She giggles and Isa is sure it’s the first time he has heard her make such a happy sound. Not that he blames her. He wouldn’t want to laugh either, in her situation.
“I know your secret,” she whispers, and it sounds almost playful. Something Isa can’t understand with all the stuck-in-a-cage situation.
“What are you talking about?” Maybe the girl finally lost her mind. Isa approaches the cage with caution, not wanting to be heard. Lea is on the other side of the room, making sure no one comes. It doesn’t matter how silent they think they are, their footsteps always echo with terrifying clarity, like the walls could crumble with the mere sounds of their breathing because of how silent everything is. It makes the screams even more vivid when the quietness is brutally broken.
And yet they keep coming to the castle. Isa and Lea know nothing will ever be the same, not after learning the truth, but they can’t go back now. They don’t talk about it, never say it out loud, but they both know.
Somehow they manage to continue with their lives, Lea talks to the girl the same way he does to strangers in the streets, and Isa can’t do anything besides follow him and think about the next step. If Lea wanted to overthrow Ansem’s government, well, Isa would make an army for him.
The girl whispers again, interrupting his train of thought about becoming a general out of nothing just because Lea could want it. Maybe it’s becoming obvious like that.
“I’m talking about your friend.” Isa freezes, knowing exactly what she is talking about. Even from there, with their faces hidden by the shadows, she noticed it. And if she can’t see the way Isa looks at Lea, how did she know? The tone of his voice? The brief pauses between words so he can adjust his heart on his chest? How the air between them seems lighter even in that damned place?
“Your silence is an answer,” she murmurs, her face close to his to make sure no one hears them. Especially not Lea.
“You are not making any sense.” But suddenly his tone drops, a familiar itching inside his chest. It’s like having a migraine in his heart, does that even make sense? No, of course not. Love doesn’t make sense, even less with Lea, Isa thinks.
“You are in love,” the girl says and Isa feels the urgent need to run out of the castle, and probably, of the town. Directly into the ocean.
“Excuse me?” Isa tries to sound offended but suddenly he is short of breath and there is a hint of terror in his voice, so he has to add. “It seems the experiments are finally affecting your head.”
“That’s cruel,” she answers with a trace of a smile. “So I’m right.”
And what can Isa say? Yes, yes. I love him. I don’t know for how long, it’s almost as if the damn feeling has always been there, every time I look at him I feel like I’m going to be young forever, that he is right and maybe we are both immortal. I love him and when the sun melts in the afternoon it makes him look ablaze and I feel like I’m going to immolate because oh god I’m too close, Lea don’t move you are burning and the summer is going to last forever. I love him and when Lea says my name with a smile it’s like breathing fresh air for the first time. Of course, I love him, how is it that the entire world isn’t in love with him? It would kill me but it would make sense.
What could Isa say? Could anyone blame him for not saying I love him so much I think someday someone is going to die for it?
Isa denies it with the conviction of a man trapped by justice, with his back against the wall and the sword to close to his heart. But Isa never knew how to lie and the girl isn’t fooled even without seeing the way Isa bites his lips or lowers his head when he is lying.
“I think I can hear something! Isa, let’s move.” Lea’s voice clear as the sunlight interrupts them, his words echoing on the cold walls. His warning sounds sharp but then there is an undoubted warmth within his words when he says goodbye to the girl.
“We are totally coming back tomorrow, and soon we will have a plan. Don’t miss us too much, okay?”
It always cheers her up. Lea’s words and smile could lift the spirit of an entire army, wounded and defeated. They run side by side to the exit and Isa catches himself wishing to be the one stuck in a cage, just to have those words to himself.
That should have been enough warning.
Isa lies on his bed listening to music he doesn’t even like that much but thinks is fitting. It’s a song about leaving town with the one you love, never looking back. The synth makes him think about neon lights he has never seen because in Radiant Garden everything is clear and good. When it’s dark the lanterns light the way home and you wouldn’t ever think that those scary stories about the castle are anything more than an excuse to make life a little more exciting.
People are happy, that’s why they never hear the screams. They want to keep being happy, no matter what the cost is.
The next song is darker and Isa thinks about Lea. He could never ignore a good adventure, a story to tell everyone later just to be remembered. Less could he ignore someone in need of help. It didn’t matter if the price was knowing too much. And there is no way of being happy while knowing.
Isa sighs and thinks about the girl’s words. Of course, he loves him, how couldn’t he? Things are about to change, he is sure of it, and the uncertainty anchors itself to his chest like something close to fear. Isa doesn’t know what is going to happen next, but there is a truth in the middle of everything; Isa is in love with Lea. Knowing it gives him something certain, real. Because that’s something that won’t ever change. It makes him braver.
If Lea wants an army, he thinks, then I will be a general and make war. If Lea wants to free her, then I will tear down the castle. And if he wants to be happy after all of it, then I have to make sure everything works out.
That’s when he starts making his plan. He gets up to write some ideas in his notebook. His desk faces the window (the old tree just tall enough for Lea to climb--) and the pale moonlight illuminates his profile against the dark.
Isa starts planning and scheduling but he keeps listening to love songs.
One time they had to read a certain book for their literature class. It was a story about love but in that story, the one in love murdered their beloved in cold blood. Tragic and darker than what they usually read - most of their books were about magic and hope. This one was about love, which was usually a topic related to good things, pure and clear like the water from the town’s fountains. But not all love was good, the teacher said.
Lea was curious, he never put much effort into the lessons but this caught his attention. He couldn’t understand why someone would harm a person they love. Isa shrugged, feigning disinterest in the topic when the truth was he devoured the book in one night.
“He was just a madman, Lea.”
“I don’t think that’s the point. I mean, he loved her. It’s all over the book. He really did.”
“Maybe there are people who don’t know how to love.”
Lea frowned, considering the idea. Isa became distant. How does one learn how to love? He felt his heart grow heavier, his footsteps seeming to weigh much more. He sat at his place beside Lea, waiting for the class to start and hoping the hollow sound of his heartbeat wasn’t as loud as he thought, because it would be impossible for Lea to ignore the noise from his chest once the class fell silent.
“I don’t know…” Lea whispered. “Is there a correct way to love?”
“Not hurting the person you love, for example,” Isa answered almost automatically because he knew . The teacher gave them a warning glare to keep them quiet (almost impossible, most of the time) and started the class.
Their classmates wanted to talk about the book. Some kids found it creepy, others romantic. Isa’s disinterest wasn’t really convincing, and his focus moved between the teacher’s words and Lea’s reactions.
“What about you?” Isa muttered after a while. “What’s your choice, romantic or creepy?”
“It was sad.” Lea was weirdly serious about it for a second, his eyes half-closed looking at nothing in particular. Isa thought he looked beautiful. After a while he dropped the somber expression and just sighed, throwing his weight at the back of the chair, the arms crossed behind his head. “I don’t know, why are we reading something so depressing? It should be banned.”
Isa shook his head with a hidden smile. “I guess we are supposed to learn something from this.”
Of course, Lea would think that someone who doesn’t know how to love to the extreme of killing someone was sad. It was an alien idea, something that is written because death seems poetic, maybe because of its remoteness. There weren’t dark castles or screams in the night back then. It was all just fiction, something to entertain themselves with. Lea made everything look as if death was impossible.
And then the teacher talked about the quality of one's love. Because the murderer did love her, but it didn’t mean his love was good. And we should aspire to love the best we can, the teacher said. Because his love was toxic, poisonous like the feelings of jealousy that flowed through his veins when he thought she loved another. And by the end, he was all alone.
Those words struck Isa so violently he thought something had hit him on the chest. But the classroom was silent and no one moved for a few seconds, a miracle in a room full of children. The teacher’s words made him ignore the fact that they were talking about a crime, someone died because the character was too selfish, too poisonous.
You can explore those feelings in fiction , the teacher answered. That’s what books are for.
Isa started reading a bit more after that, his usual lectures were reduced to science and a bit of terror. And yet there were books asking the same questions as him:
Is the quality of this love good enough?
Or will it kill someone, someday? Could it kill him?
How does one measure quality rather than quantity?
Back then Isa knew the quantity of his love was immense. He could feel it in his bones, the weight of his feelings was bigger than his soul. It wasn’t something he was proud of, because Lea was his best friend and sometimes when the sun was at the correct angle setting ablaze his hair and making his eyes bright with such intensity like he was on fire -- sometimes, Lea made the world into a movie and Isa felt like a viewer caught in awe. Those times when the air in his lungs felt solid, love was ridiculous because they were just talking and suddenly the world was on fire and Isa has lost track of the conversation.
Love was inconvenient because they spent most of the time together and Isa was a bad liar. Yet it was real. Love was something Isa was sure of.
But how do you know that love is good and that it will remain good?
When they were little, Lea cried with almost everything. When he was mad his terrible green eyes would look like crystals after a pouring rain, his checks a strong pink too close to the color of his hair, lips trembling with indignation. That made him a lot less intimidating and easy to make fun of. That’s when Isa appeared from nowhere and stood between him and the poor bastard that had made Lea cry this time.
No one expected the kid who spent all his day reading about constellations to punch that hard.
When the tears were of pure sadness it was harder to deal with, mostly because violence wouldn’t solve it. But Isa was a quick learner and by the time they were best friends, he knew Lea just needed a smile and a hand on his own. Isa smiled a bit, teasing him with a light joke but wiping the tears carefully. You need a lucky charm , he said, to stop crying. We’ll think about something later.
It was good love, wasn’t it?
But there were times when Isa couldn’t control the intensity of what he felt. And sometimes, it took the form of cold inexplicable rage. Lea would talk with some friends, normal. Make plans to hang out with them some Friday night and Isa would refuse because there is a big test on Monday, Lea. You shouldn’t go out, I could help you with the lecture-- An inference Lea didn’t get. Stay with me instead, we can study or we can do something else. It’s always like you want. Choose me, every time. Choose me.
But Lea didn’t understand those weird moods of Isa’s, so he would go out and have a fun time. Not so fun because Isa wasn’t with him and everything was always better with his best friend around. And yet for Isa, the only part that mattered was that Lea had fun without him and it could happen again and it could happen forever. He was angry all weekend and stayed angry even when he scored the best grade in the test, and Lea’s was much lower.
“Does it matter? I won’t remember the grade in a few years, but I will remember a remarkable night, Isa. That’s what all is about, creating good memories.”
“Of course it matters,” Isa answered, exasperated. “More than you think.”
Lea didn’t understand but promised to show him. To make good memories with him because those were the best and suddenly Isa wasn’t so angry anymore.
Was that kind of love good?
They used to play with a dog. Neither of them could keep him so they made the pup a house from some old wood Merlin gave them after Lea bothered him one entire morning. They didn’t know anything about carpentry but Isa borrowed a book and by following instructions he built a fairly decent dog-house. He liked the dog, but even more than that, he liked Lea’s smile when he knew the dog wouldn’t be cold at night.
Isa made the house more for Lea than for the pup. Does that count as good or bad quality love?
Did it matter in the end?
“You are not going to tell him?” The girl speaks with cheerful clarity. It’s Lea’s turn to guard and that means another round of questions for Isa. Great.
“Why are we back on this subject?” He sits on the cold floor, leg crossed and a book on top of them (Are you really going to study for a test inside the castle, Isa? What am I going to do with you?)
“Because Lea told you to be nice to me.”
“I can be nice by talking about something else.”
“... You haven’t denied anything, you know?”
Isa growls and finally accepts defeat. Let the girl trapped in the cage know his most obscure and deep secret, whatever.
“If you tell him…”
“Threatening me isn’t very nice.” But she laughs and Isa laughs a little too because it’s ridiculous. She is already trapped in a cage inside a creepy castle with laboratories and unethical science. What can he do if she tells Lea?
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell him. That’s something he should hear from you.”
Isa looks down at his book without reading it. He has never thought about saying a thing, why should he? Everything is fine like that. Everything could go like this forever except for the part where it won’t because the foundation of their town is built atop of torture and human experiments. But things could have gone like this forever.
“So you really don’t plan to tell him.”
“Why should I? Things are fine like this.”
“Because everyone should know they are loved.” There is a hint of sadness in her voice, the traces of a life she can’t remember, the love of people whose faces she can’t figure out.
“He knows I love him,” Isa answers, looking up from his book. He gives Lea a glance, his profile darkened by the shadows of the laboratory, and yet he is bright against the cold walls of the corridor. “He just doesn’t know I’m in love with him,” he adds, realizing just seconds after that it’s the first time he says it out loud, so he whispers it to himself again. “ I’m in love with him .”
The girl smiles and reaches for Isa’s hand with the tip of her fingertips between the bars.
“Love is never a bad thing,” she murmurs. Isa remembers that class about love and murder and quality, it seems like an entire lifetime ago. She notices his doubts and repeats. “Love can’t be a bad thing."
“You two are really bonding, huh,” Lea says one day when they are already outside the castle. It was an early morning excursion, the only reason for Lea to wake up that early. They eat ice cream in the plaza and Isa notices it’s almost a routine by now. To sneak into the castle and contemplate the horrible truth behind the glory of the town. And then go to eat ice cream.
“What are you talking about?” Isa looks at him searching for a hint of something else, jealousy maybe. It’s stupid and desperate but the idea makes his heart flutter.
“It’s like with the puppy. You’re always more reluctant at first, saying it’s my idea to pick up stray puppies. But by the end, you’re the one who gets most attached.”
Lea grins like he is not saying the whole truth. Isa has to close his eyes, take a breath and look aside.
“You are talking nonsense, which isn’t something new so I will just ignore you.”
“I know your secret, Isa.” Lea throws an arm around Isa’s shoulders and he could panic but knows Lea better than that. Isa just sighs and wonders what stupid theory that weird brain of his conjured now.
“You like her!”
… Oh. Oh, goddess. For the moon and the stars, for everything that there is up in the sky, how can someone be so dumb? Isa doesn’t even feel indignant, or angry. Just resigned and annoyed.
“I talk to one person who isn't you and you think I like them? That’s your reasoning?”
“Well… That’s the thing, you don’t talk to other people, do you?”
I wonder why . Isa looks directly at him. His frown is a bit scary but Lea is used to it. “She is trapped inside a cage. You expect me to ignore her? I don’t like people but I’m not a beast. And besides, you were the one who told me to be nice.”
“Okay, yeah. You have a point -- I didn’t mean… I don’t think you’re a beast. You are the best, Isa. You know that.”
“Of course I know it, your point?”
Lea smiles again but this time is tender, warmer. It’s all the summers of the world, all the mugs of hot chocolate on a rainy afternoon. All the cozy blankets with star patterns, Isa’s favorite. Isa starts thinking – again - how to tear down the castle and Ansem with it.
“I think I’m a bit jealous, that’s all. You two always seem to be whispering some cool secret I don’t know.”
Isa laughs and his laughter is clear as the river flows, it isn’t warm like Lea’s but instead is fresh, and nice. It’s something only Lea knows and it takes him by surprise.
“I’m just talking about you,” he says sincerely.
Lea doesn’t ask more questions. He buys the next round of ice creams.
She is gone, gone, gone and Lea is desperate. The first day could have been a coincidence, just bad timing. They could have taken her for some more experiments (like a lab rat --). The third day could have been relocation. Lea started to worry and Isa told him to not panic, it only required a bigger search inside the castle, he said.
It’s the second week and Isa is certain about it. She is gone. There is no way to console Lea, whose tears are a mix of sadness, frustration, and fear.
“What if something happened to her, Isa? Something bad…” He clenches his fist around the fabric of Isa’s jacket, his head low as if Isa hasn’t seen him cry before, pink and flustered when they were kids and his eyes got all wet with every small thing. The truth is that it was never like this, it was never this serious.
“Nothing like that happened, Lea.” He doesn’t say the word death , too heavy on his tongue. Too real. But Isa believes it's something he can’t be sure of, something he can’t promise. He says it’s anyway. “She is somewhere out there, maybe she escaped or maybe they took her to another location.”
“We were going to free her, Isa. We were so close!” Lea presses his forehead against Isa’s chest and Isa knows it isn’t the time to feel his skin warm with the contact but the sensation lingers there anyway. He must be really a bad person.
“I know.” A pause, his finger running through Lea’s hair. “But there are still things we can do.”
“Isa…?” Lea looks up to him, the light in his eyes twinkling like the stars in the sky. And he looks hopeful because if there is anyone who could do something, that person is Isa.
“I have a plan. Do you trust me?”
“With my life.” It sounds too serious for a sixteen-year-old, too much about life and death, something they shouldn’t know because just a few months ago they were immortal and Lea’s smile meant that summer was endless. But now Isa knows this is something bigger than them, bigger than the girl trapped inside a jail who knew his most precious secret. It’s about the town and the people and all the rumors of children disappearing. It is indeed about life and death, and it could have been any other children but it’s them now. It’s going to always be them.
“Shouldn’t we tell someone?” Lea says later, a bit more collected with Isa’s hand on his back. He hasn’t moved it from there since they came out from the castle.
“An adult? No, they won’t believe us. They’ll take it as some kind of joke and end up alerting the scientist who would enforce security.”
“You are right.” Lea sighs, the frustration still in his body. He leans a bit against Isa, looking for support and Isa is still as an ancient tree as he holds him. “I hate them, all of them. Those scientists, the guards, everyone.”
Isa agrees, of course he does. But Lea should never hate, never be this frustrated, this sad, this angry. It makes him even more furious. It makes him want to kiss away the sadness, make him forget what they saw and--
“Don’t let it cloud your mind, Lea. You are better than them,” he says instead. “Besides, people know the rumors. They choose to do nothing.”
“I wonder if she is scared… because I am,” Lea adds and Isa is decided, they are all going down for this. For everything. It’s the conviction of sixteen-year-old in love and there are little things more powerful than that. A heart like that could survive everything.
“We can’t keep sneaking into the castle like this. We have to tear this down from the inside. Discover what happened to her and what is this all about.”
Lea becomes quieter, paying complete attention to Isa’s words as if they were the only thing that makes sense in a world that makes children disappear.
“We are going to talk with Ansem, tell him what we know. He won’t have any other choice that makes us his apprentices.”
Isa lies on his bed and the synth of the same old song seems to come from far, far away. There is no turning back now, he knows it. Things are only going to go forward and he isn’t sure if that’s a good thing. Too fast, and they will be no longer be children.
And between all the chaos and hurt, when there is a girl trapped in a cage without memories or a name, heavily implying that she is not the only one. For the experiments to keep happening below the cautious eye of the person who is supposed to protect this place – In the middle of all of it, Isa wonders: Should I tell him now ?
He has made his peace with being a selfish human being. So it doesn’t surprise him that that’s one of the thoughts occupying his mind.
Isa rolls back on his bed, incapable of sleeping. The earplugs pumping music about love and moving on, the bass of the song is almost as strong as the beat of his heart. It’s ridiculous to be sixteen and in love, while the world around you sustains itself with lies and human lab rats.
He wishes he could see Lea right now. But they agreed to meet tomorrow morning, first hour, to go in front of Ansem. There is no way things are going to be normal again, no more carefree eating ice cream by the fountains, or playing with weird kids and their swords made of wood. No more endless summer.
Isa wonders, of all that it is, what will stay the same. Would it be the laughter, the light in Lea’s eyes? The love, maybe?
It’s the last thing he is going to try before going forward with everything he has. He closes his eyes firmly until the lights don’t come through his eyelids anymore, replaced by a halo of colors and dots. With his eyes like that he asks: Please, let me go back to the start. Give me five more minutes of the fountain, and the ice cream. Of Lea’s laugh.
When he opens his eyes, nothing happens. The music, the ceiling, and the life outside his window are still there.
Does Lea know what they are doing? Yes of course he does. Isa turns up the volume of the mp3, the song almost inside his skull. Lea knows and he is scared but won’t take a step back because he does that, he gives and gives without asking anything back.
Isa can’t tell him. Can’t say he loves him. It’s the only unselfish promise he can keep. He punched a lot of kids in the face for making Lea cry and Isa wonders if all of this isn’t just an adolescent version of it. Of proving his love to the world.
But he has a plan. Isa gets up, calmer but lucid, too awake for staying in bed a minute more. There is a certainty that anchors him to the ground and pushes him forward:
They would have to rip out his heart to make him stop loving Lea.
If Saïx were capable of feeling anything, he would say he likes the sight from the tall windows of the Grey Room. He can’t feel, so it doesn’t strike him as something he likes, it’s more as something he remembers liking.
Nights Isa spent awake looking through his window, the one that had that tall tree Lea would climb to visit him. From there he saw the moon, it’s light pale, quiet, not blinding as the one from the sun.
He is waiting for the others to arrive from a mission, the clipboard on his hands indicating the objectives they should have achieved by now. Axel’s page is the first one, too much detail in that one. He gets bored easily so Saïx sends him out to do something, to keep moving so nobody suspects. Their plan still in action, almost ten years later.
The room remains silent. Saïx doesn’t really care.
Axel wanted to give up at some point, Isa we don’t even have hearts. We have more to search now, this was the opposite of making progress, Radiant Garden doesn't even exist anymore! And you still think things are going your way? Don’t make me laugh.
We can’t laugh. You said it, we don’t have hearts to do it.
Axel gave him an exasperated look and walked outside the room. Some days It was impossible to talk with him. But the next day he came back with the results of everything Isa (still Isa for him) ordered and two ice creams.
Axel wanted to give up, Saïx remembers with infuriating clarity. He keeps following his orders and Saïx wonders if he does it just out of habit. Because it was something Isa and Lea used to do.
There is no more Isa and Lea anyway, Saïx thinks. He knows he should feel something about it, but there is nothing.
He remembers rage and jealousy when Larxene flirts with Axel in the middle of the room without a hint of shame. But he never remembers the good things. Saïx knows he should feel something strong and mesmerizing when Axel smiles, but the absence of it makes a hole in his chest, like an amputated extremity. He never asks how it is for Axel, but thinks it might be even worse. Because Isa was in love with Lea, but Lea was in love with the world.
The faint crackle of darkness when a portal opens alerts him of someone’s arrival. He doesn’t have to turn to know it’s Axel. He always arrives first so they can have a couple of minutes alone.
Saïx wonders why Axel always does that.
There are more orders to follow and Axel waits with arms crossed, ready for action. Somewhere out there is a girl who knew Isa loved Lea, the only living proof Saïx used to have a heart.
And maybe, if they get her back, things will be like before again. It’s their last remaining piece of wishful thinking.