Could’ve Been Worse

“Well?” The intermediary–Hevn, Ban had introduced her as–crossed her arms over her ample chest and smirked. “What do you think?”

Ban snorted and leaned back in his seat, arms crossed behind his head. His glasses slipped down his nose a little, which allowed him to give Hevn an utterly disinterested look over the lenses. “Ch’, I dunno. You always brought me dangerous jobs in the past.”

“Ah! But now you’ve got a partner to back you up.” Hevn turned to Ginji and smiled brightly. “Nee? Gin-chan? What do you think?”

Ginji blinked at her. ‘Gin-chan’? Who–him?

When he didn’t answer, Ban nudged Ginji sharply. “She’s talking to you, idiot.”

“Eh?” Ginji blinked first at Ban, then at Hevn. He pointed to himself, blinking. “But my name is Ginji.”

“I know that,” Hevn said. She looked at Ban questioningly. He sighed and straightened, pushing his glasses back up.

“Look, Ginji,” he said, and waited until the blond swung around to look at him. “It’s just a nickname, okay? It’s supposed to be cute.”

“Supposed to be?” Hevn huffed. “It IS cute.”

“He’s a guy,” Ban snapped. “Guys aren’t supposed to be cute!”

“Maybe not to you,” Hevn ripped back, “but I think Gin-chan’s perfectly darling.” She turned a radiant smile on Ginji, who ducked his head a little, unable to resist smiling back even as he blushed. Six weeks of freedom meant it was still difficult to accept that a cute girl’s smile was for Amano Ginji, and not to curry Raitei’s favor.

Still … “I know it’s a ‘nickname,'” Ginji said hesitantly, “but why ‘Gin-chan’? Where does that come from?”

Hevn looked surprised. “Your name is Ginji,” she said. “Gin-ji. So, Gin-chan.”

“That’s not it,” Ginji said, then scowled a bit in thought. “I meant, why would you start calling me that? Just because?”

“Like I said, it’s meant to be cute, or something,” Ban said before Hevn could answer, then raised an eyebrow at him. “What, you never had one before when you were a brat? Did they always just call you by name?”

Ginji looked blankly at him. Ban scowled.

“Think of it like, uh, that threadspool buddy of yours. Forgot his name. Y’know, the prettyboy with the bells in his hair–?”

“Ito no Kazuki,” Ginji said instantly. A shadow passed over his face. “Kazuki.”

“Yeah, yeah, him. Like that.” Ban waved dismissively, but his eyes were hawk-keen on Ginji’s troubled face. Hevn remained silent, watching the two of them. He leaned over, nudged his shoulder against Ginji’s. “Hey, not done yet.”

Instantly, Ginji turned him to again, with a smile that remained slightly tentative despite its brilliance. “Okay?”

“It’s supposed to be affectionate,” Ban went on, not letting Ginji break eye-contact. “Are you seriously telling me you’ve never heard someone use ‘-chan’ before?”

“Well …” Ginji sounded almost apologetic, as his gaze turned inward. “No, yes I have–but it was never a nice thing. People tended to use it as an insult. Most–‘nicknames’–were like that. You got different names because they didn’t like you, or they were afraid of you.” Ginji’s face clouded over, eyes going misty.

He laced his fingers together, resting his chin on them, and his elbows on the table. His expression turned grave, looking straight back into the eye of the dark. “Nicknames–they’re no different from ‘titles,’ are they?”

Ban scowled, fully aware of the shrewd look Hevn was giving him. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “That’s not how it is out here, okay? Sheesh, you really didn’t learn anything in that damn junkyard.”

Ginji only ducked his head a little, looking embarrassed.

Silence stretched tautly, then broke when Hevn made an irritated noise. “Ban-kun, you don’t have to be so mean about it,” she said. “Just because Gin-chan’s not had the benefit of your superior education–” and something in her tone implied this was nothing great after all–“doesn’t mean you have to harass him.”

She turned to Ginji again, beaming. “I called you ‘Gin-chan’ because it’s a cute name, and you’re a cute boy. I like you.” She reached out and laid her hand over his own. “All right?”

“O … kay … ?” Ginji met her eyes, looked down, squirmed a little. He blushed again.

“Do you not like it?” Hevn’s gold eyes turned instantly contrite. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to presume–“

“No!” Ginji interrupted, then looked embarrassed for it all over again. He tugged a little at his gloves, then looked at her through his lashes with a shy smile. “No, I like it. It’s nice. It’s a lot better than the other, uh, ‘nickname’ I had before.”

“That,” Ban muttered, ignored by them both, “was a problem, and good riddance to it.”

Her concern melted. “Oh, good,” she said, petting his hand again. “Then you can call me ‘Hevn-chan,’ all right?”

Ban rolled his eyes and snorted derisively. Hevn’s pleasant expression never changed, but Ginji felt movement against his leg–and then, a split-second later, Ban yelped and doubled over. Something banged up hard under the table, making their coffee cups jump. Ban gave her an evil look as he hitched his leg up onto the booth seat and rubbed the abused knee.

Hevn just smirked back at him. Before the situation could escalate further, Ginji cleared his throat pointedly.

“Um, well, ‘Gin-chan’ is fine, Hevn-ch–cha–” His face twisted, trying to get the last syllable out; it stuck in his throat with surprising tenacity. Hevn patted his hand again.

“‘Hevn-san’ is all right, if you feel better saying that,” she said. “Besides, you boys will be working for me, so it’s good you keep some respect for me, all right?” She winked.

Ban leaned forward, crowding his shoulder against Ginji’s. Then, he reached out and grabbed a handful of her right breast, squeezing thoughtfully. “I dunno,” he said, grinning cheekily at her. “I’d call you Hevn-chan–“

In the Mugenjou, Raitei had witnessed countless battles, both from afar and within its frenzied hold. Even so, Hevn moved with a speed that might have bested the Snake Bite, even on a good day.

SMACK! Ginji winced at the whipcrack sound, and at the way Ban’s head snapped to the side. Hevn shook her fist at him, veins popping in both forehead and hand.

You,” she said, ice-cold, “may call me ‘Hevn-sama.'” Then, as quickly as she’d hit Ban, she switched back to a warm smile for Ginji as she slid out of the booth seat. When she spoke to him, there was no trace of the temper from a moment before. “Gin-chan, good luck on your first job, all right?”

“Ah–okay …” Ginji watched her go, then turned to Ban, anxiously. “Um, are you all right? Ban?”

He was answered by a feeble groan. After a moment, Ban slammed a hand down hard on the edge of the table, and then he pushed himself up, hunched over the edge. A gigantic red handprint throbbed on his cheek.

“Fuck, that hurt.” Ban examined it with wincing fingers, then fixed Ginji with a flat-eyed glare. “You just accepted the job, didn’t you?”

“Um, yes?” Ginji looked down. “You said we needed a job, and Hevn-san did bring us one, and they’re promising a five thousand yen reward for both of us–“

“That’s before she skims off her fee from the top, the damn shark.” Ban tested his jaw, then began drumming both sets of fingers on the table. “Well, there’s no helping it now. For better or worse, we’ll get that damn tea set back.”

“Ban, I’m sorry,” Ginji offered hesitantly. “If I knew you really didn’t want to, I wouldn’t’ve–” He was cut off by one of Ban’s index finger across his lips; all the other words that had been crowding out trailed off to surprised silence.


Somehow, the glare Ban gave him was affectionate. “You talk too much,” he said. “Look, it’s not that big a deal. You’re a part of this team, too–you’re allowed to make decisions for the both of us sometimes.”

Ginji blinked at him, then risked a hesitant smile around Ban’s finger. Ban grinned back.

“Besides, with ten thousand yen? We’ll be in a decent apartment in no time, Ginji! And there’ll be enough left over for sukiyaki for dinner! You know you’ll like that.” He sounded coaxing now, and Ginji, remembering the way the restaurant displays had looked, nodded enthusiastically. His smile grew into something considerably more enthusiastic.

“C’mon.” Ban gave Ginji a light push. “Let’s get started.”

***

“Sibling rivalry gone wrong,” was how Ginji had put it, when Hevn first presented them with the job.

Two sisters, Hayama Rikka and Natsuko, had spent several months arguing over an heirloom tea set from their grandmother’s estate. Natsuko, angry at the perceived favoritism of her older sister, had hired snatchers to take the set from Rikka, who’d promptly turned around and hired the two of them.

Then, maybe fearing retribution or something, Natsuko had taken the goods and fled to some small family-owned cabin in the country, without telling a soul. It had taken a bit of old-fashioned detective work to track her down, but with her sister’s cooperation and some help from a few of Hevn’s other contacts, they’d found her easily. And as a bonus, they’d finagled themselves use of a car for the duration of the job.

Granted, that car was probably on her last legs, and wheezed dangerously every time Ban put his foot down on the gas–but she had gotten them here, and he felt surprisingly certain she would get them back to Shinjuku just fine. In spite of himself, Ban felt rather fond of the car–her outside still looked like new, even if her engine sounded nearly chewed to bits.

With the car in the state it was, Ban felt confidant that the man who’d lent her to them would be willing to cut a deal. There were plenty of salvageable parts for a Subaru 360 lying around the junkyards of Tokyo; it wouldn’t be difficult to fix her up, with some time and effort.

Things just kept getting better and better. A car meant extra mobility–which meant a wider range of potential clients. And landing this sort of high-paying job for their first stint as the GetBackers boded well for future business. Ban felt his gloating was quite justified.

The car had even stood up against the few cheap traps and other attempts at misdirection that had littered the path to the Hayama’s secluded cabin. Natsuko obviously had no real idea of what she was doing, but she did try. It wasn’t her fault that she was dealing with the GetBackers, who were determined to win, whatever the odds.

It was a hell of a lot of trouble to go through, just for one perfectly ordinary tea service set. Rikka had shown them a photo of the tea set in question–it hadn’t even been that pretty, with no grace to its forms or life to its color. Compared to the set his grandmother had kept for guests, it looked sort of like a kid’s cheap plastic rip-off.

Ban personally thought it was an idiotic thing to squabble over, or spend money on. Still, as long as he and Ginji were the ones being paid, he wouldn’t complain much. This was easy money, nothing like some of the shit he’d gone through as a thief.

And at this point, it was probably the idea, more than the tea set itself, which mattered. He handed the binoculars back to his partner and leaned forward onto his elbows.

“They don’t look like protectors,” he murmured as Ginji peered at three people seated at an English-style veranda, drinking tea–not from the set in contest, but one that was identical except for the color. Among the trio was Natsuko herself, clutching the case to her chest like it was more precious than gold. With the investment she’d put into it, Ban supposed it was, in a way.

Her companions were both men, skinny and tall, with the same nervous, rabbity look as Natsuko. Neither of them looked all that ready or able to fight; Ban had the impression they would snap in his hands as easily as the cups he’d once practiced on. All three of them seemed ill at ease, looking ready to snap at the smallest provocation. Ban leaned closer to Ginji, keeping his voice low as he continued to watch the trio closely.

“We shouldn’t have too much of a problem–they look like a few friends she asked to tag along, just in case. What do you think?”

“She’s kinda cute,” said Ginji.

Ban smacked him. “I meant about the situation!”

Ginji rubbed his head, looking at Ban mournfully. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “There’s three of them, including Natsuko-san, and two of us. And … this isn’t the Mugenjou.” He said the last very quietly. “I’ve faced worse odds.”

Ban hesitated for a moment, then slugged Ginji lightly in the shoulder. “We’ll split up,” he decided. “Ambush ’em from both sides. You take the left, all right?”

Ginji smiled and handed the binoculars back to Ban. “Got it!” he said cheerfully, then hefted himself up to his feet in a low crouch. “How long should I wait, when I’m in place?”

“Go over there.” Ban pointed to a small clump of bushes on the far side of the little yard, where Hayama Natsuko was speaking with her companions. “Wait for my signal.”

His partner nodded. “Okay! I’ll see you!” He crept off, keeping low to the bushes. For someone who’d spent most of his life being prominently visible, Ginji did sneaking very well.

Ban lifted his binoculars back to his face. Yeah, so Natsuko was kinda cute, if you went for the ‘innocent schoolgirl’ look, with huge dark eyes and her dark hair plaited into a thick braid. She still looked distinctly nervous, as though she expected a thousand retrievers to come leaping out of the forest around her. Ban smirked, and bit back the urge to chuckle.

Maybe not a thousand, but hell–she was dealing with the GetBackers. Just because they were new didn’t mean they weren’t professionals. He’d already been working as a retriever on his own for nearly three months now–and with his new partner, they were practically guaranteed a one hundred percent success rate. Ban felt confidant that together, he and Ginji could take on anything she threw at them.

Through the lenses, he saw Ginji appear, then crouch behind the indicated bushes. The blond looked straight back at him, then gave him a grin and a thumb’s-up. Ban grinned back, though he knew Ginji couldn’t see, then switched back to studying the trio.

Hayama Natsuko appeared to be looking straight at him. Her hands, on the set’s case, were white-knuckled. One of the two men with her had disappeared, and the other now hovered protectively behind her chair. He also glared at Ban, over the top of Natsuko’s dark head.

Ban frowned, and risked inching forward just a little more, trying to see if the door was open or something. Unease began ticking in his gut.

A twig snapped behind him. Ban stiffened.

Dry leaves rustled, and he bit back the urge to swear. He held himself perfectly still, ready to pounce as he flexed both hands against the ground. There was still a chance he could scare off the man sneaking up on him, and then hopefully Ginji would know to go after Natsuko and her remaining flunky.

Meanwhile, he fumed. They’d been caught, like a pair of fucking amateurs–caught with their proverbial pants around their ankles. He was too angry to be embarrassed; he’d never made such an obvious mistake before, not even the first time he’d stolen something alongside the Kudou siblings.

The man sounded almost close enough. Ban gritted his teeth. In his left hand, the casing of the binoculars began to crack a little.

“BAN-CHAN! BEHIND YOU!”

Startled, Ban dropped the binoculars and lost his momentum. Instinct drove him to claw at the ground as he tried to scramble to his feet, and he could see Ginji, now standing in plain sight and running straight for them. He didn’t need to see the blond’s face to see the worry there.

“Ginji, damnit!” he roared. “Stay–“

Something round and heavy smashed into the back of his head, once then again, and the world cut to black.

***

Hands patted his face.

Irritated, he wanted to bat them away–but at the moment, his hands felt too damn heavy to lift. He settled for curling his lip to show his disapproval. Everything seemed so distant and echoing, like shouting down a long corridor.

Then, abruptly, the next breath he took slammed into his lungs like a punch to the gut. On his face, the hands stilled their movement, now just cupping. And just like that, his hearing flipped back on, treating him to the sound of his partner’s increasingly hysterical voice.


“–chan? Ban-chan? Are you okay? Ban-chan?”

He cracked open one eye, then immediately slammed it shut again. The world was far too bright. And Ginji was talking funny all of a sudden, though he didn’t feel like trying to figure out what had changed, just yet. “Shaddup. ‘M fine. Go away.”

“You are not fine! He hit you with a log, Ban-chan!” Ginji said sharply. A broad hand slid itself under his head, long fingers probing gently. Ban screwed his eyes more tightly shut and hissed.

“That hurts, cut it out.”

Ginji ignored him, still examining the curve of his skull. Finally, he moved his hand away, carefully settling Ban’s head against the ground. “At least you’re not bleeding. That’s good.”

“Damn straight–I told you, I’m *fine*.” Ban didn’t bother to open his eyes, even as an arm slid under his shoulders and hefted him into a reclining position. Ginji’s knee dug into his back a little. “Put me down.”

“Nuh-uh.” Ginji sounded like a little kid. “Not till you look at me.”

“Ginji, for fuck’s sake–“

“Ban-chan, I saw it! He hit you really hard–twice! I want to make sure you’re okay!”

“Trust me, I’m fine,” Ban grit out between clenched teeth. Then paused, reviewed their past conversation, and said, “Ginji?”

“What? Ban-chan?”

His brows drew together. “That,” he said grimly.

Silence. He could easily picture Ginji’s puzzled expression.

“Um, Ban-chan? ‘That’?”

“Yeah, that.” Ban finally risked opening both eyes–and though the light was still dazzling, at least it was unbearable. It took a moment to focus on Ginji’s hovering face, but once he did, he projected as much strength into his glare as he could. “Ban-chan?”

“Yes?” Ginji blinked at him, utterly guileless. “So?”

“So? So?!” Ban started to sit up, out of Ginji’s arms, then winced at the sudden stab of pain. Fine, if Ginji was going to sit so conveniently still, he’d better not complain when he was used as a backrest. Ban leaned back and scowled furiously. His head was beginning to pound now in time with his heartbeat, and his patience felt already worn dangerously thin. “Ginji, you don’t just go around using that on random guys!”

“You’re not a random guy, though,” Ginji said, in the soothing tones of someone humoring a lovable idiot. “You’re Ban-chan.”

“I’m Ban,” he snapped back. “Just ‘Ban,’ all right? I’m not a kid and I’m not a chick. Cut it out.”

He didn’t need clear vision to see the wave of hurt that washed over Ginji’s face; he certainly didn’t need to see to feel the way Ginji’s entire body flinched back. “Why? Didn’t–back at the Honky Tonk, didn’t you say it was supposed to be a–a nickname? That you use for people you like?”

“Sure,” Ban grumbled. Now he felt obscurely guilty, and that annoyed him further. They were going to get nowhere if he caved in every time Ginji flashed those sad puppy eyes at him. “But that’s for people you really like. Save it for them.”

Ginji’s brow furrowed, and the hurt didn’t fade from his gaze. He stared at a point on Ban’s chin, tilting his head so that his eyes were shadowed by his bangs. “If you say so, Ban-cha–um. Ban. Can you sit up by yourself?”

Ban scowled at him. All of a sudden, the knot in his gut felt worse than the one on the back of his head. “Look, Ginji–“

“No, it’s okay,” Ginji interrupted, finally looking up with a bright, damp smile. “It’s okay. I’ll, uh, save it. Sorry, I didn’t know. That it wasn’t okay, I mean.”

“Ginji–“

“We should get going again, we don’t know how far they got away.” Ginji backed away from Ban slowly, until he was certain the other boy wouldn’t simply topple over. “I don’t think they had a car, though, so we should be all right. Do you need some help up?”

Ban rubbed his temple, scowling up at his partner. He didn’t understand this junkyard-raised kid, or why that fake smile felt colder than the Mugenjou’s rain. “Nah, I’m fine,” he said, and pushed himself to his feet. His head hurt like a bitch, but at least his vision had cleared.

Ginji stood up beside him, brushing absently at the leaf bits that stuck to his shorts. He didn’t look at Ban, despite the other’s attempts to catch his eyes.

“Ginji?”

Ginji turned his head towards him, but did not look up or say anything. Ban stared at him for a moment, willing his cooperation–but nothing. It made him somehow nervous, and that only annoyed him.

Finally, Ban sighed and pushed his glasses up. It would have to wait until later, then. “Fine. Let’s go, Ginji.”

***

The path was almost laughably easy to find and follow; it seemed like the sneak attack would be the one break of luck they had. Ban’s mood improved quite a bit when he saw the three thieves, even if he still remained all too aware of Ginji’s embarrassment. Ahead, the abrupt drop-off of a cliff appeared, and Ban put on an extra burst of speed to catch up.

It was close; he could already feel the money spilling into his hands. Once they had money and he’d treated Ginji to dinner, this uncomfortable new tension between them would fade. Ban sprang.

The edge of Natsuko’s shirt just slipped through his fingers; he felt it catch, just for a moment, then tear free. All three of them radiated fear, and he could feel the grin that stretched his face against his will. Like a drug, adrenaline burned a clean line straight through him; this was what he’d missed, during the slow months of solo jobs. The few truly dangerous retrievals Hevn had given him alone required delicacy and precision of thought, not the simple ordinary freedom of chasing.

Ginji was neck-and-neck with him, and when Ban glanced aside, some of the tension had faded from the other’s eyes and mouth. When Ginji met his eyes, just for a split second, Ban saw his grin returned.

Natsuko looked back over her shoulder–and therein lay her downfall. Distracted by their approach, her foot caught on the edge of a root, which sent her, and the case, flying forward. As though in slow motion, the thing went spiraling, end over end, out over the edge of the cliff.

Ginji vaulted forward, with a heroic leap over Natsuko’s prone body. His fingers grasped empty air for a moment, then closed firmly around the edge of the battered black case.

“GOT IT–eh?” When Ginji’s foot came down on empty space, the rest of him followed with a jerk. He twisted in mid-air, facing the others, and hung suspended in air for a moment. He held the case tightly between both hands, eyes wide. In that frozen interval, his eyes met Ban’s.

Another heartbeat, and then he was gone.

“My SET!” Natsuko shrieked. She lunged forward, caught back by her friend at the last minute. She fought against him, but he hung on with grim determination, arms locked around her waist.

Ban didn’t notice. There was a peculiar whistling sound in his ears, like the entire world was slamming to a very sudden, nasty halt. Ginji–godDAMNIT, Ginji–!

It felt like a bad dream, like an unending cliché. At least there’d been half a year with Yamato–but Ginji, he hadn’t even known Ginji, Amano Ginji, for six weeks now–

Ban flung himself forward, then skidded to a stop at the edge of the cliff. “GINJI!”

For a moment, he saw nothing but red, his heart pounding in his ears. His throat felt tight and constricted, like breathing itself was too much of an effort.

And then–“Ban-chan?”

Ginji’s voice, sounding pained, but most certainly alive. Ban tore his gaze from outwards, and looked straight down.

Ginji was hanging onto the side of the cliff with one hand, his fingers hooked into desperate claws. In his other hand, he held the open case. Ban noticed it only peripherally; he dropped to both knees and thrust his hand out. “Ginji!”

His partner’s grin was tight and humorless. “Ban-chan, I can’t,” he said.

“Why the fuck not?!”

“If I do, I have to let go of the case–Ban-chan, we’ve already lost a few of them.”

“Do you think I fucking care about the case?” Ban snarled back. “Give me your goddamn hand! Before you fall!”

Ginji stared at him, wide-eyed. “But, Ban-chan, the client–“

“Fuck the client! Give me your hand!”

Brown eyes met blue, for the first time since Ban had woken up. Ginji pressed his lips tightly together, brow furrowed.

Then, he flung the case up at Ban, who caught it reflexively. Three of the cups and the cap of the pot itself were missing. Ban stared at it dumbly for a moment, then flung it aside and leaned back out, reaching. “Ginji, you moron, you–“

Ginji’s desperate grip on the wall slipped. In the moment before he tumbled into freefall, Ban caught his wrist.

With a grunt, Ban dug his knees in and pulled, forcibly yanking Ginji up until the blond lay draped over the edge, clinging to the grass with both hands. After a moment of stunned blinking, Ginji rallied enough to crawl back onto solid ground by himself. For a moment, he just huddled there, panting hard.

Then he looked up, wide-eyed and grinning, as though he hadn’t just narrowly escaped death. Ban stared at that suddenly-genuine smile in disbelief.

“That was fun, Ban-chan!” he said.

Ban’s jaw dropped. “Fun?” he echoed, in a strangled voice. “You thought that was FUN?!”

Ginji blinked and rocked back on his heels. “Yes?” he said hesitantly, before his smile burst from him again, ear to ear and sparkling. “It was fun, all of it! Running around, the two of us verses them, escaping getting squished like that–everything! It was like one of those, whadayacallems, movies! Except …”

And then, abruptly, some of his light began to fade. Ban, his eyes already dazzled, took a few seconds to realize this.

“Except?” He prompted. He was distantly aware of one of Natsuko’s henchmen sidling towards the abandoned case, and promptly scooted over, slamming one hand down hard on top of it. Something cracked, but he refused to let the wince show on his face.

“Except, um.” Ginji stared at his hands, propped on the ground, looking embarrassed. “I keep trying, but I also keep forgetting.”

“Forgetting what?”

Ginji lowered his head further, but then he tilted it slightly, so he could watch Ban’s expression. “You really don’t like being called ‘Ban-chan’?” he asked in a small voice.

Ban opened his mouth to agree, then caught the way Ginji’s face fell at his hesitation. He dragged the case into his lap and closed it, watching his partner’s expression the whole time.

“I don’t … hate it,” he said at last. “It’s just kind of dumb, that’s all.”

“… oh.” Ginji sat back, legs crossed and hands in his lap. It looked like the wrong thing to say.

Ban rolled his eyes upwards, then sighed and knee-walked over to Ginji. He dropped a hand on top of the blond hand and ruffled hard. When Ginji looked up in automatic protest, Ban caught his gaze and held it.

“What the hell,” he said, making sure that Ginji could see, as well as hear, every word. “I’ve been called worse.”

Then he shrugged and dropped down, looking at Natsuko and her two friends. “Do what you want.”

He had a moment to regret that permission, then pitched forward as Ginji slammed into him from behind, wiry arms wrapping around his neck in a monkey-hold. And then, to Ban’s further embarrassment, the damn electric eel snuggled, rubbing his cheek against the spikes of Ban’s dark hair. Occasionally he’d say the name, like he was trying to memorize the feel and sound of it.

Ban glared at the others to make himself feel better. They, unlike Ginji, were gratifyingly cowed and kept their distance.

“Ginji, get off.”

“Don’t wanna.”

“Ginji–“

“I like being with Ban-chan!” Ginji announced, halfway into Ban’s hair. He said it like it was the most obvious and reasonable thing in the world.

Perhaps, for Ginji, it was.

For the second time in five minutes, Ban found himself without words. He tolerated the hug for a moment longer, then forcibly peeled Ginji off him and stood, with the case tucked under his arm. He eyed the trio for a moment, and remembered the hollow moment when he’d thought Ginji had gone over the cliff for good.

Midou Ban-sama was not pleased. This required compensation, damnit, and he was determined to see it through.

With that thought, he broke into a grin that had all three of them stepping back in unison.

Ginji, on the other hand, didn’t notice; he’d gone back to the edge of the cliff and was peering down, on his hands and knees. “Ahhh, this is no good,” he mourned. “We’ve lost part of the set–we can’t return it to Rikka-san like this.”

“Actually, Ginji,” Ban said, still grinning at Natsuko and her two friends, “we can do exactly that.”

Curious, Ginji looked over.

“And we’ll get Hayama-san to help us out–as compensation for the trouble she’s put us through, of course,” he finished smoothly.

“Ban-chan?”

“This set’s a generic piece of crap,” Ban said, gesturing to the case under his arm. “You can find something exactly like wherever they sell house wares. With Hayama-san’s expert consultation, we’ll be able to return the client’s tea set to her fully intact.”

Ginji got to his feet. He brushed the debris from his knees. “But we don’t have any money yet, Ban-chan,” he said. “How can we buy replacements?”

“I’m not done,” Ban said. “We’ll be relying on Hayama-san’s generous donation, as well.”

Natsuko sputtered, red-faced. Ginji blinked, then broke into a smile.

“Really?” he asked, bouncing a little on the heels of his feet. “That’s so nice of you, Natsuko-chan! You’ve really saved us!”

She rocked back, looking dazed. Ban continued to smirk. It was good to know Ginji’s smile could hit other people in the gut like that.

“Right, right,” he said, then made a shooing gesture with one hand. “Come on everyone–the sooner we get this done, the sooner everyone can happily go about their own lives …”

***

“I’m impressed,” Hevn said, flexing her hand thoughtfully. The thin, near-transparent scarf tied across her chest was a bit askew from Ban’s groping, and she adjusted it after popping her wrist. On the floor, Ban twitched feebly. “Somehow, I didn’t think you’d be able to manage it.”

“It went well!” Ginji chirped, from where he crouched next to Ban. “There were some problems, but Ban-chan and I came through in the end!”

Hevn’s face contorted. It was perhaps unkind to call the sound she made a “snort,” but that was probably closest to the truth. “Ban-chan?” she said, an evil glint in her eyes.

Ban’s fingers clawed a bit at the ground. After a moment, he propped himself up on his elbow and gave Ginji a sour look. “This is your fault.”

Ginji blinked, then looked suitably chastised–though confusion lurked in his large eyes. “I’m sorry, Ban-chan?”

Hevn slapped a hand over her mouth this time, but it wasn’t enough to stifle her giggles. Ban sat up and adjusted his glasses, shot Ginji another accusatory glare. The blond tried to look apologetic, but understanding had begun to bloom into his expression–and with that, a damning sort of humor.

In the face of that smile, Ban managed to keep his scowl for a gratifying full minute, before he relaxed and sort of half-grinned back. Hevn’s giggles finally began to die down, though from the way she continued to smirk at him, Ban suspected it would be a long time before he heard the end of it.

He sighed in his head, where Ginji would not see it and worry. The stupid eel had better appreciate this, he thought wryly. Not even Himi–not even his other “true friends” had been allowed that intimacy. When Ginji popped to his feet and held out an expectant hand, Ban grasped it easily and helped haul himself up.

They sat at the counter, Ginji between Hevn and Ban, eyeing the envelope in Ban’s hand with bright-eyed glee. Greed looked peculiar on Amano Ginji’s face–but it wasn’t that, not really; more like “pride.” He’d earned this without a single person killed or even injured; that was worth more than the worship of a thousand VOLTS.

Ban smirked, entirely too pleased with himself. The threadspool and the monkey trainer and all their cronies might come crawling to Ginji’s feet, but as long as he could keep their professional pride, he’d always win.

“Do you wanna start looking at apartments now, Ban-chan?” Ginji asked eagerly, bouncing in his seat. Hevn choked on another laugh, turning her face away and waving when Ban whipped around to glare again.

Ginji tugged on his sleeve. “Ban-chan?” He was still grinning, the idiot. If not even Midou Ban’s temper could steal that smile,

“Later, Ginji.” Ban laced his fingers together and stretched out his arms. “We’ve got ten thousand yen to our name–we deserve to celebrate! Sushi, shabu-shabu, sukiyaki, whatever you want!”

“Really?” Ginji’s eyes lit up. Stupid nickname aside, Ban felt like a king–or maybe even an emperor–with a dumb electric eel at his side and the world spread at his feet. Companionably, he slung an arm around Ginji’s shoulders, using the other to gesture to Paul, who lowered his newspaper and looked at them expectantly.

“Whatever you want, Ginji, that’s a promise. Master, let’s see that menu!”

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

Cicatrice

Ed is used to scars.

There are those around the ports of his automail–and before that, there had been the fox bite on his right shoulder. Down the length of his left arm are a multitude of thin white lines and deeper marks, from years of fighting and ordinary hard living. Across his stomach, curving around to his back, is a parallel set of three, from an angry chimera somewhere early in his career.

He is used to scars, and thinks very little of them.

Mustang, on the other hand, always seems fascinated by them. If he does not follow them with his hands, he does with his eyes, over and over, until they are like a physical touch. Ed finds this peculiar: Mustang is a soldier with scars of his own (his arms, his chest, the divot of skin over his right hip); there is no need to be fascinated with Ed’s.

“It’s weird,” he says. “You’re weird.”

“They’re badges of merit, Fullmetal,” Mustang says (but Ed knows he’s been stung: there is no flinch but the distance in Mustang’s eyes, the distance in Ed’s title rather than his name). “There is no shame in them.”

No shame, Ed thinks, but that which originated them–and it is still strange. He leans back on his hands and tries not to shiver when Mustang’s own brush at his stomach, then up to his chest. It’s easier to watch that than Mustang’s eyes: as a rule, Ed does not like to be touched, and something about that dark gaze reaches somewhere deeper than those long fingers.

Mustang pauses, as though considering. He rubs the side of his index finger against a nipple. Ed’s breath catches, and on the sheets, his fists clench. A dark head bends into his line of vision, and Ed sees a feline smile before Mustang’s tongue flickers out, serpent-quick, contact and absence damp on his skin. It happens again, and Ed makes a brief small noise, biting his lip against it. The bastard only laughs.

Ed starts to sit up, shift forward. Mustang covers Ed’s hands with his own.

“Let me see,” he murmurs, and slants up a narrow look through the fall of his hair. “You always move to hide–I want to see.” His thumbs rub at the knob of Ed’s wrist bone, at the bolt that serves the same purpose. He kisses Ed’s chest, lingeringly. “These are no shame.”

Ed’s breath strangles in his throat. Yes they are, he wants to argue, but the words are clogged in his brain, and don’t even make it down to his voice. I wouldn’t have these if I hadn’t believed–

“You’re weird,” is all he manages.

He sees a quicksilver smile pass over the man’s face. “I am trying,” he says, “to make a point.”

Mustang’s lips press to his skin again. Ed closes his eyes and leans back once more. As a reward, he receives a pleased murmur and the rasping pressure of Mustang’s tongue. It moves, slowly dragging up, and Ed has to open his eyes and look down.

He can only see part of Mustang’s face, which is shielded by dark hair and the awkward angle, but the expression is completely intent. Mustang’s long pink tongue licks broad wet stripes along the brown webbing of Ed’s chest scars, following their path up to the original source. Ed catches his breath again, holds it in his lungs; under Mustang’s hands, his own are tight and shaking.

With careful dedication, Mustang traces each scar, following every individual branch and curve and edge. Each time he brushes against the automail port, Ed’s entire body jerks. Mustang kisses his metal shoulder, and a rough noise tears itself from Ed’s throat as he lets his head fall forward.

Against him, Mustang’s body shifts. One finger presses under Ed’s chin, tilting upwards, until he finds himself looking up into a smirking face that hovers a breath away. It takes effort not to drop his eyes. There is unabashed smug hunger in Mustang’s expression, a bright spark of possessive victory. Ed pulls in a shaky breath, ready to snarl, and then Mustang’s other hand moves, cupping between his legs.

The words become a hiss; Ed’s hips surge up into pressure. Lips brush over his open mouth, closed eyelids, the concentration crease of his forehead. The hand under his chin moves so that it now splays open against his back, supporting; between his legs, the other kneads considering. Through eyes barely slitted open now, he sees Mustang’s dark head bend forward again, and once more there is warm damp pressure against his chest, lips and tongue dragging along the path of his scars.

Pressure moves hot and tight across his skin; sensation blurs together in a confused tangle inside of him. He wants to claw off his skin and be free of this itch.

“Wait,” he gasps, but he can’t make his hands unclench, can’t let go of the sheet to push Mustang away, “wait, I–”

In a smooth fast motion, the hand on his back slides down, and Ed finds himself pushed and carried backwards, to a reclining position. There is a hand now inside his pants, stroking and shaping him; there is a mouth at his throat, devouring him whole; there is heat and pressure and tension and nothing else in the world–

Ed’s eyes snap open, his entire body arching to perfect sharp tension under Mustang’s weight before his breath whistles out of him in a thin sigh. There’s a shiver against him, and then a content murmur; Mustang’s entire body rumbles with the force of his purr.

Sex always makes Ed feel like he’s been drugged, strung out to dreamy lassitude, all of his limbs too heavy and awkward. He’s still not entirely sure he likes it–he prefers his world clear, his body free to move. Mustang, though, appears quite pleased with himself; he remains draped over Ed, with his face buried at the crook of neck and shoulder. Ed considers his weight.

“You’re heavy,” he says. “Get off.”

“Hmmmm,” Mustang says into the pillow, considering. “No.”

“You’re heavy,” Ed says, with emphasis. “Get off.” He shifts, half-heartedly, and with effort lifts his left arm to swat at the back of the dark head. He earns a grunt, but no actual movement, except for a shift that pushes him harder into the mattress for a second, then subsides. The immediate aftereffects of sex are beginning to wear off; Ed’s brain no longer feels wrapped in dense cotton.

By his ear, Mustang snores once. It’s too exaggerated to be real, and Ed growls back, squirming. His neck gets nipped, and he hears Mustang grumble at him to be still, before going heavy, and a hand curves at the base of his skull, the thumb rubbing in small circles. Ed flinches first, then relaxes, cautiously.

“Get off,” he whispers to the top of Mustang’s head, and is answered by the sound of quiet breathing. Here, where he can’t be seen, Ed smiles and closes his eyes.

Posted in fanfic, m/m, sex | Tagged | Leave a comment

Choice

If you ask, she will say she has known him all her life, and longer. This is not romance, but truth.

They grew up as neighbors, shoulder-to-shoulder, and when his talents blossomed, of course she followed. She has never questioned that. However distasteful she finds the military, the weight of a gun is easy in her hands, and in her mind’s eye, she focuses upon the target of his ambitions. With the proper support, he could be carried beyond even his own expectations.

Love does not entirely compel her, nor duty alone. When they first met, before their lives began, she looked at him and saw a great man–but, also, a fallible one. She saw a man who would need her, not as a lover, but as a shadow who would never leave his side.

Because she knows him, she realizes this is easier said than done. He is certainly charming when he wishes, but also prickly, and very early he learned the politician’s method of the silk-wrapped insult. Favors are his currency, which he doles out with the care and greed of a miser.

That is not to say he has not earned every step up the ladder he has made, or that he deserved the double-edged promotion that packaged them all off to East City, away from the heart of politics. She knows him far too well to believe that.

If you ask, she does not say she loves him. That word is too small and limiting.

She looks at him and sees the potential to change the world. In order to prevent him from crushing others beneath his feet–and to keep him from being crushed in his turn–she walks behind him, beside him, and keeps her gun ready at her hip. The Fuhrer himself has commented on her skill, and she knows there are those who question why she does not follow his example, and take her advantage to move up in the world.

But she will not leave him, not when he leans on her more than he realizes.

For the sake of a man who’s life could not fade–for the promise she made to herself, and the pleased surprise on his face when he noticed her face among the hundreds of their classmates.

And so she looks at the girl sitting next to her, not yet tearful and mourning a choice not yet made. She looks at her coffee, at the rising steam, and hears the sound of his voice, coming loudly from the other room.

“There is someone I must protect.”

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

The More Things Change

written with Harukami

The worst part, Kantarou thought, was knowing that he wasn’t the only one interested.

He’d seen Haruka watching him a number of times, always looking vaguely thoughtful and never breaking eye-contact whenever Kantarou caught him at it. And after all, Haruka had agreed to come back, though he hadn’t asked for anything more than what had been status quo from the beginning.

And Kantarou had tried to show his own interest; at dinner, he sat beside Haruka rather than across the table from him, found his way to the roof more often than not, and frequently insisted on Haruka accompanying him even for small errands to the market. He knew Haruka was paying attention, but every time it seemed like he would say something, his face would close up, and he’d let silence talk instead.

It was enough to drive someone crazy, Kantarou thought sourly. Because if Haruka really didn’t like what was going on, he would have easily said something to discourage Kantarou long ago — instead he hovered and waited, as though for some cue that Kantarou had yet to discover.

He certainly wished he would discover it, too. He was frustrated to the point that he sometimes thought of just outright asking Haruka about it. But that would be too much — and he couldn’t do that, for the same reason he couldn’t reach over and just touch Haruka.

It was one thing to be certain he was interested and another to think Haruka might actually want Kantarou to act on his interest.

And so he waited, hating it all and growing grumpier by the day, to the point that Youko was chiding him for scowling all the time.

He was just starting to argue that point again when the door slid open and Haruka stumbled in. They both looked up, cut off in mid word.

Haruka looked around a bit wildly, his usually bland face stricken with an expression of glee. “What a beautiful place we have!” he exclaimed.

Kantarou gaped. Youko blinked rapidly. “H– Haruka-chan?” she asked tentatively. “Um, what –”

“No, really, it’s gorgeous!” Haruka spread his arms wide open, as though to mimic his wings, and turned in a circle. “I mean, I never thought about it before, but it’s lovely! We’re really lucky to have a place like this, you know.”

Youko and Kantarou glanced at each other. “Well,” Kantarou said, “I’m glad you’re finally beginning to appreciate what I provide for you, but –”

“And it’s a gorgeous day outside, too!” Haruka pointed at the two of them, grinning like a madman. It looked strange on his face. “We should go out and experience it fully! I mean, what the hell are you two doing, just sitting here cooped up inside? Let’s go out to lunch!”

“That would be fine,” Youko said slowly, “but the paycheck for Kan-chan’s last article hasn’t come in yet, and –”

Really, there was something horribly wrong about this.

“Forget that nonsense,” Haruka said, gesturing broadly at her; the smile seemed almost painted on. “Money comes to those who need it! Spend it on the little things that make you happy, and everything else will work out!”

“Only, see, it doesn’t work that way,” Youko began. “Haruka-chan? Are you sick? I know you don’t get colds, but–”

And that was when Kantarou noticed that his bells were ringing. His scar wasn’t aching, at least, but the bells were definitely making a gentle little sound. It was the first time they’d ever rung for Haruka. Frowning, he covered them with one hand.

“Not sick at all!” Haruka said. He tapped his chest. “Fit as a fiddle, me! Just filled with the joy of life! Even if we can’t eat out, we should make a lunch here and picnic outside! Come on, everyone loves picnics!”

“Picnics?” Youko sounded a little more agreeable at that. “A picnic might be nice, and Kan-chan did actually finish his work on time for once –” She looked to him and he held up his covered wrist. She glanced at the bells, then met his gaze again, wide-eyed. Kantarou nodded. “Ah, then again, Haruka-chan, maybe we should –”

“What we should do is go outside!” Haruka crossed over to the dining table in three long-legged strides, surprisingly light. “After all, it’s a shame to let these things go to waste!”

“Yes, but –”

Haruka reached down and grabbed her wrist, and that was worthy of shock as well; Haruka, in Kantarou’s experience, very rarely ever initiated contact. It just didn’t happen, in the same way that a giddy laughing Haruka never happened.

It seemed like the afternoon for strange things. Youko yelped as she was dragged to her feet. “Haruka-chan! What are you doing?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I –” Haruka paused suddenly, a strange look passing over his face. For a moment he just stood there, holding Youko’s wrist, staring blankly at her. And then he shook himself and said, in a nearly-perfect imitation of her tone, “I just thought it might be nice! If we went outside, you know, and after all the hard work you do, you deserve it …”

Youko nodded. “I do deserve it, but…” The tone began to dawn on her, and she looked slightly offended. “Haruka-chan! You shouldn’t mimic other people, don’t be mean!”

“Who’s being mean?” he asked, with an aggravated noise. “It’s the truth, isn’t it? You work hard all the time and nobody ever appreciates it, and now there’s a big fuss being made over even having a picnic? A picnic’s free, at least!”

“Haruka-chan!”

Kantarou rose slowly. “Haruka,” he said. “Can you say something to me? There’s something I want to check.”

“Say something?” Haruka blinked at him, hands on his hips. “Check something? What are you talking about, Kan-chan?”

And there was no way he was ever going to confess that hearing Haruka call him that was one of those private little fantasies he’d harbored for months now. Kantarou coughed into his fist, ignoring the way Youko was gaping at the both of them. “Ah, I thought so. Haruka, could you come here?”

“Why should I?” Haruka rocked back a little, his cheeks puffing in a pout. It was bizarrely cute. “Really, Kan-chan, I don’t know why we always have to do the work while you laze around and play –”

“But he did get his work done this time,” Youko said slowly, “so –”

“I can come over there,” Kantarou offered, inching around the table, keeping eye-contact with Haruka the entire time. Haruka looked wary, but not outright distrustful, as he usually did when he suspected Kantarou of plotting something. “Here, Haruka, I just want to –”

The front door banged open just as Kantarou was about to reach out. “Ichinomiya!” Hasumi’s voice called, from the genkan. “Ichinomiya! Are you in?”

Haruka whirled. “Ah, it’s Hasumi! I’ll show him in, all right, Kan-chan?”

Kantarou’s breath caught in his throat, and a moment later he managed a, “No, Haruka, please don’t–!”

But it went unheard; Haruka had taken off with a rather amusing, if somewhat embarrassing, little skip over the lintel as he went.

Youko turned wide-eyes on Kantarou. “Kan-chan,” she said, slowly. “Is, did Haruka-chan just…?”

“I think he did,” Kantarou said, shaking his head. “That’s –”

“His legs are too long for skipping,” she said, still sounding and looking dazed. “Kan-chan, what was that?”

“I’m not sure.” Kantarou scrubbed at his hair with one hand. “I mean, whatever it is, it’s not malicious, but if it’s affecting Haruka this much, we should take care of it as soon as possible.” He sighed a bit at that, looking downcast for a moment. “I mean, it’s funny, but it’s not Haruka.”

Her expression was gentle. “Kan-chan,” she said, “you –”

“Ichinomiya!” Hasumi stalked into the room with Haruka a half-step behind. Youko’s expression was gone from Haruka’s face, and it was somewhat jarring to see Hasumi’s pinch-lipped superiority there instead. “You have a favor you owe me, and I’m collecting!”

Kantarou blinked. “Come again?”

From behind Hasumi, Rosalie leaned out and blinked. “Hello,”she said, very softly.

Kantarou gave her a nod. “Good afternoon, Rosalie,” he said. “I’m surprised you’re bringing her about at lunch hour, Hasumi, shouldn’t she be getting some food?”

“That’s just the point, you stupid man,” Haruka said, irritably. “Can’t you see he’s bringing her over so you can feed her?”

Hasumi blinked at Haruka with surprise, then nodded, turning back to Kantarou. “That’s right,” he said. “You owe me from all the times you’ve ridden my coattails to any sort of recognition at all!”

Kantarou scowled. Of all the things the possessor would make Haruka pick up, Hasumi’s personality was the last thing he wanted to see. “Who’s done what?!”

“You have, with your ridiculous stories of youkai and all.” Hasumi pointed a triumphant finger. “And after all the times you’ve tried to discredit my logical scientific studies, you do owe me. Since you’re obviously not working nearly as hard as you could, you can at least be grateful for this honor and take it like a man!”

As Hasumi was lecturing, Youko knelt down and smiled. “Rosalie-chan,” she said. “What do you want to eat?”

Rosalie blinked a bit, hugging her stuffed bear to her chest. “Youko-san’s oyakodon,” she said, shyly. “Ryoukan doesn’t know how to cook very well. So Rosa wanted to come here.”

Youko grinned, and reached out to carefully ruffle the little girl’s long hair. “Why don’t you come help me?” she suggested. “Let Kan-chan and Hasumi-san duke it out, okay?”

“–And as long as you insist on chasing around phantasms and dreams, Ichinomiya, you’re certainly never going to be anywhere near my level!”

“What are you talking about? Youkai aren’t phantasms or dreams, Hasumi, they’re as real as you or me –”

“What are you talking about?” Haruka snapped. “Even if that’s true, Ichinomiya, you know better than to say that around people like this–”

“Like this!” Hasumi gave Haruka an affronted expression. “Exactly what is THAT supposed to mean, Ichinomiya?! Can’t you control your men better?”

Kantarou held up his hands. “Yes, well, about that — Haruka, please just, ah…”

Rosalie tugged on Youko’s sleeve. “Youko-san,” she mumbled, pointing at Haruka. “What’s wrong with Lucifer?”

“Er.” Youko looked a bit nervous for a moment. “Rosalie-chan, you know how sometimes, how ghosts and such will come to you and make you do strange things?”

Rosalie pondered this for a moment. “But Lucifer is stronger than Rosa,” she murmured. “Can’t he fight them off?”

“Well, in theory, yes.” Youko began tugging the little girl to the kitchen. “The problem is that Haruka-chan isn’t really aware of what’s going on, and you two showed up before we could do anything about it.”

“Look,” Kantarou snapped irritably. “If it’s that important to you, we’ll take care of Rosalie-chan for the day, just get out of here! Come on!” He put both hands on Hasumi’s chest and shoved, trying to crowd him backwards. “Get out, get out! Ahhh, this house is too small to be crowded by crazy men –”

“Who’re you calling crazy?” Hasumi bristled. “You’ve some nerve, Ichinomiya, saying such things –”

“And when you can barely afford enough to take care of us, you’ve a lot of nerve to complain,” Haruka sniffed, crossing his arms over his chest. Rosalie tugged free of Youko’s grasp and came over to peer up at him curiously, hugging the stuffed bear like a shield. “If you wrote better, we wouldn’t be in such trouble.”

Kantarou twitched, and shoved at Hasumi again. “Out, I said,”he said through gritted teeth. “Go on, out! Out!”

Fine, Ichinomiya!” Hasumi almost snarled. “You’d better take good care of Rosalie! I’ll be back mid-afternoon to pick her up!”

“Yes, yes, fine, we love having her around,” Kantarou said with exasperation. “Just go so we can have lunch!”

By the time he turned around, he saw Haruka staring at him with a strange, numb, wide-eyed expression, and Rosalie staring up at him with a nearly identical one.

A glance at Youko’s white face gave him an idea of what might have happened. “Ah… Haruka…”

“Haruka doesn’t … really feel that good,” Haruka said, in stuttering, simple language. Rosalie just stared, her small hands white-knuckled on her stuffed toy. “I might need to — I think –”

“Youko-chan,” Kantarou hissed.

Youko started, then nodded, darting forward to grab Rosalie and tug her away, deliberately knocking her shoulder against Haruka as she did. Haruka stumbled a bit, then shook his head, a bewildered look crossing his face.

“Oi,” he said, and he sounded like himself again, to Kantarou’s relief. “What’s going on?”

“You know, I’d like to know that myself,” Kantarou said. He checked quickly, but the bells were still ringing; whatever was possessing Haruka wasn’t gone yet.

“I’m not feeling well,” Haruka said. He took a step towards Kantarou, who took a broad step back; the last thing he needed was for Haruka to start mimicking him. “…Kantarou?”

“Well, ah,” Kantarou said. “I know, I’ll… do something to help you. Just — don’t come close.”

Haruka was outright frowning now. “Don’t come close? Kantarou…”

Kantarou held up both hands, smiling quickly. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “I just need the space to think — I haven’t seen a youkai act like this before, so if you get too close, it’ll just confuse me.”

Haruka continued to frown at him, something close to insulted in his eyes, and there it was again, that damned spark of interest that Haruka never did anything about.

Well, for the time being, he’d just have to deal with it. Kantarou took another step back for good measure and said, “I’m going to check my books and see if I can find anything. Haruka, you should probably go lie down for a bit. Youko-chan, will you take care of Rosalie-chan?”

“Sure,” said Youko, and tugged Rosalie towards the kitchen again. “Come on, Rosalie-chan, I’ll show you how to cook, so maybe you can make something for Hasumi-san, later …”

“Rosa thinks Ryoukan should learn,” Rosalie mumbled, but she followed Youko obediently.

Haruka, however, hadn’t moved, frowning at him. “Kantarou, are you sure…”

“Just lie down,” Kantarou said, soothingly. “From what we’ve seen, if you stay nice and quiet, everything should be fine.”

Haruka shrugged after a moment. “I’ll be on the roof.”

“That will do nicely,” Kantarou said, and grabbed his books, settling in to work.

The books were thick, but at least he could narrow them down considerably to only the most powerful of youkai. Haruka was pretty powerful, after all, and unless he actively invited something in, he should be able to defend from most possessions.

He didn’t know how long he spent in his study, surrounded by piles of books — most of it was his old gathered data on the legends of the Oni-Eating Tengu, along with the other bits of information he’d picked up along the way; twenty years of habit didn’t die just because he’d found what he’d been looking for. Each lead had to be followed up and noted for later testing. Youko came in at one point with tea and a bowl of soup for him, which he nodded politely in thanks for and proceeded to ignore.

It didn’t make sense, he thought; it was certainly possible for another youkai or determined spirit to possess a tengu, but one that would have the audacity to attack the legendary Oni-Eater, or one who could get through Haruka’s defenses — that was something worth keeping an eye on.

When he finally reached for the cup, though, his hand came down on something round and squishy. Surprised, he looked down, and found round black eyes peering up at him.

“Muuu,” said Moo-chan, very politely.

“Ah! Good afternoon, Moo-chan,” he answered, flushing slightly and lifting his hand from her head quickly. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you! How long were you sitting there?”

“Muumuu,” she said dismissively, and latched onto his side, nuzzling. “Muuu.”

“Ah, well, that’s good,” Kantarou said, shifting to get her more comfortable against him.

“Muuuu,” she added, as an afterthought.

He froze. “Where did you say Sugino-sama was again? On the roof with who?”

She blinked at him. “Muumuu.”

“Oh no,” he yelped, scrambling to his feet, knocking over his tea in the process. Swearing under his breath, he dropped back to his knees and righted the cup. Rather than try to mop up the spilled tea, he moved all of his books and notes out of the way, then dashed out of the storage room, clutching Moo-chan to his chest.

“Youko-chan,” he called, as he took the stairs down two at a time. “Youko-chan, be careful, Sugino-sama is –”

Sugino popped up in front of him suddenly, and Kantarou yelped, flailing and almost losing his balance. “What about me?” he demanded, then scowled. “AH! And you’ve got my Moo-chan again! What are you doing, give her back! Moo-chan, you shouldn’t hang around this guy all the time, he can’t even be bothered to come out and greet guests when they arrive –”

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Kantarou protested helplessly, especially after Moo-chan grabbed onto the edges of his gi to keep from getting tugged off him. “I was working, Sugino-sama! I hadn’t known you’d come to visi–”

“KANTAROU!” Haruka wailed, pushing past Sugino on the stairs. “What are you doing with another youkai?!”

Both Kantarou and Moo-chan stared at Haruka in shock. “…Muu,”Moo-chan breathed.

“Get away from her!” Haruka moaned, grabbing onto Kantarou’s arm. “I’m your husband, aren’t I?! Don’t touch her like that, you might catch her speech impediment!”

“You’re my what?!” Kantarou demanded, at the same time Sugino snapped, “What speech impediment?!”

Kantarou continued to gape at Haruka for a few moments, then shook himself and tried to pry him off. “Haruka! I said not to get this close to me! Damnit, this –”

“You don’t mean that, do you?” Haruka’s eyes were huge and shining, and for a moment, his distress looked uncomfortably real. “We’re supposed to be together, aren’t we? After all we’ve been through together, you wouldn’t throw me over for her, would you?”

“I wouldn’t,” Kantarou began, when Sugino grabbed Haruka and tugged him around so that they were face-to-face, scowling.

“Oni-eater, what’s the meaning of this?” he demanded hotly. “Are you making fun of my Moo-chan?!”

“Oh, you’re still here,” Haruka said with an off-handed offended dismissal. “Sugino, I’m busy with my husband.”

“Don’t you insult my Moo-chan!” Sugino was trembling in rage. “Do you want to fight?”

Moo-chan had tilted her head with alarm, and threw herself between them. “Muu!” she protested, and put one hand against Sugino’s chest. “Muuu!!!” And her other touched down on Haruka’s chest, to keep them firmly separated.

Haruka blinked.

Kantarou winced.

“… muu?” Haruka asked, a bit hesitant. He staggered back a bit, his shoulder bumping into the wall. “Mumuu?”

Sugino bristled more. “You are making fun of her!” he said, pointing an accusing finger, using his other arm to keep Moo-chan tucked securely against his chest. “I knew it! Oni-eater, I expected better of you!”

“Muuu.” Haruka shook his head. Kantarou took the opportunity to step in, his hands raised in a placating manner.

“I’m very sorry about this, Sugino-sama,” he said, as soothingly as he could. “Something has — we don’t know what it is, but we think Haruka’s been possessed; it’s been making him act like nearly everyone he comes into contact with.” Except for Kantarou himself, though that could be more a blessing than anything else. He glanced nervously over his shoulder at Haruka, who was straightening and shaking his head, still looking a bit dazed.

“Possessed? The oni-eater?” Sugino frowned. “It would take a very powerful youkai to manage that.”

“I know,” Kantarou said, helplessly. “I wasn’t entirely sure what it could possibly be. I was doing some research on that when you showed u — UWAA!”

He landed on his back on the stairs, grabbing on hard to try to keep from sliding down the steps. He was helped by Haruka’s weight on him, as Haruka’s arms had wrapped around his torso and legs locked firmly around one leg.

“Ha — Haruka?!” Kantarou squeaked.

“Muuuu,” Haruka sighed contentedly, and nuzzled Kantarou’s shoulder.

“Haruka, get off!” Kantarou put both hands on Haruka’s head and tried to shove him off with little success; Haruka just made a grumpy little noise and burrowed closer, his face buried against Kantarou’s throat. Helpless, Kantarou looked beseechingly at Sugino. “I’m sorry, Sugino-sama, this –”

Sugino was staring wide-eyed, still holding Moo-chan to his chest. Moo-chan was staring as well, her mouth hanging open. “You were right,” he said, wide-eyed. “He is possessed.”

“I’m so glad you agr–EE! with me!” Kantarou squirmed harder as Haruka pressed closer, one hand squirming between the folds of his gi. “Now help me get him off!”

“I don’t know,” Sugino said dubiously. “If I touch him, won’t he just act like me again?”

“He might, I don’t know, but at least he won’t — HARUKA!” Kantarou went red, grabbing Haruka’s hand. “That’s a no!”

“…Muuuu?”

“No! I mean! Really! Haruka!” Kantarou blustered. “I just, I — Sugino-sama! Do you have any idea of what might be possessing him?”

Sugino shook his head slowly, reaching for Haruka’s shoulder then hesitating. “Nothing that’d have these effects,” he said, dubiously. “I know of some weaker youkai that do this, but…”

“Well, obviously it’s got to be something,” Kantarou said, then yelped and grabbed both of Haruka’s wrists, shoving them away from himself. Haruka pouted at him and tried to squirm closer, leaning forward to nuzzle hopefully at Kantarou’s throat. “I mean, are you sure? Even if it was a weaker youkai, maybe it got him while he was distracted –”

“That’s true,” Sugino agreed doubtfully. “Then again, the Oni-eater had a habit of devouring any youkai of that level who got too close.” He watched as Haruka tugged free of Kantarous hands and latched on again, snuggling with a blissful expression on his face. “I’ve never seen him like this before.”

“Neither have I,” Kantarou said, pushing at Haruka’s head again, with little effect. “I mean, this isn’t like him at all, and I want to get him back to normal –”

“He seems happy enough,” Sugino said doubtfully. “Isn’t this the sort of thing you wanted from him, anyway?”

“–Eh?” Kantarou paused for a moment, staring. His hand slipped on Haruka’s head, and Haruka nuzzled against him, nosing at his throat.

“You know.” Sugino’s eyes narrowed. “Having Koushingan’s Oni-Eating Tengu under your command, absolutely willing and docile to whatever you wanted from him –”

Kantarou went red, and shoved at Haruka again. “Not like this,”he protested weakly. “I mean, it’s — Haruka who I like. I mean, no insult, Sugino-sama, Moo-chan is a wonderful person, but… Haruka is who I like.”

“It’s the same difference,” Sugino muttered. “Not my Moo-chan, I mean, Haruka and the Oni-Eating Tengu. If he’s weak like this and acting like he likes you, you could do anything, just like you wanted.”

“Sugino-sama, please,” Kantarou said, embarrassed, catching Haruka’s hands again. “I’m not sure how you noticed that, but it’s… I don’t want to control him, not really, I just… want to be close to him, and — Haruka! Stop that!”

Haruka blinked at him, pouting. “Muu?” he asked. “Muumu?”

“No, it’s not that I don’t like it,” Kantarou said, exasperated. “But I don’t want you to do that now, I — I like you as Haruka, not as Moo-chan –”

Sugino frowned. “That’s suspicious, though,” he said, folding his arms. “I’ve seen you. You don’t have any problems using his name to control him anywhere else, why should this be any different?”

Kantarou gaped at him for a moment, then scowled. “I wouldn’t do that to Haruka,” he said. “I mean, playing around is one thing, but this –”

“Aww, Kantarou,” Haruka purred at him, leaning in with a big grin. “Isn’t that cute?”

Kantarou gaped at him. “Haruka, what–?”

“Sometimes it’s okay to call my name, you know,” Haruka said, smirking. “Kan-ta-rou.”

“You–”

“But maybe you’ve been shy all this time, is that it?” Haruka’s index finger traced small circles on Kantarou’s chest. “Awww, how cute, I wouldn’t figure you for that type…”

Shy?” Kantarou demanded, and was embarrassed by how his voice squeaked at that. “I’m not, I wasn’t — Haruka, you were the one who never got the clue –”

“Did too,” Haruka said, grinning, and that was the most bizarre thing of all, seeing his own easy smirk on Haruka’s face. “All this time, I thought you were the one who wasn’t interested at all.” He scooted closer, dragging his finger down Kantarou’s cheek, across the outline of his lips. “So if you were looking and I was looking, obviously one of us wasn’t paying proper attention.”

Haruka,” Kantarou yelped, scooting backwards, up a step. “Sugino-sama, please –”

“Sugino?” Haruka glanced back over his shoulder, then smirked openly. “We’re busy right now, so if you don’t mind leaving us alone –”

Sugino blinked, narrowing his eyes. “Oni-eater,” he said slowly. “You’re not telling me this is actually what you want, is it?”

“Awww, of course I want Kantarou!” Haruka said with near glee, wrapping his arms around Kantarou and ignoring his struggles. “Why would I put up with him so long otherwise, ehhhhh?”

“I was wondering that myself,” Sugino said dubiously. “Nevertheless, you are under an outside influence right now, so perhaps you should, ah, wait and rethink this when you’re in your right mind…”

Haruka’s lower lip fattened in a pout. “Awww, Sugino, how meaaaan! Kantarou’s mind is perfectly right, most of the time!”

“Most of the ti — what’s that supposed to mean, Haruka?!”Kantarou demanded.

“It means sometimes you make things too complicated for yourself,” Haruka said cheerfuly, tapping his nose with one finger. “You know, if you’d just said something to me, I would have been happy to go along with it –”

“You would have?” Kantarou blinked in shock. “Wait, but, Haruka –”

“All this time, I thought you were just shy, or oblivious,”Haruka said, leaning to nuzzle Kantarou’s cheek happily. “It’s good to know it was being oblivious, or else my feelings would have been hurt.” He tugged Kantarou into his lap, snuggling up behind him. His hand dipped down again, through the gap of Kantarou’s gi.

“Haruka!” Kantarou yelped, squirming. “You, this –”

“But he’s a human!” Sugino protested. “You’re the one who always said that youkai and humans were totally incompatible –”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Haruka said brightly. “From the glimpses I’ve caught of him changing, we look like we’d be compatible enough!”

Kantarou went red. “Haruka! That’s too far,” he blustered, trying to ignore the warmth curling under his skin. “Really! I’d never say anything like that! I’m not this, ah, this forward!”

“You can be,” Sugino said, disapprovingly. “You get your personality out of him right now! It’s entirely inappropriate for the oni-eater!”

“I didn’t, I, it’s nothing I did,” Kantarou protested. “I just– Haruka! C’mon! I’ve never done anything public, you can’t just, Haruka!”

“You flirt all the time,” Haruka said dismissively, rubbing his cheek against Kantarou’s hair. “I mean, always yelling after me, always calling my name, always looking at me …”

“You just said you thought I was oblivious,” Kantarou complained, squirming harder. “Haruka –”

“Well,” said Haruka cheerfully, “you don’t just flirt with me. That’s very annoying, you know, the way you flirt with any rich woman you meet.”

Kantarou flushed again, tugging hard at Haruka’s wandering hands. “Wait a moment,” he said. “Wait a moment, Haruka, this –”

“I like you a lot, see,” Haruka murmured. “So I don’t want you paying attention to anyone but me.”

“I’m not this jealous,” Kantarou said helplessly. “This isn’t my personality, isn’t it?”

“Sure it is,” Sugino snapped. “The way you won’t even give up his name when people ask — you’ve got a bad personality.”

“You dooooo,” Haruka drawled, grin widening. “But I like your bad personality, Kantarou. It’s the thing I like most about you.”

Kantarou could practically hear the heartmark at the end. Swallowing, he managed to stumble up to his feet, pulling away. “I, uh, I — maybe I should take a walk, let us all cool down a little…”

“Awww, a walk?” Haruka’s lips brushed his cheek with the words; Kantarou could feel his smile clearly. “That sounds like a good idea, Kantarou, we can go for a walk together –”

“I meant, me by myself,” Kantarou said quickly, and tried to ignore the way Haruka’s face immediately fell at that, wide-eyed and hurt. “You, and — you and Sugino-sama figure out what exactly’s wrong with you, and as for me, I — I’m going to go out, and maybe when I get back, we’ll have a plan of action.”

Haruka continued to watch him with wide sad eyes, and Kantarou took a deep steadying breath; did he really look like that? Like some sort of pathetic kicked puppy left alone in the rain?

“I’m sorry,” he offered hesitantly, backing up as he did. “I’m sorry, Haruka.” He turned and hurried before Haruka could say anything else, brushing past Youko and Rosalie without looking back.

“Really,” he heard Sugino say distantly, “I don’t know what you see in a man who’s afraid of his own personality–”

It was a good question, really. Kantarou ducked his head and picked up the pace a little, heading outside into the fresh early-afternoon air. He smiled a bit to himself, pained — this was the last way he could ever have expected any of this to go.

“Ahhhh,” he muttered to himself. “I’m pathetic…”

“You are, a little.” It was Haruka’s voice but still not Haruka’s tone, and Kantarou winced, turning as he walked — Haruka had followed him.

“Haruka,” he muttered. “I thought I told you to stay behind.”

“You did,” Haruka agreed cheerfully, falling into step beside him. “But you didn’t make it an order.” He swung his hands a little when he walked, like Kantarou often did when he was in a good mood. “It’s all right, Kantarou. I still like you, even when you’re pathetic.”

Kantarou winced. “Haruka,” he said, “about that –”

“Did you think I was making it up?” Haruka’s tone was strangely, painfully gentle. “Really, Kantarou, don’t you have more faith in me than that?”

“You’re not yourself right now,” Kantarou muttered, embarrassed, and tried not to watch the way Haruka was walking, how like Kantarou’s own pace it was. “I mean, I feel that way, so of course I’d say things like that. You, you don’t–”

“Awww, Kantarou,” Haruka sighed. “I can smile and pretend that everything’s okay, but — I said it, and I meant it, and it kinda hurts that you’re just pretending it didn’t happen–”

“It did happen,” Kantarou protested. “But not really with me, with — — I mean, yes with me, but you weren’t, I–”

“Kan-ta-rou,” Haruka said gently, cutting him off. “I like you. All right?”

“That’s the thing,” Kantarou said, a bit desperately. “I like you. So of course, if you’re channeling me right now, you’d think you like me, because you’re picking up on it and whatever’s possessing you is making you think –”

“No,” Haruka said gently. “I do like you, Kantarou. I know how I feel, however I express it.”

Kantarou’s steps slowed to a stop, and he looked down at his feet. “But,” he muttered, downcast, “but, Haruka, Sugino-sama is right; I always make you do things, even when you don’t want to. How do you know I’m not making you feel this, right now?”

“Ahhh, Kantarou, you’re being silly.” Haruka sighed. “Of course I know what I feel. And I know what I felt before this thing took over–”

“Speaking of which,” Kantarou offered, hesitantly. “If you know it’s there, can you try to force it out? I mean, it’s hard to say what rank of youkai it would be, but…”

“Mmm….” Haruka considered it for a moment. “No can do! You’re more fun to be.”

Kantarou boggled. “More fun? Haruka, I–”

“Mmhmm,” Haruka said, and grinned at him. “You aren’t all stoic or distant. You’re just you.”

“Yes, but –” Kantarou shifted a little, spreading his hands helplessly. “Haruka, you’re not me, you’re you. I mean, it’s flattering, but — I like you. As you.”

Haruka tapped the side of his chin thoughtfully. “I suppose,”he said finally. “… But, no. This is an interesting way to be. I think I understand you a lot more than I did.”

“I don’t understand you at all anymore,” Kantarou complained. “You’re you, not me, and this — the longer you’re like this, Haruka, the more I can’t be sure whether or not you actually like me or just think you do –”

“So maybe it’s better I stay like this,” Haruka said, still gently. “So I can convince you.”

“I don’t know about that,” Kantarou protested. “It’d matter more if it was coming from you, you know, and I just — false hopes are all very well and good in moderation, but this is too much.”

Haruka sighed. “Well, you know, I can’t say these things when I’m me,” he said. “It all gets choked up in my throat and embarrassing and I get angry.”

Kantarou blinked. “Angry?”

“At myself, because I’m no good at that sort of thing,” Haruka said. “I’m just no good at it, Kantarou.”

Kantarou opened his mouth, searching for a response, and was interrupted by a deep, smooth voice. “Out for an evening walk, gentlemen?”

Kantarou and Haruka both tensed at the voice, and Kantarou swore mentally; while there was no way Raikou could force a confrontation here in public, now was the worst time to see the man. Plastering a fake smile on his face, Kantarou turned. “Just for a little, yes,” he said. “And you? You’re pretty far away from home.”

Raikou only shrugged, tipping his hat a little. “Business, Sensei,” he said easily. “We’re all slaves to our work, are we not?” He smiled winningly, eyeing Haruka as he spoke. Kantarou tensed further.

“We might be,” he said evenly, “but I do believe in giving it a rest now and then –”

Tsking, Raikou reached out and bumped his fingers under Kantarou’s chin, forcing him to tilt his face up. By his side, Haruka tensed even further, a low annoyed sound rising from his throat.

“Breaks are all well and good,” Raikou agreed finally, eyeing him thoughtfully. “Though, Sensei, if this is what you do during a vacation, you may consider a different sort. You don’t look rested at all.”

“I’ve been busy,” Kantarou said, taking a step back; Raikou followed, still in his personal space. “And, ah, speaking of which, I should be getting back to things now–”

“Mmm, I’m not sure,” Raikou said. His tone was private, intimate, nearly sexual. “Wouldn’t do to have you take ill, would it? There are things you have to protect.”

“Hey,” Haruka said, scowling. “Keep your hands off him!”

Kantarou swallowed hard, meeting Haruka’s eyes and trying to mentally urge Haruka to stay out of this; if Haruka talked too much, Raikou would realize there was something wrong with him.

Raikou’s gaze flickered off to the side, briefly, and he smirked at Haruka briefly. “Oh, I’ve certainly not forgotten you, Oni-eater,” he said. “But you realize, if you’re taxing your master like this, you may be better off separating –”

“I said, get your hands off him,” Haruka said, sharper than before. He took a half-step forward, but Raikou was uncowed, smirking at him.

“This is a conversation between Ichinomiya-sensei and myself,”he said pleasantly. “If you want, we can continue a conversation of our own later, but –”

Lightning-fast, Haruka’s hand shot out, slapping Raikou’s hand off Kantarou’s face. “Off of him, Minamoto!”

Raikou tsked, taking a step back. “Interesting,” he said. There was a slightly unpleasant glint to his eye, but Kantarou exhaled slowly when Raikou slowly and deliberately turned his back on them. “Well, I’m busy this evening as well, I am afraid. Sensei, let’s continue later.”

“Maybe,” Kantarou said, and rather hoped they wouldn’t.

As Raikou walked away, Kantarou exhaled slowly. “Unpleasant,”he muttered. “Since I refused to remove the name bond, he’s just got stranger and stranger when interacting with me, wouldn’t you say, Haruka?”

Haruka’s smile at him was a sharp, thin slash in his mouth. “Indeed so,” he almost purred.

Kantarou blinked at him, wide-eyed, then took a step backwards. “Haruka,” he said uneasily. “Wait a moment, I thought you said you wanted to stay with my personality –”

“I had the opportunity to change,” Haruka murmured, watching Kantarou from under his lashes. He advanced slowly on Kantarou, his hips swaying in a rolling, walk, nearly stalking over. “I wanted to see what it would be like to be someone else …”

“Someone else?” Kantarou’s breath caught for a moment, painful in his chest. “So, Haruka, that means you –” His shoulders bumped back into a wall and he pressed his palms against it, trying to calm his heartbeat. “So, your feelings are –”

“My feelings are obvious, aren’t they?” Haruka lifted a hand and stroked the backs of his fingers down Kantarou’s cheek, mimicking Raikou’s earlier gesture. He leaned closer, so that his breath was warm on Kantarou’s mouth. “I want to experience whatever I can, whenever I can …”

“Haruka, you don’t….” Kantarou shifted, trying to edge away, get out of the too-close pressure Haruka was putting on him. “I just think that Minamoto’s feelings aren’t the best–”

“Neither you or I ever actually go for anything, do we?” Haruka murmured, slamming his other hand down to block Kantarou’s path out. “We dance around the subject and even when we got so far to confess, we were just going to talk and talk and talk.”

“Haruka, I–”

“That man knows what he wants and he takes it,” Haruka murmured. “No matter who it hurts. That’s admirable behavior.”

Kantarou stared up at him with wide eyes. “Haruka,” he said, softly, “you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re — this is Minamoto talking, not you, just like everything else you’ve been else saying today isn’t really you –”

Haruka’s eyes narrowed, and for a moment a spark of irritation flashed in them. “Don’t you listen?” he asked, low. “I know what I want, Kantarou, and I know what you want. What’s the problem, then?”

Nervously, Kantarou licked his lips, then shrank further back when Haruka’s gaze was immediately drawn to that. “Haruka,” he said weakly. “You’re not yourself. I mean, you’ve been around me all day, you’re probably channeling my feelings still, even if you’ve got Minamoto’s personality right now –”

“You just don’t understand,” Haruka said, his tone almost condescending. He caught Kantarou’s chin, and leaned down to kiss him, surprisingly slow and sweet. Kantarou’s hands rose, clenched in the front of Haruka’s shirt. If he were honest with himself, it wasn’t just surprise that was making him hesitate before pushing Haruka away, but the sudden desperate desire that this be real, that it really was Haruka whose tongue was pressing against Kantarou’s lips in hot, brief passes, really was Haruka who was nibbling at his lips in an attempt to get his mouth to open.

Kantarou drew a shuddering breath in through his nose and pushed Haruka back, as much as Haruka would go, which admittedly wasn’t far. He saw disapproval flash through Haruka’s eyes.

“Not very nice, Sensei,” Haruka murmured at him. “And when I was being gentle for you.”

Kantarou’s eyes dropped. “Don’t call me that,” he muttered. “Haruka, if you mean this, if you want this, then — let me exorcise this youkai, all right?”

“I don’t know,” Haruka murmured, pressing closer, pinning Kantarou firmly against the wall. “I like being able to have you like this. You can’t complain at all when I kiss you, after all, and normally you never stop.”

Kantarou swallowed hard, his hands fisting in Haruka’s shirt, still doing his best to push him away. “Haruka, no,” he said softly. “I don’t want it like this. I want you, not Minamoto, not Moo-chan, nor Sugino-sama, nor Youko-chan –”

Haruka leaned down forward, pressing his mouth to Kantarou’s ear. Kantarou shivered, and almost weakened, then made himself push harder, jumping a bit when Haruka’s teeth closed around the earlobe, sharp and sudden.

“You complain too much,” Haruka murmured, his breath hot and sharp. One of his hands wormed between Kantarou’s back and the wall, smoothing down. “You wanted this so badly, so why are you arguing?”

“I didn’t want this, I keep trying to tell you,” Kantarou protested, admittedly weakly, as Haruka’s hand clutched his ass, squeezing firmly. “I wanted you, I want to go home and have Haruka there. It’s Haruka I waited so long for…”

“Haruka, Haruka, Haruka,” Haruka muttered at him. “But you never said or did anything with Haruka, did you?”

“It’d be so easy for me to force you into something,” Kantarou protested, weakly. “So of course I didn’t–”

“Then it would be so easy to force me to stop,” Haruka pointed out. He leaned in, pressing Kantarou bodily back against the wall to be trapped between his hand and the full length of his torso. “But you aren’t.”

“I …” Kantarou shivered as Haruka nuzzled at his neck, his mouth drawing a hot damp line across his throat. “Haruka …”

“It only takes a few words,” Haruka murmured, trailing up to bite his ear again. His body was surprisingly warm, and it almost hypnotized Kantarou into relaxing and pulling Haruka back for a proper kiss. “Say my name, and say you want me to stop. That’s all.”

Kantarou closed his eyes, for a moment letting his hands trace up the line of Haruka’s back, squeezing gently at his shoulders. It would be easy enough to pretend, he thought wistfully, that Haruka really meant it, that when he said he liked Kantarou, he honestly meant it …

With a deep breath, Kantarou gently pushed at Haruka’s shoulders again. “Haruka,” he said softly. “Stop.”

Haruka drew back slowly, a disgruntled frown on his face, the expression so much like Raikou’s that Kantarou’s stomach gave a sudden lurch. “I didn’t think you’d do it,” Haruka admitted, briefly.

“Haruka.” Kantarou drew a slow breath past the pain in his chest. “You are coming home with me, and you will submit to an exorcism of the spirit haunting you.”

Haruka stared at him evenly for a long moment, and then bowed his head. His voice, when it came out, was sarcastic and bitter. “I see I have no choice.”

It seemed to get easier with everything he said. Kantarou nodded. “We’re going back,” he said. “Now.”

+++

In the end, the process was surprisingly easy. Kantarou clasped his hand and spoke the proper words, perversely proud at how even he kept his voice during the whole thing. When he placed the ofuda on Haruka’s forehead, only the faintest of tremors went through Haruka, his brow tightening as though in confusion. A faint gray mist rose from him — not the blackness of an aradama, but not pure white, either.

It coalesced into a ball over Haruka’s head, bobbing faintly in place as Haruka sagged, folding down to one knee. Kantarou watched, his juzu held out and ready, and saw a small, humanoid figure outlined in the glow.

“Hello,” Kantarou said gently. “And who are you?”

The tiny youkai fluttered its hands and shook its head; when Kantarou leaned closer, he could see it had no mouth. Taking a chance, he held out a hand, cupping it so it would have a place to alight.

It settled into his hand, kneeling there and peering up at him. For a moment, he felt a pressure of an invading youkai and strengthened his own mind; the pressure retreated after a moment and left only a whispering voice.

I’m sorry — did I cause trouble?

“No, no,” he hastened to reassure it; it had a tremulous note in its voice, like embarrassment or fear. And then he revised, “Well, you caused a little, but I’m sure you weren’t trying to.”

He just wanted to be like someone else for a while, the youkai whispered. I heard it, and I thought, maybe…

“Do you know why?” Kantarou asked silently; from the corner of one eye, he saw Haruka stir, and sit up. “I mean, he –”

He wanted to see what it was like, the youkai murmured, folding its hands before itself. Everyone knows who the Oni-Eating Tengu is. I thought, maybe I could do him a favor.

Kantarou smiled a bit at that; Haruka, it seemed, always inspired that from others, whether intentionally or not. Over time, he’d come to admire that tendency as much as Haruka’s strength. “I’m sure you meant well,” he said gently. “But really, for something like this, it’s better to ask before you just do a favor for someone.”

Oh. The youkai bowed its head. Kantarou watched Haruka lurch to his feet, and felt the long heavy weight of Haruka’s stare before he stalked out. He just seemed so sad. I wanted to help.

In spite of the resigned ache in his chest, watching Haruka leave, Kantarou smiled again. “You tried,” he said. “It was a kind gesture, even if it didn’t really work out.”

The youkai gave a slightly hopeful look up at Kantarou. Thank you for not being angry. Can we be friends?

It was almost enough to lighten the ache in his chest again. “I’d like that very much, actually,” he said, affectionately.

Really? Oh, I’m glad! I hope he isn’t too angry with me either, it said. He felt so much, and felt like he couldn’t express any of it, so I just thought… I just thought I could help him.

“Felt so much?” Kantarou asked, slowly.

The youkai nodded, wide-eyed. He feels very deeply, it said. And it was all bottling up inside of him, but he didn’t know how to say it, so he thought, “maybe if I knew how someone else did it, I would be able to.” The youkai looked almost nervous again, wringing its tiny hands. Are you all right? You’re sad, too.

“I …” Kantarou shook his head. “Do you know what he was feeling?”

Regretfully, it shook its head. That was private, it murmured. All I knew was that there was something he wanted to say, but couldn’t.

Kantarou took another breath and let it out carefully, around the strange hopeful ache starting in the dead center of his chest. He was probably hoping too much, he told himself sternly, and said, “Thank you, then. You should probably go on home.”

I’ll come visit, it offered, softly, and then darted off.

“Kan-chan,” Youko said a moment after it was gone. “Do you want me to go talk to Haruka? He looked upset. I mean, as much as he ever does…”

Kantarou shook his head. “No,” he said, softly. “No, I’ll talk to him.”

“All right,” Youko said, nodding. “I’ll make tea so you’ve something warm to come into after spending your time on the roof…

“Thank you, Youko-chan,” he said.

Actually rising and going out there to look for the ladder was amazingly difficult, really; every movement seemed to set off aches in his chest, torn between hope and disappointment.

Every step up the ladder was an exercise in self-control, in not breaking and running while he still could; he’d told himself he was done with that, and intended to continue as such. And even then, when he actually caught sight of Haruka on the roof, his back to Kantarou and his shoulders stiff, he almost let go and dropped down. It would be easy to shrug the entire day off and pretend that nothing had happened, that Haruka hadn’t touched him and said so many of the things Kantarou had wanted to hear.

“Haruka,” he said softly, and saw Haruka tense further. “We need to talk.”

“I don’t see why,” Haruka said flatly. “There’s nothing I want to say to you, Kantarou.”

Kantarou swallowed hard and crawled fully onto the roof, carefully making his way over to Haruka’s side. “Maybe I have things I want to tell you,” he said, evenly as he could.

“And maybe,” Haruka snapped, “I’m not interested in hearing.”

Kantarou drew in a sharp breath, and then let it out, slow and steady and even, trying to find a calm place to center himself at. “Maybe you aren’t,” he said, softly. “Maybe you never wanted to hear this, never wanted to think about it, maybe having my personality for a while made you realize something you didn’t want to about me. But–”

“Just go, Kantarou,” Haruka said. “I’m not interested.”

Kantarou swallowed hard around the lump in his throat and told himself that Haruka was talking about the conversation, not about him. “Haruka, I–”

“Kantarou, I told you already. Don’t.”

Kantarou’s mouth opened, and no sound came out. For a moment, it felt like a vice was closed around his throat, strangling his next breath, like he’d stumbled into a nest of oni unexpected. Haruka didn’t look up or move, and after a long moment, Kantarou’s shoulders sagged and he stared at his feet.

“I see,” he said softly. “… I’m sorry, Haruka.”

There was still no response. Kantarou closed his eyes and forced himself to breathe. “I hope this won’t cause problems, then,” he said quietly. “I’ll … do my best, to respect your privacy and your space, and I hope … I hope you’ll forgive me, then.”

“Forgive you?” Haruka sounded bored now, and that cut worse than the earlier anger. “For what?”

“For wanting too much from you,” Kantarou said quietly. “Youko-chan is making tea, so whenever you’re ready to come inside, there’ll be some waiting.”

“I don’t want tea,” Haruka said, flatly. “Of all the things I’ve wanted, tea wasn’t it.”

“I…. this is why I didn’t want to tell you,” Kantarou said, softly. “I didn’t want to hurt you worse with it, didn’t want you to think this is why I wanted you around–”

This,” Haruka said, flatly. “What do you mean by this? Your need to embarrass me?”

Kantarou’s shoulders hunched. “I’m sorry, Haruka,” he said, quieter. “I hadn’t wanted that, either. I’ll go now.”

Haruka’s hand shot out, grabbing his wrist as he started to pull away. “Kantarou,” he said, still not looking up. “Answer the damn question.”

Kantarou swallowed hard against the lump in his throat and looked away himself. “By ‘this,’ I meant ‘you,'” he said quietly. “Because Sugino-sama was right, it’s too easy for me to use the name-contract and ask anything of you. And I wanted … I wanted you to be comfortable enough with me that if you wanted this — you’d say so. Clearly.”

“You still haven’t said what this is,” Haruka said. “Do you enjoy seeing me dance like some sort of damn puppet to your whims? Is that it?”

No,” Kantarou said sharply, and then again, softer, “No. That’s not it.”

“Then what?”

“… I like you, Haruka,” he said softly. “Like I said before.”

“‘Like’ is a vague word,” Haruka said, harshly. “Even I can say it.”

Kantarou bit the inside of his cheek. Slowly he leaned forward; he suspected Haruka would move away, but when he didn’t, he just leaned on Haruka’s shoulder. “…since I was really young, all I could think of was you,” he said, softly. “And I never knew what you’d be like. But then… I met you, and you exceeded my wildest dreams, you really did. I think even if I hadn’t wanted to meet you for so long, I’d have felt this way about you.”

Haruka was silent, then snapped out a sudden, “You’re being vague again.”

“At least I’m saying something,” Kantarou mumbled. “It’s not easy for me either, okay, Haruka? I don’t say personal things easily at all.”

“Try, for once,” Haruka said flatly. “You’ve spent all this time dancing around the issue, anyway, and if you can’t even decide what the hell you want, what do you expect from me?”

Kantarou closed his eyes. “I don’t expect anything,” he said quietly. “I really don’t. Haruka, having you by my side is –”

“No.” Haruka moved away abruptly, and Kantarou was left staring at him, wondering how an arm span could feel so much more distant. “Tell me, Kantarou. I’m tired of you like this.”

It was difficult to summon up the dredges of a smile, and harder still to maintain it. “I love you, Haruka,” he said quietly. “You’re the most important person in my life. And I’m sorry that it’s more than you wanted from me, but I can’t change that, so I’ll let you have some time alone …”

“What kind of love?” Haruka pressed. “That’s still not enough.”

It didn’t so much hurt any more as it was just exhausting, like every new comment was tiring him out. “Haruka, I love you.”

“Physically?” Haruka was scowling at him now, fierce. “Emotionally?”

“Yes,” Kantarou said, exhaustedly. “Both. I’m sorry. I know you never wanted a human to get attached to you.”

“I didn’t,” Haruka agreed, watching him narrowly. “It’s too much trouble.”

Kantarou closed his eyes again, and pushed himself slowly to his feet. “Which is why I’m sorry,” he said softly, and smiled again. “But, at least … in a few more years, I’ll be gone, and you won’t have to worry about that, right?”

Haruka stared at him, saying nothing, and Kantarou sighed; the half-joke had fallen flatter than he hoped. Without looking back, he turned and began to slowly make his way towards the ladder.

At least it was said, he tried to console himself. It was said, and it was out, and he knew Haruka wasn’t interested, so it was one more burden off his shoulders —

“Where are you going?” Haruka demanded.

Kantarou froze, wincing; the last he wanted was for this to be drawn out more. “I was going to go inside,” he said, helplessly. “Give you your space. I don’t want to be a bother any more than I have been, Haruka–”

“You can’t just finally confess and then leave,” Haruka said. “I won’t allow it. Come back here.”

Kantarou looked over, pained. “Haruka, please. I know you’re not happy with me, but I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it. So please, just…. some space, some peace…”

“Kantarou,” Haruka said firmly, “come here.” He patted the roof beside him, his gaze oddly intent; Kantarou swallowed hard.

For a moment, he considered running, and dismissed the idea as stupid; Haruka could move faster than him, and with the strange light in his eyes, would probably be even more annoyed if he had to make the effort to save Kantarou’s life. Finally, slowly, feeling more drained than he could ever remember being, Kantarou rose and climbed back to sit beside Haruka. He laced his hands together and stared resolutely at them, hunching his shoulders.

“Well,” he said softly. His own voice sounded strange. “Haruka –”

“Look at me,” Haruka said, and Kantarou jumped a little when a hand closed on his shoulder; he was vaguely alarmed to see the nails sharpened into talons. “Stop trying to hide and look at me.”

Kantarou swallowed and slowly looked over; he could feel from the strain on his face that his eyes were too wide. “Haruka, I–”

“Shh,” Haruka said. He seemed to search Kantarou’s face for a moment, his brows furrowed, then started to lean forward. He stopped after a moment, paused, and leaned back again. For whatever reason, it seemed as though he’d changed his mind about moving close. “…me too.”

Kantarou blinked. “…what?”

“Me too. All that.”

“All of that?” Kantarou parroted, blank. “All of what?”

You know.” Haruka shifted, looking uncomfortable. “That.”

“That, tha — that?” Kantarou stared at him, then tightened his fists, breathing slowly. It was cruel, he thought distantly, and he’d never thought of Haruka as cruel before, though maybe, with the reputation of the oni-eating tengu, he should have. “Haruka, please –”

“Kantarou.” Haruka was watching him from the corner of one eye, as though not quite able to look at him directly. “I do.”

Kantarou swallowed. The words that came out, when he spoke again, weren’t the ones he’d intended for. “…you’re not mad at me?”

“I was mad at us,” Haruka said. “This.”

“Er — this?” Kantarou felt his heart skip in his chest again.

“….our incompetence.” Haruka looked away. “We take too long to say what we need to.”

And there was hope again, rising treacherously inside him. Kantarou took another deep breath and let it out slowly. “So, this …”

“Kantarou.” Haruka still wasn’t looking at him, but something subtle had relaxed in his shoulders and back. “I don’t say this sort of thing lightly. You know that.”

“You haven’t really said much, Haruka,” Kantarou pointed out softly. “If you mean what I think you do, could you say it once? At least?”

Haruka’s mouth opened and worked silently, and Kantarou leaned slightly forward, holding his breath.

“… I care,” Haruka said finally, grudgingly, like the words had been dragged from him. “You’re … important, to me.”

Kantarou nodded, slowly. “…I like being important to Haruka,” he said.

“…you’re being very restrained,” Haruka said. “I’d thought you’d demand that I’d be less vague.”

“I don’t want to push,” Kantarou said, awkwardly. “Hearing this much is enough for me, Haruka.”

Haruka tilted his head, watching Kantarou evenly. After a moment, he said, “I might not say more, but if you want to push me, push.”

“I …” he swallowed hard, and made himself reach out, taking one of Haruka’s hands in his own; the talons had regressed back into nails, and it was warm and dry and rough against his own. “I think I’m too scared to.”

“That won’t end well, then,” Haruka said dryly. “Today’s shown that.”

Kantarou nodded, studying Haruka’s hand. “I am glad,” he said softly. “I thought, after all this time, either you didn’t notice, or you had, and you just didn’t want anything –” He glanced up, and blinked in wide-eyed surprise at finding Haruka’s face so close to his own. “Haruka –”

“Just say it,” Haruka said softly. “It’s easier for me if you do.”

Kantarou caught his breath; all of a sudden thinking of a million different possible things to ask Haruka, like he’d never had the freedom to just say them before, and now that he did, he couldn’t pick which. But he simply forced himself to relax and said, “Um. Do you love me, Haruka?”

“Yes,” Haruka said, and if his tone was still flat, that was fine; it was Haruka, after all.

Kantarou swallowed around the sudden thickness in his throat, seeming to spread down from it and tighten his chest. “….will you kiss me, then?”

“… Yes,” Haruka said, and leaned in again.

It was like the earlier kiss and different, too; Haruka kissing as himself used more of his fangs than his lips, and this time Kantarou sighed and opened his mouth into it, wrapping his arms around Haruka’s neck and pulling him in. It was the same warmth, the same taste, and the same low noise in Haruka’s voice when he tugged Kantarou closer, his own hands sweeping possessively down his back.

When it was over, Kantarou scooted closer, toying idly with the ends of Haruka’s hair. “Haruka,” he murmured, trying out the feel of the name. “Haruka.”

“Kantarou,” Haruka muttered back. “I want to do that again.”

Kantarou blinked, and found himself laughing a little, and it was embarrassing, but relief made him giddy, and he turned to beam expectantly up at Haruka, closing his eyes.

Haruka leaned in again at that, kissing, slowly sinking back with him until Kantarou felt the shingles pressing into his back. He hardly minded, just squirmed a little to get more comfortable, wrapping his arms around Haruka.

He could almost swear that little twitch of Haruka’s lips against his was a smile. “I didn’t lie earlier, you know,” Haruka murmured. “I hate to admit it, but you are a little cute, sometimes.”

Kantarou flushed. “Haruka,” he chided. “It’s not nice to call a man ‘cute’.”

“You may not have noticed, but I’m not very nice.”

Kantarou pouted, not letting go of Haruka as he squirmed again. “No, you’re not,” he said. “What was up with drawing that confession out like that? I thought you might’ve hated me, Haruka –”

Haruka’s expression darkened abruptly, and Kantarou went very still as long fingers trailed down his face, tracing its outline down over his cheek and his lips, to the pulse point in his throat.

“I don’t think I could hate you,” Haruka said softly. “Not before, and certainly not now.”

Embarrassed again, oddly touched, Kantarou smiled. “That’s sweet,” he said. “That’s really sweet, Haruka, I’m touched — all this time, and you actually cared about me!”

“Of course,” Haruka added blandly, “you’re also annoying, self-centered, petty, and whiny.”

Kantarou gaped at him.

“Just in case realizing how I feel about you makes you think I’m blinded to your flaws.” Haruka’s lips didn’t even twitch. “I’m not.”

“Haruka! That’s mean!”

“…but you have some good sides too,” Haruka said. “And I might even care about the bad sides, somehow.”

“I don’t know if that makes me feel any better,” Kantarou grumbled, still pouting. “You’re so mean, Haruka, has anyone told you this? So mean.”

“You did,” Haruka said blandly. “Just now.” He sat up, pulling Kantarou with him. “Weren’t you going to go in and get tea?”

Kantarou looked at him thoughtfully, then plastered himself to Haruka’s side, shamelessly snuggling. For a moment Haruka was stiff against him, as though not quite sure of what to do, then hesitantly put an arm around his shoulders. “I want to go where Haruka is,” he announced. “So if you’re staying out here, I’ll stay with you.”

“Idiot.” Haruka’s voice was fond. “Youko will worry if we stay out here. Let’s go in.”

“You worry when Youko-chan worries?” Kantarou grinned at Haruka. “Aww! You care a lot more about everything than you let on, don’t you?”

“Of course I worry about Youko,” Haruka said, reasonably. “You put her through so much hard work and stress that anyone would worry.”

I put her through?” Kantarou gaped. “Haruka, I–“and then he yelped a startled, “Haruka!” because Haruka had swept him up and was holding him close to his chest.

“Faster than the ladder,” Haruka said dismissively.

Kantarou put his arms around Haruka. “…and maybe you want to hold me?”

“… Maybe,” Haruka allowed, and took off, gliding back to ground level, his arms secure around Kantarou.

Youko was waiting for them at the bottom; if she was surprised to see their position, she didn’t let on as she bustled forward. “There you two are,” she said, sounding relieved. “I was about to come looking for you, really! Is everything okay?”

“Just fine, Youko-chan,” Kantarou said happily. “Is there tea? You said there would be.”

“There is, but it’s probably gone cold by now.” Youko made a face at him. “I should probably have waited, but I needed something to do.”

“I’m sorry that we alarmed you,” Haruka said mildly. “In the future, if Kantarou and I plan to have serious discussions, he will hopefully remember to call down once things are resolved.”

“Hey!” Kantarou puffed his cheeks up at Haruka, mock-scowling. “Don’t act like this was entirely my fault, Haruka!”

“When you name someone, you have a responsibility to them,” Haruka told him. “Try being a better master.”

“What?! I’m a perfectly good master! I’m the type of guy anyone would want as a master! Right, Youko-chan? Right?”

Youko eyed him thoughtfully. “Kan-chan,” she said, “I hope you don’t expect me to answer that honestly …”

He pouted at her, balling both hands into fists and flailing them at her. “But, Youko-chan! I take care of you, and I give you a place to stay! I’m a good master, aren’t I? Come on, aren’t I?”

“Errr.” Youko began to back up. “I’m not going to answer that, Kan-chan, so why don’t you come in and have some tea –”

Kantarou pouted again, hmphing. “I am too a good master,” he sulked. “No one appreciates that.”

“You’re a good enough friend, most of the time,” she called. “It works–”

“Most of the time?! Youko-chan!” Kantarou turned large eyes on Haruka. “What does that mean, ‘most of the time?”

Haruka put a hand on Kantarou’s head. “…it means the rest of the time you’re annoying.”

“Haruka!”

“But at least you’re yourself,” Haruka said, mildly.

Kantarou blinked rapidly a few times, then broke into a wide, sunny smile. “You do like me, then!”

One of Haruka’s eyebrows twitched. “Kantarou …”

Kantarou pulled Haruka’s hand off his head, taking it between both of his own hands. “I’m glad,” he said, something warm in his eyes. “After all of that, I think it’d be really sad if you turned out not to like me after all.”

Haruka glanced away. “I said I cared,” he said, a bit stiffly. “What more do you want?”

“Ahhh! Haruka said it again!” Kantarou did a little dance from foot to foot. “That you like me! You said it again!”

Haruka blinked at Kantarou, then made an annoyed snort through his nose, shoving Kantarou lightly as he pushed past Kantarou to follow Youko into the house.

Kantarou snagged at his sleeve. “Harukaaa,” he drawled. “Haruka, I like Haruka too.”

Haruka glance back a moment, then curled his fingers down, grabbing Kantarou’s where they were caught in his sleeve. “Come on then,” he muttered. “And stop being a brat.”

Kantarou pouted, though he trotted obediently into the house. “That’s part of what you like about me,” he said, with perfect confidence. “If I changed, you’d worry.”

For a moment, Haruka hesitated, watching silently as Kantarou slipped past him, pulling him along. When he glanced back, his grin was cheeky, knowing, and Haruka found it didn’t bother him as much as it normally did.

“Yes,” he said at last. “I would.”

Posted in fanfic, m/m, sex | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Winner Takes [___]

He’s not usually one for rules — usually they’re a fucking pain — but there are some that gotta be followed, no matter who you are: even if you’re top dog, if you lose, you bow your head to the scrappy mutt that beats you. Losers have no right to complain if the stronger one takes all, especially if both give everything — and what’s the point of a fight if you’re not trying to kick the other guy’s ass?

That’s how things are, that’s how they’ve always been. And he’s a good fighter; he and his partner are a fucking awesome match. Most times, they don’t even need their luck-luck dance. They like winning, they’re good at winning, and it’s been a slippery fight because the other guy moves like a goddamn eel

(fluid like the water and twisting like the wind and never quite where you think he’ll be and it’s strange, because they’re supposed to be the reflections of their partners, and he’s always thought that this guy was about as stiff-lipped and anxious as his partner, and he thinks: in the future, he and his will have to keep an eye on them)

(this guy’s not as wet behind the ears as he seems)

(and it wouldn’t be as fun otherwise)

but it’s over. It’s over and he’s won, with the other pinned under him and spread like a prize. The bastard’s got skinny hips with bones that jab if you shift too far to either side, his knees bent up and splayed out. He keeps his head bowed, though, like protecting his throat really matters when everything else’s out in the open.

“Gotcha,” Hozukimaru says, and slides his hands down the guy’s arms, so that the air hums with the vibration of steel moving against steel; in the end, they still are what they are. “Whatcha gonna say to that, huh?”

Wabisuke lifts his face.

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

a sweet little thing

He visits her in the infirmary, precisely one hour after she was brought in, ten minutes after a breathless messenger appeared at his door, Captain, Captain, you have to come quickly, Lieutenant Captain Hinamori is–

She’s on an examination table when he enters, pale but sitting upright as some anonymous Fourth wraps a bandage around her stomach and murmurs to her in soothing tones: the cut is shallow, Lieutenant Captain, it’ll be painful but if you’re careful you’ll be fine, you shouldn’t strain yourself. And she nods, listening, but then she sees him in the doorway and she jerks up tighter, ignoring the Fourth’s noise of dismay; a flush spreads cross her pretty little face. There’s a bruise blossoming over one eye, and a wet cut on her lip. “Captain Aizen!”

He tucks his hands into his sleeves and smiles at her. “Hinamori-kun,” he says. “I hear you took down the nest almost completely by yourself.”

As though on cue, she blushes, red as the blood on her lip, the blood that’s already beginning to stain the bandages taped to her stomach. “I had help,” she stammers. “My squad — Nakajima-kun, Ono-kun –”

“That’s not what I heard.” He crosses to her side, and the fluttering little Fourth makes another despairing noise as she lurches to her feet at his approach. “I heard that you took three Hollows down on your own, just you and your Tobiume.” He puts approval into his voice, warm and soft, and his smile is genuine when she swells into it, blooming like a flower graced by the touch of the sun. She’s so very pretty, his little Hinamori, with her bright shining eyes and her fragile birdlike bones and unshaking loyalty. He touches her cheek and her resultant blush makes him chuckle. He likes this, too, the quick hard flush of blood under her thin skin; he likes thinking about how bright and fast it would be, if something were to cut her right now–

“You did well, Hinamori-kun,” he tells her. He drops his hand lower, letting his thumb brush the cut on her lip. She blushes harder, beaming, and the Fourth gives up, muttering please, Captain Aizen, she needs to take it easy, I’ll be back later before going on to the next patient.

He holds her face for a moment longer, his touch gentle; she could break away just by leaning back, and the beauty is that she will not, not from him.. There are a dozen ways he could kill her in this instant while she stands there and beams at him with limpid trusting eyes, and that is the knowledge that makes him let go of her, smiling benevolently at her bright-eyed pleasure.

“Get some sleep,” he tells her, and helps her climb back onto the bed; he even takes off his haori and drapes it over her as a blanket — it’s big enough to completely cover her, breastbone to toes — laughing at her stuttering protests until she subsides, caught somewhere between mortal embarrassment and sheer pleasure. He does not kiss her in any way — that would be overdoing it — and as he leaves, he sees that there is a smear of blood on his thumb.

He licks it off, and the taste is sweet indeed.

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

Bending to Give Way

The thing Katara remembers the most are her mother’s hands.

She remembers the careful strength of them, callused and rough from cold and work, but always gentle: in doctoring scrapes or cuts, in braiding rough hair, in stroking away fever-dreams. She remembers the sound of her mother’s voice, singing lullabies and the working songs of women long into the night — her greatest talent, she’d once laughingly said, even as she tended to dinner and finished the mending and caught Sokka before he could trip himself into the fire — and her laughter, unashamed and loud and unapologetic.

She remembers her mother’s face, sweat-damp and pale except for two high spots of color in her cheeks, and the coughing, the wet bloody coughing and the hard unexpected strength of Sokka’s arm around her waist as he pulled her back and she found she couldn’t make a sound, not even No Mama no no please Mama no

Katara remembers her mother in fragments and pieces and stitched-together memories, and hates that the memory fades a little more each day. She hates the Fire Nation with an old tired bitterness that tastes like smoke in the back of her throat. As a whole its people are dangerous and unpredictable, difficult to manage as their birthright element, and she has learned firsthand to not extend even the briefest trust — not if she didn’t want it sharpened and refined and stabbed in her back.

So now she looks down at the unconscious Fire Prince, limp in his uncle’s arms. He looks small and weak, like she could break him with just the half-full waterskin she carries. Not all of his injuries are new: some have already begun to scar, livid pink and weathered brown against his white skin. He breathes slow and ragged, like each one comes as a struggle. From the angle of his arm, it’s most certainly broken.

Quiet and still as ice, Katara catalogues what injuries she can see, then looks up. The prince’s uncle meets her gaze, unblinking. This isn’t a fiercesome general or a brutal dragon — this is a tired old man, stretched too long and thin and hurt himself, asking for something he knows is unforgivable.

In his arms, the Fire Prince coughs. It sounds rough and tearing and too familiar. Katara puts her hand on her waterskin and breathes slowly: in, out, reaching for that placid liquid calm she uses for ‘bending.

“… follow me,” she says at last. “One word, and I’ll leave you behind.”

There is no surprise in the old man’s eyes, and she thinks maybe she should be angry about that — it’s pathetically weak to give the bastard prince another chance to trample on her good intentions — but there is also relief there, so bone-deep and genuine that she turns away. Katara touches the polished-smooth stone at her throat and thinks of her mother’s pale face and fading eyes. She thinks about the long thick scar that takes up half of Aang’s back and how it still pains him on damp days.

She thinks of her father’s face when he found her and Sokka alive but their mother dead, and she thinks of the old man’s face when he looked at his nephew.

Without a word she leads the old man and his burden down to the riverside camp. Appa lies on his side with his back to them, snoring loud and deep; Momo dozes curled atop his head. A handful of river pebbles lie scattered near their campfire — Sokka’s gone hunting, Aang got restless, and Toph bored enough to follow one of them. It leaves her an unexpected gift of time, and she turns to the old man and points to the river. “Lay him down there,” she said. “Not in the water, but close enough he could reach it.”

The old man does as he’s told. Katara toes off her shoes, then hesitates at removing her outer robe. The prince is unconscious and his uncle distracted by that, and there’s an entire fast-moving river right there, but …

But. She grits her teeth and shrugs out of the outer layers of cloth, so she can wade into the river without getting her clothes wet. The river rises halfway to her knees, fast and icy-cold even in the heat of summer. She bends and presses her palms to the water, taking a deep breath and reaching for the power inherent in the swift unending current. It gathers to her will, starting as a gentle glow in her palms that spreads down to her fingertips and up to her wrists, gloving her hands entirely in captured water. The old man watches her gravely, and for a moment she’s acutely humiliated at knowing that she’s standing half-naked before him — but he says nothing, and there is no calculation or hunger in his look — just that same tired old hope she’s seen in a thousand different variations.

She reaches out and lays her hands upon the Fire Prince, one where a diagonal slash down his chest has laid his chest bare, and the other on his broken arm. Under her touch he makes a kitten-weak noise, but doesn’t even have the strength to stir. Many of his injuries are less serious than she’d first

(hoped)

thought — exhaustion is really the worst of it, though she can tell that if the bone is not set properly and immediately, it’ll never heal right. There’s internal bruising but no bleeding, and the smoke inhalation is relatively minor. Katara hovers, acutely aware of the old man’s eyes on her. She thinks of her mother, bloody lips and wet eyes, and the prince makes another weak noise as the blood within him stirs.

A human body is mostly water, after all; that’s how the healing aspect of waterbending works. One nudge here and a clumsy pass here, and there’d be a blood clot which could stop the prince’s heart like that; a little pressure and there’d be a bruise in his brain, and he’d never wake up. It wouldn’t do much in the end: the rumors are fat and plentiful in the Fire Nation when food is not, and the only thing that’s certain from all of them is that there is no love between the Fire Lord and his firstborn.

If he died here, on this muddy riverbank, the only one to mourn him would be an old man, and perhaps the memory of his mother’s ghost.

She closes her eyes.

At its very core, using waterbending to heal isn’t all that different from using it to fight; it’s just a matter of how the energies are directed, and how delicately they’re controlled. One still encourages the movement of the water, coaxing it from its normal path and using its power as your catspaw.

The arm goes first: she’s not skilled enough to heal it completely, but she can straighten the bone and encourage it to heal properly, as long as it’s kept straight; she clears the smoke from his lungs and turns his head away from her when he begins to cough it up, phlegm studded black and gray. She leeches excess blood away from the softest bruises, washing it away and mending what she can of his external cuts as she can. At some point color begins to leech back into the prince’s face, and his breathing grows louder, steadier.

While she works, the old man says nothing. He sits a careful distance away, his hands fisted on his knees. They might shake a little; out of deference for his grief, if nothing else, she doesn’t look to make sure.

I want to kill him, Katara wants to say; it’s there on the tip of her tongue and burning in her throat, and it makes her hands shake as she makes a last check of the prince’s injuries. It won’t change anything. It won’t bring anyone back. It’s not even all his fault, but I want to kill him anyway.

Instead, she looks up. “I did what I could,” she says. “He’ll need to rest. That’s the best thing for him.”

The old man looks at her. Despite his age, his eyes are bright and clear and hard; she knows he can see everything she’s wanted to do — and how she’s taking the higher road, by not acting on that; this makes her better, it makes Aang better, because they’re not killers, they’re not–

“You have our thanks,” the old man says gravely. “But you should know that this resentment you carry will poison you eventually. The Avatar will need you to be stronger than that.”

She clenches her hands. “That’s funny,” she growls. “The Dragon of the West trying to tell me not to be angry–”

“I did not say that,” the old man says. “Only that your anger is not clean. It will only weaken you in the end.”

Around her, the water begins to swirl and boil. “I am not the little girl who ran and hid when the Fire Nation destroyed her tribe,” she snarls. “I will not let it happen again. I–”

Below her, the Fire Prince groans. Her eyes snap down, and the waters around her surges up, the waves hardening into ice spears, all aimed at the boy’s throat. She can sense the old man tensing, ready to act against her, but he’d have to take his nephew out as well, and he wouldn’t–

The prince opens his eyes. He looks straight up at her, dazed and shivering.

And he smiles.

Surprised, Katara pauses; the ice around her fades back to water, slowly sinking back down to the river. The prince’s eyes aren’t focused at all; she’s not even sure if he’s really seeing her, but that smile is open and honest and … sweet. It reminds her of Aang at his best. It changes his face entirely.

His lips move. Most of what he says fades in and out, and most of that is drowned under the river’s rushing voice, but what she hears is: you’re beautiful.

She thinks she might have heard mother as well.

The old man comes forward as the prince’s eyes close again, and gathers the boy up. His expression is regretful, but not angry — in her moment of cold shock, she sees that he’s not angry at her for threatening his nephew; he doesn’t resent her for all the things she’d wanted to do, but there’s a sadness in him that’s for her, now. It’s not pity, but it stings just as bitterly.

“You’d better leave,” she says finally. “Before Aang and the others come back.”

He looks at her, then nods. “I think it would be best,” he agrees. He bows low, his form perfect even with his burden, then turns (deliberately, she realizes, in how he waits five full seconds with his back to her and her in the river) and walks away.

Katara waits until he’s gone, and looks down at her hands. They’re nothing like her mother’s, though they’re work-roughened and hard: she’s not meant for gentle work. It dissatisfies her.

And yet still she can feel the prince’s heartbeat under her fingertips, stuttering and settling, and the peculiar intimacy of healing. She couldn’t look into his mind, she doesn’t know what he’s thinking, but that guileless smile stays with her, and it …

She closes her hands into fists so hard that they shake, and closes her eyes.

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Time Sublime

It was, Roy thought, the saddest Yule tree he’d ever seen.

It stood in the corner right beside the door to his office, and the top scarcely came up to his hip. A number of its needles already littered the floor, and those remaining on the tree itself were tinged with brown at their tips. Effort had been made to decorate it, though half of that, Roy suspected, came from the leftover bits of tinfoil from someone’s lunch.

“What,” he asked, “is this?”

Hawkeye blinked at him, with that sort of opaque deadpan look that he often suspected she’d cultivated just for him. “It’s a Yule tree, Colonel.”

“I know that,” he said patiently. “But why is it here?”

“Because it’s almost Yule, sir.”

“But –”

“And with all due respect, why should we question it? It’s Yule.” She handed him a thick stack of papers, and Roy had to juggle his coat to get a hold of it. “Your itinerary for the day.”

He thought about protesting that, but she walked away before he could even think to open his mouth. Roy looked down at the tree again. One small piece of tinfoil looked about ready to fall off, and he bent briefly, to nudge it back on with his finger. The tiny branch shivered, and a few of the needles came off on his gloves.

Roy stood quickly and brushed his hand off. No one was there to see, and he ducked into his own office without a backwards glance.

Half an hour later, Havoc wandered in, opening the door and then pausing to look down at the tree. There was already a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, unlit. “Nice tree, sir.”

“It’s not mine,” Roy told him. “I’m hoping the janitors will take it with them, when they take out the trash.”

“Why?” Havoc switched his cigarette to the other side of his mouth with amazing dexterity. “It’s not so bad.”

Roy raised an eyebrow at him. “It’s covered in trash, Lieutenant,” he said. “I don’t exactly think this is the sort of image we want to present to our superior officers.”

“Eh, c’mon.” Havoc just grinned back at him, cheeky. “It’s almost Yule, sir. Wouldn’t hurt this place to have a little more spirit, don’t you think?”

“This isn’t spirit, Lieutenant, it’s trash. Couldn’t we afford something better?”

“Well.” Havoc dug around in his pocket, and came up with a few small bits of paper, crinkled into balls. “I suspect that’s more your department than ours, sir. Alchemist and all.”

“Alchemy isn’t something convenient for decorating,” Roy told him, watching as Havoc stuffed the paper back into his pocket and settled for trying to rearrange the bits of tinfoil already spackling the tree’s dry branches. “It’s not for one’s own pleasure, it’s a serious science that –”

“Hey, alchemy’s for the good of the people, right?” Havoc came over and dropped three large folders onto Roy’s desk. “Well, keeping up the morale of the office is the good of the people, right? Today’s files, sir, and First Lieutenant Hawkeye wants ’em by lunch.”

Roy looked at that, and then at the stack of paperwork at his elbow. He sighed. “Very well. If that’s all, Lieutenant –”

“S’all,” Havoc agreed, saluting him with cheerful almost-disrespect, and wandered off again.

Lunch came and went in a blur of signatures and stamps; over the years, Roy had become very good at recognizing which papers required actual reading, and which he could safely skim over. There’d been the one memorable Fool’s Day, when Havoc and Breda had tried to get him to sign an issue declaring that all female officers of the unit (read: one Elizabeth Hawkeye) were to wear miniskirts for the day, but he’d thankfully caught it before she could.

By the time Hawkeye actually came to collect the paperwork, lunch was long over, and Roy’s writing hand was cramped. He flexed his fingers ruefully and sighed; he didn’t think he’d be able to snap with his right hand to save his life.

And, in a moment of perfect timing, Edward Elric slouched into his office. There was a dusting of snow on the shoulders of his jacket and melting in his hair, and his cheeks and nose were bright red from the cold. “It’s snowing,” he announced, with the gloomy matter-of-factness of a condemned prisoner.

Roy raised an eyebrow at him. “I suppose it is,” he said. The curtains to his office were open wide, but he’d not checked the weather since arriving that morning. “Will this be a problem, Fullmetal?”

“Is if the sidewalks are iced over,” he said, and dropped a water-spotted folder onto Roy’s desk. “Al can’t even leave the dorms, or else he’ll go sliding everywhere.”

Roy looked at the bits of mud and gravel flecked among the ice on Ed’s gloves, and wisely decided not to say anything. “With the weather as it is, I doubt it’ll be much of an issue,” he said at last. “Even State Alchemists can take Yule off, Fullmetal.”

Ed looked surprised at this, rubbing the back of his head. For a moment, he looked his age, all of thirteen (and a half) years old. “But –”

“I will, of course, expect you to report back in three weeks,” Roy said, taking the folder and opening it, to ostensibly flip through its contents. The Fairheights report, then, where a chimera and an angry mob had left the boy off his feet for two weeks already, recovering from a sprained ankle. “Even visionaries need to rest, once in a while.”

Ed’s mouth worked silently; Roy read the words he couldn’t quite voice — I’ve BEEN resting for weeks now, and I have to take more?! — but in the end, he sighed, nodded, and turned away.

At the door, though, he stopped and looked down. “You’ve got a Yule tree,” he said, sounding surprised.

Roy didn’t look up from the report. “It’s someone’s idea of a joke, I believe,” he said. “It’s barely more than a dying twig.”

Ed squatted down beside it, brushing at the dry branches with his hands. “Nah, it’s all right,” he said. “Just needs a little water, that’s all. Here, let’s see –” He got to his feet, cast around, and then came back and took the half-empty mug of cold coffee from Roy’s desk. “Lemme borrow this.”

Roy set his chin on one hand, watching. “Borrow, with the implication that I’ll get it back?” he asked. “Because really, Fullmetal, this –”

“Shut up,” Ed said absently, putting the cup down and clapping his hands together.

It was a tiny reaction, barely more than a few electric sparks running down the sides of the mug. Ed poured the water into the tree’s pot, then clapped his hands again. In spite of himself, Roy leaned forward a little more to watch — there’d already been a couple of older research alchemist’s who’d tried to dissect how Edward Elric could perform an alchemical reaction using just the circle of his arms, and none had come up with anything even remotely satisfactory.

Light engulfed the tree for a moment, and Roy watched as its outline seemed to shiver, then straighten, filling itself out. When Ed pulled his hands away and leaned back, the bits of paper and foil had been transmuted into makeshift (though surprisingly detailed) paper ornaments, and the tree itself no longer quite looked like it was about to keel over.

“Impressive,” Roy said at last. Ed glanced at him, then wrinkled his nose.

“Can’t have Yule without a proper tree,” he said. “Even if you’re stuck in the office all day.”

“Ah,” Roy said, and let himself give the boy a half-smile. It seemed to surprise Ed, who eyed him suspiciously “Thank you, Fullmetal.”

Ed rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. “It’s not much,” he said. “We used to set up really big ones at home, me’n Al’n Winry and –” He stopped abruptly, as though catching himself, and shrugged again. “It could be better.”

“It’s already better,” Roy said. Impulse led him to add, “Have a good day, Fullmetal,” before he nodded. The boy scowled at him again, but took the hint, leaving, though he forgot to close the door behind him. Roy could see about half the tree from where he sat at his desk.

With a sigh, he paged through Ed’s report for a few moments longer, then set it aside. In spite of Ed’s considerable intellect, the boy still had no idea how to properly write a military report; it read close to something like a letter to a new pen pal, full of cross-outs and a looping, childish scrawl.

Roy made a mental note to suggest to Hawkeye that someone discuss this with the boy soon, and went back to work. The rest of the day passed in another blur of papers and signatures and ink spots across his fingers. And at some point, someone must have come in to bring him more coffee, because he reached for the mug and found it full again, and the liquid lukewarm. When he looked up, he found his office door closed.

Idly, he wondered if the tree had been picked up yet.

At seven (because he always made it a point of working late nights, even with the holiday season settling white and cold over East City and most activity slowed to a standstill — all but the most vital political upheaval in Central usually avoided spreading outwards at least until the spring thaws), Roy stood and stretched, gathering up his coat and shrugging into it before he opened his office door. The tree was still there, and someone had hung an actual ornament on its branches — it stood out starkly amongst the paper decorations Ed had transmuted, and Roy stopped to consider it.

It was a small red glass ball, smaller than they were normally made, and placed near the top of the tree, as though in lieu of a star. As Roy studied it, Havoc wandered up again, worrying on the end of a half-smoked cigarette.

“Looks a lot better now, doesn’t it?” he asked cheerfully. “Ed came by earlier and fixed it up nice. Betcha don’t want the janitors to take it away now.”

Roy sighed, and refused to allow himself more than a tiny half-smile. “It’s much more presentable now,” he said, and refused to clarify, even when Havoc raised an eyebrow at him.

“Anyway, sir,” he said at last, when it was obvious Roy wasn’t going to say more. “Putting in a vacation notice — gonna be gone for the next two weeks.”

“We’re in the military, Lieutenant, not a regular office,” Roy said dryly. “In spite of all appearances, we are soldiers, we don’t –”

“We still got leave, don’t we?” Havoc contrived to look big-eyed and innocent. “Come on, it’s my sister’s first Yule with her new husband, and our parents, they’re insisting, they –”

“I’m not interested in your excuses, either,” Roy said, then looked at the tree again. “Have a good Yule, then, Lieutenant.”

Havoc blinked, then grinned, and the salute he executed was almost military-perfect. “Yessir.”

“Get out of here, then,” Roy said dryly. “The last train leaves at midnight, and I bet you haven’t packed.”

“You wound me, sir.” Havoc continued to grin. “And a merry Yule to you, too.”

Roy waited until he saw Havoc walk by again, bundled up against the cold, waited until he heard the door close and knew he was the last person left in the office. Then he knelt down beside the tree, touching the one red ornament with two fingers, lifting it carefully up off its branch.

After a bit of fumbling, he found a stub of chalk in his pocket — old habit, and one he’d never gotten rid of, and drew the array.

When he was done, he replaced the glass ball — now complete with a tiny, twisting salamander along its curved side — and stood, brushing off his hands before he left for the night.

The next morning, he came back and found Fury wrapping a short strand of lights around the tree. The younger man jumped, as though caught doing something Not Allowed, and only half-relaxed when Roy nodded at him without saying a word.

“I thought it’d be a good idea,” he said, though Roy hadn’t asked for an explanation. “Since Edward tidied it up and all, it seemed like a shame to not put lights up. Sir.”

“That’s fine, Sergeant,” Roy said. “Carry on, then.”

An hour before lunch break, he thought he’d be able to sneak away from the paperwork, and opened the door to find Breda standing on a chair before him, blocking his way. Roy paused, then put one hand on his hip, looking up at him. “Lieutenant,” he said, “I hope you’re not hanging what I think you’re hanging.”

Breda squawked and jerked back, then flailed like mad as his chair skittered and spun beneath him. He finally slammed forward, clinging to the doorframe for all he was worth as he stared down at Roy with huge eyes. “C– Colonel! Um! No, sir, it’s not, this isn’t –”

“And while it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Lieutenant Havoc put you up to this, I would like to remind you that the upcoming holiday is Yule, not Fool’s Day. So if you don’t mind –”

“Not my doing!” Breda yelped, though weakly. “Someone else, er, someone else put these up! I was just taking ’em down for you, since I knew Lieutenant Hawkeye was going to be –”

“Going to be what?” Hawkeye asked, and Breda winced again. Roy almost felt sorry for him — usually he pulled off his pranks with Havoc backing him up, which meant they normally could have the entire execution set up and ready long before it needed to be set into motion. “Lieutenant Breda?”

“Nothing — nothing!” Breda yelped, then tugged a little too hard at the tacked-on greenery above Roy’s door. He lost his balance for a moment, arms pinwheeling, and Hawkeye calmly stepped to the side as he managed to catch his balance again, one foot balanced precariously at the edge of the chair’s seat. “Just, uh, doing some cleaning! Haha! Cleaning, that’s right –”

He stepped down from the chair, and grabbed it under one arm, the offending green stuff tucked against his chest. “Sir, ma’am, I’ll just be on my way –”

“But you’ve got mistletoe on your head,” Hawkeye deadpanned. Roy, suspicious, began to back up into his office again. “And the Colonel was the first person here, so –”

“And I still have work to do,” Roy said, “so I’m afraid I’ll have to delegate this to you, Lieutenant.” He closed the door as Breda’s color went from red to pale, gaping at Hawkeye like he expected her to put a bullet through someone’s forehead just for suggesting it.

Roy waited by his closed door for a moment, and when he heard nothing, sighed and returned to his desk. The sheer amount of paperwork there was depressing.

And as he sat down, the phone rang. Roy eyed it with wary distaste, then steeled himself to pick up the receiver.

“Colonel Mustang,” the pleasant-voiced woman said, “there’s a call for you from Major Hughes. Shall I patch him through?”

He considered saying no — though perhaps a bit more forcibly, since “no” to Hughes meant yes please, another three hours of baby pictures and I’ll be done. Then he sighed, leaning his elbow on the table. “Go ahead.”

There was a pause, some clicking, a burst of static, and then Hughes’ voice, loud and cheerful. “Yahh, Roy! When are you coming back to Central, you stingy bastard? Alicia’s already picked up a good twenty words or so — she knows ‘dada’ and ‘mama’ and ‘book’ –”

“Hughes,” Roy said, and pinched the bridge of his nose, “I’m working.”

“Work happens on other days of the year! Not this week!” Hughes sounded horrified by the fact. “I’ve been taking the whole month off!”

“So why are you calling me using a military line?” Roy cracked one eye open and glared at the closest paper document, as though he could will the arrays on his glove to life just by staring. “I’m very busy, and — ”

“Hey, too busy to talk to an old friend?” There was a bit of a puppy dog whine in Hughes’ voice. “Come on, where’s your spirit? I should send you pictures of Alicia — Gracia made her a Yule dress, and it’s the most perfect little thing! My wife’s so talented, and it looks perfectly lovely –”

“Hughes,” he began again, warning, but Hughes ignored him, plowing on.

“And we’ve even got ourselves a nice big tree set up — though I note there are no presents from Uncle Roy to Alicia, and you know how disappointed she’ll be –”

“Hughes, she’s barely a year old,” Roy said dryly. “She’s seen me all of twice in her life. I doubt she’ll be scarred if I don’t send her a present.”

“Is that any way to talk about your old friend’s daughter?” Hughes sounded indignant. “Come on, it’s her first Yule, and she deserves what she can get — Ed and Al sent a present, even –”

Roy paused. “Did they.”

“They did! I think it’s some sort of stuffed thing — not the best wrapping job, but it’s the thought that counts, right? Right! So yes, presents from everyone except Uncle Roy –”

“– Who’s very busy with work, apparently unlike Alicia’s father.”

Hughes mimed a sound of pain. “That’s cold, Mister Flame Alchemist,” he said, not quite whining. “And here I was just trying to cheer you up a bit –”

“Hughes …”

“Hey, seriously, now.” Hughes’ voice dropped a little. Roy sat up, leaning a bit forward at his desk. “You’re only twenty-seven, you know. You’re one of the youngest colonels in military history, and your reputation’s enough that even the superiors back here remember you. It’s the holidays. There’s no need to work yourself to death.”

Roy resisted the urge to sigh, pulling down the top document from the stack of papers and skimming the printed lines. “I am not working myself to death,” he said quietly. “I’m just working.”

“Don’t, then,” Hughes said promptly. “Take today off. Take the rest of the week off. Come up and stay with us; Alicia’s gonna forget what you look like, if you never take a vacation.”

He gritted his teeth for a moment, then sighed. “Hughes –”

“At the very least, there’s an apple pie with your name on it, coming through the mail,” Hughes went on, in the same bright tone as before. “Gracia worked hard on that too, so you’d better eat it and be grateful.”

Exasperated, Roy sighed, then smiled in spite of himself. “I’ll do that, at least,” he agreed. “Good-bye, Hughes.”

“Eh? Wait a moment! Did I tell you how Alicia wanted to help her mommy with the cooking, so we got her a little apron and –”

Roy hung up.

And then he stood up and walked to his window, folding his arms behind his back and staring out across the city. It was snowing again, so that all of the city was dusted in a thickening layer of white. Far below, on the streets, he could see people walking quickly past, bundled to their ears in sweaters and coats, no one person looking another in the eye. Some of the shops had Yuletide decorations up, adding smaller brighter spots of color here and there — but East City took to winter badly, huddling against the unaccustomed cold.

Behind him, the office door opened. “Colonel,” Hawkeye said.

“Lieutenant,” he agreed, not turning. “Come here for a moment.”

She hesitated, and then he heard the soft pad of her footsteps across the carpet, watching as she appeared beside him, standing out the window. “Sir?”

“Look out there,” he said, nodding towards the city. “How many people would even remember this is Yule, if not for the decorations? Not a single one of them out there seems to realize anything significant about the season at all, except that for some reason, it decided to snow this year.”

Hawkeye watched the people going by for a moment, then turned to Roy. “Central would suit you much better, sir,” she said at last.

Roy glanced at her sharply. She looked back without flinching, but he thought he saw the faintest of smiles lift the corners of her mouth. Wryly, he nodded back. “I think it would,” he agreed. “Though it means I’d have no excuse to escape Hughes’ Yule dinner.”

“That might do you good, sir,” she said, back to deadpan. “It’d be good to get you out of the office once in a while.”

Surprised, he raised an eyebrow at her. “If I’m not in the office, Lieutenant, I’m not working,” he pointed out.

“You don’t always work when you’re in the office, sir,” she answered promptly. “It’s the Yule season, however, so I suppose it can be forgiven.”

“Ah,” he said at last, and finally smiled himself, seeing her echo it more strongly. “And a merry Yule to you too, Lieutenant.”

Hawkeye nodded at him with a small smile. There were several thick folders in her arms, Roy realized, but she made no effort to hand them to him. Elizabeth Hawkeye knew when not to ruin the moment, and for that, he was glad. “Merry Yule, sir.”

Together, comfortably silent, they watched the snow fall.

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

And Home Once More

Three months, and finally something had paid off.

Ed rocked back on his heels and stretched, hissing through his teeth as his spine popped and cracked.  It hurt to turn his neck, but it felt good to move, after hours of being perched on the edge of stone, intent on his work.  The rest of the dig party were gone, he noticed with some surprise — but then, they had farther back to go than he did.  He glanced up at the sky and winced, feeling the movement jab at the base of his skull.

Rubbing the back of his neck, he hopped down from the stone pedestal he’d staked out and started gathering up his books.  Twilight shaded the Xerxes ruins in different shades of red and violet, cutting deeper shadows in the weathered old stones.  Pretty, without a doubt, but light was fading fast, and he needed better than firelight to complete his sketching.  Art would never be something he was good at, but he often found it easier to refer back to diagrams and illustrations than relying on ordinary written notes alone.

Stuffing his notebooks into a makeshift satchel, he slung it over his shoulder and started the long trek back.  The rundown apartment he was renting out stood technically on Amestris soil, a good thirty-minute walk from the beginnings of the ruins, but closer than the place that the head of the dig — a stuffy professor from one of Central’s larger universities, whose name Ed always forgot (and thus, in his mind, simply referred to as Bald With Whiskers) — had authorized the dig, and promptly skipped out, leaving his students and Ed to take over.  As he walked, he began to compose a supply list in his head — if he wanted to go any deeper, with or without the others, he’d need to camp, which would involve haggling with the sour-faced landlord for food and possibly bedding, as well as more paper.

At the very least, he consoled himself, he wouldn’t need matches.  Fire wasn’t one of his strengths, but at least he understood the basics well enough to tender it — and creating sparks, that was the easiest part.

True night had fallen by the time Ed arrived back at the apartment, guided by the single flickering light over its front porch.  Squinting in the dimness, he groped for his key and stumbled inside, doing his best to move quietly.  Upstairs, in his own room, he tossed the bag aside and sat down hard on the bed, picking up the phone.

Technology, he thought wryly, as he began to dial.  I have to make my own writing supplies, but even out here, they’re connected.

“Hello, Rockbell Automail and Mechanic –”

“Winry?  It’s me.  Hey, is –”

“ED!”  Winry’s voice rose towards something suspiciously close to a squeal.  Ed winced and held the phone away from his ear.  “Ed, where have you been?!  We’ve been trying to call you for days!  They’re looking for you and you need to come home as soon as you can — no, no, I mean go to Central, but that’s practically your home now anyway.  Honestly, Edward Elric, haven’t you ever heard of regular phone calls?!”

He risked putting the phone back to his ear. “Miss Winry,” he said, voice weak, “what the hell –”

“I mean, you said you’d call once a week, right?  What happened to that?  Ms. Riza even called and –”

“Winry,” he heard his brother say in the background, gently.  “Winry, give me the phone.”

“But, Al –”

“C’mon, trust me.”  Ed waited out the shuffle, hearing a few more low-voiced arguments.  He felt nearly winded, as though he’d run some kind of triathlon.  Winry’s energy seemed to sap at his own, and he had to turn his head away to yawn into his fist, jerking when he heard Al’s hello on the other side of the line.

“Hi,” he said.  “What happened?”

“Are you sitting down, Brother?”

Ed shifted his weight from one foot to the other, then shrugged, though Al couldn’t see it.  “Look, whatever it is, just spit it out.”

“Seriously, Brother, you may want to be sitting for this.”

Ed made a face into the dimness of his room.  “I am sitting,” he said, with exaggerated patience.  “Now tell me.”

Al sighed, sounding more amused than exasperated.  “Roy Mustang has become Fuhrer.”

He studied a spot on the wall, one that looked somewhat spider-shaped.  “I’m sorry.  What?”

“It was about a week ago,” Al said.  “They were in debate for nearly five months, from the sound of it.”

“That long?”  Ed cast back in his mind, then frowned.  “That can’t be right; he never said anything –”

“Even if he didn’t, it happened, Brother,” Al said.  “You, uh, might want to head home soon; people have been looking all over for you.”

Ed scowled.  “Why?  I’m just a civilian alchemist with state authority, and the General –”

“The Fuhrer, Brother.”

“– the Fuhrer knows where I am.  He gave me the grant money to get here.”  He scrubbed the back of his head.  “What the hell?”

“I don’t know, Brother,” Al admitted.  “But he called the other night, looking for you, so I thought –”

“Screw that,” Ed said.  “They found another statue today, and it looks like it might’ve been a representation of the city alchemists; I’m not leaving till I’ve had a chance to look that over.”  He sank down onto the bed and scowled down at his feet.  It sounded like an excuse, when he replayed it in his head.  “Besides, the excavation’s going a lot faster with my help.”

“I know, Brother, I know,” Al said, his voice soothing.  “I just thought I’d tell you.”

“Yeah, okay,” Ed replied, and rubbed the back of his neck.  He felt suddenly tired, as though the weeks of little sleep were crashing down all at once, now.  The statue now seemed like a dull and distant thing, petty clay that would yield no secrets, in the end.  “Thanks, Al.  Don’t let that shithead bother you too much.”

Al laughed.  “Don’t call the leader of our country a shithead, Brother,” he said, though without heat.  “And we’re not the ones who’ll have to worry about harassment.”  A note of sympathy edged into his voice.  “Let me know if you need me.”

Ed scrubbed at his hair again, and managed to pull a good deal of it from his braid in the process.  Now that he was no longer moving, he could feel the weight of exhaustion bearing down on him, and rolled his neck until it cracked.  “Will,” he promised, then held the phone away a third so he could try and cover another yawn.

When he put it back to his ear, ready to end the call, Al laughed at him.  “Get some sleep, Brother,” he said.  “Come home soon.”

They never said good-bye when they stopped talking; it was something Winry started and Al picked up.  Ed grinned, though no one could see it.  “I will.”

When he hung up, he threw himself onto the bed and stared blankly up at the ceiling.

So, Mustang had become Fuhrer, as Ed had half-suspected the bastard of wanting all along.  The thought was vaguely disconcerting.  He’d known and worked under Roy Mustang for nearly half his life, and he would still be working for the man, but things were different now.  It was like stepping outside with his brother, down to the market, and coming back to find his mother collapsed on the floor — one person, changed, which set the rest of the world off-kilter with the force of that change.

He couldn’t be certain, but he was fairly sure he didn’t like it.  What started with just one man could ripple outwards, until the entire world felt the aftereffects.  If he closed his eyes and concentrated, he thought he could hear the slow groaning shift of the process as everything reconfigured itself.

When the knocking came, he dropped an arm over his eyes and considered not answering.

In the hallway, someone called him by his title, loud and insistent.  With a muted groan, Ed swung his legs over the edge of the bed and shuffled to the door, cracking it open.  He was not surprised to see three straight-backed men, dressed in familiar blue uniforms, looking back at him.

“Edward Elric, sir.”  One of them, with decorations that declared him a first lieutenant, saluted.  “The Fuhrer has requested your presence in Central.”

Ed looked the man up and down.  He was probably a few years older than Ed himself, but despite this and his rankings, he seemed terribly young, fresh-faced and seething with enthusiasm.  He was too young, however, to have been out of boot camp when Liore’s civil wars came to a head, and he looked like someone who’d probably joined the army riding on his parents’ money, and it made Ed that much more tired just looking at him.

He glanced back, and saw the lieutenant’s two companions copying his salute, though with less absolute decorum.  One of them even met Ed’s gaze for a moment, with a look that was oddly akin to sympathy.  All of them were at least a head taller than Ed himself.  This irritated him.  “Yeah?  What’s so damn important he couldn’t have called?  I don’t need babysitters.”

“Sir.”  The first lieutenant continued to stare above Ed’s head.  “With all due respect, the country is still in political turmoil.  Fuhrer Mustang thought it would be safer if you had a military escort back home.”

“So?” he asked, and had the mean pleasure of watching the man falter, confusion knitting his brows together.  Ed tightened his grip on the door, ready to slam it shut if necessary.  “I’m busy here.  If the Gen — er, Fuhrer — wants me, he can come fetch me himself.”

It was probably too close to outright disrespect, but he felt pretty sure Mustang would understand.  And it was worth it, to see the consternation that broke over the other man’s face.  “Sir, our orders are –”

“Tell him it’s my fault,” Ed said, and waved dismissively.  “I outrank you technically, don’t I?  Go away.”

“With all due respect, sir, our orders come directly from the Fuhrer himself, and we can’t just –”

He was tempted to keep arguing, but there was movement downstairs: the landlord who’d been unhappy about hosting him from the beginning was clomping around his rooms; sooner or later, he’d make his way upstairs to complain about the noise.

Besides, he’d promised Al he’d be good.  Not in so many words, no, but he hadn’t protested Al scolding him (though a shithead by any other name was still, in fact, a shithead), which meant he had to mind his manners for at least the next two weeks.  Ed sighed and tucked his free hand into his pocket, eyeing the three soldiers.  “All right, fine.  Give me a moment to pack.”

Ed did not close the door behind him, letting them watch as he puttered around the tiny room, gathering up his notes and stuffing them into the old battered suitcase he’d been carrying for nearly five years running, now.  There were more than he’d originally brought with him, and it took a bit of rearranging and muttering before he could get the suitcase properly closed.  He felt a brief pang as the locks clicked shut; he’d spent nearly two months out here, in the ruins, and Xerxes, with its strange ruins and peculiar carvings on alchemy, still remained a giant puzzle to him — one he would have to put on hold until possibly much later.

The lieutenant, to his credit, was still standing in salute when Ed wandered back out, pack slung over his shoulder.  Ed raised an eyebrow at him, then shrugged and gestured outwards with one gloved hand.  “After you,” he said.

***

He slept most of the way back to Central.  When the lieutenant touched his shoulder and said they’d arrived, Ed spent nearly a full five minutes trying to rub grit from his eyes.

In the end, he still felt like his head was stuffed with cotton, but at least the world didn’t blur at the edges whenever he blinked.  Ed walked slowly to the car, and didn’t question that one was there waiting, with the driver also standing at attention when he arrived.  He climbed in without saying anything and let his head rest against the window, staring at Central City as it moved slowly past.

It all looked the same to him, tall square stone buildings of differing heights, paved cobblestone streets, and a constantly-moving crowd of people.  If anything, there seemed to be more people than when he’d left, as many in uniform as out.  Ed almost dozed off again, snapping his head up when the car came to a sputtering stop.

“We’re here,” the lieutenant said, turning around.  “Mister Elric, if you wouldn’t mind, I –”

Ed opened his own door and slid out.  “Don’t bother,” he said.  “I know the way.”

“Mister Elric — !”

Swinging his battered suitcase over one shoulder, Ed took off, ignoring the lieutenant’s call.  Inside, he hesitated a moment, then made himself continue straight, rather than swinging a right, to where Mustang’s old office used to be.  It felt strange, and he shook off his unease as fiercely as he could, then continued down the long hallway, pausing only when he caught sight of a familiar profile.  For a moment, he considered it, then stopped, poking his head in.

If he blinked, nothing seemed changed, other than the background — the walls here were painted faint sea green, as opposed to beige, and the desks were set up in a different arrangement.  Hawkeye and Fury were still working diligently; Farman and Breda were playing chess; and Havoc was smoking by the window.  A crude little desk fan was set up next to him, so that the cigarette smoke blew outwards, to the city.  Ed stood in the doorway and blinked at them for long seconds until Havoc glanced over and nodded.

“You’re back early, Boss,” he said, with perfect blandness.  “Thought you said you’d be gone for maybe a year.”

Ed scowled.  “That’s what I thought,” he said, and let his suitcase drop to the ground.  It bounced once, then flopped over.  “But apparently the Gen — the Fuhrer — changed his mind.”  Havoc gave him a sympathetic look, and Ed’s frown deepened.  “Where the hell he gets off in treating me like some goddamned human yoyo, I don’t –”

“He’s expecting you, Edward,” Hawkeye said, without looking up.  “Go on.”

For a moment, he thought about complaining.  Then he sighed, picked up his suitcase, and continued down the hallway, to the Fuhrer’s office.  He didn’t bother to knock, and paused to note the secretary’s desk was empty before he crossed the wide room, over to the huge desk.  Mustang stood on the other side, with his arms folded behind his back, looking out across the city.

“Fullmetal,” he said, without turning.  Even after three years, and Ed’s official retirement, the man still couldn’t call Ed by name, which Ed thought he preferred; the idea of hearing Mustang use his name was stranger than he cared to contemplate.  “How was the train?”

He sounded as though nothing was different, like Ed had simply returned on his own.  Suspicious, Ed kicked the door shut and leaned back against it, frowning.  Something in the slant and hold of Mustang’s shoulders was off, stiffer than before, and Ed thought, It’s starting. He’d need to learn the man’s body language all over again, it seemed.

With a cough, he cleared his throat.  “Not bad,” he said at last.  “I dunno, I was asleep.”

“Ah.”  Mustang didn’t even pretend to sound surprised.  “You should try not to pull so many all-nighters, Fullmetal.  It’s not good for your health in the end.”

Ed blew out a sigh between clenched teeth.  “Then?” he asked.  “You dragged me all the way back here from Xerxes, damnit, so what do you want?”  He put the suitcase back down and crossed his arms over his chest, like some strange defense, which was stupid, because Mustang was all the way on the other side of the room, but … “If you just wanted to hear me congratulate in person, you could’ve waited till I got back.”

Mustang shrugged, still not turning.  “Fullmetal.  Come over here.”

He remained in place.  “I don’t have anything to report.  You pulled me back before I could find anything really useful –”

“Fullmetal, please.”  And there Mustang’s voice almost sounded like it usually did, wry smug amusement under a professional edge.  “Humor me.”  He untucked one arm and made a vague half-gesture, to the empty place to his right.  Still suspicious, Ed approached, shoulders hunched and hands tucked into his pockets.

The view from the Fuhrer’s office window was impressive enough, affording a clear view of half the city, right to where the high-rising buildings gave abruptly away to flat farmlands.  Ed stopped about an arm’s length away, and looked at Mustang instead.  Closer, the older man looked tired and drawn, lines gathered at the corners of eyes and mouth.  After a moment, his gaze slid sideways, and he nodded out towards the city.  “A test: what do you see?”

Surprised, Ed looked.  Central looked unchanged from the last time he’d been in town, though the view from Mustang’s old office had been less impressive.  For all the lieutenant’s spouting of “political turmoil,” none of it was visible from the top.  He said as much, and watched as the other man’s lips turned up in a familiar smile.

“Exactly,” he said, looking out over the city.  “The higher up you are, the harder it is to see dirt creeping up on you.”  The twist of his lips turned wry, and he looked at Ed again, with the assessing eyes of a stranger.  “Bradley saw it, and did nothing.  His successor did the same.”  Sunlight moved across his face in wide bands when he looked back to the city.  “I won’t.”

Ed crossed his arms over his chest.  “I’d say you’re a delusional freak.  Then again, I know better.”  He raised an eyebrow.  “What does this have to do with me?”

Mustang made a sound that was almost a laugh.  “Did you find anything useful in Xerxes?”

“Some,” Ed replied.  “Nothing that would interest the military, but as an alchemist –”

“Worth going back to?”  Now the older man sounded wistful, and that was something so unexpected that Ed stopped again, pursing his lips.

“Sure,” he said, watching the minute shifts in Mustang’s posture.  “Someday, when it’s not so much in the middle of bugfuck nowhere.  Do you know how hard it is to find ink out in the wilderness?  Half the people I met didn’t even know how to read.”

“Ah.”  Mustang smiled again.  “Then, perhaps, the better question is whether or not you mind putting off your ‘someday’ for a while.”

“That depends on how long a ‘while’ is.”  Ed resisted the urge to fidget; the atmosphere of the Fuhrer’s office, much larger than a Colonel’s, or even a General’s, was oddly stifling.  He was suddenly, uncomfortably aware of the weight of the watch tucked into his pocket, like metal could be transmuted to tinder and burn away with a single word.  “How long are you thinking, sir?”

He couldn’t make himself use the title just yet.  It felt too large and strange in his mouth.  And as though he understood, Mustang turned to him and smiled again, warmer than before, but with unexpected apology already in his eyes. “A long time.  Years, possibly.  I’m not sure I could give you an accurate estimate at the moment.”

“Years?”  Ed tucked his hands into his pockets, then twisted them.  “You always plan for the long-term, don’t you?”

“I’m old enough that surprises are bad for my heart.”  Mustang looked to the window again, tracking distant cloud patterns with his eyes.  Ed remained tense, rocking a bit on his heels.  After a long moment, Mustang sighed, slow and deep, his shoulders lifting, then falling again.  “… Will you stay?”
The answer was surprisingly easy; Ed didn’t even pause to think.  “Yes.”

***

“It’s strange,” he told his brother later that night.  “He didn’t piss me off once.”

Al laughed.  “Maybe it’s because you’re finally growing up.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, huh?  Have some respect for your older brother.”  Ed scowled at the wall, where the paint was beginning to peel away in strips and flakes.  He reached out and gouged it a little with the tip of his right index finger, then rubbed it together with his thumb, powdering the paint until it was no longer visible against the fabric of his glove.  “You know him, Al.  He does it on purpose more often than not.”

“I don’t know him even half as well as you do, Brother,” Al said.  “We never talked much.”

“That’s not true,” Ed began, then paused, frowning.  “Or maybe it is.  Still.  You know him.”

“I know him,” Al agreed, though he still sounded more amused than anything.  “But not as much as you do.  I know what you’ve told me, and that –”

“That’s the absolute truth, every word,” Ed said firmly, cutting him off.  “You should put more faith in what your older brother says, Al.”  He sighed.  “Anyway, I’m going into the office tomorrow.  I don’t even know what exactly Mustang wants me to do, but I don’t think I’ll be home anytime soon.”  He pressed his thumb against the dent in the wall again, drawing a line down.

“We’ll see,” Al said.  He sounded wistful.  “Brother, you will take care of yourself, right?  I know sometimes you’ll forget to eat, or to sleep –”

“I’ll be fine,” Ed said, decisive.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about, by the way.  I’ve always taken care of us both, haven’t I?”

Al muttered something he didn’t quite catch, then added, louder, “At least try not to fight all the time with the Fuhrer, Brother.  I know you two haven’t always gotten along, but at least for the sake of current events –”

“Long as he doesn’t try to provoke me, I won’t try to kill him,” Ed said, and twisted his thumb against the wall.  It left a small, gray mark against the flaking white plaster.  “That’s fair, isn’t it?”

“You’ve got a very subjective idea of ‘provoke,’ Brother,” Al said.  “Be good.”

It was the same thing their mother would sometimes say, with that exact tone of voice, hovering somewhere between stern and relenting.  When he closed his eyes, he could remember the look she had to go with those words, her brows drawn together and the beginnings of a smile quirked at the corners of her mouth.  Al was good at copying that gesture, especially when exasperated.  Ed sighed, and dug his thumb in harder.  “Yeah,” he said, quietly.  “Besides, there are worse men than Mustang who could be in charge of the country.”

“Very good,” Al said, and Ed could hear the smile in his voice.  “Be careful, Brother.”

“I’m always careful,” Ed snorted.  “Good night, Al.”

When he hung up the phone and looked at the wall, he found that he’d left a deep little hole, and pulled his thumb out.  It surprised him, in a way, how large the room seemed, without Al on the other bed.  The two of them together, even if they didn’t speak for hours on end, helped fill up the empty spaces.  Al would scold to see this, he thought, brushing his fingers along the gouge, and sighed.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” he said aloud, and clapped his hands together.  The reaction crackled sharply, blue-white and electric, and he watched as dust gather in the hole, filling the puncture up until the only sign of its existence was a slightly smoother patch of wall.  Ed set his elbows to his knees and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.  He thought about twilight in the Xerxes ruins, and the overwhelming, encompassing stillness of that place, a world apart from the noise and confusion of Central.

His notes held surprisingly little appeal, and Ed toed off his boots, swinging his legs up onto the bed and leaning back, folding his arms into a makeshift pillow.  Even with the windows closed, he could hear cars outside his window, and had even Central been this busy, before he’d left?  He found he couldn’t clearly remember.

Judging from the violet light slanting in through his curtains, it was already too dark to read by natural light.  Ed closed his eyes and tried to settle on a bed that was almost too soft, too comfortable, after months of bunking it out on a mattress with broken springs.

And though he didn’t intend to sleep, as he drifted off, he almost convinced himself that the cars sounded like the wind over stone.

***

The next day, he walked into the office and found himself hesitating again, before he chose the correct hallway and walked to the Fuhrer’s office.  This time, the secretary was in — a mousy plain woman with dark hair and thick glasses; not anything like the usual woman Mustang reputedly liked to surround himself with.  She smiled nervously at Ed as he entered without knocking, but didn’t protest as he crossed over to the Fuhrer’s private audience room and knocked.

“Come in,” he heard Mustang say, sounding distracted.  When Ed opened the door, he found the man seated at a desk that looked like a transplant from his old office — all the way from when he’d still been a Colonel, Ed thought.  He was wearing a pair of wire-rimmed glasses low on his nose, one pencil tucked behind an ear and another tapping between his fingers.  A ceramic mug stood by his elbow, and from the look of steam gently rising from it, it was recently refreshed.  He didn’t look up, but he did wave to the small, plush chair across from the desk.  “Fullmetal.  Go ahead and have a seat.”

Ed crossed over and tried not to feel nervous as he plunked himself down.  There were levels of informality he’d gotten away with in the past — with each new promotion, it was simply a matter of figuring out where the boundaries had been set, this time — but now, he felt out of place, like his country roots had never been quite so obvious.  Thankfully, if Mustang noticed the dusty, threadbare condition of Ed’s clothing, he said nothing when he looked up.

“I apologize for asking you here so early, Fullmetal,” he said, then slid over a thin manila folder.  “I’m afraid what I need from you is nothing as glorious or exciting as you’ve been accustomed to.”

Ed shrugged, and picked the folder up.  “I’ve gotten used to the quiet,” he said.  “It’s stupid, just talking to yourself out in the middle of nowhere.”

Mustang smiled faintly, the expression drawn, almost old.  “Indeed,” he said, and leaned back a little in his chair, pushing up his slipping glasses.  Ed studied him for a moment, refusing to raise his eyebrows at the brief glimmer of silver in Mustang’s hair — the man wasn’t even out of his thirties yet; the idea of him going gray already seemed almost as peculiar as the idea of him as Fuhrer.  He continued to study those telltale marks from the corner of one eye as he opened the folder and looked down.

“These are assessments,” he said blankly.  He recognized most of the faces — other State Alchemists, a few of which he had on-again, off-again polite correspondences with, and one or two others whom he thought he’d cheerfully gut with his automail hand, given half a chance.  Most of them were several years old, still bearing the seal and mark of Fuhrer King Bradley and his short-reigned successor.  “Why do I need to look through a bunch of old files?  I didn’t come back to play secretary to you, sir.”

“I’m not asking you to,” Mustang said.  “And to be more accurate, these are notes; I’ve been keeping these for quite some time now.  Hughes’ replacement isn’t half as good as he was, however …”  His lips quirked into a faint, sardonic knot.  “He’ll have to do.  I need to know who’s loyal to me, Fullmetal — the borders of our country have been steadily weakening, these past few months, and I need to know whom I can trust to send out to the front lines, and who to keep at home.”

“More conflict?”  Ed raised an eyebrow.  “Not the most auspicious way to start your reign here, sir.”  It still felt strange to call him that, but “Your Excellency” still felt too bulky in his mouth, and “Fuhrer” was a word Ed didn’t think he was ready to apply to this man.

“Hopefully, it won’t come to that.”  Mustang sighed, and for a moment, looked strained and tired.  “But borders are always a volatile place, Fullmetal, especially for a country with a history like ours.  I need you to investigate these people — these are only a handful, here, the ones I’m most concerned over.  If they try to incite riots along the borders …”

“That won’t work,” Ed protested.  “You and me — they know I’m directly connected you; they’re just gonna say what they think I want to hear –”

“Ah,” said Mustang, “but you’re also good at telling falsehoods from truths.”  He leaned forward, elbows on the table, lacing his fingers together.  “And the man who falsely pretends to like me and poisons his knife behind his back is more dangerous than the man who is aggressive towards me, and doesn’t try to hide it.”

“You’re asking for a lot, sir.”

“I’m asking for nothing less than you’re capable of,” Mustang replied.  At Ed’s surprised look, he smiled, an odd wry little twist to his mouth.  “Despite your, ah, preoccupation during early years, you have always consistently been one of my most effective field agents.”

Ed closed the folder, and tried to hide his pleasure at the admission.  “Technically, I wasn’t ‘yours’ till now,” he said.  “You got all of my assignments from the old Fuhrer.”

Mustang just smiled.  “Well,” he said, “all I’ve done now is eliminate the middleman.  I’d like your report by the end of the week, Fullmetal.”

The words didn’t quite sound like a dismissal, and Ed hesitated, trying to figure out what to say.  This was the Fuhrer, and this was Roy Mustang, and he knew how to deal with the two separately, though together, they were an entirely different and peculiar beast.  “Four days,” he said, like it was a challenge, and Mustang’s smile widened.

“Four days, then,” he agreed.  “You should come by for tea, as well.  I have some Xing green still leftover from Hawkeye’s congratulatory gift.”

Ed grinned, his hand on the door, and just shook his head.  This, at least, was still familiar.  “Who’d want to have tea with a guy?” he asked, and left before Mustang could answer.  The secretary watched him with wide eyes as he left, twirling her pen through her fingers, and Ed nodded at her as he passed.  She seemed embarrassed to be caught watching and ducked her head, scribbling furiously.

Outside, he paused, setting his free hand on his hip, and stared out towards the city.  It still felt peculiar, to open a door and be confronted buildings stretching out as far as the eye could see, adrift in a world full of sounds and movement.  Ed sighed, scrubbing the back of his head ruefully, and set off.

***

Blake Astor, the Silver Alchemist, was not quite a bust.  Ed found the man on his lunch break, outside in the cooling fall air.  He was a pinch-faced, elderly man, with a fringe of feathery white hair around a high, shiny-bald head.  He unfolded himself up from his seat as Ed approached, a skinny stick of a man and taller than even Colonel Armstrong.

He’d been one of Grahn’s men in his time, the assessment said, though he now worked under the jurisdiction of the First Laboratory, ostensibly for the development of vaccines and other medicines.  Ed paused, then held out his right hand.  “Hello,” he said, “I’m –”

“The Fullmetal Alchemist, yes.”  Astor’s voice matched his face, stiff and sour, as though the years had robbed him of the ability to show any emotion other than vague disapproval.  “It’s about time you returned to Central.”

Taken aback, Ed blinked.  “Eh?”

“In the event that Mustang is toppled from power,” Astor said, though he took Ed’s hand and shook it, perfunctory, before dropping his hand, “the new Fuhrer is likely to not be so forgiving of your absence when he is sworn into office.”  Something in his face twitched, as though he were trying to change his expression.  “So?  I doubt this is just a friendly meeting.”

“I, ah.”  Ed cast around, then said, a little too fast, “I’ve heard your group is working on a new set of painkillers, and I was wondering –”

Astor’s lips thinned further, though his expression didn’t change, eyes glittering.  “You’re young for this degree of medication,” he said, and Ed held still as Astor’s narrow gaze swept across him.  “However, I suppose –”

Ed shifted his weight a little, feeling the shift of pressure against the port of his left leg.  “It’s not business,” he half-lied.  “I spoke with my mechanic the other night –”

“Aha,” said Astor.  If anything, he looked more disapproving at that, his mouth reduced to a single thin black line in his craggy face.  “I suppose, with the unique nature of automail connections, it would be difficult for even children to deal with pain.”

Ed bit his tongue on the urge to growl.  Though the older man was dressed warmly against the fall air, it seemed obvious that his body was whole — there was no lean or shift to his weight to indicate the presence of any automail or prosthetic.  “We were talking about having something for patients after the operation,” he said, not quite through gritted teeth.  “Since the nerves are being connected, you need to be conscious throughout, but –”

Astor held up one hand.  “Please,” he said.  “I am a chemist, not a mechanic.  What you plan on doing with my experiments is your own prerogative, Fullmetal Alchemist.”

“But –”

“Mustang has always been far too lenient on you.”  Something like pity moved through Astor’s eyes, but they were too small and narrow to read properly.  “He’s always let you run far too freely, though perhaps he’s matured in age.”  His gaze swept over Ed again, and his scrutiny was somehow worse than going to the doctor for his yearly physical, even fully dressed and out in public.  “Now that he’s called you home again, you can return to research.”

“I’m always researching,” Ed protested with a frown.  “It’s what I do.  I go out into the field –”

“Field agents are always military,” Astor said, in a tone that booked no argument.  “And rather than hold title-equivalent of Major, they are actual ranked officers, and thus they provide more security and a stronger sense of authority to the people.”  That emotion of not-quite-pity moved through his eyes again.  “Wars and battlefronts are no places to send a civilian, let alone a child.”

Ed gritted his teeth.  “I’m not –”

“You’re very young, Fullmetal Alchemist.”  Astor turned and slowly sat down again, folding up his long body in degrees.  “And Mustang — ah, excuse me, the Fuhrer — has always been generous with you.”  His mouth twitched, but even though it turned up at the corners, Ed didn’t really think it qualified as a smile.  “It would do him well to follow King Bradley’s example, rather than his immediate predecessor, and keep a tight-fisted reign on his country.”

Despite his best intentions, Ed found himself bristling.  “What are you trying to say?”

“I am old, Fullmetal.”  Astor picked up the remains of his lunch, spreading a fresh napkin in his lap.  “I have seen four Fuhrers come to power.  I’ve seen the places where one failed, only to have his successor repeat his mistakes with variations.”  His mouth quirked in that humorless smile again.  “Tell Mustang that, if it makes you feel better.  There is nothing he can do to touch me.”

Ed shifted his weight, feeling oddly sullen as he watched Astor start to eat again.  Like all of his other movements, Astor moved with careful deliberation, as though moving too fast would knock him over.  When he didn’t look up for several long minutes, Ed bit back a sigh and turned, walking off.

Not entirely a failure, he told himself, halfway for consolation.  He’s maybe Auntie’s age, or a little older; he’s told me enough. He resisted the urge to reach into his pocket and trace the edge of the lion embossed on his watch, symbol of the country and its leader both.  He’s seen a lot.  He’s not for Mustang or against him, but he probably wouldn’t do anything if he was sent.

He passed a payphone, hesitated, then decided against it.  The Rockbells liked to put their guests to work — even semi-permanent houseguests — and Al would likely be busy.  Without the excuse of an emergency, whoever answered the phone would only tell him to call back later.

And besides, Al would likely remind him he had little respect for his elders, not quite scolding, not quite amused — If he was really that old, Brother, then at the very least he has more experience than you, and he wasn’t outright rude.

Wry, he turned away and continued on.

***

On the second day, he walked away from a discussion with Marianne Lewis, the White-Handed Alchemist, with the decision that Mustang’s reputation with women, while probably well-deserved in some aspects, was also grossly exaggerated.  Marianne had spent the entire time alternating between veiled innuendo about the Fuhrer while suggesting Ed’s education could also use some expansion, and complaining about the lack of respect she received, as one of many exes.  Strange, but mostly harmless, Ed wrote in his notes (“the baby in the next seat over was loud, but fell asleep before long”), and continued on.

The third day, he met with Richard and Andrew Heinz, the Twin Alchemists, two small slender men that reminded Ed of a bizarre combination between his brother and Shou Tucker.  Neither of them really met Ed’s eyes during the entire conversation, ostensibly pouring over their notes, working on the development of some new fertilizer for the farmlands that lay just outside Central.  Later, he noted that the two bore some watching (“was warned by ticket-taker that there were rowdy passengers in my car; sat by the window to keep out of the way”), and went to sleep with a book on plant alchemy open over his face.

Day four, he ran into a friend at the market, as he was stopping to buy coffee.  Corniche Royce had cut her hair since he’d last seen her, but she still wore darts at her hip and a short white coat, which caught his eye first.  “Cony!” he said in surprise, and almost dropped his drink.  “You’re in town!”

She turned, blinked at him, then pointed.  “Ed!  You’re in town too!”  And before he could stop her, she flung herself at him, throwing her arms around his neck in a hug.  His coffee went flying, and he was distantly grateful no one had been standing in the way.  “How often does this happen?  You’re always dashing off all over the place, it’s hard to keep up!  Don’t you think it’s a bit harsh?  I might think you wanted to avoid me!”

“Cony,” he said weakly, “my drink –”

“Huh?  Oh.  Oops.”  She let go of him, rubbing the back of her neck.  “I’m sorry, it’s just been a while, and –”

“It’s all right,” he said, a bit hastily.  “You look a lot more confidant than you were.”

Cony laughed, freely.  “It’s amazing, the work I do,” she said, eyes glowing.  “I’ve met all sorts of interesting and wonderful people, and been able to help them … it’s like having a little piece of my brother back, every time I use my alchemy to heal someone.”  She clapped a hand on his shoulder.  “I’ll buy you another,” she said, nodding to his empty cup.  “And you’ll tell me everything that’s been going on with you and Al.  I heard –” she hesitated, then glanced around before lowering her voice.  “I heard you found what you were looking for.”

Ed considered her serious face, then nodded once.  “We did,” he said, then held up a hand before she could do more than grin at him.  “It didn’t turn out quite like we expected, but — we did.”  And he grinned back at her, tucking his hands into his pockets and giving a brief little shrug.  “But I’m working right now, Cony, I can’t stay –”

“Working?” she didn’t quite pout.  “The Gener — ah, excuse me, the Fuhrer — has only been in power for a few weeks, and he’s already got you working again?  Couldn’t you take a day off, or an hour?”

“I’m working on a deadline, he said.  “However, Cony …”

She blinked at him.  “Ed?”

“You do a lot of traveling, right?” he looked at her seriously as she nodded.  “How have people been taking that guy’s rise to power?  I haven’t been back very long, so …”

Cony dropped her gaze and looked away, fiddling with one of her sleeves.  “Ah, that,” she murmured, shrugging a little.  “There’s been –”

Ed took her arm and pulled.  “You can tell me as we go,” he said.  “I’ve got to hit the library and speak to one of the heads there.  What’s been going on?”

She continued to fidget with her sleeve as they walked, keeping her head bowed towards his.  “Most of the people are seeing this as a good thing,” she said.  A thread came loose, and she wrapped it around her fingers tightly.  “King Bradley was such a charismatic leader, and people are saying they see echoes of that in him.  But some people don’t like that — they remember the wars that Bradley perpetuated, the constant conflict, and they worry that since Fuhrer Mustang is both military and an alchemist, the power will shift further away from the people …”

“People think that?”  One of Ed’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief.  “That’s –”

“‘Alchemists are there for the good of the people,'” she quoted.  “I don’t know him very well, but he seemed to believe that, back when we …”

“He’s a smug, self-righteous bastard,” Ed said automatically, and then, when she looked at him, added, “But he usually tries to do the right thing.”

Cony frowned at him.  “Ed,” she said, “it’s not very encouraging when you’re complaining about the Fuhrer too, and you’re the one who knows him best …”

“Do not,” he half-snapped.  “That’s probably Major Hawkeye, at this point.”  He hunched his shoulders, suddenly irritated.  “I don’t know where you people get this idea — I only talk to the man maybe six times in the course of a year.”

“That’s more than a lot of people,” Cony said.  “Did you know, other than the two of us, he had no actual State Alchemists working directly for him?  The rest have been transferred to their own branch of the government.  And even I don’t talk to him that much — he always tells me, ‘go help people where you feel you’ll do the most good.’  I think he may have given me only three assignments, since I passed my exam.”

Ed frowned at that, tilting his head at her.  “That’s not normal, they usually –”

“It’s not ‘normal’ to let a minor go running around the country unchecked, either.”  She reached out and gently flicked a finger against his forehead, ignoring the way he growled in warning.  “The Fuhrer is … probably going to be very unconventional.  Some people will like it, and some people won’t.”  She shrugged and pulled on her fingers, so the thread wrapped around them snapped.  “Most of the ones I spoke with seem to think it’ll be a good thing.”

He rubbed his forehead and scowled at her.  “Look, this is –”

“The library,” Cony said, and pointed.  She smiled at his perplexed expression.  “It’ll be fine, I think.  You two work well together.”

And before he could ask her what that meant, she took off again, the wrapped tail of her hair flickering out behind her as she walked.  Frustrated in a way he couldn’t quite express, he scrubbed the back of his head, pulling handfuls out of his braid, and stalked up the stairs and into the library.

He never did get another coffee, and William Allensburg, the Reconstructing Alchemist, turned out to be a bloody tall bastard who looked down his nose at Ed the entire conversation, so that he left the library irritated on edge.  All he really learned was that, like Astor, Allensburg had no real interest in either support or rebellion against the man who’d become Fuhrer, even if he sneered when he said Mustang’s name, as though it tasted oily and unpleasant in his mouth.

Day four, Ed wrote later, had the redeeming value of giving him a vague idea of the feel of the country (“the lines are long, but most people seem to be minding their own business”), but in its own peculiar way, felt like another missed step.  He set his chin on his hand, and thought that Cony’s last words probably had some important meaning that would be terribly obvious to another girl — to him, it seemed like another inanity, like inquiries about the weather, and not entirely true.

He didn’t call Al that night, either.  But it was close.

***

The fifth day, he went back to the office.  Black Hayate met him at the gate, sitting there as though expecting him, and yipped once as he got to his feet, ears and tail up.  Ed paused long enough to bend and scratch the dog’s ears — he’d long outgrown the gangly-legged puppy stage, tall enough that his head came almost to Ed’s hip.

“Let me guess,” he said, smiling when Black Hayate’s head tilted, ears perking further, “Major Hawkeye sent you to make sure I don’t dawdle.”

Black Hayate barked, but it sounded like neither affirmation nor denial.  Ed sighed and started walking for the building.  The dog kept pace with him easily, occasionally bounding off to examine some small bush or overturned rock, but always returning to his side.  At the stairs to the building, he sat down and whined, oddly expectant.

“I’m going,” he said, and rubbed between the dog’s eyes with two fingers.  Black Hayate remained obediently still, and watched Ed as he went up the stairs.  At the door, he paused and looked over his shoulder, and found the dog watching.  He started to wave, caught himself, and went inside.

Mustang’s secretary was there again, writing furiously when Ed knocked twice and opened the door anyway.  He saw her head snap up, as though startled, blinking at him owlishly through her glasses before recognition dawned.

“Ah, Mister Fullmetal Alchemist, sir –”  She fumbled with her papers for a moment, then stood, adjusting her glasses.  “The Fuhrer is in a meeting right now, he –”

“It’s all right,” Ed said, with a casual little shrug.  “I’ll wait.  Mus– His Excellency knows my habits.”  He tucked his hands into his pockets, watching as she bit her lip and shifted, as though uncomfortable by his mere presence.  “Are you all right, Ms. — ?”

“Caspian,” she said, a little too quickly.  “Lina Caspian, and I’m new, I just –”

“You can ask him yourself, when he gets out of his meeting,” he said.  She looked almost scandalized at the idea.  “Look, he’s expecting me, so it’s easier if I just stick around, okay?  I’ve got my report.”  He waved his notebook at her, raising an eyebrow at the way she flinched, as though expecting him to hit her with it.  “I’ll be right here, don’t worry –”

“Sir, no,” she said, and Ed saw her knuckles turn white as she gripped the side of her desk.  “It’s common sense, here; we can’t allow anyone to just waltz in and stay in the Fuhrer’s office when he’s not there — not after recent events, and –”

Ed scowled, and tucked his hands into his pockets to keep from knuckling the center of his chest, where the old ache still lived.  “He knows me,” he protested.  “I don’t know how I’m supposed to prove it to you because I don’t carry a watch any more, but –”

The door opened, and he thought that it was peculiar, how he’d never been happier to see Mustang’s smug face.  Hawkeye walked to his right, and Havoc to his left, and they all stopped to look.  One of Mustang’s eyebrows lifted, something indecipherable passing through his eyes (and when had the bastard become so damn hard to read?), but all he said was, “Ah, Fullmetal.  You’re early.”

“It was easy,” Ed told him, and shrugged.  “You didn’t really give me a long list of names to work with, M–sir.  You trying to hold back on me?”

Mustang smiled faintly, lips just turning up at the corners.  “Ah, you see, Fullmetal — if there’s one thing that never ends around here, it’s work.  A leader is always in danger of being ousted.”  Irony made his voice sharp, despite the mildness of his expression, then gestured towards the closed door of his audience room.  “Shall we?”

Ed shrugged.  “Your room, sir,” he said.  “Lead the way.”  He watched something that wasn’t quite irritation flicker across Mustang’s face, a moment before he sighed and nodded, just faintly.  Havoc and Hawkeye remained where they were, on either sides of the door, and Ed followed him across the floor.

When the door closed behind them, Mustang turned to him and raised an eyebrow.  “So,” he said, “you’re certain that you’ve sounded out all of them?  The list isn’t that short, Fullmetal, it’s –”

“I’m sure,” Ed said, then glanced towards the door.  “And, hey, is there something wrong with your secretary?  She jumps like a fuck– er, like a rabbit if I even look at her.”

“Ah, her?”  Mustang’s mouth did a strange twist, not quite amused or disapproving.  “She’s very young, and being the Fuhrer’s secretary is a busy job.  She’s also one of Hakuro’s spies.”

The last was said so casually that Ed almost missed it.  He paused, shook his little, and frowned at Mustang.  “What?  Wait a moment –”

“It’s common sense, Fullmetal,” Mustang said, turning towards his desk, and then to the small fireplace.  Ed watched him, and half expected theatrics, like snapped fingers and smoke.  “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Ed shook his head, scowling.  “That’s so –”

“I’m not established enough to make my own rules yet, Fullmetal.”  Mustang shrugged.  “I have to learn what’s available to me before I start changing things.”

“Bullshit,” Ed snapped, and if it was disrespectful to say bullshit to the head of the country, at least he was also saying it to Roy Mustang, which made it okay.  “You probably know more about politics than anyone in the country right now, you sneaky bastard –”

“So, your report?”  Mustang cross his arms behind his back, and turned to present Ed his profile.  “It’s been five days, as you claimed would be enough — have you actually managed it, or are you about to ask for more time –”

“I’ve got your stupid reports.”  Ed waved the folder at him.  “Most of ’em are lots of talk and complaining, but there’s only a few I’d say you have to worry about.  Mostly, they’re harmless.”

Mustang’s expression didn’t change; he seemed fascinated with the rows of leather-bound books on his shelves.  It was strange, Ed thought, how he didn’t automatically turn to the window, looking out over the city.  “Harmless is a subjective term, Fullmetal,” he said.  “They said that Shou Tucker was harmless, too.”

Ed gritted his teeth.  “Tucker was a long time ago,” he said, evenly as he could manage.  “What’s the point of bringing him up now?”

“Just as a reminder,” Mustang said, and shrugged.  “Your actions and mine are under closer scrutiny than ever, Fullmetal, and you shouldn’t be surprised if Tucker does get brought back up.”

“Why would it matter?”  Ed crossed his arms over his chest.  “Tucker was my problem, my fuck up, he –”

“Technically, he was mine.”  Mustang turned his head just a little, glancing at Ed from the corner of one eye.  “Because General Hakuro sponsored you to take the test, but you were technically my find and my responsibility.  A man’s not responsible for his mistakes in the eyes of the law until he’s sixteen — eighteen soon, if the new laws pass — and at the time, I’d basically placed orders on a man who wasn’t even a direct subordinate of mine, which meant I was stepping on the toes of someone who, at the time outranked me.”  He shrugged, a dismissive gesture.  “As much as you’re your own person, Fullmetal, in the eyes of the law, it’s my problem.”

Ed’s scowl darkened, and he scrubbed the back of his head.  “That’s idiotic,” he muttered.  “What the fuck did you want to become Fuhrer for anyway?”

“For power, naturally.”  Mustang finally turned away from the bookshelf to face Ed, folding his arms behind his back.  “And for glory, and to make a change.”  He smiled, and the expression looked peculiar on his face — almost gentle, almost wry, and without any of the smug superiority he usually had.  “Why else does a man aim high?”

“Because he’s got delusions of grandeur, that’s why.”

“If that’s what you’d like to think, Fullmetal, I doubt I could change your mind.”  Something wry was in Mustang’s voice, and the sound of it pricked Ed’s nerves to hair-trigger irritation.  He gritted his teeth and let his breath whistle out slowly between it.

“I’ve seen enough people shoot for power and fail, because they thought they were better than they actually were,” he said, and was proud at how evenly his voice came out.  “And I don’t know about you, sir, but I know what I’ve observed, over the years.”

One of Mustang’s brows lifted, and then he touched two fingers to his forehead — not a full military salute, but a gesture of respect regardless.  At the same time, something closed off in his expression,

“Indeed.  Give my regards to your brother, Fullmetal.”

It was on the tip of Ed’s tongue to argue, to push the conversation into a debate, but then Mustang turned away from him again, walked to the window with his shoulders stiff and his back straight.  He sucked in a sharp breath, closed his hands into fists.  For a moment, he was tempted not to bow, or to salute when he left — but he could see the vague outlines of his reflection in the window, and he thought Mustang was watching that, rather than the city.

“Sir,” he said, and sketched a half-bow before he pivoted on his heel and stalked out.  He nodded briefly to Hawkeye and Havoc both as he passed, but he didn’t stop until he was outside again, slapped in the face by the chill of the day, a sharp contrast to the closed, warm air of the office.  Ed paused on the steps, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.

It didn’t help too much; he still wanted to turn back and punch the bastard’s face in.  He scrubbed fiercely at his hair with one hand, and continued down the stairs, into the streets.  For a moment, he thought he could feel eyes on him, watching from above, but didn’t give in to impulse to look back.

Back in his apartment, he dropped himself into his desk chair and leaned back, propping his feet on the desk.  After a moment, he rubbed his temples with the points of his fingers.  Life had been much easier even just a year ago, when he’d only been on the periphery of intrigue and politics.

With a groan, he dropped back on his bed and folded both arms over his eyes.

“Fuck you too, sir,” he mutters.  “If you die, don’t you dare come haunt me.”

***

The next day, against his better judgment, Ed went back.  He managed to sneak by the open door to the office where Fury and Breda were working, but in front of Mustang’s closed door, he found Hawkeye and Havoc standing in perfect military attention.  Surprised, he blinked at the two of them.

“Hey,” he said.  “Mind if I get through?”

Havoc grinned at him, apologetic.  “Sorry, Boss,” he said.  “The Fuhrer’s in a meeting right now.  Top secret stuff, real hush-hush.”  He waved one hand.  “Sorry.”

“It should be over within an hour or so, Edward,” Hawkeye said, though she didn’t relax as much as Havoc had.  “We’ll let him know you came by.”

Ed scratched the back of his head.  “Nah,” he said at last.  “Don’t bother.  I just wanted to see something.”

“It wouldn’t be a problem, Edward,” Hawkeye assured him.  “The Fuhrer is always willing to listen to any petitions that are brought to him –”

Ed recoiled.  For just a moment, they both looked like strangers, in their crisp pressed uniforms, and he felt oddly out of place.  He never had liked closed doors, especially when his instincts knew that some kind of answer lay just beyond.  “I said it’s all right,” he muttered.  “I’ll try again later, don’t worry.”

He turned and hurried off before she could say anything else.  A few uniformed soldiers looked at him curiously, then let him pass by without comment.  He walked fast with his hands stuffed in his pockets and his head down, scowling fiercely at his scuffed boots.

“Ed?”

Startled out of his thoughts, Ed glanced over his shoulder.  “Cony?”

She tentatively smiled at him, and folded her hands behind her back.  “I was hoping I’d catch you before either of us left town again,” she said.  “I thought I’d go ahead and buy you a coffee, to make up for the one I spilled?”

Surprised, he blinked at her, then shrugged.  “Ah, why not?  I don’t have anything else to do.”

“You don’t?”  She fell into step beside him, swinging her arms as she walked.  “But I thought you were working on something for the Fuhrer?”

“Eh, I finished that one.”  Ed shrugged, tipping his head back.  “Pretty much all I need to do now is stick around, and come whenever Mustang whistles.”  He sighed at that, rueful.  “Not that I’ve become a State Alchemist again.  I retired from that years ago.”

Cony gave him a sidelong glance and pursed her mouth into a thoughtful bow.  “I’d heard about that,” she said.  “But you know, you’re still working for the good of the common people, right?  So at heart, you’re still a State Alchemist.  I think, at any rate.”  He snorted, and she frowned at him.  “You don’t think so?”

“Nah.”  Ed followed her as she turned, heading towards the coffee shop where they’d first run into each other, a few days before.  “He’s the Furher.  I can’t really say no to the head of the country, can I?”

“I don’t know, I’ve heard you’ve done that sort of thing before …”

“Er.”  Ed held back as she placed their order, then just shrugged.  “Those were special cases.  I don’t really make a habit out of defiance.”

Her expression was disbelieving.  “If you say so,” she said at last, and slid her money across the counter, taking the two small paper cups from the barista.  One of these she handed to Ed, and the other she held between both hands, resting her upper lip on its rim.  “But you’re still staying, aren’t you?”

“I said I was, didn’t I?”  Ed shifted his weight, and looked down into his coffee.  Even reflected in the murky liquid, his expression was troubled.  “I promised I would, at least.”  After a moment, he glanced up at her through his bangs.  “Have you seen him at all since he became Furher?”

“Once.”  Cony nibbled on the rim of her cup.  “Right after he assumed power.  He assured me I was free to stay working under him, or transfer to the new branch of the government he was developing for the State Alchemists.  All of us were given the choice, you know.  You and I, Ed, we’re the only ones who’re left.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” he protested as the two of them wandered back to the streets.  “I mean, I’m not even officially sanctioned by the state, we can’t be –”

“We are,” Cony said firmly.  “I told you that.  And I mean, I think he’s happy about that.  I don’t think he trusts the others, Ed.  Isn’t that why you were asking me about the opinions of the people?”  At Ed’s raised eyebrow and faint scowl, she sighed, and flapped one hand helplessly.  “He’s the head of the country, Ed, he’s got to be really picky about whoever he lets into his inner circle …”

“You –”

“It seems awfully lonely, don’t you think?”  Cony fiddled with her cup, seemingly more interested in that than the coffee inside.  “To have that much power and not be able to confide in anyone.”

Ed scowled at her, then held out one hand as though to ward her off.  “Oh, no,” he said.  “Come on, Cony, he’s got plenty of people he can rely on — there’s Major Hawkeye, and Captain Havoc, and –”

“They’re soldiers, Ed,” she murmured, not raising her eyes to his.  “But he’s leading the people as well as the military.  He doesn’t really have much of that, does he?”

“Cony, look, I already said I was going to stick around, I don’t know what else you want –”

Cony set her free hand on her hip, studying him.  “You were bothered by something,” she announced.  “I saw you leaving the base, you know, and you looked quite upset.”

Ed blinked at her, nonplussed.  “You saw?”

“I had my own report to drop off,” she said, with a shrug. “I saw you and I was going to invite you to coffee anyway, but then you ran away.  Just be glad I’d seen you before, or I really would’ve thought you were trying to avoid me.”  She grinned at him, though it was more quiet than cheeky.

He rubbed the back of his head, eyeing her.  “Yeah, and what do you want to say about that?”

“Nothing,” she said at last.  “But if you were so upset you didn’t notice me following you, you should consider that.”  She reached out and flicked her forefinger against his forehead.  “Mister Famous Fullmetal Alchemist.”

He yelped, and clapped a hand over his forehead.  “Ow!  Hey –”

“You’ve got your coffee,” she said, grinning at him.  “You’re awake now.  So whatcha gonna do about it?”

His scowl didn’t lighten.  “You’re not subtle at all,” he told her.  “Look, if you want someone to talk to Mustang, why don’t you do it yourself?”

“Because you’ve known him longer,” she said innocently.  “You’ve got a better chance of understanding him.”

Ed blinked at her for a long moment, then sighed, his shoulders slumping.  “I don’t get girls,” he told her.  “Why can’t you ever say something like a normal person?”

“Takes away all the fun,” she said brightly.  “It’s all right, though.  You’re smart, Ed.  I’ve got faith in you.”

***

Mustang answered the door on the second knock.  For a moment, surprise flickered across his features and was quickly smoothed away.  “Fullmetal,” he said evenly.  “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

Ed shrugged.  “You might wanna try tightening up your security,” he said.  “It was really easy to get this far.”

An odd half-smile twisted Mustang’s lips.  “Ah,” he said.  “I suppose I will have to look into that.  I think, though, I’m capable of taking care of myself.”

“Yeah, and if I’d had a gun?”  Ed held up one hand, thumb and index finger extended, and aimed the fingertip at Mustang’s chest.  “See?  Bang.”

“True enough,” Mustang sighed.  “But when I couldn’t see anyone through the spy hole, I thought that it was probably someone too short to hit anywhere vital.”

Ed twitched.  “Hey –”

Mustang stepped aside and opened the door wider, gesturing.  “As long as you’re here, you might as well come inside,” he said.  “I’m afraid I’ve already eaten dinner, but if you’re hungry, I’m sure I can come up with something.”

“Should you really be doing that?” Ed asked, as he stepped inside, tucking his hands into his pockets.  “I mean, there’s something weird about the head of the country making someone dinner, isn’t there?”

“I made myself dinner,” Mustang pointed out.  “The most I’d do for you is cobble together leftovers.”  That odd smile quirked his lips again, oddly wistful.  “Come on in, Fullmetal.  Leave your shoes at the door.”

Ed looked down at his boots, then paused to toe out of them.  Idly, he kicked them aside, ignoring the faint scuffmark left behind by the heel of one, and followed Mustang down the long narrow hallway and into the sitting room.  There was a fire going, despite the warmth of the evening, and a book lay on the arm of a plush green chair, marked with a scrap of ribbon.  The whole thing looked extraordinarily cozy, somehow, and Ed hovered in the doorway, suddenly afraid of stepping forward and entering that scene.

Mustang, however, just turned and looked at him, raising an eyebrow.  “Well?” he asked.  “Are you coming in?”

“I’m already inside, bastard,” he said automatically, and stepped towards him.

Something wry sparked in Mustang’s eyes, like some kind of inexplicable understanding.  “Would you like to sit?” he asked, gesturing to the empty chair.  “I’m afraid I only have the one, but I figure it’s a guest’s right to be comfortable.”

“Only one?”  Ed didn’t move.  He crossed his arms over his chest, trying to meet Mustang’s gaze as evenly as he could.  “Doesn’t that cramp your dating style?”

“Not really.”  Mustang didn’t try to reclaim the seat, and if anything, his peculiar smile widened.  “I usually don’t bring my dates here.”

Ed scowled.  “So –”

“So, to what do I owe the honor of the former Fullmetal Alchemist visiting me at this hour of night?”  Mustang mimicked his posture, crossing his arms.  “After all, it’s fairly late.  Most people are in bed by now.”

“You’re not.”

“I’m not human, Fullmetal.”  Mustang’s expression never changed.  “I don’t need to sleep.”

“Bullshit,” he snapped, bristling.  “Everyone needs sleep.  When was the last time you did, huh?  Have you been doing anything properly since you took over?  Fuck, you ass, you –”

“I’m not helpless,” Mustang said, his voice mild.  “I’m a grown adult, Fullmetal, and I’ve been on my own for years.  There’s nothing for you to concern yourself about.”  He raised an eyebrow finally, a fraction more serious than before.  “What are you doing here?”

Ed opened his mouth.  I was worried, he could say, or better yet, Cony was worried. The strange jarring moment earlier that morning, when Hawkeye had spoken to him like he’d been nothing more than a curious stranger and civilian, rather than someone who’d been under Mustang’s wing for years, weighed heavily on his mind.  He could casually mention Al’s own concerns, how the burden of ruling an entire country wasn’t really something meant for one man alone, no matter how inhuman the bastard was.

After a moment, thought, he gave up and sighed, though he didn’t drop his arms.  “… I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”  Mustang sounded less surprised by that than Ed would have liked.  He tipped his head slightly to one side, pressing his lips together a little. “There must have been some kind of reason for you to sneak onto these grounds after midnight.”

“Or not,” Ed muttered, then made himself look up, meeting Mustang’s eyes for a moment.  “I don’t have to have a reason for everything.”

For a moment, Mustang looked surprised again.  It helped soothe away a lot of the worry-lines that had begun to appear in pinched bunches at the corners of his eyes and mouth.  If Ed looked at him from the corner of one eye, he almost looked like the stupid cocky Lieutenant Colonel who’d invited him to become a State Alchemist, years and years ago.

“No,” he said finally.  “I suppose you don’t.”

“Good.”  Ed shifted in place.  “As long as we’re clear on that.”

“Crystal.”  Mustang didn’t move, didn’t shift; the man might’ve been a fucking rock, for all that changed about him.  Ed gave up after a moment and launched himself into an uneasy pacing motion, back and forth in front of the door.

“Though it seems to me,” Mustang said at last, “that you’re here for something.”

Ed paused in mid-step, and looked up at him.  Mustang looked craggy and strange in the shadows cast by the fireplace.  Three months had done more to age him than the four years Ed had worked as a State Alchemist under him.  It felt peculiar, this sign of age: his mother had never lived long enough to grow old, and Auntie Pinako had always been old.  Even more than the way his own body had changed, or the way Al’s face lost its baby roundness and Winry’s body blossomed — even more than that, he could see evidence of time in Mustang’s face.

Are you all right?” he asked, finally.  “No matter what you say, bastard, you are human.”

Mustang blinked at him.  Before Ed could be embarrassed about the question, though, he smiled.  “I could be worse,” he said quietly.  “That’s all I could really ask for, right now.”  He didn’t turn away, or smirk, and in his expression there was something strangely honest.  “Things are not all right, Fullmetal, and they won’t be for a long time.  But they are getting there.”

“… ah,” said Ed.  He rubbed the back of his neck.  “Okay.  Good.  Um.  That’s what I wanted to know, so –”

“And there’s your answer.”  Mustang shrugged.  “Is there anything else, Fullmetal?”

“No.”  Ed crossed his arms again, and scowled.  “That’s all.”

“All this way, for just that question?”  Mustang raised an eyebrow.  “You never could keep yourself moderated when you were searching for an answer.”

Ed bristled.  “Maybe I just believe in *knowing*,” he snapped.  “Rather than sneak around, I think it’s better to just come out and *say* it, already.  What’s the point of doing something half-assedly?  If you commit, you should *stick* with it.”

“Aha.”  The same strange smile rose to Mustang’s lips, quirking them into something that looked more than a little pained.  “Then I take it you’re spending the night?”

The automatic, irritated denial rose to his lips and died there.  Ed scuffed his toes against the heavy carpeting, then glanced up at Mustang through his bangs.  “You tell anyone about this, and I’ll fucking kick your ass.  No one needs to get any ideas.”

Mustang smiled, but it seemed more understanding than mocking, like he could hear the confusion of the past week catching up in one strange moment.  “I have two guest rooms,” he said.  “I promise you, Fullmetal, your honor is safe.”

“Ed,” he said, impulsively, and just barely kept from taking it back, once it was out.  Mustang blinked at him.  “My name is *Ed*.  I stopped being Fullmetal years ago.”

For a moment, he thought he’d said something wrong, if the strange expression in Mustang’s eyes were any sort of judgment.  The wryness in his smile didn’t fade so much as change, smoothing out into something that looked … pleased.  Ed found it didn’t irritate him as much as it could have.

He’d worry about that later, he thought, as Mustang reached out and clasped his shoulder: an adult’s clasp, a gesture between equals.  And that was weird, too, but at least it *fit* and made sense amidst the confusion of everything else that had changed.

“All right, Ed,” Mustang said quietly.  “If you insist.”

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

All Great Mistakes

“In general, pride is the bottom of all great mistakes.” –John Ruskin

Pride finds Wrath meditating in the courtyard, still as silence, still as death. The sun is painfully bright, and Pride shields his eyes with one hand as he steps out. Wrath does not move as he approaches, though each footstep rings loud and distinct upon the stones. Pride stops beside him, stands at Wrath’s knee, and looks down.

Wrath is so very pale, despite the long hours he spends in the sun with his arms and head uncovered; he is the white color of new chalk, as they all are. They are the lines of Father’s arrays, brought to life, and though Wrath’s eyes have always been red, they now shine like drops of spilled blood in his pale face.

Pride remembers a time when his skin was the color of cream and coffee, when it stood in contrast to the X that scars his forehead. Father did not want to make this one; he wanted to be content and stop with Pride, who is his darling and his joy, and finally Pride had to bend and ask: Brother, please.

He has not needed to ask that since Envy, who was first, and this fact galls him. That name is Father’s weakness, but to use it too much is to lessen its power, and so he has only used it twice, whispering to Father’s ear: It’s lonely here, with just the two of us; there used to be more, you can give us more…

And though Father always argues, though he turns his face away, Pride always wins. This is how things should be, because Pride can no longer do alchemy himself: he must ask instead, though it galls him to say the word please.

Their little family is almost complete.

He remembers awakening, sometimes, of pain and cold and the dim, animal instinct that something had gone very, very wrong. He remembers the dim outline of a face, gold and ivory, and the taste of red on his ruined tongue. And for weeks he sat in his chair, staring, as Father knelt before him and called the same name over and over, until his voice cracked and turned hoarse, then faded away. And finally, Father stood and looked at him with such perfect, petty grief, and named him for what he truly was: Pride.

Pride bears his name well. It was not difficult, when he was strong enough, to make his way to Father’s study and lean against his chair, watching. Plague has already taken away so many of Father’s support, and anyone who could even possibly have been a threat to Pride, he remembers, and recalls their faces.

After him there came Envy, with his cold face and almost-perfect mask, whose anger and bitterness turn his eyes to hot coals, and then there came Lust — pretty, pretty Lust, who drapes herself across Father’s shoulder and strokes his metal arm with inhuman adoration, and after her was Sloth, who slouches and spits invective, especially at Father, who still flinches and looks guilty when she thinks to scold him. Pride looks at her and sometimes his shoulders ache, as though he’s still carrying the weight of her orders.

He has not yet decided who suits the role of Greed, but he knows there are old pictures among Father’s possessions; he does not think it will be hard to find someone. He is slowly reuniting them, even if Father doesn’t see it that way.

But he is not afraid, even when Envy stares at him with hatred from the shadows and tries to whisper cold poison into Father’s ear; Father will die to see Pride happy, and if the Envy hates him for this, then that is Pride’s due.

Wrath was the last he asked for so far, but the most important, the one Pride remembers most clearly. Father looks at Lust and Sloth and remembers them as their other selves, and more often than not he will slip, as though he still lives in the once-upon-a-time, when it was Winry and Master

But they have no master now; he is Pride, and he should be the father, because the others were born of his whispering. He will be obeyed.

“Wake up,” he says to Wrath, and nudges him with his foot. He hates this stillness, hates how Wrath still manages to slip away from him, retreating somewhere dark inside himself, where Pride’s sun cannot yet find. Late at night, Wrath sometimes goes to the hallway of bones, to stare at the skulls embedded in the walls, and his face is much like it is now, carved out of cold pale marble. “Wake up.”

Wrath wakes in degrees. His eyes are dull red, and there is no light when he looks at Pride and recognizes him. “You,” he says. He never uses their names, their “real” names, the names Father uses — he has not since the red stones were forced down his throat and he looked up to see Pride watching him, and knew himself betrayed.

“Me,” Pride agrees. It’s fine; he likes this name much better. “What were you dreaming?”

“Dead man do not dream,” says Wrath. On his knees, his large hands flex briefly, then still. “They cannot.”

Pride’s upper lip curls up. “I dream all the time,” he says. “We’re not dead, we’re only changed.”

“We are dead,” Wrath says, and his voice is heavy and cold. “We are dead, and if you believe otherwise, then that man has fooled you.”

He curls his arm over his chest, then puts his foot on Wrath’s hand and grinds his heel down. Wrath’s expression does not change, though he must feel it — Father built them to feel pain, to be everything that pretends to be human. Pride leans down just a little — and this is not bowing, this is not lowering himself; this is domination, two dogs staring each other down.

“We dream,” he pronounces, deliberately. “We dream of the things we’re meant for.”

Wrath just blinks at him and says nothing. Pride leans down until he feels Wrath’s hand spasm under his heel, the involuntary flex of muscles, and then he steps back. “Come with me,” he says.

At first, Wrath says nothing, staring. Pride waits, and does not blink as he meets Wrath’s eyes.

“Come with me,” he says again.

For a moment, Wrath does not even breath, staring at him. Pride wants to clench his teeth and does not make it an order, because that’s giving up, that’s bending, and Pride does not bend.

“I will come,” Wrath says at last. The red marks on his hand, from when Pride’s boot heel dug in, are nearly healed. He unfolds himself in a single, fluid motion. He stands a good head and shoulders taller than Pride, but he never looks directly at anything when he is on his feet. Even fighting, he stares down at his feet, like he is not strong enough to bear the light of the sun on his face.

“Good,” Pride murmurs, and leads him across the courtyard, back into blessed cool darkness. He leads Wrath down into the hallway of bones, and does not let Wrath stop to linger, even outside the door to Father’s study.

He leads Wrath to his own room, his room, and closes the door behind them. This won’t stop Envy from coming in, but at least it’s the illusion of privacy.

“You are mine, and you are well-made,” Pride murmurs, low, and touches Wrath’s broad shoulders. It takes only a small gesture to push off the robes he wears; unlike Lust, his clothing is loose and flowing; unlike Envy, there are no complicated buckles and snaps to hold it in place. He still looks like an Ishvarite, he just lacks the coloring.

“I am dead,” Wrath intones solemnly. “I cannot be yours.”

“You already are,” Pride tells him, and it takes just another tug to undo Wrath’s belt, so that all his clothing hangs open. “Father made you because of me. He supplied the power, but I was the one who remembered you. You never died, because I kept you here.” He touches his own breast with the tips of his index and middle fingers. “Here.”

“I died, and my body returned to the earth,” Wrath says, his eyes still downcast. He removes his robes, and stands naked before Pride. “As did you. That man has broken more laws than Ishvara will ever forgive. Not even hell will take his bones, now.”

“That’s Father’s problem,” Pride says, and reaches out. Wrath’s skin is cooling under his palms, the sun’s warmth already seeping away. “I don’t care, as long as you’re here.”

It’s a strange thing to say, and a stupid one, and it’s more honesty than Pride can allow, but he says it anyway, and Wrath understands. His hands are almost gentle when he unbuttons the shirt Pride wears, plain cotton homespun, the costume of a boy fresh from the country.

Pride is not gentle; he pushes Wrath down hard, so that Wrath’s shoulders bounce off the floor, and he touches the red lines that run from them to the backs of Wrath’s hands, stark drawn lines drawn like blood on white skin. He pushes until his nails turn white from the pressure, until real blood wells up in the shallow cuts he leaves.

He is not gentle when he claws against Wrath, when he grinds and moves, and Wrath moves back, so that it’s a parody of humans moving together, of people and warmth and that old tired faded emotion that still lives in Father’s eyes when he looks at Pride, at Sloth, at Lust and even at Envy —

If you loved me, why didn’t you let me sleep? I was so tired —

Oh, they are not gentle; Wrath awakens halfway through, it seems, surges into life and bucks like he suddenly can’t stand Pride’s weight over his hips. Pride holds him down, sweating, and watches the expressions change on Wrath’s face, watches for the moment that Wrath’s anger boils itself up, that the hatred and despair of what he is and what has changed him bubbles up — and then he slams that down, biting until he tastes blood, and uses his fingertips to paint red smears across the black lines that cover Wrath’s right arm.

(And Father didn’t want to keep that, too; it’s not his, Al, it was his brother’s, and we can’t —)

Pride fights to make it last, and settles for waiting. He waits until Wrath and wrath are defeated, until they sink down before him again, allowing him the proper respect that is his due.

“You’re mine,” he whispers, soft. “Father made you for me.”

Wrath’s red eyes open again, and they watch him quietly. “I am the memory of a dead man, Alphonse Elric,” he says. “As are you.”

“Don’t call me that,” Pride rasps. “Don’t –”

Sex is violent and it is messy; it takes all his willpower to not let his arms buckle, and keeps him upright over Wrath’s supine body. He does, however, drop his head, and does not move when Wrath puts one broad hand against the back of his skull.

“Your dreams are already lost,” he said softly. “Even when you destroy that man, you will never regain the person you were. Alphonse Elric would be horrified by what you plan.”

“That’s not who I am,” Pride whispers. “Don’t call me that.”

Wrath sits up, and Pride finds he cannot move, still on his hands and knees with his head bowed forward. Wrath’s hand remains cupping his skull, as though to remind him of that strange fragility. It’s only after sex that Wrath shows any strength, the only time he will speak to Pride without being spoken to first.

“I will take your skull and I will smash it,” Wrath whispers, soft. “I will deliver you to the peace of heaven and the arms of God, because you are only a memory of the person you were.”

“You can’t,” Pride says, and manages to lift his head, meeting Wrath’s eyes. “Father will kill you before he lets you touch me.”

Wrath strokes his hair, like a mother with a child. “That man regrets, more than any other sin, what he has done to you,” he says. “It’s a matter of him wondering whether the sin of keeping you like this is worth losing you again. He was not strong enough to stand that before. He may be now.”

Pride sinks back onto his knees, then up to be crouching on his haunches. “You’ll never find me,” he says. “Father has my body for safekeeping.”

Because it is not there in the hallway of bones, stretched up so high that even Lust’s body cannot contort to that distance. Father keeps it hidden somewhere in his study, where even Pride is forbidden to enter. He will reclaim it the moment he sets his plan into motion. He cannot afford to have something that valuable simply lying around, not if he is to keep his power, and keep Envy under his thumb.

“I know where he keeps you,” Wrath says quietly. “I will set you free.”

Pride does not close his eyes, or take a moment to compose himself. He stares at Wrath, who looks almost like he does in memories, with the memory of old, hesitant kindness in the way a man treated a boy trapped in armor.

“You will do no such thing.” He speaks with more conviction now, and reaches out to wrap his fingers around Wrath’s wrist, pulling it away from his head and setting it against the floor. “You’re mine, and you’ll never raise your hand against me like that.” He considers, then moves to sit beside Wrath, pulling the one arm he holds around his shoulders. “When Father completes the new Philosopher’s Stone, we will have our own bodies for real again.”

“I will burn, and you will fall,” Wrath says solemnly, but allows Pride to manipulate him, holds his arm heavily against Pride. “That man’s madness will consume you before you can rise.”

“Shut up,” Pride says, and leans his head on Wrath’s shoulder. He lets himself close his eyes. They are leaning against the door now, and Envy could not make his way in, not even if he could still snap his fingers and burn the world to ashes.

It is almost safe to sleep.

And if dead men do not dream, as Wrath claims, then Pride knows he must not be dead: because he dreams, and he dreams long and vividly, of a sickness that claimed the country and left him coughing up blood in someone’s arms — he dreams of fire and a giant watchful eye, and of darkness that faded into Father’s pale face hovering above his.

Hours later, he opens his eyes again and Wrath is still there against him, silent and still and waiting. Pride pulls away — not quickly, but not slowly either, and he stands to redo his clothing. Wrath does not open his eyes, remaining still and silent as Pride dresses.

“The world isn’t ours to have,” he says finally, without moving. Pride stops in the process of adjusting his coat, and looks down. At last, he reaches out and pushes with his foot, nudging Wrath until he finally unbends and moves.

“Not yours,” Pride says softly. “But it’ll be mine. And then, maybe, I’ll share it with you.”

He doesn’t look back as he stalks out of the room, down the long hallway. Envy sits in the hallway of bones, right before his own skull, and he is stretching one hand up, as though he can touch the torn fragments of cloth embedded around it, as though he could still touch the pieces of an array to life. He stops when Pride approaches, and he smiles, cold as ice, bitter as poison.

“Having fun again?” he asks, and his voice is a low smooth drawl. “Father won’t like that. You know he hates the attention you give that man.”

Pride stops and simply stares. Envy is taller than him, but only by a little; Father made certain to give him the body of an adult, rather than that of a half-grown boy-child. After a moment, Envy sighs and spreads his hands.

“Don’t bother talking to Father tonight,” he says, as though like a solicitous friend. “He’s in an awful state. Let’s not add the reminders of your little digressions to his list of problems, all right?” He gestures to Pride’s clothing, where there are a few faint white stains.

Finally, Pride sneers at him. “You’re nothing,” he says. “You’re lower than the dogs you used to serve.”

“Maybe,” Envy agrees easily enough, and when he smiles, there are teeth and sharp edges in that expression. “But I’m not the one with delusions of grandeur.”

“Father is nothing,” Pride says easily. He knows that the words will not hurt him — Envy has whispered to Father so many times of his insults, and Father simply accepts them, bowing his head without argument. “He doesn’t dare raise a hand against me, he –”

“Not that,” Envy cuts him off sweetly, and it’s so surprising that Pride is, for a moment, left speechless. Envy prowls forward, slinking like some giant hunting feline, and his dark blue eyes glitter with something that burns worse than his usual malice.

Pity.

“You think you’ve something special,” Envy says, and he dares to lift his hand and trail the tip of one finger down the line of Pride’s jawbone. “You think that Wrath is your obedient lapdog, who’ll come and go as you please.” His expression hardens, and he then steps away, shaking his hand as though the touch of Pride’s skin disgusts him. “Father failed with you, more than the rest of us.”

“What?” Pride draws himself up, furious — he can take Envy, he knows; he’s fought Envy before and won easily, without even having to strain. “You –”

“You delude yourself into thinking Wrath may love you,” Envy says, and he shapes the word with biting, bitter disdain. “He’d as soon kill you as lie beneath you, and you know it.” He flicks his fingers, the ghost of a snap, and deliberately turns his back on Pride. “Or maybe you don’t — but you’ll certainly learn, soon enough.”

Pride watches him walk away, and anything scathing he wishes to say dies on his tongue. It galls him to have let Envy win this once — but he’ll take it back, he’ll remake the victory into his own, later. Soon.

It’s already late. He can see how the shadows have lengthened in the courtyard, the sky bleeding to red. Father will be calling for him soon.

Pride touches fingertips to his right arm, around where the black tattoos start on Wrath’s. And for a moment, he swears he can feel them, as though they’ve been branded into his skin by his memory, as though they are raised lines for his fingertips to trace.

“It will be mine,” he says aloud, though his voice is tiny. In the hallway of bones, it rises in the thick air, and then falls dead. He can see Wrath’s eyes, open and red, and they watch him with something close to — that thing, that thing, which Envy spoke of.

I will set you free.

And then he turns, and he walks away.

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

A Different World

In the morning, the Ishbarite women go down to the well and gather water for the day in giant clay jars. They sing as they walk, their voices low and mournful and sweet. Al sits with his chin on his hands and watches them until his eyes glaze over, and they are nothing more than hazy dark figures and the cadences of song.

Ed pays them no heed; he’s too engrossed in his studies, in the old texts and the details of this society, this religion. Schools in Amestris’ Central City have already expressed interest in accepting him as a student. Their father is indulgent of him, and ruffles Al’s hair whenever he passes by, the few times he returns to their borrowed apartment.

There’s a strange pleasure in watching them that Al can’t quite explain. His mother is the closest to understanding, and even then, in the end, she attributes it to his age and doesn’t question.

“They’re beautiful,” he tells his brother, as Ed drops into the chair beside him and leans back, so that his shoulders are braced against the windowsill that Al leans against. “I wish they trusted us more.”

Ed shrugs. “We’re outsiders,” he says, unphased. “And Dad’s an alchemist, to boot. They remember the war, even if they weren’t in it.”

Al folds his arms on the window and sighs. “I still wish they’d talk to us,” he murmurs. “They could tell us a lot more than we’d learn from just books.”

“Give it time, Al,” Ed says, and reaches over to ruffle his hair, like their father often does. “If they warm up to anyone first, it’ll be you. You’re the one everyone likes.”

Al bats his hands away, grinning, and looks outside again. His grin fades.

There is a man standing beside the well, wrapped in a long, dusty green cloth. From what Al can see of his hair, it’s pure white. A strip of tan skin is visible through his clothing, and Al sees things tattooed there, marks like something out of one of his father’s textbooks. Al has never seen him before, but he knows who he is.

He glances to the side. “Brother,” he says, “I’m going to go out for a bit.”

“Huh?” Ed blinks. “In this heat? Al –”

“I’ll be right back,” he blurts, and scrambles off his chair, across the house to the front door. He bursts outside, and falters for a moment at the brightness of the midday sun, and the heat of it. For a moment, he sways, then shakes his head and keeps running.

The man is still standing by the well, unmoving as a statue. He doesn’t turn as Al comes to a stop a short distance away and doubles over, panting.

“You,” Al gasps. “You’re — you’re the priest who went to Central, to murder alchemists, aren’t you?”

And finally the man turns, looking at him. Al doesn’t flinch, even at the cold look in his eyes, or the dangerous slant to his mouth. There is a giant scar cut into his forehead, across his eyes, and Al is surprised the man hasn’t been blinded by that injury. “You are …”

“Your name was struck from the record,” Al blurts. “They know who you are. Why did you come back?”

The man turns and begins to walk towards him. Al braces himself, but the man does not try to touch him, makes no more towards him — just stares, like is something strange and a little disgusting.

“You are of them,” the man says at last. “What do you want?”

“Why did you come back?” Al insists, and what he means to say is Why did you leave? Because he can’t imagine leaving this place, doesn’t want to think about leaving this beautiful serene desert country, though he knows they will soon enough, when his father’s job sends them off again.

The scarred man stares at him. And then, shortly, he says, “I came to see if there was a memory here.”

“Was it?” He’s oddly breathless, staring.

“No.” The man continues to stare, as though weighing him, looking through all the petty trappings of his soul, and finding him wanting.

And then, unexpectedly, he says, “Even for a stranger, you have not strayed far from Ishbara’s path. If you do not let your father and brother influence you, you will go far.”

His hand flashes, and Al flails, catches the sparking silver thing tossed at him. It’s a woman’s locket, patterned with designs that resemble the holy writings of Ishbar. “This –”

“When your brother leaves,” the scarred man says, “come find me.”

And then he turns and walks away, not looking back. Al watches him go, and closes his fist over the locket, stuffing it into his pocket.

Later that night, as they’re getting ready for bed, Ed asks, “So, what was that all about, today?”

Al stares at his reflection in the water basin. When your brother leaves, come find me.

He shrugs. “Nothing.”

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

One Thousand Words

i.
His memories of his father are distant, faded things, kept alive only by a handful of photographs and his mother’s words, when your father comes home. More immediate is his brother, always by his side, always close enough to touch.

At night, long after the skies go dark, the smell of the sun is caught in his brother’s hair. He doesn’t need a stuffed animal, or a security blanket, as long as he has that.

Some part of Alphonse Elric wishes for his father, to end his mother’s sadness. But with his brother there, he cannot wish for anything else.

ii.
Adjusting is the most difficult part. He learns to be conscious of every step, every gesture: it’s learning to walk all over again. Al hates it, how giant he’s become, the feeling that he’s grown too fast. Strangers see him as an adult now, when all he feels like is a frightened little boy.

Only his brother recognizes him anymore, and tries to protect him from this unfamiliar new world. His brother becomes his guardian, his shield, the only link he has to the boy he was.

For that, Al knows, he will do everything to keep his brother safe.

iii.
Doubting hurts like a physical thing, curled in a gut he no longer has. He doesn’t want to think Ed would lie to him, but his memories are already faded, and it’s hard to say what’s real and what isn’t, now. He feels like his reflection in the mirror, fragmented beyond control.

“I want to know that the human called Alphonse Elric really existed.”

But he can’t look his brother in the eye and ask that — he’s afraid of the truth, whatever it might be. So he retreats, and tries to put the pieces together, as best he possibly can.

iv.
He can no longer smile, but somewhere in the place where his heart should be, he feels light, relieved. As children, fighting with his brother was always worse than fighting with Winry, or any of their other friends; now, the world is restored to balance.

“He was afraid you’d blame him” — the words are both a relief and a pain, because this is not all his brother’s fault, though Ed selfishly takes the blame himself.

But he is himself, the son of Hoenheim and Trisha, the brother of Edward, and there is no doubt that can take that away again.

v.
Seeing his father again is not what he expected. His mother is long dead, and cannot be part of this reunion, and his brother sulks, angry and betrayed.

Al wants to find connection to the man who seems so very much like his brother, and finds the distance awkward, the ground shaky.

It’s almost something of a relief when his father leaves again. He’s too accustomed to his brother, and even the promise of his father’s presence can quite break their strange bond of brotherhood. Ed is his anchor, more than anything else.

Even if they can no longer touch.

vi.
He can almost fool himself into thinking he feels warmth, through his gloves and hollow metal body. When he pulls his hand away, he sees that some of Ed’s red blood is on his thumb, and he thinks he can feel that too, warm and thick.

There is something still there, some spark and brilliance that still clings to this fragile shell. Al can feel that, at least, though it’s fading fast.

I’ll give you my arms, he thinks; I’ll give you my legs.

I’ll give you my heart.

But he’s the only brother I have, so

bring

him

back.

vii.
He’s not sure when it all starts coming back: the years, the memories, the pain. He knows that he wakes one morning acutely missing the feel of his brother’s wiry strength; the bed is too large.

Winry catches him crying and says nothing, holding him close and stroking his hair. He sobs himself out, and then rests his head over her heart, counting the beats. She smells of machine oil and manmade heat, and very distantly, of fields touched by the sun. Her arms are thin, but very strong, and they hold him carefully.

It’s not the same, he thinks.

viii.
At first, he doesn’t know the stranger who has his brother’s golden eyes and hair. At first, he’s just a cautious stranger who is almost familiar, and whom Al doesn’t quite trust.

But he’s still gentle, and he still smells like the sun, even when it’s overlaid by the tang of steel. Some traitorous part of him recognizes that, and reaches for it. In spite of himself, he opens his arms, and waits for Ed to step into their circle.

It feels oddly like coming home. Ed is full of wiry, unfamiliar strength, which shakes, then relaxes.

“Brother,” says Al.

ix.
Al is the first one to kiss his brother. He knows this by the way Ed jerks back, surprised, and rubs the back of his hand across his mouth.

“Al,” Ed says, shocked. “This isn’t–”

But it is, Al thinks, and grabs Ed’s arm before it can lash out. “Brother,” he says, and waits. He can see confusion move across Ed’s face, and even a little fear.

“You can’t kill me,” Al says gently. “I’m not going anywhere. I never have, have I?”

Ed’s eyes round at that, and he stares. “Al,” he says, softly.

And Al kisses him again.

x.
He thinks there must be something shameful in this, in reveling at the feel of skin that is and is not his. There must be something wrong in knowing the taste of his brother’s skin, that touching his brother with such knowing hands is a sin greater than human alchemy.

Right now, the public thinks they’re heroes, but that could change at any moment. He knows too well.

“Alphonse?”

And then his brother says his name, drowsy and content, and he lays his own head down to listen to his brother’s heartbeat, and he knows this can only be love.

Posted in fanfic | Tagged | Leave a comment

Birthday Mathoms — 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

Then he hears: “Haruki!”

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

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

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

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

+++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

(But what nonsense am I saying?)

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He nods. “I will.”

++++++++++

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

Here’s the answer: not fucking very.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he says.

++++++++++

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

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

In the bedroom there is a dead body.

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

In the hallway is young woman cowering in terror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

Two days later, her son disappears as well.

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

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

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

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

“Hakuren,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vince–”

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

“Promises, promises–DUCK!”

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

“Like this–”

“This?”

“No, no, this–”

“Like this?”

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

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

“Wait, wait, I got it! This way!”

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

++++++++++

As a younger student, Naoto had nightmares.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You–will? How on earth–”

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

++++++++++

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

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

“Watanuki Kimihiro,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He bows, and he goes on his way.

++++++++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in fanfic, fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

kiss/ssik

“You’re old enough now,” his father says, kindly face creased into a smile, and he can’t help but feel a bit excited–every time his father has looked that way, he’s always gotten something he’s wanted. “I think you’re ready for this.”

It takes all the control he has to not simply bounce up and down. “Papa,” he says, drawing the word out into something approaching a whine. “Papa, tell me, I want to know.”

“Ah-ah,” his father says, wagging a finger. “It’s not your birthday yet, my boy. Trust Papa to take care of everything.”

+++

There are two things that become immediately clear about the escort: one, that he is a man, and two, that he has the same sort of fine pale blond hair and noble features that might be expected of any son of the Oak family. He looks so familiar that Shuri almost calls him by a name that is–not quite forbidden in the Oak family, but generally frowned upon. He bites his tongue on that, staring, and the escort tosses his head (even that is a nobleman’s gesture: proud and confident in his looks, unashamed by the eyes that are immediately drawn to him).

The escort is wearing all white. Shuri wonders if that was a deliberate choice on his part, a suggestion from his father, or some other strange coincidence. He looks Shuri up and down deliberately, lips pursed, and then he nods. He holds out his hand, and he says, “Well? Come on, then.”

For a moment Shuri stares without moving. It feels all very much like a dream, and he wonders if it’s all just some elaborate prank. He had always been safe in school, protected by his father’s name and his family’s reputation, but this man looks as if he couldn’t care less, uncowed by the implications of Shuri’s crisply-pressed uniform or the particular tilt of his features. Instead, he appears bored, like if Shuri doesn’t move fast enough, he’ll simply call off the entire engagement and move on to his next job.

That is the thought that galvanizes him; in the instant before the other man looks ready to drop his hand, Shuri takes it in his own. The fingers are long, strong, and slender, and though the escort raises an eyebrow, he says nothing, merely leads the way; for this, Shuri is unspeakably grateful. He almost tries to start a conversation himself several times–you look like someone I knewwhat’s your name?I’ve never done anything before, I don’t know what Papa told you, but you probably–no, you definitely–have the wrong idea.

As hard as he tries, though, the words don’t come, and then they are walking inside of a hotel, one that he recognizes as having a reputation for discreetness. His lower-class classmates had muttered about this, when they didn’t know he was around, and even some of his peers had mentioned it by name several times. Everything feels and looks a bit unreal, with the austere lobby and the perfectly-poised and elegant woman who sits at the front desk. She glances up for a moment, her gaze sharp, sweeping over them both, and just like that they are both dismissed and she returns to her book.

“Your father’s made all the arrangements,” his escort says, voice low and too-close to his ear; he flinches a little from its proximity. “The whole thing’s on his bill.” There’s another huff of air, something between a laugh and a snort. “Must be nice, having papa’s money to take care of anything that goes wrong.”

He would protest–he opens his mouth for that–but instead it hangs open uselessly as he’s led down a long anonymous hallway of doors. A key produced from the escort’s pocket unlocks the very last one, which opens into a large white room. Cavernous is the first word that springs to mind as he looks around, though everything is muffled by the thick white carpet that stretches from wall to wall. The only furniture is a large bed with white sheets and a red coverlet. Shuri bites his lip hard enough to hurt, but nothing changes. This is real, he thinks, and something akin to hysteria twists in the pit of his stomach; he wants to laugh and can’t quite breathe enough for it. It’s real, it’s happening, and the escort with his too-familiar face is the only other person in the room.

“Relax,” the other man says, not unkindly. Up close, his eyes are blue, but even that is too close. “I’m a professional; I know what I’m doing.”

Finally Shuri manages a sound–a helpless, not-quite frightened noise, and everything else he meant to say is lost.

+++

It’s stupid: all his memories of that other person are hazy and faded: winter sunlight off pale blond hair and a face that scowled through the worst of his tantrums without being swayed, a voice that said a true son of the Oak family never broke face for anything. He remembers a hand, not particularly gentle, mopping his face with a fine silk handkerchief, and sharp cool eyes peering into his own. If it matters so much to you, I’ll give you mine.

+++

The first time is over embarrassingly fast. Shuri stuffs a fist against his mouth and still doesn’t manage to completely muffle the cry he makes when the escort wraps those long clever fingers around his cock and strokes him three times. It feels almost like agony at first, his entire body hot and tense for a long painful moment–and then not any more; it rushes out of him like a wave and leaves him spent and gasping, staring blindly at the ceiling.

“Hm,” the escort says (and he still doesn’t know his name, Shuri thinks blearily; it’s strange not having a name to call him by), in between licking his fingers clean. It’s not very attractive, the motions perfunctory and businesslike. “You really are new to this.”

His face goes hot at that–hotter, really–but when he manages to focus, his protest struggling to bubble free, the other man tells him, “All right. Slower, then.”

“Slow–” he chokes out, then arches helplessly when damp fingers settle on his chest and trace down, skittering first along the lines of muscle, and then to his nipple. He presses both of his own hands to his mouth now, gasping so hard for breath it hurts. He hears the escort murmur something in a soothing tone a moment before wet heat traces a lopsided circle over his nipple, and he thinks that he is going to die, for real, only what’s bubbling in his veins is not quite panic, and he–

The other man backs off. “Hey,” he says softly. “Look, if you hate it, you gotta say so. Try to relax a little, all right?”

Shuri hiccups a few times for breath. His eyes sting, but the tears won’t come. The escort remains hovering over him, close enough to be warm, far enough to avoid contact. His pale hair is pulled forward over one shoulder and his eyes are narrow, lit somewhere between curiosity and concern and total disinterest. Shuri stares at his face, with high cheekbones and white skin, and he thinks there is no way it is an accident: his papa is a clever man and a powerful man, and there is nothing about his own son that he does not know. Even if it is not common knowledge, at least within the Oak family itself, everyone within it knows of the one who broke with tradition and entertains the ambition of becoming a Bishop within the Church.

He’d been the only family member close to Shuri’s age; he’d been the only one who’d played with him that one winter holiday, when the adults and older second-cousins were busy; he’d had pale hair and sharp eyes, and he’d never once been afraid.

“Do you–your name,” Shuri rasps finally.

The escort raises an eyebrow. “What?”

“I want–tell me your name,” Shuri insists. He reaches up and curls his fingers hard into the man’s shirt, hands shaking. “Please, that’s what I want to know, it’s not fair, I can’t–”

The man sits back, covering Shuri’s hands with his. His expression is still somewhat dubious, as if this is the strangest request he’s ever received during the course of his career. Shuri stares back, wide-eyed and more than a little desperate–this is important, he wants to say, this is the most important part, because this man has a memory’s face but can’t be him, there’s no way …

“Vita,” the escort says finally. “My name’s Vita.”

Shuri forms the name without sound and he lunges up, smashing his own mouth clumsily to the escort’s–to Vita’s–and it’s clumsy and it hurts (he can taste blood, and a spot of heat that will become a bruise later to worry with his tongue), and he’s not crying, he’s not, but he’s shaking and he’s relieved and he’s kissing wherever he can reach, not fighting as he’s pressed back down again. Vita looks surprised more than anything else, his hair disheveled, but he recovers quickly, setting his hands on Shuri’s chest and smoothing them down again. His touch is confident and practiced, and Shuri squeezes his eyes shut and pushes into it, lets himself go. A mouth touches the hinge of his jaw, hot and wet, and it trails slowly down to his throat, following the line of his pulse. He squirms enthusiastically, tugging at the fastening of Vita’s shirt, and then whines when long fingers pinch his nipples and gently roll them.

Vita, he thinks, Vita, Vita, that sounds nothing like–

(“If it matters so much to you–“)

Those clever hands skim lower down, across his chest and to his hips and belly. Vita’s breath is hot and damp across his skin. Shuri keeps one hand pressed tight over his own mouth, as if that could be enough to keep his voice muffled, and the other he curls into Vita’s hair, yanking and tugging to direct that fleeting wonderful contact as best he could. It feels good, better than anything–better than the first time, confused and tangled-up as it was–and there are colors exploding behind his tightly-closed eyes, and he–

(“–you can have mine.”)

That mouth closes over his cock with complete practiced ease; it’s all he can do not to just scream or yank out a handful of Vita’s pale fine hair; instead he thrashes, hips jerking up automatically, helplessly. Vita rides the motion effortlessly. Shuri opens one eye to peek and almost immediately has to look away again: Vita’s eyes are closed and his brow is furrowed in an expression of intense concentration. For this moment, never mind his earlier disdain or his uninterested posture or his pity at Shuri’s plain inexperience–for this moment, Shuri is the focus of his entire world.

It feels good.

His entire body tingles as if touched to an electric spark; he can feel tension starting to gather in his belly. His breath comes in short hard gasps, and the sound of them is strange to his own ears. Vita’s hair slips like water through his fingers, cool and slick. Shuri wants to grab hold of it firmly and finds himself stroking through it restlessly instead, reveling at the feel. There is something tight in his chest, like a knot pulling in on itself, and–

(“It’s icky,” he wails, stomping his foot. He’s wiped at his mouth so many times with his mittened hand that his lips are raw and he can still feel that one great-aunt’s slobbery lips pressed to his. “And it was my first kiss, too!” he adds petulantly; he’s not quite sure why it’s so important, but he’s heard maids giggling about it as they do the laundry, and it seems to be a very important event in one’s life. “And she, and she … !”

“Stop that,” his cousin says, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket. “You’re a mess. That’s not any way for a son of the Oak family to conduct himself.”

“I’ll conduct myself any way I want,” he snipes back, and feels his eyes sting again. “A-anyway, if you’re going to yell, you should–you should tell HER not to do stuff like that, she’s not–”

His cousin takes his chin in hand and starts wiping his face. He’s not nearly as gentle as Shuri’s mama would be, but he’s not unkind about it, either, using the handkerchief to wipe away tears and snot. “Look, stop crying, and I’ll give you something.”

Shuri sniffles hard. “Something … ?”

“If it’s so important to you, a first kiss,” his cousin says, “I’ll give you mine. All right?”

For a moment he is shocked into utter still silence, which is the precise moment his cousin leans and presses their lips together.

It’s a small quiet moment that almost hurts because of how Shuri’s lips are rubbed raw; his cousin’s lips are also chapped, but they’re still very soft. There is a heartbeat of silence where he thinks he has to say something–he must–but then the other boy pulls away and says, no-nonsense as before, that their parents are waiting, and goes on ahead, leaving Shuri standing there, watching him go, alone as the snow starts to fall.)

+++

The escort–Vita–the escort is gone when Shuri wakes. His head aches a little and his face is tight and hot, as if he’d been crying. With a groan, he knuckles his fingers into his eyes in an attempt to clear them of grit, then hauls himself laboriously to his feet, swaying and lurching as he makes his way to the bathroom. In the mirror, his reflection is pale and red-eyed, his hair sticking up at odd spiked angles, and his lips hurts like they did that day years ago. Watching himself in the mirror, he deliberately lifts a hand and draws the back of it across his mouth.

“There you are, Shuri Oak,” he tells his reflection, “now you’re a man.”

Posted in fanfic, m/m, sex | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Story of Evil (Tsubasa Remix)

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom that existed in the perpetual grasp of winter. Even during the height of midsummer, snow could be found upon the ground, heavy enough to leave clear footprints. And yet, despite this fact of nature, the kingdom did not suffer, for there were plants unique to the countryside that flourished in the snow, and wizards and hedge-witches plied a busy trade, charming greenhouses and other patches of land to make them suitable for farming. This kingdom was called Valeria and was the oldest of the five kingdoms: the one said to be handcrafted by the gods themselves, carved out of diamond and pearl as an example for mankind to emulate.

It is said that, when the world was first created and Valeria was formed out of the primordial ice, the gods who created the world then handed stewardship off to a pair of twins: Luhi, the day and the destroyer, whose bright eyes could see all that needed clearing away and attended to that; and Asi, the night and nurturer, who allowed those injured to rest and recover under his wings, so that they could be strong and tall in his brother’s eyes. And so did these twins rule, bringing a long golden age to the world, as humans worked diligently under the eyes of their gods, so as to please their leaders.

Even the gods reach an end to their time, however. The legend states that a jealous Winter, cheated of command of what he saw as his own kingdom, created a woman whom he called Ghala and sent her to beguile the twins. He made her beautiful and tall and graceful, with long pale hair done up in elaborate braids and deep violet-blue eyes in a heart-shaped face. And when Luhi and Asi saw her, they were both entranced, so that for the first time in their lives, they began to compete against each other for her attention; caught up in their struggle, they did not notice Winter creeping in until after he had claimed permanent foothold in the world of humans. Ghala returned to her master’s side upon his triumph, leaving the twins to awaken to their shattered kingdom.

And the humans that Luhi and Asi had been guiding and protected set up a great outcry, their terror of the fickleness of their gods reaching the original creators within the cloud-coffins where they slept. Once more they rose, this time to mete out punishment for their carelessness: they were stripped of their true-names, so Luhi was only Day, and Asi was only night; then of their power, so they could only observe as they cleared the skies; then of their stewardship, and the rule of the world was given over solely to humans. To those of Valeria, oldest and wisest in the world, who were well-used to the cruelties of Winter and had guided their fellows through the decline of the reign of Day and Night, a special blessing was given.

So long as Valeria flourishes, the old legends say, so too will the entire world.

+++

Celebrate! Celebrate! ring the church-bells, clear and bright in the early winter morning. The noise startles a flock of snow-birds to life, taking off in a breathless flutter of wings against the blue sky; undisturbed, the bells peal on. Celebrate, for the Queen has given birth! Celebrate the birth of our prince! Rejoice!

In the shadow of an arched hallway, sheltered from the cries of the bells, a minister bends his head together with the midwife, who holds a small bundle on each arm. The minister’s lips are pinched together in worry, and the midwife’s eyes are downcast upon the infants she bears in her arms. He is a long thin young man with tousled dark hair and half-moon spectacles riding low on his nose, dressed in the heavy blue robes of state, which pool at his feet. She is smaller than him by a head and a half, with a long heavy cascade of dark hair, tied back from her heart-shaped face by ribbons. Despite the cold, beneath her cloak she wears only a thin frock, spattered with blood and worse from the long birth, and sweat beads her clear brow.

“This isn’t good,” the minister says. Though he doesn’t lift his head, he glances around as he speaks–but everything is silent: the King will only come when sent for, once his wife is allowed the time to recover herself and her composure, and the maidservant attending has been sent off for food without being allowed to see the truth of the matter. The queen herself sleeps deeply, having been hazy with pain for the last three hours of the process. “If anyone finds out about this, it’ll be bad. The people will riot and we can’t afford that right now, not right after the last border-war. If anyone knew–”

“They’re so small,” the midwife murmurs; her pretty dark eyes are sad. “They can’t even see for themselves right now. How could they …”

The minister starts to raise his hand, as if to touch the fine bones of her cheek, then stops himself. For a moment it hovers, and then he lets it fall. He looks away, his thin shoulders bending up uneasily. “I don’t like it,” he says. But: twins are a sign of misfortune, he doesn’t add, though he knows she can hear those words clearly. It is an old saying for Valeria, stretching beyond any one memory, sustained by a history of disasters and country superstition, that living twins symbolize a test for the family that bears them–a long cold winter of hardship by decree of the gods. There are a hundred different charms to ward off the birth of twins practiced by hedge-witches and registered wizards alike throughout the kingdom, ranging from the benign to the stomach-turning.

The midwife closes her eyes. Her lips press together for a moment. “Their despair will be the glory of the people,” she says, and there is an old tired bitterness in her voice. It is an old scar for her, kept alive by an older memory. The minister hesitates again, his hands coming to curl into fists by his side. In her arms, one infant stirs awake but does not cry out, looking curiously at them both with its huge blue eyes.

“Himawari,” the minister says; his tone is helpless and afraid. “If you don’t–”

She shifts the weight of her burdens, turning to present the bundle tucked into the crook of her right arm. She steps forward and leans until he has no choice but to steady her arm, and then she steps away, forcing him to keep hold of the child. She lifts her chin and meets his gaze steadily. “That one is the elder, by an hour,” she says. The wakeful twin is still in her arms, turning its head slowly towards its sleeping twin. “Take him back to Her Majesty’s side.”

“And what about the other one?” the minister asks softly. He clutches his burden awkwardly, shifting to try and mimic her own careful hold. “What are you–”

“I’ll take care of it,” she says softly, casting her eyes down again. She hears him draw in a breath as if to protest and quickly speaks to override him, “No, I won’t tell you what, or how. I don’t want you to know. All right?” She glances up at him through her fallen bangs, then reaches up to brush her fingers lightly over the line of his jaw. He starts a little, his eyes flying wide open, and he looks both very young and very afraid. Somehow, it drags a smile out of her, lingering and sadly fond.

“Take him to see his mother,” she murmurs. “Leave the rest to me.”

She waits until he goes, unflinching even at the heavy echoing boom of the door to the queen’s chamber slamming shut. She looks down at the child she carries, whose blue eyes are not terribly unlike those of the man who has just left her. It’s so very small and new, this child’s life; if she merely flung it away from her, the hard marble floors could do more than enough damage to the fragile bones and soft organs inside.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers to it. She draws the cloak more tightly around her shoulders, tugging the hood up and over her face. She draws the child close to her and makes her silent way down the stairs and out of the palace; the two guards at the gate are far too distracted to notice her leaving. As the bells peal joyfully overhead, she flees the city, and never once does she look back.

+++

On the first day of the Midwinter Festival, a boy arrives at the palace. He is greeted at the gate by a tall man in dark blue, who ushers him quickly inside. The boy is first bathed, then fed, then groomed before he is led to wait outside a set of tall white doors. The man goes inside.

“Your Highness,” he says. He is a man aged more by years than by care, for though his back is still ramrod straight and his small eyes clear, lines cut their way through his square face, and the white at his temples spreads about the space of two fingers. Though he has served the royal family for years, he once hailed from the kingdom furthest south from Valeria–the desert kingdom of Clow–and he dresses appropriately, more heavily than any other man in the king’s high court. His name, as presented in the record-keeper’s book, is Honorable Right Minister, Fei Wang Reed.

“Your Highness,” he says again, his voice still even. “Your new manservant has been appointed.”

The prince of Valeria is a young man–barely more than a boy at this point in his life–with long lean limbs and the careless grace that comes from years of training. He lounges, now, in an ornate chair–not quite on par with the white-crystal splendor of the royal throne, but an impressive one nevertheless, carved from a single block of white jade with deep blue cushions stitched with silver thread–his legs dangling carelessly off one arm. He does not look up at Fei Wang’s words, preoccupied with cleaning his nails with a small pearl-handled knife. “Very well,” he says. “He won’t be boring like the last one, right? Ahh, he was so stiff! No fun at all!” Now he looks up, peeking coyly through his lowered lashes. “You found someone better, right?”

Fei Wang’s expression does not change, clear and neutral as glass. “This one is about your age, Highness,” he says. “Both the steward and I think he will be well-suited to you.”

“Wonderful!” Easily as a cat, the prince sits up. He flips the blade and tucks it back into his long layered sleeve–blue and white and deep violet, the colors of Valerian royalty. He steeples his long fingers and leans forward. “Bring him in at once, then! I want to see him.”

The minister bows and goes to the door. He speaks quietly for a few moments, then opens it wide enough for the boy to step through. Like the prince, he is also tall and lean, though there is a thinness to him that is more about hunger and hard work instead of training; like the prince, he has eyes that are large and bright blue, and his hair is a pale cream-blond; like the prince, he is light-footed and thin-lipped and point-nosed, and it is not unlike looking into a mirror.

“Your Highness,” Fei Wang says, as the boy bows low with the impeccable manners of the lifelong servant, “may I present to you my own sister’s son, Fay Flourite. He is a magician by trade.”

“And your servant by choice,” Fay says, smoothly as if the line had been rehearsed. He keeps his head low, one hand over his heart, just short of dropping to his knees. “As long as you’ll have me, Your Highness, I will be yours to command.”

Prince Yuui of Valeria sits up straighter in his chair; his posture is more tense than it has been in the long months since his mother’s death. He stares at Fay’s bowed head for long minutes, his fingers now laced together and trembling with the force of his grip. Finally, though, he gets up out of the chair, nearly tripping over his robes as he throws himself forward; Fay gives a startled sound as the prince bowls into him, fingers pinching at his cheeks, smoothing through his hair, tugging at the poor rough cut of his clothes.

“Eh, how wonderful!” Yuui says, bright-eyed and grinning. He frames Fay’s face with both of his hands, looking into the other boy’s eyes for a moment, then nods. “You look just like me, that’s really amazing!”

“Amazing?” Fay falters, leaning back a little; he looks a little like a snowshoe rabbit, ready to bolt. Even Fei Wang seems startled by the proclamation. The prince’s hands continue to wander, feeling out the bony shape of shoulders, the sweep of long thin arms. “Your Highness, we look–”

“It’s all right,” Yuui says. He loops his arms around Fay’s thin shoulders and leans until their cheeks are pressed together, nuzzling like some great oversized cat. “It’s all right, I’ll make it be all right. It has to be, look at you!” He thrusts himself backwards, both hands on Fay’s shoulders, looking him over. “It’s like looking into a mirror. Look, here and here …” He reaches up and touches his fingertips to Fay’s cheekbone, thoughtful. “Ah, are you even real?”

“Your Highness?” Fay blinks. He glances at Fei Wang, whose expression has smoothed out again into careful neutrality. “It’s fine if you’d rather not have me, with how we look …”

“If I say it’s fine, it’s fine,” Yuui says, with careless confidence. It is not such an arrogant thing: it is a lifetime of privilege distilled into a phrase; this is the confidence of the First Prince of Valeria. “Ah, look, you’re taller than me, how unfair, Fay-puff~”

“Fay-puff?” Fay repeats weakly, but he merely staggers as the prince leans on him, hesitatingly settling his own hands on the other boy’s narrow hips to help keep them both balanced. Yuui laughs aloud, bright and clear, and waves to Fei Wang merrily, never letting go of his new servant.

“I like this one,” he says. “I like him, I’ll keep him. Sometimes, even you have good taste!”

Fei Wang bows low, the movement graceful and seamless. “I live to serve the Valeria family,” he says. A smile touches his lips. “I hope you will continue to find him and his work satisfactory, in the years to come.”

+++

The Midwinter Festival is a lavish spectacle in Valeria, and in recent years it has become an even greater ceremony, with how the day proper corresponds to the birth of the First Prince. The entire city is decked out in streamers of blue and violet, stitched with the crest of the royal family: two spread wings crowning a wide-mouthed goblet. All business beyond performance and and food grinds to a halt as people are obliged to take the time for the holy days as well as the prince’s birth-day. The more fantastic a display, the better, and the best are invited to perform in the royal palace itself, for the delight of Prince Yuui.

Fay finds the whole thing rather overwhelming, really; his own birthday–a few weeks past Midwinter Day–has always been a quiet affair his entire life, between him and his mother and an afternoon free of chores. In good years, she would scrape together enough to buy a small orange-creme cake, but those instances slowly became fewer and fewer still, until there had been nothing–not even enough on days that weren’t a special occasion. If one were to ask, Fay would say that he had come to the capitol to seek employment so that he would have money to send back to his mother in the country. This is not entirely untrue, but he is also terribly curious about the prince who demands such high taxes on top of his other tributes when he lives in such a fantastic palace, dressed so warmly and finely that if not for the heavier snow on the ground, he would never know it was winter.

On his second day as the prince’s manservant–his first night sleeping at the foot of his master’s bed–Fay is awoken by a puppy-like weight that burrows against his back, and hands on his shoulders, shaking. “Fay, Fay, wake up! This is an order from your prince, Fayfay, you’re absolutely forbidden from making me upset! Wake up, there’s something I want to show you.”

Fay rolls over, muttering and heavy-eyed, and finds himself nose-to-nose with Prince Yuui. “–Your Highness?”

“Aha! You listened after all!” Yuui sits back, eyes sparkling. He is dressed in simple off-white silk today: flowing sleeves and pants that seem better-suited for the hot sands of Clow, though the palace’s temperature always remains pleasantly warm. Tucked in the crook of one arm is a bundle of cloth, which the prince thrusts forward, expectant. “Put this on, and let’s go.”

Startled, Fay fumbles the bundle for a moment; in his hands, it unfurls outwards and unveils itself as a matching outfit to the prince’s, in smoke-gray as opposed to pale cream. “Your Highness!”

“It should fit you,” the prince says, cocking his head to one side. “It’s a little too big for me.”

He can’t help but gape a little. The cloth slides against his fingers like water, and he thinks, dazed, that he has never held anything so expensive in his life, let alone been presented with it. “That’s not it,” he says slowly. “Your Highness, as your servant, I can’t–”

“Of course you can,” the prince cuts him off. “You’re my servant, right? Therefore, you should be dressed to match! If you don’t like the color, Fay-chu, we’ll get you something better. Later, though. Come on! Get dressed, let’s go!”

“Your Highness, you don’t understand–”

Prince Yuui tsks and holds up a hand, waggling it under Fay’s nose. “I understand that I have given you an order,” he says solemnly, though there is a glint in his blue eyes. “You had better listen. I am your prince, after all.”

Fay almost finds it within himself to protest again, then stops himself and turns, presenting the prince with his back. The tips of his ears feel hot and uncomfortable as he struggles out of his rough nightshirt and replaces it with the silk top. It feels cool and alien and weightless; if not for the brush of material against his skin, he would have guessed himself naked. As it is, he knows he’s blushing terribly, hands fumbling and catching on his loose sleeves. The prince, on the other hand, seems terribly pleased, crossing his arms and giving Fay a slow once-over before nodding.

“Perfect,” he says. “Ah, this is wonderful, you have no idea! Come on!” And he catches Fay’s wrist with one hand, his grip firm and sure, and he tugs Fay into a half-trot behind him. “I’ve always wanted someone else to see this.”

Together they slip through the long echoing halls of the royal palace, which are nearly empty; judging by the horizon beyond the windows, which are still mostly dark blue just barely beginning to shade towards pink, it is still terribly early, and beyond a few sentries at various doors, they encounter no one. The prince seems to think the entire thing is a game, pressing himself up against the walls and dragging Fay with him whenever a guard passes; the smile on his face never wavers. A few times, he admonishes for silence with a finger against his own lips, though neither of them say a word as they weave and feint their way through the castle.

Eventually, they reach a single heavy door, fashioned out of ebony wood and carved with flowering vines and flying birds; the latch is made of polished brass. The prince lets go of Fay’s hand to unhook the mechanism, then leans his thin shoulder against it, pushing until the door gives with a low, rumbling groan.

“This way,” he whispers, when there is enough room for them to slip through. He holds out his hand instead of grabbing, this time, and Fay accepts it.

On the other side of the door is a long, winding series of narrow steps, carved from stone and softened by a thin, dark blue carpet. It seems to stretch up into forever, but just as Fay’s lungs began to hitch with the effort, they reach another door–the exact twin to the one at the bottom of the stairs–which gives with a softer creak at the touch of Prince Yuui’s hand.

The door opens to the outside, and Fay flinches automatically at the sudden burst of cold, his hand almost pulling free of the prince’s as he does. His teeth chatter protest as he is dragged further out, cringing up onto his toes at the icy stone beneath his feet.

“Look,” the prince says, his voice breathless. “Fay, Fay-chin, Fay-roo, Fayfay, look up.”

It takes a moment to force himself to uncurl from his instinctive huddle against the cold, but Fay does as he is told.

He sees the stars.

There are thousands of them, in different formations than he remembers from his childhood, and they seem so close that he could reach his hand up and brush against the glittering masses. His breath catches in his throat, and he can only turn slowly, entranced by the view.

“Your Highness,” he says finally, his voice also soft, nearly overwhelmed. “This …”

“This is my spot,” the prince says. He lets go of Fay’s hand and spins away, all his long limbs thrown out wide, as if he could embrace the stars overhead. “This is where my mother used to take me. I’m showing you, because you are my mirror, and a mirror keeps all secrets. All right?” He stops abruptly, arms still outstretched. He looks young and bright-eyed, like Fay’s own reflection had, once upon a time. Other than the lines care has etched around Fay’s mouth and eyes, they could be twins. In that moment, he feels less like an interloper stumbling upon something private and more like he is being shown something he has always known and merely forgotten for a time.

“All right,” he says. He looks back up to the stars, sprinkled like a handful of casually tossed diamonds, and he says, “I will never betray your secrets, my lord, no matter what.”

“Haha, of course you wouldn’t,” Prince Yuui says. “I told you, I have no secrets from myself.” He walks back, making shooing gestures with his hands to usher Fay back inside; he casts one last fond glance over his shoulder before closing the door again. “So, if you ever can’t find me–or if I ever can’t find you, this will be the place to look. All right?”

They head down the stairs, Fay preceding the prince. “All right,” he says. It takes little effort to get the door open again, and the prince is careful to lock it behind them before they return to his chambers. By the time they do, the horizon-line is beginning to shade into rose-pink and warm lavender, and the prince tells Fay that he wants his finest robes prepared for the day; they are receiving special guests later in the day, and he must (he says, with a cheerful wink and a toss of his hair) look his absolute best.

The wardrobe is full of even more expensive things than the thin silk Fay wears; his fingers feel almost numbed from all that softness. When he slips into his own uniform–plain and practical homespun, barely touched up by a mage-weaver’s skills–it is with a definite sense of relief. He can get used to this, he thinks; he will get used to it, and he thinks that perhaps serving the whims of the Spoiled Prince will not be quite as terrible as he fears.

+++

“Your Highness,” says Fei Wang, “these papers require your immediate attention.”

Prince Yuui only shrugs, occupied with his hands and the small glowing cat of light that he has spun between his fingers. “Everything requires my immediate attention,” he sighs. “Everyone is utterly convinced that their petition is the most dire, the most terrible, ahhhh, it’s terrible! Please, prince, listen to what we have to say!” He kicks his legs a few times, spreading his fingers so that his creation can bat at his fingers. “It’s terrible! It’s my birthday, can’t they give me some peace?”

“It’s about the celebrations,” Fei Wang says. His tone is mild. “We’re over budget; we can’t afford the parade for your actual birthday.”

“Ehh?” The prince sits up at that; the light-cat disappears. His jaw sets and his mouth twists into the beginnings of a pout. “That can’t be right–there has to be a parade! There must be money somewhere!”

“This year has been a poor one for harvests,” says Fei Wang. “We’ve exhausted our coffers for the time being.”

The prince sighs loudly and throws himself back in his chair, kicking his legs again, petulant. “Well, I don’t see how it’s a problem,” he says. “If it’s money we need, we can just add it to taxes.”

“Your Highness?”

“If there isn’t enough money, tax it from the people,” the prince repeats. “It’s for a good cause! Everyone likes parades, don’t they? They make everyone happy–it’s money well-spent!” He flaps an arm, frowning earnestly as he does. “Who can begrudge something like that? Do it, Fei Wang.”

The Honorable Right Minister bows his head. He puts a hand over his heart. “As my prince wishes,” he says. His expression is one of pleasant neutrality, the beginnings of a smile sitting on the corners of his mouth. Prince Yuui sinks lower in his seat at the sight, lacing his fingers together and scowling. “Then, Your Highness, if there is nothing else?”

“Tell Fay to bring me a snack,” the prince says. He sinks so low in his fine chair that his shoulders nearly touch the seat; his chin rests on his chest and his laced fingers rest on his belly. “I’m hungry.”

“As you wish,” says Fei Wang, then, “I take it you have found him … satisfactory, so far?”

The prince sighs, hard enough to puff out his cheeks. He says, “He’s funny. He’s interesting. But it hasn’t even been a week and I haven’t made up my mind yet. So go tell him to bring me something to eat, and I will think about it!”

Fei Wang bows again, low enough that his sleeves brush the floor, and he sweeps out of the audience chamber. He walks with slow purpose, pausing only briefly to say to a small alcove: “The prince wishes to take his tea early today. See to it,” before continuing on his way. Behind him, he can hear the boy-servant scrambling to move as ordered, and he allows himself the luxury of a smirk, here where he cannot be seen. Even when he is followed, it does not quite remove the spring from his step.

“He will not listen,” he says, pleased by the sound of that phrase. “You lost his ear long ago. Give it up and accept that fact.”

“I will not,” says his younger shadow. “Not as long as you’re here.”

“You’re a foolish child,” Fei Wang says. He does not speed up, nor does he slow down, and the smirk on his face never tempers itself. “Just like him. You cannot stop the revolution.”

“Nothing is set in stone,” the younger man says. “You can break up an entire army with a single well-placed action.”

Fei Wang stops at that and turns. His heavy brows draw together, and though he does not frown, his smile becomes strained. “You sound like her, now.”

His opponent meets his gaze, now utterly serene. He is a man aged by circumstance, myopic mismatched eyes behind steel-framed glasses (for necessity rather than vanity, unlike so many of Valeria’s mage-spoiled elite), face and body thin and careworn. He dresses all in black, rather than the dark blue of years before, with a butterfly embroidered on each shoulder. He does not smile or blink. “Do I? I wonder if there isn’t a reason for that.”

“It hardly matters. She has no influence here, and neither do you. If the prince finds you’ve snuck back into the palace, he’ll be quite upset. You do remember what happened last time, don’t you?”

“Even if you shouted for the guards right now,” the young man says, “they wouldn’t find me in time.”

“Only licensed wizards may practice cloaking spells, and all such things are forbidden within the royal palace,” Fei Wang purrs. “Will you add high treason to your list of crimes?”

“The stones have already been set into motion,” the young man says, as shadows unfurl and spread into a pool around his feet. They curl around his legs, pulling him slowly down, and he raises his chin so as to keep eye-contact with Fei Wang. “You, of all people, should know better than to believe that you know without doubt where they’ll fall.”

Fei Wang lifts a hand just as the other man drops completely out of sight. For a moment he remains poised, staring hard before he pivots in a whirl of dark blue robes and strides off, and he does not look back as the echo of his own footsteps recedes.

+++

The preparations for Midwinter Night are the grandest Fay has ever seen in his life: the already-impressive ballroom of the palace transforms as he watches, draped with banners of silver and varying shades of blue, the ends emblazoned with the Valeria crest. The kitchen brings out delicate ice statues that reach up to Fay’s hip and taller–dragons with their serpentine bodies coiled and powerful, unicorns caught in mid-step with delicate hooves raised, and fierce snowhawks, stretched in exact balance with their wings spread wide–and Fay cannot stop himself from gawking at each. Food comes next, tables and tables of dainty finger-snacks in all colors of the rainbow and of more variety and quantity than he has ever seen in his entire life. None of the other servants share his awe; one snaps at him to actually do work rather than simply stand and gawk uselessly. Ostensibly Fay is there to oversee that things are to the prince’s liking, but he feels more than a little overwhelmed by the entire spectacle. Any questions he asks are tersely ignored, and eventually he drifts to the side of the room, tugging at the sleeves of his too-new outfit: dark blue embroidered with silver at the hems and the royal crest stitched over his heart.

“It marks you as the prince’s own,” his uncle had told him, at the fitting. “It shows you have more power than any other servant in the palace. There will be those who resent your influence, but they are merely yapping dogs. Ignore them or crush them, as you see fit.”

He does not feel powerful nor influential right now: he feels lost and more than a little afraid. The servants come together like some sort of magical machine, honed to absolute efficiency from years of practice, and he is the one piece that does not quite fit anywhere. He drifts towards a wall, careful to avoid getting in anyone’s way, then tucks himself onto the edge of a windowsill, wedged into the corner so he can just watch. Five servants, tall grown men each, come staggering out under the weight of a fountain that looks like it’s been carved from solid gold: a stylized sun embraced by a crescent moon set by a scattered cascade of thumbnail-sized diamonds. This is set in the center of the room, and then a sixth–a small tawny-haired girl–stretches up onto her toes to affix a glowing silver ball into the air above the fountain. None of the other servants even seem to notice, but Fay leans forward, sliding from his perch, fascinated in spite of himself.

An old hedge-witch had lived in his old village, a wizened elderly creature whose tangled white hair had dragged on the ground behind her, who had always smelled of lavender and burnt grass. Fay had seen the witch perform magic only once–a small parlor-trick with firefly sparks to prove that she could–and the image has never left him, in all the years since. Now he can’t look away from the little silver ball, and his fingertips itch with the desire to touch.

“It’s pretty, don’t you think?” a girl says, and he starts to realize that it’s the one who placed the spelled globe in place. She stands next to him, the top of her head scarcely coming to his shoulder, wrapped snugly in so many layers of furs that she looks almost round. A clip set with a pearl wing pins her hair back from her eyes, and a sapphire like a single teardrop hangs around her throat, resting outside of her clothes. Her eyes are huge and clear green, and they light up with her smile. “You like it?”

He blinks at her for a moment, surprised at being addressed, then flushes. “It’s, yes,” he mumbles. “It’s very pretty.”

“Ah, I’m glad!” She beams, and her smile is more brilliant than her spell. “I worked very hard on that one. The prince himself praised it!”

Fay licks dry lips. “He did?”

“Mmm.” The girl smiles again, more gently this time. She lays a hand on her chest, covering the sapphire she wears. “My mother used to serve the old king. When my parents died–the prince sent for me. He said if I could impress him, he’d employ me, and he’d make sure I’d never want for anything.” She lifts her head and looks at the silver ball. “I showed him what light could do to his fountains, and he was so happy. So here I am! –Ah, and I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude. I’m Sakura.” She holds out a hand, and it is small and slim and white, more delicate than any woman’s he’s ever known.

He ducks his head, blushing harder. “… Fay,” he mumbles, and takes her hand. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do–should he kneel, should he kiss it? if she’s Prince Yuui’s employed magician and he’s his manservant, does he outrank her or not, and either way, isn’t that the polite thing to do?–but Sakura squeezes his hand warmly and turns their clasp into a handshake. She is the brightest thing in the entire room, he thinks, even brighter than the silver globe of light that is powered by her magic, and Fay can’t look away from her smile.

“It’s very nice to meet you, Fay,” she says. Her eyes drift to the symbol on his breast. “Oh, you’re also–”

“I’m new,” he blurts. He can feel the tips of his ears going red. “I mean, it’s only been a week, I don’t, I’m not–”

Sakura’s expression softens. She reaches for his other hand and folds them both gently between hers and squeezes again. “It’s all right,” she says. “It’s all very strange when you’re new, isn’t it? I know what it’s like. But it’ll be all right. You’ll get used to it, and you’ll get more comfortable with it. I promise.”

Her expression is gentle and earnest, and she is so utterly genuine that Fay can’t help but smile a little in response. “I’ll try my best,” he says softly, and that makes her smile grow even more. “I want to do my best.”

“Of course you do,” she says. “And I’ll help you. If there’s anything you need–ah, my rooms are in the west tower–here,” she reaches into her hair and undoes a small jeweled butterfly clip, hidden near the shell-curve of her ear. This she presses into his hand, curling her fingers over his to close them. “If you ever have to find me, hold this in your hand and think of me. It will lead you to where I am.”

Fay gapes for a moment. “Are–you’re sure? This is expensive, I can’t, you–”

“It’s a very easy spell,” Sakura assures him. “It was one of the first that Mama taught me.” Her expression goes sweetly wistful for a moment, seeing through the busy bustling room and into something long past. “And when I was new, all I wanted was for someone to help me out. So now that I can, I’m going to.” For a moment she hesitates, then peeks up at him through her lashes. “Is that selfish?”

“No! No, not at all,” he says, waving his free hand nervously. “It’s very generous of you, Miss Sakura. I’m grateful.” He takes the clip, and under her wide-eyed gaze, he clips it to his lapel, nearly hidden by folds of cloth, and gives her a tentative smile.

She laughs, clapping her hands. “Very pretty,” she says. “It suits your eyes, Fay-san! Please don’t be afraid to call on me any time.”

“Oi!” someone shouts from the other side of the room. There is a cluster of white-robed people from the kitchen gathered around a particularly elaborate ice statue–the twins Day and Night, their hands outstretched and not quite touching; even from a distance, their mournful expressions can be clearly seen. “Magician! Some support here!”

“Ah, yes! Right away!” Sakura smiles at Fay, squeezing his hand one last time, and then she goes, light-footed and quick as a little bird: even the hem of her cloak flies out behind her, like the impression of spread wings. He watches her go, his fingers tingling and face warm, and in spite of himself, his fingers drift up to touch the butterfly pinned near his throat.

+++

Yuui wears the pearls with the silver settings and the silver circlet of Valerian royalty, settled with artful care in order to not crush or distort his pale hair. Along with the dark blue of his robes, he knows he makes an eminently dashing figure, and he is proud of himself, glad with the way all eyes turn towards him, admiring and enchanted; he is the center of attention not just for being the beloved prince, but for his looks and his style. He allows himself to preen just a little, smiling broadly whenever a nobleman approaches him for a murmured conversation or a lady brushes her fingers against his sleeve to ask him to dance. Yuui owns the entire ballroom, and he is glad for it.

As the night wears on, though, he allows himself to drift more freely, holding his own small court of true admirers as his other guests begin to mingle amongst themselves, separating off into their own small groups. Fay is his faithful shadow the entire time, never so close as to be irritating, but near enough that by the time Yuui starts to think he might be hungry, or thirsty, his servant is bringing him something to satisfy himself with. And if he is entirely honest, he thinks this party is more fun than those from previous years because Fay is there, wide-eyed and amazed at everything going on around him. The grandeur of the royal palace is such a simple familiar thing to Yuui, but he looks at Fay’s shining face and lets himself pretend everything is new for him, as well. Whenever he can, he gives back bites and sips for Fay to try, and grins at how startled and pleased the other boy is.

If anyone notices how similar their faces are–and, Yuui thinks, there is no way anyone couldn’t–no one comments on it. Fay keeps silent and his face turned downward whenever someone approaches to speak to Yuui, as is entirely proper, but Yuui finds it vexing, oddly; he wants to show off his mirror-self and say look, here is a pair of twins that will cause no trouble for the people of Valeria! but every time the impulse wells up in his throat, he glances and sees the statues of Day and Night, and finds his voice curbed.

“Your Highness,” says Fei Wang, and Yuui turns to him with a frown that is halfway a pout–there are still papers he needs to sign, he knows, but it’s his birthday and he doesn’t particularly want to think about them right now. Before he can complain, though, he sees the other boy that is standing at Fei Wang’s elbow, sandy-haired and bright-eyed, and entirely dashing, slightly shorter than Yuui is. He is dressed in fine green silks that compliment his sun-darkened skin and tousled hair, and though there are gems shining at his throat and on his fingers, those hands are rough with calluses and have dirt under the nails. There is a polite smile on his face–the “company” smile of nobility, always distinctly aware of the eyes following one’s movements everywhere. He is poised and graceful and looks somehow completely out of place in the cold glittering beauty of Valeria’s court on Midwinter’s Night. Yuui looks him over thoughtfully, then turns to Fei Wang, who smiles and sweeps into a bow.

“If I may,” he says, “I would like to introduce you to His Grace, Li Xiao Lang, the second heir to the Middle Kingdom’s throne. I know Your Highness wished to visit there at some point in this coming summer season; I thought that perhaps the two of you would like to speak, before that time. His Grace is a great scholar of ancient history, and has expressed a desire to talk.”

Xiao Lang smiles again now that he has been introduced. It’s warmer than before and reaches his eyes, and Yuui smiles back before he can stop himself. “I have heard many stories about your kingdom, Your Highness,” he says, his words rounded and soft with the accent of the Middle Kingdom. “I have wanted to come see your kingdom myself for a long time.” He holds out a hand that is warm and broad, and Yuui takes it immediately, knowing he is grinning foolishly the entire time. Xiao Lang has a solid comfortable grip, and they shake like friends under Fei Wang’s approving eye.

“Oh, me too,” Yuui says. It’s only halfway a lie: his tutors have been over the histories of each of the five kingdoms of the world very thoroughly–if he is to be king, and to be High King of Valeria, they have told him, he needs to “understand the lessons of the past.” He does want to visit the Middle Kingdom, but it’s more for the lovely pictures he’s seen in books, and in the stories of the exciting marketplaces and the idea of being constantly warm, even during the long months of winter. “I’d love to hear anything you have to say.”

Xiao Lang ducks his head a little, as if shy. The movement causes hair to fall into his eyes. It’s absurdly charming, more than it has any right to be. Yuui hears Fei Wang talking in the background, briefly, and from the corner of one eye he sees Fay bow and scurry off, dismissed for the night. He thinks he will have to summon the boy later, to possibly talk about everything he is about to hear, because there is something shivery and excited moving under his skin, and he thinks that he will have to talk about it before he simply explodes with the force of his own nerves.

“There are many places I can start,” Xiao Lang says. “I tell you a story, and you tell me one, does that sound right?”

“Please,” Yuui says, and thinks that he has never been so eager to ask for something in his entire life. “You’re interested in history? There’s so much here, you’re welcome to make use of the libraries while you’re here in Valeria. I can give you access to the records–”

“Ah,” says Xiao Lang, holding up both hands. “Not quite like that. I am interested, yes,” he adds, when Yuui pouts at him, “but I am also interested in seeing things for myself. I like to work with my hands.” He holds them out, palms up, as if for inspection. Yuui can see that there are rough patches on his palms to match the calluses on his fingers, and fine white scars long the curve of his palms: not so much the sign of old attacks as the everyday wear and tear on working hands. They would look like a peasant’s hands, if not for the three heavy gold wrings that sit on the middle fingers of his right hand, and the ruby-set silver band on his left thumb. “I know that this is the wrong time of the year, when there is so much snow, but I have received permission from my Empress to remain for a while, and study.”

“Oh!” says Yuui, and resists the urge to bounce on the balls of his feet like a child. “Well! If that’s what you want, certainly we can see those. I’ll show you all those places, and then, afterwards–” He ducks his head a little, glancing up through his lashes at Xiao Lang’s good-natured face, “I’d like to go back with you to your kingdom, and see what you have to offer.”

This time, when the other boy smiles, it’s like the sun coming up for the first time after the months of midnight; he reaches out and clasps one of Yuui’s hands again between both of his own, shaking it warmly. “I promise,” he says. “In the spring, we will look at the things that are here. In the summer, we will look at the things in the Middle Kingdom, and it will be fair between the two of us.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Yuui says, with a sincerity he cannot fake. The pit of his stomach coils with happy anticipation; his skin feels charged nearly electric. The dangerous desire to just whoop like a child tickles his throat and colors each word. “You have no idea.”

Xiao Lang nods. His own expression is eager, and Yuui hopes that it matches his own. He points to the two ice statues, and says, “Tell me that story. One man said it was important to this kingdom, but he would not say why.”

Yuui purses his lips. “It’s not a very happy story,” he says critically. “It’s a fable about not giving up on your responsibility, and how twins are the misfortune that nearly doomed humans.”

“Doomed?” Xiao Lang echoes; there is polite disbelief in his eyes. It is not a terribly unique response: Yuui has seen others, non-native to Valeria, react similarly to the legend and its warning. “How?”

“Come on, let’s not talk about it now,” Yuui protests. He gives into impulse then, and latches himself onto Xiao Lang’s arm, which is solid and strong under the thin silk of his sleeve. The other boy looks startled, but just blinks at him then, as if bemused. “It’s my birthday,” Yuui adds, at that look. “I don’t want to talk about boring unhappy things. I’ll tell you later, okay? Right now, I want to hear more about Xiao Lang. What does he like to do? Other than looking at ruins, what does he like to do with his free time?”

“I study,” Xiao Lang says, and his voice is just as bemused as his expression. “I am not the first heir, so I have more freedom. I sometimes sit in on court, and study with Elder Sister, but mostly I am a scholar. Sometimes, there are expeditions to ruins. If my Empress can spare me, then I go.”

“Hmmm,” says Yuui. He squeezes Xiao Lang’s bicep, as if considering. “But he also is very strong, isn’t he?”

“I am well-versed in the art of the sword,” the other boy agrees. “It would be shameful, for any member of the Imperial Family to not be able to fight.”

“But there are guards, aren’t there?” Yuui starts tugging a little, guiding his companion away from the center of the ballroom floor, away from the curious looks of Valeria’s gathered nobility. “Even if someone is silly enough to try hurting Xiao Lang or his family, that’s what bodyguards are for!”

Xiao Lang shakes his head. “There are guards, of course,” he says, “but it is disgraceful to not know how to defend oneself. If one only relies on others, then there is no way one can be truly happy.”

Yuui frowns. His mouth twists as he considers this and he never lets go of Xiao Lang’s arm as he does. “I don’t get it,” he decides finally. “That is what servants are there for. We have the responsibility of keeping order, and that’s why they work for us. I don’t like swords,” he adds. “They’re heavy and not very graceful.”

Something changes in Xiao Lang’s expression–subtly, but Yuui is looking straight at him, and so notices. “There is art in using the sword,” he says softly. “And no one who has seen my sister at practice could ever call her ungraceful. We must be able to fend for ourselves, or else there’s no way we can hold our heads up with pride.”

“Of course there is,” Yuui argues. He doesn’t know what he’s lost, but he can feel it slipping away. “My kingdom is prosperous, my people are happy, and it’s because of me! Why shouldn’t I be proud about that? I think it’s a very good thing, any ruler should be envious!”

“As Your Highness says,” Xiao Lang murmurs. “Perhaps this is a difference of customs.”

“Oh, I see,” Yuui says, grateful for that thought. “Well, our kingdoms are very far apart. Even if everyone else thinks you’re silly, as long as you believe, that’s all right! Right?”

“I think I would like something to drink,” Xiao Lang says. He gently detaches his arm from Yuui’s grasp. “I’ll go fetch myself something.”

“No, no, don’t worry,” Yuui says. “Fay can–” he looks around, then stops, chagrined; he can’t see his lookalike-servant anywhere, and wonders if the party was simply too much excitement for a simple country boy to handle after his duties were finished for the night. “Ah–”

“I’ll return shortly,” says Xiao Lang. He strides off towards the tables groaning with food, and even his walk is purposeful: his back is straight and his head held high; he does not look down at his feet or falter, and even the people who aren’t faced towards him part before his approach, leaving him a clear path to the table. Yuui watches him wistfully as he serves himself and frowns when a small slip of a girl–vaguely familiar, though he cannot quite place her face at the moment–drifts up and wins Xiao Lang’s attention for a moment, as well as one of those bright warm smiles. It makes that shivery hopeful feeling in Yuui’s chest shrivel, as though shrinking back from the cold–but then Xiao Lang is returning, and Yuui summons up his brightest smile, watching. He likes the easy confidence in Xiao Lang’s stride and how real he seems, in the glittering ethereal beauty of the Midwinter’s Night Festival.

He thinks: I’d like it very much if you stayed longer than a season, I’d like it if I could convince you to come back with me after the summer’s over.

+++

The week after the festivities are finally over, Fay finally gathers enough courage to take the butterfly clip in one hand and thinks of Sakura’s smiling face. At first nothing happens, and just as he’s starting to feel horribly foolish, the clip in his hand gives a sudden, obvious lurch. He yelps and drops it–or rather, he jerks his hand away, and watches as the clip remains hovering in place, stiffly beating its little jeweled wings. It seems to rest on a cushion of white sparks, and Fay bends forward a little to get a closer look. It smells, very faintly, of flowers.

“Uh,” he says, still feeling silly, “I was wondering, if you could–Miss Sakura?”

He half-expects it to answer him. Instead, it begins to move down the hall, slow and steady in its pace. Fay watches it go for a moment, fascinated, then starts to trail it. Most of the palace is silent and still again–he passes no servants, and he has to marvel at the change from just a week previous. The banners have been rolled up and put away, the crowds of people everywhere have trickled back into the city shadowed by the royal palace, and Prince Yuui spends most of his days courting the second prince from Clow, and, while Fay accompanies him at times, more often than not he is left to his own devices.

The clip leads him out into the gardens–the pride of the royal family, his uncle has told him repeatedly: one to represent each of the five kingdoms, maintained by a combination of magics and sciences both. The largest was for Valeria itself, of course, and the smallest was for the Witch’s Wasteland, which was barely more than a tangled hedge between Valeria’s own and Clow’s rock and sand. The clip hesitates at the division for a moment, then continues its trek forward into Nihon’s garden. The paths are lined by tall broad-trunked trees, each heavy with cascades of tiny pink and white flowers, and the air is soft with their delicate perfume. Fay breathes deeply as he possibly can, smiling in spite of himself. The jewels set in the clip’s tiny wings sparkle and flash ahead of him, darting towards the largest tree in the garden, the one at the far end of all the paths. It stops, and when Fay catches up, it drops out of the air, inanimate again; he has to scramble to catch it, then hesitates, looking down at it. He wonders if maybe the spell wasn’t exact, and then is startled by the sound of voices. The first thing he does is scramble behind a blooming tree, peeking out.

What he sees is Sakura, a large bunch of the tiny flowers tucked behind one ear; her dress is a simple white frock, embroidered with pink flowers. She is smiling, radiant in her joy, and something tightens in Fay’s chest at the sight of it. Her small hand is tucked into the crook of the visiting prince’s arm, and Xiao Lang’s own expression is soft with wonder as he looks at the girl beside him. They walk with their heads close together, and Sakura is talking, excited, in a language that Fay doesn’t recognize, but which is fast and musical and obviously more comfortable for her than Valeria’s tongue.

Fay shrinks further behind the tree as they pass. His throat feels tight and his chest aches with each breath he tries to take. His fingers close so tightly around the jeweled clip that his palms hurt where the metal edges dig into his skin. He watches as they come to stand beneath the tallest tree, with barely more than a handsbreadth between their bodies; he watches as Xiao Lang places his palm against Sakura’s cheek and how she leans into it, her green eyes soft and warm. He says something, too soft for the words to be heard, but the tone is clear, and she blushes sweetly, all the more lovely for that faint color. The visiting prince is red-faced as well, but there is a radiance in him that is unmistakable as he leans in.

I don’t want to see this, Fay thinks, chewing a little on the inside of his cheek. I don’t want to, I don’t.

He doesn’t move, and so he sees when Xiao Lang presses his lips to Sakura’s cheek, how she throws her arms around his neck and presses herself close to them, how his hands settle carefully on her thin hips and cradle her like she is more precious than any of the thousand artifacts on display in the palace. He watches at how they part, and the prince pulls one of the rings from his finger and presses it onto Sakura’s thumb–the only finger where it seems to fit–then kisses that finger as well, and Fay finally makes himself duck fully behind the trunk, pressing his back against it. He presses his fist over his heart, dimly aware at how his fingers hurt, and closes his eyes. He counts out long seconds until his shoulders finally relax and he can mostly breathe again.

When he ducks back out again, Sakura is still there, but Xiao Lang is gone. She is staring at the ring on her with a soft expression on her face, and Fay thinks that he’ll never see her happier than this. The thought is oddly calming. He walks towards her, tucking the butterfly clip back into his pocket, and deliberately scuffs his feet against the ground to catch her attention. She jumps, but when she catches sight of him, she breaks into another smile–nothing of her joy dims at seeing him, and that helps to ease some of the ache in his chest.

“Fay!” she says. She comes towards him to meet him halfway. “Ah, I’m sorry, did someone need me?”

He smiles himself, shy. “No,” he says. “No, I just wanted to see you.”

“Oh!” she says, and claps her hands. “Oh, good–you’re doing all right, aren’t you? No one’s bullying you or anything, right? If they are, you have to tell me, I–”

As she speaks, he reaches out and gently catches her wrist in his hands. Sakura falls silent, wide-eyed, as he pulls her hand forward and turns it so he can see the ring: it’s heavy and gold, set with a bright, tawny topaz. He touches the edges of it with his thumbs, aware of the weight of her gaze.

“… It’s very nice,” he says finally. “It suits you.”

Her expression melts immediately into one of relief. “You think so?” she says, shy. “It was a gift from someone.”

“Someone who must like you very much,” says Fay.

“That’s what he says.” Sakura turns her hand herself, smiling softly at the ring. “It’s so strange. I feel like I’ve known him forever, not just a couple of weeks. We talk about ourselves and our families, but it’s like I already know everything about him–and he knows everything about me. Isn’t that funny?”

“I don’t think so, Miss Sakura,” Fay tells her. “My mother used to say that if you were really compatible with someone, then it would feel like that. So, if you really … care about him, and he really cares about you, it would feel like that. And I think that’s good.”

Sakura touches the ring with the fingers of her other hand. She stretches up onto her toes and presses her cool lips to Fay’s cheek, soft and smelling like the flowers all around them. Her smile is luminous and delicate; Fay wants to catch it in his hands and shelter it from the world. Instead, he watches her, and he waits.

“Thank you,” she says finally. She looks up at him, pressing her lips to the ring. “You’re very kind, aren’t you?”

“Only sometimes,” he says. He is the first to look away.

+++

It takes over a month before Fay realizes that something is wrong. His prince, capriciously kind, slowly turns sullen and quiet: the steady babble of confessions and secrets and idle thoughts dries up. He drapes moodily rather than stand on his own, and if he is not clinging to Fay, he is trailing after Xiao Lang, whose pleasant expression has turned strained over the course of his visit. There is a peculiar tension in the air, and Fay does his best to keep out of its way, sneaking extra sweets to his prince just to see his face light up with that fleeting wistful happiness that sits so well on his pale face.

(“Do you like me best, Fay-puff?” Prince Yuui asks, chasing crumbs around his plate with a fork, crushing each under the tines when he catches them. “More than anyone?”

“Of course,” Fay says, startled by the question. “You know I serve you above anyone else.”

The prince sighs, but asks nothing else.)

When he can, he snatches time to spend with Sakura, and though he doesn’t know everything about her, or her about him, she tells him stories about growing up in Valeria, and of the family she has in the Clow kingdom, and how very different the two countries are, and how she has studied the spells that sustain both kingdoms under her mother’s tutelage–and he tells her about growing up in a tiny village that borders the Witch’s Wasteland and Valeria, of his own mother’s determination and how hard she worked, day after day, and the letters she sometimes sends him, thanking him for the money he sends back home.

(“She tells me I shouldn’t send as much, but she gave everything for me when I was growing up–and I don’t really need that much money,” he says, resting his chin on his knees. “You know?”

“I think that’s wonderful of you,” Sakura tells him. “It’s good that you take such care of her; no mother could ask for more.”)

And then, one moonlit evening, on his way back to his own rooms, he sees movement through the tall palace windows that overlook Nihon’s garden. He pauses and watches as Sakura drifts, pale and lovely as drifting flower petals, to the one still-flowering tree of the garden. There is no mistaking the lightness of her step, nor the man who meets her there, tall and confident and reaching for her with his arms wide open. And in spite of himself, Fay stops to watch, wistful at how they draw close and press together.

“Oh,” says the prince from behind him.

Fay whirls, startled, his heart lurching into his throat. “Your Highness–”

Prince Yuui moves past without looking, pressing both hands to the window as he stares down at the lovers. “You knew, didn’t you?”

“I,” Fay says, then looks down, his shoulders slumping. “I did, Your Highness. I’m sorry, I–”

“It’s always like this,” the prince murmurs. “Every time I think there’s someone who might–every time there’s a person who might be different, something happens. No one ever chooses me, Fay. When you’re royalty, you have to be lonely. That’s what Father liked to say.”

“My prince–”

“I know they don’t like me,” he goes on. “They haven’t since my mother died, maybe before that. I thought that since he was from somewhere else, maybe I would have a chance–he said that he liked me, you know? And I believed him. I believed him, and …” He leans until his forehead is also pressed to the window, his breath fogging the glass. For a moment he says nothing, turned to cold silver and pearl by the moonlight. Fay looks at him and thinks of the legend of Day and Night, and of the woman who had enticed them both, and he doesn’t know if the rolling ache in his belly is love or pity or both.

“Your Highness,” he says.

“I’m going to bed,” Prince Yuui says. He pulls away from the window and scrubs the back of his hand across his eyes for a moment. He turns and smiles at Fay, gentle and distant. “Good night, Fay.”

He leaves before Fay can protest. The entire scene lingers in his memory until a day one week later, when he comes to the kitchens to fetch the prince’s breakfast and finds them in an uproar.

People are rushing back and forth, and everything is a confused babble of voices; Fay hovers in the doorway because he’s afraid of simply being trampled, if he tries to enter. Everyone is shouting at once, back and forth, and their voices come together into a cacophony that he can’t unravel. He hears the prince’s name, and Xiao Lang’s, but the details are lost in the din. He hovers, watching, and finally, he catches the arm of one of the maids, pulling her out of the stream of people. She turns an annoyed frown on him, so he draws himself up as tall as possible, trying to look as commanding as he can.

“What happened?” he says. “What’s going on?”

“You really haven’t heard yet?” she asks, incredulous. “The entire Clow party is leaving today–right now! They’re not waiting–there was a terrible fight between Prince Yuui and Prince Xiao Lang, it turned into an actual fistfight! Imagine! Our prince, in a fistfight!” She shakes her head. “Who would have believed it? But you’re the prince’s servant, aren’t you?” She tugs her arm free and frowns at him. “Ask him yourself! You’d probably actually get an answer!”

Before he can catch her again, she disappears back into the chaos, leaving him with his hand outstretched, terribly confused.

+++

Fei Wang knocks once before he enters the prince’s bedroom, not bothering to wait for the answer. The room is dark except for the faint gray light of early morning, but it’s clear that the room has been devastated–most of the fine furniture has been overturned, and the large mirror facing the door sports a large spiderweb of cracks. The sheets of the bed have been ripped off and are scattered. The prince himself is curled in the single thing still standing: a high-backed, ebony-wood chair, turned to face the window. His pale hair is barely visible, leaning to one side.

“My prince,” he says, and bows, though the boy doesn’t turn. “The Clow delegation has left. I heard there was quite the commotion–should I send for a doctor?”

The prince doesn’t answer.

“I will be drafting a letter immediately, of course,” he says. “It will be weeks before His Grace arrives home. With our network, we will be able to speak to the King before they arrive. He’s a reasonable sort of man, it shouldn’t take much effort to convince him. You are the First Prince of Valeria, after all. Whatever you wish–”

“Destroy them.”

Fei Wang waits five long beats before answering. “Excuse me, my prince,” he says. “Forgive my presumption, but–would you repeat that?”

“Destroy them,” Yuui repeats. His voice is faint, wavering. He moves a little, and the faintest reflection of him appears in the window: there is a dark visible shadow against his pale skin and pale hair. As he speaks, his voice firms, and it becomes as cold as the north wind. “I want the entire place razed to the ground. I want there to be nothing left. Not a building, not a person, not a single stupid cherry tree–” He pauses to take a deep breath. “And arrest the girl. She’s a sympathizer for certain. If she resists, or tries to escape–”

Fei Wang bows low, so far that the floor is only a hand’s breadth from his nose. “As my prince commands,” he says.

+++

Fay wakes to the sound of his door softly closing.

It had bee a long and difficult week, one where Fay has hardly seen his prince at all. There are mornings where he goes in to wake him and finds the bed cold and empty; if he tries to urge his liege to sleep, he finds himself more often than not summarily dismissed. When he brings afternoon tea and then returns for the dishes, he often finds everything untouched and long gone cold. Ministers in dark blue robes crowd around the prince, until he’s simply a pale spot in the dark, and their voices are low and anxious as they argue strategy and tactics. Clow is a kingdom that is also skilled with magic, and it will not submit without a fight. The hallways are full of noise and activity again, but the mood is grimly resigned rather than celebratory. Valeria is preparing for war, and there is no softening or disguising that fact.

The anxious atmosphere extends even to the servant’s quarters–even Fay, who has his own small room, separate from the others, can hear their whispering and gossiping late into the night, all those voices following him into his dreams. Nervous, he presses his hand under his pillow for the small knife he keeps there, and then Sakura whispers, “Fay?”

“Sakura?” He reaches for the light instead, flicking it on and hardly flinching at the sudden glare. “Where–what are you doing here?”

She hovers with her back against the door; she looks tired and worn, and there are dark half-circles under her large green eyes. The hem of her green cloak is torn and stained. She looks terrible, and yet she still dredges up a small smile for him. “I don’t have anywhere else go to,” she says. “I’ve been trying to–oh, it doesn’t matter. They’ve sealed the borders for everyone who isn’t a messenger of the prince or his army.” The girl ducks her head, wrapping her skinny arms around herself; he can see that her knuckles are red and raw as well. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have come here–if they find me …”

Fay stares at her. She looks tiny and fragile and so tired; he wonders when she slept last. He thinks about his prince, stone-faced and so angry.

“They won’t find you,” he says. He gets up. “I won’t tell.”

Sakura’s head snaps up. She looks startled, even if she must have gambled on his agreement, coming here. “Fay,” she says, “no, I’m sorry, you don’t–”

“I’ll get you something to eat,” he says gently. “I promise. You try to get some sleep.”

She wavers again, looking torn. “If they find me here, you’ll at least be arrested,” she murmurs. “You might actually be killed.”

He shakes his head. “You helped me, when I first got here,” he says. “I’ll help you find your way out.”

Sakura bites her lip. Then, on quick light feet, she crosses the room, and she stretches up to kiss Fay’s cheek briefly, with chapped dry lips. She smells like fear and sour hunger, but he sees a brief flicker of hope rekindle in her eyes, and that feels good. “Thank you,” she whispers. “You really are very kind.”

Fay wants to protest, but he steps aside instead, watching as she collapses onto his bed, unmoving; after a moment, he covers her with his blanket and slips out. He has to tiptoe past the communal bedrooms of the other servants, past the empty places where guards once stood–all soldiers have been pulled in for active duty, and the ozone smell of magic is heavy in the air, replacing them. He makes it down to the kitchens without incident and is grateful that rationing for the castle has not yet begun; he finds half a loaf discarded in the dust, and rubs it with his sleeve before tucking it into his coat and making his slow way back.

Halfway there, he sees a figure in the hallway and stops.

His uncle smiles at him, and the moonlight through the windows is so bright that they turn his glasses opaque. There is something unkind and unfriendly about his expression–something that is mean and hungry with the promise of war. Fay has never loved his uncle, but he has always at least believed in the man’s benign interests; now, he finds himself suddenly unsure. The lump of bread in his pocket weighs as heavily as a stone.

“Fay,” the man says. “What are you doing?”

“I,” he says. He licks dry lips. “I was hungry, Uncle, so I thought I would go–”

“Fay,” his uncle says. His tone is nearly gentle, but he moves forward, and his eyes are hard and cold and ice. “Don’t lie to me.”

“I’m not–”

“Don’t forget, I’ve known you all your life,” his uncle continues on, his voice lowering to nearly a purr. “I know exactly how to tell when you’re lying. When you’re hiding something from me.” He continues to advance, and Fay steps back automatically, again and again until he hits the wall. “You’re not telling me something, Fay, and it’s very important that you do. The security of the kingdom could depend on it. Your prince’s life could depend on it. You know how hard he’s been working, Fay. How much he needs someone he can trust right now.” Fei Wang reaches out a hand, and Fay flinches back from it before he can quite stop himself. His uncle is undeterred: a moment later, long hard fingers grasp his chin and tilt it up. “Hasn’t he trusted you?”

Fay blinks hard. His eyes sting. “Uncle,” he says, “please–”

“No, Fay,” his uncle says gently. “I should be telling you please.” He takes Fay’s wrist in his free hand and presses their palms together for a moment, pressing something into it. “You know what the command is, right now. She was supposed to be arrested, and if she tried to flee …” He steps back, and Fay can only stare down at the knife in his hand: it has a long, slim, wickedly sharp blade, and the lines of it are clean and spare. He looks up at his uncle, despairing, and Fei Wang only smiles.

“Uncle, I can’t,” he whispers. “I’m a servant. I’m not–I’ve never been a soldier, I’ve never–I can’t, I–”

“It is for your kingdom,” Fei Wang says, and though his tone is indulgent, his eyes are not. “The girl is dangerous–she will rouse the people to rebellion, if she’s allowed to continue as she has. Her very existence is an act of defiance against the prince, now. If they’re allowed to think that a single girl can get away with defying the prince …”

Fay swallows. He looks away.

“Prince Yuui is young,” Fei Wang goes on, nearly gentle. “He is impetuous, but he has a kind heart. He will be a good king, you know that.”

In spite of himself, he nods.

“And yet, there are those who are impatient with his childishness–they don’t give him the credit of his youth, or how hard he has had to work, just to get where he is now. He was orphaned so young, and there was no father to lead him by example, no mother to care for him until he was strong enough to stand without her.” Fei Wang’s fingers touch his hair, as gently paternal as they’d been in his childhood. “He’s already proven himself to be an impressive ruler, with how he is handling this war. But because that girl still lives–because she defies him with every breath she takes–she becomes a threat to him. Do you understand?”

Fay bites the inside of his cheek hard enough to taste blood. He thinks about the soft open look on his prince’s face, that day on the tower, looking up at the stars; he thinks about the thousand small kindnesses he has been shown, despite having a face that mirrors his liege’s so closely that they could be called twins–and the despair that would represent, if it was acknowledged. He thinks about the prince’s pale face and toneless words: No one ever chooses me. When you’re royalty, you have to be lonely.

He lets out a sobbing breath, and Fei Wang kisses his forehead.

“Good boy,” he says. “Now go.”

Fay goes. His vision is blurred and his entire body feels hot; his fingers are clamped so tightly around the hilt of the dagger that he isn’t sure he could release it if he tried. Like a ghost he drifts through the hallways, past the closed rooms of the other servants, and back to his own chamber.

Sakura is still asleep. She lies curled on her side, knees tucked towards her chest. Her brown hair is limp and dirty on his pillow. She breathes slowly, gently, and does not wake when he closes the door behind himself. He goes to stand by her bedside, staring at her face for long moments before he lifts the knife up, high over his head.

“Think of your prince,” his uncle’s voice whispers in his ear again, so utterly sincere. “Think of all he will lose, if this girl escapes him.”

He takes a breath, and then he is crying–quietly, undramatically, the tears welling up each time he tries to blink them away. Sakura, though, is still painfully clear in his vision: she rolls onto her back, and her slim chest is laid flat and exposed. He is frozen, too terrified to move just yet. If he moves, the moment will become irrevocably real.

Sakura opens her eyes.

She looks at him steadily, and she doesn’t look surprised. Fay can only stare back in mute horror. His hands are shaking. There is no way to mistake his posture for anything but the obvious, but the apologies that crowd on his tongue refuse to come. The lack of surprise–or condemnation–in Sakura’s expression only makes it worse.

“It’s all right,” she whispers to him. “I forgive you. I did a long time ago.”

She closes her eyes. Fay lets out a single choked sob and brings the knife down.

+++

In a bedroom three kingdoms away, a picture frame falls from its place of honor on a bedside table. The glass of the frame cracks into spiderweb patterns.

A young woman picks up the frame, careful of the glass shards, and holds it for a long, long time.

+++

Yuui wakes to the sound of Fay’s voice, soft and gentle: “It’s time for breakfast, Your Highness. I’ve brought your meal.”

He pushes himself up with a groan, dimly surprised to find himself on the bed. He remembers poring over maps the night before, but not moving–he’s still dressed as he was the day before, he notes with distant distaste, plucking at his shirt. He sits up and blinks his sight into focus.

“Fay?” he asks. “Why are you crying?”

Fay shakes his head. Though his smile is fixed and gentle as always, his eyes are red, and every time he blinks, there are fresh tears on his cheeks.

“It’s funny,” he says softly. “I’ve tried and tried, but I can’t stop. I’m sorry.”

Yuui reaches out and takes the tray from his servant, his other-self, and puts it aside. And then, before Fay can pull back or protest, Yuui reach out and pulls him into an embrace.

“When all of this is over,” he whispers, “let’s go to the beach. It’s really nice–it’s all that moving water, going on forever.”

Fay reaches and grasps his sleeve for a moment, silent. “That would be nice,” he says, finally. “My mother always said if you told the ocean your wishes, they’d come true.”

“Really?” Yuui almost smiles. “We’ll go together, then, and we’ll both make wishes. And then we’ll be happy.”

“Happy,” Fay echoes, and is silent.

+++

In the way of all things that must be hushed up, rumors begin as soon as the smoke of the makeshift pyre begins to curl and rise in the morning sky. The prince’s pet mage is dead by his own order–he killed her out of jealousy for the attention that the Clow prince showed her, when it was obvious he’d had his eye on the young man himself–he did it with a smile on his face, even laughing as she sobbed for mercy–the madness of his mother was finally manifesting in him, and he would drag Valeria down into the fire with him.

There had been something wrong with him from the beginning–wasn’t the appearance of a doppelganger indication enough of his insanity? Even if he was not a twin by birth, to have one suddenly appear could only come to mean disaster–his parents had both died when he was so young, how could he have any true idea of the proper way to rule a kingdom as old and revered as Valeria?–he was so selfish, always carelessly taxing the poor just to have his silly parades and fancy displays; who cared about such things?–he had started this war over selfish reasons; what made his broken heart worth the lives of his people, and those of that other kingdom?

Up in the tower, immersed in his maps and the advice of his ministers, Prince Yuui heard nothing of this at all.

+++

War goes from Valeria; war comes to Clow.

Prince Yuui does not set out with his army: his adviser catches his arm and pulls him aside and says to him: My prince, you must not risk yourself. You are the only living member left of the noble bloodline which founded this kingdom and you have no heir. Should you fall, who will guide your people? Who will protect them? You must stay.

And so he stays. And when the army of Valeria marches, it is met by the army of Clow, headed by the kingdom’s second prince, who rides beside a young woman in red armor. For the first clash, she wears no helm, and the long dark banner of her hair ripples behind her, her gray eyes as hard as steel. Yuui watches the battle from a spelled mirror in his chambers, and hardly eats even when Fay brings him meals, rebelling against being coaxed to his food.

The rumors continue to spread; they travel with the servants and down into the lower city, and from there to all of the capitol. Their prince is a coward and a fool; he is a spoiled child that will ruin the kingdom with his selfishness. They are losing a war that should never have been engaged: Clow’s wizards are skilled and numerous, and they are fighting to defend their home from a spoiled tyrant–they are fighting for the memory of an innocent girl wrongly murdered through his whim.

These are the things Fay hears, though his prince does not, and they weigh like stones around his neck. No one in the palace or the lower city looks him in the eye any more, and he has learned to walk quickly and quietly, keeping his head down. And as the prince retreats to spend more time in his rooms, watching as his army is slowly pushed back, Fei Wang steps up to fill the power void. He is smiling and confident and conspicuous, and Fay watches him with something that is nearly like resentment uncoiling in his chest.

“It’s terrible,” he hears his uncle say one day to the head chamberlain, “if they proceed much further, we will have to evacuate the palace.”

The other man snorts. “That will be chaotic enough,” he says. “The lower city’s already nearly empty. Why does the prince insist that we stay? It’s useless.”

“It will be fine,” Fei Wang says. “In fact, I give you the authority now, to begin moving everyone out. There’s no sense in staying in some suicidal display, is there?”

“There’s not,” the chamberlain says, and there’s no mistaking the relief in his voice. “Bless you, sir, we’d be lost without your common sense.”

“No, no,” says Fei Wang. “I’m simply glad to serve my kingdom. I am, as always, her humble and devoted servant.”

“If only you could do more,” the chamberlain says. “Better a servant of the kingdom than a tyrant who doesn’t care for his people–begging your pardon, sir, I–”

“You’re kind,” Fei Wang says, low and pleased. He pats the chamberlain’s shoulder gently, conspiratorially. “But hush now. To say such things in these halls is treason. Not that I think you’re incorrect, of course, but there are safer places to say it.”

Fay can see the smile on his uncle’s face as clearly as he hears it in the man’s voice, and it makes him ill. He ducks his head and he flees to the end of the hallway, then slumps with his back against the wall. He wants to weep with what he’s done, how that’s added to the troubles of his kingdom. He wants to hide himself away in a corner, he wants to close his eyes and stop–

“Ah, there you are,” his uncle says.

He opens his eyes and looks up. His uncle, Fei Wang, stands before him, hands tucked into his long sleeves, a knifeslash of a smile spread across his craggy face. It’s very nearly a smirk. Satisfaction radiates from him in waves. “Heard that, did you?”

Fay hunches his shoulders, folding his arms behind his back.

“Will you run and tell him?” Fei Wang asks, smirking. “I never expected you to take to being his loyal dog as eagerly as you did. Perhaps I should’ve been paying more attention to you, but …” He shrugs, gracefully. “I had more important things on my mind.”

“Important,” Fay whispers, his voice hoarse, “like taking over? Like committing treason?”

“In a few weeks, it will hardly be that,” says Fei Wang. “The king is the one who decides what constitutes as treason.”

“And that’s Prince Y–” Fay’s protest cuts itself off as his uncle’s hand lashes out, long broad fingers closing around his throat and slamming him back harder against the wall. Fei Wang looms over him, his smirk now outright unkind.

“Go cry to him, if you’d like,” he purrs. “He won’t believe you. He’s been mine since the day his mother died. You think that a servant who’s been in the palace for six months is enough to turn him against me? I’d like to see you try.” He lets go of Fay’s throat then and steps back, smoothing his robes. He looks down at Fay with obvious smug pride. “This kingdom will be mine, and you’ve helped to give it to me.”

Fay stares.

“Everything happens as it was meant to,” he says, slowly, as if tasting each word. “Ever since you met that girl, her fate was sealed.”

“Eh–?”

“From the moment you met her, she was doomed,” Fei Wang says. “Your presence in this castle is what ruined her, and the prince.” He laughs, maybe at the look on Fay’s face, maybe at pleasure at his own success. He reaches out and puts his forefinger under Fay’s chin, tipping it up further. “Because of you, everything has gone the way I wanted it to. For that, I thank you.”

He whips away then, the long sleeves of his robe fluttering as he does. Fay stares at him, unblinking; his hands are still folded behind his back. His fingers brush the hilt of the knife he has kept in his belt for the past long three months.

“Uncle,” he says softly. “Uncle, you know … I loved her. Sakura.”

“You did not,” Fei Wang scoffs. He turns his back, drawn up stern and imposing. “You’re at the wrong age for love, boy, and you’d know nothing of it.”

“No,” Fay says. “That’s not true–I do know what it’s like. I loved her. She was kind to me, and she believed in me, even after what I did.”

“Then she was a fool,” Fei Wang says. “And you are too, for believing her.”

“Sakura’s dead because of me,” Fay murmurs. “All I have left now is my prince.”

Fei Wang snorts. “If that’s all that concerns you, put your mind at ease,” he says. “I won’t kill him. Why waste a perfectly good tower? It suited his mother, it’ll suit him.”

Fay lifts his head. “Prince Yuui is all I have left,” he says, and his voice is almost gentle now. His uncle half-turns, frowning at him. “And if that’s what it takes to protect him, I don’t care what I have to do.”

“What are you–”

“Everyone in the world sees him as the enemy, now,” Fay continues, “but it’s all right. Because I’ll protect him. No matter what.”

Fei Wang’s gaze flickers down. His eyes go wide; he draws back, raising a hand that begins to glow. “Fay! You fool, stop–”

Fay lunges. His knife goes in smoothly, as if the heavy robes and the body underneath are thin as tissue; he aims up and shoves as hard as he can and feels something stutter and give way around the blade. Fei Wang makes a strangled noise, the glow around his hand flickering out like a match in a breeze. He coughs once and blood splatters dark and wet against his lower lip, dribbling across his chin. He stares down at Fay like one might a stranger, brow knitting together in confusion.

“I,” he wheezes, his voice already reedy and thin, “no …”

“It’s all right, Uncle,” Fay murmurs, still gentle. “I’m just doing what you told me to do: I’m looking out for my prince’s safety.”

He twists the knife then, hard, and this time, when his uncle coughs blood, some of it spatters against his face. The knife comes out as easily as it went in, and he waits until Fei Wang crumples to the floor in an awkward pile of limbs before he approaches and crouches down. Using the edge of one long sleeve, he cleans off the knife, then resheathes it in his belt. He uses a different clean section to wipe off his face, then gets to his feet.

It is nearly tea-time, after all; it wouldn’t do to keep his prince waiting.

+++

“You are a fool,” the man says.

He is younger than he was years ago, still all in black, his robes lined in red. His sash is patterned in black and gold, like the designs of a butterfly’s wing.

Fei Wang stares up at him, eyes dimmed and fading fast. His breath whistles and wheezes ominously in his chest. When the other man crouches down beside him, his gaze follows slowly, upwards to the other man’s mismatched eyes. His companion reaches out; he does not quite touch the dying man’s waxy skin, but lets his fingers hover, a hairsbreadth away.

“I’m here as witness,” he says softly. “Be at peace.”

Fei Wang’s lip curls up silently, a sneer or a scowl or both. A groan escapes him, the soft unformed beginning of words. Sprawled against the ground, one of his hands twitches weakly.

“There is no such thing as coincidence,” the young man murmurs. “You set the stones into motion, and you could have seen how they would fall, but you chose to fight it. That’s why you’re a fool.”

Fei Wang lets out another rough breath, which spatters dark red against his lips.

“She warned you too,” the young man says, his voice low and sad. “I know she did. If I could see it happening, there was no way she didn’t, and she would have said something to you. In the end, you brought it all upon yourself.”

A long rattle finds its way from Fei Wang’s chest. The curl of his mouth relaxes and the last of the light in his eyes snuffs itself out. There is nothing left but the echo of possibilities vanishing, leaving only the inevitable conclusion. The young man closes Fei Wang’s staring eyes with his outstretched hand, then closes his own.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “Sleep well.”

+++

War goes from Clow; war comes to Valeria.

Fay sees it in the mirror that hangs in his prince’s room: the slow steady march of the army that winds its way through Valeria–it does not attack any of the small villages that lie in its path, and its only destination is the capital and the splendid castle that stands on a hill overlooking its attending city. He hears it in the echo of his footsteps in the empty halls. Everyone else has fled the city at this point: the palace has been practically empty for nearly a week. Fei Wang’s body still lies in the hallway where it fell; Fay takes to walking the long way around when he can, to avoid seeing it.

There are more important things to focus on.

He knocks once, for courtesy, then opens the door and enters the royal chambers. “Your Highness,” he says softly.

Prince Yuui is curled in his chair, staring at the mirror. The army is at the gates, winding their way through the empty city. There are familiar faces in the mob–servants of the palace, leading the way. The second prince of Clow rides with the woman in red armor at the head, but Yuui doesn’t seem to notice him, more focused on the buildings and houses of the lower city.

“Look, Fay,” he says softly. “They’re here. I used to think I never wanted him to come back–now I’m glad.” He turns his head a little and smiles. His eyes are red and bracketed by dark circles; if Sakura had looked tired when she’d come to Fay all those months before, his prince looked beyond exhausted. “That means this’ll be over. I’m glad. But I’m a little scared, too.” He hugs his knees to his chest. “I don’t know what to do.”

“You can get dressed, Your Highness,” Fay says softly. He holds out the clothes bundled in his arms. “Here.”

Yuui reaches out slowly to take them, then frowns as they unfurl out in his hands. “Fay?” he asks slowly. “What–”

“They’re mine,” Fay says softly. He steps fully into the light, and Yuui’s eyes go wide at the sight of Fay’s outfit: he is dressed in dark royal blue, embroidered with sweeping silver patterns, with the emblem of the Valeria family embroidered along each sleeve. A silver circlet crowns his pale hair, and in his ears are the pearl earrings from Yuui’s birthday, so long ago. He smiles gently at his prince.

“Fay?!” Yuui sits up, his eyes wide and frightened. “Why–”

“I’m giving them to you,” Fay says. “Please put them on and escape.”

“What? No! No, I won’t!” Yuui lurches to his feet and crosses to his servant, grabbing the other boy’s sleeves. “I’m not–I won’t! I won’t run away! What do you think you’re trying to do? They’ll see you, and they’ll think–they’ll think–”

“That’s the idea,” Fay says. He reaches out and first cups Yuui’s face in both hands, then sweeps them back, gathering the prince’s hair into a small servant’s tail. He ties it with the same black twine he has used every day of his working life in the palace. “It’s all right, Your Highness. You’ve always said yourself, we’re mirrors, right? No one will notice.”

Yuui stares at him mutely. There are fresh tears in his eyes now, and only when Fay picks up the discarded shirt and tries to pull it onto the prince’s thin arms does he react, shoving Fay back.

“I won’t,” he says. “No, not without you! If they find you, they’ll kill you–I’m not going to leave you–”

“They’re almost here,” Fay says, low and urgent. “You have to do this. My duty is to keep you safe, no matter what. Do you think I’d let them have you?”

“Then you have to come too,” Yuui says. “Fay! This is an order from your prince!”

“I know,” Fay says softly. “And for once, I won’t listen.” He takes Yuui’s face in his hands again and kisses the prince’s forehead.

“Fay–”

“I love you, my prince,” he whispers. “And I would have followed you anywhere–to Clow, to the ocean, wherever you wanted to go. I’m glad I met you. If I’m ever reborn–” He takes a deep breath and he pulls away, looking at the mirror; the army has entered the palace. They do not rush: they don’t need to. “If I’m ever reborn, I’d gladly be your servant again. I hope you’ll forgive me, someday.”

This time, Fay is the one who shoves Yuui: he does it with all his strength, knocking the other boy back and down, then turns, his back straight, shoulders squared, head high, and he leaves the bedroom at a confident stride. His reflection in the mirror is as noble as a true prince from a fairytale. Yuui stares mutely as the doors of his bedroom swing shut, then looks up at the mirror. He watches Fay walk, as he descends the stairs and is spotted by the party that has entered the palace–distracting them from the inspection of Fei Wang’s corpse. Xiao Lang has his blade out in a heartbeat, but the woman in red armor puts a hand on his arm to stay him, and strides up; her eyes are hard as she says something to Fay–obviously a question.

And Fay, Fay, he looks at the whole crowd of them with the arrogance that had taken Yuui a lifetime to cultivate, and sneers. Yuui watches his lips move, and can guess at what he says.

“You insolent fools!”

Yuui buries his face in his hands and weeps.

+++

“They will be satisfied with nothing less than your head,” Xiao Lang says. “Do you understand?”

The deposed prince says nothing, his expression stony. Even stripped of his robes and his circlet, even in the plain white robes of a prisoner, the arrogance of him is enough to set Xiao Lang’s teeth on edge. He slams his hands down onto the table, hard enough to make it rattle. “Just tell me why! Why did you–what did Sakura ever do–”

“Xiao Ling,” Tomoyo says quietly. She has removed her red armor and replaced them with a scarlet cloak and gloves, though the shirt and trousers beneath are the black of mourning. Her sweet face is equally hard, and he bites his tongue before he lets himself snap at her. “Let me talk to him.”

“–What?”

“That poor man in the hallway deserves a proper burial,” she says. “And given your history, it may be better if you let me handle this.”

He wants to protest–it’s clearly obvious from his expression–but finally he gets up and leaves the makeshift interrogation room, casting a single hard glance over his shoulder as he goes. Tomoyo waits until she hears his footsteps receding, then goes to sit in front of Valeria’s toppled prince.

“Do you know who I am?” she asks softly.

He doesn’t answer.

“My name is Tomoyo,” she says. “I serve the second prince of Clow, Xiao Lang. You know what that means. We’ve seen the mirror in the royal chambers–you must have seen us in battle together.”

There is no reaction in those icy blue eyes. Tomoyo folds her hands in her lap. “When I was a child, I had a friend–a very beautiful girl, more lovely than anyone I’ve ever known. She was always kind, always gentle, and always willing to help people in need.” She leans forward then, staring at the prince’s face. “Her name was Sakura. I was her mother’s student for many years. I’m very good.”

Slowly, slowly, the prince turns his head and meets her eyes. Tomoyo smiles grimly.

“While Prince Xiao Lang was in Valeria, Sakura-chan wrote me a letter,” she says. “She said that there was a boy in the castle, a very nice one, that she’d made friends with. And wasn’t it strange, he looked just like the prince. He was very shy, but very sweet–he tried very hard all the time to make people happy.”

Finally, there is a flicker of life–just a flash, and nothing more. His thin lips whiten from pressure. Tomoyo gets to her feet and crosses around the table, coming to stand next to the prisoner. She leans down until her lips are a hairsbreadth from his ear.

“I don’t know why you’re protecting him,” she whispers. “They will kill you, you know.”

The boy who called himself a prince blinks once–twice–and says nothing. Tomoyo waits long, long moments, then pulls back.

“I won’t tell,” she says, “if this is really what you choose.”

And then, unexpectedly, the boy smiles: sweet and tremulous enough to make her catch her breath. She blinks, and the expression is wiped from his face. She shakes her head, and goes to the door to call Xiao Lang back.

+++

The next day dawns bright and clear and cold–colder than normal for a Valerian summer–and already there is a crowd in the central square of the lower city. The crowd is restless and anxious, and when the time finally comes, and the prisoner in the dirty white robes is led out onto the platform, they raise up a loud excited roar. Tomoyo walks before the prisoner; Xiao Lang walks behind. The boy–the young man–who walks between them only has eyes for the arching sky overhead.

The black-robed executioner guides him the last few steps to the guillotine itself. He kneels without prompting, settling his head into the lunette. He never looks away from the cloudless sky, unflinching as Xiao Lang reads the list of his crimes.

For abuse of your power, for abuse of your people, for the murder of a mage of Clow, for the murder of your own household staff, for crimes against all the five kingdoms of the world–

“Ah,” he says, vague, “it’s tea-time.”

–you shall be sentenced to death.

+++

After the body is carted away, people begin to trickle out of the square–all in groups, in pairs or more, some boisterous, some subdued, but there is a general sense of relief in the air, as if some terrible weight has been lifted from its shoulders. The lady Tomoyo descends from the platform to walk among the people, and they flock to her and her calm serenity, though they simply crowd around her, rather than speak directly to her. Prince Xiao Lang lingers beside the guillotine for a while longer, staring at the bloodstain left behind, then slowly makes his way down the wooden steps and heads away from the square, back up to the castle. No one follows him.

Tomoyo sees the figure through a gap in the crowd that surrounds her: wrapped in a hooded gray robe, curled in a crouch near the ground, shoulders hunched as if in grief. She sees a flash of pale hair tumble free of the hood, and she sees the profile of a face drawn and tight with horror and grief both. It would be an easy thing to point to him, she knows; there is the man who truly killed her beloved and brought disaster to his kingdom and hers.

She draws in a breath.

The boy on the other side of the square bows his head. She watches him wrap his skinny arms around himself and thinks that he hardly looks well-fed or elegant enough to be a prince: he looks as worn as she feels, and from the way he stares at the guillotine, she is certain that she is not the only one who has lost someone best-beloved. He looks nothing like Xiao Lang described him, or powerful, or anything but a sad lost little boy.

Tomoyo turns her face away and pretends not to notice as the boy staggers to his feet and stumbles off, out of the square and away.

+++

For days Yuui walks.

He would call it exaggeration, but the sun rises and sets many times, so he knows it must be days. He rests when he can, fitfully and unhappily, haunted by images of an empty bloodstained guillotine and the distant smile of the condemned man. He chews on handfuls of snow for water and ignores the weakness in his limbs and the hollow feeling in his belly. He thinks it’s been a very long time since he has eaten, but he can no longer remember.

One night, he curls up in the roots of an old dead tree, listening to the howling of an oncoming summer snowstorm as he wraps his cloak tightly around himself. The land has been growing sparse and rocky as he has walked; there is less snow, but it is more bitterly cold, as if the land itself is attempting to reject his passage. He closes his eyes.

When he opens them again, it takes him a moment to realize that he is in a proper bed–a good and soft one as well, with pillows beneath his cheek and a heavy blanket pulled up to his chin. He blinks at the wall across from him: a screen painted with a long twining dragon escorted by a flock of black-and-gold butterflies. Yuui blinks again, and realizes there is the silhouette of a person on the other side.

The screen is pushed aside, and a young man is there, standing across from him. He looks young and somehow familiar, with mismatched eyes of blue and brown shielded by steel-rimmed glasses. In his arms, he has a tray with a bowl and a cup, both gently steaming.

“Ah, good, you’re awake,” he says. He crosses over the room as Yuui sits up, then puts the tray in his lap. “I’ve brought you soup and tea. Drink them both, but do it slowly.”

Yuui looks down, then winces as his stomach gives a rattling growl. He wets his lips as best he can with a nearly-dry tongue, and whispers, “Where?”

“You’re in my shop,” the young man says. “And right now, you’re my guest. Please, drink.”

Yuui reaches for the tea, holding the cup in both hands. There is an odd reluctance in him; he doesn’t quite want to drink. His host continues to stare at him, though, and finally Yuui sets his cracked lip to the rim, tilting it enough for the hot liquid to brush it. His gaze wanders: the table has a statue of Valeria’s snow-birds beside a rock-carving from Nihon; there are tapestries from Clow on the walls, bracketing a plain oval mirror. He looks back at the young man by his bed and squints through the haze of memory.

“… you,” he says finally. “You used to be … Watanuki?”

The young man bows low from the waist, one hand over his heart. “I’m honored you still remember me, Your Highness,” he says. “It’s been a long time.”

Yuui flinches. “No,” he says softly. “I’m not–I don’t–why did you help me?”

Watanuki smiles gently. “Because you needed it,” he says. “I don’t blame you for what happened, Your Highness. The banishment was no punishment to me.”

Again Yuui flinches; he has to set the cup down before he ends up spilling it. “But I said all those things,” he whispers. “I said if you ever came back–that you’d–”

“It couldn’t be helped,” Watanuki says. “You did your best; I’ve always known that.”

Yuui lets his head fall forward, hunching his shoulders. He wants to cry again, absurdly, but the tears won’t come.

“You have a wish, don’t you?” Watanuki asks. There is a snick, and when Yuui glances up from the corner of one eye, he sees that Watanuki has lit a long slim-stemmed pipe, and the resulting smoke drapes around him like a veil. “I wouldn’t have been able to help you if you didn’t.”

He swallows hard. “Fay–”

“No,” Watanuki cuts him off–gently, but with an air of absolute finality. “Some lines cannot be crossed, even by the Witch of the Wasteland.”

Yuui bunches his hands into fists, clutching at the coverlet. “Fay … wanted me to be happy,” he whispers.

“He did.”

“He wanted me–to live somewhere peacefully. To live. But everyone knows my–I don’t know where to–I don’t have anywhere to go!” The last comes out of him in a burst; his chest is heaving and he feels lightheaded from the effort. “Fay wanted that for me, and I don’t have any way of doing that for him–I can’t–”

Watanuki exhales a long, thin plume of smoke. “There’s a price,” he says.

“I don’t have anything to give,” Yuui replies.

“You do, actually.” Watanuki leans forward, and with the long white fingers of his free hand, he takes the signet ring from Yuui’s finger–something he’d had for so long he’d long forgotten about its presence–and holds it up. “This ring is a symbol of the power you wield, and your identity as Yuui of Valeria. Even now, the prince of Clow and his servant are searching for this; without it, Valeria will have no other king. The spells of the land are tied to this one symbol alone.”

Yuui gapes at him, and Watanuki goes on, “With this, you are the First Prince of Valeria, to become King when you reach your majority next year. Without it, you have no ties to this world, and no family that would make you stay. Do you understand? You will not be Prince Yuui Valeria–you will just be Yuui.”

“Fay,” Yuui says softly.

Watanuki raises an eyebrow.

“I’ll be Fay,” he says. “Yuui–the prince died. Fay should have lived. I want to do that much.”

It isn’t quite a smile that softens Watanuki’s mouth, but almost. “Fay, then,” he says gently. “If you trade this, I will send you to a place where you can live peacefully, away from the turmoil that still plagues this world. In return, you renounce all your ties; this is no longer your world. It will be a stranger to you, and you to it. Understand?”

Yuui nods, turning over the sound of his new name in his head: Fay. Fay. Fay. It will take getting used to. “I do.”

“Then finish your soup, and your tea,” Watanuki says, and now he does smile, his expression suddenly affectionate. “You’ll need your strength, and a meal will do you good. I made it myself.”

Fay blinks, then nods again and bows over the soup, picking the bowl up and sipping slowly. It warms him from the belly out, soft on his tongue and down his throat. “It’s good,” he says, and is surprised to find it true.

Watanuki smiles and turns his pipe, tapping out a few ashes onto the ground; they vanish before they actually land on the dark floor. “Finish that, then,” he says. “I have preparations for your journey to make.”

He sweeps out of the room, pulling the screen shut behind him. Fay remains curled half-forward, over the tray in his lap. His hand feels light, but some of the emptiness in his chest eases. He lifts his head and looks at his reflection in the mirror: pale and afraid, and tries to sit up a little straighter, to find the confidence that had bloomed in Fay during the last weeks of his life. He tilts his head just so and tries a smile that isn’t quite right and thinks: I will have to practice; I’ll practice and practice and someday, I’ll look, and I’ll find you right there, with me.

+++

“Follow the path,” Watanuki tells him. The morning is gray and grim around them, and the trees surrounding the shop toss their green heads and bend to the raging storm. Watanuki himself is the one still point of the entire scene: the long sleeves and train of his robe don’t move, even as Fay has to lift an arm to shield his face from the wind. “Don’t stray, and don’t look back.”

Fay nods slowly. He squints into the wind, looking down at the spell-circle at his feet, then up at the still dark figure before him. “Thank you,” he says. “Even after everything I did, for everything you’ve done–”

“Live well,” Watanuki says, and smiles. Fay takes a deep breath and nods, then steps into the circle.

Light explodes all around him, so bright that he has to shield his face again, and the shrieking of the wind is drowned out by a great atonal hum. With effort, he cracks an eye open and sees a path, slightly darker than his surroundings, stretching out before him. He wants to turn and see if Watanuki is still there, somewhere behind him, but forces himself to remain facing forward.

One step after the other, he advances. If he keeps his eyes focused downward, at his feet, the light is not quite so painful. Unlike before, there is no sun to measure his progress, so he counts his footsteps instead. One thousand. Two thousand. Three …

Step five thousand comes down on empty air. Fay is too surprised to cry out at first, pitching headfirst into freefall, and before he can gather himself to react, he hits the ground. It is gritty and hard under his cheek and flattened palms. The strange bell-tone humming in his ears is gone, replaced by a rhythmic crash and hush, like waves against the shore; gradually, other sounds filter in: the clop-clop-clop of horse-hooves on pavement, the creak of wood and carts, and when he breathes in, he smells salt.

“–Oi! Oi, you, are you all right?”

His entire body feels too bruised and delicate to properly move, but he forces his eyes open. He sees the dark outline of someone’s knees before him, and when he glances up, there is a stern frowning face hovering above him. He wants to say that he is fine, that he’ll be able to move in a moment, but the most he manages is a pathetic sort of croak before he has to close his eyes again.

He hears muttering, and then his body is hefted up. It hurts, but he just whimpers as he’s slung over a broad shoulder, and then mercifully blacks out.

This time, when he wakes, he is in a bed again, though nowhere near as luxurious as the one in the witch’s shop: it’s barely more than a straw pallet with a hard pillow and a thin blanket. The ceiling above him is plain and white. He moves a little and hisses at a flare of pain; his body feels like one enormous bruise.

“Finally,” says a man’s voice to his right. Fay starts, hissing again, then turns his head to look.

It’s the same man who found him, he thinks. He has short-cropped spiky black hair and a long lean face and blood-red eyes. He is dressed simply in black and is in the process of peeling an apple in a single long strip of skin. The fruit and small paring knife look awkward in his large long fingers. He scowls a little, though whether at his immediate task or the look on Fay’s face, it’s difficult to say. “Well? You going to tell me your name?”

Fay blinks again. “Ah,” he says softly. “I’m … Fay. My name’s Fay.”

“Kurogane,” the man says. He makes a quick little twist of his wrist and slices off the last of the apple-skin, which he begins to wind around the base of the paring knife’s blade. “I found you on the road. The hell sorta traveler are you, not bringing anything to eat or drink with you? Were you robbed?” There is a certain eager light that sparks in his eyes at the last, and his fingers quirk on the knife, as if imagining it as a much-larger weapon before he catches himself.

“… No,” Fay says softly. “Where … ?”

“The ocean temple of the Goddess of Mercy,” Kurogane says. His body relaxes again. “We take care of idiots like you, if you ask for it. So before you do any damnfool thing like setting off without any supplies, the head priest’ll make sure you’re cared for.”

“Mercy?” Fay echoes softly. He closes his eyes. “… it sounds nice.”

“It’s not bad.” Kurogane sighs, and then there is a wet slicing nose: Fay peeks and sees that he is cutting the apple into quarters. “For people who’ve got nowhere else to go, this is a good final place.”

Something in his tone makes Fay open his eyes completely again. Kurogane doesn’t look upset or regretful, but he is thoughtful as he cuts away the seeds and core of his apple slices. “Does the temple take anyone who needs a place?” Fay asks softly, timidly.

Kurogane’s red eyes cut towards him sharply. “You’d have to ask Ashura,” he says finally, evenly. “We’ve had a lot of refugees lately. Seems like there was quite the war, on the other side of the five kingdoms. Lots of people have been trying to get away from it.”

Fay draws in a sharp breath, but before he can say anything, Kurogane puts the plate of cut and cleaned apple pieces on his chest and gets up. “I’ll go tell Ashura you’re awake,” he says, then points the knife at Fay like a warning. “You eat.”

“Ah–thank y–” he begins, then cuts himself off as Kurogane stalks from the room. The man walks with an obvious aggressive grace, and Fay thinks of the soldiers on the battlefield: deliberate and precise and still flowing like water (like blood) through the tides and turns of battle. He sits up slowly, carefully, and picks up one of the apple quarters, nibbling at the edge. It is tart enough to make his throat close a little, but he continues, and by the time Kurogane returns with another man behind him, he has nearly finished the one slice.

Fay looks up mutely as the newcomer–Ashura, he thinks, it must be–comes to his bedside and lifts a hand to press against his forehead. Like Kurogane, his clothes are simple and black, though he wears a heavy symbol in bronze around his neck, and his bearing is noble and kind. His long black hair is secured loosely back from his face, and his palms are smooth and cool. There is a sense of such such serenity radiating from him that Fay can’t help but lean into his touch, and in spite of himself, he finds his eyes prickling and stinging.

“Kurogane tells me you wish to stay,” Ashura says. His voice is low and deep and, like his face, so very kind. “Do you truly have nowhere else to go?”

Mute, sniffling a little, Fay shakes his head.

“If you stay,” Ashura says, “you will have to work. We all do our part, here at the temple. Do you understand?” His hand strokes back, smoothing Fay’s hair from his face. “You’ve suffered a great deal, haven’t you? Even though you’re so young.”

Fay doesn’t trust himself to answer. Behind Ashura, Kurogane is staring at him, and something about that gaze makes him more nervous than before. He nods again, eyes downcast, and is rewarded by Ashura’s gentle hand petting his hair. It feels good, and he leans into it tentatively.

“Then, Fay the traveler,” Ashura says gravely, “on behalf of our mistress, the Goddess of Mercy, we welcome you into her temple.”

+++

“Are you entirely useless?” Kurogane snaps. “Where did you work, before this?”

Fay scowls a little at the ruined loaves of bread. They are sad and misshapen little lumps, barely darker than their original flour state except for where they’re peppered with black burned bits. “I did everything you told me to!” he protests. “I don’t know what happened–”

“Obviously you didn’t,” Kurogane growls. “Or else they wouldn’t look like this!” He picks up one loaf and brandishes it like a sword. “Listen next time, you fluffheaded moron!”

“You’re so mean,” Fay shoots back. “I’m trying! That should count!”

“Trying means you get somewhere!” Kurogane drops the loaf back onto the baking tray and takes it to the bin for the kitchen-scraps, sliding the whole lot in. “How many times have you tried this? Listen, I’m only going to tell you how to do it once more, and after that–”

“That’s what you said last time,” Fay mutters under his breath. He huffs out, puffing pale hair from his eyes. He’ll have to get it cut soon, he thinks, or start pulling it back again. “And the time before that, and the time before that. Kurogane the slave-driver.”

“What was that?”

“No, nothing.”

This is what his life has become: working in the kitchens with Kurogane to make bread, which the temple gives to the poor and to travelers–but also sells for its livelihood. He wakes with the sunrise and sleeps hours after it sets, and his while dreams are still restless with blood and cracked mirrors, he thinks that the sound of the ocean outside his window every night is what allows him to catch even what he can.

Every week, there is a large gathering before the altar of the Goddess–people who come with hunched shoulders and haunted gazes to kneel before the lovely-faced statue and pray for forgiveness for any number of sins. Fay recognizes the dress of people from Clow and even Valeria; he hides in his own tiny room or the kitchen during these masses, too afraid of being seen and identified.

“Can anyone ask for mercy?” he asks Ashura once, as he follows the head priest around the altar-room, lighting the sticks of incense spaced along the entire area. “No matter what they’ve done?”

Ashura glances at him and smiles. “Anyone and everyone,” he says. “She does not judge people by their past actions, but by their hearts. If someone comes to her and truly regrets their sins, she will not turn them away from her grace.”

It is almost enough to make him hope, but he still hides himself when travelers come to the temple. Once, he sees a young woman with long dark hair come to the temple, dressed in the long white robes of the Clow High Priestess over a red frock-shift, and though he recognizes her face, he lurks in the darkest shadows of the altar room as she comes to pray. He cannot hear what she says to the Goddess, but he watches as she remains kneeling for the better part of two hours, and the words she exchanges with Kurogane before she goes. They stand almost as close as lovers, but there is a divide between them that is nearly physical. She reaches for his face and he steps back, turning his head away; she leaves and Kurogane is surly for weeks, snapping and growling until Fay forgets his fear and loses his temper and yells back.

After that, Kurogane is still critical, still the most demanding taskmaster that Fay has ever known, even compared to his past life of stern tutors and drill instructors, but he almost smiles, now and then, and when Ashura smiles benignly at them both and calls them friends, Kurogane doesn’t even protest.

Almost without his realizing, a year slips away.

Then, one morning in early summer, Fay starts awake with a scream strangled in his throat, his heart pounding so hard that he wonders, vaguely, how it hasn’t torn itself from his chest. He lifts his hands and stares at them in the moonlight–so bright it nearly matches the sun–and is surprised to see that they are clean. Even as he struggles to focus, the memories of his dream are fading into a bloody mist: Fay’s head in the basket, that sweet vague smile on his face, and the blood that had pooled on the scaffold, enough to drip through the boards and to the ground beneath–“Oh, it’s tea-time”–

Fay throws aside his thin blanket and gets out of bed. The first thing he does is steal a scrap of paper from the record-book and a small glass vial from the kitchen; then he finds himself a pen and he goes to the altar-room.

Most of the lights have gone out: the room for the goddess is open at all hours of day and night, even when no priest is there to officiate. The room is hazy with incense smoke, but the goddess’s face rises above that fog, serene and smiling, her long graceful arms held open, as if to embrace the world. Fay walks with slow determination to her altar and kneels, looking up.

“I’m sorry,” he says. Though his voice is a whisper, it is loud in the otherwise-silent room. “I almost let myself forget, and if I did, that wouldn’t mean anything, would it? I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He pauses long enough to scrub a hand over his eyes, wiping away tears. “I know Father Ashura says that you’ll forgive anyone who really really repents, but I don’t know if I deserve that. Not now, not yet.

“But I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I’m–” He swallows against a lump in his throat. “I know you asked me to forgive you, Fay, but I don’t think that’s right. I was no good as a prince, you know. I was selfish. Everything I thought I was doing for the good of my people, I was doing because I wanted it for myself. I don’t know why you thought I was worth saving.

“I wish you were here. You should be here. You’d like this place–it’s quiet and it’s peaceful and everyone’s kind. You’d fit right in.” Fay takes another deep breath and lets it out slowly.

“I want you to know that I won’t forget you. Not ever. I wish I’d called you brother before you left. I wish I had been strong enough to come for you, like you did for me. I hope you’re happy, wherever you are.”

Fay bows his head and forces himself to breathe long and slow, until tears and the prickling in his eyes fades to just a dull pressure when he blinks. When he can focus, he smooths the scrap of paper and puts the pen to it, shaping each word slowly and carefully; when he is finished, he looks up at the statue of the goddess again.

“I love you,” he says, and he gets to his feet.

Still clutching his supplies, Fay walks from the altar-room and out of the church entirely, down the long winding path to the sea itself. In the moonlight, it is dark and glimmering, and the waves are low and gentle. He wades out until he is ankle-deep in the water, then rolls the scrap of paper up and slips it into the glass vial before stoppering it. He stares towards the distant horizon and the long, long stretch of moving water in between. He shifts his posture and braces himself, then flings the vial as hard as he can into the darkness, towards the horizon. He hears a distant splash, and though he cannot see where it landed, he waits for long, long minutes, straining to find some sign of it in the waves.

“My mother always said if you told the ocean your wishes, they’d come true.” He hears the words as if they are being whispered directly into his ear; the breeze shifts, tugging at his hair gently. A superstitious man would have said it was playful; Fay knows better.

He turns and freezes at the sight of Kurogane on the beach, watching him.

Unlike Fay, he is fully dressed in the black robes of the temple’s servants, and there is something unreadable in his red eyes, the color leeched nearly to black in the moonlight. Fay is surprised to find he is not afraid, though, and he walks forward, through the shallow waters without faltering. He wonders if this is where the other Fay had found the courage to meet the mob, a year ago, unfaltering for once in the face of certain death.

“It’s really late, Kuro-rin,” he says. “Why aren’t you asleep?”

Kurogane eyes him again, then just shrugs. “I could ask you the same,” he says. His tone, for once, is absolutely neutral. “You really are an idiot, aren’t you? Running around like that without anything more than your shirt on.”

“There was something I had to do,” Fay says softly. He raises his chin. “I absolutely had to, no matter what.”

I saw you with the woman in red armor, he doesn’t say; she knew you and you knew her, so there’s no way you don’t know me.

“Next time,” Kurogane says, “put on a coat before you go off on these ‘absolutely necessary’ things.” He shrugs off his overshirt and drops it around Fay’s shoulders, fussing over the drape for a moment like a mother might, bundling up her child. “Got that?”

Fay blinks and moves slowly, slipping his arms into the sleeves of the overshirt. It is still very warm from Kurogane’s body and close enough that he can smell something dry and musky in the folds, and it is certainly not unpleasant. He realizes, with a distant surprise, that he is nearly the same height as Kurogane, even if much skinnier. He rubs the hem of one sleeve between his fingers and looks at Kurogane. He can see himself in the other man’s eyes, and the long, eternal expanse of the ocean behind him.

“Kuro-pon,” he says.

“C’mon,” Kurogane says, and jerks a thumb over his shoulder, towards the temple. “Let’s go home.”

+++

Once upon a time, there was a kingdom in which it was always winter. Even during the height of midsummer there was snow on the ground and icicles hung from the eaves of houses and the spread branches of trees. It was called Valeria, and it was the first kingdom of the world, created by the twins Day and Night, who had once been properly named and had that privilege stripped from them by the other gods.

Then, one day, the Goddess of Mercy was traveling with her companion and came to icy Valeria. The twins received their guests with the best honors and graces they could manage, for they had been reduced to living in a quiet little hut, away from the castle and villages of the humans who had inherited their kingdom after their folly. In their place others were rebuilding, but they had their small home and their fire, and they sang together for the amusement of their guests. Day took up the empty branches of ice-trees instead of fans and danced, and Night clapped his hands to set a beat. And when the fire was finally banked, the companion of the Goddess said to their hosts, You sing so merrily, and yet you bear no names. Tell us, how did this come to be?

And so Day and Night spoke, and so the Goddess of Mercy listened to their story, which was told humbly and quietly, and she smoked until all the tobacco in her long pipe was turned into fine powdery ash. This she took and pressed her thumb into, then pressed it to the foreheads of Day and Night in turn. And then she said, You truly regret your actions, but you have found a strength that does not require the trappings of power that you had grown so comfortable with, before.

In this I hear you, and I forgive you. And I name you: Soel the Day, and Larg the Night. You may never return to the greatest heights of the kingdom of the gods, but no longer will you languish nameless, for you have accomplished what few ever do: you have learned happiness in that which is yours alone, and do not covet anything more.

With this, the twins were so pleased that they began to sing again, and it is said that even after the Goddess of Mercy and her companion left their little home, they continued to celebrate; if you know where to find them, you will see that they are at peace and joy still.

Posted in fanfic | Tagged , | Leave a comment