[58 – bloom; falling fast]
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A body, curled near a tree as it relaxed in the comfort of woody protection, stirred. Their eyelashes fluttered, tired eyes frostily blinking away the darkness.

It was in the middle of the night, awoken from a hazy nightmare as the moon stilled in the air and the wind cried, that the first hallucination was seen.

Staring at him in the corner, shadowed by the looming forest, abyssal gaze deep and hateful, was him. Raphael.

An illusion.

Soren knew that it was from the moment Raphael appeared.

The one he knew did not stare with eyes full of mocking hate — though mocking it was, occasionally — cold and relentless. The one he knew would not just stand with emotionless eyes, as if hating with his entire soul.

And yet the gaze wrapped around his throat, suffocating. The illusion was fake, but the pain was real. More than anything.

The mirage said nothing.

Neither did Soren, watching carefully through pensive blue eyes.

"..." A soft groan tore through the shadow, ripping Soren back to reality. "...little prince?"

Raphael's voice, husky from the lingering of drowsiness, seemed to echo resoundingly in his ears, until all he heard was that voice alone. The muffled movements of clothing tied him down, away from the strange image.

When the protagonist heard no reply, he moved to sit up, peering around the tree where Soren laid. 

To his surprise, he saw the fierce frosty eyes gaze right at him, as if they'd swallow him in their vortex of thought. Soren's body unconsciously leaned toward him as the prince sat upright. 

There was something strange. 

"Ren?"

Soren felt as if he couldn't speak. A lingering tug around his neck, drowning the few words he said in their commanding silence.

Raphael frowned, searching for the other's expression in the darkness. By now, he'd completely awoken, his attention solely on the person before him. "Ren? What is it?"

Soren couldn't say anything.

Couldn't do anything. 

Trapped. 

Always.

Again.

He gasped, and through the escaped breath a single word was uttered. "...Raphael."

"Ren." replied the other through his deepening frown, flickers of worry evident across that expressive face of his. 

"Raphael." repeated Soren, blinking rapidly as his chest rose and fell in unsettled rhythm. 

"You're acting strangely. Did something happen, Ren?"

"...no." Then, he slowly added, "I don't like the dark."

"Got it."

"...?"

Confused, he watched as Raphael pushed himself up sluggishly and approached him, comfortably sitting down in front of the prince in lazy arrogance. He leaned against the trunk and glanced and Soren.

"You like warmth, don't you? Come on, I'll let you lie down on my lap."

"....." Soren looked absolutely appalled at the idea.

Raphael chuckled faintly and closed his eyes. "Lie back down, I was joking."

Soren stared for a moment longer before he curled back up on his side, feeling the tap of a leg on his back. Felt the existence of another person, of the unyielding warmth this protagonist radiated.

He closed his eyes. 

Raphael peeked at the sleeping figure beside him and smiled. "Sleep, little prince. I'll stay by your side."

And yet, as he drifted off into a comfortable dreamless world, Soren hesitated.

Soren had a terrible feeling. And his instinct was usually right. That this illusion would be a common occurrence, and it would signify something he did not wish to know.

For now, he thought absentmindedly, he'd write it up to the chaos of his current life.

Because maybe that was it.

An illusion from stress.

And so he allowed sleep to consume him, devouring the wandering thoughts until they were burred in the back of his mind. 

When he woke up again, his head rested on a familiar warmth as he shuffled in his wake. Blearily, he slowly peeked his eyes open at the world before concluding that the sun hadn't fully risen, and therefore it was too early to wake up.

But when he closed his eyes again, a sigh was heard from above.

"Are you seriously going back to sleep? Don't think I didn't notice you waking up."

Soren's eyes didn't even flicker and he remained motionless. This elicited another sigh of disbelief from the owner of said legs he was lying on.

"....." Raphael leaned back against the tree, staring at the sunlight that had begun to filter through the evergreen leaves.

Honestly, he had woken up a few hours earlier, when the sun had just risen, outshining the drowsy moon. It'd been a long time since he could wake up to such peace, think solely of the nature that surrounded and the present moment.

It'd been a long time without devastating chaos, for this long-lived hero.

There was a light murmur, muffled from their arm which wrapped around them, hand pressed against their mouth. Snowy strands of hair strewn out among the streaks of green and brown and closed eyelashes that remained still, as if in a deep slumber.

The prince moved his head, uncomfortably wenched across a root of the tree which jutted out, pressing against his neck. Raphael watched as the man adjusted his head several times before going limp, too lazy to keep trying even in his unconscious.

Raphael laughed. "What? You're lazy even when you're asleep?"

There was no reply, but Raphael smiled helplessly nonetheless. Simply watching the strange placement of Soren's head made him feel uncomfortable.

Carefully, he stretched out calloused hands to gently move the head to his lap, moving Soren in a way that would allow the fool to sleep peacefully. There was no movement from the other.

Then, a shuffle of his head before the other nestled comfortably, breathing softly into Raphael's clothing. Raphael, almost directly feeling the drowsy comfort of sleep that echoed off the person on his lap, closed his eyes too.

And now here they were. Quite awake, though the little prince had most likely decided it was too early to wake up, choosing to sleep again.

But Raphael's legs were numb, and he didn't want to go back to sleep a second time. To begin with, it was hardly early, though the shade of the trees gave off the illusion of a dimmer sky.

"Come on, wake up, Ren."

He was almost tempted to do what he did last time — startling the prince into jumping up with a false threat, though he had a feeling Soren wouldn't fall for it when he was awake.

Because, for some baffling reason, that man understood Raphael quite well.

Soren shamelessly adjusted his position, sinking further into his much wanted sleep. Raphael just stared in disbelief. Clearly, this was his legs that the other was lying on, yet why did he feel as if he no longer had any right to them?

The protagonist studied the fake sleeping prince's features. He'd thought so before when they first met, but Soren was rather handsome. Though his attractiveness was somewhere in between beautiful and handsome, and somewhere otherworldly.

It wasn't really just his appearance, however. It was more in the soulful laziness that he carried himself with, in the melancholic eyes that knew no end.

Soren, on the surface, was indifferent. But perhaps it was the traces of conflict that made him anything but that made the prince so fascinating.

"I really, really hate to break it to you...!" huffed an airy voice that followed a rush of footsteps. "Not to ruin the moment and all, but there's an attack."

Brioc's violet eyes emerged, and despite his words that warned of danger, his eyes were gleaming with brightness.

He smiled widely. "There's many of them. And we're all still pretty tired from the other battle."

Raphael furrowed his brows. "Is everybody together?"

"Alvy went to the town with the princess, and I'm fairly certain I saw the fox boy trail after him. What was his name, Da... Damien? Mie? Miemie?" Brioc tilted his head and nodded to himself, satisfied with the disastrous nickname he had decided on the spur of the moment.

"...then you left Celine alone?"

Brioc shrugged. "She'll be fine~ In fact, I want to ask her for a fight later! Anyway, I could get to you faster, so it worked out like this. Oh, but she's a little injured, so it became a little complicated."

Really unbelievable, this magician was. Saying such things with little care, only excitement and adrenaline evident across his youthful face.

"You heard him." said Raphael, lowering his eyes. "Let's go, little prince."

The person on his legs stirred, slowly opening their eyes exhaustedly before dragging themselves up. Soren's hair sat in a tangled mess on his head, but he stared at Brioc tiredly.

"Where?"

"Morning, Renren~ Follow me~"

Without waiting for a proper response, Brioc had already scurried away. Raphael sighed, and Soren blinked with a frown before both stood up to run after him.

Raphael stumbled, earning a glance from the prince.

"What?" said Raphael, rubbing his thighs. "Whose fault do you think this is?"

Soren looked away, and then looked back. "...thank you."

Raphael hadn't expected a thanks, and laughed at the somewhat awkward, yet obedient response. His fingers brushed against the mess of hair, pulling out a long piece of grass that had been tangled in it. "Well, I didn't mind it at all. A heat warmer helped me sleep better."

"...a heat warmer?"

The protagonist's lips quirked. "Doesn't that sound accurate?"

"I take back my thank you."

"What?"

"If it was helping you, then you should be thanking me instead." said Soren without missing a beat.

"You can't take it back."

"I did."

"But you can't." insisted Raphael. "I've already engraved it into my memory."

Soren narrowed his eyes at the other, judgingly, before turning to follow behind the trail of dust that was Brioc. Raphael laughed again, quickly keeping pace before they both caught up with the magician, who had crouched on a rock in wait.

When they arrived, the scene was bloody.

Bodies tossed along the forest grounds, covered in injuries and torn clothing, while the ones still standing rushed at a flare of rich pink hair that jerked left to right with every movement. Celine grinned wickedly as another punch flew out.

However, upon close inspection, her breathing came out in shallow, sharp exhales, and her fist contained a faint tremble.

There was only so much a person could accomplish on their own, however strong.

A rush of metal danced across her vision, blocking a blade that was about to strike her before swinging back to its owner. Celine glanced at Soren. "It's about time, prince. I was wondering if you were going to show."

"Brioc called us."

"Yeah, but," her gaze flickered over to the magician who had wholeheartedly leapt into battle. "You can't think that I fully trust that suspicious magician, can you?"

Soren paused. "You're right."

His chains rattled, surrounding the Death Saint who squinted at him. "Fighting with injuries was probably a bad idea, prince. I think I won't be much help."

"Doesn't matter." said Soren calmly as the blades of his chain sliced through another two, swiping across the ground in loud smashes. "I'll handle it."

She laughed. "And you said you were weak."

Soren's eyes flickered to the two maniacs beside him, who had smoothly entered their battle mode, dealing damage to one person after the other. "Compared to them, I am."

After all, it wasn't as if he were born gifted in this world. In reality, Soren was a regular person — despite his strange curse — who'd been forced to get stronger, regardless of his want. He wasn't blessed with powers by the world, nor trained to fight. 

It was a matter of survival. A matter of making the undying life of his more simple.

And in the beginning, he vaguely remembered the feeling of being at the bottom, being stepped over and abused when all he could do was remain quiet. 

His hand flew across the air again, throwing an attacker at a tree as the shrill crunch of branches boomed in his ears. Trained fighters, they were. The Third Religion fully intended to kill them, or at least, one of them.

But they were like mindless dolls. Skills and theory drilled into their brain as they swung strategic fist after fist, ignoring the blood that dripped from their own blooming wounds.

It wasn't difficult — one on one. But with a horde of enemies who only knew how to kill, things grew increasingly harder. 

Another fell to the ground. 

While Soren hadn't been merciful, he hadn't killed every one of them either, focusing on knocking them down and keeping them from attacking the others.

Suddenly, a surprised shout rang out. "Hey, prince!"

Soren spun around, head tilted back as a blade gleamed brightly in his eyes, only inches away. There was no time to block it, concluded Soren, when it was this close already. 

He readied himself for the erupting pain. 

And it never came.

There was a groan in front of him, and Soren's eyes widened as a blur of black flew into his vision, domineering and arrogant, and all so comforting. 

And under the dazzling sun, surrounded by the heavy weight of blood, Raphael looked at him with worry. "Hey, little prince, are you alright?"

After hearing no response, the protagonist's lips quirked. "What? Have you been charmed by me?"

"Yeah."

Raphael was struck dumb, and his sword clattered to the ground in his surprise. 

"...say that again?"

Soren lifted his arms as the chains clattered against an approaching enemy as he lifted his chin slightly, eyes glancing sideways at Raphael. 

"Yeah," said the cold-hearted man as his weapon twirled across the air in its bloody glory. There seemed to be a tinge of laughter in his voice, as if he'd remembered something funny.

"I've been charmed."

———xxx———

He was an idiot.

Ren knew himself well, and while he was confident in his strength and expertise, he also knew that he was stupid... at times.

This was one of the moments that he thought such a thing.

All he had wanted to do was reach out to grab an interesting looking book from the dusty shelves — what could've gone wrong? Nothing, he had thought, but boy was he wrong.

The shelf was positioned right by his secluded spot, and while reaching to grab the book from the top shelf, he had accidentally knocked over the tall piles of books surrounding his corner.

They fell like dominos, one after the other.

Ren was not short, reaching the beautiful height of 180cm, but with books falling down in front of him after yanking a little too hard, and the books around him falling over as well — it was a bit much.

Several hundred books collapsed over his body and a burning pain ran through his limbs.

An undying body did not mean pain disappeared.

In fact, for him, the pain was amplified greatly. So with his ankle twisted in an alarming direction, and the pressing weight of words he had yet to read, it was almost unbearable.

Had Ren not been used to it, that is.

However, the pain meant he would be unable to move for a while, and the lonely darkness clouded his vision as he remained immobile.

His sword had been placed against the side, so he could not kill himself and revive in his original condition. Would he have to wait until starvation took his last breath? Wait and pray that it would come sooner?

On paper, perhaps, it would be a comedic way to die. Tragic, yet strange.

But Ren could only think, 'Oh, I'm an idiot.'

To make a mistake like this with people by your side was fine, because they'd help. But when you had nobody, only you could save yourself.

The weight on his back seemed to grow heavier, though the heaviness came from his mind as well.

Ren was alone.

Of course he was, when was he wasn't? And... even in the future, he'd remain this way.

In the sinking darkness, in the suffocating life.

Even an indifferent person like him was not free of these thoughts when alone. It was at these moments when he was alone that he felt trapped.

That he could think.

An empty mind was as bad as no mind at all. Because when alone, without fights to steal his attention away, or words to clutter and crowd his head, only his own thoughts existed. The raw, horrible feelings of self-hatred, of mistrust and so much more.

But in the end, he would persist. Not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice.

That was the way of his life.

Ren closed his eyes, dense lashes fluttering against his pale cheeks as he embraced the throbbing pain.

A single, constant thought came to surface.

'It'd be easier to die.'

'I wish I could die.'

Living in solitude was so very tiring, even for an introvert like Ren.

...If only a shining light would smile upon his darkness.

"What— What happened here?"

Ren's eyes slowly opened, the magnetic voice penetrating more than just his ears, but his soul and his thoughts. In the suffocating darkness, all he heard was him.

"Ren? ...don't tell me he's buried under that... sigh. Even if that kid can't die, he should really be more careful. Hey, I'll get you out, alright? Wait for me."

"I'll help you, Ren."

It was rich in emotions, like the most decadent chocolate wrapped in layers of gold, but at the same time, natural and easygoing, making anybody who heard it feel like opening their heart and giving it away.

'Ah,'

Ren was not one of the 'anybody'. He wasn't, he really wasn't, but...

'I am....'

In those moments of pure weakness, anybody would succumb.

'...not alone.'

For this careless, justice-seeking hero that would one day descend into depravity,

Ren Suzuki had begun to fall.

Love is funny. It's strange, and beautiful. It comes at the most unexpected time, slowly growing in your heart until one day, out of nowhere, it blooms. In the most undeniably vivid way, there is a sudden realization. 

Then again, it depends on each person. For Ren Suzuki, this wasn't the moment he fell in love with Raphael. 

It was the moment he started to understand that shape of his feelings for Raphael.

(and now, luki's ted-not really-talk is over, thank you for listening to my end rambles. I'll see all you lovely people on Friday, and wish you the most fabulous week impossibly possible~)

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