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Wonderstruck

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“It’s one of those famed love events you always get to hear about! At an unfamiliar location! Then, a gentle kiss!”

 

--

 

Yashiro Nene had always been a dreamer.

 

It wasn’t uncommon for her to weave all kinds of intricate fantasies, whimsical daydreams in which she was the star of some fantastical romantic plot. The role that she chose for herself was often the same — always the beautiful heroine of her own dashing love story to be whisked off of her feet by some stunning prince who adored both her and her chubby, thick ankles. Heroines in stories always found themselves at the center of a magical adventure, whether that adventure was being spirited away by some powerful evil or experiencing the painfully sweet throes of first love. So, Nene couldn’t be blamed if she often craved a little bit of that for herself, too, right? 

 

Then, she wonders as she is surrounded by the unnerving masks of indifferent villagers while standing near the ledge of a very tall cliff. Why does it feel like I’m being punished for wanting those things?!

 

Nene had always been a little too idealistic, easy to mess with, and impulsive. Those were the characteristics that had first drawn her to Hanako-kun’s bathroom in the first place. She had wanted a wish granted — had craved love — at any price. Nene had wanted that affection even if it meant offering a part of herself to an apparition that she hardly knew. She hadn’t thought of the consequences of those actions, not until she was already covered in wet scales and breathing through slitted gills. Still, she likes to think that she hadn’t done anything quite so foolish since that point again! 

 

Well.

 

Then again, there was the time that she had nearly gone off to become a fish apparition for the chance at her own harem… and the time that she had gotten tricked by Natushiko-senpai because he was hot… and the time that Nanamine-san and Tsukasa-kun had nearly sent her off to nowhere because Nanamine-san was just a little too beautiful and the cakes she had been given were just a little too good… and…

 

Okay, but I didn’t do anything like that just now! 

 

She holds her hands up as the villagers advance all around her. They argue amongst themselves as Nene struggles to figure out just what was happening. Today had to have been the longest she had ever experienced. It was right up there with the time that she had gotten stuck in Shijima-san’s picture world and that really hadn’t been all that long ago. She had simply wanted to spend time with her friends at night during study camp! She would be able to make some good memories with Aoi. Maybe she had even hoped that someone special (who definitely didn’t have Hanako-kun’s face in her fantasies, no sir!)  would ask her out and pull her away from her friends for a little alone time. It was possible that she’d even get her first kiss if she were proactive enough! Though, most importantly, she would be able to distract herself from dwelling her shortened life span for just one night of peace and fun. 

 

Clearly, that was not going to be the case. Then again, since coming to Kamome Academy, was anything ever just simple?

 

Instead, Aoi had been kidnapped and was now behaving...strangely. She’d pushed them into the pit that had led them to this strange feudal hamlet that seemed to have been cut out of the fabric of time. It was a place that went against everything that Nene understood about boundaries. Shijima-san’s boundary was like this too. It was almost normal until something sticks out like a sore thumb, something that reverberates within one’s soul that this wasn’t quite right. Like a moon and stars that are far too visible to have been from Kamome’s rooftops in the brightly lit city of Tokyo, or in this case, a small town that was more at home out of the history books that she sometimes perused for friends.

 

No water that nipped at her heels, soaking her legs and bringing forth scales — no crooked and misshaped atelier that didn’t belong — just a small village filled with people who wore masks of kindness, so twisted by their own fear that they forced young girls to smash their bodies onto the jagged rocks at the bottom of a cliff in what was a vicious mockery of marriage. 

 

So much for a fun night with friends! 

 

A night that was supposed to be filled with fun and games with her classmates had quickly dissolved into a nightmare that she wasn’t sure that she could escape. Nothing was ever just normal at Kamome. Even taking classes, the most normal and boring part of being a high school student could quickly shift into something sinister amongst the sturdy halls of the school. She’s been sick with worry for Aoi from the moment that they had ended in this awful place.

 

It’s not fair! That thought plays on a loop track within her mind just as the mask clad villagers seem to finally realize that she wasn’t actually Sumire-chan. “I’ve been saying all along that I’m not Sumire-chan!” Nene screeches, hands balling into fists in a rage. Why is this happening? It had all happened so fast, and now, it only seemed to be spiraling even further out of control. Her belly aches, legs still weak from when she had been punched. This isn’t a wedding at all!

 

No, Nene knew weddings — they were beautiful events where two people would be joined in love forever. This… her eyes drift back to the cliff. She can hear the waves of the ocean crashing against the cliffside and shivers. The wind shrieks , howling as it buffets her body. One wrong step and she might go tumbling over into the frigid waters below. The bride of death. 

 

This wasn’t love. 

 

She isn’t sure what this is, but Nene knows that without a shred of a doubt. Sumire-chan…. seemed so happy when she was talking about getting married to Number 6! She couldn’t have known… 

 

Nene suppresses a shiver, swallowing thickly as her legs wobbled. “What’s with all of this?” Then, they had meant to throw Sumire-chan from this ledge? They had meant to kill Sumire-chan like this? They had manipulated her feelings to lead Sumire-chan to her own death? She thinks of Nene’s sweet, forlorn smile back in the bath. She had thought that she seemed lonely back then, a melancholy permeating her features that Nene hadn’t been able to understand. Tomorrow is a very important day, after all. 

 

Had she known?

 

Had she known that the only groom that would embrace her beyond the large arched torii on this cliff was the frigid ocean waters as it swept her into the abyssal dark?

 

Her face grows indescribably hot, teeth clenching. “You call this a wedding?” Her pulse quickens, fury ballooning inside of her at the injustice of it all. “Don’t tell me you were going to kill--” she’s silenced with the threat of a sharpened bamboo staff being brandished towards her. “Kyaaaaa!” Nene had been met with many dangerous situations while in boundaries, but never anything that ever felt quite this real. The edge of the shaft looks as though it’d make quick work of her if she even so much as tried to struggle any further. One jab of that and… 

 

She doesn’t want to think about it.

 

Unease rolls like corrosive sludge in her chest. She hadn’t wanted to think about her own mortality during her study trip. It’d been plaguing her from the moment that she had learned of her fate while in the painted world even though she’d been showing a brave face off to Hanako and Kou. She’d only wanted one day to be a normal teenager, having a fun night with friends, cooking, and playing games without acknowledging the swinging pendulum that inched ever closer over her head. 

 

What if this was it?

 

Hanako had never specified the time for when she would die. He didn’t seem to know either, other than the fact that it would definitely be this year. What if this is it? She thinks, icy horror stabbing at her heart like the honed blade of a butcher’s knife. What if this was the moment of her death? 

 

Alone… 

 

In an unfamiliar place…

 

Without Hanako-kun.

 

Was she going to die without even being able to say goodbye to him? Without even being able to see him one last time? The villagers squabble amongst themselves around her, but their voices seem far away, the sound of her own heart pounding more loudly than a large hand against a drum drowning them out. 

 

She thinks of Hanako’s kind smile last night as he patted her head sweetly, bidding her goodnight. He’d probably stayed up all night to keep watch. She should’ve insisted that he sleep, but he had taken precautions to keep her safe, once more. He never worried about himself, after all. He viewed himself as nothing more than an afterthought. He was so gentle and she hadn’t even trusted him enough to tell him about Sumire-chan. 

 

I said I’d protect him, she thinks, blinking back tears, throat burning as a sob builds there. But I just let him take care of me again. I didn’t tell him about Sumire-chan and now I might never see him again!

 

 No, she thinks, raw panic spiking as one of these villagers grab her wrist with a frigid hand. “No! Wait!” She’s pulled back against the person, but they were just too strong. “Stop! Let go!”

 

The voices of the villagers grow louder, echoing around her into a crescendo of sound that encircles her like a ring of fire. It’s deafening. Her knees feel as though they’re going to give out, palms growing slick with sweaty terror. 

 

“Well done catching her.”

 

“Drop her off just like that!”

 

“Congratulations, Kannagi-sama!”

 

“Congratulations!”

 

When had congratulations ever sounded like a eulogy? 

 

No, no — no! She can’t do anything like this. She can’t run, and even if she did manage to break away from this man, she’s sure that she wouldn’t be able to fight off the crowd. She’s trapped, nothing but a weak high school girl with no special powers besides her own impending death. She’s going to die. They’re going to trap her or make her walk off of that cliff, and Hanako was nowhere to be found. 

 

Nothing familiar was anywhere to be found.  

 

If she’s going to die, then she at least wants to see Hanako. At least once. There was still so much that she hadn’t told him or thanked him for. She hadn’t thanked him for agreeing to grant her impossible wish back in the painted world. She hadn’t even managed to thank him for protecting her from the moment that they had fallen into this den of spiders. She hadn’t even told him how she felt about it. Not properly, at least. She’d only whispered that secret to a boy who she had thought was nothing more than a copy in what was just a happy dream. No, she didn’t just like Hanako. This emotion was far greater than that. She can feel it filling up her heart, no her entire being like helium. 

 

Nene knows what this is.

 

She knows it by the way that she can use at least 50 different colorful adjectives to describe the exact hue of his eyes -- from the way that his smile sends her into near cardiac arrest. She’d grown so used to the unnatural coolness that emanated from his body that she had come to crave it. She felt safe in his arms. It felt right to be with Hanako. As though that was where she’d always belonged. It was almost funny, she was a girl who was always a little too silly -- a little too clumsy and a little too overly romantic to fit in fully with her peers, and yet the affection that she always craved -- that sense of this is where I’m meant to be -- came from the cold embrace of a ghost. 

 

And the last thing I said to him was good night. 

 

He… didn’t know that she loved him.

 

I love him, and the realization is so simple, so natural, that she wonders why she didn’t realize it sooner — and she’d never even get to tell him. It’s not fair! She’d realized that she truly loved a boy and he’d never even get to know? She’d die without even being able to tell him? That was the only thing that she’d ever wanted for as long as she could remember, and knowing that it was all about to be taken from her was just too much to bear. She was already going to die and couldn’t even do the one thing that she’d always wanted? Maybe it was a selfish desire, but it’s choking her, clogging her throat as she screams. 

 

“No! Hanako-kun!”

 

The wind howls, cloth fluttering all around her as she is suddenly pulled against the sturdy, cool chest of the person who’s captured her. The mask falls away from his face, revealing hooded eyes as golden as the incandescently lit full moon in the sky and the too-wide, almost feral smile that she never failed to make her heart feel as though she’s just finished running a marathon. Time seems to slow to a snail’s crawl as his hand entwined with hers, just as cool and comforting as it always was. 

 

“I’m heeeeeeere!~” He drawls, voice airy and cheerful, as though they weren’t caught at the mercy of a violent mob. Her throat tightens, tears of pure relief prickling at the corners of her eyes. Was she… dreaming? Perhaps this was some kind of elaborate hallucination just as she was pushed over the edge?

 

No

 

He feels just as solid and cool as he normally did. A body that emanated no warmth, and yet Hanako himself was nothing but the balm of summer in the way that he made her feel. That was the same. It was really him!

 

Hanako-kun was here?

 

Perhaps it’s because he’s dressed in the same manner of the villagers and maybe it’s because the wind is still buffeting the two of them, but Nene is caught up within the magic of the moment. Hanako looks like something out of a storybook or a manga a powerful knight protecting a princess. She blinked back tears. He was here! He was okay! “Hanako-kun…?” She whispers, and this feeling that swells in her chest is more intense than the punch to the gut that she had received earlier. It feels as though she’s breathless, eyes still blurry with tears as she looks up at him. Had his smile always been this soft? His eyes, always so bright and filled with kindness and perhaps… relief? 

 

He wraps his arms around her tightly then so tight that it feels as though he doesn’t want to ever release her. There’s a slight tremble in his voice as he murmurs, “Sorry I’m late.” His cheek nuzzles against her throat, and she can almost feel the slight brush of his lips. It’s ticklish, but also so inviting that she almost melts into his arms. Hanako-kun was here. Relief rushes through her. Hanako-kun was here. Everything would be okay, now. She wouldn’t die with him around. Hanako-kun always kept his promises, after all.

 

She closes her eyes, sagging against him. She isn’t going to die. 

 

I’m not going to die … She repeats that thought to herself even as her knees buckle as her tension evaporates.

 

Maybe she’d even get to tell him

 

“Sorry, but,” he flings the mask into the face of one of the more vocal villagers. The man cried out in pain as it collided with his skull, knocking him off of his feet from the force of the blow. “The wedding is canceled!” The arms around her loosen, as one of his hands sliding down around her waist as he uses his other hand to rip the formal clothing off of himself, revealing his normal gakuran attire. Then, he squeezes her tightly, arm pressing her against his side. His cheek brushes against hers, much like a needy feline demanding affection. “I can’t just let some nobody out there take my assistant as a bride, right?” 

 

He speaks with such conviction, brandishing his knife towards the crowd. He’s still smiling, but the arm around her waist holds her securely.  Nene relaxes against him. If Hanako was here now, nothing could possibly go wrong. He squeezes her in a reassuring way and there’s something possessive about the action, as though he’s the one claiming ownership of her. 

 

Or perhaps, that was wishful thinking on her part. She so badly wants to be claimed by him. Her cheeks grow warm and she can’t help herself from throwing her arms around his shoulders and clinging to him just as tightly as he had done to her earlier. 

 

He’d saved her again. 

 

“You’re here, Hanako-kun!” She pulls back, and cups his cheeks, squeezing and stretching them out to make sure that he was really real. “It’s really you!” He laughs outright, then, eyes still focused on the people that were surrounding them. His voice sounds so merry that it’s enough to soothe some of her fear. 

 

“Yashiro, at least wait until we’re alone before you feel me up,” he teases, smile hardening as some of the villagers close in, finally regaining their bearings after Hanako’s sudden appearance. “We still have an audience of nosy pests here, after all.” He nuzzles her cheek again and she has to struggle to suppress the embarrassing whine that wells up in her throat. “You naughty daikon, you!” Nene flushes indignantly. He was really going to tease her right now? And was now really the time for daikon jokes!? “I’m not feeling you up!” If her voice was any higher at this moment, she’s sure that only dogs and small animals could hear it. 

 

Though, she can’t deny that there’s a part of her that wants very much to kiss him at this very moment. He just looks so heroic almost majestic as he bravely faces off against their enemies. It was at times like this that Hanako seems just as dashing as a prince out of her favorite novels. It didn’t matter that he was shorter than her, or that his cheeks lacked the angled sharpness of the men that she typically preferred. 

 

He was just Hanako the boy who was entirely dedicated to keeping her safe. The boy she loved. Her heart hammers. At least it was getting easier to say now. 

 

“Retrieve the Kannagi!” One of the villagers shouts loudly. It’s chaos as the angry group attempts to rush them. Weapons are drawn, pointed at them -- all manner of spears, swords, and sharpened bamboo as they jab the weapons towards the pair. “She must not escape!”  Hanako frowns, leaping backward as the crowd continues to approach. They were determined to have their sacrifice one way or another, it seemed. 

 

They’re trying to push us to the edge of the cliff! Nene realizes, horrified as they draw ever closer to the edge. 

 

“Yashiro?” Hanako asks, hand gripping even more tightly around her waist as her feet hit the edge of the cliff. “Are you scared?” 

 

She swallows anxiously, wondering just what kind of question that was. “O-Of course I am!” She tries hard not to look behind her. The rocks at the bottom of the cliff looked so sharp… “B-But, you’re not going to let anything happen to me?” She pauses. “Right?”

 

The grin that he gives her is more blinding than the sun itself. “Of course not!” He says, voice filled with confidence. “So, there’s no reason for you to be afraid, alright?” He nods as though confirming that simple fact to himself as well. His other arm joins the one tucked around her waist, eyes darting towards the cliff. He looks back at her, his smile growing wide and cat-like as his eyes take on a hooded appearance. 

 

“You trust me, don’t you?” Nene’s brows furl. Why was he asking her all of these questions all of a sudden? This was beginning to feel all too familiar, even if she couldn’t put her finger on why.  

 

“Y...Yes?”

 

“Good.”

 

The knife in his hand dissipates as though it hadn’t even existed. Why was he putting that away? Wasn’t he going to fight the villagers--

 

Oh no.

 

Nononononono.

 

He wasn’t

 

“H-Hanako-kun--” she says worriedly, “Hey, wait a second --- AAAAAAAAAAAAH! ” Nene screams wildly as he suddenly scoops her up into his arms, carrying her bridal style before he turns away from the villagers and takes and leaps off of the cliff. It feels as though her heart has leaped into her throat, as though her stomach had just dropped right out of her body. Hanako laughs merrily as the wind pushes against them like an assault. “Look out belooooow!” He calls out. If Nene weren’t currently screaming at the top of her lungs and clinging to him with all of her might, she would’ve wrung his neck. 

 

Her vision spots, a sort of fog entering her head. It’s as though she’d been thrust into static, white noise crackling in her ears.

 

Well, she thinks as the last traces of her consciousness begin to fade away. I’ll have time to strangle him later...

 

Among other things. 

 

-----

 

Nene awakes sometime later, groaning as she rolls onto her back. Something soft is cushioning her and she’s wrapped up as though bundled in a blanket. Her clothes are still wet, leaving her shivering as she grabs the edges of the blanket, holding it tighter. She can hear what sounds like dripping water, as though a glass of water has been spilled. There’s a rhythmic beat to the drip, one that is almost calming enough to lull her back to sleep. Her vision blurs as she opens her eyes, sitting up as she rubs the tiredness from her eyes. Wherever she was, it was dark. Only a small amount of light seemed to slither through openings that were in the ceiling or roof of this place. There’s some kind of stone surrounding her, as well. 

 

Was this… some kind of a cave?

 

She looks down, discovering that what she wasn’t actually a blanket, but heavy layers of clothing. They resemble the clothing that the villagers had worn. No, not the villagers… Hanako-kun had been wearing this as well when he had rescued her, hadn’t he? 

 

“You’re awake? Good,” she jolts at the sound of Hanako’s voice. He’s sitting beside her, knees drawn up to his chest. He gives her a small smile, cheek resting against his knees. His hands brush over her bangs. “You know, Yashiro -- it’s probably not normal to pass out like that all of the time. Those fainting spells can’t be good for your heart. Were you just that excited to be in my arms? For shame!” 

 

In his arms?

 

She’s puzzled before memories of leaping into the icy water below assault her. She must’ve turned into a fish! She was still drenched and her eyes narrow as she glared at the boy beside her. Jerk! It wasn’t the fainting spells that weren’t good for her heart, it was him! “A little warning would’ve been nice!” She barks back, sitting up fully now. She jabs an accusing finger towards him. “Why are you always throwing me from high places! That’s what’s not good for my heart!” she hits his arm, causing him to wince and rub at the abused skin. She chooses to ignore his innuendo-laden comment. Honestly! Did she have to be in love with such a perverted person?

 

Her heart flinches.

 

Right. 

 

She’d realized that earlier, hadn’t she?

 

That knowledge makes her grow strangely rigid. She covers a hand over her heart. It was pounding so loudly now that she worries if he can also hear it. Throughout that entire ordeal, she’d been afraid of dying and never seeing Hanako-kun again. She can still feel all of those emotions, taking up space inside of her, threatening to explode. Nene isn’t sure that she’d be able to put the lid on them again. 

 

Or if she even wanted to.

 

She’d made a promise to herself earlier, hadn’t she? 

 

It hangs over her head like a guillotine. Nene’s face grows redder, palms clammier as she sits rigidly. She had made that promise -- and now she would need to make good on it. She casts a cautionary glance towards Hanako, who had already slid closer to her. “ Hmm? I did give you a warning, didn’t I?” He wraps one of his arms around her, snaking it around her waist as his chin moves to rest on her shoulder. She’d long since grown accustomed to this kind of invasion of space from him. Though, with her earlier revelation in mind, it’s as though she can feel his embrace that much more.  

 

Even with their bond, Hanako’s body rarely had a solidness to it that seemed real unless he was touching her. He was like the moonlight filtering in through the cracks in a window. If she reaches out to touch him, he’d slip right through the gaps between her fingers fading into nothingness. 

 

But now? It’s as though every nerve within her body is heavily aware of him. As though she’s realized something, so vital, so crucial that she’s stunned that it’s taken her this long to realize that he’s always been right there. Solid. Firm.

 

Real. 

 

She only needs to reach out

 

“You didn’t,” it’s an olympic feat to keep her words from jumbling together. It feels like her heart has been replaced by a drum, being struck with violent force. Did he hear it? He had to hear it! It was more like thunder than a heartbeat at this point! 

 

“You just asked if I trusted you and then flung the both of us off of a cliff, mister!”  She jabs an accusing finger against his chest, making him yelp and flinch back. Good, she had space. Space to think. Space was good. In fact, she scoots her butt a few inches in a different direction, putting even more distance between them. “Speaking of which, where even are we?” She’s sure that her voice is getting squeaky again. Kind of like she’s just breathed in a tank full of helium gas. 

 

Not good.

 

He casts a glance towards their left, amber eyes narrowing towards that direction and she sees the shining of sunlight in the distance. “I found a cave along the bank at the bottom of the cliff,” he explains, following her like a needy cat would. Nanamine-san really had been onto something with that comparison. Hanako captures her in his arms again, rubbing his cheek along the exposed clavicle of her throat and she’s sure that at this point, her heartbeat best resembles the rolling thunder of a storm. 

 

“I think we should stay here until it gets darker. Those people might have given up the chase by that point.”

 

It was a solid enough plan. The last thing Nene wanted was a fight, but the idea of staying alone with Hanako for that long was doing odd things to her insides. She feels all twisted up, like she’s a rag being rung dry as she sits behind him. Then again, she’d already spent an entire night alone with Hanako on the previous night. All alone in a darkened room, with nothing but the slight, dim lamp of a lantern to illuminate both of them. Come to think of it, that had been pretty intimate, hadn’t it!?

She hadn’t even considered

 

“Aren’t you Gon’s lover?”

 

SKDFSLKDFS;KDFSKFIJS;LEDFSLFSF’S!

 

“At that point, we can search for Number 6’s Yorishiro,” Hanako continues, oblivious to her internal meltdown. “I’ll make sure that we escape as soon as possible. If I’m not careful you might just nearly end up as someone’s bride again,” his eyes sharpen as he glances at her out of the corner of his eyes, his smile dropping. He pinches her cheek as though to admonish her and Nene winces, releasing a whine of pure mortification. 

 

“It’s not like I wanted to get married! Everything just happened so fast and where were you all that time, huh?” She turns in his arms, her annoyance enough to make her momentarily forget all about her dilemma. 

 

He had been beside her when she had first fallen asleep, only to be gone by morning. She couldn’t imagine that he had left her side after insisting that he’d stay awake in order to keep watch throughout the night. Hanako had been on edge ever since first arriving at this strange place, after all not that she could blame him. Nothing had gone right since they had arrived. Even Hanako, who was normally as powerful and brave as a dashing knight had been subdued by Sumire-chan earlier. 

 

Nene can’t remember ever seeing Hanako so quickly bested, not even when he’d been beaten by Yako-san back in her boundary. Even then, that had been temporary. He’d been able to hold his own until she had finally found Yako-san’s yorishiro. 

 

To her relief disappointment she doesn’t know anymore -- Hanako releases her, dropping his hands down to his side. He leans his head back against the wall of the cave, staring up at a small slither of light that peaks through an opening in the ceiling of the cave. “Our retainer friend found it prudent to incapacitate me while you took her place,” he’s dropped the teasing tone, voice going flat as his hands ball into fists, filled with tension. He uses one hand to pull the bill of his hat down, obscuring his eyes. “For a moment, I thought I wouldn’t make it in time.”

 

Large doe eyes widen, “You mean… Sumire-chan knew what was going to happen?” 

 

Hanako makes a soft sound of affirmation.

 

No she’d seemed so genuine when speaking of her love for number 6. She’d wanted to marry him. She didn’t think that kind of emotion could be easily faked. Wait hadn’t the villagers said something about that? It was difficult to remember most of what was being said during all of the shouting and confusion, but one thing had stuck out. “To run from your duty… What a failure of a Kannagi you are. 

 

Duty.

 

If it was the duty of a Kannagi to literally wed death, then it made sense that a mortal would need to die to be with her betrothed. The villagers had all escorted her to the torii gate, speaking of marriage and showering her in congratulations, but had all grown panicked and angry when she had tried to run. Come to think of it, one of them had mentioned they hadn’t wanted to use the strange drug that they had poisoned her with. It all aligned in her mind neatly like pieces of a large puzzle being arranged.

 

“She… tricked me?” Nene asks faintly.

 

“She tricked us both,” he reaches for her hand, giving it a firm squeeze. “Remember what I said? She’s a retainer. Nothing but a puppet on strings--

 

“No!” Those words swell in her chest and then burst out of her before she can even stop them. “I I know Sumire-chan isn’t like that!” 

 

Sure, it wouldn’t have been the first time that Nene had saw the good within someone who didn’t deserve it. She’s oftentimes naive, easy to trick, and impulsive, ignoring red flags that were waving right in front of her face. Hanako had told her that she was a sucker for hot guys and apparitions and with all of her past experiences, she knows that he’s right about that. 

 

Still.

 

She’d seen Sumire’s memories while in that dream-like state. At least, that’s what she thinks those feelings were. Glimpses of a life that had been cut far too short. Of feelings that had been manifested, and yet never fully requited. At least not in the way that Sumire-chan would have wanted. They had to have been her memories, right? It was like whenever she removed the seal of a yorishiro. Nene’s face scrunches up, lips pursed tightly and nose wrinkled as she thinks. Number 6 hadn’t shown a slither of remorse as he watched Sumire march steadily towards death. She tries to imagine what she would feel like in a similar situation if the person that she loved if Hanako had watched her die without even batting an eyelash.

 

Pain as sharp as a stab wound to the chest all but knocks the wind out of her. 

 

She can’t even imagine it. No she doesn’t want to imagine it.

 

Those feelings… they couldn’t be just an illusion? She knows…. She just knows that Sumire-chan was no mere puppet. 

 

Hanako’s fingers cup underneath her chin, lifting her eyes towards his. “There’s no need to defend her,” he admonishes, lips pressing downward in apparent displeasure. His eyes harden. “You were nearly killed because of her. You understand that, right?” His voice has gone flat, like he got when there were all kinds of dark emotions swirling inside of him. She didn’t always understand it, but this was the side of Hanako that always unnerved her. He’s normally so playful, so kind to her that she often forgot that it existed at least until it appeared once more. He holds so many secrets, keeping his emotions bottled up inside of him, displaying them to no one but his own demons. 

 

It’s only at times like this that Nene truly feels her age. She’s nothing but a silly, 15-year-old teenaged girl. She’s Yashiro Nene -- dreamy, reckless, and totally gullible and he’s the honorable Hanako-san of the Toilet. He’d lived a life that was drenched in blood, sin and now walked a solemn path of duty and atonement in death. It’s always a little hard to wrap her head around. 

 

It was… frustrating. 

 

“That’s true,” she mumbles, sighing in a pleased way when he moves his hand up from her chin, cupping her cheek. It’s cool, lacking body heat as usual, but she appreciated the gesture, regardless. “But -- I just… don’t think that she’s just a puppet, Hanako. She feels like she’s...real,” and if Number 6 had made her into his yorishiro -- a real, breathing person with thoughts and feelings -- then she must’ve been important to him? Had he changed his mind? If they had tried to make her take her place, then perhaps they were trying to save Sumire-chan from her fate?

 

Could she blame her for that?

 

If she could only be with Hanako-kun at the expense of another person, then…

 

She isn’t sure what choice she would’ve made.  She didn’t think that she could actually hurt someone knowingly, but also couldn’t be upset with Sumire-chan for her betrayal. There’s an ache in her heart that hasn’t subsided since she’d been drugged. A lonely longing that nearly swallows her heart entirely. 

 

Sumire-chan’s feelings...

 

She averts her eyes from Hanako’s oche ones, pulling the decorative haori snuggly around her shoulders and staring down at her knees. 

 

“She must’ve had her reasons,” Nene says confidently. That had to be it. She’s absolutely sure of it. 

 

“Yashiro.”

 

Hanako sounds disappointed, tone morose as he says her name like a parent scolding a child. “The only reason that she feels real is because she is a manifestation of Number 6’s memories,” he explains, though she can tell that there isn’t much patience within him at the moment. “She is a reflection of who he thought she was, but in the end, her will isn’t her own,” ochre eyes harden as his hand falls from her cheek and back to his side. She falls quiet, choosing to listen to him speak.

 

“He is looking for a kannagi ,” he says softly. “To take her place. That’s why he took your friend Aoi in the first place. She’s not actually real. He wants to change that, as ridiculous as that even is,” when Hanako got like this, his words could become as corrosive as acid. 

 

“Why is it ridiculous?”

 

“Huh?” Her question clearly catches him off guard as his eyes are drawn back to hers. 

 

“Why is it ridiculous that he’s trying to find a way to keep the person that he loves by his side?” She asks quietly. She touches her heart; it’s throbbing with an emotion that wasn’t her own, and yet was so familiar. It’s a borrowed emotion, but it’s also her own. She understands Sumire-chan. She can even understand Number 6. “I think he’s being selfish like Yako-san was… and like how I used to be when I first sought you out for a wish, but I don’t think wanting to be with the person you love is ridiculous.” 

 

Her near-death experience was still too close. She’d been desperate to see Hanako, too. Just to see him one last time. Had that been a selfish wish? 

 

She’d even made a promise. 

 

Hanako’s brow furls, “Yashiro… what they’re doing is putting people in danger,” he says, this time taking her shoulders in his hands. He squeezes them, as though pleading with her to understand. “It put you in danger.” 

 

And there it was.

 

Nene blinks, and the answer seems so obvious that she’s surprised that she hadn’t noticed it sooner. “You were afraid that I’d die.”

 

 He nods, sighing as his head drops down, forehead brushing against her shoulder. “I.. thought that I wouldn’t make it to you in time. She had used her spiritual powers on me in the morning so there was nothing that I could do to stop those people when they came to get you. If I’d been any later…” 

 

If he’d been any later … 

 

That possibility remains unspoken, even as her chest grows tighter, something itchy forming in her throat. Words are lodged there and when she parts her lips, it’s hard to force her voice through them. “I would have died.”

 

“You would have died,” he repeats, nodding against her. His forehead is just as cool as the rest of his body. “We still don’t know when your lifespan will run out.”

 

That was true. 

 

Then, he lifts his head, smiling in that gentle way that never failed to make her belly throb with yearning. It’s such a kind, sad smile. It was less Hanako and more like Amane, the boy that she had seen in Tsuchigomori-sensei’s memories, though that wasn’t exactly right, either. Hanako was a role that he plays, and he hadn’t been Amane in many years. Or perhaps this smile was the real him? The person beneath the role. The person that Amane had become. 

 

He’d said before that the dead had no future that nothing new could happen for those who had died, but… Nene’s not so sure that she believes that. He’d grown changed, hadn’t he?

 

“Besides,” he tells her, giving her a playful but light flick on the forehead. “I told you that I’m going to grant your wish for you. You don’t doubt my abilities do you?” He pouts, donning the Hanako-san mask again effortlessly. A flirty gesture of a playful joke from him has always been an effective distractor for her, after all. She’s not sure why, but it makes her kind of angry. He’s rarely truly honest with her, not about his feelings at least. 

 

Perhaps that is what spurs her on.

 

She’s not sure where her confidence comes from. It surges in her chest, making her grab the collar of his gakuran as she tugs him forward and all presses her lips against his. 

 

He releases a startled gasp, even when their teeth clink together. It kind of hurts, honestly. 

 

I messed up! She thinks, absolutely panicked. Her lips were throbbing from where she had all but headbutted (lipbutted?) him, and she goes rigid against him. Their lips were still mashed together, but neither of them moves an inch. Nene can’t help but think that this was nothing like the books or even her own fantasies. Hanako’s lips were cold, and he was stiller than a block of eyes, his entire body taut with tension. He seems shell shocked, but she can’t exactly blame him.

 

She’d moved before her brain had even had a chance to catch up with her body, after all. Nene was a lot of things and a quitter wasn’t one of them. I promised, she thinks to herself, steeling her resolve, even if she wants to pull from the badly aimed first kiss and run for the hills. She promised that she would tell him how she felt about him, and she couldn’t continue to have cold feet.

 

After all, he’d been just as scared as she had been before… right?

 

He hadn’t wanted to lose her, either.

 

And if a first kiss ended this pathetically, she thinks that she’d actually drop dead from humiliation. So, she pushes through it, softening her lips so that the kiss became less of an aggressive assault and more of a chaste peck. Come to think of it, his lips were rather soft, weren’t they? They feel nice, inspiring a warm, pleasant feeling in her chest. She pushes closer, lips pressing more firmly against his own and Hanako makes a sound that sounds remarkably like a dying, yowling cat. 

 

It’s only then that she pulls back, face burning hot from her own boldness. “I’d never doubt you,” she says firmly. “I was just afraid before, back at the wedding. It was really scary but -- and for a second I thought I wouldn’t be able to see you again. That was scarier than when I thought I was doing to die,” she admits in a rush of words. Her heart thrums loudly, and suddenly it feels like the cave has grown excessively hot. She chances a glance at Hanako and nearly gasps herself at what she sees.

 

He’d been red back when she’d kissed his cheek before, too.  Though now, it was though his skin had been dyed with the color, splotches of color burning across his face. He gapes at her, as though she had grown a second head. It’s like his body has turned to stone. It feels like an eternity before he finally speaks. “Yashiro,” his voice is barely a whisper, trembling the entire time. “What are you doing?”

 

The answer seems so obvious to her that she almost laughs. Well, she would’ve laughed if she didn’t feel nearly just as faint. She’s sure that her face looks just as comical as his own. Though, his reaction brings her some relief. He’s just as out of his element as she is. “What do you think it means when a girl kisses someone, Hanako-kun?” She wants to sound sophisticated and sure, but her voice is chipmunk high. She’s sure she sounds just like Black Canyon-chan right now. She still can’t quite believe herself, either. She’d kissed him! She kissed Hanako! 

 

“I --,” he swallows like thick sludge is lodged in his throat. “You shouldn’t--.” he pauses as though trying to collect his thoughts. He tugs at the collar of his gakuran, fidgeting as though ants had crawled into his clothing. “You shouldn’t do things like that. I’ll get the wrong idea.”

 

Wrong idea? That statement throws her mind for a loop. How would he get the wrong idea from a kiss? She thinks that it’s pretty self-explanatory! Kisses usually only meant one thing, after all. He can’t be this dense, right? She had even told him that she liked him back in the painted world. She’s sure that he  knows that, right? 

 

“W-What’s the wrong idea?” She demands, small hands balling themselves into frustrated fists. “I told you before, right? I like you!” The words are out before she can stop them, but she’s far too annoyed to even care about that right now. Her first kiss and he has the nerve to look like his favorite hamster had just died. 

 

His two index fingers press together as he fidgets, “I know,” he mumbles, then glances back at her, almost shy. “I just -- it’s probably not a good idea, you know.” She can tell what he must be thinking. He’s dead and she’s...not. Even if her wish is eventually granted, she will eventually need to leave the school and move on from Kamome academy. Her life would go on, and his wouldn’t.

 

It isn’t much of a future.

 

Nene had already thought about all of that.  If it wasn’t her shortened lifespan, she’d often spend her nights agonizing over her feelings for the ghost boy. It was love, but a doomed one. A relationship with a supernatural had a time limit, even in the best of cases. 

 

“There’s so much that you deserve,” he continues, and her breath hitches when he leans forward, lips brushing against her cheek. He hadn’t done anything like that since the incident with the confession tree. Her belly works itself into knots, especially when he wraps an arm around her waist. “I can’t give you any of that. I’m dead, Yashiro. I can only promise to fulfill your wish so that you can live to your 90s and go marry some lame fantasy prince.” He moves his free hand to ruffle her hair, smiling in that frustratingly self-sacrificial way. As though that was that. Like the discussion was over. 

 

It feels strange to hear him echoing her previous desires. True, before meeting Hanako, all she could dream about was being swept off of her feet by a tall, stunning prince-like boy. All of those wishes feel hollow now, like emptiness gnawing at her heart. 

 

She still wants love.

 

It’s just

 

“I don’t want any of that unless it’s with you, Hanako-kun.” His eyes grow as wide as saucers, the light filtering from the top of the cave makes the gold within them sparkle like moonstones. He opens his mouth and she knows that he’s going to try to keep fighting her on this. He had so many reasons why this wouldn’t work.

 

I’m dead, Yashiro.

 

I can’t take you on dates, Yashiro.

 

I can’t grow old with you.

 

I’m bound to Kamome. 

 

You deserve better than me.

 

Unfortunately for him she doesn’t want to hear any of them. 

 

Nene surges forward, kissing Hanako again. This time, she sits up onto her knees, invading his space and taking his face into her hands. If she can’t convince him with her words, then perhaps she can convince through action? Nene tilts her head and parts her lips. There, that feels a bit better than just kissing with her mouth squeezed closed. Hanako’s lips are slightly moist. They shiver as she carefully another kiss to the corner of his lips, and then the other.

 

This didn’t feel as awkward as last time, but Hanako is still far too rigid for her liking. “We can go on dates in the boundaries,” she says as she pulls away. She loops her arms around his shoulders and moves to kneel in between his parted legs. Sometime in between her kissing him again, he’d sprawled back slightly, legs splaying and arms reaching out as though he wants to grab onto something, though he isn’t quite sure what. 

 

She brushes her lips against his lips again, softer this time as she opens her mouth experimentally. That feels… kind of nice, actually. There are no fireworks, but she begins to feel a slight, almost ticklish feeling in the pit of her stomach. “Even if you can’t grow old with me. I’m sure that we’ll figure something out. I just… I just want to be with you, Hanako-kun,” she draws back and makes direct eye contact this time.

 

She needs him to understand that.

 

None of those superficial things mattered to her anymore. It would all feel empty without at least trying to pursue her feelings for him. “And you you keep saying that I deserve better. But what about you, Hanako-kun?” He tenses at her words, and she knows that she’s nailed the true crux of the problem. Her eyes soften, and she presses her forehead against his. “Don’t keep saying that I deserve better than you. When I want you and you don’t you deserve some happiness, too?”

His eyes squeeze shut, pained. His voice sounds raw, as though he’d cry at any second, “I don’t — Yashiro. There’s so much you don’t know

“And I’m telling you that I don’t care!” She yells, cutting him off. It hurts to hear him speaking that way about himself. She knows that he’s killed -- his own brother, no less. But, she’s seen enough of his past self to know that he wouldn’t have taken such drastic action without there being some sort of reason. She didn’t know what that reason was, or if there was any excuse for murder. He’d promised to tell her everything when he was ready to and she was more than prepared to wait for him. 

 

There’s so much that she doesn’t understand about Hanako.

 

-- But she can’t bring herself to judge him for any of it. 

 

His expression is one of slack-jawed shock like he can’t quite believe that she exists. She kisses him again, harder this time. She wants him to understand. No -- she needs him to understand. Luckily, it’s this kiss where Hanako seems to finally regain some of his brain’s function. Or at least, his body has finally caught up to what was happening. He releases a soft, almost strangled sigh as his hands wrap around her. It’s a tight, almost desperate sort of hug. It’s like he’s never hugged anyone before in his life like he’s starved for her.

 

He clutches at her back, fingers digging into the fabric of her kimono as he finally returns the kiss. His lips part, mouth opening as he draws her bottom lip into his mouth. Nene whimpers, a thrill of pure heat blossoming in her chest. One of Hanako’s sharper teeth caught on her lips. It drags along the swell of the tender flesh, and while it stings, it also inspires a feeling inside of that that is so sharp that she can’t help but shudder.

 

What is this?

 

“Yashiro,” Hanako murmurs against her mouth. “Do you really mean all of that?” His question is a probing one. He sounds nervous, excited, and terrified all at once. He changes the angle of the kiss, inclining his head as his tongue swipes along the underside of her lip. If her insides had been jumbled up before, it was as though one thousand tiny butterflies had all been jammed inside of her belly now. She can’t stop the soft whine from escaping from her. He’d -- he’d just spoken, hadn’t he? 

 

“Y-Yes,” she admits, hands moving from their position up to his hair. She’s not sure why, but it feels right to do that. His hair is soft to the touch, like satin on her fingertips. Nene swipes his hat off of his head in her enthusiasm, and she’s not sure where it falls off to, nor does she care. “I want to be with you, Hanako-kun,” she repeats, feeling as though she is in a haze. Her brain feels like it’s filled with cotton candy or clouds as soft as the ones that had been in Shijima-san’s picture world.

 

She’d wanted to kiss him then, too.

 

He groans, this time ducking his head away from her mouth. She wants to protest from the lack of contact. Why had he stopped kissing her? Kissing had just started to feel very nice and she beginning to see what all of the fuss was about

 

He kisses the underside of her jaw and she whines. She wants to cover her mouth. She’s sure that sounded pretty embarrassing, but Hanako doesn’t seem perturbed by the sound at all. If anything, it spurs him on, his lips dragging down from along her jaw as he peppers kisses wherever he can find exposed skin along her throat. The collar of the kimono was high, and he couldn’t get as much access as she would’ve liked. 

 

Oh.

 

What is she thinking?!

 

“Yashiro -- Yashiro,” he whispers her name against her skin. His lips part, open-mouthed as he draws the skin of her neck into his mouth. She trembles, goosebumps breaking out along her flesh from the feeling. Now that feels like fireworks. 

 

She finds herself on her back, Hanako sprawled out on top of her and she’s not quite sure how they ended up in this position. Her heart feels so full like it might burst at any moment. Hanako runs his fingers through her hair, combing his fingers through her scalp and it feels so nice that she can’t help but close her eyes and moan. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, but she grabs both of his cheeks, tugging him down to kiss him silent once more. 

“Don’t apologize.” Why would he be sorry for this? For making her feel like this.

 

For being as close to death as she was, she’d never felt more alive. 

 

“I just --,” he struggles with his words. “I want this -- I want to be with you, too,” his eyes burn, and as he draws away. No, she thinks breathlessly. I want more. Kiss me more-- “I feel like I’m dooming you. If -- if we’re together… then can I really grant your wish?” His hands tremble as he moves a hand down to cradle her cheek. “What if I want to keep you all to myself? I just...feel so selfish.”

 

More. More. More —

 

She kisses each of his cheeks and then finds herself fumbling with the buttons of his gakuran, if only to gain access to his throat. He sounds so stunned, head falling against her shoulder as he presses his body against her. Did he feel the same way that she did right now? He had been covered in so many bruises in the past when he was alive. She wonders if anyone had ever touched him with the intent of causing joy and not pain. 

 

A tornado storms inside of her, feelings too intense for her to even put a name to overwhelming her. She can feel tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. Their situation wasn’t exactly a fair one. Two doors were set before her. Death or life. Both options would take her away from him. Though, when he holds her this way and says such sweet, honest things, Nene thinks that she’d be alright with dying. At least if it was like this. 

 

Was this how Sumire-chan felt? 

 

“Then have me,” Nene whispers. “Let’s be together.” 

 

He chokes on what sounds like a sob, eyes glittering with unshed tears as he smiles down at her. He chuckles.

 

“So many wishes. How can I keep up with granting all of them?” He uses his fingers to wipe at the tears that had begun to fall freely down her cheeks. He brings one of her hands to his lips, brushing them against the back of her palm. “You’re so needy, Yashiro.” 

 

“It’s a boyfriend’s job to grant his girlfriend’s needy wishes,” she returns his smile. Then, she kisses him again, opening her mouth he can suckle on the tip of her tongue. She shudders yes, this is where she is meant to be. 

 

“Is that so?” 

 

“It is,” she affirms, quieting him again.

 

She isn’t sure how long they were meant to last but Nene does know this. 

 

She’d brave it all for him. 

 

-- 

 

The end.

 

--