“I never regretted it,” was all he’d say, years later. He would tuck his hands into his pockets, and if there was a window close by, he would turn to it and smile. “Not once.”
Summer was a hot and sticky affair, one Suzuki Daisuke spent mostly sprawled across the floor, fanning himself, with his clothes as open as they could be and still remain decent. Those days he was all long skinny limbs, with bones jutting out under his sunburned skin, all of his energy sapped away by the rolling heat. Once his sister, annoyed by his laziness, had dropped a glassful of ice-water on him; when he’d gotten over the initial shock, the coolness had felt so good that he’d spent rest of the week pleading with her to do it again. It wasn’t until she’d threatened to do it with tea instead that he’d given up and gone back to his battered paper fan.
The nights weren’t much better than the days, the air heavy with humidity, the buzzing of cicadas giving way to the rasping of crickets. Sometimes, though, he liked to go outside after the sun had set, walking until the lights of his house were completely gone before turning around to feel his way back through the dark. If the moon was full and bright, he would go barefoot along the road with his sandals dangling from one hand, watching his feet on the gravel, one step after another.
“You should be more careful,” his mother would scold when she caught him dusting off his dirty feet in the genkan. She was a tall thin woman, worn by years of labor and worry, her long skinny hands fluttering around Daisuke without touching him. “You never know who you might run into! There are people who might try to rob you on the road, please be careful–”
“Mother,” Daisuke would answer, their exchange a ritual at that point, always the same back and forth. “I’ll be fine. I’m always careful, you know that.”
“I just worry,” she would say, reaching out and not quite touching his face. “With your father gone, ah, I worry, I worry–”
“Yes, Mother,” he would say patiently. He would kiss her cheek, which sometimes would charm the ghost of a smile onto her pale face. “I’ll be careful of who I meet. Don’t worry.”
Things sometimes just happened to Daisuke; they always had, since he’d been very young. He could walk straight through a room to the corner where his sister’s hairpin, the one she was tearing apart the house looking for, lay alone and forgotten on the floor. He sometimes brought an umbrella out on hot sunny mornings and was the only one who arrived home dry in the evening. On nights when he didn’t go out walking, he might open his window and lean out, watching a trail of bright green lights moving in a single-file line down the road, accompanied by the slow steady rhythm of drums; once during the winter he’d seen a woman all in white, with matching hair that whipped around her in an unfelt breeze, crossing his neighbor’s field. In his uncle’s house, he’d once met a little girl hiding in the corner of a storeroom and spent the afternoon playing with her, hide-and-seek among the dusty forgotten furniture; the next day, a thief was found dead along the garden wall with tiny handshaped bruises upon his twisted neck.
He never questioned it. “I’m lucky,” he would say brightly. “Things always work out for me, in the end.”
And then, one night after his seventeenth birthday, Daisuke met a girl.
He saw her first under the moonlight, squatting in the tall grasses by the side of the road. Automatically he slowed his pace and came to a stop beside her. She didn’t look up, but she said, “Quiet.”
He blinked at the back of her head. She had very long hair that spilled across her shoulders and down her back, parted just enough for him to see the nape of her neck, which glowed white under the moon. Then he shrugged and crouched beside her. Under the hem of her kimono, autumn-red and printed with gold maple leaves, was the tip of a bushy white-tipped fox tail. It kept twitching from side to side, and he alternated between watching it move and watching her small hands patting through the grass.
Eventually, he said, “Need help?”
She held up a finger. “Shhhh.”
Daisuke shifted his weight, hugging his knees to his chest. They were beginning to ache a little. He almost said something again before the girl surged forward, pouncing on something unseen. She made a noise of triumph and sat up with her hands cupped together, tossing her hair back; he caught sight of a pretty smile before her hair slid forward and hid it again. With small shuffling motions she turned to face him, but the bright smile on her face faded immediately when she saw him.
“What the hell are you,” she said.
He blinked. “Daisuke,” he offered. “What were you looking for?”
She glowered at him. “Why should I tell you? You wouldn’t get it.”
“I dunno,” he said easily. “I might. It’s worth a shot.”
The girl continued to frown. She leaned forward until her forehead was almost touching Daisuke’s own, then sniffed delicately at him. He held obligingly still, taking the opportunity to look her over. Her face was more round than oval, and she had high cheekbones and eyes that looked too large for her small face. Even in the moonlight, they had a green cast to them, which he found himself studying with interest: he’d never seen anyone with green eyes before.
“What,” the girl said. She leaned back, eyeing him suspiciously. “Can you even tell what I am?”
“You’re a very pretty girl,” Daisuke said. He pointed to her tail, lying bristled against the grass. “But there’s that, too. I dunno.”
She yelped, falling back with a thump. Her hands broke their clasp, and something bright and glittering spilled across her lap, then vanished. She made a loud noise of dismay, scrambling on her hands and knees and combing hopefully through the grass again. “Oh, oh no, oh please, come on–” Her litany faded into a strangled exclamation, and she thumped her small fists on the ground before turning to glare at him. “Well, don’t just sit there – help me look!”
Daisuke blinked, then leaned forward. “What are we looking for?”
“Firefly tears,” she said. “I need them for a trade I’m making, oh no–”
He braced his weight on the warm dry earth and looked at her steadily. “What do firefly tears look like?”
“Like they’re supposed to, obviously!” She scowled at him, then shook her head. “Oh, never mind. I”ll try somewhere else.” She rocked back onto her haunches and dusted off her hands. Most of her hair had fallen into her face again, and she puffed at it a few times before she fixed Daisuke with another look. “You saw my tail.”
“Was it yours?” he asked. “It’s very pretty.”
The girl’s mouth fell open, but no sound came out. She blushed suddenly, falling back and crabwalking a bit away from him. “What,” she squawked. “What, what did you say?”
“Your tail,” he said patiently. “It’s very pretty. You’re a fox, aren’t you?”
She gaped. “You know,” she said. “And … you’re all right with this?”
“Um,” said Daisuke. “Should I not be?”
“Humans normally aren’t,” she said. She crossed her arms and frowned at him. “You’re taking this far too well.”
He scratched his cheek. “I guess?” he offered. “But you don’t seem like you’re going to kill me for knowing what you are, and it’s not like I’m rich man you can marry and gain influence over.” His brow furrowed. “Though I guess foxes who do those things tend to meet bad ends, don’t they.”
The girl huffed. “That’s revisionist history,” she said crossly. “And you believe it, that makes it worse.” In the grass by her feet, her tail began to twitch again. Daisuke found himself watching it.
“Then tell me,” he said. He settled himself into a more comfortable seated position and spread his hands. “I’ll listen, I promise.”
She narrowed her eyes and got to her feet. If he’d been standing she would have barely reached his shoulder, but she put her hands on her hips and glared down at him with all the imperious arrogance of a queen. “Right,” she said. “Like I’d bother wasting my time.”
“I’ll help you look for those firefly tears,” Daisuke offered hopefully. “Would that be enough?”
She sneered. “You don’t even know what they look like.”
“You could show me,” he said. He looked up at her, at the jut of her hip and the scowl on her face. “I wouldn’t mind you teaching me.”
The girl bristled, then pivoted on her heel and stalked off. Daisuke scrambled up belatedly, but by the time he was on his feet, she was gone.
He spent the rest of the night searching the grass where the girl had been, but found nothing in the grass that looked remotely like tears.
The next night, Daisuke woke to the sound of something scratching at his window. He rolled over, looked up, and saw the fox-girl peering back at him. Surprised, he stared, then flung back his covers and hurried over, opening the window and leaning out. Tonight her kimono was dark blue, embroidered with silver cranes in flight, and she had her hair pinned back with a mahogany comb.
“You,” he said in some surprise. “What are you doing–”
She thrust out her cupped hands. He blinked and covered them with his own. She met his gaze head-on, then opened her hands just a little, so that he could see into the gaps between her fingers. Cupped in between her palms was a clustered line of green-tinted sparkles, each one about the size of a grain of salt. Entranced, he leaned forward to get a better look.
“Shh,” said the fox-girl. “Hold your breath.”
He glanced up at her for a moment. She nodded but didn’t repeat herself, so he sucked in a quick breath and held it when he leaned down. Over the reedy voice of distant crickets, he heard a faint chiming noise that rippled, like a multitude of bells. He leaned down further, turning his head to hear better. It sounded like a lullaby, faint and sad in the late-summer heat, eventually cascading down into silence. When it started again, the sound was even quieter than before, and the fox-girl closed her hands, brushing his ear briefly with her thumbs. Daisuke jumped, letting out an explosive breath.
“Each tear sings its own unique song,” said the fox-girl. “The more you can find, the more complex the song becomes. People will pay a fortune to have a set for parties or special occasions.” She stepped back from the window and eyed him speculatively. He saw her tail brush her naked ankles from under the hem of her kimono, like it had the night before. “You believe me?”
“Yes,” he said. He looked down at her wrists, small enough that he could span them easily with thumb and middle finger. “Thank you for coming back. I didn’t mean to make you mad last night, I just–”
“I wasn’t mad,” said the fox-girl quickly. “You just surprised me. These days there are hardy any humans who can see my tail, even when I’m being obvious about it. But you …” She tilted her head, then abruptly shook her hands until he had to let go “You’re strange. You said your name was Daisuke?”
“Right,” he agreed, leaning further forward. She really was very pretty, even if her eyes were too large. “And you? What about you?”
She blinked at him, drawing her clasped hands to her breast. “I have a lot of names,” she said. “I might tell you one if I decide I like you.”
He crossed his arms on the windowsill, leaning against it. “Does that mean you don’t like me?”
The fox-girl wrinkled her nose. “It means I find you weird,” she said. “The rest of it … will happen if it happens.”
Daisuke grinned. “I like that philosophy,” he said. “Next time you come, I’ll make sure to have something interesting to show you too.”
“Right,” she said, and matched his smile with one of her own. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”
The second time she came was the night of the new moon. She brought him a handful of dragon’s scales; he showed her the wreath of paper cranes he was folding for his mother.
The third time was a month after the first. She gave him a scrap of cloth from a tennyo’s robe; he gave her inarizushi smuggled from dinner.
The fourth time was while the moon was waning. When he took her hands in his to accept her gift – a magpie feather that bore Orihime’s footprint – she let him keep hold of her and accepted a kiss on the cheek as her return payment.
“I have a lot of names,” the fox-girl said, when he eventually asked again. “One I can’t say aloud no matter what, because it’s too dangerous. But I have one I can tell you.”
Daisuke looked up from the paper crane he was folding. The fox-girl sat in his windowsill, her bare feet dangling over the ledge and into his room, though she leaned backwards like she might escape at any moment. He bit the inside of his cheek as a test, then said, “I’m not dreaming, am I?”
“Even a name you hear in dreams is important,” said the fox-girl sternly. “Any name is important. I’ll give you one of mine.”
He pushed the half-folded crane aside and turned to her. She tipped her head back, so that the line of her throat was exposed to the moonlight.
“Sen,” she said. “Go ahead and call me ‘Sen.'”
He turned over the offer of that name for nearly two weeks before coming to his decision. The next time she came, he met her outside, leaning up against the wall of his house as she appeared out of the long grasses by the road. Tonight her hair tumbled askew around her face, barely restrained by two silver pins (presents from a dragon, she’d boasted, pouting when he’d just laughed). They smiled to see each other, Daisuke thinking that a smile like hers was definitely something in the pro camp of his decision.
“So tonight,” said Sen brightly as she stopped before him, “if you’re up to a bit of walking, we could go down and steal mermaid eggs from the pond. They fetch a good price if you’re good with your trading, and everyone always likes eggs from the countryside better.”
“We could,” he agreed. He reached out and took her hands in both of his, ignoring her jump. “I’ve got something I want to ask, first.”
She tilted her head and looked at him suspiciously. When he tugged a little to pull her closer, she took one step and then set her heels, refusing to budge. Daisuke smiled again at that.
“Stay here,” he said. “Stay as long as you’d like. I’d like that.”
Sen’s eyes went wide. Her brows drew together. She scowled at him, and in it were all her sharp little teeth on display. “What do you mean by–”
“I meant ‘stay,'” he said. “You come here often enough. I thought it’d be nice.”
“You ‘thought it’d be nice,'” she echoed, bristling. “Just – just like that?! So you ask something stupid and then expect me to be just as dumb and say yes, like that’s the only thing I’ve been waiting for all my life, and may I remind you that I’m a lot older than you are–”
“It doesn’t have to be right away,” said Daisuke. “Sooner would be nicer, though. Mother’s starting to make noises about introducing me to girls. Since I already have one, though, that would be awkward.”
“What, so I’m your woman now, is that all I am?” She huffed, but there wasn’t much vehemence behind it. She even looked a little pleased, though he knew better than to actually point that out. “You realize what a terrible idea it is. No, I mean it, it’s absolutely horrible. Who on earth told you that you could plan anything?”
“I’m willing to take the chance,” Daisuke said cheerfully. He loosened his grip further on her hands, and when he leaned in to rest his forehead against hers, she didn’t tense or pull back. “You don’t have to stay forever. You can leave tomorrow, if that’s what you really want. But I’d like it if you at least stayed the night. We can work out the rest step by step after that.”
Sen’s mouth flattened; she didn’t look terribly impressed by his logic. “I won’t stay forever. I’m not interested in seeing you wither, and if I stay till you die, that’s mated for life. I can’t do that with a human, that’s not fair.”
“No,” said Daisuke. “I wouldn’t want you to do that anyway.”
“There’s something wrong with you,” she protested. “Make up your mind! What do you want?”
“For now,” he said, “I rather want this.” He let go of her hands and daringly let his palms settle on her hips, his fingers following their round flare. “What do you think about that?”
“I think you’re crazy,” she complained, but let him kiss her anyway.
The thing was, nothing that happened to Daisuke ever surprised him. He brought an umbrella on sunny days that turned into a downpour; he got up to answer the phone just before it rang for the first time; he kissed a fox-girl in the moonlight as her hands slipped from his and cicadas sang their funeral dirges in the late-summer heat.
When one morning he woke with a set of aches growing steadily familiar in his back and knees, and rolled onto his side and looked at the smooth undisturbed place beside him, he just put his hand into the dip of the mattress, broken in to the shape of her body. It was cool under his touch.
“Good luck to you,” he said. “And all my love, wherever you go.”
He went back to sleep.