Reiko, much like her grandson, has a reputation for being weird and eerie, as Natsume soon learns. After class ends on his first day, Natsume is approached by an excitable group of his classmates. He’s used to this fascination with a transfer student, and knows that it’s not so much about him personally as it is the novelty of seeing a new face. The popularity always dies down quickly, especially when there are youkai in the area.
Usually, though, the fascination is centered around Natsume’s own past – where he has come from, why he’s moved here, what it was like in his old town – most questions that Natsume can only give vague answers to, for fear of being called a liar again. He’s used to that. He wasn’t expecting to be approached by a boy with messy brown hair who asks if he’s living with that witch as though the single word is all the description necessary.
Well, it sort of is, though.
When Natsume says yes, the boy introduces himself and his friend, and asks Natsume to invite them over sometime to search her house for the tools of her trade. Natsume smiles politely and says, “No, thank you.”
This reaction is partially automatic, as Natsume's already well in the habit of deflecting any sort of attention away from him. Besides that, he is not willing to allow anyone to mock his grandmother – not that it would bother her. Reiko is utterly unaffected by the neighborhood’s scorn, a facet of her personality Natsume would envy if it weren’t for the way she scorns them right back, evident in the expression on her face as she had walked him home from the train station that first night.
Natsume doesn’t mind that, though. She may be cold and stiff, but she sees what he sees, and that makes all the difference. When he first arrived, he had been so overjoyed to find someone who shared in his ability, that he had naively assumed they would become inseparable confidants. It takes only a few short, sharp conversations with Reiko over the first week of living with her to understand that such a thing will never come to be. Reiko has no trust left, in anyone, and she only took Natsume in due to his similarities and blood-relation to her. She understands what he has gone through, but only to a point due to their differing personalities, and she is not willing to open up to him or to allow him to open up to her. Though he had hoped for more, Natsume treasures his current relationship with Reiko regardless, even if he is almost certain that she cares very little for him at all.
She still took him in. That’s what matters most.
So Natsume spends his days alone, keeping his distance from the other children at school (frequently fending off the brown-haired boy’s repeated requests to visit his house) and trying not to get in Reiko’s way at home. He knows that she often finds him aggravating – Reiko can’t seem to stand Natsume’s good manners and careful attitude around her. It probably doesn’t help that, despite not being allowed to call her ‘obaasan’, Natsume really isn’t comfortable calling her ‘Reiko’ so easily. Instead he says ‘obasan’, on the rare occasions he talks to her at all, and watches her expression twitch with irritation every time he does.
It’s not much of a problem, though, because Reiko is rarely around when Natsume is. He doesn’t know what she does for a living, but it must be very demanding, as Reiko often returns home after the sun has set. Natsume makes sure that he doesn’t leave any mess out to get in her way.
After a week of this, Natsume is starting to feel a little lonely. He shouldn’t be, he knows that – the fact that Reiko is providing him with a home ought to be more than enough for him. And he hasn’t been attacked by any youkai so far. Natsume should be feeling happy. But instead he’s lonely and plagued with just as many nightmares as before, and wanting so much to go to Reiko and talk to her, to see her smile again, to return from school every day to her waiting for him and telling him ‘welcome home’.
Natsume wants too much, but he doesn’t make any attempts to get it, because more than any of that, he wants to stay here. Even if Reiko never says another word to him, simply knowing that she can see what he does is comfort enough. Natsume is terrified of leaving this place, but experience has taught him just how likely that possibility is, just how important it is for him not to push his boundaries.
He is resigned to that, to reality. Natsume might want so much more, but he doesn’t actually expect to get any of it… so it’s a surprise when one day Reiko is home for dinner. They eat in near-silence after his unacknowledged compliment of the food, the only sound the scrape of their chopsticks: Natsume’s quiet and even, Reiko’s fast-paced and hard.
Reiko finishes first and drops her dishes in the sink with a clatter. Natsume tries to eat a little faster in order to catch up, and she leans against the fridge to cross her arms over her chest and watch him. Her expression is unreadable, but deep thought and a sort of sadness lurk behind her eyes. Eventually, she says, “You can bring your friends over sometime, if you want.”
It takes a strong effort not to jerk in his seat. Instead, Natsume goes completely still. A kind of crazy energy thrums through his veins as he says, “I… I don’t want to bother you.”
Reiko snorts. Her fingers tapping rapidly against her arm reveal how uncomfortable she feels. “This is your house too, Takashi. You’re ten already, be bolder.”
Natsume decides not to tell her that he is only eight. Nor does he mention how warm and almost dazey being told this is his house too feels, like a daydream under the summer sun. Instead, he smiles, and makes sure she sees it. “Thank you, obasan. If I make any friends, I’ll ask you if they can come visit.”
“The whole point is that you don’t need to ask. …And call me Reiko.”
Natsume nods, then stiffens when a rough hand lands on his shoulder in a hesitant pat. It’s gone before he can relax into the touch, and Reiko is already rounding the corner without another word.
He wishes he hadn’t flinched. Maybe then she would have stayed longer. But then, if she had, she would have noticed the way his eyes are getting blurry. Natsume stares down hard at his plate, trying not to let any moisture fall. The smile on his face is a little too shaky for its width, a little too fragile, but that’s okay. Natsume’s shoulder feels warm where Reiko touched it, and her voice was – under the usual brusqueness – almost kind.
Maybe she cares more than he thought.
Eventually, Natsume sniffs one last time and stands to wash the dishes and slip quietly upstairs to his room to do homework. The next day at lunch, when the brown-haired boy asks his usual question, Natsume smiles his normal polite smile, nerves fluttering in his gut.
“If... If you really want to come, it’s okay,” he mutters, just barely audible. “My grandmother said my friends could visit.”
The boy stares at him for a long time, then grins widely back, displaying a piece of seaweed trapped between his teeth. “How creepy. She probably wants to eat us. My name’s Nishimura, let’s be good friends!”
At this, Natsume’s smile softens into something much more genuine, something bruised and yet still hopeful, and he doesn’t notice but it makes Nishimura smile a little softer back. “Okay.”