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Hyakkimaru opens his eyes with the sense that something is wrong.

It takes him a moment to reorient—sleep is strange now, with sound added to the mix; there’s a definite shift between waking and dreaming that before existed only in Hyakkimaru’s head. It’s as if his consciousness simply disconnects—and with it, even hearing is distant, right up until Hyakkimaru opens his eyes and finds the world thrust back into vivid sound without warning. 

He winces at the now-customary headache from the noise and turns the side of his head against the pillow, trying to puzzle out what’s woken him. It’s day, he thinks—the air is warm and dry against his skin—but the house is devoid the usual scuffling sounds Dororo and the other children make when they play. Have they gone out?

Hyakkimaru tilts back his head, trying to listen; even with the haze of fever, he’s getting better at picking through noises. No, he doesn’t think Dororo or the other small souls are here—can’t hear a thing that might suggest their presence.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the house is quiet, either: the creak of the trees, the whistling wind… these are becoming fast constants. Hyakkimaru sighs through his teeth and turns to his side. It was probably the trees, then. They are certainly loud enough to wake him most times—

He is just about to roll over and slip back into sleep when he hears it. 

Hyakkimaru freezes, mind gone abruptly sharp. The sound comes again, muffled but clear to his sensitive ears. A soft cry, broken and thin, catching on the edges, rubbed raw by emotion. It’s… what is that? What is this sound? There’s something horribly familiar about it, something he cannot place.

Again, he hears it— and this time, Hyakkimaru climbs slowly to his feet. Never mind the trees. This must be what woke him: this quiet, shattered sound, muffled and bitter.

He’s heard this before, Hyakkimaru realizes with a sudden chill. Louder, then, more like a wail—but he recognizes this cry. He discovered it the night his hearing returned. The first experience with sound Hyakkimaru has ever had, after the thunder and the rain. A quiet breaking wail that rose above even the storm.

He’s moving before he can convince himself otherwise, nearly tripping in his haste. He follows the sound best he can, mismatched feet knocking on the floorboards. The clatter of his footsteps makes him wince, but they must be quiet enough, because the breaking sound doesn’t shutter or shut off the way it sometimes does when souls notice Hyakkimaru is there. He’s getting closer—he can tell, because the noise is only growing louder.

There— he’s close, he’s here. Close enough that volume is starting to grate on his hearing. The sound is coming from—  

Hyakkimaru reaches out, and his prosthetic bumps into a wall of green. Behind here. This is where that awful sound is coming from.

He slides his hands along the wood, looking for the catch. He knows it's there, even if he can’t see it; Jukai’s home had the same trick, walls that could be slid open when you needed them too. He can’t find it, though, and that sound is still going, and—

His panic makes him sloppy. Hyakkimaru’s usual pinpoint control slips in his restlessness, and he realizes this too late to catch himself. The spring in his prosthetic wrist pulls and catches, and his hand slams awkwardly against the wooden wall. 

The noise stops.

Oh, damn it, Hyakkimaru thinks and then the wall slides open with a bang.

He blinks rapidly, even though it makes no difference to his sight. There is a soul now, instead of the green wall—pale white and flickering badly. A human soul. Mio.

Mio was making that wailing noise? The thought bothers him, for reasons he can’t figure. Worse still, Mio isn’t moving—just staring at him, oddly quiet, their shoulders curled in like they’re trying to hide.

Hyakkimaru hesitates. There’s something wrong, he thinks. Something in the way Mio’s soul shakes. Something… drawn, tired. And, and that sound…

Hyakkimaru feels an uncomfortable pang near his heart and shuffles on his feet, uncertain. He cannot help but think of his own restless sleep, looking at Mio now. That endless exhaustion and bitter understanding that no matter how tired he felt, Hyakkimaru couldn’t stop, just couldn’t. What does it matter, if sound won’t let Hyakkimaru sleep, if he’s too tired to fight? The demons won’t let him rest. The monsters will always come. Not fighting has never been an option, and while usually Hyakkimaru doesn’t mind…

Sometimes— sometimes, most times, Hyakkimaru just wishes he could stop.

And to see—to see that, to feel that, when looking at Mio… to have this horrible dawning sense that Mio might feel the same way… Hyakkimaru isn’t sure what to think about that. It just—hurts. It hurts. It hurts because it’s awful, Mio doesn’t deserve that, and Hyakkimaru doesn’t know what to do now that he’s found that out.

But Mio is still standing there, hunched in on themself, shoulders stiff like they’re trying to be brave— their soul, wavering like it’s about to break— and all Hyakkimaru knows is that whatever he does, he can’t just stand here and do nothing.

He hesitates, again. Hyakkimaru’s only done this once before, with Jukai, who knew to look for the writing. But there’s no dirt here, and — and Mio still isn’t moving, or speaking, or anything. The only thing he can hear from them is their breathing.

Nothing else for it— Hyakkimaru will simply have to hope they understand.

Decision made, Hyakkimaru lifts a hand and reaches out hesitantly for Mio’s face. Mio doesn’t move away, but when his fingers touch their cheek they flinch. Hyakkimaru flinches too. There’s an awful knot of something in his gut, something terrible thing coiling around his heart. It makes the back of his eyes itch.

Mio flinches, but they don’t move away, and that— that’s enough. Hyakkimaru takes a quiet breath, drawing on all his lessons with Jukai, and slowly shapes the question with his hand, taking care as he traces the word against Mio’s cheek.

Okay?

They don’t seem to understand—they’re so still—so Hyakkimaru tries again, tracing the word over and over, until he’s surprised and a little startled to find his fingers are shaking, too. There’s an awful heat in his cheeks, a lump in his throat. He abruptly feels like hiding, oddly small under Mio’s unflinching regard.

But then Mio makes a sound, a stifled gasp, and they straighten very suddenly. Their voice is quiet, hushed; too small for Hyakkimaru to parse out the words, the language unfamiliar to him.

He tries to traces the word again, hesitant, but Mio lifts a hand and curls their fingers around his before he can finish. Hyakkimaru freezes mid-motion, blinking at them. Mio’s soul flickers.

Mio speaks again, but there’s something different about them now— their voice steadier and stronger, still soft but now with a warmth in their words. They’re no longer so still. Their shoulders are shaking, light and thin, and the fingers they’ve curled around his are trembling.

Hyakkimaru tries to trace that question one more time, because he doesn’t know what else to ask, and Mio makes a noise deep in their throat, a weepy sort of laugh. They take his hand and tug lightly on the prosthetic; Hyakkimaru steps forward on instinct. Mio steps in to meet him. Their head tucks underneath his chin, against his shoulder; their arms press against his back.

Realization sinks in. Mio— Mio is hugging him.

Hyakkimaru holds himself still, a little dazed, unsure of how to react. Mio is warm, their hair soft against his cheek. For how slight their soul looks, the hug is secure, their arms betraying a secret strength. They’re so warm.

Mio is still shaking, but their tremors are calming now, easing away. They squeeze his middle and he can feel them sigh against his collar.

Mio is talking, Hyakkimaru realizes. Soft and whispery, muffled against his shoulder. The words are so faint he can hardly hear them at all. They press their head against his shoulder and take a deep breath, as if drawing strength from it, then finally step back from the hug.

To Hyakkimaru’s eyes, Mio’s soul shines.

Mio’s hand rises, touches his face. Hyakkimaru holds himself still. Their fingers are cold against his skin. Mio makes that whisper-laugh again and clumsily traces something back—the same symbol, affirmative, assurance. 

I am okay.

Mio doesn’t wait for a response— as soon as Hyakkimaru blinks, recognizing the symbol for what it is, Mio’s soul flares with brightness and their fingers pat his cheek, light and fond. Before Hyakkimaru can respond, Mio takes his hand again and moves past him, leading him back into the heart of the house.

They’re talking again—soft, airy, as if nothing has happened. Cheerful and conversational. But they are still holding Hyakkimaru’s hand, and his cheek tingles from where they’d touched him. His mind is stuck on the embrace, on their answer, on the quiet whisper Mio had muffled into his shoulder.

Mio’s soul is still shaking, faintly. But that awful weeping sound is gone, and their soul is glowing brighter and stronger than before.

Hyakkimaru twitches his prosthetic fingers in his best attempt to hold their hand back. He’s smiling. He can feel it, on his face—a quiet curl at his lips, tugging at muscles long disused. And while Hyakkimaru has no real way to tell, he thinks—he thinks, maybe—  

He thinks perhaps Mio is smiling too.