VIII. Valley of Rain

River watched the rain from the entrance of the carved out space. He sat with his legs curled inward, up against his chest. His gaze was empty and the small space filled with unease. Niko watched him from deeper inside the space while he ate. He crawled over to where River was and tapped him on the shoulder. "What's wrong? Is the rain bothering you?" River shook his head. Thirteen hours remained before Niko would finally reach the mountain path, and much of that would be spent sleeping. He was nearly out of time. The two of them spent their last night in the Valley of Rain inside one of the carved out shelters inside the massive trees, having settled on one with a decently high up entrance. The opening was located a few feet in the air, as all of them were, but this one was around a half foot higher up than the ones in neighboring trees. Niko assumed the spaces were designed like this due to the constant rain. Since they decided to rest there for the night, River hadn't moved from at the edge of the opening, watching the sky drench the land. River kept his distance from Niko over the week long trek through the forest that lined the outer part of the valley. With every hour that passed, Niko felt the gulf between them growing deeper. Niko watched the rain with River for a while. He needed to make his decision soon, but he was too nervous to say it. Unable to say what he wanted, he pushed for something he was more comfortable with maneuvering, in hopes it would help him open up. Niko slipped his hand over River's. River allowed it. Niko leaned against River. He whispered. "Why don't you come in further? You'll get wet if you stay here. It's about time we rest for the night." River nodded and crawled over to the inner part of the space. He got under their blanket. Niko joined him underneath. "River, I..." Niko couldn't find the courage to say it. River locked eyes with him. He cuddled close. In his eyes, Niko saw something new. Niko wrapped his arms around River's waist to test what he thought he saw. River slid his hand down Niko's chest and down below his waist. Niko let his hands slip from River's waist to further down. He went in for a kiss. River wrapped one arm around Niko's neck as they kissed. Niko wondered what this meant. Was River telling him he wanted to stay with him? Or was this a last request before parting ways? He was too afraid to ask. River pulled down the front of Niko's pants. He took Niko into his hand. Niko took that as a sign he could go further than before. Niko pulled away and undressed himself completely. River tossed his clothes aside. He got on top of Niko, giving him a deep kiss. Niko put his hands on River's hips while they kissed. The weight of River's body was getting to him. He interrupted River. "Wait...could we change positions? You're a lot heavier than me." River got off of him. He rolled over onto his back and tugged at Niko's wrist. Niko got on top of River. River wasted no time in getting inside him. His movements were full of desperation. Niko was far more experienced than River at this. He couldn't shake the nervousness turning inside his stomach. The first time he did this with anyone, his body was overcome with a similar anxious excitement. He was embarrassed with himself for being like this with River. Niko wanted to impress him, but it was River who took the lead. 'What are you thinking about?' Niko thought. He hid away his voice. Out here at night, he didn't want to give anything a reason to notice them. That was the reason he told himself he was keeping quiet. That was only half of the truth. He was too embarrassed to let River hear his voice when he was like that. He didn't know why. Niko had let plenty of people hear that. The only other person who made him feel that way was the prince. When Nyx touched him, he had to work himself up to being open like that. It wasn't only that one time, that first night. He was always like that whenever he got Nyx alone at a party. There, alone with River in that dark, stormy place, he finally understood why. Three words. There were three words he wanted to tell River, but he couldn't manage to say a single one. In the dark, they were one. They held one another all through the night, falling asleep holding tight to each another. The thin blanket on top of them barely gave them any warmth. It was enough, Niko thought. All the warmth he needed was right there beside him. Dawn came too quickly. Niko found River sitting in the same place by the entrance when he woke. "Good morning, River." He said. River did not respond to him. He only watched the sky. They would be at the base of the mountain soon, where the elevator to the Sky Kingdom was. They didn't stay long inside the tree before setting out again. Time slipped away from him. Before he knew it, they were nearly there. His time was up. Niko stopped and turned to River. 'Say it. Just say it.' He took a deep breath. "The Sky Kingdom is at the top of the mountain. I'm almost home. Thank you for everything. I suppose this is...where we part ways..." River stared at him blankly. 'No, not this. This isn't what I want. Stop me.' Niko couldn't muster the courage to say it. "Will you be alright by yourself?" River did not react. He only stared at him. "I'll be going now...Goodbye, River." Niko said. He waited for a moment for River to respond. He wanted River to stop him, beg him to let him go with him or stay where they were--anything. River turned away from him and walked out of the forest. In the center of Niko's chest, something stung deeply. It was a pain he hadn't experienced in a long time. The last and only time he ever felt like this was on the day of his grandmother's funeral, when he hid himself away in shame and grief. Niko walked towards the mountain. His heart pounded with each step he took. 'What am I doing?' He thought to himself. Niko took a deep breath and ran back. 'Please, please, don't be far.' Niko looked everywhere as he ran. He found River out in the center of the valley, near the winding river that cut through it. He ran faster to reach him. "River, wait!" Niko called out. River looked back at him. Niko caught up with him quickly. He took a moment to catch his breath. "You know, humans are forbidden from entering...except when they're guests. If you're my guest, it should be alright for you to come with me." Niko blurted out without giving his words much thought. Realizing his selfishness, he added. "That is...if you want to." River's eyes watered. He smiled and nodded his head before rushing into a hug. He held onto Niko so tightly it was a little painful for Niko, but Niko didn't say anything. River noticed and pulled away, embarrassed. Niko took hold of River's hands. He was afraid to let go of them. They gazed into each other's eyes. Niko's face flushed. He fumbled through his words. "I've been thinking...I don't know what I'm going to do after this yet, but I...I'm sorry for leaving you earlier. I thought it would be for the best, but...I can't...I don't want to say goodbye to you." River smiled. "What I mean to say is...I want to...I want us to stay together." Niko's heartbeat rang in his ears. His hands shook as he worked up the courage to say three words he had never said to anyone. "I love you." River blushed. He hugged Niko again. "Do you want to stay with me?" Niko asked. River nodded and rested his head against Niko's shoulder. 'I can't believe I'm doing this. I might as well be human now.' Niko laughed at himself. Right then, he could finally admit to himself this was exactly what he had always wanted. When he lived high above that mountain, he wasn't allowed to voice it, and so he convinced himself these wants didn't exist within him. With his confession, Niko cast aside the last illusion that haunted his heart. He whispered to River. "I don't know if it's right of me, but I...want to try things your way. I want to be your lover. Do you want me?" River looked up at him. He grabbed hold of Niko's shirt and pulled him into a passionate kiss. Niko was stunned by the move, and excited. He laughed. "I take it that means yes?" River nodded at him, a big grin on his face. He hugged Niko again. Niko looked up at the sky. The rain stopped where they were, a rare and brief occurrence. Niko's happiness faded when he remembered what was coming next. He glanced back at the mountain. "It's's time for me to face everyone up there again." Niko said. "I won't let him get away with this." Niko walked with River, hand in hand, through the valley and the forest to the base of the mountain. Niko had never been there before, but he knew the basics of how it worked. He needed to find the guards who worked the elevator. If he had his wings, he could technically fly up there himself, but that distance was exhausting for most. The elevator was installed for the convenience of those who wished to travel. The location was easy enough to find. There were several signs leading to it. They followed them until they reached the guards. Two women with black wings wearing light armor guarded the elevator. Niko bowed to them. "Excuse me. I wish to use the elevator. I may not look like it, but I was born up there. I lost my wings." Niko said. The taller woman pointed a spear at him. "Give me proof." Niko exposed the top half of his body to show the guards the scars on his back. "This is my proof." "Then you have been judged and exiled. We have no reason to let you return." The other guard said. "That is not the law. I am entitled to thirty days to schedule a retrial." Niko expected this would happen. His lack of wings completely erased the status he once had from his mother's bloodline. "I can name you the article and we can read it together, if you need to be refreshed on the law." The taller guard scoffed at him. "I know the damn law. You may pass on. I look forward to watching them toss your body back off the mountain when you lose your retrial." Niko kept the words he wanted to say to her inside. He walked toward the elevator with River. The other guard stopped River. "Not this one. He's human, isn't it?" She poked at him with her spear. River backed away from her. "He is my guest." Niko said. "I may be exiled, but we have always been allowed to bring guests in." "Not the problem. He'll die." The taller guard said. She held up a small vial. "His body cannot handle that altitude naturally. He'll need to drink this elixir before he ascends if he wants to be able to breathe normally, and you are not entitled to request it. Only a member of high society can request such an item. Whatever your status was before is irrelevant now. Exiled, you have no status." Niko vaguely recalled hearing something about that before in passing, when discussing something with a seamstress, but he never left the kingdom nor interacted with any humans outside of servants some wealthy families had and the rare trader allowed inside to do business. The elixir being needed completely slipped his mind. Niko didn't know what to do. "Isn't there some way we could have it? What if we paid you? could be arranged covertly..." "If we're caught having given you access, we'll be as wingless and ugly as you." The shorter guard put her hand to her face and laughed. Niko looked at the two of them. Briefly, he contemplated stealing the elixir and running, but that would negate his chances of getting a retrial if they managed to catch him. He turned to River. "I'm sorry...I..." River smiled at him. He held up the shell on the necklace around his neck. Without saying a word, Niko could almost hear the words "I can be anywhere" coming from River. River opened up the shell and swallowed the pearl inside it. Niko turned back to the guards. "We won't be needing the elixir. We'll manage without it." The shorter guard laughed at him. "He'll die before you're anywhere near the top." The taller guard understood. "Mermaid magic. You, wingless one, already dare return and come here demanding to bring a human with you, and now you use aid from their kind too? Worthless being, you have no place within our walls. I will not let you pass with him." Niko argued with the guard. "I know my rights. I am entitled to bring at least one guest with me. You may not forbid me from that, unless the guest is someone that may not enter the kingdom. Humans are allowed to come here, if you they are doing authorized business, as a servant, or as a guest. He has no prior issues with the kingdom. You may not forbid him from entering." "I am also entitled to deny entry to anyone I find suspicious. Your rights are irrelevant. I don't want him passing through. Really, I should forbid you entrance as well, but I am being generous today." "You can't do this! He is not suspicious, and you know that. He's done nothing wrong." Niko was fuming with anger. River stepped in front of him. He opened his bag and showed the guards all the shells he had left. The shorter guard's eyes lit up. The taller guard scoffed at the display. She said, "That's not enough to convince me." "But each of those is worth..." The other guard started to say. "Don't fall for it. We cannot be bribed. My decision is final." The taller guard said. River moved the shells around to reveal the red stones at the bottom of the bag. Both guards stared in shock. River grinned. The taller guard sighed. "All of it, then. All of it, and you may pass." River handed her the bag. Niko couldn't believe it. The two guards cleared a path for them. The taller guard pulled down a lever to open the elevator up. River and Niko stepped inside. As the doors closed, Niko overheard the guards laughing about what they'd done. Niko knew he was right. He legally was allowed to bring a human guest with him, and using items legally obtained from mermaids did not constitute as suspicious behavior. The guards simply didn't want them to pass through, and it was perfectly normal for them to abuse their power in such a way. If he were to try and take something like that to court after clearing his name, no judge would bother with such a case. He'd need to be from a powerful family and have his wings to be taken seriously over something involving a human. Unless he brought a female relative with him, he still may not be taken seriously in such a situation. River was only a human, of less value than someone's pet or the homeless on the streets. He'd be questioned for caring, unless it was deeply related to business. His rage boiled to the surface. He slammed his fist against one of the walls of the elevator. "How dare they do that to us!" River put his hand on Niko's shoulder and shook his head. He pulled several shells, two red stones, and one of Ahote's stones from a small bag he kept around his waist, then put them back away. Niko stared at them, then rolled his eyes. "You never cease to amaze me. How is it you stayed in that village for so long? You could have survived anywhere." River shrugged. He smiled and held Niko's hand. The contact startled Niko at first. He reciprocated the gesture. Niko stared upward. The ceiling of the elevator was made of glass. Above them, growing larger with each passing second, he saw the place he had always known as home. The beautiful, white and gold city floating above the mountain did not fill him with joy or awe. He had a mission to complete and thirty days to do it in. He tightened his grip on River's hand. "Thank you," Niko said. "Thank you for staying with me. I don't know...what will happen next. We've come so far...will I fail anyway?" River rested against Niko's arm. They stayed like that for the rest of the trip up. When the door opened up again, he was in the middle of the city, with all eyes on him. There he stood, wingless, and with a human in tow. He could feel the disgust and anger radiating from the crowd around him. He stepped out of the elevator, holding tight to River's hand. 'I need to get home.'
IX. Trial