It's a hazy memory of younger times, when he and Mich were still chubby-faced, bright-eyed children, eager to learn and play and make new friends. Preschooler days. As twins, they'd been together even before birth. Mich could be the older of the two, or Ret could be, but neither of them really cared about who had managed to escape the womb minutes before the other. At that moment, the both of them had been existing, and that was all that had mattered.
It had been during art class. Ret can't for the life of him recall what they'd been tasked to draw, but he remembers being extremely proud of his masterpiece. He can't remember how that masterpiece looked like, either, while Mich's hangs proudly still, pinned to the fridge by cheery little butterfly magnets. It's his own fault, actually, because Ret had torn his apart in the toilet and dumped it in the bin, but he still feels a little pang thinking of it.
When he looks at the drawing now, though, Ret can't help but think that young Mich wasn't really a very good artist, as contrary as that thought is against his memory. He can't actually make out what the picture is about, just a doodled mess of colours and scribbles in that signature way that children have. But he's sure that it was supposed to have meant something, because when he and Mich had zealously shown their respective artworks off to the teacher awaiting praise, Mich's had been lauded as if it were an ancient classic discovered from the ruins of some majestic temple.
Ret had gotten praised as well, of course, because no teacher was really supposed to play favourites, but Mich had gotten a golden star and fervent compliments while all Ret had received was a simple 'Good job, Emiret,' so, as he stood by a side, drawing dejectedly drooped low in his hands and turned conspicuously so that no one could look at it, Ret understood.
If they had been in a race, Ret would have gotten the silver medal. Which was fantastic and all, but rather underwhelming in a competition with only two participants.
Mich loves sports. Naturally, Ret did as well, because whatever one of them did the other had a tendency to follow, but while Mich still continues to love sports, Ret ran out of his affections some time ago, quite literally. When they were younger and still brimming with energy, Mich used to bring Ret along to the basketball courts near their house in the evenings to play some games. Neither of them had had any previous experience. In fact, their first attempts at playing had been rather disastrous, and ended with scraped knees, one bleeding nose, bruises all over, and not a single hoop scored.
At that time, Ret had assumed that they'd simply grow together, and eventually the two of them would become amazing, world famous players, popular and rich. But then one day, after Mich had successfully managed to convince a few older children who also frequented the courts to give them lessons, Ret quickly realized that Mich was, in fact, something of a prodigy.
'That kid, Michkel,' some of the older kids used to say, 'He's amazing, that one. Talented as hell. Well, his brother is good too, but Michkel is gifted to the point that it's almost unfair.'
'I kinda feel sorry for his brother,' some of the older kids used to say, 'I mean, Emiret's better than I was at his age! But because they're twins, he doesn't stand out in comparison. I mean, Emiret sure is a little talented too, but Michkel's unnatural.'
'It can't be helped,' some of the older kids used to say, 'but compared to his brother, Emiret's ability is nothing.'
It can't be helped, all of the older kids used to think, but while Michkel is a genius, Emiret's just a regular sort of good.
'It can't be helped.'
Ret had ran straight home after practice one day and never went back, no matter how much Mich wheedled him to. He didn't think anyone really noticed.
Next to their home is a forest. It's a small little thing, really not quite big enough to be a forest forest, but that's what everyone in the neighbourhood calls it. So, a forest it is.
A small side path from the park leads into it, winding around the edge of the forest that lines the park before leading out, never venturing into its depths. The parents tell the their children to take care in the forest, but no one really thinks that there's any danger in there. It's a popular place for ghost stories and walk of courages, in the dead of the night, with just a line of lanterns in hand, but nobody really explores it enough to know all of its secrets.
Ret doesn't explore it much either. But he knows enough of its secrets.
For example, if one heads into the forest straying off the park path, into the area where the trees grow thicker and the light grows darker, and continues onto a route veering slightly to the left, passing the Old Man Boulder (aptly named for its resemblance to the elderly), following the trickle of a streak of water too shallow to even be called a stream, one will find themselves in a hollow of the forest, where the trees pull apart to reveal a wide, open space of soft green grass and wildflowers and a great wide view of the unrestricted sky.
As far as he knows, no one ventures that far into the forest, because Ret himself is the only person he has ever seen in there. It's his secret place, his little shrine, a land where nothing exists but him, the smell of the forest, the trickle of the not-quite-a-stream, and the singing stars shining brightly above his head.
The first time he finds it, he quickly crushes the thought of sharing it with Mich. This will be mine, Ret thinks, giddily, This will be mine, and just mine. Not Mich's. Not ours. Just mine. It's the thought of, finally, having something that isn't Mich's even more than it is his that spurs him on, and Ret ends up visiting his sky as much as he possibly can, slipping out in the evenings when Mich is playing basketball and even at night, sometimes, when he tosses and turns and can't fall asleep.
And he never tells anyone about it. Because, after all, there's not much that you can be better than someone at looking at stars with, but Ret is sure that Mich will find a way. He always does.
They're in middle school, in the same class, and the year has barely begun but Mich is already the center of attention. The girls love him for his face, the boys love him for his skills, the teachers love him for his intelligence, and the parents love him for his charm. The perfect boy, all around. Ret has the same face as Mich -they are, after all, twins- but he doesn't have his athletic prowess ('It can't be helped.') or his memorization ability ('It can't be helped.') or his smooth words ('It can't be helped, after all.'), and all that Ret has is a quiet disposition and his secret sky.
He has a feeling that he would be popular with the girls for Mich's face alone, but it seems like there's no need for two idols with the same appearance in one class.
It's around the middle of the year that Kyle talks to him. A fellow classmate that seemed to be alone at least half as much as Ret himself, they're put on the same team for PE one day. They've been together before, of course, but this time, Ret finds himself forced to interact with Kyle when they find out that the rest of their team is practically hopeless.
Basketball is not a sport that Ret is keen on returning to -indeed, he'd been steadfastly avoiding it after that memorable practice, so many years ago- but he finds that now, playing again for the first time in god knows how long, his body remembers what to do. He dribbles and shoots and passes to Kyle, sneakers squeaking on the polished gymnasium floor, and lets himself be immersed once again in something that he used to love.
They lose. Mich is, after all, on the opposing team, and theirs consists of one that hasn't touched a ball in years, another that has only a week ago begun to play, and a group that don't even know the difference between a two-pointer and a three-pointer. It's a good game, fast and furious and reminiscent of how Ret used to play, but they still lose.
Even though his classmates seem to be looking at him with a different sort of light in their eyes now, Ret excuses himself after PE to lie down in the nurse's office. Hidden behind a thick cloth screen, curled up on a lumpy bed that he tries not to smell, to his neverending surprise, Ret begins to cry.
It's new, the feeling of a complete, devastating loss. All his life, Ret has been used to being hidden behind Mich's shadow, so he's never really thought about it much. Losing, that is. Because, right from the beginning, Ret has always known that he can't win against his twin -not in preschool, not in basketball, not in popularity.
But this is different. It shouldn't be, but it's different. Because, this time, Ret is in the spotlight. He's in a team that's counting on him and Kyle to score, in a team that's so completely oblivious to basketball that Ret is the one that they're looking up to. He's among a group of people that are waiting for him to bring them their win, him and Kyle. And he wanted to win, dammit. He wanted to beat Mich. He wanted to, for once in his life, get that gold medal. It wasn't about showing off his abilities, not really, since Ret knows that Mich is, by far, the better athlete. It's about getting the chance to show that, no matter what, no matter how much it couldn't be helped, Ret is an individual in himself, to show that he's not just a shadow of his twin.
It was a perfect chance, but he still lost, he lost terribly. And, lying in the nurse's office, nursing a pretend stomach ache, Ret regrets that he didn't keep up his basketball, no matter how inferior he was to Mich. Because if he had just moved faster, if his body had just responded to what his instincts had screamed to do, perhaps they would have won after all.
Ret returns to class after a half hour, apologizing to the teacher when he comes in. On his desk is a small folded note. As he drags his chair back to sit down, he opens it behind the thick history book required for the class. It's just three simple words, but Ret spends the rest of the day with a small smile on his face.
A/N: This story's a bit of a slow burn, so please bear with me. Reviews would be highly appreciated and immensely treasured. Updates whenever (although I already do have a majority of the story written, so it shouldn't be too long).
Just as a simple warning, though: the crane and the cross is really less of a story about romance and more of a story about people -in particular, Ret, Mich, and a few other characters that will appear in subsequent chapters. But there wasn't a Slice of Life genre, and romance really does still play a big part, so there you have it.