At night, the city of New Hapur is brighter than some days. Lights twinkle from windows and storefronts, interspersed by the flickering of the lanterns that hang from the poles that line the street, that swing in the hands of festival-goers. It’s the last day of the last month of the year, and Chiwalu can feel the collective energy buzzing in the tips of his fingers, in the way the ends of his hair curl in the humidity.
Water sprays up from a shallow puddle between the cobbles as the wheel of his bicycle slips for a moment before he nudges it back with a knee. It was raining earlier, but the faint drizzle has stopped, at least for now. More water sprays up as he brakes at a red light, waiting for the cross traffic, a mixture of bicycles, rickshaws, and lighter hovercraft. It’s heavier than usual, commuters heading home to change before going out again.
“Heading home?” a familiar voice calls, and Chiwalu glances over his shoulder. His hair is falling out of its usual knot, so he braces the bicycle between his knees and reaches up to fix the damp mess.
“I’m running late, auntie,” he tells Linde, the elderly florist who’s had a shop on this corner for as long as he can remember. The buckets of chrysanthemums and tulips just keep cycling through the seasons. Chiwalu can almost trick himself into recognising the first bunch of flowers he ever bought, pocket credits carefully saved up and counted, for parents’ day.
“Don’t miss the jasmine tea you like so much! Birthday treat!” Linde reminds him, waving him off as the light turns green again.
“Don’t worry, I would never,” Chiwalu calls back, adjusting the strap on his book bag as he avoids a slower-moving handcart piled with kinoto. The old uncle pushing it shakes his second head but doesn’t glare—with the end-of-year festivities, everyone is in better cheer than usual.
He’s almost at the book stand, taking a sharp turn between a gap in traffic when, with a bump and a shout, he’s suddenly tumbling head over heels. Instinctively, Chiwalu clutches his bookbag close and flings an arm out to break his fall—
“Oof,” an unfamiliar voice exhales, as a firm grasp keeps him from smacking his head on the cobbles. Chiwalu blinks, wiping water from his face with the back of his arm.
“Thanks—“ he begins, struggling to his feet with the help of the stranger’s hold, book bag still cradled in his grasp as he turns to look—and sees who came to his assistance. Chiwalu blinks again; opens and closes his mouth. In the distance, he can hear the faint sound of bells ringing out the penultimate hour.
The person standing next to him, grasp holding him up, looks unlike anyone Chiwalu has ever seen before.
“Umm, for your help,” he finishes weakly, feeling tongue-tied. The person—an utu! his inner voice exclaims—looks equally flustered, which oddly helps him regain his composure.
“I apologise,” the utu says, only now fumbling with their grasp. “I was distracted and didn’t watch where I was going—“
“No, no,” Chiwalu says, waving his hand in disagreement as he takes a step back, heartbeat starting to slow. “I was in too much of a rush.” It’s only now that he remembers to look for his bicycle, but fortunately, it’s lying on the foot pavement next to the road, barely a scratch in the green paint. He leans down to lift it, wincing as the scrapes on his left arm brush the fabric of his shirt, but they’re fortunately minor.
The palm of Ananta’s hand still feels warm, even though the sapiens has pulled away to lift their transportation device—“bicycle”, he’s pretty sure his tutor had called it. He’s still feeling scattered, pulse flickering in his wrists and ch'i warm in his meridians. The sapiens has collected themselves and will probably be on their way any moment—
“I’m Ananta,” he blurts out and then freezes as he tries and fails to remember the correct method of greeting here. Is it polite or offensive to offer a gesture of touch? He’s given his guard the slip to be able to wander the festival on his own, and if the crown prince causes a diplomatic incident— Thankfully, the sapiens doesn’t seem offended by the lack of any physical greeting, and nods their head.
“I’m Chiwalu,” they say, then pause, tilting their head, damp hair glistening in the lantern light as they seem to consider their next words. “Are you visiting?”
“Yes,” Ananta says, relieved to have some kind of conversational guideline. “It’s my, um, I’m not sure what it’s called—” He realises that he probably shouldn’t talk about the official envoy or about how this birthday marks his formal assumption of the role of the crown prince. “Um, graduation?” He glances over, but Chiwalu seems to understand, so he continues, “—and since it’s my birthday.”
“Oh!” Chiwalu says, a grin breaking across their face. “It’s my birthday too.”
“Congratulations,” Ananta says, bowing slightly out of habit. He glances up quickly to check, but Chiwalu doesn’t look offended so bowing is probably okay here. He definitely wishes he’d been paying more attention in his sociology and xenology classes.
Chiwalu nods, pausing and glancing along the lane in consideration before turning back. “I was just running an errand, but I can do that tomorrow. I always get festival jasmine tea on my birthday. Do you want to join me?”
Chiwalu wheels his bicycle along the foot pavement, Ananta walking alongside with graceful strides—the utu almost seems to float and he’s trying not to stare with gawk-eyed curiosity. Thankfully, the festival’s profusion of stalls that line the road seems to be distracting them with a plethora of foods, books, and gadgets, so much so that when Chiwalu stops at the tea stall, Ananta almost bumps into him.
“I apologise,” Ananta says, stepping back. His ears are fluttering, and Chiwalu can’t help but find it surprisingly adorable—does it mean something?
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, slotting the front wheel of the bicycle into a stand and listening for the lock to engage. “One of my first memories is my parents bringing me to the stalls for my birthday—I think I was three?—and there were just so many things to look at.” Ananta’s ears have mostly stopped fluttering, and Chiwalu feels mildly disappointed, but they seem a little less flustered, which is definitely preferable.
“Auntie!” he calls, gesturing for Ananta to follow as he winds between the tables of festival-goers already enjoying their food and drink. Ananta’s footsteps are almost inaudible behind him, but he can feel the faintest brush of fabric against the back of his leg.
“Chiwalu!” Skadi says, passing a tray of glasses to one of her waitstaff, this time an àkos he hasn’t seen before. “Happy birthday! You’re just in time.” She glances behind him then, her double-take almost hidden behind a polite smile. “And this is?”
“I am Ananta,” Ananta says, bowing slightly. Chiwalu notices that their ears are fluttering again.
“We just happened to meet,” Chiwalu explains, “so I asked them to come along for jasmine tea. They’re visiting, and it’s their birthday today too!” He grins, glancing over at Ananta, whose ears are practically vibrating.
“How fortuitous,” Skadi says, quirking a brow as she fills two glasses. Ananta makes to pull something out of a pocket, probably a phone or credit tab, but Skadi laughs and shakes her head. “Birthday drinks are on the house, and you’re lucky you came when you did!” She gestures at the glass kegs behind her—it’s later than Chiwalu had realised, judging by the fact that there’s nothing left.
“Thank you,” Ananta says, nodding their head. Chiwalu leads them over to a small table and passes one of the glasses over. He’s just taken a small sip, the crisp sweetness of the sun-steeped tea filling his mouth, when a passerby, obviously drunk, staggers into the table and sends Ananta’s glass flying.
“Oh!” Chiwalu exclaims, reaching out just as Ananta does the same; their hands collide in the air and so, while Ananta manages to grasp the glass, all the tea spills out into the pavement. Ananta’s skin, in the bare second his fingers graze the back of their hand, feels soft.
“I’m sorry,” Chiwalu says, but Ananta’s ears flutter as their fingers curl around the empty glass.
“I apologise,” Ananta says. “I should have been paying more attention.” They glance down at the empty glass, fingertips shiny.
“Not at all,” Chiwalu says. He feels terrible though—even if they pay, there’s no chance of getting more from Skadi, since the kegs are empty. He bites his lip in consideration but decides to offer.
“Here,” he says, pushing his glass across the surface of the small table. “You don’t have to, of course, but I just took a tiny sip.”
Ananta can feel his pulse racing, forehead warm as ch’i diverts from its usual paths. Sharing a glass is a sacred gesture, reserved for betrothal and marriage. Whoever he marries will one day be the royal consort, and there’s too much to consider, too many variables, too much pressure. It’s completely reckless, completely irresponsible, and yet the night feels so bright with promise and destiny, lanterns flickering, bells ringing in the distance, and this feels meant to be. He reaches forward to take the glass, raising it to his lips.
Yes, he thinks, Yes, I will marry you.
The jasmine tea is heavy on his tongue, tasting of memories yet to come. He can feel the ch’i pooling in his forehead as he keeps drinking, surprised when he opens his eyes to see that the glass is empty.
There’s a soft gasp, an intake of breath across the table, and Ananta meets Chiwalu’s surprised expression, everything so much more vibrant and full of colours he can’t recall seeing before—
“Oh,” he says, setting the empty glass on the surface of the table with a soft click. His third eye has opened for the first time, gaze locked on Chiwalu’s face. Thankfully, they don’t seem to be alarmed, only surprised: as Ananta watches, almost frozen, Chiwalu’s expression brightens almost unbearably into a beaming smile.
“I’m sorry if it’s rude,” they say, gesturing, “but your eyes are stunning.” Ananta can feel his ears threatening to start fluttering again, but the ch’i in his meridians pulses and everything is too good, too full for him to succumb to embarrassment.
“Thank you,” Ananta says. “I also think you’re beautiful.” The words slip out without his permission, and his ears do flutter a bit despite himself, but it’s okay. The way Chiwalu’s cheeks turn slightly pink is fascinating, and he can barely keep himself from reaching over to see if they’re as warm as they look.
In the distance, bells start ringing as the people sitting at the tables around them cheer, and Ananta realises that it must be midnight and the start of the new year. Reaching out across the table, his fingers fold over Chiwalu’s, threading together as they hold hands amidst the fireworks and flying stars.