Disclaimer: Zettai Shonen is © Bandai Visual. This is a nonprofit fanwork.

The Forest for the Trees
by Fushigi Kismet

She grew slowly but steadily, like a tree in the middle of the forest, creeping its way straight up through the tangled undergrowth, year by year.

Miku was a quiet girl. She could not meet the eyes of strangers, or speak up in class, and she trembled when she had to make a presentation. This was the Miku people remembered from before her kamikushi, and those around her were a little relieved by her reversion back.

As for Miku herself, no one quite dared to ask her what she thought.

--

It was the first summer of high school when he moved to town. He was a pleasant boy, tall for his age, good-looking, and affable.

He comes into the store to buy an ice cream cone for one of the neighborhood girls. She rings up his purchases and those of three other boys in her grade who try to chat her up as an exercise of their prowess. She ignores them all and they sigh good-naturedly and head back to where the girls stand, looking annoyed.

She feels him glance back at her.

The next day he returns, smiling and a little unsure, to buy a stick of gum. The next day he buys a candy bar. The next, he does not buy anything but brings her a handful of wildflowers – a riotous burst of color in the drab store that he says made him think of her - and asks her, strangely, affectingly, to go on a date with him.

The first word she says to him is, "Yes."

--

He is not her first love. He is not even her second. At most he is her third. At best he is her last.

Her second love had been a little grey and white kitten who had followed her home, dancing. She had named him Dasshi and they had spent many an idle and fulfilling afternoon wandering the outskirts of town, chasing lights that glowed and breezes that bobbed unexpectedly, ripples in the air like distorted glass. They had grown together and then apart. She thinks he is the first one to ever break her heart because he is a cat and fickle and can pass through the world's membrane with nary a whisk of his tail. And before love could turn to resentment, she said to him, "You are a cat." And that was that.

Her first love was a somber, quiet boy with light hair and far-seeing eyes. They talked easily with one another - well he and the other she and she listened to them until she forgot the meaning of the words and remembered only the sound, pleasant and quick like the chatter of a sparrow and a gull. His hands were dry and warm; the sound of his bike pedals turning was like a greeting of sorts. She watched her sister watch him with wistful eyes. Aizawa Ayumu.

--

She goes on long walks with him through the fields and gradually she learns to speak to this boy, with his ready laugh and dark eyes, and he listens, drinking in the sound of her voice, her incongruous dry wit, the beauty of her thoughts.

He kisses her for the first time in the shade of a willow.

She kisses him for the first time while they are wading in the river and in his surprise he falls and pulls her down with him.

In the icy cold of the water, she gasps, laughs, and lets him kiss her again.

--

She's strange, one of the village boys warns him. She was involved in a kamikushi – she was spirited away - when she was young and replaced with a changeling. Then sometime later they switched back.

Is that all? he replies, easily. If I were a spirit, I would spirit her away as well.

He tells her as much later, and she says seriously, "It's all true, you know."

"I know. What I said too. If I could, I'd take you away with me."

"Where?"

"Here, there, anywhere. I'll stretch out my hand for yours-" he takes one of her hands in his own "-and then I'll lead you away into the wide world."

"Won't I get lost in the wide world?" she asks gently.

He raises their joined hands in answer and pulls her hand to his mouth, kissing her knuckles. "Do you think so?"

She frees her hand and touches it to his face. "No."

--

But Miku knows better than anyone that she is already lost. She has felt it all these years, but never more keenly than when he held her hand and pressed it to his lips.

I am lying, she thinks, helplessly.

There are times when she stares at the dark stand of trees, at the forbidden wood, and she wonders if the part of herself she has lost is still somewhere within its shadowy depths.

She wonders if she can regain it as easily as she gave it away, as easily as she received it in the first place, and thinks that it cannot be so. This time she may never come back.

--

"I am lacking something," she says at the start of that pale summer evening, dyed gold and red by the sunset. "I gained it too early then lost it too completely."

He does not reply but stares at his empty hands instead.

"You know it too. It is not something you can find for me."

"If I tried-"

"Hush," she whispers gently. "Just listen to the sound of the world."

Shutting his eyes, he listens to the rustle of the leaves, the intermittent chirp of the birds, the silent glide of the gold-streaked clouds, purpling in the evening, and the swish of the grass around Miku's catlike feet. Eyes still closed, he reaches out his hands and catches her.

"Clever, aren't you?" she says, but he hears the amusement in her voice. Eyes still closed, he raises his face to her and she rewards him with a kiss for each unused eye and one for the silent mouth.

He opens them all and looks at her, shining against the setting sun, and says, simply, "I will still love you even if you never find it."

She draws a ragged breath and asks, "And will you still love me if I do?"

--

That night Miku goes alone into the forest, slips off her shoes, and stands before the entrance.

Then, following the call of something unseen, she steps inside.

The next morning only her shoes remain, damp with dew.

--

She is missing for two days.

The village goes into a frenzy, the local news station reporting updates every hour, on the hour.

He is the one who finds her on the third day, sitting on a stone by the thin trickle of the river like a naiad, gathering up her long loose hair and braiding it over her shoulder. Leaving his bike toppled over on the bridge, he runs down the side of the bank to where she sits by the water. "Miku," he says softly, as though afraid she will vanish at the sound of her name.

A handful of lights hover around her.

She turns in response, her eyes bright, her lips curved in a smile. Two lights swoop at him and he ignores them, watching her.

But she seems too real to be an illusion, too solid to vanish before his eyes.

"Come on, Miku, let's go back. Everyone's worried."

"I'm not the Miku you knew," she tells him bluntly, waiting for his response.

"Yes," he says, relief flooding his senses, "you are."

She smiles, one that reaches her eyes, and the lights around her dance.

Standing, she takes his outstretched hand, and lets him lead her home.

--

Afterwards, people whisper that Miku has gone a little strange again after her second kamikushi. She meets everyone's eyes, speaks her mind whenever she feels like it, and wins every round of debate club.

People ask him if he doesn't think she has been replaced by someone from the other side and he looks at them and laughs. "What do you mean?" he says. "That's Miku. She's still Miku. She's always been Miku."

She takes his hand, now and again, without a word, and smiles. He looks at her and smiles back.

Once, just once, she says, "I chose you because you have a heart that can see."

Once, just once, he replies, "I chose you because you are you. And that's enough."

"Yes," she says impishly, swinging their joined hands between them. "Isn't it?"