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Inherit, Imbue

by TK Hoshikuzu (TK 星屑)

 

His parents had warned Mir not to stray into the origin forest. Though it was the source of all magic, like the sun, it was dangerous in proximity. He hated disappointing his parents anyway, but he had seen the horrific results of the travelers that dared to enter it. The lure of power within drove ambitious sorcerers to venture inside, but no one had returned alive. Remains were seldom found since sensible locals were too afraid to retrieve them. The bodies who managed to crawl back to the borders were mangled into inhuman shapes. Some had their limbs fused into other limbs, others had their skins shifted on their bodies, as if someone decided their face holes were better suited on their backs. The worst was when the bones of a poor soul had splintered and pierced their skin, like hundreds of pale-white needles trying to escape the body. Mir held no illusions about what would happen to him if he were stupid enough.

To discourage temptation and because they discovered his mother was pregnant, they moved to the outskirts of the village. His parents’ magical abilities grew weaker and their family became poorer, but they lived close enough that they could still draw some magic from the forest. Mir observed that his parents were reluctant to forego magic altogether, though Mir had heard of people who scraped by without magic in the outlands by the ocean. They believed magic to be abhorrent.

Mir also noticed that, though they always had lectured him not to go into the forest, his mother’s pregnancy was what spurred the move. They never voiced it, but they were less worried about him wandering into the forest than risk having more children born different like Mir.

It was unspoken superstition that overexposure to magic affected development. If it were true no one would mention it because it would require admitting the undesired effects of magic. Mir rarely saw or heard mention of pregnancy until his mother showed signs of it. Babies simply emerged from air, it seemed, or else women came out of months-long hiding alone. On the rare, rude occasions when someone inquired their whereabouts, the answer was that they were on a much-needed sabbatical. It wasn’t unusual; women were able to absorb more magic due to their naturally higher stores of fat, but it meant magic was more taxing on their bodies.

For a long time Mir didn’t know anyone like himself. His parents smothered him with affection and praise and swore that he was no different from the other children, that he was like any other boy. Mir had no context except that his body didn’t exactly resemble his father’s, the only man he knew intimately, nor did it resemble his mother’s. In any case no one treated him like he wasn’t like anyone else, so he didn’t question it.

Mir was a good child and his parents were good-hearted people, but neither meant he shouldn’t make dreary, pessimistic observations. To preserve the peace he never voiced them. He was most content to watch, undetected by others. His favorite pastime was loitering around the local inn and watching travelers filter in and out of their village. Most were there to purchase or refill their talismans. His village sat at the edges of the origin forest, as close as was safe. It specialized in magical tools, which were used as enhancements or reserves for travels to non-magical places.

Truly, the forest was the furthest thing from his mind. He loved listening to travelers who usually welcomed his company. He was a strange and enchanting thing, and the way he paid rapt attention was charming. Others of Mir’s age preferred to stay near the forest because of the amazing powers it offered, but Mir was envious that they took for granted what he could not: they could leave whenever they wanted.

It wasn’t that Mir couldn’t step outside of village boundaries. Like the origin forest, the outside world was alluring and sinister. The difference was that travelers came with interesting stories, some of which suggested the outside world was no place for people like Mir. What hurt most was the reaction of some storytellers. With glee one man described the way someone had been humiliated in public, de-pantsed by a woman who learned the poor person wasn’t actually a man. Disgusted by the person’s romantic advances on her, she and a mob had driven the person from its home. After this story Mir vowed to tie his pants extra tightly and to be careful with romance.

It wasn’t as though he lacked love. Unprompted, his parents always reminded Mir how loved he was. As a child, he basked in their adoration, but it became more burdensome over the years. He knew they meant well and he loved them as they did him, but lately every tender expression emphasized that Mir was coddled for being different. Time was running out for Mir, who was approaching adulthood at eighteen years of age. He didn’t want to be consoled. He wanted a future, but Mir saw none in sight, at least not the one he dreamed about. So he took up the next best path, which was working at the inn and listening to the wondrous tales of other lives.

The best days were when an outsider decided to try their luck in the origin forest. Locals usually joined Mir at the inn, listening to the latest theory of its power. For all the unsavory ends that adventurers met in the forest, the its mysticism was irresistible and known across the continent.

Sorcerers and sorceresses of all kinds always captured the attention of the village. Often they were old, wizened scholars of magic, content to surrender their lives to the origin forest, but their hypotheses were colorful and varied.

Ulia the Lightning Sorceress believed that the forest tested each magic user to determine whether they were worthy of inheriting its power. Perhaps those who’ve yet to emerge from it were still being tested. The Obsidian Mage, Juresh, argued that it was a portal to a different place whose forces leaked into their world. No one returned because the place beyond was far superior.

Wireva vehemently disagreed with both when she learned of their ideas from the locals. She thought the forest was evil and fed from the foolish, power-hungry magic users. With her green magic she had intended to destroy it or else conquer it for humanity’s benefit. Regardless, none of them returned from their trips inside, but their ideas were good for a few weeks of philosophical discussion.

The most recent contenders were noteworthy for several reasons. Iyr was a tall, pretty man with soft skin and long hair. He called himself a sorcerer of arcana. When asked to explain what exactly that was, he could only manage to lift a chair with his mind, which brought about laughter. The locals, all minor magic-users, corrected him and said he was either a gravity sorcerer or a wind wizard. Defensive, he said that even he didn’t completely understand arcana, at which others laughed uproariously. Above the din they couldn’t hear Iyr explain that arcana required suspension of belief, but Mir did.

His companion was another sight to behold. She frowned at Iyr, betraying her lack of faith in him as well. Nineka was a mercenary, hard where Iyr was soft, short where he was tall. She did not dabble in magic. Non-magic users were rare around those areas. Magic came to the villagers as one breathes and blinks, so a few villagers teased her and asked her to try a spell or two. She glared with such murderous intent that they left her alone, eyeing the spear mounted on her back and the pure musculature of her arms.

After hearing Iyr’s answers to the villagers’ questions about his ideas on the origin forest, Mir and the others agreed that Iyr was another youthful idiot on his way to an early death. Iyr didn’t know what to expect and didn’t disagree or agree with any of the other sorcerers and sorceresses far more experienced and powerful than him. He just hoped for the best, whatever that was.

It was a pity that Nineka was expected to accompany him into the origin forest. It was a waste of a life at its prime, especially one that didn’t believe in her companion’s conviction, but there was no point in dissuading them. They were young but capable of making their own decisions.

The villagers saw them off, watching until they disappeared. Mir was always the last to leave long after they were gone. The innkeeper shook his head and quietly tallied another two lives lost to the forest. Tasked to clean after the guests, Mir revisited his own thoughts on this matter.

Maybe some did manage to escape the forest. Maybe others regularly went in and out. Maybe the villagers were keeping secrets from outsiders for whatever reason. If Mir was keeping mum about his identity from others, certainly there was things that he wasn’t aware of, though those were far and few between.

He liked to think that because he was an adept observer, he had a little talent for magic. Attuned to his environment, he manipulated the elements a little better than his peers. Never mind the fact that he worked harder than them because he wanted to be useful, more than something to be pitied. He still dreamed despite himself.

About a month after the pair’s departure, twins were born to his parents just before dusk. His mother counted ten fingers and ten toes for each of them, just as she did for Mir when he was born, proof that they were healthy. His father proudly introduced to Mir the new additions to the family, his sister and brother. Mir instantly loved and envied his siblings. He hated the restlessness in his chest as he watched his mother holding her normal children, his father hovering over his normal children. In his adolescence he pushed away his parents’ love, but he hadn’t realized how insecure he would feel once the twins were born.

From the doorway he stood feeling like an outsider until his mother beckoned him over. He sat dutifully next to her on the bed where she laid but wanted to jump out of the window. Instead he made excuses to leave and slunk to the inn, though it wasn’t time for work.

He wandered the streets, feeling melancholy and trapped. His dear siblings could live freely as he could not. They could belong somewhere, find a spouse, get married, have children, and leave their village unmolested. They’d never had to explain their existence. But what was in store for him? Mir imagined a future where he worked at the inn, took care of his parents, and rebuffed all romantic interests. It was safe, quiet, and lonely. Rather glumly he was sure that he’d die alone.

Disappointed, he sprinted ahead toward the inn and almost crashed into a man who was standing with a large crowd of villagers. As he circled the crowd and looked for a way toward the inn, he heard their words but didn’t pay attention. Lost in his bitter thoughts Mir hadn’t noticed their buzzing and murmuring.

Finding an opening, he wove his way through but it became denser towards the front door and Mir couldn’t move forward. Forced to linger on the villagers’ words, he froze.

Returned. Returned alive. Returned alive uninjured. The both of them had returned and were now resting in the inn. Eyes wide open, Mir bolted to the side of the inn, pushing everyone out of the way. He wiggled around a bush which hid an unlocked window into the basement. He shimmied inside and fell onto the wine barrels but nothing else registered in his mind.

He had to see them with his own eyes. Rushing up the stairs Mir found that the interior was also crowded with people. The innkeeper was at the top of the stairs to the rooms begging the villagers to leave the pair to rest.

Mir would not be deterred, so he went to the kitchen. Amid protests from the staff he climbed out of the window by the sink and shimmied up the drain pipe along the wall. Now on the roof he scanned the windows until he found the familiar shape of a tall, willowy wizard and a short, stout soldier. Iyr and Nineka looked exhausted and emaciated, but were eating with healthy appetites.

He counted their fingers, ten each. They were shoeless so Mir counted their toes, also ten each. They were indeed fine. Mir stared at them without blinking and for the first time in a year thought of Aria.

:*:*:*:*: ARIA :*:*:*:*:

It was a year ago when Mir came home with a freshly blackened, bruised eye. Trying to hold back panic his mother gasped and asked, “What on earth happened to you? Who did this?”

Mir did not seem upset. “Ah,” he said, “I was punched for peeping.”

She paused to consider his response then laughed nervously. “Were you caught peeping on a girl?” This was a more familiar offense – the mischievous boy sneaking a look at an unsuspecting girl – but his mother fretted. Mir not explicitly discouraged from pursuing romance, but she and his father had been convinced that no one would understand, much less reciprocate. Instead they chose not to dwell on that issue, choosing to make vague references to the future when Mir might get lucky and find a mate.

“Something like that,” he responded with embarrassment.

“You know better than to snoop around, Mira,” she chided gently, using his childhood name. “Stay out of trouble and especially away from girls like that.”

You don’t say, Mir thought sarcastically. Not only was his eye throbbing with pain, he was out ten cunia. Nevertheless the next day he returned to the inn, the source of his trouble.

Usually the innkeeper frowned on such activities occurring in his honest establishment, but a few days ago a Madam had paid handsomely to rent the entire inn for her comely charges. Whether for rest, restocking magics, or plain work, she and her group were there for two weeks. So when Mir returned, the common room and the lounge was scattered with pretty, idling escorts, both men and women. He wasn’t here for them.

Stepping quietly up the wooden steps, Mir took care to look like he was wandering the hallways, like he wasn’t looking for a particular person. He circled round and round until he at last ran into his target.

“Come back for more?” the person in front of him said, hands on hips.

Mir, who was sixteen at the time, was enamored by the vision before him. His first experience with the person in question was through a flyer, one of the various ads papered around the exterior of the inn. “Aria the Transcendent,” was its title. The description read: “Man? Woman? Uncover the mysteries of the third sex!” The picture was a lovely drawing of Aria, decked with a cascading pearl necklace and a clear gem nestled in the hollow of their throat. Mir should have paid better attention to Aria’s defiant and haughty gaze. He might have avoided being punched.

“No, I,” Mir began, not knowing what to say but not wanting Aria to leave. “I, I–”

“It’s fifty cunia if you want more than a peek,” Aria sniffed, crossing their arms.

“No, I work here,” he managed to say. “Whatever you need, I’ll get it for you.”

“I’ll bet you’ll do whatever I want too,” Aria laughed, knowing exactly the look of infatuation. Mir nodded and expected an order. “Then go away, unless you have fifty cunia.” Brushing past him, Aria stalked down the stairs.

Despite the rocky start Mir couldn’t leave Aria alone. Always keeping a respectful distance, he nevertheless tried to attend to every need. If Aria looked uncomfortable in a lounge chair, Mir offered a plusher pillow. If Aria looked hot, Mir was there with a large fan. The other escorts teased Aria for having such a loyal pet and Mir for being so devoted to a prickly rose.

“Any luck today, wounded pet?” one older woman called to Mir, who was in the middle of delivering a cold jug of amber tea to Aria. Mir responded with a shy laugh and kept walking, embarrassed to stand out. He had to walk past their rooms. All of their doors were open except for Aria’s.

“I’ll gladly donate money if you can’t afford Aria’s services,” another said with a wink.

Laying a hand on the small of Mir’s back was a young man, who was loitering in the hall and looked a little older than him. He murmured that he’d be happy to keep him company without charge. Shooting him an appreciative glance, Mir shrugged off the rest of their comments and knocked on Aria’s door. When it did not open he lay the tray down on the floor.

“Tea is here,” he announced, then – to everyone’s humor – scurried down the stairs away from their prying eyes. He hid under the stairs, wishing he was invisible.

“You are so cruel, Aria,” one chided, though amusement laced her tone. “He has little money, so you strike the boy.”

Mir heard a door creak open and Aria’s response, “I should have taken more for the lesson I’ve taught him. Can you believe that clingy little whelp came to me for charity?“ It was true that Aria was never seen without three or four precious baubles on their person.

“But he’s such an innocent and sweet thing,” another wheedled.

“Please, as if he’s any different than the others. You dunces should know better.”

“Of course we do,” someone said. “We just want to see if we can convince you otherwise.” Then they laughed and Mir heard the door slam shut. It was a fearsome noise that only spurred more laughter from them.

Mir felt guilty for causing trouble, especially for someone he wanted to please, but he had never met someone who might be like him, much less someone who was open about their ambiguous gender. With great sorrow he concluded that they were both better off if Mir left Aria alone. They were clearly not interested in speaking with Mir and Mir was attracting more attention to himself. Maybe by association someone might deduce that Mir was different as well, a fact he would like to keep hidden.

Later in the night when Aria had pinned him roughly against the wall, Mir wondered if he could convince Aria that he’d given up. But being held by his collar prevented any coherent words so he stared at Aria, heart pounding in his chest.

“Funny running into you here again,” Aria spat in his face. Mir shook his head, hoping it would calm them down. “Does your black eye need a companion?”

Prior to their altercation Mir was about to clean the baths before he went home. The innkeeper and regular staff were happy to dump mundane tasks on him and call it ‘practice magic.’ He thought that the baths were empty and deliberated on a different way to lift grime from the tiles. Yesterday was heating a large body of water and rinsing the room with great waves. Today–

At that moment Aria flew at him in a rage before he could decide. Now Mir was figuring out the best way to avoid another punch in the eye. It would be difficult to explain why he had two and he’d have to deal with the painful disappointment from his parents.

Aria raised a fist and Mir flinched, a cringe wrinkling his face. “Sorry,” he managed to choke out. “Sorry.”

Aria’s jade-green eyes bore holes into him and studied him. “Don’t lie to me or I will beat you again.”

Mir nodded, cursing his uncharacteristic curiosity and dropping his gaze to the ground. Aria let him go.

“People have paid much more than ten cunia to see my nakedness.” Aria was wearing a bathrobe and clutching it shut with one hand.

“I’m sorry,” Mir repeated. “I’ll give you more and I promise to leave you alone.”

A short silence passed, in which Aria gave Mir a hard look. Taking a sudden, sultry tone, Aria asked, “What would it take for you to leave me alone? Hmm? What do you want from me?” They brushed the backs of their silky fingers against Mir’s jawline.

Mir swallowed and said, “Nothing. I’ll leave right now if you want.”

“You’re lying,” Aria said, eyes glowing and misty. Mir hunched his shoulders, waiting for the striking hand, but Aria continued, “Since it was a half-lie, I won’t hit you.” Aria tilted his face up to make him meet their eyes but Mir closed them. “I believe that you’ll leave me alone, but I know you still want something. I can see it, but I don’t know exactly what. I can probably guess though.”

Both hands, starting from the back of his neck, trailed a winding path downwards. Though his eyes were closed, Mir knew that with both hands on him, Aria’ robe was open. Mir jerked slightly when he felt them run over the swell of his chest, two small, soft, unmanly lumps. Aria hesitated but kept moving his hands downwards.

His stomach churned and flipped at the thought of being exposed to a stranger. Waves of shame washed over him as he realized that this same pernicious feeling was what made Aria punch him.

Mir then felt fingers skim the band of his trousers which tore him from his thoughts. Taken with violent tremors, he recalled the unfortunate person whose pants had been wrenched down, intimate parts exposed for all to see. Fat tears welled in his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Terrified, Mir held onto his trousers, as if he were preparing for Aria to yank them down at any minute.

Aria immediately released him, startled by his reaction. Staring at Mir’s sobbing face and childish posture, Aria’s expression softened. Tying the robe shut, Aria said, “I was teasing, you dummy.”

“I’m sorry,” Mir blubbered. He looked like a pitiful, wretched thing, so much so that even Aria gave in. They pulled Mir into their arms and letting him shed tears into their shoulder.

“There, we’re even now,” Aria said, unable to muster an apology. “Stop crying. I won’t hurt you again.”

Despite their reassurance, it took another minute or so for Mir to compose himself. Mir glanced up at Aria and was struck with embarrassment. He didn’t mean for any of this to happen. He just wanted to get to know Aria.

“Now then,” Aria began with gentle exasperation, “what is it you want?”

Mir struggled to swallow the lump in his throat, the back of his throat gulping repeatedly. “I–” He was used to being the passive observer and he had no experience as a free agent. He dreamed of being intrepid but instead crumpled in front of Aria.

“I don’t want anything,” he insisted and darted past them. He ran all the way home and dove into bed, cursing himself for thinking he could be anything but a cowardly imposter.

He trudged to inn in the morning, resigning himself to a life as a wall-clinging shadow. He attended to his chores and the inn’s guests as quietly as he used to, pretending not to know that Aria’s gaze was fixed on him throughout the day. Even though Aria had ignored him when Mir followed them, Aria seemed to know the places Mir passed by most frequently. Aria appeared wherever Mir was and the other escorts unimpressively pointed out the amusing twist, that Mir was the one being pursued.

Mir’s favorite nook was in the basement under the stairs that led to the main floor. Mir had made a cosy nest where he took his breaks and when there weren’t travelers to listen to. He had stacked chairs and arranged boxes so that it looked like the space was being used for storage. It wasn’t a lie but there enough space for one scrap of a person to lounge comfortably.

Mir gave a shocked, little gasp of annoyance when he found his nook already occupied by a scrappy person. Aria lazily rolled his gaze to Mir, then sighed with boredom and continuing eating candied rubynuts, picking them out with forefinger and thumb. Mir’s candied rubynuts, which he had saved up for and hidden away for special occasions.

At a loss for words, he glared indignantly at Aria, who resumed ignoring him. “Those are mine,” he managed to say.

Aria searched the exterior of the pouch. “I don’t see your name on these,” he replied between crunches.

“Those were expensive,” Mir said sadly, not one to lose his temper.

“Oh? Then these will do for compensation,” Aria said with an uninterested shrug.

“But you didn’t say I had to give you more than the ten cunia I gave you,” Mir argued.

“I’ve change my mind. I’ve decided you owe me for yesterday.”

Mir’s mouth gaped open and shut like a fish, astonished at Aria’s demands. “I — you — but–”

The door knob at the top of the stairs rattled and Mir had no choice but to scramble in with Aria. Because it was only meant for one person, it was a tight fit. Mir held his breath like he usually did when someone came downstairs, but Aria continued to chew away. Mir clapped a hand over Aria’s mouth, which rebelliously worked its jaw and kept eating. Wide-eyed, Mir stared at Aria and silently prayed that no one discovered them. The innkeeper tolerated his presence as long as he proved useful and didn’t cause trouble, but Mir didn’t want to push his privileges.

When the unaware kitchen staff found what she was looking for – extra silverware – Mir released his grip over Aria’s face, not that it had made a difference. Eating their fill, Aria rested their head in the crook of Mir’s neck. Aria closed their eyes and exhaled a long, content sigh.

Wedged under a staircase among chairs and boxes, Mir stared above him and planned his getaway. He no longer wanted anything to do with this intrusive, rude, and insensitive person. Aria could feel the tenseness in Mir’s body, so pulled back.

“I told you I wouldn’t hurt you.” When Mir wouldn’t respond or look at Aria, they continued, “I won’t tell anyone about your secret, even though you’re being a brat.”

It was the first time that anyone other than his parents had mentioned that, which piqued Mir’s interest. He shifted as much as he could to meet Aria face-to-face.

Aria’s head was propped against his elbow and they were looking down at Mir. The dim lighting of the basement hit Aria’s green-glass earrings, which reflected soft glimmers on the both of them. Mir understood that Aria wanted to start over and he felt calmer.

“Thank you,” he said.

Mir noticed that Aria’s expression softened for a second before saying, “By the way I hate amber tea. I prefer bilberry. Remember that for tomorrow.” Aria wiggled out of the nook, pausing to stretch before stepping lightly up the stairs. Mir perked up, understanding Aria’s invitation for Mir to visit him again.

Mir obediently followed Aria’s instructions for the next day. Knocking on the door, he announced, “Tea is here.”

Hearing verbal consent from inside, he shrugged the door open and set the tea set on the side table by the door. He stepped backward to leave them, when Aria said, “You’re not going, are you?” Their eyebrow furrowed into a little dent.

“Ah, not without pouring you a glass, sorry.” He stepped forward and offered a cup of tea to Aria, who took it and thanked him. Aria was lounging on their bed, which was near the window, and looking at Mir with great amusement.

“Come here,” Aria said, patting the spot in front of them. “Sit with me.”

Mir obeyed and perched primly on his legs, the bed sinking under the concentrated weight. He looked away as Aria studied him.

“How old are you? Mir, was it?” With a click of the tongue Aria added, as if they weren’t responsible, “Your eye looks awful. Have you done anything about it?”

Mir replied, “Yes, my name is Mir and I’m sixteen, soon to be seventeen.” He hesitated at the third question and said, “My mother says not much can be done beyond cold and hot compresses.”

Aria slid off the bed and ordered Mir to lie down. Mir watched them fish out the teabag from the pot and squeeze as much as hot water out as they could. Wrapping the bag in a clean cloth, Aria returned and laid it on Mir’s eye.

“Bilberry helps with inflammation,” Aria explained, but Mir had known that. He didn’t make the connection because he didn’t expect Aria to help him. “Don’t get up until I say you can,” Aria commanded, laying next to Mir and hugging a pillow.

“You’re much more obedient than I thought. When I first met you, I thought you were hiding behind that pure facade. Now I know you’re just young and stupid.”

“How old are you?” Mir asked, a little annoyed.

“Much older, a whole three years older,” Aria replied offhandedly.

“You’re only nineteen years old!” Mir exclaimed, propping himself on an elbow indignantly. “My mother had me at scarcely your age.”

Shoving him back down, Aria said, “Never mind, you’re not obedient at all.” Readjusting the tea compress, Aria playfully held Mir down with an elbow across his chest, their face even closer to Mir’s. “Looks like we can’t talk without me holding you down. Or would you rather I sit on you?” Mir shook his head with a frown.

Propping his chin up with the same elbow, Aria looked down on him, something Mir noticed happened often. “Now, tell me more about your mother and your family. Tell me about this village by the origin forest.”

So he did. Mir told Aria about his mother, a woman with a talent for light magic, a level above fire. She was quick and observant, traits Mir received in small part. His father was the reason his mother was inspired to pick up light magic. His love was for old trees, which needed years of cultivating before they went to the highest bidder. With a dash of his own creativity and help from the origin forest, he grew magnificent magic-enriched woods for high quality talismans. Mir showed Aria on his wrist the bracelet of wooden beads that was made from his father’s trees. His mother had asked her friend, skilled in warding magics, to bless it. This was when Mir and his family still lived near the village center and thrived.

Aria listened, their gaze on Mir unwavering. “It seems you all do well for yourselves here.”

“Of course,” Mir replied proudly. “We don’t need the money of outsiders. We can grow our own food and weave our own clothes. The most talented sorcerers come here to hone their craft, so we learn as much as we can from them.”

“It’s a wonder that anyone leaves,” Aria said.

A throb in his heart reminded Mir of his dream, but he only replied, “Most don’t. Our village has everything because of the origin forest.”

“You’re lying,” Aria said, echoing their earlier accusation, but this time it was an invitation for Mir to speak his truth.

Mir closed his one eye. His chest was warm with Aria on it. “You’d have to be blind to think it doesn’t have everything. It doesn’t have the ocean, or deserts, or non-magic users. I’ve heard about how bright the stars can be at night, but there are lights everywhere here. I’ve heard that it’s dangerous outside though. It’s much safer in the village, as long as you aren’t looking for trouble.”

“That’s the case anywhere, Mir, not just your village. As long as you keep your head down, you’re fine,” Aria remarked but enjoyed how he opened up to them.

Agitated, Mir almost propped himself up, but the weight of Aria held him down. “But looking for trouble is not the same as experiencing new things. No one cares what it’s like outside. They don’t even bother to think about it. They’d rather live and die here without ever leaving. I’ve heard stories of people with animal limbs and ears at the far side of the world. I’ve heard of lands called ‘swamps,’ where the earth can swallow up a man without a sound, where jewelled, dewy flowers bloom in their places.” Mir grew frustrated and restless at his powerlessness, as young teenagers were wont to do. “Can you tell me what you’ve seen outside?”

“You’ll find out for yourself later,” Aria replied lightly, removing the teabag from his eye. “When you’re older and stronger.”

“But I want to know what you’ve seen. You all came from out there and met many kinds of people.” Mir wanted to know specifically what Aria had to say, what it was like for them specifically.

“Tomorrow,” Aria replied. “Let’s discuss this then. You can go now.”

The next day Aria was occupied, so Mir could not speak with them until late in the evening. He knew this because the other escorts told him that Aria was entertaining. Mir was happy to occupy himself with chores. When Madam and her escorts first arrived, the noises that accompanied them did make Mir uncomfortable. Because they had nothing to do with him, he eventually drowned out the sounds of sex. But today was different.

Mir had all but disappeared from the interior of the inn, spending the time yanking the weeds from the yard or helping the maids do the laundry. He didn’t want to leave but his mother would worry. He begged the innkeeper’s wife to transport a message to his house to tell his parents he would be late. With a grumble she complied, taking his note and scribbling his house’s number on the inn’s outbox – accessible only to official inn staff. The note was gone in a snap.

He had fled before she could return an answer, knowing she’d be furious that Mir would stay while the unsavory business picked up at night. He snuck to the basement and into his nook, making as much room for Aria as he could.

He felt a cool hand on his brow and realized he had been dozing off. “Aria?” he asked with a croak. He felt a hot tea bag being laid on his eye.

Aria shushed him as they crawled into the snug space with him. “Stay still.” They lay together in silence, Mir slowly becoming more alert.

Not knowing how to break it, Mir finally dared to ask, “Will you tell me now about the outside?”

Mir could feel the lift of Aria’s chest as they inhaled and sighed. “I’m afraid I’ve used up most of my good humor today,“ they said quietly. “I don’t want to ruin my mood further with unpleasant stories.”

Brows furrowed, he asked, “Then tell me, you have no good memories?”

“Some,” Aria admitted, “but sometimes it’s difficult to separate the good from the bad.”

“Mostly bad,” Mir whispered to himself, but Aria heard him.

“Mir,” they began tiredly, “Don’t use me as an excuse not to leave your village.”

He opened his mouth to retort, but closed it. Aria was right, but he’d never admit it that he did need justification for his reticence. Mir began to sweat because he was embarrassed to be seen right through and because of the hot tea bag on his eye.

He was surprised to feel Aria take his hand. Mir let Aria entwine their fingers, which squeezed Mir’s hand. Aria spoke no more, but Mir could tell Aria was not disappointed in him. It was the kind of comfort Mir did need, where it was okay and understandable that he was scared.

When Mir returned home much later than he intended to, his mother was as incensed as expected. She screamed, as fearful mothers did. His father let her have her way, so stood in the background in silence.

“I’ve seen those nasty flyers around the square, the” –she stuttered out of fury– “the indecency of it! Shamelessly flouting for all to see!” She shook a finger at Mir, who stared at the floor. “That’s no life for you. Remember that you come from a respected family of sorcerers. You are different from that whore and beneath her.”

Mir snagged onto his mother’s designation. She decided for herself that Aria was female, just like his parents had decided for him that he was male. He grew angry. Did they not see the breasts developing on his chest? They told him to bind them if they got too big. The dissonance was maddening.

He managed to keep in his rage throughout his mother’s rampage, but when he was allowed to go to bed, he fumed and was unable to sleep. In the morning he slipped out of his window and ran away.

The wind was beneath his steps as he ran to the inn. He snuck in and creeped up the stairs. Poking his head in Aria’s room, he was relieved to find their bed with a single occupant.

“Aria,” he whispered, kneeling at their bed.

“Mm? Who’s that?” Aria muttered, too tired to open their eyes.

Seeing Aria in the flesh brought Mir great and unexpected relief. He trembled, but felt safe to release the pent-up anger and despair welling in his chest. So he cried, startling Aria awake.

Opening the blanket to him, Aria patted the mattress. “Come here,” they directed sleepily. Mir needed no encouragement and crawled in with them. He wrapped his arms around Aria’s body and buried his face into their chest, which he noticed was hard and flat. He sniffled loudly, unable to hold back the tears.

“What is it?” Aria asked. “Get in trouble at home?”

“Aria, can I stay here?” Mir asked between sobs. “Just until you all leave.” Even though he knew it, the fact said aloud still shocked him. Aria would leave in days and Mir would be alone again. More tears spilled out. He hadn’t known how lonely he was until he met Aria.

“As long as you can handle it,” they replied without hesitation. “Now, let’s go to sleep.”

Like magic Mir did as ordered. Sleep pushed all thoughts from his mind and he fell into a soothing, dreamless slumber, thinking about nothing but how clean and sweet Aria smelled in his arms.

He mistook his grogginess for dreaming when he eventually woke up. Before he opened his eyes he could see the light of the sun hitting them through his eyelids. He blinked and squinted, tugging the blanket closer to him, but they didn’t budge.

He saw Aria sitting at the edge of the bed, brushing their long, soft hair. The strokes of the brush were smooth and hypnotizing. Aria’s legs were crossed, a thigh coyly peeking from their robe. The view and the fact that Aria was so close all made his heart beat so fast. Before he had worshipped Aria from a distance, but Mir quickly learned that they were but human. Mortal, fallible, imperfect, and beautiful.

Aria glanced his way and noticed he was awake. “What shall we do today?”

Mir blinked, letting his eyes close for a second longer. He wanted to capture this moment forever. He wished he were a skilled memory mage, able to store memories in a mirror, or even a legendary time mage, but his skills were too basic.

“Can we stay inside?” he begged, stretching on the bed like a cat. He felt the bed shift and Aria flop down next to him. Their breath tickled his eyelashes and made him blink.

“Until I’m bored,” Aria agreed conditionally. “I don’t want anyone catching you leaving my room anyway. They already say things,” they said with disdain. “I won’t let them talk about you if I can help it. They’d have a ball if they knew you left home.” Aria brushed the hair from Mir’s face. “Tell me, pet, did they force you out?”

“No,” he replied. “I ran away. They think they know everything about me, but they don’t.”

“Did they forbid you from leaving the village?” Aria asked.

“No,” Mir admitted. “They never said I couldn’t, but it’s not just that. They make me feel like I’m too helpless to do anything, because everything is different for me.”

“Everything is different? How? Aren’t you human?” Aria asked with an amused tone, which irked Mir, but the needling questions inspired him.

He sat up and held out both hands, motioning for Aria’s. When Aria complied, Mir ran thumbs over their fingers. Aria had ten perfect, manicured fingers. Mir’s hands weren’t as pretty, of course, but their hands were like his and his parents. His eyes traveled downwards to Aria’s toes, which were also manicured and were ten. By his mother’s account, both Mir and Aria were healthy.

“But it’s still different,” Mir insisted. “We both have ten fingers and toes, but I can’t…with someone else…” he trailed off with a blush and a downward gaze. Aria let Mir flounder a little more, enjoying the sight of Mir flustering over something Aria did for a living.

“Mir,” they finally said as they hoisted themselves to sit next to Mir. “It’s not so complicated, trust me.”

With a distant smile, they asked, “Do you trust me?”

The sunlight hit Aria so flatteringly that Mir would have agreed to anything, but this was beyond Mir’s comprehension. His tongue was thick, his throat closed up, and his ears were muffling all sound. So much in a daze, Mir managed to say, “I don’t have enough.”

Aria’s smile turned sharp and they pinched Mir’s cheeks fiercely. “You idiot, it’s not the same if I want it too.”

In pain, Mir nodded to signal understanding, but his shoulders began to hunch. Aria clucked at the sight of Mir with a black eye, scarlet cheeks, and trembling frame. “It’s nothing so serious, Mir,” they said. “Here, you can undress me first.”

Aria had to guide Mir’s hand under their robe. Together they slipped it off, letting it fall off the bed and pool on the ground. Mir took little glances and Aria waited patiently for him get more comfortable.

At his full look Mir was surprised that Aria wasn’t exactly like him either. Aria took advantage of his distraction to slide their hands up his shirt. Mir’s body was stiff as Aria loosened the bindings around his chest. Looking directly into Mir’s face, Aria watched for a reaction as they gently massaged his breasts and teased his nipples with fingertips. Mir leaned forward, losing the strength to sit himself up. No one had ever seen his developing chest, much less touch them. The thrill of trusting someone enough to do this was electrifying.

“Good?” Aria asked, murmuring to his ear. “Can we take it off?”

Mir nodded, but leaned back to do it himself. He took care to take his shirt off forward to hide his chest.

Aria kissed a line up Mir’s shoulder. “Mir, you are so pretty. I’d very much like to see all of you too.”

He wished that Aria had kissed his lips instead. He leaned forward, but Aria dodged him and planted a wet kiss on his neck. “You didn’t ask me to kiss you,” Aria said with a grin. “Now it’s too late.”

Impatiently Mir tried to steal more, but Aria kept avoiding him and kissing him elsewhere. Aria pushed him down and said, “Do I have to strip you?” They remembered Mir’s fear about de-pantsing though, so it was an empty threat.

Their play relaxed Mir, who found it easier to take all of his clothes off. His nervousness and the nature of the situation was stressful, but one look at naked Aria made a giggle slip out. Then Aria laughed and they laid down together, facing each other and basking in the camaraderie of their nakedness.

“Now what?” Mir asked. It really wasn’t serious, just like Aria said.

“Now,” Aria replied, producing a bottle and opening it, “you will tell me when you want me to stop.”

Mir watched Aria dribble some of the bottle’s contents into their hand. They pushed Mir onto his back and asked again, “Mir, do you trust me?”

He looked into their beautiful face. Instead of responding, he reached over and ran fingers through Aria’s long hair, brushed their lips with his thumb, and traced the line of their throat. Mir didn’t know what to expect, but he would touch Aria as much as he could. He’d sear this memory into his mind.

Enough consent for Aria, they started with teases and slight touches. They lapped at Mir’s nipple and mouthed the fullness of his chest. Their slicked hand rubbed circles into Mir’s hips, traveling lower until Aria reached the soft folds and swells of Mir.

Mir predictably gasped. He had never felt such sensations before and it was so strange that he almost asked Aria to stop. But they were so gentle that he quickly craved more. He forgot his quest to map Aria’s body and threw his arms around their neck. Aria paused to sling Mir’s leg over them for more access.

Between long, warm strokes and deft rubs, Aria asked playfully, “Do you want me to stop?”

“No, don’t,” Mir begged, teeth clenched. Aria was certainly skilled. As they explored every crevice, they paid close attention to Mir’s reaction, closing in on his most sensitive spots.

Mir gripped Aria’s arm tightly, feeling the beginning of something cresting in the pit of his groin. He moaned and curled his toes, then his hips jolted as he came.

Regaining composure, Mir found that he had been panting. Aria softly kissed all over his face, their arms around Mir’s waist. Overwhelmed, Mir hugged them back and buried his face into Aria’s chest.

“You’ve done what everyone else can do,” Aria declared. “You can go back to your parents triumphant.”

Mir burst out a sharp, loud laugh. He did feel victorious. Surpassing his imagination, he had Aria in his arms and they were in Aria’s bed. Mir felt brave enough to voice his feelings.

“Aria, I love you,” he declared courageously.

They smiled. Ruffling his hair then running their fingers through it, Aria replied, “And I cherish you, Mir.” There was no desire in Aria’s touch, but only affection. “In such a short time I’ve grown fond of you.”

The rejection made Mir’s heart sink to the pit of his stomach, beating ripples through the pool of acid. Aria saw him like a sibling, not a lover. Aria probably wanted to help and educate him, rather than express any romantic intent. Mir realized too late that he should have reciprocated and touched Aria in turn, but Aria had made no comment about it.

Feeling a fool, he avoided Aria’s gaze to recover some dignity. Changing the subject, he mumbled, “I’d still like to hear what you’ve seen outside.”

Aria gave him a long look, as if reminding him of Aria’s warning the night before. “What would you like to know? I’ve seen many things.”

He swallowed his biggest question after Aria’s stern look and understood that Aria wouldn’t tell him about being genderless so easily. Instead he asked, “What is the most interesting sight you’ve seen so far?”

Aria kept staring at Mir with their jade-green eyes. It seemed like they pierced through his eyes and into his thoughts. “I’ll tell you what comes first to mind. Once I looked at the stars and I saw one glow and spark like an ember. From it emerged arms, a body, and a face. It was so far away that I couldn’t be sure, but it called to me. Its shapely form beckoned, as if I could reach it. I felt it was ridiculing me, so I went to bed. I haven’t seen one like it since.“

“That is interesting,” Mir said. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear, but it was a good story.

“I could have been lying,” Aria said with a wry smile. “You’re so naive, Mir. You believe everything you’re told.”

“It’s all I have to go by,” Mir replied with such purity, his eyes round with earnestness.

He swore that their eyes glowed as Aria asked, “What else do you want to know? Don’t lie. I can tell when you do.”

Mir pursed his lips. His time with Aria was so lively that he stand to go without asking intrusive questions, but he knew he’d deeply regret it once Aria left. Somehow this was harder than his impulse to confess his love. “I-Is the outside safe? I mean, safe for people like us?” he asked quietly.

The bored expression on their face showed that Aria was unimpressed by the question. “Only if you promise that you will leave this village.”

“I will,” Mir said. He lied, but he couldn’t help it.

“No,” Aria said, “you are lying. I told you not to use me an excuse not to leave. I cannot experience things for you.” Aria slid off of the bed. “I am bored now. Take me outside. Show me your village.”

Deeply disappointed in Aria’s answer and himself, Mir re-dressed himself. Remembering that Aria didn’t want him seen emerging from their room, he opened the window and nimbly climbed down the side of the inn. He thought Aria would follow him down, but instead they peered at him and the height with distaste.

“I’ll meet you there,” Aria said before disappearing.

After a good twenty minutes, Mir circled the inn and wondered if he had missed them. Aria finally emerged and Mir sighed. Their outfit and overall appearance was far too nice for a simple outing. They wore loose, navy blue pants with a long tunic in the same color. Both were embroidered with green and gold. Low hanging, crystal earrings dangled from their ears and a fat, gold ring encircled a finger. Their long hair was braided and tied with a bright, crystal pin. But any exasperation dissipated when Aria held out a hand with a smile. Heartened that Aria wasn’t angry with him, Mir took it and led them to popular spots.

They went to the marketplace and Mir showed Aria the different types of talismans and tools sold to sorcerers. Aria was attracted to the shiniest ones, pendants made with tempered metal and fitted with brilliant amethysts. He even showed where he’d bought the rubynuts in the small hope that Aria might buy him some, but Aria nodded with acknowledgement and moved onto the next stall.

The marketplace emptied into the village square, the center of all official activities. Here the village threw all of their celebrations, such as the Day of First Sorcery or the end of the Barons’ War.

There was nothing special today, only people resting after perusing the marketplace, or old friends meeting, or children chasing after each other. Mir caught Aria glancing at the pile of glazed cherries, winking at them with a alluring, glassy sheen. He grumbled internally, but bought a small bag for them to snack on. Leaning against the shady side of the council building’s wall, Aria asked between bites of cherries, “Where is quickest way to the forest? I want to see it.”

Mir hesitated as he tried to craft a polite way to say ‘it’s better if you didn’t,’ when he heard someone call out his name.

“Mir!” a friendly man with a thick beard said, waving at him. It was a friend of his father’s, and Mir fought a cringe before waving weakly back.

“Hello, Yeke,” Mir said. He was known to be quiet, so it wasn’t strange that he didn’t say any more, but Mir wanted Yeke to leave them alone as soon as possible. Mir regretted leaving the inn. Either his parents had told others that he had run away, or Yeke would mention that he had seen Mir and Aria in the square together. Given the way Yeke stopped to gawk at Aria, who stared back, there was no way he could have missed Mir’s companion.

“Is this your girlfriend, Mir?” Yeke grinned in the way adults do when they want to embarrass the young.

With a faint smile, Mir shrugged and demurred, whatever it took to satisfy Yeke. Mir hadn’t counted on Aria to say anything, but when Aria loudly said, “I’m not a girl,” Mir realized he had no idea what to expect.

“Well, you have quite a pretty boyfriend, Mir,” Yeke said with a disbelieving laugh.

I’m not a boy either,” Aria said crossly. “Don’t talk as though I’m not here.”

“Excuse me for assuming,” Yeke replied, irritated by Aria’s cheek. Made uncomfortable by Aria’s cool gaze, he turned to Mir, “Do your parents know you’re keeping company with this thing?”

“How rude for such an old, ugly man,” Aria spat, pushing themselves from the wall and standing straight. “You are primitive and vulgar. I am more human than you. We are leaving.” Aria pulled Mir up with all their might and with a running start yanked Mir away.

Aria led him through the winding streets, past stores and cafes and homes. Aria would stop at a crossways, look around, and then dart down another path. Mir quickly realized that Aria was taking them somewhere, though it seemed they didn’t know the way.

Dark, rustling trees began to poke from the tops of the buildings and in no time loomed over them as Aria finally found the border between the village and the forest. Catching their breaths, they both leaned on the gate that marked the boundary. Mir himself had been here many times, but with a group of villagers that saw off the sorcerers and sorceresses who were brave or foolish enough to go inside. With just the two of them the meadow that preceded the forest was empty and the trees were eerily quiet. A shadow overwhelmed the entire area.

Aria couldn’t take their eyes away from the forest and took a few steps toward it.

“Aria, you can’t!” Mir cried out, dashing to their side and clinging to their arm. “You’ll die.”

“Don’t be silly,” Aria said dreamily. “Look how far we are from the edge.”

“That might be true but–” Even standing near the edge made Mir feel anxious. He recalled all the bodies that never made it out and the deathly horrors did that return. He couldn’t bear the same happening to Aria.

“Mir,” Aria began, “you asked if it was safe for people like us out there. I told you yesterday that you’ll be safe as long as you don’t look for trouble.” Aria squeezed Mir’s arms that hugged him. “What a strange feeling, all this power…”

Aria turned to look at him, their green eyes lit up brightly like fireworks. Mir felt an invisible force snake around his mind and heart. He began to grow angry, but it wasn’t his anger.

“In truth you shouldn’t leave your home. It is rich and peaceful here. You are right to be afraid.” Aria made Mir sit with them in the grass, their eyes never leaving him. “People do terrible things when they’re frightened and hungry, like in the outlands. When they’re content, then all we have to deal with are their degrading games, ‘is she or isn’t he?’” The anger in Mir’s heart made his chest tight. “It doesn’t make it right, but at least it is better.”

The swell of emotion kept Mir quiet. Aria smiled at him. “I know a little magic too. Can you feel my thoughts? We can play their games and dance to their music, but it doesn’t keep us safe in the end, no matter where we are. But it is a little better here.”

Mir could feel Aria’s shame and he wondered what could have brought such pain. “Explore the world, if you want. Stay home and watch over your family, if you want. Call yourself whatever you want. You can be a man with soft breasts, if you want. You can be a woman unable to bear children, if you want. Listen to yourself, Mir, more than me or anyone. Your body, mind, and soul know better. I hope you’ll at least remember this from our time together.”

“I’ll never forget this,” Mir said assuredly, “or you.”

“I’ll tell you a secret,” Aria said, ignoring his words. “You’re not the first I’ve met. You’re less alone than you think, even in this village. They’re all very good at hiding.”

“But you don’t hide,” Mir said, voicing the first thoughts that were born when Mir first looked at Aria’s poster.

“Because I am neither and I don’t want to be either. I don’t feel like I am one or the other.” They laid back on the grass. “How simple is that! Yet it causes so much trouble.” They stretched and yawned. “They think I look for trouble, but if being myself brings turmoil, then so be it. It’s lucky I’m pretty though, isn’t it?” Aria smiled at Mir. “You, however, are very unlucky.”

“Why?” Mir asked, a sad feeling in his belly.

Aria pulled him down to lie with them side by side. “Because you’re in love with someone you’ve only just met, poor thing. You’re in love with a prostitute.”

“You knew,” Mir said accusingly, “when I first told you.”

“I know now much more than I did this morning.” Aria patted his hand. “Yes, you should stay here and find the others like you. Any one of them is better than me.”

Mir gave them an unhappy look, but couldn’t stop loving Aria, whose kindness reached his bones, who understood and accepted Mir as he was. In turn Aria gave him a contemplative look, then drew closer. Their eyelashes fluttered and Aria paused, just at Mir’s shoulder. Despite Aria’s strange, sad words, his heart fluttered as well.

Aria leaned over and kissed Mir, who felt dizzying desire. Mir felt fingers entwine in his hair, a warm, bony body on top of his, and warm lips impart kisses on his own. Aria kissed him once for each day that Mir knew them. They were wonderfully slow, tender kisses, but Mir’s arms were tightly wrapped around Aria’s neck. The flirty feelings gave way to unexpected sorrow and he became scared as he realized that his mind was going blank. Somehow, his feelings and memories of Aria were disappearing.

“Aria, wait,” Mir pleaded, his memories being kissed away, even as they were being made. In their closeness Mir understood all of Aria’s worries. Aria believed that memories of them together would be painful for Mir. They would be haunting dreams of a future that would never happen. Aria could see what Mir was thinking, his hopes to leave the village and find Aria again some day. They also saw Mir’s fears about how powerless he felt and how much he feared being singled out for being different.

Aria loved Mir. Aria wished for him a peaceful, uneventful life. They wanted him to be happy and would not stop kissing him until they had kissed all of those memories away.

In a daze Mir could feel himself being pulled up to his feet and being told, “It’s time for you to go home.”

In the silence of dusk the escort held his hand and guided them back to the inn. “Do you remember how to return to home?” the green-eyed, long-haired beauty asked Mir.

He nodded, staring at the person before him. They wore loose, navy blue pants with a long tunic in the same color. Both were embroidered with green and gold. Low hanging, crystal earrings dangled from their ears and a fat, gold ring encircled a finger. Their long hair was braided and tied with a bright, crystal pin. “May I see you again?”

“No,” he or she – Mir wasn’t sure – replied. “We are leaving very soon.”

Mir wrinkled his nose, trying to remember something. “What if I had ten cunia? No, fifty? Then can I see you again?”

“The innkeeper’s told me your parents are worried because you’ve ran away from home,” the pretty escort said. “You should take care of business there first.”

“Oh!” Mir said in surprise. “Then I must go home. They must be terribly hurt.” He turned to leave, but not before asking politely, “May I know your name at least?”

The escort replied softly, tiny glimmers in his or her eyes, “I’m Aria.”

:*:*:*:*:*:*:*:*:

His restlessness came to a head and he couldn’t wait for the morning. Now that Aria came to mind, he couldn’t stop thinking about them. Because he hadn’t been able to see Aria again, Mir saved one of the flyers that had been papered around the inn, but could only imagine what Aria was like in person.

Mir maneuvered his way down from the roof, grabbing ledges and drain pipes until he landed on the ground with a thud. He ran toward the forest, leaving the noisy crowd behind him. When he reached the boundary between the village and the origin forest, he stopped to catch his breath. He had been here before, but couldn’t remember why.

The forest was as foreboding as ever, dark, tall, and thick. It was a miracle that it had let anyone go unscathed. The usual feeling of terror welled up, but he felt he had nothing to lose. He went forward step by step, and with every step forward, he recounted all of the rational reasons he was walking to certain doom.

  1. He had nothing to lose
  2. Like everyone else, he’s always wanted to know what was in the origin forest
  3. His parents had new, perfectly good children and didn’t need him
  4. There was a chance he would survive
  5. He could be the third person to survive the forest, which was still better than fourth or fifth
  6. There could be a chance for a better future
  7. Aria (???)

When he ran out of reasons, he started over. Every time he thought of Aria, which took several steps instead of the one, he wondered why he cared so much about a person he’d barely talked to. Soon the sight of the forest overwhelmed him and he stood at the edge, the closest he’d ever been.

With wide eyes he stared inside. He had seen trees outside of the village, but they were sparsely scattered and allowed sunlight to beam through. The ones in the origin forest were clearly ancient and he couldn’t see past a few meters. Trembling, Mir kept swallowing the lump in his throat. What if people died as soon as they disappeared from view? What if something terrible happened to his dead body? Would his parents find his remains twisted beyond recognition? He hadn’t told anyone where he was.

All these questions tortured him but he still went in. He was sweaty, breathless, and trembling, but he still went in. His arms were held stiffly to his sides and he avoided touching as much of the thicket as he could. It was so quiet that he could hear his heart trying to pound out of his chest. Maybe people didn’t return because they got lost and never found a way out. His steps were tinier, but still he moved forward.

At times he tried to hearten himself by thinking of all the great adventures he had met at the inn. They were often met with uncertainty, but they always pushed through. LIke them, he’d soldier through it. Other times – most of the time – he was so sure he was going to die. Any minute he’d meet his end and that would be the pointless end of another young fool. He clung to thoughts of Aria, because they comforted him the most.

He wished that he did speak with Aria. Even though his parents and the village gossiped about the odd creature, Mir admired Aria’s bravery to resist choosing a gender. He wished he had been so brave, pre-forest-adventure. Shivering with cold now, Mir promised himself that if he survived the forest, he would follow Aria’s example.

The forest was almost completely dark, but Mir could still see his immediate surroundings. He didn’t know how long it had been, but nothing had happened so far. Tired of walking, he sat down at the foot of a tree and wished he had planned this a little better. Iyr and Nineka had at least gone in with equipment and supplies. Granted, they re-appeared with nothing, but maybe it had helped them survive the month. He sighed and rubbed his arms for heat. Surrounded by large plants and bushes, Mir thought it harmless if he plucked a few large leaves to cover himself.

He reached over to tug a long leaf off the nearest plant. He stopped to see if a spirit or something supernatural would come out and curse him for harming the flora, but nothing happened. Mir helped himself to a few more, uncovering a flash of ghostly white. It had caught his eye and when he looked down to see if it was a mushroom, he jumped back and screamed. He immediately clapped his hands over his mouth but looked again to confirm.

It was a baby, unmoving. Mir stood up in a flash, realizing in horror that he was surrounded with naked, dirt-stained infants, all tucked under the brush, all lying still. He wanted to cry, but he had stopped crying since he’d run away from home last year. He wanted to run, but he had no idea how many surrounded him, and he wanted nothing to do with them. Why were there so many of them? Where had they come from?

“They’ve been returned,” a voice answered peacefully, and Mir almost snapped his back by the way he turned.

He found a woman sitting on the ground, holding her knees and looking up at Mir. She didn’t have a scrap of clothing on her and her irises were white. Everything else about her was dark, except for her thigh, which brandished a deep red scar. It looked like a large chunk of flesh had been gouged out. Her skin was so much like obsidian that Mir could scarcely see her expression, but she had an expectant look.

“You will show respect,” she said.

She was exquisite that Mir forgot to be afraid, but he had no idea what she wanted. He threw himself to the ground, prostrating to her and trembling.

“Show your Mother respect,” a harsh voice said. Mir felt a hand on his collar snatch off his shirt. In the next instant he was stripped bare, pants yanked off. Curling up into himself but still on his knees, he bowed forward. He dared to glance backward to see a man missing his forearm cast Mir’s clothes aside. His irises were also bone white.

He knelt at her feet for what seemed like forever, but weariness eventually overcame fear. Since he was disrobed, he heard only silence, so Mir peeked up and found himself alone. He heard a slight, helpless noise next to him.

Riding out the tail end of a yawn, a baby had rolled onto its back. To his relief, he realized they were all sleeping, not dead. Moreover, with its legs were splayed apart, Mir noticed that the little one was just like him.

Mir crawled around to study them. They were all like him – in between or neither – but they weren’t exactly like him. Unlike them, he opened his eyes, saw the sun, ate roseplums and blackfruit, embraced his mother, held his father’s hand. He grieved for them, not knowing how long they had been sleeping.

He rose to his feet and trudged forward, because he thought he should. Before him were more of them, fields of them. He stopped short when he found his first adult. He couldn’t remember all of the magic users that disappeared into the forest, but this woman was certainly one of them. In a fetal position she hugged her knees and slumbered.

Mir began to understand that he might be forced to join them, but he wondered how Iyr and Nineka managed to escape. He imagined that the people who refused were killed violently. He kept walking in silence, taking care to avoid the people sleeping around him.

He saw in the distance a rock wall and believed he had reached the end of the forest. But nothing had happened since he had seen the man and woman. Should he turn around? Would they force him to sleep? When he reached it, he realized it wasn’t a wall, but a massive rock formation that jutted from the earth. It was so tall that Mir didn’t understand how he hadn’t seen it before. Surely someone had seen the peak that pierced the forest and the sky.

He touched the rock and ran his fingers over the surface. It was smooth, like it had been worn over hundreds of years. A piercing white light suddenly blinded him and visions flooded his mind.

A being of fire as bright as a star stood at the top of the peak. From a distance they could see a vast army or horses and swords coming toward them. Two figures knelt before the light, the woman and man Mir had run into before, except they were mortal here. Exhaustion in their eyes, they bid the being a sad farewell and urged them to go home.

Flames licking their body, the being knelt before them and kissed their foreheads, leaving terrible burns of fire. Like lightning, the creature shot toward the sky and left the both of them writhing in madness. Waves of distortion spread from the peak to the rest of the lands and flattened the army. Mir realized he was witnessing the birth of magic.

“Why are you here, blessed child?” a voice murmured. Mir awoke kneeling at the foot of the peak, but no one was around him.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

With sweet humor in her tone, the voice said, “You know. You don’t remember, but the answer is with you.”

Lips shaking, he spoke, “Aria. I’m here for Aria, but I don’t know why. I don’t know who they are.”

“Yes, you do,” another voice insisted and it was like something had imploded in Mir’s brain. Trickles of memories returned to him and overwhelmed him. He remembered the way Aria punched him in the eye before apologetically soaking it with a tea bag, the way Aria held his hand under the basement staircase, the way Aria held him and made love to him, the way Aria tried to make Mir forget them to save him. Mir’s desire to enter the forest and his love for Aria finally faced each other and Mir knew why he was there.

“I’m here for power,” Mir said with gritted teeth. He blinked back tears, knowing that he wanted the power to face the outside and look for Aria. The voices made approving noises in his ears and Mir felt warm hands on his body, but he couldn’t see anything.

“We will give you more than what you seek,” a masculine voice whispered in his ear. Its breath caressed the nape of his neck. Mir felt more hands on him, snaking around him. The warmth enveloped him and he gasped, feeling friction everywhere. He fell forward on all fours and arched his back, feeling hot strokes on the sensitive, soft folds and swells between his legs. Fully seduced, Mir was fed another vision, this one of the future.

He saw a world only full of people like him, Aria, and all infants in the forest. They had gathered together and were waiting. A flash of light enveloped the sky and they all glowed in response. They began to ascend until they left the atmosphere and ignited into burning beings of fire. Leaving behind pain, sorrow, prejudice, they were happy. That would be all they knew until the end of time.

Mir rocked his hips, enchanted by the arousal that burned through his blood. He understood what they wanted, the inheritors of magic. The adults who slept refused the task, unwilling to take part in the end of humans, of men and women, but understood that it was inevitable. They wanted to see the end in peace.

Mir, conversely, would accept the role of emissary. Not only could he see Aria again, he could change the world that grieved them. He’d gladly end humanity, as long as he could bring Aria happiness.

A wave broke out over his body and Mir cried out with unbridled pleasure, consummating the agreement.

:*:*:*:*:*:*:*:*:

Mir awoke anew. Their body was exactly the same as when they entered the origin forest, but at their fingertips was pure magic, arcana. Unused to the power, they were overcome by the possibilities before them. They could see their parents grieving over their lost child, gone for months. Their mother and father hadn’t seen Mir since the twins were born. They both felt deep guilt, but the newborns were enough to stay their sorrow. Mir would let their parents think they were dead. It was much easier than to explain all that had happened.

They were surprised by their own uncertainty and beating heart. Though they controlled the most esoteric and powerful form of magic, they didn’t know what they should do next, so they set out on their original goal to find Aria.

WIth their power it took no time to find Aria’s location, but they were nervous. They thought of different ways to approach Aria. Maybe tempting them with rubynuts would help. In any case, they needed Aria’s help figuring out this whole ascension mess. Aria was three years older after all.

Mir reappeared in a city by the desert. It was as fantastic as he had imagined when he first heard of such a place from a grizzled traveler. Instead of suddenly materializing in Aria’s room, he preferred to do it the normal way. He entered the brothel and asked for Aria.

“Aria is with a client,” the Madam’s steward said. She gave Mir a contemptuous once-over. They were still wearing the same clothes since months ago, so their appearance was understandably haggard. “I doubt Aria will see you.”

Mir in turn regarded the steward with wonder at how much normal habits and customs annoyed them now. They pushed past the woman and marched to the back rooms. Mir knew where Aria was, but didn’t want to look into the room. They couldn’t bear to see what Aria was doing with some stranger.

Pounding on the door without saying anything, Mir waited for a response. When they received none, Mir pounded ceaselessly.

Flinging the door open was a furious, flushed, and half-naked Aria, bed sheets wrapped around themselves. “You know that I am with a client!” they bellowed.

“Are you?” Mir asked, unable to hold back a grin. They cocked their chin toward the room and Aria turned to find the room emptied.

Mir stepped into the room and quietly closed the door behind them. Aria had not turned back around. Their body was stiff and trembling, much like Mir was when they had spoken to Aria in the baths.

“How dare you barge into my room? Who are you?” Aria asked in a quivering voice.

“Aria, please turn around.” When they didn’t, Mir moved around to face Aria, who looked downwards.

“I don’t know you,” Aria said. Their voice was breaking and their still-lovely fingers were shaking. “Please leave.” They shrugged the bed sheets to cover themselves more.

Mir cupped their cheek and Aria did not pull away. “Aria, I remember everything.”

“You fool!” Aria roared, trying not to cry. “Why are you here? I made sure–” They bit their lips, but let Mir pull them into their arms. Mir ran fingers through Aria’s hair, starting from the base of their neck. “Have you always been this tall? How dare you grow taller than me.”

“Say the word, love, and I’ll take you away from all of this.”

“Is this the crybaby that wept in my arms?“ Aria asked between tears. “It must be him, for him to utter such silly dreams to me.”

“I’m not a man,” Mir gently corrected. “And is that a ‘yes?’”

“Only if to indulge you,” Aria said, holding tightly to Mir, who scooped them up into their arms, bedsheets and all.

They re-materialized in an oasis far from the desert city, a paradise among barren sands. Aria was being held princess-style and their arms were around Mir’s neck, a giant bundle of person and sheets.

“I’m still naked,” Aria said indignantly. They were verifiably shocked, but could only muster a complaint.

“Sorry,” Mir said. “I’m still getting the hang of this.”

“What’s happened to you? Sold your soul to the devil?” Aria asked sharply.

“Somewhat,” Mir said sheepishly. When they told Aria what had happened, Aria pinched Mir’s nose.

“Are you stupid? Now you have a power you don’t even know how to use. You’d better take me back. I thought you had come back rich, but I see that I have to provide for both of us.”

Mir couldn’t stop smiling. Aria was the same and treated Mir the same. Mir loved them for that.

“I have one plan,” Mir said, not letting Aria down. “There was that sorcerer that survived the forest. I think he could teach me a thing or two about arcana. He said it was all about the ‘suspension of belief.’”

“Find me proper clothes first,” Aria said.

“How about rubynuts?” Mir asked, offering a bag which Aria took. “No kiss?” Mir protested.

“Look at you, smug because you have limitless power. You can’t have everything you want.”

“That’s fair,” Mir said happily. “I have the most important thing anyway.” Before Aria could complain at Mir’s use of ‘thing’, Mir burst out, “I love you to the moon and back, Aria. All I want is your happiness.”

To that earnest display Aria couldn’t say anything. They were sour because in their wildest dreams never imagined the whelp would return for them. Aria didn’t know what to do with such joy, so they tightened their hold around Mir’s neck and for once had nothing to say.

 

Read this piece’s entry in the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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