A Spark of Life @lucabalsa
1 *original notes reposted from AO3 - this was written before luca's deductions were out* this took so long but i was desperate for luca/aesop content i figured i may as well make it myself! disclaimer: aesop is canonically autistic, this cannot be debated. this fic was also written with an autistic interpretation of luca and vera in mind, drawing from my own experiences on the spectrum as well as those around me. this is also my first time writing identity v fic, so there may be possible OOC. thanks for reading, and enjoy!

Welcoming new survivors had become such a commonplace act that it may as well have been deemed tradition in Oletus Manor. The gardener in particular always seemed to have a supernatural hunch about when someone would be arriving—the survivors would be in an uproar, planning festivities for the welcoming party.

Aesop Carl never partook in them. Celebrations for mingling with others were simply never meant for a man like himself, who felt more comfortable lingering in the shadows of society and being a silent onlooker. Most understood that he preferred to be left alone, but that didn’t stop the occasional person from trying to include him. He never expected, however, that someone could end up being such a pain in his side.

The manor was in an uproar as the “Prisoner”—the man known as Luca Balsa—arrived through the double doors, met with an excited crowd. Emma, her particularly outgoing self, took his hands and excitedly welcomed him. Aesop merely observed somewhere off to the side, but he certainly didn’t miss the brief look of confusion with the hint of being slightly overwhelmed. That emotion was familiar to him; he recalled feeling the same the moment he had taken his first steps into the mansion.

Luca seemed to enjoy the attention after he recognized what was going on, and wasted no time in socializing with others. Aesop couldn’t make out what they were speaking about, but over the chatter, he noticed the prisoner glance his way and grin. An acknowledgement.

Luca seemed to enjoy the attention after he recognized what was going on, and wasted no time in socializing with others. Aesop couldn’t make out what they were speaking about, but over the chatter, he noticed the prisoner glance his way and grin. An acknowledgement.

Aesop merely nodded at him and turned to retire to his room, content with that single interaction.

It didn’t take long for things to return to normal when everyone had become used to his presence—at least, as normal as they could be. The embalmer had taken to a quiet stroll in the halls, as most were busy with their matches and he wasn’t expected to be in one for quite some time. He cherished the few moments of silence in such a vast space, dwelling in his own thoughts.

Unfortunately, that bliss did not last long. It was Luca himself that barged in, clearly worn and tired from a match, grunting in frustration. He didn’t seem to notice the other man at first.

“Shit,” he mumbled. “How’d he get me that fast? Couldn’t even get away from the cipher before he hit me…”

Time to leave. The embalmer turned on his heel and was about to make a speedy retreat—

“Hey! Mask guy!” Oh no. “Haven’t seen you since I got here!”

“And I would rather keep it that way. Apologies on your last match. Goodbye.”

“Wait!” Aesop felt a gloved hand on his shoulder and immediately jerked away, turning to face him with his briefcase held in front as if it were a protective shield between them.

“Do you need something from me?”

“Nah, but can’t we talk a little? I haven’t even heard you speak until now.” The prisoner scratched his head. “Didn’t expect your voice to be that deep.”

Unsure of how to react to the sudden switch in topic, Aesop was silent for a moment. His gaze fell to the carpeted floor, away from Luca. “I’m not good with words.”

“Not a problem.” He could see the prisoner’s fanged grin out of the corner of his eye. Were his teeth crooked? “I’m Luca Balsa. You’ll be hearing that name a lot one of these days, I’m sure. You?”

Luca extended his hand towards him, and he merely glanced at it with clear disinterest. “Aesop Carl.”

The prisoner’s hand hung in the air for a moment until he drew it back, somewhat awkwardly. At least he had gotten the message.

“...Cool! What do you do?”

“I’m an embalmer.”

“Oh, like preserving corpses and stuff, right?”

“I merely act as a guide for those heading to their final destination,” he corrected.

“So same thing.” A giggle rose from his throat. “Cool, cool! Well, Aesop—you’re looking at someone who’s gonna be a great inventor someday! I’ll win this game for sure, just watch!”

He glanced pointedly at his worn clothes. “You have a lot to learn before that happens.”

“I’ll get used to it soon enough, yeah? Doesn’t seem that hard. I may lose now, but my future is bright!”

“Mm. Well, best of luck.”

“Haha, you too!” Aesop flinched as a particularly rough pat came down on his shoulder, and Luca passed him by with a wave. “Hope I get to see what you’re made of!”

The embalmer merely watched as Luca walked away, seemingly chuckling to himself. Was he making fun of him? He wasn’t sure, but the conversation irritated him somewhat. No one was ever so overly friendly with someone they just met without having an ulterior motive. With a silent prayer that they would not meet in a match, he retreated to his own quarters.

It was just his luck that they were teammates.

Vera and Demi were chatting away next to him, discussing strategies, and none other sat at the very end of the table but Luca himself. Aesop fought to hold back a very tired sigh as the prisoner grinned and waved at him, mentally checked out of whatever he was saying.

“Aesop?” Vera’s gentle voice poked through his spaced-out thoughts. “Is everything alright?”

“I’m fine,” he replied politely. Vera was one of the more tolerable guests to be around. “I didn’t get much sleep last night.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” The perfumer gave him a sympathetic smile. “Well, good luck today.”

“...You too.”

With a blink of the eyes, he found himself standing in the middle of a field—Lakeside Village. A place he hadn’t quite familiarized himself with yet.

His sensitivity to others’ presence, at least, gave him an idea of where everyone was. Aesop took off for the person closest to him, content on having one person’s appearance recorded for now.

When he got closer, his jaw clenched as he was able to see who it was. Of course, of all people, it had to be Luca. When the prisoner saw him, he grinned from ear to ear.

“Aesop! Decoding with me?”

“I’m just here so I can embalm you if you get downed,” he responded sourly. “Don’t end up on that chair so soon.”

Luca’s face fell upon hearing he wasn’t sticking around, but he appeared to bounce back from it quickly. Peculiar. “Heh, I’m good at keeping hunters at bay! Watch me. I’ll distract them long enough for us to get all those ciphers.”

The embalmer chose not to grace him with a response and merely left, heading for the second nearest cipher. It was just his luck that no one was here; this location was relatively safe, too, one he knew hunters rarely checked at the start of a match. He’d set to quietly decoding on his own for a moment until he heard a zap! and, startled, looked over to notice that his cipher was connected to someone else’s. Was that the prisoner’s ability?

He chose not to dwell on it too much, though he did notice that decoding went a bit faster than usual. It had been over half a minute with good progress being made on his cipher until there was a ping on his wristwatch, sent from none other than Luca himself—the hunter is near me!

Great. It certainly wasn’t his concern for now how long he lasted; this cipher was almost done. Another zapping noise reached his ears, the sound of a connection severed, and he supposed that meant he would have to go over and finish that other cipher himself. With a pop and a flash, one cipher was down—he could see the vague light in the distance from another teammate’s finished decoding as well. Two ciphers down already. Good progress, as far as he was concerned.

And then—moments after he’d gotten that little ping that Luca was containing the hunter for a full minute—he was incapacitated, and Aesop could see the rocket chair with its bright red colors, as well as the fact that it was very close to him. Demi and Vera were simply too far away, preoccupied with the cipher rush. How unfortunate fate was.

Allowing himself a groan of frustration, he hurried towards the chair, knowing that if he stalled too long it would save quite some time for the hunter. As he neared closer, he could see that it was Geisha, and she was sticking far too close to that chair for his liking.

Luca was straining against the ropes and gritting his teeth, face twisted in frustration. His features softened as soon as he saw the embalmer, eyes lit up. “You came for me!”

With a quick step to the side of the chair, Aesop barely managed to dodge Geisha’s fan. “I was merely the closest.”

The prisoner was freed from his constraints, and Aesop hastily moved to take a hit for him—they’d have to leave, quickly, as she would assuredly be on their trail.

“Don’t worry, I got this,” Luca assured him with a grin, to which Aesop only responded by looking at him quizzically. What is he planning?

Right as Geisha prepared for an attack, the world around them was lit up in a sudden flash. He couldn’t tell what exactly had happened, but he was seemingly unaffected, while the hunter herself had clearly been stunned. The two of them rounded the corner and found a dilapidated shack to hide behind, peeking out every so often to catch their breaths. She was drawing near, too near for comfort—but Vera arrived in the nick of time, drawing her attention and causing her to chase after the perfumer. Thanks to her efforts, the two were safe for now.

“That was close,” Luca laughed. “Here. Lemme help you out.”

Aesop was not one to refuse healing if it helped the team, and though he was uncomfortable with the touch, he sat in silence as Luca tended to his wounds. His movements were careful—tender, almost. Aesop couldn’t help but feel suffocatingly awkward with how he seemed to lack a sense of boundaries, wrinkling his nose as the prisoner’s bangs brushed against it.

“Thank you,” he mumbled.

“No, thank you for rescuing me,” emphasized Luca. “You’re doing a great job.”

Once more, he found himself lacking the words to respond, but this time, Aesop pondered how a man could express such warmth towards someone he barely knew. Perhaps he was able to view it differently now that they were working together; there was no doubt, however, that Luca had helped him, both with decoding and healing. Both helped in the grand scheme of things, certainly, but… he had a hunch that the prisoner’s actions weren’t merely done out of a wish to succeed. Of course he wished to win, everyone did—but perhaps this kindness was truly part of his character.

Uncertain thoughts tumbled around in Aesop’s head as he returned the favor in kind, patching Luca’s wounds with a more professional hand. Though he kept some space between them, Luca hummed, apparently pleased being doted on in some form.

“Go decode,” ordered Aesop. “Don’t let the time Vera bought us go to waste.”

“Roger!”

He watched as Luca ran off and proceeded to set up a coffin. Thankfully, Vera had gotten close enough for him to recall her appearance—and she did deserve that resurrection, he supposed. The timing was perfect; he’d just finished embalming her right as she’d collapsed, the hunter certainly unaware.

The rest of the match was a breeze. With Luca’s excellent decoding abilities and Vera’s containment skills, it took little time at all until they were all free. Aesop was the last to run up to the open gate, witnessing a laughing Luca hug the perfumer and barmaid tightly to him. A premature celebration, he thought.

“Great work back there,” Luca grinned as he addressed Vera. “You really saved our skin.”

“Oh, please.” The perfumer swatted at him playfully. “You have quite the talent for decoding.”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t be here if Aesop didn’t help me out.” Aesop flinched as Luca glanced his way, turning so he wouldn’t feel the pairs of eyes boring into him.

“We all did our part.” Demi raised her bucket in a gesture. “Let’s get going for now. We can celebrate with drinks back at the manor.”

Aesop fell silent, tagging behind his teammates as they all made their way back.

He hadn’t joined the festivities, of course. He could still hear the excited chatter and laughter coming from the dining room as he walked past, having prepared his own meal in the kitchen and eating quietly in the hall. Perhaps it was uncivilized, but the meal simply tasted better when he enjoyed it in silence rather than having to put up with the racket from the other guests.

Aesop had done his dishes and was off to retreat to his room, somewhat content. Indeed, he was simply not meant to dwell in light and companionship like everyone else… but he could at least cherish the happy times they make here from afar. He brushed a hand against the doorknob to his room just when he heard a voice behind him.

“Aesop?”

He turned, and it was none other than Luca, standing not too far away. There was a noticeable impairment to how he carried himself, though slight—no doubt Demi had brewed a strong beverage for him.

“...What do you need.”

“Um…” The prisoner trailed off, scratching his head again and mumbling under his breath. “...nothing, I think. I didn’t see you, so… so I wanted to come talk to you. Is that okay?”

The sudden consideration for his space threw Aesop off guard. He didn’t seem so energetic; oddly enough, perhaps the alcohol had calmed his senses a bit. “I told you I’m not good with words. I wouldn’t make a great conversational partner.”

“I don’t care. I just… shit, what did I…” Luca looked off to the side, brow knit in frustration, until the thought came back to him. “Right! I just wanted to thank you. For helping me out back then.”

“If I didn’t, we would have had a greater chance of losing,” he replied cooly. “Is that all?”

“No, no…” He seemed to become frustrated with himself, clearly searching for words to keep him there, to hold a conversation. “Um…”

“Luca. Why are you so desperate to associate with me?”

The prisoner looked up, taken aback by the fact he’d spoken his name. “Huh?”

“You go out of your way to befriend me when I offer very little in the way of company. I keep trying to push you away, but you keep coming back. Why?”

Luca blinked. “You were pushing me away?”

“Yes. Was it not clear?”

“I didn’t notice.” His naive honesty irritated Aesop, his fingers gripping the doorknob. “I mean, you always look so alone, hanging out by yourself all the time…”

“Listen to me.” The embalmer interrupted him, voice stern. “I am alone, and that’s how I like it. I don’t need someone trying to change me, to be my ‘friend’ because they pity me. You have done nothing but annoy me in your attempts to get closer to me, and I am telling you to stop right now because there is no value in interacting with me. Leave me alone.

“I—“

“Good night, Luca.”

He slammed the door shut on him, taking extra precaution to lock it in case he still attempted to pursue him. Aesop stuck near it, expecting to hear a knock or a voice on the other side, but there was nothing but silence for a moment, then fading footsteps walking back down the hallway.

His lips formed a thin line. Had he been too harsh? There was no other way he knew of to prevent the prisoner from coming near him, and simple cues that he wasn’t interested didn’t work. It was better this way. Aesop had no right to meddle in the affairs of the living when it wasn’t absolutely necessary until it was their time to depart.

It should be this way, he thought. Life had proven time and time again he was never meant to fit in with others. He repeated the mantra to himself silently as he prepared for bed and drifted into a dreamless sleep.

He woke up the next morning to a small knock on his door. The voice on the other end was small and feminine—he recognized it as Vera.

“Aesop, are you hungry? I brought you breakfast.”

The embalmer lifted himself from the bed and dragged himself over to the door. His hair was let down to his shoulders and untidy from sleep, and he rubbed the crust from one eye as he opened the door for her. The sweet scent of freshly cooked pancakes overwhelmed his senses, and observation showed she had taken care to bring him a little cup of fruits and a warm cup of tea on the side.

“Thank you. It looks delicious.”

“Do you mind if I accompany you? I’ve already eaten mine.”

“By all means.”

Vera took a seat on his desk chair, turned to face him a polite distance away as he sat back on his bed to indulge in the meal. It had been a little while since they had pancakes for breakfast; someone in the manor must have felt generous enough to cook them. They melted in his mouth, he noted, with a hint of satisfaction.

“How was the celebration last night?”

“It was fun.” Vera recalled the moment with a small smile on her face, thumbs twiddling in her lap. “Um, it did get a little rowdy here and there, but Emily helped reign us in for the most part and made sure we didn’t drink too much.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“Yes… well, Luca, though… he seemed off. I don’t know where he went, but after he came back, he wasn’t himself. He was very quiet and seemed to be thinking about something.”

No doubt it was a result of their encounter that same night. Had he hurt his feelings that badly? A twinge of guilt rose in his chest, but he swallowed it back with another forkful of pancake and told himself it was merely a consequence of keeping things as they should be.

“I’m glad he came to the manor.” Vera’s voice was soft, and though she often caught herself up on her words as if she wasn’t quite sure which ones came next, she made for otherwise good company. Aesop, at least, felt he could understand her struggles with communicating with others. “He can be... a bit overbearing, I think, but he means well. I’ve spoken with him plenty of times. Somehow, our conversations manage to turn to his inventions, and, well… I admit that I’m not very good at keeping up with him when he starts talking about them.”

Aesop listened quietly as she spoke, focused on his breakfast. He mulled over whether to ask her to stop talking about Luca to him or not—disappointing him was one thing, but Vera was sensitive and one of the very few people that understood how to approach him.

“He’s a lot like you, deep down, I think.” That sentence nearly caused him to choke on berries. Aesop took a moment to gather himself while Vera stared, baffled, and spoke.

“Sorry. I swallowed the wrong way.” He coughed. “Why?”

“I think… um… he’s the opposite of you, socially. He likes the attention, likes talking. That, though… that’s hiding a deep loneliness and feeling of alienation. It’s what I feel when I look at him and you. Someone who isn’t quite sure how to fit in.”

“I’m not lonely,” he protested.

Vera sighed. “That’s what you say, Aesop. But when you say that, who are you convincing? Yourself, or others?”

Others. It’s they who cannot leave me alone. It was such a simple answer, but for some reason, the words wouldn’t come out, no matter how much he tried to force them to.

“You two could come to an understanding. I think… with a little time, you may find that you have much more in common. I won’t force you, but it is something to consider. It’s one thing to wish for others to understand you, but… you could do with trying to understand others, too. Even if they don’t appear to be like you, or even if you can’t fathom why they want to be near you.”

He mulled over the meaning of her words more than he had liked to, but the more he thought about it, the more confusing it felt. If he kept his distance long enough, people would stop trying to associate with him. And yet—that somehow never stopped the people at Oletus Manor from trying to help him feel included, no matter how many times he shot invitations down or insisted he was only helping out in matches to win. All this time… was he being unfair? It was a professional letter from the only school he’d ever attended that said he was unfit to socialize with others, and for so long, he had taken that as the truth. Jerry, too, had assured him as such, that his place was with the dead.

“I’ll think about it,” he murmured. “Thank you, Vera. I think I’d like to be alone now.”

“Of course. Have a nice day, Aesop.”

“You too.”

She stood, nodded at him, and turned to leave, and Aesop Carl was left with nothing but silence once more. It weighed far heavier than he’d ever felt it as he finished the last of his meal.

They were in another match together, this time with Naib and Tracy. Luca was seated next to him this time, and although he could see an uncertain glance in his direction every so often, he didn’t speak a word. The prisoner, instead, caught himself up in an excited conversation with Tracy.

The Arms Factory. It was a rather mundane, quiet match. He encountered Tracy first, who merely acknowledged him with a nod as she set to decoding.

No matter where he went, he couldn’t see a trace of Luca. He was still participating if the dark blue lights of connected ciphers was any indication, but even when he had found Naib, the prisoner seemed to rush just out of sight before he could get any closer.

When he eventually got chaired, this time, he was too far away for Aesop to attempt a rescue. First, it was Tracy’s doll, which had failed and been brought down with one hit. Second was Naib, successful in his attempt at baiting a hit, but unsuccessful in taking one for Luca.

Once again, he was chaired while Naib fleed. It had taken too long for the first rescue. With a message, his three teammates had shared the same sentiment as his chair disappeared into the foggy sky:

Sorry…

And yet, Aesop found himself unsure what he was apologizing for.

The match had ended in a bust. Tracy and Naib, too, had been eliminated despite his best efforts, while he had only been so lucky to be near the hatch as Naib was escorted out of the game.

Condolences were exchanged between them, but Luca was nowhere to be found. He knew he’d been eliminated early, but most usually stuck around to speak of their last match—had such an early loss embarrassed him? Or was he deliberately avoiding Aesop, like he asked?

The embalmer was at a crossroads. He could continue keeping to himself, continue to keep others at a distance for the rest of this mundane, solitary life. Or… he could make a move and make amends, and for once, attempt to extend his hand towards someone who had a long, bright future ahead of them still.

Aesop made his decision as he walked through the dorm halls.

A moment lingering in front of Luca’s door and knocking proved that he wasn’t there. Aesop had to think. Just where would someone like Luca be? He didn’t truly understand his character, and all he had to go off of was what Vera said about him. A mere hunch simply wouldn’t do.

Instead, he thought of the other places he preferred to visit when he wanted to be somewhere quiet. The library came to mind. It was a bit of a stroll through the manor to get there, but the journey thankfully proved to be not in vain; not too far away from the entrance he saw Luca, donning a pair of glasses. He seemed heavily focused on what he was reading, a stack of books piled next to him.

For a moment, he stood there just trying to work up the nerve, thankful the other man hadn’t noticed him yet. After a count of three, he just went for it and walked up to him, standing stiffly at the edge of the table with his briefcase in front.

“...Luca,” he began. “Hello.”

“Christ!” The prisoner jumped in his seat and swiveled in his direction, then gave an audible sigh of relief when he saw it was just Aesop. He blinked up at him, then set the book down on the table. “Uh… sorry, hi. If it’s about the match--”

“I’m not here to talk about the match,” he said. “Rather, what I said to you…”

Luca’s shoulders fell, growing uncharacteristically timid when the topic was brought up. “I’m leaving you alone. That’s what you wanted, right?”

A pause. Aesop fidgeted with his briefcase in his hands. “I thought so, yes. Vera spoke with me this morning. I realize that… well… I was… not treating you fairly.” He cleared his throat. How was honest speech always so difficult to get out? “I understand if you still don’t wish to associate with me, but… if you’re willing to give me a second chance… I would like to get off on the right foot this time.”

The mood felt suffocatingly uncertain as he spoke, and Aesop felt like he would perish on the spot waiting for his reaction. The relief he felt was palpable as soon as he saw Luca break out in a grin. Back to his old self.

“Don’t worry,” Luca reassured him. “Apology accepted, and I’m sorry, too, for being kind of a pain in the ass. I’d be glad to get to know you better.”

His heart felt like it was lodged in his throat. “Truly?”

“Yeah. C’mon.”

Luca patted the seat next to him. Aesop stared at it, hesitant, but slowly moved to take a seat by him. He hadn’t willingly been so close to a person before. With Vera, her perfumes were always strong to the point anyone could tell when she was going to enter a room, but he hadn’t picked up on the prisoner’s scent until he sat next to him (or perhaps he hadn’t tried paying attention until now). There was the musk of a hardworking inventor, but a gentle underlying fragrance that hinted that this man was, at one point, far better off than himself.

In his sudden embarrassment, Aesop decided that the books on the table were now very interesting. “What are you reading about?”

“Electrostatics,” Luca responded. “It’s a bit of a new concept, but I think we can make some really great stuff with it. I work with it, actually.”

“Oh, is that how you’re able to connect the ciphers?” The prisoner nodded. “That’s quite useful indeed.”

Aesop had noticed the grin on Luca’s face that came with the compliment. Were such statements rare for him? He couldn’t reasonably venture a guess, but seeing such a happy look on his face made his chest feel tight. It was something he said that made him smile like that.

“Yeah! See, hang on, like…” He flipped through the book pages, pointing to a line of text Aesop couldn’t make out. “When electric charges flow, we call that a current. And currents can flow in circuits, right? Ohm’s Law states that… uhh, when currents flow through the resistors…”

The embalmer had already become lost—physics was a concept he simply couldn’t wrap his head around. Luca seemed to enjoy talking about it, though, so for his sake, he nodded along. At one point, the prisoner had to stop and catch his breath because he’d been talking for so long, and he took that as his turn to speak.

“That all sounds very interesting, but difficult.” His eyes wrinkled ever so slightly, a tiny smile offered to the inventor. “You’re incredibly intelligent to remember all that by heart.”

Something else happened. Luca stopped, stared at him—and then a pale pink color spread across his cheeks, his head lowering. “Aw. You don’t mean that.”

“I do,” replied Aesop. “It’s clear to me that you have a talent. You shouldn’t sell yourself so short.”

Luca fell silent for a moment, staring at the carpeted floor of the library as if struggling with what to say. Something was clearly on his mind, but what? He’d been so confident in his abilities before, and this reserved side of him was a sudden change.

“M’not as good as I used to be,” mumbled Luca. “I can’t remember…” He drew his arm out in a gesture towards the books. “All this, anymore. It comes back to me sometimes, but I keep having to jog my memory…”

Oh. Luca touched his head again in a gesture he’d seen him do too many times before, and Aesop had an inkling of suspicion that something terrible happened to him. It wasn’t his place to ask. He shouldn’t be meddling in private affairs, but…

“...I’m sorry. I don’t know how you used to be, but I don’t think any less of you as you are now.”

Luca looked up at him again, and Aesop noticed something in his eyes. The way he gazed at him was unfamiliar. Some sort of emotion was there that he couldn’t recognize—or perhaps he was worried about what lay there.

Right on cue, his wristwatch pinged, snapping the two out of their trance. Aesop was due for another match in a few minutes. So soon?

“I have to go,” he said, and stood. “Apologies. It was.. um…” What were the pleasantries again? “...it was nice speaking with you, Luca.”

“Oh! Um. You too.” Luca hesitated. “See you soon…?”

“Indeed. I’d like that. See you soon.”

He made his way out of the library, unsure what name to give to the new, uncertain feelings stirring up in his chest. They were new and somewhat frightening, but maybe they weren’t so bad, after all. Aesop made a mental note to thank Vera later.

Time passed, and the seasons changed. Little by little, Aesop grew used to speaking with Luca more, though they hadn’t had a match together in quite a while. Still, the lack of urgency in their interactions helped him grow used to his presence—he’d even found himself recognizing some of his tics, like the way he’d chew on his bottom lip while frustrated, or play with his bangs absentmindedly when immersed in some other activity. It was fascinating, really, the things one could notice when they spent so much time in another’s company.

Aesop wasn’t quite sure how to feel about him. The prisoner had grown accustomed to physical touch again, with light pats on the shoulder or on the back, and though it irked him somewhat, he didn’t find himself flinching away so much. He’d spoken about it with Luca, who had begun respectfully asking for permission beforehand, which made it far more manageable.

Sometimes he had this same look in his eye as the day they spoke in the library, and Aesop still wasn’t sure what to make of it. Other times, they would be quietly sitting next to each other, and Aesop would catch him staring—perhaps in a way he felt embarrassed about, as Luca would quickly turn the other way as if he wasn’t. Peculiar behavior on his part, but it wasn’t anything that bothered him too much.

Or did it? Aesop couldn’t tell if he was annoyed anymore. He’d become far too used to his presence, after all. Who was to say if he was merely putting up with Luca or not? The man was tolerable at best, and the only frame of reference he had with acquaintanceship was Vera. He found her presence comfortable, certainly, but… Luca was different, somehow. Thinking about it too hard frustrated him, and he chose not to acknowledge that uncomfortable doubt.

They were teammates again today. Aesop had gotten used to communicating with him, and Luca had gotten a better feel for the game since his arrival, able to discuss strategy with the others eloquently. He’d discovered he was quite good at distracting hunters and leading them astray, and had wasted little time in bragging about it to him once when he’d been able to contain Joseph himself for an entire match. He had lost, but all his other teammates escaped—still a win on their side.

“Aesop, can you watch my back this time?” Luca’s voice snapped him out of his thoughts, and he looked over.

“Sure,” he replied. “Are you worried?”

“Little bit. To be honest, I’ve had bad luck with the hunter finding me first lately. Also…” He nodded. “I don’t think you’ve ever actually embalmed me before.”

Aesop took a moment to recall the matches they had together. “...You’re right, but I hope that isn’t the only reason. I don’t want to waste my coffin.”

“Nah.” He grinned. “It won’t be a waste, promise.”

“Very well.”

He instantly recognized the church when they arrived. The numerous broken walls surrounding him were all too conspicuous.

From here, it was merely business as usual. Aesop found Luca again, already decoding, and he nodded in his direction.

“Can you take this cipher? I’m gonna hook it up to the one over there—“ Luca gestured with a point “—and transfer my progress there to you.”

“Of course.”

Aesop took his place on the cipher, and the prisoner squatted, giggling to himself in excitement. The telltale zap signified another connection made, and before he knew it, his teammate was gone again.

Thankfully, he seemed to make it to the other side alright before getting caught; this cipher was nearly done thanks to Luca’s help. With one pop after the other, they were on to the next ones.

Or, at least, Aesop was. He could see in the distance that Luca had been found by the hunter and was wounded—the clown, Smiley Face. Urgh. He hated being in matches against him.

Knowing that Luca may not have had much time left, Aesop got to work. In the far corner of the map, he set up his coffin.

He couldn’t embalm him just yet. He counted for a few seconds, hoping his timing would be fine, then got to work. It was just his luck—Luca was downed a mere couple of seconds after he’d finished embalming him, and was rather far away too. Perfect.

Aesop took the brief moment to admire his handiwork. He’d recreated Luca’s likeness on the substitute incredibly well, from his judgement. His gaze fell upon his face, quiet and serene. It was not the true body of Luca, but a glimpse of how he might look.

Of course, he thought, his time surely wouldn’t come when he was so young. He’d seemed the type to live life to the fullest he could. Still, he could not help but become enraptured by the sight. Luca Balsa, in his final rest, seemed so peaceful. A certain feeling bloomed in his chest. Was it gratitude, perhaps? Admiration? Aesop couldn’t stop himself from reaching out to touch his cheek.

His fingers were a mere centimeter away when the rebirth effect took place, and Aesop stumbled back, startled, as Luca opened his eyes and stepped out of the coffin.

“Jeez, that’s weird,” he laughed. “Felt like I was drowning for a second there. How does everyone get used to this?”

“W-we can talk later. Hurry, the hunter will be coming over here soon!”

The two went their separate ways again. Aesop, however, couldn’t banish this strange, new feeling from his mind.

This was bad. This was horribly, terribly bad.

Aesop found that he could not stop thinking about the prisoner.

He’d shut himself in the library, hoping to absorb some kind of new information that would help rid him of whatever was causing this. Why was it happening? It was unfamiliar and alien, and he wanted it gone.

He had picked up a book regarding the biology of felines in an attempt to find something he might absorb easier. In his search, he discovered that cats have eighteen toes and cannot taste sweet foods, but it did nothing to help his predicament.

“I don’t know what to do,” he told Vera later. “It’s like a disease of the mind.”

The perfumer frowned, stirring honey into her yogurt. The two were idling away in the kitchen. “A disease?”

“I can’t think of any other explanation. When I see him… my face burns, and I find it difficult to breathe, and I feel ill. I think I may faint if I am near him for too long.” His foot tapped nervously against the oak floor. “Was this a mistake? How do I tell him to stay away from me. I don’t like this very much.”

Vera blinked in surprise, as if he’d said something peculiar. The corners of her lips twitched up in a sudden smile, and she broke out into laughter. “What’s so funny?”

“You,” she replied between giggles. “It’s not a disease, silly. You just like him.”

He frowned. “Like?”

“Yes. You talk about… feeling ill near him, but you still want to be near, don’t you?”

“Maybe.”

“How do you feel when he looks at you?”

Aesop thought for a moment. “Odd, but… positive, somehow. It feels nice.”

She waved her spoon at him. “You’re head over heels.”

The expression was unfamiliar to him, and he knit his brow at her. Vera merely took a spoonful of yogurt into her mouth with a knowing gaze. 

“Go talk to him… and just be normal. It’ll be fine, I promise.”

“...Be normal.” What a tall order. “Alright. Thank you.”

“No problem.” She gave him a sweet smile as she watched him walk out of the kitchen, amused. Love truly was possible for anyone—even people like Luca and Aesop, still figuring out how to navigate the world around them.

He stood in front of Luca’s door again, hesitant. Gathering from the sounds of someone messing with objects inside and the occasional frustrated grunt, he was obviously there, but Aesop fought with himself. He could just leave and never have to deal with it. It would be so, so easy to walk away and hole himself up in his room again like he was used to doing, but his feet wouldn’t move no matter how much he willed them to, cemented to the rug underneath.

Now or never, he supposed. Aesop took a deep, calming breath before knocking on his door. A moment of silence followed, then the sound of footsteps, and not a moment later the door had opened with none other than Luca behind it. He smiled, and Aesop thought he would have a heart attack.

“Hey,” the prisoner greeted him. “Wanna come in?”

“Y-yes.” Why was he suddenly so awful at this? It felt like there was a frog in his throat. “I hope I am not interrupting anything. You sounded busy.”

“It’s fine, I’ve got time. Here.” He opened the door further and stepped aside, allowing Aesop to come in. Usually, the guests had belongings of their own scattered about their room, but the embalmer noticed his was rather plain. A contraption he couldn’t recognize was perched on the desk, wires strewn about. It seemed dangerous, so Aesop elected to sit down on his bed. What he didn’t expect was for Luca to follow suit, seated right next to him.

“So what brings you here?”

He froze up for a second. In all his worrying, he hadn’t thought of a reason why. “Er… n-nothing, I suppose. Just wanted to talk.”

“Oh, cool!” Luca grinned, and he felt strangely unwell again. “Well, before you came in, I was working on…”

The words had been drowned out. Aesop’s gaze trailed down to his lips as he spoke. There was a small red scab where his snaggletooth caught on his bottom lip, but they otherwise looked so soft and full of life. His hands shook. He felt like he was moments away from doing something dangerous, something he couldn’t possibly come back from.

He felt bad about it, of course. Luca was talking about his passions, and he nodded along as best he could, but he simply couldn’t focus. A strange, budding urge kept nagging at him in the back of his mind, one that became harder to ignore with each passing second.

“...so I still have a lot more work to do and it’s just a side project, but I think people might find it interesting.” Luca paused, looking at him. “Aesop? Earth to Aesop?”

He wasn’t sure what possessed him to act next.

In the blink of an eye, he had pulled down his mask and locked lips with his. The kiss was short, yet it felt like it lasted for a lifetime. Aesop pulled back before he could give Luca any time to reciprocate, covering his own mouth with a trembling hand. The prisoner seemed confused, but his face was red. He didn’t know if it was good or bad.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

Overwhelmed, Aesop shook his head and bolted out of the room. He could faintly hear Luca calling after him, asking him to wait, but the adrenaline coursing through his veins only spurred his legs to take him further away, to his room on the farther end of the halls, and he wasted no time in locking himself in, back sliding against the door as he caught his breath.

What had he just done? In one fell swoop, he had surely ruined all the progress he had made with Luca. His eyes squeezed shut as he trembled, uncertain and afraid, gnawing on the inside of his cheek so hard he feared he may bite a chunk completely off.

Aesop spent the next while calming himself down in the safety of his room. Here, the silence felt comfortable again. Being alone was like a comfort blanket, soothing his fears and worries and making everything okay; deep down, of course, it wasn’t, but he could at least pretend for now.

He didn’t come out for the rest of the day. He thought he heard someone walk up to his door and stop there, but he heard no knocking nor a voice—just the sound of them walking away after a moment.

How could he possibly live this down?

It felt a bit better over time. Vera had visited him with food and consoled him, ever the supportive friend. (He supposed he could call her that, since her company was quite soothing.) He felt comfortable enough to leave his room after a couple of days, but still made a very conscious effort to avoid Luca.

The manor was big and bustling with inhabitants, but it didn’t mean that he would never cross paths with him. They had been awkward teammates in a few matches with them, the others clearly uncomfortable with how thick the air of tension around them was. Neither man looked at nor spoke to each other.

It occurred to him at some point that he may have been acting a bit ridiculous. Now that he’d decided to entangle himself in a living man’s affair, he couldn’t get himself out, and waiting it out could possibly do more harm than good. He’d have to wise up and visit Luca, one more time, and make an effort to clear the air. Maybe this would lift the burden of his frightening, uncertain feelings.

He stood once more in front of his door, hands clasped together in an attempt to quell their trembling as he took deep breaths. Luca was a well-meaning and understanding person. This he knew as much, and he hoped that meant this encounter would go well.

A gentle tap of his knuckles was all it took. For a moment, he thought it was perhaps too quiet to get his attention, but the door opened when he raised his fist again. Luca and Aesop were face-to-face once more.

“...Hi.” Aesop spoke cautiously. “May I come in?”

Luca seemed surprised to see him there, but nodded quickly. “Uh… sure, sure! Go right ahead.”

The embalmer was in his room once again, this time electing to sit on the desk chair. Luca hovered awkwardly near him for a moment, unsure what to do with himself, then sat down on the bed.

“I, um…” Wow. There was no easy way to address what was on his mind. “How have you been?”

“Fine, actually.” A nervous laugh rose from Luca’s throat as he rubbed the back of his neck. “I’ve been winning a lot recently, which is cool… you?”

“I’ve been alright as well. Most games have been so-so.”

“I bet. Your ability looks pretty tough to control.”

“In some cases, it can be a bit of a feat, but you learn how to manage.”

“Right, right…”

A nod or two, and they lapsed into silence again. He could only hold off the elephant in the room for so long. Aesop’s hands gripped his knees, steeling himself for what was about to come up. “So… about that last day we spoke.”

Luca’s disposition changed, his face turning a couple shades pinker. He didn’t reply, waiting on the taller man to continue.

“I’m not experienced with… talking to others. Forming relationships. I find companionship with the departed much easier than the living… they cannot judge you or try to take advantage of you.” He swallowed back the knot in his throat. “They are simply at rest. Peaceful. It’s the bliss of company in solitude.”

“I think I get it,” Luca pitched in. “I mean… well… being around dead people makes me uncomfortable, honestly, but… I don’t blame you. I like people, but…”

Aesop’s eyebrow quirked. Did Luca have his own baggage? It seemed everyone at the manor had their crosses to bear, but the thought of anything bad happening to him was strange. Even someone so unconditionally nice and trusting… no, perhaps it was because he was…

“I don’t… I don’t feel like I can read them,” he admitted. “Whether they’re really nice or just using me, they always hide their motives. That’s why I need that money grant. If I can use it to complete my greatest invention, no one’ll see me as a stepping stone anymore, right…?”

The embalmer was silent for a moment. Vera’s hunch ended up being right after all—they did have more in common than he previously thought. Luca, too, had become an outcast of society, but merely chose a different path. He was bound to shine in the light of the sun, while Aesop basked in the quiet glow of moonlight.

From where he was standing, sunshine had never looked so sweeter.

“...It seems like we have both collected countless wounds from those around us,” Aesop said quietly. “I’m not very familiar with… the rituals of the living. I can hardly keep up with their trends. I’m not even quite sure what I’m feeling now, but… being near you makes me want to try a little. To actually build relationships, perhaps.”

Luca’s shoulders tensed, though he didn’t appear appalled or disgusted. By the way his hands shook in his lap, he must have been nervous. That emotion, at least, he understood all too well.

“So… so that kiss,” the prisoner hesitated.

“It was unplanned, and I’m sorry. I’m not sure what came over me,” he admitted. “It felt right, but I shouldn’t have.”

Luca gulped. “You wanted to?”

“I believe so. Yes.”

“I…”

The prisoner took in a deep breath, his shaking more noticeable now. There was a different kind of tension between them, something new—still a bit frightening, but perhaps not so terrible. Aesop stood hesitantly, earning the occasional glance from Luca as though questioning what he was doing. When he moved closer, he noticed he didn’t move away. He took his place on the edge of the bed next to him, knees brushing against each other, and he could have sworn he could feel the sheer heat of embarrassment rolling off Luca’s body like waves.

“I like you,” Luca finally spoke up, voice choked. “I like you a lot. Even when you were trying to keep your distance from me… you were at least honest about it. I can’t… I can’t say what it is I feel, either, but I know that much. And that… I want to get to know you better.”

The tables had turned with Aesop feeling tense with anticipation. “That feeling,” he started. “Of wanting to be close to someone, but feeling nervous and shy when they’re around… is that what it is to like someone?”

“I’m not sure. I think so. It’s how I’ve been feeling around you.”

“Then… then we like each other.”

“Seems so.”

They fell silent again. Aesop wet his lips, and he noticed the two of them were locked in a very meaningful gaze for the first time. Luca was the one to break the silence, though his voice came out barely above a whisper.

“Could we… hold hands? If that’s okay?”

“Yes.” The embalmer nodded, a bit more intense than he was intending to. “Yes, I think I’d like that.”

Their fingers brushed together until they found each other’s hand, and their gloved digits laced together. Luca’s glove was thick compared to his thin medical ones, but they didn’t betray the warmth he felt inside. Aesop gave it a gentle squeeze, and though he wasn’t quite sure why, he felt happy. Happy. This was a warm, pleasant moment, and he was allowed to relish in it.

“So, we’re like boyfriends now, right?”

“B-boyfriends—“ Aesop sputtered as his face grew hot, caught off guard. “It’s, um, a bit too early for that, I think, but… eventually. That would be nice. Let’s take it slow for now.”

What would happen from now on? Aesop wasn’t sure. For the near future, they would simply keep on with their game, endlessly living and trying to outwit hunters. Now, however, a small, electrical spark of light would brighten his days.

Aesop ultimately decided he was happy like this, too.

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