miles to babylon

There were no set time for Beltline raids. Its people struck as need or whim dictated, and those were both fickle masters. Ginji needed both hands and feet to count the number of times he’d been jostled awake by Teshimine-san’s rough hands in the dead of night, and ordered to hide while still slow and confused from sleep. Still other times, they came during the day, bursting out of the meager shadows like starving animals.

Ginji huddled in a pile of sodden cardboard boxes, trying to find shelter from the Beltline people and the rain both. He was still too young to even properly keep up with the older kids, and so had been shooed off to a pretense of safety. He had his hands pressed hard over his ears, in an attempt to keep the sound of screaming down. Some of those voices he recognized, and tasted helplessness as a bitter pill.

Thunder growled, and he heard one rough exclamation in a voice he didn’t know–and then, very abruptly, complete silence. Even the rain seemed hushed for that brief moment.

Ginji cracked one eye open and lowered his hands fractionally. In the wake of that vacuum of silence is a nearly-deafening rush of quiet things: the rush of blood in his ears, the rasp of his breathing, the drum roll of rain, and–

Footsteps.

They had a slow, deliberate rhythm to them, heavy over the sound of everything else. And though it was hard to judge, it seemed to be coming closer to him. Ginji sucked in a sharp breath and held it, sharp and stabbing in his chest. Though the day was heavy with summer warmth, his hands felt shaking and cold.

The box over his head lifted up suddenly. Ginji flinched back with a squeak, squeezing his eyes shut. Instinctively, he covered his head with his skinny arms.

“Aha, Ginji-kun. There you are.”

He looked up at the sound of his name in spite of himself, and found himself squinting through a blinding flash of lightning. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, as though he’d touched live wire. “Wh–who are you?”

“I’m a friend of Teshimine Takeru,” the man said. Ginji blinked light-ghosts from his eyes and frowned. He did not recognize this man, dressed in shining, spotless white in the middle of Lower Town’s dreariness and filth, but even so, this stranger knew Teshimine-san’s name–

“The fighting’s over now, Ginji-kun,” the man said, and held out a hand. And indeed, his voice was the only one now, trailed off into expectant silence. “Takeru is looking for you.”

Ginji stared at that hand. It was slender and pale and neat, smoothed of all calluses. Even Lon-Fa had rougher hands than that. Warning still tingled in his fingertips, and he did not trust that friendly half-smile. He shook his head.

“Oh, come now. There’s no need to be scared.”

Ginji shook his head again, mute. The man’s smile never so much as flickered, nor did his hand waver. “Now, Ginji-kun–”

“Ginji!”

Relief blossomed in his belly. He snapped his head up at the sound of that second, familiar voice, just in time to catch an irritated spark cross the stranger’s face. And then there was Teshimine-san, bruised and muddy, with rain dripping from his shaggy hair. He stopped short at the sight of the other man, golden eyes narrowing.

The stranger straightened and put his hands in his pockets. “Yaa, Takeru.”

“What are you doing here?” Teshimine-san demanded. Part of Ginji flinched back at the unexpected, raw anger in his voice. “You–”

“It’s many miles to Babylon, Takeru,” the man said. He turned, and walked away from Ginji, towards Teshimine-san, who tensed as though preparing for another battle. “But my steps are nimble and light.”

“It loses something in translation,” Teshimine-san said, following the man with his eyes as he passed. “Don’t ever come back again.”

“I’m not the one who makes that decision,” the man said. Over his head, lightning split the sky, silhouetting his entire slender form in a wash of blinding white. “But maybe we’ll wait for your boy to come to us.”

With that, he began to walk faster, until his shining form was swallowed up in the gray of rain and evening. Teshimine-san watched him go, tense long after the last speck of white vanished. Ginji scrambled out from under the cardboard boxes and crept hesitantly over to his side.

“Teshimine-san?”

Teshimine-san took a deep breath and turned, his face unbearably serious. “Ginji,” he said, “you–”

Thunder belched suddenly, drowning out his words. Ginji was too afraid of his expression to ask him to repeat them.

“–not ever. Do you understand?”

Ginji swallowed hard and nodded. Teshimine-san’s face finally softened.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go find dinner.”

A small static shock charged their fingers when Ginji took his hand. It was barely more than a spark and brief pressure, and then gone. They looked at each other, and Ginji grinned, feeling the weight of that peculiar situation slough away, like dirt under water.

The rain was coming to a slow end.

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