They commanded attention, leaving spectators breathless in their presence. Mi didn’t expect anything less. Dressed all in red, the crowd could still see the stains of the blood on them. Somehow, despite having returned from battle, despite the blood of their enemies and of their friends upon them, they all stood tall. Not as though they had suffered a heavy loss.
Mi dipped their head down before Jahan could see them. They shouldn’t have bothered. Their red cloak stood out in the cooler colours worn by the rest of the crowd. Jahan would break formation, they knew. They shouldn’t have come, not right now.
“What are you doing?”
They stared at their boots, instead of looking up to see how many people Jahan pushed aside. The crowd moved, giving them space. Mi’s boots looked the same as ever. They had only managed to pull on the boots and put on the cloak. The rest of their outfit was not the same uniform. “Standing in support.”
Jahan made a strangled noise in his throat. “Standing. You shouldn’t be here.”
Looking up, eyes sharp, Mi did their best not to sound as harsh as their expression. “Everyone returned. Didn’t need a scout after all?”
“We were lucky,” Jahan said. “And I scouted.”
They doubted it. Jahan couldn’t scout to save his life. But if everyone returned, he obviously scouted well enough to save the life of everyone else in the unit. Mi looked past him. Their unit moved passed and the crowd either followed or returned to their lives.
“You shouldn’t be up.”
Mi looked at Jahan’s hands, ignoring his words. He bound his hands, as they needed on the field, in fresh linen. Not drenched in red and dried in brown, like the others. Their uniform, red without the brown. Their uniform, the occasional leaf stuck within its folds. “You really scouted.” They mouthed the words, rather than speak them aloud.
Jahan didn’t answer. He took them by the arm and forced them back to the hospital. Jahan was fast, but kept a slower pace for Mi’s sake. Mi didn’t need him to, didn’t know why he did this. As they didn’t want to return, they didn’t speed up. They reached out with their left hand to try to pull him off. For some reason they couldn’t, wrist resting on his arm.
As if to mock them, Mi’s uniform displayed without a single crease upon the dress form in their hospital room. The grain of the wood in the floor and walls was dark, but brown. All browns. The dark red in the brown made them think everything else around was dried blood. The crisp sheets scratched their skin as they didn’t move an inch. A book lay on the table next to their bed, but closed. Mi didn’t bother reaching for it. They stared out the window.
Their room stood at ground level, like all the hospital. Like all the buildings in town. Trees towered above them all. Mi considered their lives pitiful, as forever attached to the earth.
“Do we have to set a guard on you too?”
Mi ignored Fo. Their brother had said the same words when Mi first got medical attention. When Mi’s words landed on deaf ears, it felt natural to return the treatment.
“You could at least listen to the doctor, if not to anyone else who cares about you.” Fo sat down at the table, near the book.
Mi almost wondered what the book was about, but recognized their mind doing anything to not focus on Fo.
Mi’s hand clenched the rough fabric of their sheet. “I want to go home.”
Fo exhaled. “You’d be home sooner if you did as you were told.”
Mi stared out the window. The wood jammed into the frame wasn’t the same in any other room. To keep Mi in, their family decided to take more measures as the doctor hadn’t bothered. Why did the hospital have to be that shade of brown?
The rustling of paper told Mi that Fo wanted to read to them again. Mi wouldn’t listen. Even if they wanted to, Mi couldn’t focus on it. Fo worried too much, over nothing. The world conspired against them.
When Jahan entered later to tell them both the war had ended, Mi felt the world laugh.
A full month after Mi had fully recovered, the doctor let them go back home on bed rest. Mi didn’t understand why no one else saw it. Perhaps they are all too busy celebrating their victory. Mi wished they could join. No more blood drying on brown. Their uniform came home with them, on display in their room. Still mocking them.
Jahan came to visit them. “You will be celebrated for your sacrifice. Fo’s agreed to let you come to the ceremony with the rest of us. We’ll just be careful.”
Mi couldn’t believe that the entire world thought they were still injured. Perhaps Mi was the problem. Yet they could stand and walk without trouble. Why did everyone act as though Mi were crippled? Costing them the rest of the war.
“Now we’re trapped,” Mi said.
Jahan smiled, confused. “We’re free.”
They shook their head. “Never to leave the city again? If the war gave us one thing, it was the ability to leave.”
Smile gone, Jahan looked long suffering. As if Mi forced him in a corner. “We’re safe now. Don’t tell me you wanted it to go on.”
“I don’t want to see more blood.”
Mi spoke the truth, but avoided outright telling him they wanted the war to end. The soldiers recovered and then returned to their practice. Practice within the practice grounds. Practice on the ground.
Mi looked out the window. They could see across the street. From ground level, they could not see the trees from here.
“Good,” Jahan said. “Because other than cutting yourself on your dinner knife, or scraping a knee, none of us should see any more blood for some time.”
The world didn’t work like that. Mi knew it well. Yet Jahan’s hands were no longer wrapped. He was freed from what his hands had to do.
Mi wasn’t the same as them. They had scouted. Now they sat in bed, wondering why everyone still treated them as if they were made of glass.
“Fo should ask the doctor if there is a litter to take me to the ceremony.”
Jahan relaxes. “We’ll both go and get it.”
Mi couldn’t care less about the ceremony.
As Jahan and Fo went to get them their stretcher, Mi ran away.
They could run. The most important thing of all – nothing stopped them from pushing their uniform over and running out of their room. They ran down the hallway and stopped at the front door. Peering out, Mi waited until they couldn’t see Jahan and Fo anymore. They waited until the coast was clear. Then they ran out the door and through the streets.
Mi was fast. This had always been true. A scout couldn’t be slow. A scout had to be fast everywhere they ended up. Even when another person noticed Mi, none could catch them. Mi was too fast. With no one expecting them, they could run right down the road and straight out of the city.
Mi almost expected not to make it. That they had some grievous injury they couldn’t recognize and that was why they had been laid up for several months, not allowed to return to the fight. But they made it. Nothing slowed them, other than the slight strain from muscles not recently used. Mi could feel their heart pounding, a good feeling. No one could stop them. They escaped.
The trees stood as tall as ever. They dwarfed the town. Mi’s true test began here. Perhaps here was where their hidden injury would strike out. Perhaps Fo and Jahan wanted to keep Mi from this. No, Jahan was envious. Mi’s mind came to that conclusion in a moment. Jahan was envious they were better at scouting. Jahan wanted to do it and told everyone Mi’s injuries were worse. Fo played along, continued to play along, because he worried without reason all the time.
Mi climbed, feeling free. Mi climbed, not feeling as their right hand couldn’t grip as tightly as it once did. Mi climbed, not realizing their boots remained on solid ground. Mi climbed, the stump of their left wrist pressing into the bark so hard as to scrape the raw skin.
With a smile, Mi’s mind was above. Where they could look down on the city. Look down on everything. Away from the ground, where somewhere their left hand had fallen.
As they used to, in their mind, they saw themselves above. Mi couldn’t have been happier. They leapt from branch to branch, soaring with grace and poise.