Heathcliff has never cared much for storybooks.
Even as a little kid, he would listen attentively as his mother read out some sprawling tale about knights, dragons, or princesses, his thoughts often wandering even as he found warmth in her company. Occasionally a story would manage to capture his interest, but more often, he’d hang onto random little details that sparked his curiosity. An ancient castle built at the peak of a mountain, a shimmering dress that refracted light like a prism, an unwieldy instrument that played itself.
But both then and now, the fairy tales themselves almost never captivate his imagination in the way he thinks they’re supposed to.
Perhaps, as a reluctant young wizard, extraordinary situations don’t feel so alight with possibility. Or perhaps there is just something he fundamentally lacks.
Heath has mulled it over every now and then. But tonight, he’s found something else to occupy his attention: an old tome he snuck out of the library when no one was looking. (He isn’t sure why exactly he decided to smuggle it. It isn’t as though any of the books within his reach are considered off-limits, but the thought of being questioned made him anxious.)
He picked the book almost randomly—he liked the illustrated fortress engraved on the cover, glanced at the text inside to confirm that it was indeed not a storybook but a dense, tiny-printed text written for adults, and absconded with the volume. Now he sits up in bed, pouring over page after page.
To be honest, he can’t parse much of the language. But he likes the illustrations. It seems to be a book about various styles of buildings. (Architecture. A somewhat familiar term, but now he commits it to memory.) He marvels at the detail in each picture, at the thought and consideration that goes into every brick, shingle, or windowpane, and how the details come together. Whenever he comes across a name in the text, he stops to sound it out, letting the words form on his tongue.
Engrossed in these new discoveries, time gets away from him. He only senses the deepening of the night by the way his eyelids get heavier, the frequency of his yawns.
But before he can put himself to sleep, something else happens. Something he’s experienced only a few times that already feels welcome and familiar—the sound of a light knock on his third story bedroom window. His heart leaps.
Heathcliff sets his book face down on his pillow, pulls away his bedspread, and springs to the floor. He takes three steps and then stops, finds a bookmark on his bedside table, and closes the old volume properly. And then he hesitates, glancing down at his bare feet, his blue pajamas. Would this be any way to greet a visitor? Would Shino laugh at him? Would he care? Heathcliff glances toward the window, then at his wardrobe, and then a second round of knocking strikes and he follows the sound across the room.
As he unlatches the casement window and pushes it open, the truth belatedly occurs to him—proper manners aren’t an issue here. There’s a boy on an old broomstick floating just outside his bedroom, one hand cradling a squirrel nestled against his neck.
The atmosphere changes all at once. A burst of cold air enters the room, kissing at his face and his collarbones until it slides down to the hardwood floor, curling like a cat at his feet. Along with it, he can smell the forest. He can hear it, too, the sound of crickets and rustling leaves all around. The boy on the broomstick smiles. Heath inhales sharply, and it’s as though he’s been transported into one of those old fairy tales he used to feel so unaffected by.
“Shino,” he says, keeping his voice low. “What’s that?”
“Squirrel.” Shino speaks plainly. He takes his other hand off the broom, balancing in midair as he scoops the docile animal off his shoulder. “You want to see?”
He doesn’t wait for a response, gliding closer to the window. When Shino raises one arm, the squirrel mounts it as though it’s been trained. Shino’s arm hovers there in the window as the squirrel looks at Heath curiously.
Heathcliff stares into the creature’s tiny, expressionless eyes. “Should I... should I pet it?” He holds his arms awkwardly at his chest, not sure what to do with them.
Apprehensively, he reaches out, and with just one finger strokes gently down the back of the squirrel’s neck. It sits still for just a moment, then darts back up Shino’s arm, nestling back against his neck. Heath tries to hide the way he’d immediately jumped, shifting on his feet.
“Kinda jumpy,” Shino remarks.
“It’s... a little weird.” Heath frowns. “Aren’t squirrels scared of people? Why is it okay with you?”
The other boy shrugs. “Dunno. Maybe since the spirits around the castle love the people here, the animals are calm, too. Or maybe he likes wizards.”
“The spirits around the castle...?” Heath repeats. “They like people?”
“They like you, and the rest of the Blanchette household. Probably all the servants even. Did you know that?”
Heathcliff shakes his head. Truthfully, there was no one else who’d tell him such a thing before Shino swooped into his life.
Shino smiles, looking a little proud of himself. “It’s true. I could tell right away.”
As if he’s suddenly remembered something, Heathcliff leans out the window, glancing side to side at the grounds below. He scans carefully to make sure that no one else is around. Of course, though his friendship with Shino was initiated by the lady of the house herself, they both know that none of the head servants would be happy to find Shino sneaking around like this.
“No one’s around,” Shino says. “I made sure.”
Once satisfied, Heathcliff straightens, ducking back into his room. “Just checking. Someone could show up any time, you have to be careful. What if they notice you’re missing?”
“I am careful,” Shino insists, a tiny edge of annoyance perceptible in his voice. “I always make sure it’s clear. Why d’you think it took so long to come visit again?”
“Well I... oh.”
Heathcliff stalls out before he can snap back, realizing Shino has said something he doesn’t quite know how to respond to. It’s true, it had been a couple weeks since he’d last met Shino like this. But until now, he’d never considered that this was a product of necessity. Did this mean that Shino had wanted to see him all this time? That maybe at some point, Heath had gazed out his window secretly hoping to see a gleam of light in the sky, see moonlight striking black hair... and somewhere out there, maybe Shino was wishing for the same thing?
The thought brings an unintentional smile to the young noble’s face. They really are friends... aren’t they?
Before Shino can question the dopey expression, he moves on. If this is the time they have together, he doesn’t want to waste a moment of it. “By the way, how is your work? Are you adjusting well?”
Shino cocks his head. “You know you talk like a grownup sometimes? But yeah, it’s good. It’s hard work, but I don’t mind. I like it.”
“You really like it?” Heathcliff repeats back. “Even though it’s hard?”
“Sure. I do my job, and then I always get to eat.” He shrugs. “Better than anything I used to do.”
This ends that line of conversation. Heath knows better than to press further—or at least, he feels too guilty to try. He becomes suddenly aware of the contrast between their states of dress, between the warmth of his bedroom and the chill of the night.
“That’s good that you like it,” he says. “I’m glad.”
Heath’s gaze fixes in front of him. He’s watching Shino float before a backdrop of stars, and as he falls deep into thought, his vision unfocuses. For a moment, the stars seem to melt over Shino’s hair, the line between this young wizard and the endless night sky blurring, disappearing into one.
“What?” Shino’s voice snaps Heath back to attention.
“Oh,” he says. “I was just remembering something.”
“Remembering what?” Shino is completely silent after he says this, and Heath realizes that he’s immediately ready to absorb every word. Something tightens in Heathcliff’s chest. He feels more nervous than before, but more compelled to share, too.
“You know how you said... that the spirits in this forest like us? The people in the castle?”
Shino says nothing, but he nods.
“It made me remember something. There was this time when I was little. I think I ran out into the forest—I don’t even know why. Why would I ever do that...? I think I was maybe scared of something, or...” His voice trails off as his thoughts wander past it. Heathcliff shakes his head.
“Anyway, I looked up, and I didn’t know where I was. I thought I got really lost. But I wasn’t really scared, for some reason? And I think... every time I looked up, I would know which direction to go. I followed it every time. And before I knew it, I was back here at the castle.”
Even as the story reaches a stopping point, Shino stays quiet. So Heath keeps talking.
“I didn’t think about that in a while.” He smiles, a bit embarrassed. “But I guess... for some reason, I thought I wasn’t alone out there. And that’s why it wasn’t scary, and why I knew where to go.”
Finally, Shino breaks into a grin. “Of course you knew. Of course you could feel it too. Because you’re a wizard, and any wizard would.”
The words strike Heathcliff hard. They hit him in a way he can’t really even understand. He cowers at them—feels himself literally shrink inward, and sees by the look on Shino’s face that he noticed it.
“It’s something to be proud of,” Shino says, just a little too forcefully.
Heathcliff frowns. “I never said it wasn’t?”
“You’re mad I said that. You always hate it when I say that stuff.”
“I do not!”
Heath puts a hand over his mouth. That was way too loud. He knows it first because of the way the words echo back to him from the courtyard outside his window, and second because the squirrel in Shino’s arms starts moving wildly, skittering to the back of Shino’s neck and trying to hide down his shirt.
“Hey-- ouch.” Shino mutters, struggling to balance on his broom as he bends forward, trying to reach back and grab the animal.
“I- I’m sorry,” Heathcliff whispers through his hands.
“Gimme a sec,” Shino says bluntly. “Gotta go put him down.” He flies away without waiting for a response.
With Shino disappeared around the side of the castle, presumably flying closer to the forest, Heathcliff crouches down on tiptoe and rests his forehead against the windowsill. Stupid, he thinks, not sure whether it’s more about Shino or himself. Stupid Shino for getting mad, for being upset before Heath had even said a word. Stupid Heathcliff for snapping back at him, for causing another fight with the only person who would call him a friend.
Wrapping his arms around his knees, Heathcliff stares down at his toes spread against the hardwood floor. He’s probably the one at fault. After all, he yelled, even though he knows that Shino is the one who will get in trouble if they’re caught. He raised his voice instead of explaining himself. And to begin with, he reacted badly to something totally harmless. Even though he knows by now that it hurts Shino’s feelings, when Heath treats being a wizard like a bad thing.
Heathcliff wonders whether someone like him really deserves to have a friend.
He looks up. And outside his window, he’s greeted by the sight of two big, nervous-looking eyes, staring down at him from below a quivering brow. It takes all of two seconds for anger and self-loathing alike to melt away.
“Shino.” Heathcliff stands up. “I--"
“I’m sorry.” Shino beats him to it. “Shouldn’t have gotten mad. You didn’t do anything wrong, so...”
Smiling, Heathcliff shakes his head. “It’s okay. I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have yelled at you.”
Shino doesn’t say anything back right away. His eyes are darting back and forth, scanning the ground, almost as though he’s looking for something.
“What’s wrong?” Heathcliff asks.
Shino frowns. Then, something seems to occur to him. “Hey, did you ever fly on a broom before?”
Heathcliff blinks. “Huh? No, I never have.”
“Can I show you? The next time we get to play together. It’s not scary—I’m good at flying, and we don’t have to go up high. We barely have to leave the ground at first.”
Heath can’t do anything but tilt his head to one side. Shino seems to notice his confusion, and he tries to explain.
“I mean... I wanted to tell you I’m sorry. But I don’t have anything to give you. So I thought, you’ve probably never gotten to fly before. If you tried, I know you’d like it. I’d even show you right now if you wanted to, but I figured--"
“Yeah, no way, definitely not right now!” Heath waves a hand, pushing the terrifying thought of getting on a broom three stories above the ground out of his mind. After a moment, though, he smiles. “But... another time, in a different place... okay. Sure, that sounds fun.”
The relief that shows on Shino’s face in that moment is plainly visible, even in the dark of the night. “I know you’ll like it,” he says, resolve sewn into every word. “For me it’s just normal by now, but if it’s your first time, you’ll have fun.”
Shino floats a little higher, drifting above Heathcliff’s eyeline. He leans forward on his broomstick, and he reaches down a hand, as if it were an invitation. And for some reason, though he could never explain why, Heathcliff feels compelled to accept it. He reaches up his own small hand. When their skin makes contact, Shino doesn’t pull away, but only hooks their fingers together.
For just a moment, Heathcliff feels himself pulled by a force that defies gravity. He locks eyes with his strange friend, and against all odds, he thinks that he might just lift off the ground and float gently out his third story window, broom or no broom. He can imagine it vividly—how it would be to suddenly leave behind his solid, routine life, to be orphaned by this world and take his place among the stars. Aimless and freewheeling. All the wonder and thrill he never got from fairy tales.
And then, Heathcliff remembers a revelation from minutes before. The notion that, just as he had wanted to see Shino, Shino had wanted to see him. As soon as the thought comes to mind, he can’t help but wonder whether the same principle applies here.
He’s holding Shino’s hand and imagining being lifted off his feet. Does Shino feel himself tethered down by this same grasp? Does he feel gravity working in the opposite direction? Could Shino imagine himself drifting down through this window and standing firmly on the floor of this tidy, warm room? Could he picture himself in this life, in this castle, among polished floorboards, among curtains and doorknobs and window panes?
And if he does, what must he think of it? Does he imagine the opposite life the same way Heath does now—enthralled, and compelled, and utterly afraid?
Heathcliff releases a quivering breath he realizes he’s been holding.
And eventually, though he’s not quite sure which of them is responsible, their hands separate. Shino is the first one to speak.
“You’re tired,” he says.
“Huh?” Heathcliff rubs at his eyes, and answers in futility, “No, I’m not....”
“Heh. You are.” Shino drifts back down to Heathcliff’s eyeline. “You usually go to sleep by now, don’t you? I kept you up....”
He almost sounds proud of the fact. Taking his hands away from his eyes, Heathcliff frowns. “What about you? Aren’t you gonna be tired tomorrow, too?”
“That’s okay,” Shino says. “It’s worth it.”
For some reason, at those words, Heathcliff feels like he has to look away. His hands grasp the fabric of his pajamas, and his insides twist up in something like embarrassment. “Well. Let’s both go to bed then.”
“Yeah.” Shino doesn’t need to be told twice. He takes each side of Heathcliff’s window and pushes them inward, allowing Heath to grasp the handles.
“Goodnight. Shino.” Heathcliff says the words hesitantly, as though there’s something else he’s meaning to say. He doesn’t know what.
“Goodnight,” Shino says plainly. With nothing more than a smile, he flies away.
Heathcliff closes the window. As soon as it shuts, the light of the lamp inside his room shines against the glass, and the outside disappears as a dim, yellow reflection of Heath and his bedroom stare back at him. Heathcliff moves closer to the window, forming a circle with his hands and pressing against the glass so he can see outside and watch Shino disappear.