Sorey stands at the entrance of the tunnel and squints into the darkness. It’s a sunny day, and the summer heat is just starting to creep through the cool, dewy morning. Cicadas shrill busily in the forest behind him, beside and beyond the gravel road overgrown with weeds.
He shifts from foot to foot, pulling at the cord of his wide-brimmed hat, and glances up at the building again. It’s the peeling red paint and dirty windows and faded-away sign that gives him the most pause. It’s creepy. Normally he wouldn’t have gone anywhere near the area.
Sorey sets his jaw. In all of his adventure novels, the hero had to start by being brave. That’s why he’s still here. Go explore, Gramps had said. Wasn’t this exploring? Gramps wouldn’t mind.
There’s a cool breeze blowing into the tunnel, and Sorey rocks back on his heels, caught between curiosity and caution. The forest sounds lively and green behind him, comforting in its monotony. He feels very small, suddenly. Who does he think he is? He hasn’t even started junior high yet. Hanging out around ruined buildings is the kind of thing that the older boys would do. He doesn’t have to go in.
But then what kind of explorer would he be?
Sorey takes a big breath, and, clenching the hem of his shirt, he takes a step into the tunnel.
The air cools as he makes his way inside, and the sudden chill makes him shiver. The breeze is pushing at his back, urging him along so that his steps feel light and easy. The tightness in his chest slowly relaxes its grip as the light ahead reveals itself as a doorway. It filters gray and dusty into the tunnel.
Sorey doesn’t hesitate as he emerges into a vaulted room. There are curved benches and elegant light fixtures on the walls, and the same dusty light is filtering in through high-up stained-glass windows. Sorey feels his face break into a grin, unbidden. It’s like a palace, practically, and he had found it all on his own. His friends from school would love it.
He takes his time walking through the room, dragging his feet through the leaves scattered on the concrete floor. The colors of the stained glass pass over his sneakers, rippling red, green, yellow, and blue. It’s very pretty, but as Sorey looks around, he feels sort of quietly sad. Stillness echoes hollowly in the room; the air is silent except for the drip of a leaking water fountain. It must have been a train station, once, but it’s abandoned now.
The faint clatter of a train echoes through the room, and Sorey’s head jerks up. He strains his ears, listening for it again, but there’s nothing but the sound of water. He half-thinks he imagined it. The station is abandoned, after all.
Up ahead is another doorway, and this time the light on the other side is shining bright and warm. Sorey runs to it, eager to be out of the stifling quiet of the station.
He steps out of the building, and his eyes widen in awe. The wind ripples over an endless field of grass below an expansive clear-blue sky, and there are strange, round boulders dotting the hillsides, worn and patched with moss. Two footpaths meander past ruined buildings, their plaster faded to pastel colors and the ribs of their framework exposed.
Sorey laughs aloud with delight, and glances back at the station. There’s a big clock tower on the roof, and a sign identical to the one out front. It’s a little majestic, despite the exposed patches of brick at its base.
Out here the sound of cicadas and birds have faded back into the forest, and the only noise is the endless shush of wind in the tall grass. The morning sun doesn’t seem so hot, now--the humidity of the forest has dispersed.
Sorey sets off at a run along one of the footpaths, buoyed and invigorated by the wind. He feels like he could do anything, alone in this vast space with only the boulders and the grass to keep him company. He’s not even scared of the dilapidated buildings. The sun makes everything seem solid and plain and unfrightening.
Before he gets to the town there’s a river to cross, although it’s almost dried up. The little water that still runs through it makes a pleasant sound as Sorey scrambles over the boulders, worn smooth and furred with moss like everything else in the field. He climbs up the steps to the buildings, pausing to pat the head of a stone toad sitting at the entrance.
There are colorful storefronts and signs everywhere, all rusted and faded and worn. Sorey hugs his arms to his chest, trepidation slowly hooking its fingers into him. The buildings are tall, and without the shimmering grass the place is less peaceful and more ghostlike. The candylike colors are discordant and unsettling rather than cheerful, and it looks a little too much like a town for Sorey to be entirely comfortable. Towns should have people. The absence of life is making his spine prickle.
Sorey passes under strings of red-striped lanterns, walks by booths with pots and pans still hung up for use, the chairs neatly lined in front of counters. He tightens his grip on his arms, scrutinizing every shadowy alley he passes. Maybe he shouldn’t have come, after all.
Finally, he spots a tree and something red up ahead. His heart leaps--it looks like a shrine, something comforting, something familiar.
He takes the steps two at a time, eager to be within the tranquility and safety of the shrine. There was something unmatched about the space around one--like nothing could disturb the slow, dignified air. But as he reaches the top of the steps his heart sinks--what he thought was the entrance to a shrine was only a large sign that reads bathhouse.
Sorey makes a face, but up by the gnarled tree is less creepy than among the other buildings. He hops onto the lip of the concrete wall surrounding it, bouncing his feet in the sun and dreading his return through the town. He almost doesn’t see the building behind him.
When Sorey catches sight of the bathhouse, there’s not much more that he can do but stare. It’s a massive building, solid and stately and at least four stories high. The red of this building isn’t as faded as the train station. A massive flag waves from one corner, and behind it, an even taller smokestack belches black clouds into the sky. Steam rises from the water pouring over slick black rocks to its side.
Sorey steps onto the elegant wooden bridge leading up to the building. For a second the sound of a train echoes through his ears, and he jumps before he races to the railing. A train slips out from a tunnel far below, and Sorey whoops in excitement. His fears are momentarily forgotten. He was right!
Bolstered, he continues across the bridge to the entrance of the bathhouse. If it was running, there must be someone who could show him back through the little town and maybe even all the way to his house.
When he turns to look back at the sign, there’s a boy behind him.
Sorey yelps, then claps a hand over his mouth. His nerves are prickling in shock. The boy must be fast, or really quiet, or good at hiding, or maybe all three. Sorey hadn’t thought there was anyone around.
The boy’s lips are parted in surprise, and he has a funny expression on his face. He’s about my age, Sorey realizes.
They stare at each other in silence for a few moments, blinking at the space between them. The boy has purple eyes. Sorey has never seen purple eyes before.
“Hi,” says Sorey finally. “Do you live here?”
The boy frowns at him. “I guess so,” he says. He’s wearing a weird, short sort of robe, almost like a yukata but not quite. Sorey feels a little embarrassed for him. Maybe he was playing dress-up? Or did his parents force him to wear it?
“You guess so?” says Sorey, “Don’t you know where you live?”
“I do!” the boy protests. “But listen, you shouldn’t be here, okay?”
Was he trespassing? Gramps had warned him not to go in the neighbors’ yards without asking, but this place looked abandoned. He hadn’t thought that anyone lived here.
“Why not?” Sorey asks. There’s no one else around--the entire town and the field and the train station couldn’t all be the boy’s yard, could it?
“You just shouldn’t!” The boy sounds angry, frightened even, and Sorey begins to regret teasing him.
“I’m sorry,” says Sorey, “I’ll leave, I just wanted to... Hey, what’s your name?”
The boy pauses, like he has to think. “Mikleo.”
Sorey gives him a wide grin. “I’m Sorey!”
Mikleo doesn’t return his smile, just looks around nervously. “You should go now, Sorey.”
“Okay,” says Sorey, then glances down at his sneakers. “Um, do you...do you think you could walk back with me?”
“Why, are you scared?”
“No!” Sorey protests, too loudly. “I just don’t know the way.”
“There aren’t that many buildings.”
Sorey frowns while he searches for an excuse. “But...don’t you want to be friends? I live really close by.”
Mikleo is silent, his expression is unreadable. “We can’t be friends,” he says finally, “but I’ll walk with you.”
Sorey’s not used to being rejected like this, but at least he won’t have to go back alone.
“Come on,” says Mikleo, setting off across the bridge. Sorey hurries to keep up with him.
“You shouldn’t come back here again,” says Mikleo as they walk. “You should probably forget you even came.”
“It’s dangerous. You could get hurt.”
“It’s not that dangerous,” says Sorey. “I don’t think the buildings are going to collapse or anything.”
“That’s not what I meant,” says Mikleo. “There are….ugh, forget it.”
“What? I wanna know!”
“I can’t tell you,” says Mikleo. “You should just leave.”
“I’m almost gone anyways,” mutters Sorey, hurt. No one had ever wanted to get rid of him so intensely before. Did Mikleo not like him?
They walk in silence for the next few minutes before Sorey tries again. “So does anyone live in these houses?”
“Sort of,” says Mikleo, then amends his statement. “Not really. I can’t answer your questions.”
“Oh,” says Sorey, and they lapse into silence again. He keeps his eyes on his feet and follows the outline of Mikleo’s shadow over the road, reluctant to speak.
Mikleo stops when they reach the river. “This is as far as I can go,” he says. “You can go the rest of the way on your own, right?”
“Yep!” says Sorey, and hops onto the first rock. “Thanks, Mikleo!”
“Bye, Sorey,” says Mikleo.
“Bye!” calls Sorey, already skipping over the boulders in the river. He doesn’t bother with a formal or lingering goodbye. The place and Mikleo are way too cool for him to not come back again.
He glances back, once, on his way through the field. Mikleo is still standing at the river, looking small and sad against the tall buildings and the big open sky.
Sorey promises to come back soon.
“Hey,” calls Sorey, pacing in front of the bridge. “Hey, Mikleo! My grandpa made us sandwiches! I don’t know if you like tuna, but it’s on good bread.”
For a moment there’s silence. Sorey’s heart swells and he hopes so hard it almost hurts, and the rustling of leaves in the breeze echo like firecrackers in his ears. He’s about to call again when Mikleo appears around the corner of the bathhouse, hurrying towards him with a frown. Sorey’s chest jumps and he waves with an excited grin.
“I thought I told you not to come back!” says Mikleo.
“Well, yeah.” The smile fades from his face and Sorey glances away, rubbing the toe of his shoe in the dirt. “But all my friends went to see a movie today…and my grandpa packed us lunch, so I thought…” He frowns. “I can go, it’s okay.”
“No!” says Mikleo, so suddenly that Sorey’s head jerks up. “I mean,” he amends, “I mean- I was having lunch too.” He holds up a giant steamed bun in his hand, nearly the size of his face.
Sorey gapes. “I’ve never seen a bun that big before!”
Mikleo laughs. “We can go to the river, if you want. It’s nice there. But you have to leave right afterwards.”
“Okay,” says Sorey, already planning to come back another day.
When they get to the river he slips off his shoes and socks and lets his feet dangle in the water while he eats. After a moment of hesitation, Mikleo does the same.
“Hey, can I have a bite of that?” Sorey asks, pointing to Mikleo’s bun. “You can have some of my sandwich.”
“No,” says Mikleo sharply, “you can’t have any of my food, ever, okay?”
Sorey frowns, taken aback by his outburst. “That’s kind of mean.”
Mikleo deflates and glances away. “I just meant- it’s not because I don’t want to share. You just can’t have it.”
Sorey fixes him with a puzzled glance and watches Mikleo struggle for words.
“Never mind,” Mikleo concedes, and takes another bite of his bun. He wiggles his feet in the water and stares at the ripples they make.
“Who’s your mom?” Sorey asks, after a period of comfortable silence. “I don’t have one, I just have a grandpa, but everyone else does.” He runs his thumb over the fuzz of the moss on the boulder he’s sitting on. The water is just cool enough to be sharp against his skin.
Mikleo frowns. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t have one either.”
“Really?” says Sorey, something lighting in his chest at the connection. “Do you have a dad?”
“No,” says Mikleo. “Just a master. I’m an apprentice.”
“Are you an orphan?”
“Not really. I’m an apprentice, like I said.”
“An apprentice learning what?”
Mikleo bites his lip and glances at him sideways, then back at the water. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” he says.
“I would!” Sorey protests. “You wouldn’t lie, right?”
“No,” says Mikleo. He considers, shrugs. The air goes still around them before he speaks again. “I’m learning...I guess you could call it magic.”
Sorey pauses, caught between keeping his word and disproving what seems like an obvious falsity. “But,” he starts, hating that Mikleo will think he’s a liar, “...magic isn’t real.”
“See.” Mikleo pouts and kicks the water. “You don’t believe me. I told you.”
“I guess it’s not impossible,” Sorey amends. “But, I mean, I’ve never met anyone who could do real magic before.”
Mikleo frowns. “I’m not lying.”
“Can you prove it?”
Mikleo glances at him again, shifting. “Fine,” he says, “I’m breaking enough rules as it is.”
He dips one finger in the water, swirls it in the current, and when he pulls it out the water sticks to it like gum. It stretches, elastic, until Mikleo severs the strand with a flick of his fingers and it showers back into the stream.
Sorey stares, hard. “Do it again. No, do something different. I don’t believe you. How did—“
Mikleo’s trying to hide a smile as he flicks Sorey’s nose. A burst of light blinds him for a split second, and then there’s rain falling down around them.
Sorey shrieks and put up his hands, then giggles. “You really can do magic!”
Mikleo loses his grip on his smile and it blooms over his face like sunlight. “You’re not afraid? I thought you would be.”
“It’s cool,” says Sorey. “Aww, why can’t I do stuff like that?”
Mikleo is uncharacteristically silent. His smile fades and he glances at his feet, and his face is a mess of conflicting emotions. “I’m really not supposed to tell.”
“Please?” asks Sorey, and Mikleo looks up and Sorey gives him his best smile. Mikleo bites his lip, and then all at once the words spill from his mouth in a flood.
“I’m a spirit,” he says, “and you’re human and that’s why I can do water magic and you can’t eat my food, and once you cross the river you’re in the spirit world which is why I wanted you to leave so the others won’t see you because if they do then both of us would get in a lot of trouble but right now I can use a technique to hide you so it’s okay I guess.”
Sorey stares at him, reeling from the onslaught of words. A few minutes ago he wouldn’t have believed Mikleo, but after his display he’s beginning to reconsider. He hadn’t been dreaming, had he? Maybe Gramps’ stories weren’t quite as far off as he had thought.
“Okay,” he says finally. “Hey, what are you the spirit of?”
Mikleo’s eyes widen, and then he giggles. “You really aren’t afraid!”
“Of course I’m not! My grandpa told me tons of stories about spirits. He told me I would be lucky to meet one. Come on, what are you the spirit of?”
Mikleo stills, and his mouth drops into a sad line. “I don’t know,” he says. “Some kind of water, probably.”
“Why don’t you know?”
“My master took my real name,” says Mikleo. “So I’m bound to her. So I can’t leave.”
“I bet you’re the spirit of something really nice,” says Sorey, determined to bolster him. “Like a river, or a lake. Lakes are pretty.”
“I think I like rivers most,” says Mikleo. “I can’t cross this one, though. Rule number one of the spirit world.”
“There are rules?”
“Lots of them. You should learn them, if- if we’re going to be friends.”
Everything about Sorey seems to widen, then; his chest, his eyes, his smile. A new friend opened up endless possibilities for the summer, and his mind is racing with all the things they could do, already imagining where they would go from here. “Right!” he says. “We’re going to be best friends, Mikleo!”
“I’ve never had a best friend before.” Mikleo sounds almost shy, but he’s smiling.
“You do now,” says Sorey.
The air smells like sun-warmed rain.
“We started our Edo unit today.”
Mikleo smiles at him, encouraging but confused. So? his look says.
“You were around back then, right?”
“I guess I was.”
“Can you remember anything? Like about the big battles? Or samurai?”
Mikleo blinks at him. “I can’t remember those kinds of things. It was a long time ago, and my memory from before my apprenticeship isn’t very good.”
“Do you remember anything ?”
Mikleo is silent. “People were happy,” he says finally, “or, as happy as a big group of people can be, I guess. It was sort of a baked-wheat color.”
Sorey could have gaped but he doesn’t. There’s something stilling about Mikleo’s words, and the fact that he hasn’t just read about history but lived it. He’s like a walking tapestry, like textbooks but real, better than the letters and journals and firsthand accounts of people from the past because Sorey can ask him whatever he wants .
“Periods have colors?”
“Most of them. The ones I can remember.”
“How about the Meiji, then?”
“Red,” says Mikleo, after careful consideration. “Like the bathhouse.”
Sorey thinks over this for a while, and moves on. “Why can’t you remember anything from before your apprenticeship?”
“It’s in my contract,” says Mikleo. “I think I was reborn, or something. Wiped clean. I got the form of a child to grow up in, so she could start fresh with teaching me.”
“Who’s she ? What’s her name?”
“Yubaba. But not really. No one knows her true name.”
“Names have power,” says Mikleo, and his eyes sparkle as he turns to look at Sorey. “You have a lot of questions!”
One day Sorey lugs his history textbook from home, and they spread it out on the hills beside the river.
“Do you remember this?” Sorey asks, tracing fingers over yukata patterns and handscrolls and photos of pottery. “This?” he asks, pointing to crests and calligraphy. “Him? Her?” to portraits and the earliest photographs.
Every so often Mikleo’s eyes will light up. “Yes,” he’ll say, “he visited my river.”
“She reminds me of a girl who would always drop her aburaage in the water. It’s my favorite.”
“Paintings like those were popular.”
“Priests wore a pattern like that.”
It’s like a puzzle. He probes at the pages and at the image of Mikleo he’s built in his head. He tests and learns, and the nuances of Mikleo’s past life emerge one by one, like facets catching the light. A little bit of something returns to him each time. He seems older, more confident, more depth to his face.
Sorey isn’t sure if he likes it or not, but he checks out history book after history book from the library and keeps bringing them.
“My grandpa wants to meet you,” says Sorey absentmindedly. They’re sitting on the steps leading up to the town, watching clouds. Mikleo has just pointed out one that looked like the frog statue a few paces behind them.
“I want to meet him too,” says Mikleo. “He sounds cool. I’m sorry I can’t leave.”
“‘S not your fault,” says Sorey, but can’t keep the sullen note out of his voice. “Are you sure you can’t remember your name?”
Mikleo groans. “Sorey, I’ve told you.”
“What about the Toyohira? That’s a nice river.”
“I wish,” Mikleo laughs. “No, I’ll know it when I hear it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Mm, probably not.”
“It might not even be a body of water in Japan, you know. Probably not a major one either.”
Sorey stops, defeated. “I’m going to have to go through all the water in the world ?”
“Of course you don’t!” Mikleo giggles, then gives him a smile that looks a little sad. “You don’t have to do that for me. It’s all right. I don’t really think I’ll ever remember.”
Sorey pouts and comes back the next day with a long list of names. He doesn’t give up.
It becomes like a game, almost. Sorey will come with a list of few names and says them whenever their conversation fades out.
Each time he hopes--there’ll be a certain name that really seems to fit --but each time he’s left disappointed. Mikleo doesn’t seem to mind, at least for now, so he keeps going.
Sorey meets him under the shade of a faded ramen-shop awning.
“You’ve gotten taller,” is the first thing Mikleo says. Sorey fidgets with his shirt and tries not to glance at the hem of his pants, a few centimeters short from his most recent growth spurt.
“I guess so,” he says. Mikleo’s chin might fit neatly over his shoulder, if they were to hug. Strange how he hadn’t noticed until now.
His voice is cracking too, and he tries to keep as quiet as he can in class. It’s hard not to speak around Mikleo, though, especially when he hasn’t seen him in so long because of finals. Mikleo would laugh if his voice cracked, so he hopes by some miracle it doesn’t.
Then again he likes Mikleo’s laugh, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
“It’s just a growth spurt,” Mikleo is saying. “Right, Sorey? Won’t I get one too? How tall did you say the doctor thought you would be?”
Sorey laughs. “About a hundred and seventy centimeters. I’ll try not to get any taller, Mik.”
“You’d better not.” Mikleo elbows him gently and sets off towards the river. The hills there are their favorite place to be, now that they’ve begun to move away from playing and towards reading and theorizing. Mikleo’s gotten hooked on history, and the eras in their discussions range from the neolithic age all the way up to only a few decades ago. Sorey often finds himself staying after school to talk with his history teacher--not only to answer his own questions, but the ones Mikleo insists on, too.
“Vistula,” says Sorey as they walk. “Chu. Aras.”
Mikleo shakes his head and Sorey forces himself to put it out of his mind. “How’s your training going?”
“Good,” says Mikleo. “It’d be better if I didn’t have to do so much work for her, but I guess that’s just a part of learning. Becoming more skilled means I can be more useful.”
“But do you still have time for- for meeting me?”
Mikleo glances back at him. He looks surprised. “Of course,” he says. “I’ll always have time for you.”
“Oh, good.” Sorey laughs and rubs the back of his neck. “Sorry. It’s okay if you don’t, really.”
Mikleo shakes his head. “It’s okay, mostly I work at night. Besides, who else would bring my library books?”
“Is that all I am to you?” Sorey protests in mock-horror. “A delivery boy?”
“I don’t know,” says Mikleo, folding his arms into a thinking position that’s become as familiar as Sorey’s own. “It’s not like you have any other purpose…”
“Discussing history?” says Sorey, “Being your friend?”
“Bringing information is your only redeemable trait,” says Mikleo, and they share a glance before they both burst into laughter.
“Hey, do you have friends in the spirit world?” asks Sorey. They’ve exhausted both the books he’s brought and things to talk about for the day. They’re lying on the porch of a building that Sorey doesn’t know the use of. It’s quiet except for the small taps that Mikleo’s feet make as he swings them against the wall. As Sorey watches, he wrinkles his nose.
“I guess,” he says. “They’re more like older siblings, though.”
“Who?” asks Sorey, partly curious, partly eager to scope out his competition.
“Lailah,” says Mikleo, “she’s good with fire, but she has the most terrible puns. And she loves to try them out on me.”
“Oh,” says Sorey, “that...that doesn’t sound like very much pun .”
Mikleo gives him a horrified look. “We’re no longer friends. We’re done, end of story, you can go hang out with Lailah if you want and you two can bounce all the puns you want off of each other. ”
“Sure,” says Sorey, grinning, “I’d be happy to. Who else, though? I’ll need some company besides just her.”
Mikleo groans. “Edna. At least the other spirits try to be somewhat nice to me, but even though she looks ten she’s the meanest of them all. And there’s Zaveid, who I think has sort of a thing for Lailah, which is disgusting. And Dezel. He’s cool, mostly, but he won’t let me try out any of his pendulums.”
“Don’t you mean pun-dulums?”
“ Sorey ,” says Mikleo. “Oh my god, I swear this is the last time I’m talking to you.”
Sorey laughs, maybe with a little too much self-satisfaction. “Anyway, what does he need them for?” he asks. “Clocks?”
“They’re sort of like a weapon,” says Mikleo. “It’s just in case we need to kick a client out of the bathhouse. Not all spirits are agreeable.”
“Do you have a weapon?”
“I have a staff,” says Mikleo. “I don’t like to use it for much, though.”
“You should show it to me!” says Sorey. “Can you bring it tomorrow?”
Mikleo shrugs. “I can bring it right now.” He sits up and holds his hand out, and Sorey watches a staff appear, coalescing from the top down in a shower of light. The blocky, ornate shapes of it look solid and ancient. It’s edged in blue, and some parts look like real gold.
It’s one of the prettiest, most important-looking things Sorey’s ever seen. He’s almost a little bit jealous.
Mikleo hands it to him, and Sorey staggers at its weight.
“It’s so heavy!” he says, “I can’t believe you handle this.”
Mikleo eyes him suspiciously. “Why?”
“Uh,” says Sorey, “because...you’re not...that tall?”
Mikleo rolls his eyes. “Great excuse, but it’s fine. You can say I look skinny.”
Sorey thinks. Mikleo’s frame is small, and he’s lean and slender, but Sorey remembers how hard he had shoved him once in the middle of a tickle fight. “Nah,” he says, “I take it back.”
“Oh,” says Mikleo, sounding pleasantly surprised. “Okay.” Then his eyes narrow with a smirk. “I could beat you at arm-wrestling any day, anyways.”
Sorey bristles, his pride on the line. “No you couldn’t!”
Mikleo shrugs and sticks his arm out, and the afternoon isn’t so boring anymore.
“If I was a spirit, what would I be the spirit of?”
Mikleo is silent for a long time. “Light,” he says, and leaves it at that.
Gramps had warned him of a storm.
Sorey glances nervously at the sky. Above them, the leaves list, swell, then settle, and the clouds are full and heavy.
“Should I go home?” Sorey asks.
“No,” says Mikleo with a grin. “Unless you mind getting a little wet.”
The trepidation in his chest loosens and Sorey grins back.
The tree at their backs is strong and immovable, but its branches rattle in the fierce gusts of wind. Around them the trees are tossing their boughs, rebellious as wild horses. Dead leaves and twigs are catching in Sorey’s hair and his clothes and only a split second after he sees light split the sky he feels the resulting boom blast through his chest.
It’s too powerful for him to even make a sound. He jumps and catches Mikleo’s hand in his, squeezes a little too tight to be entirely comfortable.
He hears the rain at first, in the distance, a relentless, heavy, pounding roar. Mikleo’s face is alive, his eyes are lit with a kind of wild joy that’s intense enough to be frightening. When the first droplets pelt the ground at their feet they’re big and angry and splat against the dust. It comes a little and then all at once, blurring the air, suffocating, fierce and savage.
Mikleo pulls at his hand, leading them from under the tree and the full force of the rain hits Sorey like iron. Mikleo’s head is tilted to the sky, he lets the rain sting across his cheeks and run into his mouth and over his hair. Then his face turns Sorey and the breath goes out of him at his expression. He's in his element.
He's beautiful, Sorey thinks, and for the first time he really realizes it.
“Come on,” Mikleo mouths, unheard through the noise of the storm, and he tugs at Sorey’s hand and they run.
Sorey doesn’t know where Mikleo’s leading him and he doesn’t question it. He only feels the wet grass slipping beneath his feet, up and down and over hills, splashing through puddles so big they seem like lakes. They laugh and shriek as thunder erupts overhead, Sorey stumbles forward, Mikleo pulls relentlessly at his hand. When they finally slow to a jog, panting and breathless, Sorey notices how the rain shifts around them, how the droplets condense and disperse and bloom in patterns.
Mikleo’s playing , he realizes, and Mikleo gives the purest laugh Sorey’s ever heard and the rain twists into a great shimmering spiral, stretching on and on and on above them. Mikleo lets go of his hand and the tidal wave of water falls over their heads, drenching what little hadn’t already been drenched. Sorey’s knocked off his feet but it doesn’t hurt and he just laughs and lays back on the grass, closes his eyes and feels the rain on his face. After a moment there’s warmth against his side; Mikleo’s lain down as well, and Sorey opens his eyes to see him shyly reaching for his hand again.
They lie there until the rain stops and the space between their palms is sticky and warm. The breeze is damp, the air is damp, and every part of Sorey feels soggy. His chest is hollow, like after crying.
“Yamuna,” Sorey whispers, if only to hear his voice--so that he’ll have a sense of normalcy to hold on to. “Iwaki. Omono. Sumida-gawa.”
He glances over to see that Mikleo’s fallen asleep.
“I can’t come tomorrow,” he says, shoulder pressed against Mikleo’s in the drowsy afternoon light. “My friends and I are going to our school’s festival. Our second-to-last one in high school.” Mikleo gives him a look, and Sorey corrects himself quickly. “My other friends.”
“Who are they?” asks Mikleo, voice carefully neutral.
“Rose, and Alisha,” says Sorey. “They’re in my class this year. We did a group project together and really hit it off. Well, Rose and Alisha fought at first, but not anymore.”
“Girls,” remarks Mikleo. “Are they pretty?”
“Really pretty!” says Sorey. “Rose can be a little, uh, overwhelming, though. Maybe that’s why no one messes with her. She’s got this whole business set up selling snacks at school. ”
“Okay,” says Mikleo. “Well, enjoy the festival. Have fun.” His words have a strange hollowness to them.
Sorey glances over and finds Mikleo looking sad and staring at the ground. “Aw, come on,” he says, “You’re still my best friend, you know. You’ll always be my best friend.”
“I know,” says Mikleo, “but aren’t they-- they’re probably easier to hang out with, and you don’t have to come all the way out here to see them, and you can go places together--”
“Mikleo!” Sorey protests, “that doesn’t matter-”
“And they happen to be ‘really pretty’, and you ‘really hit it off’-”
“Uh,” Sorey interrupts, “No, Mik, don’t worry. They’re dating each other.”
Mikleo’s head jerks up. “Oh!” he says. “Oh. Sorry.” A faint blush stains his cheeks.
“They’re my friends,” says Sorey. “And I’d never leave you for a girl.”
Mikleo’s laugh sounds more like a sigh, and they lapse back into silence.
Sorey absentmindedly traces names on the back of Mikleo’s hand. Mikleo shivers slightly against him, and his hand twitches like he’ll pull it away, but he just lets out a breath and drops his head to Sorey’s shoulder. He pulls Sorey’s hand away from his own and holds it.
“Don’t worry about the names.”
A little beyond the station, the sun is cutting soft streaks of light through the clouds.
“Pretty,” says Mikleo.
Sorey nods. “Like you.”
Mikleo splutters and raises his head. “What?”
Sorey shrugs. “Rose and Alisha aren’t the only ones.” When Mikleo doesn’t respond, he continues. “Come on, what kind of friend would I be if I didn’t keep your spirits up?” He pauses, registering his words. “Ha. ‘Spirits’.”
Something in Mikleo’s expression flickers for a split second before he composes himself and rolls his eyes. “I can’t believe you, sometimes,” he murmurs. “You’re not funny, by the way.”
“Ouch,” says Sorey, and knocks his side.
Mikleo flinches away, a whisper of a shriek dying in his throat before he stops and freezes. He groans. “Oh god, I’ve started it, haven’t I-”
Sorey launches at him, fingers outstretched and wiggling, and their laughter echoes off the hillsides.
Sorey decides he wants Rose and Alisha to meet Mikleo.
Well, Rose and Alisha are really the ones who do the deciding. Sorey just agrees to bring them.
Alisha takes her sunhat and Rose brings a cooler full of iced drinks. They both chatter along the way, filling the air with a comfortable ambience, until Rose stops dead at the entrance to the train station.
“Sorey, the fuck? That thing looks haunted.”
“It’s not, I swear,” says Sorey. “I’ve been here since I was little and I have never, not once, seen a ghost.”
“You said there were spirits on the other side. Not much difference.”
“They look like people!” says Sorey. “Well, the ones that come out during the day.”
“Oh, the ones that come out during the day! Great, and how about if we decide to stay a little bit after sunset, what then?”
“I understand, honestly,” says Alisha. “Sorey, it looks a little...unsafe.”
“Come on,” Sorey pleads, already walking backwards into the tunnel. “It’s not as bad on the other side!”
Rose gives him a long look, and clutches Alisha’s arm as they reluctantly follow him. “Creepy…” Sorey can hear her murmur as they walk.
“This station is remarkably pretty,” says Alisha as they pass under the stained glass. “I wonder why it closed down.”
“Dunno,” says Sorey. “Wait until you see the field, though!”
The day is clear and sunny, perfect for first impressions, and Sorey glances back to see the look of wonder on his friends’ faces as they step out of the station.
“Pretty, right?” he says.
Alisha’s eyes are wide and a little teary. “It’s beautiful.”
“Aw, don’t cry, Lish,” says Rose, and finally cracks a smile.
Together they walk along the footpath and up to the river. Mikleo is waiting for them on the other side.
“Hey!” says Sorey, suddenly nervous, even though there’s no reason for him to be. “Mik, this is Rose and Alisha. Rose and Alisha, this is Mikleo.”
“Hey,” says Rose, and Alisha echoes the statement.
Mikleo blinks, and smiles a little uncertainly. “Hey.”
Sorey jumps across the rocks, and Rose and Alisha are about to follow when Mikleo puts up his hand.
“Uh,” he says, “I’m really sorry, but over here is where the spirit world starts, and I don’t think I can hide all of you if you all come over.”
Alisha glances at Sorey confusedly. “Oh, yeah,” he says, “we’re technically not supposed to be here, but-”
Rose groans and starts to back away. “I’m out, I’m done, I’m not getting caught up in this horror movie bullshit-”
Alisha catches her around the waist as she goes. “Don’t be rude,” she says, “we’re here to meet Mikleo. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“Well, Alisha and I are good over here, right?” says Rose. “No need for us to actually go into the spirit world. Don’t make Mikleo sit alone.”
“Right!” says Alisha. “Please don’t worry about us.”
“Thanks,” says Mikleo. He looks embarrassed.
Rose pulls out the drinks, apologizing to Mikleo once she realizes he can’t have one. The stream isn’t wide, and they can hear each other well over the faint gurgle of water.
“So, Mikleo,” says Rose, after taking a swig of her soda, “are you as much of a history nerd as Sorey is?”
“No,” says Mikleo quickly.
“Yes!” says Sorey, “God, Mik, I can’t believe you would betray me like this!”
“I like history,” says Mikleo, “the difference is that you’re a nerd, and I’m not.”
Sorey pouts at him. “Cold.”
“No offense, Mikleo,” says Alisha, “but I recall seeing Sorey with library books for you every day. I wouldn’t exactly say you aren’t a nerd.”
Rose stares at Alisha with a delighted, incredulous expression. “Alisha!”
“Sorry,” says Alisha, “It isn’t a bad thing.”
Mikleo looks embarrassed, but he’s fighting to keep a lid on the smile that’s threatening to emerge, and Sorey knows that’s a good thing.
“Okay,” Mikleo counters, “but I wasn’t the one who tried to reenact the Battle of Nagashino.”
“I just did it to help you remember!”
“Sorey made sound effects and everything-”
“It was to help add to the experience-”
“He even read a speech he had made up himself-”
“Mikleo,” Sorey whines, “we were eleven!”
“You had your grandfather help make you cardboard armor and everything.”
Sorey’s face contorts in horror and Rose and Alisha burst into peals of laughter. Mikleo glances sideways at him, finally cracking a big smile, and Sorey can’t help but join in. It feels good, to laugh like this with not only his friends from school, but Mikleo as well.
Rose straightens up from her belly laugh and stretches luxuriously. “Ugh, I’m tired. I stayed up too late studying last night.”
“You?” says Alisha, “Rose, the last time you stayed up late because of homework was at least a year ago. I remember because you texted me. It was a momentous occasion.”
Rose stares at her resignedly. “You’re right,” she says, “I was reading up on business schools, but listen, I really studied-”
“Responsible of you,” says Sorey, and stifles a sudden yawn. “I’m tired too,” he laughs. He slumps onto Mikleo’s shoulder, then thinks better of it and readjusts himself so he’s stretched out with his head on Mikleo’s thigh. “You’re a good pillow, Mik.”
Rose’s gaze snaps to them and Mikleo shifts uneasily. “Uh, Sorey,” he begins.
“Nope,” says Sorey, “I’m too comfortable to move, sorry, discussion closed.”
Mikleo makes a face at him, but the conversation picks up and Sorey is relieved to see that he and the girls get along well. They talk easily, laughing often, and Sorey is genuinely surprised when he sees how golden the light has gotten, how late it is.
Alisha jumps and says her parents had been expecting her back by now. Together they pick up empty soda cans, and when they leave, Mikleo waves.
“We’ll come back!” Rose calls, and Mikleo grins.
The wind rustles through the grass and over Sorey’s skin, and, walking back to the station, he’s never felt so content in his life.
“Sorey!” shrieks Rose, hitting him repeatedly with Alisha’s sunhat once they’re safely out of view. “I can’t believe you never told us you were dating Mikleo!”
Sorey flinches away from the scratchy straw. “Uh,” he says in between blows, “it’s because...I’m not?”
Alisha snatches her hat away to fix the bent ribbon. “Honestly,” she murmurs, then plants it firmly back on her head.
Rose fixes him with a steady look, hands on her hips. “So when are you gonna confess?”
Sorey splutters, he can feel himself turning red. “I- never! I’m never gonna confess! It’s not like that!”
“I saw you hold hands,” says Rose. “And you two walk so close together you brush shoulders, and I know for a fact that Mikleo was blushing when you laid down with your head in his lap. You put your head in his lap .”
“We’re just friends, honestly,” says Sorey. He has the urge to put his hands up, as if warding off any future attacks. “Ever heard of platonic love? I’ve known him for seven years, we’re just comfortable with each other.”
Rose scoffs. “Yeah, okay, but if you could kiss anyone, who would you kiss?”
“Rose!” Alisha cuts in. “We trust Sorey enough to hold him to his word, right?” She smiles. “It’s okay. You and Mikleo are just close friends.”
Rose huffs, but shrugs and slings an arm around Sorey’s waist. It’s a surprisingly romantic gesture, but they all know that it’s because she’s not tall enough to easily reach his shoulders.
“Well,” she says, “if you ever need help confessing, you’ve got us to back you up.”
“Thanks,” says Sorey.
Alisha grabs the cooler and onto Rose’s arm, and together they shuffle out of the forest like a six-legged creature, laughing all the way.
Sorey can’t stop thinking about what Rose said.
He kicks the sheets off of himself and flips his pillow to the cool side. The dark suddenly seems hot and oppressive, and the portable fan in the corner isn’t providing relief. His skin is prickling with sweat.
In a surge of sudden annoyance, Sorey groans and throws his covers violently off the bed. They hit the fan and it tips backwards, clattering to the ground with a strained whir before it shuts off.
Sorey buries his sigh in his pillow and gets up for a glass of water.
Gramps is still sitting at the table in the kitchen, finishing off the last of the day’s paper. The yellow light overhead is buzzy and loud, but at least it’s a few degrees cooler downstairs. Sorey fills a glass under the sink and then splashes some water on his face, wishing the oppressive heat would disappear.
“You shouldn’t be up so late,” he scolds.
“Hmm, I could say the same to you,” says Gramps. He flips a page in the paper. “What’s wrong? Can’t sleep?”
“It’s too hot upstairs,” Sorey says, and drains his glass. “And I think I broke my fan.”
“The general store should be selling them,” says Gramps. “You’ll have to go after school. Are you sure Mikleo won’t mind?”
Sorey wilts at the thought of a bike ride in the afternoon heat. “I’m sure the fan’s fine,” he says, “or...I can make it fine.”
“You and Mikleo get along so well, don’t you,” Gramps remarks, “You should consider yourself lucky to be so close to a spirit.”
Sorey suddenly realizes that it looks like he’s decided not to go to please Mikleo. He swallows. Somehow the thought makes him uneasy. We are close, aren’t we.
Gramps sighs and looks back down at the paper. “Try and get some sleep, will you? School tomorrow.”
Sorey drags himself back to his room and collapses face first on the bed.
He and Mikleo are close. He can’t be as free around anyone as he can with him. Of course they love each other, that’s a given, they even say it every time they say goodbye--but they haven’t thought anything of it.
Sorey knew they were free to be as physically intimate with each other as they wanted. It hadn’t seemed like anything unusual, born from the time they spent together as kids, and they both enjoyed it. It was nice to be close to another person like that.
Rose’s voice echoes through his mind. If you could kiss anyone, who would you kiss?
Mikleo, his brain answers, and Sorey frowns at his covers. It’s easy to imagine--a casual lean, a soft press of their lips.
Sorey rolls over and finds himself staring at the ceiling. How would Mikleo react? He would blush, probably, he blushed easily. He might take Sorey’s hand. He might kiss him again.
He almost laughs, considering how all this must look. His childhood friend, closer than a brother, who he wasn’t in love with but sort of wanted to kiss and who was the one he automatically thought of marrying if anyone asked. Who he wasn’t in love with but who was undeniably very, very, pretty and had the softest hair and the most beautiful eyes and the most skillful hands and the cleverest, quickest brain he had ever seen. Who he wasn’t in love with but did love --there was a difference. It’s like the beginning to a romantic comedy.
Sorey finds that he’s not bothered by it. He doesn’t mind that they’re basically a trope embodied. He wouldn’t mind dating Mikleo, at all.
Then a cold hand of fear worms through his stomach. They were fine with casual intimate touches, but Mikleo is a closed sort of person and Sorey couldn’t be sure of how he would react more to obviously romantic things. They were just friends, after all, and kissing seemed to span the gap between platonic and romantic. He might be repulsed, or disgusted, or feel invaded.
Sorey blinks at his ceiling and realizes it has the potential to ruin their friendship. It feels like ice water.
“What’cha thinkin’ about?”
Sorey blinks and starts and turns to see Rose leaning on the corner of his desk. The room is filled with soft chatter. It’s lunchtime, but Sorey’s never been less hungry in his life.
“Math test,” he lies, because in reality he couldn’t stop thinking about Mikleo’s hands sliding over his all morning, and he doesn’t want to give Rose the satisfaction of being right.
“Okay,” says Rose, and Sorey mentally curses himself because that’s what Rose says when she doesn’t believe you. She’s a master at reading people. He should have known. “So, how’s Mikleo?” she continues.
It’s almost painful to hold in his groan. “Fine!” Sorey says brightly. “Just great.”
“Mhm.” Rose smiles, predatorily. “But how is he.”
Sorey throws up his hands. “How do you want me to answer? Beautiful? Sexy?”
“He is?” says Rose, leaning her chin on her hand. “Wow, Sorey, I didn’t know you felt that way-”
“Rose,” says Alisha, and they both whirl around to see her standing behind them with lunch in hand. “I thought we were going to eat outside?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Rose. “Sorey, you coming?”
“No thanks,” says Sorey. “No offense, Alisha.” He briefly considers apologizing to Rose as well, but decides otherwise.
“I don’t blame you,” says Alisha primly. “Rose, let’s go.”
Rose stands up and slings her arm around Alisha’s waist, and Sorey watches them walk to the door.
He puts his head down and leaves his lunch untouched, although he knows he’ll regret it later. When he closes his eyes the longing comes, unbidden, for the feel of Mikleo’s arms around him and the tickle of his hair and the swell of his breathing against Sorey’s back. He wishes Mikleo could leave the spirit world so they could see a movie together, or hang out at his house, or maybe even take a trip to Kyoto, something Sorey’s been dreaming about for years. He can imagine the wonder on Mikleo’s face as they wandered around historic temples or pored over artifacts in museums. There’s so much they would do if Mikleo could leave, and Sorey imagines it all with Mikleo’s hand in his, a steady brush of their shoulders and a look of affection on his face.
He resolves to hug him when they see each other that afternoon. That would put an end to the strange ache in his chest.
The day goes on and as his teacher drones in the front of the classroom, all he can think is, it would better if Mik was here.
They’re lying sprawled on the grass, exhausted after talking themselves hoarse debating over a school project. It’s thickly cloudy enough that Sorey doesn’t need to cover his eyes when he looks up, and the air is heavy with the promise of rain.
He hopes Mikleo doesn’t notice how fast his heart is beating at their closeness. He’s caught between flinching away from his touch and leaning into it, and it just makes him awkward and everything even more painful. He’s hyper-aware of things he never noticed before--Mikleo resting his head on Sorey’s chest, the casual way he laces their fingers together, the contrast of the shades of their skin.
“I’m thinking about colleges,” Sorey manages to say, forcing his mind to concentrate on something other than Mikleo’s breath tickling across his neck. “Kyoto University would be amazing, if I can get in. But I’d probably need a scholarship.”
“Hm, I don’t know,” says Mikleo. “You sure you’re smart enough? You did refuse to eat bread for a while because you thought the yeast would still be alive in your stomach, and there was that one time where you thought World War II was in the eighteen hundreds-”
“Mikleo!” Sorey protests.
“I just don’t know if they’d be willing to accept students of that caliber.”
Sorey laughs. “It has a good archaeology program.”
“Well, good luck,” says Mikleo, then falls silent. Sorey knows they’re both thinking the same thing--he’s going to have to leave soon. He can’t stay tied to this place forever, in a tiny group of houses overrun by the forest, with even the school and the grocery store a few miles over in another town. There’s no opportunity for him here.
“Guess we’ll have to buckle down on those names, huh,” he says.
Mikleo just huffs a laugh and shifts closer. “I’ve been trying, but...there’s only so much I can do.” A glance at his face reveals what Sorey had been suspecting--to anyone else, it would look carefully neutral, but Sorey knows he’s hurting. “Just visit me every once and a while, okay?” Mikleo continues. “When you have time.”
“I’d rather not have to visit at all. We could rent an apartment together...or something like that, I don’t know.”
“Eloquent as always” says Mikleo, flashing a smile before he sighs. “Well, it’s not like you’re leaving tomorrow. We have time.”
Sorey agrees as the first drops of rain start to fall.
The next week Mikleo greets him at the river with a wave and Sorey is suddenly stilted and awkward. Hug him! his brain screams, but Mikleo turns to walk towards the town and suddenly he’s overthinking everything--would a back hug be too surprising? Too forward? He can’t give him a hug from the front, now, until they sit down and talk for a while and then it would be awkward because they almost never hug sitting down unless there’s a certain haze in the air and they feel free and lazy and dazed, and it’s not like that today.
His feet are following Mikleo, and he’s vaguely listening to him theorize about an emperor, a continuation of their discussion from yesterday. The dust of the road makes little puffs when he steps, and it’s all he can seem to focus on as they walk towards the bathhouse.
Sorey jerks his head up and wishes there was a way to blink mental sleep from your eyes. “Hi,” he says.
“You’ve been weirdly out of it this...this entire month, really,” says Mikleo, “ever since Rose and Alisha came. Is there something going on with them?”
Sorey laughs, hoping it doesn’t sound too forced. “Nah, it’s probably just finals coming up. I’m good.”
“Okay,” says Mikleo, but he doesn’t sound convinced. “Hey, do you want to see what I learned yesterday? I was going to keep practicing a little more, but if it snaps you out of it…”
“Sure,” says Sorey.
Mikleo grins at him and turns on the tap at the side of a nearby stand. The water collects into a perfect sphere, never hitting the ground. “Come this way,” he says, taking Sorey’s hands and leading him to the center of the road. Sorey’s skin tingles when he lets go.
He rocks back on his heels and watches as Mikleo closes his eyes. Between his hands the sphere of water starts to glow, before Mikleo sends it out with a grand sweeping motion and it scatters like a bird’s wing raised in flight. A translucent, towering dome forms around them with a sound like bones cracking, and as Mikleo completes the movement with an elegant twist of his wrist, Sorey feels something in his chest ache.
There’s the awe that always comes with watching Mikleo manipulate water, but this time it’s something else as well. He’s so beautiful , Sorey thinks, he feels, and the surge of love and affection and admiration that comes into him is so strong that it knocks the air out of his lungs. It’s buoyant, expanding, Sorey is so filled with it that he can almost feel it rushing out of his throat, bulging in his mouth.
“That’s not even the best part,” Mikleo’s saying, eyes on fire, like a kid in a candy shop. He blows across his empty hand and something like salt scatters, swirling between them. Sorey closes his eyes instinctively against the sting and feels something cool sliding against his skin. When he opens his eyes, he’s underwater.
He’s not, of course, it’s all Mikleo’s illusion, but it’s accurate down to even his breath bubbling in front of him. Sorey watches patterns of light shift across Mikleo’s skin, rippling white-gold and bright.
“This is amazing,” he says, when he can find his voice.
Mikleo grins at him. “I can change it, too. Whatever you want.” He sweeps his hand out and the scene flips like a slideshow. Suddenly they’re standing waist deep in clouds and the ground is a thousand meters below them.
Sorey cries out and stumbles backwards and lands on the ground, but it looks like he’s floating on empty air and he’s never been quite this combination of exhilarated and terrified before. The clouds above and below them are soft and swirling, different nuances of peach and lavender and pink from a sunset that Sorey can see hanging dusky in the sky. Mikleo laughs and helps him up and their surroundings change again, a pine forest glowing with deep golden light. Sorey’s feet are suddenly on soft moist loam, and he can smell the richness of the soil in the air. The tops of the trees behind Mikleo gleam with sunlight.
“You’ve made it late afternoon,” says Sorey, and Mikleo nods. “You’re really good at this.”
“Thanks,” says Mikleo. “Last one, okay? Shut your eyes, it’s my favorite.”
Sorey does as he’s told, and Mikleo steps forward to press his hand over Sorey’s eyes just to make sure. Sorey feels the muscles in Mikleo’s body shift as he waves his arm, and then the wind changes on his face. The air feels bigger, stiller, and the birdsong of the forest fades.
Mikleo removes his hand, and Sorey opens his eyes to see them standing in an endless field of sunflowers. They stretch in every direction, their yellow and black heads almost painfully bright against the pure blue of the sky. They’re almost as tall as Sorey. He feels safe and enclosed by their stems, and the leaves brush against his arms like delicate, comforting fingers. When the wind rushes against his face the flowers rattle like a million drops of rain, and it brings the scent of green, growing things.
Mikleo is standing very close. “Do you like it?” he asks.
It’s like something is breaking open in his chest, sweet and painful and swirling. “I love it.”
“Oh, good,” says Mikleo, and takes his hands in his with a smile. “It’s nice, isn’t it? Next I’m learning how to bring animals into the illusion.”
“That’ll be great,” says Sorey, but his voice sounds like it’s coming from miles away. Mikleo is so close, he’s standing barely a few inches away from Sorey and all he can think is, what if I kissed him?
What if I kissed him? His mind whirls around the possibility. It would be so easy, the space between them is so small, he would just have to lean down and press their lips together and that would be that. Holding hands in a field of sunflowers , he thinks, almost laughing at the romanticism of it all.
It would just be so easy.
Wind blows around them, ruffling Mikleo’s bangs lightly off of his forehead. His face is almost more familiar than Sorey’s own.
Mikleo’s stopped talking, he’s studying him now, and it’s nothing like they haven’t done before. They don’t need to speak; they’re content to just watch and exist; and Sorey feels so comfortable around him, like all the expectations of how he should act have been brushed off his shoulders. He doesn’t need to kiss him. He doesn’t need to do anything.
But he’s leaning forward like his center of gravity has shifted and he can’t read Mikleo’s face and Sorey curses himself for moving but it’s like there’s nothing he can do. Mikleo’s grip on his hands tightens fractionally. Sorey takes a shuddering breath, and his eyes slip shut.
And as their noses bump there’s a sound like a thousand shattering windows and the field of sunflowers tumbles down around them.
Sorey’s heart leaps out of his chest and he rips himself away.
Mikleo’s eyes are wide and maybe even panicked and Sorey feels a huge ripping spike of regret go through him. I’ve ruined everything , he thinks desperately, he hates me he thinks I’m a creep nothing’s going to be the same we won’t be able to talk anymore it’ll be awkward he’ll never want to see me again he’ll never want to see me-
It’s like the world is spinning, and through the center of it all is Mikleo, pulled into focus so sharp it hurts. Shards of ice are melting around him in a perfect circle. Mikleo opens his mouth to speak, and nothing comes out, so he licks his lips and tries again. “Sorey, I…”
“I have to go,” says Sorey. The words tumble out of his mouth in a desperate stream and all he can cling to is the hope that maybe , if he does something right, if he apologizes and controls himself and never mentions this again, their friendship won’t be gone forever. “I’ll--” his hands are shaking, his voice is shaking, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Sorey,” says Mikleo again, “I just- I just-”
“It’s okay, Mik,” says Sorey, and Mikleo doesn’t call out to him as he goes.
It’s the first time Sorey’s considered not visiting Mikleo.
But to keep himself occupied he dredges up all the names of bodies of water he can find, as many as he can get his hands on, in the furthest corners of the library and the most obscure pages of the internet. When he finally stops it’s nearly three a.m. and his list is seven pages long. He tucks it under his pillow and brings it with him when he goes. For some reason it gives him strength.
Mikleo’s waiting for him at the river, like always. They stop and look at each other wordlessly for a few moments before Sorey crosses over. For the first time the air is truly awkward between them.
“I’m sorry,” says Sorey, just as Mikleo says, “It’s okay.”
They both stop and frown, and Sorey forces a laugh that sounds horribly fake even to his ears. He wishes he could turn invisible and move someplace far away and remote. That wouldn’t really help, because Mikleo would still be disgusted with him and their relationship would never be the same, but the feeling is there.
Mikleo sighs. “Don’t worry about yesterday,” he says. He looks more hurt than anything, strangely, although he’s trying to conceal it. His smile is shaky.
It doesn’t matter, though. Nothing either of them says can repair the distance they suddenly feel. Yesterday he was close enough to touch; today he’s not sure Mikleo could even hear him across the cavern that gapes between them.
Mikleo’s gaze snaps to the papers in his hand, and suspicion crosses his face even before he pulls them from Sorey. He leafs through the pages, frowning at the endless rows of characters that cross them.
“Are these all names?” he asks. “Sorey, I thought I told you to leave it be.”
“Yeah,” says Sorey, “I just...needed something to do last night.”
Mikleo’s still scanning the names, and when he looks up, his face is twisted in annoyance. “How many times do I have to tell you to stop looking? I’ve been saying it for five years, at least-”
“Well, I’m sorry for caring,” snaps Sorey. Mikleo has told him, but it’s with a sad, defeated little jump in his voice that only makes him want to try harder. “You always talk about the places you want to see outside the bathhouse. I’m just trying to help.”
“And what a great load of help it’s been the past seven years. We still haven’t found anything.” Mikleo’s hands are balled tightly in his edge of his robe. “Why do you keep searching? It won’t make any difference. I’m never going to be free.”
It’s like Sorey’s stomach is full of liquid and it’s hot and churning and bitter. “Don’t say that.”
“I don’t know why you try so hard,” says Mikleo, “you’re just making it harder for yourself- for both of us. Isn’t it exhausting to always end up disappointed?”
“The chance of finding your name is worth it,” says Sorey, hearing his voice raise defensively. “I do it because I want you to be able to leave.”
“It would be easier if you gave up!” Sorey can see angry tears gathering in Mikleo’s eyes. “It would be better if you just accepted that I’ll be stuck here forever! Nothing’s going to change that, Sorey, certainly not you-”
“Not me?” Sorey’s head is spinning. “Not a weak, powerless, insignificant human like me. Fine, Mikleo, I get it.”
“It’s not possible for anyone!” Mikleo protests. “No one but Yubaba knows, the rules are set, but somehow you keep insisting on trying to guess-”
“Why do you think I keep trying so hard?” Sorey says. “It’s because I wanted you to be with me! Permanently, not this half-visiting we’ve had to do for years.” He’s upset enough that his hands are shaking, he’s reeling with a mixture of hurt and regret and it’s all spewing out of his mouth in an angry mess. They’ve never fought like this before; it’s always been insignificant squabbles, and for the first time it really hurts . “You showed me all those beautiful places in your illusions, Mikleo,” says Sorey. “Don’t you want to see them?”
“I shouldn’t have,” mutters Mikleo, “then we wouldn’t be in this mess and none of this would’ve happened and it would be just like it always was and-”
“So you don’t care about being with me,” says Sorey. “I thought you would want to live in the outside world--I thought you wanted to be free. I thought you wanted to want to leave! Isn’t that what we dreamed of?”
“I can’t!” cries Mikleo, finally raising his voice. “You think I haven’t tried? I have, Sorey, and all it’s done is convinced me that remembering is impossible. I’m stuck here forever. I’m trying to accept it, and all you do is make it harder!”
For a second Sorey thinks he might scream, or cry, or both, as the feeling wells in his throat and threatens to hurl out of his mouth--but it doesn’t. He takes a breath, shakily. “I thought you hadn’t given up,” he says. “I thought you were better than that. But you don’t care about being with me, fine. Today I was going to tell you that I was planning a trip to the city.” For some stupid reason Sorey wants to kiss him, hard, on the mouth, just to see how he would react. Fear and disgust don’t faze him now--some part of him would be glad to see it mar Mikleo’s face.
“I’ll see you in a few days,” says Sorey shortly, turning to cross back over the river. “Maybe we’ll have cooled off by then.”
I’m sorry about yesterday. I was just upset. You were, too, so I hope we can just forget everything that happened. Let’s pretend like the past two days didn’t exist.
I don’t know when you’ll get back, but if I’m not at the river, just wait for me. I’ll find you.
He hasn’t been in the city for almost fifteen years. The last time he was with his parents, before they died. He can only remember vague impressions--rushing, colorful crowds of people, and the dirty gray of sidewalk concrete, and bright clean lines of their apartment in the sun.
It’s lucky he came with Rose, or else he would be entirely lost. She’s been on several trips to visit family, or maybe just for herself, but either way she knows how to navigate and Sorey is grateful. The hot, pressing crowds of people overwhelm him, but Rose cuts straight through like a shark and all Sorey has to do is follow her.
They’ve booked a cheap motel along the outskirts and have to take a train into downtown, where they’ll meet Rose’s uncle Eguille. Sorey recalls never liking underground stations, particularly. They’re small and enclosing and the wind from the incoming trains smells dirty.
Rose’s open blazer flaps onto his arm as they stand against the rush of air that precedes their train. He watches the windows of the cars flash past, lit by yellow light. The people inside look serious and tired already, even though the day has just started.
Rose has her own itinerary for this trip, typed neatly on a spreadsheet and then printed out in different colored ink. She’s gotten a manicure, too, and the white paper crinkles under her lacquered nails. On their drive into the city Sorey listened to her tell him all about the colleges she’s gotten invited to tour. She’s going alone, while her uncle will be with Sorey. He knows not to worry about her--Rose is like a firecracker, especially in the business world, and it’s obvious that she’ll be more than fine.
She steps into the car in front of them and he follows her lead, glad that their station is obscure enough that not many people are inside the train. The ride will give him some time to think.
Rose is dressed sharply, in a pencil skirt and a crisp white button-down and her blazer looks expensive, probably a gift from Alisha. She takes first impressions seriously.
They have plans to meet for lunch, at a little cafe that Rose has been raving about for days. She’s left him with strict instructions to call her if he ever gets lost or separated from her uncle.
“I’ve got three tours today, can you believe it,” she says. “One of them’s Keio, that’s my top school, so I figured I’d better dress nicely and be on my best behavior and not swear. Alisha told me not to swear- Sorey, remind me not to swear, okay?”
“Okay,” says Sorey, and Rose makes a small noise of discontent.
“We’re meeting Eguille at the station, you remember, right?”
“You’re going to text me if anything happens?”
“Are you listening to anything I say?”
“Yesterday I snuck into Alisha’s parents’ room and we had hot, passionate sex all over their bed.”
Rose bursts into giggles and Sorey finally turns to look at her. “Sorry, what?”
“Never mind,” says Rose. “Man, you’re really out of it.”
“I guess so,” says Sorey. Maybe it’s the light, restless sleep he had gotten last night, but it’s like his head is surrounded by fog. Nothing really seems to stand out to him--it’s just one monotonous, nauseating blur.
Rose shrugs and slumps onto his shoulder and they spend the rest of the ride in silence. Sorey vaguely wonders if anyone thinks they’re dating. The thought almost makes him laugh.
Rose nudges him when they reach their station, and they exit by way of a towering set of stairs to the street. It’s so much louder than the country, already. The air smells stale. People are crisscrossing the sidewalk, heads bent over phones or lugging briefcases as they hurry to their destinations.
He glances over at Rose. She looks like she could eat the entire city alive, roads and people and all. It’s obvious now how a tiny rural town would always be too small for her--this is where she shines. But while a strange sort of energy and confidence radiates from her in the presence of urban life, all Sorey wants to do is find a place to lie down. The sheer size of things are amazing--the buildings are dizzyingly tall, and the electric signs are wild and bright and beautiful. But it’s overwhelming, and noisy, and he decides that he easily prefers the country.
A tall man appears from the crowd, and Rose points.
“That’s Eguille.” She waves excitedly, and the man’s face lights up as he sees her.
“Rose!” he says, enveloping her in a bear hug and swinging her around. “How’s my favorite niece?” Rose shrieks and laughs.
“I’m seventeen,” she says, “you can’t do that anymore!”
Sorey watches their meeting with amusement. He sticks out his hand when Eguille sets Rose down. “I’m Sorey. Nice to meet you.”
Eguille has a firm, confident handshake and an even more confident smile. “Sorey, I’ve heard a lot about you! Hope it works out with that friend of yours.”
Sorey’s gaze snaps to Rose, and he shoots her a look or horror. She shrugs in return.
“You’re all set?” Eguille asks Rose, who nods.
“I’ll be just fine!” She thumps Sorey on the back, hard, and tells him not to get lost. He watches her join the throngs of people, waving at them one last time before she disappears.
“Are you sure she’ll be okay?” Sorey asks.
“Rose knows the city,” says Eguille. “She’s been coming every summer to visit since she was little. And, well, you know how she is. She’ll be fine.” He glances at Sorey and scratches his beard contemplatively. “We’re going to east campus for the tour?”
Sorey nods. He has a few colleges to visit as well. He pulls the map out of his bag, and, trying not to look too scared, he follows Eguille into the crowd.
You weren’t kidding when you said a few days. Hope you’re having fun in the city. Don’t get yourself run over or anything without me.
I really am sorry about the fight. I hope everything’ll be okay when you come back. I’ve learned this new technique for recalling lost memories--it’s just a small thing, but I think I might be able to work something out of it.
He manages to get through his first tour just fine. The campus was much less intimidating when surrounded by other nervous teenagers, and Sorey was legitimately excited at the sight of the history building. There are classes he’d like to take--archaeology and Japanese history and more. There are labs with real equipment, where he could do real work and find real answers. He could spend his college years doing what he’s obsessed over for most of his childhood.
But it’s just not the same without Mikleo.
Sorey and Eguille are already at the cafe that they and Rose had agreed to meet at. Sorey’s phone buzzes, and he glances down to see that she’s texted them. “She says she’s going to be a little late.”
Eguille glances at him, nods, and his face softens. “You don’t look so good, kid. You’re from the country, right?”
Sorey laughs weakly. “Yeah. It’s a little overwhelming here.” Cars are rushing past him so fast it makes his head spin.
“There’s a park about a block from here,” says Eguille. “You could go and sit down there, if you want.”
Sorey thanks him and walks over. It seems like the only green spot in the entire city. A few kids are playing tag beneath the wide, shady trees, and Sorey smiles as their screams and laughter fill the air. He finds a spot beneath an oak and stretches his legs out on the grass. The air is cool and almost damp, and if he closes his eyes Sorey can almost imagine that he’s at home, in the forest surrounding his house.
He’s not mad at Mikleo, now that he thinks about it. He just wants their relationship to go back to how it was, before the fight and the almost-kiss and maybe even before the weird feelings and tingles he got around Mikleo had started to appear. Their fight had been the product of too many emotions running high, even if the underlying issue was still there.
But even if Mikleo really had given up on remembering his name, Sorey couldn’t blame him. Not after everything he knew about his personality--he was stubborn enough to rival Rose, had a fierce sense of pride, and he would never back down without trying. It wasn’t in Mikleo’s nature to give up--which meant that he had tried, hard, and he hadn’t given nothing to the thought.
Sorey misses him already, even though he’s spent probably less than twenty-four hours in the city. He misses his house, too, and the surrounding forest. There had been more than enough urban development for him in the larger town next to theirs--it had a school, grocery stores, a cinema, a mall, a cohesive system of streets and neighborhoods. It’s not quite that he hates the city, though. It’s busy and a little draining, but he could get used to it with time. It’s just that he can’t fully enjoy the atmosphere when his heart lies at home.
Sorey was raised outdoors, with dirt beneath his nails and grass under his bare feet and sun on his skin, so it calms him to return to the earth. If he tries hard enough he can almost pretend that he’s sitting next to Mikleo, except that their shoulders would be pressed together and there would be the lavender-rain scent that hangs around him, and they’d be talking, and he wouldn’t feel alone.
His phone buzzes in his pocket, and Sorey pulls it out blearily. Rose is at the restaurant.
It worked. Remember that time when you asked me what color the Heian period was? I remember now. It was light green.
At this point I probably don’t need to keep writing letters, but I just need someplace to write thing down. I’m still not entirely sure how this will work with large-scale memories like my name, but I think it could be done. I just need more power. I can get more power.
I’ll keep you posted. Come back soon.
It’s so noisy at night.
The country is noisy too, to be fair, but in its own way. The cicadas and frogs are loud, but at least they’re natural . Sorey rolls onto his side and almost considers holding his pillow to his ears. Their motel is right behind a highway, and the endless rush of cars sounds strange. Maybe it’s because of the difference that he can’t sleep.
The hotel room takes him back to his early childhood, though. It’s been awhile since he’s slept in a bed like this, with the air conditioning turned on high and the flowery scent of cleaner in the air. Before he moved in with Gramps, his apartment had smelled similar.
Sorey turns onto his other side, restless, feeling like he’s missing something. There’s a hollow ache inside him that he can’t pinpoint, until he thinks of Mikleo and something clicks . If Sorey closes his eyes it comes to him so easily, exactly what he wants--Mikleo lying next to him in the big hotel bed, voice soft in the dark, legs tangled with his. His lips pressed against the back of Sorey’s neck, an arm over his waist. It would be so nice, to hold or be held.
It would be better if Mik was here. It’s not the first time the thought has come to him and Sorey’s sure it won’t be the last. When he thinks about it, he’s always sort of wishing he was with Mikleo. It’s not obvious, unless Sorey has some time to himself and realizes there’s always this tiny little ache in his chest.
He’s lying in the dark all wrapped up in feelings and the thought comes to him unbidden--the I love him thought--the one that fills him close to bursting with something so overwhelming and bright and golden that he sometimes thinks he might scream. It’s dizzying and overwhelming in all the good ways the city isn’t. Although Sorey knows Mikleo doesn’t love him back in the same way, he still knows that Mikleo loves him.
It’s a given, basically, but it still makes him incomprehensibly happy.
Sorey knows Mikleo can’t be here right now, so the next best thing is to lose himself in a memory where he is. Sorey picks one from fairly recently--they had been lying on the hill, tucked together, when it had started to rain. It was a spring kind, not torrential but soft and misty and gentle. Mikleo had laughed and swirled the water vapor into patterns and they had let themselves get wet as their clothes and hair beaded with condensation. They had huddled together for warmth, Mikleo pressed tightly to his chest and laughing in his ear and his limbs burning hot wherever they touched Sorey’s bare skin.
Without noticing, Sorey slips into sleep.
Sorey’s beneath only a sheet when he wakes up, which is strange because he usually uses a blanket when he gets cold during the night, and he’s not cold now. It’s light in the room, a bright, pure sort of white light that comes with midmorning. The curtains next to the bed wave gently.
He becomes aware of several things at roughly the same time--a slender arm that’s wrapped around his chest, the steady rise and fall of breathing against his back, and the scent of lavender and rain.
Something in his chest skips at that, a little sweet painful jump that almost brings tears to his eyes. He would know Mikleo anywhere, even if he couldn’t see his face.
Mikleo stirs behind him, plants a sleepy kiss on his neck. “Good morning,” he whispers, voice hoarse from disuse.
Sorey turns to face him. The light from the window plays across Mikleo’s face, catching his eyes in exactly the right way to make them glow like gems. A smile tugs at his lips.
“Good morning,” says Sorey, and kisses him.
Mikleo makes a little noise and curls his hand in the front of Sorey’s sleep shirt. He kisses back.
Sorey’s pulled roughly from sleep by the beeping of his phone’s alarm. It’s harsh and artificial and grating in the quiet of the room, and nothing has ever sounded worse.
For a second a huge surge of anger and annoyance surges inside of him--he had been having such a good dream, too. Sorey smashes the off button and sits up.
Almost without thinking, a hand goes up to touch his lips. The brightness of the dream is fading fast, but he can still recall a few specific things--the hand on his chest, Mikleo’s eyes, the kiss. He wants to close his eyes and fall back asleep. He wants to have the dream again; he wants to relive it a thousand times. He would have it every night for the rest of his life without complaint.
His phone buzzes angrily on the nightstand, and Sorey picks it up. Rose’s texted him.
> where are you?? 7:15 breakfast in the lobby, right
Sorey groans and rubs a hand over his face.
> coming , he texts back.
He forces himself to get dressed.
“You look kind of bad,” says Rose, as he takes his seat across the table from her. The motel has a meager western-style spread of yogurt and cereal and fruit for breakfast, but at least it’s free. Rose is finishing off her second container of blueberry yogurt.
Sorey stares at her, meaning to ask about her room and if she slept well or other polite things to say at breakfast, but memories of his dream are still flashing behind his eyes. He opens his mouth and what comes out is, “I think I’m in love with Mikleo.”
Rose drops her spoon as a huge grin spreads across her face. “Yeah, no shit!”
“I guess it was kind of obvious,” Sorey says, burying his face in his hands. He can tell he’s turning red. “I mean, when I think about it I want to date him, and be his boyfriend, and kiss him, and live with him, so-”
“Yeah, I’d say you like him,” says Rose, and licks her spoon clean. “Congratulations.”
“Rose,” groans Sorey weakly, his voice muffled by his arms. “He doesn’t like me back.”
Rose laughs. “The fuck you mean he doesn't like you back? I swear, I’ve never seen a couple more oblivious than you two.”
“No,” says Sorey, adopting a mournful tone. “I almost kissed him and he got all freaked out and then I freaked out and now it’s awkward between us and I’ve ruined everything- ”
“Sorey.” Rose pushes at his arm until he raises his head and looks at her. “Did you ever hear him say he doesn’t like you?”
“Well,” says Sorey. “I...no.”
“Have you ever told him, explicitly, that you are attracted to him romantically?”
“Honestly, I’d say he probably thinks that you don’t like him. If you almost kissed him and then freaked out, he probably thinks it was a mistake. That you didn’t mean to, or didn’t want to.”
Sorey stares at her. “...Maybe.”
“Listen, if things between you two are bad now, you don’t have anything to lose. Just confess when we get back. End your misery. And Alisha’s and mine, too, it’s painful to see you pining all day.”
“Okay,” Sorey breathes. “Yeah. Okay.”
“I should be a relationship counselor or something,” says Rose with a satisfied smile. “What can I get you? You want a celebratory yogurt? They’re good.”
Sorey lets Rose hand him a container, and can’t stop his smile.
I know you’ll be mad that I didn’t wait but I think I’m going to go ahead and try it. It’s your fault anyway for taking so long.
I’m just kidding. Take as much time as you need.
I don’t think I can wait any longer, though. This’ll work, if I can control it. I think I can control it. It’s worth the risk. You understand, right? I’m finally going to remember, after eighteen years. I haven’t given up yet.
“Rose, I can’t do it.”
Rose rolls her eyes as they approach the outskirts of their town. “You’re telling me this now? Sorey, I swear you’ve changed your mind seventy times during this trip.”
“I don’t want to ruin our relationship!”
“From what you’ve told me, you already ruined it enough. It can’t get worse, can it?”
“I guess not.” Sorey watches the houses of their town roll by. They look so tiny in comparison to the city--he had never noticed until now.
“You’ll be fine,” says Rose. She smiles at him. “I only met Mikleo once, and it was obvious. Listen, if he’s not in love with you, I’ll buy you lunch for the next month.”
Sorey laughs, but his confidence is bolstered. Rose isn’t someone to make promises lightly, and she wouldn’t have offered something so big if she hadn’t believed that she was right.
“I’ll drop you by your house,” says Rose. She turns onto the gravel road and Sorey watches the little place pull into view--the moss-covered roof, clusters of potted plants on the front step, wind chimes hung from the gutters.
It looks like a bit of a mess, but Sorey’s never been more glad to see it in his life.
“Thanks for everything,” he says, trying to show how much he means it.
Rose grins at him. “Don’t mention it. Send me text updates.”
Sorey grabs his bag from the backset and waves to Rose as she drives away.
He stops by the house to greet Gramps, and then he’s off to the bathhouse. There are so many feelings mixed in his chest that he honestly can’t differentiate them anymore--anxiety, excitement, longing, hope--he’s lost track.
He runs past a cluster of tiny spirit houses overgrown with moss, onto the hard-packed road through the forest with the strip of green growing down its middle. The sunlight through the trees is throwing dappled patterns onto the ground, his shadow breaks through them as he races towards the bathhouse. He’s run the path from his house so many times that it’s been ingrained into muscle memory.
This time on he doesn’t stop in the station to admire the stained glass or the quiet solemnity that hangs in the air. The field welcomes him with great, open arms. He tears through the grass, and when he rounds the hill to the river he’s panting, out of breath.
Mikleo isn’t waiting for him by the river. The absence of his figure is strange and jarring; Sorey’s used to seeing him like a flag of blue and white against the worn stone steps. He’s come at the usual time but it’s understandable that Mikleo isn’t there. Sorey never told him exactly when he’d be back. And , he thinks with a sinking feeling, he may not even want to see me.
Sorey crosses the river. “Mikleo!” he calls, as if by some off chance he’s around and he will hear. Despite himself, he wants Mikleo to appear. Rose had finally convinced him to confess, and if he came another day, he would have to work up the nerve again. Sorey wants to get it off his chest, to put it out in the open. There’s a strange, different kind of pain that comes with waiting. If it all went to hell he’d just have to deal with the aftermath as best he could.
The thought of living with more sneaked glances and awkward touches and wishing for Mikleo is more painful than whatever can happen now.
Sorey’s about to climb the steps into town when he sees a bright spot of white peeking out from underneath a rock. He lifts the rock and brushes the dirt off of several folded pages. He opens the top one--it’s Mikleo’s handwriting.
Sorey reads the letters quickly, excitement building higher and higher with each one. If Mikleo’s gone through with it sucessfully, he’ll have remembered his true name. If confessing goes alright, they might even be able to leave. They could go to Sorey’s house--he could show Mikleo his room. They could kiss on his bed.
If Mikleo’s gone through with it successfully. The line about more power is tugging at the back of his mind. It’s one of the first things Mikleo taught him about what he was learning--if it’s beyond your skill level, you don’t attempt it. Reaching too high is the most common reason for failure.
The letter told him to stay put, but Sorey hikes up a hill and squints in the mid-afternoon sunlight. He’s sure he can find Mikleo somewhere, or meet him if he’s inside the bathhouse. The town and the bathhouse look abandoned as always--not even rats scurry between brightly-colored booths, and no birds rest on the tops of the buildings. As he stands, though, his spine begins to tingle, and he shivers, once, violently. It takes him a moment to place the cause, but he breathes in deeply and he can barely make out a bitter, acrid tang to the air.
It wouldn’t cause him to worry anywhere else, but the air by the bathhouse is the purest and cleanest Sorey has ever breathed. Sometimes, if he concentrates, Sorey can almost imagine the oxygen diffusing into his veins like light, sweeping out the toxic and the cloying. He’s never smelled anything but natural scents in the air here, not even smoke.
Then he sees it--a tangled, swirling ball of made of streams of light. In the center of it, a figure with light blue hair, battered by wind. He’s struggling to stay upright. Sorey’s heart lances ice cold.
“Mikleo!” he calls, already running, and he is greeted by nothing but the wind in his ears. “Mikleo!”
He’s far enough away to be out of the range of the fierce winds surrounding Mikleo and his magic. But he’s close enough to see Mikleo turn at the sound of his name--and as he opens his mouth to respond his hand slips and a stream of light spikes straight through his back.
Mikleo jerks, held up for a split second before the magic disappears and he buckles onto the grass.
For a second Sorey can’t breathe. He makes some sort of a sound--a yell or a scream or a groan, he can’t tell and he doesn’t care. He stumbles over crests and valleys, hoping that it isn’t serious and knowing that it is, his mind is whirling through a thousand scenarios a second--he’s dying, he’s dead--and he wonders if an ambulance would be allowed in the spirit world and if it would even come in time.
There’s a violent crunch under his shoes and in Sorey glances down. It’s with a shock that he takes in the spread of grass at his feet, burned and blackened and withered and even the soil seems crumbling and lifeless. He looks up, around, desperately, and in the same moment he sees how widespread the dead patch is, he sees the figure lying squarely in the center of it all.
His feet are moving automatically, over the grass that crumbles to ash beneath him and as he nears he can see Mikleo’s face, pale and drawn tight. His hand is pressed over his chest. There’s blood staining his clothes, bubbling from beneath his fingers.
“Mik,” he whispers hoarsely, not entirely sure how he has the breath to speak because he’s certain he’s not breathing at all, and it feels like he hasn’t had air in his lungs for minutes now.
Mikleo’s eyes slip open, watery and hazy with pain. His expression is one of relief. “Sorey,” he says. “Oh, thank God. Sorey.”
Sorey doesn’t know what to do with his hands. They’re clenching and unclenching and fluttering desperately at his sides. Do you move a wounded person? Do you leave them be? Was that only for spinal injuries- can he be sure that Mikleo doesn’t have a spinal injury? It’s overwhelming and terrifying and Sorey always wanted to be an archeologist, not a doctor, he doesn’t know what to do and it’s going to cost Mikleo his life and he wants to sink to the ground and scream.
He doesn’t. He kneels very gingerly on the ashes by Mikleo’s chest. “It’s okay,” he says, and his voice sounds doesn’t even sound like his own. It’s choked and cracked and terrified. “It’s okay, I’ll call an ambulance, you’ll be fine, just- just don’t close your eyes, okay, Mik, look at me-”
“Don’t worry,” says Mikleo. His chest heaves shallowly with every breath, and it rattles with every exhale. “I’ll be fine, Yubaba’ll patch me up, trust me, just- Luzrov Rulay. Sorey, meet me at the Rulay river.”
“What?” breathes Sorey.
“My name.” Mikleo smiles shakily, and a tear finally escapes from the corner of his eye. “I remembered my name.”
“You did?” The dam in his chest finally breaks, and Sorey’s breath catches on a sob. “It worked?”
“You read the letters,” says Mikleo, gasping for breath in a way that adds another bolt of fear through Sorey’s chest. “I wasn’t sure if it would work- and I didn’t know if I could control it-” he smiles, shakily. “I couldn’t, but. Well. It worked, in the end.” His eyes flutter shut, then open again. “Sorey. You don’t have to watch me dying. You can leave now, I promise I’ll be fine-”
Sorey tries to laugh, but it comes out as another sob. “You’re dying, Mik. You’re not fine .” The bright, sunlit scene he had imagined meeting Mikleo in is crumbling around his shoulders. Confessing seems insignificant now, but if Sorey says nothing then Mikleo might never know--
He might never know--
He might never--
“I came to tell you that I’m in love with you.”
Mikleo’s eyes widen, and his lip wobbles. His smile looks almost broken. “Why do you have to make this so much harder?” he says. “You couldn’t have told me before I got myself into this mess?” His hand stirs weakly on the grass, and Sorey grabs onto it like a lifeline. Mikleo sighs. “This is not how I imagined confessing would go. You have such bad timing. Tell me you love me later, okay?”
“Okay,” breathes Sorey. He likes you back! his brain screams, and at the same time he has the sickening realization that Mikleo is dying, and if he doesn’t get help soon then he’ll be gone permanently. For real.
“Can you kiss me?” Mikleo laughs and it sounds more like a sob.
“Okay,” says Sorey again, reeling. He’s tethered to the present by Mikleo’s hand--if he let go, Sorey’s not sure he would even be here anymore.
He bends over Mikleo’s face. Beneath the acrid scent of burned grass and the coppery tang of blood, he can just barely smell the sweet scent of rain. Mikleo’s eyes are shining amethyst and bright, before they slip shut and he lets out a shaky breath through his nose. Sorey leans in. Their noses bump, he swears internally and tilts his head, and Mikleo doesn’t flinch away.
Sorey cradles Mikleo’s face with a shaking hand and kisses him.
His lips are soft. He thought they would be, but it’s still unexpected and breathtaking and Mikleo’s dying but Sorey wants more. Somehow he hadn’t anticipated the rush of warmth that wells up inside of him. It’s just a kiss, chaste, more like a peck, but it’s enough to make him dizzy.
Mikleo’s breath catches as they break away. He smiles, and it softens his face through the pain. “Thanks,” he says.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier,” says Sorey.
“I never told you either, to be fair,” says Mikleo. He frowns, and coughs once. It wracks his whole body, and Sorey doesn’t miss the tiny groan of pain that rumbles from deep in his throat. “Why aren’t they here?” he whispers.
“Just a little longer,” says Sorey, stroking his hair. “Just a little longer, Mik.”
“Yeah,” says Mikleo, and swallows with effort. “I’ll be fine.”
Mikleo’s breath is wheezing now, coming shallower and slower every time. Sorey tightens his grip on Mikleo’s hand. Please come, he prays desperately, to the person he’s hated so long for keeping Mikleo captive. He’s cursed and blamed her in his mind for years, but now he throws every ounce of strength he has into the thought. Please come. Please come. Please come.
The sky darkens around them, and Mikleo lets out a gasp of relief. Sorey can see a dark cloud over the crest of a hill, and within it lights flicker--one red, one yellow, two green.
“They’re here,” says Mikleo, so softly that Sorey has to lean close to catch his words. In between breaths there’s a few seconds pause and Sorey’s heart stops each time, afraid that it’ll be the one to stretch on forever. There might not be another breath.
“I’ll be alright,” says Mikleo. “Go. I don’t know what they’d do to you if they saw.”
He exhales, and there’s a silence so complete it’s deafening. Sorey freezes, unwilling, unable to move. He needs to know.
Then Mikleo’s chest heaves to life and he pushes, weakly, at Sorey’s arm. “Go,” he says.
Mikleo’s river is wider than Sorey had thought it would be.
He’s sitting at a bend where the trees hang low over the water. Moss and grass cover the bank, blindingly green. When the wind blows it cards through the leaves with a sound like children whispering, swelling and fading in gusts. The late afternoon sunlight is golden and syrupy, filtering through the trees to glint off the water. It makes Sorey’s eyes hurt, but he keeps looking. He wants to savor everything about this place.
The current is slow and peaceful here. Sorey dangles his feet in the water and hopes Mikleo won’t mind. The water is cool, fresh, and if he’s still for long enough he sometimes catches a glimpse of curious minnows. Sorey closes his eyes. The wind blows, a bird sings in a tree next to him, the water tickles his feet.
“Nice to know I have your foot sweat in my water, now.”
“Mikleo!” Sorey gasps and turns and stands all in the same moment, and just barely catches a glimpse of a familiar face and ice blue hair before he envelopes him in a hug so tight it has to hurt.
Mikleo doesn’t protest, just wraps his arms around Sorey’s back and buries his face aganist his neck. They fit together like puzzle pieces, limbs settling into positions so natural they don’t even have to think. Sorey can feel Mikleo’s heartbeat against his chest, and its dull, steady thud is the most grounding thing he can imagine. He’s overcome with the sensation of holding him--the solidity, the warmth, feel of the planes of his body against his own.
They stay together, standing, rocking slightly in their embrace.
“You made it,” says Sorey. “You’re done? You’re free?”
“I’m free,” says Mikleo, and the note of wonder in his voice is almost enough to make Sorey cry.
He kisses him instead. Mikleo kisses back, a real one this time. He’s shy at first, restrained and delicate and almost trembling, but he grows bolder as Sorey responds and soon his hands are tangling in Sorey’s hair and their mouths are moving together hard, desperately. They’re inexperienced and it’s sloppy and inaccurate and wet, and Sorey couldn’t care less.
They’re both panting when they break for breath. Sorey can’t keep the smile of his face, can’t stop it from spreading so wide it hurts. There’s a tenderness in Mikleo’s eyes that’s like something out of a dream.
“Did you always look at me like that?” he asks.
“Like what?” says Mikleo. Red is spreading down his neck.
Sorey hesitates. “Like you’re in love with me.”
Mikleo bites his lip and glances down. “I am,” he says. “You were just too much of an idiot to notice.”
“Good thing I’m noticing now,” laughs Sorey. “Can I kiss you again?”
Mikleo almost rolls his eyes, but stops himself. “You don’t have to ask.”
This time their kiss is soft, lingering. Sorey presses his forehead to Mikleo’s and breathes, studying the soft curve of his lashes in the light.
They have their whole lives ahead of them, and the whole world to explore and unearth and discover.
And they can do it together.
“So I’m guessing this is a better time to tell you I love you,” Sorey murmurs.
Mikleo laces their fingers together and smiles. “Perfect.”