The school day came to a close, but not without Harumi walking Fuura home. The two chattered – mostly Harumi going on and on about the upcoming Comiket and Fuura listening with open ears all the way up to Fuura's door. The word 'house' would be a modest way of describing it, as it was easily a mansion in and of itself. The old wooden structure held Harumi's eyes in awe, and they drifted across the complicated beam structure and the gardens that lay well tended around it. The open window on the second floor caught Harumi's keen eye. Was that a noose hanging just beyond her sight?

Her eyes drifted to Kafuka Fuura's lively pair, glinting in that mischievous way they always did. They held a question behind them, one that Harumi wasn't quite sure she wanted to answer.

"What is it?" Fuura asked in her sickeningly sweet voice.

"Ah… it's nothing. I thought I saw something, but it wasn't there." Harumi responded, though the cracking in her voice gave away her uneasiness.

There was something about Fuura that changed in a split second. The moment she stepped underneath the wooden overhang at the front door, her shoulders slumped and it was as if the glint in her eye – that penchant for optimism that showed itself readily at school – had vanished, nay, sucked out of her by the shadow of her house.

Harumi wouldn't have caught it if Fuura hadn't turned back to wave her friend goodbye. The smile she now wore was sad, almost regretful. The image of the noose still stuck clear in Harumi's mind, and it troubled her.

"See you tomorrow," Fuura chimed in, quickly enough to make Harumi stop thinking.

"Yeah," said Harumi, and smiled unexpectedly, "If you need anyone to talk to, you have my email, right?"

The question took Fuura aback. She blinked once, but a small smile spread across her pale face. "I do."

Harumi's work was done. With one last wave, she turned her back on Kafuka Fuura and made her own way home. She wasn't quite sure if what she said would make things better; she regretted not bringing up the noose with Fuura when she had the chance. But would Fuura be truthful or just lie to her about its existance if she did manage to mention it?

Whatever it was, Harumi saw Fuura smile in the shadow of her house. It was a true smile, and that itself was something to be happy about.

There was no one to greet her when she closed the door. The maid must be asleep, Fuura wagered. She liked the silence sometimes, but only when sunlight streamed through all the windows and bathed the floor in their warmth.

Her first task then, she thought with more enthusiasm than need be, would to be open all the windows. The sun was her friend, and keeping him out of her house would be rude, wouldn't it?

She started in the kitchen, careful to not get her uniform dirtied by the pile of pots and pans in the sink. The breeze that rolled over her skin and fluttered about her sleeves felt nice, like all her sadness was flowing away with it. It would only last until the sun set, though. Then the wind became a ravenous monster that dragged its claws over her bedsheets and rattled her door in the middle of the night.

Fuura banished such bad thoughts, saving them for the night. She moved onto the dining room, pushing open the tall, slender windows with a quick snap. She repeated this for the living room, the guestroom and then made quick work of the second floor. She avoided the bathroom and her parents' rooms out of principle.

Once finished, she practically skipped down the stairs to her schoolbag and pulled out her homework. It was studying tonight, so this meant that she could risk lying on her parents' expensive leather sofa while she skimmed over her notes for the test that she had in two days. It wasn't like they woudn't mind her lying on it to begin with, but they had scolded her for climbing on it when she was little, and such memories stuck with her like the scars on her back from the belt her father had used.

She was told they would be back today from whatever business trip they were taking, but she knew she wouldn't see them for at least another week. That was almost certain. They had other businesses to attend to – both of them – the kind that a child shouldn't find her parents committing to. She wasn't sure if her parents knew that she knew, but she bitterly thought they wouldn't care either way. So long as the house was maintained, so long as she got above average grades, they wouldn't care about her well being.

Fuura was brought back to Harumi's offer for an open ear, much like how she herself had done while her friend rattled off her otaku obsessions to her today. The offer glistened delightfully in her mind, almost too brightly inside her gray house. But once the thought appeared, it stuck. It made studying harder to accomplish. She really wanted an open ear and especially someone who knew her in real life, where both of them walked the same path to school where the sun shined the brightest.

The clock read 6:00PM. Fuura took her chances, and went to her room and turned on her computer. She waited in complete silence, her eyes trained on the blips that scurried about her computer monitor. The notes she was supposed to be studying lay discarded on her bed. The noose hung behind her open door.

"Madam, you should be studying at this time." A wise old voice cracked through the open air. Fuura turned around nonchalantly and faced her family's maid, Fumiko.

"I will. This will only take a few minutes." Fuura answered. Her voice was cool, her eyes slightly lidded as she spoke. The tug of a smile crept around the edge of her lips, but didn't spread any further than that.

Fumiko regarded the young woman with beady, scrutinizing eyes. The multiple creases in her forehead deepened with her brows, the shadows under her eyes suddenly becoming pitch black, as black as the night sky. "I hope you hold true to those words, my lady." Fumiko responded slowly, clearly not trusting Fuura's word.

As quietly as she was there, she left shuffling in her stained yukata. The clip-clopping sounds of her geta down the stairs reminded Fuura of an old horse. Fumiko must have come straight from her gardening duties, she figured.

When she turned back to her monitor, the computer was ready and waiting. She opened her browser and went to her hotmail. There were spam messages from the last time she checked, but nothing from her parents.

When she went to click on "New Mail", her hand froze. Was it necessary that she message Harumi? Should she wait a day or two before talking to her? Questions began buzzing around her head like annoying mosquitoes. It was because the sun was starting to set, she thought.

She rashly closed the browser and turned off her computer, too frustrated with herself to deal talking with another person. She bit her lip. Fuura couldn't show this rashness to anyone else but herself… but was it okay to show it in her email to Harumi? Did everyone have to deal with this? She couldn't see how they survived, but yet again, here she was pondering useless thoughts and her heart beated soundly in her chest and her blood still in her veins.

The notes on her bed were the only comfort Fuura had for the rest of the night. Fumiko left dinner, slightly cold, by the door and only alerted Fuura as such by the sound of her geta going down the stairs.

She ate in solitude, much like the previous day and the day before that. She had been doing this since middle school, and was accustomed to the lonely sound of her chopsticks resting with a dull click on the tray night after night. The food wasn't bad tonight, much to her relief; the tonjiru was kept warm enough that the pork didn't seem out of place, and the curry bread wasn't mysteriously burnt. Fumiko must have finally learned how to cook, despite originally being hired for gardening.

The night dragged on, and the more Fuura studied the more she felt the urge to contact Harumi again. It was almost nine, the sun had finally gone to sleep and the full moon did little to quench Fuura's desire for light. Even her bedside lamp wasn't providing her with the usual small tide of warmth that it usually did. The light from her monitor was looking all the more appealing by the second.

Within a minute the computer was on again, and the browser opened faster than Fuura had wished for it to. She was faced with the dilemma the same as only hours prior, only now her hunger of a different kind drove her to open a new mail, and she proceeded to type.

TO: .com


SUBJECT: A Question

The offer you made to me was kind. However, there is one question I have to ask you: How late to do you stay up until?

Fuura's fingers paused, unsure of how to continue her mail. Since it was her first email, she should keep it to the point. A tug in her head told her to rephrase her question; she sounded like she was nagging in her mail, hinting that there was a desperate need to be heard.

Fuura hit the backspace and started again.

The offer you made to me was kind, and I thank you for it. I have a question for you, though. When do you go to bed usually? I don't want to wake you accidentally in case I message you late in the night.

Fuura smiled; that sounded more considerate, didn't it? She sent it without thinking, and watched the loading bar fill up quickly and send her mail to Harumi. The night was still early, so she could expect a response before the night came to a close. Fuura basked in the warmth that filled her chest; it was a wonderful feeling to experience in the darkness, this feeling as if you were safe and that someone, somewhere, cared for your well being.

Harumi squinted and tilted her head. It didn't look right, no matter how many times she redrew it. Naple's body and the way his manhood hung down as he was being tied up by Pine simply didn't look as delicious as it had in her head. She grabbed the paper and crumpled it up, and threw it over her head in a childish fit of frustration coupled with a long groan.


Her computer let off a soft shrill of bells, but Harumi ignored it. Nobody got in the way of her doujinshi. Nobody.

Half an hour passed, and then another. One hour directly after her sending an email, and no response. Fuura felt horribly childish at believing Harumi would answer straight away, but a chiming voice, as soft and deadly as the one that whispered evil words in her head but with her sickly sweet undertone, told her the truth. She's ignoring you. You scared her off; you waste of a girl. What would Master think of you?

Flashing memories of her childhood bore into her eyelids like scolding iron pressed against tender flesh. There was a body that hung limp by the ceiling, tied by a thick brown rope. A cellar where row upon row of wilting willows hung, cold and gray to the touch. The well out back behind the estate always smelled of rotting flesh. Monthly processions, all participants in black kimonos, preparing to plant the next wilting willow beside the ones that came before.

Then, a face that struck deep into Fuura's heart appeared before her very eyes. Her hand raises and runs a bony index finger down her cheek, like mocking the tears that now streamed over Fuura's cheeks and off the tip of her chin.

Silence that girl, the woman said, silence Anne.

The black bodies came up around her; slow and methodical in the way they stretched the rope between their hands.

Fuura screams and reels back from her computer. Once they start, she couldn't stop them. Fuura's neck cranes back over the edge of her computer chair. On the ceiling, the figures are coming at her, still carrying the rope between their hands like carrying a newborn child. In their eyes, there is nothing. Each pupil is a void, sucking out the air from her lungs and freezing her body like an icicle.

"I don't want to become a wilting willow." Fuura whispers, hoping what strength she has left can ward them off. They slow their procession, but they keep moving toward her.

PIKORII says: 'You're still trying to ship Pine as a seme? You know how impossible that is, right?'

Harumi frowned at her screen and taps a pencil on the desk rhythmically, pondering her response to her online friend. It wasn't hard to do, but this particular friend had a habit of always shooting down whatever pairings she shipped, so she had to word it carefully as to not spur her on further. Be damned that she reverse-shipped because it was to her taste! It wasn't Harumi's choice in the matter, as far as she was concerned.

Suddenly, PIKORII added another blip beneath her outburst.

PIKORII says: 'Hey, I tried to send you something and it said your inbox was full. Go clear it out!'

Harumi frowns deeper, and opens a second browser to check her email. Her eyes snap to attention almost immediately. There was a mail from Kafuka Fuura an hour ago.

Her chest tightened; "And right after I tell her she could contact me…" The image of the noose, hanging just out of her sight from inside Kafuka's room, was still fresh in her mind and came back full force the moment her eyes laid over her friend's email. She read the contents over with careful scrutiny, and was almost taken aback at how lighthearted her words were.

Truthfully, Harumi could pull all-nighters no problem and had been since starting her doujinshi, so contacting times were not an issue. Guilt was starting to inset in Harumi's chest, and her fingers set out to apologizing to her classmate.

"I hope she doesn't mind how late it is."

Nothing but the darkness existed at night. Nothing at all. Anne Akagi couldn't survive another night.

The noose still hung on her ceiling, behind her bedroom door.

Tonight, Fuura would make sure Anne never spoke another word again.