Chapter 4

Bonding among friends

Sweet and sour umeshu

As a parting gift


“There before him stood a vision from a dream, rising bare from the waters of the moonlit lake, her hair silver as the stars, her eyes dark as ink but warm as sunlight, a doe of such extraordinary beauty that Hayaoh feared his heart might stop at the sight of her. Around them, the forest grew quiet and still.

“Hayaoh could scarcely think. Some part of him knew that he must have interrupted the lady as she bathed. It was only polite to avert his gaze, apologize to her, and be on his way. And yet… try as he might, the words would not come. The mighty samurai who had shown no fear in battle after battle, war after war, was struck dumb by the thought that at any moment, she might flee and he would never see her again. Surely that would be a fate crueler than any death…”

[Excerpt from The Legend of Hayaoh, a collection of squirrel folklore, circa Year 500]


Slowly, slowly. Faun fought to keep her breathing even as she positioned two chipped vials over a dented tin funnel, the narrow end poised over two empty halves of a bombshell, resting on a workbench hewn from an oak stump. An embroidered handkerchief, pickpocketed from a raccoon noble years before, was tied securely over her muzzle and snout. Faun didn’t often exercise caution like this when it came to making her bombs; she was no bookhead like Rowan, but generally she knew how various substances reacted to combinations of flint, gunpowder, and spellstones. When she didn’t know how they would react… well, half the fun was in experimenting. The risk made the end result worthwhile.

This mixture, however, was a bold new frontier in the development of her signature weapons. Bold and potentially painful, if she misjudged the balance of the ingredients. Get this wrong, and it would likely mean imposing on Hanami for a week or two while her own home aired out. If at all possible, that was to be avoided. The poor girl had enough to worry about, especially in the last few weeks. She couldn’t—

Faun scowled to herself and bit her tongue. No distractions. This mixture had to be perfect. Little by little, she tipped the two vials over. No distractions. No distractions…

Tap, tap, tap.

“Oh, pinch me!” Her ears flattened. Of course. Of course. She corked both vials and laid them down—carefully—beside the funnel, ripped off the handkerchief, and stormed to her front door. Whoever it was had best thank their lucky Godsdamned stars that she wasn’t currently looking for test subjects for the new bombs, she thought. Throwing the door open, she prepared to give the visitor a piece of her mind.

“S-sorry, is this a bad time? I’m sorry…” said Hanami, shrinking back from her friend’s fearsome expression.

Faun’s mood shifted like someone had flipped a switch. “Flowers, what a surprise! No, it’s not a bad time at all!” she said, beaming from ear to pointed ear. She visited Hanami far more often than Hanami visited her, so this was a rare pleasure indeed. “Come in, come in! Sorry about the mess.”

“A-are you sure I’m not intruding? I could come back later—”

“Pffft, don’t be stupid,” said Faun, putting an arm around her and pulling her through the threshold. “I wasn’t doing anything, just mixing stuff for a new bomb. Watch your step.”

It was sound advice. Somehow, impossibly, the vixen’s den seemed even more disorganized than the last time Hanami had seen it. The empty bottles littering the floor appeared to be multiplying at an exponential rate. Crumpled papers and various wrappings crinkled underfoot as Faun swatted portions of the morass aside to clear a space for her friend to sit. The pumice boulder was still there, but Faun now had it mounted to a display pedestal for Gods only knew what reason. A few of the ceiling-mounted nets holding stashes of her hoard looked ready to collapse from the weight of the mingled treasures and trash that Faun stuffed into them.

Hanami’s mouth fell open as she caught sight of a familiar watercolor painting emblazoned on a canvas scroll, stretched out between a meter-tall mound of dull, ordinary pebbles and what appeared to be part of an iron sewer grating. “F… Faun, is that Lord Aspen’s Night Elegy?! How—”

“What, that thing?” She barely gave it a second glance. “I guess so. I snagged it from a fence, this raccoon lady out in the far east shore. I know, it clashes with the rest, doesn’t it. Sit down, sit down!” From somewhere in the hoard she produced a battered straw mat and spread it out over the largest patch of clear floor she could find. “There you go! So,” she said, sinking to eye level, “what’s the occasion? Are you—”

Faun stopped as she took a closer look. Hanami had made an impressive attempt to hide it, but her cheek fur was still damp from a recent washing. Most folk would not give her appearance a second thought. Faun was not most folk… she noticed the swelling and lingering redness of her friend’s eyes, the fine creases gathering beneath her eyelids. “Flowers?” she said, her voice low. “What’s wrong?”

“N-nothing!” Hanami waved with one hand and scrubbed at her face again with the other. “The u-usual trouble sleeping…”

“Hanami,” she said, wrinkling her snout. Insomnia she expected, especially after the ordeal with the Soulsnatcher, but this smacked of a deeper problem. “If there’s anything you need to talk about, you know you can open up, right? I’ll listen, I swear.”

“I know. Th-that’s why I… I actually wondered i-if you’d like to drink together.”

Whatever Faun was expecting, that was not it. She goggled, wondering if she was hearing correctly. “Beg pardon?”

“Would you like to drink together?” said Hanami with a bashful smile. “With me? I… I can’t have anything really strong, but—” Squeak. The rest of her sentence was cut off as Faun threw her arms around her, drawing her in close and hugging her tight.

“Flowers,” said Faun, radiantly happy, her concern melted away by joy. “I honestly thought you’d never ask.” Her tail swished back and forth like a high-speed metronome. “Of course, of course I’ll drink with you! Anytime, anywhere! Gods, Flowers, but let me know sooner, I gotta get ready! I think I have at least one unopened bottle of umeshu around here…”



“— and that’s why foxes never core the pumpkin. Get what I’m saying?”

“Mmm-hmm,” said Hanami, taking another ginger sip from her cup of umeshu, the bottle still two-thirds full. The plum wine’s taste was a pleasant, citrusy mix of sweet and sour, cold on her tongue but warm in her belly, and it tasted nothing like the few drinks she had indulged herself in before. Its effects were soothing, a calm, balmy haze settling over her brain and making the world seem softer, less urgent. Something like this could change her mind about drinking… she only regretted not trying it sooner.

By contrast Faun was a professional. Already on her fourth Dead God Firewater and pulling it straight from the bottle, she waved the stuff at Hanami, sloshing a bit of fizzing cadmium-red brew over the lip. It dripped between the vixen’s gloved fingers and spilled to the floor, where it ate a few new marks in the soft pine floorboards. “Not because we’re picky. Because we’re smart,” she said, nodding to herself. “It’s just common… common sense.”

Hanami was not sure which confused her more: Faun’s rant, her lack of knowledge of botany, or literally any of the meaning of such a phrase. She was not sure it had meaning… but the company was even more enjoyable than the drink, so she smiled and nodded. Now she knew why Faun was so popular at the Fools Rush. The conversation over past two hours had been illuminating indeed.

“Like,” Faun continued, “if you wanted to core it, Gods know I’d never stop you. Core the shedding hell out of it if you want, go crazy. Foxes, though? We just don’t. Not worth the trouble, or the mess.”

“Mmm-hmm,” said Hanami again. “Pumpkins are tough like that. I don’t grow them often.”

Faun rolled an eye at her, halfway through another long swallow. “No, no, you don’t get it. The pumpkin’s a… whatsitcalled… mange, can’t think of the name. A thing that’s not really another thing, but it’s supposed to be. Stripes would know, damn his useless hide… He’s the best, a credit to his kind.”

“You mean…” Hanami scrunched up her features, trying to penetrate the haze. “A metaphor?”

“What’s a metaphor?”

She could no more help herself than stop the tide. A giggle slipped from her mouth before she could articulate the answer. “I-it’s for sheep and goats to graze in.”

Silence. Faun stared, the bottle paused halfway to her lips.

“Meadow… for?” said Hanami, trying again.

The vixen howled with laughter, spilling more of her drink. “Hot damn, she tells jokes! No wonder I love you!”

Now it was safe to laugh along with her. “I love you too, Faun. You’re my best friend.”

Faun groped for her shoulder with her free hand, missing by half a meter. “No, Flowers, I mean I love you. I’m nuts about you. Hee, nuts. Because you’re a squirrel.”

“Th-that’s nice of you to say,” said Hanami, her smile faltering a bit. “But I-I don’t really think it’s what you mean.”

“Whaddya mean, what I mean? I always say what I mean, unless I’m lying. It’s one of my good points.”

“I know.” Seeing her trouble, Hanami leaned forward and patted Faun’s shoulder instead. “It’s one of the things I love about you.”

“Aw, mange to that.” A goofy, bittersweet grin spread across her face. “Sh-shouldn’t waste your time on a mess like me, Flowers. We both know who… who your heart’s set on.”

The warmth of the wine spread out from her belly, filling her being. “He’s…” she said, her ears turning back. “He’s better than he thinks he is. Better than I deserve. That’s part of why I’m here… because I need to tell him.”

Faun stared, glassy-eyed. “You’re not serious.”

Hanami’s ears turned back as she turned away from her friend’s gaze.

“Good Gods,” Faun whispered. “You are serious. You’re really gonna—”

“Yes,” said Hanami. “Today. I have to at least try, so he’ll know. Before it’s too late.”

“Pffft!” Faun blew air through her lips. “Listen, Flowers, if some part of him doesn’t already know, he’s denser than lead. Takky’s thick, but he’s not that thick. Still…” A mischievous wink. “Can’t hurt to give him a little push, can it? Can’t hurt.”

“You’re right.” Her hands dithered in her lap. “I think it would be… nice.”

“More than ‘nice,’ kitto. You’re both adorable, you deserve each other.”

“I don’t—” Hanami stopped as a thought meandered through the haze of the wine. Perhaps it would be wiser not to trouble Faun with the rest of that sentence. Let her be happy, drunk and unburdened by any problems. Yes, it was better that way. “Never mind,” she said. “Thank you, Faun. For the drinks, and for the talk.”

Firewater sloshed from the bottle’s lip as Faun raised it in a cheerful, unsteady salute. “Anytime, kitto! Go get ‘im. I’m rooting for you. And be sure to tell me after how it—”

For once, it was Faun who was silenced by unexpected contact as Hanami hugged her tight. After a few seconds of sodden confusion, Faun returned the embrace, her ears swiveling back a few degrees. “Oi,” she said. “What’s all this?”

Hanami’s answer was hushed, barely more than a whisper: “I should not be here.”

It took Faun half a minute to decide what that meant. Extracting herself from the hug, she shoved Hanami toward the door. “Damn straight you shouldn’t! Go to him, kitto! Make your move!”

“I’m going, I’m going!” Hanami broke into another fit of giggles despite herself.

“You know where his house is, right? Little cabin just southeast of Campfire Rock? I’d draw you a map, but… room’s spinning, you know. I’m all turned around. Can’t find my own tail.” To illustrate the point, Faun looked down at herself and turned in a complete, if wobbly circle. “Wait. There it is.”

“Faun…” Concern for her friend briefly overtook Hanami’s thoughts. “Will you be all right? Maybe you should lie down…”

“Dijo, dijo. I’m telling you, this is normal. It’s just starting to kick in. Get out of here, Flowers, I’ll be fine by morning.”

Still Hanami lingered on the doorstep, chewing on her bottom lip. There were still so many things left unsaid, and to leave Faun in this state…

The tiny voice in her mind quieted her doubts. I should not be here. I should go to Zero…

That was that, then. Hanami smiled, bowed, and stepped past the threshold. “Goodbye, Faun. Thank you.”



Once the door clicked shut, Faun sagged against it, full and warm and satisfied with a job well done. It was unhealthy for people to suppress their feelings for each other like that, she thought. Especially when they were so obviously smitten with each other…

A pang went off in her heart, one she could feel even through the fog of the Firewater coursing through her. It was an odd feeling, a melancholy feeling she could not quite identify. She did not like it, not at all. Better to push it down and forget about it. Fortunately, Firewater was quite handy for forgetting things. Just like that, it was gone.

Sighing, Faun slid down the surface of the door, deliriously happy once more. It was not long before she began to snore.

In her drunken slumber, she failed to hear the repeated chimes from her message scroll half an hour later, which lay open on a battered footstool somewhere in the horde. Magical ink flowed across the scroll’s surface, scrawling the same words over and over:

From Rowan. Urgent. From Rowan. Urgent. From Rowan. Urgent. From Rowan. Urgent.






3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 3 | Tasakeru
  2. Trackback: BHS Blogress Report: 2018, Week 39 – Make My Story | Tasakeru
  3. Trackback: TWILIGHT’S DREAMING, CHAPTER 5 | Tasakeru

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