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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Where He Stays

His shoulder aches if he leans on it too long; when he moves, he can feel the cloth sticking to the rotten patches beneath. It makes him uncomfortable, so he sits very straight and tries not to touch anything. He’s heard people whispering about him since he came, and they call it proper posture and befitting a gentleman.

Dante knows better; she laughs and kisses that spot, stroking it with soft pale hands. He doesn’t like the way it feels, when she touches it, because the feeling reminds him of dying. He can hear the whispering from behind the Gate, and the jealous hunger of those many, many eyes and plucking fingers, and Dante only laughs and caresses it again.

Breathing the same air she does is like slow suffocation. When he leaves, he makes vague excuses — I need to get away; I need to see if I can find a way to reverse what’s happening to us — and Dante lets him leave, waving a handkerchief at him from the doorway. Envy is not around, and that is a relief; he does not need another round of yelling and accusations as his farewell.

Risenbul is a lucky find, he thinks: a tiny little village set near a thick heavy forest and a winding river, and sets himself up there, the village hermit. Of course, now the term is outdated, but he likes to think of himself as a wise man of sorts, the handyman alchemist. And if they notice he does not age over the years, and that his hair and beard remain free of gray, they are loyal enough not to comment.

The day a new family comes to the village — a farmer, come here to escape from the madness of East City’s explosive expansion, he is at the bar with Pinako Rockbell, drinking. And he’s an alchemist, and so he does not believe in God, but he knows something prompted him to look up at the exact moment a young girl walks into his line of vision, with a white dress that reaches to her ankles, and a wide-brimmed sunhat. She holds a suitcase in both hands, and at that moment he leans forward to get a better look, she glances up, sees him, and smiles.

Pinako later calls him an idiot for not saying anything, and then laughs at how he has finally found someone who leaves him unable to say his own name. When he comes to the Rockbell’s automail shop to give Pinako’s son and daughter-in-law lessons, he finds the girl in the kitchen, drinking tea. She looks up at his entrance, and her smile widens, and he thinks it’s strange, how she cannot be more than sixteen years old, and he is reaching his four hundredth year, and her smile makes his face hot.

He learns later she is actually seventeen, and that her name is Trisha, after her mother, Patricia. He learns that she likes to go down to the river and walk into the water barefoot, and that boat rides delight her. She tells him how, in her childhood, she used to have a swing set that she loved, and he offers to transmute her one on the spot. When she expresses dubious amusement, he rolls up his sleeves to his forearms and claps his hands, setting them against a tree, smiling at her shock when the swing grows from the branch itself.

Once that surprise passes, though, her smile is brilliant. She insists he try the swing, but he is too awkward, too heavy, and so they switch, and he watches as the wind catches in her hair, letting it flare out so that the sun catches in its length.

It’s so easy to forget, he thinks. He gives her a gentle push, and does his best to ignore the wet brush of cloth on his shoulder.

She is a farmer’s daughter, but she’s not stupid; he teaches her to read, and to write at least her name, and his. Trisha’s intelligence lies in her hands, which are slender and soft, but hide calluses on the fingers, strong for all their delicacy. He finds his shirts and coat mended quickly and efficiently, and his small larder is stocked with her cooking. He dreams of her, draped in shining silver, with a crown of wheat and cradling a bow and arrow in her hands, and wakes shaking.

At first, he keeps his shoulder hidden from Trisha, wearing long-sleeved shirts even in the hottest part of summer, when even a modest young lady like her wears her dresses cut both low and high. If she finds this strange, she says nothing, and continues to breaks his heart when she smiles. He thinks he could be happy staying by her side, but Dante is waiting, Envy is waiting, and he knows soon he will have to leave this place that has loved him so long.

Leaving Trisha is the harder thing, he thinks one night, and puts his hand over the mark.

He tells her on a summer evening, when the moon is a heavy sickle in the violet sky. I am old, and my flesh is already rotting. Trisha doesn’t believe at first, staring at him, and he finally unbuttons his shirt, sliding down one sleeve, so she can see the places where his skin blackens and curls. When she tries to reach out, he catches her wrist and pulls it roughly away.

“Don’t,” he says. She looks surprised, then hurt, and he steps back, takes a deep breath to calm himself. “I’m sorry,” he says, and isn’t sure for what, exactly — there are so many things, really, for her to be angry about, so many things to apologize for. He wants to hold her, wants to take back what he cannot help, and instead leaves her staring after him, pale in the growing dusk.

The next day she finds him as he is leaving. He dwarfs her, and she can barely close her fingers halfway around his wrist, but he stops at the sight of her, framed in his bedroom doorway, and stares at him.

“Ah,” he says, blankly. “Trisha, I –”

“I want to talk to you,” she says, and the sharpness in her voice is so uncharacteristic that it surprises him into silence. Outside, the sunlight is bright enough to make him squint, but he says nothing, following her meekly to the large oak tree that stands behind his small house.

There, she whirls on him, and jabs him hard in the chest with what finger. “Where do you think you’re going?” she asks, and he is taken aback.

“I,” he begins, then gives her a wry smile, the one that has always won a smile back — but not today, no, not with her eyes snapping and her pretty mouth turned into a near-scowl. “Away?”

“Without saying good bye?” She is hurt under her anger, a fragility to her that lures him in, even when he wants to stop, and turn away. Dante would destroy her, he thinks; Dante would see a rival and tear her to shreds without every changing expression. “How can you do that? I thought — I thought you –”

It’s not safe for her, he thinks again. She’s only human, and Envy is waiting, as well. She seems to have forgotten about his arm, the dark places where his soul and body have eroded. But she doesn’t falter; it costs her, he sees, but she only glares, defiant somehow, and anger makes her almost as lovely as happiness. Here, she is strong and steadfast; he looks at her and thinks that she will not falter or break, even if he walks away from her, and that is what roots him in place.

“I care,” he says finally. The confession is almost painful, and she knows better than to give in, glaring until he rubs the back of his head, trying not to wince as his shirt chafes his shoulder. “Trisha, it’s dangerous. I’m not — well. You –”

“I’m not afraid,” she says, a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “I’m not.” And now she softens a little, stepping forward to lay both of her hands upon his forearm, well away from his shoulder. “Stay. Please.”

No, he wants to tell her. No, you silly girl, I’m not —

“Fine,” he says, and sees her relax at last. Her smile makes his chest tighten, and he thinks bitterly that he is tying the last satin ribbon before he hands her to Dante on a platter. “But, Trisha, I’m not — I can’t stay forever.”

Her smile is knowing and old, and though she is only a fraction of Dante’s age, she seems so much the wiser. She curls her fingers around his wrist, holding loosely; all he has to do is give a single twist, and that would break her grasp. “You have to find out how to fix your arm,” she says gently. “When you find that out, you’ll come back.”

There is such absolute confidence in her voice, such conviction, that he thinks she may be right. When he draws her into his arms, and kisses her for the first time, she tilts her face to his, like she has been expecting this since their first meeting.

For a mad moment, he is tempted to have her here, in the open, under the tree — to take what she offers and take it with him, to remember her warmth when he finally returns to Dante — and then she sighs, and lifts her hands to his shoulders. Briefly, her fingers brush the edges of the mark on his shoulder and he freezes, waiting.

Nothing happens. Nothing happens.

She looks up at him quizzically, tilts her head to one side. “Hoenheim?”

He shakes his head, stunned by the sound of her voice, by the way that she is still touching his arm there, and nothing is happening. Elated, he kisses her again, sweeps her into his arms and spins her once, then sets her down as she laughs, leaning against him. Keeping one arm tight around her waist, he touches the back of her head with broad fingers and thinks, I will keep this one.

+++

The graveyard is larger than he remembers it, but still full of unearthly silence. He walks slowly among the graves, and feels like he can sense the eyes of the dead, watchful on him, as he searches.

The stone has no dates carved on it. He sits down slowly and takes a deep breath, reaching out to trace the name carved there, on the small elegy chipped in beneath it. She never remarried, he sees with relief and regret both; he kept her, he kept her until the end.

He closes his eyes and leans his head, briefly, against the stone.

“Trisha,” he says. “I didn’t find out how to fix my arm, but … I wanted to see you.”

Silence answers him, and he passes his hand across her name again. He sighs and leans back, smiling wryly at the headstone, and can almost imagine her arms around his shoulders, her cheek soft against his.

For a moment, he thinks of the house as it was, standing tall, of Edward and Alphonse playing together in the garden under her watchful eye (but they are too old for playing now, they must be too old for playing now), and he thinks of walking up, and seeing the surprise and the pleasure that lights the faces of his family, of a homecoming that tastes bittersweet.

“Well,” he says, his voice quiet in the graveyard, bright in his dreams. “I’m home.”

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What Remains

Contrary to popular belief, heroes do not always age gracefully.

Time is sometimes colder to them than the ordinary layman, and there is always a point where even the glamour of fame wears thin. Edward doesn’t walk quite as fast as he used to; he no longer vibrates with suppressed energy when standing still. In cold weather, he often rubs at his right elbow, as though he cannot help but imagine an ache there.

His mind is just as sharp as ever, though. And if he speaks more slowly, that’s indication of how much he’s grown. It will still be years yet before Alphonse can convince him to come back and stay.

Roy uses his automail hand to hold the walking stick, which is long and black, with a lion’s head of silver. It’s mostly for show, but he knows soon it will be necessary: the mornings have put aches in his joints that were not there the previous year. These are old memories of finished wars, and they are as much a part of him as the limbs which remain.

Central City has not changed much over the years; she is vast and set in her ways, down to the core of life that flows through her veins. Leaderships have changed, regimes toppled and governments rebuilt, but life continues as always. Time flows, and all men are carried forward with it.

And Central, beautiful and hovering somewhere between innocent and corrupt, takes them in and forgets them; her scars heal and she is whole again, as though no blood stained her streets, and no horrors wandered freely. Once the dust cleared and the earth settled, Central picked herself up and carried on without second thought.

Roy’s memory is longer. He remembers. Every time he passes the automail hand over anything, he remembers.

When the rain comes, late in the winter, washing away the remnants of snow, Roy dresses in full regalia, slicks back his silvering hair, and walks slowly down to the cemetery. Edward sometimes meets him there, or comes across him halfway, and they go together, memories that have not yet faded as time grinds them down.

It’s strange, to see the new young faces that are appearing in the military every day. The Ishbar War, the War of the Stone–these have both become grandfather-tales, legends in their own time, and there is not a single student who doesn’t look at either of them without hero worship. Roy tries to discourage it as much as he can. Sometimes it works, but it’s harder now, so much more than when Fullmetal was that age, and younger.

A new generation turns shining eyes to Roy Mustang, and all they see is the glitter and trappings of a war hero. Except for Edward, who has carved his own path, his own way, everyone underneath and below Roy has been obscured.

War alone does not always send a man to sleep, Roy thinks, as they walk. Time lays him equally low, and is, perhaps, the more insidious presence. You do not think of time until the long, silent moments when you are the only thing moving.

Or not moving, as the case may be. They stand together on a street corner and watch a few cars drive slowly past.

“Are you going to Alicia’s graduation?” Edward asks, without looking at him. Mist gathers in his golden hair, and his bangs hang low in his face. “Ms. Gracia wants to know.”

Roy looks at his hand, and the cane he holds there, and then at Edward again. “I don’t know,” he says. “I have a lot of work.”

“You always have a lot of work, sir,” Edward snorts, but there is no sting in his voice. It is too early in the morning for arguing, and Edward is not old, but he is no longer young. Roy climbed to the top to realize his own goals, but Edward, as always, has done as he pleased.

Farmer, colonel or head of the country, it matters little. The Fullmetal Alchemist respects those whom have proved his faith well-placed. And nothing, Roy thinks, will teach you the ways of a single man more than fighting with him.

“Perhaps,” he says at last. “It really does depend.”

Edward looks at him sharply for a moment, and then shrugs. “Fair enough,” he allows.

They walk forward when the light changes, down to the graveyard. A grand statue of King Bradley has been erected, the man noble and stern, one of his swords drawn and lifted in salute to anyone who walks past. At the base is a plaque with a list of names, those who have gone through the gateway and not returned. Roy helped oversee the project himself.

Some crimes cannot be redeemed. However, some sins are more easily forgiven than others.

Down the path, to the right and then straight: and there is where Maes Hughes sleeps, so many years abed. Roy’s footsteps slow as he approaches that place, but Edward walks faster, until it is almost the pace of a young man. His chin is lifted, like he’s defying ghosts to rise up and stop him as he walks.

Maes Hughes’ grave is neatly-kept as always; there are fresh flowers sitting upon its grass-covered mound. Roses, lilies, and a small framed photograph of Alicia and Gracia, identical smiles and bright eyes. In Alicia’s eyes are all the years that her father has never seen.

Gracia, Roy thinks, and feels a fleeting pang of sadness; of them all, she and Alicia have lost the most. Gracia smiles more these days, especially when her daughter is involved, but her sadness is lingering, underlying–she knows very well what was taken from her.

Edward stops in front of the grave, jams his hands deeply into his pockets. Just for a moment, Roy slows further, to give him a few split-seconds of privacy before he is there, and stands before the grave as well. A breeze makes the flowers nod towards them, as though in greeting.

Time has turned the dials down on Edward’s master volume control, but even with that, his voice is hushed in the graveyard. “Whadaya think he’d say, seeing us here?”

Edward asks this question every year. Roy shifts his weight against his stick, considers it thoughtfully, as he always does. This is important every time. “He would say that it’s about time,” he says. “Neither of us come often enough, I think.”

That is the way of things, and of life, he wants to add, but refrains. Edward already knows this; there is no point in beating a dead horse, a dead idea. Time gets away from every man, the trickiest lover to court. Neither of them can afford to be idle men, if ever they were before.

Shoulder to shoulder, they stand and say nothing, and the wind blows quietly through the heavy stones all around them. Hughes had always understood the value of silence, Roy thinks, though one would never guess, only knowing him for a short while.

“I keep thinking I should bring, I don’t know, flowers or something,” Edward says quietly, as though to the wind. “But it seems stupid until I get here. Flowers aren’t for the dead, they’re for the living.”

“And the living keep the dead alive in their memories, and so don’t truly die.” Roy smiles quietly, pulls off his hat with his automail fingers. “It’s the storytellers and historians that hold the true power in this society, Edward.”

Edward hums quietly in agreement; his golden eyes are narrow and thoughtful. “Alchemy has studied for thousands of years, and new life is still the one secret it can’t unravel,” he said. “Mothers, storytellers, the people who remember–they’re the ones who do everything we can’t.”

“There are some things,” Roy says, and does not look at Edward’s arm or leg as he does, “that mankind was never meant to understand on a scientific level.”

“That doesn’t stop us from trying,” Edward replies, and he does look at Roy’s hand when he says this. “Maybe we’re stupid that way.”

Roy moves his hand, places the flesh hand over the automail one. “Maybe we are.”

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wish for luck

The day of his thesis defense is a bright and sunny one. Morinaga wakes from a fitful sleep and dresses carefully as he can — a new suit that cost more than he really wants to think about, and his hair damply combed into a semblance of order. He keeps his notes tucked under an arm, reshuffling and straightening them compulsively as he makes his way to the office building. He almost passes the man who’s standing at the bottom of the stairs, then staggers when something smacks the back of his head, hard.

Morinaga turns and sees a (decently-sized, actually) rock wrapped with something. He bends and picks it up, unwrapping it carefully.

Written on it is the phrase, “For good fortune on this day.”

He looks up and meets a full-fledged scowl from his senpai — slightly redirected, but still absolutely familiar. In spite of himself he smiles as he trots over, still holding onto the charm. “Senpai!” he says. “Ah, did you come here to cheer me on? Ehehehe, that’s so–”

“Keh!” Tatsumi snorts. “Like I’d waste my time doing that.”

“But …” Morinaga blinks. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

“I just happened to be walking by!” Tatsumi scowls. “It’s just coincidence that I’m here. Coincidence. Don’t get so excited.”

“Senpai … ” Morinaga blinks. He looks at the charm he’s holding, then holds it up. “This is–”

The glare Tatsumi levels at a nearby tree was almost enough to make it spontaneously combust; a cluster of girls passing by take one terrified look at skitter quickly out of his line of sight. “What does it LOOK like? Idiot.”

“A …” Morinaga turns it over slowly with his fingertips, half-afraid it’s going to fall apart. Actually, knowing his senpai, he thinks he should be more suspicious on whether there’s poison laced on the edges. “A good-luck charm?”

“OF COURSE IT’S A GOOD-LUCK CHARM, YOU BLIND FOOL.” Tatsumi puffs himself up the whole way, his expression thunderous. “WHAT DID YOU EXPECT, YOU–”

“You got this for me?” Morinaga doesn’t think his eyes could get any wider — they’re actually beginning to hurt a bit from staring. “Senpai …”

“OF COURSE NOT!” Tatsumi bellows. “WHY WOULD I BUY SOMETHING FOR AN IDIOT PERVERT HOMO–”

“Eh?” Morinaga squints at the charm. After a moment, he feels the absolute stillness of shock settle over him, which lets him look up at Tatsumi’s red face without actually exploding.

“Senpai … don’t tell me that you –”

A vein ticcs in Tatsumi’s forehead. The light pings off his glasses for a moment, rendering his eyes invisible. “What about it.

“–you … made this?” Morinaga holds up the small good-luck charm. “This is your handwriti–gggghk.”

Tatsumi keeps shaking him hard for a few moments, making sputtering furious noises that aren’t actually a denial. When he glances up, he apparently sees something in Morinaga’s expression that makes him shove back, hard, and his blush has moved all the way down his neck, disappearing into his shirt.

“You did,” Morinaga breathes. “Senpai, for me, you–”

It’s not like I’d do something like that for a pervert like you,” Tatsumi hisses. “Why’d I waste my time doing something like that! It’s just a fucking thesis defense! I’ve got more important things with my time than something pointless like that–”

Morinaga throws his arms around his senpai, squeezing hard as he can. There’s a long outraged string of muffled curses into his as Tatsumi immediately begins to squirm, clawing and shoving for freedom. He ignores it, pressing his nose into Tatsumi’s hair and breathing deep; all impending doom seems to have fallen away (though he knows that he’s probably going to get a beating as soon as he loosens his arms just a little). “Thank you,” he says, pretty sure that Tatsumi misses it in his struggling.

Or maybe not, because for a moment Tatsumi pauses, still with his face in Morinaga’s shoulder. It’s just a moment — less than ten seconds — but it’s there, it’s there and even though Tatsumi punctuates its end by twisting and yowling like an outraged cat, Morinaga knows it was there.

He goes into the defense with a fresh bruise red on his cheek, a smile he can’t stop, and a small handmade good-luck charm tucked into his jeans pocket.

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