disclaimer: disclaimed.
dedication: to my brother, for watching this whole movie with me
notes: hahahahaha I'm a bad person

title: and the blood is running red
summary: Your mother doesn't get better, and so neither do you. — Satsuki, Mei, Kanta.

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She came home for three days when you were eleven.

Three whole days.

Those days were a dream, a sudden rainfall of feeling in the desert-scape that was your everyday life. She slept between you and Mei, brushed your hair, sang a lullaby that you were beginning to forget. Your father watched her with this tiny, half-hearted, chipped little smile that you didn't understand—nor did you care to, because your mother was home, she was home!

The doctors wouldn't have let her come home if they didn't think she was going to get better.

You didn't go to school, skivvied off chores, even avoided going to the camphor tree; anything to spend another second with her. She laughed that soft weak-bird laugh of hers, and you clung to her as hard as your thin arms could manage.

"I love you, mom," you whispered into her skirt, over and over again the night before your father brought her back to the hospital.

"I love you to, Sat-chan," she whispered back. The wind was oddly cold through the house that night, unseasonably cold—maybe that should have been your first clue that something was terribly wrong. But as it was, all you did was curl in closer with your knees to your chest

Your father took her back to the hospital on a Tuesday. You waved until they'd gone over the ridge. It felt like she took all the air in the world with her as she left; you couldn't get breath into your lungs, and everything sat suspended for a slow drippy minute.

And then you took Mei inside, and got ready for the day.

It was the last time you saw her.

Because the thing was, the doctors had lied. They'd sent her home to say goodbye—her illness had taken a turn for the worse, the absolute worse, and there was no one except her to tell them what to tell your father.

She told them to lie, and so they did.

She didn't get better.

And so neither do you.

Mei wants for sun and Totoro, fresh vegetables and Obaa-chan's gnarled old hands smoothing her hair into pigtails. Her belief in the world is still somehow intact—the trees may have grown, and are growing still, but you've learned a hard lesson, and that is that not even magic can save a life that God wants back. Totoro can have his camphor tree and his Catbus. You have better things to waste your time on.

(You think, a little bitterly, that Mei might just be too young to understand what's going on.)

Black is the only colour appropriate for a funeral. You don't have a dress for this weather in black. Michiko looks at you with sad, old eyes, and pressed a frothy lump of fabric into your hands beneath your desks.

Everyone knows that your mother's dead. It's a small town. You shouldn't have expected so much.

No one will leave you alone for five minutes.

It's a somber affair. Mei can't stop crying, but you can't even manage that. You're oddly numb—maybe because four father won't look you in the eye. You look like your mother; you know that, everyone always says so. He holds Mei and murmurs softly into her hair, but the second you speak to him, he shuts down.

The funeral is exactly the same.

"Thank you," you tell the mourners, whispering so softly you think you might just fade away. Obaa-chan holds your hand so tight your bones creak, but still he won't look at you.

You feel so, so far away.

Your father can't look at you because he sees your mother, and it makes you want to sick up your supper. He throws himself into his work. He stops coming home.

You breathe in through your nose, and get to work.

You stop going to school, because of course you do.

Michiko stops calling when you stop; she stops coming by, and sometimes something squirms in your chest at the thought of her. She's your best friend, or at least, she was. But you have your sister to think of. Mei can't stay at home alone. She's too little for it, Gods, she's so little, how did you never notice how little she is?

Kanta comes by, sometimes, with a sheepish little tilt to his head and vegetables. You thank him, because it's nice that he cares, but you have to sweep the house. There's no one else to do it, and Obaa-chan's old, and you can't expect—

You brush Mei's hair, and realize that it's almost midwinter. Your birthday's long since past. You're twelve, and you didn't even know it.

You rush to the bathroom, and this time, you do get sick.

"Onee-chan?" Mei's little voice comes from beyond the door. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine, Mei," you breathe. The doorknob rattles, and then she's peeking in, big dark eyes liquid. You're not, but it'll have to do. Your sister needs you to be strong and stable and decent in the way that your father can't be, right now.

She tumbles into you, clutches at your skirt.

"Don't get sick. Don't get sick like Mommy did. You can't leave, Onee-chan, you can't!"

"Course not," you say, though the words get stuck in your throat. "Want to take a bath, Mei? We should get clean, and it'll be nice and warm!"

She nods, but her little frame is trembling.

School starts in April. It'll be good for her, you know. She needs to be with other kids her own age—you try not to think about the fact that you really need to be with kids your own age, too. Maybe you'll enroll the both of you when the time comes—because being isolated out on this little farm isn't good for her.

"Please don't leave, Onee-chan," Mei says, softly.

You smile and nod, because what else can you do?

Spring, summer, autumn, winter. Spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring. Summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer, autumn. Autumn, winter, spring, summer. Winter? Spring, autumn, summer. Autumn, winter, spring, summer. Summer, summer, summer.

Time goes strange, warped. The seasons get all messed up in your head, and one day you look up and Mei's eleven and you're sixteen and Kanta's taller than you can ever remember him being.

"Hi," you say, wipe the sweat off your forehead, surprised. You haven't thought of him in a long time. You should feel a little ashamed for that, maybe, but you've forgotten how.

"Hey," he says, and stares at you. Stares.

"Um…?" you try. You've forgotten how to talk to anyone except Mei, and even then, it's not so much talking as it is silent communication: you curl up together beneath the soft warmth of the futon covers and hold hands in the dark, and you don't need to say a word. It's easier than you thought it would be.

"Look," he says, all in a rush, "Obaa-chan's dying. She wants to see you before she—you know."

You don't know what to say to that.

"I'll tell Mei," you say, haltingly, and pretend to be absorbed in the frayed hem of your shirt. You'll have to call your father—he might not be able to look at you, even still, even now, but he'll send money when you ask for it. You don't like asking for it, but that's a whole other story.

And besides, for Mei, you would ask.

For Mei, you do ask.

Kanta's still looking at you.

"What?" you ask, stupid with it. You've lost yourself, somewhere between being daughter to your mother and mother to your sister.

"Can I come in?" he asks instead of answering your question, which you think is pointless. You don't want him to come in, and you're pretty sure he doesn't want to coin, either. But he asked, and you are nothing if not polite.

"Of course," you say. "I was just putting the tea on."

He follows you in, and you are secretly glad you did most of the cleaning the day before yesterday. The house is spotless, though you suspect that the sootballs are beginning to move back in. Sometimes, you catch movement out of the corner of her your eye, and you just know that it's them. You don't chase them away, because this is an abandoned house. They have just as much a right to it as you.

(More, maybe.)

"Satsuki—" he says, and you startle so badly that you drop the cups.

They shatter on the floor, and suddenly.

Suddenly, you start to cry.

You don't know how it happens, but Kanta's got his arms around you and you're sobbing, shaking, gasping wetly, sobbing again. You feel like you've got an ocean inside of you, salt and rust, and it's been storming to get out.

You let it go, because you just can't anymore.

And later, when the shaking's stopped and you have no tears left to cry, you finally breathe out the truths that you didn't even know you needed to say.

"I hate him for leaving."

"I know," he says.

"I hate him for—for leaving! He left! He couldn't even look at me, and he left! And Mei—I—"

"You don't hate Mei."

"I don't even know how to," you choke on the last words. "But her—I hate her, I do, how could she—how could she just leave? We needed her, and she left!"

"Parents do that," he says. You don't ask how he knows that you're not talking about your sister anymore, but you want to tell him that he has no clue, no clue, about what parents do. That he could never understand, with his mother and his grandmother and all the people that love him.

(Your father is in Tokyo, and you wonder if he ever sees the sky.)

But then, who are you to say. You heard the rumours. They say Kanta's father left, and from the way he clenches his jaw, you think it might just be true.

You specifically don't ask. You're not friends, and that's not the kind of information that acquaintances volunteer, even though you want to know. You want to touch his face. You want to touch his mouth as he says the words. You want.

And then you don't, because you don't have time for that.

"Mei's going to be home, soon," you say lowly. "You should probably go."

He doesn't say that he hasn't even had his tea, yet.

It's long gone cold, anyway.

"I'll come back," he says, rising, knees cracking as he gets up.

You nod at the floor, and don't meet his eyes.

There's no sound when he goes.

You're not even surprised.

Obaa-chan's funeral is different than your mother's.

(You can think of her like that, now, nearly six years later. It still hurts, will always hurt, but the pain is dulled now. An old wound. You handle it better than you might've, and you think: this is grace. You don't remember her voice, anymore, and her face is fading away. You didn't think it would happen this fast, but it's strangely alright.)

It's happier, for one.

Your mother missed so much time. Obaa-chan didn't. Obaa-chan lived a full life, had children and grandchildren who loved her. Obaa-chan loved her gardens and the sun, and believed, like your sister, that the camphor tree was the protector of the forest.

The tears don't come again, but this time, it's not because you're numb.

In fact, you think your heart just might burst.

Kanta's off to the side, trembling.

On the way home, you pass by him, soft as a ripple of wind through grass. You touch his hand, like you wanted to.

It's still not right, but you think you're getting there.

Mei chatters about the boys in her class on the way home, and Yuuko-chan, and Suki-chan, and Tsukiko-chan. She doesn't talk about Totoro, anymore, and there's a childish part of you that misses that. Your sister is still so bright, but she lives in the present in a way that you can't.

You're too sensitive, maybe.

But the trees you two planted, that long summer night ago, they've grown. The saplings ae strong and tall, and one day they're going to be the biggest tree for miles. Totoro showed you that, and perhaps he meant to give you courage for the things to come.

The world is not always a kind place.

When you get home, you make tea. It steams thinly in its porcelain pot, pale as new dawn. You place a cup in front of Mei, and she grins wide as the whole sky.

You sit down next to her, pour yourself a cup.

You take a breath.

"So tell me about your classes," you say.

And she does.

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fin.