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Underneath the Orange Tree

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In the winter of 1926, Hifumi was called back to the family’s countryside estate at the request of his father. Mizuki urged him to return home, saying that she had the tea house under control. Family is important, she said—and she would know that more than anyone else. Perhaps time away from here will ease your burden. He packed lightly and set off to take the evening train after he finished work. On his way out, he saw a drop of pity in Azusa’s otherwise apathetic eyes.

His parents were surprised when he arrived at the Japanese-styled mansion still wearing his work clothes. In fact, they were surprised that the man standing at the door was their son. He was a little less boisterous, a little thinner, more mature and hardened in his expression. He bowed his head towards them in greeting and dismissed the orderly, wanting to bring up his own luggage: a meager suitcase containing three changes of clothes. When they confronted Hifumi about it, he only gave them a rueful smile and said, “I’m in mourning.”

It had already been more than a year since that mass hysteria and Hifumi still found himself reliving the experience: the pain of suffering that nightmare, telling Hiruko to die, feeling the tears Hiruko cried as he yearned for a life he could never have, watching the baku fade away in his arms. He found himself wishing for days past, when the tea house had their delicate but content balance—when it was a little livelier, a little happier. He found himself wishing that he had never grown up if it meant having Hiruko with them.

He went to sleep after dinner without saying more than a handful of sentences to his parents. He changed into his night shirt and a pair of pants before slipping under the covers, closing his eyes to another dreamless night. Instead, he finds himself at the base of a lush hill with a river calmly flowing a few feet in front of him.

“This is unexpected, to say the least.”

Hifumi lifted his head towards the top of the hill, where the voice came from. He saw the flutter of a black yukata before his eyes finally caught a glimpse of a face.

“Hiruko?”

Hiruko looked a little younger than what Hifumi remembered—but as he climbed that hill, Hifumi saw that his face was a little fuller, his skin less pallid, and his eyes finally held a little warmth. By the time he reached the hill’s peak and stood face-to-face with Hiruko, he looked like a normal young man.

Hiruko’s thin lips curled upwards in his mysterious trademark smile. “We both know that’s not who I am anymore. That moniker has been reclaimed by Azusa.”

“You’ll always be Hiruko to me.”

“Still,” Hiruko said, leading him to a large tree. He sat down at the base and patted the spot next to him, motioning Hifumi to do the same. “I’d like it if you’d use my real name.”

His real name? Hifumi wordlessly sat beside Hiruko and looked out at the field. The waters were clear and glittered like diamonds as it surged downstream, flanked by the glimmering of the dew drops atop each blade of grass. Hifumi leaned back against the trunk of the tree, closing his eyes as he felt the warmth of the non-existent sun overhead and the soft tickle of the breeze. Neither of them said anything else.

Just like that, he woke up to his cold bedroom with his blanket and duvet laid out haphazardly over the bed’s edge. As Hifumi rose like the new dawn beyond the window, he couldn’t help but feel bitter at the interruption of his peaceful dream.

--

“Back for another visit? I was under the impression you disliked me greatly.”

“I didn’t dislike you. I just thought you were annoying.”

“Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black.”

Hifumi rolled his eyes, sitting at the base of the tree. On his way up the hill, he had realized the tree was an orange tree—there were specks of white amongst the green leaves where orange blossoms would eventually flourish. It would look really nice, he thought. He noticed there were a few flower bushes by the tree that hadn’t been there during his last visit.

He listened to the sounds of the river settle in to fill the silence. He remembered how fleeting his last dream encounter with Hiruko went, with barely any words exchanged between them, so he asked, “Where are we anyway?”

“This is my dream,” Hiruko replied. “The one I had as a child, when I was still alive.”

That would explain the new additions to the scenery. He focused his gaze on some of the leaves riding the wind down to the river, where they were swept away by the current like ships sailing out to new adventures.

“To be honest,” Hiruko said, interrupting his musings, “I never expected you to show up. I don’t suppose you know how you got here, do you?”

“Not a damn clue.”

He saw Hiruko close his eyes, smiling. “Figures.”

--

He went about the next day in a daze: Hiruko’s smile never left his mind. His parents were a little worried because he kept bumping into the furniture, but he was mostly fine—at least until that night, when he entered Hiruko’s dream space thanks to food poisoning.

Hiruko laughed like a chime. It was much different from the one he forced out before the mass nightmare had spread throughout the city.

Hifumi tried to mask his amazement at the sound—he hadn’t heard any sound as lovely as that one in a long time—by shooting Hiruko his best glare. “That’s not funny.”

“Of course it is. It’s very you.” Hiruko’s eyes crinkled at the corners from his wide smile. He really did look content. “You really haven’t changed at all.”

He bit back the urge to say You’ve changed a lot. Actually, he’s held himself back plenty ever since he came to this dream. Hifumi looked onto the river below and caught glimpses of brightly colored fish swimming along the steady current.

“I’m just glad you’re happier,” he finally said.

“But you’re not, are you?” Hiruko asked. When Hifumi looked at him, he saw Hiruko’s eyes piercing right through him like they always had. It made him want to break the dam of his own heart and spill every thought he had. Whatever differences lay in his appearance, he was still the same Hiruko that seemed to know just about everything. Hiruko went further, stating, “You’re not happy.”

Before Hifumi could reply, he woke from the dream. It was still the middle of the night, by what the face of the clock showed under the dim moonlight. Despite his greatest efforts, the pain in his stomach and the ringing accusation of unhappiness kept him from falling asleep again.

--

There were creatures soaring and fluttering in the air—beautiful birds with long, trailing feathers that billowed like kimono sleeves and pretty little insects with wings like stained glass.

“Things are getting livelier here,” Hifumi commented, as he took his usual seat. Hiruko was running his hand through the fur of a white cat that resembled a maneki-neko. It was like their previous discussion never happened. He knew, somewhere in his heart, that perhaps Hiruko refrained from bringing up the subject, too.

“Does it please you?”

“What, this place?” Hifumi shrugged and reclined against the tree trunk, his back pressing against the rough bark. “It’s a nice dream, for a kid.”

“And for a man like you?”

“I’m no man,” Hifumi said, snorting. “I’m just a brat myself.”

“But what would be a nice dream for you? What do you want?”

“What do I want?” He looked overhead and noticed the orange blossoms were in full bloom, proudly unfurled like little white stars on the leafy canvas of the tree. He faintly tried to remember what the flowers meant. “I just want…”

What did he want? Ah, wait, he thought—the vague memory of his mother’s voice wafted into his mind. Orange blossoms meant purity, innocence. That’s what he wanted.

“I want you back.”

--

“I’m sorry.”

Hifumi was taken aback by the sudden apology. He had wanted to sleep again as soon as he woke from the last dream—but the sun had risen and the servants had brought breakfast, so he was in no position to return to bed. Hifumi spent the day restless and agitated; his parents knew better than to cross his path while he was in such a volatile mood. When he entered the dream space after falling asleep that night, however, he saw that the colors of Hiruko’s dream turned dull and faded. The movement that abounded the fields stilled. His heart sank as he walked to the top of the hill, where Hiruko sat under the blossomless orange tree: he did this.

“I remember that your dream had us all at the tea house,” Hiruko said. “Is that dream—that happiness—really so unattainable as long as I’m not there?”

He could remember a time when he wanted Hiruko out of the way because the baku had just been an obstacle between his and Mizuki’s love. He wanted Hiruko out of the way because he was just a creepy kid who seemed to gain sick pleasure from all the bittersweet outcomes that were caused by his clients’ foolish hearts. But Hiruko had been the thread tying them all together—connecting him, Mizuki, the guys at the Delirium, and even Azusa to one another like a web. And when that thread was severed, their web grew a little weaker.

“I just…” Hifumi hung his head low, voice trailing off as his hands gestured uselessly to fill in the words he couldn’t push through his lips. “It’s just not fair. You deserved to be alive more than anyone—more than any of us. Knowing that you’re gone and that I can never see you outside this dream is…”

“You shouldn’t feel guilty for living, Hifumi,” Hiruko said. The white cat bounded out from the flower bushes and darted down the hill to chase a butterfly. “I understand that you’re hurt because, somehow, you came to see me as a friend and I had left you behind.”

That’s not it, Hifumi thought. If it was only friendship, it would be a different kind of pain: it would feel like the sharp stabs his heart bore when he discovered how Uncle Gen died. Whenever he thinks of Hiruko, he was suffocating. His heart felt an overwhelming grip that took his breath away, caused tears to prick his eyes, and made his head spin. It was a pain that a year’s worth of time never dulled. It was a pain that had him long for an eternal sleep just so he could stay in this dream.

“I love you,” Hifumi said conclusively. The sudden confession made Hiruko jump a little.

“I thought you loved Mizuki.”

“I do love her,” he said. The pain and grief he felt started to make sense now. “But I love you, too.”

“You’ve been trying to sleep more often so you could see me,” Hiruko said. Hifumi felt like a client that needed help with a nightmare—but maybe this was what they both needed. “I was confused, since you always seemed to enjoy your life in the waking world, but now I know why.”

The waters of the river began to move again, slowly. The colors of the field, of the sky, of the tree regained some pigment. Hiruko was getting confident again, even if he remained silent for a few minutes longer.

“You know me well—I had never received love of this kind while I was alive. So I am unsure of how to reciprocate your feelings,” he said at last. “But I know for certain that I want you to continue living your life, even if you have to do so without me.”

“Hiruko—”

“Live the life I am unable to,” Hiruko interrupted. “Experience new things, travel to new places, eat new foods, meet all sorts of odd people. And when you’ve lived your life to its fullest, return to this dream and tell me all about it.”

Hifumi suddenly took Hiruko into his arms and held him close, afraid of leaving the dream behind. He’s replayed the scene of their first parting over and over for the past year—he didn’t want it to end up like before, with Hiruko slipping away in his arms. But Hiruko pulled back from the embrace, just enough to press a light kiss to Hifumi’s cheek. It was a reassurance. It was a promise.

“It’s time to wake up, Hifumi.”

--

He breakfasted with his parents for the first time since he returned to the estate. They let out the breaths they held throughout his visit, relieved to see him doing something as mundane as spreading marmalade onto a piece of toast. Later that morning, Rokkaku Shigoroku burst through the doors, wailing about fixing Hifu-nii; she was met with a fist to the head from Hifumi. He was starting to act like his old self again.

He went home at the end of the week, making sure to spend as much time with his parents as conveniently possible—doing all sorts of activities from exciting ones like sailing to mundane ones like shopping. His parents would have urged him to stay longer, but he told them that any more time off would be a burden to his boss. After all, she was managing the tea house all by herself and it was starting to get more popular these days.

Hifumi went home to the Silver Star in a lighter mood and a new dream to work towards.

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When he fell asleep for the last time, he found himself beside a river. The water surged forth, sparkling like diamonds while the dew drops atop each blade of grass glittering gently. All sorts of animals flew and scurried and fluttered and buzzed about as he walked up the lone hill.

“Hifumi!”

He arrived at the top of the hill. Mizuki, Kairi, Shima, and even Azusa were all sitting underneath the orange tree, which bore fruit.

“You’re the last one to arrive,” a familiar voice said.

“Looks like it,” Hifumi said. He bridged the gap between him and the voice’s owner, kissing him on the forehead and whispering, “I’m back, Chitose.”

Chitose smiled.

“Welcome back, Hifumi.”