There were a lot of open mouths in the ruins.
For the most part, people kept to themselves, only engaging in opposition or alliance when territory was threatened. But there were a lot more friendlier people she’d expected outside the walls of the city. They didn’t frequent their time more than a day, often passing just enough to share a story or two.
One man in particular met them in the far reaches of another continent, their guide for the day to the mountains. He accepted no payment for his services aside from having some ears who could listen to him talk.
She had wondered at this, wondered why he would risk so much for so little. But any question fled from her mind, pleasurable as his company was. He was loud and boisterous and filled the old silences with folktales of the Slavs. He told them of the zmaj, dragons of Serbia more intelligent than any man. Among them followed the typical pantheon of gods to explain regular, natural phenomena. There were also ghosts, spirits, long dead girls who frequented lakes or rivers to haunt their deathbeds as water nymphs called rusalki.
He had told them this last story, eyes half-lidded, by the spitting fire to pass the time for the night. The wind wailed on, buffeting the entrance of their cave like a knock. If she closed her eyes, she could have easily mistaken the sound as echoes of a funeral toll.
Rusalki were lost souls, wronged in life by the people they loved, he said. They were sirens who enticed victims to dance with them so they could laugh and forget that they were drowning.
She bit a shiver at that and his eyes clouded over.
There are worse deaths though, don’t you think?
The sun hung sentry, a pale-milk specter not too shy to hide behind the graying clouds. The still air was the only mercy. She could not keep her gaze level too long however.
Snow-blindness was deadly.
After they neared the juncture between mountains and open land, their guide left them with a small smile, much quieter than his previous ones. He took Kougami to the side to speak with him in a language she couldn’t understand and the other man only nodded in reply when the guide was finished before looking forward again, his face unreadable against the blinding light of the snow.
He went to her last, clasping her hands as if he was the one in thanks.
“Careful where you walk, moja droga. The snow is making it harder to see where you are stepping on.”
“Ah.” Akane lifted her foot away from a suspicious patch. “Thanks for the warning.”
Of course that was what she meant to say but from the claustrophobic pocket of her scarves and her mouth, it probably came out more as a mumbled jumble of gibberish.
If he noticed, he did not say although his voice was more amused when he spoke again.
“It was a pleasure to meet your acquaintance. Please take care of yourself.” His eyes flickered to Kougami then back to her, a sadder curl in his smile when he did. “Take care of each other. Not many can walk in this world with a hand to hold.”
With that, he kissed her knuckles, nodded again to Kougami before he parted from them, his figure easily disappearing in the thicket of foliage. Akane felt his absence in her hands, a sense of understanding coming to her for a man who dealt his services in exchange for a bit of company.
“Let’s go, Tsunemori,” her partner said, breaking her thoughts. She followed along, occasionally looking back at the trees hidden in the white.
Ten minutes later, he called for a stop, one she almost missed behind the thick hood blocking her ears. He motioned for her to wait as he took out an old-fashioned handheld transceiver and wandered for a signal.
“If we were lost, you’d tell me, right?”
“Of course,” he said. “And we’re not lost if that’s what you’re getting at. We’re just—”
“Exactly.” He indulged her with a smile, but his eyes weren’t really there when he looked.
She held her tongue and directed her attention elsewhere.
It had been two weeks.
She still struggled with the meaning of his smiles, which seemed far too heavy for what they were. Or his words, which were far too light to carry the weight held between them.
It was not as if he was particularly verbose even back when they had their roles to separate them. But there was still a distinct line now, a sheet of glass he had erected between them in replacement. Not opaque enough to seem cold or apathetic. But just enough for her to recognize the intention and the calculated manner in its design to pique little questioning.
It seemed as if he underestimated the extent of just how much she’d grown in his absence.
Because she still noted the brief cracks here and there. The light touch on her shoulder to pull her back so he could stand in front of her when facing a vagrant coming from the opposite direction. Fingers like a flint searching for a spark when she handed him the map. The occasional heat on the back of her neck, as if he had been staring while she had been preoccupied with something else.
Then again, all of this could have just been wishful thinking.
A sensible thought, she surmised, after two weeks of small talk and practical chatter. Two weeks, and she still did not know why they were still dancing around each other as if –
There it was. A feeling like the sun’s glare from above, piercing enough for her even with the thick fabric of her layers. But when she faced his direction in the pretense of sightseeing the mountains, he was back at his work as if he had not even registered her presence. Akane felt her skin prickle.
“Need any help, Kougami-san?” she called out.
“No, I’m fine. I think I’m finally getting something here.”
Akane chewed the inside of her cheek, smarting at the feeling that she was more a tag-along than an actual partner at the moment.
Looking for a distraction, she turned her attention again to the landscape. She found she was still a stranger to the animal prints embedded on the ground. Still new to the birds flying overhead and those blue and white caps jutting out of the horizon as if the earth had grown hands for the skies.
It was a marvel to see something as simple as nature in its unadulterated state.
Or even now as her eyes wandered, something more remarkable as just the sight of him within walking distance. So close that if she had the nerve she could walk to him and reach without his wrist dematerializing from her touch.
Two weeks had not faded the novelty of that.
He was crouching now as he fiddled with the machine, just close enough for her to see the furrow at the space between his eyebrows, his mouth drawn together in concentration.
It was almost adorable.
Of course she’d die before she said anything of that sort to his face.
She stepped away, realized that her feet had subconsciously followed her train of thought. The snow was thick, sticking against her ankles as she moved. The ground dipped underneath her here and she retreated by instinct. She was about to ask him again about the topography of the area when she stepped on something that felt oddly smooth.
Her breath froze.
In the next second, her left foot flinched as if responding to a change in gravity. Her right foot followed in delayed alarm.
Looking down at the surprising sight of dampened, clumping snow, she blinked at the sensation of something lapping at the sole of her boot.
Her breath hitched and she took a step away. Too late did she realize her mistake when she felt more than heard the muffled crack the instant it blossomed under her feet.
His eyes flicked up to hers and for a suspended moment he looked as if he could truly see her.
She saw his lips beginning to form her name.
His mouth opening to say something—
She recalled thinking how odd it was the way he phrased it like that. Present, not past.
She asked him where.
His answer was a foreign-sounding word. A word south in some other country. The entirety of it was in shambles but there was a small colony established in the ruckus, built for and by refugees who wanted to resettle.
He talked briefly of what he had seen of it, of his judgment on their plans and their system. He did not place faith like that easily and from the tired lines at the edge of his eyes, it seemed as if he was tired of moving from place to place. That was when she realized the gravity of what he was doing. She did not know where this word was but the way he spoke it made him sound so far away.
The ship they’ve arranged for me is one-way only. Once I get there, I won’t come back to this continent again.
So why did you come back here then?
There were so many answers his reply could go. So many reasons, so many ways, so many phrases he could have used. But it only ever boiled down to one thing, didn’t it?
Akane had wondered if she could accept what he was asking her without words. Whether she could open herself to the terrifying responsibility of having such a choice.
Could she choose to go to hell with something she hated or be damned if she ever let him walk alone again?
Not many can walk in this world with a hand to hold.
Their guide’s voice followed in her mind.
In Slavic folkore, the rusalka waited for her lost to return. She would sing her songs above the water and entice men to die but she would wait under for him, forever faithful in purgatory.
In the end, would she really find her answer in the space between his fingers?
If she died out there, her family and friends would never know. If she searched for herself, her name would return an error. Her epitaph, another misplaced one in a series of zeroes. Another glitch, she figured. Another ghost to haunt the skeletons of the city’s closet.
The rusalka waited for her lost to return. But which was more tragic—
That he never came back to mourn or that she never left her grave to move on?
It was surreal how quickly the scene had changed.
Like she had blinked and woken up from a dream only to find herself still in one.
The second after, it seemed as if time she had lost before was catching up in one point all at once.
Her head jerked against something sharp, body recoiling and pulling and pushing as if electrocuted and all she was now was instinct, hold your breath, go up, move your legs—
The world shuffled between light and dark as her head bobbed to the surface then back again under, a traveler tethered between dimensions as polar as the other. Her lips mumbled numbly as water seeped in her mouth despite her efforts.
Some force, something speaking, caught her and weakly she tried to return the favor but the ice bit her hand useless. The water’s cold fingers clung at her clothes, just as desperate in its hunger as she was to air.
Her arm reached again — grasping at water, snow or ice; she wasn’t certain — and threw her chances into nameless emptiness in the hopes that they would catch. She felt two opposing tugs, living, breathing, sucking her down, a desperate grab at her arm, at her deadening fingers trying to reach to him, and recalling that day she had called his name and he had left with a gun as his rudder—
As if he remembered it too, he clutched back and she felt herself thrown headfirst out of the blackness below and brought back. Her breaths coughed out in shallow gasps as her head dropped onto something solid, hacking out water in place of air. She willed herself to stop shaking until she realized she was not the only one breathing hard. Her eyes found his under her wet, frosted lashes and she dimly realized he had her in his arms.
“I have you. I have you,” he said, as much to himself as to her, his entire body seemingly devoted to keeping her within an inch of his skin as he dragged both of them to a more reliable surface.
“Shhh, it’s all right. I have you. Keep your eyes open, Akane.”
“I’m getting your clothes w-wet,” she whispered and he laughed weakly.
“I’ll live. Just try to slow your breathing for me, alright?”
He shucked off her boots and peeled off the thick, soaking top layers until she was only in her sweatshirt. He unzipped his own jacket and dressed her with it.
“I know,” he said as he packed their things with hurried ease and slung both their packs on his shoulders. “But I can’t warm you up too soon. The shock could do you worse than the cold. I need to get you out of here first.”
He lifted her with care and for a second, Akane was reminded of the last time he had carried her like this. She had been semi-conscious, the smell of fire and burning metal running acrid in the wind and he had placed her down while she could only watch as he walked away—
“You still with me?”
“Of course,” she mumbled, the cold seeping out her energy like a weight draped on her shoulders. “Of course.”
Still her mind drifted, lost in the cadence of his footfalls as he moved forward, and only jerked awake when he spoke her name against her ear.
“Sorry. Can’t have you falling asleep. You hit your head pretty hard on the ice when you slipped.”
“Let me walk. You’ll get tired too quickly. And your clothes are getting wet,” she slurred despite herself.
The gentleness in his voice was a warm relief, even if it was temporary. “I can manage. Don’t worry about me right now. I promise we’ll both get out of here in one piece.”
She was too drained, too full of the cold to say anything in reply but she willed herself to nod anyway. She tried not to concentrate on the lull of his steps, or the rhythm of his heartbeat next to her ear, so steady and sure despite the added weight of everything else.
The third time her eyes drifted closed was when he started talking to keep her awake.
It was obvious he wasn’t accustomed to instigating casual conversation, especially keeping a one-sided one at that. But he trudged on; his feet and his words following suit.
He talked of everything and nothing in particular. Stories and fairytales from the mouths of so many dead cultures. Most of whom he’d encountered in the years he’d been missing: doctors, scholars, soldiers, dreamers and artists who had burnished themselves into something else for the sake of survival.
When he had tired of that subject, he began to talk about his own past, an ordinary house with an extraordinary mother — a woman who could summon all the fierceness and gentleness of the universe into her small body. About Ginoza and their friendship and how the man underestimated the capacity of his own heart. Sasayama and his love for life and how often he aggravated and inspired in equal parts.
Akane wished she had more sense and energy to pocket these parts of himself he rarely ever imparted. And truly she tried.
For the both of them especially.
Because when he had finished talking about everything else and started talking about her–
Well with the things he said, who was to say that actually occurred and was nothing but a dream conjured by her exhaustion and far-flung hopes?
Sensation came to her in drifts. Secure was the first she registered.
Warm was the second.
“You awake?” a hoarse voice asked from somewhere close, too close, to her ear.
Her eyes opened sluggishly as they took in her surroundings.
It stirred a memory.
Dark rock lit by the echoes of a fire burning in the center. A story about a girl who haunted the waters of her grave. The smell of wood chips burning. She had been here before. It was in fact a similar cave they had sheltered in last night when—
Surely, she wasn’t imagining what she was pressed up against.
And God forbid, was she…?
With a gasp, she panicked against the tight space and tried to release herself from whatever vice that had a hold on her.
“Whoa, hey, calm down.”
“Why are we naked?” she yelped.
She felt his surprised laughter come at her back in waves, a rolling sensation that travelled down her spine in a way that made her painfully aware of how close he was.
“We’re not naked,” he said with sleepy humor. “Mostly.”
Belatedly, she realized that she was in fact in her thermal top and shorts. That was small comfort but did little to calm her chest.
“Were you the one who changed…?”
She could feel him shift behind her and she clamped her mouth shut.
“I didn’t look too hard—”
“Never mind!” she said hastily, nearly tripping over her words as she stared pointedly at some spot on the cave wall. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. I just meant, well, is this…necessary?“
“Unfortunately,” he sighed as if this whole ordeal was troublesome, an act which would have been more convincing had it not been for his obvious enjoyment of the situation. “Body heat’s more effective with skin-on-skin contact and we both need to keep our temperatures up.”
She made a little involuntary sound at the word “skin” and shrunk against the tight space of the sleeping bag, which of course only made her press back into him, solid and sure and firm and oh God—
“Are you all right?”
“I’m mortified of course,” she whispered.
“Don’t be. I mean, you’re not the only one here with their underwear—”
“That’s making it worse!”
He sounded the opposite, and Akane was all too grateful for the outrage to distract her.
“I’m wearing boxers if it helps,” he conceded.
He quieted but she could still feel his amusement like an itch on her back.
It was a bit unfair really. To live by a smidgen of an honest glance for the past two weeks then have him all at once like an onslaught.
She supposed she could say all that to him and see how he would take the accusation, but she didn’t think the ground was up to swallowing her at this point. So she replied instead with:
“I’m fine. I think, actually, I’m more than fine. I’m warmed up pretty nicely. We don’t have to share anymore, right?”
He hummed as if in agreement but didn’t seem to catch her suggestion. If anything, his voice seemed much closer to her ear than the first time if such a thing was even possible. Really, did he realize what he was doing?
“I guess. But I can’t take that chance. Technically we’re both at risk in this kind of temperature,” he said, voice matter-of-fact. “Despite what everyone else seems to think, my sense of self-preservation isn’t that low. But if you’re uncomfortable, I’d be an asshole to keep insisting.”
He made to unzip the sleeping bag and she found her hand on his wrist before he could touch the zipper on her side. She flinched at her forwardness but kept her grip firm. Despite his casual attitude, Akane knew that he would never be needless with his actions and always had a reason for everything. He might profess to be an asshole but what kind of petulance would she have to assume that he had done this to torment her?
“Maybe I judged things too quickly.“
“I can move.” Even as he said it, his arm drew back and she could feel it an inch away from her like a hot brand waiting to scald.
“No. Obviously you know more than me about this, and hypothermia’s no joke, right?”
“Hm. Yes, it’s very serious. Your toes could fall off,” he said gravely.
“Wouldn’t want that,” she replied before a thought popped in her head. “Oh! What happened? The ship—”
“I made contact an hour ago. Said that they would wait for us for one more day but that was it. So we really should be on our feet tomorrow.”
“You should’ve left me in the lake. Save you some time,” she joked without thinking.
He fell silent, the mood dropping with him, and she regretted opening her mouth.
“I wouldn’t have minded,” she salvaged awkwardly, tone light.
“You really think I would have let you stay behind?”
His voice was different. There was an edge to his words, as if this was the first time in a long while he was speaking to her.
She had ripped something open now. Maybe it wasn’t too late to backtrack.
Her breath shook when she laughed, playing the air off with as much convincing amusement she could rally, and told herself that it was just a delayed reaction to nearly drowning.
“I’m just kidding.“
“Of course.” Even to her own ears, she didn’t sound much like it.
There was a change, the air between them different. As if the glass had finally cracked. At this distance, could they really hide anything behind each other at this point?
“That was a close call,” he said as if responding to her thoughts. She listened to the wind outside, the fire crackling, at the unfinished sentence he left for her.
I almost lost you.
“Not close enough.”
“You were so cold by the time I brought you here. I thought—”
“Am I now?”
Feel me then.
She felt his fingers drift at the nape of her neck, touching her as if he was surprised that she was real. She shivered when his thumb brushed the soft stubble of her hair by accident. But even now, she was warm. Her loud heartbeat was a testament to that.
His hand left and he fell silent again, long enough for her to wonder if he had tired of all this and fallen asleep. Throwing caution to the wind, she willed her body to turn around, awkward as it was to do properly in such a space.
Of course, what else should she have expected to encounter but a look that suggested he had been waiting for her to do this all along.
It was dark but—
“Are you blushing?”
“What? No. I don’t blush,” she said with a hint of defensiveness. “I’m just — you’re closer than I expected that’s all.”
His blue eyes, the terrifying devils they were, lit up in mirth. She scrambled for a glare but that seemed to spurn him on further. But even she could not stay defensive for long, not when he was looking at her like that.
He didn’t seem to be up for talking, perhaps realizing that he let on more than he expected. She followed suit, lost in the seconds staring at each other as if finally reuniting after a long absence. Her gaze searched his, seeing her reflection there, her embarrassment and shyness replaced with something softer. There was something easing at his eyes, at the edge of his mouth.
Had he always looked at her like that? Had he always looked at her the same way she looked at him?
“I wouldn’t have left you,” he said as if she had asked him a question out loud. “I didn’t like doing it the first time so I promised myself I’d never do it again.”
She mulled that over, wondered if this was the time to tell him. But after seeing herself reflected in his face, she figured that he already knew.
“Well if you did leave me to drown,” she replied instead, “I would’ve probably throttled you in the afterlife.”
“I don’t doubt it. Though I wouldn’t mind if it was you haunting me.”
“I was joking,“ she repeated.
"I know,” he said, his hand hovering over the side of her face as if he too was still testing, still cautious as he tucked in a stray fringe behind her ear. “But I wasn’t.”
She felt her face warm, a pleasant kind of self-consciousness blooming at her chest. The kind that made her want to tell him everything. Her fingers itched, urging her to return the favor. But words were excessive at this point.
Perhaps one day.
“Trust me to make an awkward situation even awkward, huh?”
“Awkward? I don’t think so.” As if in affirmation, he bent closer until she could feel his breath against hers.
“You don’t think any of this is the slightest bit uncomfortable for you?”
“Not at all.”
She shifted closer, until her forehead was nearly pressing against his. “How about that?”
He arched an eyebrow, although at this close she did note with some satisfaction, a hint of red starting its way up his neck. “You’re quite daring for someone embarrassed by the mere mention of underwear earlier.”
“Well now I’m embarrassed,” she grumbled, inching back again but stopped when his fingers ventured to her side. As if by his volition, she could feel her body gradually easing against him, his arm flush at her waist like it belonged there.
“I swear I didn’t look much.”
“It was life or death. For your own good.”
“Sounds like a sorry excuse,” she sniffed.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m quite partial to lace myself.”
Her face suddenly that much warmer, she smacked his chest with her fist, so tiny in comparison that he probably didn’t even feel it from the way his shoulders shook with laughter.
“That does not make me feel any better.”
“Now I’m kidding.”
Still, she couldn’t help but join in. Not when they were in their underwear in such an absurd situation as this.
Not when there was so little distance between them now that she couldn’t tell when his laughter ended and hers began.