Springtime opened that year in a slow, northwards wallow across Kinki, as if reluctant to spread too close to the capital, shying away from Kyoto itself. The trees stretched and adorned themselves at their own leisure; they dressed slowly in fragile blossoms, covering first one branch and then another, caring for no one's schedule save their own. The nobility of the cities were far less reluctant. They abandoned their appointments to rush towards the cherry blooms instead, as if to welcome lovers that lingered at gates and bridges, pleading shyness for their reluctance.
Many of the best viewing spots were reserved all too quickly, picked out for poetry readings and philosophical speeches that had been rehearsed all winter long. Only by exploring far out in the countryside was any room to breathe. The trees cared little for politics; they stretched across the wilderness wherever they saw fit, shading commoners and the wealthy alike.
The woman approaching the hill that afternoon walked with the confidence of one who had been there many times before in the past, picking her way deftly around the rocky terrain. There were denser cherry groves in close proximity nearby -- many stretched for miles, with far more grandeur. She bypassed them all, shunning both them and the viewing parties far in the distance who had already begun to engage in contests of drunkenness and poetry.
Without hesitation, she left everything behind, aiming directly for one of the smaller trees that dotted the hillside. It was no different from the others at first glance: a little more gnarled, a little less lush with its blooms. A blocky, wooden marker was nearly lost by the base of its trunk, its corners rounded with age. There had been writing once, carved deeply into the surface. Now there was only softness and moss.
Similarly, the woman herself could have blended into any village crowd: a commoner by the cut of her clothing, with simple robes that did not hamper movement, and a plain wrapping skirt that could keep dust and dirt away. Unlike the nobility of the capital, she wore a minimum of layers that kept her from dragging fabric on the grass as she hiked across the field. Her hair was combed smooth and left loose, cut straight just past her shoulders, glossy without being decorated by pins. The fabric of her clothing was equally plain -- but the cloth, on closer examination, was of good quality, unstained by manual labor, as if it had been newly-woven just that morning.
An eye for detail would have caught much more, but such eyes were often dangerous to those who possessed them.
As she reached the cherry tree, the woman paused to rest one hand carefully on its trunk, looking up into its branches as if to listen for a greeting on the wind.
Without further ceremony, she unpacked the small satchel she carried with her, untying the cloth and spreading it out on the grass. She knew the order of her possessions, and took her time in spreading them out on the small blanket, arranging each in a predetermined order on a tray. It was a list that would not look odd at any other viewing party, though the luxury did not match her commoner's appearance: dumpling sweets, a flask of green tea, expensive rice cakes and bean paste. Sweet umeboshi that had been prepared with honey, wedged together like ripe, glistening jewels. Several smaller flasks, these ones filled with sake.
But then more items came out, none of them food or drink -- and these, too, she arranged on a second tray, lining it up meticulously beside the first. A hairpin that had a spray of jewels down the side like a shower of flower blossoms, delicate and sparkling, though part of its enamel had been chipped over time. A wooden comb that had been carved with the pattern of crane wings, feathers overlapping. A folding fan of cypress wood that had been painted lavishly with a shimmering gold landscape that stretched across each wooden blade. All objects of finery that had been kept safe with care -- and which should have belonged to a noblewoman, not a farmer.
She sensed the other spirit's presence as soon as she finished unpacking.
Rather than scurry to conceal her work, the woman drew herself up with proud disdain. "It's rather impolite to spy upon a lady, you know," she announced to the air, allowing the words to drawl into a croon.
The bamboo pipe popped into view first, plunging down like a stone through water. Then a pair of long, black claws caught it at the last moment before it hit earth, hauling it back into the air as its owner clambered onto its length. Fully revealed, Kanko shook his fur out with a whuff, perching on his hind legs as he steadied the floating bamboo.
"Dressing like a human doesn't suit you, Mio," he snorted, disregarding her cover as easily as she had broken his.
She sniffed haughtily back, and shed the transformation. Her three tails unfurled, stretching like languid scarlet plumes; her ears flicked out long, mirrors to Kanko's own. Her hair -- still unbound -- hung down straight, but rippled even longer, stretching far past her waist. "At least I've perfected it. You'd be surprised how many humans are attracted to my craft."
Kanko coughed a laugh, long muzzle stretching into a grin. "Which still doesn't explain why you’re all the way out here by yourself, with so many other options waiting close by. I've noticed you sneaking off here ever since the cherry blossoms started to bloom. If you're trying to trick a mortal, you're missing the prime ingredient for the meal."
She clicked a long claw against its siblings, studying her slender fingers insolently. "And so you've come to prey upon a helpless young woman?"
"You are hardly defenseless, sanbi," he said reproachfully, but with a respectful nod of his head.
They faced off against each other, small narrowings of their eyes, fractional tilts of their heads -- a flick of his tail held low, a lack of hers in motion -- and then finally relaxed, her posture disarmed first, having shown dominance. She gathered the length of her kimono and sighed, sitting down neatly on the coarse blanket. Not inviting Kanko's participation, she reached directly for the sake, bypassing the tea, and poured herself a cup.
He didn't offer to pour, responding in turn to her own impoliteness -- but he also didn't prowl over to sit beside her, or even approach close to her blanket, respecting the territory she had so obviously marked out. Instead, he jerked his snout towards the trays. "Who are you memorializing all the way out here?"
She couldn't begrudge him his directness. It was in the nature of both of them, to spy a weakness and sink their teeth into it for curiosity, if nothing else. "Shouldn't you be attending your own tasks instead, little pipe-fox?" she teased, but with a quick pull of her lips as she did, revealing the whites of her canines in the corners.
He noticed it, and flattened his ears in apology: fox deference, fox chagrin. Fox language for both of them, their best and favorite tongue. "I've been allowed to attend my own business for now. Master Seimei is still working with helping Hannya become more familiar with his courtyard, and not infuriate the Zashiki-Warashi in the process. He'll never get them to cooperate properly," Kanko continued in a grumbled huff. "Mountains would wear into pebbles before Hannya would loosen a grudge."
"He could force them to behave, with a proper binding," Mio mused. She flicked her tails, a swat against a non-existent fly. "But he won't."
"Master Seimei is a good onmyōji," Kanko conceded. "He doesn't use spells to make us act against our will. And he doesn't try to break our bonds with other masters. Most onmyōji aren't half as considerate."
"Most onmyōji think of us as monsters or tools, not equals worthy of respect." She couldn't help it; bitterness flavored her voice, poisoning it with rancor. "Master Seimei is an exception. I hope we remember him too, when he's dead."
She realized only too late that she had brought back the conversation the wrong way, circling into the very topic she'd been hoping to avoid. Kanko didn't miss it, either. He grinned wide, betraying his eagerness to bite. "Speaking of remembrances, I can't be the only one who's noticed your appearance all the way out here. If you keep visiting here in the spring, the villagers will call this tree haunted eventually, and shun it."
She lifted her chin defiantly. "Let them, if it grants me some privacy."
"Their aversion may open the way to a curse." Shrugging off the repercussions -- for good or ill -- Kanko canted his nose towards the cherry tree once more. "So," he tried again, tempting fate, "who's buried here, then?"
She narrowed her eyes before she could stop herself, and brought up her fingers to fluff them through her hair, as if to shake away both dust from the road and Kanko's attempts at conversation. "A mortal," she answered carelessly -- and carefully at the same time. "A mortal who fell prey to finite seasons, as all of them do."
"A mortal whose grave you tend," Kanko pointed out.
It was instinct to bristle again, but she was already weary of dancing around the same truth that his astute observations would have already picked up. "A mortal who did not like foxes," she answered bluntly, and Kanko grunted, understanding the cut of it.
But now that she had breached it, the full truth of it refused to lie flat, like a set of whiskers too agitated to feign calm. "This is why spirits should keep to their own affairs," she said, half a snarl, without even being asked. Another sip of sake to wet her throat, and she struggled not to toss the whole cup down like a thug. "Momo has it right. A spirit who loves a mortal is imprisoned unjustly forever in waiting."
She knew the counterpoint Kanko was going to make even as he opened his jaws to deliver it. "Momo gave her blessing to Sakura's union, though, didn’t she?"
Mio bared her teeth anyway, knowing the points of them were showing. "Because Momo would hardly want Sakura to spend her years in misery, either. But Sakura will never return that devotion, not now. She cannot dare to love anyone else for all the rest of her long existence, lest it be considered a betrayal to her human lover. And as for him? That boy may not even remember her with his next reincarnation, or the one after that. And even if he does, who is to say he will give her any more weight than a lost dream, a childhood memory there and gone before he's old enough to recognize her significance? What's to be done if he should fall in love with another human before he meets Sakura next? Spurn one or the other, that's his choice." A fierce shake of her head, and Mio fought to control her scowl before it could devour the rest of her face and forget to give it back. "And if Sakura cries foul, she's the one who'll be blamed -- called a rotten, trickster spirit, cruel and lacking all heart."
She'd exposed her secret by how much she had argued against Sakura's, and she knew it -- but it was good to speak such things aloud, years of resentment and longing laid out like the very picnic sweets before her. "Anyway," she added limply, hoping to reclaim her poise, "this mortal did not like foxes, and she died the same way. I was absent when it happened. I had been away from a long time, without meaning to. Mortals are so frail."
Rather than leap to mutual complaints as she’d hoped, Kanko settled down, his muzzle parting in a smug grin. "So, Sakura is not the only spirit enslaved and waiting for a mortal's rebirth," he observed, smoothing down his tail with his claws. "Come, sanbi -- you shouldn't act like this is the end of the world. Her soul will return in less than a hundred years by now. A short time to wait."
"A reincarnated version of her isn't the woman I remember. Isn't it the same for you?" She couldn't resist the jab, resenting how easily he had penetrated both her disguises by now. "When your mistress dies, won't you look for her, too, in a hundred years -- and see only a ghost on her bones if you do succeed? Won't you be haunted, hoping forever that she remembers you somehow, loves you somehow? The Underworld strips all memory from its ghosts. We will be strangers forever to them, and they will never be the people we desire."
To his credit, Kanko attempted to look away, clearing his throat in a whuff.
The breeze stirred; around them, the trees lifted their voices in a chorus of branches rustling, welcoming the spring. The air was rich with fresh growth; both leaves and blades of grass unfurled eagerly, grateful for the end of winter. Between the two of them, there was no risk of being disturbed by anything other than a human, Both Kanko and herself were more than enough to deter any beast with a good enough nose to detect animal musk.
Still, it was strange to have someone else with her during her memorial. Mio flicked one of her ears, privately torn between annoyance and comfort, and decided that both emotions were beneath her.
Kanko let his pipe settle completely to the ground, careful not to lean it against the cherry tree. As it lowered into the grass, he dismounted deftly and then planted himself squarely on it again, knees splayed, tail flicking thoughtfully. "These are all true things," he conceded gruffly. "But she wouldn't want me to grieve for her forever, either. If I had stayed a normal fox, I would be the one dead by now, and she would have mourned me instead. Now her life has been shortened as a gift to mine. But at least we both have more years together, and that's what matters. I'll speak of her kindness for the rest of my own lifetime, and she'll live through that forever if I can help it."
Mio shook her head, pouring another cup of sake for herself. The bottle was dangerously light, down to the smallest drops. Thankfully, she had brought more. "Humans call us cruel, but they give us no choice, do they? Either we allow ourselves to forget them when they may be reborn with our name already in their hearts, or they force us to chase them for all time -- gambling with each life, never knowing if they will love us again. Falling in love with a human even once dooms any one of us spirits to an eternity of betrayals."
Her flashpoint temper had faded by now; her tails curled resignedly around her ankles, only the tips still agitated. She glanced back at the trays, unable to stop herself from reviewing each item on there, every one of her treasures that she had preserved through the years -- whether wrapped in cloth and stored away, or protected in the list of her thoughts.
Kanko did not miss her shift in attention. "You still love her anyway."
"Yes," Mio admitted quietly, eyes downcast, because they were both foxes alone together, and because she knew Kanko was aware she could rip his throat out with her teeth. "I do. Whether she died hating me, or missing me, or not even remembering me -- I will never know. But I do."
Kanko made a thoughtful growl in his throat, sinking lower onto his haunches as he digested her words. His ears flicked back and forth, wrestling with what she guessed was his own dilemma. She did not know how old his onmyōji was; anyone experienced to cast the kudagitsune spell could not have been a child. He would have to prepare for her death soon enough, she guessed.
Finally, he set his ears resolutely forward, and asked, "Would you really want to find her again, Mio?"
It was a cruel question -- thoughtlessly so, if it had come from a human. Older spirits all knew the weight of the answer. Time had been burned away from their bones.
But from one spirit to another, it was worth sharing the truth.
"I look for her in the face of every woman I pass," Mio admitted softly, as soft as the fur of her underbelly, and twice as vulnerable. "I remember her in each of their sighs. Each smile of theirs that I'm lucky enough to see, I hope it might be the one that's finally mine. When your time comes, Kanko," she continued, knowing the doom in each of her words, "tell me if you learn how keep from doing the same."
With that, she lifted the drinking cup in a salute towards the sky. The grove was sparser in their corner, but the cherry blossoms were no less bright because of it: a joyful renewal of life each year, fading away all too quickly in the end. One petal drifted onto her sleeve, quivering with the breeze, and she plucked it off delicately with her claws, careful not to crush it.
"Isn't it strange?" she asked, regarding it. "The sun is shining today, but it isn't raining. So it's the wrong weather to get married for foxes like you and me."
As if hearing her, the breeze picked up in a sudden rush; it shook the branches like rows of tongueless bells, and scattered a fresh wave of petals through the air. A shower of pink rustled down, swirling in a fierce storm as the wind began to whisk the cherry petals away. Blossoms drenched both trays lavishly; they speckled Mio's hair like pale ash, flecked Kanko's pelt with spots. One drifted dangerously towards Mio's sake cup. It slid away at the last moment, a velvet brush against her wrist.
She looked up at the branches above her, and smiled.
"Even so, at moments like these," she said, pressing the single petal in her fingers against her lips, "I think to myself, this is the only wedding I'll ever need."