Aoi is raised to be cautious, to be smart, to be selfish. She knows how to wield a smile as well as a knife, her handwriting is perfect, and her pockets are full of charms and ofuda.
“People cannot know this,” her mother stresses. “They cannot know who you are and what you can do. You must be pretty, unsuspecting, and distant. Your competence is a weapon that must be kept secret. Do you understand me?”
She doesn’t have to try to be pretty. The Akane women are always pretty. They are enchanting, and enticing, and noticeable. Whether this was a gift from the spirits for their sacrifice or just a fluke of genetics, she doesn’t know, but she doesn’t really care. What she does know is that it makes keeping a facade up difficult.
She hears it whispered on the playground, on the street, on the subway: what a pretty little thing. Eyes are drawn to her, and it is both frightening and frustrating in equal turns.
In primary school, things are different. She is still the center of attention (she is always the center of attention) but in a different way.
People notice her, and they notice the way her eyes never meet theirs, the way they follow the spirits that drift through the school yard, the way that she keeps her distance. They notice, and they seethe.
Beautiful people are either loved or hated. Aoi has not learned how to act well enough to be loved yet, so there is only one other option.
They tug at her hair and push her to the ground. They want to see her react. She won’t give them the satisfaction. She’s too proud, even then, for that.
There is one other thing that is significant about school.
Aoi Akane lives in the house next door to her, and thinks that their similar names are funny. They walk home together, and catch frogs in the woods, and one day Aoi realizes that she has grown attached.
She is not supposed to grow attached to others. Other people can be used against you. Other people can convince you to do things like sacrifice your children for the sake of the village, for their own comfort and safety. Even within her family, they are carefully distant from one another.
But Aoi was raised to be selfish, and she selfishly guards her relationship with Akane-kun. He sees her and he loves her and she loves him.
When he first confesses, she cannot outright say no. She loves him, and she wants to keep him with her, but she does not love him the way he loves her.
“2 points,” she says instead.
“W-what?” Akane-kun responds. His bewildered face is funny, so she smiles at him.
“2 points. I can’t accept a confession unless it’s really spectacular! Keep trying, okay?”
“You bet! I’ll never give up, Ao-chan!” He grins at her, his eyes sparkling with determination, and she feels a little bit guilty.
She is not guilty enough to tell him the truth.
As she grows older, more dangers begin to appear. People had wanted her before, she knows from their gazes and their whispered words just loud enough for her to hear, but no one has ever attempted to force her to date them. But suddenly, people have started to do so. Delinquent children, her age and from the local middle school, begin cornering her.
The first time it happens, she is frozen. She could take care of them, she knows. They are nothing compared to even a weak supernatural that she has exorcised. But then she will break the image that the Akane family has cultivated for so long: pretty, unsuspecting, and distant.
She knows what her family would want her to do: to suck it up and date the people who threaten her. To do whatever unsavory thing they want her to do with them.
She knows what she wants to do.
But then Akane-kun shows up with a baseball bat and beats them all to the ground. They lie there, groaning and bloody, and she is both grateful and worried.
She doesn’t have to make the choice between defending herself or saving her family, and she is grateful for that, but what kind of devotion could cause Akane-kun to attack these boys so viciously and without remorse? What has changed about him to allow him to do this? She doesn’t think he was like this when she first met him.
He is there for almost every time afterward. He saves her from people who would take advantage of her, even when they are adults, and she is so, so grateful, even as bile crawls up her throat.
She is able to push her worries down, though. Why would he have remorse for attacking people who attack her? She would have no remorse for attacking people who attack him.
(he was not raised like her. normal children shouldn’t act like this)
He is not there for every time, though. Sometimes, she will be walking alone and men will corner her in alleyways. They see a girl who is pretty, unsuspecting, and distant.
In an area with no one around, she feels safe making sure that they understand that they are wrong.
The Akane family cannot leave the area where the village once stood, or they would have left generations ago. After a few months away, they become sick, and they will only become well when they return. Too much of their blood has been spilled there; they have become tied to the land.
As such, every Akane child has gone to Kamome Gakuen since its founding. It is convenient both in that it is close and in that they can keep an eye on the two most dangerous things to them without actively seeking them out: the supernaturals and the Minamotos.
They have not forgotten what the Minamotos did so long ago.
Aoi knew all of the legends of the school years before she attends there, and so when the little hooded supernatural spies on her and Akane-kun, she knows what it's doing. It wants one of them to become a part of mystery number one for the duration of their schooling.
She most certainly doesn’t want that. If she becomes a supernatural, she won’t be able to pretend she doesn’t know anything. If Akane-kun becomes a supernatural, she will have to tell him the truth because she cares too much to let him go into a situation like this without any knowledge.
Instead of walking home, she insists that she and Akane-kun go to a sweet shop. He, of course, confesses there once again, and she once again denies him. They stay there until she feels the supernatural give up and slip away.
She wonders who they pick instead of one of them. She doesn’t really care.
Aoi has worked hard on her acting skills. When she gets into junior high school, she gladly trades being hated for being loved. It’s still isolating; she is still put on a pedestal. Instead of throwing rocks at her, though, they throw roses and she thinks that she could get used to this.
But people are still people, and even though she is kind to everyone around her, she rejects anyone who tries to date her. She still allows Akane-kun to confess almost every day (it is getting tiring, but she will not let him go, even though it seems like the true Akane-kun continues to slip away) and rejects him while continuing to lead him on. This school runs on rumors, so she begins to hear whispers of those who are jealous, of those who have been rejected by her.
Slut, they whisper.
That, she will admit, is infuriating. There are many truthful things they could criticize her for: she is selfish, she is manipulative, she is possessive. But she hides these traits so well that they have to grasp at straws, and she wishes that she could lash out at them. She can’t. She must be pretty, unsuspecting, and distant. She has perfected her image, and that image will inevitably cause people to become jealous. She is still loved by the majority of the school population, and she supposes that that will have to be enough.
Aoi does not plan on becoming attached to someone else. Being attached to Akane-kun is hard enough. Unfortunately, Yashiro Nene doesn’t take no for an answer.
When she joins the gardening club in their first year of junior high to gain the attention of a boy, she’s so earnest and cheerful and hard-working that Aoi reluctantly grows truly fond of her. Nene doesn’t pay attention to the rumors that surround her; she is straightforward and never looks beyond the surface, never looking for a bad side to anyone. She cares so deeply that it hurts her, and Aoi is enchanted.
Even when Nene admits that she likes hearing about the supernatural, Aoi doesn’t really mind. She can keep Nene close by telling her all of the rumors that she knows, and the new ones that she hears and commits to memory so she can keep track of them.
It is through Nene that Aoi experiences her first, and only, crush.
When Nene’s eyes sparkle in excitement, Aoi’s heart flutters. When she talks about the boys she likes, Aoi’s heart breaks. (is this how Akane-kun feels?) She doesn’t let it show. Girls aren’t supposed to like girls, and Aoi is already the center of attention. Confessing will only cause the attention to turn sour once again, and she might lose Nene and Akane-kun all at once. She is too selfish for that. So she listens, and hurts, and comforts Nene when she cries because a boy too self-absorbed to notice how wonderful Nene is rejects her, and encourages her when the cycle starts over again.
That is how things continue until they enter their first year of high school.
It starts as a normal year, and she expects things to continue the way they always did.
Things change when she tells Nene-chan about Hanako-san of the Bathroom.
She expects Nene-chan to knock on the door three times and not see Number Seven. After all, there is nothing supernatural about Nene-chan. There’s no harm in it.
But there is and Nene-chan begins to be busier and distracted more and more often. Aoi is suspicious, but she doesn’t pry. Perhaps Nene-chan has found a boy that likes her but wants to keep their relationship a secret. That would be painful, especially since she has kept it from Aoi, but it would be bearable. Any pain with Nene-chan is bearable.
Then, one day, a tree sprouts. It was not there one day then there the next. It’s obviously supernatural, but the school has two Minamotos as well as Number Seven. Aoi doesn’t feel the need to exorcise it.
That same day, Nene-chan tells her about a boy that she believes has a crush on her.
“He doesn’t have much of a presence. And he has these...big round eyes. He’s shorter than me… Oh, and he’s surprisingly good in a fight!”
Aoi wants to scream because that sounds like Number Seven. She’s never talked to him before, of course, but she’s seen him in the halls. But Nene-chan can’t be talking about Number Seven. If she can suddenly see supernaturals, that means…
She can’t bear to think of it any more, so she encourages Nene. If the boy confesses, then she will likely meet this boy and her worries will be put to rest.
The next day, Akane-kun is suddenly in a relationship with Yamabuki-kun. Aoi wouldn’t exactly mind this, since Akane-kun being interested in someone else while still caring for Aoi would be the best option, but this turn of events was clearly caused by the Confession Tree. Not only that, but she also believes that Yamabuki-kun is part of Number One, so Akane-kun is closer to the supernatural than she is comfortable with.
This turn of events is unacceptable. One of her people has been influenced by the supernaturals. Clearly, no one has taken care of this tree, so Aoi must do it herself.
She does not notice that Nene is trying to tell her something.
Number Seven is standing under the Tree, so she hides in the garden, waiting for him to either take care of the Tree or leave.
Then Nene appears. She walks to Number Seven, blushing.
Aoi’s heart breaks.
She barely notices that Number Seven is taking care of the Confession Tree. She turns away, crouches down and puts her head between her knees and sobs. Her lungs feel like they’re shrinking and she thinks that she’s going to vomit.
Nene is going to die within a year, and Aoi has no idea how to save her.