Part 4: Truths
“Soba!” Triku’s voice called. “You’ll bunk with Ereno Ario.”
A breath caught in Ario’s throat. “NO!” He shrieked out, immediately slapping his hands onto his mouth. They hadn’t heard him… had they? Had they!?
Swallowing raspy dryness, Ario tensed up and approached the door. He brushed his hands along its surface, to lean in close to the crack he had left and to listen in on the outside conversation. Or, rather, on the outside silence. Lip trembling, Ario leaned in just a little closer – and shrieked away when the door creaked almost closed. Outside, he heard a noise now; a loud, snorting chuckle, which, to his dismay, turned to Triku’s voice. “Well,” he said, loudly – surely on-purpose loudly, “good luck with this one, mate. You’re going to need it.”
That comment can’t have been meant for him. Or was it? It didn’t sound like it—
But what about me!? Ario almost blurted out; at least, he hoped he hadn’t spoken out loud. A horrible image formed in his mind now: bunking with the wrongly excited Alweira for months – however long this trip would take – and experiencing those feelings again, those horribly wrong feelings, every day and every night and every moment in between… A living nightmare. Without a doubt, that sick Alweira must have prayed to that Azor of his and asked it to curse him next, and that cruel god had of course granted his request and offered Ario up as sacrifice.
And now I’m starting to sink into his paranoia, Ario thought, hands kneading his eyes. His hand moved up his forehead, and he winced at the sudden onset of pain, immediately jerking his fingers away. As though hitting his head on day one of his trip wasn’t enough, as though incomprehensibly wetting himself in front of a magnificent woman wasn’t enough, as though being scared half to death by everyone on this ship wasn’t enough… Now, he was granted the immense non-pleasure of spending every still-coming day of this nightmare with a man whom, he was sure, wouldn’t think twice about murdering him in his sleep.
For a brief and utterly bizarre instant, Ario wanted to curse out Aorei for the cruel joke this journey had already become. Then, with a deep, steadying, head-clearing breath, he lowered his hands and returned his attention to the moment at hand – to tangible reality. A reality that, to his surprise, still had him standing here alone. In complete silence. Frowning, Ario tilted his head. Shouldn’t the Alweira have already stepped inside? Curiousity tugging at his mind, he took a cautious step towards the door’s crack, and listened.
Save for unintelligible whispers and the faint creaks of, he thought, shifting weight, Ario caught no sound. No one was speaking. No floorboards creaked nearby, which had to mean that Soba hadn’t moved. But why? Had the Alweira even heard the announcement? Of course he’d heard, don’t be an idiot. How could he not have heard his name called when, clearly, he’d stood amidst the crowd of passengers? Maybe his voice was one of those whispers. Maybe, Ario didn’t dare hope but ardently wished all the same, Soba was asking Triku to switch bunkmates.
Ario felt the corners of his lips rise into a smile. Yes, that must be what was happening: a switch. A wonderful switch. Truly, luck was finally starting to change—
“Alright,” Triku said. “Next up: Maro Irie. Please step forward.”
Thoughts bursting, Ario shot up straight. Had Rika been called now? Did he miss her name somehow? He strained his hearing, and did hear someone approaching. A someone that sounded fairly light and almost cautious, unlike Rika’s steady, powerful steps—
This couldn’t be happening.
He couldn’t let it happen.
Instinctively, Ario shoved the door shut. He gasped a shriek as soon as he realized what he’d done.
The Alweira was going to misinterpret this gesture as a figurative slap to the face, wasn’t he? As another misplaced gesture that somehow proved Ario hated him? And, sometime during the night, he would wake up dead. Hands shaking upon the door’s surface, Ario recalled their last encounter, and the swirl of dark emotions he had perceived pouring out of the Alweira. Without a doubt, he couldn’t expect anything less than stealthy murder. But I didn’t do anything wrong! Ario shouted in his head, pressing his hands against the door; I only told him to leave me alone. Maybe not in those words, but—
A knock on the door startled him back to reality. The Alweira was there, wasn’t he? Right there. Waiting. Planning how to dispose of his body, and what story to tell everyone else after the fact. ‘The Yosen? He fell overboard while trying to save a sandwich’. Who wouldn’t believe that?
Ario closed tight his eyes. He had to react. He had to say something. Anything! “Yes?” He squeaked in a high-pitched voice. “Can I help you?”
Behind the door, a deep sigh. A frustrated sigh. The sort of sigh he’d heard many times back at the academy, preceding a well-placed insult or a hard shove—
The door handle suddenly clanked down, and it flung open. Ario stumbled backwards as Soba marched into the cabin, rushing through without a single glance towards him. Ario did catch a guttural string of whispers – Soba cursing him out in his language, no doubt – that only ended once the Alweira had reached the other side of the cabin. He stood there, facing the wall, swirls of irritation growing to plain anger in his coiled posture. An anger, Ario perceived, that was directed solely at him.
Ario swallowed down mounting anxiety. ‘We are nothing to each other except potential threats to our lives’ – Soba’s words swirled in his own head now, like the warning he’d missed it being the first time around. He remembered all too vividly the Alweira’s dancing fangs, and the black veins that had pulsed along his arms, down to nails turned vicious claws. That’s it; that’s how he was going to die, wasn’t it? Mauled to death by a cornered beast—
The familiarity of that thought, somehow, calmed him down. He was still here, after all, wasn’t he? Alive. Well enough, albeit starving. They’d have to talk again at some point. So, Ario swallowed down what little courage he could muster.
“Um… Hi,” Ario tried, lifting his hand in an awkward, shaky wave. “Soba. Hello.”
Soba took a deep breath, which he released in a nasal sigh. Something about his wild animosity changed – softened? “There is no need to pretend, Yosen,” Soba spat over his shoulder. “I repulse you. I can smell your disgust. It is everywhere.” Soba tugged down on his hood then, his shoulders rolling beneath his cloak as were he readying himself to suffer a beating. He took another deep sniff, and looked away, glancing about the floor. Ario only watched as Soba took a few steps forward, and crouched down, and reached out for Ario’s bag—
“Don’t touch that!” Ario shrieked. He rushed towards Soba – and froze up right as he was about to touch the Alweira’s shoulder. Now that, Ario knew with total certainty, Soba would misinterpret; maybe he would take it as an explicit invitation to touch him in turn, and it would trigger again those absolutely foul emotions that Ario decidedly refused to ever think about ever again— “Don’t!” Ario blurted out. “I mean… That’s my bag.”
Soba glanced up at him. “So it is,” the Alweira stated, and Ario felt ill at ease. There was something in his tone, in the depths of his bright eyes – in the depths of him, something Ario tasted like salt at the back of his throat. Sick amusement? Haughty disdain? As Soba’s lips twitched into a fleeting smile, Ario frowned. He watched in tense silence as Soba rose to his feet, staring up at him with a terrible ferocity that contrasted with the quietness of his tone. “I suppose Yosen have the luxury of being themselves everywhere, haven’t they.” That fleeting smile returned, and Ario thought he saw fangs glisten behind Soba’s lips. “How lucky you must feel, Yosen.”
Ario felt his frown deepen. Clearly, judging by Soba’s piercing intensity, he was supposed to understand something…
—That scent of fear on you, Yosen, I have smelled so many times before—
“AH!” Ario suddenly pointed a trembling finger towards Soba. “You’re—Don’t tell me you’re—”
“Well-mannered, unlike you.”
Ario flailed, crying out, “You think I did that on purpose!?” He couldn’t even explain how it had happened, or why. Nor did he know if Rika had noticed his shame at all. Heat flushing through his cheeks, Ario’s tone loudened. “What do you take me for!?”
Soba rose to his feet, bright yellow eyes gleaming beneath his hood. The bright yellow eyes of a predator about to deliver death upon its prey. Azor is no myth, the Alweira had told him, and the memory curdled Ario’s stomach; it lives in all of us— “What do I take you for, indeed,” Soba said, his tone sharp like the edge of a razor. “Do you want to know, Yosen?”
I want to sit down and have a drink or two and forget all about this trip and wake up back on Rao and discover none of this all ever happened; that’s what I want. “No,” Ario replied, and he immediately kicked himself.
“No, so you don’t,” Soba snapped, a low snarl escaping his throat. This time, Ario knew he’d seen fangs poking out from behind the Alweira’s lips. “Of course not,” Soba continued. “What is an Alweira to you Yosen, but a source of revulsion. A beast, a thing only worthy of scorn and oppression, whose evil was laid bare long ago. I—”
Whatever caught in the Alweira’s throat wasn’t just words. It was a flurry of emotions that urged Ario, despite himself, to reach out and apologize; it was the tears glinting now at Soba’s eyes, that Ario perceived in his own heart. A deep sorrow. A cutting pain. “I trusted you with my secrets, with my very life,” Soba whispered, his heart’s suffering twisting into a terrible longing. “I realize I shouldn’t have, but—”
Soba paused, and the feelings in his heart crystallized. Ario felt clearly what he meant. He was shocked to understand.
No, he didn’t merely understand. He could relate.
“You felt lonely,” Ario said for him. “I mean… I get it. I really get it. You have no idea how much I get it. But—” He clicked his tongue then, and glanced about the cabin walls for assistance. How could he speak his mind without sounding like a narrow-minded phobic? “There’s lonely, and then there’s lonely,” he tried. “What I— What you felt, that wasn’t the kind of non-lonely I wanted to experience. Not ever. Not ever!” And certainly not from a man, he kept himself from shouting. Although, now that he remembered his ex-girlfriend and her own set of misplaced desires, Ario had to debate whether he would have reacted about the same had Soba been a woman – a thought immediately nullified when he remembered Rika’s ample bosom and his own unscientific urges. Oh, how he would have loved to lose himself between those mounds—
“This is not what I came here for,” Ario blurted out, grinding his teeth as he kneaded the thoughts out of his aching head. Between two bruise-like stings, he reminded himself of his reasons for boarding the Oroi in the first place:
The freedom to not be considered as a piece of meat – in any way conceivable.
He let out a breath and waved a hand towards Soba. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” Ario added. The Alweira stared back at him, his bright yellow eyes wide, a strange blend of confusion and distress contracting the Alweira’s heart like a vise. Once seated on the edge of the lower bunkbed, Soba finally answered,
“No.” An innocent answer, Ario perceived, that twisted Soba’s anger and disgust into a new emotion; into something, Ario thought, that burned like hope. “What exactly do you mean?”
“Are you serious?”
These groaning words barely out of his mouth, Ario realized that, indeed, Soba was serious. A little too eager, as well. A little way too eager. Within Soba now swirled a warm, tingling heat— “That,” Ario blurted out with an uncomfortable squirm. “What you’re doing right now. You’re not—You don’t realize what you’re feeling?” Ario tensed, then. How could he point out Soba’s feelings without actually mentioning them? “Look at me,” he quickly added, throwing his hands down. “Don’t tell me I look attractive to you?”
It was a sarcastic question, one he knew fully well the answer to. Even his ex-girlfriend had never told him she liked the way he looked; rather, he’d gotten the impression she didn’t not like it. Lukewarm, heartless feelings concealed behind a mirthless smile – a smile so unlike the weird, malicious grin pulling on Soba’s cheeks now. Cheeks flushing with heat; a heat that spread through Ario’s chest, his abdomen, lower, to his—
“That!” Ario shrieked, swinging one leg over the other and squeezing tight his privates. “You’re doing it again! Stop finding me attractive! I am not attractive! I’ve been told I scream like a woman, so think of me as a woman!” What am I even saying, Ario snapped at himself. He coiled his fingers round his face and round the memories surfacing, of his youth, of the many times that his peers had burst into hideous laughter because he’d startled out of his thoughts with a high-pitched shriek. How many times had he not locked himself in the washrooms, crying over one more insult, one more mean joke? With a sigh, Ario pinched tears away.
This really, absolutely, entirely was not the fantastic journey he’d envisioned himself having by now. Adventure, discovery, freedom, he sought… and all he had found thus far was fear, humiliation, and painful memories.
Months were left of this. Months. Months of suffering, of keeping not the Alweira’s knife out of his back, but his—
Ario shrieked at the mental image – and shrieked again, when the door to their cabin suddenly burst open.
“My lady,” Triku said, hanging now onto the door’s handle with a wicked grin on his face, “If you do not mind, your Paleness, the other passengers would like to lay down their weary heads and not have to listen to your lovers’ quarrel—”
“How is this a—This is not a lovers’ quarrel!!!”
“Well, you could’ve fooled me.” Triku snorted, and burst out into laughter. “If it makes you feel any better, I do not think you look attractive.” He straightened and cupped his hands in front of his torso. “Not enough chest to my liking.” Laughter boomed out of him like an earthquake (and Ario was certain he’d seen the walls quiver); laughter like a rude, mean-spirited, humiliating storm that made Ario relive his entire life in the blink of a batted eye. No relief came after Triku slammed the door shut behind himself, for his raucous laughter still echoed through the walls, for endless minutes on end, slowly growing quieter and distant, until, Ario knew for a fact, Triku was now laughing on the other side of the ship, out of earshot. Still laughing. At him.
“This is all your fault,” Ario snapped at Soba. “You and your—wrongness. What is wrong with you, anyhow? Look at me: there’s nothing attractive about me!”
To Ario’s relief, Soba didn’t look. But relief only lasted until Ario began sensing from the Alweira a strong feeling of… what was it? Shame? Anxiety? No; embarrassment? Embarrassment sure explained the deep shade of blue flushing Soba’s cheeks now, and why his wide-eyed gaze stared absently towards the wall. Everything about him felt frozen. In shock? Ario tilted his head, narrowing his eyes. What was that feeling?
Soba suddenly let out a sound, a bizarre blend of gurgle and gasp. Then, he turned wide, horror-stricken eyes towards Ario. “You—no,” he said in a breath. “You didn’t. You… could not know how I felt. Not… like this.” Soba’s gaze flitted then, and, to Ario’s own horror, landed on his crotch. He immediately tightened his squeeze on his privates and flung down a hand onto them.
“You want to bet!? I don’t like to bet, but I would win this without even having to try and—” read you, he kept himself from blurting out, like the blathering idiot he realized he had somehow become since the very start of this conversation. And judging from Soba’s wide stare, how his emotions rolled and toiled within him like lightning across a raging storm, the Alweira was finally grasping the situation. Grasping him.
“Yorei,” he breathed out, a whisper Ario barely heard over the creaking of the ship. “You really are. I had suspected, but… You were so…”
“—me?” Ario flatly concluded.
Soba smiled – a warm, sincere smile, this time. “Yes. I suppose so.” He chuckled, briefly, until a somber shadow fell onto him. “But when you spoke of the brutal world of science, I heard a Yosen speak. No longer a Yorei who understood how it felt to fear for their life. And then,… Well. Regrets will serve no purpose.”
‘That scent of fear on you, I have smelled before. It hung thick in the air when the divergent in my hometown were massacred’. These words hung thick in Ario’s mind; as thickly, he imagined, as that scent of fear that clearly haunted Soba to this day. They formed visions of horror he could scarce truly visualize. Yosen had destroyed Soba’s home. Yosen had murdered everyone he had ever met. The same sort of Yosen who would skin him alive if they only knew.
“Did a Yosen harm you?” Soba suddenly asked. Startled, Ario stared back at him, and frowned. The pain he felt spreading through his temple had him wince, and he understood what Soba meant.
“In a way,” he said, cautiously pressing his fingertips along the edge of what was well on its way to becoming a bad bruise. “I’m still not quite sure what I tripped on.”
In the silence that followed, Soba merely stared back at him, his heart a whirlpool of fleeting emotions… until a single one exploded within him, and out of him in a loud, breathless laughter. “You truly are peculiar, Ario!” Soba said, wiping his eyes. Was he crying? “Never have I met a Yosen scientist so…”
“… like me?” Ario concluded. Without a doubt, he should have felt offended… Yet, in this moment of genuine, innocent entertainment that made the Alweira feel so clear to him, all Ario wanted to take from this exchange was that Soba had called him by his name again. He smiled, and he wasn’t certain why.
“Truly,” Soba said, twirling his fingers round the tufts of hair sprouting out from beneath his hood. “Had you never told me any different, I would have believed you were merely an awful entertainer.”
You and everyone I’ve ever worked with, Ario thought with a deflating sigh.
“Ario, I must ask you,” Soba began, and he lifted his gaze – a gaze full of kindness and understanding, but also full of anxious curiousity. “Will you tell me of your life? You said that I was lonely, and it is true. It… is certainly the reason I opened up to you, for you didn’t reject me at the mere sight of my deformity.” As the Alweira ran his fingers along his lips, Ario remembered; how Soba’s fangs had danced along his distended gums like algae in shallow water. A disturbing, fascinating memory, dancing in his own mind as he watched Soba speak. “I… now believe you listened to me because you are lonely as well. Do you not think?”
He did not think. He did not know what to think. Or what to say. Or how to quite interpret Soba’s outstretched hand. He glanced at it, and back at Soba, and contemplated his options.
“Only if you keep that in check,” he said, glancing extremely briefly towards Soba’s lower half. To his relief, the Alweira burst out into friendly laughter.
“I promise,” Soba said. “Or may Azor devour me.”
A promise that, Ario thought at first, would literally call that Azor down from wherever it resided in Soba’s superstitious head and have them both devoured. The moment he’d sat himself down on the bed’s edge, right next to Soba, the Alweira had reached out a hand onto his back and began rubbing him. Amicably. Nothing more. Nothing more that Ario could feel, in any case. Who really knew what disgusting thoughts may still swim around in that suspicious head of his – which, he thought after Soba pulled down his hood, really looked far sharper, gaunt even, than he’d realized at first. Recalling their first encounter, Ario found himself wondering whether Soba’s mouth was the only physical aspect of his that was so… malleable. So distinctive. So terrifyingly fascinating. “You’re studying me,” came Soba’s sobering comment; an uncomfortable comment. Ario shook his head, and the scientist out of his mind.
How he yearned to ask, though. But he couldn’t. He shouldn’t. Soba had asked about him, not the other way around. The Alweira wanted to know about… the Yorei. Ario gulped and rested his arms onto his knees, breathing in a courage he wasn’t certain he had in him.
No, he didn’t have that courage. Try as he might, well as he knew the Alweira would never (really? Did he know for certain?) betray his secret, still he found it impossible to give the Yorei within him, the little boy who stared on at his peers with a terror he’d been too young to handle properly, permission to speak. At the first mere thought of admitting he was Yorei, Ario felt his stomach lurch, up into his throat, clogging, choking, until he felt his chest swell with irrepressible sobs he, somehow, managed to repress. In his heart, the little boy he’d been, who’d mindlessly spoken out loud a study mate’s inner feelings and brought onto himself a gathering of suspicious glances, burst out into terrified sobs.
Sobs that erupted from Ario himself. Choking, harrowing, endless sobs he couldn’t control in the least. Ario buried his face into his hands and simply cried. Every fear, every sorrow, every suspicious arch of the brows he’d ever witnessed, he felt them flow out of him, flowing out, flowing out into the seas that swayed the ship far below their feet and ebb out beneath the waves.
All Ario could do was to cry, and let go of all the suffering he had carried on his shoulders – in his constricted heart – during all of these many hostile, stress-filled years.
At length, he let out a sound; he wasn’t certain what kind of sound, but it had felt… relieved. Like a cavernous sigh that had come from deep within his chest and rumbled around between his ribs before escaping through his mouth. The questions he knew he should have asked himself, he did not even contemplate to ask. So what if someone had overheard? So what if anyone thought less of him now for bawling out like a little kid? So what if someone mocked him for it? None of it mattered, now that he felt capable of admitting a truth he had always adapted, and concealed, and twisted in order to protect himself.
“I am a Yorei,” Ario said. This weight now off his chest and off his shoulders and out of his throat, he felt able to straighten up. The clog in the back of his throat, he swallowed down. Suddenly, he heard himself pour out his story like an unstoppable waterfall of words.
Ario allowed himself to tell Soba everything. How he had grown up in the academy as an orphan, believing his parents had rejected him because of what they, somehow, had known he was. How he had one day discovered, himself, that he was a Yorei, that he could read – “not quite the minds; the everything” – of a person, and, no doubt whatsoever, almost gotten himself eviscerated as a mere kid. He had to speak of the Yorei dissections he had read about, and how he had dreaded being the next one on his peers’ examination tables, screaming in agony – “I had so many nightmares about it”. Then, he naturally concluded his Tale of Him with his reasons for being here – his hopes, his expectations, and his escape from a world that would have his head – “well-preserved for generations to come”. He wished that was an exaggeration.
He couldn’t quite tell how he felt, speaking of his life like this – so freely. Nor did he know how to feel about the Alweira, whom, he realized whenever he’d glanced at him, was listening with rapt interest. An interest that didn’t involve shaving off his head and peeling back strips of skin just to insert energy-driving needles straight into his nerves. The Alweira’s silence was as unnerving as it was relieving.
When he was done, Ario let out a deep breath, deeper, heavier than he felt he’d ever taken, and leaned his arms onto his thighs for support. He breathed in and out the fact that, for the very first time in his life, he’d been given permission to be himself. All of himself. The rational – paranoid – part of himself worried that all he’d admitted to may well come round to bite him in the end – or tear the skin off his bones just to discover what makes him tick – but, for now, he didn’t want to care. He felt free. He was finally free.
What a truly breathtaking feeling.
The same kind of feeling, Ario now understood, that Soba must have experienced when he’d spoken to him about his past; when he’d shown his true, monstrous nature and not been outright rejected – well, not because of that, at least. Ario glanced at the Alweira, at the studious, pensive expression on his face, at the swirl of consideration in his heart, and guilty doubt begun to gnaw at his own. He had misjudged the Alweira, hadn’t he? He’d thought him a self-absorbed eccentric… but, clearly, there was far more to him. Ario couldn’t help but smile.
“That is quite the life you’ve had,” Soba finally said. “In a sense, I pity you, Ario. Though my divergence is a visible curse, it has never plagued my every waking breath as your gift has yours.”
“Being a Yorei is not a gift.”
“Perhaps not to one as practical as you,” Soba said, a thoughtful hem rolling in his throat. “If you were to believe in gods, then you might consider yours a gift. Your talent could mend many suffering hearts.”
Wide-eyed, Ario considered his statement. Then, he decided Soba was insane. “I would have to tell people of my ‘talent’. Did you forget the part where I said any scientist worth their grade would skin me alive if they knew?”
“That would be unfortunate.” Soba’s lips pursed into a pout. “If it is any comfort, Ario, I would wear your skin. Nothing of you would go to waste.”
How is that supposed to be comforting!? Ario couldn’t ask. He stared at Soba, and, for the life of him, couldn’t determine whether the Alweira was serious or not. Not until Soba gave him a sly grin.
“A jest,” he said. “Though I must admit, owning a Yosen suit would have made my life far simpler.”
“You should never be allowed to joke around,” he thought – no, no, he actually said it. Maybe not loudly, but he’d said it. He’d felt the words roll along his throat and escape his mouth. And to his anxious relief, Soba grinned – with flat teeth.
“Not all of us Alweira are scornful worshippers of Death,” he said. “I appreciate humor. Like Triku’s.”
I have no doubt whatsoever, Ario, to his relief, only thought. Remembering now the antics of that black-haired Kokai, Ario let out a defeated sigh. Months of this. Months of being stuck between an incisive rock and a rock-hard head. His luck couldn’t have been any worse.
Shivers ran down his spine. In all fairness, he corrected himself quickly, this bunk arrangement could have been worse. There were plenty of scientists aboard the ship who would have scrutinized his every move, from waking to eating to almost falling asleep and every moment in between, and turned this trip into an intolerable pit of never-ending anxiety. He could have been forced to bunk with the harpoon-wielding Kokai – a possibility that choked his gulping throat shut. At least, with Soba, he wouldn’t have to fear for his life. He would only have to fear waking up to the Alweira cuddling him in his sleep.
Ario sighed then, and dropped his chin onto his upturned palm. Thoughts of the angry Kokai and of Soba’s wrongness faded into memories of Rika – ‘not enough chest to my liking,’ Triku boomed out in his mind, cupped hands heaving in front of his torso. Oh, Rika certainly had more than enough of those. It would have been torture to keep his eyes off of her, but… Maybe she wouldn’t have minded? Maybe she would have let him glimpse the bare sight of those wonderful curves—
What am I even thinking, Ario snapped at himself, shaking his head. You’re a scientist. Get a grip—
“Not that kind of grip!” he shrieked out, shooting upright. Horrified, he wagged an accusing finger at Soba. The Alweira’s twitching hand still hovered there, just above the mattress – where, Ario knew, his own thigh had just sat. “What did I say!” he spat. “Keep your—everything out of me—off of me! What is wrong with you!?” he had to ask, knowing full well the answer: So many things. So many things he didn’t even want to think about, yet here he stood, thinking about them. Ario shrieked and slapped his hands upon his mouth, dragging his fingers across his lips as he stared at Soba; dumbfounded, speechless Soba, who, Ario perceived now, waded in total insecurity.
“Wrong?” Soba finally breathed. “W-What do you mean, wrong? You are… Aren’t you? We—” shared something, Soba didn’t say, and he didn’t need to. Ario perceived his deluded hopes, his crushed longing, as though they were his own. How had the Alweira not understood!? How could he think…
Ario clasped his fingers tight upon his face. After everything he had said and admitted to; after baring his secrets and trusting him, essentially, with his very life, how could Soba even begin to think that his opening up was some kind of… nauseating invitation? How dare he. How dare he—
“How dare you!!!” Ario screamed, his voice raking through his throat, hurting, hurting so badly, but he needed to scream. He needed to tell the Alweira exactly what he thought of his sick urges – loudly, loudly enough for him to actually hear. He called him names; he called him wrong, and disgusting, and reminded Soba with no minced words how he had trusted him with his own secrets and expected better – at the least, for him not to take his sharing as an invitation. He kept on yelling, until told Soba how hurt he felt. Hurt; a word that lay heavy on his heart now, beyond anger, beyond revulsion. A hurt he felt echoed in Soba’s own heart; broken. Shattered.
Ario gritted his teeth then, and rolled his hands into tight fists. “This isn’t my fault,” he said, upper lip curling. “Don’t you dare blame your feelings on me—”
“What in the name of the Sinsei is going on here!”
Startled out of his perceptions, Ario tensed and shrieked. He swallowed a sudden onset of anxiety and slowly turned his gaze towards the source of the yell – towards Triku, who now stood at the open threshold to their cabin with the deadliest of glares, which darted back and forth between himself and Soba.
Suddenly, his fierce gaze snapped towards Ario. “You!” he said, startling Ario into a muffled shriek. “Screamy! Start explaining!”
Ario would have, even did he not know how; nor did he quite know what exactly had happened. I lost my temper, was all Ario knew for certain. Since when did he even have a temper to lose?
Since coming here and meeting all these madlings, that’s when. Back at the academy, all he’d ever met were haughty loners or depressed idiots and he’d never, ever had to really speak with a single one of them beyond their joint studies. Nor did he have to speak to the men who became his colleagues beyond sharing their results and the details of their research.
And now, somehow, through some inexplicable twist of what he refused to call fate, here he now stood, miles away from a place that was never home to him, scolded like an unruly child, and listening to the dramatic sniffling of an Alweira, who was blaming every single deserved insult flung at his creepy pale head on Ario himself. This isn’t my fault, he kept himself from saying, chewing on his lip as he leaned against the wall, arms folded. None of this is my fault. And surely none of this would have happened with a different bunkmate. With someone who actually understood what ‘hurt’ meant.
‘I can feel it, crawling beneath my skin. Death – Azor’s curse’
Wincing, Ario shook the memory away. He lifted his arm and stared down at his hand, at the lines crisscrossing along his palm; at the power he knew flowing beneath, ever uncontrollable, never fully perceived until it was already too late. It wasn’t his fault he was born Yorei. This was no gift, but a curse. Why couldn’t Soba understand that was what they shared?
His lip curled in disgust at the thought. Right now, there was nothing he wanted to share with the Alweira – and certainly not his own bed. Yet it was on his bed that Soba and Triku had decided to sit, side by side. Talking. Well, bawling in Soba’s case. The Alweira made it a spluttering point to expound on how unfair life was, especially to his kin; on how he had trusted Ario, only to be so horribly betrayed; on how he wished he had never boarded the Oroi to begin with. Some of his complaints did come from a place of deep hurt, which tugged at Ario’s guilt. But he instead focused on the others, on these feelings shallow and narcissistic… What was it his peers had called him before, Ario pondered? A drama lure. Yes. That was fitting.
And Soba kept on reeling in that pity until, Ario figured, his lungs finally ran out of stamina. The Alweira took a deep sniffle then, and buried his face, and his embarrassment, into his hands. And bawled louder, to Triku’s gentle patting of his back and quiet shushing.
Ario groaned and kneaded his aching forehead. When was this drama play going to end? Did Triku have nothing better to do? Like getting them that promised hearty meal?
“It’ll be okay,” Triku now said, patting Soba’s back. Ario dared hope he was about to put an end to the Alweira’s poor acting. “You made a mistake—”
Ario snorted. An instinctive reaction he regretted immediately, for Triku’s glare was murderous. He cleared his throat a moment later.
“As I was saying,” Triku continued, his attention back on Soba, “You made an honest mistake. One I will never understand, but a mistake all the same.”
Triku glanced again at Ario, who stiffened. He only relaxed when Triku turned his attention once more onto the Alweira.
“But you have to understand,” Triku said, and Ario thought he felt the Kokai’s heart soften, “that not everyone handles same-sex advances well. In fact, that would be the majority who doesn’t. Especially when it comes to Yosen men.” He glanced towards Ario once more, sizing him up – to Ario’s upset once he realized. “Well, I’ll hand it to you,” Triku added, “this one hasn’t been a man for that long—”
“—but he’s a man all the same. And a Yosen. Truth be told, you’re certainly lucky you picked our friend Lanky here—”
“What did I ever do to you!”
“—because anyone else might’ve had a far more hostile reaction than insults. And we both know it isn’t you I would’ve been concerned about.”
Ario frowned then. A tense silence crept throughout the cabin, along its walls, thickest between Alweira and Kokai. A tense silence filled with a mutual understanding that Ario couldn’t share in, no matter how hard he focussed on their twining emotions. Something about… No, he only caught concern and understanding. At length, Soba lowered his gaze, and the tension between them burst out of existence. Ario repressed a sudden pant, his chest now hollowed out.
“Good man,” Triku said, patting the Alweira’s back again. “Now that the air’s all cleared up – although, you may want to keep that door open for a while – please do me a favour.” He twisted towards Ario then. “And you too, Lanky—”
“Don’t call me that—”
“Have all the spats you want between you,” Triku continued unabated, “I couldn’t care less – and, frankly, I think this trip can use some rowdy entertainment that will throw all the elitist yosai overboard – if I don’t do it first.” He cleared his throat then, the rising irritation in his heart fading. “But never go off like that if I am not the acting captain. This isn’t a threat, but it is a warning.”
He glanced back at Soba then, who lifted his gaze to meet Triku’s. Eyes darting between them with that undecipherable understanding again, Triku explained. “You both got very lucky I was still on duty. My crewmates wouldn’t be as… shall we say, tolerant as I am. However you choose to interpret that, you’re right on the marker. Am I making myself clear?”
Not entirely, Ario didn’t want to admit. What would they be intolerant of? The yelling? The insults? The fact Soba is a disgustingly wrong Alweira?
Ario contemplated that possibility. To be fair, having Soba thrown overboard just for being him would solve his bunking issue. Then he could spend the rest of this long trip on his own, in perfect quiet, or maybe he could invite Rika—
“Yes,” Soba suddenly said in a small voice, with an excessively loud sniffle. Ario shut his eyes tight and opened them again, his mind returning to the conversation at hand. “I’m sorry,” the Alweira added. “I appreciate your discretion.”
“If only I could teach this one the meaning of discretion,” Triku replied, tilting his head towards Ario, who glared in response – an expression quickly smoothed out when he felt Triku’s heart swelling with anger. “You’ve set yourself the goal of making this journey as insufferable as imaginable, haven’t you? Head injury, child’s tantrum – and I’ll concede,” Triku added, louder, and Ario snapped his own mouth shut. He could but watch, in an anxious silence that had him shaking on his feet, how Triku rose to approach him and continued his thought, “perhaps both events are somehow tied together. You wouldn’t be the first scientist to hit their fragile little head so hard that they forget the simple courtesies – you know: respect, silence, submission to their betters. But I will tell you one thing, Yosen.” He slapped his large hand onto Ario’s shoulder, who felt his knees buckle. With a hard swallow, Ario forced his bladder shut and endured Triku’s dark glare… until the Kokai’s brow suddenly arched and he let out a deep snort.
“I really scared you, didn’t I.” Triku suddenly burst out into ear-shattering laughter, and slapped Ario’s back so hard that Ario had to loop himself round Triku’s arm. “You really are a gullible man, Yosen! This trip will be a barrel of laughs with you around!”
A wide-open barrel of laughs that, to Ario’s upset, followed Triku out of the door and beyond, and didn’t quite die out even when Ario slammed the door shut with a well-placed insult he then hoped Triku hadn’t heard.
“He’s only trying to help,” Soba replied in the Kokai’s stead. “We should be grateful—”
“I am not grateful,” Ario snapped. He spun round, so fast, that he dizzied himself and lost his balance. Gasping, he caught himself against the wall, and immediately cut Soba’s huffed breaths short. “Yes, I’m okay! Stop looking at me like that—” Like I’m so brittle that I need protected from myself “—I’m fine.”
“Hence your outburst, I take it.”
“Yes! Exactly!” Ario flailed one hand wildly, and clung to the wall with the other. “I yell because I’m fine!”
Soba stared at him a moment, with no definable emotions. Then, he let out a chuckle, and, to Ario’s consternation, began to laugh. “I wish I could stay angry,” Soba said, with a suave tone Ario didn’t appreciate. “But you look so adorable—”
“I am not adorable!”
“—and I will admit: I misjudged. I thought—” He paused abruptly, biting down on his lip. He continued just as suddenly, “But I was wrong. I do apologize for offending you, Ario.”
Ario cursed under his breath, and all the anger in his heart evaporated. Ohh, how he wished he could stay angry, himself. How he wished he could hang on to his upset, to his hurt, and tell the Alweira he would never, ever, forgive him. But with all the tension within him gone save for a beating migraine, with his racing heartbeat receding back to anxious calm, only one upset reared its ugly head in Ario’s mind: his own reaction. Wrong as the Alweira was, he… hadn’t deserved all that hatred, had he? Ario clicked his tongue.
“I—” Ario had to swallow, saliva wetting his aching throat. “I suppose I—should—” He let out a sigh then. “I’m sorry. I swear I’m usually not like this.”
Soba smiled. “Apology accepted. I suspect not many men have found you to their liking before?”
Ario felt his jaw tense to breaking point, and his hair scream on edge. A reaction the Alweira no doubt noticed, for he laughed with that infuriatingly sweet laugh of his.
“I am sorry, Ario. The loins want what the loins want.” He burst into louder laughter then. A truthful, purely amused laughter that, eventually, despite his own resurging upset, started putting Ario at ease. Once sufficiently calmed, he let out a purposefully loud sigh.
“This is going to be my life for the rest of the trip, isn’t it.”
To that, Soba’s smile widened into a mischievous grin.
But for the rest of the evening, Soba was nothing if not respectful and, at times, teasingly entertaining. The meal they shared – a thick, odd, spicy stew Ario didn’t want to know the main ingredient of – further showed how friendly the Alweira truly was, if still a little too wrong to Ario’s tastes. Every now and again, an innocent glance flushed the Alweira’s cheeks, and flustered Ario’s heart.
“You can’t be serious that you find me attractive,” Ario had to state.
“But I do,” the Alweira admitted to, wagging his spoon towards Ario’s face. “It is the dressings. I like a wounded man.”
Ario sighed then. He realized, along the evening, that these sorts of exchanges truly were the future of this trip, and that he’d better learn to accept it.
However, what he hadn’t expected during the following days was that…
As the days passed, the weather took a turn for the worse. A crewmember fell overboard during a particularly nasty storm, leading to the acting captain confining all passengers to their cabins.
- The days would crawl by with a terrifyingly bright ardour. All sense of time and present location faded in the vast blues, leading Ario to wonder whether they would all die of thirst.
A thick fog would roll out from seemingly nowhere, leading the most superstitious passengers to fear that the fog would turn black and entrap them like the maw of the Oromisai.
(Voting ended October 1st 2022)
PART 01 | PART 02 | PART 03 || PART 05 | PART 06