Muse’s fingers ghosted over the piano keys, so light they almost didn’t produce sound. She would play this song once in a while, even after all this time. Although she couldn’t remember who taught it to her, or even what the song was called. It was actually a violin tune, that much she did remember. She vividly remembered the sound of a fiddle playing it in the distance, delicate and quick-footed, but strong and determined, like a bird in flight.
Mikleo had asked her, once. “What’s the song’s name, mommy?”
She didn’t know.
“Can I play it, too?”
Of course. It might be a little bit too difficult for him still (he was barely five years old), but she would be patient in teaching him.
Muse sat down at the piano again with Mikleo on her lap, guiding his tiny chubby fingers over the keys.
“It never sounds right when I play it,” she admitted.
“You’re supposed to play it on violin.”
Mikleo beamed at her, “Sorey wants to learn violin. I’ll tell him to play your song when he’s ready. I’ll kick him if he’s not making progress.”
Muse smiled back, “Have some mercy on him.”
Sorey ended up loving the violin, and in the years after that, Mikleo picked up playing flute in addition to the piano just so he could play with him when they were on the road. They never shared Muse’s song with anyone else, but they ended up making up a flute voice to go with it, and it had never sounded so complete.
Sun rays fell through the skylight under the roof into Mikleo’s room, lighting up the tiny particles of dust dancing up and down, and settling in his tousled hair. More tousled than usual because Sorey’s hand had been tangled in it the whole night, and Mikleo had fallen asleep with his cheek and bangs squished into his shoulder.
Mikleo was still only half conscious when Sorey carefully carded his free hand through Mikleo’s hair and along his back and shifted as much as Mikleo’s weight on top him would allow – it wasn’t beyond him to wake Mikleo up, but he usually made an effort to do it gently.
They had been officially “dating” for about two months (although Sorey hated the term and insisted nothing between them had changed; well, nothing unless you counted the additions of kissing and… things) and were used to sharing a bed ever since they could remember, even when there was a second bed readily available. One might have thought that by now they would have found a sleeping position that wouldn’t cut off at least one of the boy’s blood in his limbs, but the truth was it had only led them to being perfectly used to waking up with numb limbs once in a while. Mikleo blinked his eyes open, with effort. Sorey drew him closer to kiss his half closed eye lids.
Mikleo growled in response and cuddled more insistently into his chest. Sorey indulged him and draped both arms around him in a cuddle lock until Mikleo got too warm for comfort. He groggily dragged himself up and muttered a “Good Morning” in response.
Sorey pecked his nose.
“Happy eighteenth Birthday.”
Mikleo smiled down at him and mumbled, “Thanks.”
Most of their closest friends congratulated Mikleo the same day, since they saw each other at school, anyway; the only one who was neither a teacher nor a student there was Edna, so she held off her birthday wishes until the next orchestra rehearsal was due.
Sorey and Mikleo loved the orchestra. They had basically been born into it, but wouldn’t complain. Mikleo would most likely complain about the commotion caused by all their friends in the orchestra congratulating him for his birthday, however. And specifically, any commotion caused by Edna.
Edna idly chimed her triangle. The movement was so delicate that the sound came out as bright as a bell and as quiet as a mouse. Mikleo heard it anyway and waved Mint and Cress off from congratulating him to turn around and face her. He was conditioned to dread the sound of her triangle. It was usually a warning that Edna was ready to play the triangle considerably louder the next minute, and at any deliberately inappropriate moment. Either that, or poke him with the beater. Which, in turn, was usually a warning that she would strike with her umbrella next should anything upset her delicate temper. (Considering it was Mikleo, pretty much every word he said – or didn’t say – upset her delicate temper.)
“Rudeleo. I’ve been playing you the birthday version of the Normincarena for a full three minutes now. And still you choose to ignore me.”
“I happen to be talking to people. I have other friends, too, you know, and they voice their birthday wishes like a normal person.”
“Oh, it’s fine!” Cress assured him. “We won’t be in your friends’ way to send their regards as well.”
“Yes, Meebo. Listen to him.”
Mikleo almost bit down on his tongue. “Tell me why exactly out of all the percussion instruments you play you thought the triangle would be appropriate.”
“I can hear the italics when you speak, Meebo, and I am saddened that you do not honour this noble instrument. I obviously chose the triangle because it is elegant like me, and its pitch matches your squeaks when I poke you. It is therefore the best instrument to congratulate you on finally coming of age in some countries.”
Sorey noticed his despair and gently but insistently fished for Mikleo’s hand. He idly squeezed back, which only caused Sorey’s sappy smile to grow wider.
Next in line was Milla, so Mikleo would probably be alright this time around. Milla was positively the weirdest person Mikleo had ever met, and that included his boyfriend and his closest friends.
Years after she had joined the orchestra, they still didn’t know what she did for a living, or where to find that tiny village she came from, which apparently must be even tinier and closer to the middle of nowhere than even Camlann. Pretty often she appeared to rehearsals in a miniskirt and without a coat even in the coldest depths of winter; only ever made an attempt to tame her hair if Jude not so subtly addressed its state; could eat an entire pig for a meal but still sported a waist so slender that it put honey bees to shame; made it a habit to challenge her bulkiest friends to arm wrestle matches and win; and she talked to spirits that nobody else had ever seen or heard. To name only a few things that put Milla on the odd side of friends.
However, she also played the flute and wasn’t half-bad at it either, so Mikleo had always been closer to her than to most other members of the orchestra (both in the literal sense and in the sense of actually talking to people). He respected her as a musician and in general. (You didn’t disrespect a woman who could and probably would break your wrist when arm wrestling. You just didn’t.) Milla would help him calm down a bit. …Probably.
She was smiling as usual and squeezed Mikleo’s hand a little too hard when shaking it, also as usual. However, she looked at him quizzically and scrutinized him for longer than usual. Mikleo felt like diving into a hole to disappear.
“Have you felt differently yet?” Milla asked eventually.
If she ended up asking him whether Mikleo was finished going through all the phases of puberty that textbooks told her teenagers were supposed to go through, he swore he’d run. “…No?” he replied, genuinely confused.
“Yes, Meebo, in some countries you may legally consume alcohol now. Luckily, I’ve already procured the best choices for you. Or do you want to wait for the twenty-one mark, like you do with everything?”, Edna quipped.
Mikleo tried to shoo her away with his free hand, the other one still being firmly in Sorey’s grip.
Milla wasn’t perturbed by the interruption at all. “I mean, have you felt any differently around water as of late? Can you hear their voices yet?”
Mikleo gave her a long look. She wasn’t joking. She never was.
“I don’t think so,” he offered eventually.
“Well, take care, but don’t be afraid when you do.”
“Thanks,” Mikleo mumbled, holding himself back from questioning her sanity. (Been there, done that. Milla always remained unfazed.)
That seemed to satisfy her, and she gave a happy smile.
Sorey followed her steps curiously when she went off to fetch her instrument, and then gave Mikleo a nudge with his elbow. “If you ever hear her spirits’ voices, you’ll tell me, though, right?”
Mikleo nudged back. “If.”
He didn’t expect that there would be an if.
“Mikleo, where are we going?”
Mikleo didn’t know. He was just a little boy who couldn’t even reach the top shelf in the kitchen cupboard, and had currently set his mind on following the most beautiful sound of a violin he had ever heard.
“Where the music goes!”
There was only fog ahead, thick, damp fog, but he didn’t feel anything of it, only felt Sorey’s chubby fingers grabbing his, and saw haggard branches flying past them as they ran, faster as the music got louder and clearer. Just when Mikleo thought he could almost physically feel the notes digging under his skin and expected the mysterious fiddler to come into view the next second, Sorey yanked his arm and brought them to a halt.
Mikleo turned around to see him awkwardly shifting his feet on the ground. A crack, and the music faded. Mikleo looked down to where Sorey was staring at his feet, all colour faded from his cheeks. Under his shoes were the sides of a human child’s skull, neatly parted in half, and the sound of tiny bones breaking like twigs was in the air.
Mikleo’s vision turned black and he found himself in his bed again.
He had never been so grateful for waking up.
His heart was racing as if he’d run miles and the darkness didn’t add to his comfort, but he was grateful for the warmth on his skin.
He took a quick glance to the side where Sorey slept peacefully, his chest rising and falling steadily. Mikleo gently stroked a finger over his cheek. Sorey didn’t even stir, which was probably for the better.
Mikleo tried to go back to sleep but barely managed to close his eyes. Their song was practically hammering in his ears the entire time, matching his heartbeat.
This is not how we learned this song, he reminded himself. We learned it from mum. He frantically tried to ignore the thought that he didn’t know where she learned it in return, and that he wanted to find out.
The first time it happened he shrugged it off. Nightmares happen.
The second time, he found himself back in the same wood, with fog so thick that the treetops vanished in white mist. It was dead silent and wherever he looked, the woods looked all the same to him.
He found himself at a lake, so calm no wind stirred the waters, and the same white, milky sprays of mist hung in the air. He could barely see what was in front of him: the water’s edge, shallow and overgrown with reeds.
Mikleo crouched down, curiosity getting the better of him, and stared intently at the water, trying to make out what was under the surface.
He woke up when he made out bones and the faces of drowned children his own age.
He tried to get used to these dreams of the people dying in the forest while a fiddle happily played the melody he had grown up with. It had to be a phase. Surely it wasn’t really spirits invading his dreams. You’re just thinking of it because Milla mentioned it, he told himself. In the end, they were only dreams. Those could usually be fought off with thinking rationally about the whole setup.
Which soon made him get even less sleep out of fear of more nightmares, and no sleep at all after that one time when one of the faces on the dead bodies on the ground was Sorey’s.
He woke up with a shout and very nearly jumped out of bed. He might have fallen out had Sorey not stopped him.
“Whoa, careful, Mik!”
Mikleo just stared at him with wide eyes, but didn’t dare to move. Sorey brushed his tousled bangs out of his face. “Mikleo? You were sleep talking.”
Mikleo didn’t answer but buried his face in his shoulder. Sorey quietly wrapped his arms around him and carded a hand through his hair.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Mikleo mumbled against his skin.
“Oh.” Eloquent. Mikleo almost smiled. “I’m here, though. Perfectly alive,” Sorey assured him.
“I know. Thank you.” Mikleo sighed deeply before he added, “Mind if we stay like this for a minute?”
“Not at all.” He meant it, and didn’t even complain when Mikleo’s nails dug into the skin on his back, unable to let go.
This wasn’t what Mikleo had thought Milla meant when she mentioned hearing spirits as he grew up.
So he asked her about it on one quiet, warm evening after orchestra rehearsal, when everyone else had left the room. He was grabbing his flute with both hands, trying to find something to ground him, and not daring to get up from his chair. “Milla, would spirits send people nightmares?”
“It can happen,” she replied cheerfully.
“How do I know it’s spirits?”
“You can’t until you ask them.”
Mikleo looked up from his flute. “How do I tell them to stop?”
Milla sat down next to him. “Same thing. Ask them.”
“How do I ask them?”
“I do not know. It’s different for everyone. All I can tell you is that someone’s calling for you.”
“Awfully rude way of calling for me.”
“Personally, I can’t say I find all human customs particularly polite, either.”
Same, and I’m human, but at times like this, I’m not sure about you, Mikleo thought.
He looked up to see Sorey standing across from them in the doorway, looking far more worried than what suited him. Mikleo immediately felt guilty.
Luckily, if Sorey had overheard anything at all, he made no comment on it.
Milla excused herself and left them together in silence that was far less comfortable than it used to be.
It got a little better when Sorey picked up his hands and rubbed soft circles into them. Mikleo couldn’t quite meet his eyes yet, so he stared at the invisible traces Sorey’s fingers left on his skin.
“Sorey? Would you mind playing me our song?” he eventually asked.
Sorey’s heart fluttered. “Now?”
“Want to join in?”
“No. Just play. Please.”
Sorey didn’t question him further and picked up his violin. As nimble and precise as always. Something invisible and oddly cold on this summer day gripped Mikleo’s heart and pulled at the strings to yank something from the inside that he didn’t know had ever been there in the first place. He felt empty when Sorey finished playing. The song was short unless you looped it, so the whole experience felt as quick as a needle pricking his skin, but drew the air from his lungs nonetheless. Followed by the odd feeling that for once, something was wrong with the song, and it wasn’t his flute voice missing.
“Mikleo? Are you okay?”
He hadn’t even realised that Sorey had stopped playing and was now brushing the hair out of Mikleo’s face, his brow furrowed in concern.
“Yes. Thank you.” Just to finally make Sorey stop frowning, which was bound to fail, but still.
“Hey, Mikleo? Why do you play music?”
“Why do you ask?“
“Because you’re completely zoned out these days.”
Sorey moved to brush his thumbs over Mikleo’s shoulders now. Mikleo managed a smile. “To kick you when you’re off tempo. You?”
Sorey looked up as if lost in thought, but answered immediately. “Because music is the best way to let your feelings out. To celebrate them. To reflect on them. I wouldn’t want to miss that. So, you?”
“You asked me that already, and I told you.”
“So what you’re saying is you wouldn’t make music without me?”
“Cut that stupid grin. That’s not what I said.”
“Would you make music without me, though?”
“Yes, but I still prefer having you there.”
That made Sorey’s grin even stupider.The bus back to Camlann was slow and felt like a second home by now because they spent so much time there. However, it was the probably most quiet bus ride they ever had, both of them staring out of the window and occasionally rubbing circles into each other hands.
Their families usually ate dinner late, if Sorey’s parents came home at all, with all of them working outside town, and Sorey and Mikleo going to school and their orchestra rehearsals in Marlind. Dinner was almost finished when Mikleo broke the silence; just between him, Sorey, and his mother.
“Mum, do you really not remember when and where you learned our song?”
Muse stared at him long and quietly. “I do remember when and where,” she said eventually, calmly holding his gaze. “But not how.”
Mikleo was very quiet and almost didn’t feel it when Sorey squeezed his hand under the table.
“I see,” he said under his breath.
The next morning, he slid out of bed, as silent as a mouse, grabbed his flute, phone, and keys, and left the house before anyone even had a chance to notice he was gone.