai names. Tomorrow, he’s scheduled to shoot a scene for a historical romance. He still needs to shower and figure out how to seal the Kumamoto tanuki and, hopefully, start his laundry.

Natsume is still standing on the porch, cat in arms, eyes flicking between both of them, looking more at ease than Shuuichi has seen the entire evening.

Shuuichi wants to sigh, so instead he smiles. “Dinner sounds lovely, Fujiwara-san. Thank you.”

 

 

The Fujiwara household is a lovely traditional home, complete with sliding rice paper doors and dark wood paneling the floor. The kitchen is small but charming, with details that flush out its character: pink backsplash above the sink, a flower calendar, a cabinet filled with delicate china. The entire house smells like spices and sesame oil and radiates with bone-deep warmth.

It’s familiar from the few times Shuuichi went to a classmate’s home when he was younger: inviting and cozy and utterly foreign to him. He hesitates at the kitchen threshold, not entirely sure where to put himself.

“Please, take a seat, Natori-kun,” Touko says, steering him into a chair. Natsume follows, pausing to hang his coat and swap his shoes.

Shuuichi finds himself seated across from Fujiwara Shigeru, who seems only mildly surprised to find strange young man at his dinner table.

“Tea or water, Natori-kun? Or beer, perhaps?” Touko asks, as Natsume sets a place for him.

“Ah, tea, please.”

“This is Natori Shuuichi,” Natsume reminds Shigeru, who nods as if that’s the only possible explanation. “He walked home with me, since it was getting dark outside.”

“Hello again, Natori-san.” His eyes crinkle behind his glasses when he smiles.

"Hello," Shuuichi says.

Tea and food materialize on the table as if summoned by a household ghost, but there’s only Touko, looking immensely pleased with herself.

“Thanks for the food,” the Fujiwaras say, which Shuuichi echoes a half-second too late.

 

 

Shuuichi feels somewhat awkward, standing at the gate of a high school for a kid that’s not his kid, but it also seems like the most efficient way not to overlook Natsume, so he does it anyway. It’s not like someone will come up and demand identification and purpose of visit, he tells himself, so of course someone does.

“Are you waiting for someone?” asks a voice. Shuuichi turns to see a boy with glasses, standing at a polite distance and holding himself with a respectable amount of caution. “I could go let them know, if that’s the case…”

Shuuichi smiles gratefully at the kid. “Yes. I’m waiting for Natsume Takashi?”

And that earns him a double-take and a suspicious up-down from the boy. “Of course,” he says, eyes narrowed. “Are you a relative?”

Shuuichi shakes his head. “No. We were supposed to meet up later, but I had a sudden change in plans. Are you his classmate?”

The boy nods and seems to come to a decision. “Wait here,” he says before jogging off.

“Okay,” Shuuichi says, to the gate.

The boy returns not but three minutes later with two more boys in tow. They are, Shuuichi notices, not Natsume.

The tall boy smiles politely, but the little one shoots him a withering scowl. In a moment of absurd déjà vu, it reminds Shuuichi of a spectacularly stubborn tengu he once exorcized in the south. “Go away!”

Shuuichi’s own smile falters slightly. “I—beg your pardon?”

“You heard me,” the little one says, clearly ruffled. “This is the second time this month—you people need to leave Natsume alone. He already has enough problems; he doesn’t need help from the league of strangely attractive stalkers all the time. Go away! Shoo!” The little one flaps his hands, as if to startle a wild animal.

Shuuichi holds his hands up, placating, and struggles to keep up. “Natsume is being stalked?”

“Yeah, by you and the creepy rat-faced pirate!” says the boy. He waves a textbook in a vaguely menacing gesture. “Go away or we’ll report you to a teacher! Kitamoto, take his picture so we have photographic evidence.”

Obligingly, the tall one pulls out a phone and snaps a picture of Shuuichi, no doubt wide-eyed and confused.

His PR manager is going to love this.

“Nishimura-kun, Kitamoto-kun?” pipes a familiar voice. They all turn to see Natsume at the gate, staring at them. “Why are you shouting? Hello,” he adds, nodding to Shuuichi and the boy with glasses.

“You know this guy, Natsume?” the little one asks, clearly skeptical.

Natsume gives his friends a concerned look. “He’s a friend of the family,” Natsume says easily, turning to Shuuichi. “I thought we were meeting later today?”

“Work rescheduled on me,” Shuuichi says, surprised to realize that he is, technically, a family friend. “There’s a thunderstorm in the forecast, so they decided to postpone the garden scenes. Although if this is a bad time…”

“No, no!” Natsume says. “I’ll just go get my bag.”

Then he stands there for another moment, looking between the three of them, as if reluctant to leave them alone again. Shuuichi flashes the most reassuring smile he can muster, which oddly makes Natsume look even more pained.

“Your friends are welcome to come with us?”

The two boys—Nishimura and Kitamoto, apparently, their humanity more or less confirmed—exchange meaningful glances, and the little one quickly jumps to agree. “Okay!”

Natsume rolls his eyes and jogs off, leaving them to soak in a moment in awkward silence.

“Hey,” the little one says, “anybody ever say you look a bit like Natori Shuuichi?”

 

 

After bookbags are collected and they head out, Natsume introduces Shuuichi properly and distinguishes between his friends. Nishimura, beet-red, all but tackles Natsume aside for a quiet but heated discussion that includes the words can’t believe and talented and the titles of at least two of his films.

Kitamoto, amused and unconcerned, hangs back and falls into step with Shuuichi.

Shuuichi watches for a moment before it becomes clear that Nishimura’s play-horsing is actually quite gentle for a teenager and, in any case, Natsume seems to be holding his own.

“Where would you and Natsume have gone if we hadn’t tagged along?” Kitamoto asks. He doesn’t bother to look casual, just levels Shuuichi with a serious look.

“Sometimes we go to a café or the park,” Shuuichi says, thinking over the last two encounters.

Kitamoto frowns. “Do you mind if I ask why?” Kitamoto clearly catches Shuuichi’s surprise, because he elaborate, “It’s just that it’s a little weird for a famous actor to be friends with a high school kid. Not that, ah, I think you’re… it’s Natsume, though, you know?”

Shuuichi does know, unfortunately. He scratches his head and laughs. “It’s a little hard to explain, actually.”

“Try,” Kitamoto says dryly.

“He helped me with a job once, accidentally.” Shuuichi pauses, trying to parse the truth from the supernatural. How on earth had Natsume explained their friendship to his parents? “He seems a bit…overwhelmed sometimes,” Shuuichi chooses his words carefully. “That’s something I also experienced when I was about his age. I tried to offer advice and it seems like sometimes—maybe?—it helps.”

“That sounds like the vague kind of answer Natsume say,” Kitamoto points out.

“Clearly he’s got a support system in place, though.” Shuuichi feels a sharp pinch of humility. Natsume has a circle of caring friends and storybook parents—he would most likely succeed even without Shuuichi’s interference. “Perhaps you're right, and I should spend less time with him.”

Kitamoto glances ahead, where Nishimura is picking twigs out of Natsume’s hair with maternal dismay.

“Maybe not,” Kitamoto murmurs. “Natsume doesn’t tell us everything, and he doesn't tell the Fujiwaras half of what he tells us. It’s probably a good thing for him to have an adult he doesn’t rely on for, you know. Basic human needs. Not the Fujiwaras would ever—well—but still.” Kitamoto tapers off and shrugs helplessly. “He doesn’t tell us stuff.”

Shuuichi hums. He doesn’t know whether to be proud or sad of the position, so he smiles at Kitamoto instead. “You’re quite observant, aren’t you?”

“Eh.” The boy shrugs again. “My sister says I notice all of the things Nishimura overlooks.”

“Hmm? Well, I’ll do my best,” he says, and means it.

 

 

“What is that?” Shuuichi says, squinting at the rolled bundle tucked under Natsume’s arm.

“A rug,” Natsume says. “Touko and Shigeru went to an arts and crafts fair last weekend. It’s hand-woven,” Natsume says. Clearly, this imparts special properties to the rug.

“Why do you have a rug?” Shuuichi asks warily.

“Why do you have a rug, you mean,” Natsume says, pushing it across the table.

“Why do I have a rug?” Shuuichi asks wearily.

Natsume shrugs.

“Right,” Shuuichi says, staring at the rug. It’s a cheerful mishmash of bright colors roughly the size of a doormat. It doesn’t match anything in Shuuichi’s apartment. “Thank you.”

Natsume trades his shoes for house slippers and heads for his favorite barstool. “Touko says you should come to dinner again, by the way.”

“Of course,” Shuuichi says, defeated.

“Great.” Natsume pulls out a textbook and drops it on the counter. “Hiiragi, what do you know about the Meiji Restoration?”

 

 

“So, Natori-kun,” Touko asks over what Shuuichi is certain is the best vegetable curry he’s ever eaten, “are you from the area?”

Shigeru looks up with mild interest. Natsume and his cat seem locked in some kind of mortal death stare over a slice of mackerel.

“Yes, actually.” He is now, more than ever, convinced that the Fujiwaras have no idea how successful his career is. It’s adorably refreshing. “Although I grew up closer to the city, in a house a bit older than this one.”

“Oh! That sounds lovely. I’ve always admired traditional-style homes. Does your family still live there?”

Shuuichi fixes a pleasant smile on his face. “Yes, my father does. He runs a small stationary shop in town.”

Touko smiles in an encouraging way. “He must be very proud of you,” she persists.

“Mm,” Shuuichi says. It is, he’s learning, incredibly hard to lie to the Fujiwaras. He catches Natsume’s eye instead, which gives the cat the opportunity it needs to snatch up the mackerel.

“Nyanko-sensei!” Natsume lunges for it, but he’s far too late—Shuuichi can almost hear the creature’s gleeful chuckling as he darts off with his prize.

“Better luck next time, Takashi-kun,” Shigeru consoles serenely, taking a sip of tea.

Natsume only sighs.

“So, Natori-kun,” Touko continues blithely, “Are you seeing anyone right now?”

Shuuichi doesn’t choke on his food, but it’s a close thing.

 

 

It takes a while, but eventually Shuuichi gets the opportunity to have a long-awaited conversation. He’s wrapping up the ritual cleansing of an old mountain shrine when a shadow steps out of the timberline like he’s been lurking there all day.

“Natori, what a surprise,” says Matoba Seiji, looking as implacable as ever. The man seems to be alone, but Shuuichi wouldn’t be surprised if there were at least three servants crouching in the woods. “I feel like we never talk anymore.”

Shuuichi doesn’t even bother mincing words. He rolls up his floating bird array into a long paper tube and smacks Matoba over the head with it.

It makes a satisfying hollow fwhump against his head. Shuuichi watches with glee as Matoba takes a quick step away, eyes narrowed.

Have you been stalking Natsume?

Matoba raises his hands in a placating gesture, his perpetual smirk for once vanished from his smug face. “Of course not. Natsume-kun is fifteen—it would be reprehensible to harass the boy in such a way.”

“Oh really,” he says, punctuating his speech with jabs from the rolled array, “Then why—do his friends—think he’s being followed—by a one-eyed rat?” Shuuichi makes another swing with the array and misses as Matoba sidesteps easily and grabs the paper tube, holding it in place.

“That is peculiar,” Matoba says breezily. “Perhaps there’s a new dangerous powerful youkai in the area. I could help you look into, if you like."

“Matoba,” Shuuichi says. “I’m not kidding. He’s a kid. He wants to be left alone. So,” he leans into the exorcist’s space and imagines the paper tube is a sword, “leave him alone.”

Matoba tugs the array of his hands. “This is unlike you.”

“You don’t know what I’m like.”

“Don’t I?” Matoba says, bored. He unrolls the array in hands and hums. “I don’t recognize this one, Natori. Something you made yourself?”

It isn’t. It’s a direct copy of Hakozaki’s notes, and it works impossibly well. “Yes,” Shuuichi lies, grabbing the array back. “Now go away.”

“Fine, fine,” Matoba says. He hop-skips out of Shuuichi’s space, obnoxiously without tripping on his robes. “See you around, then, I guess.”

Shuuichi ignores him until he’s gone and tries not to read too deeply into the man’s disappointment.

 

 

Shuuichi tries not to stack acting and exorcist work, but sometimes (often) it becomes unavoidable. He’s wrapping up a historical romance this month—only three scenes left—but someone calls in about an onikuma in the mountains, and he knows better than to leave those alone for too long. So on Thursday, he shoots the dramatic argument scene in simulated rain and a heavily soaked kimono and Thursday night into Friday morning, he tracks bear prints to an underground cavern and binds the youkai to a ceramic jar, leaving its lair blissfully unmauled.

There’s no filming that Friday, so he naps until it's time to meet Natsume at the café.

The café where he’s greeted with an entire watermelon.

“Oh my,” Shuuichi says. Natsume glares at him like the watermelon was his idea and crosses his twiggy, twiggy arms. The image of Natsume lugging a watermelon around is so comical that Shuuichi can’t help it—he laughs so hard he sneezes.

“Gross,” Natsume says, as Hiiragi hands him a napkin.

“Natsume!” the cat monster chides, jumping up onto the table in between them. “Back away from the exorcist! Clearly, he is suffering from some well-deserved curse.”

“It’s just a cold, sensei.”

“That’s even worse. You have the constitution of a daffodil. His sickness will spread and I’ll have to drag you home again,” the cat monster argues. “Let’s leave now.”

“I’m not sick,” Shuuichi protests, dabbing at his nose with the napkin.

Natsume looks at him doubtfully. To Shuuichi's surprise, Hiiragi skims the cool back of her hand across his forehead.

“He’s sick,” she confirms.

“I’m fine!”

Natsume frowns at him. After a moment, he too raises a hand and presses it to Shuuichi’s forehead, feather-light and tentative. “You are really hot, Natori-san.”

“That’s kind of you to say,” Shuuichi jokes. Natsume withdraws his hand and scowls, and Shuuichi’s feels bad for teasing him, so he relents. “I suppose I could head home early. We’re not filming tomorrow, I can spend tomorrow sleeping in.” Maybe make some ofuda, too, or weed through his pantry. Pickles were supposed to help with sickness, right? He’s certain he’s read that somewhere.

“Don’t be silly. Your apartment is an hour from here. You’ll have to stay in town,” Natsume decides.

“I’m hardly going to book a hotel room just because I have a little cold,” Shuuichi reasons. Natsume looks at him like he’s ridiculous.

“Obviously. You can stay with the Fujiwaras. Touko will probably insist on it, once she sees you. You look like a mushroom,” says Natsume, matter-of-fact. It sounds like an insult. “Hiiragi, do you mind—ah, thank you.”

Natsume and Hiiragi make a terrifyingly efficient team: Hiiragi herds Shuuichi out of the café as Natsume holds open the door and the cat monster eggs them both on and disparages Shuuichi’s character. When they reach the street, Natori mostly just gives up, not wanting to cause a scene.

True to Natsume’s prediction, Touko receives them with warmth and—once Natsume tells her about Natori’s very slight fever—no small amount of dismay.

“My, my,” she fusses, darting around him, as Natori stares down at another miraculously produced cup of tea.

 

 

Natsume’s room is oddly clean, without band posters or photos or the knickknacks most people accumulate as a consequence of living. Instead, there are a few skilled ink-and-paper drawings taped above the desk and the painting of a cherry tree on the opposite wall. In the corner, an odd stringed instrument leans next to an ancient cardboard box. In the window, a glass bell chime.

It looks like the bedroom of an old woman, not a schoolboy, although Shuuichi will be the first to admit that he’s not one to judge—when he was Natsume’s age, he mostly slept in a storehouse.

“It’s very clean,” Shuuichi says, gravitating towards the paintings on the wall.

“Thank you,” Natsume says, automatic.

“Did you draw these yourself?”

“Yes, I…um. Met a talented artist once, and they inspired me to try my luck at drawing.” Natsume laughs. “They’re not that good though.”

“No! They’re very good,” Shuuichi insists. He squints. Most of them seem to be flower studies, but there a few that are clearly youkai. Shuuichi picks out a one-eyed monster waving a fan like a cheerleader and a giant wolf creature surrounded by flowers.

“Is this an okami? Did you meet an okami, Natsume?” Shuuichi tries not to let disbelief color his voice, but based on Natsume’s nervous expression, he’s not entirely successful.

“Um, they didn’t say. The spare futon is in the hallway closet, so I’ll just—go get it. Right now.”

Shuuichi lets it go. He’s getting better at it, the more time he spends with Natsume, allowing for compromise.

“Sorry for the intrusion,” Shuuichi says again, later that evening. He doesn’t often share a room with someone else, and having a girlfriend over is leagues apart from sleeping in Fujiwara-san’s borrowed pajamas five feet away from a fifteen-year-old and his pet youkai. Shuuichi has been in weirder situations, but not that many.

Natsume rolls onto his back so he’s no longer faced away and smiles reassuringly. In the filtered moonlight, Shuuichi can just see the cat obligingly shift to accommodate the new position. “I don’t mind. It’s a bit like a slumber party, actually.”

Shuuichi smiles. “I’ve actually never been to a slumber party before,” he admits.

“I stay over at Tanuma’s sometimes,” Natsume confides, “but mostly because he was possessed. And another time, his house was haunted.”

“And I don’t mind,” Natsume continues cheerfully. “I’m used to sharing.”

Shuuichi pauses. As far as he knows, Natsume is the Fujiwaras’ precious only child, and not on close terms with any cousins or relatives. Perhaps, then, a blossoming new relationship…?

“Ah,” he ventures cautiously, “you and Tanuma?”

There’s a long pause, before the cat youkai falls into a snuffled wheeze and Natsume sits up abruptly. “No! Natori-san, what?!”

In the darkness, Shuuichi grins, delighted by Natsume’s dramatic reaction in spite of himself. “Ah, well, you implied…”

“I meant when I was younger!” Natsume snaps, and it wipes the grin from Shuuichi’s face.

“I’m sorry?”

“N-not like that! I used to share rooms with my cousins,” Natsume mumbles. Shuuichi glances over at Natsume again, concerned. Ah, he’s hiding his face in his pillow. Adorable. “Or I’d sleep in an office or living room and got used to people coming in and out.”

Shuuichi doesn't know what to say.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Natsume says preemptively.

After all the time he’s spent with Natsume, Shuuichi thinks he should be used to these sudden sideways tips into sadness, but he’s not. Natsume’s rocky childhood is hardly a secret, but it’s easy to overlook with a kid is so hellbent on kindness.

“I’m glad the Fujiwaras found you,” Shuuichi says.

Outside the window, the bell chime sounds like glass breaking very slowly and softly. It’s silent for long enough that Shuuichi think Natsume’s letting the conversation go, when the kid rolls back to the wall with a small, "Me, too."

 

 

In the morning, Shuuichi wakes before Natsume, and creeps downstairs to find the Fujiwaras eating a slow breakfast in the kitchen.

“Good morning, Shuuichi-kun!” Touko says, rising. “Sit down, sit down, let me grab you some food—we started without you, I hope you don’t mind.”

“Of course not, but ah, I can—oh, thank you—um, make my own…” he trails off, surprised to find a full plate of food and a cup of tea already on the table. He doesn’t remember sitting down. He squints suspiciously at Touko, looking for signs of supernatural influence or meddling.

“Ah!” she exclaims, pressing a hand to her cheek. “Your fever! Let me just grab a thermometer, and then we can see if you’re well enough to go to work today…”

Shuuichi stares after her.

Across the table, Shigeru sips his tea.