"It's a little embarrassing, isn't it?" Shigeru chuckled. Natsume nodded, giving a little laugh of his own. "But," Shigeru continued, "she has a point."
Touko was sending them to buy clothes. "Honestly," she'd said, shaking a finger at both of them, "you wear your clothes until they're just rags!" Patting Natsume on the shoulder, she'd said, in a kinder tone, "There's no need for you to wear worn-out things. As for you," she'd said, turning to Shigeru, "do you really want your clients to think you're so desperate for money that you have to wear shirts with holes in them?"
"I don't notice the holes," Natsume and Shigeru had replied in tandem. Natsume remembered how their eyes had met in pleased camaraderie.
It wasn't that Natsume didn't notice the holes; he did. He just didn't want to bother Touko by asking her to stitch them up, especially since most of them resulted from youkai encounters. And he'd never dream of requesting new clothing. So he smuggled her sewing kit up to his room and did his best. Natsume didn't care what his clothes looked like, and he certainly didn't want to trouble Touko. But by trying to avoid that, it seemed like he had managed to do it anyway.
As they set off for the nearest shopping center, Shigeru said, "Well, let's not disappoint her, all right?" Natsume was alarmed until he saw that Shigeru was trying not to laugh.
"Definitely not," Natsume said fervently.
Shigeru chose three new work shirts with cool precision in the first store they entered. "These will do. Now let's look for something for you," he said.
Natsume scanned the store, cringing. He didn't know clothes cost so much. "Let's look at these," he said as he noticed a sales rack, grabbing a shirt that was 50 percent off.
Shigeru said, "Oh, do you like that style? There's one like that over here." He pulled out a shirt and offered it to Natsume, who winced at the price tag.
"I, um, I think I like this one better."
Shigeru looked at him, then at the bright sign advertising the discounts on the sale rack. Then he looked at the shirt he'd held out to Natsume. "Don't worry about the prices. I promise, it's fine." Natsume fidgeted, but when he saw Shigeru was waiting for an answer he managed to bob his head.
"So do you really like this color?" Shigeru asked, pointing at the olive shirt Natsume was holding. "I don't think it suits you, Takashi. Let's look for something else."
"Oh, it doesn't matter," Natsume said. "This one is fine." It was the cheapest. And it didn't have any holes, which should please Touko.
"What's your favorite color?" Shigeru asked.
The question froze Natsume in his tracks. His clothes had always been hand-me-downs. No one had given a thought to what colors he might like before, so he hadn't either. The clothes he had were comfortable and still usable despite the holes. To think about them in any other light seemed wasteful, or perhaps just pointless. "I don't really know," Natsume admitted, hanging his head.
"Well, let's try some different things," Shigeru said. "I like green a lot, but not this kind." He prised the shirt out of Natsume's fingers, hanging it back on the rack. "Let's start here," he said, heading towards a display with shirts organized by color.
Natsume blinked but allowed himself to be tugged along. Green. He thought he might like green as well. He'd never thought about it before, but he might. Maybe blue too.
"A baseball game?" Natsume said.
Shigeru nodded eagerly; seeing it, Natsume thought he could imagine what Shigeru looked like as a boy: wriggly as a puppy. "I don't have the time to watch games very much anymore, but the Hawks are playing a home game next week!" Shigeru said. He was going to be in Fukuoka then, on an overnight business trip. He'd invited Natsume to come with him, which thrilled Natsume, though he worried about how much would it cost for him to take the train and stay in the hotel. And what would he do while Shigeru was meeting with clients? He had no idea. And now a baseball game? Tickets couldn't be cheap.
"I used to watch the Lions on TV," Shigeru said. "When they were in Fukuoka, of course. I was so sad when they left!" His face stilled as he remembered. "It was exciting when the Hawks came, but by then I was working and didn't have so much time to watch. And I haven't been to a game in years!" He beamed. "Wouldn't it be fun to go together, Takashi?"
Natsume didn't ever want to cause that smile to fade. He'd try and persuade Shigeru to get some cheap tickets. Natsume didn't know anything about baseball, but maybe Shigeru would explain things to him. Anything that he was so excited about, Natsume thought he wanted to learn about it too.
"I don't know if I can do this," Natsume murmured to himself. He stood at the kitchen counter, a cutting board in front of him. There were some carrots too. He was holding a knife. The actions should've been obvious, but they weren't. For all his previous foster families resented him having to eat at all, they'd never let him prepare food, probably because they didn't trust him. And moving around so much meant that he'd somehow missed all the cooking units in home economics classes.
"Don't worry," Shigeru said, voice muffled as he peered into the refrigerator. "It doesn't have to be fancy." He pulled his head back out and shut the door. "I used to cook when I was in college. I can't have forgotten everything about it!"
Touko had rushed onto a train earlier to see a long-hospitalized cousin whose condition had abruptly worsened. She'd urged Shigeru and Natsume to get take-out for dinner while apologizing for not having time to cook herself. Shigeru, touching her cheek in a gesture that made Natsume embarrassed and teary at the same time, had chided gently, "Don't worry, we'll be fine. Just go." Once Touko had left, Shigeru had suggested to Natsume that they cook something together instead: "It'll be edible. I promise."
Shigeru came around to the cutting board. "Don't be scared," he said, adjusting Natsume's grip on the knife. "Just start slowly." Shigeru took another knife and cut up a carrot. "See? Like that. You won't cut your fingers if you're careful."
Natsume inhaled a steadying breath and picked up the next carrot. He slowly brought the knife down and cut the end off. Then he did the next slice for good measure. Oh, that wasn't so difficult. He did a third one, and then a fourth, attempting slightly more speed.
"That's it! You keep doing that while I get the noodles started," Shigeru said, turning to the stove.
Autumn had rushed in all at once: last Monday Natsume was able to avoid wearing a jacket to school, even if he shivered as he did it, but by Saturday, a cold snap and a hard rainstorm meant that the yard was already covered with leaves. A week later, the leaves were no longer sodden; they crunched underfoot and rustled if the wind stirred them.
"Of course," Natsume said when Shigeru asked for help raking. Natsume put on his sneakers, wrapped a scarf around his neck, and berated himself for not offering first. "I can do them on my own."
Shigeru, sitting on the step next to him, finished tying his shoes. He leaped up, stretched his arms over his head, and ruffled Natsume's hair. The corners of his eyes wrinkled as he said, "I've been working too much this week. It'll be good to get some fresh air and some exercise. So I hope you don't mind company."
Raking, as it turned out, was soothing. Hard work, but not too hard, and Shigeru laughed when Nyanko-sensei hurled himself into their burgeoning mountain of leaves. Natsume scolded the cat, but Shigeru said, "I'm glad someone can enjoy doing that. I'm far too old to do it myself."
"Oh." Natsume couldn't stop that one syllable escaping. To soften it he forced a smile, his most artificial in months. "Thank you," he added.
The barber brushed a few stray hairs off the back of Natsume's neck and removed the plastic cape protecting Natsume's clothing with a flourish. Natsume's eyes returned to the mirror. He was baffled that the barber had understood a trim to mean taking almost five centimeters off, but even more baffled that it bothered him.
Natsume looked over at the next chair, where Shigeru's haircut was being finished. His eyes widened. Perhaps every barber here had the same conception of what a trim was.
The other barber handed Shigeru the mirror to see the back of his head.
"Thank you," Shigeru said stiffly. Natsume saw him frown as soon as he turned away. Shigeru paid and they left, both of them craning their necks to look in the mirror as they walked out, as if staring enough at their hair would transform it into something they liked.
"What do you think of your haircut?" Shigeru asked, when they were a couple of streets from home.
Natsume quickly said, "It's fine." Shigeru had paid for it. No need to be ungrateful.
"Mine is far too short, don't you think?"
"No, not at all!"
Shigeru snorted. "You think yours is too short too. Because it is. Not that you look bad. It's just different, right?" He huffed sheepishly and said, "I don't usually care about my hair! Maybe I've never had it cut too short before."
"Me neither," Natsume said. They looked at each other, Natsume thinking that for once he completely understood another human, and as they came in through the door of the house they burst out laughing.
"It sounds like you had fun," Touko called from the kitchen. There was a clink, probably her putting a dish away. She came to greet them as they took off their shoes.
She put one hand to her mouth, then yanked it away, clearing her throat and saying, "They made it very short, didn't they? Do you like it?"
Shigeru and Natsume looked at each other and started laughing again. "I think the question is: can we live with it?" Shigeru said. He ran a hand over his hair and said, "This feels so strange! Actually, I think the question is: when did Takashi and I become so vain?"
Natsume blushed. "It's not important," he said. He gave an awkward little shrug. "It's just hair."
Touko giggled. "You're starting to wonder what the girls will think, aren't you?" She patted him on the head as he squirmed.
"Well, maybe you're feeling more comfortable here, so you can take a moment to think about things like your appearance," Shigeru said, raising an eyebrow and catching Natsume's eye.
Natsume gulped. It was still tricky, on occasion, to resist simply fleeing when other people noticed him. But he was learning so many things in this town, in the Fujiwaras' house. One of them was that questions didn't have to be barbed. Ideas and statements and observations about him didn't have to be weapons. And he'd never known anyone who cared that he cared about his hair.
He smiled, a tiny smile, just a flicker of the warmth he felt suddenly, and said, "Maybe you're right." Touko patted his arm.
Shigeru said, "Your hair will grow quickly. Not that it looks bad. But if you don't like it..."
Natsume shrugged. "It's all right."
"You don't have to like it, you know." Shigeru clapped him on the shoulder.
Natsume held his hands up to protest, but Shigeru shook his head. Walking into the kitchen, he said, "That's the last time we try out a new barbershop, right, Takashi?" He shook his head. "It doesn't matter how cheap they are if they can't follow directions!"
Natsume didn't say anything, but he couldn't keep that little smile off his face as he helped Touko put the rest of the dishes away.