The morning Handa's school of calligraphy opens its doors to the public, Seishuu pulls up a curiously-shaped daikon radish from his backyard garden.
"It looks like a love heart," he exclaims, when Hiroshi stops by to pass him goodies from around town. "Do you think this means all my students will fall in love with calligraphy?"
For some reason, Hiroshi blushes.
"It looks like a butt," Naru pipes up, springing into view. She marches on the spot for a minute and stares up at Hiroshi. "What do you think, Hiroshi-nii?"
"Now that you mention it," Hiroshi starts -- and it's true, but it's also not something Seishuu wants to hear while he's holding it up by the round tops.
"Go to school already!" he yells, and Naru runs off, laughing at him as she vanishes. Seishuu waves until she's out of sight, then turns back to Hiroshi. An awkward silence settles between them.
"Anyway," Hiroshi says, pushing a bag of konomon into Seishuu's arms, "I'll be over tonight as usual with your dinner."
"Aren't you coming for calligraphy class in the afternoon?"
"No, well, that's kind of..."
"It's your first lesson! Your teacher will develop a bad impression of you!"
Hiroshi sighs. "Okay," he says, holding up his hands in a pacifying manner. "I get it; stop shaking that thing at me. After what Naru said, it really does look like a butt, so when you hold it like that -- "
"It's a love heart!" Seishuu exclaims, thrusting the vegetable in Hiroshi's face, and it's at that exact moment that Tama walks past with Miwa.
In spite of his reluctance, Hiroshi does come over as promised for calligraphy class in the afternoon. He brings with him a couple of the youngsters and a bowl of champon, and refuses to write even a single character the entire time class is in session.
"Hiroshi," Seishuu says in a stern, disapproving manner.
"Hiroshiiii," Miwa echoes, in an obvious whine. "Hiroshiii, pay attention to me."
Tama chokes; Seishuu wails. "That's not what I sound like!"
Strangely enough, Hiroshi's blushing again. He turns with all the air of a long-suffering parent - which is unfair, considering the generous discount Seishuu is giving these brats on classes several of his father's fans would pay through the nose for - and nods at Seishuu.
"You aren't practising at all," Seishuu says, tapping his brush against the paper. "Isn't there anything you want to write?"
"I'm...thinking about it," Hiroshi prevaricates. He's got something simmering on the stove, and it smells wonderful, but Seishuu refuses to be distracted -- no matter how nice Hiroshi might look in an apron.
"Sensei, come look at mine!" Naru's lines are strong but shaky -- the work of a child, still, but she's improved dramatically over the course of the session. It reminds Seishuu of how much she's grown since they met -- how quickly she's grown -- and he wipes at his eyes discreetly while she's bent over her next masterpiece.
She manages to work her way through twelve renditions of strange, oddly specific phrases before class ends. Seishuu shuffles them into a pile and stacks them neatly in a corner.
"Are you going to hang mine up like a painting?" she asks excitedly.
"Not until you're better," Seishuu tells her, but his eyes are wandering around, picturing the walls plastered with paper piled on like snow until they're covered completely in love and moon and I'm gonna appropriate you, Sensei.
"Dinner's ready," Hiroshi calls, setting a bowl down in front of Seishuu. The steaming champon makes Seishuu's mouth water.
"Thanks, Hiroshi." He claps his hands together and dives in, so captivated by the glistening soup that he almost misses the tupperware Hiroshi is trying to slip onto his kitchen bench. "What's that?"
Hiroshi freezes. He turns slowly, as if trying to reach a decision, then slumps and slinks to the table. "I made you lunch," he says, almost nervous. He's red from the heat of the stove, almost purple - Seishuu would be concerned if he wasn't too busy hugging the tupperware.
"You're the best," he says emphatically. "Hey, can you make those pictures out of seaweed as well? The cut-out ones?" Before Hiroshi can answer, Seishuu has opened up his personal treasure. He shoves it at Hiroshi with glowing eyes. "I want a chara-ben with Su Shi on it!"
"I can make sausage octopi," Hiroshi says feebly, relenting when Seishuu visibly wilts. "This is a bit complex, but I'll try."
"You're the best," repeats Seishuu. He trots across the kitchen and picks up the daikon radish he had harvested that morning. "Here, have this as thanks."
"You just want me to cook this for you." Hiroshi still takes it, though, his lips twisting as he looks at the odd shape. "You know, it's amazing how much it actually does look like a -- "
The next morning, Seishuu finds the dirt outside raked into a pattern that very clearly resembles the words: I like you. The day after, select portions of his lawn have died in a pattern that vaguely resembles his face.
Huh, he thinks, looking up at the sky as if expecting the answer to rain down on him. Then he turns and goes back inside.
Were he still in high school, he would have written these odd events off as yet another form of bullying. Friendless and unpopular, Seishuu had been the target of several unkind pranks in his time: being volunteered for class president; having his locker crammed full of potentially dangerous letters.
Yet as an adult, he finds himself surprisingly loathe to reach the same conclusion. Home, he thinks, is the smell of the sea drifting over the breeze, the cries of the cicadas in the evening. It's Naru's screams echoing around his room, the smell of champon cooking over his stove.
This village is kind.
So he decides to do it the favour of asking before he assumes the worst: "Have any of you been messing with my garden?"
It's not as if he actually suspects them of anything. They're all good kids at hearts, and he's grown fond of them over the months. But that's why he needs to ask - because he doesn't want to doubt them even a little in his heart.
Miwa raises her hands in a pacifying gesture. "Not us," she says. It's a testament to how much havoc she does cause that Seishuu can tell she's not lying. "What happened?"
He fills them in on the details. "Maybe you're being haunted!" squeals Naru. Seishuu tries very hard not to show exactly how little he likes her analysis of the situation. He is an adult, and thus he does the adult thing to do when one finds themselves in an unpleasant situation.
The corner is a safe place.
"Sensei, don't worry! I'll protect you!"
Seishuu clutches his knees tighter and scans the room for signs of supernatural activity. "I think I'm going to take a walk," he says faintly, wobbling to his feet.
Miwa shoots Hiroshi a speaking glance. "You should probably make sure he doesn't die on us," she tells him. At Hiroshi's subsequent groan, her lips curve up into a smirk. "Besides, it's a good chance for you, isn't it?"
"Shut up," he retorts, colouring. Tama makes a strangled noise.
It's a good thing Hiroshi follows him, because Seishuu barely gets out the gate before he trips on a rock and almost sends himself to hospital. "You really need to watch where you're going," Hiroshi scolds, exasperated, to which Seishuu pouts and walks a little faster.
"I can take care of myself."
"Clearly," Hiroshi says dryly, reaching out to save him from a rhinoceros beetle. In Seishuu's defense, this beetle is particularly huge -- so large he's tempted to present it to the neighborhood boys and brag.
Unfortunately, he'd have to actually touch it to do so.
"Which of us is the adult again?"
"Me," says Seishuu, because as the elder of the two he deserves to have the last word. They march through town until they reach what he deems his 'happy place'. "Okay, don't you dare scare them off."
"I've been living here longer than you," Hiroshi reminds him, though he watches silently as Seishuu admires the cats from afar. These are animals he wouldn't mind touching.
Unfortunately, as his itchy nose reminds him, he has an allergy. "I'm not even that close to them," he whimpers.
There's a strange look on Hiroshi's face when Seishuu looks back at him in search of sympathy. His lips are twisted strangely, not quite a smile but not neutral either, and there's a softness to his eyes that Seishuu doesn't know how to interpret. "I think we should leave the cats here for today."
Seishuu sniffles. "Don't wanna." Why do cats have to be so cute?
"I'll cook you something special."
One of the things Seishuu likes best about going to the Kido family house is that there's always something new to find. They're a surprisingly laid-back household, fully reaping the pleasures of being ordinary, and their house might as well be open to the public for how often they have people over.
While Hiroshi putters around the kitchen, Seishuu wanders around. He sits in on a meeting between the Chief and some of the schoolteachers for a couple of minutes before he grows bored and goes in search of Kido-san (female).
"If it isn't our very own Sensei!" she trills upon seeing him. "Are you staying for dinner?"
Seishuu nods, trying his best not to drool. "Hiroshi said he'd make something special."
Hiroshi's cooking is, as expected, average, but average is a whole lot better than anything Seishuu can do. And he can make sausage octopi.
"Oh my." Kido-san puts a hand to her mouth. "He doesn't do that for just anyone, you know."
There's an extra layer to her voice that Seishuu doesn't care to peel back. "He's a real help to me," he says earnestly. "I don't know what I'd do without him."
"There, there," Kido-san says, patting him on the back. "I'm sure he feels the same about you."
Seishuu isn't so sure about that -- Hiroshi seems perfectly self-sufficient to him.
"Anyway," she continues, after a brief silence, "how's the school coming along? Hiroshi tells me you've managed to find some students other than him and Naru."
Technically, Seishuu isn't sure whether he can count Hiroshi as a student if he hasn't written any calligraphy. When he voices this thought, Kido-san cocks her head. "He practices so much at home, though."
"This is the first I've heard about that," Seishuu's mutters softly. In a louder voice, he says, "Can I see?"
"Of course you can."
If he didn't know better, Seishuu would think Kido-san was aiming to humiliate her son. The glint in her eyes is all too similar to the one Kawafuji used to get sometimes in high school, right before he said something to make Seishuu squeeze himself into invisibility.
Kido-san throws him one sheet of paper. A shaky 愛 glistens on it in dark ink, wrinkling the paper where it's soaked in.
Then she throws him another. And another. By the time she's done, Seishuu's arms are overflowing, quite literally, with love -- or rather, the character for it.
"He really has practiced a lot."
"That's just the 'A' stack," Kido-san promises, shuffling over to another cupboard. "You should see the -- hold on, let me find it -- "
While she rifles around, Seishuu takes the opportunity to inspect his student's work. Hiroshi's strokes are mildly uneven -- there is definite improvement over time, but he's not consistent, and his characters tend to be top-heavy where he hasn't planned properly and ran out of space on the paper.
In short, he's completely average, and Seishuu is delighted.
"All my students really are falling in love with calligraphy."
"Keep dreaming," Hiroshi laughs, appearing suddenly in the doorway. "Wait, is that my -- "
Half a second after Hiroshi's appearance, the stack of papers in Seishuu's hands mysteriously disappears.
"Not a soul," Hiroshi threatens, dragging him into the nearest room.
Then, because he clearly lacks a self-preservation instinct, he asks, "So why didn't you tell me you were practicing calligraphy?"
Hiroshi backs down. The tips of his ears are just a little red, Seishuu notes. He's so caught up in this fact he fails to listen properly to Hiroshi's jumbled reply.
"I said, I wanted to impress you." Hiroshi looks away, and the tips of his ears are definitely red now, his chin jutted out a fraction more in defiance. Seishuu takes in his clenched fists and strained posture, and he thinks of special meals, of packed lunches, of sheets and sheets of paper all bearing the same singular title.
He doesn't get it. "Why?"
Hiroshi huffs in frustration, rakes a hand through his hair. "Because I -- Look -- I really..." He pauses for a second and seems to lose his nerve. "Never mind. It's nothing."
It clearly is something, considering how agitated he is. Seishuu says as much.
"Sensei," Hiroshi replies, with a tinge of impatience, "you're an idiot."
Well. That was uncalled for.
"You're weird," Hiroshi continues, shaking his head slowly. "You're obsessive, and your mind works in really weird ways, and you're way too childish for your age."
"Am not," Seishuu objects, which is probably not the best counterargument.
"Point in case."
"Well," Seishuu blusters, because if Hiroshi is going to insult him, Seishuu will throw insults right back, "you're normal."
Hiroshi stares. "...Yes."
Seishuu should stop while he's only a little bit down. "Yeah, well, you still wanted to impress me."
This argument seems to be a little more effective. Hiroshi blushes again, hunching in on himself just slightly. His voice, when he speaks, is quieter than usual. "Yeah."
Hiroshi smiles wryly. "No point. You don't get things even when they're shoved right in your face."
A thousand sheets of paper start falling into place; a hundred little thought ingredients arrange themselves neatly into a regular packed lunch. The earth shakes and settles in patterns that have meaning.
The only things that have been shoved in Seishuu's face lately are --
"You're the one who's been doing stuff to my garden!"
Hiroshi puts his head in his hands. "Sensei."
"The messages fit, but no."