for his loyalty

It is war that takes Uther Pendragon’s life: his war on magic, which in turn spreads to a clash with a baron desperate to keep his daughter’s magical studies hidden, sends Camelot marching to her king’s death. No one can say exactly how it happened, only that the king fell as the sun rose on the eighth day of battle, toppled from his horse by the gravity of a stopped heart. It is his son who takes up his fallen banner, who roars challenge and fights with the vicious anger of the newly-orphaned; it is his son who brings the baron to his knees and forces the opposing army to surrender: to be certain, his own army rose with him, but the stories that follow from this day always mention Arthur and Arthur alone by name, great and terrible both in his grief–bloodied and still shining golden under the last rays of the setting sun.

The king is dead; long live the king.

The stories precede them: Camelot is already draped in colors of both mourning and celebration by the time the army returns, limping and diminished, and the moment Arthur dismounts he is swept up into an inexorable tide of people. Everyone has to speak with him at once, from councilors to envoys to servants, their voices competing with one another until everything came together in a terrible cacophony of sound. He is the picture of remarkable poise and grace and so cements more of his legend into place. By the time Merlin finds him and beats off the lingering vultures (a metaphor, certainly, but one perhaps more literal than Merlin himself likes, and he would have to be blind to miss the flash of naked relief in Arthur’s eyes after he chased off the last pinch-faced minister), there are already people murmuring about the new king’s inhuman patience and calm, how he seems less like a man and more like an ideal, rock-solid as if his feet were rooted directly in Albion’s soil. That is how a king should be, they whisper with satisfaction, and no disrespect to his lord father, but that’s only the truth of the matter.

It is only hours later, when things are dark and still and Merlin is the only other person with him, that Arthur shares his opinion on the matter: it was a relief–a lifetime of obsessive hatred changes a man, however noble his intentions once were. It was a relief, because Uther was starting to lose himself. He was becoming less of a father and a man, more of a caricature of hate. Maybe in this way, dying in battle with sword raised and banner high, people would someday remember him as he was: the king who brought peace and prosperity to Camelot and loved his kingdom so well she was always first and foremost in his thoughts, as much–if not more–as an older sibling to Arthur as Morgana. Maybe his legacy would not be forever tarnished by the madness and decline of his later years.

Maybe.

Merlin listens to him say these things, low and hoarse–embarrassed confessions that Arthur will completely disavow in the morning–and says nothing for once; he knows what it is like to lose a father, and he has learned enough to realize when his silence is his greatest comfort.

+++

Uther’s funeral ends with Arthur’s coronation. Arthur dislikes the idea, his lips pinched white and his eyes tight at the corners–but he cannot argue the practicalities of it, with the kingdom nervously waiting her proper king and rivals eying Camelot’s borders with hungry speculation. He wears Pendragon’s red and gold without a scrap of black, but it does not take a particularly observant person to see he is mourning. Still, he keeps his back straight and his shoulders squared, even as he kneels to accept his crown, and Merlin almost can’t watch, because his heart has swelled nearly to a point of pain. He joins the cheering with a fervor that might have embarrassed him once upon a time; now, he only hopes that Arthur hears him, and is comforted by that.

Afterward, everything comes together into a blur: Uther’s death was ill-timed (but then, there is very rarely a good time for a king to die, even with a proper and acknowledged heir left behind him), in the deep, suffocating cold months that follow midwinter and in the midst of delicate trade treaties. There are agreements that must be reworded, lines that must be redrawn, and Camelot’s young new king spends his time in discussion and political maneuvering. He has little time for sleep and less for meals; it takes Merlin and Gwen both working together to ambush him before he will accept either. He ages in those long months and Camelot holds her breath to see which way he will fall, when his plans and his treaties unfurl into action. The flurry of rumors and stories that began with his father’s death turn uneasy with speculation. Will he be a good king? the servants whisper to each other, and to their families in the lower city. He is a good man, and one who has grown remarkably in the past few years, but does that make him a good ruler? Is he ready for this responsibility?

Merlin holds his breath as well, counting the lines that begin to bracket Arthur’s eyes and mouth, and does what he can: a quick whispered spell to ensure that Arthur’s clothes are warmed, a charm that lets the heavy royal cloak block out all but the most persistent of winter winds, and more to keep the fire burning and the rooms draft-free. It is perversely easier now: the ban on magic still stands, but Arthur is not there to catch him, though Merlin lurks in the king’s chambers more than anywhere else–and if his efforts are noticed, no one is ready to bring it to the king’s attention just yet.

He prays, though, and he can feel the land stirring to life as the winter drags on to its slow and inevitable end. Albion shivers and stirs, and there is an excited thrumming in Merlin’s veins that he cannot suppress. It is the same way he felt the first time he looked at Arthur and saw the king the man could become–would become. As her last and truest king guides his kingdom through the pitfalls of winter, of food shortages and speculative whispering from bordering countries, the land awakens and begins to sing. The sound echoes in Merlin’s ears day and night, and he thinks it will keep him from sleeping, but instead, he sleeps better and more soundly than he can remember in his entire life.

On the first day of spring, the boy comes to Camelot.

+++

It takes several months of wheedling and subtle hints and a few blunt outright statements, but Merlin finally convinces his king to take a short ride, though they do not go even far enough to lose sight of the castle gates–the wind today is sweet, rather than the bitter aching cold of previous weeks, and it seems to do Arthur some good: he even smiles a little, though he is still quiet and subdued. The arrogant princeling is a persona that will take months to rebuild if it ever returns, and the quiet thoughtful man revealed in his place is someone Merlin is rather looking forward to getting to know. They don’t talk, but it isn’t a brooding silence; there is singing in Merlin’s ears and the nervous excited feeling of something–something–coming.

At the gates of the castle, when they return, is a boy.

He isn’t very old–more child than man, with tremendous bristling dark brows that didn’t match his fair hair. He dresses like a countryman, but his cloak is long and unstained by travel, and of finer quality than anything else he wears. Under those brows, his eyes are green as Albion’s hills, but that and the roundness of his face were the only softness in him–his face was set in a terrible scowl, his arms crossed over his thin chest. Arthur stops dead at the sight of him, an odd confusion plain on his face. For Merlin, though, the singing in his ears swells to its greatest crescendo, to the point where he couldn’t even hear anything else. Something shudders into life in his chest like a second heartbeat, a growing sense of excitement that, he thinks, could lift him off his feet and into the air with no effort by himself or his magic.

“You’re the king,” the boy says; his is one of the only voices that cuts through the cacophony in Merlin’s ears.

“And you’re …” Arthur’s voice is the other. A name forms on Merlin’s lips, but he can’t quite make himself speak it, just yet. Arthur frowns as if he has the same block, mouth twisting around a word that won’t come.

But: “My mother is Albion, who was your father’s, and your father’s father’s,” the boy says, his eyes clear and ageless under his heavy brows, “and I am yours.”

It’s utterly ridiculous and completely impossible and carries the weight of absolute truth. Merlin wants to laugh, and can see from Arthur’s face that he feels the same–but neither of them can manage it. Long seconds pass as king and boy stare at each other; the guards look to Merlin, who can only shrug helplessly.

Finally, though, never taking his eyes from the newcomer’s face, Camelot’s king holds his hand out to the boy who claims to be the son of his country. Gravely, the boy accepts it, and the two walk side-by-side, not quite touching beyond their clasped hands, and Merlin can only trot in their wake, trying his hardest to keep his feet on the ground. He does not entirely succeed, so he is grateful that his cloak is nearly long enough to hide that fact.

No one stops them as they enter the castle, as they make their way up the long stone stairs to the king’s private chamber. One courtier approaches them and abruptly pivots before he gets within hailing distance, and Merlin is fairly certain it isn’t his doing–but there is such a large part of his awareness that is preoccupied by that strange bubbling excitement; the entire kingdom is singing, and if he is nudging things to make sure that song doesn’t stop, he cannot entirely blame himself. The boy walks like a king himself, head high and back straight–but he clutches Arthur’s hand with a white-knuckled grip and his lips pressed together, like a child determined not to cry.

Once in his chamber, Arthur lets go of the boy’s hand slowly, almost reluctantly, then goes to throw himself into his chair. He steeples his fingers, his expression solemn.

“I think I remember you,” he says, as Merlin shuffles quietly in after both him and the boy, closing the door behind him and heading for the fire. In spite of himself, he strains to hear his king’s voice. “When I was a child–”

“Your father didn’t appreciate us,” the boy cuts in. His voice is too loud, and there are high spots of color in his cheeks; while his posture is still proud and tall, he is so painfully and clearly nervous that it’s painful to watch. “Mother Albion warned him–she told him it wouldn’t end well, and he banished her.” His fists ball up, trembling, and there is a tension in his shoulders and the lift of his chin, like he’s bracing for a blow. “We’re supposed to serve our leaders, but he didn’t want, he only–we went to the others, but they were never right, so–”

Arthur holds up a hand. The boy immediately falls silent, but he took a deep breath, puffing himself up further.

“I remember,” he says softly. “Father was furious for weeks after. We lost a border skirmish with Mercia that month, and we very nearly lost more. It took years to recover from that setback, and even then, we never really won all that territory back.” He leans back further in his chair, resting his chin on one hand, fingers splayed against his face; it is such a familiar gesture in such an alien situation that Merlin is struck by it, watching the shadows on Arthur’s face. “Was that you?”

“We don’t have the power to change the tides of war,” the boy says. “But we swear sword and shield to our liege, and there are none who know our lands better.” His lips press together, and his eyes sparkle dangerously wet. “And if we’re forbidden, there’s nowhere else for us to go.”

“Don’t cry,” Arthur says, and that is also a voice Merlin remembers, the prat under the king. He sits forward then, his blue eyes shadowed and glittering, intent as a hawk–as the dragon on his crest. Merlin finds himself holding his breath, the pounding of his heartbeat in his ears nearly enough to drown out the joyous singing he can still hear; his vision is overlaid with the image of clear skies with the Pendragon banner flying gloriously free. “You’re here for me, then? What do you want?”

“I’m here to serve you,” the boy says, and his face goes even redder; he fidgets without looking at anything but his own feet. “Whatever you want from me–if you’ll have me, your majesty, I–” He fumbles for a moment, then drops to his knees, hands clasped now as if in prayer or pleading. “I’ll serve you all your life. You’re going to be my king, everyone’s always said that, it’s supposed to be destiny–”

“I don’t believe in destiny,” says Arthur, and that is enough to make both the boy and Merlin stop. His expression is calm as he gets to his feet, his hands folded behind his back, and goes to stand before the fireplace. Backlit as he is, he is a powerful figure, the sort that legends could be made from, and his expression is absolutely unreadable. “I believe in hard work, and in determination. A man doesn’t need to be of noble birth to amount to something–and neither does he need sanction from some higher power in order to enact change.” He turns away from the fire and approaches the boy, drawing his sword.

Merlin freezes and opens his mouth to protest, but Arthur rests the blade on the boy’s shoulder instead, the flat of the blade on the narrow slope of flesh. He says, “You’ll follow me?”

“To the end of everything,” the boy says. He isn’t afraid any more: his eyes are clear and there is less tension in his posture; though there is a sword close to his exposed neck, he doesn’t flinch away. “Even if you don’t believe, I do.”

“That’ll do for now,” says Arthur. He steps back and sheaths his sword immediately, all without taking his eyes away from the boy’s face. “What do I even call you?”

“I am Albion,” the boy says. “Like my mother before me.” He glances over then, at Merlin, who hovers as unobtrusively as possible in the back of the chamber. “And you’re–”

“Merlin,” he says quickly. “Just Merlin. The king’s manservant.”

“And an utterly useless one at that,” Arthur says, but his mouth quirks into a smile, which is warmer than any expression he’s had for months. “He’s not bad for entertainment, though, which is why I keep him around.”

“Oy!”

Arthur leans forward and offers his hand to the boy–to Albion, who stares at it for a moment before clasping it again, and lets himself be helped to his feet. He clasps the boy’s other shoulder with his free hand and smiles, the firelight golden in his hair and reflected in his eyes. His gaze is distant, as if he can also see those clear skies and the flourishing country, and the land sheltered under the dragon’s wing. “We will do what’s best for our people,” he says, “and together we will build something great.”

+++

“I have to admit,” Merlin says later, “I’m surprised.”

“Hmmmm?” Arthur raises an eyebrow, one cheek stuffed with a torn chunk of bread. “And what’s that?”

“That boy,” Merlin says, “he just shows up, tells you he’s the–he’s the living embodiment of the entire country, and you just accept that? Poof, that’s it? Where’s all the the accusations of lies, where’s the yelling about magic and how you’ll never accept that, where’s–”

“Merlin,” Arthur sighs. “Merlin, Merlin, Merlin. Clearly, I shouldn’t have expected someone as uniquely thick as you are to understand the reasoning here–I’ll admit, it’s quite complicated, especially useless uneducated servants who get uppity–”

“Arthur.”

Arthur takes another bite, and his expression goes slowly sincere. “I meant what I said,” he says. “About remembering him. And the woman who came with him–you don’t forget someone like that.” He picks up his cup, but he doesn’t drink, staring down into its contents. “I’d never seen them before in my life, but when they showed up, it felt like I’d known them forever. And when they left …” His mouth twists abruptly, and he puts the cup away. “I don’t know. It was the right thing to do.”

“Even though you don’t believe in destiny,” Merlin says, and he can’t help himself, his voice is small and almost afraid. Arthur looks at him sharply.

“No,” he says finally, slowly. “I don’t. If you simply expect things to happened, merely because they’re destined–that’s taking the lazy man’s way out. I’d rather know the consequences of my actions are things I’ve earned, rather than something that was just handed to me, by right of my birth.”

From somewhere deep inside, Merlin dredges up a smile. Judging from the way Arthur’s frown deepens, it is not a very good one. “What a change,” he manages. “Wasn’t it just last year you were telling me that you should get things because you were the Crown Prince?”

Arthur’s tired half-smile is no better than his own, he knows. “The responsibilities of a prince versus those of a king are very different,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot.”

Silence spins out in the wake of that comment, and finally Merlin can’t stand it–he reaches out and tentatively brushes his fingers against the back of Arthur’s hand, still resting near his cup. The skin there is warm and rough from calluses, with only the barest promise of fragility in it–the delicacy of being mortal and fallible, and it takes more effort than he would like not to snatch that touch back at once. He looks at Arthur and Arthur looks at the fire, and just when he thinks that he’s being ignored, and move away, Arthur’s hand moves, lacing his fingers just barely with Merlin’s own.

“Is it all right, then,” Merlin says softly, “if I believe? In destiny and rot like that.”

Arthur’s eyes cut towards him again before the other man snorts in a moment of unexpected good humor. “I hardly think I could stop you,” he says dryly. “I could order you to do a thousand things, and you wouldn’t listen to a single one.”

That’s not entirely true, Merlin thinks; you could order a hundred things, and I would do a thousand.

Aloud, he says nothing, but he does not move his hand away.

+++

Merlin dreams:

Guinevere, with dozens of small white flowers embroidered into her hair, kneels in a ripple of cream-colored skirts under a night sky, nervous anticipation and hope both in her eyes. When a man appears at the edge of the garden, she leaps to her feet with a glad cry, and she kicks off her fine shoes to run barefoot to him; she throws something aside as she tosses herself into her lover’s arms, and the Pendragon emblem is softly outlined by fickle starlight. She whispers apologies between kisses and they are echoed back to her, but the man whose pain they regret is nowhere nearby, unaware of his betrayal.

(How could you, he cries; why would you, with what you had!)

A battlefield that is a thousand times worse than the one that claimed Uther’s life, enemies and allies alike lying dead and discarded, blood and mud and worse churned into the ruined earth. Two men in particular lie together as if locked in a lover’s embrace. One still struggles, choking on the blood that runs from both corners of his mouth, trying to push the deadweight of his killer off; his eyes roll like those of a terrified horse as a woman approaches them both, a second boyish figure trailing in her wake. They speak in low hushed voices, and the larger man, pliable and loose-limbed in death as he never was in life, is lifted into the boy’s arms. The woman raises her face and pulls back her hood, and Morgana looks down upon her companion’s burden with infinite sadness before she kneels to retrieve both fallen swords, and they walk away.

(No, he weeps; it isn’t true, it can’t be true, we were meant to be immortal.)

The boy–Albion–bows low to a woman who is agelessly beautiful and painfully sad, whose dress is the same shimmering misty grey of early morning. She accepts the dead man that her son has brought to her and cradles him like a mother would a beloved infant. She turns away and walks from the shore, slowly and calmly, and is swallowed up by the mists that shroud the Isle of the Blessed.

Merlin wakes.

The first thing he does is scrub his face, oddly furious at the tears on his cheeks, and then gets up, dressing in the peculiar light of pre-dawn, and he goes searching.

He finds the boy standing on the battlements, looking down at the sleeping veiled countryside. Though Merlin himself shivers in the chill, the boy doesn’t even seem to notice, his green eyes shadowed and thoughtful. He looks up once at Merlin’s approach and nods, solemnly, but does not say anything as Merlin takes a place by his side.

Merlin himself has to break the silence: “I thought you said you’d protect him.”

“I will serve him,” the boy corrects softly. “Like my mother served his grandfather, and would have served his father, if she’d been allowed.”

“But he’ll still–”

“All humans die,” the boy says, and the last few of Merlin’s lingering doubts are dashed away: there is something alien and sad in the boy’s face, and while there is understanding, there is no empathy. “Even the best and most beloved.”

“But Arthur–”

“Is the most beloved. He’ll still die. I can’t protect him from that.” For just a moment, Albion looks regretful, his small fingers going white-knuckled against the stone. “That’s part of his destiny.”

Merlin opens his mouth to protest–this cannot be, no one with Destiny could die like that, gasping and alone except for his killer–abandoned by everyone else until it was too late for anyone to reach him–but cannot make the words come out. Something in him trembles with the knowledge of inevitability. He swallows and it feels like a blade going down his throat. Albion turns to face him now, one hand still braced against the stone, the other outstretched.

“Until then, I will fight for him,” Albion tells him, young and so utterly serious, like another boy Merlin once knew. “Everything will prosper, and when it’s done, my mother will care for him.”

For long moments, Merlin just stares at that hand. Slowly, with an odd feeling of detachment, he lifts his hand and clasps Albion’s outstretched one. Part of him expects–hopes–for better visions, happier visions, like the gleeful anticipation from the day before, but there is nothing but a small, warm, slightly callused fingers against his own. The chill of early morning is beginning to fade, burned away by the rising sun. He looks down into those solemn green eyes and sees a reflection of his own fears.

“Both of you are first and last,” says Albion. It’s on the tip of Merlin’s tongue to protest, but it’s arrested by the look in Albion’s eyes. “He doesn’t know, does he?”

Merlin shakes his head. There is only one thing Arthur does not know–one critical thing that has fallen by the wayside, busy as they’ve been. Merlin has not been as secretive as he once was, but he has never simply come out and said By the way, I’m a sorcerer. At this point, he’s not sure he can, not without destroying the years of rapport he’s built up with his young king and losing the best and dearest friend he’s had the fortune to cherish. Fear turns him silent; anticipation keeps him still.

“Ah,” says Albion; there is something knowing in his tone, as if he could hear that unsaid explanation. His brow furrows. “But he has to know,” he says. “Everyone knows–it’s all the faeries sing about, when people ask about you–”

In that moment, he looks just like a confused little boy, confronted by the challenge that his bedtime stories (and what sort of stories does one tell an infant country, really; if Albion exists in this form, with a mother, then are there more, do they know each other, is it–it’s beginning to make Merlin’s head hurt) are not real. He says again, “Shouldn’t he know? By now? You’re going to tell him, right?”

(Merlin dreamed, and in those dreams, he had not been in a single one.)

He does not let go of Merlin’s hand, so Merlin is the one who has to pull away, muttering something about fetching breakfast for the king, and flees. He feels strange and out of place, like all the familiar hallways and faces have been replaced by strangers. By the time he makes it to Arthur’s chambers–the king’s chambers–that feeling has intensified to what feels like physical pressure across his shoulders.

He opens the door and finds Arthur awake, in nearly the same position he’d been the night before, seated in his chair and facing the fire. Merlin hovers, unsure suddenly of his welcome–in the short distance between the doorway and the chair, he can see a thousand opportunities wasted, and all the ways things could still go incredibly wrong. When he blinks, he sees that cold muddy field again, and the steel-shot iron of Arthur’s wet hair. He thinks–he knows–he could be there, and he could stop that from happening, but only if–

“Merlin,” the king says with a sigh. “Just put it down and leave it, will you?”

Timid, Merlin creeps forward, to do as he’s asked. He lingers after, blinking away the cobwebs of visions. Though he hesitates to call what he’s doing hovering, he knows it’s pretty much the same thing, and he knows that in a moment, Arthur will notice and be irritated. Before that moment comes, he takes a deep breath. “Arthur,” he says. “Arthur, there’s something you need to know–”

Arthur laughs; it’s a short rough noise, but it’s mostly amused. “There’s lots of things I need to know,” he says. “Who’s going to gun for war next, how well the grain harvests will do this year, what to do with that boy–what is it this time?”

Merlin licks his lips. “I,” he starts to say. He stops and shifts his weight. His restless fingers find the knife he brought with Arthur’s breakfast and begin to fiddle with it. “You know, I know I should have said before, I just–it’s just that I–there were things that kept coming up, and–”

“Merlin,” Arthur sighs. “Just get on with it.”

“I know you want to do things your own way,” Merlin says in a rush, fast enough to make himself breathless, “and that’s good, that’s great, I just want you to know–it’s not just your knights that you have at your disposal, all right, anything that I can do, whatever you want, I–” He falters when Arthur’s gaze lifts to his, and there is no reading that expression, dark-eyed and flat-mouthed. “… Whatever you want. Sire.”

“Whatever I want,” Arthur echoes. His voice is very soft. “That’s a dangerous thing to promise, Merlin.”

“If you want it,” Merlin says, equally quiet, “I’ll do it. I swear, Arthur, it’s all for you–”

Arthur holds up a hand. Merlin shuts up immediately.

“Your timing is shite as your skills as a manservant,” he says. “Not that I don’t understand why, but–”

“I wanted you to know,” Merlin protests, unable to stop himself. “More than anyone else, I wanted to tell you–I don’t want you to think it’s because I didn’t trust you, and I mean, I guess I was afraid, but it wasn’t of you, it was just–”

Arthur sits back in his chair, hard enough to send it skidding back a little, covering his face with one hand. Merlin continues to hover, anxious and afraid, and then he sees the smile that peeks out from under his fingers. It’s unexpected and staggering, the relief that rushes through him and leaves him weak-kneed, leaning heavily against the table for support. Arthur doesn’t laugh–he hasn’t really laughed in over a year–but there is something friendly and wry and knowing in his look, as if he does understand, and he forgives Merlin’s part in his ignorance.

What he says, though, is just, “You’re still mine, then?”

“Till the day I die,” Merlin says, and adds, “Arthur,” for good measure.

“Well then,” Arthur says, and doesn’t bother to hide how pleased he is by that, “I suppose that’s enough for me.”

+++

In the east tower, only two doors away from what had once been the Queen’s personal chambers, is another small set of rooms. Albion claims these for his own, when checking the records discovers they had once belonged to a Lady Brighid, whose family and house were unrecorded, but who had apparently stayed in those chambers until shortly before the Queen’s pregnancy. Albion’s mouth does a moue at the mention of the woman’s name, but he repeats his claim until the king formally invites him to stay. He takes no human name and prefers to keep to himself, emerging only to trail like a ghost after Arthur into council meetings. If the nobility find him peculiar, none can really seem to bring themselves to genuinely protest his presence.

On Midsummer’s Eve, when the last of Uther’s bans on magic have been formally lifted, Merlin finds king and country both on the battlements, looking out over Camelot. Fires burn in the distance, but as symbols of celebration rather than fear; even this far away, the sounds of singing and celebration can be heard. Neither of them speak or look up at Merlin’s approach, two fair heads bent not quite together in their vigil, but it is a comfortable sort of silence rather than anything strained. Merlin takes up a spot to Arthur’s right, and says, “Nice night.”

Arthur snorts, but the sound is amused. “Master of stating the obvious, aren’t you.”

“Oy,” Merlin protests without heat. He jostles Arthur’s arm a little with his elbow, halfhearted. He glances sideways and sees Arthur looking back and Albion leaning against the cold stone, apparently fascinated by the shadowed countryside. “I’m glad,” he adds, almost shy. “About everything that’s happened today.”

“Flexibility is an important quality in a ruler,” Arthur tells him, and it’s not his kingly voice but his voice, slyly magnanimous. “Despite some people insisting on never seeing things in a different light, I pride myself on being observant and adapting with the times.”

“Prat.”

“Idiot.”

“Look!” Albion cuts in, and he’s leaning so far against the stone that he seems nearly in danger of toppling forward, but hardly seems to notice, even when Arthur hooks fingers into his shirt and drags him back. He points to a spot in the distance, towards where the sun had set just a short hour before, in the direction where Merlin knows the Isle of the Blessed lies hidden. There, beyond the bonfires of revelry, below the spread shimmering blanket of stars, between the tall sharp spires of trees, is a single globe of pure white light. It holds steady and easy, never flickering or fading, and Albion’s face glows like that of an excited child. “That’s Mother,” he says, turning to look at Arthur and Merlin both, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. “Mother must know what’s happened, she must be so happy.”

“Nothing’s really happened,” Arthur says indulgently. “We won’t be seeing herb-witches in the street tomorrow, or for a long time yet. It’ll take the example set–” and here he reaches out, tugging at the pendant around Merlin’s neck, symbol of his new position–“and work before it really it’s really anything the people will believe. It’s a sign of goodwill, but it’ll be our actions that give it any meaning.”

But Merlin catches Albion’s eyes and understands that flicker of excitement he sees–something has happened, though it is a step forward whose reverberations will not be felt for a short time yet. The time will come, though: sorcerers and their kin will stop shunning Camelot’s borders, and as with the men who come to lay their swords at Arthur’s feet, so there will be witches and wizards who will swear fealty to this proud young king, whose acceptance and determination will only expand the boundaries of his country further and further, until the entire country kneels before him. That is the promise embodied in the boy who looks up at Arthur with shining green eyes–the destiny implied in this country’s foresworn fealty.

Merlin moves a little closer to his king–they both do–to this flickering brilliant warmth (best and most beloved) who looks at them with quizzical affection. He says, “But things will happen.”

“Of course they will,” Arthur says at once, easy instinctive confidence in every word. Failure is not an option with him; it never has been. “We’ll make sure of it.”

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the doctor and the rope

Albert was born too hungry, his mother always said: too small, too skinny, too smart to be anything but trouble. She worked and his father both worked in the factories, which was where they’d met, man and woman both lean and hard and barely able to scrape together anything soft between them. He certainly wasn’t anything like that, scraping in the dust and cobwebs in a forgotten corner, watching the way mechanical parts fit together and moved, taking apart old machines and rebuilding them into something new. In this, Albert’s size helped, because even as the foreman stalked up and down the rows of hunched-over workers, he never noticed the boy who watched with burning unblinking eyes.

What he always wanted was more: he licked his plates clean of grease not so much because he enjoyed the taste but because the knot in his belly still felt hollow and hungry; he stuffed his pockets full of dusty nuts and bolts and broken machine parts from his mother’s factory and polished them to a dull shine so that he could have something to fill the empty space of his windowsill. He stole books and tore off corners of paper to scribble his notes on–and when there was no more room he would sketch the curvature of mechanical arms and the elegant way gears fit together. Albert didn’t like empty spaces and he didn’t like messes, so he organized and dreamed and sold odd little welded bits to scrape together what he needed for school.

There he met Tom Light.

The other man was an oddity, a blip on a radar that had never acknowledged anyone else before. He had heavy dark brows that often beetled together when he was thinking, and he was easier to read than anyone else, but he was brilliant and he was earnest, and that made him an acceptable person to befriend. He spoke softly and with emotion and always with a vision of the big picture. He wanted to build a new world with a skeleton and nervous system of steel, and Albert was fascinated. He thought about the factories he’d grown up in and his mother’s pinched face and his father’s weathered bleeding hands. There had been little room for anything soft between them. It would change nothing–it would change everything.

“It’s hell in the mines,” Tom said, his plain earnest face so utterly serious. Albert liked that, liked how everything was a matter of grave importance to Tom; nothing was too small or petty for his brilliant mind to consider. “It’s inhuman, the hours they make them work, how dangerous the conditions are. Survival is the lowest standard. There are things that men cannot do, and yet they must do, unless you want to be cut loose, with nothing to feed your wife and son.” Then he looked abashed, because he always looked embarrassed when he allowed personal things to slip. It was charming in the way small soft things were charming. It was something that Tom would have to grow out of, someday, but for now, Albert indulged him.

“We’ll build miners, then,” Albert said instead. He could imagine them clearly: lovely clean lines of steel and sharp edges, cutting through all the places that muscle and bone could not. He thinks of an entire army of them, a thousand bodies policed by his one will, filling up the empty places within themselves by rights of strength and skill. “Stronger ones, bigger ones–ones that won’t suffer if the shaft collapses on them.”

Tom forgot his embarrassment long enough to smile. It wasn’t a bad one, as smiles went, but it could be more than it was; there could be more to it. Tom was a man who had all sorts of untapped potential that, in the right hands, could be made into something truly amazing. Albert smiled back and shook Tom’s hand with warm confidence. He said, “I think we’ll do amazing things, Tom.”

“We will,” said Tom and smiled again. “The world will remember our names forever.”

Albert tested the sound of that aloud later, the world will remember our names forever, and found he liked it, and very much.

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starts like this

It starts like this: Haruki kisses Kazuki first.

It’s late afternoon in the student council office. The other members have long since gone home, and even Yuki has left early, muttering something about a family dinner and looking about as pleased as a man heading to his final supper. Except for the gentle scratch of pen against paper, the room is quiet: Haruki is involved with something-or-other, and Kazuki is somewhere hovering on the edge of sleep, his arms folded on the edge of the desk and his cheek pillowed on those arms. He’d given up on trying to convince Haruki to play hooky after the fifth absentminded “what?” and now, he’s just waiting.

He likes this, though, the quiet minutes that he can spend near Haruki without anyone else. He doesn’t resent sharing with Yuki (much), but his favorite times are when it’s just the two of them–even if Haruki is working, or reading, or not even paying attention at all, it’s a space where only the two of them exist.

The sounds of the pen stop. “Kazuki,” Haruki says.

Kazuki looks up. He blinks a few times. Haruki’s glasses are doing that thing where they look opaque, hiding his eyes. “Haruki–?”

It happens like this: Haruki leans forward and kisses him.

As first kisses go, it’s nothing spectacular. There are no fireworks going off, no swelling romantic music, no heartbeats synchronizing as one. Haruki’s mouth is soft, but a little chapped, slightly cooler than Kazuki’s own; he smells like the same brand of soap and shampoo he’s used since they were brats–there is nothing new to learn, because they already know everything about each other.

Well, except maybe for this.

Haruki also pulls back first. His glasses are still reflecting the light, and his brows are drawn together in that particular way he has when he’s on the verge of solving a problem that’s been puzzling him for a while. “Hm,” he says, and starts to gather his papers together. It’s like nothing even happened, for all the reaction that’s showing on Haruki’s face: as always, he’s calm and he’s in control. He opens his mouth, and instead of anything like explanation, he says, “We’re having nabe for dinner tonight. Grandmother said to invite you.”

It pisses Kazuki off. This was significant! This was important! And Haruki’s grandma’s nabe was really good, but some things had more priority!

“Haruki,” he says.

“She was planning on making dango, too,” Haruki says, as he snaps his bag shut. “It’s been a while since you’ve come over, so she misses you–”

Kazuki grabs Haruki by the collar, hauls him in close, and kisses him. Because it’s only his second kiss, it’s rough and unpracticed and their noses mash together at a bad angle and he’s not sure whose teeth bashed against his lip, but it’s pulled Haruki off-balance–he’s making a few startled noises, his hands fluttering before they come to rest on Kazuki’s shoulders. His fingers flex and relax, and it’s not hard to read him (it’s never been hard for Kazuki to read him)–no, stop, I should say something, we can’t.

“We can,” Kazuki tells him, only since they’re still kissing, sort of, it comes out more like “wwwgnn.” We can, it’s all right, it’s you and it’s me and I don’t care if you’re ahead right now, because I’ll always catch up, and we’ll go together. It’s a lot to put into a single sentence, but since it’s Haruki, he understands. He pulls away, and now his glasses are askew and his face is red and his eyes are wide. Kazuki can see himself reflected in them.

“You’re the smart one,” Kazuki says. “But I always catch up in the end. You’re not allowed to go anywhere without me.” He lets go of Haruki’s collar and reaches to tug his tie free instead, wrapping the end of it around his fist, then grins widely. “Besides, you’d worry if you tried to leave me.”

“Kazuki,” Haruki says softly. His voice cracks a little, and he looks so bewildered; Kazuki softens a bit in spite of himself. “I’m s–”

“I’m not,” Kazuki says, and kisses him again. This time he doesn’t rush it, so he avoids the nose obstacle and the teeth problem, so he’s pretty proud of himself. He even wins another little sound from Haruki, this one softer than before, which gives him as much of a thrill as getting the first perfect score on a new arcade shooter does. Maybe even more of one, because if it’s a game, it’s one Haruki will actually play with him, instead of hanging back to watch.

When this kiss ends, Haruki is still red, and he still looks bewildered, but he’s smiling now too, the same small private one that’s only ever belonged to Kazuki. He readjusts his glasses, but doesn’t try to pull his tie free, and he says, “If we don’t hurry, we’ll be late for dinner.”

“–Ahh!” Kazuki lets go finally, yanking back to grab his own bag. “Does this mean they’d start without us? They wouldn’t do that, right?? Wait for us, nabe! We’re coming!” He grabs Haruki’s wrist with his free hand and runs for it, dragging Haruki along the way.

“–Kazuki–!”

It starts like this: Haruki kisses Kazuki first.

Wherever it ends, though, Kazuki thinks, it’ll be fine. Because no matter where they go, they’ll be there together.

“Kazuki, my keys are in my bag, they’re back in the council office–”

“Ehhhhh?! Why didn’t you say so before?!”

“I was trying to! You weren’t listening!”

“WE’RE NEVER GONNA HAVE YOUR GRANDMA’S NABE, ARE WE!”

“Kazuki, honestly–”

“I’m going to die! I’ll die of hunger right here! Harukiiiii!”

“You …”

“It’s a race now! We have to run! Ouuuu! Ready, GO!”

“KAZUKI!!”

Together’s better than apart.

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in the name of the king

The smell of blood is heavy in the air–the taste of it is metallic on Haruki’s tongue each time he breathes in. If he looks down, he can see the young woman who’d tried to stab him to escape from the game, her throat slit and her eyes wide open and staring–so he can’t look down, he doesn’t look down; he looks up instead, first at the ceiling, and then closing his eyes tightly. He can’t stop shaking.

“Haruki,” Gara murmurs to him, and his hands are both rough and gentle as they pass over Haruki’s hair, across his face, down his body. “Haruki, you’re all right, you’re all right–”

A noise like a sob tears from Haruki’s throat. He throws his arms around Gara’s shoulders and presses his face into the man’s chest. Here it smells like sweat and leather, and it’s almost–almost–enough to drown out the stink of blood. He gasps for breath and claws at his Bishop’s shoulders, his own legs suddenly too weak to hold himself up.

“Haruki–?!”

“Please,” he gasps, and he’s not quite sure what he’s asking for. “Please, please–” He forces his eyes open and finds Gara’s face stunningly close, so close that if he stretches just a little, they can touch.

“Please,” he whispers again, then lets his weight hang on his arms, off Gara’s neck–lets himself go limp as Gara makes a noise akin to a growl and moves finally. Haruki’s always been aware of Gara’s strength in a distant way–under the heavy black coat, his arms are solid with muscle–but he is now acutely aware of it in an immediate sort of way as he is lifted, his back pressed up against the wall. One of Gara’s hands slides down low on his back to support him in the fumbling seconds it takes to wrap his legs around Gara’s hips, and then he is being kissed, hard enough that he tastes blood again–but it’s his blood, sharp on his lips in the seconds before that small injury heals itself, and Gara’s other hand is in his hair, clenching so tightly it very nearly hurts.

Haruki has been kissed once before–in his last year of middle school, on the last day, a girl had left a note in his locker and met him behind the school. She had been lovely, soft and delicate and smelling of vague florals, and Haruki had genuinely regretted turning her down–she’d accepted with grace, but as she had walked past him, she’d stopped long enough to stretch onto her toes, kissing the corner of her mouth before fleeing. It was something he’d told Kazuki about later, as they walked home, and Kazuki had just laughed.

“It’s ’cause the guy is supposed to kiss the girl,” he’d said, with his normal breezy confidence that the world would resolve itself the way he wanted. “Otherwise it’s just too weird! You’ll have to take the initiative next time, Haruki! –But only if the girl’s worth it,” and Kazuki had frowned then, as if the implication was suddenly just sinking in. “It has to be someone special! All right? Don’t kiss any girls unless I give them the okay, first!”

At the time, Haruki had laughed it off, somewhere between fond amusement and exasperation. It had never come up again, and though other girls had confessed during their first year as highschoolers, none had ever been as daring as that first.

And that girl had been nothing like Gara now, muttering things into Haruki’s mouth that weren’t even exactly words, but low rough expletives; he pulls away only long enough to yank off his gloves with his teeth, so that the hand he drags down Haruki’s chest, ripping several buttons on the way, is bare, so that it’s naked skin on naked skin as he kisses Haruki again, making a low rumbly noise of pleased encouragement when Haruki slides his own hands into Gara’s hair and holds on, kissing back with the clumsy eager desperation of the inexperienced.

“Please,” he gasps again, and makes a strangled noise when Gara gets his pants open, when fingers callused by knives and swords wraps around his cock and pumps hard and fast. He squeezes his eyes shut again, tightening his legs around Gara’s hips. “I want–”

“Not like that,” Gara rumbles; his voice is nearly unintelligible, a growl against Haruki’s mouth. He lets go, takes away that lovely harsh pressure as Haruki’s hips pitch and roll desperately. “No, Haruki.”

Haruki snarls himself and yanks at Gara’s hair. “I said–”

“S’gonna hurt,” Gara mutters, shifting to do something with his free hand, with one cupped under Haruki’s ass to keep him up in the air. “Not gonna.”

“I’ll get better,” Haruki nearly shouts, and even in his fogged state, he can hear the tinge of hysteria to his own voice. “I’m your King, I’ll get better, I’m order–”

Gara kisses him hard again, biting down hard on his lower lip and worrying at it, and then his hand wraps around Haruki’s cock again. There is another presence there, smooth and hot and hard, and Haruki realizes with a start that it’s Gara’s cock pressed up against his own, moving with him when he rocks–and then Gara’s hand moves again, fast and rough, kissing away the cries that Haruki can’t help but let out. It hurts in a way, but he wants more of it–he wants things that make him forget the smell of someone else’s blood, or the empty-eyed people whose bodies scatter the floor around them–the more it hurts, the better it feels, and the less he can remember how Kazuki’s eyes looked that one summer afternoon, when he’d promised to screen any girl who’d try to get close to Haruki, and all Haruki had wanted to do was wrap himself around his friend and never let go–

He comes with a force that startles him; he slams his head back hard against the wall and the name that escapes him is more a sob than anything else. He twists his fingers punishingly hard in Gara’s hair, then lets himself go completely limp. The adrenaline and desperation of the moment fade, and he’s suddenly so tired that it’s an effort to keep his arms and legs hooked in place around Gara’s body. He tries–he does–but the strength leaves him, and as it does, strong arms wrap around him again, cradling his body with a tenderness out of place from the violence of before. The kiss that is pressed to his lips is delicate, worshipful.

“You are my King,” he hears Gara’s voice murmur. “But there are still some things I can’t do.”

Those rough hands are gentle now, holding him like he’s something precious, and Haruki moans once, and lets himself sleep.

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Cendrillon

The clock-tower struck midnight in slow, steady beats. She counted them with the beats of his heart: one … two … three …

She needed to leave. Someone was bound to come looking, more likely sooner than later, and if she was found–

(six … seven … eight …)

A wet red bubble swelled on his lips and popped. It left a faint pattern against his white cheek. She touched it with a fingertip and traced down; the corners of his mouth still remained turned up, and his eyes are like pieces of frosted blue glass. Her other hand ached; she couldn’t make them let go.

(eleven … twelve. Silence.)

Voices echoed in the hallway, slowly approaching. She leaned down in a careful arch until her forehead touched his and smiled.

“It’s stopped,” she whispered. “All of it, just for you.

I hope you find your princess, someday.”

They didn’t kiss: it wouldn’t do if he woke, somehow. He might ask her to stay (she would), or he’d offer to go with her (he would), and midnight was already past. The magic spell was broken.

“Good night,” she said, and finally let go of the knife.

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sex and violence (a horror story)

It may be said that she had a very long white neck and that it was quite lovely.

+++

The weight of the folds and layers of the wedding-outfit were still familiar to her, even if the color was different. Red wasn’t a bad color, though, and one she was very familiar with. Against her white skin, it was rather striking.

Her first wedding had been tense. She still remembered the looks from her husband’s family and their whispers behind their hands. Her mother groveled the whole ceremony, terrified she would be thrown away at the last moment. Perhaps those tears had been genuine, but perhaps not: her mother was quite the actress.

She can’t remember how she actually felt at the time, though.

+++

Her first wedding night had lasted a long time. Or maybe it had just seemed like that, watching the moon veil and unveil with clouds itself through the window. That man had been very heavy, and his breath stank of sake. He’d pawed her breasts free and squeezed them like he intended to see them burst; he’d laughed to see how red her skin turned. It had been easy to lie quietly and let him finish–twice, and he complimented her for being good and obedient. When he slept, it was with his back to her, and she’d stared up at the ceiling and counted breaths until the ache between her legs faded into the rhythm of her heartbeat.

She had no second wedding night.

+++

“Ochou-san has such pretty white skin, I’m jealous. Ahhh, give some of it to meeeeee.” Long sharp nails stroked across the nape of her neck. It stung. She shivered before she could stop herself.

“Ah! Look at that! Look at that, with just one touch! Brother, what sort of woman have you married?”

She closed her eyes and moved away. The sake was nearly gone. She lowered her head and went; their laughter followed her to the kitchen.

+++

To her, the fox-mask had been more lovely than anything. A thought bubbled up and dissolved, that she could wrap herself around it and hold it warm and safe. She could take him into herself. If she opened the door, then it would be an invitation.

The mononoke’s hands were long and elegant: a scholar’s hands, her mother would have called them. His skin was cool and dry, like the smoothed edges of a mask.

She would have liked to feel them on her neck, just once.

+++

“Was I really married?” she asked. She bowed her head forward. The breeze was cool against her neck, and the close presence behind her stung like the sun’s heat. “Did it happen?”

“If that is your belief,” he said, “then perhaps that is the truth.”

“But was it really?”

Long nails traced across the nape of her neck. She arched into it willingly. A hard hot hand pressed low on her throat. There were sword calluses across the ridges of the palm. Briefly a thumb pressed across the dip of her collarbone, then skittered away. When she closed her eyes, fingers shaped themselves almost gently across her breast, then let go.

“Well … perhaps–not.”

+++

It did not hurt.

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and they won’t call me mother, or sister, or wife

“I’m not afraid,” she whispers. Her voice is rough-edged, but when it’s this quiet it sounds soft. Gentle. She stares ahead into the darkness with her hands folded in her lap, and she doesn’t tremble. “If I am to die, then that is God’s will.”

“My dear,” he says. He can’t keep his own voice down. It cracks embarrassingly, but there is no one else to hear, and she would never let this slip. “If you but asked, I could–”

“No,” she says. There is finality in her voice, like the snap of a sword breaking, or an arrow sinking into a man’s heart. She smiles faintly, her cracked lips pursing up. “This is what I have been called to do. This is how I will be remembered. In this way, though men today may declaim me, in the eyes of God, I will be remembered.” She closes her eyes for just a moment, and her plain rough features are more beautiful than anything else he’s ever seen–more than anything he will ever see, he knows, however long he remains. When she turns to him again, her expression is soft. She’s already looking through him. “My dear friend, do not weep for me. I return to the arms of our Father, and in His kingdom I will dwell forever.”

But in mine, you are already gone, he does not say, and if he weeps a little, at the door of her cell, she does not chastise him for that grief.

+++

She walks with her head up and her eyes clear. He has always loved her for this, since she was a tiny child and had looked upon his face and known him for who he truly was.

(“I will see you freed,” she whispered to him, with her small palms upon his cheeks. “This I swear to you, before God and all His angels–“)

The crowd is loud. They always are. Most of them jeer with ugly words in their crude awkward language; they bastardize her name to fit their clumsy mouths, and not a few cross themselves as she passes. It makes him angry, angry enough that his throat aches and his face burns with the force of it. If he could, he would draw a blade here and cut down the lot of them–and gladly, consequences be damned alongside her–

His hand falls away from the hilt of his blade. He watches, unmoving, unblinking, as she is tied to the pillar. He sees her speak, though he cannot hear her voice over the crowd, and his breath catches when one places a crucifix into the folds of her clothes.

The fires are lit. She does not scream or cry, even when the crowd falls silent and the crackle of fire fills the sky. For just a moment, she looks and meets his eyes. Though she does not smile, he sees that she is content with this, her martyrdom in his name. He blinks out tears, and in that split second, she goes still, her head falling forward at last.

+++

No one argues when he takes the ashes. Perhaps they can see something in his face, though he does not speak–or perhaps Charles finally came through, or perhaps they simply just think that he’s there only for this reason. They aren’t his people anyway; their mouths make the same ugly noises as the majority of the crowd. He looks at them coldly, with perhaps a fragment of pity: they are small, small creatures; they do not know what they have destroyed today.

I would take you home to rest, my dear, he thinks, pressing the urn over his heart, staring down at the water that rushes around his ankles. Forgive me.

He casts outward and upward, watching as the wind and the water catches her and spirits her away, and likes to fool himself into thinking he hears her laugh. For this, he does not weep, but he breathes against a raw metal taste in his throat, and does not move until that has mostly–mostly–faded away.

+++

“If we were normal men, my friend, I would hate you very much, right now,” he says. “Ah, another, I want another. I want to spend the rest of this war drunk as possible.”

“Hear hear,” his companion mutters, and slides a bottle to him. It is soldier’s beer, warm as piss and tasting as acidly sour, but he drinks until it’s empty. “Someone will be looking for us soon.”

“Let them look,” he says. He leans until his forehead is pressed against the rough wood of the bar and breathes; even now, he can taste smoke in the back of his throat. “I care not, at this moment.”

He doesn’t know when he is left alone, but he knows it happens, and he stares blankly at the too-close wood, trying to remember the look in her eyes that one last time.

+++

In a wide open field, under cloudless skies, a little girl stared up into the face of her country and held her breath. “Why are you here?”

The man smiled. “I came here because I was supposed to,” he said. “Sometimes, if that’s where I have to be, I’ll be there.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” He knelt before her. “And what is your name, little maid?”

She met his eyes, and she said, “I am Jeanne.”

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wishes.come.true.

A ball bounces out into the street, bright orange and patterned with neon cartoony flowers. A little girl runs out after it, her dark curls flying. She isn’t paying attention to anything else with the unique tunnel vision that children have: all that matters is her ball, and that it’s gotten away from her.

Too late, though, she hears the sudden wail of tires. When she looks up, she sees a car skidding desperately to the left to avoid her. For a moment, as it screeches by, she sees a boy, about her age, staring through the window back at her. His mouth moves, but she can’t hear a word he says.

The car slams into a lamp post and the doors pop open. The boy goes flying in a neat arc over her head; she can only watch, hands pressed to her mouth, ball forgotten.

The sound he makes when he hits the ground is one she’ll remember for the rest of her life, even when she forgets.

+++

Watanuki hurts. His vision is hazed over in red, and if he tries to concentrate, everything goes even more blurry. Mama, he wants to say, Mama, where are you? Where have you gone? Mama–

There’s a girl sobbing. She’s saying things he can’t quite make out, because she’s sobbing too hard to make sense. The sound makes something in his stomach twist a little: another little added pain to everything else. He wants to tell her to stop, he’s fine, it doesn’t hurt that much (though it’s a lie)–please don’t cry, he hates it when anyone cries …

Sirens pick up in the distance. Watanuki closes his eyes.

+++

“I have a wish,” the girl says.

“And I,” Yuuko replies, “have the means to grant it.”

+++

Sometimes Himawari thinks her name must be a joke more than anything else. Sunflowers are bright things and attracted to bright things in turn, symbols of light and warmth and summer. Without the sun, they wither away and die. That’s their nature, inevitable and unchangeable. Her parents couldn’t have known, when she was born–but names have meanings, and she doesn’t think a family as superstitious as hers would have left something like that to chance.

It’s a joke. It has to be.

+++

“You’re asking for something very great indeed,” Yuuko says, exhaling thick, sweet-smelling white smoke. She reaches out and tips the girl’s chin up with one long finger. “The price will be equally steep. Are you prepared?”

“I am,” says the girl. “No matter what, I want this wish granted.”

+++

There were others, ones that she didn’t tell Watanuki about in that small dark room, with its paper walls and its heavy clouds of incense. The first boy who ever confessed to liking her, cute and smart and earnest enough to make her heart flutter had been hit by a car after she’d allowed him to kiss her for the first time. Years later, she still visits him in the hospital sometimes on the dull tired hope that he might someday wake up. A kitten she’d picked up and brought home out of the rain, who’d strangled itself on the ribbon she’d tied around its neck.

And there are others. There are so many she knows she could drown in them.

+++

“No matter how hard you run, you won’t be able to escape it entirely.” Yuuko brushed her thumb carefully over the girl’s cheekbone, almost gentle. “Those who summon misfortune always find that it will follow them. Anywhere. Everywhere. That, too, is inevitable.”

The girl trembles just a little. “I don’t mind,” she whispers. “I don’t care what happens to me, as long as that person is all right …”

“You might come to regret that, in time.” Yuuko lets go of her face and steps back. In the hazy moving shadows of the shop, she looks like a creature of stone and smoke and illusions. The girl blinks, but the impression never quite fades away. “However, if your heart is set … let’s begin.”

+++

“Do you believe in other worlds, Himawari-chan?” Watanuki asks her one afternoon. His eyes are fixed on the bento that is open in his lap, but they’re distant, like he’s lost in something far, far away.”

She pauses with the chopsticks half raised to her lips. Something cold unfurls just under her breastbone and a shiver furls through her, despite the heat of the sun overhead. “Watanuki-kun?”

“Ah, no, never mind!” He snaps back to the present suddenly, flapping a hand wildly. “I was just daydreaming, don’t worry about it!”

“You’re so strange,” she says with a laugh, but the cold in her gut never quite goes away.

+++

“He won’t thank you for this,” Yuuko says, as the magic circle flares to life under their feet. “No one will.”

The girl smiles and clasps her hands over her breast. She bows her head. “Even so, I’m fine.”

+++

Really, her name must be a joke. Sunflowers are so very bright, and Himawari lives in such a dark, dark place. There are more things that she’s forgotten than she cares to consider, but she can’t help but be grateful for it. Some things are better off forgotten. She knows this as truly as she knows her own name.

“Ah, Doumeki-kun!” she chirps. “I have to run to a piano lesson, but Watanuki-kun’s still back in the classroom. I think he’s a bit lonely, won’t you walk him home?”

Doumeki blinks at her slowly. Himawari’s fond of him in her own way–he’s a good man, in a way very few are in this day and age; there is a quality at the core of him that cannot be merely imitated or pretended. Something inside of her is uncomfortable to just be in the same room, and so, perversely, she seeks him out when she can: the angry thing that mutters at the back of her mind is nothing she loves. It will never leave her, but at least she can make it as miserable as it makes her.

As long as he’s there, she knows, nothing too horrible will ever happen. How could she be anything but grateful for that?

“Right,” he says. “I’ll go. Be careful.”

“Of course,” she says brightly. When he gives her an unreadable look, she waves at him and hurries off to be sick.

+++

“Yuuko,” Mokona says softly.

Yuuko leans back in her chair, turning the small jet-black pearl in her fingers slowly. Though all the lamps in the room are lit, nothing reflects through the stone, or off its dark surface: it seems to suck the light in, instead, insatiable as only the unliving can be.

“This too, was inevitable,” she says softly. “Kunogi Himawari has her own role in shaping Watanuki’s life. Whether or not she remembers what that is–” Her fingers close abruptly around the pearl, then open, revealing an open palm. “Unnecessary.”

Mokona hops up onto the couch next to her and snuggles into her hip. Yuuko holds her outstretched hand up, and studies the shadows it makes on the ceiling overhead.

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such are dreams

It’s all about instinct; Roxas is good at that. If an opponent shifts just so, the attack will come from the left. If his gaze flickers he’ll come from above. If her knees lock she means to stand her ground. He doesn’t have to think because it comes to him: instinct older than himself, and maybe older than the Other whose face he only half-remembers till they finally meet.

Sora’s brilliant and intensely real; Roxas flings himself against that until he’s blinded and then he thinks I see, I see why. There was a pressure like resentment in his chest, but it breaks apart under the rain of blows, until all that’s left is himself. It’s not so ugly after all.

+++

“I thought it’d be like dying,” Roxas says, studying the pictures on the walls of the White Room. He’s not sure when or where, but it’s him and NaminĂ© and she’s bent over her sketchbook as he wanders around. “Everyone else thought so, too.”

“Was it?” she asks. She looks up at him, her red crayon against her lips.

He stops in front of one of Axel and himself. To the left of it is a picture of Sora, asleep in his capsule.

“No,” he says. “More like falling into a dream.”

+++

He’s never unaware, is the thing. Maybe he spent too much time as an independant entity. It’s not an urgent thing, or even a very strange thing: it just is. He’s aware of Sora’s daily routine, of the letters that come in bottles and the constant parade of people in trouble and Heartless that continue to bubble up unending. His left arm aches and he knows Sora has broken it, hounded off a cliff and tucking into the fall an instant too late; his ears burn and he knows Kairi is yelling and Riku is upset and Sora’s just embarrassed about the whole thing.

Just as quickly, the impressions slide away; he spends most of his time just existing. He thinks that perhaps these are the moments when he’s most and truly integrated into Sora (like he should be), and they’re the single person they should have always been.

It never lasts, though. He keeps waking up.

+++

“I should be happy with this, right?” Roxas asks. “We’re — us. We’re together. You too, you’re in Kairi now, so why …”

“We are what we are,” NaminĂ© says quietly. “Isn’t that enough?”

+++

There is a world where Sora meets a man with a shock of red hair and bright green eyes. There’s nothing else that’s the same — there is no confidence, no arrogance, nothing but an ordinary man terrified by the Heartless that have taken over his workshop — but Roxas finds himself holding on fiercely to the sight-memory. He pushes, too, for the first time that he can remember, throwing himself forward against the invisible walls holding him in place and reaches out. It’s not the same and it’s nowhere near enough, but he strains out anyway. He’s been part of Sora for some time now: he can remember things like regret.

You were wrong, he wants to tell this man who’s not his best friend. There was no next life, even for me; there’s just the continuation of the old. You missed me, right? I’m sorry.

Sora stops by the man’s house before he leaves the world, just to say good-bye.

+++

There are new pictures on the walls of the White Room, vivid as any photograph. Disney Castle with Sora and Kairi and Riku all dressed up, the wedding of Aladdin and Jasmine, a blitzball tournament that Sora was roped into playing. Roxas follows the line of them to the end, his hands in his pockets.

“Will we wake up?” he asks. “Someday?” He turns to look at NaminĂ©, whose sketchbook is closed for once. Her small white hands and folded together atop the table. There is a flower in her hair that is white as her dress. It matches the one that Queen Minnie’s maids braided into Kairi’s.

“I don’t know,” she says. Her gaze drops for a moment before she smiles and looks at him again. “Do you mind waiting with me?”

Roxas turns away from the wall. He walks until he’s at the table and hooks a chair to drag it next to hers. Reaching over, he puts his hand on her sketchbook and looks at her. “You mind?”

She shakes her head, and smiles when he takes it.

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The King’s Burden

There is a story where a king disguised himself as a beggar for a day, to walk among the poor of his kingdom. He took with him a slave to guide his steps through the city, to whisper the right words that would get them into the darkest places and narrowest corners. For a day they walked together, shoulder to shoulder, and the slave guided his master’s steps without faltering. The king saw so many things that day: the dead, the dying, the hopeless — all the dirty crowded unhappy places that lay so thickly under the glittering golden rooftops of his city.

And when the day had ended, and the king had walked so long through the streets, he returned to the palace and ordered the slave’s execution.

“You have seen too much to bear,” he said, when the slave was brought before him one last time. “I will free you from this terrible world.”

The slave, kneeling on the hard marble between two silent guards, looked up at his king with sadness. “You do not free me from anything,” he said. “And you will not free yourself. You are simply binding yourself to what you fear. My death will not change that.”

But the king simply shook his head and wept, for he was a kind man, and when the executioner’s blade cleaved the servant’s head from his shoulders, the king turned his face to look upon his shining city — but all he could see was the dirty wounded underbelly, lying far below.

+++

“I’m sorry,” Tsuzuki says. His eyes are downcast, and he fiddles with the air itself between his fingers. He keeps his shoulders hunched, as though he’s just barely holding up under immense weight.

Knowing Tsuzuki, perhaps he is.

“I’m sorry,” he says agian, and then it all comes out in a babbled rush: “It was unkind of me to ask that of you, I know you’re bound to obey me, but you’re also supposed to protect me, it was unkind of me to ask. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. I–”

Touda lifts a clawed hand. He curls his fingers just so, a hairsbreadth from Tsuzuki’s cheek. “It was what you wanted,” he says.

Tsuzuki sucks his lower lip into his mouth and chews on it. “I’m not — you shouldn’t–”

“You are my master,” Touda says. He ghosts his fingers up, still not quite touching, so that the tips of his claws just barely part the long strands of Tsuzuki’s hair. “That alone is enough.”

+++

There is a second, lesser-known part to the story.

It’s said that every night, at midnight, the slave would appear in the king’s quarters, standing by the windows that looked out upon the city. And though the king begged and wept and threatened, the slave said nothing: he would simply stare at his king with sad eyes, the blood dripping from a ring round his neck, silent and pale until the witching hour passed.

Finally, one year to the day when the slave had been killed by the king’s order, he appeared and the windows opened behin him. Over the mad wind that sprang up at the same time, he said the first words since his appearance: “My king, I am still bound. Is this what you wanted?” He spread his arms and there were tears on his face and blood on his mouth and the king could only stare in dumb grief. “I did this for love of you, and I would have done so had I not been your property; my love was given to you freely.” As he spoke, blood came from his mouth, and flowed in rivulets to the foot of the king’s bed. “See what I am giving you, and how I am bound.”

In the morning, when the servants came to tend to their king, they found all the glass of the windows shattered and the king dead upon the floor, his face wet with tears.

+++

Touda uses the tips of his claws alone to brush the hair from Tsuzuki’s eyes, and his touch is delicate as possible as he tucks it behind one ear. Tsuzuki’s eyes are shining, on the verge of tears again, and Touda thinks that he is very tired of all of this: of Tsuzuki’s unrelenting grief and guilt and all the other heavy things that time can’t undo. He could offer forgiveness like a benediction, for whatever it was worth, and he knows it would simply wash over Tsuzuki and then away, taking nothing with it.

“I’m sorry,” Tsuzuki says again. He catches Touda’s wrist suddenly, and Touda holds still as Tsuzuki presses into his palm, nuzzling. His master is warm and fragile and shaking, and Touda thinks it would take less than hellfire to destroy him. “Touda, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have asked–”

“Whatever you want,” Touda says, “it’s yours for the asking.” He shifts his hand just a little so that Tsuzuki tilts his face up.

This is no king, this is no Emperor on his golden throne, this is hardly even a man, all cobbled-together unhappiness and thin skin, and Touda sighs.

“You don’t even need to ask,” he says, and he leans down, his forehead to Tsuzuki’s, counting the breaths that come soft and fast against his cheek. “I will give it to you.”

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All In Fire

When he returned from Kyoto he found Suzaku waiting.

Perched on the edge of a rock that had not been there before he left, her scarlet robes fluttering in the breeze, she sat with hooded eyes and tense shoulders. Touda stopped in front of her and she did nothing but tilt her head up and stare with unblinking avian eyes. There was no sign of the others: even Tenkuu had withdrawn somewhere out of sight.

The air smelled of sulpher and ash.

Touda met her gaze evenly and cocked his head.

She tilted hers the opposite way. “Did you enjoy it?”

He said nothing.

Wind caught in Suzaku’s long hair, teasing it free of its pins and whipping it into a fluttering mess around her face, but she continued to stare without blinking. When Touda still didn’t respond, she finally moved, straightening up off the rock and bringing the sulpher smell with her. Gracefully, almost gently, she stretched her arms up, curving her hands in the air around his throat — hovering, but not quite touching.

“Did you enjoy it?” she asked again.

“… I did as I was asked,” he said.

“No,” she corrected, and this time actually settled her hands around his neck. “He was upset and grieving. He wasn’t in his right mind. He didn’t know what he was asking. And yet you still–”

He stared down at her. “We do as the master asks,” he said. “A shikigami’s first duty is his master’s commands.”

“A shikigami’s first duty is to protect his master,” she hissed. Her grip tightened and she leaned in close, her breath hot on his cheek. “And you–”

For a moment they remained locked in place. A heartbeat later they broke apart, Suzaku’s sword whistling from its sheath and just barely knicking the edge of Touda’s visor. He hit the ground hard enough to go sliding back a few paces, ripping up grass and mud as he did, and landed in a crouch. Opposite him, Suzaku pointed the weapon like an accusing finger, her eyes blazing. The air smelled like a bonfire, and under her feet the grass withered and crisped to ash.

“You tried to kill him,” she snarled. “He would have died because of you!”

Touda straightened in degrees, then dropped his arms from the defensive position. “He asked,” he said. “I obeyed.”

Suzaku bared her teeth in a snarl. “At a time like that, when he was vulnerable and not knowing what he was asking?!” she snapped. “That child–”

“Was tired,” Touda said. “He wanted to sleep. He wanted freedom. He–”

“Shut up,” she said, and he saw her body shift, tensing itself for a leap, too angry to realize how broadly she was projecting. “Shut up, shut up, shut up–!”

She charged. Even angry, he only had a heartbeat’s time to knock her blade aside before she crashed bodily into him, her shoulder into his chest, and they both went tumbling to the ground.

Through the filter of his visor he watched her rear up above him, his hips caught between her knees and her eyes glittering. They weren’t tears, not yet — she’d save those for when she was alone or with one of the others, but not for Touda the traitor, the hated, whose chains had been set by the Golden Emperor himself. It was still just rage in her expression as she stared down at him, then rocked back so she could press the edge of her sword to his exposed throat. He could feel her trembling minutely, and the faint bright sting as the blade cut in just enough to scratch.

“I want to hurt you,” she said, her voice thin and hard. “You — you …”

Without breaking eye-contact, Touda lifted a hand and carefully pushed her sword aside. After it was a safe distance from his neck, he deliberately pressed his own hands to the earth and took a deep breath and tasted ash deep in the back of his throat. By the time he finished settling himself her breathing had calmed, though her eyes were still wild and staring.

“Very well,” he said.

+++

Suzaku stripped with quick, efficient moments, discarding first the sheath strapped to her back, then her belts, then her outer robe. She left her shift in place and her hair pinned up, though when she leaned over him, enough of it tumbled down over her shoulders to veil his face. Touda kept his arms outstretched, the claws pressed into the dried earth. When she put her hands on his throat again, he tipped his head back.

For a moment they remained poised like that, staring at each other, and then Suzaku undid the belt fastened at his throat, laying it aside.

She leaned down, her mouth to his ear.

“Fight me,” she said.

Touda blinked and lifted his hand, plaing the palm to the flat of her shoulder and curling his fingers. She pressed against his weight and narrowed his eyes.

He shoved and she rolled, grabbing his arm as she did, and it sent them tumbling, rolling round and round like idiots in the grass, her teeth in his shoulder and his claws down her back, the pins in her hair coming loose.

It was the sort of tussling Byakko favored and not: she screamed when he caught and twisted her arm, he grunted when her knee slammed hard into his gut, and she said nothing else but the panting of her breath in his ear was not unlike the voices of the idiots who dashed themselves to pieces at the Emperor’s command, a hundred thousand fools who’d obeyed their leader without question and he among them, black hellfire consuming where Suzaku’s red fire would purify–

Ashes and ashes and nothing left for dust.

By the time they stopped he was pinned again, bruised and winded as she rose above him, her hair wild and a single thin line of blood winding its way down her cheek. The hem of her robes had ridden up high enough to expose a long pale strip of thigh and the flex of muscle underneath. Both her hands pressed to his chest, somewhere between a need for balance and a warning to keep him down.

“I hate you,” she said, rising to her knees over him, with her nails digging into his chest as she adjusted. “Do you understand that? You’re a traitor. You’re dangerous. You–”

Touda lifted a hand and pressed the tips of his claws to the base of her neck, where her pulse skipped fast and hard.

“I would not have,” he said, “unless he asked.”

Suzaku stared at him, breathing through clenched teeth. Touda did not blink the entire time, feeling how the muscles in her throat moved when she swallowed. She rose up onto her knees above him. The hands on his chest trembled, then went still.

“I know,” she said finally, and sank down again.

+++

Later he found bruises all along his arms and his hips, a pattern of fingerprints that looked like wildfire.

+++

A week later she bellowed at him and came down swinging; that was more her style, but still more careless than he would have expected. He deflected her blade and caught her eyes, and saw that they were clear and bright. She didn’t nod or pull back, but one corner of her mouth quirked up a little, a half-smile that showed, for just that moment, the tip of a fang.

Touda raised an eyebrow and sidestepped her next swing, and when Byakko cut in to break up the fight, Touda caught her eye again and nodded himself before backing away.

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work in progress

There are two hundred and six bones in the adult body, a thousand interlocking pieces that fit together simultaneously better and worse than any puzzle human can create. River can remember looking at the glossy pictures in her brother’s imager, can remember running her finger along the more detailed surface and always being vaguely disatisfied that the texture was so artificial. Back then she didn’t know what bone felt like, but certainly, she thought, it was nothing like plastic. Now she knows there’s a harder rougher edge to the feeling, like the presence of life — or at least its memory.

A standard Firefly has over three thousand individual pieces that fit together like a skeleton. Metal and plastic and ceramic and she could fold them all between her two hands and find that she’d created something new. She runs her palms across Serenity’s sides and listens to the song the ship sings — nine pieces of melody and an underlying harmony that ties them all together. It’s not meant for human voices, and not even entirely for human ears, but it’s for the people she shelters in her belly through the Black, and even if they’re not consciously aware, they know it.

Of course the loudest thread is the captain; River thinks that maybe someday instead of dying, he will be the one who truly melts into Serenity; he’ll lie down and let the ship draw him to her breast, and then his blood and bones will become fuel and parts, so that the two cannot be separated.

She puts her palm against the side of the ship and follows its lines and its songs, and there’s Kaylee, who is working on some part of the engine with her hair yanked back and her fingers black to the knuckles with grease. She smiles briefly at River and says something — hey, honey, you all right? — but goes back to her work when River does not answer: Kaylee likes voices but understands silence, which is more than many people. River climbs into the hammock stretched in the corner of the engine room and rocks gently, with her palms braced against the rust-streaked walls.

“That’s a pretty song, River,” Kaylee says, and River realizes she has been humming a poor adaption of Serenity’s song, in the closest that a human voice can approximate of its component parts. This is Kaylee’s theme, which is bright and bubbling with deeper grinding notes, because all of the ship knows Kaylee’s light touch, and all of the ship responds to her. “You make it up yourself?”

River tucks her bony knees to her chest. Here are sixty bones right here, in the curve from her hip to the ends of her toes, but they all come together to make two complete limbs. Tibula, fibula, femur, and they all move so smoothly under her skin. “Serenity made it up,” she says. “For you.”

“For me?” Kaylee looks around in surprise, like she expects a face for her to meet. She has never questioned, even before River, that there was soul to this machine beyond its component parts, not when she spends so much of her life here, in the depths of Serenity’s mechanical heart. “Well, that’s awful sweet of her. Think I can learn it?”

Surprised, River considers. She has never tried singing the new, fragile songs that Serenity has only recently begun to compose, the two that are for herself and for Simon. They are works in progress, and River herself is never quite sure if she’ll wake up as a girl or as a million pieces, so certainly Serenity cannot have put everything together just yet.

“It’s not the full song,” she says. “It’s too deep. The tonal harmonics alone are beyond the register of human hearing, let alone the capacity of the human voice. … I don’t think she’ll mind if you try, though.”

She puts her fingers together and breathes deeply and tilts her head just so, because you can’t directly listen to Serenity’s voice: you have to be just a little off, a little at an angle, for this to work, because she’s got more to her than rules and regulations and her several thousand component parts. “Listen.”

Kaylee puts down her wrench and imitates River’s position. She is a grease-spattered angel with messy brown hair, and Serenity sighs, whispering around them. After a moment, River hums again, her own pale imitation, and though her voice is strained and high she feels she can almost match the song for once, and Kaylee sits very still, breathing through a half-open mouth and listening.

River doesn’t know how long she sings, but when she stops her knees are numb from kneeling in seiza for so long and her neck feels stiff from the angle. Kaylee looks entranced, looks surprised, looks thoughtful.

“It might take me a while to learn somethin’ pretty as that,” she says. “Think she’ll mind me practicin’?”

“You don’t need to,” River says and rocks back, putting her palms flat against the walls. Serenity hums back, a visceral body vibration and it’s there in the pit of her stomach. Kaylee, Kaylee, the ship sighs, and maybe River’s thread isn’t the only one always changing. “Whatever you do, it’ll be right.”

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Winterbride

Sometimes, she thinks she was dreamed into existence, like the oni she used to create. Her parents left her no memories as their legacy; there has only been the sense of her destiny–the weight of a thousand Asakura brides settling on her shoulders like a wedding mantle.

The first time she saw him she was unimpressed: he was skinny and little and did not look strong at all. An oni could have chewed him through in seconds. Parts of her murmured at the sight of him, a thousand old voices that did not belong to her.

He is Asakura, they said. He is strong. He will become the Shaman King, and you will be his First Lady. You will be what we could not.

No, she said back to them, as she watched him, this will not happen. His eyes were autumn-colored, too warm to bear. Very quickly, she saw his youth, his clumsiness. Even as the voices of history whispered their approval of this match, she turned her face away.

He would not become Shaman King. He did not have the strength to master a single spirit, opened himself too freely to the currents of the world around him.

And he was not strong enough to break into the core of her. Therefore, he was worth nothing. One could not question the warmth of his smile, but she was winter-dreamed, and not even her edges melted.

But when he showed her his worth, his tears for the cat-spirit seemed to trickle into the very bottom of her. She pressed her hand to her breast and felt the way her heart shuddered into new life. For the first time in memory, the edge of the winter wind felt cold to her skin.

Love did not melt her, nor did it cause her to bloom into spring. She is of winter, and she does not have the time nor the patience for silly little flowers.

In her “heart,” the part of her mind that feels centered in her chest, she carries her emotions like snow-glass structures. Perhaps, in their own way, they are beautiful. It does not matter much to her, either way. They are simply a part of her, and she cannot cut them away any more than she could pull out her actual physical heart, to present on a platter of crystal and ice.

She knows better than to believe that is what he wants.

He loves differently than she does, warmth and acceptance before the cold necessity of guidance. General happiness is his goal in life, before even the dreams of eternal lazy summer days and his beloved music. No one creature can claim the entirety of him–not even herself, when she has committed entirely to his same path. When he opens his arms, he would embrace the entire span of the world.

It is not purity of heart, however, that inspires his generosity. Love has not blinded her into ignoring his faults.

He loves all because it takes less energy than hating them. Opening yourself with a smile takes less effort and thought than bitterness and suspicion. She knows: she still sleeps lightly, occasionally imagining she can hear the oni’s voice rumbling in her heart.

Within him is an encompassing whole that can swallow her emptiness and still have room for more. She keeps this knowledge safe within the tempered safe of her heart, as an ember that keeps the rest of her from freezing once more. Though his gaze may turn away, she knows to be patient, to wait for it to fall upon her again.

Autumn has come, and the nights are growing long and cold. She sits on the threshold of the door and waits for the sound of his footsteps.

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Who You Are

Because he does not like relating to people, Shido tends to think of those closest to him in terms of animals.

Raitei had been a wolf, lean and confident in his power, with his teeth bared to those who threatened the pack, but never anything but kind to those under his protection. And, always, with a sadness in his voice that could never be fully explained or soothed away. Ginji himself is more of a puppy, all bright eyes and good humor and unconditional affection, tripping over himself to please.

(Of course, that would probably mean the snake-bastard is his master. Shido does not like that admission, but there is little he can do to deny it. Ginji will roll over and show all the vulnerable parts of his belly to that snake without a second thought, and Shido only hopes that Ginji truly understands what he offers, every time he does, though he doubts it. Midou realizes, of course, but so far he has not taken up on that tacit, unknowing permission. Shido can pray to his ancestors that they will stay in that uncertain state of balance, but he is certain one day they will teeter and crash. He will, then, pray that Ginji is not irreversibly shattered by that.)

Emishi, too, is sort of puppyish in his loyalty and in the way he will shamelessly flaunt and boast for an audience. A kind word and a treat, if done right, can set off ecstasies of gratitude. He is fond enough of Emishi, but it exhausts him to be around the man for too long. He has unswerving devotion from his animals, without the need of human complications. It is only after being separated for a while that he begins appreciating Emishi more–though still not his sense of humor. Perhaps a hyena, in that, always laughing and skirting the sidelines, only fighting when called to.

Kazuki makes him think of a swan, long-bodied grace and unexpected ferocity. If there is any man who can be like a swan without seeming utterly ridiculous, it is Kazuki. He has the sort of beauty that can inspire idiots to works of poetry, but the reality of him is less kind, less nurturing, than reams of figurative language can ever fully mask.

And MakubeX is a fox-kit, adaptive and quick and sometimes too smart for his own good. When his body finally catches up with his mind, and he matures into his intelligence, Shido thinks he will be quite grateful to be one of the lonely boy’s few friends.

All of the people in his life have reminded Shido of one animal or another. The intermediary is a long-haired housecat, a self-confident queen in her own right; Lady Poison a young gazelle; Jackal is not an actual jackal, but some large hunting cat, soft-pawed and unquestionably deadly, chosing to toy with his prey before the final moment of death. Shido classifies these people quickly–within minutes, really, because he does not have that many long-term acquaintances, and sometimes survival can depend on how he adapts to react to someone’s personality type.

It’s how he survived the first encounter with Midou Ban, years ago. A mongoose is not always as fast as a snake, but it has enough tricks to be quite a threat. And Fudou, the man obsessed with killing Midou, who drank the stink of death like fine wine–without understanding how the man drew his power, Shido does not think he would have survived.

He lives by identifying people, and by changing himself to suit.

Madoka, however, defies all of that.

He has lived in her house for almost six months now. He sees her every day at least once, whether she shyly greets him over breakfast, or comes into the garden to play for him, or follows Mozart to his side after practice. He would call her a chameleon, but that is not right, either–though he cannot pin her nature down, there is nothing shifty or false about Madoka. She is always as her nature dictates, quiet and gentle and never pretentious.

Mozart tells the same story, full of the effusive and unquestionable love of a well-treated dog. It is easy for him, because she is beloved pack-leader, to be obeyed without question and adored for her simple presence. Dogs are more intelligent than many give them credit for, but within their own personal relations, there is little to complicate things.

She cannot be a dog in his eyes, even the lean, leggy ones that move with their own fluid grace, because she relies on no pack to define her role and character. She cannot be a cat, despite her poise even under fire, because she is willing to sometimes sacrifice her dignity for the sake of fun, wrestling with Mozart down on the floor.

Other times she reminds him of a sparrow, or some other delicate little bird–not flashy or bright in her plumage, but with her own grace of beauty, quick and full of song. There are exercises where Madoka needs to sing the runs before she plays them, and Shido hangs around somewhere behind the open doorway to listen. Her voice will never reach the level of her violin, but it still has a strange kind of power over him.

Now he sits outside her open window and listens to her practice–ordinary scale runs and etudes, designed to keep her fingers loose and nimble. He can see her clearly, long dark hair pulled back for once, and she sways even to these simple melodies, lost in her creation of a world of sound.

Countless animals in the world, a hundred in his own repertoire of imitations, and he cannot assign any of them to her to his own satisfaction.

Like a member of his own clan, he realizes with a start. Like one of the Fuyuki, these past six years dead.

The realization troubles him more than he would care to admit. Dangerous enough, that he has stepped out of the concealing protection of the Mugenjou and back into the outside world. Sooner or later, they will find him again, and now he must take her safety into consideration.

In battle, physical wounds to the body heal with time. But he does not want to think of what might happen, if that gentle girl who follows him with her sightless eyes is caught in the crossfire. Madoka is not entirely defenseless, but she has no training, no understanding of how to fight–and music may mean something to animals, but insects care for nothing but the drone of their fellows.

The thought leaves him cold, and more frightened than he wants to admit. He does not want the responsibility of her last rites, not if they come as a result of his own curse.

Madoka is not of the Mariwood, with all the animals of the world as her champion. She is only human, already robbed of one of her weak senses, and if the buzzing crickets are ever called back to report …

Her music stops. Shido has been looking at her without seeing, and she has come to the window during his distraction. The violin is cradled gently in her arms, like a newborn child. “Shido-san? Are you there?”

He’s not sure why she always asks. Her instinct of his presence is keener than any animal’s; it has surprised him from time to time. She smiles down at him, her blind eyes turned unerringly to the tree he and his friends have staked as “their own.”

“I’ll put on some tea,” she says. “Will you come inside?”

I want to pin you down, so I can understand you. I want you to always be safe.

I don’t want to see you cry. I don’t want to see what will happen to you if I stay. I don’t want–

He gets to his feet, hands in his pockets. “All right,” is all he says.

She smiles and disappears again from the window; he can hear the sounds of her putting the instrument up, with the same delicate care she applies to everything.

When he goes inside, the drone of summer insects is all that is left to fill the air.

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Whether or No

Liza met him on the battlefield, when he snapped his fingers and blew a sniper she just couldn’t reach to bloody pulp. He was barely three years older than her and already an officer, already a State Alchemist, and she thought he might expect her to be impressed by it.

Instead, she raised her gun and shot the man belly-crawling up from behind. To her surprise, he looked more sick than relieved, and he sat down hard beside her, uncaring of how the dust gathered on his legs, on the folds of his uniform. It was undignified, and she tilted her head at him and frowned.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and his smile was lopsided and tired. “It’s been a long day.”

She didn’t answer at first, and watched as his smile shifted, changed, became something almost rueful. Just when it looked as though it would drop, and he would turn away, she said, “Are you all right, sir?”

The question surprised him, she saw; his eyes widened for a moment, then relaxed. “I’m fine.” His gaze flickered to her coat, the pips on her shoulders, and he added, “Sergeant.”

She looked at him evenly, up and down — there was no blood on him, but his face was drawn, pale, with dark shadows under his eyes. “Sir. I was led to believe we wouldn’t be receiving backup from the State Alchemists in this area.”

He shrugged, leaning gingerly back against a broken-off section of wall. “Maybe you weren’t going to,” he said. The confession was here, and so were you.” His fingers rubbed together, and Liza saw a brief, bright spark between them, which was immediately snuffed out. “So was he.”

Neither of them looked at the blood-spattered cliff across from them, or the body behind them.

“We should go back,” he said, tilting his face up to the sky. “It’ll be dark soon, and we don’t want to be caught in the desert at night.”

“We don’t,” she agreed, but neither of them moved. Exhaustion seemed to weigh him down, gathered in dark rings under his eyes. He carried no gun, she saw, which struck her as peculiar, especially from a ranking Major — but perhaps, since his fingers were weapon enough, he didn’t need a gun.

“What’s your name, Sergeant?” he asked, still not looking down. She watched his fingers on his knees, rubbing slowly, but no more sparks came.

“Sir. Elizabeth Hawkeye, sir.”

“Hawkeye?” He sounded amused by that, and she saw his head tilt so he could give her an appraising look. “Fitting, for a sniper.”

She shrugged, and hiked her gun closer, keeping her own hands curled loosely around its trigger. “My ancestor was a gun maker, sir. The name stuck.”

“Ah, of course.” He sighed again, then rocked up, first to his heels, then rose to his feet. Up close, he didn’t look as tall or broad-shouldered as he did from a distance, framed by the fading sky and moving sands. “Come along, Sergeant. There’s no point in sticking around.” After a moment’s thought, he held out a hand to her. “Roy Mustang.”

She almost refused, looking at his hand and then at his face. Roy Mustang had a decent poker face, but it didn’t hide the tired lines that pressed the corners of his mouth. She looked at him, weighed him, then accepted his help.

“Thank you,” he said, quietly, and she pretended not to hear. They did not walk hand-in-hand together, and two more Ishbarite rebels died before they reached the camp, but Liza watched him walk away without a word, and thought that perhaps she would see him again soon.

Two weeks passed. The Amestris military slowly moved further into Ishbar’s capital city, and Liza took to sleeping with her gun by her side. If she paused to think, she found she was forgetting why she’d enlisted in the first place — the people of the city were frightened, barely able to use the weapons they had, and she watched an entire temple congregation flee, only to be intercepted and taken by front-line gunmen.

She watched as the State Alchemists were set lose upon an unsuspecting population, seeing enormous red flowers bloom against the dark sky, smoky red and imagined she could smell the destruction even from her post. In a single night, it seemed, huge chunks of the entire country lay devastated. Her squad marched through one, and she looked at how entire buildings had been shattered, lying in huge broken chunks, and felt ill.

And then one night, on sentry duty, she met Roy Mustang again.

He was less composed than before; she saw his uniform coat and part of the undershirt below it were unbuttoned, that his slick black hair was disheveled, and the closer he came, the stronger the reek of alcohol grew.

“You.” He squinted at her, swaying in place. “I know you.”

She saluted, because drunk or not, he was still a higher-ranked officer than her. “Sergeant Elizabeth Hawkeye, sir.”

“Ah.” He took a few tottering steps towards her, and she almost broke form to catch his arm when he stumbled, almost fell. “Yes. I remember you. The gun maker’s granddaughter.”

Liza pressed her lips together. “Did you want something, sir?”

He lifted his head, and she could see his eyes were bloodshot, red-rimmed from alcohol and other things, which she couldn’t make herself identify, for fear of making them real. “Fresh air, Sergeant,” he said, voice drawn thin and quiet. “I wanted … I can only make oxygen for fire, not for myself.”

Nonplussed, she said nothing, watching as he stumbled around her, moving to the very farthest edge of the lights cast by their campfires, staring hard into the darkness. Liza waited, trying to ignore the fact that she was lax in patrolling, half-expecting him to collapse where he stood.

“We’re fighting a losing war, Sergeant,” he said, without turning.

“Sir?”

“You could say we’re won,” Mustang said. His hands moved, and she glanced down to his hip, and was surprised to see a gun holstered there now, innocuous and almost hidden by the gaping folds of his jacket. “We’re did most of the killing, and in a day or two, there won’t be anything left, not with the ‘cleanup.'” He laughed, the sound sharp and sudden and loud. “Nothing at all.”

“Sir.” Liza shifted uneasily, glancing over her shoulder. “Sir, come away from there. You’re not well, you should –”

“I’m not well,” he echoed, dropping his head forward. “I’m tired.”

She stepped forward, then risked putting her hand on his shoulder. She could feel him shaking, and it surprised her enough that she almost pulled away. “… Sir?”

“I’m not well,” he sighed again, “but I’m alive. There are a number of people who aren’t even that.” He turned to her slightly, his smile faint, and wry. “I’m sorry, Sergeant. I’m keeping you from your duty. I’ll go.”

But he didn’t move, and Liza didn’t release him. After a moment, he sighed again, and tugged a bit at his already-loose collar. “A few days,” he told her, without looking at her, “I made this entire city burn. I don’t know how many people died, but it’s more than I can count.”

“Sir, you’re drunk, you should –”

“They gave us … amplifiers, for lack of better word.” Mustang lifted his hand, and she saw a small, thin ring on his middle finger, set with a tiny chip of red stone. “By the order of Colonel Grahn, we weren’t to leave a single building standing.” He swayed again, and this time Liza was forced to catch him. He was lighter than he looked, but his shoulders were broad, and she staggered a little under him. “Not people, either …”

“Sir,” she said again, more quietly, and pulled one of his arms over her shoulders. “Let’s get you lying down.”

“Would you stay?” he asked, and something in his tone of voice made her stop, turn to look at him. She wasn’t even sure herself what was there on her face, but he flinched, and she felt him begin to withdraw. “No, I’m sorry, I –”

“I’ll stay,” she said softly, cutting him off, and then spoke again before he could think of another protest. “I won’t … keep you company, but I’ll be there. At least until you fall asleep.” She didn’t know quite why she promised that, but he looked at her with wide dark eyes, and the gratitude in his eyes made her breath catch.

“That’s fine,” he muttered, as they staggered to the officer’s tents, both of them swaying like drunks. “That’s more than fine, Sergeant, I –”

“You’re going to feel horrible tomorrow morning,” she told him before she could stop herself, and he laughed, the sound rough.

“Tomorrow will be a red day,” he said, then made a strange choked sound, which Liza expected was supposed to be a laugh. “No, it’s already red, and, ah …” He came to a sudden stop, lifting one of his hands, and the two of them looked at his glove. Once upon a time, Liza remembered, it had been surprisingly white for a man fighting in a desert — now it was grimy and dulled, with black marks on the fingers that seemed to resemble gun oil.

“Sir,” she murmured, and Mustang shook himself fiercely, turning another sickly smile to her. “One step at a time.”

“One, yes,” he said, shaking his head, and the two of them walked, step by slow, careful step. It seemed to take a small eternity to find his tent, and to wrestle the heavy flap open, and Liza was infinitely grateful to see it unoccupied.

“Here we are,” she murmured, and pushed gently on his shoulders. At first, it seemed his knees wouldn’t bend, still military-stiff despite the drunken sway and nod of him, but finally he let her press him down to sit on his bedroll. Like some oversized child, he blinked at her stupidly as she set to work on his boots.

“Leave those,” he said quietly, and when she looked up at him, he gave her a wry little lopsided smile. “I — I’ve slept in my uniform before. Gets it horribly wrinkled, but …”

Liza hesitated, then sat back on her heels. Without the excuse to touch him, her hands rested on her knees. “Sir. You should try getting some sleep.”

Mustang continued to smile at her, not quite broken, and Liza thought how it was strange that this full-grown soldier and alchemist could so strongly remind her of the war orphans, who’d clustered in the shadows of ruined buildings to watch the Amestris army march past. For a moment, she had the ridiculous urge to smooth his hair and to promise him all sorts of lies — things will be better in the morning, it won’t be so bad once you’ve gotten some sleep, we’ve done the right thing.

Instead, she told him, “Lie down and close your eyes.”

His smile strengthened fractionally. “Yessir,” he said, but the tone was self-mocking more than anything else. And even if his eyes reminded her of a child, he moved like an old man, slow and careful, like he expected his bones to shatter if he went too fast. Liza remained leaning back, watching him as he settled himself down, meeting his gaze when he turned it back to her.

“We’re living in interesting times, Sergeant,” he told her, wistful. “I used to think that was the best ideal. Now, I think I’d give anything just to see this blow over, so we can all retire in boredom.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to say he already had. Liza stopped herself with effort, but couldn’t help reaching down, pulling the blankets out from under his feet and pulling them up, leaving them halfway up his chest. Mustang watched her with heavy eyes, breathing deeply; she wasn’t sure if he even saw her, any more.

“They had a little girl,” he said suddenly, startling her. Liza leaned back again, blinking. His smile was completely gone, replaced by something blank and horrified. “I saw her. She had blood all over her face, but she was smiling.”

“Sir?”

“The doctors. They had a little girl. Her father was using it as an, an excuse — ‘we have a child, please don’t do this.'” Mustang’s eyes closed, and he took in a shuddering breath; this time, Liza didn’t stop herself when she reached out and touched his shoulder. “I –”

She squeezed gently. “You?”

“I couldn’t say no,” Mustang whispered, like a confession. “They had a child waiting for them, and even then, when Colonel Grahn gave me the gun, I couldn’t say no.”

He sounded lost because of it, like a little boy betrayed by his ideals. Liza pressed her lips together and leaned forward, onto her knees beside him. For long moments, neither of them spoke, and then Mustang said, “Alchemists don’t believe in God. But Hell exists, whether you believe or not.”

Liza tightened her fingers once more, against the temptation to brush hair from his eyes. It surprised her, how much this person’s rambling struck a chord in her. Mustang shifted towards her and opened his eyes, looking up at her with sudden, piercing clarity.

“We’re horrible things, State Alchemists,” he told her. Liza opened her mouth to say something, then cut herself off when Mustang sighed and closed his eyes again. Under her fingers, his shoulder didn’t quite relax, not completely, but there was a shift of tensions, and she thought he muttered a name, right as he slipped away.

Buildings had crumbled and cities crisped to dust by a simple snap of this man’s fingers, Liza thought, watching him. As an alchemist, the number of deaths on his head must indeed be almost countless. In sleep, he didn’t look “innocent” so much as “tired,” his fingers twitching under the blankets, as though even in his dreams, he was snapping flame into life.

For long minutes, Liza remained perched by his side, watching him sleep. And when he didn’t move the whole time, except for the shallow rise and fall of his chest, she quietly got up and left.

Nearly six months passed before he came to her again, this time in the afternoon, knocking at the door of her modest little apartment. She opened it and found him still looking haggard, but stronger than before — his eyes were brighter now, and he smelled more of dust and old books than any sort of drink.

“Lieutenant,” he said, and it didn’t surprise her that he’d heard about her promotion. “May I come in?”

Liza didn’t hesitate, stepping aside and nodding to him. Mustang walked slowly, and did not look around with improper curiosity. He was out of uniform, and the clothes he wore were wrinkled, faded into tired comfort — his back, however, was ramrod straight, shoulders squared.

“To what do I owe this honor, sir?” she asked. She did not offer him a place to sit down, or tea; she felt, on some peculiar instinct, that it would only make him uncomfortable. “And congratulations on your own promotion.”

Mustang smiled wryly, shrugging a little. Hollowness lingered in his eyes. “Thank you, Lieutenant.” He paused, as though gathering his thoughts, then tucked his hands behind his back. “I have something to ask you, which you’re free to refuse, now, or at any time.”

“Sir.” Liza found a sense of calm settling over her as she looked at him. It had been a week since she’d held the gun, down at the firing range, and she found herself almost worried that the lack of practice would be a problem.

“This country is falling apart,” he said quietly. “Ever since Fuhrer King Bradley has come to power, we’ve been in some conflict or other. We can’t –” she saw his fingers flex, and though he wore no gloves, she found herself almost surprised that there was no spark or heat, “– we can’t continue like this. We’ll destroy ourselves, otherwise.”

As he spoke, his gaze drifted away from her, to a point far over her right shoulder. He looked almost nervous, though the flame in his eyes remained strong; he was convicted, Liza thought, and the beginnings of what she’d seen months ago on the battlefield were coming to flower.

“It’s too large a task for one man alone,” he said, and now he sounded hesitant, his gaze flickering to meet hers for just a moment. “Or even with several, it could take several years — possibly even decades …”

She looked at him for a long time, weighing his words thoughtfully. If asked, she thought she preferred him now than he had that one night, when he’d looked at her with unseeing eyes and told her about a murdered doctor’s daughter.

He’d not outright said what he intended to do, and Liza thought that was better; the more often he said it out loud, the more likely it would be for someone else to overhear. And she’d heard her own superior muttering about “that damn Mustang,” for all that the man had supposedly holed himself up in his apartment for weeks after the war.

Very slowly, deliberately, Liza lifted her hand. The movement caught his eye, and she held his gaze as she saluted to him, and though she wasn’t in uniform either, her form was perfect.

“I’ll put in a request for my transfer tomorrow, sir,” she said, and watched as he sagged, as though in relief. It wasn’t obvious, no — but like when he’d fallen asleep beside her, there was a shift and change in the way he stood, and she thought he must have been expecting her to say no, especially to a man she’d only met twice before.

The smile he gave her might not have been one on anyone else: it turned the corners of his mouth just slightly, so that someone observing might believe they imagined it. Liza saw it clearly, and thought that perhaps he was relearning that expression, coming back into it by slow degrees. She resisted the urge to smile back.

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” Mustang said quietly. “Your support is … appreciated.”

And she nodded, still holding the salute as he matched it, the two of them solemn-faced and not quite awkward, facing each other.

“Sir,” she said quietly.

This person, I will protect.

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