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Empty Hearted

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There once was a village of liars that lived on the border between this world and next. “I can see spirits,” the liars would say, amused. No one would believe them, because such was their fate. They accepted it and used it to their advantage, which led to a tragedy far greater than being called liars. For there were good liars, and then there were bad liars.

“You look beautiful in that dress, ma’am,” said a good liar, bowing his thanks for the bread that she had given him, glowing from the praise. She waved him off, a grin on her face despite knowing that others viewed her differently. For not everyone saw the same thing.

Whistling, the good liar made his way down the streets, storing his bread safely in his bag. But as soon as he arrived home, he was met with the worst sort of liars in the world. A pair of liars that had raised him and expected their fair share of anything he brought home. Reluctantly, he handed over the bread, not bothering to negotiate for half of it. He would rather starve than ask them for anything.

“Did you hear?” he could hear the neighbors whisper. “That boy, it’s only a matter of time before he meets the same end as his sister, don’t you think so too?” They spoke as if he wasn’t there, just another piece to fit into place in their stories.

‘If only,’ he thought as he gripped his arm. With the jacket he was wearing, they wouldn’t be able to see the scars he carried either. The marks of disobedience that he laughed off with a smile. The traitorous bruising that made it harder to move but he struggled to push aside, lying to himself that he didn’t feel any pain.

In time, that became a curse.

The more he laughed, the more the pain he felt. The more pain he felt, the harder it was to remember who he really was among the many masks he put on. Was he the jester that greeted everything with a fake smile? Or was he the disappointment of a son that held nothing but anger in his heart? Sometimes, he forgot who he was when he went, pretended that he never a sister and that everything was fine. Then he would come home and that reality would cease to exist. The walls would close in on him, stark reminders that he was trapped here in this place, fulfilling his role as the stop-gap in a family that saw him as nothing but an accessory.

Liars that lied to themselves were the worst.

“I’m so glad you’re home!” his mother insisted, but there was no happiness to see in her eyes. Only a dismissive, cold light. “The dishes need to be done before I can make dinner. Be a dear and finish them for your tired mother? Please, Sakuya?”

With his back to her, he grimaced and took off his jacket, hanging it up properly to stymie another lecture. He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and started on the dishes as he had been instructed. He knew better than to go against what they said. He had to live by the promise he had made to his sister. ‘Stay alive,’ she had told him, ‘and find happiness.’ He was having better luck with that first part, but the last part was beyond him. Somewhere along the way he had given up on happiness and had settled for self-satisfaction.

‘Dishes, complete!’ he cheered in his thoughts, drying his hands off on a rag before retreating to the safe haven of his room. He turned on the radio, static in the air until he found a station that came in clear. The music muffled everything else, a balm to his weary soul as he collapsed on his bed and spread his arms into the fall. He landed with an ‘oumph’, eyes closed, but in his dreams he could at least fly away.

By the morning light, the shouts started. “Get to work!” “Don’t be lazy!” “It’s time to earn your keep,” was the one that his father went with today, refusing to stop his incessant pounding on the door. “I didn’t raise a good-for-nothing son!”

‘Yeah,’ Sakuya thought disparagingly, ‘you already fill this family’s worthless quota.’ For someone who stayed at home drinking and expecting others to provide for him, his father had a lot of nerve. ‘I want to be anywhere but here,’ he sighed aloud and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. As much as he would have preferred to go back to dreaming, he got ready to face the day with a pasted on a smile. “Going, going! Thanks for the reminder, o great leader.”

“You’re late,” his father stated, bland yet all sharp edges, “what are you going to do if you lose that pity job? Do you think work’s easy to come by?”

Biting his tongue, Sakuya put on a woe-begotten face as if adding the final touches to his uniform. “Of course, father, I will make you proud.” It sounded mechanical to his own ears, but his father must have heard something different because he nodded, a pleased curl to his lips. “Now, if you’ll excuse me.” He scooted around the man in the hall, lifting his bag a little closer to his chest.

He breathed easier once he was outside, the sun greeting him like an old friend. Keeping his head down, he crossed the street and dutifully made his way to the graveyard. Unlike a normal graveyard, his job involved sending spirits to the other side, a crossover space that acted under the guise of a burial site. It kept the living away, even as it inspired the ghost stories that their town was know for, attracting tourists who wanted to know more.

“You’re late,” his boss told him, gravelly voice gentle despite being at odds with his critique. Sakuya shrugged. “Nice to see your work ethic has improved,” continued his boss, chuckling. “Get to it, then.”

“Of course,” he sing-songed. He stored his bag in a safe spot inside the shed, which acted as their office and then cracked his knuckles. Time to escort some strange guests to their final resting place.

When he stepped out amongst the graves, it was as if the temperature dropped. He tugged his jacket closer to his body, shivering, and called the spirits one by one. It wasn’t a difficult task, by any means, but the risks involved made it less and less appealing to the normal liars among them. He didn’t see what was so hard about giving some ghosts some directions, but he was different from them. He would do anything to maintain his promise, his lies, and his sense of self-satisfaction.

“Oh my, what do we have here?” An unfortunate side effect of the job was that it also attracted the unsavory sort of spirits that thrived on attention. The kind that had stayed to long in this world, their grudges growing fit to burst. When they were swallowed up by that resentment, that malaise, they became what he saw before him now: a demon. “Are you lost, little sheep?”

Scowling, Sakuya turned away from the dark visage that lingered in the corner of his vision, cloaked in a wave of red and shadow that shouted ‘look at me!’. “Oi, form an orderly line, come on. I don’t want to be working overtime. You guys might be dead, but some of us still have to sleep, you know,” he grumbled under his breath, ever the pragmatic crossing guard for wayward spirits.

“Don’t be like that,” coaxed the demon, cackling. Then with an abrupt sigh, it said, “Ah, not interesting. How long are you going to keep me waiting?”

It was a new one, a demon he hadn’t seen before, but he knew enough not to let it coerce him into looking at it. If he gave in, even a little bit, he would caught in its endless games. With his life as the price to play.

Humming absently, the demon was bored enough to go bother some of the spirits waiting in the back. Not the best solution, but it left Sakuya with time to decide what to do. As he worked his way over, he came to a decision and interfered as the demon made to impale one of the cowering spirits.

“Now, now, don’t ruin my fun,” the demon crowed, laughter ringing like a knife in the stagnant quiet of the graveyard. “I was going to save them.” The real tears that shined in the demon’s eyes made Sakuya pause, realizing too late that he had looked. He had seen. He was ensnared.

Grasping at his head, he stifled the instinct to cry out. His memories played back, flickering through the years to relive each experience, one by one until he reached the one that haunted him the most. His sister’s death, bringing him to his knees as he finally screamed, “No more!”

“Oh? Already?” The demon seemed disappointed. “I wanted to play more. Don’t you?”

Struggling to stand, Sakuya reached out and grabbed the front the demon’s rose covered cloak, petals fluttering to the ground. “Stay out of my mind or you’ll regret it.”

“Cheap words,” it mused, “but I’m afraid I have very few regrets. Ah.” As if realizing what it had just said, it burst into giggles. “Oh no, no, no. How could I forget?” A shift in stance and the demon had him pinned to the ground, arm twisted behind him. Lowering its lips to whisper in Sakuya’s ear, it told him in a soft breeze of cold steel, “I do regret dying. Sensei would be so upset at me.”

“Sen … sei?” He gritted his teeth against the pressure on his back, the weight of that regret sinking into him. “You think someone that important to you would want you to be doing this?”

The demon went silent, and then erupted into full-body laughter. “You -” it gasped, hysterical, “- you’ve never loved a single person, have you?”

His sister flashed through his mind, bright and smiling, the same smile he always tried to emulate. “What do you know?” he hissed. “You don’t know anything about me!”

“Oh?” The demon eased its grasp on its prey, giving a faint hum as it considered that. “I wonder about that. You are Sakuya Watanuki, aren’t you? The child born with the Eyes of the Dead. The same eyes that your sister pretended to have, to spare you an early death.”

“Pretended? Ha … haha, that’s … that’s not … true.” It was half-hearted, hollow. He couldn’t muster the belief in it like he usually did, wanting to be like his sister, the same as her in every way. Sharing the same red eyes that led to inevitable destruction. “I’m going to live,” he repeated to himself, “I have to live.”

“But are you happy?” the demon wondered, piercing straight to where his heart was the weakest. “Can you truly call what you’re doing living?” It leaned down again, breathy voice shaking as it asked, “Say, if you’re not happy, can I have your body instead? I want to live. I want to be happy. I -”

“Enough!” With a strength that had been laying in wait, he pushed the demonic spirit off. He straightened his jacket, glaring at the ground as he warned, “Stay away from me.”

Undaunted, the demon parted with some final words, “Then a bit of advice from one failure to another. Best be careful who you trust.” In a wist of shadow and smoke, the demon disappeared.

As the sun began to set on the horizon, Sakuya looked up at the sky and longed to reach out and touch the colors that bled into the clouds. It must have been nice to fly up there, free and far from earth. He stopped short of covering his eyes from the fading light, blinking in bewilderment as it registered suddenly that there was no noise. It was as if someone had turned off a radio, the static fizzing out as it clicked into place.

“Hello?” He hesitated, looking around. “Is someone there?” There weren’t any spirits present, he was sure. It wasn’t cold like it usually was around them. There was only the humid density that accompanied a storm. “I’m leaving now, so last chance.”

“Sakuya?” his boss called, puzzled as he stepped out of the shed, his assistant’s bag in hand. “Who are you talking to out here?” He tossed the bag to the young man across from him and lit a cigarette hanging from his mouth. When he looked up at the sky, he commented, “Looks like tonight’s going to be a bad one, huh.”

Turning away, Sakuya held the bag to him and agreed, “Yeah, I should get home before it starts -” An unexpected warmth near his heart brought a falter to his words. Stunned, he looked down and realized he was bleeding. “- to rain,” he finished lamely, his blood pounding in his ears, a drum that slowed with each resounding beat.

“No hard feelings,” his boss clapped him on the shoulder, a friendly pat, “but I exist only to paint the pictures Tsubaki wants to see. Even if it’s you I have to put in the frame, Sakuya.”

Like a puppet with clipped strings, he sagged to the ground, his sight wobbly and out of sorts, specks of white sneaking in at the edges to wipe away everything. He clutched at his chest, trying to apply pressure but too weak to keep contact, and knowing deep down that it was futile. ‘Why?’ he wanted to know. ‘Why me?’ He twisted in the direction of his boss, the last of energy drained but beseeching nonetheless. ‘What did I do wrong?’

“You’re a lot alike,” commented the man off-handedly, taking a drag from his cigarette and knocking the ash off the end with a tap. “But so alone. Be good friends, won’t you?” Then he walked away as if the scene in front of him had nothing to do with him any longer.

Someone was laughing in the distance, as if the channel had been changed again but came in broken, static filling the space between. “Are you … a deal … Sakuya Wa..nuki?”

He had to live, he wanted to live, and so he accepted the demon’s ploy. Selfishly.

“That story again, Mahiru?” Snatching the book out of his hands, Ryusei closed it and set it aside. “Don’t you get tired of reading the same thing over and over? It’s a made up story.” Wrinkling his nose, Mahiru reached around his friend, fingertips skimming the cover of the book. “Oh no you don’t!” He scooped up the storybook and tossed it among the others on the table. The owner of the bookstore gave them a frosty glare but didn’t comment. “We’re going to be late for the festival if you don’t hurry up!”

“… Fine,” Mahiru relented in his search. He thanked the owner for letting him read inside and bought the local newspaper as he always did, skimming over the headlines before handing it to Ryusei. “Looks like you lost again at the horse races.”

Crumpling it up into a ball, his friend threw it at his head. “Thank you for that, I didn’t realize I was 50 coins poorer.”

“Thought you should know,” Mahiru shrugged, “and it’s wrong to litter.” He kicked the newspaper toward to Ryusei, who received it in challenge. With one fluid kick, it landed straight in the trash can. Politely applauding, Mahiru asked, “How do you do that?”

“Practice,” he scowled, “which you’ve been slacking on. We need one more to make a team, Mahiru. You’ve really been daydreaming lately, haven’t you?”

Bemused, Mahiru wondered, “Have I?” It was as if someone was calling to him, though. A whisper on the wind that he couldn’t ignore. It resonated with that story he had been reading. The Accursed Liar, written almost one hundred years ago. “Do you believe in fate?”

Ryusei looked at him funny before taking him by the arm and dragging him the rest of the way. “Koyuki’s waiting for us, ya know? We don’t have time for that.”

He let Ryusei lead him along, but there was nagging voice in the back of his mind that reminded him, ‘Today is the anniversary of that man’s death.’ The books always ended with his death, but something about that didn’t sit right with him. There was a part of the story missing.

“Mahiru, Ryusei, over here!” called the friend they were meant to meet up with, hair curled around his face, cheeks flushed from the heat. “It’s starting!”

The festival took place on sacred ground as a send off for the dead. A replacement for the graveyard, Mahiru made the connection thoughtlessly, realizing a step too late that he had said that aloud. Koyuki had his head tilted, confused. “What graveyard?”

“Nothing,” insisted Ryusei, “Mahiru’s still in fantasy land. Anyway, what should we start with? The candles?”

“Yeah, ok,” Koyuki agreed, easy to appease, “let’s go light those first.” The candles were meant to guide the way to the other side, a symbol that their ties would be burned away and cleansed. They did it every year, to make sure lost souls found their way again. It also helped that the candles were made out of something that was said to ward off demons, protecting the living as well as helping the dead.

‘But does it work?’ Mahiru twirled the candle in his hands, considering it. ‘Would that man have lived if he had this? Was it that easy?’ He lit the wick and placed it back down in its holder, crouching to watch the flame flicker in and out as it struggled to live. Then it caught a hold of the faint breeze and bloomed. Beautiful but deadly.

It felt like time had frozen for a moment. As he watched the fire dance, the wax begin to drop, he could have swore he saw a reflection in the flame, a bewitchment that shouldn’t have been. When he looked back, there was no one. Sound came rushing back next, people calling to love ones, Koyuki admitting he was hungry, Ryusei sighing tiredly. What had that been, just his imagination?

He glanced around one last time before standing and trailing behind his friends. They stopped at the nearest stall to buy something to eat, but he couldn’t settle down. He had the unnerving feeling of being watched; it crept under his skin and gave him chills.

Making his excuses, he decided to go home early. He had to help his uncle with the chores, anyway.

Contrary to his expectations, his uncle wasn’t working when he returned to their small cottage. He was having tea with a strangely dressed person, cloaked in white. Grinning as he encouraged the person to have another drink, which was declined, they seemed to be in deep discussion over something. Were those feathers peeking out from under that hood? Green, pink, blood red? ‘Expensive,’ he thought, and distracted himself with cleaning in the kitchen.

He was in the middle of drying the dishes when something brushed against him, sleek and cold. Startled, his gaze dropped to the floor, where a dark green feather floated. Curious to know where it came from, he followed its path upwards to meet the scarlet eyes of man - or was it a man? Now that he looked closer, the face under that hood was covered in downy feathers, soft pink and glowing like a blush.

“It’s rude to stare,” teased the strange man that was more bird than man, but he gently pried the towel from Mahiru’s hands to assist in the cleaning. “Allow me.” It wasn’t unwelcome, but Mahiru wasn’t about to let a guest help with the housework. He snatched his towel back and pointed to the vacant seats, realizing belatedly that his uncle wasn’t there. “Ah, he left. Considerate, because I’m here for you.”

Mahiru nearly dropped the plate he had been holding. Bird man caught it, mid-crash, green feathers rising where his eyebrows should have been. “Careful, you could get hurt.”

“You … what?” He didn’t know where to start, and as he eloquently put it, “This has to be a joke. Did Ryusei put you up to this?”

“You have odd friends,” commented the strange bird, “if you think this is a joke. No, this is real. I was born from an egg and everything. For the sake of this very day. I can see you wondering.” Then he grinned, extending a wing. “Or was that a lie? Who can say?”

‘Infuriating,’ Mahiru thought in a huff, crossing his arms and draping the towel across them. ‘What is this? A dream?’ He pinched his forearm, grimacing at the pain. Well, that ruled out a dream. “What did you mean, that you’re here for me?”

The stranger fell silent, a gleam in his eyes that belied that earlier playfulness. Firm, icy, relentless; like something frozen in time. “I need your help.”

That was simple then. “What do you need me to do?”

“I need you to love me.”

Ok, not so simple, but. “I can try?” He wouldn’t know unless he tried.

There once was a man who was given the gift of immortal life, but in exchange, his outer appearance reflected his twisted desires. The need for escape gave him wings, his longing for the sun warmed his feathers and dyed them in the shades of flowers that reached for the sky, and yet his immovability, his desire and refusal to move on, made him unable to soar.

He was scorned by his own parents. His village banished him. There wasn’t anyone in a town full of liars that was willing to accept such a beast. But his gift of eternal life came with a promise. If someone could love him, his twisted appearance and empty heart included. If someone could stay by his side for a year, loving him just the same, he would be free of his shackles and able to move forward once more. A fine punishment for a selfish man.

“I disagree,” Mahiru informed him, propping up his chin on his hand as they conversed in the library. “You keep calling this a punishment, but it could be worse.”

“Worse, how?” There was a bite to the question, a disdain for having to ask it. “There is no worse fate than realizing you have never been loved.”

Mahiru shook his head. “You’re wrong. Isn’t it worse to die thinking you’ve never been loved?” He clasped his hands in front of him, tight enough to bruise. “To me, that would be the worst.”

The strange man acquiesced, “Certainly. It is better to be alive than dead. Such is the extent of a human’s views. You know nothing of never-ending torment. But stay here in this castle, and you will learn otherwise.”

He would have been simple to deny that claim, on principle alone, but Mahiru didn’t know anything. Not yet. “All right, I’ll wait and see.” He reached across and stroked one of the nearest feathers with the back of a finger, admiring it. His companion withdrew from where he had placed his wings on the table. “You’re going to have to get used to me,” pressed Mahiru.“I’m not going anywhere.”

At night, Mahiru was alone. A reminder of the emptiness of this place, detached as it was from either world. It was a place of eternal loneliness, caught between the boundary of life and death. For a weeks, he tossed and turned, unable to sleep.

Then one day, he wasn’t alone anymore. Warmth seeped into his back as arms curled around him. It was too dark to make out who it was, but they felt human. No soft brush of feathers or that satiny feel as they glided across his skin. He was surprised to find he was disappointed. He didn’t even know his name, but he had come to expect something from him. After all, he didn’t dislike him.

When he brought that up in the morning, the color of the strange man’s plumage darkened, flustered as he spoke. “That was … me,” he admitted haltingly. Then, in a mumble, he informed him, “I can only return to who I was in the dark.”

“Oh,” Mahiru let a tender smile fall into place as he glanced at the feathers that glowed with an embarrassed heat. “I see. It was you.”

“It was me.” Clearing his throat, the man went on to inform him, “But that, too, has a price. You can’t look. Not even a small peek. If you were to see me at night, I would no longer have a chance.”

To trust him with that information, Mahiru found he was flattered. “I won’t look,” he vowed. This time, when he reached out to stroke the back of a feather, the strange man didn’t move away. He remained tense and kept still, but he seemed to determine to allow Mahiru into his life, and that was more than enough for right now.

The longer they spent together, the more they learned about each other. Favorite foods, precious memories, what the other liked, what they didn’t. It was a matter of course that they grew to understand each other better than anyone else had tried before.

As time passed, however, Mahiru began to miss home. A year had almost gone by and he hadn’t seen his uncle once. It wasn’t his host’s fault either, for he hadn’t asked before now, too caught in spending time with his new friend. “I’d like to go home and see my uncle,” Mahiru declared one morning. He fidgeted with his napkin. “Is that possible?”

“It is,” conceded his friend. “But Mahiru,” he stopped, and then attached a, “Stay safe,” in place of what he had wanted to say.

“I will!” He was escorted after his meal to the ends of the castle grounds, where he waved his goodbyes and promised to be back soon. His friend watched him go, uncertainty in his eyes.

When Mahiru arrived back in town, he made his way to the cottage he shared with his uncle. It was empty this time of day. Dark and dusty from its lack of upkeep as well. He opened the curtains first and then moved onto cleaning.

In the afternoon, he had a light lunch, alone, and began to wonder what his friend was doing. Perhaps listening to music again, content to drown out the silence and hum along every once in a while. Walking over to his own radio, Mahiru turned it on, feeling a little less lonely.

As sunlight faded outside the windows, he made dinner and waited. And waited. And waited until he fell asleep at the table, lamp flickering and static filling the room. He woke up to someone covering him with a blanket and blinked up his uncle who was later than usual.

“Welcome home,” he greeted sleepily.

“I’m home,” his uncle told him, ruffling his hair affectionately. “I didn’t think I’d be seeing you so soon. Did something happen?”

He recounted his days spent with his new friend, excited to share how well things were going, but there was strain to the smile his uncle shared with him. “Is something wrong?”

“No, no,” his uncle disregarded that thought, absently poking at his dinner. “I simply missed having you here. I wouldn’t forgive myself if something bad happened to you.”

“I missed you too,” assured Mahiru, “but he’s not so different from us. At night, he -” Cutting his words short, he was horrified what he had let that slip out. “He’s always there for me,” he amended, but his uncle was perceptive. He had caught on, curious, and wanted to know what happened at night. That in itself was mortifying, did his uncle not know subtlety?

With a flush to his face, Mahiru hurried to explain, “It’s not what you think. We haven’t done anything. He just sleeps beside me as his real self!”

His uncle chuckled at his reaction. “Oh, is that all? What does he look like then?”

“I … don’t know.” He still remembered his friend’s warning. He couldn’t betray him to find out. But thinking about it, he didn’t even know his name. Did he not trust him? Was it all a lie? “He said I shouldn’t look.”

“Shy?” pondered his uncle. “What’s the harm in a little glimpse, though?” Snapping his fingers, his uncle remembered, “Ah, I have some leftover candles from the festival. Would you like to use one of those?”

On his way back to the castle, sun high in the sky to show him the path, Mahiru felt the weight of the candle in his pocket with each step he took. A small stub of wax that was heavier than his own footfalls.

His friend was there to welcome him back with open arms, feathers spread out happily. “You’re back!” That tone of surprise and awe made him stumble, guilt eating away at him. “Woah, careful.” It did feel nice to back in his arms, a vibrant, feathery cage to keep him safe, but he pushed him back, a crooked grin in place.

“I’m fine. Let’s go for a walk?” His friend wasted no time in granting his request. Nothing had changed.

That night, after his friend joined him, he waited for his breathing to steady out. When it had, he clumsily found in the candle in the dark and struck a match. With the candle casting a soft glow on the room, he turned in the arms that held him and gazed upon the inviting face of a young man. He seemed at peace, worries appeased and free to be himself, all the more approachable.

Shakily, Mahiru reached out a hand to brush back the long green hair from his face. His hand was snatched before he could touch and there was fury in the eyes that looked back at him. Still that same red that he had been entranced by. “Why? A little longer and we could have been …” His words broke in half, an overwhelming sadness replacing his rage. “I see, the truth is I was never meant to be happy.”

Letting go of Mahiru’s hand, he demanded, “Leave. It’s too late.”

Before he could ask what he meant, laughter bled into the room from every direction. Distant and fleeting, and then louder and louder. “You failed,” cheered the voice that echoed throughout the castle. “You know what this means, don’t you, Sakuya?”

A man dressed in flowers and the very shadows of the room stepped forward, bowing to Mahiru before setting his sights on Sakuya. “Time’s up,” cooed the stranger. “You lose. Let’s get along now, shall we?” He held out his hand, blackened with regret, and Sakuya accepted him wordlessly.

“Stop!” Mahiru shouted, but it was too late. Sakuya had disappeared as soon as he touched the stranger’s hand. “What did you do?”

“I wonder,” purred the stranger. “Do you want to make a deal with me, Mahiru Shirota?”

Without pausing to consider it, Mahiru said, “Yes. Give him back!”

“Not so fast,” the stranger tsked, wagging his finger back and forth, a pendulum counting down to the end. “What do I get if you fail?”

“You’re a demon, aren’t you?” It was a guess, but the confirming smile that brightened the stranger’s face reaffirmed what he already knew he had to do. “Then if I fail, I will give my life in his place. That’s what you demons want, isn’t it?”

Cackling, the demon accepted the proposal, then it abruptly sighed and said, “How boring. It’s so boring. Make sure you entertain me, ok? This boredom is killing me. Ah, wait,” the demon laughed uproariously again, “I’m already dead!” When the laughter subsided, the explanation followed. “Find the missing pieces of your dear friend’s heart and bring them back here. If you can convince them to come back, then you win. I will let you both go free.”

As cryptic as that was, Mahiru committed those words to memory and left to search far and wide. High and low. In rain and snow. There wasn’t a time limit or anything to pressure him into continuing, but he kept going, determined to make up for his own mistake.

At last, in the northern plains, he waded through mounds of snow to the sound of laughter. It was different from the demon’s vestiges of hysteria. This laughter was fragile, staged, as if someone was pretending. There, buried in the snow, was a boy with bright, sparkling eyes and a playful smile. He gasped and staggered back into the drift behind him. It was Sakuya. A younger Sakuya, but something was missing. The smile didn’t reach the boy’s eyes.

“Hey, mister, are you lost?” the boy asked. “I can help you find your way.” The glint in those red eyes didn’t promise the same, though. If anything, the boy looked as lost as Mahiru felt. He reached out to take his hand, but the boy scowled and held his arm against him. “I’m not going anywhere with you,” the boy hissed, “unless you let me lead the way.”

Not sure what else to do, he nodded. “Okay, Sakuya, lead the way.” In a flash of light, the boy vanished and a mask fell into the snow, wedged beneath the surface. It was white with black stripes, a prisoner’s uniform. “So this is a piece of your heart, huh.” He held it close to his chest. “I’ll return it,” he swore.

Soon, the snow melted into spring and he found his way through the hills to the West. Sitting among the flowers, crying, was a small child. His finger was bleeding from the prick of thorn, green hair floating in the wind. It made him seem like a spirit of the earth, a nymph, untouchable. Mahiru crouched down and asked, gently, “Are you ok?”

“It hurts!” the child sniffed, holding out his hand. “Please, make it better!”

“I can’t,” Mahiru told him sadly. The boy’s tears stopped, but then they started again, and this time, they kept going and going. He wept and wept, and Mahiru felt tears in his own eyes. He wiped them away before they could fall. “I can’t make it better for you,” he continued addressing the child, voice soft and barely heard over the wailing, “but I can stay by your side until it stops hurting.”

Slowly, the crying to hiccups and then the tears were gone in another flash of light, a mask of pink feathers falling into Mahiru’s hands. “I won’t let you hurt alone, not anymore,” he soothed, placing the second piece with the first.

Spring gave into summer, sweltering and humid. There was thunderstorm rumbling on the horizon. He could see the gray clouds, threatening rain, but he directed his gaze to the young man in front of him. A visage of fury against the backdrop of lightning. “You’re the worst,” the young man declared, hands balling into fists at his sides. “You lied to me!”

“I’m the worst,” accepted Mahiru, but he still held out his hand, “and you don’t have to forgive me. But please, let me save you.”

“As if,” scoffed the young man. He slid back his foot, prepping for a fight. “I’m not going anywhere with someone like you.”

Throwing caution to the wind, Mahiru ran at him, tackling him to the ground before he could hit him with a punch. “That’s your problem, always trying to do everything by yourself!” He pushed him down, hard, and shook him by the jacket he was wearing. Green hair brushed against his cheek and cut through the angry tears streaming down his face. “I’m going to save you, just watch.”

The person under him was enveloped in light, dissolving into a green speckled mask that he picked up from the ground and dusted off. There was only one left; he could feel it resonating to the east. The last place he needed to look. Pocketing the third mask, he resumed his search. ‘One more,’ the mantra repeated in his mind. ‘One more and then you’re free, Sakuya.’

The last fragment of his friend’s missing heart was leaning over a pool of water, the moon reflected off the tranquil lake. “Funny, isn’t it? I can’t even tell what sort of expression I should be making anymore.” The reflection of his friend contorted into a facsimile of a smile. Then it bled into pain, anguish. Then anger, longing, desperation. Then it strangely went blank. “Tell me, Mahiru, what face should I be making now?”

Approaching his friend with sure steps, Mahiru spun him around and told him, “It doesn’t matter, face me as you are.” There was hesitance in his friend, a wavering to commit to the truth, but as their eyes met, there was something there that hadn’t been before. The last piece of Sakuya’s heart understood what it needed to say. “Thank you,” whispered the wind as he held the final mask close. It was vibrantly red.

“I brought them back,” declared Mahiru. He handed them to the demon, piece by piece. “Now give him back!”

The demon clapped enthusiastically. “Good job! Well done. But I’m afraid that isn’t my decision to make. Why don’t we ask Sakuya what he wants?” Holding out the blackened arm from before, Sakuya was returned, wearily swaying in the dark until Mahiru rushed to his side and supported him. “So, what will be Sakuya? With all those missing pieces returned, do you think you can forgive such a traitorous friend?”

Mahiru stayed quiet, because that was too much to be hope for, but Sakuya raised his chin up and met his eyes head on. “You’re right. I don’t forgive you. I can’t.” Mahiru tried to look away, but his friend wouldn’t let him. “But you would let me lead you astray,” he said, placing the black and white mask on. “You told me you would stay by my side.” The mask with the pink feathers was returned, adding a healthy flush to skin. “You didn’t give into my anger and met me halfway.” The mask splashed with green was given back, clicking into place with the others. “And then, in the end, you made me realize what I had already known.” As he put on the last mask, as he returned to his real self, Sakuya smiled and meant it. “I am loved.”

Smiling back, Mahiru thought that should have been obvious. “You are loved.”

“And I have loved.” From his sister’s familial love to the hate that had festered into understanding with the demon called Tsubaki, and now he knew what it meant to love someone deeply enough that he would give up immortality for them. He wanted to live beside Mahiru for the rest of their lives. “Will you stay with me, Mahiru?”

“Of course,” Mahiru answered instantly. He turned to the demon and held out his hand. Warily, the demon took it, unprepared for the intensity behind the handshake. “Thank you for everything. You’re not as scary as you look. You’re welcome to live with us, you know. Without you, I never would have met Sakuya.”

The demon didn’t know how to respond to that, to someone who was not afraid and looked at him and really saw him. There was a reason demons didn’t like the sun, even if it didn’t hurt them. It was too bright, and it left them dizzy. It was too easy to forget their regrets under the sun. “You’re not Sensei,” derided the demon, but he was laughing as he said, “But I suppose you’ll do for now.”