The kitsune kit had never thought it could happen. That was the worst part. He'd been so careless with the gift Natsume had given him last summer, the beautiful bowl brought to life from mud and painted by hand. The kit loved his bowl, loved that Natsume had thought of him when he'd painted the happy fox inside it. The warm orange fur, the big friendly black eyes, and the bushy tail. He loved his gift.
But alone, without anyone to watch his back, he'd had to leave it by the stream bank as he'd hunted in the water for a fish. When he'd turned around at a loud noise, breakfast wriggling in his hands, he'd seen the red cyclops and dark gray bull ayakashi running away, laughing and calling him names.
And his bowl, cracked into pieces after being thrown down on a stream-side boulder.
He had gathered the shards into a reed basket, crying all the while. Part of it was sadness that his beautiful gift had been broken for such a cruel and stupid reason, but mostly it was guilt. He'd let it happen. His negligence of the precious gift, leaving it unguarded out in the open for any passers-by to see, had led to its ruin.
He had to apologize. He owed it to Natsume.
His kitsune talents were still developing, but he had become better at nicking things right from under humans' noses. His presence was only noticed about half the time, now! This was how he got the magic paper talisman, the "ticket", that would allow him to board the train. He lifted it from a little girl's jacket pocket while she was chasing a butterfly down the station platform, and he'd left a twig with sakura blossoms as payment. She'd seemed pleased with the trade, for the kit had chosen a nice twig. It was perfect with creamy pink blossoms around bright red centers. Her mother was unhappy, but able to buy a replacement without much fuss.
It was hard to transform into a human without kitsune tail or ears and make himself visible to anyone, but his power had grown enough that he could hold it for half a minute. Just long enough for him to run to the platform, have his magic ticket punched by the conductor, and dart inside the carriage car. No one aboard took note of the lanky boy that entered the car. His baggy shirt was ripped at the hem, his long shorts grass-stained, and his sandals worn. A poor country boy traveling alone, clutching his burlap bag of possessions, and wearing a graying straw hat over long hair.
The kit wanted nothing more than to remain unnoticed. He walked to the end of the car, past other children his age and younger, who were all traveling with adults or older siblings. It made him miss his mother very much, but was comforted from the knowledge he was on his way to see Natsume. He wouldn't be alone forever, at least not today! He found an empty pair of seats at the end of the car and curled up across both of them. It was a gamble that no human would try to sit in the seemingly empty seats--and thus on him--but he trusted his senses to alert him in time to move or invoke his disguise again.
He spent the hour-long trip staring out the window without actually seeing anything, trying to decide what to say to Natsume. How did one apologize for breaking a gift? And worse, for letting it be broken? He didn't know. But he did know that Natsume was kind and generous. If Natsume was angry, it wouldn't be for long, and the kit knew he would deserve it.
When the flat, disembodied voice that came from the roof announced the next stop was Nanigashi, he gathered his things and pulled his hat tight down on his head. He waited until the train began to slow, then called up his human guise and walked quickly to the closest door. He was outside the instant the doors opened, and dashed off the platform and out of sight as fast as he could.
After a look to make sure no one had followed him, he took a deep breath of the dank town air. "Natsume," he whispered.
He clearly remembered where Natsume lived, from his visit last summer. Retracing his steps through the town was much easier this time. Instead of roving ayakashi bullies, he had to watch for fast-moving cars. Instead of using jizo statues and boulders and trees for landmarks, he used buildings and wide human roads and--yes--trees. Even in the city, the sakura trees were blooming. It had been summer the last time he was here, and the trees had long spent their blossoms and turned to leaves. But back then he had still noted the sakura trees among all the others, and now he paused in his journey to catch the delicate falling petals in his hands.
Human cities could be beautiful, too. It was a different kind of beauty than what he was used to on his forested mountain, but it was still beautiful.
Reluctantly, he left the line of sakura trees, and as if in reward, he caught Natsume's scent, faint upon the air. With a tense smile, he scurried after it.
Night was falling when he stopped in front of the gate that led to Natsume's human home. He took a deep breath, smelling the scents of Natsume, his pudgy yet powerful cat-ayakashi companion, the two adult humans who lived there, and traces of many more ayakashi that had come and gone. He wondered if all the creatures were also Natsume's friends. Of course Natsume would have lots and lots of friends!
He pushed open the gate wide enough to slip through and entered Natsume's domain.
"Another weakling has shown up, Natsume," Nyanko-sensei grumbled.
Natsume turned around from where he sat on the floor at his low bedroom table, history homework gladly delayed. "An ayakashi?"
"Of course!" Sensei snapped and stood from his cushion in a long stretch. He trotted to the open window and jumped up on the frame, stumpy tail flipping side-to-side. "Hmmm." He leaned forward, craning for a better view of the orange and white flash that scurried through the yard below.
"Ah. How interesting."
Natsume waited a beat. Then another. "What's interesting? What kind of ayakashi is it? Can you see them?"
"Not since they went in the front door," Sensei said blandly.
Natsume jumped from his chair. "Inside?! Touko-san is in the kitchen!" He ran for the door, using a hand on the door frame to slingshot himself faster. "Be more useful, Bodyguard-san!" he yelled over his shoulder as he pounded to the stairs.
"Hmph." Sensei managed to turn about on the window frame without falling off, an acrobatic feat that was rather impressive, given his bulk and the very narrow width of the frame itself. He sat and waited patiently. "I did warn you about the ayakashi, didn't I?" he grumped to the empty room. "Though this one is hardly a threat."
Halfway down the staircase, Natsume forced himself to slow. Touko-san would be sure to hear if he flung himself full-speed all the way down, and she'd come see what the noise was about. He finished at a more respectable pace, then he froze on the bottom step, eyes wide.
The kitsune from the previous two summers was staring back at him. The kit was standing in the entrance, caught mid-shoe-removal with one of his sandals hooked on a finger. A rough-woven bag sat on the floor in front of him.
Natsume's astonishment melted into pleasure. "Hello."
The kit flinched. He finished taking off his sandals to leave them at the end of the neat row of shoes, picked up the bag, and quietly stood there, his hands twisting on the tatty burlap.
Natsume's happy expression faltered at the kit's fearful response. "What is it? Is something wrong?" He stepped forward and held out one hand. "It's good to see you," he said in his kindest voice. "This is a wonderful surprise."
Tears filled the kit's eyes, and he flung himself at Natsume, forehead knocking against Natsume's sternum and sending his gray hat to the floor. The bag, still clutched in his hand, banged into Natsume's lower back.
"We've done this before, haven't we?" Natsume asked the kit with warmth. He patted the young ayakashi's back. "Come up to my room and we'll talk." He gently pushed the kit away and scooped up the hat. He glanced around for either Fujiwara, but the two adults were unaware of their visitor. With relief, he moved to the staircase and beckoned the kit to follow. "Let's go." He smiled again.
The kitsune gazed up at him in emotional turmoil, tears still trickling down his cheeks, and hugging his bag close to his chest. Then his face firmed, and he nodded. "Okay." He wiped his eyes with one sleeve of his baggy tee-shirt and trailed Natsume up the stairs.
Madara straightened when he caught the scent of crying, and he was darkly amused to see the kitsune had returned as he had last seen him--tearful and needing comfort. The kit had grown again, and now the top of his head was level with Natsume's collarbones. His hair was longer, and his entire frame lankier, but his eyes still dominated his face. Particularly when they were bright and brimming with tears.
Natsume settled the kitsune at his table and moved his homework out of the way. He placed a box of tissues in front of the kitsune, who peered at them uncertainly. Natsume pulled one of the tissues out to hand it to him, saying gently, "Here. For your face."
Loudly sniffling, the kitsune accepted the tissue and rubbed at his eyes and nose. In Madara's opinion, it didn't help much, but at least the kid was no longer dripping all over the place.
The kid finally noticed him and gave a respectful, only slightly moist bow. "Hello, Natsume's companion," he greeted in a quiet voice.
Madara twitched an ear. He supposed the kid wasn't that bad, all things considered. "Hello again, kitsune," he replied, and jumped down from the window to hop up on the table. He sat next to him.
The kit sniffled and pulled another tissue out of the box.
"Can I get you some tea?" Natsume asked.
The kid made a noise of acceptance without looking up.
"Okay, I'll be right back." Natsume left the room.
Madara studied the kitsune, who was folding his new tissue into smaller and smaller rectangles. "I can sense your power has grown." He kindly refrained from stating the kid was still a weakling. Madara could be as benevolent as he was beautiful--when he felt like it.
The kid peeked up through his bangs and made the affirming noise again.
"Can you pull off a human transformation?"
He earned a nod in response this time, and even some words as the kid said, "But I can only hold it for half a minute."
"Hmm." Madara narrowed his eyes and studied the young ayakashi sitting at Natsume's table. Most ayakashi could not transform their appearance at all, let alone make themselves visible to humans. Kitsune as a whole tended to be one of the more powerful types, enabling them to be the tricksters and guardians of human lore. That the kid was already able to invoke and maintain a human transformation showed promise. Particularly since he had no mother or sensei to teach him, and had to be relying on instinct. This kitsune shouldn't remain a weakling much longer.
The kid stared at him, then realized what he was doing to a much older and more powerful ayakashi and ducked his head back down, cheeks aflame.
Approaching footsteps heralded Natsume's return, and he entered the room carrying a tray loaded with a steaming teapot and three cups. He set the tray on the table.
"I want my cup," Madara demanded, though Natsume was already setting the lone white cup in front of him.
Madara picked it up and proudly held it so the kitsune could see his portrait painted on it. "Look! Natsume made this for me."
For a long moment, the kitsune was transfixed at the sight of the white cup. Then he flung himself away from the table and flattened into a full dogeza on the floor.
"I am very very sorry, Natsume! I'm so sorry I was careless and let it be broken!" His voice choked off as he sobbed for breath. "It's all my fault! I'm so sorry!" he wailed, and the sound turned into full-fledged crying.
Natsume had been pouring the kitsune's tea when the torrent began, and he almost dropped the teapot as he watched the display in shock. "What? Wait--I don't understand!"
Madara could only blink at the histrionics, still holding his personalized tea cup and wondering what exactly had just happened.
The kid sat up, tears and snot rolling down his face, and pulled his burlap bag open. He lifted out a thick roll of cloth, lashed closed with rough rope. He untied it with trembling hands and rolled it open.
One by one, shards of broken pottery were revealed. About a dozen of them, from large shards to a few small fragments the size of a coin.
Natsume gasped. "Oh."
Madara jumped to the floor and prodded one of the bigger pieces, turning it about so he could see the bright orange face of a cartoonish fox. He knew that childish, unsophisticated art style. And with the kid's reaction to Madara's personalized cup, everything fell into place.
"It's all right," Natsume said. He placed a gentle hand on the kitsune's shoulder. "I know you'd never break it intentionally."
The kid threw himself on Natsume and desperately clutched at him, sobbing, ears flattened, tail limp, and completely miserable.
Madara settled down to wait out the crying, trusting Natsume to be able to calm their distressed visitor. He used one paw to pull the cloth towards himself and poked through the shards. He found another piece of the fox illustration and set it in place next to the face. He continued to piece the bowl together, silently listening to the kitsune's tale.
"I was fishing and left the bowl unguarded on the bank. The cyclops and bull ayakashi broke it, on purpose! They knew how much I loved the bowl...they did it only to be mean to me!"
Madara glanced up at the change in tone from despair to anger. The kit had pushed back from Natsume, fury making him stiff as Natsume listened with compassion on his face.
"They can't beat me now I'm bigger and stronger, so they broke my bowl instead! I hate them!"
Natsume sighed and rubbed the top of the kitsune's head. "I'm sorry those bullies broke your bowl. You didn't have to come all this way to apologize. They broke it. Not you."
The kid's anger shifted into stony resolution. "If I had taken better care of your gift, it would not have happened. I am sorry." He said with formality and bowed again.
Madara caught Natsume's eye and waved one paw at him, gesturing for him to say it already.
Natsume nodded at him in reply and helped the kitsune sit up. "I forgive you. It's okay. I understand." He smiled warmly. "I'm glad you are not broken."
That made the kid take in a sharp breath, and Madara could hear him gearing up for another sobbing session. He quickly headed it off with, "This bowl could possibly be fixed." When Natsume and the kid gawked at him in amazement, Madara pointed down at the bowl shards. "I think all the important pieces are here."
"Really?" Natsume moved to sit next to him and examined the broken bowl himself. "You might be right," he said.
The kid clutched his hands together, eyes suddenly enormous. "R-really?" he echoed.
Madara stuck his nose in the air. "Humans have all sorts of ingenious ways to do things. Even I, the great Madara-sama, admit this."
Natsume considered for a second. "I think most people use Ultra-Glue for something like this, but I'm not sure the Fujiwaras have any in the house. Wait here, let me go ask." He stood. "Sensei, would you please pour the tea?"
"Sure," Madara agreed magnanimously, and hopped back up onto the table. He was so gracious as to pour the kitsune's tea first.
The kid bowed thankfully as he accepted the cup and took a sip. "It's delicious!"
"Of course it is," Madara agreed. "I make sure Natsume buys the best teas."
"I don’t have tea very often," the kid admitted. "Not since Mother died. She knew which houses were best to find it at. No one ever saw her!" His face shone in admiration for his mother’s thieving skills.
"Hmm." Madara eyed him. "Are you as talented at lifting things?"
Blushing, he took a big gulp of tea, winced with the burn, and swallowed it down. "Sort of." He broke off to cough and wiped his watering eyes with one hand. "But like my human transformation, I have a ways to go." He set the cup back on the table and clenched his fists in determination. "I won’t stop improving until I’m the best kitsune!"
Madara took a contemplative sip of his own tea. "I might be able to help you with that."
"Really?!" The kid asked with desperate hope for a second time that night.
"Indeed." Madara gave him a sly expression. "I have a suggestion or two that might help." Before he could expand upon that loaded statement, Natsume reappeared, empty-handed.
"We don’t have any Ultra-Glue. I’m sorry."
Wilting, the kitsune shook his head and didn’t speak.
Natsume sat at the table and poured his own cup of tea. "But don’t give up yet," he encouraged the young ayakashi, who peeked at him with caution. "Touko-san suggested I take the bowl to the art club at my school. She says there are more sophisticated ways to repair broken pottery than just Ultra-Glue, and the art club can probably help, or at least advise."
His eyes filled with tears again, and the kitsune sniffled. "Thank you, Natsume."
"I’m happy to help," Natsume answered. He ruffled the kid’s hair again, then carefully pulled something out of the long, pale strands. "What’s this?"
Madara deigned to trot over and give the tiny object a sniff. "A sakura petal."
Natsume chuckled. "Did you take a break under one of the town’s trees?" he asked the kitsune.
The kitsune nodded. "I passed by lots of sakura trees on my way here from the train station. My mountain doesn’t have many of them. They mostly only grow where humans tend them, and I can’t always sneak in to see the blooms up close before they’re gone." He blushed and accepted the single petal when Natsume offered it to him. "I like them."
"I like them, too," Natsume said, and the pair shared a contented smile.
Madara inwardly grumbled and sipped his tea. As if the kitsune needed any more reason to worship Natsume, now they were bonding over sakura blossom appreciation. It really was revoltingly cute. If this emotional reunion scene continued for much longer, Madara was going to need sake to deal with it. Absolute rivers of sake.
That night, the kitsune marveled at his first experience of bathing inside a human’s home, rather than merely catching a glimpse through a window as he ran past. Natsume simply turned a knob on the wall, and hot water magically appeared out of a faucet! And he could make it shower down like rain, from a flexible pipe! No dunking your head under the water of a murky hot spring and using grass and roots to soap up your hair. Instead, he sat on a little stool while Natsume showed him how to use special human-made soap to wash. It didn’t burn his skin or sting his eyes at all. Nyanko-sensei--or rather, Madara-sama, as the powerful ayakashi had demanded to be called--had been right. Humans truly were ingenious!
But the best part was when Natsume offered to exchange back-scrubbings. The kitsune knew he was blushing when Natsume used the soapy cloth on his back, and he was grateful the hot water had already turned his skin bright red, anyway. He gladly returned the favor for Natsume, doing his best to make Natsume’s back so clean that it squeaked.
Calmed down by the water and friendly air, the kitsune noticed that Natsume had changed in the past year. He was a few inches taller and broader in the shoulder. His hands were larger, his wrists thickened, but his gentle eyes and smile were still the same.
After rinsing, Natsume helped him wind his hair up in a towel around his head, and they sank into the tub for a warm soak. Neither spoke much, simply enjoying the companionable silence.
"Make shum room for me!" Madara-sama proclaimed as he shoved open the bathroom door and staggered in. The strong scent of sake quickly filled the steamy room, stinging the kit’s nose.
"Sensei, wait!" Natsume shouted, as in one bound, Madara-sama landed in the tub between them with a huge splash. The kitsune managed to get his arms up in time to block his eyes, but the tsunami still soaked his hair-towel. Water spilled over the tub’s edge and onto the tiled floor.
Natsume lowered his own hands to glare at the other ayakashi. "Wash first!" he yelled.
Madara-sama paddled to the seat where the kitsune was sitting and shoved his way in next to him. "Don’t be shilly, Natshume. The great and beautiful Madara-shama never getsh dirty." He gestured imperiously with one paw and began to fall back into the deep side, until the kitsune grabbed his shoulders with both hands and pulled him upright. He patted the kitsune’s shoulder. "You’re a good kid." He hiccuped. "For a weakling. But we’re gonna fix that, yesh we are." He winked and settled down into the water with a happy and flushed face.
"What does that mean?" Natsume asked with suspicion.
"Just important ayakashi shtuff, nothing to worry about," Madara-sama assured him. "You take care of the bowl tomorrow, and I’ll watch over the kitshune."
Natsume narrowed his eyes at Madara-sama, then sighed with resignation and settled down into his own side of the tub. The kitsune followed his lead, letting himself relax as Natsume did. They both watched out for Madara-sama.
"The great and beautiful Madara-sama would never drown, drunk, in the bathtub," Natsume told the kit mocking humor in his voice, "because we won’t let him."
"That’sh right," Madara said with satisfaction.
The kitsune spent the night curled up on two downy-soft sitting cushions, placed between Natsume’s futon and Madara-sama’s own sleeping cushion. He woke early in the strange surroundings. Silently, he dressed in the clothing Natsume had set out for him last night. This tee-shirt was in much better shape than his own, and only slightly too big. The ‘cargo pants’, as Natsume had called them, were baggy and had to be secured around his waist with a belt, but at least he didn’t have to roll up the legs to make them short enough to not drag on the ground. He knew the clothes were Natsume’s when he’d been younger and smaller, and the kitsune felt honored to wear them.
Filled with curiosity about Natsume’s home, he crept out of the room and investigated the house. The other man, much older than Natsume--but no taller, surprisingly--came inside carrying a newspaper. The woman was humming as she cooked breakfast, sending delicious smells of fresh fish and rice into the air. The man set the table for the woman, and the kitsune marveled at the open affection between the couple. Natsume’s parents seemed like very kind and generous people. The kitsune felt certain this was where Natsume had inherited his own kind nature.
The kitsune flattened himself against the wall when she stepped out of the kitchen to call up the stairs for a Takashi-kun, who must be Natsume. He stopped breathing when she glanced right at him, but when she didn’t react to his presence at all and returned to the kitchen and her conversation with the man, he knew she was like almost all humans and could not see ayakashi. Perhaps Natsume had gotten that particular ability from his grandparents.
With the sound of quick feet running down the stairs, Natsume arrived. When he saw the kitsune next to the wall of the kitchen, he stopped and took a deep breath of relief.
The kitsune realized Natsume must have been worried when he’d awakened to find his guest had vanished, and he bowed with one hand raised in silent apology.
Natsume dismissed the apology with a shake of his head. He whispered, "It's okay. Wait in my room. I need to eat down here, but Nyanko-sensei is staying upstairs. I’ll bring you both plenty to eat with him as the excuse. Touko-san is generous when it comes to feeding Sensei."
The kitsune nodded and scampered up the stairs, listening to the sounds coming up from below as Natsume exchanged happy good mornings with his parents and sat down to breakfast.
About an hour later that morning, the kitsune waved goodbye to Natsume, who returned the wave with a smile before vanishing around a corner. The roll of cloth that held the bowl pieces was safe inside the human’s backpack, hopefully on its way to being repaired.
"Do you think his art club friends can help?" the kit asked.
"I’m sure they’ll think of something," Madara-sama answered from where he sat next to the kit. "Did you have a good breakfast?"
The kitsune beamed down at him. "Yes! It was delicious! Natsume’s mother is a wonderful cook." He patted his stomach. "I ate every crumb Natsume brought up for me."
Madara-sama nodded sagely. "Me, too." He stretched, a long cat-stretch that arched even his round body. "I am going to do you a big favor, little kitsune, and give you the benefit of my wisdom."
The kit gazed down at him, transfixed. "How?" he whispered reverently.
Madara smirked and stroked his whiskers with one paw. "We will train. It’s good you stuffed yourself, because you’ll need the energy." He jabbed his white paw at the kitsune, face suddenly stern. "You will do everything I say, without question! Got it?"
"Yes!" He felt his heart begin pounding in excitement. His very own sensei, to teach him the great ayakashi secrets!
"Good." Madara-sama circled him where he stood on the sidewalk in front of Natsume’s house. "First, stand up! A powerful ayakashi doesn’t slouch in public."
The kitsune snapped himself straight as a tall pine tree.
"But don’t be too tight, it will impede your movement."
Madara-sama rumbled a chuckle. "Interfere with."
The kitsune nodded and did his best to remain lose but hold his perfect posture.
"Acceptable." The plump ayakashi suddenly launched himself at the kitsune, who yelped in shock when he landed on his shoulders. The kitsune staggered under the unexpected weight, and ended up with twenty claws sunk into his skin.
"Stop wiggling, then, if it hurts so much!" Madara-sama snapped right in his ear. "I'm trying not to fall off!"
The kitsune caught his balance and slowly straightened as his passenger arranged himself securely. Madara-sama's front half was hooked across his left shoulder, with back legs braced on his lower back.
"You’re too small and scrawny. Natsume’s shoulders and back are like a wide bed compared to yours! Eat more and grow faster!" he ordered and slapped at the kitsune’s thin rib cage with one front paw.
"Yes, Sensei!" cried the kitsune. "I will try!" He really meant it, too.
Madara-sama grinned smugly. "You do that. Now, time to put that breakfast to good use. Run!"
Surprised, the kit turned his head to look at his passenger, whose face was now so close, his whiskers tickled the kitsune’s cheeks. "Huh? Run where?"
Madara-sama swiped at the kit’s ear. "No questions! I said run!"
"Yessir!" He started to run down the street, his steps shaky with the weird shift in his center of gravity.
"The other way! Run the other way!" Madara-sama shouted at him, and the kitsune whirled about to wobble back up the street, in the opposite direction that Natsume had taken. His rough stride settled into a ground-eating pace as he figured out how to move with his weighty passenger.
And so he ran. They quickly left Natsume’s neighborhood behind. He glanced around the unfamiliar surroundings and followed Madara-sama’s directions without question as he sprinted down streets and through parks, until it became apparent they were not running in a loop.
"Um...Sensei?" he wheezed out during one of his allowed--if brief--walking breaks.
"Yes? Do you need another drink?"
"No. Where are we going?" From the corner of his eye, he saw Madara-sama watching him.
Madara-sama smiled with genuine pleasure. "So you realized we’re running to someplace. Good!" He chuckled. "We are going to the lauded and venerable training grounds, where generations of ayakashi have developed their talents! Even I, the wondrous Madara-sama, still seek out this location to hone my skills!"
"I see," the kitsune breathed. He imagined a clearing in the forest with well-worn kunai-target tree stumps, or bamboo poles rising up out of a cluster of springs, or a stately human dojo. "What’s it like?"
"It is so perfectly suited for ayakashi training, it can only be described as," he paused to lick his chops, "delicious." His eyes seemed to gleam, and he batted at the kitsune’s ear again. "Pick up the pace! We have to hurry, or all the best ones will already be gone!"
Obediently, the kitsune kicked up into a run again. "What will be gone? And where are we going?" he gasped out between hungry gulps of air.
"The best training ground and source of traditional confectionery in Japan, Nanatsuji!"
"I’m home!" Natsume called out as he entered the front door. He toed off his shoes and noticed the kitsune’s sandals were already there, pushed into the corner where they would be unlikely to trip either of the Fujiwaras. They appeared more worn and gritty than he remembered from the previous evening, but it could be his imagination.
"Welcome back, Takashi-kun," Touko-san replied with her warm voice. She came out to greet him and offered to take his coat, which he had been carrying due to the afternoon sunshine and the walk home. "You’re later than usual. Did something happen?"
Natsume rubbed the back of his head. "Remember when you suggested I ask the art club if they could repair my broken bowl?"
She nodded as she hung his coat up for him in the coat closet.
"Well, I did ask. They started on it today, during their lunch break."
"Oh, that’s wonderful!" Touko-san exclaimed with pleasure. "I’m sure they’ll do a marvelous job."
"I’m sure they will." Natsume said affectionately, "Thank you for telling me there were more options than just Ultra-Glue."
She beamed at him. "I’m glad I could help."
"Thanks again," he said, and gave her a reflexive dip of the head, which made her laugh and shoo him upstairs. He accepted her offer of tea and trotted up the stairs to find the two currently resident ayakashi. The sight that greeted him as he opened his bedroom door made him stop short.
Nyanko-sensei was passed out on his personal pillow, surrounded by tissue paper, empty dango sticks, cellophane, shop bags, and food crumbs sprinkled liberally over everything. The kitsune was sprawled face-down on the cushions he'd used that night, arms and legs akimbo, and deeply asleep.
Setting his bag on the floor inside the door, Natsume stepped inside and picked up one of the small paper shop bags. "Nanatsuji," he read aloud the logo printed upon it. The traditional sweet shop was a good hour's walk away from their home. Sensei had to expend some effort to go there, which of course only rendered the treats more desirable. He looked from the cat in a food coma to the kitsune sleeping off extreme exhaustion.
He had a nasty suspicion about what had happened while he was at school.
He crouched next to Sensei and shook him awake. "Hey, Sensei!" he hissed out, trying not to wake the kitsune.
Groggy, Sensei cracked open an eye. "Oh, Natsume. Home already?" He closed the eye and resettled onto his pillow.
Natsume shook him again. "Sensei! Did you make the kitsune steal all these sweets for you?!"
Sensei cracked open the other eye this time. "He’s a kitsune. Tricking people is what they do." He yawned widely, showing off his needle fangs. "Besides, he needed the practice."
"He’s a kid!" Natsume’s voice had grown louder to match his rising anger.
Sensei snorted and wrote off his nap. He sat up and regarded Natsume with pointed calm. "He is a kid, and one without either parents or a sensei to train him. He’s having to figure out how to use his kitsune abilities on his own, from instinct and trial-and-error. He won’t be a kid forever, and how long will a weakling adult kitsune last, in the forest? Hmm?" He smugly began to wash his face. "You’ve seen how many powerful ayakashi are on that mountain. As a kitsune kit, he’s below their notice. But as a kitsune adult, he’ll be a worthy adversary." He gave Natsume a pointed stare. "Or an easy snack."
Natsume growled and crossed his arms to glare back at Nyanko-sensei. "So that’s what you meant last night, about fixing his being a weakling. You were already planning to ‘train’ him by making him do your dirty work."
"That’s right," Sensei readily agreed. "I offered to train him, and he accepted, and he was grateful for it. At least some people appreciate my efforts." He fished out another daifuku from one of the bags and popped it into his own mouth. "The kid learned some useful skills, we worked on his endurance, and I was repaid for my valuable time and attention with delicious Nanatsuji goods." He gave Natsume a cheeky grin and licked rice flour from his whiskers.
Natsume felt a vein popping out in his forehead, but he held in his frustration. Sensei was right about the kitsune becoming an enticing target as he aged. And about the kitsune not having any older ayakashi in the forest to teach him. He fisted his hands tightly and glared ineffectually at the floor, wishing he could do something to fix the kitsune's situation. The cool touch of a small hand on his made him look up. The kit was kneeling next to him with worry and fear on his face.
"Please don’t be mad, Natsume. Madara-sama is right. I wanted the training."
Natsume forced himself to relax, his concern for the kitsune making him want to reassure his visitor, even if Sensei’s use of him left a bad taste in his mouth.
The kit relaxed too, and he gave a small smile and turned to face Sensei. "I figured out what he wanted me to when I caught Nanatsuji’s scent. And it was great practice!" He made two little fists and raised them in a fighting pose. "I learned so much, I know I'm stronger now! And Madara-sama let me eat a little taiyaki as a reward." He giggled. "It was delicious!"
Natsume gestured at all the empty wrappers, sticks, and crumbs surrounding Nyanko-sensei and raised one eyebrow. "How very generous of him."
"That’s right!" Sensei crowed, and then his expression turned magnanimous. "Here. I can be still more generous." He pulled out two more daifuku and gifted one each to Natsume and the kit.
Natsume sat back to stretch out his legs, the daifuku in his hands. He had to admit, Sensei had figured out a way to help the kit. With mutual benefits, of course.
In perfect timing, Touko-san appeared at the door with a tray of fresh tea. She stepped to place the tray down on Natsume’s table and gasped at the mess around Nyanko-sensei. "Oh, Neko-chan! What have you done?!" she exclaimed.
"We’ll clean it up, Touko-san," Natsume assured her. "Or rather, I will," he amended at her odd expression. "You know Nyanko-sensei. He can’t resist sweets for the taking."
"Yes," she replied, doubtfully. "No wonder you’re so fat," she said, right to Sensei’s face. She left the room while the trio inside were still frozen in awe.
Natsume snickered, then turned to full-blown laughter as Sensei raged ineffectually at the closed door.
"My natural form isn’t fat at all! It’s because of this garish lucky cat statue I was locked in for so long! If she could see me in my regal and beautiful form, she’d never say such disrespectful things to me!"
Natsume laughed out, "You deserved that, after being so greedy today!" He poured the first cup of tea and handed it to the kitsune, who had gone silent and still the moment Touko-san had opened the door. Eyes wide, he kept looking from the still-insulted and sputtering Nyanko-sensei and back to Natsume, who was clearly enjoying the situation. The kitsune chose to merely sip his tea and take a bite from his daifuku.
"Already a little wiser, eh?" Natsume asked him with an affectionate chuckle, then waved off the resulting confusion from the kit. "Never mind. I have news about your bowl!"
The kitsune almost vibrated with anticipation. Even Nyanko-sensei stopped his diatribe to listen.
"We’re really lucky. Some of the members completed a sculpture and pottery repair project a few weeks ago. They still had the supplies, and were eager to give the bowl a try. They should finish by Monday."
"Almost a week?" Nyanko-sensei sniped. "Why so long to fix a broken bowl?"
"Well, they have to wash it, map out which pieces go where, put the bowl together with epoxy, fill in the gaps for missing or shattered pieces, smooth down the epoxy, let it completely dry, prepare it for painting, do the actual painting, let that dry, and seal the whole thing. And all of this during lunch breaks and in the available time after school."
The kitsune’s eyes had glazed over by the third item in Natsume’s list, and all he could manage to say was, "Ee-pox-ee?"
Natsume took a drink of tea while tried to find a way to explain so the kit could understand, and settled on, "It’s like human-made tree sap. It’s sticky and permanently hardens in the right conditions."
"Oh," the kitsune said, faintly. Then, with more confidence. "Thank you for finding someone to fix my bowl, Natsume."
Natsume raised a quick hand, needing to make something clear. "Unfortunately, you won’t be able to use the bowl for food any more. The epoxy can be poisonous, if enough of it gets into your system. But you can still use it to gather pebbles, or twigs for your fire, or similar things you won’t be eating or drinking."
The kit’s face fell.
"I’m sorry," Natsume quietly said, and placed a hand on the kit’s shoulder.
The kitsune shook his head and gave him a watery smile. "Don’t be sad, Natsume. The bowl is going to be whole again. That’s more than I ever hoped."
Natsume smiled back. "Then I have a big surprise for you. I asked them to add something to the bowl," he said. "A memento of your visit here."
Speechless, the kitsune stared at him. Tears rose up again and spilled over.
Natsume offered a tissue to him, which he accepted. "Don’t be overwhelmed. Remember, I’m glad to help. And so are the art club members."
Nyanko-sensei snorted. "Indeed. And what, exactly, is the art club getting out of this, Natsume? I doubt they’d work a week on an outside project just to do it."
Ducking his head, Natsume tried to hide his blush. "Well, I did end up offering a trade."
"Of what?" Sensei inquired, ears pricked.
Natsume fidgeted, eyes darting everywhere but at the sniffling kitsune and the very eager Nyanko-sensei, until he finally mumbled the answer under his breath.
Sensei cupped a paw to one ear. "What was that? I can’t hear you. Speak up, sonny!"
"I have to model for them!" Natsume blurted out. His face felt like it was on fire.
Once again, the room was silent in shock. Then it was Nyanko-sensei’s turn to laugh. Lost in mirth, he rolled about on the floor, slapping it with his paws and making wrappers jump and dance in the resulting breeze. "It’s a perfect trade! Art for art! Hahahaha!"
Natsume rubbed his temple and let Sensei have his moment.
"Natsume..." the kitsune’s voice reached him while Sensei was sucking in air between guffawing fits.
Turning to the kit, Natsume knew what he would find, and he was right. The kitsune, already overwhelmed by the effort going into repairing his bowl, was devastated by learning Natsume was paying for that repair by doing something so traumatic that it laid a powerful ayakashi like Sensei absolutely flat with hilarity.
Natsume opened his arms, and the kit threw himself into the hug. Natsume rubbed his back, smiling fondly as he realized how much larger the kit had grown since the first time he’d been sobbing in Natsume’s embrace.
"It’s okay, little kitsune. It isn’t really that bad."
The kit gazed up at him, eyes huge and overflowing.
"They just want to draw and paint pictures of me. They’ll have me wearing costumes and holding poses while they work. It isn’t anything bad or really embarrassing. I’m just not used to that many people all watching me at once, or being the subject of someone's art."
Releasing his grip on Natsume’s shirt, the kit scrubbed at his face with his already damp tissue. "Oh," he sniffled.
"I’ll be fine. And maybe I’ll help them make some pretty pictures. And it’s all worth it for your bowl." He pulled a fresh tissue free from the box and handed it to the kitsune. "And think! In a little less than a week, your bowl will be back, and better than ever." He stroked the kit’s hair, kindly pulling the long strands out of the kit’s face and tucking them behind his ears.
Natsume was sure the bowl would turn out beautifully. He’d chosen the twig of perfect sakura blossoms himself, and asked the art club to work the soon-to-be-dried petals into a pleasing design around the outside edge. He hoped the new accent would offset the loss in the bowl’s utility, and remind the kitsune of his long-standing friendship with Natsume and Sensei.
And that reminded him. "Don't go back to the forest yet."
The kitsune blinked up at him in astonishment.
"Please stay here, with me and Nyanko-sensei, at least until your bowl is done. I'd be glad to have you here, and I’ll bet Sensei would train you more."
They both looked over to the cat, whose laughing had finally dwindled down. Sensei realized they were watching him and sprang upright. "That’s right! We can make real progress if you’re here until Monday." He nodded wisely, feigning benign selflessness, and Natsume wondered what restaurant or confectionery Sensei would have the kitsune pilfering next.
"And I could help you train, too. I could teach you about the human world, if you like," Natsume said. He felt remiss if the kitsune only learned how to break the law while he was with them.
"Yes!" the kitsune blurted and flung his arms around Natsume’s neck. "Yes, I’ll stay with you! And train with Madara-sama! And train with you! And eat more of Touko-san’s cooking, and grow into a big and strong ayakashi!"
Natsume returned the embrace, rubbing the kit’s back once again, and listening to the acceptance of his offer with a warm glow inside his heart. Nyanko-sensei padded over and sat next to them. He lifted one paw and patted the kitsune, too.
Natsume beamed at him. Sensei flicked an ear in reply, and let out a dramatic sigh at the resumption of the waterworks. But both understood each other, and both were pleased to have the kitsune join their jumbled family.
Completed 12-20-14, last tweaked 12-24-14