Chamomile and honey; a calming mixture, aromatic and full when it brushed the senses, and yet Sara fidgeted with the hem of her shorts beneath the low table.
She had come here, hopeless and forlorn, though her face righted into something amicable when Yoimiya answered the door. Soot dusted her knuckles and splotches of paint stained her clothes, but the younger woman’s eyes were soft as ever when Sara bowed shallow in greeting. The easy way she was swept inside had her nearly dashing away with guilt, not wishing to sour the Naganohara’s blissful evening with her dismal mood.
Yoimiya dusted herself of grime from the day, wincing as she peeled a layer of red paint from her arm, and set the kettle over the clay stove. An aimless tune filtered past her lips, blond wisps curling in the summer humidity, obscuring her vision when she dipped below the counter to surface an assortment of tea leaves; Sara remained rigid before the door, hands clasped tightly behind her back and left eye twitching.
“If you stand any more rigid, I’ll have a hard time telling you apart from a weathered sakura.” She faced away from the general, but her voice lilted with humor. Sara dropped her shoulders immediately, rubbing at the back of her neck with a huff, and wincing when her fingers rolled over knotted muscle. She stepped beyond the threshold, sidling past stacks of wobbling crates, pausing when a particularly precarious bunch teetered dangerously.
“My apologies for arriving unannounced, I seem to have found myself in a bit of trouble,” she grunted as she spoke when the uppermost box finally fell, catching it with ease and lowering it safely to the floor.
The living space was as cluttered as usual, lived in and warm; Sara favored it to the near sterile hallways of the compound, the clack of her geta echoing hollowly against the polished wood floor, lonesome and haunting most days. She sank heavily into the cushion adjacent the low table— she had forgone her mask that evening, but still she reached up to fidget with it out of nervous habit— and dropped her fists into her lap.
Yoimiya paused, tea tray in hand, brow raised and voice tinted with curiosity, “you certainly seem worse for wear, but I can assume you haven’t befallen some sort of legal trouble… have you?”
“ No , of course not—” Sara defended with a frown, huffing when she lifted her head to find the unmistakable glimmer of mirth in Yoimiya’s eyes. Her head fell forward, braced in her hands when the other woman set the tray down and laughed in earnest.
“Alright, no teasing.” Sara uncovered an eye to glare, unable to maintain the facade of annoyance when Yoimiya sat across from her and held out a pinkie. “Promise.”
She reached forward and linked their fingers without hesitation, grateful despite herself. They settled into amicable silence for the moment, and Sara felt the buzz of her nerves settle marginally as she watched the repetitive motions of Yoimiya’s hands. The firework maker was an artist at heart, a creator of wild beauty; so untamable that the only canvas suitable enough was the sky itself, though her freshly brewed tea nearly put her creations to shame.
The steaming cup slid before her, and Sara breathed in its warmth; bold with a tinge of sweetness, exactly as she preferred, but still she fidgeted below the table. Yoimiya closed her eyes to take in her first sip, humming as she swallowed and nodding with encouragement. The cicadas of deep summer were out and raging now, lulling and grating at once… Sara’s palms had begun to sweat.
“It’s about Miko.”
Yoimiya’s eyes snapped open and her cup slammed to the table, droplets of something fruity and sweet dotting the fine grain of maple. Her palms braced on the surface and she grew flush with excitement.
“Have you two finally—”
“No.” Sara’s voice was shrill with panic and the other woman hid a laugh behind her hand. “No we haven’t stepped beyond the more so… cordial aspects of our relationship.”
She cringed silently, bemoaning her choice of words as she stared into amber liquid, breath dispersing its stagnant surface. It was silly really, that she should drag herself here post evening out, stumbling over her words like a child unused to the heated rush of infatuation. The trek from Mt. Yougou had been a frenzied one, tongue thick with anxiety as she mulled over her and Yae’s interaction… and every one preceding.
The kitsune had come straight from the publishing house to join her for dinner, chatting with lively hands over enough food and wine to satiate a meeting of the gods— Yae had ordered extra fried tofu, the golden brown delicacy pulling a smile Sara could only hope to be the cause of from the other woman’s lips— and it had gone over splendidly . So splendidly in fact, that Yae had linked their arms the minute she foot the bill, slamming a hefty sum of mora on the table, and leading Sara into the warmth of summer dusk.
She leaned into the general’s arm, fingers curling over twitching sinew as they ambled away from the city and up the well worn path. Something about being so close to Yae in the vastness of Byakko Plain, gazing down at where ink still smudged light across the bridge of her nose as she talked, had Sara feeling weightless. Tall grass brushed their knees and fireflies lit their path; her chest felt full to bursting when dew and sakura blossoms wafted up and encircled them both, Yae’s scent on the breeze like an unseeable pull.
The shrine was deserted at such a late hour, none but the wandering fox or two out to play. Yae had stopped beside a red-painted pillar, pressing a hand to Sara’s cheek when she mumbled her tired thanks for the evening, the eminent glow of the Sacred Sakura pulsing across her sharp features. She leaned forward and brushed her lips over the corner of the general’s mouth, glasses that had been hooked into the front of her kimono now displaced by the press of their bodies as she mumbled a halfhearted farewell.
“Dream of me, won’t you?” Yae had turned with a yawn and vanished behind the sliding doors of her chambers.
An arrow to the heart. Sara thought she might faint, or cry. She wasn’t sure which, but certainly she was seconds away from blowing a fuse. Her eyes remained affixed to the door, wide in shock and excitement in kind, the dark of night hiding the painful burn of her face.
This was so very new, the closeness they shared, and Sara was meticulous in her endeavors to get it right — whatever that meant— but she had nearly boiled over with yearning as of late. She wanted more, anything Yae was ready and willing to give, but she knew not how to ask for such things. There had to be a proper way of encouraging them down each branching path of novelty and dizzying possibilities, there had to be.
Sara leaned heavily against the pillar for a long while, fingers pressed lightly to where Yae’s mouth had been; she had almost kissed her, two inches to the left and their smiles would have sealed together, interlocked beneath a sea of stars. Sara’s stomach flipped, her heart thudded sluggish and heavy, each recollection of the feeling drawing forth a new spike of anxiety. She would court her properly, she would pay for their dinner on a much cooler night and dip Yae in the tall grass, stealing the sigh of adoration from her lips.
She had no idea what she was doing. It was the sudden realization that slashed harshly at her conscience, pulling her back to the city and before Yoimiya’s door.
Sara wasn’t a stranger to attraction, though romance was a new friend. She had danced with the prospect of something similar when she was young, drawn to one of the Shogunate’s trainees like a moth to flame. It was a dangerous flicker, tenuous but painful to the touch; they had kissed behind the equipment shed, the powerful zap of all things new and exciting striking her right between the ribs, but they were nothing more than girls then.
The feeling had crashed to her feet when the quartermaster stumbled upon them, shattering into a dozen fractals that glistened and embedded in her young, tender flesh. Takayuki had been notified, and she never saw that girl again. A good thing , her father had declared, for she no longer bore the burden of a distraction . But the man of many falsities had been exiled for over a year now, stripped of his title and his honor, leaving Sara behind with the pieces of herself he had once stolen. She could breathe life into this flame with little consequence, could dive in headfirst and revel in how it burned , but wished to do so accordingly.
Yae was different, she was glorious. Soft, sharp, witty, and kind, at least a hundred contradictions rolled into one, and she was beautiful too. Sara wondered nightly how she had managed to end up here, on the path towards mornings of hazy domesticity, but she chose not to question such good fortune.
Yoimiya cleared her throat across the table, a look of knowing plain on her face. “I take it that what's stressing you is at least somewhat related then?” Sara had been quiet far longer than she thought, and she flushed darker at the way Yoimiya cocked her head with encouraging eyes.
“You’d be correct.” She finally sipped at her tea, sighing and wrapping her hands around the cup, greedy for the anchor. “She’s been more doting than usual lately and I wish to return her affections… this is silly.”
Sara waved a hand aimlessly as if to brush off the topic, frustrated with herself for acting so petulantly. She was an adult , and she had come running to a friend to gossip and ask for relationship advice like the dregs of adolescence had yet to leave her. Yoimiya lay a hand over Sara’s twitching fingers, smile so bright her own eyes squinted with the force of it.
“I don’t think so.” Her earnest tone was balming. “Here let me help.” She leaned back, pulling the tray from the table, wiping it clean of spilled tea, and ushered Sara to lay her palms flat. “Alright, now sit up straight and close your eyes.” Her sing-song voice had the general raising a brow.
“I don't exactly see how this will—”
“Trust me.” Sara couldn’t argue with the sparkle in her eye; Yoimiya always had a way of making others feel seen, and Sara was not so different, opening up before the firework maker’s expressiveness. She had become a dear friend to the general, one whom Sara knew with unwavering confidence her trust was well founded in; even her own flailing internal strife was safe in Yoimiya’s hands.
Sara sighed and closed her eyes. “Ok, now what?”
“Now, you breathe.” The other woman inhaled slowly, tapping her fingers to a five count before exhaling. It was an appeasing rhythm, something easy to follow, and Sara felt the tightness in her chest abate enough for her to laugh softly.
“I suppose I should no longer be surprised when your tactics actually work.”
“To think you had such little faith.” The dramatic uptick of her voice had Sara cracking an eye open. “Ah, keep them closed!”
She returned to the darkness once more, brows raised in surrender, waiting for further instruction. Ever since childhood, Sara had been able to conjure up images of startling vividness behind her eyelids, and she leaned into it now; sharp lines of recollection, the jagged walkway, the swoop of Yae’s hair on the breeze. She could see it all, sighing when color splashed the canvas of her inner world, earthy tones clashing with bright pastels, and her head spun with the brilliance of it all. Yae beckoned, and Sara curled her fingers into the table to keep from following, chasing close behind.
“What do you see?”
“How did you—”
“You’re smiling.” Yoimiya giggled, soft and kind. “And your face is very red.”
Sara swallowed, helpless to deny. “I see Miko often when I close my eyes, like she’s made a home out of some facet of my mind and I just…”
“I think I may be falling.” Sara aimed to ignore Yoimiya’s gasp of awe, pushing forward before her words tangled in the base of her throat. “I think I have been for a while actually, and I’d be foolish to let such a propitious feeling pass me by. I wish terribly to show her.”
The room was silent for a while, unnerving enough for Sara to finally open her eyes, startling at the way Yoimiya clasped her hands in front of her face and gazed upon her. The firework maker appeared moved, deeply if her misty eyed, dumbstruck expression were any indication; Sara was grateful when the other woman merely inhaled sharply and spoke with tempered excitement, rather than squealing her joy as usual.
“Oh, this is wonderful Sara.” The general thought she might cry again too, worrying at her bottom lip when she nodded.
“Yes well, the excitement comes with its own set of anxieties I’m afraid.” She reached quickly for her tea when Yoimiya brought the tray back between them. “How can I show her the crux of what I feel? I’m not nearly as brazen as she is.”
“I think it’s safe to say that no one is.” The muttered comment drew a humored breath from Sara, loosening the tense line of her shoulders for the briefest of moments before Yoimiya’s hands slapped down on the table. She was ecstatic about something, and the general’s shoulders slid back up to her ears. “You can invite her to the summer solstice festival!”
“I don’t know…”
“There’s nothing more romantic than a kiss during the fireworks,” Yoimiya reasoned with enthusiasm. “I’m sure the atmosphere will be emboldening enough.”
Sara laughed into the lip of her cup. “Speaking from experience?”
“Certainly.” The general’s eyes widened at the implication, taken aback by her friend’s coy expression.
“Never mind that.” Sara glared at the blatant subject change; Yoimiya’s sudden candor from seconds ago seemed to fade, melting into a flush that dusted her cheeks rosy. She cleared her throat and barreled onwards, tone oddly pragmatic, “I’m doubtless that she will say yes.”
Yoimiya rapped her knuckles against the wood with finality, the look of certainty in her eyes contagious enough to bolster Sara’s own confidence. It was simple enough to ask Yae for an evening; she had done so many times before, and perhaps this would be the catalyst for every shared weekend and dreary Monday following. The prospect warmed her impossibly so, she felt as though she had breached the surface of the sea of doubt, gasping up at the sky with revelation.
“I’ll do it.” Yoimiya beamed and Sara smiled, something small and bashful. “How do you suppose I should ask?”
The other woman propped her elbow on the table, chin in hand, deep in thought. “Something small but sweet.” she righted with realization. “What about flowers?”
Flowers, small and sweet; Sara nodded in accordance. She could certainly do that.
Sara couldn’t do this.
The general stood awkward and tall in the entranceway of the publishing house, already-wilting daffodils quaking in her unsteady hand. Editors and illustrators alike bustled through the main hub, sidling by with wobbling stacks of paper; the smell of ink sat heavy in the air, enough for Sara’s light head to grow fuzzier still.
She sucked in a breath and rolled back her shoulders, stepping forward towards the back offices. Three soft knocks and one muffled word of acquiesce later, Sara stood beside the plush sofa of Yae’s office, analyzing the fine fibers of its cover while the kitsune hurried to finish the scroll before her. The furniture had been imported from Mondstadt— something Yae had gushed about for hours the week prior— and when the general finally sank into its cushions she sighed at the expert craftsmanship. A floral pattern that swirled and looped across the backrest kept her transfixed, tracing her finger across the inseam as she followed each curving stem with her eyes. It was almost enough to soothe her frazzled nerves… almost.
Sara jolted from her reverie, hiding the flowers behind her back when Yae made to sit beside her. She looked exhausted, annoyance permanently furrowing her brow despite the gleam of affection she directed at the general; the light from the fading morning filtered in past the open windows, setting alight the flecks of mauve and violet, cutting sharp angles across Yae’s brilliant face.
“Miko.” Sara was breathless already, winded from nerves and awe in kind. “I hope you’re not too busy.”
“Surely you can give me a reason to put the pen down.” She was coquettish, hooking her arm over the edge of the backrest and propping her head up with an ink-smudged hand. The light glinted off the pink sheen of her nails, flickering as she tapped at her temple in wait.
Sara huffed a laugh, leaning in closer so that their low voices intermingled. “Definitely.” At this angle she could see clearly how Yae’s lashes fluttered at her words, how the thin layer of lip stain smudged lightly at the corner of her mouth; spring blossom and rainwater, ink and parchment, tugging at the senses with ceaseless insistence. Sara had forgotten why she came here, teetering on the edge of impropriety.
The general leaned forward and Yae leaned back, scrunching her nose with a face most peculiar. Sara cocked her head, wondering with a brief spike of panic if she had gotten too close, but then Yae sneezed of all things, turning her head to bury her nose quickly in the crook of her arm. The kitsune looked up warily, eyes watery at the edges.
“Those wouldn’t happen to be flowers behind your back, would they?” Sara paused, taken aback by the punctuating sniffle. It was cute, and she flushed when Yae did it again.
“I may have… stopped by the flourist.” Pulling the flowers from behind her back was far less moving than she had hoped it would be. One of the daffodils had already drooped, caving under its own weight, and Sara frowned down at the pitiful arrangement.
“Oh darling.” The utterance was fond, and Yae cupped her cheek, tapping until their eyes were locked once more. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I do find that most spring flora doesn’t agree with me.”
Sara frowned deeper; the flourist had stated that the daffodils were out of season, blossoming in the crisp beginnings of spring, but the adjoining greenhouse had allowed for a bounty of all kinds. Perhaps she ought to have reached for the zinnias or the marigolds, but the daffodils had sweet simplicity, and the flourist claimed they spoke of reverence. Sara had been quick to purchase them, though now she wasn’t as assured.
The hand on her cheek went unnoticed in the midst of her tumult, and Yae laughed at her obvious consternation, pressing her lips to Sara’s opposite cheek to whisper, “it’s quite alright, really.”
Each word pressed hot against her skin, burrowing deep until they pierced her heart; sudden, jolting, and enough for her to hiccup around the following sharp intake of breath. Sara’s lips hung open, free hand hovering behind Yae’s head before she made to grip the other woman’s shoulder instead. It wasn’t long before they separated, but her shoulder blades were beginning to itch, goosebumps sprouting in the wake of their closeness.
Yae smiled small, ears rising from her head and twitching in a show of intimate zeal. The kitsune’s nose scrunched again and she brought her hands to her face, dabbing below her eyes where droplets of irritation beaded in earnest. Sara sighed, standing abruptly as the beginnings of a new plan took shape in her mind.
“I’ll be sure to get these out of here quickly.” She bent at the waist, pressing a kiss of parting to the center of Yae’s forehead. “My apologies.”
The general sped out of the room, weighing logistics so thoroughly that she hadn’t noticed the way Yae’s blush mirrored her own. Too stunned to call out Sara’s name, the kitsune huffed and returned to her mountain of work.
Rain beat down against the cobble of the city streets, and Sara bemoaned silently her luck. The morning had been the picture of perfection; the clearest of skies and wind so crisp and sweet smelling that even the most stalwart of soldiers could not deny its lull. But then the rain .
It slashed down like a shower of arrows, peppering her skin with splotches of red sure to bruise, but still she carried onwards. Patrons of the food district hurried past, hunched over to shield against the onslaught, shooting Sara bewildered looks as she moved against the grain. She spotted Aoi by the base of the stone steps, frantically tossing the last of her displayed produce over the counter, and drawing the awning; the harried grocery store owner spared her a sharp nod before making a hasty exit. The streets were deserted at last, and Sara’s hair was now plastered to the sides of her face.
She had no protection against the elements, no godly constitution to keep her immovable and dry, but she was a soldier on a mission— to deliver a note at the peak of Mt. Yougou before nightfall.
The general had spent the better half of the evening drafting its contents, crumpling parchment after parchment with each failed attempt. By dawn she had ceded, and now the letter of few words sat clenched in her fist, folded in on itself over and over so not a drop of rain could sully it’s current dry state.
Sara may have been sopping like the stray dogs that cavorted through the city limit’s drainage systems— a grotesque enough discovery for her to wrinkle her nose— but the note would remain unscathed.
Halfway up the mountain, and she fought valiantly against the slip of mud and moss; her steps were light, tengu blood granting her speed and agility above the rest, but even the war seasoned general was growing tired. All it took was one misstep, and Sara yelped as the edge of her geta hooked on an overturned tree root, careening towards the ground in an instant.
In her panic she reached out, hoping to grab ahold of the cliff face to brace herself, and the note flew from her hand. It hit the ground with a mocking sort of splash, sodden upon impact. Sara managed to dislodge her foot just in time, landing on one knee, mask askew as she stared at the pile of paper mush. She attempted to stand, but her legs wobbled with exhaustion borne of defeat, and she fell back upon the branch that had thwarted her carefully crafted plan.
All of this… for a silly little note.
The general removed her mask and slicked her hair back, clenching her eyes shut and looking to the sky. Water beat down at her face, and though the feel of her clothes melding wet and clammy to every curve of her body was far more than unpleasant, the sensation did much to abate her frustration. Mt. Yougou’s walkways were due for a remodel, had been for centuries now, but Sara presumed Yae kept them in dishevelment for her own amusement; the thought brought about a laugh of her own.
A crow landed heavily at her feet, drenched and ruffled and trilling its discomfort. It hopped towards the pile of ruined parchment, pecking at it with interest.
“Stop that.” Sara leaned forward to poke at its right wing; it looked back as if to deride and she scoffed. “I’d like to see you do better.”
The bird whirled its head around, pecking sharply at the back of her hand. When she reeled back with a hiss, it scooped the wad into its mouth and hopped away, flying in short bursts up towards the glowing peak. Sara thought to give it chase, but now she only longed for her futon and a warm serving of miso. The rain was letting up, and the squelching walk home was sure to be an arduous one.
Yae rose to light scratching at her chamber doors. She had been dozing lampside, the patter of rain and a good book her accompaniment for the evening.
She slid the doors open to the empty shrine courtyard, nose upturned at the sharp smell of earth and wet stone. No one lay beyond the threshold and so she huffed, making to return to her cocoon of sheets; a low trill stopped her short, and she looked down.
A crow, rather small in size— it must have been young given the fluff of its drying feathers— stared up at her, beady eyes unblinking. In its mouth it held rain-drenched parchment, crumpled and tearing in places, and she knelt down, untucking her glasses from the front of her robes.
The frames slid down her nose slightly when she reached for the note, raising a brow when the crow cocked its head. It blinked once, twice, cooing low with encouragement; she sighed and pat its head softly, refraining from laughter when the bird bobbled at her touch.
“You have my thanks.” It stepped back, blinking with a muffled noise of concession, and shirking itself of rainwater. It wobbled unsteadily as it shook, pausing a moment before making its exit.
The little thing was sure to spend the evening below the lip of her roof, drying in unbothered tranquility until it could reach its mother the following morning. Yae laughed airily and slid the doors shut, sinking into an overstuffed armchair and squinting down at the runny ink.
Very few words were legible, and there was no discernible name besides her own. Just seven angular words and the familiar scent of aralia— meet me beneath the old otogi tree.
Yae read the line over and over until the letters blurred together and the parchment in her hands dried a withered yellow; she fell asleep sitting up, glasses askew.
The week was nearing its end and Sara had made no headway in her plan. She felt frantic now, irritable and disheartened as the festival loomed on the horizon.
She had made a final attempt the day prior; busy with her duties and desperate, she had sidestepped into Uyuu Restaurant and purchased a bottle of wine. Their richest and most adorned bottle— thus their most expensive, and surely the gold leaf accents were a bit much, but Sara hadn’t had the time to read the label— had survived the trip down to the publishing house despite her hurried pace.
Sara had been mere feet away from the entrance, her soldiers marching onwards to Ritou as commanded, when Kuroda stopped her with friendly tidings. He seemed more enlivened than usual, commenting on the blissful weather as the general nodded along, eyeing the door with mounting distress. She stepped back a fraction of an inch, still humming noncommittal agreeances, and that was when he noticed the bottle.
He paused, hand to his chest and eyes thoughtful; Sara raised a brow at his odd expression.
“You remembered my birthday.” Kuroda was teary eyed a second later, and the general balked. She knew the editor well enough, but this had also been the longest they had ever spoken.
“No one but Lady Yae has said anything to me all day.” His voice wobbled and Sara’s eye twitched. How could she deny this man’s sorrowful stare? How could she leave him empty handed on such an occasion? Her men awaited, and she was far too overextended to free herself from the allegorical corner he had shoved her into.
“Yes, of course,” she grit the words out, stiff arming the alcohol into Kuroda’s hands. “Happy birthday.”
His glasses were crooked and his smile was blinding. “Madam Kujou, I have no idea what to say—”
“I really must be going,” she interrupted with urgency. “Please enjoy.” The editor saluted her, and Sara had wished to scream at the heavens.
Even now, safely inside Yae’s office, she bounced her leg with impatience as she waited. The kitsune was in a meeting and nothing would keep her from getting the question out; nothing except the way she froze when Yae stepped through the door, harried and beautiful and soft .
Her hair, long and obscuring as it often was, lay twined and thick over her shoulder. It was something she did sparingly, only when she burned the midnight oil or a migraine of particular intensity had begun to set in. Judging by the shadows that cut across her face, it must have been the latter.
Sara stood from the sofa without a word, frown onset, opening her arms encouragingly; Yae huffed her relief, barreling into the general and pressing her forehead to the padded arch of collar bone. They fell to the cushions, limbs interwoven, golden light and summer afternoon foot traffic blanketing the shared silence.
Yae’s kimono was rumpled, displaced throughout the day, and Sara straightened out the fabric, passing her hand over each jutting ridge of the kitsune’s spine again and again until their coupled breathing slowed. A tempered heart beat and the distant lament of mourning doves; enough for Sara to grow drowsy beneath the weighted press of Yae’s warmth.
“Mm, feels good,” the other woman muttered feather light into Sara’s neck, nearly purring when the general wove a hand through the hair at the base of her neck, rubbing slow circles where she was tense from the day. Sara hummed back, head lolling against the armrest.
“Are you free tomorrow night?” Her tongue was loose from blissful relaxation, and her eyes snapped open at her own slip. Yae shifted, chin propped on her chest, pout deepening below drooping eyelids.
“I’m remiss to say no, but with so few members in the creative department this year, I’ll be working nonstop tomorrow to ensure that the festival banners are primed and ready for showcasing.” The low rumble of her words had Sara’s heart lurching, fast disappointment settling thick at the base of her lungs.
There was irony in the predicament somewhere.
Sara swallowed, voice cracked when she spoke, “that’s alright, we can plan for another week.” Yae opened her mouth as if to speak, as if to apologize , and the absurdity of the thought had the general interrupting quickly, “really it’s not an issue, I’m more than willing to wait for your lighter days.”
“If you insist.” The kitsune eyed her skeptically, but exhaustion won out soon enough, and Yae flopped gracelessly back into her previous position.
Her ear flattened beneath her, the tip of it tickling at Sara’s chin when she sank into dreamless sleep. The general stared up at the paneled ceiling, counting her breaths and biding her time. Obligation was sure to separate them again soon.
Children ran, sparklers in hand, zori clacking on the stone path; Sara stood tall, vigilant as ever where she guarded the people.
Baubles, streamers, and lights hung from trees, each branch aglow with festive effulgence. The air was thick with the smell of firewood and cooked meats, salted and roasted lovingly by hand. Dogs leapt and snapped at fireflies, chuffing at their playful dance; at the edges of the square, surrounding the centerfold sakura, sat parents and grandparents alike, chatting amongst themselves as the young ones frolicked unbidden.
The breeze was cool and mellow, the kind that carried the smell of summer in full bloom. Flora and fauna intermingled, pure essence swelling up and out, warding off any evil spirit that may lurk betwixt the cracks of humanity. Laughter and joy at the culmination of the region's warmest season, an occasion meant to be shared, beauty found in the moments of togetherness in which hands linked and the process of healing began. And yet, Sara stood alone.
A man brushed her shoulder as he passed, pausing to bow in apology, warm smile deepening twin crow’s feet. There was wisdom and delight in the echoes of his laughter lines, and she wished to share the sentiment, but her own smile did not reach her eyes.
Every year proceeding had been one of isolation, following strict orders to refrain from the wayward practice of mortal leisure, and now that she was free from the claws of immorality… she felt much the same. Sara had changed immeasurably, had the thrill of Yae’s steady companionship at her side, and yet she could not revel in it; self imposed constraints and a struggle with over-meticulousness leaving her stranded.
Had she bared a hydro vision, the general was certain a storm cloud would have materialized above her head by now, raining down her stewing thoughts.
Something light smacked the side of her head and she jolted on the spot. A lone sweet flower petal drifted to the ground, landing softly in the dirt beside her, and she whirled around; Yae stood to her left, hands clasped behind her back, head cocked and smile wide with innocence. Her nose scrunched with the quirk of her lips, and it hit Sara then— rainwater and spring blossom, rainwater and spring blossom. She nearly teetered back, off kilter.
“Hey, you,” the kitsune spoke quietly over the murmur of the crowd. Sara looked over her shoulder quickly— her men were firmly at their posts, focused and none the wiser— and clasped Yae’s shoulder, pushing gently until they were out of they way of oncoming foot traffic.
“What are you doing here?”
“Do I need a reason to come see about you, Madam Kujou?” She pinched the tip of Sara’s mask, displacing it with affection.
“Well, no…” The taller woman swallowed at the way Yae looked up at her now, open beneath the splay of her lashes. “But you said you were busy tonight.”
“And now I’m not, it’s really quite simple.” Yae drew closer, gripping Sara’s wrists and pressing gloved hands to her own waist. In the dark alleyway they now found themselves, golden lantern light poured over the low roofs of the city, catching in Yae’s own eyes and staying there. Making a home, making a tether.
The curve of her cheek and bow of her lip were taunting; Sara swayed forward and gripped firmly where her hands had been affixed.
“I’m glad then, I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight.” She had never been good at lying, the faux nonchalance tumbling out of her mouth with obvious struggle.
“Is that what had you so sullen before?”
“I wasn’t sullen, I—” Their noses brushed now, drawn together without thought, the inevitability of entanglement. “I wasn’t,” she argued again weakly, linking her fingers loosely behind Yae’s back.
“That so? You’ve been trying to get me here all week, haven’t you?” Sara closed her eyes and pressed their foreheads together, humming noncommittal in response. “You can kiss me, you know.”
What a vast power Yae must have, to jumpstart her heart so suddenly. “I know.”
Yae huffed a laugh then, nudging at Sara’s shoulder when the crowd fell silent. She stared unto the face of ageless allure, counted all the ways the forthright kitsune’s breath hitched when the first whistle sounded from Byakko Plain, and tasted with enfettered tenacity the savor of abandon.
In the dimly lit alleyway between identical houses on the outskirts of the city, Sara pressed Yae to a wall of wood and vine, prying her lips apart when the first explosion left their eardrums ringing. She had fallen, had found her love in the heat of Yae’s mouth; she would tell her forthwith this time, in just a moment, just a moment more.