Manami could feel the humid dusk heavy against their tongue, head full of pressure and heat. That was a party. Blank staring over a crowd, over a room, out a window, they floated too close to the ground.
"Care to dance?"
The skirt swirling around their feet kept them forthright. "Not really."
Hands joined to music they could hardly hear. Manami graced the floor with little more than impatient strolls across. And for those who may have spoken, they didn't care to wait. They were here for Toudou. And until Toudou said as much, they would stay.
"You need to meet people," she had said. "How else do you expect to get anywhere in the world?"
That question had a simple answer. Manami didn't think about it.
"I won't stand for my protege wilting about over loss." Her fingers digging through their hair. "When was the last time you washed this?"
"This morning," they said through a yawn.
"There is still soap here," she muttered.
Every day, they kept to the rigid schedule - well enough. Tasks were started, and mostly completed. People didn't seem to notice much. Even if how Manami fell asleep in the gardens was always a topic of chatter. No matter how often they came to classes and etiquette lessons covered in leaves and sun-burnt sweat. Skill backed them up and left people silent.
Except Toudou, always complaining. There was always another thing they were doing wrong. Write-ups hanging along the walls from a dozen people. Detentions they dozed through and punishments that never quite stuck. Manami got enough right - they knew that much. And in Toudou's hands, despite the way her fingers spun through their hair, was a strange wordless gentleness.
They didn't care to think about it much.
Standing in hot spotlight, glowing with preapplied glitter and gold, there was too much pressure in their head for thought. It was almost familiar. Skin so soft at the edges of their nails, a gift returned, unspeakably heavy. Everyone grew close and it reminded them of how sickly physical their body felt, tight and unreal.
People didn't take much offense at how Manami brushed them off. A sideshow to greet and compliment and admire, but - for the men who may have grimaced or frowned, most didn't push the subject. Most wouldn't try to touch a mirage.
Thinly woven sugar glass to stand pretty at the edges, Manami watched the crowds pair off, and felt the air sticking heavy behind their eyes.
They left the building.
The plaza was still filled with people. Rented out to fill a thousand or more, more party goers milled about outside through the mazes and fountains, laughing with a breeze that wasn't present. A storm stood frozen just outside and they wished the wind would snap through. But Hakone had more power than that. The sky was a cloudless dome above.
Manami rubbed the sweat from their eyes.
The cobblestones felt better than heels. Thin straps hanging from their fingers, Manami wobbled further away, doing their best to hop from stone to stone. Most weren't large enough. It wasn't like walking down a stream. But they went on, feeling the curve beneath their toes, to slip on their heel in a circle. A gentle gust rose around them alone - not enough to disturb the careful atmosphere. Not enough to draw in the coming storm. Restraint was no talent of theirs, but the lessons still stung like hooks and netting.
"A good heir knows how to hold themself."
Prattling on, preening and pricking, needles and hay they'd rather have lost themself in. Getting here took little more than being noticed. All they had to do was blow through, and they were the only thing in anyone's eyes. Unfortunately, staying was a different matter.
The needle remained upright. Manami did too, through each new piece added, a slow wheel around them. It could hardly be called wind. Maybe it wasn't, some people said, watching them so well. But they preferred calling it that. Dressing it up one way or another, all that mattered was how Manami used what they had, and that meant keeping needles held still on the air instead of blowing them away with a sigh.
Despite the test, they saw Toudou pause, staring at them instead of their show.
"What do you think that means?" she asked.
Manami didn't blink. "Hakone wouldn't be happy with me if I did whatever I felt like doing."
She didn't laugh, or smile, or throw her hair back. Nothing. Toudou was something of a storm herself, but here she stood like the eye.
"Hakone needs people who want to do what they are committing themselves to," she said.
"Then what do you feel like doing with these needles?"
Back then - they'd done nothing but smile.
Melting under the heat of a party and people they could have nothing to do with, here, it was impossible. The estate's edge mocked them, for how much they had already paid for stepping outside once again. Coming and going were not simple things - meeting outsiders, carrying them along, finding friends in supposed enemies, finding the opposite in themself.
Manami had lost and now the sky could crush them.
"You mustn't let the enemy take what is ours."
Simple tasks. Perfect for someone like them. Easy and impossible and theirs.
"Did you need some help?"
And yet -
"What's your name? I forgot to ask before."
Sunny smiles held up better against abilities like theirs than they'd known, stuck inside glass all their life. Fingertips touching was an electricity they never expected. Energy and excitement and - mistakes. Tripping over their own feet, as though they forgot what it took to walk and run.
Manami spun through another graceful slip - faster. Restraint and control. They didn't care. Empty hands, nothing but air, another step was another flourish. The skirt flared up. It cut through space, slicing through till nothing remained, and walked on that, instead. If air rushed back to fill what had been lost, it wasn't a lie to call it a breeze - it was just another way to call on a gale, and that was a victory. A private one, but one nonetheless, after what they'd lost.
Ignoring fingers dwindling and tracing the knuckles of other people's hands, people's shadows melting together by the night, untouchable, unbreathable, untenable.
Their toes nicked concrete.
Manami took the elegant option. They slipped into the fountain, just as pleased with ending up there as anywhere else. Coins slid away beneath them - fabric rose to the surface, dancing around their legs, and they leaned back. It was no cooler than above.
"Are you skipping my party?"
But the heat was always inescapable.
"Did I not tell you half enough times for you to listen?"
Toudou stood like the eye of a storm, untouched by their personal show.
"Ah," Manami said. They weren't one to stutter. But what to say, they couldn't know. Nothing but pure honesty at how much they didn't want to be there, or anywhere, but that was a disrespectful given. They settled on, "Sorry."
"It's so hot," they yawned. "I can't very well greet people like this. It's such a shame." Running on through pointless distancing thought, it was anything but them. Assumptions. Easy filler to make up for the words that left them heavy and weak.
Light shifted overhead. Manami kept their eyes closed as dew settled against their skin.
"Such a simple problem?" A haughty chuckle. "Manami, you haven't forgotten who I am, have you?"
Wind blew through - real wind, burnt by sun and pollen, sharp and fresh and eternal. Manami sunk further into the pool, sheltered by the flickering shadows of leaves above.
"You mustn't depend on me so much for these favors!" she said - a quiet hope in her voice, too evident, too wanting and excited for the excuse.
A small flicker of fresh morning in the night, till business pulled them back to the night. In the soft temporary light, was the same strange, unspoken, distant concern. Hands pushing too far for something they wouldn't reach.
That happened a lot. Sometimes, it was too much to bear - burning between options they refused. But here, Manami managed to laugh. There was no reason to explain. No reason to ask or want. No reason to be after every mistake they'd made.
But they didn't dislike it.