The baton’s a cool weight in her palms, smooth and light, hardly there at all. It’s a crimson splash of life against the stark lights, held rigid under her thumb. The gunshot sounds above her head, cracking the sky, cleaving the air all around into pieces.
Two years before the world ends, in fall semester, their class studies ancient Greece.
Vineyards, epic poems, ancient philosophies. Plato and Homer, all the names you’ve read a hundred times between inspirational end quotes. Miki Kuroda cares about the ancient Greeks the same way an artist cares about arithmetic, the way she cares about most things: with a detached kind of interest, curious simply for the sake of knowing. For that little bit of edge.
Her least favorite parts are the tragedies. The Iliad, Antigone, The Argonautica. It all seems so silly, the heroes’ adventures trite and terrifying, both horrible and filled to the brim with wonders. When their teacher calls for their opinions Miko bites her tongue, hoping for someone else to point out the obvious, the so-very-apparent cause of the characters’ plights.
If the gods hadn’t been so bored, so self-righteous. If the humans hadn’t been so foolish, so selfish and hot-blooded. Maybe they could have avoided things, patched up differences and wounded prides like they were tangible. But then, she supposes, there wouldn’t be a story to tell.
Prometheus Bound is the one she remembers the most – of the poor titan’s endless defiance, doomed to endure the same fate time and time again. It seems cruel, even for Zeus, to inflict such a thing on an enemy. But Miko doesn’t say anything. In the middle of their out loud class reading, Miki nudges with her scuffed loafers and nods two seats ahead, where Akira’s drooling all over a picture of Aristotle’s marble bust.
Miko’s the one who starts track first.
Her mother doesn’t approve – she doesn’t say so, but the disappointment’s there, in her persistent rapping on the bathroom door, in their long and quiet moments shared over the dinner table. She’s learned to read her mother that way: in the silences. In the forbidden words, without any words at all.
Miko doesn’t tell her the other’s joining the track team, because Miki Makimura has always been a game changer between them. If Miki’s doing it, then surely they must be doing something right. Miko bites down the bitterness, the resentment, the acid burning cracks in her teeth. She clamps down, like a snarling dog on a hanging rope, and doesn’t let go.
Miko can’t quite remember who said it, but one quote sticks in her mind like a cobweb. Like a stubborn red thread refusing to unravel. The human brain works strange loopholes like that – remembering things that ought to be forgotten.
The gods, too, are fond of a joke.
The city’s burning. She can see from the top of their hideout near the stadium, the orange hazy line drawing smudges of smoke and smog across the sky. Akira’s bent over a book, or maybe it’s a folded map, his eyes smoldering, legs dangling over the concrete roof and moving, restless, in small circles. Koda disappeared half an hour ago for food and still hasn’t returned.
The air must be close to below freezing, but the snow and ash all look the same when they fall, so she can’t be sure. It seems demons don’t really feel the cold, anyway. Heat crackles under her skin, and she can feel it from Akira, too. An animal kind of warmth.
“Kuroda.” Akira hasn’t moved, the curve of his spine a little too inhuman. “I need you to promise me something.”
Miki doesn’t move either, a short tilt of her head enough for him to know without seeing. She tries sounding annoyed, but it ends up more as just resignation. “What now?”
She watches the hard line of his jaw sharpen, gritting together, and Miki knew he had changed, had seen it with her own eyes, but it’s like she’s seeing it for the first time all over again. Here, at the end of all things. Akira Fudou – humanity’s own living, breathing Atlas. “Protect her. If I can’t be there, for whatever reason.”
It’s almost too much for him to admit, his possible and impending absence. Akira doesn’t want to talk about it. None of them do, and Miko suddenly remembers that somewhere buried beneath the new layer of muscle and demon blood is the same boy who cried for wilting flowers wedged in sidewalk cracks. The same boy who’d break his own back just to hurt a bully’s knees.
“I'm not promising you anything. Especially not about Miki.”
Akira doesn’t seem to be listening anymore. “I have to go to him.” The book pages flutter, thin and gauzy, blown by the acrid breeze. “I have to find Ryo. It might be the only way.”
He loves her, and the realization doesn’t sting. It isn’t exactly a new one. Miko shifts her weight, watching as a plume of black clouds stretch up and up until they disappear. Akira loves Miki, this time the realization doesn’t stop, but he also loves him.
“So, Miko–” the boys always lean in, like conspirators, as if they’ve got something in common. “What do you know about Miki?”
She’ll shake her head, maybe laugh a little. She can be coy, too. “I know she won’t be interested.”
They’re all the same, even if they play pretend. Watching Miki move is nothing short of mesmerizing – and it’s no surprise when everyone starts calling her a witch. A willow-limbed enchantress. It’s even less of a surprise when everyone starts to forget Miko’s name.
“Miki’s a star, after all.”
I love you, is what she doesn’t say, watching the outline of Miki’s back grow slimmer, fainter. A don’t forget me that breaks bullets, cuts through steel, clots the pain pooling in her lungs. It’s up to you, now.
There’s a moment, in the rising panic of it all, when she meets the boy’s eyes from where he’s hovering over Miki’s shoulder, vigilant. The kind of hungry, cautious gaze that come from a lifetime of being cheated out of rightful things. There’s grime smudged across his chin, or maybe they’re bruises, blooming like purple snapdragon petals. Miko stares at those instead of his eyes.
Wamu – that’s who she assumes he is. Kukun had spoken of him, fondly, constantly, even in the short time they’d known each other.
Kukun. The sharp wound of that night’s Sabbath still pulses, like a frayed nerve that never fully healed. Kukun – the only trace he left on the earth in the shape of yellow sunglasses. Miko had slide across the gore-slick floor to find them, left on a side table and conspicuously clean. As if he’d simply left them there, forgotten, just another thing to collect come morning.
They’d spend hours running in the summer, soft stepping and sun-soaked along the riverside. Miki’s hair was longer then, brushing just between her shoulder blades, bleaching a little from the endless heat. They share a water bottle and sprawl out on the grassy banks, squinting at the sky and talking about nothing in particular.
Miko tells her about the breathing tips she’d gotten from the newest issue of her favorite sports magazine subscription, and Akira Fudou’s moving into the Makimura’s house next semester, until further notice, it seems. Miko bats at Miki’s hands when they tickle at her sides, and they laugh and laugh until it hurts to breathe, hurts to move.
Maybe they’ve been here before. Maybe they haven’t. But Miko knows there’s no crumbling city behind them, no blood soaking into frozen mud. She knows and wonders, vaguely, fingers grazing the cotton of her sweat damp t-shirt, if maybe Miki knows, too.
If there was one thing she could take with her through it all, through every bruise and ungiven kiss, it’d be those afternoons. A perpetual sunset. A million ounces of light pouring out the stars.
“I hated you.”
Miki smiles. “I knew that.”
Downstairs, a window shatters, glass falling like silver bells in the house’s front hallway. It breaks something against her ribs, a ship finally making landfall. There’s no sound, only the shape of the words in her mouth. “But, I didn’t. Not really. Not even close.”
Miki’s smile turns up at the corners, something sadder. There never is enough time, after all. “I knew that, too.”