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A Heart's a Heavy Burden

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He’s seventeen when something comes back.

The others are either so far behind they’re out of sight, or he’s managed to get lost again. Which isn’t a problem so much as a nuisance—he’s got a bottle of chilled water waiting for him back at school and that’s really the only reason his feet keep moving. If he is lost, then that means someone will eventually have to come find him, or he’ll just keep going until he spots something familiar and makes his way home from there.

Right now though, he doesn’t know if he should stop or not, so he keeps going, arms pumping, eyes fixed straight ahead, listening to the rhythm of his own breathing.

In and out, in and out.

A couple more blocks, then maybe he should turn around and start searching his way back.

In and out, in and out.

He thinks of the test sitting in the bottom of his bag, covered in so many red circles it looks like target practice. It’s so hot, he wonders if he might be dying. Are those drums?

In and out, in and out.

Weird. His vision is starting to swim. Is he still running anymore? He can’t tell. His footsteps are coming further and further away, or maybe it’s because they’re falling quieter and quieter, like his feet are sinking down into something mushy and soft.

In and out, in and out.

Something wet and cold touches his brow, followed by another. And another. Rain? he wonders, as another part of him says, unsurprised, rain. He forgot his umbrella he realizes. Of course, because he was in such a rush to leave the house.

In and out, out and in. There are drums echoing inside his chest.

His last thought is strange. I’m going to be late, he thinks, and the other part of him asks, For what?

* * *

Of all human concepts, time has to be the most incomprehensible. At one point, Tooru knows he once understood it. He knows there’s something to do with sixes or twelves. There’s minutes and seconds and very very many tinier ones than that, but by now, Tooru’s forgotten how those work. He’s been told, once, but without constant reminding, nothing seems to stick.

Sometimes he blinks and it’s become night. Sometimes he yawns and the seasons have changed. Sometimes he closes his eyes and naps, and when he wakes, the world seems a new place, new people, new places, new everything.

Other times, it seems as if time moves on without him. Sometimes he watches shadows grow and lengthen. Sometimes he stares too hard at the gossamer thin wings of a butterfly and he wonders how anything like this can survive in the world, breakable if he so much as breathes. Sometimes he’s so absorbed in the shift of light across the ground, about the changes of colour in the sky that he forgets where he is entirely.

He’s adrift in this thing called Time, with no anchor to keep him in place, save this heaviness in his chest, stolen from someone who doesn’t miss it. He can feel himself aging and there’s no one aging with him.

Loneliness is not a terrible place to be. He’s resigned himself to it, and complaining hardly does any good. It’s comfortable in a way; instead of actual calm, it’s serenity born of the knowledge that things will always move on, even without him. Or something like that.

As said, it’s a difficult concept to grasp.

But occasionally, there are glimmers of things that catch his interest. Busy things, noisy things, warm, living, human things.

The mountain is old and unkept, but occasionally there are humans. It’s so rare he can count on one hand perhaps, the people who make it to the heart of the mountain. The trees are deeper where he lives, the leaves greener and sharper. He likes watching the way they change, how their eyes open wide and they made little sounds of wonder.

That’s the word that always comes to mind. Wonder. He watches the way the children laugh, how the people cheer and cry, how they are simply happy. Happy to be there, with each other. Happy to be there, in that moment.

Happy to be.

And then he watches them leave and he wonders what that is like.

Tooru watches from afar, because he can’t get close to those lights. He clings to shadows, an outsider looking in, pretending he’s one of them.

* * *

The rain makes the lanterns hiss and sputter, dying out as he passes them. Hajime runs faster, covering his head with his long, yukata sleeves, trying to see the path as it darkens further and further with every second.

(He doesn’t notice how each and every lantern winks back into existence one by one as he passes.)

He can’t believe it—he can’t believe he was abandoned by his family. He had only fallen asleep for a short time, how could they not wake him up before they left?

(He doesn’t notice that he cannot hear the drums.)

The belt of his obi flaps behind him as he runs, and he struggles to keep it from dragging in the damp dirt, tying it messily around his waist in his haste. His slippers slap against the stone steps and somewhere higher up the path, he can see the lights moving in a steady line through the trees, cutting back and forth on the mountain path, rising.

They are decapitated shadows, light bearers with no arms or legs, only black silhouettes that move soundlessly through the trees as the lanterns sway.

(He doesn’t notice this either.)

He also doesn’t notice the shadow that he passes, not until it speaks.

“Iwachan?”

Hajime nearly trips. “Who said that?” He demands, clutching his kimono and squinting through the rain.

“Iwachan?” The voice says, and it comes from the other direction. “Is that really you? You came back—”

Hajime is concerned, brows drawing together. There are tales of spirits on this mountain, youkai who prey upon and lead away unsuspecting humans. Does that mean if he suspects it, will he be safe? “Y...yes?”

“You can hear me?” the voice asks again, and there’s a trace of excitement in it. “Can you really hear me?”

He whirls around, only to come face to face with a lacquered white fox mask, its lips curled into a grin, just like the komainu at the base of the stairs.

At first glance, they’re about the same height and he assumes it’s someone from the village. But he knows nearly all of the kids and nothing about this boy seems familiar.

He scowls, because this seems just like the sort of trick his friends would play on him. What exactly the point is though, he has yet to figure out. “You scared me.”

The fox is quiet, staring. “You can still see me,” it whispers. “But how?”

The fox walks in a circle around him, and Hajime feels like he’s on display. His scowl deepens. “Stop staring at me. It’s rude.”

“It’s been so long though….How? And of all nights—why did it have to be tonight?” Then it shakes its head, something rueful in its voice. “Why are you here?” the fox asks instead, head tilted.

Hajime is confused. Where is here?

“I ran?” he answers, now uncertain if this is a joke.

Maybe he does know this person.

For some reason, his mind is moving strangely. There are bells going off in the back of his head, but they’re soft. Far away. It must be an aftereffect of his nap. He gives his head a shake, continuing. “If you’re going to the festival, you oughtta run too.” He finally answers. “C’mon, let’s go.” He reaches out to grab the boy’s hand, but the fox gasps and bounces back, clutching his hand to his chest.

“Be careful!”

Hajime’s fingers close on thin air, and he blinks slowly as he processes what that was supposed to mean.

“Well,” Hajime says slowly, pressing his lips together. “Suit yourself.”

But when he turns back up the path, intent on catching up, the fox boy is standing in front of him as if he were there the whole time. Hajime glances back over his shoulder where he had been a second before, expression confused.

“How…?” he starts to ask, but the fox shakes his head at him.

“Don’t go,” he says, holding up his hands. “Humans aren’t allowed to go.”

His mind runs so slowly, gears stuck in mud. “Hu...mans?” he echoes, and the fox nods.

“Do the komainu recognize you? But how are you awake? This hour shouldn’t be seen by humans. Perhaps you still...” His long fingers start to reach out, then they fall away just inches from Hajime’s shoulder.

There it is again. Humans. “What are you talking about?” Hajime snaps.

The fox fixes his eyes on him. “Hajime,” he says, and Hajime shivers at the sound of his name in that voice. “Even if it’s you, you’re still human.”

"I'm still..." Hajime stares. “...Aren’t you?”

Fox laughs, a little too hard, like that’s the funniest thing he’s ever heard in his life. “Am I? Only a little.”

There’s an uncomfortable feeling in Hajime’s chest, like he’s missing the joke. Or worse, he is the joke, and he’s not allowed to be in on it. A bit icily, he says, “If that’s all you want, then I’m going,” and he takes a step forward.

Fox does another strange flashstep and he’s barricading Hajime’s path again. It’s like Hajime blinked and missed him moving. One moment he’s there, the next he’s not. “No!” The sense of humor is gone. “I told you already, you can’t go!”

“Go where? I’m just going to the festival.” He takes another step forward and fox is equally quick to put space between them again, still in his way.

“Don’t you get it?”

And then, as if to clarify, the fox tilts his head again, looking at Hajime through narrow slits in the mask. He catches a glint of gold and the hair on the back of his neck rises and something presses hard against his chest. Not inwards, but outwards. Like his heart is trying to get out. “If you come, you’ll lose it. It’s not your festival. It’s ours.”

Hajime’s eyes widen and his lips part, forming the word soundlessly. Ours.

All of a sudden, it’s like he’s seeing clearly now, like a veil is lifted from his eyes or the fog has cleared. There’s a strange shimmer around the fox’s silhouette he notices now, wisps of something almost flame-like, gold-gilded and waving. The water doesn’t seem to reach the fox, even though Hajime is soaked to the bone by now.

“Oh,” Hajime says. Then again, with deeper understanding. “Oh. You’re...”

There’s a silence, the fox—spirit? ghost? demon? what?—watching him from behind the mask, and Hajime has the distinct feeling he’s being laughed at again. He bristles, but when the fox next speaks, his voice is soft.

“Iwachan, go back. Don’t follow any stray lights; as long as you stay between the lanterns you’ll be safe.”

There’s something broken about the way he says that. Hajime doesn’t understand why. He looks back the way he came, the path lit with lanterns that seem to shift colors the longer he looks.

“As long as you’re alive, I’ll find—” The fox shakes his head, stopping himself. He fox raises a hand, fingers flickering as he gestures. “Go on. Get out of here.” His eyes glow gold. “Before you lose your way.”

Hajime watches him, feeling like he’s missing something important. Feeling like he’s forgotten something important. Feeling like his heart is being pulled in two simultaneous directions.

There’s something sad in the fox’s eyes.

Hajime turns, and runs.

He flies down the path he had just taken, tracing a straight line between the lanterns just as told. When he reaches the mountain gate, he leaps through it, past the komainu pair, over the last few stone steps, landing crookedly and falling.

“Oww,” he mumbles to himself as he picks himself up. His knee is skinned and starting to sting, but something compels Hajime to look back towards the mountain.

It’s still. Quiet. So dark, he can’t make anything out through the trees.

What is he doing here?

He takes a step away, back towards his grandmother’s house.

The village is sleeping, only a handful of soft lights visible from here.

As he turns, he thinks he sees something flash in the eyes of the kitsune statues.

And he thinks he hears someone say something that sounds very much like “I’ll find you”.

* * *

He opens his eyes to semi-darkness and the familiar ceiling of his living room. The tv is running on low volume, casting flickering lights over the rafters and he lies there for a moment, feeling strangely disconnected.

There are a thousand sensations running through him. His body feels heavy, like he’s just run a marathon. His mouth is dry, his throat sore. Studio laughter from the tv echoes in his head, while somewhere closer, he can hear someone sitting, probably his mother. But strangest of all is the coolness of his skin, tingling, like he’s underwater or standing in rain.

He gives himself a second before he slowly pushes himself up. His body protests, his head rings, and something at the back of his skull throbs.

“Hajime!” His mother notices instantly, scooting around the edge of the table to his side. “How are you feeling?”

“...t good,” he tries to say, but his tongue is so dry it sticks to the roof of his mouth. He licks his lips, and swallows, rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers then the crown of his skull, trying to probe out the source of the pain.

His mother bats his arm down. “Don’t touch it. You got a nasty bump on the back of your head. Is it your heart? Do you remember?”

“Fall?” He vaguely remembers something like that, but it feels so distant and his head won’t stop throbbing. Thinking is an effort, and his mother’s hands fluttering about him doesn’t help.

He waves her away gently, pulling himself to the living room table and leaning against it. “Cn’I have water?”

“Mhmm, just stay there. There’s tangerines on the table. Help yourself.” She pushes herself up, disappearing into the kitchen. He can hear her clattering around, popping ice into a cup, and running the sink. There’s a late-night commercial on the television, a man shouting loudly about a special vacuum cleaner. He could never understand what his mother loved about these advertisements.

Hajime rests his head against the table, absently picking up one of the already peeled tangerine slices and pushing one into his mouth. He recoils. It’s sour as hell, like one of those gummy candies with the sour sugar on top, and when his mother places a glass of water in front of his face, he too eagerly drinks to wash away the taste.

“Those taste terrible,” he sticks his tongue out as she reseats herself.

“Oh, yeah.” She starts peeling another. “Eat up. I don’t want to waste any.”

He takes another. At least this time he’s prepared.

“Feeling better?”

His hum in reply is vague, the sourness of the tangerine giving way to an almost good sense of sweetness.

“They said you collapsed right on the side of the road.”

“Ah, yeah.” His fingers are back crawling at the bump on the back of his head again. “Was running.”

He doesn’t know how he got back home or who ‘they’ is. The memory lapse is sort of unsettling.

“Don’t touch your head,” she snaps her fingers at him and in the same breath, says, “What sort of idiot goes running during the middle of the day? The weather report said it’s like thirty nine degrees out.”

He doesn’t reply, an uneaten slice between his lips.

“Hey, stupid son,” her voice is reproachful, but soft, worried. He rolls his head onto his chin, looking at her across from him. “You need to be more careful. You’re going to university now, what if something like this happens and no one’s around to help?”

“No one’s going to leave me on the side of the road—” he takes one look at her face and decides to try a different response. “I know,” he says grudgingly, “I’ll be careful.”

“Good.” She turns the volume back up on the tv, watches for about five seconds, then turns it back down and looks at him. “You terrified me. When your school called and said you collapsed and they said it was just heat exhaustion but they said you weren’t waking up—” Her voice gets tense, brittle. Hajime is afraid for a second she’s going to cry, and he feels like he’s six years old again. Reminded all over again of those afternoons in the doctor’s office, his mother’s hand trembling on her lap, his father’s hand tight on his shoulder. “I drove over there and you were just talking in your sleep. I had to ask the doctor to help me get you into the car and—”

He lifts his head at that. “Talking in my sleep?”

“Don’t you remember?” Her eyes peer worriedly over at him, her hands restlessly peeling an orange. “Saying something about being late?”

He shakes his head. He doesn’t remember any of that. But the words ring around in his head and something does start to come back.

Rain, steady and warm.

Lights, flickering through trees.

Gold eyes, glowing beneath a mask.

His skin itches.

“Hey Kaa-chan?”

“Mhmm?” She’s making a poor attempt at paying attention to the television, concentrating on the screen so hard it’s obvious she’s not listening to it.

“Did Baa-chan’s place ever have a festival at the temple?”

“Baa-chan’s?” She pushes a slice into her mouth, chewing it thoughtfully. “There’s used to be a big one. When I was younger. I don’t think they do it anymore.”

“What was it like?”

“Oh, it was amazing.” She gets this faraway look in her eyes. “Fireworks and dancing. Hm. I wonder why they stopped.”

He remembers the lights, streaming through the cedar trees. “Was there a procession?”

“Oh yes! We’d take lanterns all the way up the trail, up a thousand steps.” There’s something weird about the change that’s come over his mother. He can’t tell if he’s imagining it, or if this is just a trick of the midnight light. “The dancing at the top though; sometimes we’d dance all night and I wouldn’t even remember how I got home the next day.”

“That’s strange.”

“It is, isn’t it?” His mother blinks, then seems to recollect herself. She straightens up, exhaling a soft breath. “What brings this up?”

“Mmm. I had a weird dream.”

“A dream?-” Her eyes snap to him, sudden concern written into her frown. “Are you sure you’re okay? Do you have a concussion? Or is it…” She bites her lip, the way she always does when that is mentioned. “Should we go to the doctors?”

Hajime plays it off, though honestly, he’s been starting to wonder the same. “Nah, just something I was talking about with friends earlier,” he lies. And then he changes the subject, because that’s easier to do than keep up a lie when his mother starts probing. “I’ve been thinking about visiting Baa-chan this summer.”

“Baa-chan? But your father—”

“I can go alone, can’t I? I used to when I was younger too. Besides, who knows when I’ll be able to go again? I haven’t gone to stay with her since I was twelve and now I’m starting university soon and—”

“Well…” His mother chews her lip. “Your grandmother has been complaining about some yard repairs, I suppose. If you do that, you’d help her out.” He watches as she sweeps up tangerine skins, piling them onto a napkin and balling it up. She holds out a slice, in front of his mouth. “Here, eat. If you call and let her know you want to go, just make sure you take it easy. And if you feel anything weird with your heart...”

“Mhmm.” He chews quietly, lazily watching numbers roll on the screen. The guy in the suit is selling some sort of special weight-loss medicine. It’s surprisingly therapeutic, he realizes, a steady hum of noise that’s meaningless.

“Really, Hajime. Don’t do anything stupid. You know your grandmother would only worry.” She pushes herself back to her feet, starting towards the kitchen with the peelings in her hand. Then she pauses in the doorway, looking back at him with a thoughtful look in her eye.

“What?”

“Nothing. Are you sure you’re okay? I can call the doctor tomorrowr—”

“I feel fine,” he lies again, reaching over for the remote and turning up the volume to end the conversation.

* * *

"Baa-chan!”

The gate creaks as he opens it, stiff with rust.

His grandmother raises a hand over her eyes, standing out in the garden, broom held in one hand. When recognition dawns though, she raises a hand and waves at him.

By the time he reaches the front door, kicking off his shoes and dumping his bags on the raised step, she's appeared again, hands on her hips. "Who's this stranger?" she asks, and her eyes shine. Her arms open wide.

Hajime falls into her embrace and she laughs. "Oh my, Hajime-chan, I didn't even recognize you. How tall have you gotten?"

He grins. "Four centimeters in the last year," he announces proudly, and she holds him at arms distance so she can appraise him.

"You sure not more? I still remember when you were thiiis tall. Now look at you.”

“Baa-chan, it’s only been a year since you saw me.”

“Let me fawn over my only grandchild, will you?”

He smiles softly at her. She’s tinier than he remembers, delicate almost, but there are freckles on her cheeks form the sun and her fingers are strong when they ruffle through his short hair. Except she looks better here than she ever did at the foot of his hospital bed, or in their clean, white Miyagi house. She looks comfortable here, the house warmed by her presence. “Well, how are your parents?”

“Good. They sent souvenirs with me. That bag.”

“Oh, I’ll call them tonight to thank them and say you arrived safely.” There’s a pause and she surveys him again, this time with a faraway look in her eye. Then she claps her hands together and nods. "Hungry?"

"Super.” He pushes his shoes back into order.

She nods approvingly, then clicks her tongue as something occurs to her. "Oh dear, I should have asked Kawasaki-san to bring by some groceries today. All I have is tofu and vegetables.”

"It’s  fine. That sounds good.” He follows her down the hall, feeling the entire house leaning in close like it’s listening.

Coming back, Hajime finds, is like remembering how to breathe.

In the city, the heat crawls over concrete buildings like a blanket, creeping along until all that exists is heat and sweat and suffocation. He feels water in his lungs, weight in his limbs, a hand pressed over his nose and mouth until every breath is a struggle.

It’s almost like he’s picked up right where he left off, like the house hasn’t changed at all since he’s left. He still knows the spots where the floorboards creak, all the scratches on the walls, the shelves piled high with memories older than he is. His grandmother has always kept the house neat too, no signs of dust anywhere. It’s like he been away for an hour, not years.

The only thing that’s changed is him.

Strangely enough, it’s comforting. He wonders if that’s the first sign of some sort of deep-seated anxiety, something metaphorical to give greater depth to the crossroads of his life. And then he shrugs, because if he does have problems about university or his future, he’s left them on the train from home.

“Baa-chan, I’m going to drop my bags off first.”

“Oh, Hajime-chan, if it’s alright, could you use the living room instead? The attic is full of things from winter. I didn’t have a chance to clean it out—”

Ah, he thinks, a little ruefully, some things do change.

“Do you need help cleaning it?”

“There’s no need.” She waves a hand in the air. “Mostly old mementos and whatnot. They’re fine up there.”

“Mementos? Can I take a look?”

“Well, I don’t see why not, but...it’s not very interesting I’m sure.”

“That’s okay. It sounds cool.” He’s only taken one stop before he pokes his head back into the kitchen, catching her as she starts washing her hands. “Hey, Baa-chan? Would you have any pictures of the festival?”

“Festival?”

“The one at the temple.”

“One at the temple?” She turns off the water, one hand resting on the handle as she regards him curiously. “There’s no festival at the temple.”

“Kaa-chan said there’s one.”

“Your mother said that?” She makes a funny face. “There’s never been a festival here. Did she say what sort?”

“Fireworks, floats. Lanterns and stuff?”

His grandmother is already shaking her head. “Definitely not. The only thing we celebrate here seems to be New Years and even that; some don’t even make it to the temple to visit these days. Well, so put your bags away, Hajime-chan. I’ll have lunch ready in a bit.”

He wants to ask more, but his grandmother is already turning away, humming to herself as she looks into the refrigerator.

“I’ll come back and help when I’m done,” he says instead, and he heads back down the hallway the way they had come, turning into the living room and dumping his things on the floor.

It doesn’t take him long to rearrange the furniture; pushing the couch against the wall, moving the table far enough to make enough room for a futon, which he drags out of storage in the the hall closet. He lays out crisp white sheets on the mattress, tucking it under the futon, and then steals a pillow from the chair, dropping it on the bed for later. For a moment, he tries to decide whether or not he’s going to unpack, but decides it’s easier to just live out of his bags. It’s only two weeks anyway.

When he finishes, he’s changed too, into a cooler cotton shirt that he rolls up to his shoulders, and pants that are cut off at the knee.

“Can I help?” he asks, when he pokes his head back into the kitchen.

“Cut these onions for me? Oh, wash your hands first now.”

He does as requested, washing his hands under the sink with soap and water, wringing them out and then taking the knife offered him.

He hasn’t been chopping long when his grandmother speaks up. “You don’t cook at home now, do you?”

Hajime grins. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You know what it means. What are you going to do when you live alone? You’re not allowed to eat cup noodle for every meal, Hajime!”

“I won’t! I’ll...get a recipe book or something. It can’t be that hard right?”

“Typical men, always so confident in their skills until they do it themselves.”

“It’s not hard. Look. Chop chop chop.” He finishes cutting one half, pushing it into a bowl she has waiting for him. “Easy.”

“Uh huh. Tell me how to scale a fish, or how to make sure the potatoes don’t get overcooked. Can you make a soft-boiled egg?”

Hajime coughs, pressing his lips together tightly. His grandmother just laughs, throwing him a knowing look. “Mhmm. Get chopping, mister. And if your eyes start watering, run the onion under water for a short while. You’re not going to learn that in a cook book.”

“Maybe if I look it up online,” he suggests, and she gives him a jab in the side with her elbow by way of response. “Keep your eyes on the knife.”

Obediently, Hajime focuses on his work, but he hasn’t gotten far before she speaks up again.

“Since you asked, I’ve been trying to remember. But you know what, I think there is something at the temple.”

He sniffs, fighting back tears. “Really?”

“Mmm, but it’s just a story. Youkai tale.”

“Youkai? Spirits?” Gold eyes, he thinks. Ours, he hears again.  

She hums, piecing her thoughts together as she dumps ingredients into a pan of popping oil. “There’s a story of a festival that takes place every summer. Could that be what you’re talking about—Oh Hajime, dear, your eyes are tearing—Oh no! Don’t touch your eyes! Oh my poor dumb child. Here, go rinse out.”

He can’t do anything but let her lead him to the sink, turning the water on for him and guiding his hands to the stream. He washes his hands first, then gently rubs out his eyes until they’ve stopped stinging. By the time he’s done, his shirt is soaked and he can only blubber as a towel is passed into his hands.

“Better?” She asks, when he finishes drying.

He grins, a little sheepishly. His eyes still sting, but at least now he can keep them open for longer than a second. “What were you saying about the festival?”

“Oh, oh right. Pull out the dishes for me? I’ll finish the rest of the cooking.” She turns back to the counter as he goes to the shelf and begins pulling out a couple of bowls and a few plates for the vegetables. “The spirit festival is said to be a grand affair. Lanterns, just like you said. The youkai start at the bottom of Yamadera and then take climb the stairs all the way up, carrying big floats along the way. At the top they’re supposed to light bonfires and whatnot. Is that what you’re talking about?”

“Mmm, maybe,” he says. It does sound accurate, but youkai? “Kaa-chan said she would go when she was a child though.”

“Oh my, is she getting senile already? Isn’t fifty a little early?”

“Don’t let her hear you say that, Baa-chan.”

They both laugh and for some reason, Hajime doesn’t want to push the conversation any further. The memory has been sitting submerged for so long, it can sit a while longer. It’s not going anywhere this time. He’s content to let his grandmother change the topic, answering her questions about school and family patiently, even while his mind wanders back, among tall, dark trees and a boy with a fox mask.

I’ll find you.

* * *

Summer is his favorite.

Of course, not having school is a blessing, but he loves the season itself too. He loves the heat, the warmth, the sun. He loves the way the earth bakes and shimmers, and sound of the cicadas in the trees, the way the entire world seems to just...slow down for a second and breathe.  

He likes their new house in Miyagi, of course. He likes the shopping mall and the arcades and the cinemas. He even likes middle school, even though the classes aren’t color-between-the-lines or learn your multiplication tables any more. He especially likes sports, now that he can join them again.

But if he had to choose his favorite place, it's not Miyagi that comes to mind, with their clean white house ten minutes from the train station. It's not the big parks or the river with its concrete banks.

What comes to mind are slow, sleepy streets, dirt paths in between the houses, long, drooping trees dipping into the garden with shade pooling around him. He thinks of mountains and rice fields, of small well-cared for shrines along the road, of his grandmother's wide, circling porch, with the small chimes that ring at night in the wind.

Until he was fourteen, he would come to visit his grandmother. Every year, for two whole months, he would stay with her, ranging in the mountain during the day and camping out in her attic at night. It was like one long adventure, a delirious dream, every day exactly the same as the one before.

Except tonight, he dreams of the forest. Or more accurately, he dreams in the forest, wandering broken paths and under endless canopies of leaves, the world turning green and dark around him. They exist like a memory inside of him, all the sounds and smells and feelings clear in his mind, yet without any substantiality. And yet still, he wakes with his chest aching and empty, his skin tingling with some translucent warmth. There’s a ringing in his ears but no sound.

He feels as if he's forgetting something.

His grandmother’s voice comes wafting. “Hajime-chan, are you ready?”

“Yup!” he calls back, rolling upright. Grabbing his bag, he pulls it over his shoulder and trots down the stairs, tumbling into the kitchen. When he gets there, she’s wrapping a cloth kerchief around a pair of lacquered boxes, slipping a pair of chopsticks into the knot. She presents it to him with both hands, and he bows ceremoniously in return as he accepts it.

Together, they walk to the door, and he lets her pack the lunch carefully in his bag as he digs around in the shoebox for his slippers.

“You’ll be safe?” She asks, as he stands up. “It seems like it rained quite a bit last night. Be careful, now.”

He nods, his tongue out as he ties his shoes carefully.

“Oh my, what’s that scrape on your knee? Did you have that yesterday?”

Hajime stretches out his leg, pulling up his pants leg so they can see. “Nuh uh,” he shakes his head. “I dunno where I got it.”

“Oh Hajime-chan, you should be more careful. Does it hurt?”

“Nope.” Strangely enough, it doesn’t. It’s already begun to scab over too, patchy skin that feels like scales under his palm. “I’ll be careful,” he promises, as he stands back up.

“You know the rules?”

He doesn’t even need to think about it; they’ve been ingrained in him since he was old enough to walk. “Watch the sun. Don’t do anything reckless. Come back before dark. Stay on the path.”

His grandmother nods with each one. “And number five?”

He stands up, and turns to her, and he feels a breath on the back of his neck. “Respect the gods,” he says, “and they’ll protect you.”

“Protect you. I want them to take care of you.” But her lips tug upward into a smile and she pulls him into a hug, kissing the top of his head. She smells like the garden, like warm earth and sweet, dried grass. For a moment, the thing in his chest settles.

But as soon as he pulls back, as soon as he the door slides shut behind him, as soon as he sets foot into the sunshine and takes a soft breath, the whisper returns even louder than before. Clearer too, but distant, like a bell echoing from somewhere far away.

His grandmother’s house is the closest to the mountain, the highest in the village, perched on top of a slender dirt path that goes past her front gate and right into the trees. This is the path he follows now, plodding along as it begins to incline, welcoming the warmth of the sun on his shoulders.

He follows the path right to the komainu statues that mark the beginning of the trail, the dirt eventually giving way to worn rocks, then to rough-cut stairs that disappear into a tunnel of green, leading straight up. The two stone foxes stare past him, their jaws frozen in silent growls. Hajime has always thought they look like they’re smiling. He places a hand on one’s paw, patting her face gently and fixing her bib with the other.

Then there’s a strange wind, cooler than it should be, enough to make goosebumps rise on his skin. The shadows and speckled lights spin on the stone steps, the tunnel humming. There’s a part of him that wants to take this slow, to be patient, to let the magic of the mountain settle in and around him.

But there’s another part of him that tells him to race up those steps, to take them by twos and threes, until he reaches the very top all sweaty and out of breath.

He’s running before he can change his mind, slippers slapping on the stone as he runs, his laughter bubbling up and out. It rings amongst the leaves, and this time there really is something chasing his heels, his laughter echoing and then splitting. 

He reaches the top ten minutes later, blowing through the shrine gate with its peeling red paint, running straight to the shrine itself and barreling onto its steps, tumbling to his knees. He rolls onto the warm wood, smoothed and sanded by wind and rain, the laughter still bubbling out of him for reasons he doesn’t even understand himself.

His chest aches, not the same way his lungs do, heaving for breath. But there’s a heaviness in his chest that he doesn’t have words for. So he just lets the happiness carry him away, flipping onto his back and closing his eyes, spreading his arms wide and letting the summer breeze play with his hair.

He’s missed this. Ten months of the year, he dreams of this place. Of warm wood against his back, of the wind rustling through the trees. The shrine is small, just a one-room building that’s hardly any bigger than a car. Inside it’s dusty and dark; he can see spiderwebs strung up from the rafters, but there’s something peaceful about it nonetheless. There isn’t any rubbish, for one, and the sunlight dapples everything in the clearing.

Hajime sits up eventually, pulling his bag towards him and riffling through the contents. Like his grandmother said, one must be respectful to the gods. He finds the lacquer lunchbox she packed for him, settling it in his lap and untying the cloth wrapped around it.

He doesn’t know who he’s talking to, but he says it anyway, “Do you remember me? You must not remember every person that comes by, but I come every year. My grandma made food for my lunch but gods get hungry too, don’t they? Here, you can have some too. Her tamagoyaki is the best in the whole world. She says it’s so pretty I should brag about it.”

He sucks on his chopsticks, weeding through the things he doesn’t like as much, laying them out on the cover of his bento and pushing it towards the emptiness of the shrine.

Is it weird that he’s talking to himself? He tries asking the gods, and he’s not surprised when he gets no answer, but he continues anyway, because it feels sort of nice to talk like this. “You know,” he says thoughtfully, “I had a funny dream last night I think. I think it had to do with the mountain. But when I woke up this morning, I couldn’t remember anything to do with it. Is that normal?”

He sticks out his leg, inspecting the new scab that he found. “Plus I woke up and found this. And my kimono was out on the floor next to me, all wet. By the way, I hope Baa-chan doesn’t find the wet spot. She might get angry if I damage the tatami.”

Scooping a bit of rice into his mouth, he grins at no one and speaks with his mouth full. “If there are any gods listening, can you fix that for me?”

* * *

Tooru sometimes talks to himself.

It’s only natural, really, considering how much time he spends alone. There are plenty of other youkai, but not all of those can speak. And of those who can, some speak only in parroted phrases from humans, others don’t want to talk to him, and the rest he doesn’t want to talk to them.

It’s a difficult existence.

But today feels worse than usual, insufferably slow. It takes him a moment before he realizes what it is.

Impatience.

He’s impatient for something to happen and the problem is, nothing ever does.

The mountain is frozen in time, and he with it.

The only comfort really, is that this will inevitably pass. This uncomfortable, unsettling feeling in his chest will soon disappear and he’ll go right back to complacency. In order to keep itself safe, the mountain keeps all that can harm it out and all that belongs to it in. He’s not sure which is worse.

“Ah, but I don’t hate it,” he says aloud, like he’s trying to convince someone.  “I don’t,” he adds, like he’s trying to convince himself.

It’s all because of last night.

Tooru twists a leaf between his fingers.

Hajime.

The night before, that had been a human. And not just any human, but Hajime. His Hajime.

Somehow awake during the youkai festival; Tooru still doesn’t understand how. Something to do with human sleep, the others had said, but they didn’t really know either. It still doesn’t explain how the boy got through the mountain’s charms, how he could see the spirit lights. Perhaps he's close to dying again. Adrift between two worlds again. 

“Ah well,” Tooru mutters to himself with apathy he doesn’t feel. He could blink and Hajime’s life would be gone. He’s always known that. If he took a nap, perhaps the next time he woke up, there’s no record of such a person ever existing. The thought is devastatingly sad, but he pretends otherwise. “That was interesting enough for another few hundred years.”

And then he’s quiet, watching the trees sway in the wind, an ocean of green changing shades. He’s lying in the nook of a splitting branch, legs hanging off the bough, head tilted up to see through the glittery canopy of leaves. The forest is beautiful, the mountains serene.

“Boring,” he says softly. Then louder, sending his voice ringing through the trees. “Boring. Boring.”

There’s no response.

He isn’t sure what he was expecting. Instead he releases a breath he’d been holding, letting the breeze pick the leaves off his palm.

And then he hears it, a soft sound carried by the wind and muffled by the leaves. Tooru sits up, every nerve in his body leaning forward and listening.

There, again.

Laughter.

He lands with a soft sound, leaves and dust stirring under his feet, setting off in the direction of the noise before he knows what he’s doing.

It isn’t hard to find. Or rather, he isn’t hard to find. Tooru senses him before he sees him, a sort of vibrant energy where the mountain is elsewhere silent and sober. And he recognizes it, immediately, maybe even before he had even begun searching.

His Hajime is talking to himself, spreading out an array of food on the shrine’s steps. Back again!

A part of him wants to go up and ask what he’s is doing, but he’s afraid. It’s been so long, who knows what has changed? The Hajime from last night didn’t remember him. Perhaps his heart is gone; perhaps that’s why Hajime has never come back. In how long? Years, Tooru thinks, but time has always been difficult. 

And he’s been warned enough about what happens if he is touched by a human, a regular one. Not that Hajime has ever been just a “regular one”, not to the forest, and not to Tooru, but it’s a significant detail that shouldn’t be overlooked.

So instead, he crouches, just under the shadows of the trees, his chin resting on an upturned palm.

I won’t let you forget me.

You sure?

I’ll be your heart.

And then last night, in the rain, You can still see me? But how?

But the longer he watches, the more apparent it is that Hajime doesn’t remember. Not last night, not anything before. Strangely though, Tooru isn’t upset. Just because he's forgotten, doesn’t mean Tooru's heart doesn’t still exist inside of him.

It doesn’t mean it’s over. It just means they’ve forgotten, and that’s okay. They made promises after all.

For now, it’s enough to be this close, to have any chance at all. To just sit and watch. To listen.

Except almost as soon as he settles himself for that, Tooru stops listening and starts running, not because he’s bored, not in the opposite direction, but straight towards the boy and because he saw something on the other side of the shrine, a shadow with eyes and a huge, hungry mouth.

“Hajime!”

He bursts from the cover of the leaves and the boy sitting on the shrine jumps, spilling food down his front.

“You?”

“Run!” Tooru shouts again, and the boy pushes himself slowly to his feet, looking half-surprised, half-confused. At the sound of Tooru’s voice, the spirit takes a step back, but he doesn’t stop running. It’s only the slightest distraction and he curses himself for being blind.

A boy who can see spirits—a boy with half the heart of one—Tooru was attracted too, of course others would be too.

Eat or be eaten. That’s how the mountain survives.

* * *

“Hajime!”

Hajime flinches from the sudden noise, looking up sharply at the boy who comes bursting out of the trees.

Gold eyes.

“...You?” he says and he doesn’t even know why, because he’s never seen this person before in his life, but gold eyes. He can’t shake those eyes, not even when they’re staring at him, huge and panicked.

“Run!” the boy says again, and Hajime snaps out of it.

He’s grabbing his bag before he even knows why, food spilling and his chopsticks going rolling away.

“Hurry! Before it comes!” The boy says and Hajime follows without question, bag pulled over his shoulder. Why? Why doesn’t he question it?

“What comes?” he asks instead, and the boy looks over his shoulder at him. Then his eyes flicker up, behind Hajime’s shoulder, and Hajime feels chills spread all the way down his back.

“Don’t look. No eye contact,” the boy says quickly, and Hajime just presses his lips together and runs a little faster, trying his best to keep up.

For some reason, the only one making any noise is Hajime. He can hear his breath rattling in his chest, the pounding of his feet over dry leaves, his bag banging against his side with every step he takes. The boy in front of him is next to soundless, so quiet as he runs that Hajime’s afraid to take his eyes off of him for fear he’ll disappear.

Well, he’s also worried to look behind him, so it’s better he focuses on something else.

There’s no fox mask this time and in the daylight, Hajime notices things this time.

The boy wears a white kimono with light blue monpe underneath. There are soft green colors on the sleeves, small leaves growing from the hems, flowers that seem to lose petals as they run, whipped away by the wind. The boy has soft brown hair, wavy and long, and Hajime squints as he realizes—is he taller than me now?

Followed by, but spirits don't age—

And then, the stricken thought that they haven’t met before, so why exactly—

“This way,” the boy says again, and Hajime can barely keep up as he abruptly turns, disappearing into what looks like bushes. But when Hajime bends to follow, he realizes the bushes are made of bramble and they form a circular hole through which it’s just big enough for him to enter if he hunches. He squats and the boy gestures at him from the far end of the tunnel. “Come on, it can’t follow you here.”

Mention of an it is all Hajime needs to obey. He throws himself through, scuttling over to where the boy beckons, clutching his bag to his stomach.

The boy shifts away as Hajime nears, switching places with him. Hajime holds his bag to his stomach and trying purposefully not to look at the entrance.

“Iwachan, give me your hand.”

“What?” He looks up sharply.

“Give me your hand. Hurry.”

“Why? I thought we can’t touch—” He doesn’t know where that thought comes from, but the suddenness of it, the certainty of it startles him into silence.

“Hurry!” The boy snaps, and Hajime grimaces as he unfurls his hand and holds it out. The boy doesn’t take it. Instead, he holds out his own hand, palm down, over Hajime’s. And then he exhales softly and a light grows between the spaces of their palms, soft blue and glowing so brightly it’s hard to look directly at. “Now swallow it.”

“What?” He asks again.

“Swallow it! Hurry!”

Hajime looks at it in his hands, cradled to his chest. There’s some sort of warmth coming from it, not like heat, but softer than that, less dangerous. Except when he lifts his hands to his mouth, when he tilts his head back and spills the shifting light down his throat, it burns.

It scorches lines of fire down his throat and his eyes fill with tears, but he can’t speak, can’t even breathe. It goes screaming down his throat and it lodges in his chest, just where his heart is, and then he feels like he’s dying.

“Breathe,” the boy says and Hajime suffocates trying to obey, his heart hurting so bad. Tears are streaming down his cheeks and he’s filled with an indescribable sense of...of loneliness.

“Go away.”

He barely realizes the boy isn’t speaking to him.

“He’s not for eating.”

Then abruptly, the pain disappears. So fast and sudden it’s as if it was never there. His cheeks are wet with tears and his body feels strange, not his. Too light and fractured, like he’s got a few too many limbs and doesn’t know how to move them.

There’s a soft, rumbling sound that he finally notices. As far as he can tell, the entry to the leafy tunnel is open, but from the corner of his eye, he sees shadows shift suspiciously, like something translucent is sending the sunlight scattering. The tunnel changes colors, spinning a million shades of emerald.

The boy stamps his foot, almost petulantly. “I said—Leave. Before I get angry.”

Another soft sigh-like sound, but this one Hajime hears words in. “It is a human,” it rumbles. “You cannot protect a human, Tooru.

Tooru?

Hajime’s heart thumps in his chest, a fluttering bird trying to break free of his ribcage. He clutches his shirt, a new, raw pain pressing back against his fingers.

Then the boy growls under his breath and it feels as if the tunnel darkens and constricts. Hajime squeezes himself against the wall, and the shadows beyond Tooru deepen into a six-legged form, with a crimson mouth. He squeezes his own eyes shut, trying not to see.

“Watch me.” Tooru’s voice is low and dangerous. “He is mine.”

There is silence.

And then a gust of air rushes into the tunnel, sending loose leaves flying in Hajime’s face. When he opens them again, it’s warily and with apprehension. But the world is back to light yellow greens and sunlight, and the boy is squatting beside him, gold eyes gleaming.

The pain in his chest is a ghost. Hajime licks his lips, confused and calming down, but all of a sudden, horribly hungry. His bento is back yonder, spattered over the shrine steps. He has a whole lot of questions though, and hunger can wait for answers.

“What did you do to me?”

The boy just grins and Hajime wonders how the frightening person from just a moment ago is this same one, with cheek pressed against his fist and a dopey smile on his face that Hajime finds irrationally annoying. “This makes the second time I’ve saved you, Iwachan. I think you owe me.”

* * *

“Baa-chan, I just finished the gate. Was there something else you wanted me to do?” He calls into the house and waits for an answer. When none comes, his brow furrows and he shuffles out of his shoes, stepping into the house and wandering down the hall.

He finds her in the wreckage of the living room, amidst towers of old memorabilia stacked as high as his waist, snoozing.

It was part of their deal: she would stay out of his way as he fixed up the house and focus her energies instead on his “bedroom”, cleaning up the decades of things that had gotten piled up, just so he could sleep and not be curled into a ball.

It’s slow going, and it probably didn’t help that his grandmother had a habit of cracking open every album to take a trip down memory lane.

He kneels down by her chair, trying to extract the photobook on her lap as carefully as he can so as not to wake her. Except she stirs almost as soon as he touches it, blinking open sleepy eyes. They fall on him gently and he sees it in her expression, fondness and love, an almost quiet hope. “Masaru?” She asks for his grandfather. “Where have you been?”

“Baa-chan?” He speaks softly, sadly. “It’s me. Hajime.”

“Hajime?” There is confusion on her brow. Then she blinks, smoothing a hand over her hair. Her eyes focus on him again and he sees clarity drain into her features. Clarity and sadness, a bittersweet longing that manages to make Hajime’s throat squeeze. “Ah, Hajime-chan. M’sorry.” She fights back a yawn, covering her mouth with her hand. “I must have dozed off.”

“You okay, Baa-chan?” He can’t help but worry for her.

“Oh yes, of course.” She laughs and the sound settles Hajime’s heart. “I’m not used to staying inside all day. What is it about cleaning that makes an old woman so sleepy? Oh!” She claps her hands together, shushing him aside and gesturing to the photoalbum he had just moved aside. “I had found something I thought you might like.”

Obediently, he handed it back to her and she flipped through with gentle fingers until she lands on a page near the end of the book.

“Here,” she announces happily, “Your mother. When she was about your age.”

Hajime leans over the page, squinting at the black and white photograph. He recognizes the garden instantly, with the path up the side of the house and the backdrop of the trees to the mountain shrine. His grandmother points out the girl in the center, taller than the other two, and beaming cheekily at the camera. “She was big, huh?” he comments, and his grandmother bursts into laughter.

“Just like your grandfather. A real mountain child.”

“Who are these other people?”

“Oh, that’s was your aunt Chie. She was always so prim and proper. I wonder why she and your mother got along so well.”

“Really?” He squints closer, but the film is grainy and it’s hard to make out much more details beyond a cute hairpiece with a light-coloured ribbon streaming from it. “And this boy?”

“Boy?”

“Is that not a boy? He’s wearing a boy’s kimono.” Hajime points with a finger, but there’s no response. When he looks up, his grandmother is looking at him with a strange expression on her face. “Baa-chan? What’s wrong?”

“How many people do you see in the photo, Hajime-chan?”

As if her response wasn’t suspicious enough already.

Hajime is quiet a second, then he says, in an almost questioning voice, “Three?”

His grandmother is quiet and Hajime feels like he’s five all over again, getting scolded for something. But then her smile grows and she reaches out to ruffle her fingers through his hair. “You should keep that photo.”

“Why?”

“Take it back to your mother. She’ll appreciate it.” She starts to rise from her chair and he hurries to help, clearing the books and offering her a hand. “Are you hungry?”

“Mmmm, not yet.” The book still lies open in his lap, and no matter how he looks at the photo—upside down, from the side, from an angle—there’s no way there’s not three kids standing there. He looks up at her, “Oh yeah, I finished fixing the gate. What else needs work?”

“Oh my, already?” His grandmother pauses at the door, her head tilted. “That’s all I can think of. Why don’t you relax the rest of the day?”

He makes an unhappy noise and she laughs. “Shouldn’t children your age be excited about do-nothing days?”

“I’ve had enough of do-nothing days to last me a lifetime,” he says, pushing himself to his feet. The photo-album he leaves on his makeshift bed, and he follows her out of the living room to the kitchen.

“Ah hmm, I suppose that would be true. Well, you could always go for a hike again. You used to love disappearing into the mountains. Your mother would worry herself sick, but I always thought it helped. And it did, didn’t it? You got better that year.”

“Mhmm. The doctors called it a miracle.”

“Well, who knows when you’ll have the time to come visit little old me.” She wags a wooden spatula at him. “Get yourself another miracle.

* * *

“Iwachan~”

“What?”

“Iwachan, do you want to know a secret?”

“A secret?” He peers into the river, his net held high.

“Mhmm.”

“What sort of secret?”

“A spirit secret.” Tooru gazes idly into the stream, the water making patterns of light dance on his face. “Something to do with your heart.”

That catches his attention, and he glances over his shoulder at the boy sitting on the rocks a few meters down the stream, feet hanging into the water. “My heart?” He pushes himself up, the net hanging forgotten and dripping at his side. “What about my heart?”

“It’s not good, is it?”

Hajime drops the net, climbing over the rocks as quickly as he dares. He’s breathing hard by the time he stops near Tooru, falling to his knees near the boy. “How do you know that?”

Tooru blinks at him in confusion. “Of course I know. I can feel it.”

“Feel it? But you said you're not allowed to touch—”

“Not that sort of feeling, silly.” He laughs. “It’s more like listening kind. I can tell.”

“Oh.” Hajime thinks about this, realizes he doesn’t understand, and goes back to more important things. “What sort of secret?”

“How to fix your heart.”

His breath catches in his throat. Hope. Hope is worse than resignation; its blade is sweeter, its bite is deeper. “You can? How?”

“Easy.” Tooru certainly makes it sound easy, his voice carefree and alight. “We just need to trade hearts.”

“That’s all?” Hajime asks, because even if he doesn’t understand what it means and it sounds difficult, he wants that to be all. He wants it to be as easy as it sounds. The promise of life is too much for him to hope for.

“Yup.” Tooru pulls his feet out of the water, pulling his knees up to his chest. He doesn’t meet Hajime’s eyes, and there’s a faint coloring of pink across his cheeks. “You give me half of your heart, and I’ll give you half of mine.”

“How do we do that? Won’t you get sick too?”

“Iwachan, who do you think I am?” Gold eyes flash. “It’ll be worth it.”

“What? No! If you’re getting sick too, I don’t want it.”

Tooru frowns. “I won’t get sick. That’s not what I meant. You’ll feel much better, and maybe then I can touch you. It’s just—”

“Just?”

“It’s just—” he hums. Hajime knows that hum. It’s a search for an escape.

“Tooru, tell me.”

Gold eyes shift, uncertainty reflected in them. “Well...there’s a chance…”

“Tooru.”

“Well...there’s a chance you’ll forget me!” It comes out in a rush.

“What?! No! I don’t want that.”

See? What was that about hope? 

“It’s worth it!” Tooru snaps at him and Hajime looks up, bewildered by the sudden change in the boy’s voice. “It’s worth it,” he says again, softer. “Besides, I won’t let you forget me. Don’t be dumb, Iwachan. This way you’ll have more time to spend with me too.”

Hajime hesitates, but Tooru’s expression is steady and there is nothing in him that wants to resist.

I won’t let you forget me.

“You sure?” he asks, quietly, and Tooru nods.

His expression is soft. “I’ll be your heart.”

His chest warms. He barely notices himself holding out his hand, or the light that grows between their palms, staring too hard at Tooru to notice.

“Swallow it,” Tooru says, and Hajime waits until he does, trying to press this all into his mind. Every last detail. The canopy of green, the heat on his skin, the parting of Tooru’s lips, the way his slender fingers cradle the shining light in his hands. He watches the boy swallow and then fix gold eyes on him. “You have to eat it, Iwachan.”

Hajime obeys, clapping his hands over his mouth and swallowing the burn.

I’ll find you. I won’t forget you.

* * *

That memory was from when he was at least twelve. Maybe the last time he had come back to his grandmother’s house until now.

Still, coming back is like falling back into a familiar dream. Somehow he feels his heart slow down, part of some greater whole, the forest itself. Things feel sharper than he remembers, the colors brighter, the sounds and smells all stronger.

The komainu haven’t changed; he greets them like old friends. 

He climbs the steps slowly, taking his time. Once upon a time, he wouldn’t have been able to do even that. He remembers being nestled in his father’s arms as they did all the work for him. And then they’d put him down at the very last ones and let him do those on his own so he could feel like he tried.

Now though, he’s content to let the forest whisper its secrets and memories to him, and he can only hear if he goes slow enough. He wants to hear them all. Everything he’s missed, everything that’s slipped through the cracks. He wants to get it all back.

Still, when he reaches the top, he’s broken into a light sweat from the heat. But his eyes go straight to the wooden shrine sitting nestled against the trees and a smile comes to his face. Everything is so achingly familiar, it feels like he’s finding a new whole in his chest where something had been missing for so long.

Except this doesn’t worry him. If anything, he feels something a little like relief.

He bows in front of the shrine, murmuring some prayer that he’s sure he’ll forget in a few minutes.

And then he sits on its worn steps, leaning back against the warm wood, still smooth to the touch. His eyes drift closed. He can taste something on his tongue, the nostalgia of his grandmother’s cooking. “Tamagoyaki, good enough for the gods,” he murmurs to himself, laughing at the thought.

And then a voice cuts through the clearing and he cracks open an eye to see a silhouette standing at the edge of the clearing. Dappled sunlight falls on sharp features, but nothing hides the gold of his eyes.

“There you are. I finally found you.”

He sits up, rises to his feet. Something’s pulling from the inside of his chest again, trying to get out. Trying to rejoin with its other half, he assumes, and he smiles. “I told you I wouldn’t forget.”

“Wrong, Iwachan. I told you I wouldn’t let you.”