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something like first love

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All sorts of things in this world behave like mirrors.
— J. L.

 

#

 

Luka first mentions it to him right after their graduation ceremony. Between the pictures that Jonah insists on taking, he brushes up next to Edgar, leaning in to murmur in his ear.

Luka rarely asks him for anything. So late the next afternoon, Edgar dons his most inconspicuous clothes and makes his way through Diamonds Quarter into the Forbidden Forest. He’s explored the forest before, of course, but always alone, and never to meet anyone.

When he reaches the clearing, Luka is already there, sitting on a rock overlooking the surface of the Lake of Tears.

“You’re early,” Edgar says mildly, as he ducks under the last branch. Luka turns to look at him, and somewhat smiles. “Is this about something so secret that you couldn’t tell me in front of our Queen?”

Luka turns away, and the sunlight glitter of the natural magic crystals surrounding them is reflected in his eyes as he does so. “You could say that.”

Edgar stills, coming to a stop more than an arm’s length away from Luka. “What do you mean?”

“When are you officially joining the army, Ed?”

“Next week,” Edgar answers. “I thought I told you that I wouldn’t be continuing any more school after we graduated.” He takes a few steps to the side to sit on a rock that’s there, and faces Luka again. “You’re staying though, aren’t you? Professor Tweedle said you got that scholarship.”

“No,” Luka says. He’s still looking at the water. “I’m not staying.”

Edgar frowns. “What are you talking about? You told Jonah that during his initiation a few weeks ago, I was right next to you.”

“I’m not staying in school,” Luka repeats, adjusting the hat he’s wearing. Edgar has never seen this hat before, and hasn’t known Luka to wear hats in all the years they’ve known each other.

“So are you joining the army next week?” Edgar smiles at that. “That would be fun, being new recruits together. I’m sure if we tag team them, there isn’t a sparring match we could lose. At least, not until my dear, sweet protégé graduates. I’m sure I could convince King Lancelot to accept him once I become Jack.”

“I’m not joining the Red Army, Ed.”

The sparkling of the magic-studded water continues in the breeze that filters past them. Edgar looks at the way the rainbow light cavorts across the half of Luka’s face that he can still see. “What are you saying, Luka? You’re being weird.”

When Luka doesn’t immediately respond, Edgar adds, “You’re not staying in school, and you’re not joining the army. What, are you going to teach violin lessons?”

Luka had dabbled in teaching in his free time in their later years of boarding school. Edgar had never partaken in any lessons himself, but he’d heard good things through other students.

Luka cracks another slight smile at that. “Do you really think I’m good enough at playing the violin to professionally teach? I don’t think I could do that without more school.”

Edgar has never picked up the instrument himself, but he thinks he has spent enough collective hours with Luka in the music room to recognize a few things. Whenever Luka would practice, Edgar would take a break from feeding the pigeons to lay on the couch behind the piano. The cushions were much more comfortable than the roof, and Luka would be in front of the window illuminated, his bow arm aloft.

Luka always held his elbow high when he played, his fingers flowing with the motion of the bow. Edgar would close his eyes, allowing himself to be submerged in whatever Luka was performing.

School was boring; Edgar had already known that fact. His jobs with Claudius were boring too — there wasn’t much in boarding school or otherwise that actually distracted him from the inevitable boredom that came with knowing that every step of the rest of his life had been decided for him since before birth.

On the short list of amusements that Edgar deemed high enough quality, teaching Zero swordsmanship was only second to listening to Luka play the violin on afternoons much like the one they’re in now.

In the uncharacteristically uncomfortable silence that falls between them, Edgar briefly misses the sun-soaked room and the tender way Luka performed for the near-invisible audience.

“Luka,” Edgar says, his voice breaking on the last syllable. Something numb and unpitying settles into the pit of his stomach, shutting down a part of his better judgement. “You’re scaring me.”

“Me?” Luka laughs then, and Edgar sees the crystals’ sun across the whole map of his face. “Scaring you? That doesn’t sound right at all.”

“Why are you wearing that hat?” Edgar asks, and something brings him to his feet even though he doesn’t move any closer. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“Are you saying it looks bad on me, Ed?” Luka props his chin up, balancing his elbow on a knee. “How cruel.”

As delicately as he would hold a stringed instrument, Luka lifts up the hat to show Edgar what’s underneath. In that moment, Edgar realizes then and there how similar Luka and Jonah had looked, all of their lives. They had been mirror images of each other growing up, but now, Luka’s face is framed by dark, almost black, locks.

Edgar blinks, and unwillingly recalls the way Jonah used to pull a smaller version of himself close next to him at the fancy dinner parties they were all forced to attend. The way Luka had shrunk back behind him, and the same way their eyes shone in bright light. Edgar had always been looking at them, wondering what would happen to the second Clemence boy once the elder brother took on the role of the Queen of Hearts.

Luka looks back at him now, differently than he ever has before, and asks, “How do I look?”

Edgar unsticks his throat. “It’s patchy.”

Luka whips his hat at him, and Edgar reflexively catches it. “Don’t be rude, Ed.”

His expression softens, though, so Edgar comes close enough to pick up a section of hair that is still plainly bright silver. “I’m telling you the truth!”

“Okay, yeah, it could definitely be better,” Luka concedes, sighing. “I thought because Zero recommended them to me, they’d do a good job. Is it really that bad?”

“It can probably be fixed,” Edgar says, as he sorts through more of Luka’s hair. “Not that I know much about hair or hair products.”

“Maybe I can ask someone to dye it for me in the future, instead of going to a salon,” Luka murmurs, almost like it’s to himself.

“Are you asking me right now to become your personal hairdresser?” Edgar asks, as his fingers sweep across the back of Luka’s neck. “I’m so flattered, Luka. You must trust me so much.”

“I’m not asking you, Ed,” Luka says, swatting him away. It’s half-hearted at best, and Edgar’s hand lingers for a second longer before he drops it. “That wouldn’t even be possible, anyway.”

“What do you mean?” Edgar turns over Luka’s hat in his other hand.

“I’m not joining the Red Army, Ed.” Something in Luka’s voice compels Edgar to look up and meet his eyes. Within them is Edgar’s own reflection, and he looks like Edgar has dreamt him up in a moment of weakness. “I’m joining the Black Army.”

Edgar laughs, because he doesn’t know what else to do. “Don’t be ridiculous, Luka. You’re a Clemence, you can’t join the Black Army.”

“They’ve already approved my enlistment,” Luka says, and Edgar freezes, the hat perched precariously on the tip of his ring finger. “It’ll be official next week. I’m moving into the barracks today. I wanted to say goodbye to you before I left.”

We probably won’t see each other for a while, goes unsaid between them, even though Edgar can taste in his mouth the words on the tip of Luka’s tongue.

“What are you saying?” The ice spreads from within the heart side of his body outwards to the extremities. “You’re leaving?”

“Technically I already left,” Luka says, shrugging. “I’m going today to meet with the officers and learn more about the army.”

In the distance, a bird takes flight. The following rustle of leaves flits across Edgar’s periphery as he looks at the one person he has ever permissed himself to hold as close as they’re positioned now. Edgar can count on his fingers the number of times he has broken the rules Claudius had instilled upon him all those years ago. The number of people he has ever let in to this extent.

The emptiness is already starting to take root into the hastily abandoned, profound gap. It can’t be helped; Edgar knows he had been setting himself up for this, all those years he had shut his eyes and wondered how careless he could be without facing the consequences. As long as Luka must have been carrying the weight of this decision alone. If he didn’t tell Edgar, then he didn’t tell anyone.

What’s the use of holding onto someone who has already left? What is his hand even on, if there isn’t anything there?

“You’re leaving,” Edgar says again. “Right now.”

“Yes,” Luka says. He tilts his head, standing up from where he had been on the rock. “Ed.”

“What?”

Luka frowns, reaching out like he’s going to touch Edgar. But before the tips of his fingers reach him, he stops. “For a second there you almost looked sad.”

“Me?” Edgar touches his own cheek, and Luka’s hand hovers closer. It’s his bow hand, which is not just his bow hand but also his sword hand. “I looked sad?”

“I probably made it up,” Luka says, and when he’s about to recede, Edgar catches his hand with his own.

There isn’t any resistance from Luka as Edgar tightens his grip. Luka’s expression doesn’t shift, and Edgar wonders if Luka knows about him. If he’s just figured it out now or if he’s known all along. Edgar isn’t sure he himself has known for longer than the past few minutes, and if he had spent so much time convincing himself otherwise that he had started to believe it.

“Ed,” Luka says, his voice dropping until it’s impossibly soft. “You’re hurting me.”

Even at that, Edgar doesn’t stop. He marginally loosens his fingers, before clamping down again. Luka puts his other hand on Edgar’s arm, but he doesn’t make any effort to extricate himself. Rather, he holds Edgar’s hand between his two.

They’ve never touched like this. Edgar has never allowed himself to go this far. The days, months, years they’d spent together had slipped through his grasp before he’d had a chance to rethink anything. Where had that time gone? It had felt like an eternity before. Even if Edgar had done the uncharacteristic thing and confessed, he has no idea what Luka would have said in response.

Besides, Luka doesn’t feel like he’s left. He doesn’t feel gone. He feels like he’s here, with Edgar.

“I hope the next time we see each other I’ll have made something of myself,” Luka says, his tone still embodying a temperate fury. Desperation tinged with the opposite of regret. “And we’ll be able to face each other as equals.”

“You’ve always been my equal, Luka.” Edgar makes himself draw back as he speaks, otherwise he doesn’t know if he’ll ever let go. “Have I ever made you feel like you were any less?”

“No,” Luka replies immediately. The sun is hitting the lake full on, and it halos Luka in an impossible brilliance. “You were my best friend.”

“Were? Are you ending our friendship right now?” Edgar rearranges his face back to his normal expression, or at least his best attempt at it. “You’re very cruel, aren’t you?”

“You know what I mean,” Luka says, almost like he’s scolding, and a part of Edgar’s chest that he has tamped down for as long as he can remember swells hopelessly. “I’m glad I got to see you one more time, Ed. Thanks for coming here.”

Edgar can still feel the ghost of Luka’s touch on his arm over the fabric of his jacket. He’s always been gentle, and today isn’t an exception. “Have you even told your family?”

“They’ll find out soon,” Luka says. “I arranged for letters to be delivered to them tomorrow.”

So the only one who is receiving an in-person farewell is Edgar. Is it still a goodbye, though, if they’ve promised to meet again? “I didn’t know I was so special to you, Luka. You’re making me blush.”

“I could never make you blush,” Luka says, blunt in a clumsy way. The traitorous ache in Edgar’s chest surges until he’s sure he will burst. “I need to go, Ed. It was nice to see you.”

“Okay,” Edgar says, because he doesn’t trust himself to say anything more. Luka holds his hand out for the hat, and Edgar obliges. “Okay.”

Luka leans down to pick up a bag that Edgar hadn’t even noticed until now. In his defense, the rock had been blocking it from his view, but Edgar rarely lets anything go unnoticed. His guard must have been down even as he arrived.

The undisturbed surface of the Lake of Tears is the last thing Edgar sees before he turns to leave as well. His steps are muffled by the greenery underfoot, silence broken only by the hum of the forest breathing beneath the rapidly approaching pink of the sky.

These woods hold something alive. Edgar has always kept that in mind as he walks the most beaten path of them all. He’d spent hours exploring this forest whenever time permitted, so he knows more than anyone that there isn’t a man-made trail connecting the Lake of Tears to Black Territory.

If it had been Edgar traversing that distance, he would have cut through the Central Quarter to find a road to follow. But Luka isn’t like him. Luka had held a tree branch out of his way as he waved at Edgar, the luminescent dazzle of the water bathing him in a radiant glow. He turned to enter a part of the forest that will remain unknown to Edgar for as long as his life will continue to be predetermined.

Overhead, the cloudless blue of earlier cedes to the rose-tinted sunset. Edgar keeps his eyes fixed on the upper horizon until the divide blurs into another boundary, and he finds himself displaced as much as lost in it.

 

#

 

Some years ago, the roof—

“Ed,” Luka says. “Ed. Edgar.”

Edgar starts awake, stretching the arm he’d been using as a pillow over his head. “Did you say something?”

“You fell asleep,” Luka says. He’s sitting right next to Edgar, his knees drawn to his chest. There’s wind today, and he shakes his hair back from his face. It’s getting long again. “Don’t you have training with Zero soon?”

“Soon means not right now,” Edgar says matter-of-factly, pulling himself up so he can see more of Luka than just the back of his head. “What happened to my bread?”

“You left it unguarded.” The corner of Luka’s eyes crinkle like he’s going to smile. “What do you think happened?”

“Thieves,” Edgar calls to the straggler pigeons who are hanging around them hoping for more food. “You didn’t stop them from taking it, Luka? How could you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Luka says. His back is to the sun, and Edgar has to shade his eyes to look at him clearly.

At the angle the mid-afternoon rays are at, Luka looks like he’s wearing a silver crown. Edgar swallows, as a single insidious cloud floats above them. An unstoppable tide of violent adolescence gives him a second of immeasurable courage that he uses to wonder if there will come a day where he will fall on his knees and beg for forgiveness. For the blood on his hands, of course, but more for his cowardice, his ignorance.

The cloud passes over the sun, and the second flees with the light. Who would he even be praying to? Edgar has never been taught how to repent. It would take an unprecedented phenomenon to force him to change now.

“Ed,” Luka says. He’s regarding Edgar curiously. Despite the fractional darkening of the sky, he still looks like a painted apotheosis, or an illusion, or the epitome of Edgar’s weaknesses. “What’s up?”

The artificial semblance shatters, and Edgar brings himself to a smile. “Nothing, Luka. Why do you ask?”

Luka doesn’t move from where he is. He doesn’t answer either. There’s confusion in the set of his mouth and the tightening of his shoulders. The wind returns to send the remaining crumbs around them flying, and Luka raises his arm to shield his eyes. Edgar doesn’t do the same.

Maybe the Luka he holds so dear is a figment of his imagination after all. Maybe in a few years he will continue his refusal to atone for his sins ad nauseam. Maybe the boredom that crawls into the rift of his heart and permeates will never be rehomed.

But perhaps one day he’ll look back at their ordinary schooling and wonder how he never saw the truly strange and marvelous world they’re living in, and the miracles headed their way.

Edgar hasn’t yet learned of miracles. All he knows is that if he sees Luka every day, he will get to know him. And he has so many years left ahead.

 

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