Takashi’s face is wind-bitten and his feet are freezing in their damp canvas sneakers, but the cold air around him is clouded with laughter, and all the noise his friends are making rings up and down the empty streets.
“I hate snow!” Nishimura says brightly, clustered against Takashi’s left shoulder like a barnacle. He’s a bundle of scarf and coat and oversized beanie with a ridiculous pom-pom on the end. “God, who’s idea was it, anyway? Snow.”
Taki is on Takashi’s opposite side, her arm threaded through his as much for warmth as for support. She giggles every time they slip on a patch of ice, and Takashi’s smile grows every time she does.
“This is your fault, Shibata,” Kitamoto says darkly, a hand hooked under Tanuma’s elbow to keep him upright. It looks a little bit like he’s wrangling a lanky scarecrow. Every ten seconds Tanuma punctuates another near-fall with a flustered ‘sorry!’ and Nishimura counts each one under his breath. “You just had to have chicken nuggets.”
Right on cue, an affronted noise of protest: “Excuse me,” Shibata says from somewhere behind Takashi, “I’m not the only one who wanted snacks! Besides, it wasn’t supposed to start snowing until later tonight.”
“Stop whining,” Ogata demands. “You’re making this walk take even longer.”
She’s been out of breath since they hiked back down the mountain from Tanuma’s house, not used to the altitude and the terrain that Takashi and his classmates know so well, and the sudden snow doesn’t seem to be helping. Takashi glances over his shoulder to make sure Shibata still has an arm around her and they both make faces at him when they notice.
Nyanko-sensei bumps the underside of Takashi’s chin with his head curtly. If they were alone, he’d probably be squawking something like ‘watch where you’re going, clumsy brat!’ but as it is he has to settle for a very telling glare. Takashi mutters, “Yeah, yeah,” but he makes sure the cat is buttoned up all snug inside his coat anyway.
“We’re nearly there,” Taki says cheerfully. And then, “Oh, look!”
Takashi’s heart does something complicated and acrobatic in his chest when he spots a familiar figure through the snow. Touko is standing in front of the house, wrapped in Shigeru’s coat and glancing around anxiously. She lights up when she spots their group making its ungainly way down the road, clasping her hands together under her chin and smiling in that beaming way she has.
“There you are! Oh, I’d hoped you wouldn’t try going back up to the temple in this dreadful weather. Come in, come in! Let’s get you all warm.”
They make a commotion in the genkan, because Takashi’s friends can’t go anywhere together without making at least a little one. They lean on each other to help get out of boots and undo shoelaces and wrestle off various winter wear. Nishimura is shaking his damp scarf at Kitamoto just to be annoying. They’re all exhausted and sort of giddy with it. Shigeru is laughing behind his newspaper as they all pile into the sitting room.
“Snowed off the mountain, were you?” he says warmly. His smile is as much a welcome as Touko waiting outside for them was. “You’ll probably be stuck here for the night, I’m afraid.”
“There’s no probably about it,” Touko insists. She touches Takashi’s hair, the barest pressure that smooths the fringe out of his eyes. She is somehow both soft and stern as she looks around at all of his friends, a contradiction made easy by her caring. “And I want each of you to call your parents and let them know, alright?”
Tanuma’s father is away for work, Taki’s whole family is overseas, Shibata’s parents only know that he’s staying in Hitoyoshi, and as far as Ogata’s mother is aware, Ogata is still in her hometown having a sleepover with her friend Junko. The only one who takes out his cellphone is ever-agreeable Kitamoto, and he shares the call with Nishimura; the two of them pressed ear to ear as Kitamoto’s mother tells them to ‘behave, and thank Touko-san for her hospitality,’ and then tells them both goodnight.
Nyanko-sensei picks his way out Takashi’s lap and over to Tanuma’s. Tanuma looks a little pleased to have been chosen and then tries not to at Taki’s broken-hearted expression. Everyone starts to slump where they’re sitting, fighting yawns. Shigeru and Touko trade knowing glances, and Shigeru gathers up his newspaper and beer.
Takashi is watching them, because it’s been three years and he can’t help but watch them sometimes. Studying their expressions, the barest twitch of their mouth or eye that might mean they’re— upset, or that he’s done something wrong. It’s hard to break those habits that kept him safe in those other places.
If they’ve ever noticed the watching, they don’t seem to mind. Presently, Touko glances over and meets Takashi’s eyes as Shigeru steps out of the room, and she only smiles when she meets them.
“You’re all so tuckered out,” she says. There’s a kind laugh lurking in the back of her voice somewhere. “Why don’t you rest until it’s time for dinner?”
Shigeru comes back with all of the blankets from the linen closet, and Takashi’s friends make mindless noises of appreciation as he hands them out. His lined face is fond as Tanuma tries to juggle a fat lucky cat to the crook of his arm to take the blanket Shigeru holds out to him. Nishimura’s already half-dead to the world, face buried in Takashi’s stomach and a leg thrown over Shibata’s knee.
“How did this happen?” Takashi whispers as his foster father makes his way around to him. “They were wide awake ten seconds ago.”
Touko’s laugh finally makes its escape, a light and pleasant sound that doesn’t disturb a single drowsing body.
“You’re the same way,” she murmurs. “Ever since you first came to live with us, there were times when you’d drop off so suddenly, and sleep as though nothing short of a hurricane would wake you.”
Takashi gazes up at her, picking at the blanket Shigeru gave him, and thinks about how strange it is, that’s he’s been in this place for so long that Touko has little stories like that to share. That he came here, and he stayed here, and the Fujiwaras never asked him to move on or tried to send him away. They like him, and they notice and remember things about him that no one else ever bothered to notice or remember, and they would rather let all of his friends take over their sitting room than let them be cold for a moment longer than they needed to.
It’s a complicated train of thoughts, and it ends up a knotted, jumbled thing that he can’t put into words at all, and so he says, “Thank you,” because that’s what it usually circles back to in the end.
Thank you for the blanket, and thank you for thinking of me, and thank you for taking a chance on that strange orphaned boy you heard nothing but bad things about.
“Of course,” Touko says, reaching for the light switch on the wall. “We’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.”
Takashi manages to lay down without disrupting Nishimura’s complicated-looking sprawl. The sitting room is warm enough that he doesn’t need the blanket, but the weight of it, and its worn-out softness, and the familiar smell of their laundry detergent, is a strange amalgamation of slow, syrupy comfort that Takashi kind of wants to bury his face in.
The wind outside is a dull roar, leaning up against the porch doors like an uninvited stranger testing the locks. It must be snowing harder, the promised overnight storm sneaking out ahead of schedule to make mischief, the way all winter spirits like to do. Comparatively, snug inside and surrounded by his closest friends, Takashi feels warmer than he thinks he ever has before.
“It’s strange that we’re graduating next year,” he murmurs into the dim room.
“About time,” Ogata replies sleepily.
It sends a pang through him, but he smiles anyway. “Yeah. I’ll just miss days like this is all.”
There’s a bit of a rustle, and someone grunts in protest when someone else digs an accidental elbow someplace soft, and then Taki’s tousled head pops up over Kitamoto’s shoulder.
“Natsume,” she says in her most sensible tone of voice. “If you want to cuddle at our new house, all you have to do is ask.”
“Not really,” Shibata yawns from some other corner of the room. “Even if he didn’t ask, you’d have to pry Satchan off him with a crowbar.”
“Green’s not your color, Sumi,” Nishimura replies without even bothering to open his eyes.
Shibata makes a sputtering noise at the new nickname, like a car engine trying to turn over. Tanuma snorts with laughter and then immediately tries to pretend like he didn’t think it was funny when Shibata whirls on him.
Takashi blinks up at the ceiling, turning Taki’s words over in his head. He says, “What new house?”
“Natsume,” Kitamoto groans. “Come on, buddy. We’ve been talking about it for months. Since last summer.”
Takashi starts to sit up, remembers that he’s acting as a pillow, and manages to hold himself still while his brain starts spinning around in confused circles.
“But that was,” he says, and stops. Another false start: “You were— “ He bites the inside of his cheek, wrestles the right words out, and says, “I thought it was a joke.”
Nishimura turns his head, hair still a mess from the weather and his stupid hat. His eyes are round and incredulous but not judgmental, and not mocking, and not mean. He says, “Why the hell would we joke about that? We’re sticking together. We have a whole plan.”
The plan is to get into the same university and rent a big house together in the city. Gotta be one that’s cat-friendly, his friends have laughed, bringing it up over dozens of lunch periods and two-day weekends, one with room enough for all of us, but he hadn’t taken them seriously.
“You said you wanted to,” Tanuma says. He sounds upset now. Takashi hates it.
“I do,” he replies quickly, because of course he does. He’s always wanted impossible things, what he knew he couldn’t have. When his friends talked about a future together, he smiled along and thought wouldn’t it be nice, and that was as far as he dared let those thoughts go. “I just thought it was… hypothetical.”
“Our parents are already looking at properties,” Kitamoto says dryly. “Touko and my mom were discussing it on the phone like three days ago. It hasn’t been anywhere in the realm of hypothetical.”
Takashi feels the familiar weight of his cat coming back to him, the split-second glint of sensei’s green eyes the brightest thing in the room as he settles into the crook of Takashi’s arm. Silent, necessarily so, but present, just in case Takashi needs to borrow strength from him.
“Are you serious?” Takashi asks, of no one in particular.
“Why do you think I started going to cram school?” Nishimura says, sounding offended, of all things, like this is a sacrifice he’s made that should have been respected. “Of course we’re serious.”
“We would miss this, too, Natsume,” Taki says. She sounds much more awake now, and he can only imagine the look in her eyes. After looking through a window into the face of a monster all those years ago, Taki can see through people with an ease that Takashi thinks even Natori is probably jealous of. “That’s why we’re going to make it so that we don’t have to.”
But it’s not that easy. It can’t be, it never is. Takashi doesn’t say anything else, but Tanuma asks, “Why not?” as if he heard anyway.
Takashi thinks of the half-empty book upstairs, guarded by a ward strong enough to make the chuukyuu’s eyes water from the backyard. The secret that only half the people in the room are aware of. The wall between himself and everyone else that he built stone by stone by stone, to keep them— and himself— safe from inevitable hurt.
“You don’t even know me,” Takashi blurts.
Nishimura sits up. Kitamoto makes a grumbly noise and starts extracting himself from blankets. Shibata says “No no I finally got comfortable, Tanuma, come on,” but Tanuma is moving, too.
Ogata says, in a kind, careful voice, “Natsume, of course we know you.”
“Not everything,” Takashi insists, feeling his heart start to move a little faster. “You don’t— you don’t know everything.”
Tanuma, Taki and Shibata are watching him with understanding and grim determination. Nishimura, Kitamoto and Ogata’s expressions are surprisingly similar.
“I just found out last week that Satchan is still afraid of dogs because one chased him when we were four,” Kitamoto says plainly. “I’ve known him since kindergarten and I found out last week.”
“I don’t make a habit of going near dogs,” Nishimura retorts in a conversational tone that also manages to sound like he’s picking a fight. “So it never came up until my stupid neighbor adopted an evil Corgi. That’s not my fault.”
Ogata whispers, “Evil Corgi.”
Going on as though he wasn’t interrupted, Kitamoto adds, “You can’t say I don’t really know him, can you? Even though I didn’t know he was still afraid of dogs?”
“I feel like that’s different,” Takashi says slowly, though he can’t think of a reason why.
“It isn’t,” Shibata says. His expensive shirt is all wrinkled, and there’s a pink crease on his cheek from where it was pressed against Tanuma’s sleeve. “Are we on the same page now? Can we go to sleep?”
There’s a gentle clamor of shifting and resettling, everyone sinking back into cushions and soft blankets. Nishimura lays down next to Takashi instead of perpendicular to him, tipping over to use his shoulder as a pillow instead.
“There’s no getting rid of us, Bakashi,” he says in a voice as low as it can go before it becomes a whisper. “You don’t have to be scared.”
And the thing is…
The thing is, he isn’t.
The storm is picking up outside, wind and snow battering against the porch doors with a vengeance; but the sitting room is snug, and Nishimura’s eyes are deep and dark in the low light, and Takashi marvels at how safe and warm he feels.
He brings a hand to his chest, as if to feel for the wall he built there, and finds it much smaller than he remembers. As though it shrank with time, or maybe Takashi outgrew it.
It’s either bravery or the lack of any real need for bravery that pushes Takashi to open his mouth without killing himself over what-ifs and say, “It’s just that any house I live in is going to be haunted. Really, actually haunted.”
Taki giggles, and Shibata makes that sputtering noise again, and Takashi can almost hear the pleased way Tanuma is smiling. Ogata hums a half-surprised little “oh” that sort of makes it sound like her best guess was just proven right, and Kitamoto sighs.
“Ghosts. That explains so much.”
Nishimura squeezes Takashi’s hand until Takashi looks at him. He’s grinning, the sight of him sleep-ruffled and safe and familiar.
“Shibata’s grouchy morning self is way scarier than any ghoul you manage to bring home, Natsume,” he says happily. “Nice try, though.”
In an hour, Takashi will wake up to the sound of poorly stifled laughter and a handful of ineffective ‘shhh’s. He’ll roll his head to follow the sound, and he’ll see his friends grouped around his cat, listening to him tell a widely embellished story about the kind dragon Takashi hatched once.
“It flew away?” Kitamoto will ask, sadness in his voice. “He never saw it again?”
And Nyanko-sensei will flick an ear at him, derisive. “It didn’t have any business staying as long as it did in the first place. But things have an unfortunate way of sticking to that Natsume, always leaving without asking and coming back just the same. Knowing my luck, he’ll probably see that Tama again someday.”
“I hope we’ll be there,” Taki will whisper.
And Takashi will look at them and realize Of course. Of course you will.
But for now, the room is dark and warm, and his friends are finally quieting down. Nyanko-sensei’s eyes are closed but Takashi has the sense that he’s keeping watch. If he listens very hard, he can hear his parents in the kitchen. He falls asleep still holding Nishimura’s hand.
The storm passes eventually. It leaves behind a blanket of fresh snow and a bright, starry night sky.