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It snows on the first day of December.

 

Nene falls asleep in Autumn, and by the time she’s woken up, a Winter wonderland has frozen to life outside her bedroom window. All bitter-cold air and thick powdery snow, still too early for cars and foot-traffic to have turned it to slush. Winter may not be Nene’s favourite season- but she’s not going to argue with anyone who tells her it’s the prettiest .

 

Nene has every intent to stand around all morning, watching snowflakes spiral down and melt into the drifts below. Only her fourth alarm of the day is enough to remind her of more important things; like breakfast, showering, feeding Black Canyon before he starts threatening a revolution by tossing bedding between the bars of his cage. It might be the earliest Nene has woken up this year- save for the hiking trip she took with Kou and his siblings a few months back- but excitement-stress-hope is more than enough to keep her on her toes.

 

(Nene has perfected the art of getting from her bed to her school desk in two thirds of the time it would take a normal person. This, however, is one day where she can’t afford to be late.)

 

Shoes on, scarf wrapped tight around her neck, hair tied into twintails because her mom told her it looked charming a few weeks ago; and Nene is out of the door. Then back in the door- because she forgot the most important part of the whole morning, the thing that kept her up worrying and hoping late into the night, the reason why her fingertips are still covered in gel pen no matter how hard she scrubs them in the bathroom sink-

 

The confession letter.

 

It snows on the first day of December, and Yashiro Nene is finally going to confess her undying love to Adachi-san in class 1-B. 

 

( Undying love might be pushing it a bit, she reasons, as she kicks her way through the snow on the familiar route to school. In all honesty, she’s never really spoken to Adachi beyond picking up his book for him in the corridor and helping him carry a bag of racquets down to the gym once. But he’s on the school tennis team, he has fluffy hair that Nene kind of wants to scrub her hands through to see if it’s as soft as it looks or if it’s just stuck full of product and- nobody ever said you had to talk to someone to fall in love with them. That’s what dates are for.)

 

The school gates loom ahead. Nene swears her heart is trying to hammer its way out of her chest, full of butterflies and other winged insects that get stuck in her throat and make her feel close to nauseous with excitement. (She kind of wishes she didn’t help herself to an extra portion of breakfast for good luck.)

 

Nene kicks the snow from her boots, Tsuchigomori-sensei from the science department makes a passing comment about how the world must be ending if Yashiro Nene is in school on time, and- right on schedule- Adachi walks into the building.

 

Holding hands with his girlfriend.

 

(He doesn’t even stop to say hi when he walks past. Swinging his tennis racquet into her chest would probably hurt less.)

 

Nene’s despair lasts approximately until the end of first period- a whole hour-and-a-half where the world feels like it’s ending and not even the slow spiral of the snow outside can lift her spirits. Despair is then replaced by a sledgehammer of embarrassment that nearly knocks her out of her chair in the first few minutes of history class. Because of course Adachi already has a girlfriend. He’s tall and cool and he plays sports- it’s no surprise that half the school would want to date him. And besides, Nene is- Nene. She knows she’s surprisingly strong, gets surprisingly good grades in home economics, and can be surprisingly funny when she tries really, really hard but- other than that- she’s not got a whole lot going for her.

 

And yet there she was, writing poetry by the light of her desk lamp and setting five alarms to make sure she woke up on time to catch Adachi behind the shoe lockers with a confession letter and at least five winter date plans in mind. Curling her hands into fists around the hem of her skirt, Nene stares into her history worksheet until the words double up and blur into each other. She’s not sure what’s more embarrassing; the confession letter itself, or the fact that she thought she actually had a chance. (She buries that thought deep, deep down- alongside fears about the future and constant worry about her friends’ uncertain home lives.)

 

Instead, she focuses on the confession letter, sitting in her bag like a burning question all day long. Nene can’t throw it away at school- not without the mortifying prospect of someone finding it - but keeping it nestled in her bag is just as much of a risk. One wrong move when pulling out a textbook or fetching a pen, and onto the floor it goes. Addressed to Adachi in glittery red gel pen, it’s not exactly subtle. 

 

Lunchtime is a disaster waiting to happen. Nene extracts her bento with the caution of someone disarming a bomb, and spends the whole hour sat on the floor of the third floor girls bathroom with her bag wedged in a vice grip between her legs. Necessary precautions to avoid Amane’s terrible habit of going through people’s belongings in search of food. He might be busy with penning down responses to a crumpled sheet of maths homework- but Nene isn’t going to take any risks.

 

(Halfway through lunch, Kou taps her on the shoulder and asks her if she’s doing okay. Amane just laughs and tells her she looks constipated. Nene stops sitting on her bag just long enough to bounce an empty eraser sleeve off his forehead.)

 

By the time school is finished and the sun has already started to dip lower in the sky, it’s begun to snow again. The whole world is blanketed in winter- quiet and still as footsteps and tyre-tracks are buried with every second that passes- and Nene decides to take the long route home. One part to take in the way snow clings to the tree branches and settles comfortably in doorways, one part to put off doing her homework, and three parts because she really needs to get rid of the confession letter before she gets home. If her mom finds it in her wastepaper bin then she’ll ask about it in that gentle been there, done that tone, and if she asks about it, then Nene will probably start crying.

 

Halfway down a quiet sidestreet criss-crossed with tyre tracks in the snow, Nene seriously considers burning the letter.

 

Then she spots the house.

 

It’s an old thing with boarded up windows and peeling paint on the walls; all cracked roof tiles, creaking rafters and long-since abandoned. Nene has seen its picture in the local newspaper more times than she can count- a troublesome building that’s too historic to tear down, but too damaged to fix- sitting there on the edge of town like a forgotten toy because nobody knows quite what to do with it. The garden is a tangle of snow-laden weeds that will only bloom to life come spring, a creeping mass of ivy holds the walls together, a grand holly bush towers over the garden wall with red berries stark against white snowfall. It’s beautiful as much as it’s falling apart and- most importantly- it has a letterbox attached to the wall.

 

Nobody is going to deliver letters to an abandoned house on the edge of town. With luck, Nene’s confession will sit in there untouched for days until the ink becomes too damp to read and the letters bleed together- and nobody will ever have to witness her foolish hopes and dreams. It’s perfect . Nene fights her way past the holly bush, gets her hands thoroughly pricked by its leaves, then prepares herself to wrench through years of disuse and rust covering the letterbox door.

 

The first surprise is that the letterbox opens with ease. 

 

The second surprise is that there’s already something inside.

 

It’s clearly not been there long- barely even damp from the snow, a pristine white envelope sealed with a neat line of holly-print washi tape. Nene checks the front and the back and the front again, but finds no address, no return to sender, no indication as to who is posting their letters to an old, crumbling house that hasn’t been lived in for years. All footprints on the road have been filled in by snowfall- and Nene finally understands why people like to write mysteries set in winter so much.

 

There’s a sensible part of Nene which tells her to put the envelope back where she found it and move on with her day none the wiser. Nothing is stopping her from burning the confession letter, if that’s what it comes to. 

 

Then there’s the part of Nene that went through a long-lived phase of reading her mom’s collection of trashy mystery novels like they were a breakfast snack a few years ago. The part of her that sees an unanswered question sitting in an abandoned letterbox on the edge of town, and wants to know far more than she wants to be mindful of social etiquette.

 

She blames her mom as she reaches down to tear open the washi tape sealing the envelope shut. She’s always busy people-watching from their apartment window and reading the gossip section in the local newspaper; nosiness must be a hereditary trait.

 

Less than a paragraph in, and it becomes overwhelmingly clear that opening the letter is not something Nene should have done. 

 

Addressed to nobody and signed with no name at the end, it’s more a stream of consciousness than it is a letter, penned down in handwriting that’s clearly struggling to maintain its usual neat lines. It’s the sort of thing that’s not meant to be read, and somehow, stupidly - Nene can’t take her eyes away. The person behind the letter writes about loneliness, the feeling of not fitting in carving them away from the inside like they’re a piece of meat, a disconnect between who they are and who they’re supposed to be that’s so huge it feels like they’re drowning in it. 

 

They write about a garden in springtime; huge and beautiful and dead now that winter has come. They write about how they don’t know what to do with their hands, anymore. 

 

(They write that, if they don’t spill these feelings down, then they fear they’ll swallow them whole.)

 

Snowflakes settling above the words like badly-placed punctuation, Nene feels terrible .

 

Private thoughts like confessions that didn’t work out and letters delivered to abandoned houses are not things that are meant to be read- and yet here she is. The tape sealing the letter is already torn so there’s no way for her to pretend that nothing happened, and even if she could, it would keep her up at night regardless. The person who wrote the letter mentioned school and Kamome Gakuen is the only one in the area; Nene doesn’t think she could survive under the thought of passing someone in the corridor having read their darkest secrets, then trying haphazardly to cover up the evidence. 

 

So instead she pulls out her notepad and pencil case, and starts writing a response.

 

Nene doesn’t know how long she stands out there in the cold, writing out terrible apologies that don’t feel sincere enough before striking them out and starting over again. Snow melts uncomfortably into her hair and by the time she’s written down something that feels just on the edge of right, the street lamps are flickering into life all down the road. 

 

Nene writes that she’s sorry. That she read the letter when she shouldn’t have, because she’s too nosy for her own good and she’s always been best at sticking her hands where they don’t belong. That if it means anything, though- she understands, knows what it’s like to feel apart; a puzzle piece in the wrong box, still trying to make herself fit into the gaps. That she’s been there; forcing herself to be someone she’s not just to catch the attention of boys who’ve never cared about her, until she finally found friends who can laugh at her weird jokes and listen when she talks about fish for an hour over lunch break. That she hopes the person behind the letter’s sad, sad words can find friends like that one day, too. (In brackets at the bottom, Nene writes that she found out her crush was dating someone else this morning and now she’s standing out in the snow ‘cause she doesn’t know how to dispose of an embarrassing confession letter- how sad is that? )

 

Things kind of suck sometimes- she pens down in messy handwriting that slips off the lines every time she shivers. But at least the snow is pretty.

 

Nene doesn’t sign her name at the bottom of the letter- folding it up tightly for lack of an envelope. Then, as an afterthought, she peels the heart sticker off the back of her failed confession letter and presses it on to seal it shut. 

 

She drops both messages back into that old, abandoned letterbox, and, with a final look over her shoulder, makes her way home through the snow.

 

-

 

Back in her bedroom, Nene tears up the confession letter, mixes it with her hamster’s bedding, and declares herself a genius.

 

(By the time she kicks off her slippers and climbs into bed with her thoughts full of snowy days and mystery letters, Adachi is the last thing on her mind.)

 

-

 

“Nene,” a voice cuts into the fast-tap of Nene’s fingers against her phone screen, ruining the full-combo that she’s been working hard at beneath her desk for the past minute and a half. It leaves a sad missed note in a sea of perfects once the song has ended, and she was so close to-

 

“Nene?” The voice asks again, a little closer this time.

 

Nene closes her game before despair can consume her entirely, and turns to meet Akane Aoi’s amiable smile. “Yeah?”

 

“We’re both cleaning the board today,” Aoi gently shakes one of her board erasers in emphasis, making the air dusty with chalk. Cleanup is already in full-swing around them- chairs shifting and supplies getting tidied away before the school day ends. Nene hadn’t even noticed that class had finished, preoccupied with more important things- like the snow outside the window and the high score on this week’s favourite idol game. (And a letter, sealed with a heart sticker and left in a letterbox on the outskirts of town a few days beforehand.) 

 

With a shake of her head, Nene takes the eraser and follows Aoi over to the board.

 

That polite smile stays firmly on Aoi’s face even as she wipes stubborn maths equations off the corners of the board, and Nene has never really known what to make of it.

 

They’ve been in the same class since the first day of middle school, but Aoi still remains something of a mystery to Nene. Always smiling, always sweet; the most popular girl in class. It’s like the whole school is hanging on her every word- some people more than most- and Nene finds it kind of terrifying to stand next to her, getting chalk dust all over her tights. It makes her painfully aware of her own clumsy feet, her own too-obvious feelings.

 

Aoi is sweet, yet she rejects every hopeful confession thrown her way. Everyone knows her name, yet she only eats lunch with others when they’re the ones who ask to join her. She smiles- always bright and warm and lovely- but Nene doesn’t think she’s ever seen it reach her eyes. Trying to guess what she’s thinking has always felt like peering through frosted glass.

 

“Can you get the chalk in the top corner?” Aoi leans over to get her attention, then, her arm brushing lightly against Nene’s own. “I can’t quite reach.”

 

As if a summoning incantation has been spoken into the middle of the busy classroom, Akane is by Aoi’s side in seconds. Like he’s a permanent part of her shadow- unable to be removed. All I can reach that for you, Ao-chan and don’t you worry. 

 

Aoi tells him one point for effort, then balances on her tiptoes to clean the corner herself.

 

She’s still smiling, all the way. (Nene doesn’t understand her at all.)

 

-

 

By the time Nene decides to head back to that old house on the edge of town, the snow is already melting into the pavement cracks. Black ice coats the streets but it still feels like a winter miracle when she pries open the letterbox- (hands shaking from cold and nervous energy that’s clung to her ribcage all the way from the school gates)- and her letter is gone.

 

Instead there’s a new envelope; pristine white and sealed with holly-print washi tape. In place of a stamp sits the heart sticker that Nene left on her snow-damp reply, and she doesn’t need a dear Nene to know that this one's for her; and her alone.

 

Nobody outside of Nene’s immediate family has sent her a letter before. Even just holding it in her hands is enough to make the winter chill disappear. 

 

The letter’s handwriting is neater this time, more controlled within the lines it sits on. They thank Nene for her honesty, admit that it was a shock to find their letter pried open and a reply tucked in neatly beside it, explain that they might’ve been angry at first, but not any more. They talk about how they’ve never shared these feelings before- but that it helped them sleep easy at night to know that there’s even just one person out there in the snow who understands . They ask Nene if she’s ever felt like she belongs elsewhere; frozen knee-deep in a world that wasn’t made for her. They ask Nene if she was in love with the person she poured her heart into a misplaced confession letter for.

 

Then, at the very bottom, they write; perhaps the snow is pretty, after all.

 

(On her way home, Nene buys some envelopes, some letter paper, and a roll of winter-themed washi tape. Her literature homework can wait another hour or two.)

 

-



This strange new routine is not what Nene expected December to bring, but she still welcomes it with open arms.

 

The snow fails to melt fully from the streets under the chill that sets in that refuses to shift, and every morning Nene takes the long route to school despite her frozen fingertips. Forever passing by that old abandoned house with it’s snow-laden holly bushes and ivy-covered walls, in the hope that something will be waiting for her in the letterbox. Come afternoon, she returns with a letter of her own and, sometime in the space between late-evening and early-sunrise, a reply never fails to appear.

 

Neither of them use their names, all footprints in the snow are covered by the time Nene arrives. There’s no clues to their identity aside from flower-scented paper and lines of neat handwriting and- Nene almost hopes it stays that way.

 

Because they write about their deepest fears and insecurities, the things that keep them up at night and make the winter seem a few degrees colder. Nene pens down things that she hasn’t talked about even with her closest friends, hidden behind the anonymity of that old letterbox on the edge of town.

 

The person behind the letters writes sad, pretty words about how they can’t fit in at school when everyone looks at them and sees an ideal rather than a person, how they feel a gaping wound where their childhood friend once was and they don’t know how to deal with hating the person he’s become, how they’ve spent so long placed on a pedestal that they don’t know how to look anywhere aside from down

 

And, in return, Nene shares her fears that nobody will ever love her clumsy, careless self the way she is, that she’s struggling in most of her classes and it leaves her feeling like her dreams are just out of reach, that she worries about her friends so much it hurts most days of the week and her hands are too small to fix the troubles they shoulder.

 

Neither of them offer advice, or tell the other emptily that it’s going to be okay ; but the steadily growing pile of envelopes in the corner of Nene’s room is more comforting than any well-meaning guidance could ever be. Like screaming out across the quiet winter rooftops, and someone, somewhere , shouting back.

 

(Maybe Nene has brushed shoulders with that someone in assembly. Maybe they’ve held open a door for Nene while she was wobbling down a corridor with a stack of papers larger than she is tall. Maybe they’re even in the same class. It’s exciting; in a way that’s magical and interesting and new .)

 

The day after a breeze sweeps in and shakes the last few stubborn leaves free from their branches, the person behind the letters gives themself a name. Holly- sits at the bottom of the page that morning, signed in neat katakana. Made of red berries printed on signature washi tape and grand, snow-laden bushes standing sentry around that quiet old house.

 

(In the middle of the night, Nene comes up with a name of her own. One that sounds like creeping leaves holding tired stone walls together, and the tinny sounds of a Christmas carol playing through the kitchen radio that evening. Ivy- she writes.)

 

Armed with a name to assign to handwriting and envelopes, there’s nothing to stop Nene from telling her friends the reason she’s begun to leave school in such a hurry each day. She doesn’t mention the contents of the letters- that’s between her and Holly alone- but she doesn’t need that to describe the magic of it all. The excitement of communicating through letters with a stranger she may have met more than once, passing one another in the corridors none-the-wiser. 

 

“It’s like I’ve been sucked into a romantic mystery novel,” Nene sighs, curled up near the sinks in the third floor girls bathroom while Amane and Kou arm-wrestle over the last chocolate bar. 

 

“You sure it’s okay, though?” Kou asks, always concerned about the safety of others. “You could be talking to anyone.”

 

Amane takes that brief moment of apprehension as an opportunity to slam Kou’s hand into the windowsill and claim his prize. “I think it’s dumb,” he announces, then, half the bar of chocolate in his mouth. “Just exchange numbers and communicate with them like a normal person.”

 

Kou flicks him in the forehead for that. “Like you’re one to talk about communicating .”

 

Shaking her head with a sigh, Nene returns her bento to her bag, and decides that this lunch break is going to be a long one.

 

-

 

December is clearly intent on doing its worst, with a blizzard that sweeps in overnight, takes out the power cables outside of Nene’s apartment and knocks down a tree in the school yard. More than a little convinced that digging around in the snow would be warmer than the apartment without proper heating, Nene is the first to sign up for the long task of clearing dead branches away from the school garden.

 

Nene is fond of the garden, anyway. It’s full of life come springtime, and helping out with plant potting in exchange for some fresh vegetables to add to her mom’s signature curry is always a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon. It’d be a shame to see it damaged beyond repair by a bad snowstorm and a tree with its roots sunk in unstable soil.

 

So, after class finishes for the day, Nene wraps up warm and heads out towards the garden. It’s Aoi who greets her by the gates, her hair tied in a bun instead of its usual style, a garden waste bag already half-full of plant matter by her side. Her usual smile tips towards something more genuine when she spots Nene approaching and ticks another name off her list.

 

“There’s some gloves for you to borrow over by the greenhouse,” Aoi instructs, pointing to the corner where there’s already a few other people pulling on hats and tying loose hair away. Surprisingly, though, no sight of Akane. Nene always assumed that Aoi and him were joined at the hip, never more than a few metres apart despite Aoi’s constant, sweetly-worded dismissal of any praise he throws her way.

 

Aoi thanks her for her help, and Nene puts that thought aside for now. The tree- branches splayed all across the empty vegetable patches- is a much more pressing issue.

 

Nene ends up working alongside Aoi, falling into an easy rhythm where she hauls debris from beneath the tree roots and Aoi transfers it neatly to the garden waste bag beside her. Snow begins to fall again part-way through and the air is almost cold enough to make eyes water, but keeping her hands busy is just enough for Nene to forget about the chill. 

 

Talking with Aoi helps, too. In their own little corner of the garden, awkward small-talk blooms into something which almost resembles an actual conversation- Nene still might not know what to think of Aoi and her painted-on smiles, but maybe talking to her isn’t as intimidating as she once thought. Cutting up a fallen branch so it’ll fit in the bag without tearing holes, Aoi sighs about Takeda-sensei’s impossible literature homework. Extracting her arm from between the tree roots, Nene nods so hard in agreement that her hat almost falls off.

 

Someone is playing old-timey jazz from a handheld radio by the greenhouse, the sound of it drifting across the garden. The wind is bitter-cold enough to burn the back of her throat past the knitted fabric of her scarf- though Nene can’t say she minds it at all. Maybe, come spring, she’ll even join the gardening club for real.

 

“I really can’t thank you enough for helping out,” when she returns with a new bag to replace the one they just filled, Aoi’s smile is as close to genuine as Nene has ever seen it. “The gardening club doesn’t have many members, so we’d be here all night if we had to clean this mess up by ourselves. It was really kind of you to volunteer.”

 

Nene laughs awkwardly at that, arms still full of branches. “How mad would you be if I said I only signed up for this ‘cause the storm took out the heating back at home?” 

 

“Furious,” Aoi replies, like she means anything but.

 

“I mean- I’m doing it out of the goodness of my heart now !” Nene presses a dramatic hand to her chest for emphasis. “I just had. Ulterior motives at the start.”

 

That gets a laugh out of Aoi- a tiny one, but a laugh all the same. For some reason, the sound of it makes Nene’s entire day better. 

 

“You’re helping out either way-” when she continues, there’s something about Aoi’s expression that’s softer than usual. “I’m pretty sure half the people who signed up are just here because the gardening club offered hot chocolate afterwards.” 

 

A quick glance around the garden tells Nene that people are probably more interested in Aoi sparing them a second glance than they are in the hot chocolate- but she doesn’t mention that out loud. ( Popular girls are still scary even when they’re nice- she thinks to herself with a shudder that she passes off as nothing more than the cold and- that brings her question from earlier rising quickly to the surface again.)

 

“Speaking of other people-” Nene starts, because sticking her nose into other people’s business is becoming a habit she just can’t shake. “Where’s Akane? I thought he would’ve been the first person to sign up.” ( He’d probably clear the whole garden by himself if you asked him to- goes unspoken.)

 

The blades of Aoi’s garden shears slice through a fallen branch, loud as thunder in the gap between songs playing through the radio. If snowfall always muffles sounds and makes the winter quiet, then this feels as if the clouds have consumed every bit of noise, leaving nothing but deafening silence behind. For one, two, three awful seconds, the world holds its breath.

 

Then the music starts again. Aoi picks up the branch- fractured in two like a broken limb- and Nene’s lungs can finally defrost.

 

“Minamoto-san is keeping him busy with student council business,” Aoi replies, lightly. When she smiles, it flashes too many teeth; white and cold as snowfall.

 

-

 

Traipsing back home with frozen hands, Nene realises that the Aoi who everyone sees- who is sweet and kind and smiling- might not be the real Aoi at all.

 

There’s something more going on than a girl playing hard-to-get with her childhood friend. Nene might not be good at noticing things- it took her a week to spot that Amane got his ears pierced and she had to be sat down for a talk before she finally caught on that her mom and Mitsuba Yukie from the nursing department were more than just close friends- but just this once, Nene sees something that nobody else has.

 

(It keeps her up at night, more than the snow outside her bedroom window has ever done.) 

 

-

 

On Monday, Holly writes about not deserving their place in the world ( impostor syndrome- they write- have you ever heard of it? ). 

 

On Tuesday, Holly writes about their childhood friend, whose window they used to throw paper planes at and whose shoes they used to put earthworms in, who doesn’t even know their favourite colour any more. ( Have you ever lost a person like that?- they ask- where they’re standing right in front of you, but you still feel as if someone has died?) 

 

On Wednesday, Holly writes about the camellia flowers in their garden that somehow always bloom through the worst winter storms. ( Camellia flowers and your letters- they admit- are two of the things I look forward to most. )

 

On Thursday morning, Nene reads Holly’s letters from start to finish, then once again- and feels warmth blooming like winter miracles and meltwater behind her ribs.

 

On Thursday afternoon, Nene tucks a broad red petal from the poinsettia plant in the kitchen into her envelope, before sealing it tight with snowflake-patterned tape.

 

And, on Friday morning, there’s a camellia petal waiting for her in return.

 

( Holly is just a faceless voice behind honest words and pretty handwriting. On Saturday, Nene realises that she might just be falling in love with them.)

 

-

 

Nene doesn’t mean to arrive at school late. She woke up on time and everything, but Black canyon decided to make a run for it when she opened his cage to feed him which threw off her entire morning, then her mom was in an especially good mood so she made pancakes for breakfast, then she left her homework on her desk and slipped in the snow while running back to get it. Stopping by the letterbox to collect an envelope addressed to Ivy took extra time that Nene really didn’t have, and she just couldn’t help stopping to take photos of the pomeranian dressed in tiny winter boots that she passed on the way to school.

 

She graciously accepts the detention Tsuchigomori-sensei issues as soon as she steps into class ten minutes late- and doesn’t complain about it to Kou for ten minutes over lunchtime at all.

 

When Nene finally gets to leave school, the sun has dipped low against the skyline, barely visible through thick pillowy clouds that blend into the snowy landscape below. Her letter to Holly sits in her bag impatiently, and Nene just hopes she isn’t too late. She’d run all the way to the abandoned house if it wasn’t for the snow- treacherously slippery beneath her winter boots.

 

Nene turns into the street, still criss-crossed by tyre tracks and lit up with festive lights and- she almost falls on her face in the snow again when she sees someone standing there, right by the letterbox.

 

It’s Aoi- her nose red from the cold, bundled up in a thick winter coat, staring down at the letter sitting in her gloved hands. A neat, white envelope, sealed with holly-print tape.

 

“Aoi?” Nene asks in confusion, at the same time that Aoi startles and almost topples backwards into the holly bush.

 

“Nene!” She laughs, the sound of it awkward and tense. “I was just- I live around here and I spotted this letter on the ground while I was walking back from school. I don’t recognise the name on it, so-”

 

Ivy- reads the ink on the envelope, smudged slightly by meltwater. 

 

“That’s me,” Nene gestures to it awkwardly, and feels like a kid that’s been caught stealing candy. Childish, silly. “I’m Ivy.

 

From where she’s stood beside the letterbox, Aoi blinks once then once again, wide-eyed with confusion and something else unreadable. Nene wilts under it, reaching to tug at the ends of her scarf sheepishly.

 

“I’ve been exchanging messages with someone using this old letterbox- silly, right?” Nene might be happy to tell her friends the reason why most of her money goes towards new pens and envelopes, but admitting it out loud to someone like Aoi- not quite a stranger and not quite a friend- just makes it seem ridiculous. 

 

Frozen in the snow-filled gap between them, Aoi appears to agree. She’s staring, an indecipherable expression on her face, and she must think Nene is stupid for spending all her thoughts on a person whose name she doesn’t even know. Nene has always been a hopeless romantic, after all, falling for any pretty person with a nice smile who spares a glance in her direction- and apparently pretty words about deepest secrets and lifelong insecurities are enough to catch her hook, line and sinker too.

 

Writing her heart out, falling for faceless voices- when Aoi stares at her like that, it makes Nene feel hopeless.

 

“You’ve been-” Aoi starts, then, a tremor at the back of her voice that Nene doesn’t understand. (She’s never understood anything about Akane Aoi.) “You’ve been leaving letters here?”

 

“I know, I know- it’s kinda weird to exchange letters with someone you’ve never met.” Nene knows she must be flushed red to the tips of her ears as she speaks. “But they don’t know who I am either! And, I mean, it’s not like I’ve never thought about meeting them- even if the anonymity was exciting at first.”

 

(Writing to Holly is as magical as it’s ever been. But, as December moves on and the days grow colder, Nene has found herself increasingly, selfishly , wanting more. Staring through her bedroom window at night as the snow cuts past the streetlamp beams, thinking about being able to talk to Holly more than once a day, running into them between classes, offering them a hug and a shoulder to cry on instead of just a handwritten note that won’t reach them until the following day. It’s because Nene is hopeless that she was happy for so long with nothing more than mystery to go on, and it’s because Nene is hopeless that now she dreams of something more.)

 

Aoi remains silent for a long, long time. Nene fears that she might have ruined any chance she had at getting to know her better.

 

Then, finally-

 

“I could help you figure out who they are, if you’d like?” Aoi offers.

 

Nene goes to further explain herself, before Aoi’s words catch up to her on a three second delay. “Wait, what?”

 

Seeking Holly out is a prospect that Nene has constantly buried- hiding behind anonymity is what makes them honest, and knowing might tip the miracle on its head- but Aoi’s sheepish, insistent smile is somehow enough to trick that thought into staying. It sits there; hopefully

 

By the letterbox, Aoi’s hands still clutch the letter tight, creasing its damp edges. “It’d be like a mystery novel,” she offers. “I think it might be fun.”

 

For a brief moment, Nene entertains the possibility that Aoi might just be making fun of her. But everything- from the way Aoi looks down at where her boots are half-buried in the snow, to the awkward smile she offers that’s somehow both unreadable and the most sincere expression Nene has ever seen- everything seems genuine. Aoi plays with the edge of the envelope for a second or two longer, before finally handing it over. There’s a half-second where her gloved hands brush Nene’s own, the woven fabric damp like she’d spent an age searching around in the snow.

 

“I never thought you’d enjoy stuff like that, Aoi,” Nene admits then, rocking back on her heels. “You always seemed too cool for that sort of thing.”

 

“I-” hands twitching at her side like she doesn’t know what to do with them any more, Aoi avoids Nene’s gaze entirely. “I’m not very cool at all, Nene.”

 

(Even after Nene has tucked her own envelope into the letterbox and left with a promise to meet at lunch the following day- she still can’t figure out why Aoi sounded almost sad.)

 

-

 

The writing on the envelope thankfully took the worst of the water damage, and so the message inside Holly’s letter is still readable. It’s a short, sad thing; checking if Nene is okay in the absence of her usual reply- ( Did you get sick after being caught out in the snow? It asks. Please don’t worry about coming every day.) 

 

There’s a part of Nene which feels terrible for making an agreement to go behind Holly’s back, when they’ve never mentioned wanting anything more than a faceless voice to share secrets with. 

 

There’s a larger part of Nene- a part that’s hopeful and foolish and wears its heart on its sleeve- which just hopes that they’ll understand.

 

-

 

“So,” Aoi starts over lunchtime, her chair pulled close to Nene’s desk by the classroom window. It’s snowing again outside. “What do you know so far about the person writing the letters?”

 

“They mentioned that they’re in highschool,” Nene frowns, pushing a stray carrot piece around the bottom of her lunchbox. “So they probably come to Kamome since this is the only one in the area. I know their handwriting, and that they have a camellia plant in their garden. They’re probably in a school club too, ‘cause they always seem to pick the letters I leave up late in the afternoon.”

 

“Anything else?” Aoi prompts.

 

Sinking bonelessly into her desk with a sigh of despair, Nene shakes her head. “They’ve told me so much super personal stuff, but I don’t know anything about them . They’ve always done a better job at keeping things anonymous than I have.”

 

When Nene hauls herself upright again, she’s expecting Aoi to look annoyed- anyone would be, dealing with an impossible task from foolish Nene- but instead she seems almost glad . Just another expression from Akane Aoi that she doesn’t have a clue how to read.

 

“The handwriting is probably a good place to start, right?” Aoi suggests, then. “I can ask Akane to lend us some old student council forms after school, then we can compare the writing on them.”

 

Her words don’t falter this time but it still brings Nene back to the garden in early December; Aoi’s shears fracturing a branch in two as the world held its breath, all from Akane’s name being spoken into the frost-cold air. Nene goes to tell Aoi that she doesn’t need to do anything she doesn’t want to- but she’s already packing her things away as the lunch bell rings.

 

-

 

True to her suggestion, Aoi meets Nene outside the student council room after class- a stack of old signup sheets from school trips the previous year piled high in her arms. On their way back down to the empty classroom, Nene whispers furtively that they’re probably breaking at least three confidentiality rules, and it drags a sharp, amused laugh out of Aoi. (Nene kind of wants to hear the same sound over and over again.) 

 

They settle themselves at Nene’s desk again, face to face with a stack of forms each and a long afternoon of sorting ahead of them. To make it feel less like a chore, Aoi pulls out her phone and sets up a playlist of festive piano music; mellow notes that sing out through the quiet classroom and the noise of the sports teams battling through the snow outside. It’s comfortable, in a way Nene never guessed sitting opposite Akane Aoi could be before December swept in.

 

Nene carefully scans through each document for writing that matches Holly’s clean lines and neat characters, growing more disheartened by the second. Aoi sorts through her papers at a pace that’s alarmingly efficient, cleaving her pile in half before Nene has even made it through a quarter of hers. 

 

She’s in the middle of telling Aoi about the time her hamster got loose in the stairwell of her apartment block, when something begins to bother her.

 

“How do you know what Holly’s handwriting looks like?” Nene asks, before she can talk herself out of it. Shuffling through her stack of papers, Aoi freezes like a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck. Her surprise is gone in an instant, though- so fast that Nene starts to suspect she imagined it.

 

“I saw it on the front of the envelope,” Aoi places another form face-down on the top of her pile as she explains. “I have a good memory.”

 

It’s common knowledge that Aoi has scored top marks in every single one of Ueno-sensei’s notoriously difficult English quizzes since the year began. Nene doesn’t doubt her claims for a second.

 

“Ao-chan is so smart,” with a sigh, Nene stretches her arms above her head lazily- then pauses mid-air. “Do you mind if I call you Ao-chan? I just figured it would be fine ‘cause that’s what all your friends call you, but-”

 

Nene feels her words catch in her throat, when she notices that Aoi is smiling. Not that false, sweet smile with too many teeth on show- the real deal- all wobbly at the edges, red at the tips of her ears, making her eyes scrunch up at the corners a bit and- Nene feels as if she’s won the damn lottery. 

 

“Ao-chan is fine,” Aoi replies, once she’s schooled her face back into its usual neutral calm. (At the edge of her voice, though, Nene can still hear her grinning loud and clear.)

 

Really, looking back, Nene isn’t sure why she thought Aoi was intimidating in the first place. Her own fault, perhaps, for refusing to look below the surface. She’s about to tell Aoi as such, when the classroom door slides open and a loud cough splits through the silence and piano music. Tsuchigomori-sensei stands in the doorway, waving a bunch of keys back and forth for emphasis. 

 

“I’m not going to ask what the two of you are doing,” he starts, raising an eyebrow at their totally rule-abiding stack of borrowed signup forms. “But I will have to lock you in if you’re not done in fifteen minutes.”

 

Throwing a sheepish grin across the classroom, Nene goes to swipe half the papers off the desk and into her bag; succeeding only in dropping most of them on the floor. Thankfully, Tsuchigomori doesn’t make any further comments before leaving- possibly because Nene is friends with Amane and that automatically lands her some extra points, or possibly because he’s just glad to see her hanging out with someone who isn’t a middle schooler for once. 

 

Either way, with Aoi helping her clear away the papers, they’re out of the classroom door in five minutes flat.

 

“We didn’t get to finish going through them all,” Nene despairs as Aoi returns the papers to their rightful home in the student council room, half-deflated against the cold window frame.

 

“Maybe looking for handwriting that matches isn’t a good idea after all,” Aoi offers gently in consolation. “People always write differently on their schoolwork than in personal letters, anyway.”

 

Nene goes to reply that her handwriting is just as illegible in both, but instead settles for telling Aoi that she’s probably right. Besides, revealing that she figured out Holly’s identity through a school trip signup form stolen from the student council room is hardly the winter miracle Nene has started to dream of. 

 

“It’s snowing pretty badly out there,” rejoining her by the window, Aoi peers past Nene at the blanket of white beyond the old school building, mouth pulled into a frown. “I didn’t think to bring an umbrella.”

 

“Well- there’s a cafe not far outside the school gates.” Pulling a loose thread from the hem of her skirt, Nene throws the offer out carelessly into the quiet corridors. “We could wait there together, just until the snow eases up.”

 

Aoi may have only agreed to spend time together while searching for mysterious faces behind mysterious letters- but Nene has very quickly started to enjoy her company regardless. She enjoys hanging out with her in the same sort of way she enjoys hanging out with Amane and Kou in the haunted third floor bathroom, or Mitsuba from the year below when his mom and hers decide home is the best place for date night. Nene thinks, one day, they could be friends. 

 

“I’d like that a lot.” Aoi replies. (It sounds almost like I think we could be friends, too. )

 

-

 

Later, shaking the snow from their boots in a cafe strung up with tacky Christmas lights, Nene buys a hot chocolate the size of her head and bests all of Aoi’s expectations by drinking the whole thing in ten minutes flat. (It kind of scalds her tongue a bit on the way down, but it’s well worth it for the way Aoi laughs around her gingerbread latte like she’s never had more fun in her life.)

 

-

 

If Nene’s efforts to study for her exams and tidy her room both come to a standstill, then it’s through no fault of her own. 

 

Every day she dutifully writes letters to that old abandoned house, waiting hopefully until morning for something in return. And then, whenever her head isn’t stuck in the snow-clouds thinking about secret writers and their secret letters- she’s spending time with Aoi. She’s become a familiar face over a startlingly short length of time; someone Nene has gladly begun to smile at during dull moments in class. 

 

They pair up to make a poster on Meiji era economics, Aoi sits at Nene’s desk to eat lunch three days out of five, and all their discussions about Holly’s true identity keep derailing into talk about hot chocolate and favorite weather and the aquarium in the next town along that Aoi has somehow never visited. 

 

Holly’s letters seem lighter too- nowadays. The paper rarely creases under Nene’s thumbs out of worry any more; because even if they write sad words about empty hallways and how looking at the balcony across the street feels like breaking a rib, it’s always followed up by something bright. They don’t write about loneliness so wide they can’t see across it, not when they’ve finally got someone to talk to. 

 

Aoi is sharp as a blade when she stops holding her tongue, Holly talks about hope more than they’ve ever done before, and Nene feels both sure-truths sitting warmly in her chest like the hot chocolate she keeps impulse-buying on the way back from school.

 

Comforting, safe; enough to fend off the worst of the snow.

 

Of course, while Nene appreciates her effort- (she really does!)- she can’t exactly say that Aoi has been helpful .

 

Her ideas usually range anywhere from impractical to bizarre, she’s great at knocking conversations ridiculously off-track, and she somehow manages to talk Nene out of all the schemes she sits up all night thinking about. When Nene proposes writing her number on the bottom of a letter, Aoi tells her that communicating through text would still be anonymous. When Nene suggests leaving a time and place for Holly to meet her, Aoi replies that Holly won’t show up if they don’t get the letter in time. When Nene falls into her chair with a frustrated sigh and announces that she’s just going to wait by the letterbox till someone shows up, Aoi reminds her gently that Holly would probably turn around and leave if they saw someone nearby.

 

Wise words that are immediately ruined when Aoi proposes that they search every stationary store in town to find Holly’s exact brand of washi tape.

 

If Nene didn’t know any better, she’d say that Aoi was trying to sabotage her.

 

Before school ends on Friday, Aoi announces her latest plan to figure out Holly’s identity. Nanamine Sakura from the broadcasting club, who receives more handwritten poems, confessions and horror stories to air on their bi-weekly radio show than they know what to do with. If Holly is whimsical enough to hide sealed messages in the letterbox of the oldest house in town, then surely Sakura would recognise their writing. It’s not Aoi’s worst idea, and Nene’s only alternative is spending Saturday tidying up her room- so she wraps up warm and takes a brisk walk into the center of town.

 

Aoi is already waiting for her beneath a tree that’s laden with snow, breathing warm air into the palms of her hands to fight off the chill that refuses to shift a centimeter. Winter may be pretty, but Nene longs to go outside and still be able to feel all of her toes afterwards. She tells Aoi as such on their way to the cafe that Sakura works weekends at, earning another of those genuine laughs- the sort that seems to come much easier, nowadays. 

 

Nanamine Sakura turns out to be the prettiest person Nene has ever had the fortune of sitting opposite- settled in a booth by the window with Aoi to her right and a pile of envelopes in front of her. She stares down at the intricate rings on each one of Sakura’s fingers, and feels significantly underdressed in her bunny-print sweater and magatama hairclips. 

 

“Does the handwriting look familiar to you?” Nene asks, trying not to look too closely at Sakura in case she ends up doing something dumb like choking on her drink or getting hair in her mouth. (She’s always been useless around pretty faces.)

 

From the opposite side of the table, Sakura looks like they’re about to say something, when Aoi sends them a look. A split second of wordless communication across the tabletop- there and gone again fast as lightning. Nene doesn’t even get the chance to dwell on it before Sakura is shaking their head and announcing that they’ve never seen writing like that before.

 

Within seconds, they somehow dash all of the stupid hopes that Nene spent a whole morning building up.

 

Nene slides down in her chair the moment Sakura has returned to their job; feeling all kinds of pathetic . “I’m starting to think this is a bad idea.”

 

Wordlessly, Aoi hooks an arm under her shoulder and hauls her back upright, before she can collapse into a sad puddle on the cafe floor. “That idea might not have worked out,” she starts. “But I’m sure there’s other-”

 

“I mean all of this.” Nene sighs, finally putting words to the uncomfortable feeling that’s followed her like a stormcloud from the moment she started wanting more than she’s been offered. “ Holly might be fine talking to me anonymously, but what if they don’t want anything other than that? If they don’t want to be found? I’m just assuming stuff and- I mean- even if they do want to be found, I doubt they’d be hoping for someone like me.”

 

“I-” When Aoi speaks, the sound of it is strained and uncomfortable and Nene already regrets opening her mouth. Even the gentle music in the cafe feels as if it’s dulled at the edge. “I’m sure they don’t feel like that, Nene. I think-” Aoi stalls again, hands wrapped around her mug despite the contents still looking hot enough to burn. “They’re probably just scared. If I was Holly - I’d be happy to find out it was you.” Aoi tucks a strand of hair awkwardly behind her ear, pointedly avoiding Nene’s gaze. 

 

Which is probably for the best; given the big, stupid tears that try their best to well up at the corners of Nene’s eyes, the strawberry-pink blush that threatens to swallow up her entire face. Nobody has ever said anything that sweet about her before (her mom doesn’t count).

 

Ao-chan ,” when Nene finally regains enough composure to reply, it sounds more like a whine than actual words. She buries her face in her palms, like that’ll do anything to help. “You’re gonna make me cry if you keep being so nice to me.”

 

Gently, Aoi tugs on the end of Nene’s scarf. “I’m just telling the truth, silly.”

 

(And, just for once, Nene thinks she might just believe it.)

 

Insecurities buried beneath layers of snow until Nene can spill them into a letter later that evening, the conversation somehow steers towards ice skating. Aoi has never done it before, the last time Nene went was years ago, and there’s a rink in the center of town set up for the winter season that’s less than a five minute walk away.

 

It’s a terrible idea- both in theory and in practice- but Nene still exchanges her snowboots and 900 yen for a pair of skates. 

 

Aoi is the one who's never skated before, but Nene somehow ends up clinging to her the entire time; a last-ditch attempt to avoid falling on her ass before she drags the both of them down onto the ice. (If Nene sticks her tongue out childishly at the small gaggle of elementary schoolers who stop to laugh at them, then only Aoi has to know.) 

 

By the time their hour nears its end, Aoi has just about discovered how to wobble around the rink without falling. Nene is still stuck at step one: clinging to the barrier around the side, about as graceful as a baby deer on skis. 

 

“That’s not fair, Ao-chan,” She sniffs, as Aoi comes stumbling to a halt beside her. “You’re better at this than I am.”

 

“I did ballet when I was younger,” Aoi confesses, like that makes things any better- before she offers out her hand.

 

Their final loop of the ice rink is a disaster; arms thrown around each other’s waists, Nene’s face squashed into Aoi’s knitted scarf, giggling like little kids the entire time. Aoi smells like perfume that’s familiar for reasons Nene can’t quite put her finger on, and she blames that when her skates go sliding out from beneath her and Aoi comes crashing right down on top of her. 

 

By the time they wobble off the ice hand-in-hand, Nene is freezing and her back is probably bruised black and blue from the number of times she’s fallen on it. (Then Aoi leans over to her and admits that she’s always wanted to go ice skating with someone- and suddenly it all feels worth it.)

 

In the next letter she sends, Nene tells Holly that she’s scared of never being enough, then asks them if they’ve ever been ice skating before. (Come the following morning, there’s a reply addressed to Ivy telling her that they have.)

 

Aoi’s next idea is no better- a trip around town after school on Tuesday, searching for gardens with camellia blossoms peeking through the snow. They skip the quiet street where the abandoned house and it’s rusted letterbox sits- the person behind the letters is cautious, Aoi reasons, there’s no way they’d leave their thoughts so close to home - instead focusing their search on the streets around the empty school grounds. 

 

The whole world feels still and calm as they spy over garden fences, looking out for pink petals against green leaves. Snow eats sound and Nene is learning to appreciate the silence- (she’s going to have to, if the weather forecast is anything to go by)- not quite so disheartening when Aoi’s footsteps fall in line alongside her own. She’s got a keychain hanging from the zipper of her school bag that swings as she walks; a small acrylic butterfly that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing Aoi would buy at all. Nene fixates on it, as Aoi peers over a garden wall and announces no camellias, but the most lovely hellebores. 

 

“Your keychain,” Nene offers in response, because she’s never known how to keep her thoughts to herself. She doesn’t finish the question, not quite sure what she was even trying to say.

 

“Ah-” glancing down at the keychain, Aoi looks almost startled; like she’d forgotten it was even there. There’s an awkward laugh caught in her throat when she continues speaking. “Akane got it for me when we were still in elementary school. It’s old and I really hate it, but-” 

 

Aoi cuts herself off, then. She doesn’t pursue that line of thought further- instead pointing across the road to a garden they haven’t looked in yet.

 

Nene doesn’t bring it up again. (As comfortable as it is to spend time with her, Nene’s aware that she hasn’t known Aoi for all that long. There’s some things you can’t even speak about with best-friends , never mind people you’ve sat silently in class beside since the first day of middle school. There’s plenty of other things to talk about.)

 

Somehow, Aoi’s convoluted route through the streets around school leads them to the park; full of kids enjoying the snow and burning off their spare energy before dinner. They make it less than three steps into the gate before a snowball hits Nene square in the back, and a pair of tiny, stubborn arms wrap themselves around her leg and refuse to let go.

 

Nene absolutely, definitely does not scream loud enough to turn heads. 

 

“Yashiro-senpai!” Kou is by her side in an instant, apologizing profusely as he tries to extract one Minamoto Tiara from Nene’s leg. A futile task that only succeeds in making her grip harder. Kou’s nose is red from the cold and his hair is full of slowly melting snow- the aftermath of a snowball fight, he explains, one that Tiara was clearly winning.

 

“Am I interrupting something?” Aoi then asks sweetly, glancing between Kou, Nene, and the six year old with a vice grip on her leg.

 

Tiara blinks up at Aoi with her big, evil blue eyes. “Can you throw?”

 

Before Nene or Kou have the chance to warn her, Aoi nods. “I can, a bit.”

 

In the space of less than a second, Tiara has detached herself from Nene and latched her tiny hands firmly around Aoi’s knees instead. “You’re on Tiara’s team now.”

 

“Sorry,” Kou bows awkwardly in yet another apology, looking seconds away from burying his own head in the frozen soil. “You’re just gonna have to go along with it.”

 

With a glance down at Tiara, Aoi’s smile tips towards something positively wicked . “I’ve got some time to spare.”

 

(“I’m gonna catch hypothermia,” Nene complains later as Aoi hands a sleepy Tiara back over to Kou, her voice dropped into a whisper to avoid waking her and inciting round five of the most one-sided snowball fight Nene has ever experienced in her life. She swears her eyelashes are frozen. “You’re terrible, Ao-chan.”

 

In reply, Aoi just offers a too-sweet smile. She looks evil- and Nene thinks she might even like it.)

 

The following afternoon, Nene feels her heart leap embarrassingly in her chest when Holly writes that they’ve started to love the snow that covers their garden, and that Ivy is partly responsible. Nene pens down a response that winter is a beautiful season, and asks Holly if they’ve ever had a snowball fight before. (Not until recently- their reply reads- but I’ve remembered how fun they are, now. Nene holds the letter close to her heart, and wonders what their smile looks like.)

 

Later that week, Nene spectacularly bombs her physics test and Amane spends a whole lunchtime rambling about supernovas to take her mind off the sad number in bright red pen glaring back at her. (He ruins it right afterwards by offering to tutor her, because Amane is a middle schooler and the thought that it probably would help is just plain depressing.)

 

“It should be illegal to assign tests in winter,” Nene tells Aoi later, while they’re sweeping the classroom before heading home. “My brain is in hibernation.” 

 

Leaning her broom against the crook of her arm, Aoi offers up a sympathetic smile. “I’m sure you’ll do better next time,” Then, after a short pause; “We haven’t checked out the cafe in town that one of the letters mentioned yet- do you want to go after school?”

 

Nene knows an attempt at a distraction when she sees one- but she’s not exactly going to say no to hot chocolate and cake. Besides, it’s one of Aoi’s better ideas, so Nene has to make the most of it while it lasts.

 

In the end, they don’t even make it to the cafe. Bundled up to their noses in scarves and gloves, the smell of warm food from the winter market as they skirt around its edge is too much for either of them to resist. They ditch the cafe, stop talking about letters and tests and latest plans; and instead decide to spend far too much money on takeaway hot chocolate and two crepes piled high with cream and cinnamon.

 

Laughing that she’s never going to eat again afterwards, Nene sinks her teeth right in, and quickly drops syrup on the toe of her snowboots. From where she’s walking alongside her, Aoi offers another one of those genuine laughs; the sort that Nene has started to collect like pieces of buried treasure or pretty sea glass.

 

They end up playing a game of twenty questions between the market stalls; another distraction, this time from the chill that begins to settle as the sun dips behind the clouds. Nene holds out candles for Aoi to sniff and asks her what her favourite time of day is ( nighttime, because everything is so peaceful ). Aoi reads the label on the back of a handmade chocolate bar and asks Nene what she does when she’s stressed ( pulls on her gacha games ‘cause then she’ll have something else to be annoyed at ). Nene stares longingly at some pretty, expensive letter paper she hopes Holly would love and asks Aoi how she would style her hair if she could do anything to it ( cutting it short, but other people would probably think it looks weird. )

 

“I think you’d look nice with any hairstyle,” Nene tells her openly- then wonders if she’s perhaps being a bit too earnest when Aoi can’t look her in the eye for the next five minutes.

 

Nene just can’t help herself- it’s no secret that Aoi is unfairly pretty, and Nene has always liked to say exactly what’s on her mind when compliments are concerned. Wearing her heart on her sleeve has gotten her in trouble more times than she can count, but it’s worth it if it means she can tell her friends openly just how much they mean to her. 

 

( Friends- because they haven’t spoken about Holly all afternoon, Nene now knows Aoi’s favourite flower, candy and childhood cartoon series, and that’s what real friends do .)

 

When they eventually part ways by the school gates again, Aoi hands Nene a small, crocheted flower from a stall in the centre of the market; matching the one that now hangs from her own bag and hides the battered acrylic butterfly from view. Nene shields her own flower from the cold in the palm of her hand the whole way home- and maybe that’s not something that just friends do.

 

Before December, Nene made a list of all the winter dates she dreamed about going on with Adachi; cafes and ice skating and winter markets where they’d buy food and cute matching trinkets. All boxes which Aoi has ticked without Nene even noticing it.

 

Nene has long since accepted that she’s fallen head over heels for the pretty words and neat writing that come to her in sealed envelopes every other morning. She loves that Holly is mysterious, that they accept even the worst parts of her without running away, that through them, she’s started to appreciate flowers in gardens, her Mom’s endless questions over dinner, the sort of stillness that only ever settles in the middle of the night. Nene likes Holly - in a way that’s real for once.

 

But- to Nene’s horror- she finds that maybe there’s still room in her too-large heart for one more.

 

-

 

Nene walks face-first into the classroom door when Aoi smiles at her the next morning.

 

At lunch, Amane laughs so hard he almost knocks himself out against the bathroom sink when Nene confesses her dilemma. You fall in love with people like it’s going out of style- he tells her, clutching at the back of his head. It’s like the world’s worst superpower.

 

Busy wilting into the bathroom wall, Nene doesn’t even have the heart to disagree with him.

 

-

 

“My mom is determined to make me feel like a loser,” Nene sighs into her literature homework, sat in a quiet corner of the library with Aoi’s knees pressed against her own beneath the desk. “Her and her girlfriend were slow-dancing in the kitchen last night when I went to get a snack. You can tell you’re sad and lonely when your own mom has a better love life than you.”

 

Nene doesn’t miss the quiet laugh that Aoi tries to muffle behind one hand. “That sounds very sweet, though.”

 

And it is- it really is- but Nene is allowed to be bitter every once in a while. Her face ends up buried impossibly further into her class notes. “When I said I wanted a movie-style winter romance, I didn’t mean as a side character.”

 

Instead of a winter romance, Nene’s found herself torn between a person whose name she doesn’t even know and the most popular girl in school- each just as unattainable as the other. Just her luck. (With a knowing look, Aoi quietly begins to tidy her pens away. It should be embarrassing that Aoi can already tell when she’s far too distracted to get any more work done- but instead Nene just feels glad . Friends notice stuff like that. Friends is what they are , as much as she’s discovered she might want to be more.)

 

“What about you, Ao-chan?” Nene turns the tables, before Aoi can suffocate herself in her attempts to muffle her own laughter. “Any dreams of winter romance?”

 

(She has ulterior motives; if Aoi has a crush on someone, then maybe Nene can firmly stamp out all the stupid feelings she’s unknowingly kindled in her chest, before they can sink their roots in further. They’ve been nothing but a nuisance so far; making her trip over her feet, choke on her hot chocolate, turning her into even more of a target for Amane’s teasing than usual.)

 

“There’s-” When she finally replies, Aoi’s voice is a tiny thing- almost getting carried away in the scratch of pens and tap of footsteps on the library’s wooden floor. “One person I had in mind.” 

 

And maybe that hurts like a kick to the ribs- but before Nene has a crush on Aoi, she’s Aoi’s friend. And, as her friend, it’s her sworn duty to start girl talk , even if they are still sat in the school library. 

 

“Oh?” Propping her chin in her hands, Nene bats her eyelashes in Aoi’s direction. “You can’t just say that and then refuse to give details!”

 

There’s a long pause, then-

 

“I’ve liked them for a while; since middle school actually,” Not even the dim lighting is enough to hide the tell-tale blush that spreads all the way to Aoi’s ears. (Despite herself, Nene finds it something near delightful .) “I never got to know them because I always assumed that they hated me, but I’ve realised now that I had nothing to worry about. They’re a wonderful person, after all.” 

 

If the romance movies she shamelessly enjoys are anything to go by- Nene would say that sounds far more than a highschool crush. Something deeper, longer lasting. She wonders how she didn’t notice Aoi looking at anyone like that in assembly, catching their eye as they brush past in the corridors. She’s about to ask who- when Aoi interrupts with a tiny shake of her head.

 

“You have to tell me about your winter romance dreams now, Nene,” A hand reaches to tug gently on one of Nene’s pigtails. “It’s only fair.”

 

Ao-chan ,” really, Nene should have seen that coming. Hidden beneath her sweet exterior, Aoi’s wicked, no-good-at-all streak is something she’s come to both love and hate. “Fine- there is someone I really, really like- I’m not telling who though! It’s a secret.”

 

Pressing both hands to her cheeks, Nene just hopes her ears haven’t gone too red.

 

There’s a three second delay before Aoi replies; a quiet I see that doesn’t match the mood at all. Though Nene might not be the most observant person out there, even she can tell that something about it isn’t right.

 

But, before Nene can ask, a third year in a student council armband rounds the corner and asks them to be quiet- please and thank you

 

“Let’s get back to work, Nene.” Aoi says, as soon as he’s gone. (Haloed by the light from the stained glass windows, her smile doesn’t look happy at all.)

 

-

 

“What’s wrong?” Yashiro Asami poses the question over dinner, interrupting Nene’s intense focus on the cold wind sweeping by outside. They’re due for another snowstorm, any day now. Nene almost swallows her food the wrong way.

 

Declining the glass of water that her mom nudges her way, Nene wills her face to remain impassive. “What d’you mean?”

 

“You’ve been all mopey recently,” a foot nudges lightly at Nene’s own beneath the table. “You only do that when you’re having romance troubles, but even then it never lasts more than a day. So-” another nudge. “What’s wrong?”

 

Nene wishes her mom could’ve been this observant when she spent a whole four months dropping hints that she wanted to dye her hair, only for her to end up making a mess of it herself in the bathroom sink. “I’m not moping, I’m just- making things complicated.”

 

Complicated is an understatement. In the space of a few weeks she’s wedged herself between a rock and a hard place, completely unsure of where to turn or who she likes more. Mysterious, interesting Holly ; who makes the snow feel magical and who Nene wants to show that the winters aren’t so cold after all. Or pretty, sharp-as-a-blade Aoi; who is a terrible detective and the one person that makes Nene want to come to school on time.

 

“Complicated?” Asami asks. Nene nods, shovels in another mouthful of dinner, and doesn’t say a word.

 

-

 

Holly’s letter on Monday morning is a short, sad, terrible thing.

 

I want to go somewhere else- it reads, in tiny characters that try their best to slip off the lines they’re sat between. I need to go anywhere else, but if I move I think I’ll fall off the pedestal everyone has put me on and break my own neck. 

 

I won’t ask if you know the feeling- they write. Nene doesn’t know how words on paper can sound so sad. I know this is something I have to deal with alone.

 

But you don’t have to - Nene would shout down the frostbitten street, if she knew it would make a difference. If she knew that, by some miracle, Holly would be able to hear her. The wind whistling through the snow-laden leaves of the bushes is the only reply she gets. It sounds almost like they’re laughing at her.

 

-

 

“I’m going to ask them to meet me,” Nene announces to Aoi, falling into her seat a whole five minutes before class starts. “They’re upset and I hate just sitting there not being able to do anything! What sort of friend am I if all I do is stand around waiting for things to get worse?”

 

Still clearly half asleep, Aoi stares up at her bleary-eyed. “What are we talking about, Nene?”

 

Holly- who else would I be talking about?” Worry-stress-anxiety reaches a fever pitch in Nene’s chest. Too much energy for so early in the morning. “I’m leaving my phone number and a place to meet in my next letter to them. It’s foolproof, right? If they accept, then I can finally give them a hug or something, and if they don’t show up then- well- at least I’ll know where we stand.”

 

Rather than excitement- or at least mild interest- like Nene expects, Aoi’s expression tips dangerously close to horrified. “You-” She starts, then hesitates for a second. “You can’t do that.”

 

“Why shouldn’t I?” Nene insists. “I’m leaving it up to them whether we meet or not; I’m the only one who's gonna get hurt if they find out who I am and decide they don’t want that.”

 

Class begins in three minutes and Nene watches as the shutters slam closed behind Aoi’s expression for the first time in weeks. “It’s a bad idea, Nene.”

 

Class begins in three minutes. Not enough time for Nene to get annoyed- just enough for a spark of unwanted frustration to kick up behind her ribs. “How?”

 

The shutters close further still. Nene watches Aoi’s nails dig into the scratched wooden surface of her desk. “It just is .”

 

“You keep saying that, every time I have an idea, but-”

 

“Maybe Holly just doesn’t want things to change!” Nene has never heard Aoi raise her voice before, the sound of it enough to stop her in her tracks. Across the classroom, a few heads turn, then bury themselves back into their phones and worksheets like they’ve been caught stealing.

 

Class begins in one minute. Nene has never heard Aoi raise her voice, or felt genuinely annoyed with her, or wanted to stop talking to her until the day is over- but there’s a first time for everything.

 

“How do you know what Holly wants?” She asks- bitter and upset and why can’t you trust me - turning back to her own desk before she can catch sight of the terrible expression she knows Aoi must be wearing.

 

Nagisa-sensei walks into class, right on time. Nene doesn’t even get the chance to apologise.

 

-

 

Aoi spends lunch in the student council room, then stays behind after school to shovel snow from the garden. Nene eats in the third floor girl’s bathroom, spends half of her lunch break tying tiny braids into Kou’s hair to de-stress, and the other half missing every other note on her favourite rhythm game.

 

She doesn’t write her name or her phone number or a meeting place in her reply to Holly . (Watching Black Canyon spin round and round on his wheel, Nene isn’t sure if she regrets it or not.)

 

-

 

“We’re not fighting.” Nene tells Amane over a bite of Kou’s lunch. “We’re not.”

 

It can’t be a fight if Nene still talks to Aoi while they’re cleaning the board and Aoi gave her the answers to the maths homework she accidentally on purpose forgot to complete. (The locked doors of Aoi’s too-sweet expression and the way she’s started smiling with too many teeth again- that’s none of Nene’s business. They’re not fighting.)

 

Nene has bigger worries to untangle, anyway. Namely Holly ; the way their letters grow shorter by the day and how they’ve started signing each one with an apology. 

 

(You haven’t done anything wrong- Nene tells them. I’ve done more awful things than I can count- is all she receives in reply.)

 

There’s only so much worry she can cram into her too-large heart. She’s got no space left for anything else.

 

“You’re fighting,” Kou’s expression bleeds sympathy as he offers another piece of fried chicken from his lunchbox. “And you’re upset about it.”

 

Nene raises a hand to her cheek; and wonders when it was that she started crying.

 

-

 

Sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve happiness- Holly writes on Wednesday

 

I’ve been given so many things, but I can’t feel grateful for a single one of them- Holly writes on Thursday.

 

I’m sorry- Holly writes on Friday. Two words, nothing more.

 

In class, Aoi smiles at Nene through her teeth and it feels like nails being dragged along a chalkboard. Bitter and angry and so, so wrong

 

The snowstorm that kicks up on Friday night is the worst they’ve seen all winter. Nene can’t remember the last time she felt so cold.

 

-

 

I’m sorry sits at the forefront of Nene’s mind all the way through Saturday morning as she watches the snow spiral dizzily through the air outside, blanketing the horizon until nothing exists beyond the lamp post at the end of the street. By midday it’s still dark enough to be dawn, Nene’s mom is out at work and I’m sorry follows Nene like a bad omen all the way through her shoddy attempt at an omelette for lunch.

 

Nene knows she’s a lot of things. Nosey, clumsy, a hopeless romantic and a fool for a pretty smile. She adds impulsive to the list as she throws on her warmest coat and runs out into the storm.

 

By the time she makes it to that old worn-down house on the edge of town, there’s snow clinging to Nene’s eyelashes and her fingertips are numb even through her thick winter gloves. She doesn’t have a plan in the slightest, no letter to offer and no way of knowing if Holly will even show up on a weekend- but all she knows is that she won’t sleep easy at night until she’s certain she hasn’t missed something. 

 

Still, catching hypothermia has never helped anyone, so Nene wrenches the gate to the house open and carefully picks her way down the overgrown path. The front door opens with little resistance, groaning like it’s seconds away from crumbling to pieces as Nene stumbles out of the worst of the storm and-

 

“Nene?” 

 

Someone is already sitting inside. 

 

Perched on the edge of what was probably once an old staircase, knees huddled to her chest, snowflakes melting into her hair- is Aoi. She’s staring wide-eyed, the most genuine expression Nene has seen on her face all week, and she almost wants to cry at how relieved the sight of it makes her feel.

 

(She focuses on that instead of the confusion- a million and one questions popping up like daisies about why Aoi is here, why she’s got meltwater running down one side of her face, why she looks like she’s been sitting there for hours.)

 

“This isn’t a great place to shelter,” Nene tells her dumbly, stating the obvious. The timber of the house groans terrifyingly every time the wind whistles through, and snowflakes are piled on the wrong side of the walls- of course it’s a bad place to hide from the cold. Still sitting with her feet above the ruined tatami mats, Aoi looks almost ashamed.

 

“I needed to get away from home for a while,” she explains. “This was the only place-” 

 

She cuts herself off, hands curling into fists at her sides and- 

 

That’s when Nene notices the letter. Sat in Aoi’s lap, the only thing around that isn’t completely soaked by meltwater. A white envelope; addressed to Ivy and sealed with holly-print tape.

 

“Did you-” Nene starts- treading carefully in case the boards overhead decide to snap and fall. “Did you find it outside again?” 

 

Following Nene’s line of sight towards the letter, a split second of panic flashes across Aoi’s eyes, before shifting to defensiveness, then finally, terribly , into defeat. Nene can’t do anything but watch as Aoi curls into herself; shoulders tense, staring down at the soaked toes of her boots.

 

Then, in a voice so small it could almost be the wind whistling through the rafters, Aoi says; “I wrote them.”

 

Outside, the snowstorm roars on. Inside, the world comes to a jarring halt.

 

“I wrote them,” Aoi says again, louder this time. “I’m Holly .”

 

And- really- it’s almost embarrassing how easily and suddenly the pieces fall into place. Like the time Nene got her first pair of reading glasses, and learned that the world makes so much more sense when you finally look at it through clear eyes. Nene never tried to assign a face to Holly’s words- perhaps to avoid taking away from the miracle, perhaps because she could never find one that felt right. But, looking at it now, Aoi’s fits perfectly. All Nene can do is stare as everything begins to make sense; Aoi’s hesitance every time Akane was brought up, how she always knew what to say to comfort Nene like she’d somehow read all her deepest thoughts and worries, all the times she mentioned ice skating, snowball fights and all the bright things inbetween.

 

Aoi is Holly . Holly is Aoi. Aoi knew that Nene was Ivy all along and yet-

 

“Why-” she starts- then finds that she doesn’t have enough words in her head for all the questions she wants to ask. Why did you pretend you didn’t know who Holly was? Why did you offer to help me? Why didn’t you tell me?

 

( Maybe they don’t want things to change- Aoi said with a vice grip on the edge of her desk, three minutes before the start of class. I think they’re just scared- Aoi said in a quiet cafe, a pile of familiar letters stacked in front of her. I’m not very cool at all, Nene- Aoi said by the letterbox on the first day they truly met, face to face and eye to eye. And- maybe Nene doesn’t need to ask why after all.)

 

In the silence of Nene’s revelation, however, Aoi only seems to curl into herself tighter. “I was scared,” she admits. The timbers creak awfully above her head. “You always spoke about Holly like they were this miracle of a person, and I was terrified that you’d be disappointed if you found out the truth. I’m nothing like Holly- I’ve never been that honest or open with anyone and I couldn’t help but think that- maybe you deserve someone else. Someone better. I’m sorry.”

 

Nene is aware that she should respond- before Aoi can look any more like she’s about to melt away with the snowfall- but all her words become static on her tongue. It feels distinctly as if someone has kicked the knees out from underneath her; leaving her dizzy, completely unable to say a word. 

 

Because Aoi is Holly and Holly is Aoi. Because there’s two people who Nene has genuinely, truthfully fallen for- and apparently they’ve been the same person all along. Because Holly is Aoi and Nene can’t think of any other person who would fit their words more. The abandoned house is freezing, the roof sounds as if it could break at any moment, and all Nene can do is stand and stare and stare .

 

“I’m sorry,” Aoi repeats, swaying to her feet. “I’ll leave.”

 

She reaches past her for the door- and it’s the wakeup call Nene needs to finally start moving again.

 

“It’s too cold outside, Ao-chan,” Nene tells her, then pulls her into a hug.

 

Aoi stiffens for a heartbeat, then melts into Nene like snowflakes on glass, like someone who’s never been hugged properly before in her life. She buries her face into Nene’s shoulder, hands shaking slightly where they meet around her back; and Nene can forgive her wet hair and cold arms for the meantime. This is all she needs, until the storm is over.

 

“I was just surprised,” Nene tells her quietly, voice muffled behind layers of scarf and Aoi’s hair. “And I felt a bit stupid for not realising sooner.”

 

Nene feels Aoi shaking her head more than she sees it. “You’re not stupid- not at all, Nene. I should’ve just told you the truth when you caught me outside the letterbox, but instead I went and made things worse. I was so busy trying to distract you from finding out that I never considered how frustrating it must’ve been.”

 

“At least you didn’t go on a mission trying to figure out who Ivy was,” A bitter laugh escapes Nene’s throat. “It must have been stressful, trying to keep me out of your personal life.”

 

Pulling away slightly, hands sliding down Nene’s arms until they’re looped loosely around her wrists, Aoi shakes her head again. This time Nene sees every bit of it; the sad look in her eyes, the hair clinging to her face, the red marks on her cheek from the folds of Nene’s woollen scarf. 

 

“I had fun,” Aoi admits. Nene has listened to Holly - to Aoi - spilling her heart out in pen and paper since the first snowy day of December; but she doesn’t think she’s ever heard her sound so honest . “Maybe it’s selfish, but I had so much fun spending time with you that I didn’t mind at all.”

 

( Have you ever met someone who makes your world feel brighter?- Holly once wrote on a cold December morning, neat handwriting on letter paper that smelled like Aoi’s favourite perfume. If she had pen and paper in her pocket, Nene might just reply that she has.)

 

“Are you sure you’re okay with it?” Once more, it’s Aoi who breaks the silence first; a final, desperate question that Nene feels down to the marrow of her bones. “That I’m Holly ?”

 

“As long as you’re fine with me being Ivy. ” Nene replies, with a sheepish bow of her head. “I know I’m not exactly-”

 

“I think-” grip tightening around Nene’s wrists, Aoi doesn’t let her say another word. (She knows, after all- every insecurity that Nene holds deep in her chest, and every way to fight back against them.) “I think from the start, I always hoped it was you.”

 

Aoi smiles shakily through the cold- and it feels almost like the winter confessions Nene has spent her life dreaming of. (Days ago, Aoi spoke about a person she’s admired from a distance for years on end; a person she wants to shelter from the cold with. Holding Aoi’s hand, watching her smile- something that almost feels like hope begins to curl warm and bright inside Nene’s ribcage.)

 

The spell is broken when the wind direction changes and a gust brings snowflakes spiralling in through one of the shattered windows, blasting Nene directly in the face. Overhead, the ceiling groans under the onslaught- even worse than before.

 

“We probably shouldn’t hang around here,” Aoi offers, with a worried glance toward the rafters.

 

“There’s a portable heater back at my place that’s like- industrial strength.” Nene replies, before holding out her hand. 

 

(I still want to spend more time with you- she lets it say, wordlessly. You don’t have to stay out in the cold.)

 

-

 

Movies are all lying when they make running hand-in-hand through the snow look romantic .

 

By the time they make it back to the kitchen of the apartment, they’re both frozen, soaked and shaking, Nene fumbling with her doorkeys as Aoi tries to kick the snow off her shoes and only succeeds in getting the paintwork damp. They glue themselves to the portable heater the second their coats are hung up by the door, Nene shelving her promise of food until her fingers are no longer frozen stiff and useless.

 

She’s just glad her mom isn’t home to complain about the damp carpet.

 

Inviting Aoi home turns out far from the heartfelt gesture Nene had hoped it would be. The hot chocolate she eventually coaxes herself into making isn’t half as good as her mom’s- even though she used the exact same ingredients- and the rattle of the wind outside barely sounds any better than the creak of old rafters held together by ivy branches. Not even the hum of old Christmas jazz through the radio is enough to drown it out.

 

Back by the heater, Nene burns her tongue on her hot chocolate, and decides she’s just going to have to make her own winter miracle.

 

She tries to ignore Aoi’s questioning stare and the hammer of her heart in her chest as she collects a pen, some paper and a roll of winter-pattern washi tape from her desk. One final letter, because enough has changed in the space of one snowy afternoon, and- Nene thinks- writing from her heart is the most valuable lesson that Holly has taught her.

 

This all started with a confession letter. It’s only fitting that it should end with one too.

 

Aoi reads the message that Nene offers her once, then twice, then three times- from Dear Aoi to Love Nene and back again- before finally raising her head.

 

“I thought you already had a crush on someone?” Aoi asks; voice wavering and hopeful and genuine , the handwritten letter held close to her chest with shaking hands.

 

“Yeah,” A laugh bubbles up, part of the warm, gentle feeling that’s made itself at home in Nene’s chest. “On you, apparently!”

 

There’s a long pause, far from uncomfortable, before Aoi starts laughing too.

 

Over mugs of hot chocolate they seal a promise with linked fingers- that they’ll always share their secrets, always lend an ear, always be themselves ; both the bad parts and the good. Nene fell in love with Aoi’s deepest thoughts and wishes before she fell in love with purple hair and winter dates, just as Aoi fell in love with the girl fighting her way through a bush in the school gardens on the first day of class, long before she came to appreciate the rest. 

 

“You were ridiculous,” Aoi tells her secrets over the music, summer-red to the tips of her ears even in the middle of winter. “I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

 

“I’ve always liked the real you best,” Nene shares in return, because trust is a two-way street; with an ancient house at one end and a garden filled with holly and ivy.  

 

(Neither of them listen to the howl of the wind, the rattle of the windows, the old kitchen radio as it predicts snowstorms long into the night.

 

Because inside that warm kitchen with its comfortable miracles; they’ve got everything they need to keep them safe from the cold.)