Sarah remembered the last day of summer. She remembered the way the leaves danced on the trees, blown by the gentle breeze. She remembered how the sun had shone across the corn field as she had run across it, her love by her side, every care lost to the wind. How they had sat on the bench beside the lake and looked at the blue water, talking about their future. Hinato had always been there by her side, ever since they were children, and in their sixteenth year that companionship had bloomed into something even more beautiful, something intimate and soulful, a love that they both knew they wanted to last forever.
"I want to give you this ring," Hinato said, as they lay on Sarah's bed, naked, bathing in the glow of the sunlight through the curtains of Sarah's bedroom.
"What's it for?" Sarah asked, "We can't get married."
"Not in this world, perhaps, but our hearts will always be connected, just like any married couple. When we finish school, we'll get a house together. We'll have two fish and stay together until we die." Hinato kissed Sarah gently, "How about it?"
"Nobody would believe it if I told them," Sarah said, "They would say it was just summer, the bright light, the sweet smells, those teenage moments that never last. But I know different. I know we can do this."
Hinato slipped the ring on her finger, "I love you," she said, "I'll always love you."
"I love you too," Sarah said, kissing Hinato passionately.
They lay in each other's embrace, safe and warm, lost in the sweet heaven of their love, until the sun faded and night began to fall.
"I should go," Hinato said, "My parents will wonder where I've been."
"My mother won't be home until late. Will you stay with me a while longer?" Sarah said. Now that Hinato was going to leave, Sarah felt a deep sense of loss. Hinato always fulfilled her, made all her fears and depression disappear, but in the night Sarah was always plagued with doubt and fear, fear that something would take Hinato away from her.
Hinato knew this, and could see it in Sarah's eyes as she dressed, "I'm not really leaving," she said, "I'm going home, but as long as you wear that ring, I'm always by your side."
"I'm going to buy you a ring, too!" Sarah said, "That way, I'll always be with you too."
"I'm looking forward to it," Hinato smiled, and kissed Sarah gently, holding her for long moments. Reluctantly, she let go, and Hinato disappeared into the fading sunlight, a mere shadow against the bright halo of gold that was the setting sun.
Tired, she sighed and went back into the house, going up to her bedroom. She lay on the bed, the sweet scent of Hinato filling her senses and letting her fade away into sleep.
She woke with panic erupting all around her. Her mother was calling to Sarah, saying something in a frightened voice that her sleepy mind could not take in. Emergency sirens wailed in the background. Her mother walked over to the television in the background and turned it on.
A scene of devastation was on the screen, but Sarah could not focus on it, could not make it out, could not understand it. Her mother was wailing about how awful it was, how they needed to leave, now, how they were all in danger, but Sarah sat transfixed, looking at the screen as the scene became clearer, as it began to sink into her mind. Words etched themselves into her soul; "many dead... factory explosion in residential area... large fire consuming many homes..."
They were showing Hinato's neighborhood on television from above in a news helicopter. Flames licked at the houses. Sarah's mind worked overtime, remembering the layout of the streets, remembering where Hinato's home was. But she knew, she had known it already when she saw the television. Hinato's home was on fire, and Hinato was in danger. Maybe even... no, she couldn't bear that thought.
"Hinato!" she cried, and she dived from the bed and out of the door before her mother could stop her, "Sarah!" came her cries, "We may have to evacuate! Stay in the house!" but she was out, out on the streets, running.
She ran faster than she had ever ran before, yet still the roads seemed endless. She jumped into backyards, through hedges, any way she could go to avoid the police cordons and get to Hinato more quickly. Some of the holes in fences she crawled through seemed impossibly small, but desperation forced her body through and she kept going until she was at Hinato's street. Her mind was racing, wondering if Hinato had even reached her home yet. Perhaps she had been outside... if only she'd stayed longer, she might have been safe... so many things rushed through Sarah's mind.
Then, before she knew it, she was before Hinato's house, seeing the flames rising up from it, filling her with pure terror she had never known before in her life. She saw figures emerge from the house carrying a body, lithe and small. Oh God! Sarah thought, let it not be her, anybody but her. Her little sister maybe, or a neighbor's child – anyone but Hinato. Anybody else she could stand losing, but not Hinato.
She was rushing forward before she even knew she was, darting towards the small crowd of firefighters and ambulance crew. She pushed through them, and the ambulance men were shaking their heads sadly, pulling the blanket over the figure's face, and Sarah couldn't see, couldn't make it out. Couldn't make any of their faces out. She took hold of the ambulance man's arm and used him to pull back the white shroud.
It was Hinato.
She screamed, and screamed, and then arms were upon her shoulders, pulling her back, holding her...
"Sarah, Sarah, stop screaming," came Hinato's voice, as she felt herself being gently shaken. She opened her eyes, and her room was all around her. The television was off, and Hinato was looking at her with a frightened look on her face.
"What? Hinato, how?" Sarah cried, "Hinato, why are you here?" Relief started to fill up her veins. Hinato was here. Hinato was safe... somehow.
"I said I'd always be with you, didn't I? So what's the matter?" Hinato said, and fear filled Sarah again, as if she expected Hinato to start fading away in front of her. Sarah grasped her tightly, and Hinato's warm arms encircled her. Hinato was warm, solid, alive. She was all right. Sarah started to cry.
"It was just a nightmare," Hinato soothed, "I came back because I didn't want to leave you, and just when I entered the house, I heard you screaming. What happened to frighten you so much?"
"I dreamt that there was a huge fire in the factory near your house, and it spread to your house, and I ran to you but I couldn't get there fast enough... when I got there they were bringing you out, and it was you, Hinato, and you were gone, and I thought I'd lost you!" Sarah cried, but as she recited the story she realized the flaws of the dream, the impossibly small cracks she'd squeezed through, the faces of the emergency workers she hadn't been able to make out, and the fear started to evaporate.
Hinato stroked Sarah's hair until Sarah stopped crying, and kissed her gently, "I'm not going to die," she said, "and even if I did, I'd come back as a ghost just to be by your side. I promised, remember? A promise is binding."
"But I didn't get you your ring yet," Sarah said.
"It doesn't matter," said Hinato, "It's not the ring that's important, it's the promise it signifies."
"I will get you a ring!" Sarah promised, "Because I promise you that we'll have that life together, no matter what!"
She curled up in Hinato's arms and slept again, safe from more nightmares, curled up in the safe embrace of the woman she loved more than anything in the world.
When winter came, it was cold and sharp. She crossed the frozen river, alone, a solitary figure in the morning. Eyes turned to her, then looked quickly away again. They didn't want to look at her. They knew everything about her.
Snow crossed her path, and she trod through it with little caution. The cold bit through her clothing and she hastened her step, wanting to get to school quickly and out of the gaze of others. The ring was not on her finger and her eyes were puffy from crying and stung in the cold. She wanted to get away from people, and decided not to go to school, but go to the bench by the lake where she and Hinato had spent time together in summer. Summer was long gone, now.
She sat down on the bench and sighed, and put her head in her hands, and so she didn't notice when a figure sat down beside her.
"You shouldn't take any notice of their cruel jibes, you know," Hinato said, and Sarah looked up, smiling weakly. Even though she was sad, and being bullied for her sexual orientation, Hinato was still there by her side. Always protecting her. Their dream kept them alive in the darkest moments, bound together where others would tear them apart.
"It's not that," Sarah said, "They can say what they like about us. It's just – I lost your ring. I can't bear to think that I'll never find it. I turned over my whole room looking for it. I'm so sorry, Hinato!"
Hinato reached into her pocket and smiled, producing Sarah's ring. "I forgot I had it, I'm sorry," she said, "I found it in my room. I think you lost it in the heat of the moment." She smiled, remembering their lovemaking, "Take off your glove," she said, and Sarah did. Hinato slipped the ring back onto Sarah's finger.
"I love you, Sarah," Hinato said.
"I love you too," said Sarah, and they kissed for a long time, before Hinato got up.
"We should get to school, you know," Hinato said, "I'd love to stay here all day, but Mr. Jones will kill us if we're late for class."
"All right," Sarah said, and took Hinato's hand. As she got up, she felt the winter thawing all around her as summer's memories and their promises of a future together warmed her heart once again.