Many thanks to Lap and Feurox for helping me de-clutter this tale; any remaining clutter is, of course, my responsibility.
Hisao sighs unsteadily as the Principal walks off the stage. "That was rough. I didn't know Tanaka so why did it hit so hard?"
Miki pulls him into a tight hug. "Yeah, these memorial services fucking suck."
"They do a good job of making us feel like an extended family so losing a member always hurts," Suzu agrees.
" 'Always'? Does this happen a lot then?"
"Two, maybe three times a year? Not so many that you get used to it, not so few that it's unexpected whe-"
Suzu is interrupted by Taro rushing up to them, closely followed by Naomi and Natsume. "Shunsuke didn't come, no-one's seen him today. He should've been here."
"Slow down big man. Who and why?"
"Oh yeah, sorry Miki. Shunsuke Ito is one of the juniors I mentor, he was close to Tanaka. Ducking out on this isn't going to help him come to terms with his loss. Suzu, will you do a seeing-off ceremony for him?"
"Of course, though I haven't conducted one before, I'll need to check some of the details with Naomi."
"What's a seeing-off ceremony?"
Patting him on the shoulder Miki says, "it's hard to remember you're a newbie, it feels like forever since the day you slunk into class."
Natusme nods. "Indeed. We have a number of traditions and rituals which are presided over by the student body. Suzu here is our keeper of traditions and Naomi is the keeper of records, they're instrumental in keeping alive the spirit of Yamaku."
"She's our very own miko," Miki says proudly, extending the hug to Suzu.
"I'm no shrine maiden, but I'll allow it provided you remember their original role as shaman."
"Yeah we had stuff like that at my old school. How does the mentoring work?"
"We get three juniors to look after. Well, not everyone, class reps and club officials are spared 'cos they're busy. And some of us find ways to wriggle out of our responsibilities." Taro looks pointedly at Miki.
"Hey, I was saving myself for Hisao. It's a good job I did, he needed intensive care."
"As if you knew he was gonna appear," Taro scoffs.
"How close were Tanaka and Ito, Taro?"
"You know I'm not one to pry Suzu," he replies with a shake of his shaggy head, "but, well, put it this way: from what I could tell, their parents were paying for one dorm too many."
She nods decisively. "In that case we should move fast." She takes out her phone and makes some checks. "Perfect. Sunrise tomorrow is 5:28 and moonset is 5:37. Taro, get him to the worry tree for around 5. Could you help him, Hisao?" When he nods she continues, "we can go over the records while we cook, Naomi. Miki, I'm afraid your task might be... aggravating."
Shunsuke jolts awake to a series of loud blows on his door. "I'm coming in whether you like it or not."
Recognising his mentor's voice, he swears under his breath and scrambles to open the door. Taro and a tall boy he does not recognise walk in as if they own the room, grating on nerves which are already frayed. "What the hell do you think you're doing, barging in here-"
"Shut. Up. Put on stout shoes and a warm coat and follow us."
"Fuck off, I'm not going anywhere in the middle of night. Who are you to tell me-" He flinches as Taro raises a heavy arm, all too familiar with how effective an attitude-adjuster it is. "OK, OK, no need to get cranky, I'm coming."
After marching through the dark woods above Yamaku for what seems like an age, they arrive at a clearing bathed in moonlight, dominated by an enormous tree at its centre. As his eyes adjust to the light he sees three figures. He recognises the track star and the artist but is unfamiliar with the slight girl standing between them. "Tell me of your hate for him," she says commandingly.
Ignoring Taro's looming presence he bursts out, "how can you say I hated him? He was the only thing that made this place bearable, the only good thing in my-"
"Don't stand under the moon hare with lies on your lips."
Glancing up at Yamaku's unofficial mascot, he shudders and says, "Hanae's feet smelled. He was lazy with his schoolwork and always expected me to help him catch up. He was greedy, he stole my snacks and never replaced them."
"But most of all?"
"Most of all I hate him because he left me. It was supposed to be me who went first!" The anguish in his voice is unmistakable, causing Miki to make an involuntary move towards him, her heart demanding she take him in her arms. A gentle touch stops her, reminds her of her role.
Suzu steps forward and offers him a plate of sticky rice cakes. "Let these symbolise your hate so we can accept it into ourselves, transform it." They each take one and chew the sweet, rubbery confections.
"He didn't wait for you but we can't always control when we have to leave. He couldn't become a butterfly so joined the fireflies instead. I see a lonely caterpillar in front of me, I don't know which way it might go. All I know is it must change or it will never be able to metamorphose." Rin bows her head, nothing more to say.
"Tell me of your love for him."
Embarrassed, Shunsuke shuffles his feet and does not speak until Taro clouts him on the shoulder. "I l-loved his fierce heart, he couldn't play any sports but competed at video games as if his life depended on it. He would get so flustered when I caught him looking at cute kitten pictures. He could turn me into a quivering mess just by trailing a fingernail along my jawline..."
"But most of all?"
"Most of all I loved how his crooked smile would fill my world with joy."
Staring at his feet as the tears start to flow freely, Shunsuke does not see Miki wrestle with a jar and release the firefly it took her all afternoon to catch. Suzu calls out, "we make this offering to speed his soul on its journey."
He looks up and gasps as he sees the firefly disappearing around the tree, hastily accepting the flask of sake she is holding out to him. He pours a measure onto the ground and passes it to Taro who does the same. When the flask has made its rounds, prised out of Miki's hand when she attempts to drink instead of pour, Suzu bows her head.
"Now it is time for you to continue your journey, to honour his memory by making every step your best so when you meet again you can hold your head up with pride."
Taro wraps his good arm around Shunsuke's shoulder and guides the sobbing boy into the breaking dawn, flanked by Suzu and Rin, Miki and Hisao bringing up the rear.
With a last look at the corner of Earth she holds most dear, the moon hare sets aside her mortar and pestle, satisfied that the transformation of sticky rice into pristine cake is complete for the day.