Birthday Mathoms — 2007

Ahiru finds Fakir in his studio, tottering in on the new legs he has written for her. She keeps a hand pressed to the wall for balance, watching as he goes through the long arching stretches of warmup. Without looking at her, he says, “You’d better do this, too. You’ll be too stiff otherwise.”

“Huh?” She withdraws a little. “For what?”

He glances back over hs shoulder, an eyebrow raised. “Dance, of course,” he said. “You haven’t forgotten that much, have you?”

“Huh? But–” She flails her free hand for a moment, almost near panic. “I can’t, I mean, I haven’t in years, and I wasn’t even that great to begin with, that was all Tutu, and then it was your writing, I can’t–”

“Ahiru,” he says. He does not make the proper gesture, but he holds a hand out to her. Before she can stop herself, she pushes off the wall towards him, feeling ridiculously weak and off-balance. Her human body feels so strange after years as a duck: the center of balance is shifted, there’s more of her to trip over, she’s all knees and elbows and bony wrists …

Fakir catches her hand and guides it to the bar. He doesn’t quite smile, but his eyes are kind. “Relax,” he says. “Breathe. We’ve done this before, remember?”

She looks searchingly at him for a moment. He doesn’t waver. Eventually she nods, and grips the bar with both hands. He withdraws, though not so far that she can’t feel the warmth of him along her side.

“I’m going to trip all over us both,” she says. “I’ll step on your feet. It’ll look silly.”

“Then it’ll look silly,” he says, with the unruffled calm of the deeply satisfied. “It’s just the two of us. The rest doesn’t matter.”

++++++++++++

Minamoto Raikou is fifteen the first time he meets Ichinomiya Kantarou.

He’s heard about the man before: Hasumi-sensei liked to complain about his senpai. Raikou knows he’s lazy and sly and avoids work wherever possible, who believes too much in youkai and drops important things all for the sake of his mad quest, his search for a creature that didn’t exist in this world.

The Oni-Eating Tengu. The strongest youkai, vicious fighter and ruthless killer, the epitome of his race.

And absolutely one hundred percent fake according to Hasumi-sensei, but real, oh, so very real in the eyes of Ichinomiya-sensei.

Raikou sees it in Ichinomiya’s eyes the first time they meet. They shake hands like Westerners, bow like Japanese men, and there is a glow in Ichinomiya’s blood-red eyes that says, I know, I see, I believe. It’s the same thing Raikou sees in his own reflection, and Ichinomiya acknowledges that by a single raised eyebrow. They speak politely of modern mortal society, but with the charged air of understanding.

“I wish you luck, Sensei,” he says politely. You won’t succeed, I’ll find him first.

Ichinomiya’s eyes flash, but all he says is, “I’m honored by your well wishes.” I’m not going to lose to a brat like you.

On that note they part. It’s the first time someone has truly defied Raikou. Ichinomiya’s brashness fascinates him; the man’s got an old family and its connections among youkai, but he doesn’t relate as well to his fellow humans, and barely supports himself on writing articles and his youko’s wages.

Yet he still met Raikou’s eyes and dared him to find the Oni-Eater first. His daring is cute, if inevitably doomed.

Raikou smiles to himself.

He looks forward to their future meetings.

++++++++++++

Some two hundred years later Master Issun Boushi returned to Lake Laochi to watch spring return to the land. He was old even by the reckoning of his people, who lived much longer than humans, and thus rarely left his own home any more, let alone his village. He had left his traveling days long behind him. Just this once, though, he went alone.

Now he stood on the shrine where Oina priests danced for the volcano and looked out upon the lake. He lit his pipe and bit down on the stem until the cloud ’round his face was both mist from his breath and tobacco smoke.

When the woman arrived he did not look. Many pilgrims came here to see the site of Divine Amaterasu’s last great earthly battle; he often directed them himself. This woman came with the hot scent of summer grass and ripe fruit and walked light as the breeze. He saw she was barefoot amidst the snow.

“You should try to blend in more,” he said. “People would wonder if they saw you.”

“If they saw me,” the woman said. She laughed like the voice of rushing water.

He looked up and saw her framed against the rose-colored sky. Her kimono was all the colors of a summer morning, and flowers were beginning to bloom at her feet. Round her neck hung beads of ice; at her hip was a mirror of fire and jade; across her back was a sword of lightning. Her long hair hung loose round her face.

Master Issun smiled. He sucked on his pipe. “Hello, Ammy,” he said. “Nice to see you again.”

Divine Amaterasu bowed her head to him, polite as equals, and together they stood to watch the first spring sun rise.

++++++++++++

“I just want to say,” Thomas told me, “I’m doing this under protest.”

I resisted rolling my eyes at him, but just barely. “Look, it’s gotta be done,” I said. “It’s either that or just let it go, and it’s not good for them if you do.” I curled my fingers at him in hooks. “Something about blood vessels growing into the nails themselves.”

He makes a face. “Right,” he said. “I get why, but I’m still doing it under protest.”

We both looked at Mouse, his paws twitching somewhere in doggy dreamland. Six months, and the puppy that used to fit in my duster pocket was now big enough to take up the entire the couch. I was pretty sure that if I just squinted, I’d see him growing right before my eyes.

“Dogs hate this sort of thing,” Thomas was saying, shaking his head. “You know, there are professionals who can do this–”

“Professionals who charge an arm and a leg,” I cut him off. “I don’t have that sort of money, Thomas. Neither do you.” I looked at the clippers in my hand and then at my dog, who’d rolled onto his back, so that all his oversized paws were splayed in the air. “It’s not good for him.”

“It’s not going to be good for us, either,” said Thomas. “Harry, your dog weighs more than we do.”

“He’s not that heavy,” I said. Mouse rolled over heavily, all his paws thumping against the ground. Each one looked to be about as big as my own hands. The clipper looked suddenly very small and useless. I wondered if a hacksaw might work better. “Well. Yet.”

“Tell him that,” Thomas said. He sighed and rolled up his sleeves. “Well. We who are about to clip salute you, huh?”

++++++++++++

“Stop that.”

“Hmmmm~?” The flitting motion in his peripherial vision paused briefly. “Stop what, Kurorin?”

Kurogane pointedly did not look up from sharpening Souhi’s blade. “Whatever the hell it is you’re doing.”

“Oh, you can see? Wow, Kurotan is so smart!” The idiot mage clapped for a moment, delighted as a child. Iit embarrassed Kurogane by proxy; the man himself obviously didn’t have the brains for it himself. “Being able to see without even looking, that’s an amazing talent! I wish I could be so smart.”

Kurogane grunted, testing his thumb against Souhi’s edge. “Yeah, so — cut it out. It’s annoying.”

“Hmm,” said the mage. He leaned in, until Kurogane could see pale hair. “But Kuropon, you don’t even know what I’m doing. You’re paying so much attention to cute Souhi, Mommy’s feeling neglected.”

“Cute–!” The rest of the phrase strangled in Kurogane’s throat. His thumb slipped. As though in revenge, the blade cut a long red line across the pad of his finger. “Shit, shit, shit, shi– who’re you calling ‘Mommy,’ anyway?!”

The mage sat up a little. “Ah, you’re hurt,” he said. He caught Kurogane’s wrist. “Let Mommy see.”

“Like I said, who the hell is ‘Mommy’–”

“Ahh, it looks painful,” said the mage. “It didn’t work.”

What didn’t work?” He tugged back at his wrist.

The mage bowed his head. His hair fell forward, hiding his eyes in pale shadows. “Protection spells,” he said softly. “Because Kuro-sama and Syaoran-kun go out every day and fight oni. It’s dangerous.”

Kurogane stared. “It’s not any more dangerous than searching for the feathers,” he said.

At first the mage said nothing, bowing his head over the cut; Kurogane started at the touch of soft cool lips on the cut.

“There are always things in the dark,” he whispered. “Be careful.”

++++++++++++

Girls like Doumeki. It makes no sense.

A few have come up to Watanuki, blushing and clutching at cookies or bentou or confession notes. You’re friends with Doumeki-kun, right? If you don’t mind, could you …

He wants to say no, because it pisses him off to be Doumeki’s errand boy, especially since even Himawari-chan seems to be overly fond of the jerk, but it’s hard for him to turn down such wide earnest eyes and hopeful faces. He’d been raised to be polite to girls especially, even if they had the horrendous taste to pine after Doumeki.

Of all men in the world, Doumeki!

It wasn’t even jealousy, really — he’s happy with basking in Himawari-chan’s attention alone. It’s just that Doumeki is an irritating and inconsiderate bastard, who makes weird demands for food and never bothers to say thank you when Watanuki brings him lunch. That’s not the sort of thing that makes a good boyfriend: a little gratitude now and then, was that so hard to ask for?!

Watanuki finds girls bizarre creatures, though cute, and his employer doesn’t help with that at all. Even she likes Doumeki, always inviting him along everywhere and grinning sidelong at Watanuki when she talks to Doumeki, with a speculative gleam in her eyes that he is never, ever going to think too closely about. He knows braver men have tried fathoming Yuuko’s logic and failed.

The weirdest part, though, is that Doumeki himself doesn’t care. Girls throw themselves at him, and it’s not that he doesn’t notice — it’d be hard not to! — but he never does anything. He turns them down without fail, and they still keep trying.

“Oi,” Doumeki says. “Seconds.”

Watanuki growls and snatches the bowl, slapping extra rice in.

He doesn’t get the appeal at all.

++++++++++++

“You won’t go?”

Guren doesn’t look up as she settles beside him. The wedding procession passes beneath them like a trail of fireflies.

“It’s his night, not mine.” He shrugs. “If he needs me to help him now, then there’s no hope for him.”

Kouchin raises an eyebrow at him. “That’s not really what I meant,” she says. “I meant more about–”

Guren shrugs again. He says, “Akiko deserves one night without me hanging around.”

She laughs, then holds up a jug of sake. “Then we’ll toast,” she says. “Here, from a distance, and let Masahiro figure it out on his own.”

He can’t help it; he snorts disdainfully. “Like I said, if he can’t–”

“Touda,” Kouchin says, and hands him a cup, pouring for him with blade-edged grace. “You’re really all right with this?”

Guren swirls the cup gently, looking at his reflection in the liquid, and the moon behind him. “Yes,” he says. “It’d be a sin to let the tenkou’s bloodline die, and he loves Akiko.”

“He loves you, too,” Kouchin says, watching him as she drinks. “If you said to stop, he would.”

“And that’s not fair to anyone,” Guren says. “It makes him happy, it makes Seimei happy, it makes Akiko happy.”

“Touda–”

“I’m satisfied,” Guren says firmly. “I want to be able to see Masahiro’s children.” He holds up his free hand and flexes it in and out of a fist. “I want to be able to hold them, too.”

Kouchin pours herself more alcohol, her dark eyes considering. “With parents like that,” she says finally, “they’ll certainly have no fear of you.”

And Guren smiles, a fang against his lower lip. He lifts his cup in a toast to her, which she returns. “They won’t,” he says. “And that’s more than enough.”

++++++++++++

i.

He has huge hands, with broad palms, narrow fingers, and cool skin. Rose hadn’t noticed at all the night they first met, but they’d become quickly familiar. They hold hands like she can be tethered by that alone.

… Or maybe it was so she could keep him from flying apart?

Which is ridiculous, of course; he’s the Doctor, who has more answers than he knows what to do with. Rose knows he’d laugh at the very idea.

Still … there are times when he looks at her with those big blue eyes and his palm warms against her own, when he smiles so bright and beautiful that it rivals suns, and some small smug part of her thinks this is for her alone, this strange infuriating wonderful alien and his silly superior ways. It’s not even love, not like that, but she knows it’s precious, and she’ll fight to keep it.

ii.

Of course Jack likes what he sees, who wouldn’t? The guy dresses with stark sparity and moves with a leashed grace, and he’s got something banked in those blue eyes that could rouse a dead man.

And thanks to the Doctor, hey! Jack’s not dead. He’s shown more gratitude for a lot less.

But there’s something that makes him hesitate before he actually propositions the Doctor; something always warns him at the last moment to deflect and make it harmless flirting instead. It’s not insincere: if he thought he had the slightest chance, he’d jump for it. The longer they’re together, the more certain he becomes that he’d follow the Doctor to hell and back, and the more ashamed he becomes of the man he’d been.

So he walks with his head up and his path straight, and hopes that when he finally asks, the Doctor will tell him yes.

++++++++++++

The Doctor is reading when he hears a faint, displeased hum in the back of his mind. It grows steadily louder as he turns the pages, until it’s blaring almost loud as a siren. Before he can mark his place and put the book down, a jolt rocks the ship so hard that it goes flying from his hands, hitting the ground and sliding a good distance away; he has to grab onto the arms of the chair to keep from falling out himself.

“Oy,” he protests, lurching to his feet; it takes a bit of drunken swaying to get his balance. “Honestly, what now–”

Immediately he’s flooded with a jumble of images, one tumbling atop the other and all tinged red at the edges, all of them centered around the TARDIS’ console, and the clumsy duct-tape job that’s keeping a large chunk of the paneling in place. He makes it to the library door before he has to slam a hand against the wall for balance. He looks up and says, “It wasn’t meant to be a permanent solution, honest. As soon as we land somewhere quiet–”

Another hum, indignant in tone, answers. It comes followed by a snide little whine.

“I am — what, I’m not moping,” he snaps. “Not everyone’s cut out for this sort of life, and good on Donna for realizing that–”

A sharp beep.

“And I’ll thank you not to take that tone with me, miss–”

The ship lurched again, almost knocking him off his feet; he caught the frame at the last moment. “For the love of — fine! Fine! Land us somewhere, and I’ll do the proper repairs.” He huffs, but pats her wall in quick silent apology.

From the smug purr and the whirr of the TARDIS rematerializing, he knows she understands.

++++++++++++
“Sveeeeeeeeeen–”

“No.”

Natalia stretched up onto her toes so she could rest her chin on the edge of his desk. “You don’t even know what I’m gonna ask.”

“Doesn’t matter.” He didn’t even look up from his homework, drumming his pencil against the table. “You’re asking me, which means that you already tried with Mom and she said no. Which means that you’re hoping to sucker me into it, and that’s not happening.”

She pouted and kicked his desk. “Come on,” she said, voice rising into a whine. “It’s just a short trip, and I looked at the flight plan, you’re not going anywhere dangerous, Sveeeeen–”

“No’s no, Nat.” He scribbled something down, then flipped to the end of his textbook. “If Mom said no, then Dad would too if he were home. We’re not going.”

“Why NOT.” She kicked his desk again. “Mom goes with Dad all the time!”

“Mom’s also been through the Academy,” Sven said. He looked up finally, oddly serious. “Nat, seriously, it’s going to be boring as hell. It’s just a cargo run, we’re not doing anything interesting. I don’t want to go.”

She ducked away before he could ruffle her hair. “That’s ’cause you’re stupid.”

“Hey,” he protested, eyes going big and wet. “Natalia, seriously, you’re not missing anything! Don’t be mean.”

This time she kicked his chair, catching his shin a bit. It made a satisfying thump. He yelped in protest, pinwheeling backwards. Natalia stayed long enough to watch his chair tip the whole way back, then stomped off.

Well, she consoled herself, if neither Sven nor their parents would let her tag along, obviously what she needed to do was get a ship of her own to captain; if Sven could, then she could too!

After all, how hard could it be?

++++++++++++

Aah, though I cling
fiercely to your sleeve
you have slipped through my fingers

Beauty is more precious for it’s fleeting nature; shall I then rejoice in its fading?

Seiryuu tosses the two scraps of paper into the fire. It has burned low, but there’s still enough to catch his embarrassments and turn them to ash. His hand is shaky and his characters awkward; the fire and wind will be all that reads his pathetic attempts.

“Ohh, Shouran,” Seimei says. “There you are.”

He gets to his feet, intending to leave.

“You didn’t come to see Masahiro,” Seimei says. There is gentle repoach in his voice. “Ah, even Taimou came by for a little bit. But then hours went by and you weren’t there, so I thought, ‘ah, perhaps he got lost.’ And here you are.”

Seiryuu grits his teeth. “I am not lost,” he says.

“Hoho, but this is the wrong side,” Seimei says; paper rustles as he opens a fan. “Tsuyuki and Masahiro are asleep on the other side of the estate. There are positive energies there, they will be good for the baby.”

“I have no interest in seeing another snot-nosed brat,” Seiryuu growls. “Especially one that’s being fawned over by Touda.”

“Shouran,” Seimei sighs. “Ah, that’s the problem, then …”

Seiryuu grits his teeth and says nothing.

“Shouran, honestly, isn’t it about time you let this silly grudge go …”

He continues to say nothing. Eventually Seimei’s hand touches his shoulder gently, but says nothing more as he leaves with rushing silence in his wake. His disappointment is a gentle thing, but it still burns. He kneels and restokes the fire high enough to take one last poem into its heart.

A thousand winters may pass
before the dragon forgets his name
and longer still his heart

++++++++++++

Fakir dreams about a redheaded girl dancing with a crown of flowers and writes about the delicate line of her ankle, the graceful arch of her back. He writes about a maiden’s shy blush and coy smile, and the breathy, fleeting weight of her.

He goes to bed and wakes up with a yellow duckling on his pillow.

Ahiru sits patiently with him as he writes — mostly in the evenings or weekends — or swims placidly in loops around the pond. Sometimes she sits tucked next to his elbow, a tiny whisper of softness, and sleeps with her head tucked under her wing. Fakir will sometimes pause to just watch her and how light that turns her feathers to sunny gold.

The rest of the time, he attends class and still dances, always by himself, always holding his arms open and braced like he expects some phantom partner to drift into his embrace. The other students whisper about him: how strange and mysterious Fakir is! How romantic! Girls sigh when he pass, and he’s seen both Pique and Lilie shadowing his footsteps. He tells Ahiru about it as he writes about white flowers against a girl’s scarlet hair, and she pecks his wrist gently.

Winter passes and becomes spring. Pique surprises Fakir with a flower, which he stares at for so long that she blushes and apologizes, backing away. Before he can explain, she flees, but leaves the blossom. He takes it home and plucks it naked, dropping them over Ahiru like in his stories. Nothing changes: she’s just a duck covered in flower petals. She blinks placid blue eyes at him and he rubs his finger under her chin.

“I won’t give up,” he says. It feels good to say it aloud, give weight to his vow. “I will preservere.”

++++++++++++

“Huh,” he said.

Rose sat back and blushed. “Huh,” she echoed. “Is that all you’re gonna say? Just, ‘huh’?”

He licked his lips, then his teeth, so damn analytical that she felt insulted. “I’m thinking,” he said, then fixed her with an expression that wasn’t quite a frown, but might become one easily enough. “You kissed me.”

She narrowed her eyes. “I did,” she said. “Wotcha gonna do about that, then?”

“I,” he began, then paused again. “Hm.”

It was enough to make her want to tear her hair out. “Hmm?”

“I’d forgotten,” he said thoughtfully. “Right, it’s been a while since that’s happened to me.”

“What,” she protested. “A kiss? Come on, you were the one who said you’d get lost and end up kissing complete strangers. Jack’s kissed you, you can’t say–”

“Sorry,” he said, though he sounded more distracted than apologetic. “Sort of a — blank slate, with any new regeneration. Things are different.” He sucked his teeth, looking like he was thinking about how to save the day again, rather than accepting or rejecting Rose’s confession. “Huh.”

“Well.” She crossed her arms. “If it was so terrible, just say so. I’m a big girl. I can take it.”

“What?” He blinked. “Oh, no, no! No, it wasn’t terrible at all! You’re pretty good.”

“Now you’re just joshing me,” she said, but managed a smile. “Nine hundred years, and I rate ‘pretty good’?”

He grinned at her then, that big stupid puppydog grin that went so well with this new regeneration’s large eyes and floppy hair. He took her hand and squeezed it warmly. “You do,” he said, then waggled his eyebrows. Rose burst out laughing. “Would you like to try again?”

Still giggling, she leaned forward. He met her halfway, and it wasn’t half bad at all.

++++++++++++

On the last day of the year, Bakugami goes alone to the temple. He leaves his children with Nuregami and does not look back as he walks through silent halls and up, up, up long marble steps. The great doors at the top are closed but unguarded, and they swing open at his approach.

Between two flames suspended in air sits Mother Amaterasu. She does not turn her head as he enters; he does not speak the traditional words of greeting. He walks toward her and the doors close behind him with a solid boom. The air smells like dry fur and musk, tight as a held breath. Bakugami bows without lowering his head, and she nods to him in turn.

The unease that plagued him before falls away as he comes to her; it has been many years since this ceremony has been properly performed, but he remembers exactly each step and gesture, the way Amaterasu bows her head as he raises up his own. As minutes tick into hours, they circle each other, always maintaining eye contact. He thought he would stumble, and instead he moves with a grace unusual for his solid body.

Deeper than memory, blooded by instinct, comes the passing of the year.

It almost startles him when he realizes that their positions are now fully reversed: he stands between the two baseless flames, and Mother Amaterasu is across from him, with her back to the door. The air of the room quivers– then relaxes, an expelled sigh that sweeps the tension away. She smiles, her head up and proud; she barks once and the doors crack open, revealing the midnight sky and his constellation shining bright.

Mother Amaterasu bows, and Bakugami bows back, then raises his head to watch the birth of his year.

++++++++++++
“I’m afraid that Master Loki isn’t home,” Yamino says. He stares at a point over Narugami’s shoulder and clenches his jaw so hard it tics. “He won’t be back till this evening, so perhaps you–”

“That’s all right,” Narugami says breezily. He flaps a hand like that’s enough of a dismissal and slips past Yamino without more than a glance. Mjolliner is slung over his shoulders with casual, careless grace. He doesn’t bother to take off his shoes; they leave dusty prints on the clean floor. Up close he smelled like pending rain, and the potential of lightning. “I’ve got time. Lost my job working at the park, so I’ve got some hours to kill.”

Yamino opens his mouth to protest, then sucks in a sharp breath through his nose. It makes him dizzy. Narugami glances at him over a shoulder, and he gives up, says, “Shall I bring you tea?”

“Nah,” Narugami says. “Don’t need it. Food, though, that’d be nice.”

“There may be soup,” Yamino says slowly. “Ah, leftovers from yesterday, I could–” He starts to turn, and warmth prickles along the length of his spine, gathering uncomfortably between his shoulderblades. He turns and sees Narugami less than a step behind him. They almost touch — he feels phantom contact just from the proximity. “Na … Narugami-san?”

“I’ll help,” Narugami says. He smiles, sudden and easy, but his eyes are piercing, unblinking, and it’s almost like looking into a mirror. He shifts his posture, and it cants out a hip, sharp and prominent and nothing like his true self. Yamino recoils and frowns. “C’mon, Four-Eyes. I’m a friend, not a guest, right?”

Yamino almost says no. He stares at a point over Narugami’s shoulder; he looks at Mjollinar. He counts teeth in Narugami’s smile.

“All right,” he says.

++++++++++++

Rue’s waist is small enough for him to span with both hands. He lifts her above his head during a pas de deux and she’s light as a bird, though her dark eyes are heavy with old cobwebs of thought and memory. The white layers of her skirt flutter out like spread wings, and cast shadows upon the floor. Later, he touches her hand and her lips compress to a thin line; she turns her head away. Like a ghost she fades in and out of sight, ducking behind pillars and kneeling in the shadow of great trees, always looking down. When he holds his hand out to her she comes, but always hesitant, always on light feet, like she just might blow away on the wind.

“Prince,” she says once, “do you really …”

Against his hand, her fingers trembled. Dusk painted a violet layer of shadow across her pale face when she turned to look to the sky, over the high walls covered in ivy, towards the country that lay beyond. She looked small and too fragile, like she might shatter from the light off the edge of a sword. The prince goes to one knee before her and kisses her palm. It trembles under his lips.

“My story has ended,” he says. She pulls at her hand like a protest; he doesn’t let go. “I have found my princess, and that is all I would ask for.”

Her mouth purses, bitter as her name. “Others have called for you,” she whispers. Her voice wavers. “They wish for a prince who is noble and kind, who can save them.”

“There are others,” he says. He kisses her hand again, then rises to pull her into a dance. “There will be others. I will not have any other but you.”

++++++++++++

They walk for what seems like hours together through the new green world. The silence is a living thing — the rustle of the breeze through branches, the whisper of grass under their feet. Gwendolyn doesn’t quite limp, though her lower back aches where her wings no longer fold. Blood comes off in peeling drying flakes along her outer thighs, down her legs. Oswald doesn’t touch her, but he stays close enough to shadow her footsteps.

“I wonder,” she says, then stops. She turns her head. Oswald pauses by her elbow, cocks his head. “I wonder if the entire world is like this. Grown silent and green in this way.” She places her hand on the smooth bark of a napple tree, tilts her face up to the dappled shadows. Ripe fruit hangs low. She reaches up and twists it free, looks at her reflection in the shiny skin.

“Perhaps,” Oswald says. He cups his hands around her own. They tremble briefly, then still. She bows her head and he kisses her forehead, where her hair has torn free of its pins and falls in a pale halo round her face. Gwendolyn looks up and he kisses her mouth as well, then takes the napple and tucks it away in an empty pouch. She looks at him inquisitively; he takes her slim hand in his, and so they walk.

Eventually they reach a tree that is taller than any of the others, a tree whose branches stretch into the sky and whose roots spread for miles. Phozons still glimmer in the air here, drifting aimlessly until they’re pulled into the ground. Gwendolyn goes first up the tree, still holding Oswald’s hand in her own. They climb the roots until they reach the trunk, and turn to look together upon the world.

++++++++++++

Sora bounded up the stairs to his house, grinning from ear to ear. He threw the door open and himself inside. His mother paused in the hallway, a laundry basket in her arms.

“Mom!” he said, beaming. “I’m home!”

Her mouth dropped open. She went white — literally white! — and a high, keening noise rose from the back of her throat. Sora’s grin faltered after a moment.

“Er, Mom?”

The laundry basket thumped from her hands, and two seconds later her eyes rolled back in her head and she just crumpled. Every few seconds, her feet twitched abortively, and she made a brief gurgling noise.

“Um.” Sora rubbed the back of his neck. “… okay, that could have gone better.”

+++

King Mickey arrived precisely ten minutes later, as Sora’s mother was beginning to wake up. Sora hovered anxiously, uncertain if getting water or a potion or anything like that would really be appropriate. The king gently pushed him aside, and his mother opened her eyes to look straight up at him.

“Ma’am,” the king said gravely. “I think we have a lot to talk about.”

Her mouth moved soundlessly, like a gulping fish. Eventually she nodded, but said nothing as he helped her up.

+++

Later, after the king had left, warning that Sora might be called again, his mother turned to face him.

“Look at you,” she whispered. Her voice shook. “You’re all grown up.”

“Uh,” Sora managed. He looked down. “I guess.”

Abruptly she moved forward; he sensed the movement fast enough to tense before she swept him up into a smothering hug. He was pretty sure she was crying, which didn’t help with the awkwardness.

“Mom,” he said, embarrassed to hear himself choke. “I–”

“You are grounded for the next ten years, young man,” she said, and kissed his forehead.

++++++++++++

One morning in the spring, Fakir woke to find white feathers on his empty pillow. When he made his way to his work desk, he found Ahiru huddled on his chair, preening her feathers; fluffy bits of baby-yellow down fluttered around her like a storm, as well as longer smooth white feathers. He knelt beside her and touched her side. She jumped and squawked.

“It’s all right,” he said. When she didn’t try to peck him, he stroked her back gently, from the back of her tiny skull to the tip of her tail, as she liked. She was no longer small enough to fit within the palm of his hand. “I don’t mind.”

She looked at him with sad eyes. He held out a hand and she laid her chin upon it, sighing.

“I’m already an adult, too,” he said softly. “The chapter of chick is finished. I’ll write the chapter of swan, I promise.”

Ahiru sighed again, but she lifted her head to look at him again. Fakir, he thought she might say, you mustn’t strain yourself.

He picked her up, and she still fit neatly into the crook of his arm, a small soft warmth against his chest. He ran his hand along her back again, and his hand came away partly coated in shed down feathers.

“It’ll be all right,” he said again. She touched her beak to his wrist, soft as a kiss. “I promise.”

++++++++++++

Raidou stared at the wolf.

The wolf looked back and gave him a wide doggy grin, tongue lolling out over her fangs. After a moment, her tail lifted and began to wag happily. She made no move to attack, despite the rather impressively long sword strapped to her back. Very slowly Raidou reached into his pocket, reaching for a container.

“Juuuuust a moment!” A small green spark bounded up from somewhere within the wolf’s ruff and began to bounce up and down atop her head. She didn’t seem terribly concerned. By Raidou’s feet, Gotou tensed, ears pricking up and forward. “Watch where you’re pointing that!” There was a sharp noise, like the grind of metal on metal. “The great Issun will take you down in a single slice!”

The wolf cocked her head. Raidou let go of the tube and left his hands in plain sight as he stepped forward. He went down to one knee in front of the wolf. She smelled less like a dog and more like summer sun and heat.

“Oi, kid,” Gotou said. “You’d better be careful, that’s–”

On the wolf’s head, the green spark began bouncing faster. “Wait, what?” it said. “A talking cat? What the hell–”

Gotou made a scoffing noise, deep in his chest; his tail flicked once, disdainfully. “As though you can talk!” he said. “What are you, some sort of bug?”

“Bug?!” The green speck turn bright red for a moment. “Who the hell are you calling a bug! I’m the great Issun, Celestial Envoy to–”

“Like I give a damn!” Gotou growled. He rose to his feet, back arched. “You should more respect to the Kuzunoha–”

Raidou looked at the wolf. The wolf looked back.

He offered her his hand, and she put her paw in it to shake.

++++++++++++

If one goes for total honesty, Sif doesn’t actually remember most of her wedding. There are photos and a ring on her finger to prove it happened, but in her memories it pulls up a long blank stretch. She’s pretty sure there was lots of food and alcohol and her mother sobbing noisily, but the first part’s all standard, and her mother gets teary at the very idea of anything that has to do with her little girl growing up.

What she does remember Loki’s hand in her own, a bit sweaty at the palms and holding on painfully tight; she remembers the crack in his voice over his half of the vows, and–

“You’re sure?” he’d asked, the night before. “You’re really really sure, this isn’t just–”

“I’m allowed to change my mind,” she’d said, with her fingers on the shiny new scars along her arm. “But I think I’ll stick with this.”

He’d smiled like twin suns. She remembers thinking how young he seemed with only four years between them, but his hands had been steady upon her own, warm and solid and strong enough to anchor her — if not in one place in reality, then at least metaphorically.

She remembers waking in the morning, and even dressing for the occasion, but everything after that sort of becomes white noise. It would worry her more, but the end of the day snaps back into focus — long after the ceremony’s over and all but the most persistant friends and family have already left. She remembers standing by the open windows, looking out at the stars without thinking much of anything, and Loki’s hand upon her back.

“We could go back out there,” he’d said. “You know, find a permanent placing. If you want.”

And she’d smiled: “Yeah, I do.”

++++++++++++
This was going to be a disaster, Ellie already knew. Why, it was already three o’clock and only four of the guests had shown up! It was going to be terrible, and she would be a laughingstock! She should have known better than to let Alice invite both the Hidden Flipper clan and the crew of the Icy Barnacle. Really, she’d have to have a talk with that girl soon as possible, if she could bear to show her face again after the embarrassment of this day. Of course, at judgement hour itself, she was nowhere to be found — Ellie was going to be sure to scold her for that, too.

From the veranda there came a horrible crashing noise and angry shouting. Ellie peeked through the open window, then had to duck out of sight as a shuriken came whistling towards her. It sank into the wall, quivering gently.

Oh dear, oh dear. She wrang her flippers and peeked again. The lawn was empty: one of the chairs lay on its side, and her neat tier of sandwhiches had been knocked over. The teapot she’d left outside was in several large pieces, and her nice tablecloth was stained by tea. A lonely tumbleweed blew past and was promptly shot by someone out of sight. A bush rustled in a breeze and was immediately peppered by a hail of small throwing knives.

Ellie covered her eyes and sank back down below the window, out of sight and out of range. Another beat of silence, and then everyone outside was shouting; when she dared to look again, all she could see was the giant dustcloud of the battle.

A true and absolute disaster, she acknowledged glumly. At this rate, she would have to cancel next week’s goth and raver get together.

++++++++++++

The widow’s eyes are red and swollen from tears and sleepless nights. She hovers in the doorway and wrings her hands as Kantarou and Haruka set up the candles.

“I don’t understand,” she says. “Why is this necessary?”

“Your husband liked ghost stories, right?” Kantarou looks up at her. “He collected them. It’s something he’d want.”

She doesn’t look convinced, but doesn’t argue further. Kantarou folds himself into seiza position. He lights a single candle, and it casts strange moving shadows on his face. The widow bows her head. Haruka stares straight at him.

“I’m a folklorist,” he says. “I also collect stories. This is one I heard recently.

“Once there was a man. A good, honest man, who worked hard every day. Even so, he never made very much money. Every day his wife would say to him, ‘I’m tired of this life. I want a better one.'”

In his hand, the candleflame flickered without a breeze.

“And he tried very hard. He wanted to make his wife happy. But years went on, and she grew impatient. ‘Where is my rich life?’ she asked him. ‘Why are you so useless?'”

The widow swallowed.

“So one day, the wife said to her lover, ‘I am tired of my husband.’ And her lover took a knife and followed her husband, and killed him in an alley. It looked like a robbery gone wrong.”

She whimpered. Firelight gleamed in Kantarou’s eyes.

“But the man loved his wife. He missed her terribly. He wanted her to know he forgave her. So every night, he visited her, bloodstained and hopeful. And he–”

“Stop,” said the widow. “Stop, stop, how could you–!”

Kantarou looked at her, then looked up. Something pale shimmered in the rafters.

“He loves you,” he said, and blew the candle out.

++++++++++++

“Ow, fuck!” Ban stuck his fingers in his mouth. “Shit, what was that for?”

“Eh?” Ginji looked up from the window. His breath had left faint misty patterns on the glass. “Ban-chan? What’s up with what?”

“Shocking me!” Ban waved his injured hand before catching Ginji into a headlock. “Be a little more considerate of your betters!”

“Owwwww — Ban-chan!” Ginji wriggled a bit, dragged halfway out of his booth seat. “What, hey, I didn’t doooo anything, why’re you so mad?”

Ban ground the knuckles of his free hand — his uninjured hand — down on the top of Ginji’s head. “It’s a punishment game,” he announced. “After all this time, don’t you have better control of your own body? Damn lightning brat!”

“But Ban-chaaaan,” Ginji protested. He caught Ban’s wrist and tugged, a whine rising in his throat. “It’s just with all the rain we’ve been having, I can’t help it — it’s like a static charge that doesn’t wanna go anywhere! I don’t do it on purpose, ow, Ban-chan, leggoooooo–”

Sparks crackled in his hair. Ban yelped and let go, rubbing his knuckles. Ginji covered the injured spot with both hands, looking up at Ban with mournful eyes. “I told you, it just sort of happens …”

Ban licked his knuckles, then sighed. “Move over,” he said, and nudged Ginji with his hip until his partner made room. He leaned back and lit a cigarette, exhaling smoke in a thin plume that curled round his head. Their elbows brushed, this time without sparks, as he lifted his arm to the head of the seat. “Stupid lightning brat.”

Ginji glanced sideways at him, waited a few seconds, then scooted closer. Ban relaxed, slouching down, and tipped his head back.

“Lemme see the menu,” he said, and knocked their knees together.


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