Part 4 of Sake: Hush

Natsume has been unusually distant since his human date with that sparkling exorcist. And now he gets sick from the smell of sake, claiming it's my fault that he becomes sick. Natsume still hasn't corrected himself, as if he has always had an aversion to it. (I'd like to say his troubling dozing also, but he always had those night terrors.) He keeps his mouth shut and smiles fakely at me, thanking me for being concerned.

Ha! Concerned. I must make sure that he himself hasn't spoiled or forgotten his promise. Humans are easily susceptible to bodily and mental illnesses. Ah, then, perhaps that foolish exorcist afflicted him with whatever sickness he was carrying.

I give Natsume a silent discerning look. His eyes flit downward when we make eye-contact. Without a comeback, he returns to his schoolwork, barring himself off when he becomes upset.

Earlier I explored what I could regarding that exorcist's residence. Lucky me that he wasn't bright enough to lock windows. Walking into a room that held a sofa, I vaguely caught Natsume's scent. Was he here that night he had dinner with the exorcist? It was recently faded, so it was likely.

The scent trailed away to a room with a closed door. After struggling at first with the door's knob, I was blasted with a thick human scent upon it opening. Mostly it was of the exorcist, but it hinted of the boy. Although odd, it was distantly familiar, but still irretrievable.

Quickly taking in the room, I recognized it as the exorcist's sleeping chambers. Did Natsume sleep here that night too? Honestly, he can be really troublesome.

Though most of all, that useless exorcist is.

"So you have no idea why sake makes you sick?" I inquire Natsume again, returning to his room with shrimp tempura I snuck from Touko. He turns around to address me, glaring when he notices the shrimp in my mouth.

"I told you, Sensei. Too much exposure from your constant drinking." He sounds exasperated and turns back to his desk.

I find the cushion that Touko lays out for me, settling on it to watch Natsume for the time I munch on the tempura. Before speaking, I finish the rest of the meat. "Mm, Natsume. I haven't seen that exorcist-brat around the past couple weeks. Is he finally leaving my prey be?"

My eyes lift from the snack to Natsume's rigid frame. "...Yeah. Maybe," is his reply, scratching a writing utensil on paper.

"Maybe you said something mean on your human date. He's a sensitive pretty-boy." Natsume stops his hand. I close my mouth, watching the hand quietly. He's listening now. "...You smelled weird when I came back in the morning." It was only a whiff, because Natsume hurried past to enter the washroom, but it was recognized as the same heavy smell at that exorcist's place.

Natsume glances at me (annoyed and careful). "I bathed, Sensei. You probably don't like the soap."

"...Hm." A gross human-soap; right. I nibble at the remains of the shrimp tail, sharing a glare with Natsume. Irritated as of late, I hardly last a few seconds. I spit out the shrimp tail to shout. "Ahh! You're so stubborn!"

Natsume's brows knot and lips scowl before snapping back. "Look who's talking, Mr. Cat Detective! And clean up your mess!"

As much as I loathe it, maybe the flashy exorcist will provide some answers. Although I can't trust there'll be whole truths, it's better than Natsume's avoidance.

I haven't had a decent drink since that night he got sick. It's about time for the prohibition to dispel; I've been tolerating this kid for too long.

It wasn't hard to find him with such a distinct scent (from the amount of unwelcome exposure I've had of it from Natsume). Adorned in his "disguise" (how is a bucket hat and glasses clever?), it looks like he has an assignment. Three of his shiki surround him, either looking at the sheet of paper in his hands or upon the path ahead. Although his face is turned down, I catch the despondent and irritated expression and how harshly the paper is clutched, crumpling where his fingers gripped.

One of them address the exorcist. "Do you want us to keep an eye on him?"

Making my way closer, I hear the man disagree. " He'll be fine. Let's leave him be." My ears perk in curiosity, wondering who the person of interest could be.

Before I have the chance to ponder that, the one with the horns and frizzy hair spots me. Her lips twitch into a grimace and she announces, "Ah, look. It's the buta-neko." I clench my teeth. Not now.

The exorcist flinches before turning in my direction — an illusory front, forced smile, and sharp eyes.

"Entering without an invitation is rude, even punishable, pig-cat. How naive that you wouldn't think that Master had something arranged," the princess with the long black hair comments.

The exorcist's a bit tense, I note when stepping closer. "Good. Then I don't need to hide the fact that I did."

The two shiki move to be in front of the exorcist, but he dismisses them. "Now's not the time," I catch him mutter. They slink back, the horned-one and princess casting skeptical glances at me.

He looks down to me, aloof and arrogant. The paper in his hands is folded and tucked into his jacket's pocket. "Ah, what's the fat cat up to today?" His reddish eyes skim past and back to me. "You're doing a poor job as a guardian right now. Where's your master?"

My lips twitch in indignation. I see the bone-mask shiki take a step forward, focused on me. Quietly I bristle before narrowing my eyes at the exorcist. "Natsume got sick from the smell of sake when I came back one night. That's never happened before. Would you know why?"

"Master," Princess interrupts, floating by the exorcist's side. "There's another ayakashi nearby."

He dismisses her under his breath. The shiki eyes me carefully before retreating to the others. Then he turns back to me, from business to apologetic. (An actor, after all.) "I'm sorry about that. I gave him a little when we last had dinner. He felt sick soon after. He probably associates the smell with when he became ill."

I scrutinize his face. Fine, that sounded reasonable — and anticipated. "I caught Natsume's scent in your settlement." The three shiki all monitor me, but remain stagnant. None of their expressions change, not even the human's whom I am addressing. "Did he spend the night?"

The amused grin lingers as he articulates his words with ease. "He was too inebriated and ill to return home. I'd hate for his aunt to scold him, or resent me. I'd like to have Natsume as a friend."

"Natsume came back smelling very human." I glower up at him, but he remains indifferent. The bone-mask shiki vigilantly observes me now. The sword sheath is slackened from her shoulder, poising to move with short notice — something I don't blame her for. Progressively, I've been becoming increasingly surly by this rude and cautious exorcist. And now, more than ever, I firmly resent him for having been acquainted with his smell.

His answer comes out polished and controlled. "He was with me. Humans can't help their scent."

"Master," the masked shiki whispers at his side.

"Yes, I know," he mutters back. My eyes are seized by his, and in turn I harden my gaze with a harsher determination. Neither Natsume nor I are fools to delude. He plays back with his own easy-going grimace. "Sorry, kitty. I have a job soon. Please excuse me."

No, I won't, but the exorcist leaves regardless, his shiki casting me wary looks before shadowing their master.

I hope there's a way to purge this scent from my nose. I'm becoming nauseated.

I toss the shoji door to the side. "Oi, Natsume! You best be glad that I haven't drank due to that pathetic exorcist!" Tired and petulant, I nestle myself on a small pillow. I bury my paws under my chest, taking deep breaths through my nose, hoping that this would help coax me. Humans are damnably aggravating.

Natsume has already turned to look at me (his face paling farther than it should). I keep my mouth shut and observe him, curling myself into a comfortable ball. It looks like he was shaken up earlier — maybe he got sick again.

"You saw Natori, Sensei?" His voice tinges with panic. Notably in his golden eyes the emotion is reflected. (Hell, I can smell it sweltering off the damn child.)

I consider Natsume for a few moments before answering. "...Yes. Were you expecting another lousy exorcist? I really can't keep track of them all." I sigh, sinking further into the cushion. If I could only have one drink... I grind my teeth. Yes, right. Natsume had also. "Thanks to that exorcist, I can't even enjoy a sip of sake. You failed to mention you had some with him and even spent the night."

Natsume flinches, faltering to reply. His head slightly bows to the floor (he still looks so sick); it can be easily detected that he feels responsible (even for a moment, I feel guilty). In a quiet voice, he admits, "...I didn't want to mention it because I got sick... and had to stay over..." ...and pauses.

The muddling silence finds its opportunity and settles. Natsume clings to it, to steady his fingers, lick his lips, find his breath.

I recall a time I inquired Natsume, whom was far too distracted, about his mood. "Nothing is wrong." And he left off at that. So like that time, I mask myself in indifference, waiting, watching, silent urging Natsume with my disciplined patience.

"...It was embarrassing. I'm sorry, Sensei." No longer is his head bowed. He meets my eyes with a firm facade (practiced, worn, dated — he hasn't had the use for it in so long).

"...Idiot. Don't apologize." I puff out my chest, look him over (withdrawing, scared, wary) again. I can't help but feel frustrated. Why are you like this Natsume? Whatever is happening, I hate it as much as you do. It's not hard to tell that stupid exorcist did something that bothered you.

"That foolish exorcist ought to for making you sick. What an irresponsible adult," I scoff. Natsume watches me carefully. "And to think I allowed a speck of trust for him to take you out for a simple meal. Even you! You can be too trusting, too accommodating. I was too lax this time—"

My rambling is interrupted when Natsume rises to his feet, his attention to the clock on the wall. "Come on, Sensei. Dinner's ready." His voice is urged monotonous.

Curious. I scrunch my face and spring to my feet when Natsume approaches the door to leave. I follow by his side, trying to peek at his face from below, but the angle is too limited to allow that.

As he begins to descend the stairs, I speak, causing his frame to rattle and hesitate. "Do humans always reek of another when they spend time together?"

I overhear Natsume's quickened breaths over the short pause before he continues down the steps. I'm not able to determine his expression anymore, but I notice the stiffness in his legs.