It hits him somewhere in the middle of their first semester of university, when they're sitting down to a rare unhurried breakfast. Maybe it's because Taki's birthday was just a few weeks ago and she still delights in teasing them about being the eldest. Maybe it's just something about how ordinary the scene before him is -- Tanuma spearing a cherry tomato with his fork, Taki buttering a slice of toast -- and how extraordinary that such a scene should have become unremarkable. Something about the way their life together has developed its own routines, how the newness has worn off the shape of their days -- whatever the reason, Natsume takes a sip of his juice and looks at the others and thinks, with some wonderment: I've known these people since we were fifteen.
Years ago. It's strange to have started measuring friendships in years. Strange, too, to think that it's already been months since their first morning in this flat, when Natsume woke to the discovery that he'd stayed somewhere long enough to be surprised by an unfamiliar ceiling.
Tanuma's staring at him across the table, a lettuce leaf slowly sliding off the tines of his fork. Natsume smiles. It feels good not having to force the expression.
"Just thinking about the past. Nothing sad," he hastens to add, because Tanuma's got that worried look on his face again. "Just... thinking about how long it's been."
Next to him, Taki looks up. The three of them exchange glances. There's a shift in the atmosphere -- realization or discovery or simple shared understanding -- but then:
"You're such an old man, Natsume," Taki says fondly, and that's that.
The heat of early summer has made condensation bead on the sides of their glasses. There's something about this moment Natsume wishes he could capture, the straightforward facts of this existence: the languid air, the low roar of traffic outside, the crisp freshness of the salad Tanuma made this morning. Nyanko-sensei is still asleep, Taki's first class is in two hours' time, it's Tanuma's turn to go grocery shopping, and Natsume is having breakfast with two people he is unafraid to deem important, in a corner of the world that they've made their own.
Natsume smiles, and takes another bite of toast. There's nothing that needs to be said.
When did they learn this closeness? Taki remembers the two boys in high school in all their delicate distance: Tanuma's restrained worry, Natsume's cautious, desperate smiles. But somewhere, something must have changed. Tanuma's learnt to ask, and Natsume's learnt that it's okay to reply, and Taki-- Taki's learnt how to draw them all together, how to take first steps because someone has to be the one to do so.
So now, somehow, they've come to know the feel of each others' hands, the warmth of skin against skin. There's something unguarded about the way Tanuma and Natsume look at each other. Taki still marvels at the strength of Tanuma's thin hands, and (though she'd never tell him) the softness of Natsume's lips. And life fits itself around this unnamed thing they have. They no longer blush at doing each other's laundry. Nyanko-sensei makes a great show of returning to the flat, giving them adequate aural warning. And yes, they each have their own futons; but in the brisk chill of early spring it was easy to curl close to the others, wake with an arm slung across another's warm body.
In the sticky heat of summer, contact gains an air of the deliberate, or at least of indulgence. As on a drowsy afternoon, when they're sprawled on the grassy riverbank, and Tanuma leans over almost absently to press a kiss to Natsume's forehead.
"Sorry," he says, starting back almost immediately. "You just looked so--"
"Youth!" Nyanko-sensei says dismissively, before stalking off to bat at startled butterflies.
Natsume laughs, lightly, and pulls Tanuma back down.
Their university is in the city rather than the countryside, and though it's filled with parks and greenery, it's not the same. Encounters with youkai have grown rare. Tanuma isn't sure whether to be pleased about that, but at least it means fewer threats to Natsume's safety. In the months-- no, years to come, there'll be challenges enough to contend with. Exams and expenses and the strange business of growing up; already the adult world is beginning to bleed into their lives, in the form of envelopes of utility bills and the careers fairs that dot the academic calendar.
Still, Tanuma's glimpsed stranger worlds than that. The future is as hazy to him as a pond's reflection on a wooden ceiling, but he knows this much: that they have time and love and each other. They'll get by.