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Life in a Box

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Ran presses his fingertips to the glass, its surface cool and unyielding. Beyond the arched window, the lights of the city crinkle the horizon, a thousand shades of rainbow, like a distant fairyland.

But Ran is not watching the city tonight. He is watching the path to the house, waiting for a familiar silhouette to appear.

Gingetsu has not been home for three days.

Ran is used to waiting. He is good at occupying himself, during the lonely hours when Gingetsu is away at work. He can brew a cup of tea, drop in a cube of sugar, pour in a splash of milk, steam caressing his face as he sips. A familiar ritual.

The chair opposite him is empty.

Ran lights the lamp that Gingetsu gave him as a gift, although he doesn't need its illumination. Ran knows his way in the dark, can trace his steps blind, can navigate by touch alone. He has lived within these four walls for years, wedged between the grey plaster ceiling and the chessboard tiles of the floor.

He sets the lamp in the arched window to burn, like a beacon to guide lost souls home.

Ran knows that he is going to live and die inside these walls. But he doesn't want to do it alone.

***

On the fifth day, he calls the wizards.

General Kou's lined face flickers onto the inside of the visor.

"Hello, C," she says.

"Ran," he corrects.

A barely perceptible nod. "You're calling about Lieutenant Colonel Gingetsu, I presume."

"Something's wrong, isn't it?"

She looks at him gravely. "The details of his mission are classified. We are doing our best to retrieve him."

"Let me help."

"What can you do?"

He meets her gaze steadily. "You know what I can do."

"I'm sorry, Ran. I'm unable to authorise your release from confinement."

He draws breath to protest, but General Kou raises a finger.

"However."

Ran pauses, not daring to speak.

"It will be twenty four hours before I can send someone to replace Gingetsu as your security. We can't spare the personnel right now."

Her expression is inscrutable. But he thinks he knows what she is offering.

"Understood."

***

Ran sits inside the lattice of the transport module, wires trailing from his gloves. He has never tried to use it to teleport himself before. A tricky manoeuvre, for anyone but him. A one way trip, regardless.

But without Gingetsu, there is no reason to come back.

He sets the last known coordinates.

Azaiea. Enemy territory.

Gingetsu, wait for me.

No walls can hold him.

***

Ran dematerialises in an alley and immediately sinks to his ankles in wet snow. The cold shocks the air from his lungs. His thin black tee and trousers are hopelessly inadequate; he owns no clothes for the outdoors.

He remembers the last time he had stood under open sky. It had been raining.

Men with guns had come for him. They had died on the wires.

Ran wraps his arms around himself and takes a few tottering steps towards the mouth of the alley. Beyond lies a town square, hung with coloured lights. The shells of a few derelict buildings indicate that this is a sometime battleground, disputed territory, under temporary truce.

But couples still walk, hand in hand, under the eyes of the soldiers. And somewhere, a lone busker is singing a love song.

***

A hundred eyes follow Ran as he navigates down unfamiliar streets. He knows there are electronic watchers everywhere; he is counting on it.

A flapping of black wings, as the first crow descends, hunching on the fence like a cloaked messenger. Its glowing red eyes watch him balefully.

"Hello," Ran says. And begins calling down birds.

The crows swoop down in a flurry of clockwork wings, in their tens and hundreds. He reaches into the circuitry of their minds, unravelling their memories. He can see everything they have seen, a flashing mosaic of images, a broken mirror recomposing into three dimensions.

Seeking a man whose shape he would know in the dark.

Before he realises it, he is running, along paths glimpsed behind his eyelids.

He steps on something that snaps under his feet.

A visor. One arm of the frame broken.

His heart almost stops.

This is the place. He falls to his knees and claws at the freezing snow.

A manhole cover, sealed and bolted. It does not look like it has been opened in ages. But Gingetsu is a Clover too. He has abilities he has never shared.

Ran lays his palm flat on the lid. The bolts rise from their housing one by one.

***

The air in the tunnel is stale but not foul. Snowmelt has washed through it recently. And Gingetsu, like another piece of flotsam, lies propped against the wall, one leg twisted beneath him. It is a shock to see him vulnerable, with his eyes unveiled.

Gingetsu blinks in the dim light, as though uncertain what he is seeing is real. "Ran? What are you doing here?"

"I came to bring you home."

"How did you even--the wizards--" He struggles to sit upright.

"It's all right. Don't try to move."

Dawn light seeps through the chinks above, patterning their faces.

"Your hands are like ice," Gingetsu murmurs. He draws Ran closer, wrapping them both within his jacket. Ran pillows himself against Gingetsu. They lie together, sharing a heartbeat, waiting for the day to pass.

***

For one brief hour, they walk through the dusky streets like ordinary people.

The Azaieans will be hunting for a lone soldier. No one will be looking at a couple walking hand in hand, one man leaning against the other.

Their mingled breath steams in the frosty air. Ran will remember this moment for as long as he lives.

***

They are flying over the mountains, they are flying beneath the moon, carried aloft in a net suspended from a dozen steel swans. The stars blaze bright above them. Gingetsu is a solid warmth against Ran's back, protective arms around his waist. They are the only people in the whole of the world.

Gingetsu has been silent. Ran does not think anything of it; Gingetsu is not a man of many words. But when they are almost to the border, Gingetsu says, "Stop. Let me down."

Ran does not hesitate; he sends the swans spiralling in swift descent, settling softly upon the snowdrifts.

"What's wrong?" Ran breathes. "Are you hurt?"

Gingetsu shakes his head. He is wearing his visor once more, and Ran cannot read his eyes.

"I can make it back from here on my own," he says. "You don't have to come with me."

Ran is seized by sudden panic. Is Gingetsu angry with him, for his rash behaviour? "Are you sending me away?"

"You don't have to go back. You could keep going. You're stronger than the wizards now. You could live out your life in freedom."

"And what about you?"

"You don't need my protection anymore."

It is not an answer. Gingetsu has a bomb in his head, though they have never spoken of it. But Ran knows. The wizards hold Gingetsu hostage, and that is enough to hold him hostage.

Ran thinks he could disarm it, with the power he has now. They could escape together. Ran could keep them both safe, in the years he has left.

But Gingetsu doesn't have years, he has decades, if he doesn't throw them away.

"I know what you did for me," Ran says, brushing his fingers against Gingetsu's temple. He feels the other man shiver. "I didn't leave the house for the world outside. I left the house for you."

He slides his hand inside Gingetsu's. "Let's go home."

After a moment, the hand tightens around his.

***

Home is tall arched windows where Ran can watch the falling rain.

A pot of tea, steam curling from the spout, and two brimming cups.

 

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