The woman isn’t terribly old, but she looks it because her hair is long and wild and grey. She’s not ugly – actually, she’s very good-looking for her age, with very few lines on her face, but something about the look in her eyes is warning enough to stay away, or something mysterious and unpleasant might befall you in the near future.
Natsume wonders, halfheartedly, if she is a witch. The other half of him wonders if she is one of those things he’s not supposed to see, not supposed to mention – certainly not supposed to be choked, chased, or chomped on by. It doesn’t really occur to him that she could be fully human – there’s a strange quality in the air around her, a sort of buzzing presence that prickles at the edges of Natsume’s awareness. It’s a little scary, but somehow familiar, too, and not all bad.
“So,” she says. “You’re my grandkid, huh.”
Natsume stares up at her for a long moment, eyes unfocused. Well, to anyone else they’d seem unfocused – he’s actually watching the long, thin wisp of shadow wearing a mask with three eyes on it, swooping through the air behind her. But he gathers his control up quickly, blinks his attention back to her, and nods quietly.
She stares at him.
His hands tighten on the straps of his backpack.
“I wouldn’t be taking you in,” she says, abruptly turning to lead the way into the house, “if I hadn’t heard that you’d already been through just about every other branch of the family there is. They told me you have problems.”
Natsume might have been upset to hear this, even as little as two years ago. But he’s learned a lot about how the world works in the past several years, and he understands that there are many reasons his grandmother might have for never having even visited before. Despite the fact that she is his closest relative, he’s been told that she and his mother had a falling-out before he was born and she’d lost all contact with his family for some time. Also, as she said, he causes problems for the people who take him in. No old lady would want to have to deal with that, with a boy who talks to things that don’t exist, and attracts bad luck like a carcass does flies. He’s not angry that she’s only accepting him into her home as some kind of last resort.
“I heard you lie all the time,” the woman says. “And you do bad things to the people who take care of you. And you talk to the empty air, and yell in public, and throw fits for no reason, and hurt yourself.”
Natsume doesn’t deny it.
She uses her cane – a long, smooth piece of wood covered in various symbols and many small strips of paper, which she hasn’t used for balance at all so far – to knock open the door at the end of the hall. It slams loudly into the wall, revealing a small, but tidy bedroom.
“This’ll be yours,” the old lady grunts. “Go put your stuff inside.”
Natsume stares at the doorway, and bites his lip. “I’m okay.”
“Do as I say! Put your things inside so we can finish up here.”
Natsume doesn’t reply for a long moment, busy doing some math. If he counts the two hours he waited for her to come get him from the train station, and the walk here, then this won’t actually be the shortest amount of time he’s ever stayed with someone. It’s pretty close, though.
“I… I can’t go in,” Natsume murmurs, ducking his head. “There’s a big head in the way.”
The old woman’s breath hitches. After a short pause, she speaks while Natsume examines the floor. “Already causing trouble? …His name isn’t ‘Big Head’. It’s ‘Big Nose’.”
The big head taking up the entire room frowns, and grumbles, “That’s not it, either…” in a voice deep enough to crack boulders.
Natsume slowly looks up. He first blinks at the big head, then at the old woman. She is staring back at him with an odd expression, something all mixed up between sadness and loneliness and happiness and hatred and a little bit of understanding, all at once.
“I hate people, and I hate formality,” she finally says, brandishing her cane at the big head. “Get lost,” she tells it, and in a bright flash of light, it does.
“So I don’t want you calling me ‘obaasan’, understand? I’m Reiko! Natsume Reiko! And you, kid?”
Natsume hesitates for a long time, unsure if she really doesn’t know his name or if this is just a formality, then whispers, “Natsume Takashi.”
Her smile, when it unfolds, is wide and welcoming, like a sunny spring morning just after a very harsh winter. It registers like a cool breeze on Natsume’s temple, like warm arms encircling him and never letting go, like a secret finally shared.
“Welcome home, Takashi,” says Reiko.