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To See the Flowers Spread and Spring

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Utsuki does remember the life that came before this one, but it's like a dream from long ago, a childhood dream – vivid, disturbing, vague, a hazy outline interspersed with images that will haunt her. She remembers it, but she knows that she's different now, and so is everything else.

She tells Sakuya all of this; she tells Sakuya everything, and Sakuya always listens and smiles, though Utsuki thinks there's something sad about her smile these days.

"Yes," Sakuya says, "you're different now."

Time is difficult to think about. A minute is long if she thinks about it, but in the meantime a whole year might dissolve beneath her feet. She can remember today and yesterday, but anything else is far away. What does a month feel like, or a week? What is the weight of any measurement of time? She only knows how huge parcels of it rush by while she's waiting for a single flower to bloom.

One day she looks up, and Sakuya's hair is white, her skin soft and wrinkled as the skin of an old peach, and she moves slowly, slowly. Utsuki still looks the same as she did the morning she was reborn. Thinking back, she cannot be sure how many years have passed, but it feels like one, or none.

"You don't have to be scared," Sakuya tells her. "You always wanted to see more of the world, and you will."

"Without you?" Utsuki can feel herself trembling, and it's not just because she's afraid to lose Sakuya's guidance and protection. This is all happening too quickly; how can a lifetime race by like the shadow beneath a passing cloud?

"Sakuya," she says, at her bedside. "Please, wait a little longer." But a drop of rain falls, and after that moment, she's alone.

***

She goes back to the old forgotten house on the mountain. She doesn't really know why; the world has not lost any of its wonder, but it seems different without her friend, and this is the only other place she knows.

Weeds have grown up on the path, weeds as tall as she is. She thinks she drowses a while in the room where she used to play sugoroku with another girl whose name she can't remember. Or perhaps she played it alone. She is alone now.

When it rains, the house exudes the smell of blood, though all the stains have faded. While it rains, the seasons pass. She dreams through most of it.

***

By the time she is fully awake, the old house is gone, and she has aged a little. Her nails and hair have grown obscenely, her clothes are as fragile as flower petals, and she is hungry.

Where the house used to be, there are fruit trees, their sheltering branches so laden that they droop low, and she can reach up and fill her hands with apples, pears, plums and ripe, round cherries. They are sweeter than anything she has ever tasted. She eats, spitting out the stones without regard for decorum, until she bites a cherry in half and sees the pit white and glistening in that dark red, oozing flesh. Looking at it makes her uneasy, reminds her of something she can't quite put her finger on, and after that she loses her appetite.

She feels she might be able to face the world again now, so she sets off through the pathless forest. She summons Saiga, her childhood protector, and as he pads silently behind her, she sings an old song she once learned: mulberry, mulberry, your leaves make the silkworms fat. Look, mulberry, look, mulberry, your leaves have become a lady's robe. She wishes she could remember who taught it to her. There are so many things she can't remember.

Beyond the small clearing where she fell asleep, how strange! the deciduous trees are beginning to lose their leaves, and the scatter of rain that falls from the sky is autumn-cold. From the look of the forest, she guesses it is closer to the tenth month than the sixth; but the taste of the cherries is still in her mouth, their juice sticky on her fingers, so she can't have dreamed that part.

After a time, she hears the sound of someone walking nearby, perhaps on another path, screened by the branches with their curtains of dying leaves. She sends Saiga before her, and hears a gasp and then a quiet scream, and those sounds reassure her. She steps out from between the trees.

"He won’t hurt you," she says. "He only protects me."

The young girl in the odd clothes blinks at her. Apart from her peculiar attire, what Utsuki sees is that the girl looks exhausted. She stands slumped; her eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot, and she keeps blinking. She can’t even seem to summon the energy to be surprised, past her initial fear of the wolf.

"You're lost too," Utsuki says. "Aren't you?"

The girl blinks, then says something. The words sound familiar, but Utsuki can't quite grasp their meaning. Could it be a dialect?

"Here," she says. "You should rest. Let me stay with you, keep you safe. You can sleep." She accompanies her words with gestures, settling herself beneath a tree and indicating that the girl should sit next to her.

The girl hesitates. She says something, and Utsuki guesses she's saying she shouldn't, they're strangers, she should keep walking.

"We're not strangers any more," Utsuki says. "This will be my shelter, and you'll be my guest. Come."

The girl is too tired to argue any more, too tired to resist sitting in the hollow made by the tree roots. She sits, and Saiga lies down on her other side, guarding them both.

"Your name?" Utsuki asks. If she speaks with simple words, spoken clearly, she thinks the girl can understand.

"Miku. And yours?"

"Utsuki." It sounds odd. The last person who spoke her name was Sakuya, and she's beginning to understand that was a very long time ago. "Now we know each other's names, we're friends." She lets Miku rest against her; she used to lean against Sakuya like this, closing her eyes, whenever the world was too big for her mind to hold.

While Miku sleeps, the tree wakes. In Sakuya's garden, the flowers used to lift their heads to her after the rain, and before that she remembers a crowd of irises that gave her their silent company on lonely days. Trees are like people; they can be kind or cruel. Utsuki knows that better than anyone. Be kind, she thinks, her hand on a knotted root, be kind.

***

"Miku, wake up." Gentle hands are lifting her, arms supporting her, helping her to her feet. Miku forces herself to wake up, and jerks away when she realises it's a man holding her upright.

"Hush," a voice says, and she looks up into dark, gentle eyes. "It's Yuu. Remember? You're safe now. I've been looking for you."

Mafuyu's friend. Miku only met him once or twice, but she recognises his quiet voice.

"I was just resting," she mumbles.

"You're not hurt?"

"No. She told me to rest, and I was tired."

"Who told you?"

"My friend. Utsuki. She's just over there."

"Oh?" Yuu frowns slightly. "Whoever she was, she's gone now."

Miku looks around. "No," she says, "she's..." Utsuki is standing beneath the cherry tree – the cherry tree that is blooming in October. "What...?"

"I know," Yuu says. "Isn't it strange? It's lucky, though; if I hadn't come over to get a closer look, I might not have seen you."

But what about her? Don't you see her? Miku wants to say, but the answer is obvious, and she trained herself years ago not to point out the things that no one else can see.

"Miku," Yuu says gently, turning her by the shoulders to look at him. His eyes are serious. "Where's Mafuyu?"

"He..." Tears come to her eyes quite unexpectedly, and she's too surprised to do anything but let them fall. Yuu sighs and lets go of her.

"It's all right," he says. "We'll talk about it later. I only wanted to know if I should be looking for him too."

Miku shakes her head, passing a hand over her eyes. "No."

Yuu touches her shoulder, his hand warm, and she knows he's feeling the same grief she is. He doesn't have to say anything. He turns back down the road, and she follows.

She looks back once, her vision still blurry; she can't keep the tears from coming. Beside the cherry she sees a smear of red and black, but perhaps it's only a young maple tree in its autumn colours. Anything else would be too strange, and Miku doesn't have that kind of sight any more. She's sure she doesn't.

She licks her lips. They are salty with tears, sweet with a taste like mulberries. Unseen by Yuu, she lifts her hand in farewell to the girl she met beneath October cherry blossoms, the girl who is not a stranger.