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strings of fate

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Tears well up in Haruka's eyes when he watches Tenn erasing the beginning of his spell with a single move of the wrist.

A spell that took him about ten minutes to build.

"Are you even listening to me?" Tenn asks, his voice calm and collected. He drums his fingers on the wooden table, not bothering to hide his irritation anymore, and Haruka refrains himself from snatching his hand to stop the annoying move. "You're doing it all wrong."

Haruka shoots him a dirty look. "Are you kidding, Kujou? I followed your instructions by the letter. If I failed, it's all your fault."

Haruka isn't afraid to talk back to him. Other apprentices act so politely and submissive with their masters, and when they see Haruka arguing with Tenn, they whisper their disapprobation. According to the Ring's rules, in that situation, Haruka should agree with Tenn and promise he will work hard to correct his mistakes. But if they really expect him to act like that, they can fuck off. Haruka is done playing the good child.

Most of the time, Tenn isn't that scary, so he's fine.

He knows the mage enough to understand he won't blow up in his face - for now. He's only irritated, which is something Haruka can take care of. "First of all, Isumi, it shouldn't take you more than five minutes to open a locked door", Tenn retorts while pointing at the said door. "Even beginners can do it."

Oh, he is right. Haruka still remembers the time when he was able to do it too - and in less than one minute, mind you. All he had to do was to force the door to yield to his will. But no, according to Tenn, magic doesn't work that way. Well, it's not like Haruka got any results with this specific spell. The only reason he's not dumping the guy is because other spells did work.

"Your method is too twisted", Haruka protests. "Pleading the door to open? It won't answer to my pleas, it's just a stupid thing."

Tenn sighs, his eyes still on the door. "You're not entirely wrong, Isumi. Nothing would answer you if it's obvious you don't respect them. Now, that's a stupid move, coming from you."

Haruka raises his head. Here they are again, with Tenn telling him he doesn't know how to use magic. Haruka is still half-convinced Kujou actually put a seal on him, or anything that would limit his abilities. Though he has no idea why he would have done that.

"Let's take a break", Tenn says, and after ten seconds, the door opens, docile. Haruka tries not to feel annoyed by the fact that the mage managed to do what was expected of him so fast. "Go outside, go for a walk or whatever."

Haruka stands. "When should I come back?" he asks, because even if it riles him up to follow Tenn's suggestion, he definitely needs to take a walk.

Tenn shrugs. "Whenever you want. I have a lot of late work I need to do, so feel free to take the whole afternoon if you want."

Haruka can't help himself but snap at the dismissal. "So you're already fed up with me." (In truth, he is the one who is fed up with the whole situation, but also the one who has the most to lose if they break their deal. Which is why he's still putting up with his annoying professor.)

Tenn doesn't take the bait and keeps calm. "I'm a busy man and even so I take care of your problem. If anything, you should thank me."

Haruka bows before him. "Why, thank you, Kujou-sensei. Please keep up with your good work. Your humble disciple will stop bothering you." His words are filled with venom.

Tenn stares at him but doesn't say anything. Though, when Haruka slams the door behind him, he hears him shout: "And you wonder why you failed the spell."

Who cares, it's just a door.

A regular door, that is; the Ring has a bunch of weird stuff, including hidden doors that pop up out of nowhere and don't always lead to the same spot. In Haruka's opinion, the place is pretty fucked up. Not that he isn't used to. He only never reached the point of his studies when he would be explained how all of it worked.

No, instead, he's stuck on trying to do the same easy spells again - as if he was a beginner. It's no wonder other apprentices look down on him. Even the most recent ones are more talented, at this point.

"I can't give up", he whispers to himself. "I won't prove him right."

Still, Tenn is an asshole, and once he's a mage himself, Haruka is going to kick his ass so hard. He always pays his debts with interests, after all.

Ignoring the other apprentices and the mages he passes by - even Tenn can't force him to greet them when he's furious -, he heads for the gardens, hoping some master didn't decide to make a lesson for his students outside - it wouldn't be quiet, and Haruka wants silence. He feels so, so sick of everything - of his problems with magic, of Tenn's attitude with him, and most of all, of himself.

"He could be gentler", he whispers once again, before shaking his head in disbelief. If one day this bastard is actually nice to him, he will probably be on the verge of death and regretting his behaviour. Otherwise, it's not going to happen.

Fortunately for him, the gardens are empty, except for an apprentice girl who ignores him. She's painting one of the old trees of the court, a tree that used to talk and interact with the mages, but it fell asleep centuries ago. According to Tenn, drawing and painting their surroundings help a lot with magic, not that Haruka has any idea how this could work. Kujou told him the exact opposite. He still remembers his advice.

"Close yourself to the world. You need to stop seeing what exists, and to focus on what could be. Use your imagination, Haruka. You can create a new world."

Haruka worked his best to live up to these words. Even now, he still thinks they hold a part of the truth. You need to be creative if you want to be powerful. Imagination is all.

Anyway, it's not like Haruka knows how to draw.

He heads for his favourite place, not far from the water, next to a flowerbed. A crumbled wall creates a shadow and hides him from the view. Haruka often lies there.

Birds don't fly over the Ring's domain. It's probably one of the saddest things about the place: animals don't dare to get too close to it. Here, even the flowers and plants need magic to grow. Haruka feels alone when he's in the gardens - or lonely, maybe.

When he's outside, Haruka likes to try the few spells he still can put to use. The first one Tenn showed him allowed him to create wind. It's actually not one of the simplest, as it requires a lot of energy and will to create movements. For Haruka, however, it's quite simple to do so. All he has to do is to concentrate his mind on the air and imagine the breeze. Fingers in the nose, really. He remembers Tenn saying: "That's because the air is quite lenient and doesn't mind if you force him to become the wind." Haruka answered it was bullshit. But now, it seems Tenn was right, after all. He always is.

Haruka tries to bend the flowers, but they don't budge. Tries to move one of the falling rocks of the wall, but it stays still. Tries to create waves at the surface of the water, but he can't even create a bubble.

It's frustrating. He was able to do all these things when he was younger, but now... He follows the same steps, for no result. He knows he should listen to Tenn more. Even though he hates him.

He spends the rest of the time trying different spells, with different methods, but most of them fail. When the first bell rings, he rises up.

"Crap, it's already this late."

 

 

When Haruka enters the sitting room, Tenn has already changed from his work clothes - comfortables pants and shirt - to his mage robe. Haruka dreams to wear the same one. It's a long, dark piece of cloth covering his whole body, worn under a cloak closed by his brooch - the alto sign he chose as his own symbol when he became a mage, ornamented with pink opals. On his heart, an embroidery of three stars designs him as a third rank mage - which is amazing for an 18-year-old boy, considering it usually takes years for a mage to get their second star.

Tenn is talking to one of his partners, Tsunashi Ryuunosuke, and doesn't notice Haruka at first.

"I'll have to submit my report late. I'm falling behind with all my responsibilities."

"I'll inform the secretary of the delay, then. But Tenn, if you need help, you should call me. Or ask Haruka-kun, I'm sure he'd be pleased to do so."

"Oh no, he wouldn't", Tenn says, and for once, Haruka wholeheartedly agrees: he would hate it. A lot. "But thanks. Are you sure it wouldn't be a bother?"

"No, not at all." Haruka has never met a person as nice as Ryuunosuke. He's incredible, but also a bit scary in Haruka's opinion, who doesn't know how he's supposed to act when people are kind with him. "I have less paperwork to do anyway, so I can lend you a hand."

Tenn thanks him and turns over. His gaze meets Haruka's and becomes cold.

"Isumi, please go change." Oh, please, Tenn says. He must be pretty stressed right now. "And don't forget to wear my brooch."

"It's ugly", Haruka retorts, though he doesn't like to wear to it because it's Tenn's symbol, not because of its appearance.

"And you should be wearing all day long, although I let you do as you like. At least respect the Ring's rules during formal dinners." After a pause, he asks: "Please, tell me I don't have to remind you to act appropriately."

Haruka glares. He hates it when Tenn thinks he's unable to behave just because he doesn't give a damn most of the time. "I'm not stupid, Kujou. I'll be a good boy so you can show off to your boss."

If looks could kill, Haruka would be dead. Though he understands Tenn, for once: if he had to respond to Yaotome Sousuke, he would keep his mouth shut and lower his head whenever necessary. He's as terrifying as Tenn when the latter is mad, but he's also incredibly influential, so in the end he's worse than Tenn.

Tenn sighs. "Get out of my view."

Haruka heads for their room - Tenn's room, actually, Haruka is but a mere tenant. Apprentices usually have their own rooms... when they behave as they should. Haruka is resigned to sleep with Tenn for the rest of his studies - well, at least, Tenn hates it as much as it does, so it's still a win.

"So you're taking him with you, Tenn?" he hears in his back.

"Do I even have the choice? I took him as my apprentice, I shall face the consequences."

Haruka snorts. Yeah, right. He closes the door behind him and takes his own robe out of his trunk. Apprentices' robes are shorter and only cover the upper half of the body; they don't have capes, so they are supposed to put the brooch on their chest, at the same place they'll wear the stars once they'll be mages themselves. Haruka takes his in his fingers. Admittedly, it's a nice piece of work; apprentices usually get a cheaper version of the original, but Tenn made an exact replica, with the same opals. Maybe that's why Haruka doesn't like to wear it. The present is too fancy for a guy Tenn dislikes.

Nonetheless, he pins it to his robe - he promised he would be good, right?

When he's ready, he leaves the bedroom and walks up to Tenn. Ryuu has already left, apparently.

The mage observes him. "Your brooch is lopsided." His hand goes to Haruka's chest, his fingers brushing against his robe, and Haruka tries his best to stay still and not to show how annoyed he is. "That's better." His fingers linger for a bit on Haruka's chest, and after a few seconds, the younger boy reaches his limit and snatches his hand away.

"Let's go, Kujou", he commends, as if he was the master and Tenn his student.

Tenn looks amused, but he doesn't say anything.

As they walk to the reception hall, they meet other magicians. Haruka still ignores them. They all look down on him, and they only greet Tenn, so it's not like he's the only one rude. Tenn doesn't reprimand him, either. Everything's fine.

Haruka lets Tenn go into the hall before, walking a step behind him, as a proper apprentice should do. It allows him to take note of his surroundings: except for the ones who are in mission, all of the mages are gathered. This only happened for big events, or when the Great Mage, Yaotome Sousuke, goes back from his own missions - which might be a big event, actually, since he's always far away. To be fair, it gives Haruka a bit of anxiety, and he feels his legs shaking. Tenn looks calm, and the bastard might actually be relaxed. Or they're both good at pretending.

The man of the evening is sitting at the head of the main table, waiting for his subordinates to greet him. His son, Gaku, is sitting right next to him, even though he's only a third rank, thanks to family privilege. As his partner, Tenn is also allowed to sit at this table too, but since he took Haruka (who isn't really popular at the Ring) in, he took the habit of sitting at the same table as the first ranks, who can't really complain if a troublemaker joins them. As for Ryuu, he tends to go from table to table. Tonight, he's sitting with the other third ranks, and he waves at them when he notices their arrival. Haruka waves back, because Ryuu is too nice and even he can't ignore him.

They walk up to Sousuke, and when Tenn bows before him, Haruka hurries to imitate him. The Great Mage is even scarier from up close; his face is full of wrinkles and scars, and his eyes bear the same hardness as a rock. His grey hair makes him look older than he really is, but at the same time confers him an aura of wisdom. When he first met him, Haruka's guts told him he should be careful around this man. He still thinks this is pretty good advice.

"Ah, Tenn, I heard you did a great job at Iso village. Congratulations." Sousuke's voice doesn't sound very enthusiastic, more like a man who says what he's supposed to but doesn't really care.

Tenn lowers his head. "Thank you, Yaotome-san."

Sousuke's eyes then fall on Haruka, and the boy holds his breath. "Isumi Haruka. You're still there."

As an apprentice, Haruka isn't allowed to talk to the Great Mage unless he talks to him first, or he delivers a message from his master. He knows it's not one of these cases and he should answer, but he knows that if he opens his mouth, he's going to snap at Sousuke. Something that shall not happen. Fortunately, Tenn comes to his rescue. "Isumi is making progress. He has potential."

Sousuke still stares at Haruka. "Did he learn to hold his tongue?"

Haruka doesn't react, so again Tenn answers for him. "He's... learning, I believe."

After a few seconds, Sousuke looks away. "If you say so."

They greet Gaku, afterwards - the man doesn't look pleased to be forced to leave his beloved home for dinner, though he doesn't have a say in the matter - and they join the beginners' table. Haruka's presence attracts a few dirty looks, but no remark whatsoever. He sits next to Tenn, whispering: "See? I can behave."

Tenn murmurs back: "Why must you always make things so difficult, then?"

Because I hate you, he thinks. Instead, he leans his head and offers him a mischievous smile. "Not my fault if your teaching sucks."

The bell signalling the beginning of the dinner stops Tenn from answering.

Haruka doesn't care a lot about the fancy meals they are served. He was, at first, when he came straight from his hometown, as they were unusual and lavish, but now he finds them bland. He doesn't eat a lot. Tenn doesn't, either, though it looks it's more because he monitors his weight.

Haruka doesn't care a lot about the illusions displayed during the dinner. It's a tradition, here, that the best illusionists would take shifts and produce spectacular illusions to distract the guests. When Tenn's turn comes, Haruka gets to eat alone - which doesn't change a lot, since he doesn't talk with the others, but he likes it nonetheless. Ryuu being the best illusionist of the trio, he often does his part too.

Come to think of it, nobody tries to talk to Tenn, now. When he first joined him, Haruka was impressed by the number of people who were trying to get his attention. Some of them were actually fighting for him, which was funny to watch. But now, he's almost as ignored as Haruka is. And his apprentice understands the reason: it's him, plain and simple. Haruka is a thorn in his side. Because of him, Tenn falls behind with his work; he can't leave for missions as his apprentice is still unable to do most of the basic spells; other mages hate said apprentice so much they started to avoid both of them; and to top it all, Haruka does his utmost to make his life a living hell. Admittedly, the young mage doesn't have it easy, and Haruka could pity him.

He could. If Tenn didn't have everything he always dreamt of.

 

 

The dinner is supposed to last most of the night, and at some point, Haruka starts to doze off.

He tries his best to keep his eyes open, but he used too much energy today, trying to produce the basic spells he should be used to by now. Magic is always tiring, but he doesn't understand why he gets so exhausted. Maybe because it's like fighting with his own fists: at some point, he is bound to wear down.

Tenn, however, never shows any sign of tiredness, except when it's late and time for him to go to bed. Otherwise, he always looks energetic, and he always has the strength to smile, even when he fails. Haruka doesn't understand. What's so different between the two of them? Why is it that Tenn succeeds in everything Haruka fails?

He's sick of this jealousy bubbling inside him.

Not caring about what other people think of his attitude, Haruka lies his head on the table and closes his eyes. Everything exhausts him; the casual chat filled with hypocrisy and concealed hate, the illusional animals bursting over the tables, the succession of meals that never stops when he's not hungry anymore. He behaved, he thinks, but now he's at his limit. He almost expects Tenn to ground him, however, the mage is silent.

Haruka figures he hasn't noticed him.

His mind starts to drift, and he feels he will fall asleep soon. Fingers find their way between his locks, gently stroking his head, and he knows they must belong to Tenn, but it's too weird and he tries to convince himself it's someone else's hand. Yet who would caress him, if not for Tenn?

That guy is so confusing, he thinks, and then sleep claims him.

 

 

When he wakes up, Haruka lies on the spare bed. According to the luminosity of the room, it's the middle of the night, and if he pricks up his ears, he can hear the agitated breath of Tenn.

Another nightmare, he figures; but Haruka doesn't have it in himself to get up and tries to comfort him. So he tries to sleep again, but for some reason, he feels too awake to do so.

 

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

 "Sou-chan, I don't feel good", Tamaki complains with a weak voice. "When do we arrive in town?"

"I don't know, Tamaki-kun. I think we're lost." The older minstrel looks tired. He has dark circles under his eyes, something Torao noticed right away, but he kept quiet about it. "Do you want to take a break?"

Tamaki nods.

He's usually the one with the most stamina, so he ends up helping Torao carry their luggage, especially in dangerous areas like this one, as the bodyguard needs to stay alert. However, his pale complexion and his lack of energy betray his dizziness. It's a weird sight.

They leave the road, Sougo guiding his partner through the bushes and helping him sit on a fallen tree trunk. Torao follows them, keeping his distance not to disturb them, but close enough to step in if necessary.

"My head is spinning", Tamaki mumbles.

"Have you eaten something bad?"

"Hm, na, don't think so." Tamaki puts his hands to his temples. "Ah, it hurts..."

Sougo crouches down. His voice is now too low for Torao to understand what he's saying. Well, it's fine. Torao is worried for Tamaki, of course, but he's not good at comforting others. Or rather he never had the opportunity to do so before. As a bodyguard, there's another thing he can do.

"Say, Sougo, is it okay if I go ahead and try to find some help?"

Sougo turns his head at him and nods. "Sure. Thank you, Midou-san."

Torao doesn't like leaving the two of them alone. However, he knows Sougo pretty well, and he's aware the other man is able to defend himself if needed. He's the heir of the Osaka family, after all. Besides, they're hidden from the road, so they shouldn't draw attention.

After a while, Torao catches sight of farmers. They tense up when they notice him, but when he explains the situation, they promise to lend them a hand.

When he goes back to the minstrels, he sees Tamaki curled up on the ground, crying from pain.

"What's happening?" Torao shouts, rushing over.

Sougo is as white as a sheet when he answers: "I don't know! I just told him and he started screaming! I can't calm him down!"

There's nothing Torao can do. When he agreed to join them, he swore he wouldn't get too close to them. He feels this distance is necessary, as they aren't real friends - Sougo and he never were friends, to begin with, and it hurts when he remembers that fact - and he doesn't want to get his hopes high.

Yet he kneels down, touching Tamaki's burning forehead; the skin is sweaty under his palm. For some reason, the contact seems to help the boy; after a while, his breath slows down. Tamaki drops his head on Torao's shoulder, who doesn't dare to move. He's not used to this. Gauche, he sends a questioning look to Sougo, who only smiles, relieved.

"It looks like it has stopped for now", Sougo says. "What did you do?"

Torao frowns. "Nothing. It stopped on its own." Awkwardly patting Tamaki's head, he adds: "I found a farmer who can help you." He doesn't say us, something Sougo notices, but before he can say anything, Torao adds: "He's ready to let us rest at his place and he'll fetch a doctor. He doesn't ask for anything in return, but it would be nice if you could at least tell them a tale."

Sougo nods. "Alright. Tamaki-kun, do you think you can move now?"

Tamaki's muffled voice replies: "Yeah, I guess I can."

"I'll support you", Torao says, and he helps the boy standing on his feet. His legs shake when he tries to walk, so he leans his weight on Torao. The man looks away. Somehow, he has a bad feeling about this situation.

 

 

They reach a small shack on the roadside, at the edge of the village, inhabited by a couple of young farmers who welcome them with apprehension, smiling through gritted teeth. Torao soon understands the reason: they fear their simple abode isn't good enough for wandering minstrels. Even though they've never heard the name of MEZZO", as soon as Torao told them what they were, they were ready to help. He finds it incredible. He wonders how they would react if they knew who Sougo really is.

The woman lets Tamaki lie on the only bed, and the man says: "I'll go to the doctor now. Please tell my wife if you need anything."

Tamaki falls asleep as soon as the man leaves - which worries Sougo, but his sleep seems to be restful. Sougo takes one of the stool and sits next to his partner, the woman takes the other one, so Torao sits on the bed. He wishes he could rest, right now; his new life as a bodyguard is exhausting, as he always needs to be on guard, so he has learnt to take any opportunity to sleep. He decides to close his eyes for a few minutes.

He hears the woman saying: "So, only the two of you are minstrels?"

Sougo answers: "That's right. Mi- Torao-san is our bodyguard for now."

At least Sougo doesn't use his surname when they're not alone.

"Oh, alright. He looks like he could be one, though." Torao refrains himself from laughing. When he was a child, he considered becoming an artist; but now, he understands people like him aren't meant to entertain the others. If they try to, they might lose a part of themselves.

She has a pretty voice, Torao thinks. With his eyes closed, he doesn't remember her face, but she could be a singer. Maybe. If only she wasn't born in an isolated farm surrounded by mountains, her fate would have been different.

"Well, you'll need someone to protect your back if you're travelling here." Her voice sounds tired and resigned. Torao wonders how many bands of robbers threaten her village, and if there are other hazards he can't even imagine. "Our village is spared, but the one my sister lives in is often attacked. I have to send her a part of our crop, otherwise, she wouldn't get through the winter."

"Don't you have a lord who can protect you?" Sougo asks. He's suddenly tense, and even Torao himself can't help but stiffen.

The woman laughs. "He doesn't care. He still collects all his taxes, and since most of us manage to survive, he believes bandits aren't an issue." She sighs. "Anyway, since you're minstrels, you probably heard of the attack on your colleagues last year?"

Torao vaguely remembers something, but Sougo seems to recall the event. "Are you talking about the minstrels who died in the mountain pass?"

"Yes. My husband met them before they left for the mountains. He tried to warn them about the robbers, but they said they had to go no matter what. Not long after that, a group raided a nearby village. The leader and two of his partners were wearing the same coats the minstrels had. Then their bodies were found."

"How tragic", Sougo whispers.

Torao understands better why he was looking for a bodyguard. What he doesn't understand is why he asked for him, specifically; he knows Torao's abilities, he should realize there are some things Torao can't protect them from. Robbers, well, maybe he can deal with it, but not if they're a huge band, or worse, not if one of them can use magic.

The woman talks again. "You know, there's a safer pass in the east if you need to cross the mountains."

"Ah, no, we will head for Minsheru", Sougo corrects her.

Minsheru is the most southern town of the Furakke province, located at the foot of the mountains, and quite distant from the main roads. Minstrels usually gather there in summer for its Flower festival, but otherwise, there's nothing to see. The woman sounds surprised when she says: "Minsheru? Will you find an audience there? I've heard most of the residents don't go out anymore."

Torao opens his eyes. "She's right, Sougo. You should reconsider your decision." He doesn't say so to be mean, but he doesn't wish to go there. The area is too dangerous, and under normal circumstances, he wouldn't mind, but Tamaki is ill. How is he supposed to protect them if he needs to help one of them walking? If they need to take breaks on a regular basis? Torao doesn't like it.

However, he knows his position. He doesn't have a say in the matter - or rather, he shouldn't have a say, unless they are in danger. So he will go wherever they want, even if he hates it.

Even if he hates them, sometimes.

Sougo shakes his head. "That won't do. I swore to my friend I would be there for his birthday. I can't break this promise."

What friend? Torao wants to ask; Tamaki is his partner and only real friend, right? Other people are mere acquaintances, people who can't get close to his heart, who won't share his pains and his doubts. Yes, that's what people like Torao are. So where did he find another friend?

"Alright, then how will you perform? Tamaki is ill. You can't do it alone, can you?"

Sougo's eyes darken - and Torao knows this mood, it means Sougo is determined. "I thought I could do it with you, Torao-san."

Torao stares at him for a few seconds, unable to find something to retort.

Then he bursts out laughing. Him, performing with Sougo? What a ridiculous idea! Or that's what he wants to say, but he knows it's not. He understands why Sougo suggested it in the first place, and it makes him sick to his stomach. He doesn't want to talk about it, now. Especially not before a witness.

"Listen, Sougo", Torao stands up as he talks, and he looks down on the minstrel, "if you think I'll sing for you, you're mistaken. Find someone else."

Sougo doesn't yield. He holds his stare, saying: "But you could do it."

"No, I can't, and I won't. Don't ask, okay? I don't want to talk about it."

Sougo looks frail and weak. Of course, Torao is aware this is only an appearance. This man isn't one you want as your enemy. And he knows Sougo would let him leave them if he really wanted to. It would be easy, and it would hurt the minstrel in a new way. But Torao also felt that kind of pain, the one you bear in yourself when you're left behind. And a lingering feeling of affection for Sougo stops himself from actually leaving - a feeling that binds him more tightly than a chain would. This is another thing he hates. He hates his own weakness when it comes to this man.

He's no friend, he repeats in his mind, he won't see me as one, but he's not fooled by his own lies.

Sougo nods. "Alright. But we're still going to Minsheru, even if we don't perform. Is that okay with you?"

Torao shrugs. "Whatever. Do as you wish."

The woman keeps looking at them with questions in her eyes. She remains quiet, though.

 

 

The shack is so cramped when the doctor comes in that Torao decides to go outside with the husband during the examination. He helps the man putting the wood logs he cuts aside until the sun sets and the doctor leaves. Torao isn't exhausted, which is surprising. Seems like he's finally managed to build some stamina. On the other hand, he's so sweaty he needs to take a bath, but he feels asking for one would be taking advantage of their hosts.

When he goes in, Sougo is helping Tamaki drink.

"What did he say?" Torao asks.

"He... he doesn't know what's wrong", Sougo answers in a neutral tone, and it's obvious he's trying his best to keep calm. "He said he can only treat the symptoms for now, and that Tamaki should rest a lot."

Then what about Minsheru...? Torao doesn't ask this question, though. He doesn't know what answer he wants to hear. Instead, he says: "How do you feel, Tamaki?"

"Tired", the boy mumbles. "But it doesn't hurt anymore."

The dinner is frugal: a soup of potatoes and leek with a slice of bread. Torao doesn't mind; since he ran away from away, he can eat pretty much anything. He doesn't miss the fancy meals cooked by the amazing chef employed by his clan, far from it. Sougo is the same as him; he eats with appetite and pays the couple compliments for their hospitality. Both lower their head, claiming they're unworthy of his praises.

Torao doesn't know much about farm life, but he always thought they would at least spend a few time after their meal doing something. However, the couple wishes to sleep, and Tamaki is tired too, so Sougo and he go outside. The night air is quite chilly, and they sit next to each other, their shoulders touching. Torao doesn't like this intimacy.

Sougo finally breaks the silence. "As I said, we have to go to Minsheru. I promised. But I can't leave Tamaki behind. It wouldn't be fair for our hosts."

Torao nods. "I've already asked the villagers if they could lend us a cart, but they need it for the harvests." He can't help but laugh when he remembers how sorry they were. They don't even know them, they could be liars - but he guesses Sougo's mandolin was enough to convince them.

Sougo doesn't answer right away. The silence is filled with soft noises, as the breath of the wind or the hooting of the owls. It's a peaceful night, like any other night, but the tension is higher. Torao is uncomfortable.

Sougo finally lets out a sigh. "I'm scared, Midou-san."

He doesn't need to explain why; Torao understands. Unfortunately, he understands Sougo all too well, and it's harder to pretend he doesn't care about him when he can decipher each of his expressions.

If he had someone he'd love as Sougo loves Tamaki, maybe...

"Tamaki will heal. And we'll find a solution for your friend. So..." Torao stops himself. So what? What does he want to say? That Sougo should rely on him? That he'll protect him?

"Thank you, Midou-san. And... I'm sorry."

Once again, Torao understands.

But he chooses to ignore it. "Whatever."

 

Chapter Text

One of Touma's favourite moments of the day is the end of the afternoon, when he finishes cleaning the main room of the cabaret, enjoying the last moments of silence before the patrons start coming in. He's more at ease with cleaning than interacting with the patrons, though he doesn't mind working as a waiter if it can help Riku. He can't remember the last time the redhead had a day off, either; maybe he should tell him to close the cabaret one evening next week. It would be nice, spending a few hours together, only the two of them, in the intimacy of Riku's home, right above the cabaret.

He sweeps the floor, whistling an old melody he used to like a lot - now, the tune is mixed with melancholy and pain, and he'd like to forget it. But at the same time, he can't let go of these notes, as they are the last remains of his ghosts.

Angry voices come out from the closed door of the kitchen. Touma doesn't want to listen to them, yet he can't help but gather a few lines when the two men start to raise their voices, the wooden partition unable to contain their yells.

"I warned you several times, Nanase-san, you should have listened to me." This voice belongs to Izumi Iori, the only true employee of the cabaret, and the owner's close friend.

"But Iori, we need to find new artists for the cabaret! Otherwise, how am I supposed to pay your wages?" And this voice belongs to Nanase Riku, the owner of the place, and the man who took Touma in.

Touma sighs. These arguments are becoming a trend, lately, and he wishes he could help them. But, as a freeloader, he doesn't feel like he has a say in the matter. Not when he knows he could help them, if he was braver.

"That girl doesn't know how to sing! I understand we can't pay a professional troupe for now, but that doesn't mean we should accept any amateur that wants to perform on your stage! We need talented artists, nothing else!"

Touma feels a pang of guilt in his chest. Talented people, huh.

The voices tone down, but Touma is still tensed. Sooner or later, he'll have to check up on Riku, but right now his presence would only aggravate the situation. Iori doesn't like him a lot, and if Touma takes Riku's side, he'll accuse him of being partial and not thinking properly of the redhead's interest. At least Riku and Iori's friendship can't be shaken by such an argument, so he doesn't worry that much about Riku losing his only employee - but still.

Tonight again, nobody is going to perform. This means the affluence will be low: only regulars, coming here for the food and the staff, knowing of their financial situation and determined to support the business no matter what. However, their help isn't enough. It only delays the inevitable, and Touma worries about the future of the cabaret.

Finally, the door bangs open, and Riku storms out of the kitchen, throwing himself in Touma's arms.

The older man always has a moment of hesitation when that kind of things happens. He's not used to displays of affection, doesn't know how he is supposed to react. He has learnt that hugging Riku back is the best thing to do; nonetheless, by doing so, he feels awkward, even tamed, somehow, subdued by a warm smile and glimmering red eyes.

"Touma-san! Iori is mean!"

Touma awkwardly pats Riku's head. He wonders if these light touches are really comforting, if he can ease the other boy's pain. Over Riku's shoulder, he sees Iori looking at them, his face neutral, and then he closes the door to give them more privacy.

"What did he say?" Touma asks, even though he already knows: Riku needs to let things out.

"He said I was inept and shouldn't be in charge of the cabaret!" He sounds on the verge of crying.

Touma is pretty sure Iori didn't mean it like that: he must have said something about Riku not being the best manager - that's why Iori takes care of the finances, anyway - and Riku said something that led Iori to talk about incompetence. They tend to hurt each other with words they don't have in mind.

So Touma holds him tighter. "I don't think he means it", he replies. "He... wants you to rely more on him, I guess?"

He doesn't know, but he figures it was the only possible reason. Iori seems like a control freak, in his opinion, though it might only be an impression, for all he knows.

"Really?" Riku asks, suddenly beaming.

Touma has no idea, he only guessed. "Yeah, really. You're friends, right? That's what friends do for each other."

His stomach twists when he says friends. The word is now tinted in red in his mind, a concept he can't apply to anyone at the moment - not even Riku, who is definitely not a friend -, and it makes him feel lonely. He knows it's a normal feeling, this loneliness, and he has every right to complain about this. Yet, when Riku is in his arms, Touma finds his lips sealed.

For there is another feeling in his heart, too, and this one is ugly.

Leaving a small kiss on top of his head, he says: "Now go see him and tell him how grateful you are."

Riku nods, his eyes shining with tears, before leaving him alone. Touma hears soft voices in the kitchen, but he doesn't listen to them. His hand is white from gripping his broom too hard. What he feels is not jealousy, which is curious: he knows what he means to Riku, so he doesn't feel insecure. No, this feeling comes from the hideous part of his soul, the part consumed by hatred.

 

 

As expected, there aren't a lot of patrons, only the usual ones, and Touma believes he's close to remembering all their names and habits. For instance, there's this grandma who only eats soups, as she has lost many teeth and she doesn't enjoy solid food anymore, or this young man who seems to know Iori very well although they don't look close. All of them found him scary, at the beginning; he recalls the first time he walked in the room, a frown on his face, careful about anyone that would recognize him. Fortunately, nobody did, and he started to warm up to them. Now, they believe his frown is just his resting face - it's not totally wrong, either.

Riku chats happily with the patrons, and each time Touma watches him, he's fascinated by his ease. Sometimes, understanding your own feelings can be difficult, but not when it comes to Riku. The redhead is a comfortable company; he may be clumsy, and may say inappropriate things at the wrong time, but his good mood is communicative. Before meeting him, Touma was unable to sleep, but now he barely wakes up in the middle of the night.

Oh, how easy it was, to fall in love with Riku.

Touma clears one of the tables and takes the dishes to the kitchen, where Iori works. The cook raises his eyes; he seems preoccupied.

"Inumaru-san, can you go out for a bit? We've run out of rice."

"Huh? It's past 9, Iori. Shops are closed."

Iori sighs, as if he was a child that didn't understand what was asked of him. "I know. But there's a friend of ours that lives near the park. He owns a bakery and often lends us ingredients when we need them."

Touma fails to see the link between a bakery and rice, but he doesn't ask. Instead, he says: "The park is a bit far away, isn't it? Can't you find someone closer?"

Iori shakes his head. "That's why you should go as soon as possible. Nanase-san can handle the patrons alone." His pointed stare seems to say, far better than you can, anyway.

Well, he's right, so Touma doesn't retort anything. He pulls a vest on, as the nights are quite chilly lately. "So, who am I looking for?"

"His name is Bernard Kenneth. It should be on the front window of the shop, on Dawn Street. If you say you're Nanase-san's friend, he'll let you in."

Touma almost wants to correct him - Iori is Riku's friend, Touma is more of a boyfriend or something - but once again, he decides not to. He has learnt something with his former comrades: you need to make concessions if you want to get along with others. Still, he'll have a conversation with Iori about their communication problems later.

"Okay, sure. Be right back", he says, leaving by the back door. He doesn't bother to warn Riku; the errand should take thirty minutes tops, and Iori will tell him if he comes to the kitchen.

The night air reminds of the mountains; sharp and vivid, with the scent of danger. During the day, the city smells of the heat of the bricks and the odours of tired bodies. Nemuna wasn't the biggest town Touma set foot in, but it was extensive, as people abandoned the centre to build newer, cheaper housings on the outskirts. So when the sun sets, the streets are almost empty. He's been told bad things happen at that moment, but never witnessed any incident in the few months he spent in Nemuna. Most of the streets aren't illuminated, so he relies on the oil lamp he took with him before leaving the cabaret. The shadows aren't scary; he knows the real danger lies in broad light.

The walk to Dawn Street takes him about ten minutes. Finding Kenneth's bakery isn't that hard; it's a large property in the middle of the street, and the name is written in big, golden characters on top of the shop front. The bakery is closed and dark, but there's a small door on the side, with a door-knocker, and Touma decides to try his luck.

"Coming!" A voice shouts, and a few seconds later, a man opens the door. He's older than Touma thought; with his grey hair and wrinkles, he should be in his fifties at least. He wears nightclothes, with a pair of glasses on his nose that he removes when he looks at him. "What can I do for you?"

"I am, er... I work for Riku." Displaying his relationship with Riku to someone who doesn't know him and might worry about the situation doesn't sound good for now. "We've run out of rice", he parrots Iori, and the man nods. A bright smile has bloomed on his face when he heard Riku's name.

"Sure, come in! I'll serve you something."

"Sir, it's already late..."

Kenneth doesn't listen to him; he ushers him to what must be the living room of his house. He obviously lives alone: there's only one chair at the table, though what looks like a family portrait is hanged on the wall. Touma takes the seat, unable to refuse. He feels an intruder; the man's whole life lies around him, and yet he invited him in when he doesn't even know him. Kenneth sets a cup on the table before him. "It's herbal tea", he says, "it should help you sleeping tonight."

"Ah... thank you." Touma isn't used to such generosity, even though Riku acted the same when they met.

Come to think of it, their first meeting was quite similar. It was the night as well, and Touma didn't have anywhere to sleep in, having lost all his belongings in the attack. Riku didn't ask for anything in return: he took him in, served him hot milk and let him cry on his shoulders. How embarrassing. Touma never cries, but the weight he bore on his shoulders was overwhelming and he needed to let go of his bottled feelings. That night, Touma understood Riku was special and needed to be treasured.

"But I should go back as soon as possible", he adds, "Izumi Iori will need it."

Kenneth smiles. "Don't worry, I won't keep you for long. How's Riku health?"

Touma swallows a mouthful of herbal tea, and the beverage, too hot, burns his tongue. "Not that great, actually. I believe it has worsened, but..." But he has no idea what it means. He knows Riku's health in words, that's all. And he knows it's not enough; this is one advantage Iori has on him, he has always been there for Riku. Touma doesn't know what he's supposed to do for his lover. Fight, but how? This might be the biggest challenge he's ever faced. He can't fight for real, he's weak against blades and evil intentions. Can he win over sickness, then?

Kenneth's smile falters. "That kid, he's always been too sensitive."

Touma frowns. "Sensitive? Do you mean, to the weather?" The last days were quite humid, so it mustn't be good for his lumps.

"Well, for instance." But Kenneth doesn't say more. He leaves Touma alone in the room, and the guest fidgets in his chair, uncomfortable. He tries to finish his cup, ignoring the pain in his mouth. He knows nothing will happen, and even if it did, Iori would be there. He has no reason to worry. But at the same time, he prefers being close to Riku.

It would be easier to protect him, that way.

Touma has almost finished his cup when Kenneth comes back with a bag of rice. "Here you go", Kenneth says, handing him the item.

Touma grabs it carefully. "Thank you." He wants to ask the question bothering him - what else is Riku sensitive to? - but he refrains from asking it. It's already late, and anyway, he should ask Riku, not an acquaintance. So he only says goodbye.

 

 

The cabaret is weirdly silent when he comes back. There should be noises coming from the inside, the cutlery clicking, the glasses knocking together, and above all, the rumours of voice - all these sounds that became familiar to Touma. The curtains are drawn, -only letting out a small thread of light along the window sill; there's still someone inside. He tries the main door; it's closed. So he goes to the back door, entering the empty kitchen. Nothing has been cleaned yet, but the furnaces are off and the food has been taken off the worktops.

Touma has a bad feeling.

In the main room, the lamps are still on. Izumi Iori sits, alone, at one of the tables, a rag in his hand, but he doesn't make any move to wipe. When he hears Touma coming from the kitchen, he gives him a tired look. His eyes land on the rice and he smiles weakly.

"Thank you for the errand, Inumaru-san. Although that rice won't be necessary anymore."

Touma's blood goes up into his head. "Where's Riku?" he growls, his tone more threatening than he intended to. He can't see the redhead in the room, but he must be on the upper floor, so that's not the true meaning of his question.

Iori understands, of course; he lowers his head, as if trying to apologize for something he's most likely not responsible for. "In his... in your room. Resting." Touma is too worried to be satisfied with Riku's friend acknowledging their relationship. "He... had an attack not long after you were gone. I don't know what exactly happened, I was in the back, but I believe one of the patrons brought something that must have triggered the attack. I have no idea what, though."

Touma freezes, his fists clenched. If only he didn't spend so much time at Kenneth's home... though he didn't really spend too long, maybe like five or ten minutes? Even if he didn't, he wouldn't have been back for Riku. And he was the only one who could run the errand.

Iori seems unaware of his inner turmoil. "After the worst had been avoided, I decided to close the cabaret for the night. You weren't there and I couldn't do both the service and the cooking. I sent Nanase-san to his bed. He wasn't happy about it, but he was truly tired."

Riku must have felt so disappointed, Touma thinks. His business is going down, his debts are growing and he even has to close his shop earlier because of his health. This place is all his life; it's something Touma has trouble understanding, most of the time, as he doesn't see why someone could spend their whole existence into the same four walls, but now he believes he starts to get it. The place is now his home, too, a home he didn't choose, but that welcomed him anyway, without asking for anything. He feels the need to protect the cabaret, since it means everything to Riku.

And he's angry at himself, for not being there when his new boyfriend needed him. Another person I'm letting down, as if everything was his responsibility; as if he was the one who spilt blood on this mountain road.

"And you didn't want to stay at his side?" Touma asks, almost accusatory - then again, he didn't want to sound too harsh, but the panic in his chest distorts his voice.

Iori's eyes widen, but he's calm when he replies: "This is not my place, Inumaru-san, and you know it. I'll clean everything."

Now, Touma knows Iori doesn't trust him. It's no wonder: why wouldn't he be suspicious of a guy who showed up one night, with dried blood on his clothes and a haunted look in the eyes, refusing to talk about himself? What Riku did for him was dangerous; he opened his home and his heart to a stranger, with no consideration for the risks. Touma doesn't expect Iori to accept him that easily.

"I'll go then." Touma drops the rice on the table and goes to the stairs. Before he can climb up, he hears Iori calling "Inumaru-san" behind his back.

When he turns to him, he catches Iori's fiery glance. "Inumaru-san, why won't you perform? It would help us a lot."

Touma's blood runs cold. So Iori knows. That man must have done his research, then. "If you know who I am, then you know why I can't."

Iori keeps quiet and looks away.

 

 

Riku lies on his bed - their bed, now, as Touma usually likes to remind himself -, his eyes closed, his breath slow and calm, without the wheezing the older man was afraid to hear. He doesn't seem to notice when Touma goes in the room, and when he leans down, he realizes Riku is already asleep.

Touma strokes his cheek, a soft smile blooming on his lips when the lying boy's head tremble at the touch. This feeling is alien; the feeling of your heart almost bursting out of your chest, unable to contain all the affection you hold for another person. Touma sang about this feeling before, but he never understood what it truly meant. He never imagined it would be overwhelming, that he would realize how terrible he could be, as a person.

He tries his best to support the ones he loves. He wants their happiness more than everything, will do almost everything to help them achieve their dreams. And yet he hides things from them, for the sole reason of his own comfort. He's detestable.

He believes he doesn't deserve this happiness.

 

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

This is an evening of misfortune.

Minami has no doubt about this fact: no matter which method of divination you use, whether you look at the sky or you read the cards, the signs are the same. He can't remember another night of the sort, a night when bad luck can't be countered no matter what you do - but it's scary. Anything can happen, from the tents catching fire to children getting lost and disappearing. Unfortunately, he can't warn anyone in the troupe, his worries would be brushed off as mere superstition. So he decided to spend the whole night in the tent he shares with his partner - said partner won't be there and will spend the evening with his friends, which would decrease the risks.

However, it turns out that Nikaido Yamato won't leave him alone, this time.

"You sure you don't want to come?" he asks for what must be the third time already, and Minami tries his best to hide his annoyance.

Actually, Yamato already invited him several times before. He's the only one who ever did, since Minami joined the company. For some reason, he doesn't see him as cold or unattainable - the fact that they sleep a few meters away from each other might help -, and he's not blinded by his talent either, since he's one of the best actors of the troupe. Minami could be one, too, but his presence is a nuisance, like a burden on your shoulders you bear because you don't have a say in the matter.

And of course, it's not the first time Minami declines, so he doesn't understand why tonight, Yamato insists.

"You know I can't drink, Nikaidou-san", Minami delivers his usual excuse, one that worked every time before today.

"That's what you always say, but Nagi doesn't drink either."

Minami's eyes land on the other blond, standing in a corner of the tent with his partner Mitsuki. Sometimes, Nagi reminds him of a better version of himself: more confident, more talkative, maybe even more talented in acting. He's easy to love: even his partner, who's the first to complain about him, has a warm smile whenever Nagi leans down and whispers in his ear. Their proximity is almost disgusting.

As for Yamato and Minami, well...

"Still, I'd like to rest. I'm very, very exhausted."

Yamato doesn't have the time to reply; Nagi shouts: "Oh, don't be shy, Minami! I'll stay with you!"

What? Minami tries to understand how Nagi believes that staying up with him could count as rest. His evening was well planned: he would have worked on his next play, one he doesn't want to show to the troupe, but he can't stop writing if he wants to become a better author. Maybe he isn't as tired as he pretends, but he doesn't think he has the energy to deal with the foreigner anyway.

"Are you sure, Nagi?" Mitsuki asks with a worried voice. "You don't have to force yourself."

"Of course I am! I haven't spent a lot of time with him, lately, I want to catch up!"

A part of Minami is flattered that Nagi considers him good company, but the affection he feels for Minami is a bother, since Minami doesn't like him. He hates his emphatic gazes on him, soft or compassionate when he tries to be nice to him, determined otherwise. Minami likes him cold and uninterested, he wants to see the same anger as the one time Minami tried to make light of Yamato.

"Ah, right, you two were partners." Mitsuki sounds totally convinced. "Come on, Yamato-san, let's give them time alone."

He then proceeds to push Yamato out of the tent, without a care for his protestations - Mitsu, that's my tent, you can't chase me away! - leaving Minami alone with Nagi.

A misfortunate evening, really.

Nagi sits in Yamato's chair as if he was home. Minami pretends not to notice. He's used to his familiar behaviour, so it doesn't bother him anymore. Now, he's indifferent to Nagi; even the princely features of his face leave him cold. But there used to be a time when Minami's eyes were drawn to this face, and it seemed like the attraction was mutual.

"Rokuya-san, you don't have to keep me company", he says, although he knows his words won't chase him. "You won't have fun with me."

Nagi shakes his head, a wide smile on the lips. "But the night is beautiful! I've heard tonight is the best night to watch the stars, aren't you interested?"

Minami sighs. "What do you think I am, a girl? Please, spare me your romantic nonsense." What's more, the nights are still cold, he will catch a cold in no time. But he knows he won't have the last words. He finds it easy to brush people off, but not Nagi. Nagi doesn't want to accept the fact that they aren't friends, that they never were, that they don't have any reason to spend time together now. He believes Minami is still attached to him and wants to see him more. Laughable.

"Come on, we'll grab something to eat and then we'll spend the best evening of your life!" Nagi says, not listening to him at all.

So Minami takes a cardigan. If he doesn't want to leave him a choice, that's good with him. He doesn't mind not having a choice.

 

 

In spite of the omens, Nagi was right: the night sky is clear and beautiful. At the foot of the small hill, only darkness; the city is behind their back, the fields are plunged into the dark, with only the orange lights of the few households. The pattern of the orange points reminds Minami of the stars they're supposed to watch, but poorer, as if they were almost extinct.

Sitting next to Nagi with only an oil lamp, Minami feels sad and tired.

"If you wanted to watch the stars, then why not with your friends?" Minami asks. They're not doing much, now that they are done eating; if Nagi was with Yamato and Mitsuki, they would talk a lot. But with Minami, all they do is watching the stars in silence. Even the wind is quiet, and Minami believes this is the calm before the storm.

"We're not talking anymore", Nagi points out, and with a smile, he goes on: "I think I miss you."

His nice words are like a cold shower to Minami. "I don't miss you at all", Minami lies; or maybe it's a half-truth, maybe he doesn't miss the person, only the actor who used to stand next to him - and the troupe that welcomed them both. "It's all in the past, now. We have to move forward."

Nagi nods. "You miss him." His voice is heavy, and Minami shivers.

Missing someone, after all, that's a bold concept. Time passes, people leave your life, that's how things work. Minami didn't have a lot of relatives in the first place, and when he stopped seeing his mother, he couldn't say he was sad. He liked her, no doubt about that, but she was so stern with him, he sometimes felt she didn't see him as her son. She cared about a mirage of her child, and he tried his best to be this image, but in the end, it wasn't healthy for them. So when they parted ways, he never missed her. He often thinks about her, hopes she's doing fine, and... that's it. She's a beloved memory, nothing more.

"What do you mean, I miss him? If anything, I despise him, and you know why." He can't hide his irritation, this time; and Nagi observes him with his gentle blue eyes, as if he was a child.

But he's not lying: there's this hatred growing inside him, this hate that slowly takes the place of all the happiness and jealousy he used to feel.

"Do you, for real?" Nagi asks, and Minami knows he can't answer without lying. "I think you don't understand your own feelings."

"I despise you, too", Minami retorts, and this time his own smile has completely disappeared.

He doesn't want to let go of his annoyance. Doesn't want to recognize the emotions in his heart. Doesn't believe he can find a sense of fulfilment in this troupe. And there's nothing Nagi can do. Minami hates Nagi, even if he cares about him a lot. Way too much to his liking.

Nagi shrugs, not bothered by Minami's straight rejection. "That's what everyone believes. Even Yamato thinks you hate us all." His way of speaking has changed; more serious, with a less pronounced accent, a shift Minami has already noticed several times but still makes him uncomfortable.

Then Nagi stands up and stretches out. "Enough with all that serious talk. Do you want to see something amazing?"

"Sure?" Minami is relieved the other is willing to drop the topic. Otherwise, he might not be able to deceive him anymore. Even a great actor like him has his limits.

Nagi goes through the pockets of his coat and takes a small sphere out. It's a blue orb, a small ball fitting in his hand, encircled by a silver ring. The inside is nebulous, with small sparkles of light going on and off.

"Did you steal it?" Minami asks. Magical items are quite hard to acquire if you're not a mage yourself; you might find some on the black market, but they're so expensive most can't afford them. Nagi has always been rich, but Minami doubts he could go underground and survive, since he stands out so much.

"No, how can you think something so horrific?" Nagi seems offended, but Minami knows it's only a play. He too is a good actor, after all. "I got it from a fan!"

"A fan?" Popular actors often got letters and presents from their fans, and Nagi is well-loved by their audience. However, gifts are usually stuff like flowers, jewels or ornaments. The company never accepts a gift if it is laced with magic, for safety. However, the way this orb changes its colours shows it's no normal item. Minami frowns. "They let you keep that?"

Nagi gives him a knowing look. "More like, they don't know I have it. But it's so pretty, look!" The sphere now has a nice yellow colour matching its owner's hair. Minami has to admit it's a nice item, and the chances it's dangerous are low. However, they can't be sure it's harmless - especially tonight.

"You should throw it away, Rokuya-san", he says. "If they find this in your belongings, you could have problems."

"They won't say anything", Nagi assures him. "They don't mind at all when I break a rule."

Minami sighs because it's true. Nagi is so popular he can go away with almost everything. He doesn't break a lot of rules, only the ones limiting the contacts between them and the audience; Nagi claims he can defend himself, and somehow, Momo and Yuki seem to believe it. So he doesn't hesitate to go see the fans, shake hands with them and give them crushing hugs. Minami dislikes it, when he does that. He's always worried something will happen to him.

"You might be right", he gives up, unable to win an argument with Nagi, and he takes the orb in his hand.

The colour fades away, leaving him with a transparent globe in the palm of his hand.

Nagi bursts out laughing. "It doesn't like you very much!" He takes the orb back, and a bright pink spread in the object. "See", he adds, "it reacts to me!"

"Which is why this object is dangerous", Minami repeats in a tired voice, but he feels like talking to the wind. Nagi doesn't listen. His eyes are glued to the orb, paying him attention but at the same time half-absent. "Rokuya-san, throw this object away."

"No way! It's mine!" Nagi's voice sounds… different, and a chill runs down Minami's spine. There's something odd, and he can't point out what. But he remembers the bad omen, and the danger he felt, ominous, looming over the night. Minami gets up and leans over Nagi.

"Rokuya-san. Give this sphere to me right now. " His voice is harsh, threatening, but Nagi doesn't yield. He gently pushes Minami back - because of course, he's always gentle with him, as if Minami was a doll on the verge of breaking, and oh does he hate this behaviour -, but his eyes bear the coldness of steel.

"Mine. I won't let anyone have it."

Minami sighs. "Alright. But I still believe you're making a big mistake."

He might be overreacting. After all, what can happen to him? The object must be inoffensive, so even if it does weird stuff... nothing too bad is to be expected, right?

Then, where does the misfortune lies?

 

 

When he wakes up, Minami feels a brush of pain in his forehead, and a bit of nausea. Lying on his camp bed, hair damp with sweat and daily clothes still on, he tries to understand what he's doing in his own tent. Did he drink too much and forgot what happened? No, he only had water, so that wouldn't make sense.

His heart is racing. It's like battling against the remnants of a nightmare, except that he hadn't dreamt at all. All he can remember is the fading blue on his skin, the grass under his fingers, Nagi's odd tone, and then…

A pang of pain bends him double. He wants to throw up.

Getting out his bed, he manages to stand up, his head still spinning. The luminosity of the tent and the brownish colour of the cloth tells him that this is already the morning. Weird. Why do his memories stop right after he decided to let Nagi act as he pleases?

When he puts his hand on his face, his skin is cold.

The mirror reflects an exhausted appearance, and Minami notices a dark stain on his shirt. A stain that reminds him of...

"Hey, Natsume, have you seen Nagi? He's not in his tent and hasn't touched his bed. Did he-"

His voice dies when he sees the mark on Minami's clothes.

A mark that looks like dried blood.

"That's... not what you think", he says. But he can't explain. He can't remember anything.

Chapter Text

Haruka is spent. There are several causes of his fatigue: his lessons, his constant fight to master magic, and, of course, the tension between Tenn and him. Oh, and he might not get enough sleep, due to his professor having nightmares; the muffled sobs always wake him up. Nonetheless, Tenn looks as fresh as a daisy, and Haruka hates him more for that.

That's why, when Tenn tells him about the mission at the end of his two-hour-long lecture on why Haruka doesn't understand anything about magic, the apprentice cracks.

"What do you mean, we have to leave tomorrow?! I thought you didn't want to take any mission for now!" Tenn's words were: as long as Isumi can't use magic to protect himself. The pretext was deemed enough to exempt him from leaving the ring, since third rank mages' missions tend to be difficult. And now, Tenn announces him out of the blue that they will leave the ring, even though Haruka hasn't made much progress? After he forbid him to go out alone, for his safety?!

Tenn, however, remains unfazed by Haruka's outburst. He only shrugs. "This is an exception. This matter requires the assistance of experimented people, so it was decided to send my triad. Besides, it shouldn't be too dangerous for you. And I can't leave you alone at the ring."

Haruka snorts. He'd love to spend time alone, actually; he wouldn't mind if he could at least get out of bed at a more sensible hour... "Huh, so Yaotome Sousuke doesn't like you a lot."

He wanted to tease Tenn, but his teacher barely flinches; only a flutter of his eyelids, nothing more. Maybe his relationship with the Great Mage isn't as cordial as it seems, but he doesn't let anything out. "Don't you think you're the one he has a problem with?"

Haruka smirks. What a funny thing to say. "I'm a mere apprentice. You give me too much importance."

Tenn sighs. "Whatever. This will be a good experience for you. I hope you'll understand more about your previous failures if you see how magic works in context." He stands up from his seat and gathers his notes - because yes, he actually prepared a bunch of notes in case he forgot to tell something, and Haruka still didn't learn anything. "Oh, and be sure to wear your brooch outside."

Haruka rolls his eyes. "Sure, sure."

"I'm serious, Isumi. If you ever get lost, I'll be able to find you", Tenn explains.

Well, Haruka could very well leave it in his pockets. The temptation is strong: proving to Tenn that he does listen to him, but refuses to be marked as his property. He doesn't belong to him, after all. He's tired of having to remember this simple fact all day long. For that matter, the sun has already set, and most of the apprentices are already having a well-deserved rest. Okay, maybe most of them are still studying, but the point still stands: they are free to do whatever they want. In the meantime, Haruka has to refrain his yawns, struggling to keep his eyes open. 

"Otherwise," Tenn goes on with his orders, "you don't have to take a lot of luggage. Spare clothes and a toilet set should be enough. If you want to take one book, I don't mind, but mages travel light."

I know, Haruka thinks; he remembers the tall silhouette of Kujou each time he stood at the threshold of his room, with only a small bag on his shoulder, waving him goodbye as he left for what Haruka believed was a mission. But it wasn't, of course; he was joining another ring, the one where Tenn was formed, the one he truly belonged to. His lies still leave a bitter taste on Haruka's tongue.

"Okay", he says. "Now, can I have dinner? I'm starving."

Tenn stares at him, but he understands he won't get more out of his apprentice for now, so he nods. "Alright. I'll eat in my office, I still have reports to finish before leaving. Bring me a tray when you're done."

"I'm not your butler", Haruka retorts.

But it's all a show of bravado; when Tenn gives him a death stare, he raises his hands. Damn, that boy can be truly scary when he's mad. "But I guess it's a good apprentice's job to do as they are told, right?"

Tenn pinches the bridge of his nose. "You're giving me a headache."

 

 

Formal dinners take place in the reception hall, but the rest of the time, meals can be taken in one of the three canteens of the ring. One of them only serves vegetarian menus, another one on the go meals, and the last one is where Haruka goes to most of the time. Mostly because the staff here is nice enough to leave him alone. There isn't anyone in this ring who doesn't know about him, and most of the mages dislike him, so he enjoys the quietness.

Haruka planned on eating alone, as usual, but Tsunashi Ryuunosuke waves at him when he enters the canteen, and he can't refuse to keep him company. He could, but he has principles. So when he gets his meal, he sits in front of him, asking: "When did you know about the mission?"

Ryuu doesn't look surprised by his question, nor does he seem to mind Haruka's rudeness. "Maybe a day or two? Tenn didn't tell you since he tried to find another solution. He didn't want to put you in danger."

So he guessed what Haruka was thinking. Well, the boy doesn't care about Tenn's motives; he has resigned himself to be with him for the next few years, deprived of any choice. Tenn can do whatever he wants, at this point. "What do you do, usually? Leave your apprentices in the hands of your colleagues?"

Ryuu nods. "Yes, that what's we do. If Tenn was to leave alone, I'd gladly take care of you, but that won't be possible this time."

Haruka can't believe his ears. He's so used to the mages looking down on him, unwilling to deal with him, that he forgot that some actually don't mind at all. Well, Ryuu is a nice guy, he only says so because he'd help anyone in need. He doesn't truly empathize with Haruka.

He decides not to say anything about this. After all, Haruka is tired and doesn't have enough energy lft to argue. "Too bad. I would have loved to have you teach me how to create an illusion."

He expects Ryuu to have one of his usual laughs, telling him he'd love to teach him too, but the older man has a serious look on his face. "I can't tell you anything. Illusions are a complex topic, and you should learn them with your master at the end of your studies."

Haruka sighs. "Yeah, but they seem fun. Way more than opening a door. You could tell me a bit about them."

Ryuu isn't convinced. "I'm serious. If you don't understand how magic works, it would be useless to learn about illusions. And Tenn will know how to teach you in the best way."

"Even though you're a better illusionist?" This is no praise, only an observation.  

"Precisely because of that. I have an intuitive knowledge of illusions, I can't really explain what I do. In a way, it's my strength: I don't have to think much to produce them. But Tenn struggled a lot with illusions, so he understands the theory a lot better than I do."

Tenn struggled? What a weird idea. Haruka hates him, but if there's one thing he has to admit, it would be that Tenn's magic is flawless. Things bow to his will with no effort on his part, and the illusions he creates are always beautiful. And, according to what Kujou said when he threw Haruka away, Tenn was a perfect student too, diligent, always succeeding in everything he tried. Was it another lie? A trick to break Haruka's self-confidence?

Not that it changes anything, for him. In the end, Tenn is still way over him.

"But, there's one thing I can tell you", Ryuu finally says. "If you can't move a real object, how can you create something that doesn't exist?"

"Good question", Haruka mumbles. He wants to sleep, not to solve riddles.

The rest of the dinner is spent in complete silence. When Haruka brings Tenn his tray of food, the mage barely notices him. Somehow, it annoys him more than the lecture from the afternoon.

Why don't you look at me, Kujou Tenn?

 

 

"So tell me, Isumi, what do you know about magical illnesses?"

Haruka frowns. When they decided to take a break for lunch, the apprentice expected them to stop walking and just eat. However, Tenn doesn't seem to need a rest at all, even though he doesn't sleep much. What a great professor, Haruka thinks. Never missing an occasion to bother me with his lessons. 

They left in the morning, and Haruka has discovered a new freedom now that he's outside. It feels like he has been locked in for months. This isn't entirely true, as there is a garden in the ring, so he could still breathe fresh air whenever he wanted. However, it has nothing to do with the sight unfolding before his eyes, the only obstacles being houses or mountains, and he realizes he's missed seeing the horizon. It sounds dumb, but it's true. Haruka dislikes living in the rings. The name comes from their form, a circle surrounding a large patio; he has heard rings have a special significance in magical semiology, not that he knows which one. Even though the rings seem to only have one floor, they are built like a tower composed of layers overlapping and changing places with no logic. These rings are where mages live, each one following its own rules and precepts, so Haruka guesses they are also kind of a school of thought. But the main problem is that apprentices aren't allowed to leave without their professor's permission. And of course, Tenn would never give him this permission.

So Haruka should have expected that he would continue the lessons anyway.

"Well... they're just bouts of, er... something disturbing the body, I think?" Haruka has never learnt anything about them, so he's just guessing. Behind Tenn's back, Gaku and Ryuu are pretending they're not listening, but they definitely are: he can see their smiles as they hear his answer. He's probably wrong, then.

Tenn's face, however, doesn't flinch. Even under the radiant sun, he looks stern and domineering, and he keeps his guard up, as if fearing an attack, when literally nobody would be dumb enough to fight three mages together. His skin is really pale, Haruka realizes, probably too pale to be healthy, so that might be the reason he's cautious. 

"There aren't pieces of anything." As the wind cradles Tenn's hair and kisses his cheeks, a thought crosses Haruka's mind. Ah, he's beautiful.

"Huh? But the body can't just decide to be ill, right?" Haruka often pretends he doesn't care about Tenn's teachings, but he can't help but be curious. He kind of gets it: magic isn't something you can control, it is the control you have over things. Or rather, over the soul of things. However, there are resistances, things that can't be controlled anymore, and Haruka has always thought it was because something else was controlling the essence of the object. Whenever it happens, things seem to have their own will. These are what Haruka always thought of "small bouts of magic": he has figured it was the only plausible reason, magic becoming tangible and out of control. Tenn's explanations seemed to follow this line of thought, too.

That's why Kujou always told him he should break the object's will, if they had one. Sheer strength was the only solution if you wanted to master things.

Now, Haruka isn't sure anymore.

Tenn chuckles, but he isn't amused. "Actually, that's exactly what happens. Magical illnesses are hard to cure because there isn't anything disturbing the body, it just believes it should work differently. Traditional medicine tries to get rid of foreign bodies in the flesh, so it doesn't work either."

That's crazy, Haruka thinks. Both Tenn and Kujou have told him controlling a living creature is almost impossible - unless you have the power of a god. "But why? If it's magical, then it means someone has cast a spell, right?"

"Maybe, maybe not. We don't know where most of the illnesses come from, and we don't understand a lot about them. All we know is that our bodies are always communicating with each other, so sometimes an ill one convinces a sane one to imitate its behaviour. That's what we understand about contagion, in a simplified way."

Haruka feels his head spinning. "Why are you telling me this? Want to make me fall sick?"

Tenn doesn't laugh at his poor attempt to make a joke. "No, it's because of our mission. An epidemic has broken in the south of Furakke and we've been sent there to try to find a solution. But it's going to be hard."

"Are you asking for my help?" Haruka asks, even though he knows the answer.

Tenn's serious look is enough of a reply, anyway. "Of course not. I only want you to be careful. Magicians are always more sensitive to magical illnesses, after all. I told you this mission won't be too dangerous, but only if you follow my orders."

Haruka shrugs. "Sure." He doesn't like how Tenn implies he doesn't listen to him most of the time. He does so way more often than he wishes.

Haruka believes he still doesn't understand much about magic. 

 

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

 

Tamaki's health, in the morning, hasn't improved a lot.

Torao believes there is something in the atmosphere. His breathing is heavier, as if the air was thick and oppressive. It might be because of the tension between them. Sougo didn't get a wink of sleep during the night; neither did Torao, who had observed him, worried about him. On the other hand, Tamaki slept like a log, so quietly Sougo checked him several times to ensure he was still breathing.

The boy is still too weak to hit the road again, so they decide to stay for another day. The farmers who welcomed him don't seem to mind. They offered their help out of generosity, the lady insists; they can't chase them away if one of them is ill. Sougo decided to sing them a ballad to thank them. His voice, soft and soothing, has always fascinated Torao. If he didn't know much, he would think his voice is filled with magic - but then the thought makes him snort. Of course, it isn't. Otherwise, he wouldn't feel so calm himself. Some things in this world can't be explained by magic or logic.

But as he sings, Sougo sounds a bit different from usual. His worry and pain are obvious; he's afraid, Torao realizes, afraid of losing his partner, or even having to perform without him. Yet it doesn't move the bodyguard. After all, he's too used to loneliness to see it as a problem.

They end up staying another night on the farm, another night when Sougo doesn't sleep much - and Torao doesn't either, as he's too busy looking for Sougo. This is a part of himself that he hates, his inability to properly cut ties with people. That's why he's still there, by Sougo's side, even though his company hurts him much more than he'd like to admit.

Then the next morning, Tamaki can finally stand on his two feet. He might not be able to walk long distances yet, but they don't want to impose more than they already did. Sougo gives the couple a silver coin, and the farmers want to protest they don't need payment, but they end up accepting it anyway. 

Torao decides to push his luck. "You know, you'll have to give me an extra if we don't reach the town in time."

Sougo doesn't seem bothered by his demand. "Sure thing." But the circles under his eyes are so dark Torao could have gotten anything out of him, at this point.

They don't make a lot of progress, as they need to take several breaks each time Tamaki needs one. Since they try to find a roof to sleep under every night, they often have to stop their travel early, when the sun is still high in the sky, in case they can't find anything else. The slow pace doesn't bother Torao, though. He finds it easier to protect the duo when they're not moving - not that they meet a lot of dangers on this road. They haven't seen any robber on their path, and the other travelers they meet don't pay them any attention.

Days pass, and Tamaki is still not totally healed when they reach Minsheru.

 

 

Minsheru is a tiny town, almost a village at the foot of the mountain but with a low rampart. There's only the grey of the stones over the grey of the clouds, nothing exciting at all. Torao feels disappointed. This place is the end of their trip, so he expected something more... maybe not grand, but at least interesting. The town is decent, at best. The two guards that watch the doors, however, aren't.

Tamaki stands on his two feet, trying to pretend he's in better health than he actually is. He is using the last bit of his energy, but Torao is worried he's going to collapse as soon as they manage to get in. Sougo is talking with the guards, but the chat doesn't seem to go the right way. One of the men, who let his sword lying on the ground with no care for caution, sticks out his chest in an attempt to look threatening. Torao finds him pathetic. But the most pathetic thing is how Sougo doesn't seem to fight back. That's a thing Torao doesn't like about him: most of the time, he's too polite, and he doesn't know how to be assertive. It's too easy to throw him off, even though he is the son of one of the most influent families of the kingdom. 

"A problem?" he asks, walking to the small group. And, contrary to the guards, Torao doesn't try to look impressive. He doesn't need to: he has learnt, from the youngest age, the posture suitable for a noble, one that would command respect. Spine straight, chin high, and a cold smile that never reaches the eyes. And the two men back away without realizing.

Sougo, however, is immune to his attitude; the same kind of blood runs in his veins. "Not at all, Torao-san. I was going to pay the fees." Opening his purse, he puts out a few bronze pieces: one, two, three, four... Now, Torao doesn't know much about the price of life, but he believes this is way too much to go into such a cesspit.

Putting his hand over Sougo's, he says: "The fees are too high."

"Really? I've always paid that much for entrance fees, though?"

Torao sighs. He can't believe Sougo can be so easily swindled. "Nah, they're conning you."

"Hey!" one of the guards shouts. "That's the same price for everyone!"

Torao stares at him and the man flinches. Without a word, the bodyguard takes only two pieces in Sougo's hand and hands it to the man. The guard accepts it and steps aside. They can go in.

After they pass the door, Tamaki drops his weight over his shoulder. "See, Sou-chan, I was right. We always pay too much."

Sougo's face has become red. "I'm sincerely sorry, Tamaki-kun..."

Torao keeps silent. He shouldn't have interfered. This is not his money, he shouldn't mind.

The streets are quite narrow, too, except for the main one, the only that looks like a proper street. A furrow has been dug in the ground to drain the waters away, and the passers-by walk on both sides, depending on their direction. The trio soon follows the crowd, and Sougo takes the lead again, since he is the only one who knows where to go. They don't have to walk for long, anyway; five minutes later - or maybe even less -, they reach a small tree-lined place, and they stop right before a small house - damn, everything is small here. Sougo knocks on the door, and they don't have to wait long until a man opens it.

Torao has never seen a man with such beautiful hair - long, falling on his shoulders like the night settling on earth. His eyes are of a clearer hue, gentle yet a bit on edge. They make him feel uncomfortable.

The man's face softens when he sees who they are.

"Sougo-kun, Tamaki-kun, I'm glad you could make it!" He then moves his gaze to Torao. "And I guess you are their bodyguard, right?"

Torao bows his head, but his face is confident. "Nice to meet you, Oogami Banri. My name is Torao."

From what Torao gathered, Banri was the first one who supported the duo when they decided to become MEZZO". It was at a time when he lived in the capital, before he decided to move in the countryside - Torao doesn't know why exactly, only that he ran away from something, and he still tries to hide. Whatever, it's not his business anyway. What surprises him, however, is how young Banri looks: he must be in his late twenties, at best. Torao always figured he would be older. 

The man gives him a smile in return. "It's a pleasure to meet you as well. Please, come in."

The house looks small on the outside, but is in fact quite comfortable. To the left, stairs lead to an upper floor. Another surprise is the number of chairs surrounding the tables, six of them, hinting that the man is used to welcome many people at the same time. Sougo and Tamaki sit on two of them without being invited, proof of their closeness, and Torao hesitates. Should he do the same, even though he's only assuring their backs and isn't very interested in their affairs? Then he meets Banri's eyes, and he freezes. This man has a heart of gold, Torao realizes, but he could be dangerous. His smile is sweet and pained at the same time, and he looks like he has nothing to lose.

"Tamaki-kun, are you alright? You don't look good", Banri asks, worried.

Tamaki slowly nods. "Yeah, m'fine. Been sick during the trip, that's all."

"If you say so." Banri doesn't seem convinced, but he leaves them to go to his kitchen. Torao decides to sit beside Tamaki, right in front of Sougo.

"So he's your friend, huh", he whispers, not caring about being heard or not. Tamaki doesn't react, as he's still too tired; however, Sougo smiles. What a disgusting smile. He seems to be happy to be here. "And you brought Tamaki with you, but I doubt he will be able to perform."

"I'm fine", Tamaki repeats, but his voice is too weak to be convincing.

Sougo stares at Torao. "And you should remember what I told you, Mido-san. I have a solution."

He's using my family name even though that Banri guy can hear us, Torao realizes. They must trust him a lot. Well, Torao isn't that confident. He doesn't like strangers knowing too much about him, especially when he doesn't know anything in return.

"Oh, so you belong to the Midou family, Torao-kun?" Banri brings a tray with him, and Torao refrains himself from sighing. This is exactly what he didn't want to happen.

"I'm disowned", he lies. He is not; while Sougo was disinherited when he chose to become a minstrel, Torao's family didn't dismiss him at all. Well, they don't care about his whereabouts, even though they used to spoil him when he was a child. Now, they just let him do whatever he wants, as long as he doesn't tarnish their name.

Banri nods while serving cups filled with a dark beverage - coffee, Torao believes, although it is quite a rare drink since it needs to be imported. "I understand why you're friends with Sougo-kun, then."

Torao prefers not to answer. "What about you? Any dark secret you're hiding?" he asks, smirking.

"Midou-san!"

Banri doesn't seem to be offended by his question. Torao already likes him. "Unfortunately, I'm only a commoner with no tragic backstory. My life has been pretty boring in that regard."

For some reason, Torao believes he's lying, too. But he doesn't want to pry: he knows what it means to flee. "But you have one of the most famous duos of minstrels coming for your birthday. I'm almost jealous."

Banri laughs - all hints of caution have disappeared, now. He's relaxed and Torao wonders what has convinced him the bodyguard isn't a threat. "Okay, I confess, my life wasn't that boring. Do you know how MEZZO" was founded?"

Torao shakes his head. "Yes and no. I do know is that they met by chance."

Sougo's cheeks become red when he says: "Midou-san, nothing is interesting about this story. Banri-san helped us understand each other and introduced us to the right people, I already told you so." He might want to hide something, but he doesn't need to worry, Torao isn't that curious.

"And I'm the one who came up with their name", Banri adds. "I thought it suited them. They're different but when they sing together, they reach a balance between Sougo's raw power and Tamaki's aloofness."

Sougo's raw power? Ah, Torao sees what he's meaning. This man is soft, but he can be scary when he needs to.

"You seem to know them pretty well", Torao points out, as if it wasn't obvious already.

Banri leans his head, his gaze fond. "You could say I'm like a big brother to them. Anyway, Torao-kun, it is nice to meet you."

"The pleasure is all mine", Torao replies.

Sougo still stares at him from the other side of the table, and Torao wonders what he's thinking. He seems to be a bit uncomfortable. Is it because Torao gets along well with Oogami Banri when he acts so cold with him? He shouldn't worry too much. Torao only plays nice because he knows he won't be seeing Banri again when they'll leave Minsheru. He doesn't mind being close to him if it's only for a few days.

On the other hand, he'll never be able to drive Sougo away, even if he tries to. The memory of their common past will never fade.

 

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

 

 

After a few days, the four men reach the first town of Furakke, a town called Naia, and they book two rooms in an inn. Of course, Haruka still has to share his with Tenn. Or maybe it's the other way around, he doesn't know.

Travelling would be a rather pleasant experience, if not for Tenn. Ryuu is really nice to him, always giving him compliments when Haruka manages to cast a spell - he has managed to help a flower bloom, a feat he's proud of, although Tenn then tore his joy down by changing the petals' colours and asking him to do the same. Gaku is also a good company, as he never misses a chance to rile Tenn up, and Haruka loves watching their interactions. The older mage seems to be the only one who can break Tenn's composure, so he has earned Haruka's infinite respect. If only he was his master, things would be different... Tenn's partners are way more gentle than this so-called "angel mage". Whoever decided to give Tenn's this nickname didn't know anything about him.

Tenn hasn't come back to the topic of magical illnesses during the previous days, focusing on basic lectures that are supposed to help Haruka, but the apprentice starts to believe the reason he's not progressing a lot is because of a lack of understanding. Tenn teaches him things he already knows, and neglects to explain the ones he doesn't understand, acting as if they were obvious. However, during dinner, he says: "Tomorrow, we'll go see a patient. Wear your brooch, it will protect you."

His eyes drop on Haruka's chest, on the empty space where the jewel is supposed to be. The boy has it in his pocket, his way of challenging his master's authority, but he feels like Tenn already knows it.

Haruka's night isn't restful. Tenn ends up whining in his sleep again, and when the sun rises, the apprentice wishes he could spend the whole morning in the bed. He hates the ring, but he kind of misses sleeping on a real mattress. However, Tenn forces to get up, full of energy in spite of his sleepless night.

Haruka doesn't want to ask what he's dreaming of.

After breakfast, the three mages, plus Haruka (with his brooch in place, since he's a good apprentice - and Tenn might have scolded him again before they left), go to see the patient, who lives in a cosy house in the centre. Haruka whistles when he sees the housing: the frontage is as white as snow, with large windows and actual glasses. A few roses grow before the house, and they have the same colour as Tenn's eyes.

Wait, why is he thinking of Tenn's eyes right now? He needs to focus.

The patient is a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair, lying in his bed, almost dying. His face is wrinkled, his skin yellowish, and when the mages enter his room, the arm he raises to welcome them has no strength at all.

"Hey, are you sure he's not just sick?" Haruka whispers in his master's ear when Gaku introduces themselves. "He looks... normal."

"The doctor of the town has already checked him and hasn't found anything. We are here to make sure it's magical, and to gather information if it's the case." Tenn doesn't sound as exasperated as Haruka thought he would be, but his tone is tired. "Although in his state, there's nothing we can do for him. He will die in a few days."

Haruka cast a glance at the man. He can barely move, and his eyes are glassy. You don't have to be a doctor to tell that his end is near. And Haruka can't say he's sad, he doesn't know the man after all, but he still feels a hint of sorrow. Here's a life they won't be able to save.

After Gaku is done with the explanations, Ryuu is the one who examines the man. Tenn stands before Haruka, so he can't see everything the oldest mage is doing, but at the same time, he doesn't mind. In this position, it seems like Tenn is protecting him from the illness... and no matter how much Haruka hates it, he also craves for this sort of behaviour - proofs that Tenn cares about him.

"I'm... not sure", Ryuu finally murmurs when he's done, and his eyes shine more than usual, the gold of his irises almost gleaming in the penumbra. "I feel something, but it's too weak. I believe this man has another illness weakening him at the same time."

Tenn sighs. "Then we won't learn much."

"I can't tell where the core is. I'm sorry."

Haruka shouldn't ask questions when the mages are talking - that's not what apprentices are supposed to do - but since he's here and Tenn wants him to learn: "The core?"

"It's the point of contact", Gaku tries to explain, but Haruka has no idea what it means.

Fortunately, Tenn turns his head and realizes Haruka doesn't understand anything. "Remember what I told you about contagion? There's always a point of the body that is in contact with the ill body, and the illness spreads from this point. The thing is, the contact isn't always physical, and sometimes it can be situated in weird places. We call this place the core."

"And you need it to heal?" Haruka goes on with his questions.

Tenn nods. "We need to convince the body to stop his erratic behaviour, so we have to remove this influence. The rest is out of our hands."

Haruka looks away, his eyes landing on the patient. They meet the man's gaze, and a weak smile blooms on his face. Haruka's heart sinks.

They all leave the man's room soon after, except for Ryuu who will "try something", these are his words. Haruka doesn't know what exactly he can do: mages can't control living beings, right? They can't do anything to fix bodies...

Or Haruka might be missing something.