The phone was already ringing when Taki returned home from school that day. A moment after she dumped her book bag on the floor, her mother offered her the receiver.
“It’s for you,” she said and, with a sly look, added, “It’s a boy.”
“Thank. You,” Taki said crisply, snatching the receiver and running into her room. “Hello?” she said into the receiver.
“Um,” said the voice on theother end. “Hello.”
Taki blinked twice. “Tanuma?”
“Sorry. I didn’t know your number, so I looked it up in the phone book.”
“That’s okay.” Taki paused. What do people say in normal phone conversations with their friends? Ah, yes. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” Tanuma stammered. “I mean, I was out today because I had a headache, but I’m feeling better now.”
“That’s good.” Another pause. “Natsume was out today, too. I was worried you two had gotten into trouble.”
“Oh, no, Natsume’s here, and he’s fine. We’re fine. I mean, not really, but it’s not like we’re in danger. I think.”
“Tanuma?” Taki’s heart caught in her throat. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m fine. Natsume’s fine.” Tanuma’s voice squeaked a little. “Natsume’s five.”
Taki frowned. “What?”
“Natsume’s five. I was taking a nap, and I heard this knocking at my window, and there was Ponta with a little kid, who was Natsume,” Tanuma said in one big rush. “He said there was some godlike spirit who cursed him—“
“It’s not a curse, it’s a gift!” said a nasal voice in the background, loud enough for Taki to hear. “How many times do I have to tell you that?”
“—gifted him,” Tanuma corrected without missing a beat, “with the gift of being five years old again. So, right now I have a five-year-old Natsume sitting in my room. Coloring.”
“Do you have any idea how to break the curse?” Taki asked.
“Not really. I can’t find anything in my Dad’s stuff, and Ponta’s,” the phone rustled like Tanuma was cupping a hand over the receiver, “not being helpful.”
He continued in his normal tone of voice, quite quickly, “Also, Dad’s going to come back in less than an hour, and I kind of don’t want to have to explain why I have a little kid in my room who he’s never seen before, especially since I was supposed to be out sick all day, so...”
“Would you like to stay in my storage house tonight and look through my Grandfather’s notes, if you’d like,” Taki offered.
“Oh, yes, please, thank you,” Tanuma breathed in relief. “We’ll be over in a little bit.” Taki heard a click as Tanuma hung up the phone.
“Natsume’s a little kid,” Taki mused. “I wonder how we can fix him...and how to hide this from Ms. Touko?” She shrugged. “Well, we can say that tonight she’s sleeping over at Tanuma’s home. I wonder...” She lightly touched her hand to her lips and flushed. “I wonder if he’s really cute!”
Taki loved her Grandfather’s storage house. It was dark and full of mysterious, possibly dangerous things. It smelled of dust and books and secrets. She had cleared out a small section of the floor and placed an old blanket on it. Next to it was a large stack of her Grandfather’s books—anything that might have something to do with ancient spirits, wishes, or curses.
“Taki?” She heard Tanuma’s voice calling from down the path. She poked her head out the door and saw her tall friend walking very slowly towards her gate, and next to him was a tiny little boy holding an enormous calico cat. The cat was so large and heavy, the boy had to hold it with both arms wrapped around its belly. He could only walk with small, jerky steps, but he continued on with a determined look on his face.
“So cute!” Taki cried, and she rushed forward with her arms open wide. Natsume flinched, hiding his face in Nyanko’s fur. Taki stopped herself before she touched him.
“It’s okay, Natsume,” Tanuma said, lightly brushing his hand through Natsume’s hair. “Nobody’s going to take Kitty away.”
Taki knelt at Natsume’s level. “Hello, Natsume,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”
Natsume shook his head, his cheek still pressed against Nyanko’s fur.
“My name is Taki. I’m one of your friends, and I’m going to help you get all better. Is that okay?”
Natsume lifted his face from Nyanko’s fur. His eyes were wide. “We’re friends?”
Taki nodded. “Really good friends!”
Natsume looked up at Tanuma, who nodded in reassurance.
“It’s nice to meet you,” Natsume said formally, bowing to the point where Nyanko threatened to roll out of his arms.
“Very nice to meet you, too,” Taki said, returning the bow. She gave him a smile and straightened up. “Now, would you like to come inside? I have a brand new coloring book, all for you!”
Natsume toddled into the old storage house, letting the cat ooze onto the floor once he was inside. He picked up the coloring book and crayons and moved to a corner of the room. Tanuma and Taki settled down on the blanket.
Tanuma cast a wary eye at the large stack of books. “All of these, huh?”
“There’s more in the back,” Taki said sweetly.
Tanuma groaned and rubbed his head, then picked the top book off the stack. “Natsume said he saw a bird. A big, white bird,” Tanuma said.
“A big white bird that can make people younger?” Taki mused. She flipped a page in her book. “It’s as good a hint as any, I guess.”
They looked through the books as quickly as they could. Tanuma sneezed occasionally from the dust they stirred up. His brow was furrowed in concentration, and he frowned against the headache that was building steadily. Taki, for her part, had to bite her lip to remind herself that she was not to lose herself in her grandfather’s books, not even if so many of the stories were so very interesting. Nyanko had long since wandered off into the depths of the store room.
“Ah, Natsume!” Taki called. “Can you come here and look at this picture?”
Natsume gathered his book and crayons and moved to Taki’s side, looking at the illustration. It was of a brilliant white peacock with shining patterns on its tail, done in gold leaf.
“Is this the bird you saw?” she asked.
Natsume shook his head reluctantly. “No. Sorry.”
Taki sighed, then gave Natsume a smile. “That’s okay. We’ll find it eventually, don’t you worry.”
He nodded and settled down on his stomach, lying on the very edge of the blanket.
Taki glanced at Tanuma, who was frowning at his book, and at Natsume, who had an equally serious frown as he carefully colored his book. She stifled a giggle and ran a hand through Natsume’s hair. He startled and looked up at her, eyes wide. “Sorry,” she said. “You’re very good at coloring.”
Tanuma leaned across Taki to look at Natsume’s book. “Very nice,” he said, and leaned in closer, whispering, “I can never manage to stay in the lines.”
Natsume seemed shocked, but Taki just laughed at him.
“Natsume, is this the bird?” Tanuma asked, pointing to an image of an over-sized chicken.
“Or this one?” Taki asked, when the next page held what appeared to be a swan with two heads.
Natsume moved between then, kneeling carefully so he fit into the spot between them without even brushing against their clothes. He looked at both images and shook his head. “No.”
“How about this one?” Tanuma asked, flipping back and pointing to an image of a ruffled hen in an ill-fitting kimono.
Natsume shook his head again. “No.”
Tanuma turned the page. “This one?”
Natsume tilted his head. “…that’s a pig.”
“Oh, is it?” Tanuma asked innocently. Natsume looked confused for a moment, then ducked his head and gave a happy little huff of laughter. Taki felt her heart twist; it was the first time she had seen young Natsume smile.
Taki turned back to her book, and saw Tanuma do the same. Natsume stayed where he was, and Taki angled the book towards him when she noticed he had abandoned his crayons in favor of peering over her shoulder at the pages.
Taki felt something warm press against her leg. She looked to see that Natsume was sitting cross-legged, with one knee lightly touching her leg, and the other touching Tanuma’s. She pushed back, just enough to be friendly, and they kept reading together.
Tanuma sucked in a breath that hissed through his teeth, closing his eyes and rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“Are you okay?” Taki asked him.
Tanuma shrugged sheepishly. “It’s okay. It’s just a headache. I’ve been fighting one all afternoon.” He moved to rub the back of his neck, looking at the ceiling. “It feels like there are a lot of spirits around.”
“Do…” Natsume looked shyly at Tanuma. “Do the spirits hurt you?”
“Sometimes,” said Tanuma. “But they don’t mean to. It’s just that when I’m around them for a long time, I start to feel sick.” He gave Natsume a reassuring smile. “But it’s not that bad, and since they live here, it wouldn’t be nice to make them leave.”
“Oh,” Natsume said quietly. His eyes flicked from Tanuma to a spot just past Tanuma’s book, then back again. “Um…” Natsume said. Taki and Tanuma gave him a questioning look. Natsume shook his head. “No, nothing.”
They went back to their books, Natsume cast an occasional look over his shoulder at Tanuma. Tanuma winced again, rubbing his forehead.
“Um…” Natsume said again, biting his lip. He leaned past Tanuma and whispered quickly, “Would you like to read this book with me instead?” to the empty space.
It didn’t look like anything happened after that. Natsume went back to looking at Taki’s book as if he hadn’t said anything, deliberately not looking at Tanuma or Taki. After a few moments, Tanuma’s shoulders relaxed and he let out a sigh.
“Thank you,” Tanuma said, quietly. Natsume acted as though he hadn’t heard Tanuma, but he looked a little pleased.
For several minutes, the only sounds in the room were the rustling of pages, and a brief moment when Natsume flopped over onto his stomach, chin held up with his hands, so he could get a closer look at the book’s illustrations. It was peaceful, Taki thought, being together like this. Natsume was still being as cagey as he was at his normal age, but he was small and cute and warm against her side, and he seemed to love her grandfather’s books as much as he did.
“Oh!” Natsume said suddenly, pointing at an image of a white crane with a red crown of feathers on its head. “That’s the bird!”
“Xian He,” Taki read from the page, her voice hesitating over the foreign words. “It says that he’s one thousand years old, and that usually he’s found in China, and that he has the power to grant wishes.” She traced a footnote at the bottom of the page. “It says that might actually mean ‘the heart’s desire,’ the translation is apparently not clear.”
“Natsume, did you…” Tanuma looked very puzzled. “Did you wish to be younger?”
Natsume shook his head. “No! I mean, I don’t think so. I don’t remember.” His shoulders slumped. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay!” Taki said. “I don’t know why you’d wish to be a little kid, but if that’s your wish, we can make it work!” She smacked her fist onto her palm decisively.
“Don’t be stupid,” Nyanko said, waddling out of the shadows, fur covered in dust. “That bird can’t just go around granting people wishes. Nobody can do that.” He blew ineffectively at a dust bunny stuck to his nose.
“Why not?” Taki asked, fingers itching for a pen to write things down.
“To have a wish granted, you have to give up something of equal value—and since a wish is by its very nature something you want a great deal, that gives it way more value than anything you could possibly give up.” He blew at the dust bunny again. It clung stubbornly to his nose. “Therefore, granting someone’s wish is impossible.”
“Oh,” Taki said.
“Of course, some spirits get around it by approaching the wish…sideways,” Nyanko said, and set about grooming his whiskers.
“Sideways?” Tanuma asked, but Nyanko was too absorbed in his grooming to answer further.
“Huh,” Taki said. “Natsume, do you know what your wish would be?”
Natsume shook his head. “Sorry,” he whispered. “I thought I…but…no.”
“You thought it’d be to stop seeing the spirits?” Tanuma asked.
Natsume bit his lip and nodded.
“When I was your age, I would have made the same wish,” said Tanuma. “But I wouldn’t now, and I don’t think you would either, when you were my age. The spirits can be scary, and sometimes people can be mean about it, but giving up the spirits would be giving up an entire world. I don’t think I could do that.” He leaned in a little closer. “Plus, I don’t think Kitty would let you ignore him, anyway.”
Natsume laughed, and it was a sad, little sound.
“Don’t worry, Natsume,” Taki said, jumping up. She smacked her palm with the side of her fist again. “We’ll figure out what your wish is, no matter how long it takes!”
Natsume ducked his head. “Can I…” he got to his feet, raising his head, wide eyes shining. “Can I stay with you two until then?”
That was too much for Taki. She knelt down, scooped Natsume into a big hug, and shook him back and forth. “Of course you can! Of course you can!” she cried. Natsume was stiff in her arms, hands at his sides, like he didn’t know what to do.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, holding her still, and when she looked up, Tanuma was there, kneeling on Natsume’s other side. She looked at him over Natsume’s head, and he gave a sort of half-shrug. He placed his other hand on Natsume’s shoulder.
“It’s okay,” he said softly to Natsume. “You can stay with us as long as you like.”
Natsume melted. It was like he had changed from a stiff-jointed mannequin to a squishy octopus that was built to hug with all eight of his arms. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled in tight, pressing his cheek against her shoulder.
Taki hugged him back just as tightly. She spared a moment to reach out a hand and tug Tanuma in closer, so he could make a proper Natsume sandwich. His arms went around them both, settling warmly on her back. Taki thought that if Nyanko also joined in, her heart might just burst. Natsume sighed happily against her shoulder.
A moment later, Natsume popped back to his original size.
Tanuma jumped back in surprise, Nyanko rolled across the floor in hysterical laughter, but Taki continued to hold onto Natsume. She started laughing, too.
“Next time you need a hug,” Taki whispered between giggles, “you can just ask.”