The first thought hit him with a wave of nausea.
It was small and unbidden, but the thought was also like a seed. It burrowed deep into Mikleo’s mind, in a place where he couldn’t reach, threatening to open and let its branches grow, curl around every other thought he had ever had about the matter and constrain them.
The thought was “Sorey is leaving me behind.”
But Mikleo was nothing but stubborn, so he shook his head and marched forward, trying to find another way into the Galahad ruins. He wasn’t looking forward to experiencing all the malevolence inside, the suffocating smell of rotten meat, the cold that chilled him to the bone… But he had to show Sorey he could do this. That he would do this, whether he wanted him to or not.
He just had to keep pushing forward, and forget to water the seed in his mind.
But the second thought didn’t take long to form.
He had been watching silently as Sorey easily accepted Alisha as his squire. He watched the fond smile on his friend’s face as he pronounced Alisha’s true name, the way Alisha shone the moment the pact was sealed. Mikleo felt his heart clench at the sight, his hand clutching his clothes right over his chest until his short nails were pushing against the fabric, leaving indentations on the skin underneath. The thought came slithering up to him, curling around his ear before penetrating his mind like thick mist, clouding his vision for a long second before he blinked, and the thought settled comfortably in his mind, in the growing darkness of his heart.
The thought was so painful, so heart wrenching, that Mikleo didn’t even realize the thought wasn’t his.
“Sorey doesn’t need me anymore.”
The words tasted all kinds of wrong, but they felt true in his heart.
Sorey, after all, was abandoning the sanctuary with Alisha at his side… And never once looking back.
Mikleo escaped to Aroundlight forest after that. He hadn’t meant to stray so far away from Ladylake —from Sorey— but the proximity of Gramps’ domain kept calling him the moment he left the malevolence of the city behind. It was the promise of home, the promise of being welcomed, what made him walk and walk until he was surrounded by the green of the forest, no trace of Ladylake anywhere nearby. The fact that he could still feel tendrils of malevolence in the air made him swallow, but he could handle it. In fact, it would even help him with what he had in mind.
Breathing in and out slowly, Mikleo summoned his staff and commenced to train.
He would show Sorey that he wasn’t someone who needed to stay back. He thought Sorey knew that, that Mikleo was strong with or without the power of purification, but he clearly needed a refreshment. Mikleo would show him; he would show Sorey that he had no intention of waiting in the back twiddling his thumbs. That, instead, he would stand proudly by his side like he had always done.
For their dream.
And, thus, the third dark thought grew from the seed to latch onto his brain, making him stop with half an incantation still pressing down on his tongue.
“Does he even want me by his side?”
Mikleo fell to his knees, coughing, feeling the bitter taste of bile at the back of his throat. There was a weight in his chest that made it hard to breathe, but the worst of it all was the beating of his own heart — desperate, raw, as if it was trying to escape from his chest. Mikleo closed his eyes tightly, feeling tears prickle in the corners of his eyes.
“Poor, poor water seraph,” a voice whispered, close and far at the same time. “So young, so corrupted…”
Mikleo opened his eyes to find himself surrounded by malevolence. He froze amidst all that darkness, his muscles tensing until he trembled, gripping his staff so tight that his knuckles went white. It was hard to concentrate, hard to breathe… It had nothing to do with the malevolence back at Ladylake. Mikleo tried to move his head up, but it was as if a hand was keeping it down, in a weird, forceful bow.
“Don’t fight it,” the voice said again, somewhere at Mikleo’s right. “It hurts, at first, but the worst has already passed. You’ll be reborn into darkness before you know it—“
“If you think… I'm going to let you corrupt me,” Mikleo pushed his words past his lips, almost wheezing, looking up as much as he could through his fringe. “You’re… mistaken…”
“Oh, am I now?”
Mikleo got a glimpse of purple, a sliver of black… and then the mysterious person squatted in front of him, small hands around childlike knees, head cocked to the side so her pigtails fell away from her face.
The moment their eyes met Mikleo felt another wave of nausea, making him choke. He could feel his own saliva rolling down the corner of his mouth to his chin as he coughed.
“Who…?” Mikleo started, but found that he didn’t have enough strength for more than that. “What—?”
“I'm a friend, you could say,” the girl in front of him said, a small smile playing on her lips. She looked young, but her dark aura spoke to Mikleo of decades. Eons. And malevolence. So much malevolence… “I’m just here to help you see the truth.”
“The truth about your beloved Shepherd, of course.”
Mikleo’s heart skipped a beat. So she was after Sorey. He had to get away and warn him, about her power, her malevolence. If she was able to keep Mikleo on his knees like this without touching him… He couldn’t let her get close to Sorey.
“…I don’t want to hear it,” Mikleo tried to lift his staff, aim it towards the girl, but suddenly it felt like it weighed a ton… “Leave now, before I—“
The girl leant her cheek on her knees, looking at Mikleo with a bored expression. “So you don’t want to know how he’s doing, now that you’ve left?” She asked, and before Mikleo could reply, she continued, “Don’t you want to know if he misses you? If he’s looking for you right now?”
Mikleo shivered. He thought of Sorey, smiling brightly at Alisha as their pact was formed, and then thought of the look he had on his face when Mikleo had pushed his hands away from his shoulders. “I don’t want to know. I don’t need to know—“
“Oh, right,” Her smile grew until it became a grin. “Because you already know, don’t you? You know that he thinks it’s better this way.”
Drops of sweat fell from Mikleo’s forehead as he shook his head. “No—“
“I mean, he’s the Shepherd now, after all.” The girl shrugged, tilting her head to the other side. “Why would he need a barely trained seraph to help him in his quest? He needs experienced ones, like the Lady of the lake. And you can’t even be a squire, because… You are not human. You are not like—“
A wave of power rushed out of Mikleo, carried out by the pain in his voice. But despite the strength behind it, despite the way Mikleo’s vision swam from the strain, the wave went through the girl like a breeze, making her sigh in pleasure.
“Yes…” She sighed, her eyes flashing. The darkness around her became darker, its tendrils curling around her naked arms like bracelets. “Let it consume you, Mikleo,” she went on, walking closer and letting the shadow tendrils slither away from her and towards Mikleo. “Feel the pain, the despair, the jealousy. Hate the man who has abandoned you, who has left you behind, when you’ve done everything for him.”
Mikleo shook his head. Still, the shadow reached him, slithering up his body, past the barrier of his clothes and draining all color from them before digging into his skin. The blue outfit that had accompanied Mikleo in every one of his adventures with Sorey turned a blinding white, the original whites and golden colors turning dark like the deep sea.
The draining of color reached even Mikleo’s eyes, which turned dull, misty.
“You will not turn me against him,” Mikleo said despite all that, voice flat. There was a coldness in his heart now, crystallizing the jagged pieces and smoldering the ambers of his pain.
The girl laughed. He was so far down, he couldn’t even see his own taint. She reached out a hand towards Mikleo, fingertips grazing his cheek. “Let me give you one last push, then.”
The world dissolved around them, turning into mist, and the next thing Mikleo saw was the inside of unfamiliar ruins, with the smell of stale water coating the walls and the echo of footsteps ricocheting against the stones.
Mikleo blinked, looking around. “Where—?”
“—It would appear this bow’s element is water.” A familiar voice said, and Mikleo turned to find Sorey, Lailah and Alisha standing by a pedestal, an arc of stone holding up a golden blow with blue motifs.
Something stirred inside Mikleo’s cold chest when his eyes fell on Sorey.
“Shh,” Mikleo’s new companion interrupted him, standing close to his side and grabbing his sleeve with lithe fingers. “Just watch.”
Lailah continued speaking then, a gentle look on her features. “…And Mikleo is a water seraph—“
“…Let’s go.” Sorey turned around, away from Mikleo and the bow, and once again the cold in Mikleo’s heart increased, turning his blood into frost.
“Huh?” Alisha was looking at Sorey with big eyes, surprised, while Lailah lowered her head. None of them seemed to be able to see Mikleo and the dark seraph.
“Sorey does not wish to make Mikleo his Sub-Lord.”
It was one thing to imagine it, but another entirely to hear it out loud. Mikleo would never have admitted it but his heart broke in that moment, and the pieces broke some more when Sorey, even as time stretched, didn’t deny it.
He ground his teeth, not taking his eyes away from Sorey: “Your visions won’t make me turn my back on him,” Mikleo grunted, even as malevolence brew at the dip of his palms. “I will never fall for your lies.”
“Even if my visions are good,” the girl seraph said, twirling Mikleo’s new white sleeve in between her fingers. “This is reality, Mikleo. Sorey is here, he needs a water seraph, and still he won’t choose you. Because you’re weak.”
A small whimper escaped Mikleo’s lips. He yanked his arm free from the other seraph’s hold and walked closer to Sorey, turning a deaf ear to the conversation the others were having, even when Sorey spoke again. He seemed so real… The dark seraph had even made the feather earrings right, down to the small pluck on his left one.
But he wouldn’t fall for that. Mikleo knew what she was doing; she wanted to use him against Sorey, taint him, make him become a weapon. And he wouldn’t let her.
He would protect Sorey, no matter what.
“What is your name?” Mikleo asked as Sorey and the others walked away, leaving the bow behind.
“Symonne,” the dark seraph replied, quirking an eyebrow.
“The next time you create an illusion of him for me, Symonne,” Mikleo promised, tainted eyes flashing red as he looked at her. “I’ll destroy it. And then I’ll destroy you. You’ll regret attempting to taint me.”
Symonne said nothing. Instead he watched him turn his back and walk away, not bothering to hide her smirk.
How funny, she thought, that the young boy couldn’t see how rooted malevolence was within him already.
How funny, she thought, that his love, and his stubbornness to admit his pain, had been his downfall.
She would play the role if that was what it took.
After all, she had to take care of her master’s new weapon against the Shepherd.
Glaivend Basin was hell and chaos combined.
Sorey watched people kill each other through the sweat that fell from his forehead into his eyes, stinging and making him frown. He didn’t have time to rest, barely had time to breathe, but the burn in his chest and the tingling in his arm as he put the sword down and blood reached the tips of his fingers once again told him that he really needed to stop.
Around him, human and hellion screams made him deaf to any other sound, and Sorey closed his eyes tightly.
“We can’t save them all, Sorey-san,” Lailah said regretfully from somewhere inside Sorey. “It’s impossible.”
“But—!” Sorey looked around, trembling, watching as two soldiers carrying the same colors fought against one another. The malevolence in the air was blinding them; the only thing that mattered anymore was to kill. “We have to stop this! If we don’t—!”
“You shouldn’t have meddled into this in the first place,” Edna said, also inside of him, her tone so sharp it made Sorey wince. “You wanted to help Alisha, fine. But you can’t help all these people too, Sorey. You’ll die trying.”
Sorey ground his molars, jumping to escape from a stray arrow. He knew that, he knew that he couldn’t help everyone, but… To see these people suffering and not do a thing to help…
Not for the first time, Sorey wished Mikleo was by his side. He missed him terribly, there was no escape from that, but there were times when Sorey’s need for Mikleo’s hand on his shoulder was so strong that it felt like he wouldn’t be able to move unless he actually felt it. He needed Mikleo’s reassuring words, his voice calm like water showing him the side of the coin Sorey couldn’t see for himself. The fact that Mikleo wasn’t in the middle of the battlefield was a comfort in itself, but the selfish part of Sorey wished he was there all the same.
‘What should I do, Mikleo…?’ Sorey thought to himself as he surveyed the place, the smell of smoke and blood making him almost gag. ‘What should I do—?’
“Sorey-san,” Lailah called, and Sorey nodded.
If Mikleo wasn’t there to tell him what to do, he’d have to choose for himself.
‘Fethmus Mioma,’ Sorey called wordlessly, Lailah’s true name ringing from the deepest part of his heart to let the fire armatus take form around him. With a swing of his sword Sorey jumped, pushing away all the hellions around him and making them fall down with the power of purification. Some groaned and shivered as the malevolence left them. Others didn’t move at all.
Using Lailah’s power, Sorey moved them around the battlefield barely touching the ground, skirting towards the end of the basin as he continued to purify hellions. But somehow, the more he purified the more malevolence brewed, as if the newly purified humans could do nothing but fall again, and again, and again.
Sorey felt a cry of frustration at the base of is throat, but he pushed it down. Despair wouldn’t help at all. He just had to keep trying—
But as he pushed himself up once again, high enough to overlook the whole battlefield with a single glance, something hit Sorey in the back, powerful and raw, making him plummet back down to the ground with his breath caught in his chest.
Sorey gasped, feeling his lungs as if paralyzed, but sent calming thoughts towards the seraphim inside of himself to tell them he was okay. The armatus wore of a second before Edna and Lailah materialized at his side, their soft hands helping him to sit up. The new position allowed vicious air to slip into Sorey’s lungs, but that was better than nothing. He coughed as he tried to make his lungs work again, tears clinging to the corner of his eyes.
“A domain,” Lailah finished for him, her pale hand clinging to Sorey’s biceps as she looked somewhere beyond Sorey’s shoulder. “Such a powerful domain, how—“
“It’s even stronger than my brother’s,” Edna commented in a whisper.
“…A dragon, then?” Sorey wondered, feeling fear crawl under his skin. If there was a dragon here, how was he supposed to purify the soldiers—?
But Lailah shook her head. “No. It’s something worse. It’s not the domain of a Lord of Calamity either, but—“
“It’s close,” Edna muttered, jumping to her feet. “We should leave, now—“
“No,” Sorey tried to copy her, but the nausea from colliding with the tainted domain was still coiling hot in his esophagus. He closed his eyes and forced himself to swallow, to keep the bile down. “I have to destroy that domain. If we leave it like that, everyone we manage to purify will just fall back to malevolence.”
“Aren’t you listening? You could barely handle my brother’s, there’s no way—!”
“I know. But I have to do it,” Sorey turned his earnest eyes towards Edna, gripping his sword tightly in his hand. “Please.”
Lailah and Edna shared a look. Then, with a groan, Edna rolled her eyes and nodded, opening her parasol despite the the darkness in the basin. “Fine. But don’t come crying to me when it gets too much—“
Sorey smiled, luminous and wide. “Thank you, Edna!”
Calling Lailah’s name once again, Sorey jumped over the soldiers to reach the source of the domain. It was up in a hill overlooking the basin, the malevolence so thick that Sorey felt nausea crawl up his throat, and the two seraphim inside of him shiver in pain. Sorey wished his body was enough to shield them both, just for a moment, before forcing his eyes to look past the mist to the source of all that power.
When he found it, he felt his heart stop.
There were two people on the top of the hill, one sitting on a rock with their feet dangling over the side, the other standing, a long staff in their hand as they overlooked the battlefield with a bored expression. Sorey barely payed any mind to the sitting person, his eyes not giving him the chance to look away from the other one. The person might have been wearing other clothes, might have been surrounded by darkness instead of the light that he always seemed to be bathed in, but there was no way Sorey couldn’t have recognized him.
Mikleo, with a cloak of darkness hanging from his shoulders, was the source of the malevolent domain.
Sorey wanted to scream, but his voice barely made it out from his mouth in a whisper.
“It can’t be!” Lailah gasped from inside Sorey.
“You know that kid?” Edna asked with a frown, but Sorey couldn’t reply to her. His knees were weak, his heart an useless, dead thing inside his chest as Mikleo’s malevolence lapped at his skin.
He found himself repeating Lailah’s voice inside his head over and over. It can’t be, it can’t be—
“Mikleo!” Sorey shouted, rough and desperate, and the force of his pain was enough to rip the armatus apart, making Lailah stumble out of it with a hand against her chest. She, too, felt Sorey’s pain deep into her heart. “Mikleo, is that really you!?”
The standing figure turned towards Sorey lazily, one fine eyebrow raised, hand tightening around his staff. It was Mikleo and it wasn’t — his hair was the same, his features, his built… But the new colors of his outfit made his face look darker, a bit more sunken, and his eyes were so empty that just one look into them made Sorey’s chest clench into a painful knot. Those were not Mikleo’s eyes, always so full of life and mirth.
And still, when the figure spoke, his voice was exactly the same.
“Don’t you ever get bored?” Mikleo wondered out loud, and Sorey jumped on his spot before he realized Mikleo wasn’t talking to him. He was talking to the person sitting at his side, a seraph, tone slightly annoyed but otherwise emotionless. “I thought the whole battlefield was enough, but I guess you do fall back into your oldest tricks.”
“What can I say?” The dark seraph said, almost purred, a smile stretching over her lips. Her eyes were on Sorey as she spoke, childlike glee shining in them. “It’s never bad to go back to a good idea.”
Mikleo sighed, and Sorey trembled. Was… was it all a vision caused by malevolence? This couldn’t be real, after all. Mikleo would never let himself be tainted—
But… there was no denying he was the source of the domain that had nearly thrown Sorey down from the sky. No denying the red glint in his eyes, the darkness clinging to his skin. The sole idea hurt Sorey more than he could have ever imagined, but…
He simply couldn’t believe…
“Tell me it’s not true!” Sorey shouted, giving one step forward. Lailah and Edna followed, but only to be close to him if they needed to pull him back. “Mikleo! Tell me this isn’t real!”
“Of course it’s not real,” Mikleo spat, and the hatred in his voice made Sorey’s heart beat painfully once more. “You are nothing more than a hellion; you’re not the real Sorey. Symonne keeps bringing me monsters like you, but don’t worry. I won’t fall for any of you.”
“What…?” Sorey muttered, not understanding. His hand shook, still on the hilt of his sword, but there was no way he was going to pull it out now. Not to fight against Mikleo.
“…I believe he doesn’t know, Sorey-san.” Lailah whispered by his right, and Mikleo’s eery eyes flashed towards her. “He doesn’t know he’s been tainted.”
Mikleo ground his teeth and step forward, pointing his staff at Lailah. “Shut up! I don’t care what any of you say, you will never taint me, hellion!”
Sorey’s knees trembled, barely keeping him up on his feet. There was so much pain coming from Mikleo, so much darkness… What had happened to Mikleo for things to get like this—?
“How…? How can that be?”
“…Because a part of him does know,” Edna replied this time, eyes fixed on Mikleo. There was no way for Sorey to know what Edna was feeling in that moment; she had hidden her thoughts behind a steel mask. “While he thinks malevolence hasn’t reached him yet, there is a part of him that has given up on the fight. And it’s that duality within himself what has opened the doors for malevolence to enter him.”
“No…” Sorey shook his head, until the dark domain became a blur around him. “Mikleo would never! He would never give up, he wouldn’t—!”
“Water is the easiest element to corrupt,” the seraph Mikleo had called Symonne said, standing up. She walked slowly to Mikleo’s side, smiling up at him as if she was a proud parent. “Though I have to admit, I had to get creative with him. But the moment I found his weakness—“
“Mikleo!” Sorey shouted once more, stepping closer. There was a big space between them still, but the malevolence burned at Sorey’s skin like a flame. Still he pushed forward, eyes never leaving Mikleo’s. “Mikleo, snap out of it! I know there’s still light in you, I know it—!”
“Shut up, hellion!” Mikleo screamed back, agony in his features. It was such a stark contrast against the nothingness from moments before that Sorey’s breath caught in his chest. “I will never fall, you hear me? I might not be strong enough to stand by Sorey, but I’m strong enough to defend myself!”
“W-what…?” Sorey’s voice was barely a whisper, but Mikleo’s eyes flashed as their eyes met, the dark mist around him shivering. Even the darkness was scared of Mikleo. “Is that why you became tainted? Because I didn’t let you be my Sub-Lord…?”
Mikleo shivered. “Shut up, hellion.”
“Sorey-san, we have to leave, now,” Lailah said, stepping forward. “We are not strong enough for this.”
“But Mikleo— I can’t leave Mikleo like this!”
Edna stepped forward as well, standing at Sorey’s other side. “Don’t you see? That is not your Mikleo, anymore.”
The sound that came from Sorey’s chest was raw, desperate. He refused Edna’s words; he refused to believe the Mikleo he had grown up with, the Mikleo he loved, was gone.
He refused to believe he had lost Mikleo forever.
“Could… Could we purify him?” Sorey asked around his dry mouth.
“If… He has to want to change to be purified. But he doesn’t even know he’s tainted yet—“
“Enough growling, hellion,” Mikleo finally snapped, raising his staff and pointing it towards Sorey’s chest. Did he really not see Sorey? Was his mind so caught up in the malevolence that he couldn’t see reality anymore—? “I’ve defeated Symonne’s illusions before, this time won’t be different.”
“Mikleo, listen to me!” Sorey shouted. “I’m not going to fight you, okay? Please, come back to—!”
Sorey barely dodged the attack, one of the water serpents hitting him in the shoulder. The malevolence around him went darker as he fell with a shout, pain spiking up like a burn, and when Sorey opened his eyes he found himself alone, Lailah and Edna nowhere in sight. For a scary, heartbreaking moment, he thought about the possibility of them being hurt, but they were simply not there anymore. As if they had never been there in the first place.
But before Sorey could call their names Mikleo was on him, lifting his staff over his head to deliver a fatal blow. Sorey used his sword to stop it, grunting at the strength behind Mikleo’s strike when both weapons collided, but he didn’t dare do more than that. He couldn’t bear the thought of hurting Mikleo even more.
“Mikleo…” Sorey wheezed, grunting under Mikleo’s strength. “Mikleo…”
“Shut up, hellion,” Mikleo’s voice was rough too, strained. “You don’t get to… call my name with that voice…”
“I’m not a hellion—“ Being so close to Mikleo, the source of all that malevolence, was almost unbearable. There was a weight on Sorey’s chest, trapping his lungs, making each breath harder and harder. Still, Sorey pushed the words out of his mouth, making sure he had Mikleo’s blank eyes on his own. “It’s me. Sorey.”
Sorey felt Mikleo’s arms tremble there were his staff met Sorey’s sword. “ Yes, Mikleo. I’m the one you nursed back to health after I had a fever when I was seven, and the one who cut your hair so awfully uneven that you begged for Natalie to make you a hat to hide it. It’s me, Mikleo…”
The pressure against his sword lessened. Mikleo was still pushing, trying to reach past Sorey’s weak defense, but… Something crossed over his eyes in that moment, something that resembled more the old Mikleo, and Sorey felt a spark of hope ignite in his chest. If only he could make Mikleo see…
“Let me help you, please,” Sorey’s heart was beating so fast, it was a wonder it was still beating at all. “Please Mikleo…”
Over him Mikleo closed his eyes tightly, sweat breading on his forehead. “But you’re not… So…rey?”
His voice was so uncertain, so unsure. Sorey wanted to pull him against his chest, despite the confusion in his eyes, despite the malevolence emanating from his skin. There was guilt and fear in Sorey’s heart, but the need to bring Mikleo back was stronger than anything else.
He needed Mikleo back by his side.
“Come with me,” Sorey begged in a whisper, lowering his sword slightly. Mikleo followed, still pushing, but even when Sorey was clearly open for an attack, Mikleo… didn’t.
He was too busy trembling to attack, eyes still firmly closed. “Sorey…”
“Ah… hesitating again, Mikleo?”
The change was immediate. Mikleo went tense again, like a wire about to snap, and he only got worse as light steps continued to sound closer and closer. Sorey risked a glance in the direction of the steps, watching as Symonne moved closer with a cruel smile.
Mikleo shook his head. “I’m not—“
“Yes you are,” Symonne continued. Under Sorey’s intense look, Symonne slid closer to Mikleo’s ear, whispering softly. “It’s what you always do. Hesitate. Overthink. Because you’re too weak to do anything else… Too weak to help your beloved Sorey—“
With a scream that chilled Sorey to the bone, the malevolence around Mikleo thickened. It was like a punch to Sorey’s gut, sucking the air out of his lungs, but he didn’t have time to take it back. His chest burning, Sorey steeled his arms as Mikleo charged again, pushing Sorey down to his knees. There was bile burning the back of Sorey’s throat and his vision swam, Mikleo’s shape becoming blurry against the darkness.
Sorey wouldn’t hold on much longer.
“You can’t even finish off this one hellion, can you?” Symonne continued purring in Mikleo’s ear. Her pale fingers curled around the fabric of Mikleo’s white outfit. “Just because he looks like him…”
“I can and I will,” Mikleo promised through clenched teeth.
“Mikleo—“ Sorey tried again, voice barely a whisper, but the look of pure hatred in Mikleo’s features made whatever Sorey had been about to say die in his tongue.
The brewing of seraphic artes felt like static against Sorey’s teeth, artes as familiar as the feel of Mikleo’s hand in his. Sorey couldn’t help but close his eyes at the sensation as the malevolence shrouded him completely.
It was the end.
Sorey waited for a blow that never came. There was a metallic clink above him, and when Sorey pushed his eyelids slightly open he found a masked figure standing in front of him, back towards Sorey. The figure had raised a dagger to stop Mikleo’s staff, their knees bent to be able to push back. There was a flash, and Mikleo had to jump back to avoid the sharp edge of the dagger.
“Mik—“ Sorey started, but he choked on his own bile. Sorey coughed as the figure turned towards him… But the darkness swallowed him whole before he could get a good look at them, Mikleo’s name at the tip of his tongue and sorrow pulling down at his heartstrings.
The world disappeared around Sorey and, with it, the sound of Mikleo’s despaired scream.
The next time they found each other, it didn’t take Sorey by surprise.
He had reached his answer not too long ago, but Sorey was sure of what he had to do now. His duty as the Shepherd, his dream of a peaceful world for seraphim and human, all of those things didn’t matter if Mikleo wasn’t by his side. If he wanted to achieve all of that, he had to bring Mikleo back first.
The memory of Lailah’s wince when he had told her about his decision still stung, but not even that made him back down. Lailah had sighed and smiled sadly after that, hands clasped before her as she asked: “is this really what you want, Sorey-san?”
Sorey had smiled back, hand grasping his blue shirt, right over his heart. He had taken the Shepherd’s mantle off his shoulders before speaking to Lailah that night. “Yes. I can’t pretend I can just continue on my journey knowing Mikleo is…” He let the sentence floating in the air for Lailah to finish.
So they had set off, letting the rumors of infinite rain and spreading diseases guide their steps. Rose, the person who had saved Sorey from Mikleo’s fatal blow back in Glaivend Basin joined them not long after, and with her Dezel.
But that didn’t last long. They met Symonne soon enough, alone, and Dezel found his end there, bittersweet but painful nonetheless.
Sorey had cried that night, alone in his room at the inn, part for Dezel, part for Mikleo.
But his tears only served to make his conviction burn brighter.
He would get Mikleo back.
Pendrago had known rain for a whole month by the time Sorey’s party made it there. Sergei guided them to the tower with a dark look over his features and too much weight on his back. He didn’t seem to have slept much recently; Sorey could relate to that.
“Cardinal Forton is dead,” Sergei said almost as soon as the door closed behind them, right hand on the hilt of his sword. “Her body was found two days ago by the Shrinechurch’s entrance, as if someone had dumped her there.”
“What, how!?” Rose exclaimed, jumping slightly. It was enough of a reaction to let Sorey know the Scattered Bones had had nothing to do with Forton’s death. “Are you sure it was her?”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Lailah muttered from behind Sorey. “If the cardinal was dead, the malevolence in the city shouldn’t be this deep…”
Sorey nodded, and returned his gaze towards Sergei. “Have there been any more rumors of something strange going on in the city since the cardinal died? Aside from the rain.”
“Yes,” Sergei nodded. “Townspeople have spoken about screams echoing in the walls of the Shrinechurch at night. Others talk about fog against the crystals, as if there was a storm inside the building. No one really dares to go in, but even I have seen raindrops hitting the windows… from the inside.”
Sorey jumped. Even from the tower, he could feel a strong domain covering the city. That, added to the rain inside Sergei described…
“It’s him,” Sorey said, and as if his words had been heard he felt a ripple in the dark domain, tracing a path to the Shrinechurch. Sorey turned towards Lailah, who was already looking at him. “I have to go.”
Lailah nodded. “I’ll be by your side, Sorey-san.”
So they went, Sorey with Lailah, Edna, and Rose by his side, running towards the Shrinechurch under the rain as Sorey’s heart chanted Mikleo’s name over and over and over.
As Sorey had imagined, Mikleo was inside the old church.
He seemed to be frozen as he stared at the murals on the walls, dark blue capes flowing softly in a nonexistent breeze. The darkness around him was thick and nauseating, but this time Sorey didn’t cower. He ground his teeth as his seraphim companions disappeared, pushed away by Mikleo’s domain.
His domain… Sorey could almost feel the familiar warmth underneath all the layers of darkness, of resent, of pain.
If only he could make the warmth expand over the malevolence…
“Mikleo!” He called, stepping closer. Next to him, Rose made a sound, as if reminding Sorey to stay back, but Sorey kept his eyes on Mikleo alone. “Mikleo!”
Mikleo went tense, looking over his shoulder at the intruders. His eyes flashed red as their eyes met, and Sorey gasped out loud when the candlelight pulled a blue glint from the scales growing underneath Mikleo’s eye. It was just a small patch that ran over his cheekbone, almost reaching the corner of his eye, but it was unmistakably…
“So now Symonne doesn’t even need to be here to send her visions?” Mikleo asked, and his voice bounced on the stone walls, distorted, hard. “This is getting annoying…”
“S-sorey…” Rose whispered by his side, eyes never leaving Mikleo’s. “The scales…”
Sorey gripped his sword tighter, pulling it out of its scabbard. “It’s alright.”
“It’s fine, Rose,” Sorey interrupted her, not looking away from Mikleo either. There didn’t seem to be more scales beyond the bunch of them at his cheek, but they caught the light with a blue, greenish hue that had Sorey swallowing hard in fear. “I’ll bring Mikleo back.”
And, with that, Sorey started to walk towards Mikleo.
“Stop right there, hellion,” Mikleo snapped, narrowing his eyes at Sorey. When Sorey didn’t obey, Mikleo summoned his staff and pointed it towards him, knuckles white. “I said stop!”
Sorey gave a few more steps, heart pounding in his chest, and stopped. Then, to Rose’s horrified gaze and to Mikleo’s confused one, Sorey threw away his sword, as far as he could, the sound it made when it collided against the floor the only sound in the whole church. Not even Mikleo’s malevolence seemed to be cracking anymore.
Mikleo followed the path of the sword with his eyes, mouth slightly open. “What…?”
“I’m not here to fight you,” Sorey declared, meeting Mikleo’s eyes. “I’m here to get you back.”
“…I won’t fall to your pretenses,” Mikleo said after a blink, adopting a defensive stance so familiar to Sorey that it pulled at his heartstrings. “I know what you’re trying to do, hellion. You won’t turn me against Sorey.”
And that, that was like a dagger through Sorey’s heart. Because despite everything, despite all the pain and malevolence, Mikleo still wanted to be on his side. He might not have been able to see the real Sorey in front of him, but that didn’t mean his heart wasn’t with him the entire time. Sorey swallowed hard, taking one step more, even when Mikleo ground his feet.
“Don’t come any closer, hellion, or I’ll—“
“Let’s go home, Mikleo.”
Movements as slow as if he was dealing with a rabid beast, Sorey lifted his empty hand, the one with his Shepherd’s glove. If Mikleo put his hand on his, if Sorey managed to break through the malevolence… he wanted to feel Mikleo’s skin against his.
“…Home?” Mikleo whispered, looking really confused for a second. Then his eyes snapped back into focus, the darkness swirling around him. “Do not. You have no right—!”
“Let’s go home with Gramps!” Sorey insisted, walking even closer. The malevolence lapped at his skin, eager to consume him, but Sorey kept his heart, mind and soul in Mikleo and Mikleo alone. He had to bring him back. “Let’s go see Natalie, and Kyme, and the others! We can stay there until you feel better,” He continued on with a warm smile. Mikleo was close enough to touch now. “And then we’ll start our journey, together…”
“Because Mikleo, I don’t want to travel anymore if you’re not by my side—“
“I said enough!”
The torrent of water hit Sorey in the chest, in the face, making him choke. It burnt as it went down his throat, up his nose; he knew there was clean air just a bit beyond but the water kept coming and coming and Sorey could do nothing but gurgle as the force of it sent him back, throwing him completely drenched on the floor.
And then Mikleo was on him, staff nowhere in sight but his hands tightly pressing down on Sorey’s throat, not even letting him gasp for air once the water was gone. Sorey clawed at Mikleo’s hands, feeling his chest burn, but the fury in Mikleo’s eyes told him there was no backing down now.
Mikleo wasn’t going to hesitate anymore.
Sorey realized Mikleo was set on killing him right then.
“Sorey!” Rose shouted, and the sound of her running sent a spike of fear down Sorey’s constricted chest. But before she could get to them Mikleo’s head snapped up, and one of his hands left Sorey’s throat to throw another torrent of water towards Rose, throwing her back and against one of the walls of the Shrinechurch. Sorey didn’t see her fall, didn’t hear her beyond the rushing of blood in his own ears, but he prayed to every one of the Five Lords for her to be okay.
“I’m done with you, hellion,” Mikleo said above Sorey, voice trembling even as both his hands tightened around Sorey’s neck. Sorey tired to breathe past the hold, but the only thing he could do was gasp and squirm underneath the weight of Mikleo’s body. “I’m tired of you using his voice, of your sweet talking—! This ends here—“
“Not—“ Sorey tried to say, but there was barely any air in his lungs anymore. “Mik—“
“He doesn’t want me!” Mikleo screamed, and his pain expression made Sorey freeze, eyes very open despite his slowly darkening vision. He felt drops hit his cheeks, roll down the sides of his face to his ears, and for a moment he thought they were drops from Mikleo’s earlier attack… But they were tears, tears that fell from Mikleo’s eyes, clung to the scales on his skin and fell to Sorey’s cheeks, bitter and raw. “He doesn’t need me on his journey! Because he’s destined for amazing things and I’m— I’m nothing but a liability….”
“No—“ Sorey’s heart, beating faster and faster from fear and lack of oxygen, was threatening to give up entirely; but Sorey still forced himself to try and raise his arm, reach out for Mikleo. It barely twitched at his side. “I—“
Sorey choked and, as if on instinct, Mikleo’s hands slackened their hold, just slightly. Sorey blinked, still not being able to breathe entirely past Mikleo’s hands, while Mikleo hung his head down, almost to the point that their foreheads rested together, one against the other.
“I just wanted to travel with him,” Mikleo admitted, voice broken and so very small… “I just wanted our dream to come true…”
Our dream, Mikleo had said. A world where humans and seraphim could live together happily. A world where they could live thousands of adventures, together.
Sorey closed his eyes.
What a fool he had been.
‘Forgive me, Mikleo,’ Sorey thought, just as the hold on his throat tightened once again and the little relief he had felt disappeared again.
Mikleo’s head moved away then, though Sorey didn’t see him anymore. His words, when he spoke again, weren’t for the person beneath him at all.
“…Forgive me, Sorey…”
And just when Sorey thought he would lose consciousness, he was suddenly able to breathe again, the weight on his body gone in the blink of an eye and air rushing down his throat making him cough.
He twisted his body around, trying to find a way for oxygen to reach his lungs faster. His throat throbbed; Sorey could feel the shape of Mikleo’s hands on his skin. But the moment the dark spots in his vision faded away and he was able to fix his gaze, Sorey forgot about it all and turned towards Mikleo, his name at the tip of his tongue—
To find him unconscious on the floor, curled around himself as Rose towered over him, drenched.
“You okay?” Rose asked, moving away. She was breathing heavily as she pushed wet locks of red hair out of her face.
Sorey swallowed, and pain flared up in his throat. “Mikleo—“
“He’s fine. As fine as you can be after being whacked in the head, I mean,” Rose explained, and when Sorey sent her a horrified look she added: “He was choking you! I couldn’t do anything else.”
Slowly, Sorey crawled until his knees were against Mikleo’s back, carefully picking him up in his arms and turning him around so he was cradling him. Sorey sat on the ground, gently positioning Mikleo so his head rested against his shoulder, fair hair falling softly over his closed eyes. He looked so peaceful like that…
The malevolent domain crumbled around them, but Sorey didn’t even realize it until Lailah rested a gentle hand on his shoulder. Sorey trembled, Mikleo in his arms trembling with him, and hid his face on Mikleo’s neck as Lailah spoke.
“We cannot waste too much time, Sorey-san,” she said softly. “If he wakes up before we’ve formed a plan…”
“I know,” Sorey replied without abandoning his place against Mikleo’s neck. He could feel his pulse, weak but steady, against his lips. “Just… give me a second. Please.”
Lailah’s hand slid away from his shoulder, and no other words were said. Sorey buried his face deeper into Mikleo, forcing his body to stay still even when sobs threatened to rack his body. He pressed Mikleo tighter against his chest, clinging to him like he used to do when they were children.
Sorey stayed there until no more tears came, basking in the feel of having Mikleo close again.
Even if the most difficult part was still to come.
Mikleo woke up in a cold room.
Though it resembled more a cell than a room. The walls were made of stones, piled one on top of the other, and the only things in there were an old cot pressed against a wall and a hole in the floor on one of the corners.
The shackles that connected his wrists to the wall also gave him the idea of a cell.
But Mikleo didn’t realize any of those things at first. Instead, what he couldn’t take his eyes away from was the boy sitting in front of him, his legs curled beneath himself and a warm smile on his lips. The neck of his shirt was pulled open, revealing a black shirt underneath and angry, red marks in the shape of hands around his neck. His hands were bare, no gloves, and the Shepherd’s cloak was nowhere in sight.
It was the Sorey from Elysia. The Sorey whose nails were always dirty from exploring and his buttons half undone because it was just too hot during the summer.
It was the Sorey Mikleo’s heart yearned for the most.
Mikleo leaned forward, and the chains on his wrists rattled.
“What have you done to me?” He asked, fury coating his voice. The fact that Symonne used Sorey’s image was always painful, but this… This soft, hurt Sorey, with loving eyes and inviting hands was the worst to date. Mikleo could feel his hatred burning low in his stomach. If only he could snap the chains…
“Nothing, I promise,” the fake Sorey replied, voice trying to sound calming. He had to give it to Symonne; the realism was amazing. The fake Sorey even had that trembling upper lip the real Sorey had when trying to fake a smile. “I… I don’t like the shackles but they were necessary. I wanted to talk, not fight.”
“So you can put tainted ideas in my heart?” Mikleo replied with a sneer. “No, thank you.”
He could feel the malevolence around him, thick and nauseating. It said a lot about Symonne’s power, the fact that her domain could stay with her illusions even though she was nowhere in sight. But he wouldn’t let it corrupt him. He wouldn’t let this fake Sorey have his heart.
But I want to give in. I’m tired—
‘No. No, I’m not. I’ll stay pure.’
It would be so easy if I just—
‘ I can’t, I can’t—‘
Movement in front of him made Mikleo’s head snap up. The fake Sorey had lifted a hand, with all the intention of moving back the locks of hair that fell over Mikleo’s eyes. Sorey stopped, hesitated for a second, and then started to move his hand again towards Mikleo’s cheek, palm seemingly warm and inviting.
Mikleo recoiled, as if escaping from a cobra instead of a hand.
The fake Sorey’s smile fell then, replaced by an awfully sad expression. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you, I promise—“
“Your promises mean nothing to me,” Mikleo replied, and the words burnt his throat on their way out like vile. He meant it if he thought about the hellion in front of him, but the moment his eyes met the fake Sorey’s eyes— it felt too real. As if he was saying those things to the real Sorey, breaking his heart — and Mikleo’s own — with every word. “Just do what you’ve come to do and leave me alone.”
The fake Sorey bit down on his lip, scratching the back of his neck. His eyes slid to the side, towards the empty space of the cell, but they soon snapped back towards Mikleo with a pleading look.
“Is there really nothing I can do or say?” Sorey asked almost desperately, leaning closer. The passion in his eyes made Mikleo lean back, his head pressed against the stone wall behind him. “Anything, to make you realize this is real and I’m here with you? Because I am, Mikleo. I’m here.”
His voice was so sweet… Not sweet in the sense of the fake having a beautiful voice, but its cadence… the way it broke over Mikleo’s name, the way the words tangled at the tip of his tongue and poured out of his mouth in a forlorn whisper… all of those things were so so sweet… Something warm curled inside Mikleo’s chest, leaving him almost breathless as his heart sped up.
His clouded mind confused it with malevolence.
Mikleo turned his head away.
“I just wanted to travel with him,” Mikleo suddenly said, and he saw the fake Sorey jump in the corner of his eyes. “See the world, fulfill our dream… I guess he didn’t want the same things.”
“I did,” Sorey rushed to say, leaning onto his knees to peer at Mikleo’s face. “I do! I just… I never realized it was a thing you wanted too.”
Mikleo snorted, head still turned away. “What, to live an adventure with you? I’ve never wanted anything else, Sorey.”
Biting down on his tongue, Mikleo refused to let a sigh escape from his mouth. He had slipped, called the hellion by Sorey’s name as if he was truly there, softly telling Mikleo all the things he wanted to hear. It was strange — he would have thought the hellion would be mean, that it would spit hateful words at Mikleo and feed his deepest fears by using Sorey’s voice… But the Sorey in front of him was still soft, and hurting, and so, so warm—
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted too, Mikleo.”
Turning his head back towards him, Mikleo tried to make himself small. “See, that’s where you get it wrong, hellion. Sorey didn’t want that. He wanted to be the hero; he wanted to be the Shepherd. And he clearly didn’t want me by his side—“
“—Because otherwise he would have let me become a Sub-Lord,” Mikleo continued over the hellion’s voice, shaking his head softly. “And not toss me aside like I’m a—“
Rapidly, almost sharply, Sorey leaned forward the rest of the way until his palms cradled Mikleo’s face in them, fingers tight against his skin but not enough to hurt. The hellion’s very human hands clung to him to dear life, as if afraid Mikleo would evaporate in a blink of an eye. Mikleo tensed, expecting the claws to appear and pierce his skin, but that never happened. Instead, Sorey leant forward until their foreheads rested together, closing his eyes tight so Mikleo could see the tiny tears clinging at the corner of his eyes.
“I never wanted any of this!” Sorey trembled, Mikleo feeling his short nails scraping against his cheeks. “I never wanted to lose friends, to be in a war— I never wanted to lose you! I didn’t even want to be the Shepherd, not really— But I…” Sorey’s hands relaxed then, his thumbs brushing the skin almost apologetically, right over the indentations his nails had left behind. His eyes were still closed. There were tears still gathering in his eyes, clinging to his lashes. “I thought— I thought, what better way to bring two worlds together than being the bridge between them, right? Because that’s the Shepherd’s role. But I just—
A sob racked Sorey’s body then, making him lean just a little bit more into Mikleo’s chest. His hands still held his face but Sorey’s head rested a bit down now, his lips a little bit closer to Mikleo’s ear.
“I was scared you wanted to be a Sub-Lord just because I was the Shepherd. I couldn’t let you do that, not if it was only for my sake—! But I was an idiot. I didn’t realize it was your dream as well and Mikleo I’m so, so sorry—“
Sorey’s arms went around Mikleo, tight, enough to make Mikleo’s breath hitch. His face was hot and wet there where his skin met Mikleo’s, cheek against the column of his neck, the fierceness of his hug bringing him closer and closer until Sorey was practically in Mikleo’s lap.
And Mikleo was frozen. Something deep inside him stirred, as if waking up from a long nap, and suddenly his arms ached to hold Sorey against him, making the chains that held him to the wall chime. It was as if sunshine pushed through the clouds, parting them, making what felt like Mikleo’s first coherent thought in a long, long time slid to the forefront of his mind.
The thought was ‘what have I done…?’.
He trembled in Sorey’s arms, in fear and pain. He could see the source of the malevolence clearly now, and it wasn’t Symonne, or an imaginary hellion. No, the source of it all was Mikleo himself, and he kept pouring it out from the darkest pit of his heart even now, even when his chest yearned for Sorey, when his arms hurt with the strain of not being able to curl them around Sorey, when he could feel Sorey’s regret and pain in every teardrop that fell against Mikleo’s skin—
Mikleo licked his trembling lips, fear turning his blood to ice. “So…rey—?”
Sorey froze and moved back in the blink of an eye, arms still around Mikleo, cheeks wet with his own tears. But his eyes were shiny and big with surprise as they looked into Mikleo’s, searching, hoping—
“I knew it!” Sorey suddenly screamed, rushing back to hug Mikleo tight again. “I knew it, I knew you could push through! Oh, Mikleo—!”
“What… I’m—“ The cloud was threatening to close up again, kill the sunlight and return everything to darkness. It was hard to think, but Mikleo clung to the small bit of sanity left in him for dear life. “What is—?”
Sorey —no, the hellion — no, Sorey— no, the— moved back slowly once again, lifting a hand so as to brush his thumb against the scales on Mikleo’s cheek. Mikleo didn’t feel the scales, only a slight itch right there were Sorey touched him, but he knew something was very wrong.
“Mikleo,” Sorey started, voice serious but warm nonetheless. “I’m not going anywhere until you’re yourself again, alright? This is me, not an illusion, not a hellion, and I’m going to make everything right again. I promise.”
A part of Mikleo wanted to roll his eyes; he wanted to tell Sorey not to be an idiot, that he couldn’t load his shoulders like that, couldn’t try to make a beautiful thing out of every piece of broken glass. But a bigger part of Mikleo was tired. Tired of fighting back, of refusing himself. He felt as if he had been tensing all the muscles of his body and now it was time to let go.
He wanted to trust in him so much. Even if it was a hellion, even if he wasn’t the real Sorey, Mikleo would still—
“Okay,” Mikleo whispered, and when… the person in front of him inhaled sharply Mikleo let himself fall forward, until his shoulder was resting against their shoulder. Hellion, illusion or simply madness, it didn’t matter; it still smelled like Sorey. “Okay.”
Trembling arms rose to curl around Mikleo’s back, fingers gripping the tails of his outfit tightly. “Mikleo…” was softly whispered into his ear, just as shaky as the arms had been. “Do you trust me?”
Mikleo closed his eyes. If this was the end, if this was his one way into the darkness, he would do so with the truth. “I trust Sorey.”
There was a nod against the side of his head, but Mikleo didn’t raise his head to look. Instead, he only closed his eyes tighter when cold hands slid towards his temples, the contact gentle but firm. He could still feel Sorey’s knuckles against his back though, still tightly gripping him, so he jumped when he realized there was someone else in the room with them.
Someone that hadn’t been there a second before.
The pain came like lightning through his skull, blinding him to everything but the piercing torture. The lightning had started a fire within himself, burning everything, every muscle, every organ, every bone— It even burnt Mikleo’s mind, reducing every thought and feeling to mere ashes.
He wanted it to end.
Mikleo wanted everything to end.
“It’s okay,” Sorey’s voice whispered into his ear, calming and reassuring even through the fire inside Mikleo. “It’s okay, Mikleo, I promise. Just let go.”
Mikleo fought against Sorey’s hold, the chains holding him to the wall rattling. “It hurts—AAAAHHHH!!”
As Sorey’s arms went tighter around him Mikleo fought back, trying to find something to hold on. He was barely conscious of what he was doing when he sunk his teeth on Sorey’s shoulder, holding his jaws tightly shut so as not to let go. He screamed against the fabric and the skin beneath, tasting blood and sweat in his tongue. The blood could have very well been his own though, the metallic taste too acute in the back of his throat to be Sorey’s.
But he couldn’t make himself stop. There was nothing but pain and his inability to get away from it. Mikleo tugged at his restraints like a caged animal.
Beneath his mouth, Sorey didn’t cry out or try to get away. If anything he slid closer to Mikleo, one of his arms rising up so his hand could stroke Mikleo’s hair, over and over, still talking nonsense against Mikleo’s ear in such a soothing manner that it brought tears to Mikleo’s eyes.
They stung when they fell down over his scales, and Mikleo cried harder at the newfound pain.
It felt like a small eternity for Mikleo, but the pain was gone not long after. It left in waves, shaking Mikleo anew when he dared to think it was over. But when the last wave hit him and no other followed, Mikleo opened his eyes to a barely lit room, no darkness coiling in the corners, no oppressing force weighing down on his chest. Slowly, as if getting back the feeling in every one of his limbs, Mikleo started to lean back with the aid of a pair of warm hands, which never once left Mikleo’s arms.
When Mikleo opened his mouth to move away his jaws hurt, and a thin trail of saliva connected him to the dark patch on a blue shirt, right on the line of a shoulder.
Mikleo didn’t dare to look away from it.
“…Mikleo…?” A voice said, familiar like going back home, and Mikleo shivered once again before slowly lifting his head.
Violet met green, and it was as if something clicked.
Sorey scrambled to reach Mikleo’s shackles, quickly throwing them open by pushing himself to his knees. But before Mikleo could even lower his newly free arms Sorey was already there, sneaking his own arms back around Mikleo and pulling him against his chest, into his lap, burrowing his face deep into Mikleo’s shoulder. Mikleo gasped, arms hanging in midair as if unsure of what to do with them.
But everything was so bright… The room, the warmth of his feelings, even his own thoughts— Everything was bright and sharp, the way they had always been.
He had been so blind…
“It was you the whole time, wasn’t it?” Mikleo wondered, not returning the hug, and Sorey —the real, bright, wonderful Sorey he had always known — moved back enough to look at Mikleo in the eye, hands pressed against Mikleo’s side.
“Yeah,” Sorey said simply. His eyes were red around the edges.
Mikleo’s own eyes fell down, his heart clenching before his brain registered what he was seeing. Twin red marks at each side of Sorey’s throat, bruises in the shape of thumbs right over his Adam’s apple.
Mikleo leaned back, putting some distance between them. “I did that to you,” he said, still looking at the horrible marks, reeling on the memories that not even the power of purification had been able to burn. It hadn’t been a question.
So intently he was looking that he saw Sorey swallow, saw the tremble of his skin beneath the red and purple. “Yes,” Sorey muttered, and his eyes went shiny with tears.
Mikleo’s whole soul seemed to want to squeeze itself into oblivion. It hurt, more than the purification had, more than all the wounds and injuries he had received in his short life. Knowing — remembering— all the things he had done to Sorey thinking him a mere illusion, a simple trick of the mind —
Mikleo wailed. A sound so deep and raw that it scratched the walls of his throat on the way out, tears rolling down his face loaded with every bit of regret and and sorrow still left in him. But Sorey was already moving him in, pressing his forehead to Mikleo’s as he held him.
Their tears fell together to the ground.
“I’m sorry!” Mikleo shouted, eyes tightly closed. He couldn’t get the words out fast enough, felt as if he couldn’t give them the weight and the feeling they deserved. He needed Sorey to understand, to see how deeply he regretted it all— “I’m so sorry!”
“I’m sorry too!” Sorey should back, his voice breaking like a child’s. He clung to Mikleo as if afraid of ever letting go; as if he could stop time forever with the sheer power of his fingertips. “I’m so sorry, Mikleo!!”
They cried together for a long time, not even realizing it when the seraphim that had accompanied them all along silently left the room, giving them the privacy they should have gotten from the beginning. The words of apology lost their meaning with time, but they continued to shout them, to say them, to whisper them. It didn’t matter if they didn’t make sense, as long as they reached each other’s ears, as long as they could pour out with them all their doubts and fears.
In the end, they slowly moved back, voices rough and faces blotchy with dried tears. Mikleo hiccuped, looking into Sorey’s bloodshot eyes for a long moment before moving his hands to his throat, softly cupping his palms to fit into the angry marks on Sorey’s skin.
Of course, they fitted perfectly.
But Mikleo pushed past the pang of despair and started to cast his artes, silently healing the skin and any damage underneath. If it had bothered Sorey, if it still did so in any way, Mikleo concentrated to get rid of it, almost as if it had never existed.
Even if he couldn’t erase the fact that it had happen, he would get rid of any visible mark on Sorey.
When he was done, Mikleo sighed softly, admiring the smoothness of the skin beneath his palms for a second before sliding his hands away— But Sorey got one of his hands in his before Mikleo could let them fall to his own lap. He clung to Mikleo’s hand like he had done to Mikleo before, slowly moving their hands together to let them rest against his own cheek. Mikleo’s palm curved softly against it, his thumb disrupting the wet path of already shed tears, Sorey’s own hand keeping Mikleo’s flush against his skin.
Their eyes hadn’t looked away from each other yet.
“Stay with me,” Sorey begged, emotion coating every word despite them being nothing more than a gentle whisper.
Mikleo didn’t know what Sorey was asking exactly. For Mikleo to stay with him in that moment? To stay with him forever?
It didn’t really matter.
Mikleo’s answer would be the same, no matter the meaning of Sorey’s request.
The wind blew softly outside the Sparrowfeathers’ hideout, making the leaves rustle in a song that spoke of Spring. Sorey watched in silence as that same wind played with Mikleo’s capes, with the back of his hair, as Mikleo looked over the city of Pendrago bellow with a pensive look.
Sorey had been aching to join him for an hour now, but hadn’t dared to move from his spot against the warehouse, many feet away from Mikleo. He hadn’t dared to take his eyes away from Mikleo either. He looked so ethereal in that moment, he could very well have been a piece of Sorey’s dream.
Mikleo would probably vanish into mist if Sorey did so much as look away.
“Are you gonna ask him?” A voice said by his side, suddenly there when he had been alone until that moment, but Sorey didn’t need to turn to know Rose was at his side.
“…I want to,” Sorey replied, feeling his throat close off. The pain had left the moment Mikleo had healed him, but he could still feel like a ghost of it, sometimes. Like an echo. Sorey guessed there really was no forgetting what had happened during the last few months. “But I’m—“
“You’re scared of his answer,” Rose finished for him with a sigh. “Honestly. You were fine when you had to go against him —and he was fucking fierce!— but you’re scared of a little rejection? Tsk, you amaze me, Shepherd.”
Sorey laughed lowly, no real happiness behind the sound. “Sorry—“
“It’s not me you have to apologize to,” Rose added, punching Sorey not-so-softly in the shoulder. “Look I don’t know the guy, but— After what I've seen… He isn’t going to give up on you so easily. So don’t be afraid, okay?”
Sorey mulled over Rose’s words, and smiled. A true, bright smile. “Mm. Be right back!”
“You better! We’re leaving in a bit so hurry up!”
The short walk to where Mikleo was standing felt twice as long as it truly was. Sorey tried to calm his nerves by drumming his fingers on the sides of his legs — he wasn’t used to that feeling. Not when it had to do with Mikleo. Mikleo had never been a source of nervousness before, so how was he supposed to act when the easiness was gone? Would it be okay to grab his hand? To touch his shoulder? Where did they even stand now that—?
“I can hear you overthinking,” Mikleo suddenly said, making Sorey’s head snap up. Mikleo’s back was still towards Sorey, but there was no mistaking who he was talking to. “Stop it before your brain melts.”
“My brain isn’t going to melt!”
There was a smile tugging at Sorey’s lips and, when he reached Mikleo’s side, Sorey was happy to see there was a matching smirk on Mikleo’s mouth. There were shadows under Mikleo’s eyes, and his skin took a paler hint than usual, but the smile made Sorey breathe easier.
He hadn’t realized how much he had missed Mikleo’s smile until then.
“Rough night?” Sorey asked softly, bumping his shoulder with Mikleo’s. It was funny, how all the doubts plaguing his mind just until a second ago seemed so stupid now. Of course it was okay to touch Mikleo, to be by his side. They had done that since kids, and they weren’t going to stop now.
At his side Mikleo sighed, closing his eyes as the wind picked up and messed the fair locks of his fringe. “Couldn’t sleep,” he said, and dedicated Sorey a funny look from the corner of his eye. “You slept like a log, though.”
Sorey had. It had been hard to not fall asleep, after so many sleepless nights thinking of meeting Mikleo again. So many things could have gone wrong at any given moment that Sorey used to lay awake, thinking possible ways to avoid the worst outcome possible: losing Mikleo to malevolence.
But it been hard to fight sleep when he had been laying down with Mikleo in his arms, his nose buried in the crook of Mikleo’s neck to catch the familiar scent of his skin.
“Heh, sorry!” Sorey exclaimed, scratching the back of his neck. “I felt like I hadn’t slept in forever, so it was nice…”
Sorey regarded Mikleo for a long time, turning his body so he was facing Mikleo, while Mikleo himself kept his face stubbornly turned towards the city. He wasn’t avoiding Sorey’s gaze, not exactly, but he wasn’t making the contact easy, either. Sorey curled his hands into fists. He had to ask now. The question was burning in his chest, the flame getting higher and higher with each beat. He had to ask now or he would combust—
Sorey took a deep breath. “Mikleo—“
Sorey froze. “You—You don’t even know what I was going to say!”
“I do, actually,” Mikleo said, finally turning towards his friend. His eyes were bright as they had always been, but there was a shadow of sadness in them that had Sorey’s heart skipping a painful beat. “You’re going to ask me to be your Sub-Lord. And my answer is no.”
It felt like being punched in the gut. Like being strangled to death all over again. Sorey looked to the side and back to Mikleo again, feeling the telltale prickle of tears in the corners of his eyes. “Why? You don’t want to travel with me anymore?”
“It’s not that,” Mikleo rushed to say with a frown. “It has nothing to do with what I want. It has to do with the reason why you’re asking this, Sorey.”
Sorey blinked. “Huh?”
“You’re asking me to join you because you’re afraid,” Mikleo explained, curling his arms over his own chest as if feeling the need to protect himself. “You’re afraid of this happening again, of me getting… Tainted, and you rather keep an eye on me. And I won’t accept that.”
Sorey’s eyes opened wide in surprise, his body giving a step forward, towards Mikleo, before Sorey had ordered it to. “That’s— That’s not it at all!”
“Then why are you asking me to join you now?” Mikleo asked with a roll of his eyes. “Nothing has changed since—“
“A lot has changed!” Sorey refuted, moving his hand to grab Mikleo’s own. Mikleo allowed it. “I— I couldn’t see a reason for you to join me before, except the fact that I was the Shepherd. I thought you only wanted to join me because you felt like you had to! I couldn’t do that to you.”
Mikleo’s frown deepened, his hand on Sorey’s going slack. “That’s not—!”
“But I know the truth now. I finally see it,” Sorey gave another step forward, until the tips of his boots touched the tips of Mikleo’s shoes. “A world where humans and seraphim could live together in peace… It was never my dream alone.” He squeezed Mikleo’s hand softly, making sure Mikleo didn’t look anywhere else but into his eyes. “It was our dream.”
Just like that, all tension disappeared from Mikleo’s shoulders. He sighed, closing his eyes as he tilted his head forward. There was a small smile blooming on his lips. “Took you long enough.”
“…Do you really want me to be your Sub-lord?” Mikleo wondered, not looking up just yet. “Despite… me becoming malevolent—?”
“But you never did, Mikleo. Become malevolent, that is…” Sorey squeezed Mikleo’s hand softly, encouragingly. “Lailah was very amazed by you, you know— There were incredibly high levels of malevolence clinging to you, and even so you didn’t even come close to becoming a drake. Just…” Sorey lifted his free hand so his thumb could brush against the smooth skin beneath Mikleo’s eye, soft and featherlike. “Just those few scales under your eye. That only comes to show how hard you fought against it!”
“Of course I want you to fight by my side,” Sorey’s voice was low, meant only for Mikleo’s ears. He really hoped they were carrying his message across. Sorey didn’t want Mikleo to stay by his side just to fight; he wanted him by his side always. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. So if you still see your dream at the end of my journey, then… Please, come with me.”
There was a beat of silence, one in which Sorey’s heart clenched painfully in anticipation. Then Mikleo hummed, and lowered his head so it rested lightly on Sorey’s shoulder. “…You’re so cheesy…” He said, turning his head away so Sorey couldn’t see his expression, temple against the soft fabric of Sorey’s shirt.
Sorey laughed, lowering his head too so he could lean his cheek on the crown of Mikleo’s head. “Is that a yes then?”
“…Yes, ugh, it’s… It’s a yes,” Mikleo lifted his head at last, narrowing his eyes briefly before sighing again. “Thank you, Sorey,” he said, reminding Sorey that their hands were still together with a gentle tap of his fingers. “Not just for this, but— everything.”
“You would have done the same for me,” Sorey replied with a smile. “Thank you, Mikleo. For not giving up on me. Even while you weren’t yourself completely… You still looked out for me, in a way. So thank you, thank you so much…”
Mikleo groaned from the back of his throat, hiding his face beneath his bangs. It didn’t stop Sorey from seeing the deep plush that covered his cheeks and the top of his ears. “Nngh, such a sap…”
Sorey decided to forgive Mikleo for that, even if his fingers itched for a good tickle fight. Instead he turned his head towards where he knew his friends were, smiling when his eyes caught sight of a certain seraph. “Lailah?”
His friends were supposed to be out of earshot but Lailah still turned, walking towards them with a gentle smile as she regarded both boys. “Yes?”
“Will you please perform the Sub-Lord pact? Mikleo is joining us!”
Lailah clapped once with a little skip, her smile growing into a sincere grin. “That’s wonderful news! Welcome back, Mikleo-san.”
“Wait, wait— Though I appreciate your enthusiasm, don’t we need a— woah!”
Out of what seemed to be thin air, Lailah produced a massive blue and golden bow, which she immediately presented to Mikleo. Sorey thought he saw recognition in Mikleo’s eyes as he regarded the bow, his hand already rising as if he wanted to run his fingers over the smooth surface.
Sorey’s chest swelled with happiness at the sight.
“Sorey-san has been holding onto this for some time now,” she explained, turning towards Mikleo soft, slightly amused eyes. “For when you came back.”
The blush on Mikleo’s cheeks deepened, and he sent a glare towards Sorey from the corner of his eye.
Sorey groaned. “I can hear you calling me a sap in your head, stop it!!”
They laughed, Mikleo included, and Sorey felt a warmth he had forgotten he could feel curling in his heart. He finally had Mikleo back; despite how dark it had looked, despite all the hardships, he… he had brought Mikleo back, and now they would join forces to make their dream come true.
It was the first time in all his journey that Sorey felt like he was strong enough to do it.
Lailah asked for Mikleo’s hand, and Mikleo gave her his free one without letting go of Sorey’s, as if he needed the contact as much as Sorey did. He was sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him, that Mikleo was really alright and safe in front of him, but the weight of his hand in his was a very nice addition to that certainty.
Sorey squeezed it as Lailah started with the words of her pact, and Mikleo immediately returned the gesture.
“Now, Mikleo-san. Tell Sorey-san your true name.”
Mikleo turned his head to the side, showing Sorey a beautiful, luminous smile. “He already knows.”
The warmth inside Sorey grew into a fire, unforgiving and lethal, burning away every poisoned seed that could have rooted while being apart from Mikleo.
“You bet I do.”
There was nothing but light inside of them.