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The Lonely Traveler

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The storm began in the mountains – most do, after all. It started small, as a knot of clouds and a torrent of snow, and as it wore on, it spread everywhere. It curled down through the villages nestled in the woods, and it stretched on and on until it even reached the sea, blanketing the air and ground in the thickest snowflakes anyone had seen in years.

But in the center of it all, that knot of clouds, that torrent of snow, remained where it was, high up in the mountains. The howling winds paced the same paths over and over, as if unsure where else to go.

Travelers tried to find a place the storm did not touch. But there are some things no one can get away from.

***

“Well,” Adashino said as he shut the door, “you won’t be getting anywhere in this.”

One of the good things about traveling – one of the many good things – was that people never got much of an impression of him that Ginko didn’t mean for them to get. They only saw him for a short time, after all. They never had a chance to see him annoyed, or doubtful, or upset.

Or sulking. And he was uncomfortably aware that he was doing that right now.

“I could try.” Ginko struggled to keep his expression neutral.

“You could try,” Adashino agreed. He glanced over his shoulder and out the window, where the snowdrifts were starting to curve upwards and block the moonlight. “But it would be such an embarrassing way to go, for such a respected mushishi to freeze to death.”

Ginko sighed. “I thought these coastal towns didn’t get much snow.”

“Strangely enough, so did I.” Adashino took a seat on the floor. “But you’re lucky you were here. I hear it’s worse in the mountains.”

Of all the seasons, winter was the hardest. The weather wasn’t quite so bad as the way people would react to it: You won’t be going out in this, will you? We have plenty of space. It’s the least we can do. He’d heard it dozens of times, in dozens of different voices. But at the very least, this was Adashino. He didn’t have to be polite.

“I’ve traveled in bad weather before, you know,” Ginko said. “Somehow I’ve lived this long.”

“Are we still having this conversation?” Unfortunately, Adashino didn’t feel the need to be polite, either. “You can sleep over there. I don’t have much in the way of extra bedding, but hey, I guess you’re used to worse, huh?”

“I still haven’t agreed to this, you realize.”

“Think of it as an opportunity,” Adashino said, oblivious. “You haven’t met many of the villagers here. Most of them think I made you up.” At Ginko’s dubious look, he held his hands up in a defensive gesture. “It’s not as bad as it sounds. The rest of them think you’re a con artist.”

“… you are joking, right?” Ginko said.

“Yes,” Adashino said with a shrug. “Mostly.”

“You’re being very insistent about this, Dr. Adashino.” Ginko narrowed his eye. “You do realize that even if I do turn your house into a mushi nest, you still won’t be able to see them.”

“I assure you, my motivations are completely selfless.” Adashino grinned, but after a beat, he added, “But I would feel them, right?”

“And not in a good way,” Ginko said. “When they gather like that, even the air feels heavier.”

“Well, that’s not too bad,” Adashino said. “Your cigarette smoke already leaves the air feeling heavier for days, so I’d say it’s already too late to spare me that.”

Ginko let his head drop into his hands.

***

Ginko never slept too deeply, but for the most part, noise didn’t bother him. Even on the quietest nights, every season had its own sound: frogs, cicadas, rustling leaves, the swish and patter of falling snow. What kept him awake when he was younger was almost soothing now. But indoors, there was a different set of sounds.

Adashino snores, Ginko noted as he sprawled, completely alert, across the floor.

***

Adashino was exaggerating at least a little. There were people in the village who knew Ginko.

Having given up on sleep sometime around dawn, Ginko decided to take a walk through the village: it would stretch out his sore muscles, and it would make him feel like he was going somewhere.

There were more familiar faces this time than there had ever been. The children from the inkstone case were playing on the side of a steep hill, and their watchful parents offered Ginko a warm if distracted greeting. The fishermen, as always, welcomed him with far more noise than was ever necessary. If Ginko understood correctly – and it was hard to when they shouted over each other like that – they were promising to come to Adashino’s with hot sake later.

And then there was Io. Ginko found the little house she’d built herself by the shore, where she was tucked into the open entryway and staring out at the ocean. Her hair was still tinged green from the traveling swamp when Ginko had seen her last, but that was long gone now. She looked as if she’d always been sitting there like that, watching the still-falling snow evaporate into the surf.

Adashino had told Ginko she was more assertive now, but though she smiled when she saw him, he saw her shoulders sink a little, as if she’d remembered who she once was.

As Ginko took a different route back from the shore, he decided that there were parts Adashino hadn’t exaggerated: he got more than a few suspicious glares. The staring, he understood – as far back as he could remember, he always stood out – but maybe Adashino hadn’t been joking that some of them thought he was a con artist.

That made a certain amount of sense, too. Here he was, this person who came every now and then to sell the artifacts of invisible life forms to their beloved doctor. Any community would want to protect one of their own from that.

He trudged down a quiet stretch of road, listening to the heavy snow crunch under his feet and turning his attention to the heavy clouds encircling the mountains. One of them was almost completely obscured by the thick snow.

The view was better here than at Adashino’s house, and the sight ahead of him reminded him of something. But when he heard the loud thunk of wood against wood, he jumped, and the thought left him.

A little girl, eight or nine, stood just beyond the door she’d thrown open, and she looked around wildly. She spared a few seconds to glance at Ginko, then stood on her tiptoes, as if hoping to find someone behind him. But when no one else was there, her shoulders sank.

“Atsu?” a woman’s voice called from inside the house, and she appeared at the door behind the girl. Like the girl, the woman’s face fell when she saw Ginko, but she recovered fast. “Oh! You’re the doctor’s mushishi, aren’t you?”

“Ginko,” he said, because anything was better than ‘Adashino’s mushishi.’

“Yes, of course, I know I’ve heard that somewhere,” the woman said brightly. She nudged at the girl with her elbow. “Hana, don’t stand in the doorway like that. Let Ginko-san come in.”

“Ah?” was all Ginko could say. Had she said ‘come in?’

“You can’t stand outside like that in this weather,” the woman said. She was smiling, but there was something off in her voice. “You’ll be buried before you know it.”

Ginko looked down. In the few minutes he’d been standing still, little piles of snow had started to accumulate on his feet. And now that he thought about it, he supposed he was getting cold. Years of inhospitable conditions helped him ignore it well, but when he flexed his fingers, they stung.

“Well, for a little while,” Ginko said. Just long enough to warm up, anyway.

“That’s more like it.” She smiled even wider and pulled Hana aside as Ginko stepped through the doorway. “My name is Rina, and this is my daughter. Hana, introduce yourself.”

“Why?” Hana huffed. “You just told him my name already.” When Rina’s eyes narrowed, she sighed and said, in a practiced tone, “My name is Hana. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Ginko turned as he slipped his shoes off so she couldn’t see him holding back a laugh. When he was younger, too young to travel by himself, the older mushishi would always try to do that to him. Stand up straight, Ginko. Look at people when you talk to them. If you can’t communicate with them, how are they supposed to trust you?

Of course, Ginko had the advantage over Hana: they weren’t his parents. He hadn’t always listened.

When he turned around again, he had to keep his jaw from dropping as he got his first look at the room. The tiny house had at least a dozen people crowded around a table, and they were all staring back at him.

“You’re not Atsuyuki,” an old woman said, a note of accusation in her voice.

“Mother, this is Ginko-san,” Rina said. “You know, the doctor’s mushishi?”

There was that phrase again. How exactly had he become Adashino’s mushishi? Or anyone else’s, for that matter?

“Ah!” One of the girls at the table, younger than Hana, turned to a boy a little older than her. “Didn’t Dr. Adashino make him up?”

“Idiot.” The boy swatted at her. “Tetsuya was just saying that he’d seen him before, right?”

The girl whined and rubbed her arm. “But Tetsuya’s always lying…”

“Are you hungry?” Rina called over the discussion. “Have you eaten breakfast yet?”

The truth was, he hadn’t. And he was starting to feel that now, too. But he was already feeling warmer. It was time to find an opening to leave.

But before he could come up with a good lie, Rina started filling a bowl with rice. “Please, have a little. I’m always making too much nowadays.”

“Mother,” Hana said, her teeth gritted.

“It’ll get cold if we let it sit here much longer,” Rina said. She didn’t look over at her daughter: she concentrated on the rice.

Too much? Ginko looked around the table. He would have a hard time making enough food for two people, let alone too much for twelve.

But Rina was giving him that look again –almost a little desperate. So once again, Ginko gave up. “I’d appreciate that. Thank you.”

But as he moved to sink into an empty spot at the table, Hana snapped, “Not there.”

She didn’t say it loudly, but it was enough to send the other conversations grinding to a halt. A few unreadable looks were exchanged between family members before Rina said, “Hana, don’t be rude to our guest.”

“He can sit in my spot.” Hana indicated an empty space that was barely big enough for a young girl, let alone Ginko. “But not there.”

“No, it’s fine.” Ginko rose to his feet again, and somehow, he managed to squeeze into Hana’s little space. It must have been an amusing sight: someone like him, who made a living out of telling other people what to do, being pushed around by this family. He was glad Adashino wasn’t there to see it.

He stayed just long enough to finish his portion, then stood, muttering some excuse that barely made sense to him.

“You’re sure you won’t stay a little longer?” Rina asked, but Ginko didn’t turn around. He wasn’t about to be on the receiving end of that look again.

Look at people when you talk to them, he heard from the back of his head.

“Thank you for the meal,” he said to the door, before slipping back out into the cold.

***

Adashino’s house, as Ginko learned, was never empty.

Patients, he expected. But there was always someone dropping by, often to thank Adashino for his good work. And, as promised, a large group of fishermen came later in the day, each with bottles of sake tucked under their arms. Ginko just hadn’t expected them to show up while there was still light in the sky.

“You’re very popular,” Ginko sighed as he shut the door behind the last drunken straggler.

“You sound surprised.” Adashino grinned. He hadn’t had that much to drink, but he still looked red. “I’m very likable.”

“Is that so,” Ginko said, leaning against the wall.

“Very much so.” Adashino looked proud of himself. “I even get along with you.”

Ginko opened his mouth to respond, then closed it. He had walked right into that one.

“So Io says she saw you out in the village earlier,” Adashino said, leaning forward a little.

“Yeah.” Ginko frowned as he remembered that family. “It was a little strange.”

“How so?”

“Well…” He trailed off, trying to decide on the right way to say it, but in the end, he was straightforward. “This family invited me in for breakfast.”

“Yes, that’s generally what’s done in polite circles,” Adashino said.

“I know that,” Ginko said, though Adashino looked dubious. “But I don’t think that was it.”

“Maybe they were lonely?” Adashino offered with a shrug.

“I doubt it,” Ginko said. “It was a family of twelve.”

“Ah, Rina.” Adashino was frowning now, too. “Don’t mind her. Her husband, Atsuyuki, works across the mountains. I’m sure she just wanted something to distract her.” Ginko tried not to grimace as he glanced outside, but Adashino added, “He’s a smart man, he wouldn’t try to travel in this.” The unlike some people I know was implicit. “I imagine he’s snowed in, just like you.”

“I suppose,” Ginko said. It wasn’t exactly like him. They were both trying to leave, true – but Atsuyuki was going somewhere.

“Speaking of which,” Adashino said with a grin, “how many of them are there?”

“Them?” Ginko said, then seconds later, “Ah. Mushi.” That was careless of him, he hadn’t been checking. He surveyed the room, but aside from a small cluster in the corner that quickly dissipated under a well-aimed puff of smoke, there weren’t any more than yesterday. “Not many. The storm must be making them sluggish, too.”

“Really?” Adashino’s shoulders sank. “My head was hurting earlier. I thought it might be them.”

Ginko’s eyebrows shot up. “Eh?”

“I heard it from a collector down south,” Adashino said. “He says he always gets headaches when mushi start to gather.”

“It’s more likely that his eyes are going bad,” Ginko said, with a slow grin. “Yours too, for that matter.”

He tuned out Adashino’s angry retort as he turned back to the window, though half of it was covered with accumulated snow. It’s still falling, he observed, swallowing a sigh. More heavily than before, if that’s even possible. Ginko had never had a problem seeing in the dark, but he could barely make out the mountains in the distance. They looked almost blurry.

The intensity of the storm had picked up, too: the wind swirled the thick flakes around, and the trees bent halfway over with it.

“—are you listening, Ginko?” Adashino was saying. “Ginko?”

And that was when he realized: he could hear Adashino perfectly.

Ginko crossed the room and, despite Adashino’s protests, dragged the door open. A piercing gust of cold air whipped through the room, but even then, Ginko didn’t hear anything. The wind wasn’t making any sound.

“Hey!” Adashino shuddered. “Shut the door!”

“Do you hear that?” Ginko asked.

“Hear what?” Adashino snapped. “I don’t hear a damn…” His eyes widened. “Oh.” As Ginko shut the door again, he said, “What d’you think causes that? Some kind of mushi?”

Ginko had always considered himself good at playing stoic: if he didn’t want someone to know what he was thinking, they wouldn’t know. But he rarely, if ever, outright lied.

But he gave it a try, just once. “I don’t know yet.”

“But you’ll tell me when you do,” Adashino said.

“You’ll be the first to know,” he said, and that part was true enough. But, as he reminded himself silently, it didn’t mean he had to tell him right away.

***

Adashino wasn’t going to be happy. But if anything, that was incentive.

Ginko eased the door shut and walked outside, pushing his way through the snowdrifts towards the mountains. He exhaled heavily – it was silent, and he was glad for it. Maybe he was going to be buried alive, but at least he would have some quiet first.

The ground was covered with a thick blanket of snow, and it was impossible to even shift his weight without it crunching underfoot. Ginko would have ignored the second set of footsteps, but he heard them stop, then turn, moving in his direction.

He stopped and, without turning around, said, “I can hear you, you know.”

But it wasn’t Adashino, as he’d expected. Hana, the little girl from the huge family, stepped out from behind a cottage and shot him a narrow-eyed stare.

“Where are you going?” she said.

“That’s my line,” Ginko said.

I’m going into the mountains,” Hana said. She was bundled all the way up to the chin. “I’m going to find my father.”

“Is that so,” he said, with a flat stare right back. “Adashino says your father’s not the type to travel in this.”

“Then Dr. Adashino doesn’t know my father.” She shook her head hard to dislodge the snowflakes that had landed there. “He wanted to get back to us as quick as possible. He said he would.”

“Is that so,” Ginko said again with a slow nod. “So you decided to come out here by yourself?”

“I wasn’t gonna let anyone stop me,” she said, and she straightened. “And besides, you came out here by yourself.”

“Well, yes,” he said, but he didn’t elaborate. He couldn’t bring himself to admit that he’d had the same thought as a little girl.

“So?” Hana tried to put her hands on her hips, but her thick coat hindered her. “I answered your question. What are you doing?”

But Ginko didn’t answer her right away. He muttered, almost too low to hear, “I see… I suppose your father could be the one.”

“The one?” She seemed to forget her annoyance for a moment. “One what?”

Ginko turned to the mountains. “The one causing this storm.”

He turned back to the wide-eyed Hana, and grinned. “Well, if I can’t convince you to turn back for anything, you should come with me. This part is easier with a companion, anyway.”

He started walking again, and sure enough, Hana’s footsteps scurried after him. “Hey, what do you mean by that?” she called.

“Let’s see… it’s a bit complicated, but…” Ginko paused. “You know what I do, right?”

“Yes.” Hana nodded. “You’re Dr. Adashino’s mushishi.”

There it is again. He set his teeth. “What has Adashino been telling you, anyway?”

“About you?” she asked. “He says that sometimes, you’re really smart – the smartest person he knows. And the rest of the time, you’re an idiot.”

He blinked. “Did he say which times were which?”

“Nope.”

“Ah.” Well. He supposed he should be grateful that Adashino thought he was smart some of the time.

“But that’s not an answer,” Hana said. She had to run to keep up with Ginko’s long stride. “Why did you say my father was causing the storm?”

Ginko paused. “Mushi… most of them, anyway, they aren’t really social by nature. Some of them don’t even acknowledge each other’s existence at all. But some do live in colonies – and the ones that do never leave them, ever. If they were to get separated, they wouldn’t be able to function properly.”

Hana made a small humming noise to show that she was listening, and Ginko went on. “Sometimes, the ones that get separated will attach itself to the first living thing it finds. And when it does, it isolates that thing completely. They call those mushi the Lonely Travelers.”

“You mean…?”

“I’ve heard of rain so heavy you can’t breathe,” Ginko said, “and forests so thick even someone as small as you wouldn’t be able to squeeze through the gaps. But this is the first snowstorm I’ve heard of.”

“… so just because it can’t get home, it’s punishing my father?” Hana said, her voice rising.

“It’s not malicious.” They reached the edge of the village, and Ginko stopped at the mouth of the mountain path to let Hana catch up. “It’s just the only way it knows how to express its loneliness.”

She looked unconvinced, but she didn’t press the subject. “So how do you know it’s one of these Lonely Travelers?”

“A Lonely Traveler’s storm doesn’t make any sound.” He gestured all around them. “Though people tend not to notice, since all the visual cues are there.”

“Huh…” Hana’s eyes widened. “I didn’t notice, either.”

He almost hadn’t, either. It was sloppy of him. One day off and he was already going soft.

As they moved along the mountain path, Ginko noticed a shift in the wind: it was coming from behind his back now, swirling the thick snow along the path and deeper into the mountains. He nodded once, to himself. It meant he was going the right way.

“Um… Ginko-san?” Hana held her hand out. “Doesn’t it seem like it’s snowing less now? I thought it was worse on the mountains.”

“That’s why I said it’d be easier with a companion.” Ginko attempted a smile. He was pretty sure he managed it, but his face was starting to feel numb. “The only thing that weakens a Lonely Traveler’s storm is the sound of conversation. You’re actually helping quite a bit.”

“Ohh.” Hana nodded. Though the snow wasn’t quite as heavy now, there was still enough on the ground that her legs were only just long enough to trudge through it. “Wait. You came up here alone knowing that?”

“Well,” Ginko said with a shrug, “I was going to try talking to myself, see how it worked out.”

“… Dr. Adashino’s right,” she said at length. “You are an idiot.”

“Hey.” He shot her a flat stare. “You came here alone, too.”

“Yes,” she said, matter-of-fact, “but I’m not a mushishi.”

He opened his mouth to respond, then closed it. She had a point. But lucky for him, she didn’t realize that she did.

“Bleh.” Hana twisted her mouth. “I can’t feel my lips.”

“I can imagine,” Ginko said. “That scarf is barely big enough to cover your neck.”

“That’s not my fault,” she huffed. “I can’t have the long scarf until my sister grows out of it.”

“Ahhh, right,” Ginko said, half to himself, “big families are like that.” He’d had no shortage of cast-offs when he was younger, most of them too big. It was one of the only things he’d accept from the other mushishi.

With a sigh, he unwound the scarf from around his own neck and held it out for Hana. “Would this be long enough for you?”

She wrapped her fingers around it hesitantly. “Are you sure?”

“Go ahead,” he said. His neck was freezing already.

As Hana wrapped the scarf round and round, a stronger gust of wind tore through the trees, and it almost pushed her over. The snow began to fall harder again, almost obscuring the path in front of them. If Hana hadn’t come when she did, it would have been even worse.

Maybe I am an idiot, Ginko silently conceded.

Hana seemed to notice the increased intensity of the storm, because she spoke louder: “I always sort of wanted to become a mushishi, if they were real.”

“If?” The storm tapered off a little as he turned to face her. “There’s one standing right in front of you.”

“I mean, that’s what I’d think when I was younger. I obviously know now.” She adjusted the scarf so that it covered most of her face, but her voice was still clear. “You think I could be one?”

Ginko had a sudden vision of Adashino, demanding to know why he’d ruined Hana’s future, while her parents sobbed in the background. The resulting shiver had nothing to do with the cold. If there was one thing he was always grateful for, it was that no one had ever tried to emulate him.

“That’s not exactly a career decision you make lightly,” he said.

“Why not?” The snow was deeper now, and Hana almost had to climb over each drift to take a step. “My father does it all the time. When he gets tired of what he’s doing, he does something else.”

Ah, Ginko thought, one of those types. Just the type of person to be wandering through the mountains all alone in the winter. “Sounds nice,” he lied. “But I don’t think your parents would be happy to hear that you were becoming a mushishi.”

“Well, how did you convince yours?” She sounded out of breath.

“Lucky for me, I never had that problem.” With a sigh, he dropped into a crouch. “All right. Get on.”

Her forehead crinkled with undeniable suspicion. Going into the woods with an odd-looking stranger during a storm was fine, but apparently she drew the line at getting on his back. “I can walk just fine.”

“I suppose you could try,” he said.

Hana has sharp fingernails, Ginko noted as she sunk them into his shoulders. But at least she’d climbed on. It was one less thing to worry about.

Between the wind slicing at his face and Hana’s weight on his back, it was harder for Ginko to hold up his end of the conversation. But Hana understood what she was supposed to do, and she kept talking with barely a pause. She told him about every one of her twelve family members: their ages, their birthdays, their favorite food. She didn’t leave anything out, no matter how insignificant. It kept the storm bearable.

But for a few seconds, she faltered. “What did you mean, you ‘never had that problem?’”

There was something about the way she said it, almost fearful to know the answer. People like Hana or Adashino, whose houses were never empty – he sometimes wondered if they could even imagine what it would be like, being alone.

When he didn’t answer, he heard her inhale sharply. “They’re dead?”

“Who knows,” Ginko said at length. “There was no one there to convince.”

“You don’t remember them?” She sounded muffled, as if her face was mostly buried in the scarf. “Not even from when you were younger?”

Ginko would have shrugged if she hadn’t been weighing down his shoulders. “All my earliest memories are of walking.”

“Like this?” Hana asked.

A little like this, he thought. Some nights, after all, between the sinking moon and the rising sun, he’d wonder if he was back there.

“Not exactly like this,” Ginko said.

“That’s stupid.” Hana shifted to protect herself from the wind. “What if a Lonely Traveler got you?”

He sighed. “You could give me a little more credit than that, you know.”

The little noise Hana made suggested that she wouldn’t dream of it. “Maybe I could travel with you.” When Ginko only laughed, she said in a high voice, “You said I’d make a good mushishi.”

Ginko would have pointed out that he never said anything of the sort, but he found he didn’t have the energy to argue: the snow was almost up to his knees, and Hana’s extra weight wasn’t helping. He doubted it would have made a difference. Children were pretty good at hearing what they wanted to hear.

He decided to give it a try: “Being alone isn’t as bad as you think.”

Their surroundings were almost completely obscured, but as he trudged forward, he could see something else coming up ahead, something solid and tall and white. It felt as if there were two different winds tugging at him now: one from behind them, pushing him onward, and an even stronger one from up ahead, shoving him back.

Straight in front of him was the strongest part of the storm, a pure column of snow and wind. Hana’s father was beyond it.

But though the wind almost drowned her out, Hana kept talking. “And you don’t like it as much as you think.”

As he stepped through the column, he almost didn’t hear what she said.

“I mean, you’re here, aren’t you?”

Everything stopped. The wind wasn’t blowing. The snow wasn’t driving down from the sky. The night was completely still.

Ginko could see the storm raging on all around them, but it was as if the spot they were standing in was walled away in glass. The snow here looked brighter, whiter than white, and it caught the rays of moonlight that had somehow broken through the clouds overhead. The tree branches no longer twisted in the darkness like gnarled hands; they stretched out all around them, protecting them from the storm and everything beyond it. The scene was like a painting only the loneliest artists could create.

And in the center of it all, a man knelt on the ground next to a small fire, staring up at them wide-eyed.

“… Hana?” he said.

That one word shivered through the silent air, and reverberated around them. As Hana jumped down from Ginko’s back and ran tohim, the storm slipped to the ground like a falling curtain.

***

There were mushi – more than one kind, actually – who could steal the heat right out of a person’s body until they’d never be warm again. Ginko wouldn’t have been surprised if, in all the confusion, he’d somehow picked up one or six of them.

Still, he saw it through to the end. He stood around while Adashino inspected Atsuyuki, though he knew the man would be fine. Ginko had long held a theory that the Lonely Traveler, while isolating its victim, would also protect him from the chaos it created. He had always wanted to see the center of the storm to prove it. He didn’t feel much like celebrating, though.

Hana stuck by her father’s side most of the time, but every so often she would make sure Ginko hadn’t frozen to death in his spot in the corner. She had been shielded from the worst of the storm, so she’d recovered quickly. Ginko was sure she would take this as another sign of what a great mushishi she could be. He decided to leave town before she could tell her parents about this plan.

It was almost dawn by the time Ginko made it to Adashino’s home. Around the time each family member insisted on thanking him personally, he’d started to think it would never happen.

As he sank down against the wall, he heard Adashino sigh, “You brought this on yourself, you know.”

“I did tell you I’d be able to travel in it,” Ginko said.

“You got halfway through the mountains,” Adashino said. “I don’t think the other half would have been kind to you.”

“Probably not.” Though he was loathe to admit it, Ginko knew that if Hana hadn’t followed him, he wasn’t sure what would have happened. But he wasn’t about to tell Adashino that. He’d been called an idiot enough times that night.

“So, a Lonely Traveler, huh?” Adashino sat on the floor across from him. “Sounds troublesome.”

“You’re telling me.” Ginko’s teeth had stopped chattering, which he considered a good sign. “You don’t find many mushi that cause so much trouble to so many people.”

“When you put it like that…” Adashino paused. “It’s not really lonely at all, is it? It touches everything around it.”

“Speaking of.” Ginko drew a small jar out of his pocket and held it out to Adashino. “This is for you.”

Adashino squinted at the single, unmelting snowflake that rested inside the jar until his eyes widened with recognition. “Is this—?”

“I found it on Atsuyuki’s coat.” Ginko said as Adashino stared into the jar in wonder. “Consider it payment for letting me stay here.”

“You’re sure it’ll be okay here?” Adashino said, though the look on his face suggested that he didn’t care either way.

“It’ll never find its colony again. This is the best place it could be,” Ginko said. Adashino’s house was never empty, after all.

“… so,” Adashino said, when he could bring himself to look away from the Lonely Traveler, “I guess you’ll want to head out, then? The snow stopped.”

You don’t like it as much as you think, he heard Hana say. I mean, you’re here, aren’t you?

I wasn’t doing anything better at the time, he would have answered, had he been able. But when he thought about it now, it didn’t even sound good in his head.

“You’re joking, right?” Ginko said. “That’s a rare mushi I just gave you. Invaluable, you could say. Good for at least one more night here.” He grinned. “I wouldn’t want to leave you with a debt to repay, Adashino.”

“… good.” Adashino grinned back. “Because I told Rina we’d join them for lunch tomorrow.”

There are some things, Ginko found, that he couldn’t get away from even if he tried. But the knowledge that he didn’t always want to – that part was new.