Birthday Mathoms — 2010

“Be careful of how much time you spend with that Nightray boy,” her nurse clucks as she fixes the last ribbon in Ada’s hair. “He’s a strange one–his brother might have been all right, but he’s no longer one of ours. That family changes people, you know.”

Ada looks at her reflection in the mirror: already naturally pale, green eyes wide and clear as glass, her hair arranged in an artful tumble of sandy gold, braided through with seed-pearls and ribbons. A necklace from her mother’s collection sits tightly around her throat; there will be a mark there when she takes it off, later. She thinks about Vincent Nightray’s hands, cold through their gloves, and she nods. “I’ll be careful,” she promises, and keeps her crossed fingers hidden in the folds of her skirt.

That evening, while her chaperone is distracted by political gossip and Duke Barma’s lazy drawl, Ada puts her hand in Vincent’s and lets him lead her outside, away from the lights and laughing people, into the cool dark gardens. His mouth is warm and soft under her ear, and he does not protest when she unknots his cravat and presses her fingers to the sharp edges of his collarbone–nothing too scandalous yet, nothing that would give them away if they were discovered–and she presses a shy little kiss to his cheek in turn.

Her teeth are very sharp, like superfine needles: he doesn’t feel a thing.

They sneak back in together, later–Vincent says that he’d like another drink, and Ada blushes demurely and agrees, and helps him straighten his collar before they return. When he isn’t looking, she presses her lips to her handkerchief to her teeth and then licks them clean.

Like a hawk, her chaperone swoops down upon her, exclaiming over her flushed cheeks and bright eyes, where were you, girl, I was worried! you weren’t with him again, were you? as she pats Ada down briskly, as if seeking out injuries through her dress. Her brown eyes are eagle-sharp, looking for any sign of indiscretion that can be carried away for gossip. Ada keeps her chin up and flutters some of her answers; she likes Vincent very much, and she wouldn’t want him to get into too much trouble–but she likes him very much, so if his name is attached to hers, she doesn’t think it would be such a terrible thing.

“I just went for a walk,” she says. “To clear my mind.”

++++++++++

Haruki dreams of a field of bodies that stretches as far as he can see and the sound of a heartbeat in his ears. It isn’t his own: when he puts his hand to his chest, he can feel it stuttering in its own faltering pattern.

Dokun. Dokun. Anxiety bubbles up in his throat, tasting like bile–there is nowhere to put his feet that isn’t on another body, someone’s hand or face or open bleeding chest–but the knowledge is there inside of him that he must go foward, no matter what. He spreads his arms a little for balance and takes the first hesitant step, cringing when his foot comes down on something soft. In his mind there is a flash–a classmate named Shimoda, with long dark hair and a shy smile that had followed him when she thought he wasn’t looking. He glances down and regrets it at once: he would have rather remembered her smile rather than a twisted rictus of pain. One step after the other he sees another person–a classmate, a teacher, one of eight hundred faces that no longer looked like the people he’d once known. Even when he closes his eyes the images don’t leave.

Then he hears: “Haruki!”

Helplessly, like a dog summoned by its master’s call, his eyes snap open and he looks up. Somehow, finally, he’s come to the edge of the field of bodies, and there is clear space just up ahead. Kazuki is there, waving, his smile brilliant as the sun coming up, and he is wonderfully, beautifully whole; he looks like the proper Kazuki, the one from Haruki’s cherished memories, who liked to steal his glasses and complained at being made to study and brought back meat buns whenever he was stuck for too long after school. Before he can make himself stop, he lurches into a run, relief running trough his veins like cool water. Kazuki, he thinks, and maybe he even says it aloud, Kazuki, Kazuki, Kazuki

His arms close around thin air. His knees buckle from the lack of impact and send him tumbling to the ground. Haruki ends up on his hands and knees beside the field of piled bodies with someone else’s heartbeat thundering in his ears and something clutched in his hand, a hard edge pressed into his palm. He opens his fingers and looks at the pin that had once been affixed to the collar of Kazuki’s school uniform. There is a small splash of dried blood at one corner.

Haruki touches his lips to that stain and wakes. He is curled up on his side on the couch, and Gara’s coat is draped over him; something that smells like Kirito has been rolled up and tucked under his chin as a makeshift pillow. His hands are empty, but there are rows of crescent-moons that have been dug into his palms that are tender to the touch.

If either his Bishop or his Knight hear him weeping, they are kind enough to not say when morning comes.

+++++++++++

(Well, well, tonight we’ll go wild again.)

No one lives in Apartment 5-B. It’s a 3LDK and even though the building itself is in a good area near several prestigious schools the landlord asks for no key money–but no one lives there. An advertisement runs once a month for a week, extolling its virtues, but no one lives there. No one even tries. If you ask the neighbors, they don’t look at you and they say that no one’s lived there for a very long time. The lighting’s bad. The placement is bad. Maybe it’s not meant to be.

But here, lean in, and I’ll tell you a story: you would think it was no one else’s business, but everyone in this building knows. If you live here for long enough, you learn the story. Honda, that’s a common name, isn’t it? That’s the family that lived in 5-B before. They were a nice family: a salary-man father, a housewife mother, a daughter in kindergarten. Every day the father would go to work and the daughter would go to school, and sometimes the mother would come out to share in neighborhood gossip and sometimes she’d just do her shopping, and in the afternoon the daughter would come home, with the father following later in the evening. A nice normal family.

(Young miss, young miss, come play with us.)

However, like any appearance, this sort of thing was terribly deceiving. There are cracks in the mirror, you just have to find where to dig in your fingers and pull. Maybe you’ll get blood over everything, but it’s all right. No one will notice at this point, when there’s already such a mess. I heard this from the relatives arguing at the funeral, and my, weren’t they noisy! They argued about promises and agreements while they stood beside the tiny gravestone of a little girl, but if she had any opinions on the matter, she said nothing. What I heard, though, was that the father had a bit of a gambling problem, to the point where even the mother noticed, and oh the fights they’d have! Every night there’d be shouting, there’d be screaming, there’d be a little girl crying. Even the neighbors could hear it, though you’d never know it from what they did.

Which is to say, nothing! But I digress. They say it happened on the night of the full moon, when it hung low and red in the sky and there were patches of clouds like bad dreams, scuttling across the sky. They say even the people on the street below knew something was happening–if you looked up at just the right moment, you could see the father and the mother lit in silhouette in the windows, moving like dolls on strings. Sometimes you can still see them moving up there, if you know where to look and you know which apartment is the empty 5-B. And on the night of the cloudy full moon, squint your eyes and hold your breath, and you can watch a little girl take flight, just like a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. She was beautiful–she was smiling.

(But what nonsense am I saying?)

Are you saying that you don’t believe me? I’m hurt, I’m hurt. In the end, I haven’t told you anything that someone in this apartment couldn’t, after all. For better or worse, the fate of this apartment is tied up in that story, and no one yet has been born with enough good luck to balance out the father’s losing streak. Everyone who lives here long enough knows that, and Apartment 5-B remains completely empty. They can say all they want otherwise, but it’s everyone’s business, once they’ve set foot in this building. Even you. Even me! But if you’ve decided to ignore everything, that is your choice! I certainly won’t argue it. You’ll see soon enough.

Let’s meet again tomorrow. I’ll be here.

++++++++++

Uther Pendragon is buried on the first day of spring, when the ground is finally thawing and soft enough to accept his hard cold body, wrapped in the red robes of state, his sword folded between his hands, resting on his chest. There is a pinched look to his face even in death, as if even that could not relieve him of all his burdens. It is a somber affair: for all that Uther has not been the most popular king in the latter years of his reign, he had been king, and so even those who had feared him bowed their heads and spoke in hushed whispers of the days to come.

Arthur spends his first week of nights as crowned king by his father’s grave, nearly white as a ghost himself, with the same sort of haunted tight-faced look that had been on Uther’s face in the grave; he says nothing, but he paces and sometimes his lips move, as if arguing with himself. A few of his father’s old councilors put their heads together and mutter in worry: what if the madness of the father has been passed on to the son? Would anyone be able to keep Camelot if Arthur continued his father’s iron control? Merlin hears them and has to bite his cheek raw to keep from saying anything: he’s still only a servant, Arthur’s faithful lapdog, so he brings his king meals out in the graveyard and sits with Arthur during the long sleepless vigils by the dead man’s bed. He bites his other cheek bloody to keep from saying anything to Arthur, either, because he has learned better than to assume he understands exactly how love works within the Pendragon family.

During the day, Arthur performs flawlessly–he holds audiences and listens carefully to the petitions of his people before passing judgments, he reads the laws and proposals and redrafts and revises, he oversees the training of the knights even if he no longer leads the drills himself. But at night, he puts on the brown coat he’d favored during his princehood and he goes to sit with his father. When the behavior extends into a second week, Merlin begins contemplating Gaius’ library of herbs and their uses, because even if it might be treason to drug your king into sleep, it had to be preferable than watching him work himself to death. So far, Arthur has made no mistakes that couldn’t be quickly and easily corrected, but that breaking point is coming, and fast.

On the night Merlin makes up his mind, he spends the first part of the evening making up the potion, obsessively careful to follow the instructions to the letter. He puts it into Arthur’s wine–not a lot, just enough to make a man drowsy–and then he takes it out to the graveyard.

What he finds is: Arthur slumped against something that sits still as stone, but glows pure white in the moonlight except for the odd swirl and curve of pattern that are clearly, cleanly red even in the darkness. He stops and the white thing turns its head, and he sees it is a wolf–and then he’s running, dropping the tray, his heart in his throat, because if this is all it takes, a familiar slipped in to take Arthur down while he was vulnerable and tired–

It is all right, a woman’s voice says. I am simply traveling from one place to another, and I thought he could use a friend.

Merlin’s knees lock abruptly, sending him crashing to the ground; he slides through damp grass until he’s less than an arm’s length away from Arthur and the wolf. When he looks up, he sees Arthur’s chest moving, and his face is smoothed clean of its previous care. The wolf’s tongue hangs from its mouth, and something in its–her?–eyes is bright and clearly amused. There are flowers in the grass by her feet that are sorely out of season. Though the night is chilly, Merlin finds that where he is, belly-down before wolf and king, he’s warm as he might be on a pleasant summer’s day. He looks up, mouth open on a question he can’t quite voice.

The wolf ducks her head, so that her nose touches his. She says, not unkindly, If you would like to spend the night, I think it would be good for him to have another friend. It is all right. I am very warm.

He pushes himself up to hands and knees, swallowing. “Who,” he starts, and cringes at how rough his voice sounds.

A breeze kicks up; it sounds a lot like a woman’s laugh in its echoes. The wolf stretches herself out, and Arthur never moves, though he mutters something in his sleep briefly.

I am a mother, she says. Will you stay?

Merlin thinks about the possible gamut of reactions Arthur might have in the morning, and of the food that he’s left scattered behind himself in his haste to reach his king. He looks at Arthur’s sleeping face, as young as he’s ever seen the other man, more peaceful than he’s been for years–maybe ever. He looks at the flowers, which bob in the aftermaths of that earlier breeze; when he touches one, it’s very real under his fingers.

He nods. “I will.”

++++++++++

Here’s a riddle: how useful is the heart of a dead man?

Here’s the answer: not fucking very.

The world is named Veronica on the map, which is weird enough to warrant curiosity, if not action–but Xemnas insisted there was something to be found there, and somehow here they were, hiding in an alleyway as those things clawed and gibbered at the walls and windows–they were better than bloodhounds, it seemed, when it came to tracking the scent of something living. Even a shell of a human was enough–they didn’t want hearts or souls or anything like that, they just wanted fresh blood and meat. And really, when the only other choice was cannibalizing your fellow rotting buddies, you can’t really blame the bastards.

Roxas presses himself hard against the wall, eyes narrowed and calculating. He’s breathing a little hard, one hand pressed to the gashes on his arm–he’d refused the Potion Axel offered earlier, snapping that they couldn’t afford to waste supplies on something that wasn’t life-threatening. Axel had pointed out that there probably wouldn’t be time to use anything during an actual life-threatening situation, but he’d been glared down. For now, he keeps a good solid grasp on his chakrams, watching the same window that has Roxas’ attention: there are hands pawing at the murky glass, nails scrabbling for some sort of purchase to pull it free. There’s a dull roar of moans coming from just outside–more and more of those hollow-eyed shambling things are on their way (and Axel never thought he’d ever appreciate the tidiness and structure with which the Pumpkin King runs his world and his people, but the zombies there had been infinitely easier to deal with), and the exit point to the ship is on the other side of that sea of mindless hunger.

“Hey,” he says. Roxas’ head whips around to look at him, watching with wary dark eyes as Axel unfolds himself from his crouch and approaches.

“We don’t have time, Axel,” he says warningly, though he doesn’t move away when Axel hooks a couple of fingers into his collar and tugs him closer.

“What if we die?” Axel says as he leans down. “Don’t I even get a good-bye kiss?”

“Idiot,” Roxas says. He closes his eyes and doesn’t make a sound when Axel bites him, hard and fast, enough to bloody his lip–he remains silent even when Axel licks that cut and pulls away, spinning the chakrams with lazy-limbed ease. “That wasn’t a kiss.”

“Close enough,” Axel tells him. Fire springs to life, sparking at the spiked edges of the chakarms he carries, and he looks at the hungry empty faces pressed up against the dirty window. They’re pathetic, the whole lot of them–people with hearts strong enough to matter, but with bodies too weak to wait long enough for that transformation. He tosses a grin over his shoulder at Roxas, whose face is lit in odd angles from the fire and whose Keyblade is bright and glittering. “C’mon, let’s have some fun.”

++++++++++

When he steps through the portal, the stench of darkness is so strong that he nearly gags from it; as it is, Riku has to clap a hand over his mouth and breathe very slowly and deliberately for long minutes before the urge to vomit passes. He opens his eyes and sees nothing but parched broken earth–where there is grass, it’s brown and black and crumbles to dust at the slightest touch when he starts to move forward. On instinct, he summons Way to Dawn, gripping the hilt so tightly his knuckles ache. Vertigo wells up in him again, and after a few paces he has to acknowledge that it’s just become genuinely difficult to breathe. He turns, ready to go back, when blackness surges across his vision and he falls.

Riku awakens somewhere that is only physically dark, and the first thing he does is take a huge, desperate gulping breath. He sits halfway up, propping himself on his elbows, looking around: he’s in a forest, and overhead is a pale wispy sliver of moon. He takes another deep breath and catches, again, just the very faintest taint of darkness–the same horrible stomach-churning sort from before–and something that is similar-but-not, alien and familiar both. He sits up completely and looks at the man sitting across from him: he’s dressed in pink and purple and has long blond hair that pools around his crossed legs, and it should look ridiculous, but the look on his face is hard and unfriendly.

“That, my friend, was a very foolish thing,” he says immediately. His tone matches his face, but there is a edge of bitter arrogance that Riku recognizes all too well. “What did you think you were doing, wandering in a cursed area by yourself? You were lucky I was there to help.”

He looks down at his hands, biting back the instinctive desire to snap in turn. He closes them into fists on his knees and relaxes them–open, close, open, close. “I’m looking for something,” he says at last. “To help someone who’s important to me.”

The man is silent for a moment. Then he says, “You won’t find that in a cursed area, my friend. It will be a long time before anything will grow there, never mind hope.”

He sounds so tired and so unhappy and so familiar that Riku looks up again. There are a multitude of emotions in the man’s eyes, visible even in the dim light, and Riku knows each and every one of them. A corner of the man’s mouth curls, not quite a snarl, in equal recognition. Riku considers for a moment, then laces his fingers together–he can no longer remember how Sora’s hand felt in his, when they were little and it was still all right to hold hands when they ran up and down the beach. He can’t remember the exact color of his friend’s eyes.

He says, “I’m looking for a way to awaken the sky.”

“Hah!” the man snorts–but it’s a tired sort of exclamation, and then he reaches into his coat and produces a small flask, which he tosses at Riku. When uncapped, it smells potently alcoholic. “And I am waiting for the sun to rise. It will be a long vigil for the both of us. Here’s to our own faults.” He turns his face upwards and closes his eyes, but his own hands are curled into white-knuckled fists against the ground. “I am Waka.”

Riku bites the inside of his cheek and tastes blood. “Riku,” he says shortly, and drinks.

++++++++++

The day of the Kamiki Festival, a stranger arrives in the village.

This by itself isn’t strange–the inn is already full to bursting with newcomers waiting for the night’s festivities, and more still are camping out on Shinshu Field. Everyone is too busy to do more than greet him briefly–a grizzled man, dressed in the heavy furs and robes of the northern people; he wears a dog-mask over his face and his hair is rough and gray. He speaks to only one person and only once, asking for the location of the shrine to the great wolf, Shiranui. When he’s pointed in the direction, he goes without ever looking back, walking with slow deliberation, one foot after the other until he reaches the sacred place.

Once there, he takes sits cross-legged on the grass, which has grown tall and wild, and uncorks a bottle with his teeth. Some he pours onto the ground before the stone monument, and some he drinks.

“The Poncles are gone,” he says quietly. “Or at least, they’ve closed up Yoshpet for good. Even Lika can’t find them any more. Guess even Issun got tired of dealing with everything.” He sighs deeply. “We’ve got kids now who don’t believe Poncles were ever real, now. You tell them the stories of what happened and they think it’s just a story. The winters are getting colder, too. Or maybe that’s just my bones feeling it more. Sometimes I think I could be fine, but then …” He sucks on his teeth a moment and takes another drink. “I didn’t think growing old would be like this. I expected more. I wanted–”

He closes his eyes. He thinks of a wolf whose white fur shone cleaner and brighter than virgin snow, whose eyes had looked at him and seen through every lie he’d told himself, and who’d still decided he was someone worth saving. He opens his eyes again.

“I don’t know what I wanted,” he says. “I don’t know what I want. Except I think I’d like to see you again.”

He pours the rest of the sake out before the statue and gets to his feet, laying a weathered hand on weathered stone, fingers tracing over the wolf’s features, faded nearly to obscurity by the weather. It’s a poor copy, and the craftsmanship is more awkward than skilled, but there is a dull echo here, like his memories of long ago.

“Thank you,” he says.

++++++++++

In the back of the dark room, the thing hums and chitters to itself.

It has been named: biwa-yanagi. It has been identified: the discarded instrument of a musume-gidayu who’d been seduced and abandoned by the master of the house. It sings: ah, ahh, my love has gone from me, there are no more stars in this endless night. Its fingers are long and red, leaving stains when they drag against the walls.

In the bedroom there is a dead body.

It is a young man–the young master, recently become the head of the house at the death of his father. Reckless and drunk on his new power and money, he plied a young performer with all of his charm and wealth and then opened his hands and watched her fall through, laughing the entire time. His organs have been removed and spun long and thin, laid out ready beside him. The one from his heart has already been used to replace a frayed string for the biwa-yanagi.

In the hallway is young woman cowering in terror.

It is the young bride of the master of the house, the daughter of a noble family who have fallen on hard financial times and married off as a sacrifice for money. Her long hair has been pulled free of its pins and she has a wild-eyed look of mad terror that will never completely leave her. She had left for a moment to refresh herself and had returned to her husband’s body laid open. His heart had never been hers, but now it is forever beyond her grasp.

And there is a man: white-skinned as paper or snow, with ash-blond hair that is mostly tucked away under a purple kerchief. He dresses in bright colors of red and gold and blue, and there is a sword in one hand, not yet drawn. He has a smile that is full of sharp teeth, and he walks past the young bride without looking at her; his stride is purposeful and confident.

He says, “Ah. How human your regret is, to want his heart entirely for your own.” The sword moves a few degrees out of its sheath. “You regret that he could not be yours … and your vengeance gives you determination.

“But it is no good, like this,” he says. “A mononoke is something that should not exist in this world. And that is why …”

Later, the young bride will say that she watched the whole thing, that she’d watched the man who called himself a medicine-seller draw a sword that flashed golden like the light of the sun, and how the biwa-yanagi had screamed like a dying woman as it was cut down, how for an instant the medicine-seller had looked like something alien and inhuman himself, with suddenly-dark skin and white hair, smiling as a biwa clattered to the floor, sliced in half.

“I don’t know why,” she says, and doesn’t look anyone in the eye. “I don’t understand why, he never said. He just left.”

For the rest of her life, she sleeps with the lights undoused and never again sets foot in a theater.

++++++++++

Did you know, Kaito says one afternoon, why the robin’s breast is red?

Meiko gives him a disgusted look and says nothing; Kamui is apparently so lost in his thoughts that he doesn’t hear. So Len says, Why?

Because, Kaito says, once upon a time, there were only two robins in the entire world, a pair of lovers. But there came a year when one fell ill, and so could not sing properly even as spring came to the land. She was so cold! And her lover feared for her life, so he set out on a quest to bring her something to warm her. Maybe fire, but fire is dangerous when your home is made of twigs and leaves! And would it be warm enough? She was so cold! So he thought, I should go and ask the sun for help. And he found the sun while she was walking from one end of the day to the other, and he said, oh, please come help me! My love will die without you!

But this was the sun, who was so great and powerful that the single voice of a tiny robin could not reach her, and he drew too close to her fine robes and burned his breast there. Oh, what a sad bird he was! He was forced to return home, and found that his lover had died waiting for him. In his grief, he tore open his breast, and his red blood scattered everywhere, staining his burned feathers and turning them the same color–and everywhere his blood fell, another bird came to life. These were the children of his mourning, and then he laid himself upon the body of his lover and he died.

That is why the robin’s breast is red, he says.

That’s a terrible story, Meiko snaps, her mouth pinched at the corners. Why would you tell such a thing?

Kaito taps a finger to his lips and smiles. I thought we could use a story, he says. If Milady Meiko doesn’t like what my poor collection has to offer, perhaps she could tell some herself. He looks past her to Len, and for a moment he opens his eyes and they are the same dark blue as a starless night. He says, Do you understand?

Len looks down and finds that he is gripping his necklace, so tightly that the metal edges are digging into his fingers–they’ve left behind red grooves in his flesh. He forces himself to let go and turns away, looking to the mountain that looms in the distance. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, listening to Rin’s song. The closer they get, the farther away she seems.

I understand, he says, and it’s only halfway a lie.

++++++++++

They bury Senator Oak’s wife on a Sunday. She is wrapped in a heavy blue dress that makes her look even more ghastly pale than normal, with a high neck to hide the Kor’s mark on her breast. The bishop who presides over the funeral is one in the Oak family’s employ, and if he knows anything about the circumstances, he says nothing about it in his sermon, droning on about the grace of God and the mercy of the heavens. Officially her cause of death is listed as a sudden illness–a weak constitution and a cool wet summer conspiring together to cut her life short too soon.

Two days later, her son disappears as well.

It was a great tragedy, the reports say–Senator Oak is stoic the whole time, but he speaks eloquently of his losses, his grief at the death of his wife and an offer of a great reward for the return of his son. His aides report that behind the closed and locked doors of his study, they’ve heard the sound of weeping, and his mistress hasn’t been called for in days. The nobles of Barsburg shake their heads and murmur condolences to each other and to their servants to pass along to the Oak family, to show their support in his time of need. Weeks drag into months, and while the reward is never officially rescinded, people eventually stopped looking, and the senator’s mistress is reinstalled to her place of favor–and then, five years after the death of his first wife, Senator Oak replaces her fully.

At the insistence of the bride, they send for a bishop from the Seventh District to officiate the ceremony. She is glad to be officially joined to her lover, she says, and she wants for the marriage to be proper in the eyes of God as well as the state. The one who arrives is a young man, only having recently passed his exams, but highly recommended nevertheless. He wears both gloves and his veil at all times–he was very dedicated to his faith, he says, and as a result he preferred to remain covered to show that devotion. Senator Oak frowns, but his bride-to-be praises this and lays her hand on his arm to distract him; he frowns a moment longer then acquiesces to her wishes.

The day of the wedding dawns clear and bright, with light streaming in through the church’s stained-glass windows to the deep red carpet, as if to illuminate the path to the altar. Senator Oak is an appropriately dashing figure in his dark suit, his salt-and-pepper hair neatly combed; his bride is radiant in white silk and lace, a lovely bouquet of red roses clasped to her breast. The entire church is packed, every seat filled with more people standing in the back and yet more peering in through the windows. The young bishop himself appears to be nearly haloed by the light, and his voice is deep and clear as he recites the lines of the marriage-ceremony. As all of us have sworn to the Chief of Heaven before birth, so now do these two swear unto each other to be true and faithful, to protect and to guard, to accept even when no others in this world might …

He lifts his veil. His eyes are sharp and violet; his hair is fine pale blond, and a ripple of shock goes through the crowd of wedding-goers: the resemblance to the senator’s son, five long years missing, is unmistakable. The bride shrinks back, but the groom meets the bishop’s eyes unflinchingly, though he is white and bloodless as stone.

“Hakuren,” he says.

The bishop smiles; it doesn’t reach his eyes. “Father,” he says. “Have you confessed your sin, yet?”

“I have no sin,” Senator Oak says. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“You did nothing,” the bishop says. “And that is your sin. How do you think Mother felt, knowing that her husband would choose his honor over her soul?” He puts a hand on his chest and raises his voice, and it rings out clear and pure, so that everyone in the crowded church can hear him. “When you took up with your mistress and abandoned her, but wouldn’t allow her the freedom of a divorce–when she wished for some measure of peace to a Kor, and you refused to send for a bishop to save her soul–you did nothing.

Senator’s face goes even paler, then nearly purple; his bride recoils as if struck, staring at him as if he were some sort of stranger. He opens and closes his mouth a few times, like a landed fish, but manages no sound. His son continues, his voice reaching a triumphant crescendo: “Even when I did the research and asked for you to send for someone–someone who’d had good luck in curing people–you said that you would rather she die than the truth of her condition be known amongst your peers. You did nothing, and in doing so, damned the woman you had sworn everything to.”

He lowers his voice then, and is nearly gentle when he adds: “You may now kiss your bride.”

+++

Hours after the failed ceremony (the bride had fled the church in tears; Senator Oak had been pulled away for “questioning” and the crowds were still milling around, buzzing excitedly with the gossip), a young priest tugs open his collar and stares at his face in the mirror, and the mark that is imprinted now on his skin, just above his collarbone. His expression is tired and haunted; with his pale hair and pale skin, he’s drawn-out, nearly transparent from the exhaustion.

“I’ve done what I could,” he tells the mirror. “Forgive me, Mother.”

++++++++++

The Nightray family is one best suited for shadows. If there must be light, let it be obscuring and faint–let it be something that raises as many questions as it reveals anything. Let the idiotic Vesalius revel in the light as their birthright. We are the stronger family, and our truth is the proper one.

It’s the mantra Gil has heard for years, and from Duke Nightray himself, repeated so often that he’s wondered if the man wasn’t simply trying to convince himself. Vesalius was the enemy, to be ridiculed and looked down upon in the privacy of the family estates, away from the disapproving faces of the Lainsworth and the prying eyes of the Barma. The other two Houses at least knew when and how to get their hands dirty when necessary, but the Vesalius House acted as if there is no evil that can reach them, no sin that is worth their effort getting involved in. For the Nightray, who built their livelihood on the borderline legal, it was a frustrating existence.

Gil understood–by god, he did–but, he knew, it was too late for him to believe. He remembered Oz’s smile and Ada’s shy hand in his, and he can’t exactly stop remembering–they’re part of him, like a phantom limb that continued to pain him years after being severed. He learned to fire a gun, the proper way to administer fifteen types of poison (six without an antidote), and where the soft places were between a man’s ribs for a knife to slide through, and he did it remembering the flowers Ada would braid into a crown for him and the smile on Oz’s face when he brought tea.

“Brother, you’re done.” Hands folded over Gil’s own, stopping his restless movement with the handkerchief. His head snapped up, and he found himself less than a handsbreadth away from his brother. “Vince–”

“It was a neat job, as always,” Vincent said. He smiled, though his hands were like iron, pressed around Gil’s own. He doesn’t look at the other guests of this little gathering–a revolutionary group of some sort, planning some sort of coupe against the Council of Lords (Gilbert hadn’t bothered to ask, or even read the names on the list he’d been given: he skimmed the photos and matched each to a face at this party)–all dead now, slumped in their chairs. The lily centerpiece had been knocked over at some point, spilling water and flowers across the small table; a few lie crushed on the floor and the air is heavy with bruised greenery. Vincent reached over and took a wine glass, sniffing the contents briefly before he pushed it into Gil’s hands. “Go ahead, take a drink. I think you’ve earned it.”

Gil scowled, staring at the glass. “I don’t want it.”

“You’re in no shape for walking,” Vincent said. “Go on, Brother. I shan’t tell Father what you’ve been doing.”

“Vince–”

“Brother.” Vincent pushes the glass up until the cool rim is pressed to Gil’s mouth and the smell of the wine strong on his next inhale. “Just one drink. All right?” He let go of Gil’s hands to touch his cheek instead, gentle as a lover. He was close enough for the scent of his cologne to be noticeable–something light and clean, pale as the moonlight that moves in through the open, uncurtained windows. “I’ll take care of you. So trust me, all right?”

Gil squeezed his eyes shut, opened his mouth, and drank deep.

++++++++++

“Why,” Allen says, irritation dripping from each syllable, “why, why, why did you do that?”

Lavi peeks around the corner, then squawks and immediately ducks back to safety as a knife goes whistling past. “I didn’t think he’d be right there! I was just talking! Why is this somehow a bad thing?!”

“Because you should have known better!” Allen cringes as Komurin XXV begins clomping down the hallway again, each footstep echoing hollowly. “All of you should have known better! And why am I involved in this? I was innocent!”

“You agreed with me,” Lavi yelps. “You were totally there agreeing the whole way! ‘Oh Lenalee’s really cute with her short hair but I’m glad she’s growing it out again,’ that’s what you said! You’re just as guilty! You shouldn’t have done that!”

“If we get out of this alive, I’m never speaking to you again.”

“Promises, promises–DUCK!”

++++++++++

The first time, they sent her off into the darkness.

There would be two hundred and eighty-six stairs, she was told: one for each utahime that had come before her. When her time came, she would be added as another number to these stairs, and that is how her successor would remember the weight of her life. The dragon itself would carve it out and retreat deeper into the earth, angrier and more restless than before. She was to count each step, so she would know not to falter on her way down, and to remember that she herself was not irreplaceable.

In time, said the High Priestess, whose hands were cold and whose eyes were sad, you will not even remember that you needed light in the first place.

Down she goes, counting each step, remembering each face she was taught to associate with each. Ame. Fuu. Coco. Sara. Sayu. Teto. Each one is a lesson she has been taught: don’t hold on to your past life, don’t hold anything of yourself back, don’t let yourself be anything but the dragon’s utahime, and in this way, you will save the world. You were brought here as an infant because your family would not keep you once they learned of your destiny–don’t think of them, for they don’t think of you.

Don’t be silly: there is no boy with your face looking for you. You belong to the dragon and the dragon alone.

She reaches the dragon’s cavern. The whole place is lit with a pale blue phosphorescence, and after the darkness of the entrance, she is nearly dazzled. It takes her a moment to place the dragon itself, huge and dark, lurking against the far wall of the cave. Like an ouroborous, it curls with its tail coiled under its chin, one huge golden eye wide open and pinned on her. To her surprise, she feels no fear in this moment–instead, there is something very nearly like joy that sparks in her veins, a fierce pride that makes her smile as she crosses the distance to the creature’s side. Maybe she cannot fight–she will never be a soldier, or a priestess, or even the Dragon’s Oracle–but she can sing, and it will be her voice that protects everyone, even the family that has forgotten her.

“I am Rin,” she says, and puts a hand on the dragon’s face; the scales are rough and hot under her fingers. “Today, I want to sing a song about the sun.”

++++++++++

“It is like this,” Naveen says, and demonstrates lip-pucker and lash-flutter. “In this way, she is like butter in your hands. You are her Prince Charming! She swoons, and you must catch her.” He holds out his arms in a cradling motion. “But you must be strong enough to hold onto her. You can do that, no?”

“Of course I can!” Sora says. He thumps a hand against his chest. “Wait, show me the second bit again.”

“Like this–”

“This?”

“No, no, this–”

“Like this?”

(Inside, Riku pours himself a fresh cup of coffee and leans against the wall, which allows him a clear view of the two outside. “Did that sort of stuff really work?” he asks idly.

Tiana snorts, though there’s more affection than not in her voice when she answers. “He’d love you to think it did,” she says. “But it makes him happy to pretend, and as long as that sweetheart of yours doesn’t take it too seriously either, it’ll be fine.”)

“Wait, wait, I got it! This way!”

“Ah, my friend, you still have a long way to go …”

++++++++++

As a younger student, Naoto had nightmares.

He dreamed about an abandoned snow-covered amusement park and some distant, horrible terror that even upon waking lingers as a sharp tightness in his chest. He remembered shambling dark figures wielding weapons, madness in their eyes, and–the one bright point of the whole thing–a warm hand in his, a voice saying his name. Waking from them, he can never quite tell what’s real and what isn’t–he was in his bed but a shadow at the window holds up a scythe; he drank coffee from a shattered cup; he automatically bundled up against the snow on a sunny day.

When he’d been in high school, he’d had them nearly nightly–and as he’d gotten older, they’d begun to space out, and by his third year of college, they stopped. He was glad for it: he could hear his parents discussing it in worried hushed tones at night sometimes, when they thought he was in his room studying: his mother said it was because of the fights they’d had when Naoto was young; his father agreed and they would go in circles on what to do about it, too subdued to work themselves into another fight. He could only be grateful they ended on their own.

And in his third year of college, he bumps into a student on campus–with both of them looking in the wrong direction and hurrying, it was a rather spectacular collision. Papers went flying, and Naoto immediately scrambled to gather his as the other boy did the same. An apology automatically came to his lips, but the other beat him to it: “Aw, man, I’m sorry–shit, I’m gonna be late, Haruki’s gonna kill me.”

“Eh?” Naoto paused, cocking his head. Something about the voice was familiar to him, nagging just at the corners of his awareness. “I beg your pardon?”

“You have it,” the other boy said. He stuffed his papers into the bag slung by his side and gets to his feet. He had messy brown hair and clear brown eyes, distracted for the moment by patting himself down. “Anyway, sorry about that, if Haruki asks, tell him it’s not my fault, okay? See ya!”

Then he was gone before Naoto could tell him he didn’t know who “Haruki” was. Bemused, he turned his head to watch the other boy go, running now, nimbly dodging through the pairs and thin crowds of students on their way to the next class. For a moment a name bubbled up on his lips, more dear to him than his own–then it’s gone.

His phone rang–his brother’s ringtone. He pulled it out, still watching the direction the stranger had gone. “Kirito? Uh-huh. Yeah, sorry, I ran into someone. No, no one I knew, I literally ran into him–haha, I know. I’ll be there soon.”

Kanzaki Naoto snapped his phone shut, tucked his papers on his arm, and went on his way.

++++++++++

“I should think I’d like to retire to the country, someday,” Holmes says one rainy afternoon. He is on the desk by the windowsill, one hip hitched onto the edge and his arms hanging loosely by his sides; at first glance, he could easily be mistaken for a scarecrow, with his dark hair askew and his smoking-jacket hanging loose and open, nearly off his shoulders. It’s been a bad patch recently: a full five-and-twenty petitions have come to his door, and he’s dismissed each one. When Watson comes to call on him, he finds the study in greater disarray than usual, and Mrs Hudson merely shakes her head and clucks when he inquires on Holmes’ health. He stands in the doorway, hat in hand, and frowns.

“You’d be bored stiff, in the country,” he says. “There aren’t many crimes for a consulting detective out there.”

“To retire, I said!” Holmes flaps a hand listlessly, never looking away from the streets, blanketed in a steady gray downpour. “When I’ve decided to leave all this nonsense behind, I shall become a hermit in the country. I shall keep bees and ignore anyone who tries to talk to me.”

“You do that already,” Watson tells him. “When was the last time you ate anything?”

“And if I should desire some mental stimulation, country cases are always the most wretchedly complicated,” Holmes goes on. “All those old families, with barely any fresh blood–hah! A cousin to the vicar could murder his wife’s great-aunt and you’d find a dozen more connections between them. A case like that could occupy me for a full working-week.”

Watson takes a step into the study and bends to pick up a sheaf of papers from the ground. “Penny-dreadfuls, Holmes? Honestly, I expected different.”

Holmes snorts. “My normal source of shock literature has up and vacated the premises,” he says, his tone lofty now as he addresses the ceiling. “I believe he chose the affections of the soft and feminine to the mental acrobatics of the sharp and masculine.”

“Holmes,” Watson says warningly. “I thought we were through with this–”

“And we are!” In a sudden flurry of movement, Holmes launches himself from his perch on the desk, spinning to sweep it clean of glasses and papers alike with his arm; Watson cringes a little at the breaking glass. It hardly seems to concern Holmes, who leaps over the mess and crosses the room to take Watson’s hands, pumping them almost jovially, as if it had been longer than a week since they’d last spoken face-to-face. “But I see that you’re here to extend a dinner invitation, and I am glad to say that I will be happy to come.”

“You–will? How on earth–”

“It is only two-thirty on a Thursday, and yet a busy doctor such as yourself has taken the time to visit the old companion of his bachelorhood.” Holmes spins away again, raking his fingers through his hair to pull it into some semblance of order. “It is pouring-down rain, but your shoulders and hat are only sprinkled upon. You’ve taken most of the day to spend with your lovely miss, but tonight there will be a dinner between yourself and a precious few friends, of which I am most fortunate if you count me amongst them. You even took a carriage, though a man such as yourself prefers to walk, even when his leg is paining him.” Holmes turns and his grin is a wide and cheeky thing. “I shall be there, of course. And I shall wear a jacket.”

“Oh,” says Watson. He doesn’t quite miss this feeling of always being just a little bewildered around Holmes, but he doesn’t quite not miss it, either. He puts his hat back on. “Good.”

++++++++++

The tradition goes like this: when someone dies in your house, wash the body and prepare it for the funeral. Call a monk if you absolutely must, but be sure that everything is completed before sundown. Once it gets dark, bring the body out, wrapped in its white robes and with its hands folded upon its breast. Keep your eyes only on the dead person’s body, don’t look up no matter what you hear calling for you from your house, from the night, from the village streets. Give it the matsugo-no-mizu. Move as fast as you can, because it’s rude to not be completely prepared when your guests come.

At midnight you will hear them. They do not bother to hide their footsteps, which jingle and clank with chains and worse, and they sing together, come come we’ll take you along. It’s a true story; there was a family who left their dog out when it howled and begged at the door, and the beast never returned again. Sometimes when they come, you can hear a dog whining with their song. Sometimes you can see foxfire through your window, but don’t look at it directly. No one knows exactly what might happen if you do, but it’s for the wiser, don’t you think? Once upon a time they had a priest recite sutras and banish them; oh, that was bad luck indeed. They never found the man’s head, and the harvest was bad for seven years after.

In the morning, the body you’ve left for them is gone. In its place will be a gold piece. It’s just normal metal, too; no one’s ever suffered from using it. If you go down to the graveyard, you’ll find a new marker and freshly-turned earth that’s covered in small footprints, and there will be your dead family member: name and kaimyou both. Are there really bodies buried underneath? If you’re brave, you can approach the little house that stands on the edge of the graveyard, as far away from the village as possible while still being on that same plot of land. You can knock and speak your name, and if you are answered by the girl, you may ask your question. Some people have become very rich this way: the mayor got his position based on advice she gave him, it’s said.

If you are answered by the boy, let us hope your family knows the proper rituals when your time comes.

++++++++++

On the first day of April, a man comes to the shop.

He is dressed in the style of peddlers from years ago: a bright haori and carrying a large wooden box upon his back; his sandals are tall and punctuate each step: clop, clop, clop. Maru and Moro hide as he passes, but he passes them without a second glance, heading straight for the back room, with its screens and its ever-present smoke. He opens the door without announcing himself.

“Watanuki Kimihiro,” he says.

The boy on the couch opens his eyes. “You came,” he says, but he does not sit up.

“I always keep my promises,” the man says. He comes into the room, and even the carpet cannot muffle the sound of his footsteps: clop, clop, clop. With a graceful movement, he shrugs off the box he carries upon his back and sets it down on the low table between him and the boy on the couch. He says, “As promised, I have brought the payment.”

Watanuki sits up carefully. His black sleeves are nearly as long as he is tall, embroidered with gold lotus blossoms; the high collar and the front of the shirt are closed by gold frogs. He folds his long hands in his lap and nods to the man, who is as bone-pale as he is, to proceed.

The peddler opens the box and pulls out a small jewelry box, which he hands over. Inside is a pearl so lustrous that it glows even in the shadowed recesses of the box, nestled in a cushion of silk. Watanuki cups the box in both hands, and he says, “This is only half.”

“And he did not return in his original form, as he wished,” the peddler says smoothly. “You cannot take full payment for a wish that was not fully-granted.”

Watanuki’s lips thin for a moment. Then he sighs and closes the box, tucking it away into a pocket. “He asked for something that should have been forbidden. This shop isn’t meant for that sort of thing–no one’s allowed to do that.” Nearly hidden by his long sleeves, his fingers tighten and relax.

“There are many different rules,” the peddler says. He closes one drawer of his box and opens another. “You weren’t reviving the dead. You were allowing the already-dead to choose its form.”

“It’s still too close,” Watanuki tells him, and pulls out a small thin box from under the couch he sits on. He hands it over and the peddler tucks it into the open drawer of his box without bothering to check its contents. “If it were that easy …”

“Some things,” the peddler says, “are only complicated because you think on them too deeply.”

He bows, and he goes on his way.

++++++++++

“Let’s play hide-and-seek,” the strange girl breathes. She can only seem to talk in whispers and sighs, and her eyes are strange and very round, but there is something delicate and charming about her. Her hair is a lovely shade of blond that is nearly white and looks very soft. Lizzie thinks only for a moment and nods; it’s late enough that her parents have both gone to bed, and there is a lovely full moon that night. When the girl holds out her hand, thin and bird-boned, Lizzie takes it and climbs out her window.

“You hide,” the girl says, as they walk hand-in-hand across the meadow. She smells like flowers and like the way honey tastes. “I will seek. My other friends will be hiding too. Don’t steal their places.”

Lizzie looks around. There is the village to her left and the forest to her right, and around her otherwise is the meadow where her brother brings their sheep in the morning. She sees no one else. “Where are they?”

“They are already hiding,” the girl says. “Hurry. I will count.” And as if to demonstrate, she steps back and covers her eyes with her thin white hands and begins: one, two, three, four. Lizzie hitches up the skirts of her nightgown and runs; the air is cool on her hot cheeks; there is something exciting about this–being out when no one knows she is off having fun, being able to skip away without being scolded for neglecting her chores. She runs for the forest–the village has dogs, and she doesn’t want to be caught this early from the fuss they’d kick up.

Inside the forest, the tree branches have grown so close together that it’s very nearly pitch-dark, but there is just enough light for her to run. Lizzie finds a good solid oak tree whose branches are low enough for her to reach, if she stretches, so she catches one and climbs up into the leafy crown. She tucks herself in the crook between branch and trunk and strains her hearing for the approach of her playmate. What she hears instead are two voices, two boys, that come from beneath her:

“I am so hungry! Where is she? She promised to bring us something.”

“Patience. It is still early. And humans are slow to wake, and they are so heavy. I am sure she will have one for us soon.”

“I want to eat now! Oh, my stomach, it is caving in! I will eat her if she does not bring something back.”

“There, there she is now! Be quiet, hush now.”

Lizzie pulls in her own breath and holds it, trembling. She can see the girl now, wandering through the forest, pale and her hair glowing from its own light. She looks strange in the shadows of the trees, too long and brittle in places, like she might snap in half with the right pressure. She is calling out now, her voice still breath and sweet, like the moan of the wind through tree branches: “Lizzie, Lizzie, come out, come out! I am coming to find you now!”

“Oh,” says one of the boys who is below her. “They are playing a game! Is this the time for that? I am so hungry!”

“We should look as well,” says the second boy. “If there is no food, we shall have to draw straws. At least she is going and looking, but all you do is complain.”

“I am the youngest,” the first boy cries. “You should be taking care of me! And I am too weak to look for food!”

“You are too foolish, while our sister is too kind,” the second boy says. “I am getting tired of your complaining.”

“Ah! Don’t push! Oh! I’ll fall! I will!”

The branch beneath Lizzie shakes. Her chest aches from holding her breath so tightly for so long, but she presses herself closer to the tree’s trunk and watches. The girl who had asked her to play is now circling beneath the tree, and she is still calling Lizzie’s name–oh where are you, come out, when you come out, we shall have dinner.

“Oh! Oh! I’m falling!” the first boy cries, and the girl far below looks up. Her eyes are completely round and completely black, and her mouth is a round “O” full of sharp teeth. A moment later a body comes crashing from the branch below Lizzie, and she sees it is a boy: he has the same lovely pale hair and the same too-thin limbs and a too-large head. He is screaming, a high thin shrill wail, and for a moment his eyes lock with Lizzie’s as he tumbles. He points accusingly, and then he hits the ground. There is a terrible crunching noise, and something bright green and slick splashes up from that contact, across the feet of Lizzie’s playmate.

There is a silence, and then the girl bares her teeth again and cries out in a strange high voice. A moment later she is on the body, one thin arm in her mouth, chewing furiously. Lizzie watches as a second boy emerges from the branch and scuttles down it headfirst, like a squirrel, and joins his sister at their meal. They snap and growl at each other, like the dogs do over fresh bones, and their faces are smeared with green. Lizzie allows herself a single small breath as she listens to them eat; she closes her eyes and turns away. They sing to each other as they do, the words garbled and strange: meat is meat, even if it is cold and dry, and their bellies are filled again tonight.

Lizzie remains tucked in her hiding place for the rest of the night. She doesn’t come down until she hears her mother calling for her in the morning.

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