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where the evergreen grows

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Disappointment radiates through the halls of the Akane household the longer Aoi maintains her silence- bitter and stubborn and selfish as they come. To escape it, she accompanies Sakura and Mei on a shopping trip into the city- more willing to play third-wheel than she is to deal with Sumire’s concerned frowns and weighted pauses.

 

“You’ll have to let me sketch you some day, Aoi,” Mei comments as they board the train, bundled up to her nose in an elegant scarf which could only belong to Sakura. “You’re super photogenic, so it’d turn out great.”

 

She holds her hands up and fashions a makeshift window, framing Aoi’s face and its strawberry-red blush. Sakura bats her hands away with a barely-there laugh- always more expressive when Mei is around. (Aoi isn’t sure which of them she envies most; Sakura who is strange yet loved, or Mei who can coax a smile out of anything.)

 

“I’m just telling the truth!” Mei protests. “I bet you got a load of confessions at school, Aoi.”

 

And true- Aoi is no stranger to crumpled letters slipped into the side of her shoe locker, boys leaning in through the door of her homeroom class, spontaneous ‘ I love you, Ao-chan’ s which get less entertaining as the day fades on. The false maybe’ s she handed out like party favours. Keep them on their toes, keep them flying on their false hopes- that’s the only way to stay ahead.

 

She glances out of the train window. “Not from the sort of people I wanted to confess to me.”

 

( The sort of people being her classmate’s sister two years above, her lab partner in middle school chemistry class, the girl who lent her a handkerchief after spilling orange squash on her dress. Pretty girls with pretty smiles.)

 

Mei laughs again, as if she understands fully. Fingers linked with Sakura’s between the train seats.

 

Shijima Mei has a sweet tooth to rival the might of the forest, so the first order of the day is pancakes. She leads them to a cafe she likes to eat at after hospital checkups- swearing her life upon the fluffiness of their sweets and treats- then tucks into a stack of pancakes that’s large enough to make Aoi feel full just from looking at it.

 

Sakura opts for cheesecake, Aoi goes for strawberry tart- a favourite which she hasn’t eaten in a very long while. It feels worlds apart from the usual time she spends with classmates, putting on false pretences and gossiping about topics which have never taken her interest. Here- Sakura tells a ghost story about a haunted warehouse they passed on their journey, weaving tales of ghouls and demons in a voice that’s soothing as it is terrifying. Mei doodles sharp, unsettling shapes onto her napkin, illustrating Sakura’s words. Aoi curses when she drops the last bite of her tart onto the floor, and instead of staring in surprise, Sakura just offers her a bite of their cheesecake.

 

“My highschool was haunted too,” Aoi tests the waters, scanning Sakura and Mei’s expressions for anything like disinterest. “There was a ghost in the girls bathroom who would grant wishes if you knocked three times.”

 

“Like Hanako-san?” With a small, gentle smile, Sakura recognises the tale immediately. ( Why try so hard to be someone that you’re not?- their voice echoes over the coffee machines.)

 

Sakura leads them around street after street of clothing shops afterwards, holding up blouses with flowers embroidered on the collars to Aoi, tossing cosy woollen hats at Mei, slipping golden rings onto their own elegant fingers. Clothes shopping then turns into tea shopping; when Sakura makes a comment about wanting to try a new cultivar of oolong and slips through the doors of a quiet tea shop without another word.

 

“You’d think the clothes would take up most of their budget,” Mei jokes, arm linked with Aoi’s. “But it’s actually the tea.”

 

Aoi goes to laugh, then makes eye contact with someone across the road.

 

There’s a girl from the opposite class waiting near the bus stop- Yamamoto, Aoi remembers her family name from the class register. Her back goes ramrod straight when she recognises Aoi, stood by the door of the tea shop. By habit, Aoi detaches herself from Mei’s side, schools her expression into a thoughtless smile, smoothing out all frowns and worry lines. (Akane Aoi does not worry. Akane Aoi is untouchable.)

 

“Akane-chan!” Yamamoto jogs towards her, shopping bags gripped in both hands. Aoi can’t remember if her grins have always looked so facetious. “It’s been a while. I haven’t seen you since summer vacation started.”

 

“Ah, well, you know how it is,” Aoi waves her hand dismissively. Smiling so wide it makes her teeth ache. “I hope everything has been okay at school while I’ve been gone- how is the garden doing?”

 

Beside her, Aoi can feel Mei frowning. 

 

“Everything’s been fine- Aoi-kun has been moping, but there’s no change there. He’s so devoted to you, it’s really so sweet,” Yamamoto sighs, dreamy in all the wrong places. “I wish I had someone who cared about me so much.”

 

You can have him- Aoi wants to say. I don’t want the Aoi Akane who follows me home and doesn’t even know my favourite colour. I don’t want him. 

 

“He’s a little embarrassing, really,” each word is a lie hissed between Aoi’s teeth. “Besides, I could never date him- imagine being called Aoi Aoi! I can’t think of anything worse.” 

 

At that, Yamamoto’s expression becomes stony- the autumn chill stealing in and settling behind her eyes and her voice. It takes all of Aoi’s willpower to avoid flinching back, running into the doors of the teashop, hiding behind Mei like a child caught stealing. “Of course, it must be so difficult and embarrassing,” their words bite in a way that says this was a long time coming. “being so popular and all.” 

 

The pedestal below Aoi’s feet crumbles at the edges, too high for her to see the ground below when Yamamoto walks back towards the bus stop- then further and further until she’s out of sight. Aoi has never been afraid of heights, but the distance makes her head spin.

 

“Highschool kids are ruthless,” Mei whistles, as if she’s not a highschool kid herself. As if every bit of Yamamoto’s anger wasn’t entirely deserved.

 

“Well, you know how it is,” Aoi says, barely an echo.

 

-

 

“You either let people push you around,” Aoi’s mother had told her in the hallway of their giant empty house- bruised knees, nine years old, a life-lesson to learn. “Or you climb so high they can’t even touch you without breaking their necks.”

 

(People will hate you because you’re different, or they will hate you because you’re better than they’ll ever be. Time to choose the lesser evil.)

 

-

 

Concentrating on schoolwork is hard when Nene is fidgeting beside Aoi. She’s not subtle at all- nose flushed pink, picking at the hem of her yukata with one clawed finger, tugging on wet strands of her hair and peppering Aoi’s maths homework with water droplets. 

 

“Are you going to tell me,” Aoi teases, glad for a distraction from her algebra questions. “Or do I have to guess?”

 

Nene’s blush spreads to her cheekbones and, with a noise alike to a deflating balloon, she buries her head in her hands. “I had an idea,” she confesses, muffled through her fingertips. “It’s stupid and you don’t have to say yes, but-”

 

“Tell me what it is, first,” Aoi’s heart migrates from her chest to her throat, anatomically impossible and sounding like hope. Her pulse skips; doubletime, tripletime.

 

“There’s a festival to celebrate autumn, when the moon is full in two days time,” Nene explains. “I want you to go with me.”

 

With complete disregard for any sort of subtlety, Aoi checks the date and time on her phone- wondering just how badly time has run away with her. But, just as it was the day before, and the day before that, it’s still October. The maple leaves still stain the canopy red. The engawa doesn’t freeze over in the morning. Aoi frowns.

 

“The village festival isn’t until mid-November, though,” she starts, then closes her mouth sharp enough for her teeth to hurt. “Oh, you mean-”

 

“Humans aren’t meant to attend,” when she bows her head, Nene’s hair hangs in curtains around her face and hides her blush from view. (Aoi wants to pin her hair aside, to pretend that the flush of Nene’s cheeks is something more than awkwardness. Something for her alone.) “But I thought that, if you needed somewhere to run away to, then it might be nice to pretend to be someone else just for a night.” 

 

You’re in love with danger- Aoi’s heart echoes once again. 

 

“I’d like that a lot, Nene-chan,” she replies. (If the world will treat her as something not quite human- then why not prove it right?)

 

Beside her, Nene startles as if she believed Aoi could ever say no to her. Her eyes shine bright and electric and excited; sunlight on lake-surfaces and golden fish flashing beneath the water. She’s autumn leaves and laughing streams when she grabs Aoi’s hands in her own and hugs her tight, a wordless thank you for trusting me . Nene’s clothes are soaked and she kind of smells like moss, but Aoi hugs her back regardless. 

 

“Your heart is beating so fast, Ao-chan,” muffled against Aoi’s scarf, Nene’s voice is heavy with concern. Aoi holds her breath and quietly curses the traitor that her heart has become. “You’re not sick, are you?”

 

“Maybe a little,” she laughs, gentle as she can make it. Anything to calm the knock, knock knock of her heart against her ribcage. 

 

“You shouldn’t be outside then!” Nene pulls away, holding Aoi securely by her shoulders. “You humans get sick so easily when it’s cold.”

 

Akane Aoi has a death wish and a heart that acts before her head when Nene is involved- so she puts on the sweetest smile she can manage. “You’ll just have to keep me warm then, Nene-chan.”

 

Nene goes as red as the maple leaves floating on the glassy lake surface, and Aoi can’t bring herself to regret it for a second.

 

-

 

“Sumire-san,” Aoi peers around the door of the art studio, almost startling the paintbrush out of Sumire’s hand despite her best attempts to keep her voice quiet. Sumire lowers the mask she’s working on as a silent gesture for Aoi to continue speaking. “Do you have a spare yukata I can borrow? I don’t have one with me.”

 

Two pairs of eyes meet Aoi’s- Sumire’s and the mask’s. It’s the face of a kitsune decorated with intricate petals; Akane Sumire’s speciality. Foxes and flowers and paper talismans. (Pretty as the masks are, the way they stare in neat rows from the corner of the studio is unsettling to say the least.) 

 

“The festival isn’t till November, you know,” Sumire says, not quite lighthearted.

 

“It’s for,” hesitation clings to Aoi’s words. Like she hasn’t been well versed in lies and half-truths for most of her life. “Something else.”

 

A long, weighted silence stretches between the rows of masks. Broken only by the faint hum of music which drifts from Sumire’s earphones.

 

“I think I still have the one I wore when I was your age- it should be hiding in one of the spare rooms,” When Sumire finally replies, it’s half reluctant, half accepting. “You can help me look for it after dinner.” (There’s something in the back of Sumire’s eyes, something that she isn’t telling Aoi either. Blue meets purple, and Aoi feels as if she’s staring into a mirror placed twenty years in the future.)

 

“Thanks, Sumire-san,” with a dip of her head, Aoi turns to leave- before the masks can stare at her for a moment longer.

 

“Aoi,” though Sumire calls for her, Aoi doesn’t turn around. Sumire doesn’t ask her to. “Whatever you do, don’t lose track of time.”

 

The studio door slides shut before she can come up with a response.

 

-

 

“Before you go,” Sumire stops her in the doorway, taking a second to look over each flower pattern which decorating the lilac fabric of Aoi’s sleeves. She’s forgone her usual hairstyle, instead snapping a large pink blossom from the garden and settling its petals behind her ear. The smile upon Sumire’s face is almost nostalgic, in a sad sort of way. Like she sees a ghost standing before her, clothed in lilac. “Take this.”

 

It’s a mask in the loosest sense- a cloth veil with a single wide eye inked onto the front. It covers the upper half of Aoi’s face when Sumire fixes it in place, and there's an intricate symbol stitched onto the inside edge, not dissimilar to the talisman which guards the doorway in ink and paper. Against Aoi’s skin, the fabric feels warmer than it should do- feverish, almost.

 

“I’ll be back before midnight,” Aoi promises.

 

“Be careful,” Sumire’s voice is heavy with caution- all too knowing.

 

-

 

Nene meets her at the edge of the forest, hair burned silver in the shaft of moonlight that falls where she stands sentry by the shrine gate. She’s wearing her mask again- it’s the first time Aoi has seen it in a long while- and she misses the way Nene’s eyes would surely capture starlight from each corner of the sky.

 

She runs barefoot into the road to meet Aoi half-way, grabbing her hand with a delighted laugh. “Ao-chan! You look so pretty; I’m jealous!”

 

Linking their fingers together, Aoi only laughs. “You always look lovely, Nene-chan.” 

 

Nene ducks her head shyly as if she’s nothing more than the teenage girl she appears to be- rather than an ancient being who has seen centuries come and go as simple as seasons. Embarrassed, giddy, shoulder brushing close to Aoi’s when they step into the treeline.

 

One thing is certain; the forest is a different world by nightfall. 

 

Insects call, ghostly lanterns swing from the treetops and Nene follows a path through the undergrowth which seems to exist for her eyes only, ducking past twisted tree boughs that shift to let her through. In the far distance, Aoi can hear music- the strike of a drum, the twang of a koto string, the chatter of voices that aren’t quite human. 

 

“Don’t let go of my hand,” Nene presses close as she speaks, a warm pillar in the cold autumn air. “If we stick together, then nothing bad will happen- I promise.” Though she can’t see behind the mask, Aoi can tell that Nene is smiling.

 

The lanterns swing, the music grows louder till it reaches a fever pitch, and the trees yawn open into warm golden light.

 

In a clearing filled with fox-fire and ohayashi music, Aoi has never felt quite so painfully human. Nene pauses to let her stare wide-eyed at the scenery which opens up before her- creatures both human-like and not drinking and dancing and scooping goldfish to a background of lofty cheers and taiko drums. A beast the size of a small house lounges at the boundary with a mouth that does not move even as it laughs. A man as tall as Aoi’s knee hops past, carrying a bottle of sake almost half his size. A crow swoops down from the treeline and turns human-like right before Aoi’s eyes.

 

Overhead the stars lean in as if listening to secrets only the forest knows, closer and closer until they settle amongst the tree branches like blinking fireflies. It’s magical and terrifying and Aoi only remembers to breathe when Nene squeezes her hand gently.

 

“It’s way more quiet than it was last time,” Nene’s voice is disappointed. Aoi thinks she might need to sit down.

 

A chant rises into the air from across the clearing, something about the maple trees and the gods of the forest, and Nene tugs on Aoi’s wrist with an excited laugh. “Where do you want to go first?” She asks, grinning behind her mask.

 

“Everywhere,” Aoi replies, breathless and awestruck. “I want to see everything.” 

 

Nene walks her past trees decorated with fluttering shide paper, points out stalls selling masks and food and fortunes, slumps dramatically to the ground after failing a series of ring-toss games and almost pulls Aoi into the dirt with her. They talk to a woman in a noh mask and intricate kimono who tries to offer them sake, a shamisen which plucks its own notes, a child half-way up a tree with hair covering their face; who tells Aoi that her flower is pretty then makes a lazy grab for it. 

 

Aoi weaves a lie about first meeting Nene over a hundred years ago, about how she’s travelled a long distance, about how she crossed a city to get here so she smells slightly on the wrong side of human . False truths spilled into a world where to be human would be the strangest thing of all. It feels as if both minutes and many long hours have passed at once, like time is a tangible thing which tastes of grilled fish and sounds like koto strings. (Sumire said something about time, two days ago. Aoi can’t remember what her voice sounds like.)

 

A promise to keep her safe, Nene’s hand remains firm and warm in Aoi’s grip. She steels her voice and steers them away when the smell of humans is brought up, she reminds Aoi not to eat the food no matter how tasty it may look, she never strays from Aoi’s side even when she can’t catch sight of the handsome tree spirit from across the forest anywhere

 

“This is fun,” Aoi tells her, not just to stop her from moping. ( I’m right here, she doesn’t say. You don’t need any stupid tree spirits. ) “I don’t think I ever want to leave.”

 

Though Aoi’s voice is dreamy and wistful rather than anything serious, Nene stiffens beside her. Across the clearing, a drum strikes out of time. “Do you think we should go soon?”

 

Aoi shakes her head with an upward glance towards the stars. They’ve barely moved in all the time they’ve spent, still hung lantern-like overhead. “It can’t be anywhere near midnight yet,” she pushes. “I’ve barely been here any time at all.”

 

Before Nene can say another word, the music strikes up with a vengeance and a pair of dancers take position before the musicians, their outfits decadent and scattered with golden leaves. Aoi tugs at Nene’s hand, and doesn’t know why she feels so relieved when Nene laughs and follows her.

 

(It feels good, settling into a place where she is the most ordinary thing around. Nene at her side, chest filled with music, the treetops filled with stars. The forest is a garden, and the evergreens feel like home. )

 

The dancers’ movements flow through time- golden and mesmerising- and suddenly Nene isn’t holding Aoi’s hand any more. Sudden panic rises into her throat, white hot.

 

Aoi can’t see her through the crowd, can’t hear her voice over the music, alone and afraid in a world which she doesn’t belong in. She pushes through the clamour, slipping past heaving inhuman bodies, hoping to find a tree she can climb or huddle against until Nene comes to find her. (She will find her, Aoi tells herself firmly. Nene is silly and lovestruck and she doesn’t understand things like family, but she’s never left Aoi behind.)

 

Aoi pushes, the crowd crushes in, and she stumbles into the open air as her mask slips loose.

 

“I can smell a human,” a voice on the edge of the crowd hisses. A head turns, and three bright, black eyes stare into Aoi’s own. Every muscle in her body is spring-taut, a bowstring millimeters from overextending and snapping in two.

 

Aoi turns, and Aoi runs.

 

The lanterns swing lurid overhead as she charges blindly through the undergrowth. Branches tear at her legs, her face, her arms, mud splattering up Aoi’s feet with every rivulet and ditch she clears. The stars crowd closer, like she’s a spectacle to witness, for their personal, cosmic enjoyment. She doesn’t know if she’s being chased. She doesn’t turn around to check.

 

Her sandal goes first, flying off her foot into a bush when she clears it in a running leap. Then the flower, when a branch swings at her face and rips out tangled strands of her hair. Then she stumbles, her ankle twisting at all the wrong angles. Aoi falls, autumn leaves scattering in her wake, and chokes back a gasp when she lands in the shallow, ice-cold path of a stream.

 

She stares, wide eyed and unable to move as something inhuman slinks down the slope after her.

 

Each breath tastes like fire in Aoi’s lungs- searing hot and knife-edge sharp.

 

Her heart sits; a trapped butterfly behind her ribcage.

 

(Akane Aoi has always been a smart girl. Near top of her class, hard worker, never willing to give more than she can take in return.)

 

(All Aoi can think; how could I be so stupid? )

 

-

 

“Hey! Over here, ugly!” the voice wavers, but Aoi leans painfully towards it. It sounds like home. “She’s mine!” 

 

Rushing water fills her ears, loud as thunder.

 

-

 

“Can you walk?” Nene is leaning over her, mask propped up on top of her head and her hair the colour of moonlight. It feels like deja vu in a way- Aoi soaked through and flat on her back, while Nene’s concerned eyes swim with tears above her. It’s almost enough to make her laugh; the consistency with which history repeats itself. “I got them to leave you alone, but I don’t know-”

 

Her voice trails off, sad and scared.

 

We’re not safe yet, goes unspoken.

 

“I can move, I think,” Aoi wobbles numbly to her feet. Though she’s scared, cold and more exhausted than she’s ever felt in her life, the pain in her ankle has faded to a dull ache. She might not be okay, but she can walk. That’s something, at least.

 

Half supporting Aoi’s weight while they limp through the forest, Nene is unsettlingly quiet. Her mask has slipped back into place, leaving her unreadable, and Aoi thinks she might just cry. Overhead the stars are distant, billions of miles away and exactly as untouchable as they’ve always been. Aoi misses their firefly brightness in the same way she would miss a lost limb. (True importance not understood until they’re gone.) 

 

Aoi doesn’t want to know what Sumire will think when she sees the muddied mess that she’s made of her yukata, or when she asks the sandal she lost along the way. She doesn’t know how she’s going to explain anything in a way that makes sense. (She doesn’t know how to admit that, for a brief, soaring moment, she hadn’t wanted to leave.)

 

Nene escorts her to the place they met by the shrine gate, then doesn’t stop until she’s lead Aoi to the front gate of the Akane family residence. She barely says a word, only pausing to check that Aoi is okay on her own before she melts back into the night. Unseen and more inhuman than she’s ever been before.

 

Forgoing the lonely doorstep, Aoi scrapes together what remains of her energy and scrambles over the fence into the back garden, hoping that she can sneak up to her room unseen. If she can wake up early to clean the mud from her clothing, then Sumire will never have to find out. Just another lie from a girl who doesn’t know how to do anything else. 

 

She lands heavy-footed in the garden, trips through the knotweed with her grazed ankles, and freezes in front of the open doorway.

 

Though it must be close to midnight, Sumire is still sitting in the kitchen, hunched over a cup of coffee as if the weight of the world is hers to carry alone. In the warm orange light spilling across the engawa, Aoi forgets how to move.

 

On the other side of the door, Sumire turns her head and spills her coffee directly into her lap.

 

Before Aoi can even blink, Sumire is out of her chair and clearing the width of the garden, despite the coffee stain which must be hot enough to burn, despite the fact that she’s not wearing shoes, despite looking as if she hasn’t slept in days.  

 

Though Aoi looks like a disaster in the moonlight, Sumire pulls her into a hug- warm and protective and trembling in a way that Aoi never thought hugs could be outside of movies and similar works of fiction. Sumire’s hand cradles the back of her head. Aoi feels as if she’s five years old again.

 

“You’re back,” staring across the garden with worried eyes, Sumire checks Aoi over from head to toe and barely bats an eyelash at the state of her clothes. Taking account of everything, like she’s worried a piece of her will be missing. “Thank the gods, you came back.” 

 

Aoi’s laugh is a nervous bubble in her throat. “Of course I came back, I promised I’d be back before midnight, didn’t I?”

 

“Aoi,” Sumire’s voice is heavy in a way that turns the night air into a curtain of lead, hanging heavy. “It’s been three days. You’ve been gone for three days.”

 

History repeats itself in the cruellest of ways, Aoi has found. Midsummer was the same- you’ve been gone for a week, do you have any idea the trouble you’ve caused me? Like Akane Aoi has a predisposition for going missing and grounding the world to a halt. Only this time, Sumire’s face doesn’t fall into a pinched frown. She’s worried- even though she looks as if she’s been through hell and back and Aoi has ruined the hem of her old yukata, she’s worried. There is no anger in her ice-crystal eyes. 

 

Because she’s a fool, Aoi starts to cry. Big, unsightly tears roll down her cheeks, her eyelashes stick together, and Sumire holds her through it all. More like family than anything has ever felt before.

 

“I’m sorry,” Aoi manages to choke out, the most pathetic sound to ever come from her own throat. “I don’t know how-”

 

It’s only then that Sumire’s warning comes flooding back, vivid as a nightmare. Whatever you do, don’t lose track of time.  

 

“It’s okay,” Sumire shrugs off her cardigan, handing it to Aoi so she has something to dry her eyes on which isn’t mudstained. The kindness of the gesture only makes her cry harder. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

Sumire has a way of speaking- one which makes people feel as if they deserve her kindness. Aoi bows her head, listens close, and lets herself believe it. Just for one night, she is free of guilt.

 

“I know I said I wouldn’t push you to talk about anything,” Sumire says, after what might be hours, might be seconds. “But I need you to tell me what happened. Whatever it is, I’ll listen.”

 

When exhaustion catches up to her, it’s a physical weight on Aoi’s bones- heavy and dreadful and too much to bear. 

 

“Sumire-san, I’m-” she bows her head, too tired to hold herself upright for a moment longer. Autumn nights in the mountains are cold and unforgiving, a shiver passing down her aching spine. “I’m really tired, and I don’t think I can-” a sniff cuts off her words, as if she’s about to start crying all over again. “Can I tell you in the morning? Please.”

 

Under the too-distant stars, Sumire looks heartbroken- one of her ribs torn clean out as she reaches out a hand to wipe Aoi’s tears away. She nods, then. “Get some rest, Aoi. We can talk in the morning, okay?”

 

Sumire leads her inside, up the stairs, into her room- one arm a constant anchor against her shaking shoulders.

 

Aoi is asleep before she can even turn the ceiling light off.

 

-

 

The sun is almost at its peak when Aoi wakes, liquid and pale through the window overlooking the forest. Every joint in her body is stiff with overuse, but it’s hunger which finally rouses her from her mattress, a low growl in her stomach that sounds as if she hasn’t eaten in days.

 

If what Sumire said the night before was correct, then she hasn’t. 

 

The first thing Aoi notices when she steps into the kitchen is that Sumire is not alone. There’s a woman sitting at the table with a cup of tea balanced in her gloved hands; everything about her is intricate, from her hairstyle to her kimono to the way she sits poised and elegant, not a hair out of place. 

 

“Should I come back later, or-” Aoi rocks on her heels in the doorway, uncomfortable under the woman’s sharp, fox-like stare. “Who’s your guest?”

 

The woman scoffs into her teacup. “Come on, even you should recognise me; I’m-”

 

“She’s just a friend,” Sumire cuts her off, earning an indignant exclamation from the other side of the table. “Pretend she’s not here.”

 

Fixing herself something to eat, Aoi gives Sumire’s guest a wide berth- something about her haughty silence making Aoi feel like she’s at significant risk of being bitten should she sit too close. ( Pretending she’s not here proves difficult, when each of her movements sound like bells and command attention in a way that isn’t quite human.)

 

There’s a tension in the air, one which Aoi doesn’t want to break. She can feel Sumire looking; at the grazes which scatter her exposed ankles, at the bruise on her cheekbone which she doesn’t remember getting. 

 

“Aoi,” Sumire then says, in a voice which is low and comforting as warm orange and honey. “I need you to tell me what happened.”

 

Though she’s acutely aware of Sumire’s guest listening in, Aoi does as she’s told. (A good girl for the right reasons, this time.)

 

She tells Sumire about the lake, about the evergreen tree which stands at its shores, about Nene with her love of rom-com trailers and her ability to catch freshwater eel barehanded. She tells Sumire about the festival, about talking shamisens and ohayashi music and being chased. She tells her how Nene saved her, not for the first time. (She doesn’t tell her how her foolish heart has fallen, because that’s her own secret to keep.)

 

Sumire listens to every word, patient as a mountain and just as unshakeable. 

 

“Irresponsibility must run in the family,” before Sumire can say a word, the woman at the other end of the table sniffs in disdain. “You Akanes can’t help yourselves, can you?”

 

“You’d be bored half to death if we weren’t around to keep you entertained though- wouldn’t you, Yako?” Sumire jabs back, wearing a grin that makes her look like a teenager again- like the photos Aoi has seen sparsely placed around the house.

 

Yako turns up her nose. Realisation hits Aoi at the speed of a trainwreck.

 

“You’re the fox from the shrine!” The exclamation escapes her before she can reign it back.

 

When Yako nods, the bells decorating her hairstyle ring into the late-morning air as if they’re laughing. “And you’re the annoying child who tried to hit me with a broom.”

 

Aoi can’t remember the last time she felt so mortified.

 

She bows her head, cheeks burned scarlet, and Sumire’s laughter doesn’t do her any favours at all. The longer Sumire goes without even the slightest sign of anger, the more Aoi feels confused. She’s moved behind Sumire’s back, kept secrets and ruined her clothes. The stress Aoi knows she must have put her through is immeasurable, yet here she is, laughter escaping her no matter how much she tries to hold it back. ( If she’s angry, Aoi thinks in stunned silence, then she’s a better liar than I’ve ever been. )

 

“You’re not mad at me?” She asks, quiet and genuine. Then, more quiet still; “You don’t think I’m strange, or unreasonable, or-”

 

(When she was five years old, Aoi talked to a large spider in the garden and the spider talked back. Upon running towards her mother and classmates with it trapped in an empty jam jar, she’d received nothing aside from quiet scorn and a stern reminder that bringing pets into the classroom was not allowed at all. She began to wonder, after a while, if she’d imagined it all.)

 

Now, Sumire just smiles. Sad and understanding and Aoi thinks she knows .

 

“If she was angry at you, then she’d be a hypocrite,” Yako fixes Sumire with an odd look, one that’s near indecipherable to all but the two of them. “Don’t you think it’s time you told her?”

 

“You don’t have anywhere urgent to be, do you?” Sumire turns to face Aoi. Idealistically, Aoi would like to see Nene, as soon as possible. Realistically, Aoi knows that staying clear of the forest, calm as it is by daylight, would be for the best. She shakes her head.

 

“Then,” Sumire continues. “I’ll get us some tea, and we can talk.”

 

While the kettle boils on the stove under Yako’s watchful eye, Sumire disappears into one of the side rooms, emerging minutes later with a small, worn-down folder in her hand. When up-ended over the table top, a newspaper article flutters out, one which Sumire slides towards Aoi.

 

Missing teenager found after two years of searching- reads the headline in faded block print. The photo, though blurry, is unmistakable- Akane Sumire in a lilac flower-print yukata, a familiar white fox perched lazily upon her shoulder. Weary and confused, as she’s escorted away from the looming edge of the forest.

 

“I thought a week had passed, at most,” Sumire explains, leaving Aoi to read between the lines in her wake. “The next thing I knew, two years had escaped me. My grandfather had died, my father was convinced I had died, and the whole family was in shambles.”

 

Aoi stares. Yako’s bells ring, chime-like.

 

“I warned her, but Akane Sumire doesn’t listen to anyone,” she pulls off an expression which is somehow both disapproving and painfully fond. “All she cared about was getting away from her sister for a week or two.”

 

“Hina-chan was driving me around the bend,” Sumire folds the newspaper article, tucking it neatly away. “She never looked close enough to notice the things in the trees, always straight-cut as a longsword. She was convinced that I went missing on purpose, afterwards. That I was jealous she got to live it up in Tokyo with her textbooks and her rich friends.”

 

“Is that why-” Aoi starts.

 

“She left for university and never came back,” steam from the teacup in Sumire’s hands curls into the air around her. “Swore she’d never speak to me again, that it was my fault for causing the family so much trouble. It seems her attitude hasn’t changed one bit.”

 

There’s a question, eating away at the back of Aoi’s mind. “If you knew from experience that it would be dangerous, then why did you let me go? Why didn’t you stop me?”

 

Sumire smiles then, and though her face is a close match to her mother’s in all but her eyes, such a warm smile could never look at home on Akane Hina’s face. “Because the forest is terrible and ancient and endless,” she says. “But it made you happy, in the same way it made me happy. In the same way it still makes me happy- though I don’t have the time for exploring nowadays.”

 

In the warmth of a kitchen which overlooks a garden that’s seen better days, Aoi feels her heart sloughing away its layers, one by one. She sits with tea leaves stuck to the rim of her cup, open and honest and known, and thinks that maybe it’s not so bad to let people see the Akane Aoi she did not practice in the bathroom mirror for years on end. Sumire understands, Nene doesn’t care, Sakura and Mei take her shopping anyway. 

 

She thinks, once her ankle has healed, she might start work on the garden. (She thinks she might even ask Sumire to help.)

 

“Even if you couldn’t be honest with me,” Sumire continues. “There was something in the forest that you trusted. That was enough for me.” 

 

Autumn is well on its way, winter following close behind. Aoi throws the windows open, regardless. (Here, she has nothing to lose.)

 

“I’m not good at trusting people,” she admits, quiet and honest as an open wound. “I spent so long putting myself on a pedestal just to fit in that I never quite learned how to look at people from anywhere but above .”

 

“The fact that you acknowledge it,” Sumire tells her. “That’s a good start.”

 

“I’m not a good person, really,” outside the window, the sun breaks out from behind a cloud in a shaft of light which pierces through the belly of the house. “I get jealous, I like it when things go my way, I get moody and decide I don’t like people for stupid reasons.” 

 

Here’s my rotten heart. Here’s the problem; I don’t know how to fix it.

 

Sumire has a collection of smiles which she stores like her masks- this one is soft, sympathetic. “Aoi,” she says, never wavering. “That’s just being human.”

 

The words hang as if they’re an incantation, a promise. As if they’re alive.

 

“You know- you humans love to think you could ever be perfect,” Yako scoffs; and then there’s a fox sitting at the other side of the table once again, basking in the sunlight. “Why does it matter if you’re horrible when you’re all like that?” 

 

She looks like a housecat, the thought steals in, uninvited. Aoi has taken enough risks for one day. ( What’s one more - she thinks, and reaches out a hand.)

 

-

 

“You should have expected that,” Sumire scolds Aoi later, handing over a plaster for the bite-marks on the back of her hand.

 

-

 

The evergreen stands tall, but Nene is nowhere to be found. 

 

Normally she appears after one or two shouts from the edge of the lake, Aoi’s voice loud enough to rouse her from the depths. Now, Nene doesn’t come after five, six, seven calls of her name, not even when Aoi skims a flat, wide stone across the surface. Not even when she ventures dangerously close and the water laps at her toes

 

Aoi would assume that she must be elsewhere in the forest, were it not for the flashes of blue fabric she can see just below the surface. It’s like Nene is hiding, and Aoi doesn’t like it one bit. 

 

Akane Aoi doesn’t do things half-way, so she sits with her back against the evergreen and pulls out her history classwork. If it’s going to be a long day of sitting with moss soaking into her jeans, then so be it- she’s got enough snacks to keep her going till nightfall. She works through her school subjects for the day and for the days she missed- history then literature then english. She stumbles over lines of poetry while pacing from the evergreen to the cat-shaped rock and back, hoping that her voice projects loud enough for Nene to hear each sweet phrase she reads.

 

Aoi pulls on a pair of gloves when the temperature drops in the afternoon, a cold wind sweeping in that does little to deter her from her stubborn completion of her biology homework. There’s moss stuck to her jeans, and Nene is still nowhere to be seen- present only in the flash of silver scales below the water.

 

It’s a brief thought that crosses Aoi’s mind- that maybe Nene would come and save her if she fell in. One look at the icy water is enough to nip that idea in the bud.

 

Only when the sky turns golden and the treetops shiver does Aoi sigh heavily and admit defeat. Before she leaves, she crosses the clearing in ten purposeful strides, and stands with the toes of her boots submerged in the lake-water.

 

She cups her hands to her mouth like a megaphone and, in the loudest voice she can manage, shouts across the lake; “I think you’re being very silly!”

 

The water remains still as a mirror.

 

-

 

Feelings are an uninvited visitor, climbing in through a back window that Aoi forgot to close. She stands in the genkan with her boots half-untied, Sumire’s muffled singing drifts through the kitchen door, and Akane Aoi feels suddenly and overwhelmingly at home. 

 

From the paper talisman by the door, to the creepy kitsune masks in the art studio, to the shower in the bathroom which always runs a little too cold, Aoi loves the ancient Akane household with every piece of her ridiculous, human heart. 

 

Aoi is used to large empty houses full of large empty spaces. This is not one of them. (Never has been, never will be.)

 

She closes the front door behind her and, natural as breathing, calls; I’m home.

 

When Aoi steps into the kitchen, Sumire is smiling. 

 

“Welcome back,” she says. Welcome home. (Nothing has ever felt so correct.)

 

-

 

One thing Aoi is certain of: Nene is avoiding her. 

 

She doesn’t rise to the surface when Aoi calls, and after three consecutive days of the silent treatment, it’s begun to get a little frustrating. It’s not like Nene is absent from the lake- she still catches her watching from above the surface when Aoi pretends she’s not looking, still sees the flash of blue fabric amongst the freshwater plants. 

 

She probably feels guilty, Sumire had told her, when Aoi had explained why she’d showed up to dinner late, cold and worried. Confiding in Sumire is a little like cough syrup- bitter on the way down, but soothing twenty minutes down the line. Aoi knows for a fact that she’d be beside herself with worry without Sumire’s gentle logic to calm her nerves. You got injured because of her. She must feel terrible.

 

“I have strawberry mochi in my bag,” Aoi calls out, a cheap trick to lure Nene out of hiding with her favourite human snack. She pops a bite of one into her mouth, lets it melt upon her tongue. “It tastes really good!” 

 

There’s a splash from the other side of the lake which might be a fish, or might be progress.

 

It proves quickly to be the latter, when Nene’s head rises above the water, eyebrows furrowed and a piece of pondweed hanging from her horns. Aoi hates how her entire body leans closer by default.

 

“You’re mean, Ao-chan,” Nene frowns. Then; “You shouldn’t be here.”

 

She’s trying to sound angry , Aoi realises. Trying and failing, with the way her voice wavers at the edges.

 

“Who said I shouldn’t?” Aoi folds her arms. Stubborn as a mule - Sumire once called her- It’s like Hina-chan has come back to haunt me .

 

“It’s not safe, I-” with each second that passes, a little more of Nene’s already threadbare resolve breaks away. 

 

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be, silly Nene-chan,” Aoi lets her voice soften. “The festival was the most fun I’ve had in a very long time- even if I did get chased and time went all strange. None of it was your fault.”

 

Seconds that stretch out for an eternity pass by like the falling leaves, then Nene throws herself across the clearing towards where Aoi sits by the rocks. Aoi doesn’t get the chance to steady herself before Nene tackles her into a hug that knocks them both to the ground- the mochi left mercifully unharmed beside Aoi’s bag. Landing heavily in a pile of red maple leaves, Nene buries her wet face in Aoi’s shoulder and wails like a child, like she’s been holding back the tears for years too long.

 

“I’m sorry!” Nene cries, arms wrapped tight. “I just didn’t want you to get hurt again- I don’t actually want you to go away, I promise! I hated ignoring you, I hated it, and-” her voice breaks, a pathetic, miserable sound which Aoi isn’t sure if she wants to laugh or cry at.

 

“Are you sure you haven’t just decided you’re bored of spending time with me?” Aoi teases, the autumn leaves warm against her back.

 

Nene shakes her head furiously. “Never! The time I’ve spent with you is the best time I’ve ever had, Ao-chan- in all the years I’ve been alive!”

 

The overwhelming honesty which Nene always pours into her words never fails to catch Aoi off-guard. She’s so used to deceit, from herself and those around her, that such unabashed words are enough to sweep her off her feet- quite literally, this time. It’s refreshing, Nene is refreshing, and Aoi isn’t sure if she wants to be like her, or if she just wants to kiss each freckle-like scale upon her cheeks. 

 

“You’re the sweetest person I’ve ever met, Nene-chan,” Aoi confesses to the autumn leaves that swallow them on either side.

 

A piece of honesty, all her own.

 

-

 

Outside the kitchen window, Autumn fades on. The leaves begin to fall from the trees on the cusp of November- forming piles which Aoi sweeps away from the path, stepping nimbly over Yako’s attempts to get under her feet and ruin her hard work. Away from the city, the autumn winds are colder than Aoi has ever known them to be, yet she still works from the engawa more days than not, curled up with a blanket, classwork and a pot of tea to warm her hands upon. It’s nice, watching the way the leaves turn frost-edged, winter flowers blooming in the solitary corner Aoi managed to clear of weeds and dead foliage.

 

Nene doesn’t avoid her any more either- the evergreen becomes their meeting place again, and the lake their home. 

 

As if the festival were a catalyst, Nene leads Aoi to places she’s never seen before, taking long afternoon hikes through forestland and autumn sunlight. On a day where rain falls from the clouds, they seek shelter upon the steps of an abandoned shrine which hums with remnants of some great, incredible power- long gone but unforgotten. Nene dives to the bottom of the lake to show Aoi pieces of her underwater garden, nestling a lotus flower in Aoi’s hair that blooms despite the season. ( If I will it to grow - Nene explains, blushing when Aoi lets her hair fall free from its ties- then it will grow .)

 

Aoi wonders how many people are aware that there is a clearing in the East of the forest filled with ghostly fire that dances upon the boughs of trees yet does not burn. That there is a glade by the burned-out lightning tree with flowers that bloom only by moonlight, turning silver-blue petals like stargazers towards the night sky. That there is an evergreen tree so tall and grand and ancient, that has seen eras rise and fade like the falling of the leaves around it.

 

Aoi is collecting a list of certainties; the smell of tea in the kitchen, the Cedar tree, Nene. (The home she has made of it all.)

 

The forest is still terrifying, demanding reverence in its every whisper. A hook under Aoi’s ribs, daring her never to leave again. It’s a place made for gods and things that are more than human, beyond anything Aoi will ever understand fully. Still, with Nene at her side, nothing has ever felt more safe.

 

(Aoi doesn’t tell her that she has to leave, come winter. That when the last leaves fall from their branches, she’ll return to a place that doesn’t have fox dens and crows that talk and tree roots forming a network of life below her feet. Lying is a hard habit to break, no matter how hard Aoi tries.)

 

-

 

Another storm strikes at the beginning of November, stranding Aoi, Mei and Sakura at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. There’s one umbrella between the three of them, too small even for two, and rain has been steadily sliding down the back of Aoi’s neck for ten minutes straight.

 

Sakura’s ghostly pet cat keeps flicking its tail into her face, every time Mei sneezes more water dislodges from the edge of the umbrella and shakes down onto them, and the bus is late to the point that they may as well start walking home. 

 

“Bother Shijima-san instead,” Aoi hisses to the cat, a shimmering creature that only she and Sakura can see. 

 

“Stop calling me Shijima-san already!” Mei elbows her, and the umbrella almost goes flying. “It makes me feel old.

 

She doesn’t bat an eyelid at Aoi’s conversation with a cat that is not there, just as she doesn’t care when Aoi complains about the cold, or blames her and Sakura for getting them lost in the first place. 

 

This isn’t like school- she doesn’t need to be pretty, polite and superficial in order to fit in. Even if Aoi is a little gloomy, a little selfish, a little imperfect, people will still like her. Sakura and Mei will still invite her to third-wheel their shopping trips and quests to find obscure art supplies. Sumire will still put too much food on her dinner plate. Yako will still sit wordlessly beside her at the shrine, bells ringing into the morning air.

 

“You are old, Shijima-san,” Aoi teases back, just to see if she can make her friends laugh.

 

-

 

When Aoi cries into her pillow in the early hours of the morning, it’s not because she’s upset.

 

It’s because she told Sumire unprompted that she was frustrated with her history homework. It’s because Nene got stuck up a tree and made her laugh until her ribs ached. It’s because she ate home-made sukiyaki for dinner. It’s because Sakura’s cat fell asleep in a shaft of sunlight in the library.

 

It’s because she’s happy .

 

-

 

November brings with it a routine of its own- habits collected over time.

 

Each morning, Aoi leaves half of her breakfast in the doorway for Yako, in the hope that one day she’ll buy enough trust to learn if her fur is as soft as it always looks. Schoolwork is a rotation- the study, the engawa, the library or the shrine, dependant on the weather and Aoi’s changeable moods. 

 

Sometimes, the afternoons are for exploring, running through the forest’s ancient belly with Nene at her side, uncovering haunted ruins, trees with faces and late-autumn flowers which always find their way into Aoi’s hair. (She’s started wearing it down, because Nene likes to run her scaled fingers from root-to-tip in a way that makes her heart leap.) 

 

Other days, the afternoons belong to the garden- gardens, because Aoi’s uncanny ability to bring any plant back from the dead has not gone unnoticed by Sumire’s neighbours and Mei’s grandmother. Perennial blooms are fitted into place, knotweed is cleared, wind chimes are strung through the tree branches which flutter in the breeze and fill the garden with music. Still dressed in her red hakama, Sumire sweeps leaves into neat piles and predicts that rain is coming with unwavering accuracy. 

 

Talking openly while dinner cooks is a habit that doesn’t come easy, but one which removes a heavy weight from Aoi’s shoulders. Though she still finds herself hesitating to reveal everything, false smiles still falling into place every so often, the passing of time only makes things easier. 

 

And, even when the house is empty, Aoi still announces that she’s home. Even if nobody hears it aside from the masks in the art studio, the words sit correct and whole- exactly where they’re meant to be.

 

-

 

Sometimes Aoi is reminded that Nene is not human.

 

She arrives early on a day where the lake is swollen with rainwater, lapping close to the cat-shaped rock and near drowning the marginal plants which once sat at its edge. Below the surface, clear as glass, she can see Nene.

 

On days like this, when the lake is full and wide, she becomes half-girl half-water. Limbs becoming lake then becoming limbs again, scales flashing as if she is a shoal of tiny fish and buried treasure beneath the ripples. Aoi likes to watch her, no longer unsettled that something so beautiful and ancient knows each syllable of her name. 

 

Then impatience gets the better of her and she calls across the surface; Nene-chan, I brought snacks!

 

As though she is under Aoi’s command, Nene rises from the surface, slips her mask aside and grins. A little lopsided, a little sharp-toothed, a little sheepish. Scales catching silver beneath watery sunlight- fragments of precious metal decorating her skin.

 

“Don’t eat them all without me, Ao-chan!” she cautions. She wrings water ungracefully from her hair and is once again more girl than deity.

 

(Both when she’s eating snack food so fast it gives her indigestion and when her hair turns to riptides; Aoi loves Nene. Quiet as the seasons come, and just as certain.) 

 

-

 

“Are you able to leave the forest?” Aoi asks from behind her scarf, bundled up by the side of the lake. Nene is lying barefoot in the water, and just looking at her is enough to make Aoi shiver.

 

“I can for a little while,” she replies, interest clearly piqued. “Do you have an adventure planned?”

 

It’s less of a plan and more of a foolish wish, but Aoi isn’t in any rush to let Nene onto that fact. “There’s a festival to celebrate the end of autumn in the village- a human one, this time,” she explains. “Sumire is going to be performing her kagura at the shrine and I want you to see it. Come to the festival with me, Nene-chan?”

 

It’s a silly fantasy, invoking a collision between the two spaces Aoi has learned to call home. There’s a favour she wants to return too- Nene has shown her all the forest’s magical corners, so it’d only be correct for Aoi to show her the quiet roads and the garden and the shrine’s kawara roof tiles. 

 

“You mean,” Nene’s expression is one of almost comical surprise. “Like a date?” 

 

Aoi’s heart hammers behind her ribcage. ( What do you have to lose? It asks.)

 

Schooling her face into an impassive smile is one of the most difficult things Aoi has ever done. It speaks volumes for how accustomed she has grown to honesty when Nene is concerned; how natural the truth feels. But, if she was to speak the truth now, she’d spill all her messy feelings out onto the ground- something that would probably scare Nene away for good. ( That’s what I have to lose, she scolds her heart and its telltale beat.)

 

“You’ve been watching too many movie trailers, Nene-chan,” Aoi teases, gently.

 

-

 

“It took a little bit of work to get the stains out,” before she heads up to the shrine in preparation for a long day of work, Sumire hands Aoi a neatly folded bundle of lilac fabric. “But it should be good to wear again.”

 

“I promise I won’t get chased by any monsters, this time,” Aoi holds the yukata close to her chest, above her heart, and gives Sumire her word.

 

-

 

When Aoi arrives at the evergreen tree with flowers in her hair and the light of dusk stretching her shadow long, Nene is trying to braid her hair.

 

Emphasis on trying- with only her wavering reflection in the water as a mirror, she’s clearly struggling, tangled hopelessly in the long blonde strands. Aoi is a good, polite girl, so she does not hide a laugh behind her hand, and she does not find herself wishing she could take a photo. 

 

Ao-chan, ” Nene groans despairingly when she spots Aoi standing by the treeline. “How is your hair always so nice?” She tugs on one braid, an entire inch higher than its twin, and Aoi can’t help but take pity on her. 

 

“Because I have an actual mirror, Nene-chan,” really, it’s a good thing she slipped a comb into her purse before she left. “Oh dear, how did you manage to make such a mess?” 

 

All attempts to hide the laughter in her voice fail miserably, and Nene stares up sadly from the lakeside. “I was trying to hide my fins and my horns, but-” a sweeping gesture at the mess she’s made of her hair leaves no need for words.

 

Well, Aoi thinks to herself. There’s nothing else to it.

 

“Let me do it for you, Nene-chan,” she offers, comb in hand. The way Nene’s eyes light up- it makes fireworks out of Aoi’s heart. (She’s had crushes before, too many to count on both hands. But this- this is something different.)

 

Nene’s hair is like water through her fingertips as Aoi brushes and splits it into sections. A braid at the left, blonde to green, then another on the right, pieces left free at the front to sway in a breeze that does not exist. Aoi collects autumn leaves from the forest's boundary and arranges them in a crown of scarlet around Nene’s head, hiding her tiny horns from view. 

 

“I don’t have a mirror to show you, but-” Aoi starts.

 

“I’m sure it looks lovely, Ao-chan!” Nene cuts her off before she can say another word. She sinks back, eyes swimming with stars. “If Ao-chan is the one who did my hair for me, then I don’t care how it looks.” When Nene slips her mask into place, Aoi can’t tell if she’s imagining the summer-pink blush it covers up.

 

Regardless, her ribcage has become a butterfly net. Full of fluttering wingbeats that catch in her throat and make her feel like she could fly. 

 

Ghostly lanterns begin to illuminate the forest come dusk, mapping out hidden trails which lead to places untouched by human hands. It’s Aoi’s turn to lead Nene, retracing the familiar pathway till the trees thin and human voices laugh on their way to the place where the gods of the forest listen close. Though Nene’s hand is scaled and clawed, it sits comfortable and warm in Aoi’s palm- key in lock, as if soulmates are real and a red string of fate binds them hand-in-hand. 

 

The festival grounds around the bottom of the lantern-lit stairs sound like taiko drums, smell like autumn and taste like festival food in a way that has Aoi immediately regretting her decision to skip out on dinner. She buys two candied apples, pushing one into Nene’s outstretched hand and laughing in amusement when she gingerly lifts her mask to taste it, careful not to flash fangs or scales at the bodies around them. 

 

It’s different to the yokai festival of weeks beforehand- less magical, less terrifying. Time doesn’t swim through Aoi’s fingertips and the stars are as distant as they’ve ever been, but Nene stands in the middle of it all as if she’s never witnessed something so beautiful. The stars sit a billion miles away in their constellations; Nene watches each person who walks past as if the galaxies have stepped down to walk the village streets.

 

“There’s so many people, ” Nene’s voice is wonderstruck in a way that would make Aoi jealous, if the sound alone didn’t fill her chest with fireflies. “Is it always this busy?”

 

Aoi shakes her head. “A lot of people travel here for the festival- it’s usually a pretty quiet place.” 

 

(Though, as she’s learned over time, quiet and empty are not always one in the same.)

 

It’s a mercifully warm night for mid-November, with clear skies and no chance of rain. Aoi overhears talk of fireworks as she and Nene climb the stairs to the grounds of the shrine, arm in arm and close as ever. She dips her head in greeting towards Yako when she spots her perched regally by the top of the stairs, bright white and scarlet in the lanternlight. 

 

“There’s some people I want you to meet,” Aoi speaks for Nene’s ears only when she spots a head of green hair through the crowd, preparing a collision course that may lead to either disaster or planetary alignment. (She hopes for the latter, desperately. Scans the sky above for a shooting star to make her wish come true.)

 

“Aoi!” Mei calls a greeting over the drumbeat, bundled up in a long winter coat despite the lack of the usual autumn chill. “Who’s your friend in the mask?”

 

( The days where the gods step close to earth are strange by nature, Sakura had explained once in the dark underbelly of the library. Things unseen become visible; boundaries blur and swallow one another whole. Be careful. Be diligent. )

 

At Aoi’s side, Nene’s back goes stiff as a blade. “You’re the girl from the lake! The one who paints the flowers!” 

 

The accusatory finger she points in Mei’s direction has claws for nails and scales shivering down each digit. It’s a second too late that Nene realises her mistake and tucks her free hand back into the folds of her haori, hiding all things inhuman from view.

 

Mei just stares, from mask to hand to the crown of leaves upon Nene’s head, and her face splits into a smile. As if she’s always known that the forest hides things with fangs and wings and claws. “I always wondered why I felt as if I was being watched,” she laughs. “Although, you’re a little different to the ghost or guardian angel I imagined.”

 

Though her face is covered, Aoi knows Nene well enough to tell when she’s blushing

 

“You’re embarrassing her,” Sakura scolds, their cat curled sleepily around their shoulders. Quiet as it is, its human-like eyes flash gold and unsettling in lanternlight.

 

“Your cat looks like a scarf,” from beside Aoi, Nene’s voice pipes up again. “And you’re very pretty.” 

 

Though Sakura once told Aoi to be wary about things that aren’t quite human, they still lean down for Nene to pet the ghost of their late pet cat, still dip their head in thanks with a genuine smile. Aoi lets out a breath of relief which she didn’t realise she was holding. ( Thank you, she will tell Sakura later, when they’re alone. Thank you for making her happy. )

 

Near the shrine’s central building the music strikes up, the clash of a drum and the high, reedy tone of a bamboo flute. Aoi takes Nene’s hand, and orchestrates the final stage of her own planetary alignment.

 

Nene to her right, Mei and Sakura to her left, Yako perched in gentle silence by the edge of the stage; Aoi watches as Sumire steps out into the lanternlight. She’s like a different person moving through the movements and bell chimes, a crown of autumn leaves woven through her hair and a serene sort of stillness settled upon her face.

 

Elegant, restrained; as if Akane Sumire was born to stand beneath the sound of the kagurabue.

 

It’s a strange world that Aoi has stepped into, she finds herself thinking. Stood alongside two humans and a lake spirit beneath the watchful eye of the shrine’s left-hand inari statue, while her aunt turns movements into offerings with each strike of her bell. Aoi is used to living a neat, pretty life inside a neat, pretty world. Everything as it should be, crush dissenting thoughts down until they are nothing but dust. Here, because it is strange, she can remove her crown, step down from her pedestal, and shake people’s hands with dirt beneath her fingernails.

 

(On the inevitable day when she has to leave, she doesn’t know if she’ll have the courage to wear her true smile again. But, knowing that there is a place she can return to; it’s enough.)

 

She squeezes Nene’s hand tight, like a promise that this will always be home .  

 

“Your aunt is the coolest, Aoi,” Mei tells her later, once the music has thinned. “ My aunt just tries to set me up on blind dates.”

 

Pride wells up in Aoi’s chest, warm and safe. “Sumire-san is pretty cool, isn’t she?” (The Akane family name has never felt so dear to her.)

 

-

 

“Ao-chan,” when the moon rides high in the sky above the festival grounds, Nene leans into Aoi’s side with a whisper that makes goosebumps rise up both of her arms. “It’s my turn to show you something.”

 

They slip wordlessly into the forest once again, alive by nightfall and swaying with paper lanterns that make flickering shadows out of the bare tree branches. It’s Nene who leads once more, taking Aoi’s hand with a purpose and weaving down pathways Aoi doesn’t think she could remember even if she was to spend her whole life tracing them. The cedar tree looms ahead, and they find themselves back in the clearing, back beside the moonlit surface of the lake. Overhead, the first firework explodes.

 

All Nene says; “Don’t be scared.”

 

Aoi muffles a shout as something which might be wind, might be water sweeps her off her feet, up and up and up until she’s high above the treeline, high above the rooftops, high above the places where birds fly. It settles her down amongst the boughs of the evergreen, feet hanging into open space, and Aoi huddles close to the tree’s mighty trunk when Nene lands lightfooted on the branch beside her. 

 

She doesn’t realise her eyes are closed tight, not until Nene presses a gentle hand into her shoulder.

 

“It won’t let you fall,” Nene swears, more serious than Aoi has heard her in a long time. “And even if it does, I’ll catch you first! You’ll miss it if you keep your eyes closed.”

 

If it’s for Nene, then Aoi will do anything.

 

Slowly, hesitantly, she opens her eyes.

 

Above and below, there are two sets of starlight. Billions of miles above, there are galaxies and moonlight and space dust, and beneath Aoi’s feet there are lanterns and car headlights and houses, making their own constellations between the rice fields and mountainsides. Aoi can’t tell if the hammer of her heart against her ribcage is fear or wonder. The fireworks have started from the festival grounds, colours blooming into the sky like the winter flowers in Sumire’s garden, like the shimmering fish that live below the surface of the lake. 

 

“It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re alone,” Nene confesses, stained in pink and gold. “Years escape you in the blink of an eye- but the fireworks always kept me on track. They look so beautiful from up here.” 

 

It’s another reminder than Nene is far from human, that she has experienced things which will always be as unfamiliar as fairytales to Aoi- the words of someone who has been alone and lost in time since the forest was new and green. Still, Nene has tried to understand the bitter, complicated, human feelings that make up a family . Still, she has turned the lake into a home. (It’s about time that Aoi returned the favour.)

 

“I don’t know what it’s like to watch centuries come and go, so I’m not going to pretend that I understand entirely,” Aoi speaks, honesty which tastes like candied apples and festival taiyaki under her tongue. “But I know that the fireworks are beautiful. But I know that I want to try.

 

With her mask in the way, Aoi can’t tell if Nene is staring. (Aoi is selfish, and so she hopes that she is.)

 

“Family-” Nene then blurts out, spontaneous as the embers which light up the sky. “I think I get it, now. You have to choose it.” She leans across the branch, as if pitched forwards into Aoi’s orbit. The right sort of gravity, the real kind. None of the false magnetism Aoi used to weave through fake smiles and half-accepted confessions.

 

Aoi hums in agreement. “It took me a while to figure that one out, too.”

 

The breeze that whispers through the leaves catches Nene’s hair, carrying away some of the leaves and letting her horns peek through. Stubborn as the mountains, Aoi wants to see Nene’s face; the fangs she sometimes talks strangely to hide, the scales upon her cheeks, the way her blushes are always edged in seafoam green. 

 

Why would I give you my name- Aoi wants to tell her, whispered against the wrist where she once traced Akane and Aoi onto the scales. Why would I give it to you if I was scared of you?

 

So she leans in, loosens her grip on the trunk of the evergreen, and lifts the edge of Nene’s mask. They’re close, close enough that Aoi can see the way Nene is blushing, the way the fireworks bloom like shoals of fish in the lake-depths of her eyes, the way she’s staring as if the constellations above and below are inconsequential. 

 

All Aoi can see; Nene’s eyes filled with pink, artificial starlight. Human and Inhuman collide- a middle ground which Aoi has learned to call home.

 

Maybe she’s in love with me, too- Aoi thinks. 

 

“Aoi,” Nene says her name like a promise; left half-finished when she changes her mind. Instead- Nene kisses her. 

 

In her surprise, Aoi lets go of the branch.

 

As promised, she doesn’t fall. What could be water, could be wind, could be liquid starlight escorts her back towards the cedar’s ancient side, little more than a disturbance in the leaves. There’s a phantom warmth against Aoi’s lips despite the cold, apples and lake water and Nene staring with one wide eye behind where her mask has slipped half into place.

 

“I’m so sorry-” Nene starts, mortified in a way that wouldn’t look out of place in the romance movie trailers she loves so much. “You were super close and you’re so pretty Ao-chan- I couldn’t help-”

 

Danger loves you too, says the foolish voice in Aoi’s heart.

 

Akane Aoi doesn’t like to do things half-way, so she kisses Nene properly this time. The last few fireworks unfurl their glittering petals into the sky; reduced to background noise when Nene kisses back.

 

“I’m not scared, Nene-chan,” Aoi tells Nene, as the answer to any question she could possibly ask. She’s not afraid of anything, anymore.

 

Nene’s eyes are bright and inhuman, and she understands.

 

-

 

There’s a text on Aoi’s phone when she pulls it from her purse for the first time that night. It’s a quick and clipped reminder under the name of her mother, more a memento than a message of any sort.

 

I should imagine you’re bored stiff by now, it says. If the train isn’t delayed, I’ll pick you up at the station. No extra words and no wasted effort.

 

With the thought of Nene kissing her under the fireworks fresh in her mind, not even the countdown could make Aoi’s smile waver.

 

-

 

Aoi dedicates the next day to the garden, tending the plants in preparation for an oncoming surge of cold weather- winter making itself known in the boldest way possible. Sumire reads with Yako by her side, a blanket covering her legs and a box of wrapped chocolates open beside her. She tosses them for Aoi to catch every so often, laughing when they go skittering off into the flower beds and cheering when she catches them one-handed.

 

“Autumn was evidently happy with its sendoff,” Sumire comments, when the air grows too chilly to stand sitting outdoors. “It didn’t seem to want to stick around a moment longer.”

 

“It’s a shame that I won’t get to see the forest in winter,” Out of the kitchen window, Aoi can see the treeline, branches standing tall and bare in the late November sky. 

 

“It’s like a different place,” Sumire traces one finger around the rim of her cup, words spoken from experience. “It may feel timeless, but the seasons change it more than you’d ever expect.”

 

One day, Aoi promises to the world beyond the warmth of the kitchen. I’ll see each season come and go. 

 

-

 

The grass is sharp with morning frost, and Aoi can’t see Nene anywhere. 

 

For a brief, terrifying moment, Aoi worries that Nene has decided that she regrets the night under the fireworks, that she doesn’t like Aoi in a way that makes her heartbeat skip, that kissing her was a mistake. Then she spots Nene lying washed up and cold against the cat-shaped rock, hair spilled out like roots burrowing into the earth.

 

It’s awfully reminiscent of the first time they met, Nene slumped like a dead body in the clearing, Aoi taking a puppeteered step forwards. The ice encroaching upon the edges of the lake becomes clear as Aoi approaches, a frosty glaze which traps autumn leaves in time below its surface.

 

“Nene-chan? Are you alright?” Aoi hesitates before asking, and almost trips backwards into the water when Nene peels herself up from the rock in such an abrupt manner.

 

“Ao-chan!” The smile her face breaks into is wobbly and not quite right. “I’m just feeling a little under the weather, that’s all.” 

 

Aoi wasn’t aware that spirits could get ill- she makes a note to ask Sakura about it later. “Are you cold?” Up close, Aoi can see that Nene is shivering, tiny tremors passing down each of her limbs which she’s clearly trying her hardest to suppress. 

 

Nene shakes her head firmly. “I’m okay!” She swears, in a voice which wavers too much to be convincing. “It might be better if you came back tomorrow though, I’m probably not going to be much company today.”

 

Her laugh sounds like a shiver of scales and the creeping of frost, not how Nene’s laugh should sound. (Aoi has every note of it memorised, learned by heart in a way that she could never remember historical dates or components of the nitrogen cycle.)

 

“Are you sure?” Aoi asks. Don’t make me leave- if you ask me, then I’ll have to.

 

“I’m sure,” Nene’s response is firm but not unkind. Aoi tries to convince herself that nothing sinister hangs in the air, that Nene is just trying to stop her from getting sick too, that she’s always been worried about how fragile humans become in cold weather.

 

Aoi stoops to press a gentle kiss against Nene’s forehead.

 

(She tries not to dwell on the fact that her lips feel as if they have touched against ice.)

 

-

 

The next day is colder still, and Aoi heads to the lakeside well prepared.

 

She packs blankets, a flask of tea, an extra scarf and a torch to light up the trees should she have to stay past nightfall. Frost snaps underfoot when Aoi arrives, turning the forest into a still, hibernating monster with frozen breath and thick grey clouds for a blanket. Nene is still by the rock with ice crystals clinging to the ends of her hair, and the sight scares Aoi more than it possibly should. 

 

Aoi stands over her, and drops one of the blankets solidly onto Nene’s head.

 

She jolts awake with a shout that cuts off as soon as she catches sight of Aoi, stooped over her with her own blanket wrapped loosely around her shoulders. 

 

“It’s too cold to be sitting around like that,” Aoi mimics the tone Sakura often uses to scold Mei for running off in the middle of their shopping trips, failing half-way through the impression when a little too much fondness bleeds into her voice. “I’m going to keep you company, if you like it or not.”

 

For a moment too long, Nene stares at Aoi- before she nods and buries her head into the folds of her blanket. Her usual enthusiasm is dull-edged; Aoi forces down the selfish thought that she wants the old Nene back, the one who doesn’t make her feel so sad.

 

Aoi brushes the ice crystals from the ends of Nene’s hair, gently combing each strand until it flows water-like through her fingertips again. She snaps a pair of hand warmers which she slips into Nene’s open palms, then feeds her the remaining pieces of Sumire’s chocolate box so she doesn’t have to fuss with the logistics of claws versus sweet wrappers. Somewhere between her third cup of tea and the half-way mark in the movie Aoi pulls up on her phone screen, Nene falls asleep. Head drifting sideways and finding itself a home against Aoi’s shoulder.

 

Nene is cold; colder than any person should be, each touch feeling like ice despite the blanket around her body and the scarf around her neck. Her hand goes slack, and the long-cooled hand warmer goes toppling towards the water’s edge.

 

Aoi takes a look at the ice creeping steadily into the middle of the lake, and feels a bitter, empty pit opening up in her chest. 

 

Still, Aoi lets Nene sleep, cards fingertips through her hair and does her best to remain still, even as she feels her own toes going numb inside of her boots. All the times Nene has comforted her, saved her, hauled her gasping from the water- it’s the least Aoi can do in return.

 

“Ao-chan,” Nene stirs when the sun begins to sink below the treeline, the clouds stained a dusty shade of orange in the splinters of light which escape through. “I like you more than I’ve ever liked anyone else, Ao-chan.”

 

She speaks with the voice of someone who fears they won’t make it through the night; tired and so, so final that it makes Aoi feel sick to her stomach. With a finality of her own, she flicks on her torch. Even if her feet are numb and her hands are frozen, she’s not going anywhere.

 

Nene buries her face closer into her blanket. Aoi cradles her frozen hands close, and pretends that she can’t see the reflection of the ice-covered lake through the places where her fingers have begun to fade from existence. 

 

“If you disappear on me,” she whispers into the top of Nene’s head, a gentle, empty threat which she knows she’d never be able to uphold. “I’ll never speak to you again, Nene-chan.”

 

If Nene hears a word that Aoi speaks, she doesn’t acknowledge it. If Nene is asleep, then Aoi follows soon after.

 

-

 

When Aoi wakes, dawn is cresting the treetops and Sumire is standing over her, a long shadow in the early morning light. In the same instance it’s unbearably hot and terribly cold, and a feverish shiver passes down Aoi’s spine when she finds that she can’t remember where she is, or when she ended up on her feet, or why the ground is unstable as water below her boots.

 

Very suddenly, the sky is above her head and the ground is below her back. Nothing at all where it should be. Cold and hot and cold again. 

 

“Oh dear- let’s get you home and warmed up, okay?” Sumire’s voice comes from underwater.

 

Aoi doesn’t remember walking home.

 

-

 

It takes a whole two days for Aoi’s fever to break- your own silly fault, staying outside all night, Sumire reminds her every time she gets the opportunity. It’s a hazy collection of days, time slips like sand through Aoi’s fingers and all she’s truly aware of is the darkened room, the water Sumire brings her to drink and her strange dreams of ice crystals, cats and algebra homework. 

 

When she recovers enough to shuffle out of her room, Sumire strictly forbids Aoi from going outside- some guardian I’d be if I let you get sick again, she had commented, upon seeing Aoi fumbling with her laces in the genkan. Instead, to keep her occupied, Sumire invites her into the studio- where she sits in silence beneath the rows of masks and their blank, watchful stares. 

 

“Stop giving me those eyes, you’re making me feel terrible,” With a laugh, Sumire slides over a scrap of wood, a tiny paintbrush. “Draw something cute to keep yourself occupied.”

 

Aoi has never been much of an artist, but she manages three wobbly forget-me-nots in the corner before Sumire calls a break for lunch. They’re a little blotchy, the colours are a little off, but the shaky brushstrokes are enough for Aoi to put Nene to the back of her mind for a while.

 

(She’s still there- though. Never quite forgotten.)

 

“Yako likes you a lot,” half-way through lunch, Sumire glances out of the kitchen window towards where a white tail disappears over the edge of the garden fence. “She was the one who told me where to find you by the lake, you know.”

 

“I’ll have to thank her before I leave,” prickly as Yako is, Aoi greatly appreciates her prideful, larger-than-life presence. “Maybe she’ll finally let me pet her without biting me first.”

 

At that, Sumire hides a conspiratory grin. “She’s a menace, isn’t she? She’s lucky I like cute things.” 

 

Something Aoi has learned about feelings is that they creep in uninvited, often at the strangest of times. Her grip around her cup turns white-knuckled as it hits her suddenly and violently just how much she’s going to miss this when she returns home. ( This being the warm kitchen, Sumire’s teasing, the forest just a stone’s throw away. Home being an empty house that has never been anything more than that.) She tells Sumire as such; honesty and openness are bitter pills to swallow, but they’re a taste she’s grown accustomed to. 

 

“You know you can come back at any time, right?” Sumire’s expression melts into something that’s warm as honey. “I’m not going to turn you away at the door just because autumn is over.”

 

Feelings are awkward, unsightly things, so Aoi crushes down the urge to cry. 

 

“You’re always welcome here,” Sumire adds, and well - Aoi is clearly not as good at hiding things as she used to be.

 

-

 

“You have a visitor, Aoi!” Sumire calls from downstairs on the fourth day of her confinement to the Akane family home. Aoi’s eyes narrow- Sakura would have mentioned if they were coming, Mei is loud enough that she’d have heard her by now, and she doesn’t know anyone else in the village closely enough to warrant a visit. 

 

“Can you tell them to come up here?” For all that she can move again, Aoi still feels on the wrong side of terrible, and the thought of hauling herself down the stairs is less than appealing.

 

“She says she can’t come in- she’s waiting in the garden!” Sumire’s voice swims delighted up the staircase, and Aoi is starting to have suspicions. In case she’s proven correct, she makes it down the stairs at record speed.

 

There, staring around the garden like it’s something amazing and magical, is Nene. 

 

She still looks a little too cold and tired for Aoi’s heart to settle, but she’s here. She didn’t vanish. 

 

“Nene-chan, what are you doing here?” She asks as soon as she steps out onto the engawa, blanket wrapped firmly around her shoulders. Though the day is a little warmer than the ones beforehand, the cold spell still shows no sign of easing up. 

 

“I heard in passing that you got sick- I wanted to see for myself that you were okay,” there’s a worried note to Nene’s voice when she speaks, stood amongst the winter flowers. “You humans really do get ill so easily.”

 

Aoi brushes enough leaves away to sit down, motioning for Nene to do the same. “You can’t complain to me about getting sick, Nene-chan; you still look terrible.”

 

Though she seems reluctant to admit it, Nene evidently knows it’s the truth, looking down at her semi-transparent fingertips and the ice crystals which have re-formed in her hair. The lovestruck part of Aoi which does not obey her rational thoughts wants to comb them out again, with her bare hands if she must. 

 

“Ao-chan,” Nene’s voice is small and worrying. “I can’t get sick, you know that- right? This happens every time there’s a cold winter.” 

 

Aoi stares. (Clearly, she is not the only one who has been keeping secrets locked away in the four chambers of her heart.)

 

“When the lake freezes over,” Nene continues. “I go with it, until it thaws come spring again. I didn’t tell you because I was scared it might put you off- the thought that I won’t be here all winter. Was that too selfish of me, Ao-chan?” 

 

Ah, Aoi thinks distantly, when Nene turns to face her with tears turning to ice crystals upon her cheeks. We’re just as bad as each other.

 

So she tells her it clearly; “We’re just as bad as each other, Nene-chan.”

 

Nene looks up sharply, the very picture of confusion despite her tears. (In any other situation, Aoi might have laughed- because she can see pieces of herself in that surprise, in that realisation that she won’t be met by anger. They really are one in the same.)

 

“I’m leaving in a week,” Aoi confesses, while she feels brave enough. “I didn’t tell you either because I was worried that you’d be upset, or that you’d stop wanting to spend time with me if you knew it wasn’t permanent.”

 

“I’d never-” there’s an offended note to Nene’s voice, and this time Aoi does laugh. “It’s not funny, I was so afraid that you’d leave me, Ao-chan. I’ve never been so scared to fade away before.” She slumps against Aoi’s side weightlessly, a wordless invitation for Aoi to hold her tight and never let go.

 

“You don’t have to be scared any more, then,” Aoi hopes that, if she says it with enough certainty, then it’ll just have to come true. “Because we’re both just going to have to wait for each other.”

 

-

 

“It’s funny,” Aoi says later, once she’s recovered fully and the lakeside is a place she can visit once again. “That we’re both leaving, but we were both too in love to tell each other.”

 

She realises a second too late that she’s never said the word love to Nene’s face- not out loud at least. But, a glance to her right proves that Nene is fast asleep and none the wiser. (It can stay her secret for now, Aoi supposes. Something to hold tight to through the long winter months.)

 

(When she returns; then she can finally put it all into words.)

 

-

 

A cold wind sweeps in from the East overnight, bringing with it a morning of frost which crawls in fractals along the tree branches and turns the shrine steps to black ice, much to Sumire’s distress. A spike of panic hits Aoi in the wake of the icy weather- set to remain unmoveable for at least another week- and she runs towards the treeline before she’s even had the chance to finish her breakfast.

 

The forest is still and silent on the cusp of winter, as if slipping into a long, deep hibernation. It still feels ancient, still feels grand, but in a more barren sense, now. Empty and cold, like the trees would swallow up her voice should she try to use it. 

 

Only the branches of the cedar are still full and green, though all Aoi can focus on is Nene, slumped at its base as if she’s been waiting all night and day. Light shimmers through her arms up to her elbows now, turning them watery and cold and not entirely there. Aoi feels as if a shard of ice has dislodged from the lake, embedding itself somewhere in her chest- through the third and fourth ribs, right into her heart. 

 

She wonders if it would make a difference at all; if she were to return with a spade from the garden and smash the lake’s icy surface to pieces. What could one girl do to turn the tide against the seasons?

 

At the foot of the evergreen, Nene stirs, blinking open wide, tired eyes that light up like fireworks when she spots Aoi.

 

“Ao-chan!” She greets, swaying to stand barefoot in the frozen grass. “I waited; I didn’t want to leave before-” 

 

Aoi pulls her into a hug before she can say another word, holding Nene’s cold body against her own warm one and crushing down a shiver when a pair of ice-like hands cling back. She can’t pretend to ignore the fact that the lake is almost completely frozen over, that the forest holds its breath all around, that they’re both leaving all too soon. 

 

“I’m sorry,” Nene says into her ear, even her voice sounding like ice crystals. “I wanted to hold on long enough to see you off, but I don’t think-” she cuts herself off, this time. Aoi is glad that she can’t see Nene’s face, that she can’t see the way her tears freeze upon her eyelashes. (She’d cry too- then. There’s ample time for that later.)

 

“I wish you could stay till the end of the week,” Aoi admits, because she’s human and selfish and she no longer tries to hide it under heavy layers of fake smiles. “But it’s just a little longer to wait, right?”

 

“Right,” Nene pulls back, and, as if it’s a momentous feat, she links her and Aoi’s fingers together. Human and inhuman and the place that they meet. “Whenever you come back,” she promises. “As long as the lake is whole, as long as the evergreen stands tall, I’ll be waiting. You have my word.” 

 

It’s the clearest Nene’s voice has been in days, and Aoi clings to it with all of her might.

 

“And you have my name,” she replies, to seal the pact with the important things they share. (Home and names and other comfortable pieces of magic.)

 

Aoi kisses Nene goodbye- once, twice, third time’s the charm- then holds her close until her tears run dry and she melts away like snowflakes under her fingers. Aoi doesn’t fall to the ground, doesn’t beg the weather to give Nene back to her- because there’s nothing that one painfully human girl can do against the changing seasons.

 

Instead, she dries her tears, and she takes the long way home.

 

(Snatched away by the breeze before she leaves; the final red maple leaf, the last breath of autumn.)

 

-

 

Aoi works through the list of things she must do before the date on her crumpled return ticket arrives. She packs her bags, leaves Sumire with a list of instructions on how to care for the garden, goes with Sakura to meet Mei after a routine hospital checkup and eats her entire weight in souffle pancakes. She claps and prays at the shrine one last time, gets bitten by Yako on her way back down, and picks up groceries on the way home. (She’s decided, now, that Sumire’s mish-mash attempt at sukiyaki is her favourite meal. Fresh vegetables or otherwise.) 

 

And then, finally; Aoi heads back to the lake one final time.

 

She doesn’t call- the lake is frozen solid and her breath traces cold spirals into the air- but it would feel wrong to leave without standing beneath the boughs of the evergreen one more time.

 

It’s then that she sees it, bright white against the frosted grass.

 

Nene’s mask, laid at the foot of the tree like an offering to a god. (There is no god here- only Akane Aoi and the feelings she’s come to love.) Aoi holds the mask to her chest as if it’s Nene who stands before her- something precious and irreplaceable.

 

Aoi is no god, but still she accepts the gift gracefully.

 

She doesn’t let go of the mask; not when she leaves the evergreen behind, not when Sumire calls to her through the trees that they’re going to miss the bus, not when she hugs Sumire tightly at the train station and swears that, as soon as she can, she’ll come home.

 

“You’d better,” Sumire jokes, ruffling a hand through Aoi’s untied hair. “The house is too big for just one of us.”

 

Aoi struggles onto the train with her suitcase. Outside; the first snow of winter begins to fall.

 

-

 

“What on earth do you have there?” There are no warm, fond greetings at the opposite station- just Akane Hina staring down at the mask as if it’s caused her personal offence. It almost makes Aoi laugh, just how little has changed on her mother’s end of the line.

 

Aoi herself- she’s an entirely different person. (Or, at the very least, she’s the person she was always afraid to be.)

 

“It’s something precious to me,” Aoi says, firm and confident. “A gift from a close friend.”

 

She hangs it on her wall when she gets home, the kanji for water nestled comfortably amongst the fairy lights. It’s with a sense of smug satisfaction she notes that her mother can see it from the doorway, every time she steps inside.

 

-

 

Winter is long and spring is longer still, but Aoi waits patiently.

 

(She made a promise, after all.) 

 

-

 

The house by the shrine gate is unchanged come summer- as strong and unshakeable as Sumire herself. The garden needs a bit of work, there’s a painting of the lake above her desk courtesy of Shijima Mei’s eye for detail, and the tea Sakura gifted to her last autumn is still hidden away in the kitchen cupboards.

 

All that, Aoi will appreciate later.

 

First, she runs; runs through the forest, past the maple trees, to the clearing where the evergreen grows tall and strong and ancient. The mask sits skewed upon one side of Aoi’s head, the forest in summertime beautiful and alive.

 

And, exactly as promised, Nene is waiting.

 

Stood by the evergreen with Aoi’s old watch in one clawed hand; lotus petals in her hair and smiling so brightly that it’s contagious. Summer has breathed life back into her, and Aoi could almost cry out of happiness.

 

She doesn’t, because that would be mortifying at best. 

 

Instead, Aoi throws the mask aside and falls into Nene’s open arms.

 

(She’s warm as summer, and Aoi is home .)