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A voice through the darkness

Chapter Text

It was through a raging fit that Mikleo met the one who would become the most important person in his life.

There was a sickness that affected the most creative minds. Someone could catch it at any point of the day, but it was more common at late hours into the night, when mental defenses were lowered and the person would be tired from the days events. The symptoms would show themselves slowly; a mild headache; tense shoulders and neck muscles; hands that refused to work, no matter how anxious the mind would get —and it would get incredibly anxious. This sickness fed on creativity and will to live, and could transform the toughest of humans into a mere pile of crying meat on the floor.

The sickness’ name was ‘writer’s block’.

Mikleo had suffered from writer’s block many times in his life. It used to be more frequent when he was an amateur writer — he used to stay up until sunrise writing pages and pages just to end up deleting them all when his insecurities showed their ugly heads—, but that didn’t mean he didn’t suffer from it now. In fact, even if writer’s block struck him less often now, it usually hit him with an intensity that left him unable to function for weeks, making him sit at his desk and stare at the blinking cursor with the same fright someone would regard a massive spider.

He was trying to fight his way through one of the worst writer’s blocks to date when it happened. Mikleo felt his chest constrict as he reread everything he had been working on for the last three days and found nothing he liked. The words didn’t match up to the idea he had in his head; the ideas weren’t as clear, the imaginary was all wrong. His text was a jumble of dates, and names and places and Mikleo hated it, hated it, hated it—

In a fit, he smashed his closed fists on the keyboard of his laptop, making thousands of letters appear on his document. It felt really good so he did it again and again, smashing the keys with enough force to hurt the sides of his fists, watching as gibberish wrote itself on his word document.

But it wasn’t until he stopped punching his poor, abused laptop that he realized he had changed the radio station he had been listening to without meaning.

The classical music that had accompanied him throughout the night had been suddenly replaced by a warm, deep voice coming from his speakers. He heard nothing except its cadence at first; just the sound of it made Mikleo’s fists unclench, the half moons his nails had left in his palms clear on his pale skin. But then he heard the actual words, pure and sweet like a friend’s encouragement, and Mikleo stopped breathing for a second as he listened.

“…Nothing you ever do is useless.” The voice coming from his laptop said, its tone leaving no room for retorts. “ Sometimes it may seem like it, but I can promise you, it’s not. It’s a step closer to what you want to achieve! Every single thing, no matter how small or unimportant you think it is, it’s actually a step away from not doing anything. From having nothing.

“Think of it this way.” Was Mikleo wrong, or could he actually hear a smile on the speaker’s voice? “ Think of what you have created tonight as a skeleton. A foundation. It’s okay to hate it, but don’t discard it! You now have something closer to what you wanted, you just have to polish it and give it love now —I can see you laughing Rose, quit it!— until it’s exactly what you hoped it would be. No one gets things right on their first try!

“So, there you go, listeners! No matter if you’re an artist, a writer, a student or —same as our friend SleeplessMusician1993 here— a compositor who never likes his music, please know that no matter what, nothing you ever do is pointless. The world is already a better place just because you’re creating something new.”

Mikleo snorted out loud. This person was so sickly sweet that Mikleo didn’t know if he should smile or roll his eyes. But it was precisely their sweetness and the conviction behind their words what made Mikleo… believe him.

He looked at his word document with a new light in his eyes.

A step closer to what I want it to be…

"I’m afraid we don’t have more time for tonight, guys! It was a pleasure to read all of your emails and I hope I could help you feel better, even if just a bit! My name is Sorey and the bully behind the glass is my friend Rose. Hope you have a good night, and see you tomorrow!”

The voice died down and was replaced by soft music, not classical like the one Mikleo had been listening to, but still very much in the mood the speaker —Sorey—had left in. Mikleo sat in his chair, fingers drumming softly in the wood of his desk, gaze lost. His chest felt warm and his shoulders had finally relaxed, though he hadn’t even realized he had been that tense until then. He had only listened for a few minutes, but the change was incredible; the voice and the words had been like one of Lailah’s mama bear hugs, like the soft breeze that played with his hair back in his home in Elysia. There was something coiling in the pit of his stomach: not anything nasty like he had been feeling before, but something so warm that he found himself sighing at the feeling.

Mikleo sat straight in his chair and, with a flick of his hand on his mouse, deleted all the keysmashing he had done before.

He was suddenly very pumped to write.

 

 

It didn’t take long for Sorey’s voice to replace Mikleo’s classical music every time he sat down to write in the months that followed. Sorey’s live program was at night, but Mikleo didn’t have trouble finding podcasts of Sorey’s program for other times of the day. It turned out, despite the weird hours his program was broadcasted, Sorey had a pretty big fanbase. Everyone had only nice words towards Sorey and his enthusiasm; hundreds, thousands of people across the country had found solace and comfort in Sorey’s voice in more than one occasion.

Mikleo had —not so slowly— become one of those people. Usually, Sorey’s warm voice was nothing but white noise while he wrote, Mikleo being too immersed in his own thoughts to really listen to what was being said. But whenever he faltered, Mikleo would sit back, sip his quickly cooling tea and close his eyes, letting Sorey’s encouraging words revive his passion for writing.

You can do anything you set yourself to do.” Sorey was saying as Mikleo edited a paragraph from the last chapter of his book. “ It doesn’t matter how hard your task might be, there’s no reason you won’t be able to achieve it! It also doesn’t matter how long it takes you. As long as you get to a place you’re happy to be in, it’s completely okay.”

Mikleo looked at the time. Almost 3 AM. Sorey’s program usually ended at that time —you could usually tell by the sleepy cadence of Sorey’s voice that the time to say goodbye for the day was coming — but tonight, it was different. Sorey was excited from beginning to end; sometimes even Rose, his loyal companion at the station, had to shout at him to stay still because he tended to move away from the mic in his enthusiasm. Mikleo listened with a smile as Sorey apologized and laughed, his bright laugh sending nice tingles from Mikleo’s headphones to the rest of his body.

I have a cool announcement today, guys!” Sorey said. A hollow sound followed his words, like a clap. “ As you may or may not know, we’ve been teasing on our webpage about something very exciting for the last month. Some of you guessed it; some others… Have a very wild imagination hahaha. But I’m going to reveal the truth today!”

Mikleo raised his eyebrows, his fingers stilling over his keyboard. Sorey’s enthusiasm was contagious so he listened with his breath held in his lungs.

“Truth is… We’re going on tour! Well, calling it tour is a bit of a stretch… BUT! I’m so excited, guys! We’re going to have live talk shows at four different cities, which you guys can attend! I’ll give you a —as Rose calls it —motivational speech and then I’ll be answering any questions you might have, or you can even tell me about what’s bothering you there if you feel like sharing! It’s going to be so much fun! I really hope you guys come so I can meet all of you.

“The tour will start here in Lastonbell, in two weeks. Then we’ll move to Pendrago, AND THEN, something I’m very excited about, we’ll be going to Hyland to visit both Marlind and Ladylake! The tour is supposed to last about three months. All the info you might need is already on our website, and tickets are already on sale! Please, please, come visit us! We’ll have a great time together!”

After that, Sorey started to say his goodbyes for the night but Mikleo didn’t listen to them. He was still caught up on the news, his heart beating so hard inside his chest he could feel it at the base of his throat and at his temples, making him dizzy.

Sorey was coming to Ladylake. Sorey, the voice that had accompanied him for the last four months while Mikleo finished his book, was coming to Mikleo’s city, Ladylake. There was a chance for Sorey to stop being just a nice voice. He would be able to see Sorey in the flesh, have a face to imagine when he listened to his program, maybe even talk to him, thank him…

No, Mikleo thought, shaking his head. His fingertips gripped the edges of his laptop so hard they turned white. It’s better if Sorey remains just a voice in my laptop. He’s helped me through my writing and that’s it. I don’t have to meet him at all.

He closed his laptop with more force than necessary. He wouldn’t be attending Sorey’s talk. He would wish him the best, for Sorey truly deserved it, but he would do so from his room, probably as he finished editing his book.

With a nod of his head, Mikleo opened his laptop and began working once again.

 


 

 

Almost three months later

Mikleo would never get used to seeing his name on the front cover of a book. And much less see that same book being sold at his favorite bookstore. It was such an amazing feeling—he felt like he could do anything now. He had published a book! His first book! He didn’t even care about the reviews it might get —he cared, a lot, but he was trying hard not to think about it. He was just so proud of his book, of himself! He could stare at the blue cover for hours, touching the title with trembling fingertips.

There was something in it, however, that made Mikleo flush with embarrassment every time he thought about it. He had decided to do it on a whim, probably caused by exhaustion, too much celebrating with Lailah and the fact that he hadn’t heard Sorey’s motivational broadcast in almost two months due to Sorey being on tour (podcasts just weren’t the same anymore).

Inside the book, right after the page with the book title and Mikleo’s pen name, Mikleo had added a little dedication to the person who had aided him the most during the writing of his book.

“To Sorey:” His dedication began. “Whose words were a drop of light in dark water. May they ripple far.”

If Lailah’s giggle upon reading it was any indication, it was incredibly cheesy. But it fitted Mikleo’s feelings pretty well, and anyway, he wasn’t that kind of writer! He wrote about ruins and history and other people’s idiocy when cataloguing archeological sites. He didn’t know how to transform feelings into words.

A little chime from his pocket made him almost drop his book. He let it carefully on the stand with the others and picked up his phone, quickly swiping his finger over the screen to see what was going on.

“Symposium starts in 5 minutes.” A message in his phone told him.

Mikleo felt himself go pale.

He was very, very late.

“Fuck!”

Mikleo ran out of the store as if his life depended on it. His feet took him without much thought to Ladylake University, a place Mikleo knew like the back of his hand. He had dreamed of studying there when he was a kid, had actually studied there when the chance was presented, and had spent hours upon hours doing research for his book at the university’s library. So when he arrived at the auditorium where the symposium was being held and found the doors locked, he didn’t fret. Ladylake U had no secrets for him.

He went out of the building and ran to its side, to a emergency exist whose alarm for some reason never started when someone opened the door. He walked through it and found himself on the sidelines of the dais, hidden behind a thick, red curtain.

The place was packed. Mikleo hadn’t known so many people would be interested in that exact symposium, but he had run so hard and so fast that he was too tired too think much about it. He simply scurried down the side of the dais, keeping himself in the shadows and trying not to bump into anyone, until he was able to take the steps up to the top of auditorium, finding an unoccupied seat at the second to last row. He let himself fall on his chair with a sigh, closing his eyes.

“Welcome, everyone!” Someone shouted from the dais, their voice carrying throughout all the auditorium through the speakers. Mikleo’s eyes snapped open. Instead of his elderly, former professor, on the dais stood a young, energetic girl. Mikleo had never seen her before but her voice was incredibly familiar. “Thank you so much for coming! We’re very excited to see how many of you showed up. We’ll start as soon as Sorey’s ready, but meanwhile let me—“

Sorey?

Sorey.

SOREY!?

Mikleo’s heart threatened to jump out of his chest. He knew now why the girl’s voice had sounded familiar. It was Rose, Sorey’s show companion.

And this was Sorey’s talk show, here in Ladylake.

Sorey is here, Sorey is here, Sorey is— Mikleo’s head couldn’t let go of the thought. The voice that had accompanied him every night for the past four months was here. He was going to see him, in person, when he had promised himself he wouldn’t. That he would leave Sorey as this mysterious person whose voice was able to pull Mikleo out of the darkest depths.

But he was an idiot and he had managed to go into the wrong auditorium, right the same day Sorey was here.

What were the odds!?

It made sense now, why so many people were here. They had come to see Sorey, not attend a talk on the Mabinogio Ruins. Mikleo’s heart kept pumping so hard he couldn’t breathe, and his vision went black for a second.

He could ran away, he reasoned. No one would see him, and even if they did they wouldn’t care. But the doors were closed, and if he wanted to leave he would have to go through the same way he had entered: through the emergency exit at the side of the dais.

He couldn’t go up the dais and leave, not with the show about to start.

So he leaned back and tried to calm his nerves. His palms were sweaty and his heart still beat erratically; he was both excited and terrified to meet Sorey in the flesh. For the love of God, he had dedicated the guy his first book and Mikleo hadn’t even seen him before.

He had a right to be nervous.

Everyone around him cheered as someone else walked onto the dais. Mikleo was too far up to see while everyone around him lifted their arms in the air, waving. The figure waved back, and in between flashes Mikleo saw a breathtaking grin.

And then the people calmed down, and Mikleo finally saw Sorey.

He was…

He was—

A dork.

It was the first word that came to Mikleo’s mind upon laying his eyes on Sorey. Sorey couldn’t be older than Mikleo; he stood on the dais with his feet apart and his hands on his hips, like the hero of a manga. He was wearing jeans and a blue Ladylake shirt with a drawing of the Sacred Sword, the city’s most known symbol, and boots that seemed sturdy and nice, as if he was planning on going exploring right after his talk. From his ears hung matching feather earrings, two in each side, that he kept playing with while he waited for his audience to stop talking.

He looked like a dork, yes. But he was also…

Mikleo hadn’t let himself imagine Sorey. At all. He had forced himself to think of Sorey as simply a voice, sometimes forgetting he was even a person. But now, looking at the real deal, Mikleo thought Sorey was the perfect embodiment of his personality and voice. Sweet, vibrant green eyes that seemed to calm the whole auditorium’s excited atmosphere. Incredible, blinding smile that made Mikleo’s heart beat faster. Even his hair —honey brown and slightly falling over the side of his forehead — made Mikleo think of laying down on a green field and caressing that hair with his fingers, combing it slowly.

Wow. That took an unexpected turn.

“Hello, everyone!” Sorey’s voice rang around the place, made more powerful by the speakers and microphone resting on his cheek. His voice was even better in reality, away from all the distortions Mikleo’s old laptop created. “I’m so happy to be here! For those of you who might not know me, my name is Sorey and I’m the host of ‘Let the bells chime!’, a motivational radio program that tries to help people with their problems. I hope we all can have fun here today and that you’ll walk out of here with a weight off your shoulders!”

Sorey’s speech flowed smoothly. Everyone in the room listened to him, as if hypnotized, and Mikleo was no less. It turned out Sorey had a way of moving his body as he spoke that was as enticing as his words. He had everyone in there wrapped around his little finger, hanging from every word that came through his smile —for Sorey smiled even while he spoke, sunshiny and boyish.

But when the time of questions came, Mikleo felt annoyance start to bubble under his skin. It seemed not everyone was as caught up in Sorey’s spell as Mikleo has thought. Some people raised their hands, waiting for Sorey to see them and give them word, just to start saying how Sorey was just feeding people romantic bullshit that had no base. How could Sorey know everyone in the room would achieve what they wanted? They asked. It was statistically improbable that everyone in there would be successful in life, they said. They kept trying to push their negativity onto Sorey, looking for a blush or a stutter, a crack in Sorey’s air of confidence.

But Sorey simply answered each and every jab with a smile and a well-thought answer. He never hesitated, and everything he said in reply to those kinds of people were incredibly intelligent statements that let the others speechless. Some were captivated by Sorey once he was done replying, and stayed the reminder of the talk starring at him with starry eyes. Others got up and left, stomping their feet in their anger.

Sorey never once lost his smile.

His intelligence and sweetness made Mikleo’s heart soar.

By the end of the talk, Mikleo realized even he himself felt incredible. He felt like he could run a mile, like he could do anything; if he wanted, he could run back home and write another book, and it would be at least just as good as the one he had just published.

And it was thanks to Sorey.

People around him started to get up and walk out of the auditorium through the now unlocked doors. Mikleo stayed sitting for a moment, eyes fixed on Sorey. People were approaching him, shaking his hands and smiling at him with warmth, and for a moment Mikleo thought of joining them. But no; he hadn’t even wanted to put a face to Sorey’s voice before, he couldn’t talk to him now. He wanted Sorey to remain in his head as this incredible person that existed and had the power to vanish the ill thoughts from even the most stubborn people.

With a sigh and a small smile, Mikleo rose.

“Wait right there, you!” A familiar voice shouted.

Mikleo turned around in time to get tackled by a red blur. He was pushed back against the wall of the auditorium with surprising strength, one arm holding him against it by the shoulders. The shock of being manhandled made him dizzy for a moment, but he soon focused his gaze on the person holding him down, an angry look on their blue eyes.

It was Rose.

“You thought I wouldn’t notice, huh?” She said, waving a finger in front of Mikleo’s face. “But nothing escapes my notice, nothing! Come with me, Mister!”

“Wait, what are you— Woah!!”

Rose, with a strength unexpected in someone as petite as she was, grabbed his wrist and started to pull him behind her down the stairs. Mikleo struggled to follow her quick descent but he kept stumbling on the steps; the only reason he kept his equilibrium at all was the girl’s strong hold on his arm.

Rose kept pulling him along even once they reached the dais. She seemed to know where she was taking him but he was starting to get fed up, so he dug his heels on the floor and pulled his arm back, making the girl stop short. She turned around, her fiery red her flying and hitting her cheeks softly.

“What are you doing?” Mikleo asked while he touched his wrist. It hurt slightly from her grip. “Who do you think you are!?”

“And who do you think you are!?” The girl shouted back, her hands flying to her hips. She leaned forward, making Mikleo lean back. “Sneaking in here without paying, honestly…”

Mikleo blinked at her, astounded. “…Wait, what?”

“Don’t play innocent! I saw you sneaking in here through the emergency door. I would have come to get your sneaky ass earlier but I didn’t want to cause a scene.”

“You’re causing one now!” Mikleo replied. “And I don’t know what you’re talking abo—“

But he did. He vaguely remembered one of Sorey’s latest broadcasts, how he had said tickets for his talk shows were already on sale. That was why the doors were closed: to prevent anyone who didn't have a ticket from sneaking in.

Mikleo had sneaked in Sorey’s talk show without paying.

He felt himself go pale.

“Oh my God…”

“Don’t think that scared look is going to make me feel any pity, Mister!” Rose said with a buff. “Just you wait, I’m—“

“Is something wrong?” A new voice chimed in.

And Mikleo knew things couldn’t go any worse. Because right behind him stood none other than Sorey, hands in his pockets, looking between Rose and Mikleo as if he didn’t know if he should be amused or truly worried.

He was so close to Mikleo, he could actually feel the heat radiating off him.

“This fella sneaked into our show without paying.”

Sorey frowned. It was the first time Mikleo had seen him lose his smile all afternoon. “What?”

“I did not!” Mikleo shouted, looking only at Rose. He couldn’t look at Sorey, he couldn’t, he couldn’t—

He had dedicated him his first book—!

“So where is you’re ticket, huh?” Rose pressed on

“W-well, I don’t have it, but—“

“See! He doesn’t have it because he sneaked in! We should—“

“Hey, Rose—“ Sorey quickly cut in, resting a hand on the girl’s shoulder. “—Brad was looking for you right now. Why don’t you go see what’s up? I’ll take care of this.”

Mikleo thought Rose would protest. But, surprisingly, she just pouted and pointed her finger at Sorey this time, narrowing her eyes. “If I hear you’ve been a softie I’ll kick your ass, Sorey!”

Sorey simply smiled at her. “Yes, yes.”

Rose left stomping her feet. Both Mikleo and Sorey watched her go, the former without comprehending how his life had gotten so weird in so little time, the latter with a simple smile.

“Sorry about that.” Sorey said, scratching the back of his head and turning towards Mikleo. “She’s just very protective of me. She says everyone would take advantage of me without her.”

Mikleo turned too, feeling his ponytail sway behind him. You probably shouldn’t go around saying that, he thought. “It’s fine.”

“Did you, though?” Sorey asked. His smile fell then, and the look he directed at Mikleo made Mikleo’s heart clench painfully. Sorey looked at him as if Mikleo had hurt him, somehow. As if Sorey had deposited his faith in Mikleo and he had crushed it to pieces. “Sneak in here without a ticket?”

Which was weird considering they had just met.

Mikleo wrapped his arms around his own chest, protectively. “It’s not what you think.”

“Try to explain it to me?” Sorey scratched his cheek with his index finger. “I’m smart.”

Mikleo rolled his eyes and looked away. Sorey’s green eyes were almost unbearable this close. “You wouldn’t believe me, anyway. It’s so absurd—“

“Why wouldn’t I?” Sorey asked, truly flabbergasted.

Is this guy even real?! Mikleo wondered.

“Okay. Okay.” With his left hand, Mikleo pushed his bangs back nervously just to feel them bounce back to their original place. “Truth is… I wanted to go to this symposium on Ancient Ruins that was being held at the same time as your show here in Ladylake U but I lost track of time and ended up going into the wrong auditorium and—“

“Hold on a sec!” Sorey said excitedly; one of his hands flew forward to grab Mikleo’s arm, not forcefully, but as if he needed to hold on to something to contain his enthusiasm. “You were meant to go to Mayvin’s symposium on the Mabinoggio ruins!?”

Mikleo blinked twice, his violet eyes opened wide. “…You know Professor Mayvin?”

“I’m a fan of his work!” Sorey’s eyes sparkled. His feather earrings bounced in his ears. “I wanted to go to his talk so bad, but Rose wouldn’t let me change the hour of the show! She threatened me with burning my copy of the Celestial Record if I did it and—“

“The Celestial Record!?” This time, it was Mikleo’s time to be excited, feeling his mouth curl upwards in a smile. “You’ve read it?”

“Of course!” Dropping Mikleo’s arm, Sorey lowered the neck of his t-shirt and pulled from a silver chain until he was able to pull a necklace with a familiar charm. It was black, two lighting bolts over a big, half moon and crowned by another smaller moon.

Mikleo’s eyes opened like saucers. “The symbol of the Shepherd!”

“Yup!” Sorey’s smile was even more radiant than before; he looked down at Mikleo with the excitement of a child, blinding and pure. “I made it myself! I’ve had it for years now.”

It did look old, Mikleo noted. The black paint was chipped near the edges, letting Mikleo see the original color of the metal underneath. The charm had been made with care, but still one of the sides was longer than the other, and the little moon was tilted to the right.

It wasn’t perfect, but Mikleo would’ve loved to have it.

“I’ve never met someone who read it before!” Sorey admitted, letting the necklace fall on his chest. “This is so cool…”

“Me neither,” Mikleo said, looking up at Sorey. “I—“

“Sorey!” Someone shouted suddenly. Both of them turned to see a young, red-haired man running towards them, eyes opened wide and worry lines in his face. “You have to come right now!”

“Mason!” Sorey jumped when the man grabbed him from behind by the shoulders and started to shake him. “What happened?”

“Fans!” Mason shouted, letting his forehead fall on Sorey’s back. “Everywhere!”

Mikleo saw Sorey frown. His fingers played nervously with one of his earrings. “Alright…?”

“You have to come with me!” Mason shouted.

And started to push Sorey away from Mikleo.

“O—oi, wait, Mason!” Sorey turned his head to look over his shoulder back at Mikleo, who observed as Sorey was forced to move with a confused expression. “I’m sorry!” Sorey shouted, waving at Mikleo and throwing him an apologetic look. “It was nice meeting you! I hope you had fun!”

Mikleo blinked once, twice, and then once again when Sorey was out of sight. He couldn’t comprehend what had happened in the last two hours of his life. He had only intended to attend a talk on ruins and suddenly he had sneaked into the talk show of the guy who had saved Mikleo’s book many times during the past months.

Not only that, but he had met him. He had met Sorey. The same Sorey that had whispered words of encouragement through Mikleo’s headphones, that had the greenest eyes Mikleo had ever seen, and that —somehow— had the same interests as Mikleo.

Mikleo didn’t know if this was even real.

Maybe he had been hit by a car on his way here and this was all a dream. That would be more believable than all this.

The faint sound of Rose’s voice near made Mikleo get out from his own thoughts. It also made him realize that if he stayed around much longer Rose would probably come for him and demand more explanations from him.

Mikleo didn’t think talking about the Celestial Record would help him again this time.

So he slipped out of the auditorium the same way he had slipped in. And as he did so, he realized his heart hadn’t stopped beating like crazy for the entire time Sorey had been in front of him. His presence had been as soothing as his voice, but that only seemed to work with Mikleo’s mind, not with his body.

Blushing as he made his way back home, Mikleo was glad his stupid mistake had made meeting Sorey possible.

He was kind of sad it would never happen again, though.

Chapter Text

Pendrago Station was almost chaotic.

People moved with a purpose, not caring who or what was in front of them, using their elbows and knees to make way. Mikleo found himself more than once with an elbow deep in his gut as he tried to find the exit, pulling his faithful suitcase close behind (and stepping over people’s feet). The suffocating heat inside the building was making Mikleo feel dizzy, the shiny letters of the information panels moving too quickly for him to read them. Lailah had said Pendrago was always cold around this time of the year, so Mikleo had come prepared —thick jacket, scarf wrapped around his neck, his own hair left untied so it warmed his ears —, but neither of them had thought of Pendrago’s stuffy station.

Mikleo had to get out, and soon.

Thankfully, he was able to see the exit now, luminous and beautiful like a mirage.

The big figure standing right past it, however, wouldn’t be describe by Mikleo as a dream, precisely.

As soon as he opened the door, he sighed at the swoosh of cold air that hit his face, cooling the sweat of his forehead. He let it cool him down for a second before he burrowed his nose in his scarf, trembling slightly. The clouds overhead were fluffy but dark.

“Mikky-boy!” The big figure Mikleo had seen earlier exclaimed, and suddenly Mikleo was being surrounded by big, burly, familiar arms as his face was smushed against a hard chest, getting a big sniff of very strong cologne. Mikleo coughed against the figure’s shoulder, but one of his hands raised to pat the figure on the back. “It’s good to see you, man!”

“It’s good to see you too, Zaveid.” Mikleo answered with a small smile and a roll of his eyes. “Though it would be better if I couldn’t taste your cologne in my mouth.”

“Don’t you like it?” Zaveid—the burly figure— let Mikleo go, his hands dropping heavily on Mikleo’s shoulders, holding him at arms’ length. “It’s new. It’s supposed to attract the babes…”

“And have them choke on it?” Mikleo shook his head. “What, did you use half the bottle at once?”

Zaveid sighed. “I missed you, Mikky-boy, but I didn’t miss your ruthlessness. Anyway!” He started to stir Mikleo away from the station with a hand still on his shoulder, which Mikleo was thankful for. He was still feeling dizzy from the suffocating heat inside the building. “How was the ride?”

“It was okay.” Mikleo said distractedly. His eyes kept jumping from one place to another, taking the little he could see in. Pendrago was history itself. He couldn’t wait to explore it all. “I’m glad I arrived, though. I’m tired.”

“It is pretty late.” Zaveid took Mikleo to a dark, shiny car that was parked not far away. “Edna and Eizen wanted to see you tonight, but Lailah made it clear she would cut precious parts of ourselves if we didn’t let you rest first.”

Mikleo laughed low at that. That did sound like Lailah—overprotective, sweet Lailah took better care of Mikleo than anyone else. “I have things to do in the morning, but maybe we can meet for dinner tomorrow? Though I’m not looking forward to meeting Edna’s umbrella again…”

The inside of the car was as fancy as the outside. Still, there was something that made it inherently Zaveid’s. Maybe it was the metal pendulum that hung from the review mirror and that swung around when they sat on the front seats, or the strong mix of colognes that lingered in the air. Whatever it was, Mikleo was suddenly reminded of being young —his feet barely touching the floor on the back seat of the car — as Zaveid drove him to see his mother.

He had always felt some sort of exasperated love towards Zaveid. It was good to be back.

“Tell me about it.” Zaveid shook his head, turning the car on after dropping Mikleo’s case on the trunk. “I think I’ve never had a more intimate relationship than what I have with that thing.”

Mikleo winced. “Gross.”

“Anyway, Mikkey-boy.” Zaveid continued. “How long are you staying again?”

“Two weeks.” Mikleo’s words hit the glass of the window, making it mist up. At the other side of the glass, the city was flying by, grey and cold and calling his name. “I’m mostly here for investigation work, though, so I’ll either be at the university’s library or doing research at the ruins—“

“Aw, that’s no fun!”

“Maybe not for you,” Mikleo hid his smile behind his hand, even if he was turned away from Zaveid.

As he pulled the car to a stop at a red streetlight, Zaveid shook his head. His fingers drummed softly on the steering wheel. “Only you find old things like that funny.”

Images flashed through Mikleo’s mind at Zaveid’s words: the orange hue of feather earrings. A blinding smile. The symbol of the Shepherd resting on a toned chest.

No, I’m not.

Mikleo shook his head. “Maybe that’s why I laugh at your jokes, Zaveid.”

It took a moment for what Mikleo had said to register in Zaveid’s head. But, when it did, Zaveid’s mouth fell open and he turned his head towards Mikleo so fast that his long hair hit Mikleo in the shoulder. “You did not—!”

“I think I did.”

“Did you just call me old!?”

Mikleo rolled his eyes. “Don’t overreact.”

Honestly!” Zaveid continued. He pressed down a little big more on the gas, and the city around Mikleo picked up its pace. “You raise a child with love and care just for them to stab you in the back…”

Mikleo gaped at Zaveid. “You can barely say you raised me!

“Careful, boy, or you won’t have dessert tonight.”

“I’m not even having dinner with you!”

“And now you abandon me!” Zaveid shook his head. “And after I went through the trouble of getting you a welcome present…”

That got Mikleo’s attention. Zaveid’s presents had always been as unexpected as they had been terrifying, and Mikleo didn’t trust them one bit. When Mikleo had been younger and he had left to live with Lailah, Zaveid had given him a suspiciously wrapped present and had told him to ‘open it when he was alone.’

When he did, he shoved it under his bed and tried to forget it even existed.

So Mikleo thought he had actual reason to be dubious when Zaveid said the word ‘present’ with a devious grin forming on his lips. Mikleo unconsciously slid closer to the door and away from Zaveid.

“Oh, come on, don’t give me that look.” Zaveid’s grin grew in size. “I know for a fact that you’re gonna love this.”

“Somehow, I doubt it.”

Zaveid sorted. “It’s in there.” He said, and made a vague movement towards the glove compartment in front of Mikleo.

Mikleo swallowed forcibly. With shaky hands and the same fear he would feel if presented with a tickling bomb, Mikleo opened the compartment, peeking inside. There, next to the car’s papers and some pretty innocuous objects, was a teal blue envelope, thin and not very big. With a frown, Mikleo took it out and closed the compartment as he inspected both sides of the envelope with interest.

On the front, written in the most girlish handwriting Mikleo had ever seen —someone (Mikleo was pretty sure who) had tried very hard to make it as girlish as possible —, and surrounded by hundreds of tiny little hearts, was the word ‘Meebo’.

Mikleo groaned.

“It’s from the three of us, as you can see.” Zaveid added, watching Mikleo’s expression with another smirk.

“You don’t say.”

Mikleo decided not too care too much and rip the side of the envelope —he felt some kind of twisted satisfaction when the paper teared and his nickname got ripped in half — and let the contents of the envelope fall into his hand.

One was a tiny Pendrago keychain, a white dragon behind the city’s name.

The other was a single ticket to Motivational Speaker Sorey’s talk the next day.

Mikleo sputtered, his eyes opened wide in surprise. “H—How did you—!?”

“Lailah told us about your latest obsession.” Zaveid shrugged, eyes fixed on his review mirror. “Said you’ve been listening to this Sorey guy whispering in your ears since you were writing your first book.”

“It’s not—!” Mikleo blushed to the roots of his hair, turning into a lovely shade of tomato red. “He’s—he’s not—! I just like the things he says, okay?” Mikleo hesitated for a short second before adding. “His positiveness helps on the bad days, that’s all.”

“Mm.” The car started to slow down; they must have been reaching what would be Mikleo’s home for the next two weeks. “You still having those?”

Mikleo looked away. “They’ve gotten worse since I started working on my second book. Being about… You know.”

“I see.” It was weird, Mikleo thought, to see Zaveid’s usual cheerful and flirty expression twisted into one of worry. “You know, you don’t have to write about this, right? You could chose anything else and it’ll be as good as the first one. Your fans will love it.”

“I—I don’t have fans!” Mikleo said with wild eyes. “True, it’s selling pretty well, but…”

“And so will the next one, Mikky. Don’t hurt yourself going through uncomfortable things.”

Mikleo knew he was right. But truth was, since seeing Sorey’s necklace at his talk show, he hadn’t been able to shake the Shepherds’ stories out of his head. He had just published his first book and suddenly he had ideas for a second one.

But the subject was a sore one for Mikleo. And for that, he kept finding himself hitting block after block, and abusing the reply button on Sorey’s online podcasts.

Not that he would admit that out loud.

“I know.” He told Zaveid as his friend pulled up to park the car. “It’s okay, I just… Need more sources. That’s why I’m here; if there’s somewhere I can learn something I don’t know about the Shepherds, that’s Pendrago.”

As the motor died down, Zaveid’s smile returned to him. Mikleo’s shoulders relaxed upon seeing it; he hadn’t even realized he had been tense until now. “Well, I hope this guy can help you out. Radio shows are cool, I suppose, but maybe meeting him in person will help you even more.”

“I have met him already, actually.”

The words slipped from Mikleo’s mouth, unbidden, and he immediately regretted it when he saw Zaveid’s sly smile. He almost slapped himself in the mouth for that, but he was too busy holding the ticket and the keychain close.

“Ooohh, have you really…?”

“It was over four months ago.” Mikleo shook his head quickly, feeling his face heat up once again. “A—and just for a couple of minutes after his show in Ladylake. That’s it.”

“Hey, I don’t judge! Quickies are fun too—“

“It wasn’t like that, oh my God.” Mikleo put his presents in his pocket and got out of the car, missing immediately the warmth from inside. Outside it was colder than it had looked through the windows, the heat he had just felt on his face quickly evaporating.

“Okay, okay, I believe you.” Zaveid said, shaking his head. He went around the car to pull Mikleo’s suitcase out of the car. “Anyway, I’m glad we got you that ticket. It wasn’t easy —the guy is freaking popular, you know—, but if it helps you feel better…”

“…Thanks, Zaveid.” Mikleo replied, getting the case from his friend. “I’ll try to go.”

“Go.” Zaveid said, using his most authoritarian voice. “And then come have dinner with us.”

“…As long as Edna isn’t cooking.”

Zaveid turned pale. “God, no.”

After that, only goodbyes were left. Zaveid hugged Mikleo close once again, making Mikleo promise to come see them tomorrow, and then left, letting Mikleo to step into his hotel alone.

He couldn’t stop touching the slip of paper in his pocket.

 


 

 

Mikleo didn’t get intimidated easily. There were only two things Mikleo could think of that made him feel subdued; or, at least there had been only two.

Until he stepped into Pendrago University’s main building, and that list went up in one.

It was huge. It made sense that the biggest city on the continent had also the biggest university of all, but this was ridiculous. As the taxi rolled up to the main entrance, Mikleo observed miles and miles of green extend farther than he could see, occasionally interrupted by large ponds of crystalline water. People chilled by the shores, studying, eating, talking, and they looked like tiny ants to Mikleo; so far away they were that, despite having his window slightly rolled down, Mikleo could not hear their voices at all.

He saw people riding bikes, running, doing exercise. Despite the chilly temperature of the early morning, it seemed no one wanted to miss being under the sun.

And then he saw the horses.

They were everywhere; people rode them around campus the same way someone would ride a bike, galloping close to the buildings, lifting sand and dirt in their wake. The taxi driver cursed when one of the riders steered their horse close enough to send a pebble towards the taxi, but Mikleo was too enraptured by them to pay him any mind.

He had never seen horses so close before.

They kind of terrified him.

But when the taxi finally reached the entrance of the main building, any thoughts about horses disappeared from his mind. He got out of the taxi in a daze, mouth hanging open as he stared up at the building that loomed over him. It resembled more a castle than a scholar building, pulled out from all of those medieval movies Mikleo had watched again and again as a child. There was no building like this in Ladylake.

He couldn’t stop looking at it, at the high towers, the shiny windows.

Mikleo was in love.

“I have to say, I have never seen someone pull such a lovely face upon seeing our campus before.”

The words were said by a soft voice, and they brought Mikleo right out of his astonishment. When he looked in front of himself, Mikleo saw a young girl waiting for him with a sweet smile and a faint blush, her hands clasped behind her back and her hip slightly jutted to the side. She had kind eyes and soft features, like a princess, and her long, sand colored hair was pulled up into a ponytail by a bow shaped like a flower.

She emitted a calming aura, one that Mikleo found himself reacting to.

“Sorry if I startled you.” The girl said, stepping closer. “You seemed very happy while looking around.”

“It’s okay.” Mikleo shook his head; his eyes found themselves straying back towards the building behind the girl once again. “I’ve just never seen something like this before.”

The girl nodded. “The first time is always an experience. Though I have friends that are as much in love with this place as the first time they came. Of course, that’s what they say.”

Mikleo smiled, looking at the girl again. “I can see that happening. It’s just… It’s so majestic…! And the architectural style…! I’ve read this place is from before the Era of the Three Countries, but I can see so many influences in the style, I don’t think I’d be able to date this building at all!”

The girl blinked, surprised, and then her face broke into a smile that brightened her whole demeanor. “You must be Mikleo-san!”

“…Huh?” Now it was Mikleo’s turn to feel surprised, blinking owlishly at the girl. “I’m sorry, do we know each other?”

“Ah! I am so sorry!” The girl unclasped her hands and put them in front of her, palms towards Mikleo. “What am I doing, speaking so familiarly! You must think so horribly of me now…”

“N-not at all!” Mikleo tried to assure the girl by putting his hands forward too; they looked like a pair of adorable idiots flapping their arms around. “I actually prefer to be called simply ‘Mikleo’, so that’s totally fine by me.”

The girl sighed with relief, one hand flying to firmly press itself against her chest. “You’re too kind, Mikleo-san. Thank you.”

“Just Mikleo is fine, seriously.”

The girl’s smile became brighter then, her eyes lightening up. “It’s nice to meet you then, Mikleo.” She put her right hand forward, and Mikleo was startled once again by her. But he tried to fight off a smile anyway as he shook her hand firmly, surprised by the strength she possessed. “My name is Alisha Diphda. The university asked me to come welcome you and take you to our library. Someone can easily get lost around here.” She crooked her head to the side then, looking at Mikleo curiously. “I was expecting someone well versed in architecture and history, but I certainly wasn’t expecting someone so young!”

He couldn’t help it, Mikleo blushed a little at that. It wasn’t the first time someone had commented on his age, but it was the first time it hadn’t been preceded by some kind of jab towards his youth. “I—I get that a lot.” He ended up saying, hiding his mouth behind his hand.

Alisha smiled again. It seemed smiles came to her as easily as blushing did for Mikleo. “Anyway, if you would like to follow me, I’ll take you to your work place! You must be excited to start working with these documents.”

“Actually, I really am.” He said as they started walking towards the entrance. “It’s been hard to convince Pendrago U to let me take a look at their records, honestly…”

“I’m surprised they gave you permission!” Alisha exclaimed. “You must be a very persuasive person, Mikleo…”

In fact, it had been Lailah who had pulled the strings to make this happen. She apparently knew someone who knew someone who worked here. And even so, she had had to insist a lot just so Mikleo could have the chance of doing research for his next book.

She truly was amazing.

But the interior of the main building was even more amazing, if possible (don’t tell Lailah that). Everywhere he looked, Mikleo’s senses were bombarded with interesting facts, and objects, and styles… He had read about this place, but like everything in life, reading and seeing it in reality were two different things. Mikleo held his breath as his eyes fell on depiction after depiction of dragons, flying on the ceiling above, hunting for prey on the walls near the doors, peacefully sleeping on the crest that adorned the center of the entrance floor, a gigantic circle where a white dragon slept peacefully, curled on its side. Tendrils of light seemed to emanate from it, curling around the tiles of the floor like spiderwebs. Mikleo followed them with his eyes as they walked past, sad that he couldn’t stop and examine the representations right away.

“What are you gathering information for?” Alisha asked curiously, a smile still in her lips, looking at Mikleo and completely unfazed by the wonders that surrounded her. “Your thesis project maybe?”

“Ah, yeah…”

Mikleo felt bad for lying, but it was necessary. He had decided, as soon as his book had been green-lit for publication, that he would publish it under a pseudonym. He had never expected his book to get as much recognition as it had, but even still, he had felt like not using his real name would be better. And for that reason, he couldn’t simply say he was there to write a book, or more questions would arise.

He really felt bad, though. Alisha was very kind and didn’t deserve to be lied to.

“I’m sure you’ll do a fantastic job. Where do you study? If you don’t mind me asking…”

Mikleo shook his head. “It’s quite okay. I studied at Ladylike U.”

“Ladylake!” Alisha exclaimed, her surprise making her stop walking. Mikleo stopped with her, looking at the girl curiously. She seemed to realize her reaction was weird, for she smiled sheepishly and blushed. “I—I’m sorry. It’s just… I’m from Ladylake, so I get excited every time someone mentions my city…”

“Oh really?” Mikleo’s eyebrows went up and under his fringe. “What a coincidence.”

“Yes! But I came here two years ago to study.”

They resumed their walking, Alisha taking them towards a hallway on the left, one of its walls made completely of glass. One of the ponds was visible from there, surrounded by seas of green grass.

“What are you studying?”

“Ah, well, you see… I’d love to be a diplomat someday. Resolving conflicts, stopping wars…

“Oh, wow—“

“I know what you’re thinking.” She said quickly, looking forward with determination. She didn’t realize, but her strides became longer, more purposeful. “I don’t really look like the kind of person who could be able to stop a war, but I—“

“Not at all,” Mikleo said while shaking his head, his ponytail swaying gently. “I think you’re exactly the kind of person who could do something like that.”

Alisha looked at him with big, shiny eyes, and lips slightly parted. Mikleo watched her as happiness flooded her features, blooming like a pretty flower under her skin. “Thank you so much, Mikleo! You’re really kind.”

Mikleo blushed as he looked away. “I—I just said what I think.”

Smiling one last time at him, Alisha made them stop before a pair of double wooden doors, the same tendrils that had emanated from the dragon at the entrance filling the spaces in the carvings on the wood. They were beautiful and old, and Mikleo couldn’t help but brush his fingertips over the crevices.

“This is the smallest of our libraries. We have to keep silent here, of course, but just beyond the main room there are other smaller private rooms where students can work on their own. We have disposed of one for you and the documents have already been laid on the desk, so you can start working as soon as we get there.”

“Okay.”

After that, Alisha opened the doors and let Mikleo step in first. The library was… kind of a let down, actually. Not because it was small, or it lacked books, but because it wasn’t as impressive as the rest of the place. It wasn’t even bigger than Ladylake’s, just a few tables scattered around and a handful of shelves lining the walls of the room.

But Alisha had said this was ‘the smallest of their libraries.’ If their smallest was as big as Ladylake’s…

Mikleo couldn’t wait to see the biggest one.

Alisha lead Mikleo through a door at the back of the room, and then through a hallway full of closed doors. The hallway was all windows, and at the other side were small, cozy rooms with desks and chairs were students studied silently. Mikleo was sure he could have heard a pin drop there; it was silent enough that their footsteps resonated around the hallway, and even a few students turned their heads to look as they passed.

There didn’t seem to be any empty rooms. They were almost at the end of the hallway when Alisha stopped in front of one of the rooms, which was occupied. Someone in a hoodie —hood thrown over their head— was hunched over the documents spread on the table, their leg bumping up and down excitedly. Mikleo didn’t understand —maybe they were early? Although Alisha had said the documents were already there for him to use.

But Alisha made a soft sound, halfway between a sigh and a groan, and when Mikleo turned towards her, he realized she had an exasperated expression on her face as she regarded the person in the room through the window.

With a single movement, she threw the door open, making the person at the table jump and their hood slid back.

Mikleo stopped breathing as soon as he looked at the person’s face.

“Sorey!” Alisha exclaimed, crossing her arms over her chest. She seemed exasperated but not entirely surprised.

“A-Alisha!” Sorey exclaimed back, lifting himself from the chair. There was a faint blush on Sorey’s cheeks, and he was scratching the back of his neck nervously. “H-hi!”

“You know you can’t be here!” She said as she stepped further into the room. “This documents can only be consulted under demand, and last time I checked you hadn’t even tried to ask for them…”

“Because they always say no to me!” Sorey bemoaned, looking actually sad by this fact. “I saw them here and I couldn’t help it…”

Alisha sighed. “Because you don’t need them for anything, you just want to read them for your own pleasure.”

Sorey shrugged. “And what’s wrong with that?”

Mikleo was very close to fainting. It sounded stupid, and probably something that only happened to protagonists in manga for girls, but it was the truth. His palms were sweaty, his skin scorching hot, and his heart beat so fast and so strongly that he could feel it at the tips of his fingers and under the skin at his temples.

And it was all Sorey’s fault.

Sorey, who was supposed to be only a voice that came from Mikleo’s laptop he was slightly obsessed with, and who had become Mikleo’s inspiration. Sorey, whom Mikleo had decided not to see again, out of sheer embarrassment after sneaking in without paying in his live show.

Sorey, to whom Mikleo had dedicated his first book despite not even knowing him.

He felt his face heat up at the thought.

“That you’re taking time away from other people who do need them, Sorey.” Alisha explained with a tiny shake of her head. “I understand you just love to learn, but…”

“Ah, I’m sorry if I cause you trouble, Alisha!” Sorey said quickly, looking seriously worried about it. “I won’t do it again, I promise you.”

When Alisha smiled at Sorey it was a genuine, bright smile that eased Sorey’s worries. “Thank you, Sorey. But now maybe you should leave… —“ Alisha said, and turned a little to the side to point at Mikleo with her hand. “—That way we’ll let M—“

Sorey’s eyes met Mikleo’s for the first time then, and after a second of silence, Sorey’s eyes grew with surprise, his mouth falling open.

“It’s you!” He exclaimed with glee, smiling brightly at Mikleo and walking dangerously close to him in the tiny room.

“Huh?” Alisha said as she looked from one boy to the other.

“W—what?” Mikleo sputtered, leaning away from Sorey’s smile.

“The guy from Ladylake!” Sorey continued, bouncing slightly. “From the live show!”

Mikleo blinked at him, flabbergasted. “You remember me?”

“Of course!” Sorey replied with a smile, touching one of his feather earrings. “Hair as pretty as yours is hard to forget. And you said you had read the Celestial Record! There’s no way I would forget that.”

At this point, Mikleo’s heart had over extenuated itself and laid dead at the pit of Mikleo’s ribcage.

“Ahh…”

“You two know each other?” Alisha asked with a funny glint in her eyes. “What a small world!”

“Yeah! He came to my show in Ladylake.” Sorey pouted after that, his eyes still on Mikleo. “You left pretty soon though! I was hoping we could talk more…”

“…You did?”

“Of course!” A sheepish laugh escaped from Sorey’s lips. “Sorry, is that weird? I’ve just haven’t been able to speak with someone about it before!”

“N—No, I just…”

“Sorey,” Alisha intervened with an apologetic smile towards Mikleo. “We should go. Time’s running, and those documents aren’t gonna be studied by themselves.”

“Ah, sure! But…”

“You can talk to each other some more later.” She said, gently guiding Sorey out. Once Sorey was out of the room and out of earshot Alisha turned towards Mikleo with a smile. “I’ll try to keep him away while you study. He’s always loved the tales of the Shepherds, so I’m not surprised he took the opportunity to sneak in here.”

“It’s fine.” Mikleo shook his head. Now that Sorey wasn't around, it was easier to breathe. “I would have done the same, probably.”

That made Alisha laugh. “That’s probably why he likes you so much! Anyway, I’ll come by later, Mikleo-san. Happy studying!”

“Ah, yeah…”

Mikleo was barely aware of Alisha leaving the room. He blindly let himself fall on the chair, a hand over his heart, feeling it still beat strong, if slower. How was it even possible? Pendrago was the biggest city in the whole continent, what were the odds of running into Sorey? And on his first day here!?

With a sigh, Mikleo moved his chair closer to the table. He didn’t have time to think about Sorey’s smile, or the warmth of his voice now. He had work to do, and an actual deadline to be done with it.

And, anyway, he probably wouldn’t run into Sorey again.

It would be too much of a coincidence.

 


 

He had completely forgotten about the ticket in his pocket.

It seemed to tease him, staring at him from where Mikleo had left it two minutes ago, on top of the desk back at his hotel. He had truly forgotten about it until, after many hours of research at Pendrago U’s library, Alisha had come to pick him up and he had slid his coat back over his shoulders and had put his hands on his pockets. Mikleo had touched the slit of paper absentmindedly as he replied to Alisha’s questions about his research, and at first he had thought nothing of it, simply another paper in his pocket.

But then Alisha mentioned Sorey —because of course she did, he was something both of them could talk about after all —, and Mikleo’s fingers had tightened on the paper, creasing it slightly.

He hadn’t decided yet if he was going to go. He hadn’t even decided on it when Zaveid had given him the ticket, even if he had promised he would go. Could he go now that he knew Sorey remembered him? Or would it be incredibly weird?

It definitely would be weird, wouldn’t it?

But Zaveid and the others had gone through all the trouble of getting the ticket for him; how could he not go?

He looked at the ticket for a long moment, his mind blank.

And then he grabbed it, put his coat on and called for a taxi.

Because the universe seemed to hate Mikleo, Rose was at the door of the auditorium, making sure everyone had tickets for the day’s show. He stood in line nervously as, little by little, the line that separated him from Rose started to diminish and suddenly he was in front of her, looking down at her while he also tried not to meet her eyes. He handed her the ticket wordlessly, not replying to her cheerful ‘good morning!’.

But then she handed him back his ripped ticket, and when Mikleo went to take it, Rose held on, forcing Mikleo to meet her eyes.

“I see someone learned how to do this legally.” Rose said with a smirk, not letting Mikleo take his ticket back.

She had recognized him.

Mikleo blushed, sputtering. He looked inside the auditorium, back at Rose, over his shoulder. He leaned forward so he could whisper, begging please not to be heard by anyone else. “I already said I was sorry that time!”

“And I appreciate your attempt at redemption.” Rose never lost her smile; it took Mikleo a second to realized he was being teased, not mocked. She let go of the ticket, pointing with a thumb over her shoulder towards the inside of the venue. “Please, enjoy the show!”

Mikleo didn’t move. He stood in front of her, holding his ripped ticket as he looked down at her curiously. “How did you recognize me?”

Rose shrugged. “A hair like yours is hard to forget, man,”

It was more or less what Sorey had told him earlier in the day, so it was no surprise when he blushed furiously once again, feeling angry at himself for such reactions. “My hair isn’t that weird!”

“Enjoy the show!” Rose repeated, pushing Mikleo inside by the shoulder. “Next!”

At least it hadn’t been as bad as Mikleo had expected.

Inside, the place was packed. It wasn’t anything like the first time, in Ladylake, where the place had been twice as big and filled to the brim, but still there was a lot of people. The seats weren’t numbered, which Mikleo thanked profusely; that way, he could find himself a secluded place where he wouldn’t be able to be seen by Sorey.

He really, really didn’t want to be seen by Sorey.

When Mikleo found the perfect spot —up and to the left, right next to the aisle and behind a very burly man that would help him hide if Sorey, for some reason, decided to look in his direction. Despite said man, Mikleo still had a perfect view of the tiny stage, where there was only a chair and a backpack prompted against it.

The show would start in seven minutes. Mikleo should have enough time to calm his erratic heart.

(He didn’t.)

It wasn’t until the show started that Mikleo realized how different it was from the one at Ladylake. Sorey walked into the stage with a wave at everyone, a smile plastered on his face. Some people cheered, like friends trying to support another friend, and Sorey laughed in their direction, waving. But on the most part, everyone calmed down and looked expectantly towards Sorey, who kept smiling as he sat down on the only chair on the stage, elbows on his knees.

“Hi, everyone!” Sorey said, passing his eyes quickly over the audience. “I hope you’re having a nice day!”

It was like a gigantic support group. While the live show at Ladylake had been mostly Sorey speaking and giving generic advice, with a little bit of personal advice towards the end, here in Pendrago it was the audience who controlled the show. With a patience and manners that Mikleo had never seen in a crowd so big before, people got up and exposed what worried them to Sorey. The whole audience kept silent each time someone intervened, and Mikleo kept his eyes on Sorey as others spoke up, on his tiny nods of encouragement, on his smiles every time his eyes met someone else’s.

Once again, Mikleo was enraptured by him, by his words.

“I’m very sorry you’re going through that.” Sorey was saying to a girl that had just explained how some mornings she couldn’t find the strength to get up from the bed. He had gotten up from the chair to sit at the edge of the stage, closer to the girl, who sat on the second row. “I… I understand, believe me. I know it’s hard, that sometimes you just… can’t find anything that makes being awake be worth it.” Sorey’s hand played with his Shepherd necklace, which hung from his neck with a little sway. “But there is something out there, I’m sure, that never fails to make you happy. A photo, maybe. A letter. Even a TV show! It doesn’t matter that other people think it’s a stupid thing, what matters is that it makes you happy. It’s not a long term solution but it helps while you try to get everything back on track.”

“What makes you happy?” Another person in the audience asked. They didn’t raise their hand or anything, but still the atmosphere in the venue was so easy that it didn’t feel like they were interrupting. “What makes you get out of bed in a bad day, Sorey?”

With his free hand, Sorey scratched his chin, looking up. “A lot of things, actually.” He said, looking back down, and Mikleo realized he hadn’t even thought possible someone as optimistic as Sorey could have dark days. “My friends, for one. They never fail to make me happy.”

“Don’t be a sap, Sorey!” Rose shouted from the sidelines, and people laughed, Sorey included. No one seemed surprised at Rose’s intervention, as if her being a part of the show was something usual. Maybe it was.

“I’m not!” Sorey replied with a laugh. “Seriously, my friends always make me feel better, even when they don’t realize it. Mm, let’s see what else… Oh! Books! Books make me pretty happy too.”

“What kind of books?” Another person in the audience intervened, someone a few rows behind Mikleo.

Sorey looked pensive for a second, his hand on his chin once again. “Well, books on archeology are my favorites. And the Celestial Record will always be very special for me too. Ah!”

Suddenly, Sorey crawled back towards where the backpack still rested against the chair. He rummaged through it for a second, the microphone attached to his shirt creating static with the rough movements and making the audience flinch. Still, no one said a word until Sorey was crawling back to his earlier spot at the edge of the stage, with what seemed to be a book pressed against his chest. Mikleo was too far away too see it properly, but Sorey cradled it against himself with care, as if he was holding something precious instead of simply a book.

The sight warmed Mikleo’s heart, who let himself smile softly in Sorey’s direction.

“This book has made me quite happy lately!” Sorey said as he lifted the book over his head, so people on the back could see it. Mikleo couldn’t read the title or the author, but the cover was blue and… strangely familiar. “It barely got out a couple of months ago but I’ve read it so many times already! It talks about ruins in Hyland and hypothesizes about how many of them could have been wrongly dated, and they use so many interesting facts to back their opinion!”

Mikleo’s breathing became shallow as Sorey spoke. It couldn’t be, could it? Sorey couldn’t be talking about what he thought, right…?

“And… Hehe, this might sound silly but…” Looking down towards the book, Sorey started flipping the pages with care, smiling down at the book as if it were an old friend. “I had already bought it when I saw the dedication… It turns out it’s dedicated to someone named ‘Sorey’! I don’t know, I thought it was pretty funny… Not that I think it’s me or anything! But it’s nice to see your name in a book.”

“Maybe it is you!” Someone shouted with a smile on their face as Mikleo’s heart beat so fast he could barely breathe.

Sorey laughed, shaking his head. “I wish! But it’s okay, I just hope the Sorey this book is for is happy, wherever they are!”

There were tiny black spots in Mikleo’s vision.

His book.

Sorey had read Mikleo’s book.

The book he had written listening to his voice and had ended up dedicating to him.

Mikleo needed to get out. He needed fresh air, and his skin to stop itching and growing hot, and he needed not to see Sorey pressing his book against his chest. Now he could see clearly that the cover was the exact same blue he had chosen for his book; he was sure that, if he had been sitting closer and his vision wasn’t swimming so badly, he would have been able to see his pen name, ‘Luzrov Rulay’, written in golden letters at the bottom of the cover.

The only thing Mikleo was able to think was ‘Sorey has read my book’. It was impossible but it was the truth. Sorey was sitting there, in front of an auditorium full of people, with Mikleo’s book against his chest and speaking about it as he smiled softly. And all of those things were making Mikleo freak out.

His lungs fought to get enough oxygen for his brain. But Mikleo felt as if there wasn’t enough air in the room: the heat of all the bodies around him, the bright lights above the stage, Sorey’s warm voice that was becoming nothing more than a soft buzz at the back of Mikleo’s head —all of it was making Mikleo’s head feel as if it were full of cotton. His mouth went dry and the lights danced in his vision, making him feel light-headed and his legs shake, even though he was still sitting down.

A cold sweat started running down his nape and under the collar of his shirt.

I have to get out of here. Mikleo thought frenetically. Or, at least, a similar idea was starting to form in his overstimulated brain, for he couldn’t manage to grab a single thought that passed through his mind. It felt like the walls were closing in on him, like his heart would punch its way out of his chest by the way it was beating, so fast that Mikleo could feel it at his temples.

And, at the stage, Sorey kept talking about Mikleo’s book with warmth and a soft laugh in his voice.

Mikleo couldn’t handle anymore.

He rose from his seat, marching quickly towards the exit, a strong, buzzing sound in his ears making him deaf to the voices in the room.

And that was the last thing he remembered before everything turned black.

 


 

He came back to himself in a barely lit room. He was laying in what seemed to be a very old, very used sofa, his head resting on one of the armrests. The sofa was pushed against a wall and, over its back, there was a window with its blinders down, some sunshine filtering through the little wholes in them. Mikleo looked around and immediately regretted it, only registering shelves full of books before a sharp pain crossed his head and made him groan. He closed his eyes tightly, praying for the pain to go away.

“Easy,” A soft, familiar voice said next to him, and before Mikleo could open his eyes there was something cold pressing against his neck, reaching up to the underside of his jaw. “There’s no rush. Take all the time you need.”

Mikleo relaxed back against the sofa with a sigh. He could only guess what had happened inside the auditorium, but his mind was foggy and each time he tried to remember how he had gotten to that sofa he came up blank. His throat was dry, and it hurt to swallow, but he still opened his mouth to ask, keeping his eyes closed.

“Where am I?” Had Mikleo had his eyes open, he would have flinched at the sound of his own voice. It sounded rusty and pained.

The coldness at his neck moved to the other side, making Mikleo sigh again. “This is Professor Rolan’s office.” The soft voice said, closer than before this time. “It was the closest to the auditorium, and he was kind enough to let us use it for a while.”

“Oh.” Mikleo pried his eyes open, finding his mind much more awake this time. And, as he had expected, he found Sorey sitting on the floor next to the sofa, looking down at him with a soft expression and a kind smile. He was still holding a cold water bottle against Mikleo’s skin, which Mikleo truly appreciated. The slight sting of the coldness was helping him to wake up faster. “…And what happened?”

A frown morphed Sorey’s features, giving him a worried look. “You collapsed. I think you were trying to go outside but you barely got out of your seat before going down.”

This time, Mikleo did flinch. “I’m sorry I interrupted your show.”

“Please, don’t apologize for that!” Sorey exclaimed, looking seriously affronted. “It’s okay. We were near the end too. But you scared everyone to death, you know!”

“…I’m sorry…”

Sorey flicked Mikleo softly on his temple, quick as lighting.

“Hey!”

“Stop. Apologizing.” Sorey said, and laughed lowly, the sound making Mikleo smile too. “Come on, let’s get you up. You need to drink some water.”

With an arm around Mikleo’s shoulders, Sorey practically pushed Mikleo up on his own. The room whirled around Mikleo, even though Sorey had lifted him up slowly, but it was only for a moment. While the room stopped spinning, and Sorey uncapped the water bottle he had been pressing against Mikleo’s neck, Mikleo realized someone had pulled his ponytail down. Now, long strands of white and pale blue hair fell over his face like a curtain, obscuring Mikleo’s view of Sorey until he pushed it back with a still shaky hand.

Sorey put a knee on the sofa and sat down next to Mikleo sideways, facing him. With a smile, he moved the bottle closer to Mikleo as he let his arm rest on the back of the sofa, behind Mikleo’s head. “Drink.” Sorey said, tilting the bottle forward.

He was right, Mikleo realized: he really needed water. It wasn’t until it was going down his throat that Mikleo realized just how parched his throat had felt until that moment. He swallowed big gulps of water without breathing, feeling almost instantly the need to cough it back.

“Oi, oi, be careful!” Sorey exclaimed as he patted Mikleo’s back softly. “I don’t want you blacking out again!”

“Yeah,” Mikleo coughed a little and started drinking again, tiny sips this time, though he had already drank half of the bottle. “How did I get here, anyway?”

“Oh, I carried you!”

Mikleo almost snorted the water through his nose at that, staring a new coughing fit. “W—what!?”

“Oh come on, don’t look at me like that!” Sorey laughed and returned his arm to the back of the sofa. “You barely weight more than a feather, you know.”

Mikleo sputtered, not knowing how to reply to that. Instead he moved the bottle to his lips again, if only to hide his blushing face behind it.

“Hey, sorry for the weird question, but…” Sorey played with one of his earrings as he stared intently at Mikleo, who felt the need to hide behind his loose hair. “Did you have lunch today?”

“…Huh?” Mikleo said, not understanding. What…?

“I know how absorbing studying can be, sometimes.” Sorey explained. “Did you remember to stop to eat something before coming to the live show?”

He hadn’t, Mikleo realized with a start. He had spent almost all day in the little study room, and then had gone directly back to his hotel. And, after that, he had contemplated his ticket for a long while before deciding on going to the show, anything else aside from that completely forgotten.

He had had nothing to eat all day. No wonder that, after the stress of the live show, Mikleo’s body had shot down completely.

A thought related to Sorey and his book tried to make its way to the forefront of Mikleo’s mind, but he pushed it back with determination. He couldn’t think about that right now.

“So, you didn’t.” Sorey continued, taking Mikleo’s silence and expression as a no. Sorey frowned reproachfully at Mikleo, as if he had disappointed him. (And he would be lying if Mikleo said that little frown didn’t make his heart clench painfully). “You have to take care of yourself! Studying hard is good, but your body and health should come first. Nothing will matter in the end if you’re not feeling well enough to enjoy it.”

Mikleo couldn’t believe it. He was receiving personal advice from Sorey.

He had been a fan for so long, he permitted himself a little internal freak out.

And then he smacked himself mentally for thinking of himself as a fan.

“…I guess I got too caught up in it.” Mikleo admitted in the end, not meeting Sorey’s eyes. “But… All the legends about the Shepherds are so incredible and amazing… I know it’s my first day here, but I couldn’t stop reading it all.”

Sorey’s next intake of breath was so forceful that Mikleo turned towards him, alarmed. “It’s the same for me!” His hands flew to Mikleo’s shoulders, grabbing him and making him sway on his seat from side to side. “The Shepherd has always been such a huge part of my life… I’m very happy you’re the same!”

Mikleo flushed instantly, not knowing how to reply. It seemed like a constant thing; Sorey had the ability to render Mikleo speechless. “I…”

“I have an idea!” Sorey shouted suddenly, his hands squeezing Mikleo’s shoulders. They were close enough for Mikleo to feel his warmth. “Are you coming tomorrow to do some more research?”

“Uh… yeah, that’s my plan. I have two weeks ahead of me to research as much as I want.”

“That’s great!” Sorey’s smile was the most luminous thing in the room, making Mikleo’s heart flutter. “So, I was thinking I could go see you tomorrow? Maybe around lunch? That way you’ll remember to actually eat something and we can talk some more about the legends!”

“Ah…” Mikleo felt disappointment rush through him. “I… I’m not allowed to let anyone else with me to see the documents, Sorey…”

“Ah, no! I didn’t mean—!” Sorey lifted his hands, his palms towards Mikleo, green eyes open wide. “I didn’t say it so you’d show me the documents! I…” He scratched the back of his neck with a sheepish grin. “I don’t get to talk about this with many people around my age, you know. Not many people are interested on this. And I mean it, I want to make sure you’re taking good care of yourself!”

“…Why?” Mikleo asked in a soft voice. He couldn’t meet Sorey’s eyes anymore, so he distracted himself by pushing one of his locks behind his ear. “Why do you care so much?”

There wasn’t hesitation in Sorey’s voice when he replied, just a tiny shrug of his shoulders. “And why wouldn’t I?”

His answer was so unexpected, Mikleo had no words for it.

They didn’t seem to be necessary, either. Sorey jumped off the sofa to his feet, stretching his arms above his head like a cat. Then, he turned towards Mikleo, blinding smile still in place, and extended an arm towards Mikleo, palm up. “Do you need help going back to your place?”

Mikleo shook his head. “I think I’m okay.” He said, but he still took Sorey’s arm, grabbing him by the forearm and feeling Sorey cup his elbow in his palm in response. Their fingertips dug in each other’s skin as they pushed and pulled, putting Mikleo to his feet.

The room spun but it wasn’t nearly as bad as before. He sighed, relieved.

“Hey,” Sorey started, looking at Mikleo curiously. Mikleo tilted his head to the side, and his hair fell all over his shoulder. “Can I have your name?”

“…Huh?”

Sorey played with one of his feathers again—he seemed to do that when he was nervous or pensive. There was another sheepish grin playing at the corners of his mouth. “Well, I never got your name the first time we met! And I’ve been referring to you as ‘the guy from Ladylake’, which is a pain if we’re going to be friends, you know! So…” Sorey’s fingers squeezed his elbow, and only then Mikleo realized that neither of them had let go of the other yet. “What’s your name?”

Mikleo’s heart beat frantically like the wings of a hummingbird. He didn’t know why and, honestly, he didn’t care. He was tired, still dizzy, but Sorey’s presence was even better than his voice, and just seeing him smile at him made wonders to Mikleo’s psyche.

So he returned Sorey’s squeeze, feeling his shoulders relax for the first time in a long while.

“Mikleo.” He said, smiling a bit. “My name’s Mikleo.”

Sorey’s smile grew. “Nice to meet you, Mikleo! I’m Sorey.”

“I already knew that, idiot…” Mikleo shook his head, letting his hair move around his shoulders and back, but not letting his tiny smile go.

“But still! It is nice to meet you finally, Mikleo!”

Mikleo squeezed Sorey’s arm once again.

“Nice to finally meet you, Sorey.”

Chapter Text

To say Mikleo got absorbed in his work would be an understatement.

The events of the day prior corroborated it. There were times that Mikleo forgot even where he was, who he was with. It wasn’t unusual for him to lift his head from his papers to find that the sun had gone down at some point, and that it was night outside. And, like the day before, sometimes he forgot even to eat, or stay hydrated.

That’s why, it was no surprise when it took him three whole minutes to realize there was someone at the door of the tiny study room, looking at him with a small smirk.

“I don’t know if it’s amazing or actually worrying.” Sorey said, stepping into the room under Mikleo’s surprised gaze.

“What is?” Mikleo asked nonchalantly. He was trying to pretend the sight of Sorey leaning against the door hadn’t made him jump slightly in his seat.

“The fact that you can really lose yourself inside your own head.” Moving closer, Sorey came to stand in front of the desk, hands behind his back. Mikleo had to give it to him, not even once did Sorey’s eyes move towards the very interesting documents scattered over the top. No, Sorey’s eyes stayed on Mikleo’s the whole time, a soft smile on his lips now that he had Mikleo’s attention. “I’m sorry I’m late, by the way!”

“We hadn’t really decided on when to meet.” Mikleo said as he looked at his watch. Three p.m. “Oh. It is pretty late.”

“Seriously.” Sorey shook his head, not losing his smile. “You’re worse than I am!”

“You didn’t have to come, Sorey.” Mikleo said. He leaned back on his chair and stretched his arms over his head, feeling his joints pop satisfyingly. “I know you said you would yesterday, but—“

“But I wanted to!” Sorey interrupted him. As if trying to erase the distance Mikleo had out between them, Sorey leaned forward, looming over the sitting Mikleo. “I want to make sure what happened yesterday doesn’t happen again.”

“But… why?”

Mikleo didn’t know if he should expect a reply. After all, he had asked the same question yesterday, and the answer he had gotten had been pretty vague. But now Sorey seemed more keen on replying: his eyes sparkled and he perked up like an excited puppy, making Mikleo smile behind his palm even before Sorey had said a word.

“Because I like you!” Sorey exclaimed, easy as if he was talking about the weather. But, before Mikleo could get flustered about his words, he continued talking. “And I want to get to know you better! But I can’t do that if you fall sick, Mikleo.”

Hearing Sorey say his name was something Mikleo hadn’t thought would be so… strange. He hadn’t put thought into it, but now that his name had rolled out from Sorey’s lips, he could feel goosebumps arise on his skin and the fine hairs on his arms stand on point.

Mikleo had to get a grip on himself soon.

“So,” Sorey continued, unaware of the power he had on Mikleo in that moment. He moved one of his hands from behind himself and showed Mikleo a plastic bag, which looked pretty heavy. “Lunch?”

Even if he had wanted to, Mikleo couldn’t find the power to say no.

“Okay,” He said instead, raising from his chair. “Let me just…”

“You don’t need anything but your coat.” Sorey quickly assured him, already moving towards the door. “We’re not going very far but you might be cold later.”

Mikleo frowned at him. “But I have to pay you for—“

“This is on me!” Sorey shook his head once again and his feather earrings tinged softly. “Come on, Mikleo, I’m hungry too!”

“But—!”

“Oh, stop it!” With a quick movement, Sorey crossed the tiny room and linked his arm with Mikleo’s, who only had time to grab his coat before he found himself hauled into the hallway. “You can pay for tomorrow’s lunch if it bothers you so much.”

Mikleo blinked. “You’re… you were planning on having lunch together tomorrow too?”

“Mmh! Unless you had other plans already. I hope you don’t think I’m stupid enough to think you won’t just forget about lunch again. Come on, lock the door and let’s go, I’m starving!”

After Mikleo locked the door with the key Alisha had given him, they started their way out of the library. As Mikleo slipped his coat over his back, he realized the plastic bag wasn’t the only thing Sorey was carrying. In his other hand he ported a familiar blue book, firmly pressed against his side. Mikleo felt heat rising to his cheeks as he looked at it, remembering Sorey’s words from the day before.

He returned his eyes to the front before asking in a low voice: “That book…?”

“Mm? Oh, yeah!” Sorey moved his arm so Mikleo could see the cover. He didn’t know that wasn’t necessary. “It’s the book I was talking about at the show yesterday.” Sorey pushed the library’s door open with his shoulder, letting Mikleo pass first. Once they were outside, Sorey keep talking in a normal —although excited—tone of voice. “Have you read it? I’m re-reading it now myself.”

“I’m…” Mikleo kept his eyes carefully ahead. “I’m familiar with it, yes.”

Even without looking, Mikleo cool feel Sorey’s face lightening up. He even gave a tiny skip, smiling at the side of Mikleo’s face. “I was hoping you’d said that! I was going to recommend it to you, if you hadn’t read it. It’s so good—!”

Mikleo felt his cheeks heat up. At his sides, his hands twitched, and he moved them to clutch the strap of his bag across his chest, as if to hide the shaking. “You…really think so?”

“Mm! It makes me want to explore Ladylake almost as bad as the Celestial Record.”

“That’s—” Mikleo opened his eyes big, looking at Sorey, astounded. “A huge compliment.”

Sorey smiled back at him, bright and happy. “I knew you would get it!” With a tiny hint of shyness, Sorey bumped his elbow against Mikleo’s arm, so softly that Mikleo barely felt it. “I got the feeling, after you saw my Shepherd necklace, that you understood how I—“

“‘It is my dream to see the ruins of the world’” Mikleo said, like quoting something he had said many times before. “That’s what anyone who’s read the Celestial Record says.”

“Yes!” Sorey skipped ahead and turned around, walking backwards in front of Mikleo. “That’s exactly it!”

“So…” Mikleo felt heat rising again, and he had to look away from Sorey’s luminous eyes. “What do you think of… Rulay’s book?”

“Oh, I really like it!” Sorey exclaimed, making the plastic back at his side sway from side to side. Mikleo worried briefly for he integrity of his lunch. “It’s so good! I hadn’t been to Hyland before the tour and I really wanted to explore—“ Sorey made a weird sound with the back of his throat, one that had Mikleo looking away with a blush. “—Rulay’s book makes me feel like I’m there! Like, for example, Galahad ruins! Did you know there’s a sacred waterfall in the depths of the ruins? Apparently there used to be a beautiful young water seraph who visited the waterfall everyday, and their heart was so pure the place became sacred and no malevolence has ever touched the water!”

“Mm.”

“I’ve never seen it, but it was described in such detail.” Sorey’s voice sounded dreamy as he looked towards the ceiling. Mikleo was amazed at how he could daydream, tell a story and walk backwards all at the same time without falling.

“I’ve seen that place before.” Mikleo said, hiding a smile. He had decided he was going to allow himself a little amusement. “And I can assure you, Rulay’s descriptions are exactly like the real thing.”

“Have you really!?”

A couple of people turned their heads at Sorey’s outburst, although none seemed too surprised by it. One of them even —a young boy with red hair—raised his hand when Sorey walked past him and Sorey gave him a high five, smiling down at him as he did so.

“Are you filling the newbies’ heads with more history crap again, Sorey?” The red-headed guy said with a smirk.

“I don’t do that!” Sorey exclaimed, turning around to stand next to Mikleo once again. They had stopped behind the guy’s chair, Mikleo looking at them both curiously as Sorey pouted. “That was one time, and I thought she was in my class!”

“You gave her a scare for life, it’s what you did.”

Sorey’s pout became more pronounced. “I couldn’t have scared her that bad, considering Alisha is ok with me now…” He muttered.

The guy’s smirk deepened. “Huh-huh.”

“And anyway, Mikleo loves history and archeology too, so it’s ok!”

“Is that so?” The redhead moved his eyes from Sorey to Mikleo, giving him a look. Still, he changed from smirking to smiling amicably, tiny creases forming around his eyes as he did so. “You know, if this dork feels like too much at any point, just distract him with soft-serve and run away. It works any time.”

“Okay, enough of embarrassing me for today!” Putting his hands on Mikleo’s shoulders, Sorey started to push him away from the guy, shouting as they walked away over his shoulder. “It wasn’t nice at all seeing you, Masen!”

Masen waved back. “Always a pleasure, Sorey.”

Once they were at a safe distance, they stopped, Sorey letting his head hang down. His hands remained on Mikleo’s shoulders, even when he let a tiny groan escape from his mouth.

“That guy…” Sorey muttered, but there was an amused tone in his voice.

When Mikleo turned his head to look back, the tips of his ponytail brushed against the tip of Sorey’s nose. “So… soft serve, huh?”

Sorey groaned again, taking a step back finally. “It’s… Kind of my weakness?”

“I’ll make sure to remember that.” Mikleo laughed, and let Sorey lead the way.

They arrived to a tranquil place with picnic tables under a wooden roof and walls, just outside of the main building. It was kind of cold outside, but inside that tiny place it was very warm due to the heater in the center of the room. Mikleo sighed, walking towards it and putting his hands near the front.

“Is it too cold?” Sorey asked with a frown, setting his bag on one of the tables. “We can go inside if you want…”

“No, it’s ok.” Mikleo replied, looking around. “I like it here a lot.”

Sorey produced two bento boxes from the plastic bag. Mikleo had been expecting something quick, like instant noodles or maybe some type of sandwiches, but Sorey had bought him a not-exactly-tiny bento box, filled to the brim with vegetables, meat, rice and all the things that made Mikleo’s mouth water. He walked closer to the table with his eyes on their lunch.

Everything looked so delicious, it made Mikleo realize how hungry he actually was.

“I hope meat is okay!” Sorey said, looking nervously at Mikleo while he looked at the boxes. “It wasn’t until they were done that I realized you might not like it very much, but…”

“Meat is fine.” Mikleo assured him, looking up. “Did you make this?”

“Oh, no! Gramps did!” Sorey explain as he shook his head with a big smile. “I just put it in the boxes.”

“Gramps?”

As Mikleo sat down opposite Sorey, Sorey moved one of the boxes towards Mikleo, and then started to get more things from the bag: tiny plastic cups. A bottle of sweet tea. Paper napkins. Even throwaway chopsticks, neatly wrapped in their paper wrappers. Mikleo was impressed.

“He’s my mom’s dad.” Sorey said with a soft smile, eyes on the things we was putting on the table. “He’s the one who raised my up, more or less.”

Questions formed inside Mikleo’s mind from that bit of information. But he pushed them all down, not wanting to step into such personal matters. “That must be nice. Having home made meals everyday.”

“Oh, he’s not living with me!” Sorey said. He finally sat down, but insisted on serving the drinks. He grabbed Mikleo’s cup first, filling it with a smile. “He lives in a tiny village near here, which is where I grew up, even though I was born here in Pendrago. I went back home to visit this weekend and Gramps made enough food so I could take it back here with me!”

“That sounds very nice.” Mikleo replied, though his head was elsewhere. Sorey was so… sharing. He didn’t care he had known Mikleo for less than a day (whatever Sorey said, the day in Ladylake did not count). He shared things about his life as if Mikleo was a friend. Not a potential friend, but a real friend.

It made Mikleo feel warm.

“I guess.” Sorey said, and Mikleo was surprised to find a pout in Sorey’s mouth. “But he only does it because he doesn’t trust my cooking skills.”

“Oh? You don’t know how to cook!”

“I do!” Sorey’s answer was so quick that Mikleo couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at it. “Kind of…?”

“So… no.”

“It’s so haaaaaard…” Sorey whined, resting his forehead on the table. “But I’m getting better at it, I promise!”

A soft giggle escaped Mikleo’s mouth, one that had Sorey looking up immediately with a smile. “Okay, I believe you.”

Sorey’s smile grew bigger as he grabbed the chopsticks.

“Oh but, what about you? Tell me about your family!”

Mikleo flinched. It was like a knee jerk reaction. It didn’t matter how good Mikleo was at hiding his emotions behind a pokerface, he had never managed to hide a flinch whenever the subject of his family was brought up. And of course, because Sorey was Sorey and he saw everything, he saw Mikleo’s expression as soon as it happened.

“I’m sorry!” Sorey exclaimed, looking worried. “I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry, Mikleo.”

“It’s fine.” Mikleo looked away, wrapping his arms around himself. He had been feeling warm until now, due to both the heater and Sorey’s natural presence, but now he was cold, cold enough to want to wrap his coat more tightly around him. But he looked up, towards Sorey’s worried expression, and he felt a bit of that cold melt away instantly. “Really. It’s just… My family isn’t a good conversation topic for a first meal, so…”

“That’s fine!” Sorey reassured him. When he smiled next, it wasn’t an uncomfortable smile, or even one of politeness: it was a true, bright smile, just like any other Sorey had gave him before. It made the rest of the cold Mikleo had been feeling evaporate completely. “Let’s talk about something else! But first—I’m not making a very good job at making sure you’re well fed, am I?” Before Mikleo could say anything, Sorey extended his arm towards him, wrapped chopsticks in his hand. Mikleo took them and unwrapped them slowly, careful of not touching the tip with his fingers. “Let’s eat!”

“Mm.” Mikleo nodded. “Thank you.”

Sorey said nothing else until Mikleo took his first bite. He took a bit of meat and some vegetables, gingerly putting them in his mouth. But, as soon as the food touched Mikleo’s mouth his eyes lit up, and he was quickly scooping some more.

“It’s good, right?” Once again, Sorey hadn’t missed a single one of Mikleo’s reactions.

“It’s delicious!” Mikleo said, hiding his mouth behind his hand.

“I’m glad!” He started eating then, making a sound of pleasure around his food. “This always makes me miss home so bad! I love Gramps’ food.”

Mikleo frowned a bit. “Are you sure it’s okay that I’m eating it…?”

“Of course! Gramps would be happy to hear you think it’s good too! So don’t worry about it and keep eating!”

They kept silent for a while as they ate, but it was a good kind of silence. It was comfortable, and nice, as if they were still inside the library, where sound and voices were the things that broke the nice atmosphere.

But the funny thing was… When Sorey spoke again, the comfortable atmosphere wasn’t broken. If anything, Mikleo found himself looking up eagerly, happy to continue talking with Sorey.

What was this guy doing to him?

“So… you said earlier you’ve been to some of the places in Rulay’s book, right?”

“Right.” Mikleo replied, controlled.

“Have you been to Ladylake’s aqueduct? Have you explored it?”

Mikleo frowned. He had been expecting Sorey to ask about someplace more exciting, so he was surprised about that choice. “Why?” He asked, instead of replying to Sorey’s question.

Sorey scratched the back of his neck. He seemed deep in thought as he munched on his food, so Mikleo let him organize his thoughts. “You see, there’s this chapter in Rulay’s book… I don’t really agree with it, and I want to know your opinion.”

“Oh.” Mikleo didn’t know what to say to that.

“Apparently, inside Ladylake’s aqueduct there’s this vault… It used to belong to Hyland’s monarchy. But instead of being used to store things… Rulay hypothesizes about the idea of it being some sort of trial for future Shepherds.”

“And it is.” Mikleo said with a nod. “Once you enter that chamber, a bolt clicks shut from the inside. It’s a massive place, and the only thing there is a colossal sword where Shepherds used to make their pact with their Prime Lord. The only way out of the chamber is through the same door you went in.”

“Yeah, and for that, you need the flames of purification, which means only real Shepherds could get out! Don’t you think that’s horrible? How could they let the others trapped in there, that’s just…”

“It’s the way things were done, Sorey.” Mikleo interrupted with a heavy heart. “I’ve been there. The mechanism doesn’t work anymore, so you can get in and out freely now, but it’s there. A pilar with burn marks that has to burn for the mechanism to start working. The walls and structures are too wet from the aqueduct’s water to light up any kind of fire down there. Only a fire that can’t be put out, the flames of purification, can make it work.”

A heavy moment passed between them as Sorey mulled over Mikleo’s words. But finally, Sorey smiled and passed a hand through his head, messing it up.

“I guess I just hoped one of my favorite legends wasn’t so… dark.” Sorey said in a low voice. “I mean, don’t get me wrong! I know the Tales of the Shepherds aren’t exactly bedtime stories but… still….”

“I get what you mean.” Mikleo said, looking into Sorey’s eyes. “But you can feel it, you know? The despair and loneliness and pain of all those people that ended their days down there. The malevolence is so thick it’s almost hard to breathe.”

Sorey blinked at Mikleo for a moment, eyes big with amazement. And then he snorted: a simple, amused sound from the back of his throat. And just like that, the heavy ambience that had settled around them since they had started that topic was lifted, as if someone had pulled up a curtain.

“What?” Mikleo asked around a smile.

“Nothing! I just like how you use terminology from the Celestial Record. ‘Malevolence’, ‘flames of purification’…”

“Well, I did say I’ve read it!” Mikleo looked away, a bit embarrassed. Sorey simply laughed, but let it go.

They continued talking and eating, and over all having a good time. It came to a point when— as they were throwing away the plastic cups and cleaning their table— Mikleo realized he was almost sad to go back to work. He had been having such a nice time with Sorey, it felt a bit lonely to go back to that silent, tiny room.

As they walked back towards the library, Sorey seemed to catch up on Mikleo’s mood.

“Everything ok?” Sorey asked softly.

Mikleo nodded. “I’m just lazy to go back to work, is all.”

Sorey frowned a little at that. “Take it easy, Mikleo! You have time still, don’t go overloading yourself again…”

Mikleo smiled softly at the concern in Sorey’s voice. “I won’t, I promise.”

They stopped at the beginning of the hallway leading to the library. They had disposed of their stuff, but Sorey still carried the bag around with the empty bento boxes. He made it sway lazily at his side as he looked at Mikleo.

“I have to run to class now.” He said, looking almost apologetic. “Will you know how to get back to the library from here?”

“Sure.” Mikleo replied with a shrug.

“Great! So, around the same time tomorrow? I might be able to come a little bit earlier, if that’s okay.”

Mikleo wanted to tell him he didn’t have to do this. That he didn't have to take Mikleo out for lunch everyday just to ensure he wouldn’t collapse like the day before. But Mikleo did want to have lunch with Sorey again. It had been nice and easy, like no other thing had been in a while. He had felt as good as he did on a good writing day, and… honestly, that was a lot for someone like Mikleo.

So he simply nodded and dedicated Sorey a tiny smile. “Sure. Come whenever you want.”

“Okay! Oh! And one last thing…”

Sorey pulled something out of his pocket, and held it in a closed fist between them until Mikleo opened his palm underneath to get it. It was two pieces of candy wrapped in colorful pink paper, with a cartoon character winking on the top. Mikleo smiled again as he looked down at it.

“And this?” He asked.

“Just so you have something to eat in case your sugar levels go down again!”

You’re ridiculous, Sorey. Mikleo thought. But what he said was:

“You do realize you act like a concerned mother, right?”

Sorey wasn’t deterred by that. If anything, his smile became bigger, more luminous. “I prefer to be considered a ‘concerned friend’, if that’s okay.”

Mikleo knew what Sorey was doing. He looked away for a split second and then back at Sorey, feeling heat crawl up his neck. Was it too soon to consider Sorey his friend? Probably. But it had also been an idiocy to dedicate his book to someone he didn’t even know, so Mikleo figured this couldn’t be worse.

So he said: “A concerned friend it is, then.”

And watched as Sorey’s smile became even more luminous.

“Have a good day, Mikleo!” Sorey said as he started to walk away. “Don’t overwork yourself! See you tomorrow!”

Mikleo waved back. “You too, Sorey.”

With lifted spirits, Mikleo went back to work.


 

Zaveid’s apartment wasn’t too hard to find, even with Edna’s awful directions. It had been dark by the time Mikleo had come out of the library, so he had had his doubts at first, but he soon found himself waiting to be let inside of a tall, expensive-looking building, blowing warm breath in his palms to fight off the cold.

“Who is it?” A voice asked through the intercom; a voice that made Mikleo sigh.

“It’s me, open up.”

“No, I am ‘me’.” The voice said. The machine made it difficult to hear the amused spark in the voice, but Mikleo knew it was there. “Who is it?”

“It’s Mikleo!” He exclaimed, starting to feel his patience wear thin. “Come on Edna, I’m freezing!”

“Sorry, I don’t know any Mikleo.” Edna went on. “You’ll have to leave. Or stay, I don’t really care.”

“Edna!”

“Though maybe… If you had any other name….”

It clicked suddenly in Mikleo’s brain what it was exactly that Edna wanted. He groaned, not believing this was his life, that this devious person was —in a way—part of his family.

Why couldn’t have it been Zaveid the one to open the door…

Mikleo sighed, feeling his will to live escape with it.

“It’s Meebo.” Mikleo muttered low, mouth close to the machine.

“Excuse me?” Edna asked in a mocking voice. “I’m afraid I can’t hear you…”

“Meebo!” Mikleo shouted, regretting it immediately. People on the street turned their heads, startled, towards him, and Mikleo felt a blush covering his cheeks. He turned his head away, thinking already of his revenge for Edna.

“Oh, Lady Meebo! You should have said it was you from the beginning! How was I—Hey!”

A buzzing sound let Mikleo know someone had opened the door. Mikleo rushed to open it but didn’t enter, looking at the little camera on the intercom curiously.

“Don’t take the elevator on the left.” A new voice said through the speaker; a very tired, very masculine voice. “It tends to get stuck.”

Mikleo smiled, relieved. “Thanks, Eizen.”

He could still hear the siblings’ banter when the door closed behind him.

Following Eizen’s instructions, Mikleo took the elevator on the right to the seventh floor. There, he quickly walked to the only opened door, through which a delicious aroma came out into the hallway. But before he could even put a foot in that apartment a strong set of arms lifted him up, so much so that his feet stopped touching the ground.

“Mik-boy!” Zaveid shouted in his ear, moving him from side to side.

Mikleo was having a déjà vu.

“Zaveid, you saw me two days ago.”

Zaveid put him back on the ground, with what could be called delicacy, coming from him. “Maybe if you hadn’t ditched us last night I wouldn’t be so deprived of you, Mikky-boy!” He said, his lower lip quivering with a fake pout.

Even though Mikleo knew it was fake, he couldn’t help feel a bit guilty about that.

“I’m sorry…”

“Don’t listen to Zaveid.” A voice that came from behind Zaveid said. “As long as you’re ok, it’s fine.”

“Eizen.” Mikleo said, feeling his mouth split into a smile. Eizen returned it, stepping around Zaveid’s big frame with a raised fist, which Mikleo quickly pumped with his own. He was wearing a pink, frilly apron over his black clothes, but it was such a familiar sight —Eizen had that apron since Mikleo was a kid — that Mikleo didn’t even blink at it.

“You’ve grown.” Eizen said, still smiling. He reached out to mess the top of Mikleo’s head, making some loose strands from his ponytail stand on point.

“Don’t lie to him, onii-chan.” Edna said, appearing suddenly and walking closer to the door too. She had an open umbrella over her shoulder that she kept twirling to make the mascot hanging from it fly around. “He’s as tiny as ever.”

Mikleo frowned at her, pursing his lips. “Don’t you know opening an umbrella inside is bad luck?”

“Your face is bad luck.” She shot back, quick as lighting.

Mikleo threw himself towards her, hands reaching out.

“Okay, okay kids, calm down.” Zaveid’s arm snuck out and wrapped itself around Mikleo’s front, keeping him away from Edna. “No fighting or mama Eizen won’t give you dessert.”

“Mama Eizen is going to make you eat his wooden spoon.” Deadpanned Eizen with a cold stare of his blue eyes. “Shut up and be useful for once, Zaveid.”

“I just saved your little sister from having her throat ripped open by a wild Meebo!”

Edna snickered. “There was no need. I would have squashed him under my umbrella like the tiny, pretty ladybug he is.”

Mikleo fought against Zaveid’s restrain once again, trying to reach Edna.

“Enough.” Eizen said without raising his voice.

Both Mikleo and Edna turned towards him. Even Zaveid let Mikleo go, knowing Mikleo wouldn’t try anything again.

“You.” Eizen started again, pointing at Edna. “Leave Mikleo alone.”

“But—!”

“And you,” Eizen turned his finger towards Mikleo. “Stop letting her rile you up so easily.”

“She—!”

“Let’s eat!” Zaveid intervened, pushing Mikleo into the apartment.

Mikleo let him do. It was strange, but despite the banter and everything, he felt at home.

The apartment’s balcony had a nice view. From there, Pendrago’s Shrine-church was visible, its dome standing out among all the modern buildings. It was one of the places Mikleo was dying to visit, and that he would be sure to do it before his two weeks were over. Above, sadly, there were no stars: the lights of the city tainted the sky with an orange glow, covering all the stars from view.

Mikleo sighed, feeling the cold air hit his cheeks.

“You okay, Mikky?”

He hadn’t even heard Zaveid step outside. For such a big man, he sure was stealthy when he wanted to be.

“Yeah.” Mikleo replied without turning back. “I just needed some fresh air.”

Zaveid laughed as he stepped next to Mikleo, letting his elbows rest on the railing. “We can get loud when we’re excited, I’ll give you that.”

“It’s okay, you know I don’t really mind.” Mikleo passed his hand over his face, closing his eyes. “I’m just a bit tired.”

Mikleo could hear Zaveid’s frown on his voice then, disapproval dripping from it. “You’re working too hard, Mikleo. You gave us a scare yesterday, you can’t do that again…”

“I know, and I’m sorry.” Mikleo quickly told him, but without meeting Zaveid’s eyes. “I really am going to take more care of myself, I promise.”

“Lailah is very worried about you, you know. She knows the Shepherd topic is hard on you. She told us she was against you writing this book in the first place.”

Mikleo sighed, playing with one of his longer strands of hair. “I know. But I really, really want to write this. It’s hard but it feels… right.”

“Is it because of Muse?” Zaveid asked with a soft voice. “Are you writing it because of her?”

“Kind of.” Mikleo admitted. His love for the Shepherds’ tales came from his mother’s family, from the stories his mother told him while he sat on her knees, quietly watching the breeze make ripples in the lake next to their house. It came from all the books his mother’s father had left for her, among which was the Celestial Record.

However, his pain also came from his mother’s family, and that made things difficult.

But it also had to do with Sorey, in a way. He wasn’t writing it for him, of course, but rather because his enthusiasm for the tales had reawakened Mikleo’s. The way Sorey had touched his necklace almost reverently at the show had made him remember his mother’s smile whenever she saw him with the Celestial Record against his chest, or whenever she would step into the living room to find Mikleo and—

“Are you going to call him?” Zaveid asked, pulling Mikleo out of his thoughts.

Zaveid’s question felt like being dumped into an ice cold pond headfirst. Mikleo felt his heart pump too fast inside his chest at it, his hands curling into fists at his sides. He looked towards Zaveid, with his eyes open wide.

“W—what?”

“I’m just saying—“

“No.” Mikleo moved away. There was no asking about who Zaveid was talking about, and there was no way, no way in hell—

“Okay, okay.” Zaveid lifted his hands in front of him, placating. “We’re with you, Mikky, you know that. We won’t do anything you don’t want to do.”

Mikleo’s next sigh was shaky and long. His hands trembled as he put them back on the railing, his breath a soft white cloud in front of him.

“I just don’t want—“

“I know. It was just an idea; you can forget I said anything.”

“…Thanks.”

“But…” Zaveid continued, even though Mikleo’s face quickly drained of all color once again. “If you do want to write a book about the Tales of the Shepherds, you’ll need to talk to Michael at some point.”

Mikleo shook his head, face set. “I can do this without him.”

And that, that was the main reason he was doing this for. For his mother; for his love for the tales that Sorey had reawakened; To show everyone that he didn’t need Michael.

Not anymore.

Zaveid smiled, proud, and sneaked an arm around Mikleo’s shoulders. “You’re right. You can. Come on, Mikky-boy, let’s drink!”

Mikleo frowned. “But I have work in the—“

“And you can tell us about this Sorey boy you’ve got the hots for.”

“W—what!?”


 

Mikleo didn’t have to raise his head to picture Sorey’s smirk in his head. He was most likely looking down at Mikleo with amused but kind eyes, chin in his hand, body leaning forward. It was uncanny how Mikleo had already become so in tune with Sorey’s body language despite knowing him for so little.

Or maybe it was simply that anyone would look like that when teasing someone who was hungover.

“Next time at least invite me.” Sorey said as he poked Mikleo on the head. “I’m sure you’d the life of any party.”

“It wasn’t a party.” Mikleo muttered against the wood of the picnic table that had —apparently—become their lunch spot. “It was a family reunion. Sort of.”

“You have family in Pendrago?” There was excitement in Sorey’s voice, pure and sweet. Mikleo opened one of his eyes and looked from the edge of his arm at Sorey. Sure enough, he was leaning close to Mikleo over the table, green eyes sparkling.

He was so bright it hurt to look at him. Literally.

“Sort of.” Mikleo repeated. “They’re my aunt’s friends, but they are like family, so…”

Sorey let his bag’s contents on the table with too much enthusiasm, making Mikleo wince. “That’s so cool! I’m sure they’re amazing people.”

Mikleo smiled. “They are.” And then frowned. “Sort of.”

That made Sorey laugh with a nice, happy smile that warmed Mikleo, even if it was also too loud for him. Once it died down Mikleo raised his head from the table, blinking sleepily at the things Sorey had laid down on the table. They were bento boxes again, but the content was different. There were rice balls, and salmon, and…

“What’s this?” Mikleo asked as he pointed at the box closest to him.

Sorey’s chest puffed up proudly. “It’s teriyaki!”

“No, it isn’t.” Picking up a pair of chopsticks, Mikleo poked the gooey black… stuff that filled one side of the bento box. “Is this even food?”

“Don’t be mean!” Sorey picked up his box carefully and pressed it against his chest protectively. “Of course it’s food, I made it myself.”

“Ah… Sorry, Sorey.”

“Just wait until you’ve tried it!” He left the box back on the table at that, smiling at Mikleo exactly like before. “It isn’t bad, I promise! I tasted it before.”

Mikleo couldn’t help but eye the black matter that was apparently his lunch with distrust. But behind Sorey’s smile was a kicked puppy’s look that Mikleo was quickly discovering he was weak to; so, with a sigh, Mikleo pulled the box closer to himself and poked around with his chopsticks once again.

He wouldn’t try it until Sorey hadn’t done so first, though.

“How’s your investigation going, by the way?” Sorey asked before filling his mouth with rice. He hadn’t touched the black stuff yet.

Mikleo frowned at Sorey’s question. “It’s… frustrating me a bit.” He admitted. “The documents Pendrago U lent me are amazing, but it feels like I’m just reading the same thing over and over again.”

Sorey patted his lips softly with the tip of his chopsticks. “Maybe you need a break? Getting out of that tiny room and work in a different way could help you.”

“I’ve been working on this for just three days, Sorey.” Mikleo shook his head, feeling pain shoot up from his scalp. The ponytail had been a bad idea this morning. “I can’t be tired already.”

“Change your way of doing things, then.” Sorey shrugged. He started to pick up some of the black ‘teriyaki’ now. “You don’t have to shut yourself in that room to learn about the Tales of the Shepherds. You’re in Pendrago! You can learn history just by walking down the street.”

“…Really?”

“Mm!” Sorey ate a bite of the black matter, chewing it slowly, but without wincing or turning green. It’s edible, then Mikleo thought, picking up some of it as well. “Maybe you just need to form your own ideas before reading the official records. Then it’ll be easier for you. It works for me, at least!”

“I might try that.” Mikleo said with a little nod. “Thanks, Sorey.”

“No problem!”

As Mikleo watched Sorey’s smile grow, he put the food in his mouth, feeling himself smile around the tip of his chopsticks.

At least, until his tongue touched the food. The moment the strong, bitter taste of Sorey’s food filled his mouth, Mikleo’s eyes watered and his body tried to push the food out through a coughing fit. Mikleo rushed to grab a napkin to cover his mouth as he continued coughing, his body shaking, and unable to breathe or to get rid of the taste in his mouth fast enough.

He closed his eyes tightly, feeling the tears prickle behind his eyelids.

“Mikleo!”

Sorey was suddenly next to him, patting him softly on the back with one hand as he handed him a water bottle with the other. Mikleo quickly took it and started to gulp the water down, feeling relief almost instantly. Still, he continued until he had drunk at least half of the bottle. The awful taste still lingered in the corners of his mouth, but at least it didn’t burn the back of his throat anymore.

“…What was that?” Mikleo asked with a rough voice, looking at Sorey through watery eyes.

“I swear, it doesn’t taste that bad!” Sorey’s hand was still on Mikleo’s back, no longer patting but drawing slow circles over the coat. He had sat on the bench next to Mikleo, facing him while straddling the bench. He was close enough for Mikleo to feel the warmth that irradiated from his body, but there was still space between them. “This is actually the best I’ve ever done!”

“…Oh my god.” Mikleo muttered.

Sorey poked him on the shoulder.

“I’m sorry my awful food almost killed you.” Sorey said.

“I’m sorry I couldn't swallow your awful food.” Mikleo shook his head.

“I guess you know now why Gramps cooks for me whenever he can.” Sorey reached out and pulled his own bento towards him, pushing the food around again. “I try hard but…”

When the tiny pout appeared on Sorey’s mouth, Mikleo started to feel bad about the whole situation. Sorey had been nothing but sweet to Mikleo. He had even made him lunch! He didn’t have to, but still he had gone out of his way to make sure Mikleo had a homemade lunch today, even if it was completely and utterly awful.

Sorey truly was one of a kind.

Setting his jaw, Mikleo picked one of the rice balls that still sat on his box and, under Sorey’s watchful but confused gaze, he put it against his own lips. The ball was a bit hard in his fingers —no danger of it crumbling at all — but the rice was a normal white color, and the algae smelled fresh…

“Ah, you don’t have to…”

Mikleo bit into the onigiri softly. The rice was a bit dry but the inside was good, a very nice contrast to the black stuff.

He took another bite. “This is good.” He said, pushing a grain of rice into his mouth with the tip of his tongue.

Next to him, Sorey jumped. “Really!? Wait… Are you saying that only to make me feel better?”

He was. A little. “It tastes way better than the teriyaki.” He settled for saying, taking another bite.

“Ah, I’m so glad!”

And just like that, Sorey was back to his cheerful self. He happily picked up one of his own rice balls and started munching on it, still sitting next to Mikleo on the bench.

They ate for a while in compatible silence. Rice balls weren’t exactly an equilibrated lunch, but it was enough. Still, as he ate, Mikleo realized his eyes were having trouble to focus, even if the medicine he had taken before for his hangover was already taking effect. He blinked down at his third rice ball for a second, and then rolled his eyes.

Of course.

Turning, he reached into his backpack and pulled out a case. He cleaned his hands in a napkin before opening it, sighing when he saw he hadn’t forgotten his glasses back at the hotel after all. He quickly slipped the slim frames over his nose, letting the case next to him and grabbing the rice ball once again.

The world was suddenly nicely into focus. He hadn’t even realized his vision had been blurry until now.

Sorey made a choked noise suddenly. Mikleo blinked and turned towards him, surprised to find Sorey starring at him with big eyes and slightly parted lips, a grain of rice stuck to the corner of his bottom lip. He smiled a bit at Sorey’s expression, but it quickly faded away when Sorey kept starring.

And kept starring.

And kept—

“…Sorey?”

Finally Sorey blinked, closing his mouth with a small clack of his teeth. “W—What is that!?” He exclaimed, leaning forward and pointing at Mikleo’s face with a finger.

Mikleo startled, lifting a hand to quickly touch his face in search of something strange. But the only thing his fingers bumped into were his glasses, now slightly askew on his nose.

“…My glasses?” Mikleo asked with a frown, putting the frames back in their position.

Sorey leaned even closer, inspecting them. His breath was warm on Mikleo’s cold nose. “Since when do you wear glasses!?”

Mikleo leaned back slightly, eyes wide. “Mm, since I was eight? What’s wrong with them?”

Something in Mikleo’s voice seemingly made Sorey realize he was acting weird. He moved back until his butt was on the bench again and lifted a hand to scratch the back of his neck, embarrassed. “Ahh, nothing… I just hadn’t seen you with them before.”

“Oh,” Mikleo shrugged going back to his rice ball. “That makes sense, I guess. I usually wear contacts, and keep the glasses for when I’m at home. I couldn’t be bothered to put them on this morning, though.”

It took Mikleo a moment to realize Sorey wasn’t saying anything in reply. As he munched on his rice, Mikleo turned his head towards Sorey once again, one of his eyebrows disappearing under his fringe. Sorey wasn’t looking at him but down at the bench, feather earrings softly caressing his cheeks in the cold breeze. There was a deep, red blush coating Sorey’s skin that made Mikleo’s heart jump painfully, and the green color of Sorey’s eyes look even more luminous.

After a bit of silence, Sorey looked up from under his eyelashes.

And that, added to the blush, took Mikleo’s breath away.

“They look good on you.” Sorey said in a low voice. His body was slightly curled, as if trying to hide his blazing cheeks behind his shoulders. “I—I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.”

“It’s, ah, it’s okay.” Mikleo looked away and nodded, trying to shrug at the same time. In the end, he simply looked weird, so he coughed to hide away his embarrassment.

“A—anyway!” Sorey went back to his earlier position, swinging his leg so he was facing the table once again. Just, now was sitting next to Mikleo instead of in front of him, and their knees bumped together under the table, before staying pressed against each other comfortably. “Going back to… I really do think it’ll be good for you to explore a bit. Feel the history of this place instead of just reading about it.”

Mikleo shook his head, feeling his ponytail pull painfully at his scalp once again. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. And I can’t go wasting time by getting lost in Pendrago when I still have lots of documents to go over…”

“Well, you have me for that!” Sorey brightened; he puffed out his chest and grinned, pointing at himself with a thumb.

Mikleo raised his eyebrows, amused.

“I see… You want me away so you can read the super exciting documents, is that it?”

“I—No!” Sorey pursed his lips and slapped Mikleo playfully with the back of his hand on the shoulder. Mikleo hid his smile behind his own hand. “I meant, I could show you around!”

For what seemed to Mikleo like the nth time, he gaped at Sorey. “I…really? Would you do that?”

“Of course! It sounds fun, doesn’t it? And I’d make sure you don’t get lost.” He added with a small laugh. “You’re centering your thesis just on the tales of the Shepherds’ right?”

“Mm. More or less. It’s more a comparative work between the legends in both Hyland and Rolance. I realized a while back there are punctual differences in them that influence a lot in what we believe is the true history of Shepherds in Glenwood.”

Sorey let his food back in his box, suddenly forgotten. “Wait, are you serious?”

Mikleo nodded. “Those differences probably come from the time stories were told, not written down. I was thinking that —with the differences pinpointed— I could use some of my previous data to discern which of the versions of some of the tales are the ones that seems more plausible. Or maybe even dismiss some of the tales entirely, who knows?” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand then, closing his eyes. “It’s hard to explain without an example. But in any case, if it does work, we’d be closer to the real history of the Shepherds than what we are now—“

From the corner of his eye, Mikleo saw Sorey move quickly, sitting once again straddling the bench and pressing close to Mikleo with sparkly eyes. Mikleo made a surprised noise with his throat and made to jump away, but Sorey quickly got a hold of his hand with both of his and held it tightly, boring those excited, green eyes of his on Mikleo’s astounded ones.

“Please,” Sorey practically wheezed, holding Mikleo’s hand in between their chests. “Please, please, let me go exploring with you!”

“I—“ Mikleo’s voice broke. “What!?”

“I so want to know more about this!” He shouted, gripping Mikleo’s hand ever tighter. “The premise is so good, and there’s such a huge chance of learning something new! Please, let me be the one to show you around! I promise, you won’t find anyone in Pendrago who knows more about the legends more than me!”

Mikleo swallowed forcibly, trying to untie the knot that had formed itself in his throat. “I…I don’t doubt that…” He started, trying and failing to look away from Sorey’s eyes. “B-but… Are you sure, Sorey? This is for my work, after all, and you have so much on your plate already…”

That seemed to deflate Sorey a bit. He moved back slightly, looking down, his grip on Mikleo’s hand going softer. But that didn’t matter because soon he was holding it tightly again, shoulders straightening as an idea started to form under that unruly brown hair.

“I can make it work if you’re willing to wait till Saturday!” Sorey said excitedly and with determination. “I have classes tomorrow, and a show in the afternoon, but I’ll be all yours on Saturday! Pleaaaase, Mikleo!”

Sorey’s wording didn’t help Mikleo’s heart to calm its erratic workout. He stammered out his response, feeling his head as if it were full of cotton, words and ideas taking a while to catch up in his brain. “I, I guess… If you’re sure—!”

“Yes!” Sorey threw his arms up in glee, finally letting go of Mikleo’s abused hand. Mikleo wiggled his fingers and pressed his hand against his own chest.

It felt very warm.

“You won’t regret this, I promise.” Sorey continued, grinning at Mikleo. His voice was incredibly sincere. “I’m an expert, after all! No one knows more than me about the Shepherds.”

A spark of something ignited in Mikleo’s chest. He twisted his body towards Sorey, leaning his elbow on the table and his chin on his palm; there was an amused glint in Mikleo’s eyes when he looked at Sorey. “Oh, really.” Mikleo said, letting the letters roll out of his tongue languidly. “I would say it’s me who knows more, actually. Considering you didn’t even know about the cultural differences in the tales.”

Far from being intimidated, Sorey laughed, learning forward. “No way! I’ve been studying the Shepherds’ tales for ages, you know!”

Mikleo smiled. In his excitement, he forgot about his usual shyness and didn’t hide it behind his hand, letting Sorey see it fully instead. “I guess we’ll see who knows more on Saturday!”

Sorey nodded. “It’s on!”

Then, Sorey lifted and arm with a closed fist and let it hang between them, elbow towards the bench, fist slightly tilted towards Mikleo. Mikleo looked at it inquisitively and then at Sorey, who simply smiled bigger and moved the fist closer to the other.

Mikleo pursed his lips and softly bumped his wrist against Sorey’s, feeling another smile pull at the corners of his mouth.

“It’s on.”

Chapter Text

Mikleo kind of missed Ladylake.

It wasn’t that he was having a bad time in Pendrago. Quite the contrary, actually. It was just that there was something Mikleo couldn’t handle very well; something that made him want to curl into a ball under the covers of his bed and forget about moving all day.

It was the cold.

Mikleo hated the cold.

And this city was so freaking cold. Every morning since he had arrived, Mikleo had been greeted by a layer of frost over his window and grey clouds covering the morning sun. Of course, that morning wasn’t any different, and when he put a foot outside (he almost fell when said foot slipped on a patch of ice) he lamented having left the warmth of his bed.

It’s for the book, he told himself as he burrowed his nose in his scarf, eyes fixed on the sidewalk so as not to slip again. I have to do this for my book.

Reaching inside his pocket, Mikleo drew out his phone without taking off his glove and started looking for Sorey’s newly added contact info. As he pressed it against his ear, Mikleo silently thanked Lailah for giving him those gloves. They saved him from more suffering in the cold.

Mikleo continued walking as he waited for Sorey to pick up. They were supposed to meet at the corner of Sorey’s street, and Mikleo was almost there. Sorey had asked him the day before to call him the second he arrived, so he could come down and meet him, but Mikleo wasn’t willing to wait any longer than necessary, so he had decided to call ahead.

When the call wasn't picked up and went to voicemail instead, Mikleo frowned.

Should I call again? I don’t want to be overbearing but—

Mikleo called again. He didn’t care, he was too cold.

He had already reached the corner, and the call was about to go to voicemail once again, when Sorey finally picked up.

“Huh?” Was Sorey’s greeting, followed by the rusting of fabric against fabric.

“Uh… Sorey?” Mikleo asked, looking around. Had Mikleo gotten the date wrong or something? Hadn’t they decided on meeting today Saturday?

“Gramps?” Sorey asked with a groan, voice muffled. At any other moment, Mikleo would have laughed at the way his voice sounded, so sleepy and warm but a bit annoyed.

Okay, he actually smiled a little.

“No, it’s me, uh. Mikleo?”

“…Mikleo? Mikleo!” Sorey shouted Mikleo’s name so high that Mikleo had to pull the phone away from his ear, wincing as he heard something big fall over at the other end of the line. “Mikleo! Are you still there? Hello?”

Mikleo rushed to put the phone back over his ear. “Yes! Yes, hi,” there was a lot of noise at the other end, mostly Sorey’s footsteps as he ran around what was most likely his room. “Are—Are you okay?”

“Yes! Yes! Sorry!” There was a moment of static, and then Sorey’s voice sounded far away and weird. “I overslept! I’ll be ready in a second, I promise!”

“It’s okay, I can wait.” Mikleo mentally prepared himself to spend more time experiencing the cold Pendrago morning. “I’m at the corner of your street—“

Suddenly, Sorey’s voice sounded very close again, tone so agitated that Mikleo had to put the phone away for a moment once again. “What, no! Come up, you can wait inside!”

“I’ll be okay, Sorey—“

“I’ve seen how you are with the cold.” Sorey interrupted him. “Just come i—aaaaaaah!!”

The sound like something big falling down on Sorey’s end was back then, and Mikleo winced sympathetically. It wasn’t hard to imagine what had happened—again.

“Damn it,” Sorey’s far away voice said. “Who knew getting one’s clothes off would be so hard?”

Mikleo hid a giggle in his scarf. “If I go up right now, will you be opening the door naked, Sorey?”

“Of course not! I’ll—“ Sorey shut up then, nothing but white noise reaching Mikleo. And then Sorey took the speaker off and put his phone close to his mouth, speaking again after sighing. “Okay, maybe I hadn’t thought this through.”

This time, Mikleo didn’t have time to hide his mouth before laughter was bubbling out from his lips, his head tilted back instead of forward, the way he usually did.

“Hey, don’t laugh at me!” Sorey shouted from his end, but there was a smile in his voice. “Just come up already, I’m going to open the door now.”

Mikleo shook his head. “You haven’t even told me which one is your building, you know?”

“…Ugh! I’m not doing anything right today, am I!?”

“It’s okay, relax.” Mikleo said, starting to walk down the street. “I’m a bit early, anyway.”

“I meant to wake up earlier, I swear.” Sorey replied. Mikleo could hear his voice growing closer and further as he spoke; he must have put the phone on speaker again. “But I ended up going too late to bed, and then it took me a while to fall asleep, and—“

“Sorey, really, I’m not mad or anything.” A car rode past Mikleo then, the sound of its engine covering Sorey’s groan on the other end. “And you’re doing me a favor, anyway, by taking me to these places, so it’s not like I can complain.”

More scrambling from Sorey’s end made Mikleo wince. “I’m not doing this as a favor!” Sorey shouted, way to close to his own phone, his voice broken by static. “It’s— Well, I’m just… This isn’t— A-anyway! Just come up, my building is the white one with yellow flowers on the second floor’s balcony, okay? Mine’s third floor, second door to the left.”

Mikleo had seen that building; he had just walked past. So he turned around sharply and started going up the street, holding his phone a bit tighter.

“Okay.”

“The door’s open so just come inside and make yourself at home, okay?”

Mikleo frowned. “If you’re sure…”

“Mm! I’ll be ready in a second. See you now, Mikleo!”

It was impossible not to smile at Sorey’s happy voice, Mikleo was starting to notice. “See you.” He said, and hanged up.

Sorey’s building wasn’t anything too fancy, but it was cozy. The flowers that Sorey had described welcomed Mikleo with a gentle sway as he crossed the small front yard to the door, a soft aroma emanating from them that made Mikleo think of green mountainsides in spring. He was glad to see the flowers in full bloom despite the low temperatures of the winter.

There was no elevator, so Mikleo took the stairs to the third floor. By the time he arrived there he couldn’t wait to take his extra layers off, heat rising from his chest to warm his cheeks. As he took off his scarf, Mikleo scanned the hallway with his eyes, looking for Sorey’s door.

It was slightly open, the warmth coming from the apartment sneaking through the slim aperture into the chill hallway. As Mikleo approached it, he found himself looking at a familiar mascot hanging from a tiny hook right under the peephole. Mikleo had seen enough of the mascot that hung from Edna’s umbrella to recognize this one as a Normin, even if the colors and accessories were different. While Edna’s was orange with some kind of beret, Sorey’s was black and white, with what looked like a knight’s helmet covering more than half of its head. Its big, white eyes bore into Mikleo’s, and its overly happy grin made him uncomfortable. Still, he poked its cheek out of curiosity, and he was surprised to find it was soft and cuddly.

He’d have to ask Sorey about it later.

“Hello?” Mikleo raised his voice as he pushed the door to let himself in. The entryway and following hallway were deserted, but the lights were on, even if no one replied to his calling. Mikleo stepped inside and closed the door behind him, gripping his scarf in his hand. “Sorey? Are you there?”

Again, no response. Mikleo looked around the entrance; it was small, barely enough space to fit two people, with hooks for coats on one side, and a mirror with a piece of furniture underneath that served for table on the other. Mikleo hung his scarf on one of the hooks and then his coat, trying to see at the same time if he could catch a glimpse of someone from the entrance.

Sorey had left a pair of slippers for him, which Mikleo quickly slid into, leaving his shoes neatly placed by the wall. Tightening the elastic around his ponytail a bit, Mikleo walked further into the apartment, crossing the small hallway until he reached the living room.

The whole apartment in itself wasn’t too big. A small living room with a kitchen attached to it and two doors; one that gave to Sorey’s room —where Mikleo didn’t pry into, he really didn’t—, and the other one that gave to what Mikleo guessed was the bathroom. Now that he was closer he could hear the water of the shower running, and Sorey’s soft voice singing off-key, but the sound of the water was too strong for him to try to decipher what song Sorey was struggling to sing. Mikleo shook his head with a smile, and walked to the kitchen.

There were no dirty dishes piled on the sink, nor containers of take-away food as he had feared. No, Sorey’s kitchen —same as what Mikleo had seen of the apartment —was impeccably clean and tidy. The only thing that stood out of place were the piles of books lying around the already full bookcase right next to the TV, which got in the way of whoever wanted to reach the couch. But Mikleo couldn’t judge; he had something similar going on in his room back home, many books piled up on his nightstand table, by the end of his bed, scattered around his desk.

Mikleo made a mental note for himself to check Sorey’s books later as he frowned at the empty kitchen sink.

No dirty dishes meant Sorey hadn’t had breakfast yet. Mikleo’s call had obviously woken him up, and by the things Sorey had let slip during their conversation, Sorey had jumped into the shower as soon as they had hung up.

Glancing at the bathroom’s closed door from the corner of his eye, Mikleo opened the fridge. There wasn’t much inside, but it wasn’t empty either. There was home-made food in containers stacked against the back of the fridge, some raw meat, even a bit of raw fish wrapped in paper. In the end, Mikleo took the fish, some already made rice —he didn’t want to go around looking for the rice-cooker—, and scrapped around the drawers in the fridge for ingredients to make a decent miso soup. He set everything on the counter, washed his hands on the sink, and began to work.

He tried not to think about what he was doing as he cooked.

By the time Sorey came out of the bathroom —shaved, smelling clean and, most importantly, dressed —, Mikleo had almost finished. The fish had been grilled, the soup was gently boiling, and he had already set the rice on a bowl. He was putting the fish on a plate when he realized Sorey was close, not because he had heard him, but because he smelled his gel, clean and nice. Mikleo turned to find Sorey on his tiptoes behind him, trying to look over Mikleo’s shoulder without stepping too close. His green eyes were sparkling as he looked at the food, which Mikleo took as a good thing.

“Is that for me?” Sorey asked, and he sounded so hopeful that Mikleo didn’t have the heart to tease him.

“It’s the least I could do.” Mikleo replied, turning the stove off. The soup was done. “I guessed you haven’t had breakfast yet…?”

“I haven’t!” Sorey walked a little closer, closing his eyes as he inhaled. “Man, that smells so good!”

“It’s nothing fancy.” Mikleo said with a shrug, but pleased nonetheless. “You don’t have much ‘breakfast food’ in your fridge.”

“Mm, that’s probably because I usually have breakfast on campus.”

Mikleo smirked. “Are you always rushing out of bed like today?”

“O-of course not!” Sorey shouted. Mikleo got a glimpse of a faint blush on Sorey’s cheeks before he turned away to grab chopsticks. “I’m actually an early riser—“

“—Why don’t I have trouble believing that?”

“—I don’t know what happened today, honestly.” Sorey continued, not acknowledging Mikleo’s teasing. “But I guess it’s okay! Thanks for not getting mad.”

Mikleo rolled his eyes, but said nothing.

Once everything was ready, they moved towards the living room, each carrying a piece of Sorey’s breakfast to the table in front of the TV.

“You’re not eating?” Sorey asked as he sat down on the couch, not looking at Mikleo but at the food with big, sparkly eyes.

Mikleo put the miso soup on the table and shook his head. “I already had breakfast at the hotel, earlier. But… Can I take a look at your books?”

“Shure!” Sorey said with food in his mouth. He made a sound with the back of his throat and then turned his sparkly eyes towards Mikleo. He was sitting alert and excitedly. “This is so good, Mikleo!” He exclaimed after swallowing. “It kind of reminds me of Gramps’ food.”

“Yeah?” Mikleo’s reply was absent-minded, his whole attention on the books. Sorey had a nice collection; but of course, so did Mikleo. Most of the titles on Sorey’s shelves were on Mikleo’s as well —books about archeology, architecture over the ages, some about the shepherds and the legends of the seraphim—, and that made Mikleo feel something very warm curling inside his chest. But there were also books that Mikleo had never thought about even looking at; books on self-help, on ways to achieve what you wanted, on thinking positive. Books that Sorey had probably used at some point for his talk shows.

Mikleo’s fingers brushed against the spines of the books closest to him. He should have known, in retrospective, that Sorey didn’t base his advices and speeches on his positivism alone. That would have been risky, maybe even dangerous, for the people receiving them. No, it was obvious —by how used all of the books on his shelves looked, how many post-it notes stuck out of them, in archeology and motivational books alike—that Sorey spent a lot of time learning about what he did, and being good at it.

And that, more than them having books in common, made Mikleo’s heart speed up. Sorey was truly amazing.

“Mm.” Sorey said as Mikleo picked up a book to hide the light shaking of his fingers. It was an old book of tales of Glenwood. “Not in the taste or anything—“ Sorey continued saying, referring to Mikleo’s reply. “—But in like… It makes me feel at home, you know?”

Mikleo stopped breathing. His heart was pounding by now, his eyes unable to read a single word of the book in his hands. Without even closing it, he looked over his shoulder at Sorey, feeling warmth creep up his cheeks.

Sorey was already looking at him. His hair was still mussed from sleep and slightly damp from the shower. A single grain of rice had stuck to the corner of his mouth —Sorey was always a messy eater. But his eyes were clear over slightly red cheeks, and bored into Mikleo as if he didn’t want to miss a reaction.

Mikleo clutched the book against his chest, its edges digging into the skin of his hands.

I’m looking too much into it, he thought. …Right?

“Don’t get too used to it.” Mikleo forced himself to say, turning away from those green, green eyes. “You still have to learn how to cook for yourself.”

“I know how to cook!” Sorey shouted as Mikleo put back the book on the shelf. When he looked over his shoulder once again to give Sorey a raised eyebrow, Sorey gasped. “I do!”

“You’re right, I’m sorry. I wasn’t aware burnt-to-crisp teriyaki was an actual thing.”

“Mikleooo—!”

And just like that, the tension disappeared; Mikleo felt incredibly grateful for that.

 


 

Mikleo looked at up at Pendrago’s Shrinechurch, it’s impressive facade disappearing in the low clouds that covered the city. The entrance door was lined by an archway, and next to it there were tall columns that seemed to hold the weight of the structure all on themselves. The high towers on top of it disappeared from sight when Mikleo leaned his head back to look, and the white dome that he had seen from Zaveid’s apartment couldn’t even be seen from there. The place was massive, and awe-inspiring.

“This is—“ Mikleo started to say, but his voice caught in his throat. His eyes couldn’t be teared away from the Shrinechurch.

“Incredible, beautiful, stunning?” Sorey added next to him, looking up too. They probably looked like idiots, looking up at the building like that with their necks bent back, but neither of them cared.

“I was going to say ‘big’.” Mikleo said, a smirk pulling at the corners of his mouth.

Sorey pushed his shoulder against Mikleo’s, making him rock slightly on the balls of his feet. “You love it and you know it.”

“…I do.”

It was hard not to. The shrine church was like nothing Mikleo had ever seen —not like anything in Hyland, and not even like Pendrago U. While the campus emanated knowledge, the Shrinechurch exuded history. And that feeling was confirmed to be true when Sorey pulled from his arm until they were standing not at the bottom of the stairs but up, face to face with the wooden doors. They were closed, but that was no problem. What Sorey clearly wanted him to see was the engravings in the wood, burned black but smooth with the pass of time. Mikleo ran his fingers over the sinuous lines, much like he had with Sorey’s books back at his apartment.

“Ancient tongue?” Mikleo wondered out loud, following with his eyes the paths of his fingers. Time hadn’t been gentle with the wooden doors. Some bits were too smooth out, but the letters were big enough Mikleo could make them out despite the missing bits.

“Yeah!” Sorey crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned a shoulder on the door. He looked at Mikleo with a spark of challenge in his eyes. “Think you can decipher it?”

Mikleo didn’t reply, but bit his lip as he mulled over it. Each door seemed to have their own writing, the lines cutting in the middle, where the doors parted, just to start again right underneath the previous line— No, they weren’t lines. They were just words, one after the other but without forming sentences. And now that Mikleo had seen that, now that he knew he didn’t have to find a bigger meaning, he started to translate the characters easily, pointing at each word with a lithe finger.

“Prayer. Holy. Purity. Seraphim. Strength. Harmony.“

“Wow.” Sorey whispered softly next to him. Mikleo rose from where he had crouched down to look at the last symbols, curious gaze now on Sorey. “I mean, I expected you to be good, but you didn’t even hesitate with a symbol.”

Mikleo shrugged. “I’m used to the ancient tongue.”

At that, the corner of Sorey’s mouth pulled up. He put a hand on the door and pushed, opening it enough for them to go through. “Let’s see how good you truly are.”

The inside of the Shrinechurch was darker than Mikleo had expected, but not less beautiful because of it. Marble floors welcomed them, reflecting the soft light from the candlelights that hung from the walls. The high ceilings and glass windows made every tiny noise sound too loud; their footsteps resonated around the room as if they were a party of twenty instead of just them two. Rows and rows of wooden benches filled the empty spaces of the room, all of them facing a golden dais where he saw an altar with rich fabrics draped over it. There was a handful of people sitting on the benches in complete silence, all of them with their heads hanging forward as if they were praying.

None of them turned to look at them as Sorey grabbed Mikleo by the sleeve and tugged him forward.

There was the faint scent of incense in the air, but it wasn’t too invasive. Sorey seemed to know where he was going, for which Mikleo was thankful; he was too busy looking up, towards the vaulted ceilings, his eyes roaming over the illustrations painted on them. He drank on the colors, still bright even through the pass of time, drank on the depictions; he had seen those scenes too many times in his books to not recognize it — the disappearance of the seraphim, the backs of the humans turned towards them as the seraphim looked upon the ones who used to venerate them with sad eyes.

Mikleo was following with his eyes the long cape of what seemed to be a water seraph —she was playing with a stream of water, trying to catch the attention of a little girl who ignored her —when Sorey stopped them both.

“What do you think?” Sorey asked in a whisper, also looking up. They were at the front of the room now, by the stairs that lead to the dais, hiding behind one of the columns that lined the room.

“It’s… very different than seeing it on books.” Mikleo whispered back. He couldn’t keep his eyes away from the seraphim, five in total, from their sad, sad faces. “It makes me feel… small.”

“When I was little I used to come here and look at it for hours.” Sorey explained. He hadn’t let go of Mikleo’s sleeve yet. “I would find the bench where I was right beneath one of the seraphim’s eyes, lay on it, and look at them directly. I wanted to show the seraphim I could see them. I wanted them to stop looking so sad.”

Mikleo blinked, and then turned his head to look at Sorey, who was still looking up. For a second, he thought of moving his fingers a bit and letting them lazily touch Sorey’s. “That’s… very sweet.”

Sorey smiled, also turning to look at Mikleo. “Rose called me a dork when I told her.”

Mikleo smirked. “A sweet dork, yeah.”

With a yank to Mikleo’s sleeve, and a tiny shake of his head, Sorey started to move Mikleo forward. “Come on.”

Sorey guided him up towards the dais and through a small door at the right. After it, there was an empty hallway that lead to other doors; it didn’t seem too public, and for a moment Mikleo thought they were actually sneaking into a sacred place.

“Relax,” Sorey laughed, no longer worried to keep his voice down. “There’s no problem with us being here.”

Mikleo rolled his eyes, but let Sorey guide him to another room, this one deserted. It was a big, open space, except for what seemed to be a big, thick sheet of stone rising from the ground right in the centre. It was secluded by a red, velvet rope that didn’t let them step as close as Mikleo would have liked.

He knew what it was the moment they stood close enough to see the writing on the stone. He couldn’t help the gasp that escaped from his mouth.

“The Sacred Inscriptions!” Mikleo said, walking until his thighs brushed against the rope. “But… This is—!”

“Yup. It’s the real thing.” Sorey sounded very proud of himself in that moment. “I figured if you wanted to look for inaccuracies we should start from the very beginning, so here we are.”

“I…” With shiny eyes, Mikleo leaned over the rope to read the inscription. The whole stone was covered by the writing, so tiny and close together that Mikleo had to narrow his eyes to read it. Of course, the fact that it was written in Ancient Tongue was also slowing Mikleo’s progress.

Sorey gave a step closer to Mikleo. “Do you want me to read it for you? I have—“

“The Shepherd is granted four powers:—“ Mikleo started, eyes on the stone. “—earth, water, fire and wind. They are the blade that shall cleave the Lord of Calamity. But only if the Shepherd’s purpose is pure will they be able to wield the spiritual powers… Ahh, it seems like the last few lines can’t be read— What is it, Sorey?”

Sorey was looking at Mikleo with big, shiny eyes and his mouth open by surprise. Mikleo crooked his head to the side, not understanding why Sorey was looking him like that, and the movement seemed to snap Sorey out of his stupor, a furious blush covering his cheeks as he looked away.

Mikleo blinked at the side of Sorey’s head.

“You— you translated it in the blink of an eye!” Sorey exclaimed.

“Why do you sound so surprised? I already translated the words at the entrance.”

“It’s not the same, and you know it! It’s harder to translate whole sentences than just words.”

Mikleo shrugged, feigning nonchalance, but he was actually pleased by the amazement in Sorey’s voice. “It’s easier when you know the context.”

“Still…”

Mikleo returned his attention to the inscriptions. Something was nagging at the back of his mind after reading it, as if he should have realized something already. He looked back to the door they had come from and then back to the stone.

“Everything okay?” Sorey asked.

“Yeah, there’s… I’m going to write this down.” Mikleo pulled out a tiny notebook from his pocket and a pen, and wrote both the original writing and his own translation. Then, for good measure, he snapped a picture of the lines he couldn’t read at the end with his phone.

“Thank you for showing me this, Sorey.”

“Not at all, I’m having fun! I always love to come here.”

“Do you think we could explore the Shrinechurch some more?” Mikleo asked, looking around. He was feeling the excitement bubbling under his skin, and it pulled at the corners of his mouth, making him smile. “I think I can learn pretty interesting things from this place.”

Sorey smiled, his eyes fixed on Mikleo, and then he took a bow with one arm crossing his chest and the other extended with his palm up, making a faint arc in the air. “Follow me, wise Mikleo.” He said, using the soft, slightly deeper voice he used when he was at the radio station. “I shall show you the wonders of Pendrago.”

A soft laugh escaped from Mikleo’s mouth, his eyes sparkling. Sorey lighted up when he heard it, and Mikleo’s heart raced in response.

“Nice, sweet, intelligent and given to theatrics.” Mikleo shook his head as Sorey rose from his bow, both of them turning to walk deeper into the Shrinechurch. “You really do have it all, huh?”

Sorey blushed softly, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. “Well, I try!”

Hiding his smile behind his hand, Mikleo looked upwards. “I was teasing you, Sorey.”

Sorey blinked, and then groaned. “Aww, man! And here I thought you were complimenting me!”

“Me? Never.”

“Hey!”

 


 

As always, Sorey’s show was sold out.

But that wasn’t a problem when you knew the performer, apparently. Mikleo walked nervously down the stairs of the auditorium, following Rose’s energetic form. She kept smiling and waving at people as she skipped down the steps, guiding Mikleo towards his seat. She had been waiting for him at the entrance, next to a tall, grumpy guy whose fair hair fell over his eyes. Rose had smirked when her eyes had landed on Mikleo, but there had been no teasing this time.

“Sorey saved a spot for you.” She had said, as if she were telling a joke. “Come on.”

She had said nothing else after that. Soon after, she was stopping halfway down to the stage and pointing to an empty seat by the aisle.

Mikleo had the suspicion it was the same seat he had sat at the first time.

“Here you go!” She said, and then struck out her hand, palm up, towards Mikleo. She never once lost her smirk. “It’s twenty gald.”

“Oh, sure—“ Mikleo rushed to open his satchel, looking for his wallet. It tended to navigate to the bottom of the bag, under all the papers and notebooks he kept in there. “—Let me just—“

“Oh, my Lord, I was just teasing you!” Rose’s hand fell on Mikleo’s shoulder, hard, making Mikleo jump slightly. “Your seat is on Sorey. Which, let me tell you, I don’t like one bit.”

Mikleo frowned, tapping on the strap of his bag. “I can pay.”

Rose’s answer came with a roll of her eyes. “Nah, it’s ok. I just wish Sorey would stop making me lose money.”

“…Does he invite a lot of people to his shows?” Mikleo said as he sat down, leaving his bag at his side.

“If I let him, he would.” She replied. Then, she squatted down next to Mikleo, arms crossed on the top of the armrest. Mikleo stared at her, at those eerie blue eyes that seemed to look into his very soul, and felt as if he was being challenged. “But he actually fought me to be able to invite you. And that’s a first.”

“—Oh.”

Lately, it had become easier for Mikleo to blush. Not out of annoyance, like it happened with Edna, or from embarrassment, which happened when Lailah was overly overprotective in public. This blush felt nice, even if Mikleo would have given anything to not have to suffer from it.

Much more so when Rose’s smirk grew the moment she saw his blush.

“Tell me, Mikleo.” She whispered, leaning close. Her eyes compelled Mikleo to do the same, his ponytail falling over his shoulder as he moved his head down. “Did you have fun exploring with Sorey this morning?”

“You knew about that?”

She groaned softly, rolling her eyes again. “How could I not? The dork has been talking about your date for ages.”

“We only said to go exploring two days ago.” Mikleo said, bewildered, and then he realized what Rose had just said. “And it wasn’t a date!”

“Mm-hm. Whatever. Anyway, the thing is—“

“Rose.” A new voice chimed in then, low and growly, and it made them both jump. They looked up to find the same tall guy with his hair over his eyes that had stood at the entrance earlier. Mikleo couldn’t see his face but something told him the guy was frowning. “The show’s about to start.”

“Right-o!” Jumping to her feet, Rose started to pat the back of her pants, dusting them off. Her eyes never left Mikleo, though, who was starting to think Sorey’s friends were pretty… Unique. “We’ll have to hold off our chat for next time, I’m afraid. See you later, lover boy!”

Again, it took a moment for Rose’s words to sink in; by the time they did, Rose was already walking away through the side of the stage, disappearing from view with the tall guy.

Mikleo could do nothing but groan.

The show started a few minutes later. Sorey walked into the stage with his usual confidence, smiling at everyone as he left his backpack next to the stool waiting for him. Right before he sat down though, Sorey’s eyes found Mikleo’s in the crowd, and it was only then that Mikleo realized Sorey had been looking around for him, smiling big and shiny when he did so and dedicating Mikleo a light wave.

That was also then when Mikleo realized he had been hoping for Sorey to look at him.

He tried not to dwell too much into that thought.

“Hello, everyone!” Sorey shouted, making the few people that still talked around the room stop and turn towards him. Expectation filled the air, but not the restless kind; like the last time, Mikleo felt very comfortable just by sitting in that chair, listening to Sorey’s happy, warm voice. “How are you today?”

Sorey’s audience didn’t make him wait to engage into a conversation. A young boy —too young to attend Pendrago U — asked Sorey about love after a brief introduction. Sorey’s eyes grew big as some people giggled softly, not at the boy’s dilemma but at the sweetness with which the boy asked the question, fingers wringing together, eyes casted down.

“I’ll… I have to admit I don’t know much about that.” Sorey said as he scratched the back of his neck. He had decided to sit on his stool today, so Mikleo could see clearly his knee bouncing as Sorey thought about his next words. “But as long as you’re sincere and understanding of other people’s feelings, it should be okay.”

The boy nodded and sat down. For a second, Sorey seemed to want to add something else, but then someone else rose up, waiting patiently until Sorey acknowledged them to start speaking about how they seemed to not be able to do anything right anymore.

The rest of the show went by in more or less the same way. There was only one tense moment in which a girl broke out crying as she explained how she felt, her voice broken by ragged sobs. Sorey looked at her, just for a second, and then jumped off the stage and ran to her, skipping into a halt in front of the girl with open arms.

“Can I give you a hug?” Sorey asked, voice low and sweet. The girl nodded, only once, and soon Sorey was gently hugging her, whispering something in her ear. Mikleo had seen him turn his microphone off at some point, his words only meant for the girl, who was starting to calm down by then. Still, Sorey made Rose take the girl and her companion out so the girl could rest for a bit without worrying about having all those eyes on her.

Something sharp twisted inside Mikleo’s chest as he saw Sorey’s worried expression. He hated to see that on Sorey’s usual cheerful face.

“I’m sorry you’ve had a rough week, everyone.” Sorey said as he moved back up the stage, microphone turned on again. “But please, please, don’t forget to look at the good things, no matter how small or far in between they are. There is always something good out there. For example, I had a… Difficult day yesterday, and this morning I woke up very tired… But I’ve spent most of my day exploring the city with a friend and I had so much fun! It made up for what a day yesterday was.”

When Sorey turned his head to smile directly at him, Mikleo’s heart skipped a beat. He no longer wore the worried expression; now his eyes shone the most luminous of greens as he looked at Mikleo, his smile stretching as big as it could get. Mikleo’s fingers dug into his armrest, praying for his blush to not be noticeable from Sorey’s spot.

Mikleo’s phone buzzed twice inside the pocket of his pants. A text message.

Mikleo ignored it.

“Maybe that’s what we need to do.” Sorey continued saying, looking around the room with still shiny eyes. “Balance things. If you have two bad days in a row, make sure the third one is a good day for you. Be nice to yourself, take care. Stay at home, go out with friends, read, sleep in. Do things that make you happy. You probably won’t be feeling better right off the bat, but I’m sure you will as the day goes on.”

Once again, Mikleo’s phone buzzed twice. He moved in his seat to put his phone out of his pocket with a groan, earning an annoyed glance from the guy sitting next to him. Mikleo ignored him as he opened the texts, frowning when he realized both of them were from Lailah.

That was weird. Lailah had the same disinterest in texting that Mikleo had in dogs.

They were short, simple tests, and that probably made things worse. Mikleo’s heart lurched forward, as if it was trying to bump itself against his ribcage, filled with a totally different feeling than seconds before.

—I’m sorry.— Lailah’s first text said. And then the second: —Please, don’t be mad.—

What… ? Mikleo’s lips moved with the word, soundlessly, but before he could continue with his thought the screen of his phone changed to show someone was calling him, the device buzzing silently in his palm. There was a number displayed but Mikleo didn’t recognize it, and the melange of things going on at once was starting to scare Mikleo.

He let the call go to voicemail. He couldn’t pick it up while in the auditorium, anyway, and after what had happened the last time he had been at one of Sorey’s shows —trying to get up and ending up sprawled on the floor unconscious —, Mikleo didn’t want to risk interrupting the show again.

So he stayed on his seat, hand gripping the phone tightly as something cold moved through his body. He was too nervous or scared to concentrate on Sorey’s words anymore. His voice had become white noise at the back of Mikleo’s head, but not even its cadence made Mikleo’s heart stop going crazy.

The moment the show ended and Sorey said goodbye cheerfully, Mikleo got up and left the auditorium, walking around the slower people on their own way out. His shaky fingers tried to pull up Lailah’s contact info as his brain conjured hundreds of crazy scenarios, all the while Lailah’s text continued to nag at him. ‘I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad.’ Mikleo had never gotten mad at her. She was his family, almost like a second mother. Why would he ever be—?

Just as he was about to press the screen to call her, the same number as before started calling again. Mikleo stopped walking right by the doors, people bumping into him from time to time, but he didn’t care. He stared hard at the line of unfamiliar numbers with dread.

Without stopping to think about it, Mikleo took the call and moved the phone to his ear.

“Hello?”

There was only silence at the other end. Mikleo pressed the phone tighter against himself, trying to hear anything, but he couldn’t even hear someone breathing.

“Who is this?” He asked, trying not to let his voice shake. “If this is a prank call, I swear—“

“It’s me, Mikleo.” The voice of a man said, soft, warm. And then, as an afterthought: “Michael.”

Mikleo sagged against the wall closest to him. Or it could have been a door, or a window, Mikleo didn’t know. He was too busy pretending he could breathe normally, pretending he hadn’t dreaded this moment for a long, long time. He closed his eyes as he tipped his head back, ignoring his shaky hands.

“How do you have this number?” Mikleo asked, knowing deep inside of him already the answer.

“Lailah gave it to me.” Michael said, voice patient. Mikleo couldn’t even tell if his uncle’s voice had changed since the last time he had heard it, all those years ago. “She told me you were in Pendrago; she thought it would be nice for us to meet—“

She thought?” There was anger in Mikleo’s voice, slowly banishing the fear. His hand was gripping his phone so hard it shook.

“Mikleo, I—“ Michael was having trouble speaking too, an emotion that Mikleo didn’t want to interpret mixing with his voice. “I want us to meet too. I would love to see you, if you have the time.”

Mikleo opened his eyes and gave the ceiling a murderous look. “Why now? You’ve had many opportunities Michael, so why now?”

A sigh made static reach Mikleo’s ear. “I just—“

“You have no right to decide for yourself when you can come back into my life, uncle Michael. Not when it was you who left.”

Michael said nothing for a long while. Mikleo kept staring at the ceiling, not prompting him either. In the end, Michael only said two words.

“I’m sorry.”

Mikleo closed his eyes again. “Good.”

He hanged up before Michael could say anything else. His arm fell to his side as if he had no more strength to keep it up, his phone loosely held in his fingers. There was a ringing in his ears and his legs were weak, all due to the anxiety that short call had spiked in him.

Mikleo tried to concentrate on his own breathing, but he could barely think.

“Mikleo!”

Sorey’s familiar voice cut through the fogginess. He moved his head to the side to see Sorey leaving the auditorium, the edges of his silhouette diffused, but his distressed expression was sharp as a knife.

“Sorey.” Mikleo simply said, voice controlled.

And then he slid to the floor, back pressed against the wall, shaky hands on his knees.

Sorey was next to him in an instant, on his knees, one hand on Mikleo’s shoulder as the other held his cheek softly, warm palm against cold, sweaty skin.

“Talk to me.” Sorey begged, turning Mikleo’s head towards him gently. His hand retreated then, but didn’t go too far, falling instead over Mikleo’s own hand on top of his knee.

“She—“ Mikleo’s mouth felt parched, and it hurt to swallow. He tried again, looking away as he cleared his throat. Still, his voice came out with a disbelieving tone when he said: “She betrayed me…”

“Mikleo?”

“Lailah—My aunt. She—she—“

“It’s alright, Mikleo. Breathe.” Sorey squeezed his hand tightly. “Put your head between your knees if you need to.”

“No.” Mikleo forced himself to breathe through his nose, and let the air out through his mouth. And then once again. “I’m okay.”

Sorey stayed silent for a long moment, then moved his hand away from Mikleo’s. For a second, Mikleo felt fear of Sorey moving away, even if he didn’t really understand why. But then Sorey simply moved to sit beside Mikleo, his back also against the wall behind them, legs crossed underneath himself. Mikleo focused his bleary eyes on him, confused. There was a sad smile on Sorey’s face.

“I was afraid you were mad at me.” Sorey admitted, voice soft. Mikleo continued to look at him without understanding. “That I had said something wrong during the show, and that was why you had fled the second it was over.”

“No— God, not at all, Sorey.” Mikleo shook his head, which proved itself to be a mistake; tiny black specks filled his vision, but they were gone with the next blink. “I got texts from Lailah. Which is weird because she hates texting, so I was already worried. I rushed out to call her… but Michael beat me to it.”

“Michael?”

“My uncle. Mom and Lailah’s brother.”

“…And you didn’t want to talk to him?”

“It’s… complicated. Long story.”

Sorey bumped his shoulder softly against Mikleo’s. “I’m willing to listen, if you’re willing to share.”

A tiny smile appeared on Mikleo’s lips. “Thank you. But not right now. I don’t want to think about this for now.”

“Fair enough.”

They sat in silence for a while after that. Mikleo couldn’t tear his eyes from his hands now, which felt clammy and cold on top of his knees. He couldn’t stop recalling his uncle’s voice, how warm it was, how it was nothing like he had imagined it, or thought he remembered it. And he couldn’t stop thinking about Lailah, who knew how Mikleo felt about all of this perfectly and still had chosen to give Michael a way to contact him, going against his wishes.

Mikleo shivered. That fact might be what hurt the most.

A pressure on his shoulder made Mikleo snap out of his thoughts. Sorey had let his head fall on Mikleo’s shoulder, the mess that was his hair brushing against the side of his neck softly. Mikleo turned his head to look at him, surprised, fighting of the need to tense his body.

Sorey’s hair smelled like jasmine.

In the end, Mikleo did nothing. He let Sorey rest against his side and turned his head again to look forward. His hands had stopped shaking.

“Are you okay?” Sorey asked without raising his head.

Mikleo felt the need to shrugged, but stopped himself so as not to unsettle Sorey. “I will be. I’m stronger than this.”

”I know you are.” Sorey replied, certain and sure, and this time Mikleo couldn’t help jumping a little. But Sorey wasn’t fazed by it; he kept his head on Mikleo’s shoulder, speaking softly. “I see your strength everyday. No one could ever look at you in the eyes and say you’re not strong, Mikleo.”

Mikleo’s chest hurt. His heart had gone from cheerful beating, to painful, anxious bombing, to this weird fluttering that made Mikleo’s fingers tingle, and now it was asking for a break most likely. Mikleo smiled softly at Sorey’s words through the pain, not bothering to hide it behind his hand.

“Thank you.” Mikleo whispered.

He could breathe a little bit easier now.

Sorey’s hair was soft against Mikleo’s jaw. He didn’t need to turn his head to smell the rich smell of jasmine flowers anymore; Sorey was close enough that the smell still reached Mikleo, his warmth casting away the coldness that had settled in Mikleo’s body.

He pressed himself closer to Sorey, seeking more of that warmth, and Sorey moved to put his head more comfortably on Mikleo’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry, by the way.” Mikleo whispered. There was something in the air that he didn’t want to break with his words.

“What for?”

“For the way I left the auditorium. For making you worry.”

Sorey shook his head lightly, almost not moving at all. “Don’t worry about that. I’m just glad you’re all right.”

Mikleo said nothing at that. But his eyes moved down, to Sorey’s still hands on his own lap. His fingers were curling lazily, but his palms looked invitingly warm and soft, bigger than Mikleo’s own.

He was too tired to doubt himself. Moving his hand slowly, Mikleo slid his palm against Sorey’s, and his fingers through the spaces left in between fingers, holding his hand tightly. Sorey didn’t hesitate for a second, closing his own and gripping back tightly.

“We don’t have to move until you want us to.” Sorey whispered, still not moving. “Okay?”

After a second, Mikleo gave in and rested his cheek on top of Sorey’s head. The smell of jasmine surrounded him, calming him, and Mikleo closed his eyes.

That was answer enough.

Chapter Text

As his phone continued to buzz from somewhere in between his bedsheets, Mikleo thought that he didn’t want to be alone.

The feeling had settled at some point during the night, way past midnight. His phone had been blowing up with calls since he had said goodbye to Sorey at the entrance of Pendrago U — first Lailah, calling every few minutes, the phone ringing for a long time until it inevitably stopped. The minutes in between calls felt like a claw clutching at Mikleo’s heart, the feeling of dread as he waited for it to start ringing again not helping at all.

Then it had been Zaveid; one, two, three times, calling again almost as soon as the call went to voicemail. Mikleo could imagine what Zaveid was going to say — and he didn’t want to hear it. He didn’t want to hear apologies, nor excuses. He didn’t want to hear he had known what Lailah had been planning to do, and had done nothing to stop her. 

He didn’t want to feel betrayed again.

So he put his phone on silent, sighed, and went to take a shower.

The feeling of loneliness followed him as he got undressed and stepped under the stream.

It was strange, how clear he could hear Michael’s voice in his head now, after so long. The last time Mikleo had seen Michael he had been seven, still a little kid that liked to cling from Zaveid’s strong arm and play with his mother’s long hair. And Michael had been the hero of all his adventure stories, the one who always came back from his travels with a memento and an interesting fact for Mikleo to mull over.

Michael had given Mikleo his copy of the Celestial Record when he hadn’t even been able to read, had taught him the meaning of every symbol with that book and infinite patience. Mikleo thought he could remember sitting on his uncle’s knees as Michael pointed at each symbol with a lithe, pointy index finger. The finger was decorated with a sturdy ring, which caught the light each time Michael moved his hand. It was a seal with the Shepherd’s symbol.

Mikleo wondered idly if Michael still had that ring.

And then he shook his head, reaching for the soap. That didn’t matter. Tender memories were nothing when faced with what Michael had done to him, what he had done to his mother. 

A stab of pain in his chest made Mikleo close his eyes. He might not have been able to remember Michael’s voice until recently, but he could remember perfectly his mother’s voice as she had called Michael’s name in her delirium, her fingers raising slightly as if she was trying to reach out to him.

Mikleo tasted bile in his mouth. It didn’t matter how many years it had been, thinking about his mother’s last days still made him sick.

There was no need for Mikleo to wash his hair that night, but he did it anyway. The movement of his own fingers through his hair calmed him somewhat, and pushed away the painful memories away long enough for him to finish his shower in peace. 

When he stepped out, his room was completely —blissfully— silent. There was no continuous buzzing, no ringtone making him hate the tiny thing, and for a second Mikleo thought his phone had finally ran out of battery. But when he picked it up from the bed and pressed the home button, he soon saw the longest string of notifications he had ever seen in his phone. They were all missed calls, missed texts. He swiped his thumb up and then down, reading only the latest notification.

It was a text from Eizen, the first and only one from him. It was simple and to the point, much like Eizen himself, but it made Mikleo feel incredibly selfish just the same.

Eizen: At least tell us if you’re okay.

That was the text. A simple, short request that Mikleo couldn’t ignore. He sat on the bed with a sigh, letting his damp hair fall over his shoulder as he opened the chat with Eizen.

Mikleo: I am okay. 

There was no answer of any kind to his reply as he put on his pajamas, as he climbed back into his bed with his still wet hair, and for that he was thankful. He would call Lailah in the morning, he would visit Eizen and the others in the evening. He didn’t like making his family hurt or get worried. But, for tonight, he just wanted to close his eyes and rest his stressed body, burrowing himself in the sheets and blankets until simply the top of his head could be seen.

That is, until he saw Sorey’s texts.

They had been sent just seven minutes before, while Mikleo was in the shower. Mikleo quickly opened the chat, reading over them with a small smile on his face. 

Sorey: I know you’re probably sleeping (you better be!) but I just wanted to wish you a good night! I’m sorry you had a rough day, but hopefully tomorrow will be better. I just got out of a radio session (can you believe I completely forgot?? Rose was so mad…) so I won’t make it to lunch tomorrow. I’M SORRY!!! I hope I can see you in the evening at least! You up for some more exploring?

Sorey: Good night, Mikleo. ☀️

Mikleo felt a tiny pang of sadness at missing Sorey tomorrow, but he understood. Sorey would collapse if he didn’t take more care though. He turned on the bed so he could text more comfortably, biting down on his lip softly. 

Mikleo: It’s alright. I’ll probably go in late so I’ll use the lunch time to work. Rest well, Sorey. 

Sorey’s reply to his text came incredibly fast. Mikleo hadn’t even known it was possible to type that quickly.

Sorey: You’re awake! Why are you awake!?

Mikleo: I couldn’t sleep.

Sorey : :(((((

Mikleo : It’s alright. I just took a shower and I’m feeling sleepy now. Also, I would love to do some more exploring, but I should probably go see my family in the afternoon.

Sorey : I understand!

Sorey : …If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate on calling me, ok?

Mikleo smiled at his phone. Sorey was incredibly sweet, too good to be real. For a second, Mikleo imagined himself pressing the little phone icon at the top of the screen, just to be able to hear Sorey’s voice right then. Not his podcasts, or his show. Not motivational speaker Sorey, but Sorey his friend. Just him.

Instead, he wrote:

Mikleo: I will. Thank you, Sorey.

Sorey: Anytime! Now please, go to sleep! Or you’ll look awful tomorrow.

Mikleo : How dare! I’ll let you know I look good in the mornings.

Sorey: I can’t believe that! No one can look that amazing all day long.

Mikleo: …Did you just imply I always look good?

Sorey: QKEFJBVAKDFBVKDB 

A laugh escaped from Mikleo’s lips, the first since everything had gone down. Mikleo shook his head, nuzzling into his pillow as he smiled at his phone screen. He could see Sorey typing and stopping, typing and stopping. Mikleo had meant that as a joke, trying to tease Sorey, but now he was very intrigued in why was Sorey hesitating so much to reply.

In the end, Sorey said:

Sorey: You’re mean, you know???

Mikleo: I’m not. You’re just easy to tease.

Sorey: Shut up!!

Mikleo: Good night, Sorey. Thank you.

Sorey: Good night, Mikleo! ☀️

Mikleo saw Sorey typing twice more, but no message came. In the end, after a while of no more movement in their chat room, Mikleo blocked his phone and put it on his nightstand to watch, turning to turn the light on the room off before closing his eyes. His chest felt lighter now after talking to Sorey, and the shower had done wonders to his tense body. He still dreaded the next day —or today, actually—, but at least he was confident on being able to sleep now.

When he closed his eyes, the first thing that came to his mind wasn’t Michael’s voice anymore, but Sorey’s smile, the way he had looked at him after Mikleo had translated the Sacred Inscriptions.

Sorey’s eyes had sparkled more than ever in that moment.

With that thought in mind, Mikleo fell asleep.

 


 

 

When he woke up, Mikleo didn’t look good at all. 

He had forgotten to turn his alarm off the night before, so he woke up at the same time as every day. He tried to go back to sleep after it, but he only managed to sleep twenty minutes before his body decided that was enough, and Mikleo found himself looking at the ceiling with very open eyes.

He had dark circles over his cheekbones, lining the underside of his eyes, and his hair was suffering the aftereffects of ‘going to sleep with one’s hair wet’. It was puffier than it usually was; even once Mikleo managed to tame it enough to pull it up into his usual ponytail it still look as if he had thrusted his fingers into an electrical socket.

But it didn’t seem to matter much. Outside, gentle rain fell over the streets of Pendrago and everyone hid either underneath their umbrella or hood. Mikleo thanked whoever was up there for that little fact and put on his thickest coat as he called up for a taxi to get him to the university.

At least he wouldn’t have to walk around the city with his hair resembling a cloud of cotton candy wrapped around his head.

By the time he got to Pendrago U, the rain was falling harder, the tiny droplets hitting without mercy the crystal ceilings of the building. It made a soft sound resonate throughout the university, and people seemed more silent than usual as Mikleo entered, as if they too wanted to bask in the sweet sound. Mikleo listened as he squeezed the tips of his hair, getting rid of the water from the rain that clung to him there.

The place smelled warm, mixed with the natural smell of rain.

Mikleo was starting to realize how much he loved this place.

“Mikleo?”

The soft voice sounded from some point at his right, and it pulled Mikleo right out of his thoughts. It had been Alisha who had spoken, smiling sweetly at Mikleo as she walked closer. Mikleo soon smiled back; it was impossible not to when she was near, apparently.

“Hello, Alisha. How are you?”

“I was just on my way to see you, actually!” She said, holding a book to her chest. Then her expression changed suddenly, her eyes roaming over Mikleo’s face with worry. “Mikleo, are you okay? Did something happen?”

Mikleo winced. “It isn’t that noticeable, is it?”

“Just a little bit.” Alisha lifted a hand and let it rest softly on Mikleo’s arm in a gentle gesture. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“It’s… a long story.” Mikleo admitted. “I just had a rough night. But I’m feeling better by now, I promise.”

Alisha tilted her head to the side. “I won’t insist, then. But I’m here if you need anything.”

“Thank you, Alisha.” Mikleo smiled at her easily, fingers resting on the strap of his bag. “That means a lot.”

“Anyway, I was on my way to ask if you wanted to have coffee with me!” Alisha added with sparkly eyes. “I’d love to discuss a bit of your research with you, if that’s okay.”

One of Mikleo’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Sure, that’s okay. But, Alisha… Has Sorey asked you to do this?”

“Sorey?” Alisha asked back, genuine surprise coating her voice. “No, of course not. Why would he?”

“No reason.” Mikleo shook his head quickly, lifting his hands. He wouldn’t put past Sorey to ask his friend to keep Mikleo company, but he was happy he hadn’t. Mikleo wanted to hang out with Alisha only if she wanted to as well, not because she was feeling something akin to pity towards him. “Shall we go?”

Alisha took him to the cafeteria, where both of them ordered hot drinks as Mikleo told Alisha about his escapade to the Shrinechurch with Sorey. Alisha smiled all the while, shaking her head at some bits, actually laughing at others.

“Honestly, by what you’re telling me Sorey behaved pretty well with you.” Alisha said with a secretive smile, hiding it quickly behind her coffee cup. “He usually insists on spending the whole evening exploring whenever we go sightseeing around the city. Don’t get me wrong, I like that side of him, but sometimes it can get…” with an idle movement of her hand, Alisha left the sentence unfinished, finally moving the cup to her lips to take a sip.

“We didn’t stay that long at the Shrinechurch.” Mikleo admitted. “Only around… four, five hours?”

Alisha choked on her coffee, her shoulders shaking as she started to cough. Mikleo jumped a little on his chair, quickly grabbing clean napkins and giving them to her. Through watery eyes, Alisha dedicated him a grateful glance, leaving the cup on the table and using the napkins to quickly rub at her own mouth and hands.

“Are you okay?” Mikleo asked worriedly, giving her the time she needed to answer.

“Y-yes. I’m sorry, I was just surprised…”

“Why?”

More composed now, Alisha shook her head, smiling again. “Nothing. I just think I owe Rose money…”

This time, it was both of Mikleo’s eyebrows that went up. “Rose?” 

“You know her, don’t you? You’ve been to some of Sorey’s shows before.”

Mikleo winced, taking a sip of his own. “I do. She’s kind of—“

“Careful with what you say there, lover boy. I don’t want to punch you.”

Both Alisha and Mikleo turned when they heard the new voice close to them. Rose herself was standing right next to their table, her hip propped to the side and her arms crossed over her chest. She was closer to Alisha’s side of the table but her blue eyes were on Mikleo, a wicked glint on them letting Mikleo know she wasn’t around just for a coffee, exactly.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t my favorite girl and my favorite boy!”

“Don’t let Dezel hear you say that.” Alisha whispered. Her cheeks had gone a little bit red at the top. “He won’t like it.”

Rose snorted and waved a hand in front of herself. “Dezel knows he has a special place in my heart as my super favorite girl. Now!” Grabbing a chair from a nearby table without even looking, Rose took a seat right in between Alisha and Mikleo, and then proceeded to steal Alisha’s cup to take a big gulp of coffee. As soon as she swallowed, Rose took the cup away from her mouth with a disgusted expression. “Gah, so sweet.”

I like it sweet.” Alisha retorted, getting the cup back.

“Of course you do. Anyway!” Rose exclaimed, shaking her head before smacking Alisha not to softly in the arm. “Stop distracting me, princess!”

Mikleo met Alisha’s eyes over the table. “Princess?” He asked.

Alisha sighed. “It’s a long story.”

“Hello?” Rose waved his arms around, making sure her hands moved in front of Mikleo’s and Alisha’s eyes. “Is anyone paying attention to me?”

“I think the whole cafeteria is now.” Mikleo muttered.

“Oh, aren’t you a quirky little thing.” Rose said in a sing song voice, narrowing her eyes at Mikleo as she smirked. 

“I’m pretty sure I’m taller than you.”

“A-ny-way!” Rose let her fingers spray over the table, leaning slightly over them to look at Mikleo. “As much as I enjoy you guys’ company, I am here because I’ve been asked to ‘subtly make sure Mikleo is okay’. And because I’m such a good friend, that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Mikleo blinked at her. “And this is your definition of ‘subtle’?”

Yes, have a problem with that?”

Alisha put a hand on Rose’s shoulder, squeezing rather hard. “Rose…”

“What!? He’s—“

As the girls continued to bicker in front of him, Mikleo pulled out his phone to send a quick text, warmth making his skin tingle. He was feeling contradictory feelings about all this.

Mikleo: I can’t believe you sent Rose to check up on me.

Sorey’s answer came almost immediately, making Mikleo smile.

Sorey: I told her to be subtle! 

Mikleo: uh-huh.

Sorey: I’m never paying for her services ever again.

Before Mikleo could reply to that, the screen of his phone changed with an incoming call. Lailah’s display picture filled the screen as his phone started to buzz and ring softly with Lailah’s favorite song. The sight of his aunt’s smile and kind eyes made Mikleo feel as if his heart was being squeezed into a tiny ball, cold replacing the sweet warmth he had been feeling until now.

With a shaky thumb, Mikleo pressed the red button on the screen and the phone went silent.

“Mikleo,” Alisha started to say, leaning forward. Mikleo hadn’t realized they had stopped bickering at some point. “Are you okay?”

“I… yeah.” Mikleo smiled at her, hoping it didn’t look as awful as he suddenly felt. “It was just my aunt. I’ll call her later.”

He meant it as a way to brush things off, but a part of him knew he would have to call Lailah at some point. And he wasn’t looking forward to that. But the guilt was horrible; he didn’t want to worry Lailah, didn’t want to make her feel sad, no matter how angry Mikleo was at her.

He just needed a bit more of time.

“You know, we’re not Sorey, but we’re good at listening.” Rose said, tapping her own cheek with her index finger. “I guess something happened for Sorey to tell me to check up on you, so if you wanna talk—“

“Shouldn’t Sorey be asleep right now?” Mikleo asked, a way to deviate the conversation. He was grateful for the offer, he really was, but he didn’t want to think about it for now. He hoped Rose didn’t take it the wrong way. “He just texted me.” 

“He should be,” Alisha said with a little nod, taking another sip of her coffee. Her eyes were understanding and soft over the lid of her cup. “But he has the whole day free so he can sleep later.”

“Yesterday was a packed day for him, so believe me—“ Rose added. “—. He’ll probably spend the whole day sleeping.”

Mikleo sighed, moving his own cup so the coffee inside sloshed slowly. “We shouldn’t have gone exploring for so long. He must be exhausted by now.”

Rose let out a bark of laughter, making Mikleo look at her with wide eyes. Alisha, meanwhile, didn't even react as she continued to drink her coffee. She hadn’t let go of it since Rose had tried to steal it from her.

“You’re kidding, right?” Rose said with a huge grin. “I told you yesterday, Sorey was so excited about your date he looked like a puppy for two whole days. I haven’t seen him that excited since he managed to debate some… theory with his favorite teacher.”

Alisha giggled. “I remember that. He was on cloud nine for a week after that.”

“So, yeah, don’t feel bad. I’m sure he enjoyed himself lots.”

“I hope so…” Mikleo narrowed his eyes at Rose then, tapping his fingers on the table. “And it wasn’t a date.”

“Whatever floats your boat, kiddo.”

Quick as a whip, Alisha slammed her hand over Rose’s mouth, efficiently shutting her up before she could add anything else. Then, she turned towards Mikleo with an apologetic twist of her mouth. “I’m sorry, Mikleo. I swear she doesn’t tease people 24/7.”

“I find that hard to believe.” Mikleo replied, leaning his chin on his hand with a smile. His had to raise his voice to make himself heard over Rose’s muffled words, her indignation noticeable even through Alisha’s palm.

He would be lying if Mikleo said he didn’t like them. It was soon to call them his friends, but they were amazing, slightly irritating (on Rose’s part), and easy to be with. And they were inspiring in their own way, something Mikleo appreciated wholeheartedly.

The girls’ company soothed Mikleo’s worries for a long while, enough for him to be able to do his work for the day.

 


 

 

 

Evening found Mikleo pressing the button on the intercom to Zaveid’s apartment. The streets were cold like always but, for the first time, Mikleo was numb to it. His heart was pounding hard enough for him to be able to feel it on his fingertips, his breath coming out of his mouth with quick clouds of white smoke.

It was only Zaveid and the others, but Mikleo was still scared. He didn’t want to know what they knew, didn’t want them to tell him to talk to Lailah—or worse, to Michael. If Mikleo was there, it was only because he knew he had to be an adult and talk to them, show them he was okay, and not act like a child that hid in his room from everyone and everything. So he had texted Eizen in the morning—because you could always count on Eizen in times like this — and he had said they would wait for him in the evening.

So there he was, waiting to be let in without knowing what would wait for him inside.

Mikleo: Wish me good luck?

Sorey: Good luck, Mikleo. ☀️

There was a buzz, and then the door opened without words from the intercom. Mikleo pushed it quickly with his shoulder, letting himself in and going for the elevator immediately. As it took him up, Mikleo fiddled with the ends of his ponytail. He had taken his contacts off before coming, knowing the evening wasn’t going to be easy and not wanting to be bothered by them, so he pushed his glasses up with his knuckle and rubbed at his eye, preparing himself.

He could do this.

Mikleo got out of the elevator, walking the short distance to the already open door.

I can do this.

He stepped inside, closing it behind him and starting to take his shoes off at the entrance.

“Hello?” He called out.

I can do this. I can—

“Hi, darling.”

Mikleo’s head snapped up as he stood in the entrance, in his socks. There, in front of him, stood Lailah, her hands clasped in front of herself and a soft, sad smile over her lips. She looked small in the narrow entrance despite being taller than Mikleo, and when Mikleo looked into her eyes he saw all the things she wasn’t saying.

All the things Mikleo hadn’t given her the opportunity to say.

“What are you doing here?” Mikleo asked in a whisper, not moving.

Lailah’s shoulders dropped. “You wouldn’t answer your phone.”

Mikleo didn’t even bother to put the slippers on. He walked the two steps that separated them and threw himself at Lailah to hug her fiercely, hiding his face into her long, long hair. Lailah hugged him back just as tight, if albeit a little surprised. But soon her hands were drawing smoothing circles over his back, over and over, her other hand caressing his hair.

“I’m sorry.” Mikleo whispered, feeling tears well up in his eyes. He felt horrible for hurting Lailah.

“No, I’m sorry.” Lailah replied, voice soft. Her hand on Mikleo’s back trembled a little. “I’m so sorry. I should have talked to you first.”

She should have. Mikleo was still mad about it, about Lailah acting behind his back; the fact that he was hugging her didn’t change that.

But he could push that aside for a little while.

“What is this? I don’t get a hug?”

Trust Zaveid to break the moment. Mikleo sighed as he stepped away from Lailah, looking over her shoulder to narrow his eyes at Zaveid. “I’m not hugging you while you’re shirtless.”

Zaveid was, in fact, shirtless. The tattoos on his torso rose and fell when he puffed out his chest, resting his knuckles on his hips. “I love you, Mikky-boy, but not enough to get dressed.”

“That’s because you love yourself the most.” Eizen added in, crossing his arms over his chest.

“Aww, are you jealous Love-zen?”

Eizen pretended to shudder. “I hate you.”

Mikleo sighed and stepped into the apartment, walking past Zaveid to stand in the center of the room. He kept his eyes on Eizen though, because somehow — despite his serious expression and hard eyes — he was the easiest to talk to.

“I’m sorry for worrying you.” Mikleo said, keeping his eyes on Eizen’s for a second longer before moving them away.

Eizen nodded. “Thank you, Mikleo.”

“I think Mikleo and I have something to talk about.” Lailah broke in, her lithe hand resting on Mikleo’s arm. “Would you give us some privacy, boys?”

“Sure.” Zaveid threw his arm over Eizen’s shoulders and started walking further into the apartment. “We’ll be over there pretending we’re not listening!”

“Where’s Edna?” Mikleo asked, looking around. There was no sight of the little blond demon.

“She’s in her room, being difficult.” Zaveid replied with a shrug, and almost instantly a muffled sound reached them from somewhere in the apartment. It sounded like a kick to a wall. “Don’t worry about it.”

Eizen and Zaveid disappeared. Next to him, Lailah made her hand travel down so it held Mikleo’s, her fingers a bit cold in his palm. Mikleo turned to look at her, feeling some of the nervousness from before returning.

“Shall we go out to the balcony?” Lailah asked softly.

Mikleo could only nod.

 


 

There had never been a chance for Mikleo to get his coat off, so he didn’t feel too cold when they stepped outside. Lailah, however, had to take a blanket with her and put it over her shoulders to battle the cold, snuggling herself in it.

They didn’t speak for a while at first. They simply observed the sun as it fell behind the white dome of Pendrago’s Shrinechurch, the sounds of the city barely reaching them from up there. But, in the end, it was Lailah who spoked first, a sad smile playing on her lips as she kept her eyes on the horizon.

“He called me months ago, during the summer.” Lailah didn’t even need to say Michael’s name for Mikleo to get defensive. He crossed his arms over his chest, angling his body away from Lailah’s. “He read your book.”

“He did?” Mikleo couldn’t help but ask, turning quickly towards her once again.

Lailah nodded. “He recognized your pseudonym. Your mom’s second name and your dad’s surname.”

Mikleo said nothing at that. He wasn’t the one who had came up with that name, but his mother. Every night before sleep, until he was seven, Muse had told Mikleo stories of Shepherd Mikleo and his companion Luzrov Rulay, a brave water seraph that had protected his shepherd until the very end. It had been a sentimental choice, he knew, but he had never expected Michael to recognize it.

He wanted to know what Michael had thought of the book, for some twisted, strange reason. But he didn’t dare to ask.

However, Lailah read him like an open book, like always. “He loved it.” She said with a small smile. “He was amazed by your prose and your theories, all the work that you have done, and how impeccably you exposed your theories. He spent the whole call praising your book.”

Heat rose up to Mikleo’s cheeks. But, at the same time, his fingers gripped the cold metal of the balcony’s railing until his veins strained against the skin of his hand.

“He asked if he could talk to you, then.” Lailah continued, wrapping herself tighter with her blanket. “I almost caved in, but I said no in the end. You were so happy about your book, and you were starting to toy with the idea of writing another one… I didn’t want to take that away from you. But when you decided on writing about the Shepherds and their legends, I knew I had to tell him. He was ecstatic to hear it, and—“

Mikleo frowned. “And?”

“…I don’t want to speak for him, Mikleo.” Lailah shook her head, fair hair falling over her eyes. When she sighed, a soft, white cloud escaped from her lips. “You should hear this from him, not from me.”

“I don’t think he deserves it.” Mikleo fired back, crossing his arms over his chest once again. “He abandoned me, Lailah. He abandoned mom.”

“I… I know. But Mikleo… You might hate him for that, but you can believe me when I say he hates himself more.”

Mikleo looked away. The sun was gone already, a few stray rays of sunshine turning the quickly darkening sky into a pretty pink. “…I don’t hate him.” Mikleo admitted in a low voice. “But I don’t want to give him another opportunity to let me down, either.”

From the corner of his eye, Mikleo saw Lailah nod. “You don’t have to take him back into your life. You can just talk to him, give him a chance to explain himself… and apologize.”

He sighed, rubbing his eyes behind his glasses, but said nothing once again. The silence stretched between them, oppressing and strange. Mikleo wasn’t used to being in a tense silence with Lailah.

But then Lailah efficiently broke the silence, and Mikleo wished she hadn’t.

“Michael’s here.”

Mikleo’s heart skipped a beat painfully; so painfully that his breathing hitched, making him stumble when he turned to face Lailah. Lailah, however, kept her eyes straight in front of her once again, not meeting Mikleo’s eyes.

“Here—?”

“In Pendrago. He abandoned his travels around two years ago, and was offered a job as a professor in Pendrago U. He’s been sitting behind a desk and teaching ever since.”

“I…I don’t—“

“He was the one who pushed forward your application for the documents you’re working with. They would never have let you see them without his recommendation.”

Mikleo was choking. He was sure, he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t—

“I told you why I wanted to write this book. I told you I wanted to prove to myself that I can do this without his help, and you—!“

“Don’t raise your voice at me, Mikleo.” Lailah said calmly, finally looking at him.

“I didn’t want his help!” Mikleo let go of himself to gesticulate wildly. “I never asked for it!”

“You would never have gotten access to the documents if it wasn’t for his help. You were so excited about it, I didn’t want to rain on your parade.”

Mikleo bit down on his lip. “I don’t care—“

“Michael didn’t do it so you’d feel obligated to talk to him. He didn’t want me to tell you. He simply did it because he is very interested in seeing what you come up next. And this changes nothing, Mikleo. You’re still writing the book on your own, and that’s incredible.”

“Then why did he call me?”

“He wanted to try. You both are in the same city now, it seemed a good moment to try for him.”

Mikleo felt like falling, like everything around him was spinning even though he was perfectly still. He was so tired…

“Why do you keep doing this, Lailah?”

Lailah didn’t need clarifications. Her smile was still sad when she turned to fully face Mikleo, her long skirt moving around her with the breeze. “Because you’re my nephew, my child. But Michael is my brother, Mikleo. You can’t blame me for trying to make my family whole again.”

Mikleo couldn’t reply to that. He simply didn’t know what to say. But his throat felt closed off and stiff, so maybe he wouldn’t have been able to speak at all, even if he had wanted to.

“I’ll go back to Ladylake tomorrow.” Lailah continued, moving closer to Mikleo. Mikleo let her. “I only came to make sure you were alright.” Her hand found its way to Mikleo’s shoulder, squeezing it tight. “I am very sorry for acting behind your back, Mikleo. I regret not doing things differently. And Michael… He’s made mistakes in the past, but he isn’t a bad person. I’d like it if you thought about giving him a chance.”

Before he could convince himself of otherwise, Mikleo put his own hand on top of Lailah’s, squeezing it tightly too. Her skin, usually very warm and comforting, was colder than Mikleo’s in that moment, betraying her nervousness. But she still smiled when Mikleo grabbed her hand, and that eased Mikleo’s worry a bit.

“I love you.” Lailah whispered, moving her hand from underneath Mikleo’s and brushing his cheek with the back of her hand.

Mikleo sighed. “I love you too.” He replied, not meeting her eyes. “And… I’ll think about it. That much I can do.”

It was easy to feel Lailah’s excitement in the way her shoulders rose. She smiled brightly, just like she always did, and leaned forward to kiss Mikleo on the cheek so fast he didn’t even have time to pretend he was annoyed.

“Thank you.” She said. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

 


 

The sidewalk underneath his feet was a blur. Mikleo was walking fast, probably too fast for such a concurred street as the one he was currently walking on, but he didn’t care. He only cared about the phone in his hand, and the call that didn’t seem to want to connect— 

Until it did, and Sorey’s familiar voice reached his ear through the tiny device. “Mikleo!”

Mikleo stopped, earning himself annoyed glances from other pedestrians, but still not caring. It was like he could finally breathe, could finally think past the fog in his mind that had settled while he had been speaking to Lailah— or even before, around the time he had arrived to Zaveid’s apartment and his heart had started to beat nervously.

But Sorey had only needed to say his name through a smile for all of that to disappear.

And that was all it took for Mikleo to understand.

“Can I see you?” Mikleo asked, pressing, urgent.

“What, now!?”

Mikleo’s grip on his phone tightened. “Are you busy?”

“Eh, no. No, I’m not! Alright, where are you?”

“I…” Mikleo looked around with wide eyes. “I don’t know?”

He heard Sorey stop moving abruptly from the other end, and his voice suddenly acquiring a worried edge. “Mikleo, are you lost!?”

“I’m not lost.” Mikleo thrusted his free hand into his coat pocket in annoyance. “I just don’t know where I am.”

“But that’s—! Okay, okay, stay there. Tell me what you see?”

Mikleo scanned his surroundings with a quick look around. “Buildings. Houses. A bakery. Um…” He continued walking down the street, looking for something that could give Sorey a clue about his whereabouts. “Ah, there’s a square on the other side of the street? It has a fountain in it, a pretty big one…”

“I know where you are!” Sorey exclaimed. The sounds of cars and people could be heard now from his side of the call too. “Wait for me by the fountain, okay? I won’t take long.”

“Okay.” Mikleo stopped to wait for the traffic light to turn green, eyes on his shoes. He was so tired it felt as if thousands of tiny rocks had been tied to his body, making it weight a ton. “See you, Sorey.”

“No, wait!”

The light of the traffic light in front of him blinked green. Mikleo looked at both sides, just in case, and walked to cross the street. “What is it?”

“I just…” A hesitation. A cough. Then: “Nothing. See you now, Mikleo!”

“See you.”

Sorey was loyal to his word, and didn’t take long. Mikleo only waited for him for ten minutes, sitting by the edge of the fountain, fingertips playing idly over the water, and then Sorey appeared in front of him, running towards him with a smile. Mikleo dried his fingers on the side of his coat and stood up, hiding his chin in his scarf.

“Mikleo!” Sorey exclaimed as he skidded to a stop in front of him. “Sorry to keep—!”

It was funny, how Sorey’s expression changed in a single second. One moment he was smiling, and the next he was blushing furiously and looking at Mikleo with big, sparkly eyes. He was looking at him so intently, in fact, that Mikleo felt some warmth of his own reach his cheeks, and he quickly looked away to cover it. 

“What?” He muttered, looking at Sorey from the corner of his eye.

Sorey jumped, raising his hands in front of his own chest, as if he was excusing himself. “Nothing, nothing! You’re… you’re wearing your glasses.”

“Oh.” Mikleo touched the frames with the tip of his middle finger, pushing them up. “I guess I am.”

“You okay?” Sorey was scratching his cheek now, looking down at Mikleo with a concerned expression. “You sounded… agitated, over the phone.”

Mikleo gave a step towards Sorey. Around them, families, couples, people walked around as they talked and laughed, creating a warm atmosphere in the middle of winter. The place was illuminated by strings of lights encased in colorful paper balls that went over the heads of the passersby. Tiny food stalls around filled the square with mouthwatering aromas. And, behind them, the sound of the fountain separated them from it all, as if it created a bubble that concealed only them.

It was easy to feel safe inside that bubble.

“I just came back from my family’s house.” Mikleo admitted, looking down. “Lailah was there. And… I’m not sure about how it went, actually.”

Sorey let his hand rest on Mikleo’s shoulder. It was warm, even through the layers of clothing. “I’m sure you did okay. You just need a bit of time.”

“It’s just… Lailah told me something today, and now I have to make a choice, and… And I…”

“We don’t have to talk about this now, if you don’t want to.” Sorey’s hand on Mikleo’s shoulder moved a little, so his thumb could swipe over Mikleo’s covered collarbone. 

Mikleo shook his head. “I. I want to.”

“That’s okay. But…”

With the hand he still had on his shoulder, Sorey pushed him softly until the backs of Mikleo’s knees hit the edge of the fountain, and then lowered him slowly so he was sitting on it. Sorey quickly sat next to him, leaving some space between them, but close enough that, when Sorey turned to face Mikleo, their knees bumped softly.

Neither of them moved to break the contact.

Under Sorey’s encouraging eyes, Mikleo thought about where to start. There were so many things that wanted to make their way out of Mikleo’s mouth first… But, in the end, there was only one thing, probably the most important of them all.

Mikleo inhaled, and with that same air said: “My mother died when I was eight.”

Sorey tightened his grip on Mikleo’s shoulder. “Mikleo…”

“It’s alright.” Mikleo cut in. “It was a long time ago. But her death… It wasn’t quick. And it wasn’t pretty either. She was sick for a long time before she was finally able to rest.

“But before that, we were very, very close. It was just us, my mom and I. My father died before I was born, so my mother was both mom and dad, and I loved her even more because of that.

“My mother had two siblings. Lailah, whom I’ve told you about before. She’s the older sister, and by a lot. I didn’t see her much when I was a child, because she lived in Ladylake while we lived here in Pendrago. She was that cool, slightly weird aunt that you only see in Christmas and birthdays but that you still like.

“And then… there is my uncle Michael, mom’s twin brother. He’s an explorer, you see. He’s traveled all over the world, searching for strange artifacts, studying different cultures. He was the one who made me love the Celestial Record, and the legends of the Shepherds. I don’t remember much of that, but I remember being the happiest when he read me, or told me about his travels as mom played with my hair.

“But then, mom got sick. The doctors made her stay at the hospital when the first symptoms started to appear. At first, you couldn’t even imagine she was sick. She was a bit pale and always tired, but her smile was luminous as ever, and she would always make a point of looking her best when I went to visit her… Soon, that changed. She started to forget things. Days and weeks blended together for her, she thought it was summer in the middle of winter, started to mix words. She would say ‘bed’ when she wanted to say ‘door’, things like that. Then she forgot people. She forgot about Lailah, about her father… Sometimes even about me. But the person she never forgot was Michael. She called for him everyday, asking where he was, why he hadn’t come to see her yet.

“While she was at the hospital, Lailah moved here to take care of me. She had friends already living here —the family I’ve told you about— and they helped her when she had to work. They quickly became uncles for me. Meanwhile, my real uncle, the one I shared blood with, never came.

“One night, I woke up in the middle of the night to hear Lailah talking agitatedly. She was talking to Michael over the phone, begging him to come and see my mother. By the sounds of it, it wasn’t the first time she had tried. I never heard what Michael replied, but he never came. My mother died without seeing her brother.”

Mikleo took a deep, shaky breath. He had never had to tell the story out loud. Everyone he had ever talked about it with already knew it, in more or less detail, but they knew enough. This was the first time he was telling it, and he was starting to realize just how hard it was.

Sorey’s hand moved from his shoulder to rest right on top of his, squeezing tight. He said nothing, but the contact was enough; it transmitted more words than a voice ever could. Mikleo turned his hand so he was holding Sorey’s in his palm, thumb brushing against the back of his hand, much like had done outside the auditorium the day before. He concentrated on the feeling and in the sound of the fountain behind himself to continue the story.

“He didn’t come to the funeral either. Didn’t come to the reading of her will. And then, the matter of my adoption was brought up. Mom didn’t have family outside of Michael and Lailah, and out of the two of them, Michael was the obvious choice. I knew Lailah, but she was still a stranger, and she lived in Ladylike, very far away from here. Everyone thought it would be better for me to stay here, in my city, in my school. So they asked Michael—over the phone, of course. He still hadn’t come to the city—if he wanted to be my legal tutor. He refused, of course.”

A squeeze in his hand made Mikleo look up and meet Sorey’s eyes. There wasn’t pity in them, which Mikleo was thankful for, but they did look sad. It was strange, but Mikleo suddenly had the need to hug him, not for himself but for Sorey’s sake.

“Do you know why he did that?” Sorey asked softly, his voice barely audible over the roar of the fountain. “Not seeing your mom, not—Did he ever gave you an explanation?”

Mikleo shook his head. “No. Though, to be fair, I never really asked. I grew up resenting him, with my mom’s cries as she called for him fresh in my memory. I told Lailah I didn’t want anything to do with him a long time ago, and it’s been that way until recently.”

“Until he called you yesterday.” Sorey nodded. “Have you talked to him after that?”

“He hasn’t tried to call again. But Lailah told me he wants to meet, so…”

“Are you? Going to meet him?”

Mikleo hesitated. “I don’t know. But… that isn’t everything. He’s here, Sorey. In Pendrago. He stopped traveling a while back and became a teacher here in Pendrago U.”

“What!? In Pendrago U? But then—Oh. Oh, my god—“

Sorey was always so expressive, Mikleo had no trouble seeing the moment it dawned on Sorey. His whole face changed from slightly confused to utter surprise, to astonishment.

With a sigh, Mikleo gave another squeeze to Sorey’s hand, effectively grabbing his attention again. “I guessed already if there was someone who knew him, it would be you.”

A stutter cut Sorey’s voice when he asked: “Michael Mioma? Your uncle is Professor Michael Mioma!?”

Mikleo shrugged. “It looks like it.”

“Woah.” Sorey tilted his head back, still flabbergasted. “I just… I would never have thought…” He sent an apologetic look at Mikleo, as if he was afraid he wouldn’t like what he was going to say next. “His classes are amazing. I had him last year and I just… The way he explained things, and all the photographs from his travels… I used to go to his office to trade theories with him, it was so cool— Ah. Sorry, Mikleo! I didn’t mean…”

“You don’t have to apologize.” Mikleo replied with a soft smile. Sorey looked very handsome when he was excited like that. “I don’t… You know, I told Lailah I don’t hate Michael. I thought I had said that so she wouldn’t feel even worse, but truth is… Despite everything, I do not hate my uncle. So I’m happy he was a good teacher for you.”

Sorey’s smile became brighter. His feather earrings moved softly in the breeze, the tips brushing against Sorey’s cheeks. And then it became more serious, the tilt of his mouth going from sweet to encouraging. “You know, you could speak to Michael as simply that. A professor, and not your uncle. He is related to you by blood, but he doesn’t have to be family if you don’t want him to. Would that make it easier to talk to him?”

Mikleo considered it. Talking to Michael like that meant he didn’t have to decide in that moment if he was going to let him back into his life. They were just two hurt people laying their cards on the table, not an uncle and a nephew trying to mend a broken bond.

He could just go, hear what Michael had to say, and then leave, take the decision another day.

“It does feel easier.” Mikleo said in the end, looking up to meet Sorey’s gaze again. His earnest green eyes sent a shiver down Mikleo’s spine. “Thank you for listening, Sorey. It felt good to let it out.”

“Not at all! It… makes me happy you trusted me with it.” Sorey let his shoulder bump Mikleo’s.

Mikleo returned the gesture. “Of course.”

“Hey, let’s eat something! The stalls around here are amazing, you’ve got to try some of their food.”

Still with linked hands, Sorey urged Mikleo up from the edge of the fountain and made him walk further into the square. Mikleo gave a few longer strides to walk right next to Sorey, their hands held together in the tiny space between them.

“Alright,” Mikleo said. “But I’ll pay for it.”

“What, no! It was my idea, I’ll pay.”

“Let me invite you.” Mikleo insisted, squeezing Sorey’s hand. Sorey looked down, as if he had forgotten he was holding Mikleo’s hand, and a sweet red rose to his cheeks and the tips of his ears, his eyes snapping back up to look at Mikleo and then quickly away.

“Okay.” Sorey replied. Under the yellow lights of the plaza, Sorey looked happy and pleased.

They didn’t speak again until both of them cradled a steamy bun —Sorey had said it was a ‘mabo curry bun’, whatever that was— and they were making their way towards a bench near a chestnuts stall. And it was Mikleo who broke he silence, heart hammering against his ribs and mouth dry as he said:

“Sorey. Will you accompany me to talk to Michael tomorrow?”

Sorey stopped halfway to taking another bite of his bun to look at Mikleo, mouth still open. But he soon recomposed himself, straightening his back and dedicating Mikleo one of his smiles.

“Of course.” Sorey replied.

They didn’t talk about Michael for the rest of the evening.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sorey was many things, but it turned out he wasn’t very good at giving directions.

It took a long while for Mikleo to find the radio station. In his defense — and Sorey’s —, the studio was located in the furthest part of the campus, behind the arts building and next to where it seemed the cafeteria threw out all the expired food, so Mikleo spent a good half an hour to simply find the entrance. When he managed to find the place, he looked down at the stairs that lead into a dark landing with a single wooden door at the end, and a faded poster stuck on it. Mikleo looked down towards the darkness, and then to his side, where the vast green fields of Pendrago U seemed to call him.

If this is a prank I’ll kill him. Mikleo thought, gripping the paper bag in his arm tighter. With a sigh and a set jaw, Mikleo descended the stairs slowly.

At least it didn’t smell like putrid doughnuts down there.

Mikleo could hear music coming from the other side already. But he was too distracted by the poster on the door to actually listen to it, the simple design pulling a smile from Mikleo. At some point, the poster had been yellow and bright, but now it had turned the color of egg whites, the words written in dark also faded around the edges. The poster read ‘Keep Calm and Think Positive!”, with a pair of feather ear cuffs on top of them. Mikleo shook his head, still smiling, and opened the door without much thought.

The music hit him like a hammer to his chest.

It was horrible. A crime against music. It sounded as if someone had put a spoon in a blender, turned it on, and then thrown the blender in a washing machine. Mikleo couldn’t help but open his mouth in pain as he winced, feeling every single note that bounced around the walls drill into his skull.

He would have gotten the hell out of there if it wasn’t for the friendly head that poked from a door further into the studio.

“Mikleo!” Alisha greeted him over the music, grinning as if the music didn’t bother her at all. “I’m glad you found it!”

“What!?” Mikleo shouted. It was impossible to hear her over the vociferous voice of the ‘singer’.

Alisha —bless her—realized what the problem was almost immediately. She indicated Mikleo to wait with a lifted index finger, and disappeared through the door she had first appeared from. A second later, the music stopped, leaving a buzzing sound in Mikleo’s ears.

“Oh, thank God.” Mikleo muttered, shaking his head to get rid of the annoying echo.

“Sorry, Mikleo!” Alisha exclaimed as she appeared back in front of him. Her voice was slightly raised, as if she hadn’t realized she was almost shouting. “I love listening to this as loud as possible!”

Mikleo did a double take, the paper bag on his arms creaking softly. “That was yours?”

“Yeah! Did you like it? I could lend you some cd’s if you want!”

“Ahh..” Mikleo looked away, scratching his neck with his free hand. “I’m… more fond of classical music, and such. Sorry.”

Alisha smiled beautifully and shook her head, not faced at all by Mikleo’s words. “Please, don’t apologize! That’s alright.” With a fleeting look behind herself, Alisha added. “Sorey is the same, actually! He prefers classical and instrumental.”

A soft blush covered Mikleo’s cheeks. “Really?”

“Yeah! Have you ever listened to the music playing on the background during his radio cast? He picks it for every show.”

“O-oh…”

“Oh, did you bring something?” She continued then. It might have been Mikleo’s imagination, but she seemed to be smiling a little more fondly now, probably due to Mikleo’s rosy cheeks.

Mikleo directed his glance to the paper bag in his arms, as if he had just remembered he was carrying it. “Ah, yes! I brought breakfast… Sorey and I talked about meeting here early, and that you’d all be around, so…”

Alisha stepped forward, peaking in the box curiously. “That’s so sweet of you, thank you! Oh, chocolate doughnuts! My favorite.”

With ease, Mikleo let the girl take his paper bag. “There’s coffee at the bottom too. I didn’t know what to get so I got one of each.”

Voices carried from deep inside the studio then. Both of them turned towards the sound, Mikleo with a curious glance, Alisha with a wince. Mikleo saw it, saw the way Alisha’s smile faded a little when the voices raised in volume, and he couldn’t help but feel a tiny pang of sadness in his chest. Alisha deserved to smile always.

“Is something wrong?” Mikleo asked with worry.

But Alisha was already shaking her head, her eyes soft and her smile not as bright as before. “It’s alright. There’s just—“

A shout interrupted her words, followed by the sound of a door being slammed shut, and then a man stomped down the hallway towards them with a red face, leaving Mikleo and Alisha almost no time to press themselves against the wall and let him pass.

“I am done with your attitude!” The man exclaimed, throwing the door open. “I will not allow this to go any further. Mark my words!”

As the man slammed the door closed behind himself, making the whole studio shake, a familiar voice trailed behind him, angry and irritated.

“My attitude isn’t the problem, it’s the broomstick up your—!”

Rose!” Alisha shouted, quickly striding towards where the voice came from, bag still in her arms. Mikleo followed after her, at a loss of words. “Are you crazy!?”

The highway ended in the recording room, where Rose was using as a punchbag the arm of the grumpy guy Mikleo had seen in the auditorium days before, the one Sorey had said was named Dezel. She was fuming as she delivered punch after punch, making Mikleo wince and worry about the bruises that he was sure must have started to bloom on the poor guy’s arm already. Dezel didn’t seem too bothered though, even if he did grunt at her to stop acting like a child.

Sorey was there too. Mikleo’s eyes moved towards him like a moth to a flame, finding him easily as soon as he stepped into the room after Alisha. Sorey was a little further away, his side towards the door, leaning with the small of his back against the edge of the table and his arms firmly wrapped around his own chest.

He looked… sad. It was the saddest Mikleo had ever seen Sorey, his green eyes devoid of their usual spark. He didn’t look simply downcast but worried as well, and something inside Mikleo —a pulling of some sort— made him walk around Alisha, who was still giving Rose a piece of her own mind, and go to Sorey, moving until he was able to lean against the table next to him, shoulders brushing.

“Are you okay?” Mikleo asked softly, tilting his head to the side.

Sorey was startled, but as soon as his eyes fell on Mikleo next to him he smiled, some of the darkness in his features getting a bit brighter. “Mikleo.” Sorey started softly, letting his arms uncross to rest against his own thighs. “I didn’t realize you had arrived already! Sorry about that.”

Mikleo shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. You seemed to be pretty… busy, at the moment.”

The effect was immediate. Sorey winced and looked away, his feather earrings softly brushing against his cheeks. He said nothing, but he let his hand move so his pinky was touching Mikleo’s, as if he needed the comfort.

“Sorey. What’s going on?”

“It’s just…“

“They want to shut down our show.” Rose finished for him, voice still slightly raised. The other three in the room had turned towards them, Alisha looking tired, Rose with cheeks as red as her hair, and Dezel… Mikleo wasn’t really able to discern Dezel’s expression under all that hair over his face. “That’s what’s going on.”

“Wait, what?” Mikleo asked once he made sense of Rose’s words. “But… it’s doing so well, why—?”

“The live shows are doing well.” Dezel explained. His voice was grave and controlled, which made him sound as if he was grumping slightly. He could have been, for all Mikleo knew. “The University gets a percentage of the money we make with those. But the radio show only gives as much money as we’re willing to pay for the rent of the studio.”

“And those little snakes only care about the money!” Rose bursted out once again, stomping her foot against the ground. The table and the microphones on top of it shook with the force of it. “They not only want us to cancel our radio show, but they want to transform this place into storage for the art building! This is our home!”

“It isn’t.” Dezel argued. “I am angry too, but this place isn’t ours. No matter how many awful posters you hang from the walls.”

“They are artistic, not awful!”

“Whatever.”

While his friends bantered, Sorey had gone back to having his gaze lost, that sad expression taking control of his features. It played with Mikleo’s heartstrings, making his chest feel heavy and painful.

“Isn’t there anything that can be done?” Mikleo asked, eyes on Sorey. “Anyone that can help, somehow?”

“We’ve tried everything we could think of.” Alisha said while shaking her head. “And with Rose picking up fights with the board—“

“That’s hardly my fault!”

Mikleo sighed. This time, it was him who moved his hand so it grazed Sorey’s, and it had the desired effect; a smile pulled at the corners of Sorey’s mouth, his whole face relaxing, and he moved his head to look at Mikleo from the corner of his eye.

“Has this been going on for a while, or…?” Mikleo asked Sorey. He didn’t like the fact that Sorey was so… subdued. The usual ray of sunshine that was Sorey had been hidden behind a cloud of sadness.

“A few months.” Sorey replied with a sigh of his own. “Around the time we came back from tour. They started to raise the rent more and more. We’ve been paying to keep it, but there’s so much we can pay for such a tiny studio like this.”

A beat of silence. Everyone seemed to have their eyes on Sorey, the unusual air of sadness that clung to him making the others in the room gloomy too. That is, until Rose squared her shoulders and walked around the table to stand on Sorey’s other side. She punched his arm in the same way she had punched Dezel’s earlier, and like Dezel, Sorey didn’t even flinch. Maybe Rose’s punches weren’t that hard.

Or maybe they were all just used to them.

“Come on, buddy, cheer up!” Rose grinned, even if it was clear to see she didn’t feel like doing so. “We’ll find a way to keep our baby. So turn that frown upside down before I punch it off your face!”

It took a second, but finally Rose’s words brought Sorey’s smile back. It changed his whole countenance, brightening his features, even making his chin lift up and his shoulders drop down. Even his eyes seemed brighter than before as he regarded his friend.

“Yes, we will!” Sorey said and raised a fist, which Rose gladly bumped with her own.

“In the meantime,” That was Alisha, coming closer to the table. “Mikleo brought breakfast!”

“Really!?” Rose exclaimed, bouncing towards the bag that Alisha was leaving on the table.

Mikleo frowned. “Well, yes, but the coffee must have grown cold by now…”

“Ohmygod, you brought croissants!”

The three of them floated towards the bag, rummaging through it, Dezel letting out an annoyed shout when Rose stole the croissant out of his hand. Mikleo observed them with a smile; at least the food seemed to be cheering them up a bit.

Sorey bumped their shoulders together again, bringing back Mikleo’s attention to him. He seemed less gloomy now, an actual smile playing on his lips instead of that sad pull of of his mouth. Mikleo mirrored it, not even bothering to cover it with his hand.

“Thank you for bringing breakfast!” Sorey said, pointing towards the bag behind Mikleo with his chin. “You just made Rose incredibly happy. The way to her heart is through her stomach, you know.”

“Don’t mention it.” Mikleo replied with a snort. “I brought you coffee too, by the way. Cream and sugar, right?”

Sorey opened his eyes wide in surprise, his eyebrows disappearing underneath his fringe. “How did you know?”

“I remembered from when we grabbed coffee on our way back from the Shrinechurch. It wasn’t hard, considering you made anything possible to stop it from tasting like actual coffee.”

“I like sweet things!”

Next to them, Rose snorted around a croissant. She looked ridiculous with half of it sticking out of her mouth, but her ability to speak despite that was impressive. “We all know how much you love sweet things, Sorey.”

Mikleo didn’t understand why, but Sorey blushed furiously, even though his eyes sent daggers at Rose. “H-hey!”

“Well, she isn’t wrong.” Dezel added, taking a sip from one of the coffee cups.

“Dezeeeeel…”

They all laughed at Sorey’s voice, whiny and hurt like a child’s. He was even pouting lightly, the blush from before adding to his cute expression. But then he broke out into a laugh too, infected by his friends’ laughter, and just like that the atmosphere changed completely, for which Mikleo was incredibly grateful. He liked to see them all happy, and he was very glad Sorey seemed like his usual self already.

“By the way, Sorey—“ Alisha started then, kindly, holding a chocolate donut wrapped in a napkin. “—, weren’t you going to accompany Mikleo somewhere? You guys aren’t late, are you?”

Mikleo jumped a bit. Sorey’s —and everyone’s—sad expressions had made him forget they were going to talk to Michael today… or, at least, Mikleo was. Sorey was just going to take him to Michael’s office.

“Oh, shoot!” Sorey exclaimed, pushing himself off the table. “Sorry, Mikleo, it slipped out of my mind…! Let’s go?”

But Mikleo was already frowning, shaking his head enough for his ponytail to sway behind his back. “It can wait. Don’t you want breakfast?”

“They can save me some for later.” Sorey said, grabbing Mikleo’s sleeve between two fingers and pulling, so Mikleo had no choice but to follow him. “Right, guys?”

Rose waved a doughnut in the air. “I can’t make any promises!”

Sorey rolled his eyes, but continued to drag Mikleo towards the door. “Alisha? Please?”

“On it!” The girl replied, stealing a doughnut before Rose could grab it.

“Thank you!”

Even as Mikleo and Sorey walked down the hallway towards the exist, the sounds of the loud trio still reached them. Dezel seemed to have joined in, loudly complaining about not being able to even have breakfast in peace. Mikleo chuckled, unable to resist.

“What is it?” Sorey asked with a kind smile. The hallway was narrow, so they had to walk close together, their hands brushing between them.

Mikleo didn’t even notice those little touches. He did notice when they weren’t there, when his skin missed the closeness of Sorey’s own. It was strange, but he didn’t dislike it.

“I like your friends.” Mikleo replied, shaking his head a bit. “They’re loud, but the good kind of loud… if that makes sense.”

“It does! It’s impossible to feel lonely with them around.”

Sorey did seem in a better mood now. Still, once they crossed the door and Sorey turned to close it behind them, Mikleo caught a glimpse of that sad expression on Sorey’s features once again when Sorey rested his hand on the faded poster, his smile diminishing until it was barely a curl of the corner of his mouth.

Mikleo said nothing at first, but instead waited patiently for Sorey to say or do something. When he finally did, he did so with an apologetic smile and a soft spark in his eyes.

“I’m going to miss this place.” Sorey said, hand still against the poster. “This is where everything started, after all.”

“How did it all start?” Mikleo put a foot on the first step, and then the other on the step above. The hand Sorey had on the door slipped, and then Sorey was following Mikleo, both of them slowly going up almost side by side again. “Did you just wake up one day and decided you wanted to try this?”

Sorey snorted. “Actually, it was even more sudden than that.”

“Oh?” Mikleo pushed a bit, letting Sorey guide him. It was a nice day out for the first time since Mikleo had arrived to Pendrago; not cold enough to make Mikleo bundle up in as many layers as possible.

“Well… At first the show wasn’t even a show. Rose had wanted to put music on the university’s radio for a while, and she ended up convincing Dezel to help her, so they rented the place at the beginning of our second year here. But with classes and work they couldn’t really use it during the day, so they stuck to broadcasting at night.”

Now that it was a bit later in the day, more people mingled around the campus, chilling on the grass or simply walking. Many raised their hands to wave at Sorey, and Sorey replied in kind, smiling a bit easier now.

“What did they do?” Mikleo asked, efficiently bringing back Sorey’s attention towards him.

“They simply put music; made some commentary. But, uh, Rose’s taste in music is…”

Mikleo winced. “If it’s anything like Alisha’s, I can imagine.”

At that, Sorey bursted out laughing. “You heard it, huh?”

“How could I not? She was blasting that thing when I arrived!”

“She loves it.” Sorey shrugged. “And so does Rose. But, anyway… One day, a few weeks later, I went to spend time with them at the studio, because I hadn’t been able to see them all day. But when I got there Rose was sick in the bathroom from something she had eaten and Dezel was keeping an eye on her, so he couldn’t really keep the show running. The moment I stepped into the room Dezel started shouting at me to do something, anything!

“I remember I told him ‘I don’t even know how the equipment works!’ but he didn’t care. I think that night was the time I saw Dezel the most… distressed. But he said if they didn’t do something during their time, the University could take the studio from them so…”

They had arrived to the main building. Sorey held the door open for Mikleo, cutting his story off for a moment, and then Mikleo opened the second set of doors for Sorey, winning a smile from the boy.

“So I just sat down in a chair,” Sorey continued then with a shrug. “Turned a microphone on, and started talking. I didn't even know if someone was listening, but I started to tell the empty room about my day. That day had been rough so I skimmed over that and tried to concentrate on the good things that had happened. And then I started to think out loud; I talked about how I should only concentrate on the good, tiny things that happened everyday, on making those things happen if they didn’t come to me naturally. I just talked and talked and talked… Until Dezel kicked me out.”

“What happened next?” Mikleo prompted.

In that moment, they were going up a set stairs, Sorey slightly ahead of Mikleo, so Mikleo could see perfectly the smile that hadn’t abandoned Sorey since he had started to tell his story get bigger, his shoulders squared with pride and a little bit of embarrassment dyeing his cheeks red.

“The next day, people started calling asking where I was.” Sorey admitted, scratching his cheek with his index finger. “It wasn’t too many, of course, but they where enough that I thought Rose would get mad at me.

“Instead, she added my name to the lease and created ‘Let the bells chime’, only because we needed a name and she had been in Lastonbell recently. I simply continued speaking as I did the first day, and people soon started calling to speak with me. That’s when I started to read books on the whole subject, documenting beyond what I could do for myself. Then it continued to grow and grow until… Well, until what it is now. I’m actually very proud of it, of what it’s become, if I may say so myself.”

Mikleo smiled at him, brushing with his fingers Sorey’s shoulder. “You should be. You’ve helped a lot of people with this.”

Sorey returned the smile. “I hope so.”

“Is there really nothing that can be done? Someone we can talk to?”

“We’ve tried already.” The movement of Sorey’s head made his feather earrings brush against his cheeks, clinking softly. “But they seem to be set in taking it from us.”

That affirmation made Mikleo’s heart hurt. He had spent so many hours listening to Sorey’s live broadcast, and twice as many listening to his podcasts… He couldn't believe there might come a time, after so many months, when he would turn on the radio at night and Sorey’s voice wouldn’t be there.

It actually made him so sad…

“I don’t want it to disappear.” Mikleo muttered, not even realizing he was speaking out loud until Sorey stopped to look at him in the middle of the hallway. Mikleo stopped with him too.

“Huh? You listen to it, Mikleo?”

Mikleo realized his mistake almost immediately. He had never told Sorey he had been a fan for longer than they had known each other, had he? He felt his cheeks heat up as he looked away, hand raising to cover his mouth behind his palm.

“Well, I mean…” Mikleo scrambled to gather his thoughts into coherent sentences, but he didn’t have much success. “It’s how I found you. I wouldn’t have known who you were that day in the auditorium in Ladylake if it wasn’t for it, so… It’s important to me too, because of that.”

Silence met Mikleo’s words. It stretched for such a long time that Mikleo, still blushing from being caught, turned to look at Sorey curiously.

The sight that awaited him left him breathless.

Sorey was gleaming. His smile had evolved into a full grin, all white teeth and charm. He was blushing even more than Mikleo, down to the place where his neck met his shirt, and his eyes were shining so bright Mikleo felt pinned to the spot, unable to look away from Sorey as heat crawled under his skin.

And then, Mikleo realized what he had said.

“I—I mean—!” Words wouldn’t come to him fast enough. His mouth opened and closed like a fish as his mushy brain tried to figure out what so say. “I mean, I—“

“It makes me very happy—“ Sorey spoke over Mikleo’s stammering, words rushed, as if he too was having trouble connecting his brain to his mouth. “—that you found me that day, Mikleo.” And then, after a pause. “Very, very happy.”

The hallway was completely deserted, but Mikleo would have given anything for something or someone to cut the tension between them. It felt like a pull, like a hook caught under his ribs that drew him towards Sorey, making it hard to breathe, to think. It wasn’t the first time he had ever felt like that with Sorey, but the intensity that time was…

Mikleo wondered if Sorey was feeling the same pull. Wondered how he’d react if he gave in to it.

I can’t do that. Mikleo thought, the erratic beating of his heart almost choking him. If I step too close, I might never move back.

In the end, it was Sorey himself who broke the tension by clearing his throat, looking away and liberating Mikleo of the spell that were his eyes. Sorey scratched at the back of his neck as Mikleo gave one step back, looking down at the laces of his shoes.

“Anyway, uh,” Sorey started, hand still against his own nape. “We’re here, I guess?”

“What?”

Sorey looked at him with a tiny, teasing smirk. “Professor Mioma’s office? We’re here, Mikleo.”

They were, indeed. Sorey had made them stop in the middle of the hallway, in front of a door with a tiny golden plaque on it. The name of Mikleo’s uncle was engraved on it with standard lettering, but even despite their anodyne look they managed to make Mikleo’s heart skip a beat. He was here. He was about to speak to his uncle.

Mikleo felt all the blood drain from his face.

“You’re gonna be fine, Mikleo.” Sorey said, stepping closer. “Professor Michael isn’t… well.”

“You can say it. It’s okay.”

“He’s not a bad person.” Sorey finished, hand moving to rest on Mikleo’s shoulder. “You’re gonna be fine.”

A weak smile pulled at Mikleo’s lips. It was so easy to believe that when Sorey said it like that…

“Do you want me to go in with you?” Asked Sorey with a frown.

Mikleo shook his head. “I have to do this on my own. Thank you, though.”

Sorey squeezed Mikleo’s shoulder once, and then let his hand slip away. “Good luck,” he added, stepping away.

Without taking his eyes away from the door, Mikleo nodded. He could feel his heart hammering against his ribs.

By the time he mustered the courage to raise a shaky fist and knock on the door, Sorey was already gone.

“Come in!” A voice said from the other side, too muffled by the wood of the door to have an impact on Mikleo. Still, the order made him jump slightly on his spot, and he had to force himself to grab the doorknob after a slight hesitation.

You’re acting like a baby. Mikleo told himself. Get a grip!

The interior of the office was warm, cozy, but a total mess. Books and papers lined the walls, almost falling from their shelves, drawings and diagrams welcoming Mikleo like old friends. Even the desk that took more than half of the space was covered in papers and small trinkets, no doubt brought from his travels. And, on top of it all, as if there couldn’t be another place for it, was the Celestial Record, a very loved copy with multiple bookmarks and bright post-it notes sticking out of it.

It looked so much like Mikleo’s own that he felt his breath hitch.

Michael was standing behind the desk, his back towards Mikleo, reading a book by the light that came through the window. He was flipping through the pages rapidly, as if he was looking for something, shaking his head in what seemed to be annoyance.

“Please, sit down.” Michael said without looking up, but angling his body towards the door. “I’ll be with you in a—“

“Uncle Michael.”

Both of them froze. Mikleo hadn’t intended to call him that; it had simply slipped out of him, as if he had never stopped calling him that. And honestly, he hadn’t. He had always been ‘Michael’ when Mikleo talked about him out loud, but in his mind he had always been ‘uncle Michael’.

Probably that was why it hurt so much; Mikleo had never stopped thinking of him as his uncle.

Michael’s head snapped up, book suddenly forgotten. His hair, that had been falling over his features, concealing them, parted to reveal violet eyes, aged around the edges and widen by surprise but— they were Muse’s eyes.

They were Mikleo’s eyes.

Mikleo’s uncle had changed. But, then again, it had been a long time since Mikleo last saw him. He was skinnier than Mikleo remembered, with bony hands and bony cheekbones. Faint expression lines showed his age, and Mikleo even spotted a few gray hairs amidst the thick brown hair that didn’t go past his shoulders. But the rest of him was the same: the same fine, upturned nose Mikleo saw every time he looked into a mirror, the same barely there dimple in his right cheek that Mikleo knew became deeper when he smiled. He even dressed the same as before —comfy, good-to-move-around clothes despite being now a professor and not longer an adventurer.

And when he spoke, Mikleo heard the same tone he had noticed while talking to Michael on the phone; as if he couldn't believe he was actually talking to his nephew.

Michael’s mouth parted, letting out a soft whisper. “Mikleo…”

“…Hello.”

Michael blinked at him, frozen, his long lashes casting shadows over his eyes. But then he spurred into movement, letting the book fall on the stool by the window, and it was turn for Mikleo to blink at him, surprised.

“I’m, uh, oh geez—“ Michael started to tidy up the desk quickly, pushing the papers out of the way without even pretending to read them first. “Sorry about the mess, if I had known—“

“I should have called ahead, I’m sorry—“

“No, no!” Michael interrupted, finally looking up. His hands were frozen over a messy pile of documents, and an open book turned upside-down. He looked frantic for a moment—and then relaxed, his eyes going soft as his shoulders dropped. “It’s okay. Please, sit down?”

Mikleo squared his jaw and sat down in the chair in front of the desk that Michael pointed at. And, meanwhile, Michael observed him like someone would a wild deer: expecting it to jump away at any second, but not wanting it to.

It wasn’t until Mikleo had sat down that Michael sat on his own chair, at the other side of the desk. The wood separating them was comforting, somehow. Mikleo didn't know what he would have done if Michael had sat in the chair beside him. Maybe that was why he had sat there, Mikleo thought. Muse had always said Mikleo shared many traits with his uncle, after all.

Michael cleared his throat, making Mikleo’s gaze move back to him. Mikleo had been regarding the things on the table, the drawings and photographs. In any other circumstance, he would have been over them with excitement. Instead, he forced his hands to lay still on his own lap and meet his uncle’s eyes.

“You’ve… grown up so much.” Michael almost muttered, resting his hands on the desk. Something in his finger blinked golden under the light— his ring with the shepherd symbol on it.

So he still wears it…

“It has been a long time.” Mikleo replied, leaning back a bit.

At that, the corners of Michael’s mouth turned apologetic, a sigh escaping from it. “You’re right. It has been. You look so much like your father now…”

“Really?” That surprised Mikleo greatly. He was used to people telling him he looked like his mother. It was expected to, with his soft features and his striking eyes, the same color as his mother’s. No one had ever told him he looked like his father, though.

“Of course.” Michael replied, hiding his smile behind his hand for a second. “Same hands, same incredible hair. Your mother used to say he would hide things in his hair and then forget about them being there for hours.”

“Oh.” Mikleo blushed, touching the ends of his ponytail. He himself had had trouble with missing pens that somehow appeared tangled in his hair hours later.

“But most of all,” Michael continued. “It’s the way both of you go through things you don’t want to face… With a set jaw, and eyes hard with determination.”

Immediately, Mikleo forced himself to relax his jaw. A dull pain raised from the joint into his skull, but he ignored it in favor of returning Michael’s small smile with a frown.

“I…”

“I get it, Mikleo.” Michael continued when Mikleo failed to do so. “Honestly, after our call… I really wasn’t expecting you to come see me.”

This time, it was Mikleo who sighed, letting his eyes fall to the table between them. “You… surprised me. You shouldn’t even have had my number in the first place, so I think it was justified.”

Michael nodded, his brown hair covering his features for a second with the movement. “You are completely right. I shouldn’t have called you so suddenly.”

“But,” Mikleo kept going, returning his gaze to Michael. “I talked to Lailah. I talked to… a friend. And it made me realize that I actually wanted to know why. Why you left, why you—never came back, I guess.”

Any pretense of calmness evaporated from Michael’s features. He flinched, his eyes going misty with memories and what seemed like regret, his hands curled over the table so tightly that his knuckles went white. And all of this happened with barely a sharp inhale, the only sign Mikleo received of Michael not shutting himself down, but preparing to speak.

“I…” Michael started to say, not meeting Mikleo’s eyes for the first time since he had stepped into the room. “I’ve thought for years about what I would say to you, if I ever had the chance to. This hasn’t been something impulsive, Mikleo; I’ve actually wanted to apologize to you for a very long time.”

Mikleo shrugged, crossing his arms over his chest. “Why now then? Or, why lately? Lailah told me you asked her to meet me a while ago.”

“…At first, I was scared. Scared of facing you. And with time, I realized… That you must have been much more scared than I could ever be. Without your father, without your mother… So I called Lailah first, for she deserved an apology as well. The thing with Lailah is that she’s too forgiving. She shouldn’t have taken me back, but she did, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

“But she didn’t let me see you yet. She knew it was a bad idea, that you were still too young to understand. And you were, so I decided to wait. I went out on some expeditions, but in the end I just wanted to go back to the family I had left behind. I was tired, exhausted, of not having a home. So I came back to Pendrago, got a job at the University and… I guess you can imagine the rest.”

The room was warm, but Mikleo’s hands felt very cold. His heart was pounding too, resounding in his ears like an accompaniment to Michael’s words. Still, he nodded, trying to digest and answer in kind to what Michael was telling him.

“I am older now.” Mikleo said in the end, swallowing. His mouth felt like sandpaper. “Explain it to me.”

It took Michael a moment, but when he finally started explaining he did so without looking away from Mikleo, emotions bare and hands flat on the desk. “I know everything I’m going to tell you sounds like excuses, but it is the truth. I loved your mother, I loved you, Mikleo, and I made all the wrong choices.

“But the thing is, I was young. So, so young. Your mother, she was always mature for her age, much more than I was. And while she found herself pregnant and recently widowed, she never had fear. She knew she would have you, that she would love you, and that she would get over it. She was eighteen when she had you.

“At eighteen, I was discovering the world. I only had a bag, a few tools and the Celestial Record with me, and I didn’t need anything else. I was finally away from the sister that had become my mother a long time ago. Away from the sister that was binding herself for life when she had barely started living. I was drunk on the feeling of freedom.

“But what I failed to realize was that every time I went back home it was when I felt the happiest. When I got to kiss my sisters’ cheeks, or when I got to hold or play or read with you, those were my happiest moments. However, I was too young to realize it, and I kept leaving time and again, wondering why it was so hard each time.

“And then your mom got sick. I was very far away when Lailah called me. For a second I thought about coming back, helping you all—but then I thought that she would surely get better soon, it wasn’t necessary for me to go back. So I stayed, and continued traveling. And I kept telling myself the same, even though Lailah begged me to come and say goodbye, even though I knew— I was too scared, Mikleo. Scared of going back to discover things weren’t like they had always been anymore, to discover that time didn’t stop each time I left.

“Muse died without me saying goodbye to her. That’s something I will never forgive myself for, and that will burden me until I join her wherever souls go after death. But even back then, I was so ashamed. I had failed my sisters, both of them— and I was about to fail you. I didn’t dare to go back. I hadn’t been able to face my sister dying… And I wasn't going to be able to face her son.

“When I refused your custody, I convinced myself it was for the best. That raising a child while traveling the world wasn’t a good idea; that you needed a home, parents. I couldn’t be that for you.” Michael shook his head and looked down for the first time since he had spoken. “I didn’t even stop to think that I could stop traveling. That only comes to show how unprepared I was to take care of you.

“But,” Michael continued, looking up one last time. “Now things are different. And… I want to be part of your family again. I’m very, very sorry for everything I’ve done, and I want to make things better. I want to be the uncle I should have been from the beginning… If it’s okay with you.”

Michael let a long exhale out through his mouth, and leant back on his chair. He was tired, Mikleo thought, but he also looked more relaxed now, as if telling Mikleo everything had been like lifting a weight off his shoulders.

Sadly, that weight was on Mikleo’s chest now, making it almost impossible to breathe.

“I…” Mikleo started, clenching and unclenching his hands. “I need a moment.”

In the blink of an eye Mikleo stood up, turning his back on Michael and walking to the door of the office. But he didn't leave the room. He just needed some space. It was too much to absorb, too much to think about. Michael’s words swam inside Mikleo’s mind like rogue fishes, too slippery to get a hold of them. But he still stayed in the room, not wanting to leave.

If he had been facing his uncle, Mikleo would have seen the sad smile on Michael’s face.

“Of course.” Michael said, still from behind his desk.

Mikleo breathed in. Breathed out. It wasn’t helping much, but at least the illusion of his chest being constricted was disappearing.

In that moment, something caught Mikleo’s attention from the corner of his eye. It was among other books in the shelf, blue and so familiar that when Mikleo turned around to look at it his shoulders dropped. He smiled softly, running his fingers over the blue spine of his book, feeling the golden letters under his fingertips.

“Lailah said you read my book.” Mikleo found himself saying, gaze lost on the shelf.

A sound from the other side of the room let Mikleo know his uncle was moving closer, slow, letting himself be heard. When they stood next to one another, Mikleo realized they were the same height. “I did.” Michael replied, stopping next to Mikleo to pull out the book from the shelf.

Mikleo stared at it. It was his book, yes, but hundreds —thousands— of sticky notes stuck out from it, almost as much as Michael’s Celestial Record had. And, when Michael held it by the spine in his hand the book opened and stayed like that, in that way very well loved books do when they have been read many, many times and the pages have gotten used to being open. Mikleo stared at the blue scribbles next to the printed lines, his uncle’s messy handwriting mingling with the black of the ink.

“It’s incredible.” Michael said with a grin, shaking his head. “I was… so, so amazed by it, Mikleo. It’s honestly good, and I’m not saying it because you wrote it. Had it been by any other person, I would have booked a flight and gone to scream at them about it.”

Mikleo couldn’t help smiling at that, but Michael was speaking again before he could say anything else. “Would you sign it for me?”

“W—what?!”

With barely two strides, Michael went to his desk, grabbed a pen, and came back to Mikleo’s side. He held both the pen and the book to Mikleo, who kept looking at him as if he had just sprouted a second head. Michael smiled a little mirthfully at his nephew’s embarrassment. “Please?”

Gingerly, Mikleo took the book with his right hand and the pen with the left, opening the cover with shaky fingers. The first page —the page with the title— was completely unwritten except for the top right of the page, where Michael had written ‘Pendrago’, and the year they were in. The place and the year he had bought his book in.

Mikleo’s heart skipped a beat. He did the same thing with all his books since he could remember.

Mikleo only hesitated for a second. Then, he quickly wrote down a few lines, making sure his uncle could read them before closing the cover and passing it back to him:

To Uncle Michael:

 

Let this be a new start.

 

—Mikleo.

 

He had thought of signing as ‘Luzrov Rulay’, but when he saw the smile in his uncle’s face, he knew he had done the right thing by signing as ‘Mikleo’.

“I still need… a bit of time.” Mikleo said with a sigh. “To… mull over everything you said, see how I feel about it. But, um. I want to get to know you again. I do understand what it is to be scared, so…”

“I…” Michael seemed a bit choked up. Maybe they both needed a moment to breathe. “Thank you, Mikleo. Nothing would make me happier. I know you’re leaving soon but… Maybe we could set up a day to talk about your book?”

“…What do you mean, ‘leaving soon’?”

Michael blinked at Mikleo, surprised. “You’re only staying in Pendrago for two weeks, right? And you’ve been here for what, a week and a half already? Aren’t you going back to Ladylike soon?”

Mikleo felt a cold sweat ran down his spine, all the blood leaving his face. A week and a half… Could it be? Had he consumed almost all of his time in Pendrago already? Mikleo’s heart squeezed itself painfully in his chest at the thought of a certain pair of green eyes and luminous smile.

I don’t…

“Mikleo, are you okay?” Michael asked, resting a hand on Mikleo’s arm. “You look awfully pale.”

“I’m—yes. I’m fine.” Mikleo shook his head, pushing away those thoughts. Now it wasn’t the time. “I’d… like that, yes. We can talk more another day.”

Letting go of Mikleo’s arm, Michael smiled once again. “Good.”

“I should… probably go now.” Mikleo added. He really needed some fresh air now. “I have work to do.”

“Of course.” Michael nodded, and opened the door of the office. Mikleo was suddenly grateful for the cold breeze from the hallway that hit his cheeks. “Thank you for coming, Mikleo. And thank you for listening, as well.”

“…Thank you too, Uncle Michael.”

“Oh, and, if there’s anything you need, please don’t hesitate to call me, alright?” said Michael. “You have my number…?”

“I do.” Mikleo admitted. “It’s okay, I don’t—“ And then he stopped abruptly, a new idea blooming in his mind. “Actually, there’s something I would like to ask of you. A favor, if it’s okay.”

Michael smiled. When he did, Mikleo was starting to realize, he looked a lot like Muse. “Consider it done.”

 


 

There was something very satisfying about throwing yourself face first onto a bed after a very long day.

Mikleo discovered that the moment he returned to his hotel, long after the sun had hid beyond the horizon and the stars had covered the night sky. He had gone on a walk after his talk with Michael, to try to clear his head. And even if he hadn’t managed to unknot all of his thoughts, he at least knew where he stood now.

It was early to forgive Michael. He hadn’t lied when he had said he understood what Michael felt, but he couldn’t pretend it hadn’t been ten years of radio-silence and abandonment either. Still, he wouldn’t push his uncle away. Quite the contrary, Mikleo wanted to work through this, with him.

They would fix the mess that was their family. Mikleo just wished he was making the right choice by letting Michael back into his life.

Only time would tell.

A buzz next to his head made Mikleo jump, raising his head enough for a single eye to peek from the fluff that was his hair. Through his bleary vision, Mikleo saw his phone light up, but he ignored it with a groan.

He was too tired. It had been a mistake to go back to work on his book after the talk with Michael and his walk, but he had had no other choice. He hadn’t realized his two weeks were almost up, hadn’t even been thinking about it. And even if it wasn’t as if he was too behind in his planning, he still had to get the most out of those documents during the time he had.

But… He would be lying if he said his mind hadn’t been floating around, his heart jumping every time he remembered how much time exactly he had left in Pendrago. Four days. Four days left in this amazing city; four days of seeing Zaveid and the others.

Four days of Sorey.

Mikleo buried his face even deeper in the covers and groaned loudly once more.

And that was the moment his phone decided to buzz again, mingling with Mikleo’s groan almost perfectly. Mikleo slammed his hand on the phone in annoyance, pushing it against the mattress for a long moment before he turned on his back, and raised his phone over his face to look at it.

He had two notifications, but he only concentrated on the first one: a text message from Edna, short and to the point. Mikleo rolled his eyes as he opened his chat room with her.

Edna : Wednesday night. 7:00pm. Our apartment. Don’t be late.

Mikleo : Wait, what? What are you talking about?

Edna : Wednesday. 7pm. Do not be late.

Mikleo : What for?

Edna : Why do you care? It’s not like you have other plans, do you?

Mikleo : Edna, you know the less helpful you are the more you’re going to have to text me, right?

Edna : We were wondering if you would want to meet us on Wednesday to go watch the fireworks together. It is kind of a tradition by now, and we want you to see it as well.

Mikleo looked over his phone at the ceiling. Considering how little time he had in Pendrago, he should probably stay extra hours and work with the documents. However…

Mikleo : Sure. Thanks, Eizen.

Edna : Good. Bring a jacket, it’ll be cold outdoors.

Mikleo : I will. You can give Edna her phone back now.

Mikleo kind of expected an annoyed text from Edna (actually Edna this time), but he got none. Instead, he realized he still had one unread message waiting for him, and Mikleo’s heart jumped when he realized it was a text from Sorey.

Sorey : Hey, Mikleo! I hope your talk with Professor Michael went alright… I was wondering if you’d like to come with us tomorrow to watch the fireworks! It’s a tradition that dates from the era of Maotelus! It started as a way of praise, sending lights to the sky that resembled the seraphic artes — Okay, Rose is saying I’m getting out of hand. But if you come I can tell you about it on Wednesday! Let me know! ☀️

Another groan escaped from Mikleo’s mouth. If only he had read Sorey’s text first, he would have been able to show Edna he could have plans of his own. Mikleo turned to his side though, a slow smile stretching over his lips as he quickly typed a reply to Sorey.

Mikleo : I’m sorry, but my family just invited me to this same thing. Maybe we can meet there, though? I really want to know the origins of this tradition.

Mikleo : Also, my talk with Michael went well, I think. Thank you.

Despite Sorey having sent his message almost twenty minutes ago, his reply to Mikleo came instantly, the tiny bubble with the three dots indicating that Sorey was writing appearing almost as soon as Mikleo hit send.

Sorey : Sure! I’ll text you when we get there :D And I’m very glad to hear that!

Mikleo : See you Wednesday then, Sorey.

Sorey : Wait, what! We’re not having lunch together tomorrow? D:

Mikleo : I have to work, I’ve been slacking off lately…

Sorey : But you still have to eat! Come on, Mikleoooo

Mikleo : …Alright. See you at lunch, Sorey.

Sorey : Yes! See you tomorrow, Mikleo! ☀️

 


 

On Wednesday, Mikleo found himself riding on the back of Eizen’s car and trying not to fall asleep.

Tuesday had been rough. Except for the short time he had allowed himself to have lunch with Sorey, Mikleo had been locked into that tiny room in the library that had become his own study room away from home, phone turned off and attention set in all the papers around the desk. Since realizing he only had four days left in Pendrago —three, actually, now that Wednesday was almost over —it felt as if the days didn’t have enough hours to work. And it wasn’t like he could work on the day he was leaving, either. His train was leaving on Saturday morning so, in reality, he only had two more days of access to the documents before having to go back home.

And he still hadn’t told Sorey.

It wasn't like Sorey didn’t know. Mikleo just got the sliiiight impression that Sorey didn’t remember. It was clear, by the things he said, the way he spoke, that Sorey hadn’t thought about the fact that Mikleo would leave sooner or later.

Mikleo had tried to tell him, the day after, during their lunch together. But for some reason, Mikleo had been unable to, every time he opened his mouth to say ‘I’m going back home on Saturday’. He was either shut up by one of Sorey’s smiles or by his own brain, whispering to him that he didn’t have to bring it up now, that it could wait.

I’ll tell him tonight. Mikleo thought.

But, if he was so sure about doing it, why did it hurt to even think about it?

A sharp jab to his side make Mikleo open his eyes. He had been resting his head on the glass, letting it chill the feverish skin of his cheek, so he had to turn around to face the offending little demon that was currently poking her umbrella right between his ribs.

“Would you stop that?” Mikleo grunted, trying —and failing— to catch the tip of the umbrella in his hand before Edna moved it back.

“Only if you stop looking so mopey. Mopeleo.”

“I’m not mopey. I’m just tired.”

“Tired people don’t sigh every fifteen seconds, Mikky-boy.” Zaveid injected from the front, twisting around so he could meet Mikleo’s eyes. “And yes, we’ve counted them.”

“I’m fine.” Mikleo snapped; and, when he realized that he was, in fact, snapping at them, he said. “Sorry. I’m going back home soon so I’ve been working extra time.”

“You need more time?” Eizen asked, not taking his eyes off the road.

Mikleo thought: Yes.

But instead, he said: “No, no. Either way, it was hard already to get two weeks, there’s no way they’d let me stay more.”

They said little more after that. But that was okay, since they soon arrived to their destination. The Meadow of Triumph was a vast extension of green grass, freshly mowed and clean. Garlands of paper lanterns illuminated the place with their soft yellow light, going from post to post and swaying gently in the breeze. As Eizen drove the car to an empty spot in the parking lot, Mikleo saw groups of people sitting on blankets on the grass, eating and drinking and having fun. And then, in the distance…

“The Leaning Towers!” Mikleo screamed, face pressed against the car window. His eyes jumped from tower to tower, inspecting them as much as he could from the distance and with little to no light. “Oh, Lord, they are the same—“

“Look at him,” Edna started, annoyance and fondness present in her voice. “He’s like an excited puppy.”

“They appear in the Celestial Record! They—!”

“Booooooring~”

Mikleo rolled his eyes. Eizen was already pulling up into a spot, but Mikleo still pulled out his phone, quickly unblocking it and typing out a text.

Mikleo: Please tell me you’re already here.

Sorey: Yes! Are you? Wait, are you okay?

Mikleo: Sorey. The. Leaning. Towers.

Sorey: !!!!! I KNOW RIGHT.

“Come on, Meebo.” Edna said, getting out of the car. Mikleo quickly followed, throwing an apologetic glance towards Eizen, who simply smiled and shook his head.

Zaveid had pulled out the things from the truck already by the time Edna turned around and walked towards the meadow. There was a manmade path that winded over the grass and down a gentle slope. People sat around chatting softly, their voices adding to the tranquil atmosphere of the place. But Mikleo was buzzing as he walked alongside his family, his eyes searching for and staying on the towers.

He wondered if the people sitting at their bases knew what they were resting their backs on, if they knew how much history those constructions carried in their (hollow? who knew?) interiors. Mikleo’s fingers itched to write in that moment, to type out everything he knew about the Leaning Towers and—

The sound of his text alert brought him back to the present moment. He quickly pulled his phone out, already knowing who it was before turning the screen on.

Sorey : Want to meet already? I can go get you whenever you want!

Mikleo looked up. They had stopped in an empty spot in the middle of the field, away from the towers; Zaveid was putting down a blanket over the grass, Eizen was serving hot chocolate from a thermos in plastic cups, and Edna —tightly bundled up in a thick yellow coat, scarf and gloves, laid down on the blanket the moment it was spread, looking up at the stars. Mikleo thought that he should stay with his family. He would miss them fiercely once he was back in Ladylike, so he should spend as much time with them as possible…

“Go.” Eizen said, not looking up from the thermos.

Mikleo blinked at him, griping his phone in his hand. “But…”

“You’ll just sit here giving heart eyes at the towers, otherwise.” A smirk was pulling at Eizen’s lips by then, and when his blue eyes looked up to stare at Mikleo, his smirk became even bigger. “It’s okay. Go.”

“Zaveid?” Mikleo turned his head as he asked, looking at Zaveid, who game him a thumbs up and wiggled his eyebrows.

“Go get ‘em, tiger.”

“Edna?”

Edna didn’t reply. She simply shrugged, eyes on the stars above, clearly unimpressed. Mikleo rolled his eyes at her, but made sure to mess her hair with his hand before moving away.

“I’ll see you all later!” Mikleo said, just as Edna shouted:

“Get lost, Meebo!”

But Mikleo was already walking away, looking down at his phone and replying to Sorey’s text.

Mikleo : Alright. I’m… near a cotton candy stand. You?

Sorey : Ah! I’ll meet you there!

Mikleo set towards the stand, the smell of sugar and caramel guiding his steps. It was a nice night out, even if he still thought it was a bit too cold. But the stars were bright above his head, and the lanterns gave the place a cosy feeling that had Mikleo looking around instead of burrowing himself in his coat.

That didn’t prevent him from keeping his hands on his pockets, though.

Maybe that was why, a little while after he reached the stand, he almost fell on his butt when a warm body collided against his, arms tight around his waist and cold nose brushing against his neck. Mikleo screamed, holding tight to that body as he felt the ground shift underneath his feet.

“Sorey!” Mikleo shouted, clinging with his nails to Sorey’s coat. Mikleo was leaning back as if he had been tipped in a dance, one foot raised in the air, and only Sorey’s arms preventing him from falling all the way down. He blushed furiously, feeling Sorey nuzzle against his cheek. “S—Sorey, what—?”

“It was you, wasn’t it?” Sorey leaned back, helping Mikleo stand straight but never taking his arms from around him. He squeezed Mikleo a little bit tighter, pressing him at the same time against his chest. “I know it was!”

Mikleo’s fingers released their hold on the fabric of Sorey’s coat as he frowned, but he was too surprised to move his hands from Sorey’s shoulders. “What are you talking about?”

“Professor Michael! You asked him to step in for us about the studio, didn’t you?” was Sorey’s answer, delivered with a grin. His eyes sparkled, but the light in them had nothing to do with the lanterns that floated overhead.

Stammering, Mikleo gave one step back, which Sorey allowed. His arms moved away from around Mikleo, but his hands quickly found the other boy’s, holding tightly and warming Mikleo’s naturally cold skin.

“D-Did he tell you?”

“There was no need.” Sorey’s grin grew even bigger. “We got a notification from the board that we were allowed to stay in the studio as long as we paid the rent. And I was so baffled, because just the day before they were threatening with kicking us out within the week! So I went to talk to the dean and she said Professor Michael had offered one of the unused rooms in the History department in exchange of the studio and—! I just…! The moment she mentioned Professor Michael I knew you had something to do with it, Mikleo!”

Before Mikleo could say anything to that, Sorey was using the grip he had on his hands to pull him closer once again, hugging him tight around the shoulders and against his chest, mouth pressed against Mikleo’s shoulder. Mikleo froze, feeling his skin heat up and blood pool in his cheeks.

“Thank you.” Sorey muttered against Mikleo’s shoulder, cheek pressed against the side of Mikleo’s neck. He could feel Sorey’s breath in the exposed skin there. “Thank you so much, Mikleo, I…”

As Sorey’s voice died down, Mikleo started to relax. His arms rose to wrap themselves around Sorey’s middle, and he hid his own small smile by returning the hug. He rubbed Sorey’s back through his thick coat with a hand, still smiling.

“I did say it was important to me too, didn’t I?” Mikleo said with a shrug.

Sorey leaned a bit back, enough to look at Mikleo in the eyes. “Yes, but— Knowing everything, knowing… It means so much to me. So thank—!”

“No need to thank me.” Mikleo said, severe, even if he was smiling a bit. “Seriously. I’m glad it worked out, somehow.”

Sorey grinned, and he looked about to add something else— but he was cut off by the impressive sound of what seemed to be drums, beatings of a heart that ran through the meadow in waves. Mikleo blinked, still in the circle of Sorey’s arms, looking around to try to find the source of the noise.

“What’s that?” He asked.

“It’s starting soon!” Sorey’s arms finally released Mikleo, but Sorey didn’t step too far away. He did, however, bend to retrieve something that had fallen to the floor, probably when he had tackled Mikleo into a hug: a pair of blankets, not-so-neatly folded into squares. Sorey patted them a bit to get rid of any dirt or dust that they might have, and held them with one arm against his chest. “Come on, Mikleo!”

Together, they started walking up the slope, towards one of the far-off towers. They were getting a bit away from the rest of the people, but Sorey assured him they would have no problem to watch the fireworks from there. And he was right; there was a beautiful view from up there, the dark, star-lit sky a black veil that fell over the people in the meadow.

They had the base of the tower all for them. No one seemed to want to be that far away from the parking lot, so the small groups tended to stick together in the prairie, in the open space between towers. But Sorey had lead them directly to one of them so Mikleo could inspect them and, later on, lean their backs against them.

The sound of the drums still reached them; the sound like the thump of a heart pumping blood excitedly now.

“Do you know what it’s made of?” Mikleo asked Sorey, hand resting against the tower. It felt cool to the touch, and smooth. “There was nothing about that in the Celestial Record.”

“There is no consensus about it.” Sorey replied, shaking his head. “The only way to know for sure would be to crack one of them open, but Pendrago’s Historical Association is divided between those who want to know and those who are enraged by the idea of tearing down and destroying one of these, so we’re just waiting until one of them falls down on its own. They’ve been like this for a couple hundred of years, though.”

“And hopefully they’ll stay like that.” Mikleo said. He knocked on the tower with his knuckles softly, trying to discern if it was hollow; it didn’t seem to be. “But seriously, what kind of material would make them stay in this shape for so long?”

Sorey grinned, leaning his shoulder on the tower and crossing his arms over his chest. “I like the idea that they were built using seraphic artes. The materials are nothing special, but with the help of seraphim…”

Mikleo put a hand on his chin as he thought, opening his eyes big. “If that were true, these towers would date all the way back to the Era of the Gods!”

“I know right! They are so big, and they’ve gone through all kinds of weather, and wars, and everything…”

“Incredible…” Mikleo whispered, letting his palm move over the surface of the tower. “But with what purpose? Why would seraphim built something like this?”

Sorey made a sound with the back of his throat, as if he was making an effort, and when Mikleo turned to look at him he found him extending one of the blankets on the grass, the edge of it touching the base of the tower. “I wish I knew! My best guess is some kind of grave, but…”

“If they really were built with seraphic artes, maybe they were some time of mechanism that worked with them?”

“Yeah! But—“ Again, the sound of the drums picking up their rhythm cut off Sorey’s words. He turned his head to look at some point beyond the prairie, and then turned again to smile at Mikleo, excitement dancing in his eyes. “Let’s sit down, the fireworks are about to start! We’ll continue this conversation later, though.”

Mikleo smiled, lowering himself onto the blanket Sorey had spread. “Of course.”

“Oh, ah…” Sorey winced, apologetic. He picked up the extra blanket as he sat down next to Mikleo, leaving a bit of space between them. “Sorry I didn’t bring any food. Rose made me leave it all with them in exchange of the extra blanket. And—“ He extended said extra blanket towards Mikleo then, a winning smile brightening the darkness around them. “—I know you get cold easily, so I thought this would be better!”

Mikleo took it, feeling touched. “Thank you.” He said as he put it over his shoulders; it was big and soft. “Will you be okay, though? The night is pretty chilly.”

“Sure!” Sorey replied, but still he shivered lightly with the next breeze. Sorey froze when he realized Mikleo had seen him, and blushed when Mikleo gave him a raised eyebrow. “I’m fine, seriously!”

Mikleo raised an arm in Sorey’s direction, still holding one end of the blanket. “Come on.”

“Mikleo, I’m fineeeeee…”

“You’re gonna get sick and then I’ll have to go make you soup because you’re a disaster in the kitchen and I’ll feel responsible. So come here.”

“Mm, that doesn’t sound so bad…” Sorey started, but the moment he noticed Mikleo’s glare he laughed, throwing his palms up in surrender. “Okay, okay! Geez. And for the record, I’m not that much of a disaster in the kitchen!”

“Sure you’re not.”

Slowly, Sorey moved over the blanket until his left side was pressed against Mikleo’s right, from arm to hip to knee. They both had their legs spread in front of them, and when Mikleo let the blanket fall over Sorey’s shoulder they both leaned back against the tower, its tilted angle making them look up towards the sky instead of forward. Sorey sighed and slid a bit downwards, so his shoulder was aligned to Mikleo’s.

Mikleo let his weight rest on Sorey’s body, not thinking too much about it.

“You didn’t tell me the tradition behind the fireworks in the end.”

“Oh, right!” Sorey tightened his grip on the blanket, making it cover his front as well. “You see, during the Era of Maotelus, people’s faith in him was strong—“

“I already knew that.”

“I know you know, smartypants!” A gentle nudge to his ribs had Mikleo coughing to hide a laugh, but Sorey continued, undeterred. “Anyway, faith in him was strong, and so was the faith in seraphim in general. But, because humans had lost their resonance long ago, they couldn’t see them anymore. So they decided to show their gratitude to the seraphim by sending lights similar to seraphic artes to the sky, a way of showing them they remembered them. The legends say seraphim responded, using their powers to illuminate the sky after the human lights were over.”

“That’s a nice idea…” Mikleo muttered. “Do they still reply to the humans’ calling?”

Sorey smiled sadly, saying no with his head. “They stopped a long time ago. But I’m still hopeful! One day, I’ll see the seraphim send their artes to the sky.”

Mikleo let his shoulder bump Sorey’s softly. “I’d like to see that too.”

When Sorey smiled at him, Mikleo had a cheesy thought; something along the lines of Sorey’s smile being better than any seraphic arte.

Luckily, Sorey himself stopped him from saying such a silly thing out loud.

“You hear the drums?” Sorey asked him, still smiling. Mikleo did hear them. The sound was so fast now that it was like white noise, a single humming sound that swept over the meadow and called for excitement. Mikleo gripped his side of the blanket, looking up expectantly.

“Here it comes.” Sorey muttered.

The sounds of the drums stopped abruptly.

And the first firework rose into the sky.

It exploded in a shower of orange, yellow and red, as if the sun had suddenly appeared in the night sky. The colors of Rolance dyed the firmament as people cheered, soon mixing with greens and soft blues and rich pinks. Mikleo laid fascinated by the sight, feeling the explosion of each firework deep in his chest, seeing the imprint of the lights under his eyelids each time he blinked.

It was gorgeous. Soon the shower lights gave way to forms, as if someone was drawing them with vivid colors among the stars: circles that crumbled in themselves to form shapes akin to jellyfishes, fireworks that rose into the sky in serpentines of colors. Mikleo watched them as they mingled together, following single sparks and watching them disappear. It felt as if—if he was lucky—he could reach out and hold one of the sparks in his palms, like fireflies. He even went as far as to raise a hand to the sky, trying to reach, and a firework exploded right above his palm, but too far away to even feel its warmth. It made Mikleo smile.

Next to him, Sorey was buzzing with such energy that he was almost distracting. Mikleo looked at him in time to see his eyes light up with the next firework, a sprinkler of blue that turned his green eyes into beautiful turquoises, the sparks dancing in them until they disappeared. If the fireworks were gorgeous, Sorey was breathtaking in that moment, his beauty and happiness making Mikleo’s heart clench painfully in his chest.

Another firework exploded, but Mikleo missed it. He was too enraptured by Sorey, who was so warm beside him Mikleo wanted to get even closer to him, despite their sides being completely joined.

And, because he was so captivated by Sorey in that moment, Mikleo didn’t remember to look away before Sorey caught him looking.

“Did you see that?” Sorey started to say, still with his eyes looking upwards. “That was—“

His voice died when his eyes met Mikleo’s. It seemed as if both of them realized how close they were in that moment, when Sorey’s nose brushed against Mikleo’s, when Mikleo’s sigh ghosted over the skin of Sorey’s cheek. But neither moved back, none of them put distance between them. Sorey’s breathing hitched, and then he swallowed thickly, eyes suddenly unable to look elsewhere but at Mikleo.

Everything disappeared around them. Mikleo could still feel the boom of the fireworks in his chest, smell the gunpowder in the air, but everything else was Sorey, Sorey, Sorey. He could feel his inviting warmth as he looked into his eyes, and he could sense his fingers between their bodies brush against Mikleo’s own, sending tiny shocks up his arm.

Mikleo was having trouble breathing too.

Tell him, his brain ordered him, pressing, urgent. Tell him you’re leaving in two days, and that you wished you didn’t have to, and that you’re going to miss him in a way that hurts even now. Tell him.

But, instead, Mikleo leaned in.

Sorey’s eyes fell from Mikleo’s to his mouth. And Mikleo’s lips fell open under the attention, just enough for his tongue to peak out and lick the bottom one, almost on instinct. Sorey’s eyes turned dark, even under the lights of a green firework, and when he let out the air he was holding in it came out shaky and tense.

They were kissing before the next firework went up.

They were kissing, and the world fell silent around them. There was only the taste of sugar on Sorey’s lips and the slow drag of his mouth over Mikleo’s, nothing else but the feel of Sorey’s hand reaching up to cup his cheek and keep him close, pressing them together until Mikleo was gasping against his mouth. Nothing but the scent of jasmine coming from Sorey, so familiar by now that it was like home. With a happy sound, Mikleo gently sucked on Sorey’s bottom lip, tugging at it lightly and making Sorey smile against his mouth.

If looking at that smile was nice, kissing it felt incredible; as if Mikleo was being injected with pure and unadulterated happiness.

Sorey moved back slightly, only far enough to change the angle of the kiss, nudging Mikleo’s mouth with his once, twice, before kissing him again with a soft sigh, fingers playfully tangling themselves in Mikleo’s ponytail. They were kissing idly, slow and sweet, but still Mikleo’s heart beat as if he was running a marathon, threatening to choke him.

Under his palm, which laid on Sorey’s chest, right in the space between the open lapels of his coat, Sorey’s heart was beating just as fast.

The kiss broke naturally a little while later. Sorey left his hand on Mikleo’s cheek, his thumb softly caressing the skin as Mikleo let their foreheads rest together. His lips were tingling pleasantly. Mikleo had the urge to bite on his own lower lip.

“We missed the end.” Sorey whispered with a smile. He didn’t seem to care much about that, though. And honestly, neither did Mikleo, who shook his head and smiled back.

“It’s alright.”

Sorey’s eyes were brighter than any firework. Mikleo could feel his warmth in the tiny cocoon the blanket around them had created, in the palm of his hand against his cheek. He closed his eyes against it, sighing happily.

If only they could stay like this forever…

“…I don’t know what to say.” Sorey admitted with a little laugh. When Mikleo opened his eyes, his heart skipped a beat when he realized Sorey looked almost bashful, a soft blush dying his cheeks. “This is—“

“Don’t say anything, then.” Mikleo muttered back, rushed. The wrong words could be like a needle to their fragile bubble.

Sorey’s hand moved to the side of Mikleo’s neck, his thumb now following the line of Mikleo’s jaw. “Mikleo—” Sorey started to say…

But his words died on Mikleo’s lips when he kissed him again, a little bit shaky, a little bit uncertain. That is, until Sorey’s fingers curled lightly around the hair at Mikleo’s nape to kiss him back, and the kiss turned sweet and easy like before.

Then—

“OH, HO, HO, Merry Christmas to me!”

Mikleo jumped at the familiar voice, leaning away from Sorey with red cheeks and wide eyes. Sorey sat frozen for a second, blinking at the place where Mikleo had been, and then turned his head to look in Mikleo’s direction.

“Oh, no…” Mikleo muttered with a wince.

Zaveid, Eizen and Edna were walking up the slope, the former with a big grin on his face and open arms, the siblings trailing after him with unreadable expressions. Mikleo felt all of his blood leave his face, dread filling the spaces where it should have been. He leaned back, as if trying to put distance between himself and his family, and the back of his shoulder collided against Sorey’s chest.

“Who are they?” Sorey whispered in his ear, still looking towards the people approaching them.

“My family.” Mikleo replied, but the way he said it was as if he had said ‘wolves’. “Run, save yourself.”

Sorey laughed. “Come on, they can’t be that bad!”

“Just give them time…”

“What do we have here!” Zaveid shouted, coming at a stop before them. Both Mikleo and Sorey stood up, letting the blanket that had covered their shoulders fall to the ground. “Mikky-boy, so this is what you meant with ‘exploring’! Someone should have told me you were using a code here!”

Mikleo sighed. “Zaveid…”

“And who’s this handsome guy?” Zaveid was standing right in front of Sorey now, arms crossed over his chest, making sure to make the muscles of his arms bulge. “Another ‘explorer’, I believe?”

Luckily, Sorey was not impressed by Zaveid’s display. Under Mikleo’s watchful gaze and amused smile, Sorey extended a hand in the space between Zaveid and himself with a big, welcoming smile. “Nice to meet you, sir! My name is Sorey.”

Zaveid bursted out laughing. He slapped Sorey’s right hand with his and held it in a tight grip, shaking it profusely. “Eizen, did you hear that? He called me ‘sir’! No one’s done that, before!”

“Maybe because you don’t even have manners.” Eizen bit back, shaking his head. Soft blond strands that had escaped from his ponytail brushed against his cheeks. He stepped forward and pushed Zaveid aside with a hand, taking Sorey’s in his. “Nice to meet you, Sorey. I’m Eizen, Mikleo’s uncle.”

Sorey’s face, that had become a bit paler upon looking at Eizen —a normal reaction, to be honest— returned to its usual cheerfulness as he shook Eizen’s hand. “Nice to meet you too, Eizen.”

As Sorey’s eyes moved towards Edna, Mikleo moved towards him. “Don’t lower your guard just yet.” Mikleo muttered between his teeth. “Edna is the most dangerous out of the three of them.”

Sorey swallowed audibly, losing his smile for a moment. Smart boy, Mikleo thought with fondness.

“Hello.” Sorey started. “I’m Sorey. It’s nice to meet you, Edna.”

Edna nodded, looking at Sorey up and down, one eyebrow raised. Then she shrugged, turning around and hiding herself behind her umbrella.

Mikleo sighed, feeling the tension finally leave his body. At least there would be no teasing from her.

“Did I do something wrong?” Sorey asked worriedly. The back of his hand was grazing Mikleo’s knuckles softly, as if it couldn’t decide if it wanted to grab Mikleo’s hand or not. Mikleo wished he did.

“Edna ignoring you is a good sign.” Mikleo replied. “Don’t worry.”

“Ah…”

“Anyway, we were starting to get worried, Mikky-boy!” Zaveid continued, throwing his arm around Mikleo’s shoulders. “You missed the whole show. Although… I get why staying here to suck face would be more fun~”

“That’s not—! We weren’t—“ Mikleo raised his hands upwards, letting them fall against his sides with a satisfying sound.

Zaveid seemed about to say something then, but a soft music interrupted him, the beep of an incoming message. It was Sorey’s phone, suddenly blowing up with text after text, which he promptly put out of his pocket.

“It’s my friend Rose.” He explained with an apologetic smile. “They want to go back before everyone starts to leave at the same time.”

“We should do that as well, actually.” Eizen said, and pointed towards the general direction of the parking lot with his chin. “Want to walk with us, Sorey?”

“Sure!”

With a sigh, Mikleo helped Sorey to fold up the blankets. Sorey smiled at him over his, a luminous but still shy smile that had Mikleo melting.

He couldn’t believe he now knew what kissing that mouth felt like.

As a blush crept up to Mikleo’s cheeks, Sorey’s smile became wider.

The walk to the parking lot was thankfully silent. Mikleo knew there would be lots of teasing later, probably as soon as he put a foot into the car, but it was worth it if Sorey was spared from it. Zaveid and the others walked ahead, both men in the front, Edna following close behind as she twirled her umbrella over her shoulder. Mikleo and Sorey closed the group, walking side by side.

The air smelt of burnt grass and gunpowder. It was a smell that should have been unpleasant, but Mikleo breathed it in nonetheless, committing it to memory as he closed his eyes. There was the underlaying smell of sugar too, probably from the nearby stands; and then, soft and barely there, like the ghost of a caress… the smell of jasmine.

Yes. This was definitely a smell Mikleo wanted to keep in his memory.

A hand slipping in his brought Mikleo back from his thoughts. The warmth of it was enough to know who it was, but Mikleo still opened his eyes to meet Sorey’s. He had twined their fingers together, Sorey’s fitting perfectly in between Mikleo’s, no matter how corny the thought was.

Sorey leaned down slightly, enough to whisper “Is this okay?” as he gave Mikleo’s hand a gentle squeeze.

Mikleo’s reply came as a squeeze back, and his thumb tracing slow arcs on the back of Sorey’s hand.

It seemed to be enough for Sorey, who smiled brightly once again.

Tell him, Mikleo’s brain started to scream again. Tell him. tell him, tellhim, tellhimtellhimtellhim—

“Ah, there they are!” Sorey exclaimed a little bit later, when the soft grass gave way to gravel and the Leaning Towers were nothing but vague silhouettes behind them.

Mikleo looked towards where Sorey was looking. And, sure enough, the others were there, by the front of a red pick up truck. Rose was sitting on the hood of the car, feet dangling over the ground, while Dezel and Alisha stood by either side of her. Alisha waved lightly at them, smiling, but Rose made signals with her arms over her head; she could either be saying hi or directing an airplane to land, but still Mikleo waved back at her with a smile.

“I should go.” Sorey said a little regretfully. He turned towards Zaveid, Eizen and Edna then, smiling at them as if they were all friends already. “It was nice meeting all of you!”

Eizen nodded. “Likewise.”

“Oh, man, yes, it was.” Zaveid said with a smirk, passing his arm over Sorey’s shoulders, shaking him. “You and I will have a chat one of this days, alright?”

“Sure!” Sorey exclaimed back, obviously not seeing the danger at all. Mikleo bit down on his lip to hide a lopsided smile. “I’d love that!”

Zaveid broke into a laugh again, ruffling Sorey’s hair. “Ah, such a pure boy! Don’t taint him too much, okay Mik-boy?”

Mikleo narrowed his eyes at Zaveid. “The only tainted thing here is your humor.”

In an act of pure dramatic quality, Zaveid clutched at his chest with both hands, right over his heart. “Hit and sunk!”

“You deserve it.” Eizen said, right before grabbing the back of Zaveid’s jacket and starting to walk towards their car. “Come on. Let them say goodbye in peace.”

“What! But I wanna watch!” Zaveid pouted. “Edna, back me up here!”

“I don’t want to.” She said with a shrug, walking alongside her brother. “I don’t want to puke my cotton candy, it was delicious.”

“…You’re all such party poopers…”

Sorey brought Mikleo closer by their still joined hands as Mikleo’s family walked away, the sounds of their banter getting harder and harder to hear. Still, Mikleo paid them no mind. He was too busy feeling his heart burst upon looking at Sorey’s smile.

“Thank you for tonight.” Sorey whispered, and Mikleo’s heart gave up completely. “It was… It was incredible for me.”

“Me too.” Mikleo replied, tilting his head up. He wouldn’t admit it out loud, of course, but he wanted Sorey to kiss him again.

“Listen I, uh… I have another show tomorrow, so I won’t make it to lunch. But I’d like to see you after! If you have the time.”

Mikleo gave a squeeze to their hands. “Sure. I’ll be working, so text me when you’re done, okay?”

Sorey stepped even closer, making their chests brush. He inclined his head to the side, already closing his eyes as he whispered. “Okay…”

“SO—RE—YYYYY!”

Rose’s shouting reached them as if she was standing right next to them. Luckily, when they separated, startled, they saw she was still on the car. Now, however, she was standing on the bumper in perfect equilibrium, feet set apart, hands on her hips. She even permitted herself to tap her feet on the metal in annoyance, never taking her eyes away from Sorey.

Mikleo was greatly impressed.

“Okay, now I really gotta go.” Sorey said with a shake of his head. He leaned down, quick, to leave a soft kiss on Mikleo’s cheek. Then, with one last squeeze, he let go of Mikleo’s hand. “Goodnight, Mikleo.”

Mikleo smiled softly, closing his hand on a fist to retain the warmth in his palm. He could feel his cheek tingle nicely. “Goodnight, Sorey.”

Mikleo stayed long enough to watch Sorey reach his friends. Rose had started shouting again, eyes never leaving Sorey, and Mikleo observed them with an eyebrow raised and a mix of amusement and concern.

“WELL?” Rose screamed, hands in front of her as if demanding an explanation.

Sorey must had said something—or done something—that Mikleo missed. Either way, a second later Rose was whooping and jumping towards Sorey from the bumper, clinging to his torso with arms and legs. Sorey caught her easily, even if he had to take two steps back so as not to fall.

“That’s my boy!” Rose screamed, making Sorey and Alisha laugh. “I’m so proud of you!”

Mikleo left towards Eizen’s car before anything else could happen, hiding a smile on the sleeve of his coat. His head was a mess, too many things swimming in it, demanding his attention. But Mikleo was caught up in the warmth in his chest, in the soft tingling on his lips that brought him back to the kiss time and again.

Thoughts could wait till tomorrow. Tonight, it was all about feeling.

Chapter Text

Thursday.

 

If there was something Mikleo was proud of, it was of being diligent.

There was no better word to describe Mikleo’s method of working. Ever since he was a child, ever since his first assignment, his first essay, Mikleo had always worked hard from the moment he had sat down to tackle it, his mind becoming one-tracked, nothing nor no-one being able to pull him away from it until Mikleo deemed it finished.

Who would have thought, then, that all it took was a kiss to make Mikleo unable to do a single thing.

He had started all right, at first. Mikleo had been almost eager to get back to work as he settled all of his notes neatly next to the university’s documents, his trusty laptop already running by his left. Those documents were the most interesting thing he had read in a long while, and the fact that it was a privilege to get to work with them only fired him up even more. There wasn’t much he could get out of them, anymore —he had been working with them for almost two weeks now, after all —, but he was still excited.

But then, Mikleo remembered the night before.

He had his notes on the Leaning Towers to blame, honestly. He had been looking for something else, flipping through the pages of his notebook quickly when his eyes stumbled over the name and the detailed sketch he had made right under it. Mikleo had stopped then, looking at the drawing for a long while—and then he felt his cheeks heat up, his teeth quickly biting down on his lower lip, as if his body was trying to summon the memory of Sorey’s lips against his.

But there was no need. Mikleo hadn’t forgotten for a second. He had gone to sleep the night before with the ghost of Sorey’s kiss on his mouth, and then had waken up craving it, groaning softly into his pillow as he realized it had been his first conscious thought of the day. Mikleo couldn’t shake the feeling of it… didn’t want to, either.

It had been such a soft, delicate kiss. Sorey’s mouth had been warm, inviting,— pliable—, under Mikleo’s, his lips finding easily their place and drawing sighs out of Mikleo with the same ease as Sorey produced smiles. And of course, Mikleo couldn’t forget his hands— hands that had held Mikleo close without a single ounce of force, but with promises of warmth and tenderness, no matter how much they had seemed to shake with nervousness against Mikleo’s skin.

How easy it was for Mikleo to recall it all. But it was even easier to imagine they had never been interrupted. He remembered the taste and shape of Sorey’s lips enough to imagine how it would feel like to have them open for him, for his tongue to slip inside Sorey’s mouth and simply let it explore, idly brushing against Sorey’s palate, against the flat of his tongue. Mikleo tensed when he imagined Sorey’s voice, low enough to form a growl as he pressed Mikleo closer and imagined his hands moving towards the back of his head, fingers tangling themselves in Mikleo’s long tresses, pulling slightly—

Mikleo shook his head hard enough to pull himself from his own imagination. He couldn’t do this now, he really, really couldn’t.

Neither now, nor later. Mikleo thought bitterly, stabbing the ballpoint of his pen against a page of his notebook. I need to concentrate and work. I need—

The sudden ring of his own phone made Mikleo jump, his heart beating fast enough to make it hard to breathe. He quickly scrambled to pick it up —how the hell had he forgotten to put it in silent in the first place!?— as he willed his heart to slow down.

Lailah’s display photo illuminated the phone’s screen when Mikleo slid his finger to pick up the call.

“Auntie?”

It was a slip of the tongue, but the word was out before Mikleo could stop it… and he quickly felt the repercussions of it. Lailah’s musical laughter reached him from the other end of the call as his cheeks flared up even more, making him rest his forehead on the table with a groan.

“Oh my,” Lailah started, not letting Mikleo say anything else. “What are you up to, that you’ve gone back to calling me ‘auntie’? Nothing good, I presume!”

Mikleo groaned again, completely embarrassed. “Can’t you let it slide? With minimum teasing?”

“Nope!” Lailah exclaimed cheerfully. Mikleo could swear her smile was tangible in her voice. “You used to call me that only when you had done something you felt guilty about. So? What are you doing?”

“Nothing, I promise! I’m just working.”

Lailah took a moment to herself to think. Mikleo could hear the sound of her nails drumming on a surface from her side. “I see. So… I’m not interrupting anything between you and a certain green-eyed boy, am I?”

“I—!” Mikleo practically choked in his attempt to breath in, speak and shout at the same time. He coughed, much to Lailah’s amusement who seemed to be enjoying Mikleo getting flustered. “How do you know that!?”

“Ooh, so you don’t even deny it…!”

Mikleo groaned once again into the receiver, banging his forehead against the table a couple of times for good measure. “Seriously, he isn’t here! I meant, how do you know about… Sorey.”

Lailah’s soft giggle did nothing to calm Mikleo’s erratic heart. “I have my ways.”

Mikleo winced. “Was it Zaveid?”

“Actually, it was Eizen.”

“I can’t believe this!”

Another giggle reached Mikleo, this time a little bit muffled. “Don’t be mad, Mikleo. We just thought it was sweet, that’s all.”

Mikleo finally raised his head from the table, letting it hang back so he could look at the ceiling instead. “Can we change the subject? Please?” He asked instead of acknowledging Lailah’s words.

“Sure.” Lailah said. “We can speak of this when you come back, anyway.”

It felt like someone was squeezing Mikleo’s heart like a stress ball. He always felt like that when he thought about leaving, ever since last night with Sorey. It had been less than a day since then, but still Mikleo felt awful. He still hadn’t gotten a chance to tell Sorey he was leaving soon.

“Y-yeah…”

“I can wait for you to come back, Mikleo.” Lailah admitted in a sweet tone, its cadence making Mikleo smile sadly. “I miss you.”

“…I miss you too, Lailah.”

“And also… I would like to talk about what has happened with Michael too.” Lailah continued, her voice more serious now. “I feel like there’s more to say about it.”

Mikleo nodded, despite Lailah not being able to see it. “Me too. Michael—“

“He was very happy, you know.” Lailah said, probably smiling again. “Because you went to see him.”

Mikleo blinked, suddenly surprised. “You talked to him?”

Another giggle accompanied Lailah’s words, this time softer and more fond. “Of course. He called me the same day you went to see him. I haven’t heard my brother that happy in a very long time…”

“Ah…” Mikleo felt warmth spill from his chest. It was nice knowing that. “I see.”

The line went silent then, but Mikleo could still hear Lailah on the other end, breathing softly.

“Muse would be very proud of you, Mikleo.” Lailah said in the end, a smile on her voice, and Mikleo’s heart clenched painfully. “No. I’m sure she is.”

Traitorous tears welled up in Mikleo’s eyes, but they were gone after two fast blinks. “Thank you, Lailah. I hope so.”

“Well! I should leave you to get back to work, shouldn’t I? I was just calling to—“

MIKLEO!!!”

The sudden shouting made Mikleo jump for the second time that day, his knees hitting the underside of the desk painfully. Mikleo groaned into the receiver as his free hand went to his heart, feeling it bump erratically under his ribs.

But when he looked up, Mikleo’s heart gave out completely. Because there—with one hand on the doorknob and the other on the doorjamb, breathing heavily and looking flustered—stood Sorey, his green eyes almost urgent as he looked towards Mikleo.

It wasn’t only Mikleo’s heart that gave out. His lungs didn’t seem to get enough oxygen all of a sudden.

“S—Sorey!” Mikleo squeaked, too surprised to pretend he hadn’t been… well, surprised.

“Oh, my, so he is there!” Lailah screamed joyfully.

“Mikleo, please—“ Sorey started, stepping into the room with long, urgent strides, until he was standing right in front of Mikleo’s desk. “—You have to come with me.”

Mikleo blinked up at him. He couldn’t think. “W-what?”

On the phone, Lailah’s voice sounded very excited, even if Mikleo could only discern his own name.

Sorey didn’t look like he had time to wait around. He leaned over the desk —over all of those documents he had been very interested on—and grabbed the hand Mikleo had on his own chest with both of his, holding it tightly but without enough strength to hurt. Mikleo almost dropped the phone in surprise when he felt Sorey’s fingers gently tugging at his palm.

“Mikleo, I really need you to come with me.” Sorey begged, eyes big and excited, but also determined. “Please!”

“I…” Mikleo cleared his throat. He couldn’t look away from Sorey’s eyes. “I’ll call you later, Lailah.”

“No, wait—!”

But Mikleo pressed the red button on his screen without looking, getting to his feet as he slid his phone into his pocket. Sorey tugged at his hand until they were both standing on the same side of the desk, one buzzing with energy, the other slightly skeptical.

“Sorey, what’s going on?” Mikleo asked. He frowned as he spoke, but he didn’t move his hand away from Sorey’s. “You can just barge in here like this! We are in a library.”

That seemed to pull Sorey down from whatever cloud he had been in until that moment. As his smile became sheepish and the red in his cheeks deepened under the tanned skin, Sorey raised his free hand to rub at the back of his own head. “Sorry, sorry!” He exclaimed, shaking his head as he did so. “I’m just—! My show for today is about to start and I really want you to be there!”

“I… what?” Mikleo’s frowned deepened. “Sorey, you know I have to work and—I don’t even have a ticket for it—!”

“I’ll take care of that!” Sorey promised, squeezing Mikleo’s hand softly. “Just… Please?”

There was something strange going on with Sorey that day. Mikleo had never seen him like that—excited yes, and trying to contain his energy too. But that day… that day he almost looked… Vulnerable. Underneath all that energy and excitement there was a vulnerability hiding in the shadows of his eyes, something soft and unspoken that had Mikleo’s breathing catching in his chest.

Mikleo didn’t like it at all.

“I…” Mikleo started, looking away. “Let me organize this a bit first, and…”

“No time for that!” Sorey said, suddenly stepping closer. “Just close up with the key and let’s go, or Rose will kill me!”

Mikleo sighed, rolling his eyes. “Okay, fine! Let’s go then.”

“Yes! Thank you, Mikleo!”

In hindsight, Mikleo should have seen the kiss on the cheek coming. But he didn’t, and when Sorey’s lips touched his skin Mikleo became putty right there where he was standing.

Sorey had no trouble pulling Mikleo by the hand to the auditory after that.

 


 

“You know, I think I’m having déjà vu.” Rose said as she crossed her arms over her chest, one eyebrow raising over intelligent blue eyes.

The auditorium was packed, as usual, and everyone was excited to see Sorey. Had they gone through the front door, the show would have probably been delayed for a long while, seeing as Sorey would have been caught up in all the people waiting at the entrance. But Sorey had slipped them through an emergency door, miraculously managing not to make the alarm sound and never losing his smile even once. He had looked back at Mikleo in that moment with such a bright grin that Mikleo hadn’t been able to help smiling back at him, even if he did so with a tiny shake of his head.

But now Mikleo sighed, letting himself fall on the chair Sorey had pointed at before scurrying away behind a door. “It isn’t my fault.” He said grumpily. “Sorey dragged me here.”

“Oh, I’m sure he did.” Rose replied with a smirk. “And I’m also sure that you didn’t make it too hard for him, am I right?”

Heat rose to Mikleo’s cheeks. “Shut up.”

“That’s what I thought!” Rose exclaimed, laughing as she let one of her hands drop on top of Mikleo’s shoulder. “Anyway, just enjoy the show. Call it payback for breakfast the other day.”

“…I still don’t know why Sorey was so keen on me being here today.” Mikleo mumbled with a hand on his chin. Around them, people where chatting animatedly, taking their seats and waiting for Sorey’s show to start. “We already agreed on talking after the show, yesterday…”

“Ah, come on, don’t be like that.” Rose punched Mikleo’s shoulder not-so-softly, making Mikleo groan in pain. “He just wanted to spend more time with you! That can’t be bad!”

“I—it’s not bad.” Mikleo admitted, secretly pleased. “But he’s still going to be up there while I’m sitting here! It doesn’t make sense—“

“Do you want me to tell him to pull you up onto the stage with him?” Rose asked with another smirk. “Because that can be arranged…”

Mikleo almost jumped out of his seat, but in the end he simply grabbed Rose’s wrist before she could move away. “Don’t you dare, Rose!”

Rose waved a hand idly over her shoulder, suddenly bored. “Enjoy the show, Mikleo!” She said, and turned around to walk down the stairs, almost jumping two at a time her haste to go back.

Mikleo went to say something, heat rising to his cheeks— But all around him people started to cheer, to clap, and Mikleo turned his eyes to the stage in time to see Sorey smiling and waving as he walked, green eyes —so luminous under the lights of the auditorium—looking over the heads his audience.

When they found Mikleo, Sorey’s smile went softer, a bit bashful, but still very excited. Mikleo couldn’t help but smile back in the same way, waving at him with his arm glued to the arm rest. Sorey didn’t wave back but his smile became wider, and the next step he took became a skip.

“Alright, everyone!” He said into the microphone that rested on his cheek, attached to his headpiece. “Tell me about your week!”

 

 

Towards the end of the show, Mikleo felt incredibly warm. It wasn’t the suffocating heat that someone could feel prickling their skin but the other kind — the one that you could feel spreading from the center of your chest and outwards, to the tips of your fingers, the one that made your toes curl inside your shoes and your mouth dry up.

Mikleo wondered if there would ever come a time when he would stop being fascinated by Sorey. If he would ever stop making his heart speed up with every smile, or with every change of emotion that his features displayed. How had this boy —stupidly kind, sweet, precious boy— managed to crawl his way into Mikleo’s usually guarded heart? How had he done so in just two weeks?

Two weeks… Mikleo had only known Sorey, truly known him, for two weeks, and still he had managed to shake his world entirely. Even before that, when he was nothing more than a voice to Mikleo… even then he had managed to make Mikleo’s world better. And now he had met him, had been under the force of those green eyes, had received the warmth of his smiles and the sweetness of his caresses… He had only known those things for two weeks, and now he couldn’t imagine not having them anymore.

Mikleo let his gaze fall down to his knees, chin resting on his palm. The tips of his fingers pressed against his cheekbone with enough strength to hurt.

I’m going to miss him. Mikleo thought, feeling a sigh brew in his chest.

“Okay!” Sorey said from the stage, with a single clap, effectively bringing Mikleo’s attention back to him. When his gaze fell on Sorey, Mikleo realized Sorey looked almost skittish; he was rubbing the back of his neck nervously, touching the tip of his feather cuff with the other hand.

And maybe it was Mikleo’s imagination, but he seemed to be keeping his eyes casted away from Mikleo’s area on purpose, looking instead towards the other side of the audience.

“We’re nearing the end of the show—“ Sorey continued, finally dropping his hand to the side. “—But I think we still have time for one last question. Anyone—?”

“Here!”

A guy jumped from his chair to his feet before anyone else could react, saluting Sorey with a hand on his forehead. People giggled around him, at his enthusiasm, but nothing took away the playful smirk on his face, nor made him look away from Sorey.

Mikleo frowned slightly. He was… familiar? There was something in the teasing tilt of his mouth… Or maybe it was his short, fiery red hair?

“Yes?” Sorey asked, walking over the stage to stand closer to the guy, and Mikleo knew immediately something was up. Sorey’s easygoing-ness was gone, replaced by a stiffness that was unusual in him. But he was still smiling, so Mikleo let himself relax a bit.

The guy crossed his arms behind his head with nonchalance. “You see, I think I’ve fallen for this person, but I don’t know how to go about it. How would you confess to someone?”

Silence filled the auditorium; someone could have even heard a needle falling to the ground. Everyone was awaiting Sorey’s answer with expectation, almost with halted breath, Mikleo included. He didn’t stop to think about, he just wanted to know.

“Well,” Sorey started, clearing his throat. He suddenly seemed not to know what to do with his hands. “If… if some of you where in my last show, you know I was asked something similar then. I’m not an expert in love, or anything like that. But… my friends say I’m a romantic. Though I think Rose describes me as a ‘lost cause’.” A few giggles followed Sorey’s words, but most people sat in silence, expectant. “But um—“

Sorey shook his head, a small smile blooming on his lips. He was looking down, gaze lost as he seemed to think about something. Whatever it was, given his expression, it was something that made him very, very happy. “There’s someone.” Sorey continued, and Mikleo’s heart skipped a beat. “Someone I met recently. He’s… incredible. He’s smart, intelligent, he likes to debate with me about any thing you could imagine. His ideas drive me crazy, and his brain is—.” Sorey raised his head, looking at the audience without looking at anyone specifically. “He’s beautiful. He’s kind. He’s sweet, but I get the feeling he doesn’t like showing that side of him much.”

His smile became wider then as he continued speaking and thinking. He didn’t seem to be able to stand still so he was walking slowly over the stage, one of his hands playing with the necklace that hung from his neck, the other drumming softly against his thigh.

“His cooking is amazing.” Sorey kept saying. “I… I haven’t dared to say this before, but I wish he would make me breakfast every morning.

“So, if I were to confess to him… I would stage something very, very romantic to make him blush. I would ask for my friends’ help. I would tell him that I’m crazy about him, and that even though I met him two weeks ago, it feels like he’s been with me for far longer. Like he’s a piece of me I didn’t know I was missing. I really, really like him, and I want… a chance to be his boyfriend.”

No one dared to breathe. No one dared to make a sound. It wouldn’t be crazy to say that Sorey had just made an entire auditorium fall in love with him, with his sweetness and honesty. It was because of that that no one dared to break the strange atmosphere Sorey had surrounded himself in—warm and anxious, loving and exposed. Sorey had just bared his heart open to an entire audience, and they responded to him by being respectful of his silences.

And meanwhile, Mikleo’s heart beat so strong and fast that it was painful; his chest burned as if he had embers in the spaces between his ribs, and his nails dug into the armrests, hard enough to feel the material give and break in the pressure.

Sorey—

“What’s his name?” The red haired guy asked over the silence, the one Mikleo could recognize now as Mason, Sorey’s friend. Mason’s teasing was gone now, replaced by a fondness that gave away the fact that they knew each other already.

But Mikleo didn’t care about that. He was too busy looking only at Sorey, at his bashful smile and red cheeks, the spark in his honest eyes. So when Sorey turned to look at Mikleo, only for a fleeting moment, their eyes met both of them seemed to stop breathing, to stop existing beyond that single moment, that single look. There was no one else around, but them.

“Mikleo.” Sorey whispered into his microphone, and the name travelled all over the room like a wave, warm and reverent, almost a prayer. It made Mikleo shiver to the bone, the emotion behind that single word making his heart burst.

It wasn’t until Sorey looked away, before anyone could realize that he was looking at someone in particular, that Mikleo was able to breathe again.

“His name is Mikleo.” Sorey finished towards Mason, letting his shoulders drop as if he had just let go of a big weight on his back.

“Lucky guy, this Mikleo.” Another guy in the room said with the hint of a smile.

“Tell him, Sorey!” A girl shouted, punching the air. “You can’t keep those feelings to yourself, that’s not fair!”

Sorey laughed softly, scratching his cheek. “Mm! Hopefully it’ll go alright.”

“Of course it will!” Someone else shouted, and suddenly the auditorium was alive again with the sound of excited chatter, as if the silence had never existed.

However, before things could get noisier, Rose quickly step in, jumping onto the stage and passing an arm over Sorey’s shoulders to shake him softly. “Alright everyone, that’s it for today! We hope you enjoyed today’s show, and that you will spread the word about our favorite romantic right here!”

People laughed at her teasing, more so when Sorey replied to it with a groan and a gentle push. Still, soon enough everyone started to rise from their seats and walk to the exit, still chatting so animatedly that Mikleo could only hear the buzzing of their voices around him.

He couldn’t move. His legs didn’t seem to be able to function. Mikleo stayed in his seat as everyone moved up and left, even though the people in his row groaned when they had to tiptoe past his legs, even when the buzz fell and fell until it disappeared completely, and only the sound of his own heart beating erratically inside his chest remained.

Mikleo couldn’t stop replying Sorey’s words; his sweet, sweet words that Mikleo yearned to reply to in kind, that made his chest burst with dread and happiness, all at once.

He’s smart, intelligent—

His ideas drive me crazy—

He’s beautiful.

A chance to be his—

“…Mikleo?”

The auditorium was empty except for them. Everyone had left, even Mason, probably even Rose, and that left Mikleo sitting on his chair, clinging to its armrests to dear life — and Sorey, who had already gone up the stairs to Mikleo’s row, waiting for Mikleo to acknowledge him a few steps down. Mikleo raised his head, heart skipping a beat when their eyes met and Sorey immediately smiled warmly, moving in closer.

“I hope I didn’t scare you too much.” Sorey said with a small laugh. “I… I really wanted it to be romantic, but maybe I went a little over board…”

“You didn’t.” Mikleo found himself saying. Suddenly, his legs found the will to move again and Mikleo stood up; the movement brought him close to Sorey, who smiled down at him brightly and calmly. “I promise.”

“Ah, I’m so glad! I’m sorry everything was so rushed, I… Kind of decided on doing this last minute.”

Mikleo was having a hard time meeting Sorey’s eyes. He settled on looking at his mouth, instead. “Really?”

“Yeah! But, uh…” Sorey hesitated, just for a moment, but soon his hand was holding Mikleo’s tightly, thumb drawing circles on the back of Mikleo’s hand so softly that it was almost distracting.

“Sorey—“

“Everything I said is true.” Sorey interrupted. Mikleo’s heart gave a painful squeeze. “Everything, Mikleo. I think you’re amazing. And, after last night… I’m even more sure I want this. Being your friend is incredible, of course, but I want… Mikleo, I—“

“I’m leaving on Saturday.”

The words came out in a jumble, barely making any sense. They poured out of Mikleo like water, a torrent that had been kept behind sealed off doors for far too long, and that had finally broken free.

Still, Mikleo saw the moment the meaning of the words dawned on Sorey. His smile banished, the spark in his eyes became uncertain, and his hand on Mikleo’s went slack, lifeless. Now it was Mikleo who clung to it for dear life, trying to coax a response of some sort out of Sorey.

Sorey blinked down at him, suddenly pale. “I—what?”

Mikleo sighed, forcing his eyes to meet Sorey’s finally. “I’m going back home the day after tomorrow.” He said, squeezing Sorey’s fingers softly. “To Ladylake.”

In that moment, Mikleo could have sworn he saw Sorey remembering; remembering the fact that Mikleo was never meant to stay in Pendrago, that his stay there was only temporary. That he was just a passerby in Sorey’s life, never meant to leave any imprint on it.

Oh, how had Mikleo failed in that.

“I… forgot.” Sorey admitted, looking down. He let the small of his back hit the row of chairs in front of Mikleo, leaning his weight on it. Mikleo kept him close by his hand. “It completely slipped out of my mind…”

“I’m sorry, Sorey.” Mikleo whispered, hanging his head low. “I should have told you sooner, but I—“

Sorey shook his head quickly, feather earrings clinking softly. “No, it’s okay! I just… It is okay, isn’t it? We could make it work either way, we could—“

Mikleo squeezed his hand again, looking away. “…I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

A beat of silence. Mikleo’s blood was loud in his ears; he could hear nothing aside from the beating of his heart. In front of him, Sorey’s breathing was shallow, superficial. He too seemed to be having trouble controlling the beating of his heart.

“W—what do you mean?” Sorey asked in a whisper, tilting his head to try to meet Mikleo’s gaze. “…Mikleo?”

“I just—I have no plans of returning to Pendrago. And you’re too busy to come to Ladylake. If… If we were to do this, we would end up being miserable. And you don’t deserve that, Sorey.”

Sorey swallowed thickly. “But—It doesn’t have to be like that! If we tried, if we both wanted to…”

“Sorey.” Mikleo said softly, gripping his hand tightly. The contact burned, same as his chest; Mikleo would have never imagined being close to Sorey would hurt like this. “You met me two weeks ago. Do you really want to tie yourself to me in that way, after so little time?”

For a moment —for a long, agonizing moment—, it seemed like Sorey was going to add something else, probably something sweet and kind that Mikleo would have hated to deny. But Sorey closed his mouth tight, lips set into a thin line, and looked away. He gave one step back, making his hand slip away from Mikleo’s, and lowered his head so his hair covered his eyes.

“I see.” Sorey murmured with a shaky breath. “I… I understand.”

Mikleo didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to lie to Sorey, but telling him the truth… Telling him that he wanted this too, that he wanted the early mornings together, the endless debates, the late nights kissing under the same blanket… Telling Sorey all of that would make them no good. Not when Mikleo was leaving in two days.

Still, the idea of Sorey thinking he didn’t feel the same—

“Sorey—“ Mikleo started, not very sure of what to say.

But a sniffle cut him off before he could continue, followed by a gentle sob that barely managed to move Sorey’s shoulders. Still, it was enough; Mikleo’s heart skipped another beat when Sorey’s hand raised to wipe at his own cheeks quickly, as if trying not to be seen.

“Sorey?” Mikleo asked urgently, stepping closer. “Sorey, are you okay?”

Sorey didn’t reply immediately. He sniffled again, still tilting his head so his hair concealed his eyes. His hands were now gripping the chair behind him, holding his body away from Mikleo as much as he could in the tiny space between the rows. Mikleo felt his own eyes well up from the wet sounds Sorey was making, from the light tremors that shook his broad shoulders.

Moving closer slightly, Mikleo held Sorey’s cheeks in his palms and tilted his head up. Fat tears clung to Sorey’s eyelashes, some already spilling over the corners of his eyes and leaving tracks on his cheeks. Mikleo suck in a breath at the sight, his hands tightening their hold on Sorey.

“No… Sorey, please, don’t cry…”

Sorey sobbed again, and before Mikleo could tell himself how much of a bad idea it was he pressed Sorey against his chest tightly, arms circling his shoulders and holding him close. Sorey didn’t even hesitate to cling to Mikleo’s waist, arms right around him as he hid his face on Mikleo’s neck, shoulders trembling.

“How could I not cry?” Sorey whispered, his voice broken. Mikleo closed his eyes, feeling pain wreck his whole body. “Mikleo, you’re breaking my heart.”

Mikleo closed his eyes tightly. He wouldn’t cry—but oh, how much he wanted to. He could feel his eyes burn with unshed tears underneath his eyelids, feel them about to roll down his cheeks, so he pressed them tighter to keep them in, resting his forehead on Sorey’s shoulder and willing the pain to go away.

“I’m sorry.” Sorey said a moment later. He moved his hands to Mikleo’s hips and pushed Mikleo back with delicacy, breaking their hug. Mikleo stood with his arms up for a second, as if he was still hugging Sorey, and then lowered them as Sorey added. “I… I respect your decision. Really. I just—“

“I know.”

Sorey sighed, lifting his head up and scrubbing at his cheeks with the heel of his palm. “I just really like you.”

Mikleo bit down on his tongue. I really like you too.

“I should go.” Sorey suddenly said, stepping away from Mikleo and onto the stairs that lead to the stage. His eyes were still red but now he could meet Mikleo’s a little bit easier, even if his hands were fists by his sides. “I— Have a good trip back home.”

“Thank you.” Mikleo nodded, wanting nothing more than to have Sorey close again.

“And—“ Sorey looked down for a second, and then back at Mikleo. His smile then was soft and hurt, but not insincere. “Good luck with your thesis.”

“I—“ Mikleo choked with his pain. “Sorey—“

Sorey turned around. “Goodbye, Mikleo.”

“Sorey, wait—“

But Sorey was already walking down the stairs and scurrying past an emergency exit, leaving Mikleo alone in the auditorium with Sorey’s name burning in his tongue, and a sob deep in his chest.

He had promised himself he wouldn’t cry. He didn’t deserve to. But now, alone in the silence and with the warmth Sorey’s hand had left in his, Mikleo couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down his cheeks, blurring his vision and making him choke in sobs.

With a whimper, Mikleo let himself fall back on his chair, hands covering his face.

And sat there crying until every word he hadn’t let himself say was finally left in the open.

 


 

Saturday.

 

Pendrago Station was almost chaotic.

But Mikleo didn’t feel the crushing sensation of the people around him. It was hard to, with big people like Eizen and Zaveid at each side of him like barriers against the elbows and knees of the quick travelers that seemed to think they owned the station. People naturally let them pass, circling around them and leaving a wide margin between themselves and Mikleo’s small farewell party.

Still, that was only near the entrance. As they approached the departures area they ran into less and less people; it seemed many people traveled to Pendrago on a daily basis, but not many left the city behind.

Mikleo smiled sadly— he didn’t want to leave it behind, either.

“You alright?” Eizen asked softly, letting his hand rest on Mikleo’s shoulder. “I know you don’t like packed places.”

“I’m okay.” Mikleo shook his head, gripping the handle of his suitcase tighter. “It isn’t as bad as when I first arrived.”

Eizen nodded, letting his hand move away, but the grim expression remained on his hard features.

Mikleo knew they were all worried about him. He had spent all of Friday working at the library, unperturbed, until night had fallen and he had gone to have one last dinner with his family before leaving early the next day.

There had been no Sorey suddenly barging in the room to take Mikleo out for lunch. No texts reminding Mikleo to stay hydrated. Nothing.

It wasn’t anything Mikleo hadn’t expected, but it still hurt.

And knowing he had no right to feel hurt was even worse.

The feelings swimming in his chest had been too much to pretend he was alright during dinner. He had been aware of the glances Eizen and Zaveid shared, of how soft the jab of Edna’s umbrella was compared to usual, but still Mikleo didn’t know how to feel differently. His head was filled with memories of Sorey’s red-shot, tear-filled eyes, of his voice saying ‘you’re breaking my heart’.

And because he knew he was being unfair to his family, he accepted to stay at their apartment during the last night. They drank, laughed, teased Zaveid when he started to undress in front of them all. Then Mikleo pretended to sleep on the couch, laying awake instead with his eyes closed as the hours ticked by.

He had felt very grateful when Eizen had said they would be driving him to the station. He didn’t think he would have been able to find his gate on his own.

“Here we—oh.”

As they approached Mikleo’s gate, the surprise in Zaveid’s voice made Mikleo look up, knowing already what he would find. Michael was waiting for them by the gate, dressed comfortably but somewhat elegantly, with some black pants and a soft button down underneath a long coat. He smiled warmly at Mikleo when their eyes met, making some of the tension in Mikleo’s shoulders disappear.

Michael’s presence there was a reminder to Mikleo that he hadn’t messed everything up.

“Were we supposed to know he was coming?” Was the last thing Mikleo heard Zaveid ask before he quickened his pace, leaving his family behind to greet his uncle first, trusty suitcase following him close.

“Thanks for coming, Uncle Michael.” Mikleo said softly, stopping right in front of him.

Michael let his hand fall on Mikleo’s shoulder. It didn’t have the same feel as Eizen’s, but it was still warm. “Thank you for allowing me to come, Mikleo. I’m glad I get to say goodbye.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t get to meet again.” Mikleo sighed, looking at his feet. “It’s been kind of—“

“No need.” Michael’s smile was easy and sincere. “We’ll get the chance at any other time.”

“I’d like that.” The public address system interrupted Mikleo’s next words. Mikleo listened, expecting to hear information about his train, but didn’t have such luck. With a sigh, he turned again towards his uncle. “Maybe you could come visit us to Ladylike, sometime. I’m sure it’d make Lailah very happy.”

Maybe it was pushing it. Maybe it was too soon. But Mikleo couldn’t feel bad about his decision when his uncle smiled at him like that, bright and hopeful, very much like in Mikleo’s childhood memories. Mikleo smiled back; if he could make someone happy right then, then he would.

“Thank you, Mikleo.” Michael said, squeezing Mikleo’s shoulder. “I’d really like that.”

“Well, hello there, Mich!” Zaveid stepped in then, slapping Michael’s back in greeting. Michael stumbled forward, the force of it making his breathing catch in his chest. “Long time no see!”

“…Hello, Zaveid.” Michael replied once he got his voice back. Mikleo barely had time to hide a smirk behind his hand. “I see you haven’t changed at all.”

“Hell no!” Why would I?”

Mikleo shook his head, still with a small smile on his face, just to turn around and look at the information panels that hung up in the walls. His train —30156 Pendrago-Ladylake— was there, but still with no information.

“Are you going to pass the security checkpoint already?” Edna, who had appeared suddenly next to him, asked. Behind them, Eizen and Michael were stiffly shaking hands.

“Yeah.” Mikleo replied, face tilted towards the information panels. “You guys surely have stuff to do, and I don’t mind waiting on my own. It’s fine.”

“Mm.”

The lack of words coming from Edna made Mikleo frown. He turned towards her, a question already on his lips, when an umbrella was suddenly being opened right on his face, the fabric making his nose scrunch. Mikleo groaned, batting the umbrella away with his hands and giving Edna an angry look.

“Edna!”

“…You don’t have to keep everything inside.” She muttered, hiding herself underneath her umbrella.

Still with his hands on the top of the thing, Mikleo blinked with surprise. “Huh?”

“We’re not idiots.” She snapped, and started to twirl the umbrella around. “We know something’s bothering you. You keeping it all bottled inside doesn’t make us feel better, you know?”

Mikleo looked away, fingers tapping on the fabric. “I’m sorry.”

“Good.” Edna replied. She moved her umbrella back enough for Mikleo to see one of her eyes. “Just stop being an idiot.”

“…I’ll try.”

The 30156 Rolance Service to Ladylake will be the next train to arrive at Platform 7. Restaurant and Trolley facilities are—“

“That’s yours, right?” Eizen asked stepping closer, Michael and Zaveid right next to him.

Mikleo nodded. “Yeah. I think I’ll pass security now, and wait inside.”

“You sure?” Zaveid asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “We don’t mind waiting here with you.”

“I’m sure.”

One by one, all of them hugged Mikleo goodbye. Zaveid squished Mikleo tightly against his chest with his stupidly big hands, slapping his back the same way he had slapped Michael’s earlier.

“Come back soon, you hear me, Mikky-boy?” Zaveid said, holding Mikleo by the shoulders.

“Or you guys could come to Ladylake.” Mikleo replied with a soft smile. “It’s been a while.”

Zaveid laughed from the center of his chest. “It has! Damn. Eizen, remember when we got so drunk we ended up swimming naked by the sanctuary?”

“And there’s a mental image I didn’t need.” Edna said grumpily, narrowing her eyes.

Eizen frowned too, but for a different reason. “I don’t remember that ever happening.”

Zaveid wasn’t deterred. He elbowed Eizen on the side, making him roll his eyes. “With all the alcohol you had running in you, I wouldn’t be surprised!”

The next one to hug Mikleo was Eizen himself, with just one arm around Mikleo’s back. “Don’t be a stranger, alright?”

The hug had left Mikleo’s glasses askew on top of his nose. After crying with his lens on for so long, Mikleo’s eyes had become irritated and red, and Mikleo had decided on simply wearing his glasses for the reminder of his trip. Now, Eizen pushed them back up the bridge of Mikleo’s nose with a single finger and a teasing tilt to his mouth.

“I promise.” Mikleo muttered, smiling up at him.

Next was Edna, but because she was… well, Edna, she didn’t hug him. When Mikleo tried to approach her she raised her now folded umbrella towards him, resting its tip right on Mikleo’s chest. “Don’t you dare.”

“Oh, come on—“

“…Just hurry up and come visit us soon.”

Mikleo smiled once again with a nod. “Alright.”

There wasn’t much left to say to Michael, so Mikleo said nothing. But he did shake his uncle’s hand, tightly, the action more or less a reaffirmation of what they had said earlier. They would see each other soon. It was the only way to keep their relationship to crumbling back to simple rubble.

It would make Lailah happy too.

“Send Lailah my unconditional, burning love for her.” Zaveid said with a wide grin.

Mikleo rolled his eyes. “I will not.”

“Have a safe trip.” Eizen said, completely ignoring Zaveid.

With a nod, Mikleo finally turned around. “Bye, everyone.”

“Bye, bye, Mikky-boy! Be good!”

There wasn’t much of a line in the security checkpoint. From there he could hear Zaveid still shouting after him, and when Mikleo turned around he saw him waving with his arm. He probably knew he was embarrassing Mikleo and loving every second of it.

Turning around, Mikleo sighed, a hint of affection pulling the corner’s of his mouth up.

Two people before him. In almost no time he would be in that train, on his way back home, moving away from lots of people he loved and wanted close. It was so bittersweet, going back home —

Mikleo pulled out his phone. It had been completely silent all morning, but he still felt hope as he turned it around and let his thumb hover over the home button, waiting a second before turning the screen on.

When no notifications where displayed, Mikleo felt his stomach drop to his feet.

Stop it, Mikleo thought inwardly. You have no right to do this, stop it, stop—

“Mikleo, wait!!”

Mikleo turned around immediately, looking beyond the people waiting in line behind him, beyond the little group that were Zaveid and the others. He knew that voice. He had been longing to hear it since Thursday afternoon…

And sure enough, Sorey was running towards him a full speed, familiar like the back of his own hand, calling Mikleo’s name at the top of his lungs and drawing all the eyes towards himself.

With his heart coming back to life and beating fast in his chest, Mikleo moved out of the queue and a little away, gripping the handle of his suitcase so tight it hurt.

“Sorey?” Mikleo asked in a whisper, barely believing this was happening. “What—?”

Sorey started to slow down until he was panting right in front of Mikleo, hands on his knees. His hair was damp with sweat, clinging to his forehead and brow as Sorey fought to bring his breathing under control, but one of his hands shot forward blindly to grab the hem of Mikleo’s shirt, tight enough to turn his knuckles white. “Ah, I’m so glad I made it—!”

Mikleo felt the back of his shirt dig into the skin of his nape. “Sorey, what are you doing here?”

Sorey went to reply, but instead he inhaled sharply, gasping as he straightened his back. Then his eyes found Mikleo’s, and the light in that penetrating green nailed Mikleo to the spot, making his heart skip a beat.

“I’m sorry.” Sorey rushed to say, pushing his hair back with his free hand. It stood up in a mess, locks pointing in different directions. “I’m so sorry I didn’t talk to you yesterday, I’m—!”

“You have nothing to apologize for.” Mikleo said, shaking his head. “I understand.”

“No, you don’t!” Sorey shouted and Mikleo jumped, surprised by the outburst. Sorey rarely raised his voice like that. “That’s— I don’t want things to end like that!”

“…You’re not making any sense, you know?”

“I know.” Sorey swallowed thickly. His hand finally let go of Mikleo’s shirt, leaving it all crumpled around the edge. “I was… very confused. Very, very confused, but yesterday I realized something.”

Mikleo’s heart —which honestly deserved a medal for surviving until that point —skipped another beat. “What?”

Sorey leaned forward slightly, his eyes sparkling. “I respect your answer. I swear I do. But—does it mean we can’t be friends anymore?”

“I—what?” Mikleo was so lost… Maybe he had been hit in the head? Had blacked out after Zaveid’s hug had made it impossible to breathe? It was known to happen.

“Mikleo,” Sorey continued, his hands moving up to rest on Mikleo’s shoulders. “What I said on Thursday was true. Being your friend is an amazing feeling and… I don’t want to say goodbye to that!”

Now it was Mikleo’s turn to swallow, biting the inside of his cheek. Sorey was looking expectantly at him, still breathing quickly, cheeks red from all the running—and Mikleo could only think of kissing him. Kissing this wonderful, sweet boy that was willing to continue being his friend despite Mikleo having broken his heart.

“Are you sure?” Mikleo asked in a whisper. He was suddenly glad he hadn’t worn his lens; his eyes were welling up with tears again.

Sorey’s smile was genuine and blinding when he said: “Of course!”

Before Sorey could add anything else Mikleo hugged him, leaning on the tips of his toes to curl his arms around Sorey’s neck, who gasped and gave a step back to maintain his equilibrium. But soon his own arms found their way around Mikleo, lifting him off the ground and holding him tight as one of his hands played with his hair.

Sorey laughed next to Mikleo’s ear, warm and happy. “Is this a yes? Can we still be friends?”

Mikleo knew he would cry if he spoke, so he simply nodded against Sorey’s shoulder.

The hug was short lived, but by the time Sorey moved back Mikleo had his tears under control. He smiled tentatively up at Sorey, who gave him back a full grin.

Mikleo shook his head. “You’re unbelievable.”

Sorey’s answer came with a shrug, his smile never slipping away. “I didn’t want to do this over the phone.”

“How the hell did you even know when I was leaving? I never said.”

Sorey moved his hand idly. “Rose has her ways. I stopped asking a long while ago.”

“Still—!”

“Look, I—“ Sorey started to say, looking down for a moment before meeting Mikleo’s eyes once again. “You were right. It’s only been two weeks since we truly met, and I rushed things. But I want more time, Mikleo. To know you better, to be your friend! So I hope I can get it, even if it’s long distance. That’s why I came here today. I just want to make sure I can still call myself your friend.”

There were many things Mikleo could have said in that moment, many things that he actually wanted to say. But instead of any of them, he simply said: “Of course you can, you idiot.”

Sorey smiled brightly again. Then, he held out a fist in the space between their chests, not once taking his eyes off Mikleo. His gaze felt like a promise, and his smile like encouragement.

“Text me when you arrive to Ladylake?” Sorey asked, arm still extended.

Mikleo raised his, so his wrist bumped softly against Sorey’s. “I’ll text you on the train.” He said, and by Sorey’s smile, it was the good thing to say.

 


 

As the city of Pendrago rushed by the window of the train, Mikleo’s phone buzzed in the pocket of his coat.

When he pulled it out, there was something else in there as well — a black cord with a familiar pendant, still warm from Sorey’s body heat.

It was Sorey’s Shepherd necklace.

Sorey: Think of it as a promise. We have to meet again so you can give it back, alright?

Sorey: BTW, did you know they almost couldn’t set up the train tracks because it was believed that remains of a civilization dating of the Era of Asgard laid underneath the ground?

Leaning his head against the glass, Mikleo smiled.

 

 

Chapter Text

Sorey.

Months later.

 

Summer in Pendrago meant light.

The otherwise gray city bursted with colors during the early months of summer. The sun shone brightly over the green grass, the old constructions gleamed with history, and the sky overhead was so blue and devoid of clouds that it was like an endless sea, airplanes like fishes leaving their trail on it.

Sorey loved summer. The heat and being outdoors filled him with energy, but the sun on his skin made him want to bask in it all day. The soft breeze, still chill for winter, kept the sweat at bay and played with Sorey’s hair like a gentle hand.

His favorite pastime during these months was to lay down on the soft grass of campus with a book, right by the lake, his head propped up by his own backpack. There was something unique about reading by sunlight that Sorey adored. He had always been called a child of the outdoors —how many times had Gramps had to go out as the sun went down to drag Sorey home back in Elysia, after all? Nothing could make Sorey not enjoy a sunny day.

But that day was different. Sorey was on campus, sitting by the lake, but he wasn’t enjoying the summer day. He wasn’t tilting his head towards the sun, wasn’t reading a book—he wasn’t even listening to his friends chat idly by his side, which he liked to do when his eyes became too tired to continue reading, but he was too lazy to move just yet.

Instead, he was looking down at his phone as if it were a bomb about to explode.

The thing was laying in his hand, not making a sound, not even buzzing, but still Sorey didn’t take his eyes away from the screen, pursing his lips worriedly as he touched the tips of his feather earring with his other hand. Sorey had been like that for almost an hour now, his folded legs trembling with nervousness as Sorey swiped his thumb up and down the screen.

With how much he was fiddling with the poor phone, it was a wonder it hadn’t run out of battery yet.

“Oh come on!” Rose suddenly exclaimed next to him, but not even that made Sorey look up from the screen. “Just do it already! Since when do you overthink things, anyway?”

“I’m not overthinking.” Sorey mumbled. The shaking of his knees became a bit more erratic. “I’m just thinking about this thoroughly.”

Rose shook her head. “When you’ve been at it for two hours, that’s overthinking!”

“Leave him be, Rose.” Alisha said without bothering to open her eyes. She was laying on the grass, not very far away from Sorey, with her head resting on Rose’s thigh. “Sorey just needs time. He’ll do it when he’s ready.”

At that, Sorey did lift up his head to smile at his friend. “Thanks, Alisha.”

“But he’s making me feel anxious with all that squirming! Sorey, you’re like an annoying fly that won’t stop buzzing in my ear. Man up and do it already!”

Sorey pouted. “That’s mean.”

“But not less untrue.” Dezel chimed in, a rare occurrence. He was lying with his head on Alisha’s stomach, a hat covering his eyes from the sun and his legs stretched in front of him, arms crossed over his chest.

With a groan, Sorey let himself fall back until his head was on the ground, eyes on the blue sky. His fingers drumming on his phone, he thought of what he was about to do, and why his heart was starting to hammer in his chest like an overexcited bird.

“Why are you so worried anyway, Sorey?” Alisha asked. When Sorey turned his head to look at her, she was looking at him as well, a soft smile on her lips. “It’s just Mikleo.”

Sorey nodded. Alisha was right… and, at the same time, she wasn’t. Yes, it was just Mikleo, but precisely because all of it was about him, well…

“Are you scared about him saying no?” Rose asked, softer this time. She tilted her head to the side, waiting for Sorey’s answer.

“…Not exactly.” Sorey said as he pushed himself back to a sitting position, legs folded underneath himself. He passed a hand through the back of his hair, shaking it lightly to get rid of anything that could have crawled in it. It had happened to him before. “I’m not scared. I just—I don’t want him to think this is me asking him out again.”

Dezel crossed his legs by his ankles, tapping a tune only he could hear with the tip of his boot idly. “And it isn’t?”

Sorey blushed, lowering his gaze. “I… My feelings haven’t changed in all these months. But… I’m not going to shove them on Mikleo again, either.”

“Sorey…”

The wind blew then, causing ripples in the shore of the lake. Sorey turned his head in its direction, closing his eyes to feel the breeze in his face.

Mikleo had left at the beginning of winter, when the first snows hadn’t fallen yet. It had been months since Sorey had last seen him in person — he could still remember how tight Mikleo had hugged him then, how his hands had clung to him, and then his smile as they bumped wrists, soft and nervous, but still happy. And even though they talked through the phone every day, even though they were constantly texting each other… Sorey missed him. He missed him terribly.

It had only gotten worse during the last few months. With every text, every interaction, Sorey kept falling deeper and deeper for Mikleo, for his quirky remarks and intelligent comebacks. They had talked about everything and anything, and Sorey—

Sorey had it so bad for him.

But being friends was good for him. It wasn’t settling for a friendship, it was a privilege. Mikleo was Sorey’s best friend… And that was more than enough.

“I think you should do it.” Alisha said, raising up from Rose’s thigh. Dezel grunted and twisted his upper body to move it from Alisha’s stomach to the ground, tilting his hat again so it couldn’t roll off his face.

Sorey scratched his cheek, moving his knees up and down. “I want to. I will. I’m just nervous.”

“Come on, you’re Sorey!” Rose shouted, curling her arm so her biceps strained against the skin. “Pendrago’s super Motivational Speaker! If you can’t do this, then no one can!”

“You talk to each other every day.” Alisha giggled, folding her legs against her chest. “Why don’t you just call him to see how he is, and then simply ask?”

Sorey blinked, looking down at his now blocked phone. “That’s… a good idea.”

“You’ll chicken out.” Dezel said, voice devoid of emotion.

“No, he won’t!” Rose shouted. “You’re not being helpful, Dezel!”

“Tsk.”

As their friends continued to bicker, Sorey looked down at his phone, swiping his thumb over the screen to unlock it. Immediately, Mikleo’s contact info popped up, with the tiny photo Sorey had set for whenever Mikleo called. It was a photo Mikleo himself had sent him — Mikleo making a silly face, mimicking the one of an old statue that stood next to him and that Mikleo claimed looked like Gramps in that other photo Sorey had sent him.

Sorey would have set it as his lock screen, had things been different.

His thumb hovered over the little green circle on the screen, feeling his heart speed up again.

“You okay, buddy?” Rose’s voice suddenly sounded close; when Sorey looked up, he was surprised to find her sitting beside him, one leg curled beneath herself, the other pressed against her chest.

“Yeah.” Sorey replied, returning his attention back to his phone. “I can do this.”

“Of course you can.” Rose said fondly, and then she leaned in closer. “Hey, is that a crack on your screen!?”

“What!?”

Sorey’s eyes went all over his phone, looking for said crack. The phone had been a present for his birthday from Gramps — if he had managed to crack it so soon, he knew the old man would be pissed.

“Yeah, look! Here.” Rose continued, and moved her hand to touch the area of the screen where the crack was supposed to be.

Right over the call button.

The screen changed to indicate that the device was calling Mikleo, his name displayed in big, white letters while his profile picture occupied the rest of the screen. Sorey cried out, moving the phone away from his body as if it burned.

“Rose, what did you do!?”

“You’ll thank me later!” Rose shouted back, saluting Sorey with two fingers to her forehead. “Put the speaker on!”

“I’m not—!”

Hello?

Mikleo’s voice sounded tiny and metallic coming from the phone, which Sorey still kept at arm’s length. When he realized Mikleo had picked up, Sorey rushed to bring it back closer, almost dropping it to the ground in his haste. He barely caught it before it could fall all the way down, sighing in relief when he did so.

“Sorey?” Mikleo continued, confusion apparent in his voice, but also a bit of amusement. “Is this your pocket calling me again? Because I swear, I—“

“I’m here!” Sorey shouted, pressing his phone to his ear. Next to him, Rose laughed without any remorse. “Sorry! Hi, Mikleo.”

“Hey,” Mikleo replied. Sorey had become very good at deducing what expression Mikleo was making based on the tone of his voice; right then, he was smiling fondly, most likely. “Are you okay?”

Sorey stood up suddenly, turning his back on his friends. He couldn’t do this with their eyes on him. “S-sure! Why do you ask?”

“Well, for starters, you sound like a rubber duck.” Mikleo said, making Sorey’s face heat up. He let out a groan in the shape of Mikleo’s name, but Mikleo didn’t acknowledge it. “And then there’s the fact that we usually call after dinner, but now it’s the middle of the day, so… Are you okay, Sorey?”

Without really realizing it, Sorey had started to walk slowly, away from his friends. Mikleo’s voice alone was enough to make him smile, to push all the nervousness away. Why had he been scared of calling Mikleo in the first place? “Yeah, I am! I just wanted to talk to you, and ask you something.”

“O-oh… Alright then, go ah—Wait, hold on.”

Mikleo’s end of the line went suddenly silent, probably from Mikleo putting a hand on the receiver. While he waited, Sorey looked up towards the sky, watching a big, golden bird circle over his head. He decided to take the sight of the bird as an encouragement.

When sound reached Sorey again through his phone, he knew what he was going to say.

“Sorry about that.” Mikleo said. His breathing was a bit worked up, as if he was moving. There was less background noise now.

Sorey shook his head, despite Mikleo not being able to see it. “It’s alright! Are you busy?”

“Yeah.” Mikleo replied; but before Sorey could say anything, Mikleo added. “But it’s fine, I want to talk to you too. And I could use a break.”

“Ah, is your thesis still giving you trouble?”

“Yeah, something like that.” Mikleo’s tone changed with those words. A frown now, maybe. Then Mikleo cleared his throat. “What did you want to ask me?”

“Oh, yeah!” Sorey breathed in deeply, finally stopping his slow walking. Then he let the air slowly through slightly parted lips, eyes set firmly on the sky. His heart was beating fast, but it didn’t bother him. “You see… You know how Rulay is about to release his second book, right?”

“I… Yes, I know.”

Sorey took in another big inhale. “And you know how the only book signing he’s going to do will be in Ladylake? Which is totally unfair, as if he didn’t have fans all over Glenwood—!”

“I’m—You—“ Mikleo stammered, suddenly at a loss of words. “I… I know that too, but I don’t know what you’re getting at…?”

“I was thinking we could go together.” Sorey rushed to say, balancing himself back and forth in the balls of his feet. He couldn’t stop drumming his free fingers on his thigh, either. “We both like Rulay’s work so…”

“You… you want us to go the signing together?” Mikleo asked back, voice slightly higher than usual. And then, after a short moment of silence, he added. “Does this mean you’re coming to Ladylake!?”

Sorey laughed sheepishly, scratching now at his cheek with his index finger. “Surprise? Of course, I haven’t bought the ticket or booked my hotel yet! I wanted to ask if you were okay with it first.”

“I’m—this is—“

When Mikleo said nothing in reply, Sorey’s shoulders sagged. He had known this could happen, of course. Mikleo had been stressed over his thesis for weeks, still was in fact; Sorey could see why his visit wouldn’t be welcome right now, even if it wasn’t due for at least a couple more of weeks.

“Hey, it’s fine.” Sorey said, using the most soothing voice he could come up with. He knew Mikleo pretty well at that point—he knew his friend would be wrecking his head to find something to say. “You’re pretty busy right now, and I was just calling to check, anyway.” Sorey smiled softly, sincerely. “I understand, Mikleo.”

There was the faint sound of a sharp intake of breath coming from Mikleo’s side then, as if he had been surprised by Sorey’s words. Sorey blinked, and was about to ask if Mikleo was alright when Mikleo interrupted him, firm and secure.

“No.”

Sorey frowned. “Huh?”

“I mean— Let’s do it!” Mikleo suddenly shouted, making Sorey jump. “Let’s… go to Rulay’s signing together, Sorey.”

Sorey’s heart skipped an excited beat. “You—you mean it!? For real?”

“Yeah.” Mikleo’s smile was back on his voice, soft and warm like Mikleo’s own touch.

“Are you sure? I don’t want to add more stress than what you’re feeling already, and—“

Mikleo made a low noise that sounded like a negative. “It’s alright. I’m, uh…”

It was easy, so very easy, for Sorey to know what Mikleo was trying to say. It was, after all, the same thing he was feeling. And that made Sorey incredibly happy. “I can’t wait to see you, Mikleo!”

A second of surprised silence, instantly followed by a low chuckle from Mikleo. “Me too.”

“Can we talk later tonight? I need some help with booking everything for the trip.”

“Of course. But, Sorey, are you sure you’ll be alright? I mean, with your shows and the radio…”

“Oh, I already took care of that! Rose agreed we should take a little ‘vacation’, and I convinced her to do it around Rulay’s signing. And regarding the radio, Rose and Dezel said they can take care of it for a few days, so it’s alright!”

A group of loud people passed close to where Sorey was standing, their voices mingling with whatever it was Mikleo said in response. Sorey turned around without losing his smile, walking back again towards his friends as slowly as he could. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that!”

Mikleo chuckled again. “I was just saying it’s kind of a miracle Rose actually gave you vacation.”

Sorey laughed with him. “Right? I can’t believe it yet.”

“It’s kind of— oh?” Silence again from Mikleo’s side gave Sorey an opportunity to change his phone from one hand to the other. His arm was starting to feel heavy. As he did that, the faint sound of a woman’s voice reached him from Mikleo’s end, too faint for Sorey to know what she was saying. “Alright, I’ll be there in a second.” Mikleo said into the speaker, but it wasn’t directed at Sorey.

“You have to go?” Sorey asked a bit sadly, once the woman’s voice disappeared. Talking to Mikleo was Sorey’s own motivational burst, and now that they were planning to meet soon, Sorey could barely contain his excitement.

“Yeah, that was Lailah.” Mikleo said with a sigh. “She’s helping me, but I have to go back now. I’ll call you tonight?”

Sorey nodded again. “Yeah!”

“Oh, and… Thank you, Sorey.”

“Huh? What for?” Sorey was almost already back with his friends. He could see them pretending not to be listening attentively.

“I don’t know… For coming, I guess. I am excited about this.”

Sorey’s chest bursted with happiness. He smiled for the world to see, practically skipping now instead of walking. “Me too, Mikleo!”

“Great.” Mikleo replied with another smile. “See you soon.”

“See you!” Sorey exclaimed, just before Mikleo hung up.

Weeks. In mere weeks, Sorey would be seeing Mikleo again after months of calls and text, of getting to know each other in a way they didn’t before.

His heart hammering in his chest, Sorey threw his arms up as he cheered his throat raw, his smile rivaling the brightness of the sun.

 


 

Confetti fell like flower petals over Sorey’s head. Ladylake was alive with music and color—probably some kind of festival. Anywhere he looked, anywhere he went to, Sorey was met with excitement as the people around him laughed, chatted and ate. Sorey wondered if Mikleo would show him around if he asked, if he would explain what the city was celebrating. Or maybe they could go exploring, do the same things they had done back in Pendrago, just that this time it would be Mikleo explaining every nook and every painting.

But not that day. Mikleo had said, during their last video chat a few days ago, that he wouldn’t be able to pick Sorey up at the station, nor go together to the venue. He had seemed tired, and sad over the fact, so Sorey had rushed to say he would be fine. He had his phone with him, after all, and Mikleo had been sure to send him the exact location of the bookshop the day before.

Rulay’s signing was in a small bookstore in the center of the city, near the sanctuary of the Lady of the Lake. Still, it was far away enough that Sorey couldn’t hear the music anymore. It was situated in a quiet square near a fountain, where children liked to play and splash each other during the summer.

Even if he hadn’t had the directions, Sorey wouldn’t have had much trouble finding it. There was a decent number of people by the door of ‘Ladylake bookshop and coffee’, some of them smoking, all of them chatting animatedly. Sorey quickly scanned the faces, hoping to find a familiar head of white and blue hair among them, but there was no luck.

Without stopping his walking, Sorey went from his maps app to his messaging one, quickly typing out a text for Mikleo.

Sorey: I’m here! There’s so many people at the entrance, I’m excited!

There was no response, but it didn’t bother Sorey. Mikleo had said he’d be busy right before the signing, so he wasn’t surprised about not hearing from him.

When Sorey finally reached the shop, any doubt about this not being the actual venue left his head. On the window, pasted on the glass, was a blue poster promoting Rulay’s new book, a miniature of the cover right under the bold letters that promised Rulay’s visit that very same day, but with no picture of the author.

Of Shepherds and legends: A study of the tales of the Shepherd’. That was the title of Rulay’s new book, and to say it had blown Sorey’s mind was an understatement. It was so similar to Mikleo’s thesis project that he hadn’t been able to stop himself from joking to Mikleo at one point that Rulay had plagiarized him.

Mikleo had laughed then, shaking his head on the screen of Sorey’s laptop. “My work is much better.” Mikleo had said with a smirk, toying with Sorey’s shepherd necklace, the one Mikleo now had.

Sorey wondered if Mikleo would wear it that day.

The group in front of the door parted, if slightly, to let Sorey pass. Inside, it wasn’t to say the place was packed, but there was definitely more people than Sorey had expected to see at the signing of a history and archeology book. He picked up bits of conversation as he walked further into the bookshop, and smiled as he felt the need to intrude, to share his own ideas and thoughts. Again, the only reason he didn’t do it was because he was too busy looking for Mikleo.

A big area of the shop had been cleared, and instead of tables and shelves there were chairs arranged in rows, all of them facing a long table with piles of Rulay’s book and three water bottles, each one in front of a chair.

There were people already sitting down on the chairs, waiting for the signing to start. Sorey didn’t join them, though. Instead, he stood at the back, near the last row of chairs as he left his bag between his feet and unlocked his phone once again, surprised to find a text from Mikleo already.

Mikleo: Where?

Sorey: By the chairs! Are you here already??

Sorey looked around once again, putting his phone back in his pocket. His heart was beating wildly as he did so, eager to find Mikleo soon. He wanted to hug him the moment he saw him, but he didn’t want to make Mikleo feel awkward. Maybe shaking his hand? A wrist bump? Or maybe he could simply—

“Sorey.”

Every thought left Sorey’s head the moment he heard Mikleo’s voice, soft and familiar and close. He turned around instantly, following the sound until his eyes found Mikleo’s and he felt himself smile so big his cheeks hurt.

“Mikleo! I’m so—woah.”

Mikleo looked… incredible. His hair was still long and pulled up into a high ponytail, and sadly he wasn’t wearing his glasses… But the soft, blue, silky button down he was wearing made Sorey want to run his hands up his arms, and the white, tight pants he wore—held up by a black belt— showed the shape of his legs, clung to them in a way that had Sorey blushing. Sorey’s eyes ran over him from the shiny black shoes to the open collar of his shirt, drinking in the sight that was Mikleo in formal attire.

And then he saw, resting against the triangle of skin visible through the open neck of his shirt, his own Shepherd necklace, the black cord in contrast to the paleness of Mikleo’s skin.

Words eluded Sorey. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth, which fell open in surprise and awe. There was no way he would survive this—it was the moment he discovered Mikleo wore glasses all over again. He was so beautiful and elegant Sorey wanted to make sure he was actually real. How people didn’t turn their heads to look at Mikleo as he walked by was beyond Sorey.

Maybe that was why it took Sorey a moment to realize Mikleo was suddenly hugging him. His arms were tight around Sorey, his ponytail tickling Sorey softly on the cheek, and his whole body was pressed close against his own, chests brushing, hips brought together. Sorey gasped softly, and observed as his breathing messed with some of the locks on Mikleo’s ponytail.

With his heart about to collapse from extenuation, Sorey moved to hug Mikleo back. His shirt was truly as smooth as it looked, the silk cool under Sorey’s palms.

“H-hey!” Sorey exclaimed with his chin on Mikleo’s shoulder, inhaling his scent. He smelt of perfume that day, something unusual in him, but underneath that there was the familiar scent of faint vanilla that always clung to Mikleo. “I can’t believe you’re here!”

“That should be my line.” Mikleo said, stepping back. For a second, Sorey thought about leaving his hands on Mikleo’s frame, but he let them fall naturally in the end. Mikleo smiled softly then, barely a tilt of the corners of his mouth. “Welcome to Ladylake, Sorey.”

Sorey nodded, returning Mikleo’s smile. “It’s good to be here! It almost feels like no time has passed since we last saw each other.”

Mikleo’s smile grew as he shook his head. His eyes looked so pretty under the lights of the bookshop… “It’s true. Even though we had the video calls, it wasn’t the same.”

“Mm!” Making a great effort, Sorey tore his eyes away from Mikleo and looked around, trying to get his breathing under control. He could feel Mikleo’s inquisitive gaze on the back of his head. “There’s so many people in here already!” Sorey continued. “Why don’t we go sit? We might not get a spot if we don’t hurry…”

“Actually, Sorey… I have to go.”

Sorey turned around sharply, wide green eyes going back to Mikleo in time to see him wince. “What!? But I thought—!”

“I know—“ Mikleo quickly interrupted, stepping closer. The moment Sorey saw the anguish in his features, he felt the need to pull him closer, to promise everything would be alright… But Mikleo continued speaking before Sorey could even move, and his words only managed to confuse Sorey even more. “—and I’m sorry, I really am. But, listen—“ He grabbed Sorey’s hand then, tightly, and Sorey quickly held it back, squeezing it softly as he watched color rush to Mikleo’s cheeks. “Stay. Promise me you’ll stay until the end of the signing.”

“Eh? But I—“

“We’ll talk as soon as this is over, I promise.” Mikleo said, squeezing Sorey’s hand. “But in return, promise me you’ll stay until the end. Until I have a chance to explain.”

Sorey blinked, again at a loss for words. He didn’t know what was going on, and Mikleo’s uncharacteristic plea was only making him more confused. But—

Slowly, as if he were handling a startled animal, Sorey moved his arms around Mikleo again, softly bringing him closer until they were hugging once more. He felt it when Mikleo went tense all over, his muscles tight as wire under Sorey’s hands — and then relaxed, raising his hands to cling to Sorey’s jacket but without actually hugging him.

Sorey smiled, closing his eyes. “Of course I’ll stay! I came to see you, after all.” Sorey said lowly, hugging Mikleo a bit tighter. Then he moved back, but only enough to look at Mikleo in the eyes as he spoke, smiling brightly down at his friend. “But stop looking so nervous! It’s creeping me out.”

Mikleo snorted. “Why?”

“It’s weird to see you lose your cool.” A shrug accompanied Sorey’s words, and Mikleo snorted again. “Relax, go do your thing, and when you come back we can talk and have fun! Okay?”

“…Okay.” Mikleo finally replied with a nod.

Sorey nodded back, smile stretching over his face. “Good!” He let Mikleo go then, stepping back and letting his arms fall to his sides. “I’ll make sure Rulay signs a book for you too!”

Mikleo seemed more composed now. He was still a bit nervous — he kept tugging at the sleeves of his own shirt — but Sorey got the feeling Mikleo trusted his word. It was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, and honestly, Sorey couldn’t begin to understand how Mikleo could have thought he would just leave. He wanted to meet Rulay, sure, but—the goal behind this small trip was to see Mikleo.

He felt himself blush at that thought. He had wanted to see Mikleo so bad, and now he was finally there—!

“There’s no need for that.” Mikleo continued, shaking his head as his smile became a smirk. “Oh, but that reminds me—“ He scurried away for a second, quickly disappearing behind a corner, but he was back in the next blink of an eye, holding a book in between his hands and presenting it to Sorey. Only a glance was enough for Sorey to realize it was Rulay’s new book. “Here. For you.”

“Huh!? Mikleo, you don’t have to— I was gonna buy it now!”

“I know. That’s why I’m buying it for you.” Mikleo smiled, moving the book closer to Sorey. “Consider it a welcome present.”

Sorey hesitated for a moment, but Mikleo’s eyes were clear and warm as he held the book out for Sorey. When he smiled and took it Mikleo lighted up a bit, smiling back at Sorey with the first full grin of the morning.

“Thank you so much, Mikleo! I can’t wait to read it.”

“I hope you like it.” He said, and gave a step back. “I’ll let the shop owner know about your book, and then I have to go… But enjoy the signing.”

Another smile curled up the corners of Sorey’s mouth. “I will. Thanks again, Mikleo!”

“See you later, then.”

“Yeah, see—!!”

They moved in at the same time, and that ended in trouble. Sorey went in for a hug, lowering his face a bit to rest his chin on Mikleo’s shoulder. And Mikleo… Sorey wasn’t very sure about what Mikleo was intending to do, but when both of them moved in at the same time they found themselves too close, and before any of them could stop — their mouths met softly, barely a brush of lips but enough to send their hearts into overdrive, Sorey feeling electricity go from the point of contact to the very tips of his toes.

Mikleo was the first one to move back, as if the contact had burned him too. He covered his mouth with his hand, but he wasn’t able to cover the deep red of his cheeks.

“I—I’m sorry!” Mikleo quickly exclaimed, voice muffled through his palm. “I didn’t mean to—“

“It’s okay!” Sorey reassured, laughing through his own embarrassment. “It was just an accident, don’t worry.”

It took a moment, but Mikleo laughed lowly too, shaking his head and moving his hand to press it against his own cheek. “Seriously…”

“Mm?”

“Nothing.” Mikleo turned around then, speaking to Sorey over his shoulder once last time. “See you later?”

Sorey nodded. “You got it!”

With one last wave Mikleo left, scurrying past people that didn’t even turn to look at him. Sorey craned his neck to follow him with his eyes, but by then there were too many people inside and Mikleo was gone between one blink and the next.

Oh, well. Sorey thought, turning towards the chairs, I’ll see him later!

In the end, he had to sit near the back, the rest of the chairs already occupied. It was unbelievable, but he had forgotten he was surrounded by people while he spoke to Mikleo. It was like he had been so excited to see him that all of his senses had only been paying Mikleo —and Mikleo alone— any attention. Now that he was alone, Sorey felt a bit self-conscious about such a display in front of so many people, but not at all ashamed.

He could still feel the point where Mikleo’s lips had brushed against his.

But he couldn’t think about that. They were friends, and nothing more. Friends didn’t think about kissing their friends’ mouth.

No matter how many times he told himself so, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

There was no time to continue doing it, however. A woman walked to stand before the long table with the books and the water bottles as the last of the people went to sit down or stand at the very back of the room. Everyone started to quiet down as the woman smiled and politely waited until everyone was ready to begin.

“Good morning, everyone.” The woman said, taking a small bow. “Welcome to ‘Ladylake books and coffee’! My name is Medea, I’m the owner of the bookshop.” A polite round of applause interrupted her words, and she took another small bow, hands clasped before her. “Thank you. It is my honor to have author Luzrov Rulay here today to present his new book ‘Of Shepherds and legends: A study on the tales of the Shepherd.’ As some of you may now, young Luzrov Rulay specializes in history and archeology, and even though he started writing when he was very young, this is only his second book. Please, welcome Luzrov Rulay to the table, and his manager Lailah.”

Sorey clapped with the rest of the audience, already bouncing in his seat with excitement. First came a woman, tall and slim as a flower, with hair so white it was almost silver, and the tips a soft, sweet pink. She smiled warmly, her hands clasped together over her long skirt as her blue-green eyes looked over the audience. The moment he saw her smile, Sorey thought she was very pretty; she incited to smile as well, the sweetness behind the gesture making Sorey feel at ease.

Then Luzrov Rulay stepped into view.

Sorey’s heart stopped beating. Because behind Lailah, chin tilted up and shoulders squared, was Mikleo, his ponytail swaying gently behind him as he walked up to stand next to Lailah and take a small bow. People clapped once again, but Sorey didn’t join them this time. He couldn’t stop looking at Mikleo, trying to process the new information. Mikleo was Luzrov Rulay. Luzrov Rulay was Mikleo.

Sorey’s first coherent thought was that he should have known.

His second thought made him look down, at the book resting in his lap. It wasn’t a coincidence, then. Mikleo had gone to Pendrago to work on his book, not on his thesis. This was the reason why he always got tense when Sorey asked too much about it, why he had been so anxious lately.

Why he couldn’t stay with Sorey that day.

And then, his third thought made him open the book with shaky fingers. He could remember the excitement over discovering his name on Rulay’s — Mikleo’s— first book, how much he would have loved to be that Sorey. And now—

Now—

There, in the first page of Mikleo’s new book, a single line. But it was enough to make Sorey’s heart burst, feelings running wild through his veins.

For Sorey: my voice through the darkness.

Sorey lifted his gaze up and closed the book softly, thumbs brushing the lettering on the cover.

He needed to talk to Mikleo.

 


 

The line to get a signature from Mikleo was long, but Sorey stood patiently in line, pressing his book to his chest with one arm. In any other occasion, he would have chatted with the people around him but in that moment… In that moment, he only had eyes for Mikleo, for his tilted down head as he wrote on the books handed to him, and his polite smile as he greeted his readers.

Sorey’s heart skipped a beat.

Luzrov Rulay…

When his turn came around, Sorey saw Mikleo get tense. The line of his shoulders became stiff, and his fingers on the table curled slightly; still, Mikleo’s eyes bore into Sorey’s with the heat of a flame, trying to read him, to predict his thoughts. They looked at each other for a long while, Sorey standing in front of the table, Mikleo sitting behind it.

“Hi!” Sorey finally said, smiling softly as he held the book forward. “Will you sign this for me, please?”

Mikleo stared at him for a second longer, eyes traveling from one of Sorey’s eyes to the other… and sighed, reaching forward to take the book.

“Sure,” he said, quickly looking down to write on the first page. His ponytail fell over his shoulder, spilling over the paper.

“Um, Luzrov?” The woman next to Mikleo —Lailah— started, leaning close to whisper in Mikleo’s ear. “You didn’t even ask for his name…”

“It’s alright, Lailah.” Mikleo replied without looking up. “I know him already.”

“Huh?”

Sorey turned towards her, smiling naturally. “It’s nice to finally meet you, Lailah! I’m Sorey. M—Luzrov has told me a lot about you!”

“Oh? Oh!” Lailah’s eyes grew comically wide, her long lashes fluttering when she blinked in surprise. “Sorey!” She screamed, jumping to her feet with a big smile. With a swift movement of her arm, she grabbed Mikleo’s shoulder, hard, and shook him enough for a shaky black line to appear on the page. “You didn’t tell me he was coming! Ah, Sorey, it is nice to finally meet you too! Did you enjoy the signing?”

Sorey nodded, never once losing his smile. “I did! It was—how do I put it?—…illuminating!”

Lailah laughed politely, but Mikleo’s eyes snapped back at him at that, the ball of his pen still touching the page. Sorey looked back at him from the corner of his eye, hoping his smile was enough to quell any worry Mikleo might have had.

By the way Mikleo looked away, it wasn’t.

“Here you go.” Mikleo said, closing the cover of the book and rising to his feet. When Sorey took it from him, their fingers brushed. “Sorey…”

“I’ll be waiting for you by the fountain in the plaza!” Sorey quickly said, tilting his head to the side. “Come find me when you’re done here, okay?”

Mikleo inhaled sharply through his nose. Sorey was aware of Lailah looking worried at both of them, but he kept his eyes on Mikleo, trying to convey what he was feeling. How in awe he was; how he wanted some answers, but he wouldn’t demand them.

How proud of Mikleo he was.

As the air left Mikleo’s lungs, Mikleo nodded. “Alright.”

 


 

A while after Sorey sat down on the edge of the fountain, he realized he hadn’t read what Mikleo had written on the first. He had been so focused, first on Lailah, and then on transmitting his feelings through his smiles to Mikleo, that he hadn’t even thought about peeking in. Now, more relaxed and with the sound of the fountain behind him —a reminder, of a night near a fountain back in Pendrago, Mikleo shivering from both the cold and the feelings that had swirled inside him —, Sorey opened the book almost reverently.

The sight of the inside made him smile.

Mikleo hadn’t written anything. Instead, under the dedicatory, Mikleo had done doodles all over the page, doodles of things that had to do with both of them, with their story: a pair of headphones; something that looked like burnt-to-crisp teriyaki; a sketch of the facade of the Shrinechurch. The symbol of the Shepherd. Fireworks—

“It took me a month to write the dedicatory on the book.” Mikleo’s voice said suddenly, making Sorey look up. He was approaching slowly, arms tight around himself. “I couldn’t come up with something else now, so I thought—“

“It’s perfect.” Sorey shook his head, rising to his feet. “Thank you, Mikleo… Or should I call you Luzrov?”

A sigh escape from Mikleo’s lips as he looked away. “Mikleo is my real name. Luzrov Rulay is just a pseudonym.”

With a couple of steps forward, Sorey came to stand in front of Mikleo, free hand moving to brush against Mikleo’s softly. “I know. I was just teasing you!” He said. When Mikleo said nothing back, and kept his eyes casted away, Sorey made a tiny noise and angled his body to search for Mikleo’s eyes. “Hey.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” Mikleo rushed to say, eyes snapping back to Sorey’s. “I never intended to lie to you.”

Sorey shook his head. “You have nothing to apologize for! I mean, sure, this is something big, but… I’m more surprised than anything else!”

“Still, I—“

“Look at it this way,” Sorey started, finally taking Mikleo’s hand in his. It was a bit cold and clammy, but Sorey had missed the feel of it too much to care. “Today I discovered my favorite author and my favorite person are the same person! How could I be mad about that?”

It was almost comical to watch Mikleo’s jaw drop and red dye his cheeks, the way his eyes opened wide like saucers. Mikleo stammered, and his hand in Sorey’s clenched —not a squeeze, but a nervous spasm.

Before Sorey could say anything, Mikleo walked past him towards the fountain, sitting down on the edge and picking up the book Sorey had left behind. Sorey observed him do it all, turning his body around to face him.

“Sorry if that was a weird thing to say.” Sorey said, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. He let it slide to the column of his throat, feeling his own heartbeat beat wildly against his palm. “Or if it made you feel uncomfortable. I didn’t mean to—“

“It’s all right.” Mikleo whispered, eyes fixed on the book.

Sorey sighed, shoulders dropping. “May I ask you something?” he started, waiting until Mikleo nodded slowly to continue. “Why didn’t you ever told me? I mean, I don’t mean to sound like I’m demanding answers! I’m just—“

“It’s alright, Sorey.” Mikleo shook his head. “I don’t mind. You deserve to know, after everything.

“Truth is—“ Mikleo continued with a small sigh. “I was scared. That first day—not in Ladylake, but in Pendrago — you gushed for a long time about my book, publicly. You talked about it so warmly, I— I couldn’t bring myself to just say it. Then I got to know you, and… Talking to you like that was so much fun. All the exploring, the theories… I fell in love with all of that, and a part of me thought that it would be over if I told you who I was, and what I was in Pendrago for. It sounds stupid now, but…

“Later on, I just… I couldn’t find the right time. During these past months I have— Sorey, I—“

“Don’t.” Sorey interrupted softly, smiling still. “It’s okay, I see where you’re coming from. I… I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have acted differently if I had known who you were! I mean, I’ve had a tiny crush on Rulay since I read the first book—ah, a completely academic crush I mean!”

Mikleo smirked softly. “I get it.”

When Mikleo added nothing else, Sorey joined him on the edge, sitting down next to him but leaving space between their bodies. There was something heavy around them, something that made Sorey’s skin crawl and uneasiness settle low in his stomach. This wasn’t them; they were laughter and soft touches, smirks and fast replies. This… tension didn’t suit them at all, and Sorey wanted it gone.

But before he could do something about it Mikleo spoke up, effectively breaking the silence and making Sorey’s heart skip a beat at the same time.

“I’m glad you’re here.” He said, looking at Sorey from the corner of his eyes. The book was resting on his lap, but his hands were at his sides, gripping the edge of the fountain tight. “I wanted to see you… But I can’t help but think that I screwed it up.”

“You didn’t.” Sorey assured him, sliding a bit over the stone. There was space still between them, but smaller now. “I’m still here. And I wanted to see you too. Badly.”

That made Mikleo smile. “I’m glad.”

“Also, this is kind of cool, isn’t it?” When Mikleo raised an eyebrow, Sorey continued: “I mean, we knew each other way before we met. You knew me as Sorey the Motivational Speaker. And I knew you as Luzrov Rulay. Meeting each other, you could almost say it was—“

“Destiny.” Mikleo finished for him, looking up at him with a smile.

Sorey mirrored it, brightening up. “Exactly!”

He didn’t expect Mikleo to snort however, turning his face away to hide himself behind ponytail for a second before looking back at Sorey and saying: “I had forgotten what a romantic you are.”

“Hey!” Sorey slid the rest of the way to bump his shoulder to Mikleo’s, making him chuckle. “It was you who said the destiny bit! Besides—“ Sorey hesitated for a second, only for a short moment, and then said: “—I’m sure you didn’t really forget.”

Mikleo looked at him with a soft look and a softer smile. When he tilted his head, his fringe moved slightly over his eyes, and Sorey fell a little bit deeper for him. “No,” Mikleo whispered, rocking his body forward. “I didn’t forget.”

The tension was gone, and so was the space between their bodies. This, this was what they were. Mikleo’s cool hand pressed against Sorey’s on the stone, his pretty eyes shining with mirth and a spark of affection. If Sorey were an artist and had to create a portrait of him, that would be exactly how he would paint him — looking at Sorey with enough warmth in his features to make Sorey’s heart beat happily and fast, like the wings of a bird.

“It’s a nice day.” Mikleo suddenly said, moving back. There was a hint of red on his cheeks, but it could have every well been from before. “Want to walk around?”

Putting the book carefully in his bag, Sorey nodded and raised to his feet eagerly, even as he said: “Don’t you have to go back with Lailah?”

Mikleo shook his head, following Sorey. “I already told her I wanted to speak with you. She’s okay with it.”

“Oh…”

“How about we go around here?” Mikleo continued, guiding Sorey further into the plaza as he put his bag on his back. “There is a small park just up ahead; no one should be there at this time.”

“Okay!”

Together they walked in silence, but it was the good kind. Their hands brushed between them, and Sorey might have imagined it, but it was Mikleo’s fault on the most part. Even if his eyes were set on a point ahead of them, he made sure their hands bumped with every other step, smiling a bit when they did so.

Sorey smiled back, feeling warmth pool in his chest.

“You know,” Mikleo started once they were away from the loud sounds of the plaza and deep into the park, only the sounds of their footsteps, their voices, and small squirrels moving among the branches around them disrupting the silence. “I’ve been thinking for a long time. About what I want to do next.”

Sorey frowned. “Next? You mean for your next book?”

“…Yes and no.” Mikleo replied. HIs shoulders were a bit tense, but the way he held his chin up let Sorey know he was sure about what he was saying. “I do want to continue writing, but I meant in general. I’ve realized that writing is what I want to do in life. And that I can do it anywhere I want.”

“Oh! Does that mean you’re going to go exploring? Man, I’m so jealous—!”

“No,” Mikleo shook his head, smiling. “Not right now, at least. It is in my future plans too… But for that I need money, and for money I need a job, of course.”

Sorey tapped his index finger on his chin pensively. “Right. Even the tools needed for exploring are pricey, and then plane tickets and such—“

“Exactly.” Mikleo took in a big gulp of air, chest expanding with the movement. “I want to find a job, earn some money, write more— And I think Pendrago might be a good place for that.”

Sorey stopped abruptly. Mikleo continued for a second longer only to soon stop too, turning to face Sorey. Silence fell around them as Sorey processed what Mikleo had just said, feeling cold in his hands and warmth deep in his stomach.

“…What?”

Mikleo shrugged. He wasn’t smiling, but his features were soft, tentative. “There are lots of things, and people, that I love back in Pendrago. There’s a lot of Rolance I still haven’t seen yet. Zaveid and the others are there, they keep bugging me to come back. Even Uncle Michael… Things have been going well, but I think it’d be even better if we could chat face to face.” Mikleo stepped closer, making Sorey’s heart jump. “And… there’s you.”

“…Me?” Sorey’s voice came out as something akin to a squeak. It made Mikleo smirk a bit, even if he kept glancing at the side every now and then.

“You. Sorey, can I ask you a question?”

“Huh?” Sorey blinked, surprised by the sudden change of topic. “Of course.”

“Do you still feel the same way you did back in winter? About me?”

The question was like a punch to Sorey’s gut, rendering him breathless. His heart beating wildly in his chest, Sorey felt his hands shaking lightly by his sides. He didn’t want to lie to Mikleo. He couldn’t say anything but the truth to such a direct question, because it wouldn’t be fair to do otherwise—for any of them. Mikleo didn’t deserve a lie, and Sorey… Sorey didn’t want to say something like that out loud. He didn’t want to say that he didn’t love Mikleo out loud.

So he opened his mouth to speak—

“Because I do,” Mikleo continued quickly, not letting Sorey speak first. It seemed to be completely intentional, so Sorey let him, closing his mouth again. “Back then I didn’t—I didn’t say no because I didn’t feel the same way. I said no because—I was scared.”

Sorey frowned, bitting his lower lip softly in thought. His heart skipped a beat when he saw Mikleo’s eyes move down to his mouth for a second, and then snap back up to his eyes. “…Of what?” Sorey asked in a whisper, thinking that maybe he knew the answer already.

“Of it being temporary.” Mikleo whispered back, looking down at Sorey’s feet. Sorey wanted to hug him tight, but he didn’t want Mikleo to stop talking. “We had met only weeks before. I was scared things would go wrong once we were separated, once we didn’t have each other near anymore.” Mikleo breathed in deeply; he forced his eyes back to Sorey’s, squaring his shoulders. “But I was wrong. These past few months have only made me fall deeper for you. And now… I’m very mad at myself for wasting so much time.

“So, Sorey. If I go back to Pendrago… Will you go out with me?”

Sorey’s heart was beating so fast and hard that he was sure Mikleo could hear it in the silence that followed. He tried to speak, to form a coherent sentence, but his mind was caught up on the idea of ‘ He’s coming to Pendrago, he wants to go out with me, he likes me too, he likes me too, he—‘

So caught up Sorey was on his thoughts that he almost missed it when Mikleo’s expression fell, sadness clouding his beautiful eyes. “Of course, if it’s too late…” He started, and alarm bells started to go off in Sorey’s head. “I know I have let too much time pass, you don’t have to—!”

There had been an impulse inside Sorey since the day he had met Mikleo, some kind of pull that only stopped hurting when he was near him. At first being close was enough, but then it evolved to pressing shoulders, holding hands… Each time it was harder and harder to satiate the pull, to feed it what it demanded.

So when Sorey felt the pull in that moment, he gave in to it completely and, tilting Mikleo’s chin with his palms, he kissed him softly but firmly, catching Mikleo’s mouth when it fell open. Mikleo gasped against his lips, frozen for a second—but he soon kissed back just as fervently, clinging to Sorey as if he too felt the urgency of the pull, hands fisted on the neck of Sorey’s jacket and head tilted to the side to kiss Sorey deeper, longer. Sorey sighed as his hands moved to Mikleo’s back, feeling again the softness of Mikleo’s button down and the warmth of his skin underneath, almost scorching hot against his palms.

When Sorey moved back to breathe, just a second, Mikleo didn’t let him get too far. Mikleo swallowed Sorey’s soft moan as he kissed him again, just to let his tongue search for more of those sweet sounds, slowly letting it go beyond Sorey’s lips and slide against Sorey’s for the first time. Both of them shuddered, clinging a bit tighter, breathing shallowly. Sorey’s mind was foggy, but the sensations Mikleo produced in him were sharp as knives.

When the kiss started to transform into soft, gentle nudges against each others’ lips, Mikleo sighed contently against him, and Sorey sucked Mikleo’s lower lip in between his own, bitting down softy on it—almost like a small chastisement. Then he moved back slowly, opening his eyes after a long exhale.

Mikleo’s features were soft with surprise, but his red cheeks and the spark in his eyes told Sorey more than he needed to know.

“I—“

“You were wasting time again,” Sorey said, resting his forehead against Mikleo’s. He was grinning so big his cheeks hurt. “I had to shut you up.”

“…That’s such a lame excuse.” Mikleo retorted; his hands were still clinging to Sorey’s jacket, but it was okay. Sorey had made no movement to take his hands off Mikleo’s back, either.

“Mm.” Sorey smiled. “Do I need another lame excuse to kiss you again?”

Mikleo rolled his eyes. “Oh, just do it already!”

And so he did, leaving a soft peck on Mikleo’s lips before kissing him deeply again, moving one of his hands up to cradle the back of Mikleo’s head. Mikleo hummed appreciatively, moving his hands up too so he could swipe his thumbs over Sorey’s jaw, the tips of his fingers brushing against the short hairs on Sorey’s nape. Sorey wanted to say that he could get used to this, to the feeling of Mikleo’s sinewy body in his hands, of his mouth on his—but something told him he would never get used to it.

The kiss didn’t last long. It couldn’t have, with the way they kept smiling like fools against the other’s lips, so they went back to holding each other close, foreheads resting together.

“You’re such a dork.” Mikleo couldn’t help but say, still smiling wildly.

Sorey flashed his white teeth with a smirk, proud and happy. “You like me, though.”

Mikleo sighed. “That I do.”

“Can I get it then?”

Mikleo’s thumbs, that had been tracing imaginary lines on Sorey’s cheeks, stopped their movement abruptly as Mikleo frowned. “Get what?”

“My chance,” Sorey’s smile grew even wider, if that was possible. “To be your boyfriend.”

Color rose so quickly up Mikleo’s chest that Sorey couldn’t help but laugh softly, holding him tighter. Mikleo groaned, and as his ears turned a deep crimson he moved to hide his face on Sorey’s shoulder, letting his ponytail act as a barrier between them.

“Why are you like this.” Mikleo groaned. Sorey could feel the warmth of his cheek even through the layers of clothing.

Sorey laughed at Mikleo’s embarrassment, not even feeling sorry about it. “I’m a romantic, remember?”

“…Then shouldn’t I be the one asking that?” Mikleo asked, not lifting his head up. “It’s only fair.”

Leaning his cheek on the side of Mikleo’s head, Sorey closed his eyes. “I don’t mind asking again. As long as you say yes.”

“…Yes, Sorey.”

Before Mikleo could say anything else, Sorey tightened his arms around him and lifted him off the ground, spinning them both around with a laugh and Mikleo’s sounds of protest. “I’m so happy, Mikleo!” He screamed as they spun, making Mikleo groan.

“I’m happy too but put me down! Sorey!”

Taking pity on Mikleo, Sorey stopped and put Mikleo’s feet back on the ground, but didn’t release him from his grip. Mikleo didn’t do much to get rid of it either, but he did narrow his eyes at Sorey in annoyance and fondness.

“I can’t believe you’re coming to Pendrago again.” Sorey said with a big smile. “It’s going to be so much fun!”

“It’ll still take me a few weeks.” Mikleo moved his hand to play with one of Sorey’s feather earrings. He was a bit bashful while doing so —eyes fixed on the thing instead of on Sorey’s eyes, and his cheeks still dyed red—but the smile on his lips was sweet. “I have a lot to prepare.”

“It’s okay, I can wait! Oh, I can make you room in my apartment in the meantime!”

“What!?” Mikleo exclaimed, moving slightly back. “Sorey, I’m not going to live with you!”

Sorey immediately pouted, making his best impression of a kicked puppy. “Why not? It’ll be fun, and we’ll be together at all times!”

“That’s exactly why, Sorey! I’m not saying being together is a bad thing—“ He rushed to say, shaking his head. “—but let’s take this slow, okay? Please.”

Leaning forward, Sorey let his lips brush against Mikleo’s temple. It felt incredible to be able to do so, and not feel like he was crossing an invisible line. “If it’s what you want. We’ll go slow.”

“…For now.” Mikleo added in a whisper, turning his face away from Sorey. His words made Sorey’s smile grow.

“For now.”

A soft ping made Mikleo move his hand to his own pocket, quickly pulling out his phone. Sorey slid his arms away to leave him space, but made sure to hold Mikleo’s hand in his, thumb brushing against Mikleo’s knuckles.

“Everything okay?” Sorey asked when he saw Mikleo’s eyebrows raise to hide beneath his fringe.

“It’s a text.” Mikleo explained, eyes glued to the screen. “From Lailah.”

“Oh no, is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” A slow smile grew on Mikleo’s lips. “She asks if she can invite us to lunch. She texted in case she was ‘interrupting something’.”

“Ah, can we go?” Sorey asked excitedly, squeezing Mikleo’s hand softly. “I really want to get to know Lailah!”

“Of course. I have to re-introduce you to her as my boyfriend, I guess.” Mikleo replied, and moved onto his tiptoes to deliver a butterfly to Sorey’s jaw. Then, as if he had just realized what he had said and done, he turned around quickly to hide his blush. “Anyway, let’s go. I don’t want to make her wait.”

Mikleo started to walk away, the tips of his ears red as roses. Sorey observed him for a moment with a grin pulling at the corners of his lips, only to sprint the few steps Mikleo had taken already and throw his arms over Mikleo’s shoulders, circling them over his collarbones and pressing his chest against Mikleo’s back. Mikleo protested softly, but raised his hands to touch Sorey’s arms.

“You’re so cute, Mikleo!” Sorey said, tilting his head over Mikleo’s shoulder to get a glimpse of his boyfriend’s face.

Mikleo tilted it away with a very small pout. “I don’t know what your talking about.”

Quick as lightning, Sorey pocked his fingers over Mikleo’s ribs, making him squirm with laughter. “I think you do!”

“Stop that!”

Both of them bursted out laughing, clinging to each other to keep their equilibrium during their tickle fight. But it was all over when, finding an opening, Sorey swooped down and kissed Mikleo again, keeping him close with an arm around his shoulders, his fingers tilting Mikleo’s head back and up.

Someone could say them getting together was the end of a love story. But Sorey didn’t see it like that, not at all. It was a beginning with a backstory, the weeks in which they got to know each other and the months they had spent apart the prologue of what was to come.

Now, all that was left to do was to write the rest of the story. And neither Sorey nor Mikleo could wait to start.