Many little lights lit up outside the house that Natsume Takashi resides in, so many that anyone would give up counting after a mere minute.
The green, red, blue and occasional white tainted his vision any time he would take a peek at the Christmas lights that loosely hold onto the edge of the roof outside his window looking like they'd be blown off with the faintest of gusts. Yet it wasn't the only place you could see them; around the fence and up on the trees and bushes that trailed down the road of his neighbourhood were lit up just as brightly.
Causing the darkest of nights to light up brilliantly.
In between the fluffy snowflakes that made their way towards the ground slowly but surely, hid tiny white ayakashi, blending in with the soft cold, yet Takashi took notice. 'How cute they were', he'd think to himself as he carefully leans on the palm of his hand that rests on the window sill and gazes out his bedroom window with a fat lucky cat curling up lazily on his lap.
There would be an occasional bump outside on his window, but they'd run into hiding as fast as they could after meeting eye to eye with the boy behind the frost tainted glass.
-"Takashi-kun! Could you come help me for a bit?" The cat perked up at the voice calling from downstairs, leaving Takashi's lap as gracefully as he could.
Takashi replies with a firm and a quite loud yet polite yes before standing up as well, mentally saying his goodbyes to the little whites and heads down to his foster mom.
Takashi was greeted by a smell he'd not gotten very familiar with yet, at least not in a positive way, the smell of freshly baked cookies and gingerbread.
He'd definitely not mind getting more familiarised with it as the years would pass by, one kind Christmas after another at the Fujiwara residence. At his residence.
The living room and kitchen were decorated with lights and cute ornaments, even the stair rail and the genkan had hints of the joy that Christmas brings every once in a while. Hints... That was really the keyword, it wasn't a lot but the smallest of ornaments made the biggest of changes.
A little Christmas tree was situated in the living room, worthy of its mention, lightly decorated as well, with not so many gifts beneath, just enough for three people and a cat to enjoy.
-"You would not mind helping us getting some of these cookies to the neighbours would you?" Touko said with a laugh in her tone.
-"Of course not" he replied and felt as if he'd soar, there is something so kind about all of this, the smell, the decorations, the snow, and of course, Touko's gentle presence was really the main cause of it.
He grabbed one of the baskets that Touko had handed to him, it was filled with still warm cookies and Touko held on to the other while Shigerus hands were left empty, but one was quickly filled with one of Touko's.
The door slid wide open with help from Takashi and the snowflakes were quick to pile up on each of their heads and Takashi could not help but give out a subtle chuckle as one of the hundred small ayakashi from before landed on Shigerus, ending up in a complete hurry with no idea where to go from there, running from side to side, front to back, finally resting dead center.
The boy reaches out and acts if to brush the snow off, he managed to be somewhat convincing when picking up the little live snowflake, or so he thought. He settled it on his shoulder until it seemed safe for them both.
Shigeru chuckles a bit and reaches to pat his boy on the head "thank you".
He lets his hand fall down after brushing most of the white off of Takashi and Takashi brushes the rest off while fixing up his ruffled up hair back into an almost neat middle part and you could hear Touko laugh with herself if you'd listen real carefully.
Speaking, or rather thinking of which, a branch poked out of a brush nearby as they walked and he thought it would be a nice place for it to set down. He reaches for the little one and settles it down on the branch, careful not to look suspicious or out of order and gives it a tiny wave accompanied with the most gentle smile he owns.
It looked as if it waved back.
Takashi, startled by a sudden rustle in between the trees to the side of the road, although nothing seemed to be there when he looked. But Takashi is so sure something remains there, sitting still, watching. A youkai? Or just a wild animal or a neighbouring pet, or even Sensei?
There's no real way of being sure if they won't show themselves. Even amongst the Christmas lights.
A frightful frown makes its way to the surface and his heart leaps a mile, clasping his free hand by his chest tightly, how he hoped it was nothing dangerous while his family was around. He sighs as no other rustle can be heard after a mere moment that seemed to last forever, irked about that there really is no pause to his all too natural encounters.
Takashi turns towards his foster parents, he hadn't noticed that he had ceased his walk and had hung back a few steps in his worry.
-"N- No it's nothing!" the frown makes way for one of his forced smiles and only with a one last glance towards the forest, he turns back to his foster parents and jogs the few steps he lagged, careful not to drop anything from within the wooden basket.
It wasn't until that he entered the neighbours warm home and the door slid closed behind them that the overwhelming feeling of being watched and observed came to an end.
'What was that all about…' Takashi questioned himself, unable to brush it off until a warm hand was settled on his cheek and he was swiftly snapped back to reality.
"Natsume Takashi, right?" the woman asked the boy, very tall and thin, her long, black hair reached all the way to her lower back, she seemed to be about the same age as Touko and Shigeru, to Takashi at least, his eyes weren't really useful when it came to guessing age. He does nothing but nod, half surprised. "I've heard so much about you from Touko and Shigeru, it's great to finally meet you" she leans forward, but not all too far, to match Takashi's height. "You can call me Hanako" and her hand moves up to ruffle his hair almost into a mess.
As expected, the kind attract the kind. The smile Hanako gives Takashi was almost just as gentle as Touko's motherly smile but nothing will ever come close to be as heartwarming than hers.
He nods a second time, flustered, not sure what words to use.
Takashi's attention drifts around like an excited child minutes before its time to open the Christmas presents that were sat under a pine tree as he is led into the living room, it wasn't too cramped but not too empty or spacious either, it felt just right. The side tables were decorated neatly with small statues and a light brown flower pot sat on one of the counters. Plants were growing steadily here and there as well, small as they were big. A little television sat in the corner on top of a brown table, but there wasn't too much space made for seating, looks like the kotatsu took its place for the winter.
There wasn't a lot of what you could call a Christmas decoration, but it felt nice being there.
Instinctively Takashi looks around to see if there were any hints of a youkai but it looks like its only the two of them, Hanako and her husband, Kakeru, living here, it's not very common but it does happen that a youkai moves in on its own. But not here.
They were sat down by the heated up kotatsu while Hanako settled the cookies into a beautiful glass bowl, decorated with red and gold and carefully places the bowl on top of the kotatsu, giving the family of three her deepest of thanks.
The couple seemed quite well acquaintanced with the Fujiwara's, observed by Takashi at least. It wouldn't really be surprising if they were close friends, Hitoyoshi isn't the biggest town around, after all.
Although, he was sure there wasn't too much to catch up on, the chatter and laughter seems to be able to go on for hours, there would even be an occasional question pointed at him, about his then, now and the yet to come.
Takashi would answer the best he could stumbling over his own words, brushing a few questions off with a lame excuse or an awkward huff of a laugh, trying his best at not outing himself as the weird, unwanted kid. For the Fujiwara's sake and even his own, leaving all ghost stories behind for tonight.
He takes a glance to admire his foster parents, nibbling on one of the ginger cookies, they were so deep in conversation that it looked like he'd been offered the task to keep the cookies for himself. A nostalgic smile creeps up on him;
Just this small setting, surrounded by people he calls family, chatting idly about practically everything there is to chat about and laugh at the most normal things. Takashi wasn't necessarily taking part in it but it was enough to fill Takashi with indescribable joy and warmth. No one was really begging him for his attention but they weren't picking at him or making a distasteful look his direction either.
And it really was something like this, something like this is what he had longed for. It was a longing you'd really not know of until it's there. He just sat there, enjoying, thankful for being able to hold back the one or two tears that begged to run down his cheek.
About an hour and a half had passed by the time it was time to leave, the clock was ticking in midnight and the couple waved gently as the family of three left their home.
-"Oh I know!" Touko exclaimed excitedly clapping her gloved hands together, "since there are so few cookies left at home, wouldn't it be nice if we'd bake together tomorrow?" she asked with hope in her eyes and the boys seemed just as excited.
The short walk home remained silent as the air fills with subtle sounds of snowflakes landing softly on the already snow covered ground and the crackling of their footsteps echo through the empty road.
Takashi recalled the feeling of being watched as they make their way past the bush from before, but nothing. There was no one now, only the occasional fluff of an ayakashi running around the ground, attempting to catch one of their own as they gently sway towards the ground or tripping on the footprints the family left behind.
Takashi carefully slid the front door open once more, dusted off all snow before stepping in and setting the empty basket down while untying his boots that used to belong to Shigeru a while back.
He finally walks into the kitchen with both baskets and sets them on the counter for Touko but is caught off guard when he hears someone, or maybe a few someone, snickering in the living room.
He could have sworn Touko and Shigeru were still in the genkan.
-"... he's … see us"
-"you think… okay ...?"
He could hear the whispers of few creatures, but being unable to hear them clearly made the curiosity get the best of him, he sneaks carefully towards the room to investigate the intruders. Ready to retreat at any moment if needed to.
But taken by an unexpected surprise, three small rabbit youkai, dressed in red, blue and green yukata respectively, dash from the living room, round Takashi, almost pulling him down, and disappear out the still open door.
Takashi stood in awe, nothing else he could really do.
What were they even doing…?
Takashi takes a peek into the living room and half gawks at the sight. A large youkai remained there, its head almost the size of its body, it was colored brown and wearing an even darker brown yukata decorated with a black obi, paralyzed by the fact that Takashi took notice of him sooner than anticipated.
Touko finally makes an appearance and halts by her son's side.
He shudders, what were he to do if the youkai ends up being dangerous, should he run? Call Sensei? Fight? Where was Sensei even?
In any case, acting weird and out of manner would be so trivial compared to his family's safety by now.
-"Takashi?" she asks, taking notice of the mental absence in his almost dim, far-away, looking eyes and she turns towards the empty room.
-"Oh… Oh my!?" she gasped, more in surprise than fear.
Takashi came back, almost frantically twitching his sight between Touko and the youkai 'did she see? Is she able to see him??' Takashi runs cold, fearing what was to happen but Touko starts walking towards the youkai;
'She couldn't see him.'
The youkai steps aside with a quite long lasting bow aimed towards the dumbfounded Takashi after Touko had passed through him, revealing the Christmas tree and Touko, who was now crouching down. She's holding something small, clumpy yet petite.
-"Who might have brought these…?" She asks herself, a hint of worry creeps up at the thought that someone might have broken into her precious' family home. Yet… It wasn't to take, but to give, her worry seemed quite short lasting, but despite that, she couldn't make any sense of this at all, she never could, the things that made no sense were more prone to happening than those who did make sense, and she somehow puzzled them together and everything pointed towards Takashi. She kept her gaze on the object she holds ever so carefully, not all too sure if she should open the small gifts that seemingly just appeared while they were out, even just one pricked at her curiosity, almost as if it was begging to be opened.
Takashi closed in, nimbly evading the youkai that stood to the side, still with its head bowed down towards him, he bows down, setting his legs below him carefully as he sets down next to Touko, observing the extra gifts that had appeared under the tree, and for sure he knew right away who brought them, he had this ethereal feeling that Touko knew as well as they locked eyes with a look that Takashi hadn't received from anyone else besides from Kaname, at least a tad more often than Tooru.
The gifts, they weren't big, but rather small, carefully fitted into a single palm, wrapped with leaves that you would only encounter deep into the forest, quite common where no one goes actually, the deep green of the blade were accompanied with white glowing veins, Takashi regretfully wasn't truly sure if Touko saw the feint glow though, the leaves were held in place with a few stalks that still bloomed beautiful white flowers with yellow ovule, even in December, leaving no real need for a proper decoration.
'What should I do…' Takashi worries quite a bit, Touko had seen something relating to the things no one should see.
The curiosity had won, Touko lets in to the urge to uncover the contents of the small bundle. She carefully slips the flower stalks off, setting it on the floor besides her and unfolds the leaf. Tiny rocks. There seemed to be nothing special about them, only confusing her further yet feeling a bit charmed as if there was something more to them.
-"Takashi…" she half whispers and gestures him to take a look, she discreetly props the leaf in Takashi's cupped palms, more attention on his reaction more than the gift at this point.
Takashi smiles ever so gently in a soft, blue glow. They are stones from the Stone Washer.
There were a few more presents sitting under the tree, undisturbed, waiting to be opened when the right time comes.
-"Come come" Touko asks of Shigeru, who now stands in the doorway of the living room, she asks this kind of cheerfully, at least more cheerfully than Takashi would have thought.
-"Take a look, isn't it strange?" she says and the laugh in her tone, oh the laugh in her tone, it was as if she meant to say cute instead. "I wonder who brought them" she says while Takashi sets the stones down carefully back under the tree, she smiled ever so softly towards Shigeru and then shifted her gaze towards Takashi a moment later, her vivid smile made it as if she was able to see the beautiful blue hue shining from the stones. But really, she would be beaming way more if that was the case, that thought left Takashi feeling quite regretful that he's the only one who sees the flower patterned shine.
-"Maybe a white little crow" she wonders with her little fairy tale ideas, thinking back on her crow friend.
-"Maybe so" Shigeru's warm agreement only pushed her cheerfulness and curiosity even further as he sets his hand on her shoulder.
-"I beg for your pardon, Natsume-dono" the youkai speaks up, catching Takashi's attention as he turns his gaze towards the youkai. "It was none of the intention to frighten any of you, we only wish to give back what you have given us"
The youkai finally looks up, the tiny oval like holes for eyes, almost frightening to a point, meet eye to eye with Takashi.
Touko looks up at her boy, noting Takashi's expressions while he looks at... Apparently nothing, but she felt she knew that that wasn't the case at all. And it wasn't the first time she felt it when she thinks back. They really weren't alone.
-"The kindness, Natsume-dono"
-"I bid you farewell, Natsume-dono, I hope we cross one another in near future" The youkai leans forwards, bowing deeply once more, hiding the all so subtle smile on the wide deep scratch of a mouth that it caught from Takashi before taking its leave, quite literally walking through the walls and out into the cold.
-"Takashi...?" Touko mouths out, careful as to not disturb his weary presence.
Everything was silent and dark, these kind of situations would more often than not bring up bad memories and fears he didn't know he had.
Takashi laid still in the middle of the night, warming under his futon in a bedroom he could call his own. Such a silly thing to feel happy about, but he couldn't help himself.
An ear perked up under his futon.
-"What do you think… about the presents?"
-"Both Touko-san and Shigeru-san saw them…"
-"It will be fine" a grumpy yet unwavering voice replies "I'll be there".