Hey, did you know?
On the edge of the village in the cursed Alderberry Forest, past the stretch of overgrown briar and hazelwood — there are twin bushes blooming with the boldest and brightest of camellia flowers.
If you avoid the purple bush and head straight for the wine-stained reds, you may exchange droplets of blood for powerful magic. There, the demon birthed from flowers and death will grant you three wishes.
But choose your wishes wisely, for beasts in the cursed forest do not have a kind sense of humor. Choose wrongly, and the demon will open his jaws up wide, grin at you with all teeth but no humor, his breath smelling of sweet sugar and decay, and he will say —
The aching in Yashiro Nene’s head refused to ease as she trudged deeper in the dark forbidden forest. It was an overgrown path surrounded by canopied trees and fraying vines that hung around the understory of the woods like drapes. She did however suppose a headache was a rather small price to pay compared to other trespassers who have fared way worse.
It was the Alderberry Forest after all, the forest known for its spirits, treacherous denizens, and prowlers of the inky netherworlds who have long lost their place in the real world.
Aoi had told her the unsavory tales from these forests many many times over, and they always started and ended the same. A naive young maiden, a dangerous proposition, untimely death. And if not a young maiden, then perhaps a stray wanderer lured by the temptation of wealth and power; they too will meet a gorey demise in the ravenous jaws of the awaiting forest. Such was the way these woods, with nothing but the hissing wind and the sweet scent of juniper to act as the only caution for those who tread too close.
If Nene were younger she would have been afraid. Hell — if she’d been any less determined she would’ve been afraid. But she was determined. And it was that determination which anchored her and kept her rooted down the winding path past marshlands and foliage.
She was Yashiro Nene after all. Heroine of her own epic story. She may not have been exceptionally smart, or talented, or even beautiful in the classical sense of the word (her best friend Aoi happened to fit all three of those listed descriptors though), but what Nene was was strong-willed. She’d easily go through hell or hellwater to get what she wanted.
And what she wanted was one simple wish.
The air around her grew thick and syrupy, almost as if feeding off her trepidation, and despite her best efforts, her skin began to crawl.
What were the chances she’d get swallowed up by an entirely different demon before she even reached the camellia bushes from the legend? What if dangerous spirits were already tailing her and sharpening their fangs in anticipation of their next meal?
Aoi never described these dangerous beasts in full during her tales. Being an experienced storyteller, she was always careful just how much detail to divulge.
Nene could practically hear her friend’s voice now — could see the smile on her hairpin lips so predictably saccharine as she tilted her head to the side and said, “Sometimes leaving it to the imagination is scarier, don’t you think?”
Closing her eyes, Nene inhaled sharply through her nose, taking in the smell of salt, ashes and dust. Yes. It was very scary indeed. Terrifying even.
But still she persisted.
Sure being tied to a scary demon seemed like a terrible idea to the casual observer, maybe it was stupid to stroll on into the forbidden forest on a blind whim. But on the flip side, there was also no denying there was something strangely alluring about the whole thing. The thought of having a supernatural friend who could help her out of a tough conundrum with a snap of their fingers? (or claws — she wasn’t one to judge). An otherworldly being guiding her through strife and turmoil, using their magic and whatever other fantastical powers they had to make her wishes come true. Well, there was something enchanting about that idea, something borderline romantic.
At least that was what Nene told herself while ducking under angry thorns that criss-crossed in every which way. The patch of briar curved towards her almost invitingly, as if beckoning her closer to come catch her skin along the scrambling shrubs.
This had to mean she was close. Dangerous deterrents defended valuable treasures. That was another thing Nene learned from her friend’s tales. And sure enough, after carefully maneuvering past the briar and the pervasive hazelwood, she found what she’d been searching for in the clearing up ahead.
Relief pooled into her. There it was! She had done it! She had reached the twin bushes of the cursed Alderberry Forest with not so much as a scratch on her.
Talk about luck!
Quickening her pace, she fumbled to grasp the vial dangling loose from her neck. Her neighbor Kou had given it to her for protection when they were young, and it contained the last thing she needed to make her plan work.
“Son of a — ” Nene yelped. Her skirt snagged on a stray branch, sending her tumbling forward. The strap from her makeshift necklace snapped in an instant, causing the vial to slip from her grasp. It hit the ground once, bouncing up ankle high, before hitting the ground a second time and shattering resolutely.
There was nothing Nene could do but watch, utterly helpless as the blood from the vial seeped into the ground and vanished, not leaving so much as a stain behind to show for its existence.
So close. She was so close.
Her gaze flickered back up to the camellia bushes just a couple of steps ahead.
If she had just tripped a few feet farther the blood probably would’ve landed where it was supposed to. It must’ve been a cruel joke. It must’ve been nasty imps or mischievous fairies that were playing tricks in the forest.
But whatever it was, it still didn’t change the fact that she was screwed.
With one last reproachful sigh, Nene bent down to pick up the broken shards. She'd probably have to tell Kou about it. The broken protection — not the ‘wandering into the deep dark forest’ part. Never that part. Kou was the resident worrywart. It was just how he was conditioned coming from the family of exorcists tasked with keeping the village safe. A huge part of those duties was making sure the demons weren't able to stray from the forest. From a young age, Kou had fretted over his older brother going alone on dangerous missions, and when he couldn’t fret over his brother, he fretted over Nene and her obsession with Aoi’s grim tales.
She could practically see him now. Lips pressed in a thin line, worry etched across his boyish face as he pleaded for her not to step foot into the woods again.
A prickle of pain shot through her and she cursed. She had accidentally nicked herself on the ragged edge of a glass shard during her mental guilt trip.
Really she was such a klutz, she was such a…
Wait a minute...that was it!
Holding the bleeding finger to her face, she watched the blood trickle down into her palm in a steady stream. The legend didn’t specify what kind of blood had to be used to summon the demon. Maybe this would do just fine. She had thought earlier that using the vial of fox blood Kou had gifted her for protection would ensure whatever malignant demons she may summon wouldn’t be able to harm her, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, could they?
Here goes nothing.
Walking over to the camellia bushes, she held her finger out over the wine-colored shrub, trying her best to keep steady. The crimson from the pad of her finger blossomed before forming droplets and falling to the solid earth.
In a moment, the blood disappeared beneath her like ink swallowed up by a blank canvas. It was as if the ground hissed with relief as the cold breath of winter kissed her cheeks. And for second, she swore the flowers animated themselves and floated around in a cacophonic symphony in the air.
Nene tried to draw back immediately, but something stronger kept her rooted in place. A charged energy, a simmering restlessness. An unseen presence that folded itself over her hand — oddly intimate, almost like a loving caress.
And then, there — right before her eyes, fresh hell in the form of dark swept hair, golden eyes, and a lazy grin stretched from end to end.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”
The voice which emerged from the depths managed to sound both smooth and rough at the same time, sending her knees buckling and palms sweating. Her lips parted in terror. Every inch of her being told her to run in that instant, yet she could not find the strength to do so. Instead she froze, giving time for the fear in her veins to paralyze and congeal inside her.
At the sight of her looking absolutely petrified, the edge of the demon’s grin curled up further. He was dressed all black from head to toe, with matching black wings, and a pointed black tail. He was handsome in a curdled wicked kind of way, with his ink spilled hair and low slung pants.
In short, he looked beautiful, and absolutely lethal.
“Helllllo~” the demon drawled, flying over so that he was right in front of her face. He laughed when she pulled back in fright. “Not much of a talker?” he asked. Without waiting to hear her response he flitted back to the bushes, giving it a quick glance before turning himself around on a 360 degree axis as if trying to get acclimatized to the surroundings.
Finally finding what’s left of her mangled voice, Nene spoke up, softly at first.
“Are you the demon from the legends? The one who will grant my wish?”
The demon in question turned his attention back on her. The speed at which the wicked grin returned to his face sent shivers down her spine.
“Yup, that’s me,” he said with a flash of his white canines. “I’m Hanako. Demon of the flowers.”
“And death,” Aoi’s gentle voice at the back of her mind reminded her.
“H-Hanako-sama — ”
“Hanako-kun is fine. Hmmm… Something feels different though,” he said, tapping his chin, lazy lilt to the edge of his voice. “I can’t wrap my head around it.” Those irises of liquid amber moved through her, slow and viscous before they landed on her fist; knuckles white from how tightly she was still clenching the broken vial from earlier. “Wait, don’t tell me,” the demon said, eyes flashing in a way that caused her chest to tighten. “You used your own blood?”
Clasping the shards of glass tighter still, Nene tried to sound brave; nonchalant. Like summoning demons was just something she did all the time on the regular. Lifting her head to give her best attempt at a haughty attitude, she sneered down at him. “And what about it?”
Something like sharp wonder lit up behind those sunken eyes at her words and the demon just grinned wider.
“You know, I can’t tell if you’re really brave or really stupid.”
Anger flared up in Nene. The nerve of this demon. The nerve of him to stare her down and regard HER as if she were the wild, unpredictable one in this situation. She straightened out her posture further, words slipping out before she could stop them. “And I can’t tell if you’re actually all that powerful or just conceited.”
The demon was definitely laughing at her now.
“Maybe both,” Hanako said before he threw his head back and chuckled some more. Nene couldn’t help but stare at his canines while he laughed. They were too white, too sharp. Utterly unnatural in every sense of the word. Just like he was.
“But hey, don’t just take my word for it. You have a wish don’t you? Why don’t you tell me all about it.”
Nene hesitated for only a moment. When she spoke her voice came out surprisingly even, just a bit on the quieter side, not fully betraying the anxiety she felt. “Would you really be able to grant my wish?”
“Probably!” Hanako replied brightly, “I am known colloquially around here as the demon of last resort,” he explained, shrugging his shoulders as if to say, ‘what can you do.’
Aoi hadn’t mentioned anything of that kind. Did that mean there were other demons? Better, kinder, more powerful ones she should’ve reached out to for help first? But it was way too late for that now. She tried to push those thoughts out of her head. She had already made her bed and spilled her blood in wine-colored bushes. All she could do now was be careful.
“What’s the price for a wish?”
The demon pretended to think for a moment and Nene decided that silence didn’t suit him.
“Isn’t it more fun to find out later?” he finally replied with a half-baked shrug. “It adds a little mystery to the whole ordeal. Makes it kinda sexy, don’t you think?” Her face must’ve given away her skepticism, because he hastily backtracked, floating closer over to her. “Hey don’t look so grim, the first wish is on the house.”
Nene bit her lip, doing her best to read Hanako, and try as he might, Hanako clearly did not have it in himself to look earnest. He was all right angles where curves should be, sleazy instead of sincere. But still, a free wish. No strings attached. That was just too good to pass up.
“As long as you promise the first one is free,” she finally said, holding her head up higher. “I don’t want you holding anything over me.”
“Because you’d probably prefer it if I were under you?”
A scorching blush painted its way across her face and Hanako doubled over, snickering like a twelve year old. “Just kidding, just kidding,” he said, wiping away an imaginary tear before draping himself over her as if they were old acquaintances. “Come on,” he preened. “Let me hear it.”
Flashing one last glare at the impish demon, Nene took a deep breath and exhaled her answer.
Her voice was quiet as if hoping the weight of the word would say everything she needed it to. “I want somebody’s love.”
“Oh,” Hanako’s grip around her shoulders loosened, and he made no attempt to hide the boredom from his voice. “How juvenile.”
Needless to say, the revelation was not what she’d hoped. To Nene, love was something beautiful. Something to be sought after and held in esteem. Wars had been fought for it, and bridges burned. Love was the whole reason she entered these dangerous woods and shook metaphorical hands with the devil in the first place.
But Hanako didn’t look like someone who could understand love. He looked like forbidden kisses and dark delectable nightmares, and if she tried to humanize him, she could say that he perhaps also looked like some of the boys from the village, those too eager to throw themselves into a street brawl — the same ones who whittled down and sold out their friends at the slimmest prospect of easy money. He looked like someone who would cross every and any moral line if it meant it could advance his own agenda.
Nene held his gaze steady, determination unwavered. “Well, that’s what I want.”
The demon sighed, seeming almost weary now, a far cry from moments earlier when he was practically bouncing around in poorly contained delight. “If that’s what you want, then okay. But I won’t be able to just make him fall in love with you, at least not the way I am now. You’re still gonna have to do some of the heavy-lifting yourself.”
She furrowed her brows. “What do you mean by, ‘at least not the way I am now’”?”
Hanako replied with a grin, but it wasn’t warm or inviting the way Kou or Daisuke (the current object of her affections)’s grins were. This grin was calculated, purposeful, like the teasing grin someone gave before moving their rook four paces and calling a checkmate.
“You see, the spirits of the forest, we’re bound by certain rules and regulations. There are limits to our powers. We can’t grant one person more than three wishes even if they wish for more, we can’t make someone fall in love, and,” he paused, giving her a strangely purposeful look, “we can’t curse anybody to death.”
Nene stilled, feeling a chill run up her spine. She couldn’t imagine something as wild and untameable as magic being governed by arbitrary rules. Though on the other hand, it did seem to make sense that there’d be limits.
“But?” she urged, sensing there was some information he was withholding.
“But,” he obliged, lips curling up, “if I had all my powers, I could do it easily. Whatever you wanted. Say the word and it’s yours. I could give you all of it. All you have to do is set me free.”
“What’s the price of setting you free?”
“One wish. You’ll still have the other two.”
It seemed like a bad idea. She knew that much. But she’d be lying if she said she didn’t immediately picture Daisuke-kun’s arms draped around her shoulders, or the sun slanting through open windows, or the hushed I love yous, and stolen kisses. She wanted that. She wanted it so much that it ached.
But then she thought about Kou, Kou who went from carefree to caretaker at a young age. She thought about Kou’s family’s vow to keep demons contained and the village safe. And then finally she looked back up at Hanako, Hanako who was all deep set dimples and sharp fangs, looking like even the center of him was blackened and curled, thoroughly rotten all the way through.
“I’ll think about it,” she replied at last, somewhat guarded.
Hanako just shrugged as if he’d expected her answer.
“Okay, then I can give you the courage you need to confess. And luck. I can give you that much.”
“No strings attached, right?” Nene asked, searching his expression for any signs of foul play.
“No strings attached!” he affirmed brightly, giving her a chipper, can-do swing of the fist.
Nene relaxed, unballing her hands that had been crumpling up her skirt.
“Oh, but Yashiro, don’t forget,” Hanako added, voice suddenly serious. Had she even told him her name? “Love is fickle, it comes and goes. You know that, don’t you?”
She wasn’t a fan of the way he regarded her in that instant. It was as if even though his gaze was laughing, something sinister permeated, a storm behind those eyes flashing a warning sign of dark places she mustn't dare tread.
And yet she had.
Nene left the forest in half the amount of time it took for her to enter it and find the camellia bushes. It seemed Hanako was true to his word when he said the forest could no longer harm her now that they were bonded.
It was a good, safe feeling. Whereas before she was all nerves and jitters, and tripping over air on her way into the forest, she felt nothing but calm on her way out. The air felt different, less charged, tranquil, sweeter. The wind was warm and familiar as it brushed against her cheeks, feeling distinctly like home in a way it never had before.
The first thing she did after exiting the forest was go straight to Daisuke’s.
A part of Nene worried the liquid courage inside of her would congeal and dissipate if she didn’t act soon enough, so — armoured with the bravery Hanako had granted her, she marched right up to him and confessed.
It felt remarkably easy. Like baking bread or falling asleep. Just something you do. She wasn’t tongue-tied or red-faced, or even all that nervous. In fact, she remembered barely registering the warmth spreading throughout her ribcage when a laugh bubbled up inside of Daisuke, and he squared his broad shoulders, voice airy and self-assured as he replied, “Sure, why not.”
And as Nene broke out into her widest smile, she swore she felt an affectionate pat on the head like somebody else was congratulating her too. But it could’ve just been the breeze.
Just like that, Nene and Daisuke started dating.
Dating Daisuke was good. It was fun and casual. In a way, it was everything she had wanted. Nene liked Daisuke. She liked his brown wind-swept hair, she liked the way the fringes sweeping over his face made him look like a prince. She liked holding hands with him and kissing him under the silvery shafts of moonlight each night they said their goodbyes.
Aoi was absolutely ecstatic for her and frequently offered to do her hair before she would go out to meet with Daisuke. Kou told her to be careful, reminding her she could go to him anytime she needed to talk, but ruffled her hair and congratulated her all the same. She didn’t end up telling Kou about the broken vial though — after all, she didn’t need it anymore. She had Hanako’s protection now.
And she felt it.
Felt him on her.
Just like when she felt the phantom pat on her head that day she asked Daisuke out, he became a consistent invisible presence in her life. It wasn’t always, and of course Hanako still wasn’t with her in a classical sense — he was confined to the forest after all — but he was with her in other ways. He was the deep voice in the dark before dawn, the figure in the corner of her room obscured by shadows. He was a hand on her hair too hard to be affectionate as he lulled her to sleep each night.
Maybe she should’ve been scared, but maybe in a strange way, it was okay not to be.
And maybe it was Hanako’s magic still running rampant in her veins — or maybe it was just the effect of having a boyfriend, but Nene felt different too. She felt braver and bolder and much more sure of herself in all areas of her life, not just love. It was as if there was something else that was a part of her now, something raw and desperate beating against the walls of her chest steadily, chanting: I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.
It made her think about Hanako, and about her other two wishes. How it almost felt like she had cheated death by getting her first wish for free. Her first and only wish, she hastily corrected herself.
But even then she wasn’t so sure.
Her second trip into the forbidden forest was nowhere near as climactic as her first. Sure the path was the same, the thorns just as sharp, and the foliage every bit as overgrown, but she felt safe in these woods now. Comfortable.
And as she swatted away a slimy vine that licked up the back of her neck, her thoughts turned back to Hanako. She wondered what he did all day. Wondered if he hunted prey to eat, or chased skirts to flip — what kind of predator was he? Would he be glad to see her? Annoyed? Would he try to walk back on their bargain and demand a price for her newfound love?
She thought about the face he’d make if he were trying to sweet-talk her; the slow curve of his lips, the dangerous spark in his eyes as his expert fingers skimmed her collarbone. Then she thought about the kind of face he usually had when he wasn’t with her. When he was all by himself. Would he still be wearing that shit-eating grin? Or perhaps another expression, one more melancholic and maybe even thoughtful would grace his features instead.
She kind of wanted to see it.
Nene had made him a boxed lunch before heading out into the forest. Halfway through wrapping up the wooden box, she’d wondered if he even ate human food, but then tightened the furoshiki instead of thinking any harder about it. However, as she slipped past the briar and through the dangerous hazelwood that once tugged at her skirt and saw the clearing up ahead, she suddenly became nervous again.
Hanako sat, crossed legged on a patch of grass, his fist pillowed on his cheek as if he had been expecting her for a while. He looked handsome like this; with his eyes gold and the patches of uneven sunlight filtering through leaves and foliage to stripe his arms and legs. Behind him his silhouette shifted, looking as if it dangled off of him rather than followed the course laid out for the other shadows.
It was almost intoxicating to see him in his full form after daydreaming about him for so long. When their eyes met, his grin widened.
“My my my, back for your second wish so soon?”
Nene cleared her throat, trying to hide her embarrassment. “I didn’t come for my second wish. I came here to see you.”
The smile on Hanako’s face slipped for a moment, and if Nene didn’t know any better, she’d say he was blushing. It was almost disconcerting, seeing such a human emotion on the face of the demon, but before she could blink the grin was back on his face two-fold and he was floating over to her to wrap his arms around her frame, dropping his head low to whisper in her ear. “Well lucky me.” Nene shifted, trying to adjust for the weight of him draped over her shoulders as he spoke again. “And how are things going with Prince Charming?”
“Things couldn’t be better!” She beamed. “Daisuke-kun and I are going steady now. He even met my parents the other day! Just casually of course, we don’t wanna rush anything.”
“How nice,” Hanako replied, voice almost sarcastic, but his smile was soft when he said, “I’m happy for you.”
Nene nodded, turning her head so she wasn’t looking directly at him. “And it’s all thanks to you…” Quickly, as to not give him the chance to make a cheeky comment, she fished into her basket, pulling out the boxed lunch she had prepared earlier. “I know you said my first wish was on the house, but I still want to thank you. I can’t give you my soul or liver or whatever, but you can have this.”
Reaching forward to accept the gift, Hanako kept his gaze on her, an almost offended crease lining the edge of his brow. “Is that what you think Demons eat? Human souls and liver?”
Nene flushed, somewhat hesitant to apologize. “Isn’t it?”
Hanako titled his head to the side, no trace of humor in his blank expression. “I actually prefer young maidens’ hearts.”
The moment the words left his mouth Nene recoiled, but he merely hummed, unraveling the furoshiki more delicately than she had imagined him capable of. And once her handiwork was unveiled, his posture turned rigid, adding to her anxiety.
It was a typical bento with rice, rolled omelettes, and pickled vegetables. The one addition she included were grape tomatoes arranged to emulate the flowers from the bushes he was summoned from. She’d always thought the camellias from the bush were exceptionally pretty and often wondered if he’d thought the same. She hoped so, since he practically lived there.
“I planted the tomatoes myself,” she said, still trying to search his face for any kind of reaction.
Finally his gaze flickered back over to her, eyes wide and owlish, expression unreadable. A smile slowly unfurled across his lips, but it wasn’t one she was used to. No, there was something different about this smile. It wasn’t smug or wicked, or even teasing as she’d come to associate with him. This time he smiled as if a fire had been kindled in his eyes — an invisible hearth warming up his features from the inside out. It dusted his cheeks pink and creased the corners of his eyes, making him look years younger.
Her breath hitched at the sight of him like this, with his veneer of unsubstantiated arrogance and age-old wisdom peeled back to reveal a simple boy flustered over receiving a homemade lunch. It made him look alive and human. It made her believe he could’ve been younger than her. The thought twisted in her gut, causing something deep inside her to ache in a way she couldn’t quite explain.
“Thank you, Yashiro.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Nene decided in this instant that she trusted him. She trusted this sharp witted, velvet-tongued, impish boy in front of her, demon or not.
Hanako leaned back with his new gift, legs sweeping off the ground as he looked too pleased to even eat the bento, seemingly content to just stare forever at it. The light bathed over him as he reclined further, casting a halo over his ill-deserving head.
And it was so beautiful.
From then on Nene made a habit out of visiting Hanako.
He was the reason for her success in romance, she justified. He was also probably very lonely as he seemed to spend all his time bumming around the forest doing god knows what. It wasn’t like he could leave, either. She had no plans of using her other two wishes, which meant he was tied there permanently with no rest. The least she could do was offer him some company.
So she did.
Every morning, she ran her usual errands, tended to her garden, saw her friends, and met up with Daisuke-kun as usual. Most early afternoons were spent wrapped up in Daisuke’s too-large jacket, laughing at his familiar jokes, and swooning as he brushed his calloused fingers over hers when they held hands. Then in the late afternoon she would hurry back inside the woods she once feared, to Hanako who taunted and teased her but never turned her away. Hanako, who always greeted her with a sharp smile and that signature glint in his eyes that spelled out trouble.
Hanako, who for his part, never pestered her to make more wishes. He’d instead wait for her each day by the clearing, voice warm and sultry as he leaned down and whispered in the crook of her neck, “Couldn’t stay away from me, huh?”
Forcing down her blush, Nene would swat helplessly at him before giving up, because really, she learned rather quickly that he responded to her anger and insults even better than her compliments and ill-advised attempts at pleasing him. She also learned that he never took things seriously, was extra pervy when trying to deflect her ten million questions, and had suspiciously extensive knowledge of the village despite spending all his time in the forest.
But more than that, Nene learned he was handsy, and touch-starved, and his eyes could flash gold one instant before frothing into obsidian black the next. She learned the grooves of his fingers, the way his icy breath felt when his mouth pressed to the hollow of her throat.
She learned him.
Nene liked to think he learned her too. That he wanted to learn her. He’d ask her what kinds of vegetables she was growing in her garden, what her favorite foods were, how she takes her tea, all while he curled a strand of her hair round and round his index finger. If he was feeling particularly cheeky, he’d ask her about Daisuke-kun. But for some reason Nene was always hesitant to share those details. It felt silly, but a part of her worried that bringing up Daisuke would disrupt whatever they had going on. That even speaking the name would shatter this fragile pocket of comfort and solace they’ve created right there in that tiny corner of the forest.
So they talked about other things. She told him about past crushes, village gossip, traded urban legends with him as murky twilight deepened into night behind them. She told him the tales Aoi passed onto her, sparing him no gruesome detail about the demons lurking in the Alderberry woods who were incapable of love and only craved possession; demons who gobbled up maidens and then used their bones as firewood, the entire time making sure to watch his face carefully as he watched her back with laughing eyes.
Hanako refused to point out which parts of certain legends were true and which parts were make-believe. If she pressed harder he’d just grin and shake his head. “They’re all true enough,” he’d say at last.
But when she looked at him closer, at his long dark lashes, at the tumultuous storm raging past his inkblot eyes, she found herself wanting to ask, “Yes, but how true?” Just what else was she missing? What else was inside of him she didn’t know. Which parts of him were messy and locked away, stretched thin and wrung twice around his neck like a noose before making its way back on his face as that wicked, but guarded smile she’d come to know and love?
Oh, how she ached to know.
“Nene, you’ve been spacing out.”
She blinked, once then twice before her gaze zeroed in on the frown on Kou’s lips. Nene attempted a smile at once, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes.
“Oh, have I? I didn’t really notice.”
“Yeah,” her friend responds, frown deepening. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately. Are you okay?”
“I’m totally fine! Just… got lots of things on my mind lately.”
And it was true. Even when she was out of the woods and far from the apparition, she found her mind constantly flickering to Hanako. What was he up to? How would he greet her later? Just why was he a demon?
A few days ago, she had caught him thumbing around the stem of a camellia. A vine reached forth from the bush and twisted its way up his forearm like a braided cord. It pulsed; angry and alive before releasing him and shriveling back down to blend in with the shrubbery.
“Hanako-kun,” she had asked softly. “Why are you always hanging around the camellia bushes? It’s not like two people can summon you at once, right?” Not that many people would anyway, she’d thought.
Hanako had turned and given her a look then. A look that will forever be seared in the dark recesses of her mind, hidden away from prying eyes. It was a smile, so sharp and devastating, beautiful in the way only broken things could be. And she wondered how he could do that — be so beautiful, sound so honey-sweet while blinking back at her like something had died inside of him and rotted.
A terrible, awful fleeting suspicion crossed her mind just then. And just like all terrible thoughts, it had deftly floated through her mind on velvet paws one moment, and sunk its claws in her the next, paralyzing her.
She had thought back to his familiarity with the village, the blood that needed to be shed in order to summon him, the way the bushes hissed and preened, curling its way around him as if an extension of his life and limbs.
“Hanako-kun, are you...buried under there?”
The atmosphere around them shattered. The smile on his face ripened then rotted, leaving behind a vague and faux-contemplative expression that seemed to answer her question; and Nene shook, either from wind or horror she wasn’t quite sure. But looking to the other bush beside Hanako’s — at the invasive violet camellias winding and twisting their way to pepper the red bush with spots of purple, she was reminded of something sinister, something vicious and downright evil.
Who else was buried under those bushes, she had wondered.
Kou was silent, watching as Nene’s mind wandered off yet again, but his gaze spoke volumes while it lingered over the white of her neck where his protection charm once hung.
“If I were to set you free…” Nene found herself saying one hot summer afternoon as her fingers absentmindedly stroked the soft grass beneath her, “and you get all your powers back and you’re free to go off and do...whatever it is that demons do...would you still stay with me? Or would you leave me?”
It was stupid question of course. There was no conceivable way Nene could set Hanako free. Kou’s family were the village exorcists tasked with keeping the village free of demons for god’s sake! Not to mention it was increasingly difficult to ignore just how attached she’d grown to the impish demon. The thought of Hanako someday not being by her side, it just… it caused her insides to twist painfully. It made her entire being ache with a sadness she couldn’t quite articulate. She didn’t like thinking about it. At all. Yet she ached to know what his answer would be.
“Oh Yashiro…” Hanako brushed her knuckles against his lips so tenderly she could’ve melted. “I guess you’d just have to find out.”
Unable to read his gaze, Nene pulled her hand back, not completely satisfied with his response, but not exactly disappointed either. Wretched gleam in his eyes, Hanako reached for her hand again, then careened right into her when she denied him, almost purring the way a cat would before spreading himself out on her legs, spelling distinctly of sugar, dust and death.
“But you know, for your sake, you should hope I won’t stick around.”
His words went in one ear and right out the other, absolutely failing to rouse any fear or alarm of what was to come, with its ominous implications completely lost to Nene in the moment. But who could blame her? How was she supposed to focus with him sprawled out on her legs and face nuzzled so dangerously close to her thighs?
The funny thing is, she’d once even considered using her second wish to rid herself of those chunky ‘radish’ legs that she’d been plagued with since birth. Daisuke had made a few off-hand quips about them after a particular outing where her skirt hitched up and her legs poked into view. It would’ve been the perfect opportunity to improve herself. Besides, making cosmetic changes didn’t seem like it would rake up that large of a cosmic debt.
However, that thought gave her pause when she remembered the way Hanako’s eyes raked past them. Or the way his fingers would skim the edge of her skirt and pause when they reached below her thigh. It was like she sensed a hunger inside him. One she wasn’t used to. One that caused heat to pool in her stomach and made her just a bit giddy.
Nene ran her fingers through his choppy locks. She liked days like this one when Hanako was more touching than teasing and she could just sit and admire him up close. Days like this when she looked over at him and felt that she could see him not for what he was but for who he was, with his head bent and his golden eyes wistful, looking a lot younger than he let on.
“You know Yashiro,” he said then, blinking up at her. “You should really end things with that loverboy of yours if you’re not feeling it anymore.”
Nene pulled back immediately, plain hurt at the accusation written all over her face. “For your information, things have never been better between me and Daisuke-kun,” she replied, just a tad defensive. “What makes you think you know our relationship?
Hanako curled a strand of her hair around his finger, his smile mocking and indulgent.
“Because if you really liked him, you wouldn’t be hanging out in a cursed forest with me.”
A lick of anger trailed down her spine and Nene decided she hated the Hanako in front of her that instant. The Hanako who was looking up at her as if he knew her better than she knew herself. Bristling, she pushed him off her lap at once. “Whatever, I’m gonna go meet up with Daisuke-kun,” she said gathering up her things as she tried to ignore the sound of his laughter that followed her all the way out of the woods.
It was an entire month before Nene made the trek out to see Hanako again.
But this time — this time she was back with a vengeance.
Nene’s anger burned bright and viscous in her veins as she treaded the woods of the Alderberry Forest once again. All around her, the leaves and branches of the forest shook as if reflecting her anger.
Six months. Her and Daisuke were together for six months just for her to find him cheating on her with Saki-chan who lived next door to him. The worst part was, he didn’t even seem sorry. Not sad, not remorseful, no regret as he squared his shoulders at her as if to say, “ well, what did you expect?”
It seemed as though to him, men were deceitful and women were discarded. Life resumed. Such was the way of the world — according to him at least. However not this time. This time he would pay.
Entering the clearing, Nene saw Hanako seated where he always was. But this time he was missing that easy-going air about him. This time Hanako’s eyes were dark and swirling with something unidentifiable. And this time when his gaze finally landed on her, she knew that he understood.
That was her favorite part about Hanako.
Even though sometimes he appeared see-through, and almost transparent, like he could duck behind the shrubbery and disappear into thin air, the times where she needed him, the times where it counted, he was there, like right now, here he was, blinking back at her, solid like the earth, undeniably present like he held weight. Like she could beat her fists against his chest and he would feel it.
“Hanako-kun,” she said, hoping she sounded braver than she felt. “I’m here to make my second wish.”
In an instant the demon was up and at her side, arms curving around her, possessive like never before. His mouth pressed into the nape of her neck as he whispered, “Are you sure, are you really, really, really sure?” Though the grip around her shoulders was so tight, she wasn’t sure he would actually let her go even if she tried to back out now. Not that it mattered because she wasn’t going to.
“I’m sure.” She put her hand over his, seeking the comfort needed for her to go through with what she was about to do next. “I want revenge.”
Hanako pulled back, looking her dead in the eyes, before cupping her cheeks with the palm of his hands. The action was so tender, a part of her wanted to sob. When he spoke at last, he spoke with enough conviction to burn down churches and raise the dead. “Then you shall have it.”
Brushing a fallen strand of hair out of her eye, he looked at her, serious as ever. “Free me,” he said. “Free me and I can get you the justice you deserve.”
Nene studied the Hanako in front of her that instant, looking more furious than she felt.
She decided that she liked him like this; imprudent, and insolent and angry, and flawed — looking so genuinely alive and human she could almost convince herself that was the case.
She wanted to take her finger and trail a line from the curve of his brow to the slant of his sharp jaw. She wanted to cup his face in her hands and she wanted him to lean into it. She wanted to free him. Oh.
Nene shook her head, resolve shattering as sense flooded back into her system. “I’m sorry,” she sobbed. “I just can’t.”
“Hey, hey, I understand,” Hanako said softly, wiping away her tears with the pads of his thumbs. “Don’t cry, it’s okay.”
But it wasn’t okay.
“I can still help you get your revenge.”
Nene sniffled. “How?”
“I can’t hurt him,” he said, voice thin and countenance hard, looking genuinely regretful. “But you can.”
A livewire of unease traveled through her.
Hurt him? She knew she had come into the forest occupied with thoughts of revenge, but...did she want to hurt Daisuke-kun? She looked back to Hanako who was regarding her carefully, a crackling energy pulsating beneath his surface, barely contained. Yes. She decided. Yes she did.
“Okay,” she said. “But I’m gonna need help.”
“Of course.” Hanako pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. “If that’s what you wish. I just want him to pay for what he did to you.”
From that point on, Hanako became a part of Nene, as real and necessary as a heart, or lungs.
Whereas before he was a faceless figure to her outside of the forest: a phantom touch there, a whisper pressed against the nape of her neck here, his presence was felt fully now, wherever she was. She could be meeting Aoi in the village, buying bread, or combing her hair in front of the mirror. She felt his likeness in her reflection, in every breath she took. It was like after her second wish, she had unwittingly given him more of herself, and he’d gladly accepted, spreading out in every nook and cranny inside of her and made himself at home.
He still wasn’t with her in the physical sense of the word. But he was enough. He was constant. So constant that sometimes Nene worried.
Sometimes she couldn’t help but picture Hanako, all bones and earth, and empty space , and feel that the same darkness she’d seen in his eyes had seeped out from him and tainted her as well. It was a constant freefall. It was like standing at the edge of a darkened shore, watching the waves roll tumultuously over the sea, utterly helpless as the water rises above the shoreline.
Hanako was a walking incubator for breeding negativity. Every time Nene felt her anger for Daisuke dull from a boil to a simmer, he was there hissing in her ear, sweetly caressing her face, sweeping over the edge of her mind until he was crawling relentlessly to her core. And she let him.
He haunted her and she welcomed it.
She let Hanako have free reign to her thoughts, her feelings, her body, everything. The two of them together were flint and steel, always seconds away from sparking something perilous, something beautiful and dangerous, all while forever hovering over the fringe of something more.
Nene rose each morning to the silhouette of Hanako at the end of her bed. When she ate, she tasted the salt of his breath, and when she walked, she walked to the rhythm of his heartbeat. Hanako’s presence was a safeguard for her, a lifeline.
Maybe she was a little more unpredictable these days, more quick to anger. Maybe the wary way Kou had been regarding her with his sea-salt blue eyes and worry-etched brows should’ve alarmed her. But it didn’t.
The days floated by in a drift of dissociative malaise, blurry, blissful, beautiful. Until Hanako consumed her, until they blurred together, until she couldn’t separate where he ended and she began.
When Hanako pressed the tang of the knife into Nene’s hand, she accepted it without question. She let him close his hands over hers and squeeze.
“This was what you wished for, right?”
And wasn’t it?
When she marched right up to Daisuke’s home, it was Hanako who helped her sneak inside. Hanako, who knew every groove and contour of the village homes. Hanako, who wiped her frightened tears away and kissed her eyelids. And finally, when Nene’s anger made her careless and her blade bit too deep, it was Hanako who stopped her from turning around. Hanako, who wrapped his arms around her tight and whispered, “What’s one more cut? What’s another ten?”
By the time Nene made her way back inside the Alderberry Forest, her hands were stained crimson. The same color as the camellias from Hanako’s bush. How fitting it was that they matched.
The sun had just begun to climb over the horizon when she reached him. He stood, encroaching on the edge of darkness, almost blending into the twilight behind him. Overwhelming calm enveloped her when she saw his face. Here he was, in all his glory, no longer an invisible force or disjointed voice inside her head.
He was here, black wings, curled tail, ink-spilled hair. Concern hanging in place of his usual wicked grin. Worry made him even more handsome.
“You did it,” he said, looking at her in a way he never quite had before. It was as if a veil had been lifted between them and he was seeing her clearly for the first time. And she could see him more clearly too, she thought. She looked at him and could see it in his eyes — could feel it in her soul with crystal clear certainty, he desired her. Maybe he always had.
“I did it,” she affirmed, glowing at him despite all the death and the wreckage, and the moral boundaries crossed that can never be retracted. He ran a hand over her face, and she felt affection run through her like roots. They melded together, tangled up like vines, overtaken by a love so fractured and chaotic, so all-consuming they had no choice but to let its eclectic soundtrack of strangled moans, rustling bushes, and weeping willows drown over them.
He tasted of salt, ashes and something utterly, completely unattainable. She knew if he were to devour her in that instant, she would gladly let him.
Hanako whispered into the crook of her neck. Non-stop. “Nene”, “love”, “you,” the same poem over and over. All night until day. She dictated the rhyme, and he, the rhythm; cementing a twisted bond that transcended borders. The afterlife included.
“Stay with me,” Hanako mumbled against the crown of her head.
Nene didn’t respond immediately, but let him intertwine their fingers together as they watched the sun pass through alder leaves and troves of juniper, coloring the two of them in a mottled mix of shadow and light. When he repeated himself, Nene buried her face deeper into his chest.
“Come on Nene, I want to be with you all the time, and you know I can’t leave the forest.”
But you are with me, she wanted to respond. She felt him everywhere. In the village, in her thoughts, in her bones . He wasn’t just always with her, he was a part of her, and she saw in his eyes that he knew it too.
The thought sent a surge of electricity through her veins. Nene couldn’t help but think about how far they’d come.
When she first came upon Hanako, sure she was desperate for love and wonder and romance, all of those things precisely. But above all else, what she wanted was the aid of his demon powers — his special brand of magic with no strings attached. But Hanako — Hanako was a goddamn spider web.
She wondered what he first thought when he came upon her.
Perhaps that she was young and naive, not yet hardened to the ways of the world, with her heart so transparent on her sleeve that it was practically laid out like bait for wolves.
But then he melded with her, didn’t he?
He’d given her claws, straightened her spine, and sharpened her curves, fashioning them into something useful, something that gave her purpose. Being with Hanako was like learning she’d been sitting in a box all her life and someone finally came along and lifted up the lid so she could look up and see the stars. And she wanted to thank him, tell him how beautiful the night sky looked, tell him all the different constellations she could trace, tell him how she still preferred looking into his eyes anyway, yet all she could do was squeeze his hand tighter.
“Nene?” he asked, his voice soft.
But she just shook her head, tears starting to brim, suddenly overcome with emotion. Because looking at him then, she realized that love didn’t need to be rational, or pretty, or even good — and that love, like salvation, could look different to different people. It could look like Hanako, with his sharp jaw, hollowed cheeks, and her likeness reflected in his eyes.
Nene reached out, tangling her fingers in his hair. “Hanako-kun,” she said, holding his gaze steady. “I wish to free you.”
For a moment the night around them was quiet as if holding its breath.
A flicker of emotions passed his countenance, quick like a flash of lightning. Nene was able to register shock, awe, and something that possibly resembled fear as he turned frozen beneath her touch.
And then, like something straight out of a nightmare — Hanako doubled over, terrible, awful cacophonic laughter overtaking him. Around him the air pulsed, and the once ripe camellias wilted. Nene’s blood ran cold in an instant, terror spreading through her like wildfire.
When his eyes set upon her, they were so bright they were blazing , but where his gaze once burned with intensity, it was now frosted over. His grin twisted from easy-going to sadistic and hungry, and his skin, no longer pale, was now a glowing bronze. Looking at him now, Nene could find no trace of the playful demon she once made lunch for, or the weary-eyed dreamer buried under the flowerbed she sometimes imagined him to have been — full of grief and wasted potential. He looked like a total stranger; all claws and teeth. An Unsheathed blade.
A supercut of memories with him ran through her mind before curling in on themselves like burning paper.
“Hanako-kun?” she repeated, searching his countenance for any remaining glimmers of humanity. Hanako grinned at her wider, all teeth but no humor; it was the grin of an accomplished deceiver.
And as his eyes raked over her, slow and hungry, looking like he might devour her in the next second, all remaining hope Nene might have had crumbled and she tried to pull away at once. The demon however, tugged her against him firmly, claws raking through her hair in something reminiscent of a caress.
His lips brushed against the shell of her ear, voice warm, sounding of sweet indulgence laced with malice.
“Not so fast, my love. I think it’s about time I collect the price for those wishes, don’t you think?”