The Pale Girl

They say the world ended late on a spring Thursday afternoon, just as the sun was beginning to slant its way downwards and the sky was shading towards pink and orange. It happened quietly, like the moment between one breath and the next: one moment things were as they always were, and then nearly every person on earth went to lie down and die. People call it the Great Quiet, because it was – the world pulled the blankets on and turned out the lights and that was it.

My dad was one of them. That’s what Mom told us, on a winter Friday, when everything was gray and cold and wet outside. She said that the Pale Girl came for him, and that was when he had to go to sleep. Her mouth trembled a little when she said that, and she rubbed at her eyes with one hand, as if troubled by a headache or some deep terrible exhaustion.

Then she kissed both of us: me (twelve, wide-eyed, confused) and my brother (sixteen, sullen, already angry at things I didn’t know yet), and she went to bed. Continue reading

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this is (not) your world

“Our family was not a sentimental one, nor a terribly forgiving one. It was, however, a peculiar one, and one that is not overly concerned with the niceties and dictations of society. We are as we are, and will do as we must in order to maintain that.”

+++

You have always been clever; you have known that since childhood, after an uncle chucked his meaty hand under your chin, looked at your face, and declared that your face would never win you any prizes, so you had better be especially sweet-tempered, and that with your dowry would win you a proper husband. You had stared at him with a frown on your face, and you said that any man who would be so foolish as to accept such an obviously-cultivated facade did not deserve one penny of whatever money you might bring him. You might have said more, angry and flush the way the very young are (once upon a time, you had some vanity about your own appearence: you have outgrown that long ago), if not for your brother’s intervention and your father’s lazily well-timed remark, your lady sister would have boxed your ears soundly for such a remark, Charles, and don’t let yourself forget that.

You have always been very lucky: your brother would leave his door cracked open when tutors came, so that you could linger outside to listen, and there were times where he tutored you himself–mostly, though, he simply left his texts lying where you could find them (and deliberately so: there is no way it could be any sort of accident; not in a family like yours), and did not ask for them back. There is a system: you read, you make notes, and eventually you return the books exactly where you found them. He never asks for them, but sometimes he engages you in discussion on what you have read.

Your father teaches you practical things; he agrees, nearly apologetically, that you are not a very pretty child, and never shall be, but he tells you your mother had been striking in her own way, and he says if you cannot be beautiful, then by God, let you at least be clever, and he teaches you the working and making of things, of how to properly use both pistol and hunting-rifle and the violin; he teaches you that you must listen, instead of merely hear, when someone speaks, even if it is not to you. You must observe rather than merely see. For your sixteenth birthday, nearly upon his deathbed, he cuts off the heavy plait of your braid with a knife and gives it to you to burn, and he tells you that he is glad that he will be able to tell your mother about you, and that she will be glad to hear of you. At this point in your life, you are hardly the sort of person who can be moved by sentiment, but there is still a part of you that is fiercely glad at that declaration.

When he dies, you turn up your collar and wrap your small narrow breasts, and you follow your brother to your city.

+++

School starts off as a fascinating thing–there is such depth and amount of knowledge that you think you could not possibly get through even a quarter of it in your lifetime–but soon enough, you find yourself missing the countryside where you grew up, and the quiet steadfast nature of the people you left behind. People in the city are narrow-eyed and paranoid; they resent you enough for your intelligence when your disguise is firmly in place, and the things you have heard them spit about women while in their cups does not convince you to take them into your confidences. They are pigheaded, foul-tongued, and nowhere near as clever as they fancy themselves, her classmates, and the women that they keep company with are no better: fluttery empty-headed creatures who would as soon faint at the sight of a gun before they could be pressed to touch one, even to defend their own lives. In people you are disappointed, so away from people you turn: deeper into your books and your studies you go, separating out sorting out useful from the maybe someday important from the absolutely worthless.

They whisper about you, your classmates and their women; moreso when you manage to find the supposedly missing ring of the dean’s wife. It was simplicity itself to see the truth: that the silly woman, under the intoxication of a new affair with one of her husband’s students, had removed the ring so as to be able to accompany her buck into certain uncomfortable areas, and finally, at one particular time, had forgotten to put it back on again. You lay out the facts of this case nice and neat, and the woman turns scarlet and rails at you for having no human pity in your heart, to which you say: my pity, such as it exists, goes to the girl whom you attempted to accuse of stealing the ring; it is of no particular matter to me what happens to you, but I will not see someone innocent suffer in your place, madam!

Your brother tuts at you for the news over dinner, when you are visiting him at his club; he gifts you with a clay pipe and a pouch of tobacco of your own. You will never make friends, if you cannot control your tongue, he tells you.

I do not want to make friends, if these are the sorts of people I must be friends with, you say, and he exhales plumes of smoke that wreath his head. It takes you nearly two weeks of practice before you can emulate the gesture.

Be that as it may, Sherlock, he drawls, his sleepy dark eyes never once blinking, you are most damnably clever, and I’d like very much to not have to bury the rest of my family before I myself am thirty. Indulge me this, please.

You are hardly of any category that needs indulgence, you say, but you let the subject be turned to your studies, and to his new employment, and it is a pleasant enough meal afterwards. In all the gray dreary streets of your new city home, your brother, at least, is comfortably the same, and intelligent enough that it does not feel like yelling at a closed door just to be properly heard.

+++

And then: John Watson.

He is a most peculiar man: a soldier, clearly enough, and a doctor as well–both so clearly obvious that he might as well have written the names upon his forehead. He does not immediately irritate you, though in some ways he is no more clever than the fellow students you have so recently left behind; there is a sort of genuinity about him that you have never seen properly faked. He will never be as smart as you, for all of his medical education, but he at least has potential: without ever having been taught, he listens. In your head, you picture it as such: it is as if you were in a closed room, shouting at the top of your lungs to communicate with the intolerably thick, and rather than allow you to continue straining yourself, John Watson simply opened the door and spoke with you face-to-face.

It is a most … fascinating thing, really. Refreshing, definitely.

He becomes your roommate and your companion in your business in short order; it is easy enough to convince him to follow you. Watson is a soldier, after all, and one prematurely discharged due to his injuries–a hale young man who is otherwise healthy, and chafes at how sedentary his life must become, to be a city-doctor to city-folk. A few choice phrases dropped here and there get his blood boiling with curiousity, and in short order, he has become your shadow and your backup, and you are quite glad to have him there. More vexing is his decision also to become your biographer and chronicler–but you are confident in your own cleverness and in the inherent desire of people (even those with such potential as Watson) to merely see what they want, when there is no explicit evidence to prove them wrong. He will look at you and see Sherlock Holmes, the world’s first consulting detective, tall and whipcord lean, a man with stern thin features and ruled by the demons of his own intelligence, because you will give him nothing that might make him consider otherwise. He will see that because that is what you will show him with no hint otherwise, and you know that never in your life will you be caught.

Besides, while Watson is an admirable fellow in all things, he has a certain chivalric streak that rankles you–it is one thing to be gallant to the high-class women who seek your services, or the poor shivering girls who are too poor and too frightened to do anything but gamble on your skills, but to be so genuinely kind to the hideously stupid is an insult to all intelligence; you may trust him in all things, but you do not trust that his nature would change when it came to the truth of your sex, and to be deferred to by him because of that and not because of your own competance is something so vilely intolerable that it keeps you awake for two days straight, alternating between your work-bench and your violin.

No: your friend (for he is your friend, in spite of your best efforts internally and without) must only know if he discovers the truth himself, and you have taken precautions to insure that he never will. With that, you are satisfied, and with that you set your violin aside and you procure tickets for the opera, inviting him to attend with you, confidence carrying you bouyantly along. He is the immovable object to your unstoppable force, and that, you think with great satisfaction, is exactly how the two of you shall remain.

+++

It is a strange and peculiar blow when Watson takes up with Miss Mary Morstan; his absence leaves a queer feeling in your gut that leaves you feeling oddly off-balance for days. Weeks, perhaps. You are horrified at the precisely fifty-seven mistakes you almost make, which would have revealed everything. Perhaps your tongue is loosened by the cocaine, or perhaps it is the knowledge that Watson will not be by your side forever more–but the man is so pleased with his new relationship that he does not notice your slips and mistakes, and that is also deplorable. You cannot decide if you are angrier at yourself or at him, so you retreat into the comfort of your blackest moods, and you begin to search for a way out.

When you find it, you leap upon the opportunity with a wholehearted freverence; when you tell your brother of what you wish, it gets an actual raised eyebrow out of him, and a vague pursing of his thin lips.

You are damnably clever, he says, as he did years before, but you are also quite mad.

Perhaps I am, you say, but you never waver, never break eye-contact. Perhaps I was born mad, the wrong mind as well as the wrong body. Perhaps somewhere there is a man who longs in his heart for the comfort of silk and lace upon his skin and is so empty-headed that the light in his eyes are simply another reflection of the sun. Will you help me?

He looks at you for long moments, your distinguished lazy older brother, smarter than any man you have ever known, except for perhaps–perhaps–your shared father. I will, he says at last, and the Devil take us both if this fails.

+++

Everything goes to plan, which is of no surprise to you. What is a surprise is Watson’s cry of anguish when he realizes that you must have gone over the falls, that you and Moriarity both are lost to the dark and cold and wet. He is a man happily-married with a thriving practice–he has dozens of notes from your adventures that have yet to see publication, and he has friends who call upon him regularly, and whom he is always glad to make social arrangements with. That he thinks you gone and would react like this is most peculiar. You wait until he leaves finally, walking with his head down and his shoulders stooped and his limp more pronounced than you have ever seen it: a man in some strange terrible pain, and you do not understand why, or why it should make that queer emptiness in your belly reach its cold fingers up to knot in your throat.

It is not terribly unlike when your father died, his hand in yours and his eyes bright, when he whispered Marie, my angel, she’s come for me in a display of sentimentality you had never otherwise seen in him. For a moment you feel too-young and confused, like the gawky young child who’d shed petticoats for a boy’s trousers–only you never regretted that change at all, and certainly not as you think you will come to regret this.

Watson is weeping; you can hear him. Even when he is gone, the echoes of it linger.

It is an image that you will carry with you for years to come.

+++

“I think, of everyone else in the world, Dr Watson, you were in a position to know my errant sibling better than any other soul, living or dead. However, I think that perhaps to expect you to have completely seized advantage of that would be unfair: Sherlock was always a creature too subtle even for family to catch at anything he did not wish to reveal. But I hope you shall consider what I have said, and indeed, what I have not–as well as those things that Sherlock left waiting for too long. Should an opportunity present itself again, I suggest that you do as your friend has always told you, and pay attention.

“I hope these words will bring some measure of comfort for you, Doctor, in the times to come.

“Good-night to you.”

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The Wrong Solution

There have been times in the face that is the life of Sherlock Holmes (more times than he cares to admit, if he is honest) where he has wished he were not so damnably clever: that his instinctive ability to adapt can size up a situation in the space of a heartbeat and formulate a distinct and exact plan were not quite so well-known. Even if he miscalculates once, it is only ever once.

He wishes he were not so clever, and he wishes that Watson did not know him quite so well. He never does anything without a reason, and Watson knows this full and well. He has the feeling that the good doctor will be very angry with him for a long time to come.

So be it, then; Holmes has never expected to ever be remembered fondly.

Observe the scene: a villain, as they often are, clutching a slim briefcase of vital papers in one hand and brandishing a gun with the other. A handful of hired thugs lurk as well; most of them have been dealt with, but there are enough to be distractions. Watson is keeping watch over them, looming menacingly, and so he does not see the gun that is pointed at him; he is too distracted to take too much note of what the ringleader is shrieking.

There are, of course, a handful of outcomes: one, the gun will go wild. (Unlikely; the man in question is a noted crackshot, and even in his rage at being foiled his hand is steady.)

Two, the bullet will strike precisely in the center of John Watson’s back, neatly fracturing his spine, rendering him either crippled (a forty percent chance) or dead (sixty–possibly seventy, depending on how the man angles the gun–ah; seventy, then).

Three … well.

He does not bother to shout Watson’s name first; there isn’t the time and he has to move, because if he is too slow the bullet will simply graze him. He runs and he tackles Watson with all his not-inconsiderable strength. The good doctor lets out a shout of surprise that is echoed by the roar of the gun going off; he half-turns and oh–

Twice before in his life, Holmes has been shot. It is an agonizing feeling–both times they merely grazed him, his life saved by his quick reflexes. Today, it is not his life he intends to save.

What happens next, he isn’t entirely sure: his entire world is reduced to a red haze of pain. It is really quite disturbing; he cannot remember ever having his perception of things so uniquely and absolutely dulled. He thinks he hears shouting, and the sound of blows, but he can feel nothing but the horrible spreading pain in his back. He can hardly breathe. He cannot tell precisely where he was hit, because it hurts all over. However, he thinks: there is blood pouring out of him, and more than is healthy.

Then he is being moved–or not moved so much as lifted up; he blinks his eyes open with effort and finds himself clutched to John Watson’s breast, much the way a young lady of society might press her handkerchief. The good doctor is shouting something–at him? at someone else? ah, it’s hard to say–and he wants to say Watson, my dear fellow, don’t shout so, but the words catch in his throat and bubble out as a cough instead.

Holmes? Holmes, don’t you dare–damn you, man, stay with me! Do you hear me, I forbid you to do anything foolish!

Ah, he thinks, a painful laugh rattling, scraping in his lungs, but it’s too late for that, my dear Watson. I have already done many foolish things, the least of which was being involved with you.

Holmes, what are you–

You see, Watson, he continues on, with a merry madness–it pours out of him like blood–I have had the most horrible misfortune to think more highly of you than any other being living or dead in this world; and yet you have found someone who suits you much better! If that is not being foolish, to pine like one of those ridiculous heroines in a penny dreadful, then surely nothing is.

There are footsteps coming–or maybe it’s just the sound of his own heartbeat, thunderously loud in his ears–and he can’t help but smile a little; it’s all so terribly funny. He closes his eyes, and he thinks that he must be grateful to have had what he did, and that at least John Watson will go home safe and whole. He cannot ask for more than that.

Satisfied, he lets himself sink into darkness.

+++

And then he opens his eyes to light.

Not much of it, certainly: there is a lamp burning at his bedside with a dull yellow glow, casting flickering shadows across the walls. He is lying on his belly, his cheek pressed to the pillow. He shifts and there is a horrible aching pain spread all across his back.

“Ah,” he says, and his voice is low and rough and sounds nothing like himself. It surprises him so much that he stops to consider it.

“You’re awake, then,” says a voice to his side. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to turn his head, and there is John Watson, his own personal devil, seated beside him. That familiar face is hardly pleased, though: there is a tremendous frown sitting on his brow, his mouth a thin unforgiving line under the softening edge of his mustache. His eyes are dark with so many things, but all he says, once he knows he has Holmes’ attention, is, “You are an idiot.”

“Watson,” Holmes says, wincing as he tries to move–it takes far longer than he should, and now that the moment is no longer so immediate, he can feel that he was shot high in the back, nearly in the shoulder–a dangerous area, to be certain, but not necessarily automatically fatal. Damn. “If you’ve any fondness for me, do be gentle with me. I am more resilient than I might have thought, I think, but I am still quite–”

“You are an idiot,” Watson cuts him off, more warmly than before. “A hundred times–a thousand times–an idiot. What on earth were you thinking?”

Holmes licks his lips; they are dry and taste sour. “Ah. Well. I would imagine that would have been obvious. There was very little time, and you were rather distracted, so–”

“Damnit, Holmes!” Watson cries, lurching to his feet; the force of his movement knocks his chair over and sends it skittering. “If you are going to say such things, at least say them when you aren’t–when you’re not–” His face twists, and then he turns away, covering his face with one hand.

“Oh, dear,” Holmes murmurs. “I’d no idea you were so given to listening to the ravings of madmen, my dear doctor; you mustn’t let yourself be so distracted. I’ve been led to understand that very little good comes of it.”

“Holmes,” Watson says, and it is worse than before–his voice is dried to a husk of sound, tired and fragile with things that are impossible to decipher. “Why did you say those things?”

“You’ll have to remind me,” Holmes says. He rolls onto his stomach again fully, pressing his face fully into the pillow. “Or better yet, don’t. Call it a moment of madness. The last confessions of a dying man.”

“You weren’t dying,” Watson snaps almost immediately. “As if I would have allowed that.”

“Yes, yes,” Holmes says into the pillow. “My bad, old boy, now if you’d just let me sleep–”

“Holmes.” There is a warning note in Watson’s normally gentle voice. He’s angry. Of course he’s angry; Doctor John Watson is a kindhearted man, and even if his erstwhile former roommate and associate drives him to distraction, never allowing him peace even though he’s moved out and taken up new lodgings with his lovely new bride–he will feel for the man, as he feels for anyone injured and in need of his tender care. Holmes does not bother to lift his head; he has had enough of terrible confessions to last the rest of his blasted lifespan, however many months or years that might be.

“Holmes, look at me.”

“I’m afraid I’m quite tired,” Holmes says, muffled into the pillow. “I daresay I will fall asleep and find this all to be quite a terrible dream. If you ask me later, I shall say I forgot everything.”

“Holmes–”

Finally he lifts his head and forces his aching eyes to focus on Watson’s face, pale and flushed both, angry and confused. In spite of himself, he smiles at that, as gently as he can–he has always found it within himself an especial tenderness for Watson, even if his own particular brand of kindness is too rough and clumsy to have any affect on a man well-used to the softness of a woman’s touch.

“Watson,” he says softly. “I assure you, with all of my considerable intelligence, that if we are to carry this conversation any further, both you and I will regret the outcome, whatever it may be–and not only that, but your lovely wife may be the one most damaged.”

Watson’s eyes darken. His mouth opens. His throat works. His mouth closes.

“You see,” Holmes says. “Let it go, my dear boy. Perhaps in a decade or so, we could meet and laugh over this. Not now, though.”

“Holmes,” Watson says, and there is more than enough answer in his voice. Holmes lets his head sink back into the pillow and closes his eyes. They say nothing more, because there is nothing else to say, but before he sleeps again, he knows he does not imagine the tentative hand that smoothes its way slowly but surely through his hair.

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breathe.

It is a documented phenomenon, that in times of great stress or shock, that an event that would normally takes a mere heartbeat complete appears, to the observer, to span the course of several minutes.

Breathe: It is a dark alleyway, so far away from the gas streetlamps that their light does little good. There are three men, of the broad-shouldered, thick-jawed variety that is so common among the villainously-inclined lower class. One carries a crowbar the length of a man’s arm, and the others are unarmed.

Breathe: Holmes, engaging them. With that peculiar mad humor of his, he hails them as if for all the world is he one of their fellows. They are startled, they are angry: their boss had promised they would be unharassed, and Holmes has made a liar of him. There is shouting.

Breathe: A fight. It goes lightning-fast, contrary to everything that follows. Watson has his cane, Holmes has his fists; a typical Sunday afternoon.

Breathe: The moment.

Breathe: Watson has been in war, had been a soldier for nearly a year before his own injury, and he is not certain he has ever heard a gunshot quite so loud.

Breathe: He sees explosion of sparks and fancies he sees the gleam of the bullet itself, its lazy arc in the air.

Breathe: He hears Holmes’ pained grunt and suddenly the lean coiled presence at his back is ripped away, falling. He half-turns and watches his friend strike the ground, bouncing like a child’s rag-doll tossed carelessly aside.

Breathe: Cold certainty replaces the blood in his veins. It is dark and Holmes is not breathing. The name dies on his lips unspoken. The villains are fleeing, terrified of their boldness–they must be very inexperienced indeed, a voice says in Watson’s head (one that sounds like the dead man at his feet), to turn tail at a single gunshot.

Breathe: He falls to his knees and reaches out with trembling hands. His skin feels too hot and his chest too tight, and there is a terrible roaring of blood in his ears.

And then: “Ah! Damn!” Holmes sits up and pats himself down, a look of feline disgust wrinkling his brow and pinching his lips. After a moment, he reaches into his vest and produces his pocket-watch, shattered quite beyond repair. Holmes makes a sound of distress, prodding at the mess of gears and wires with the tip of his pinky, then looks up at Watson.

“This was my favorite watch,” he says. “It has served me well for many years, and see how all its loyal service is repaid! Who knows if I’ll be able to find another one quite so reliable, Watson, I–Watson?”

Watson, in the middle of Holmes’ ranting, has reached out; his hand now rests upon his friend’s narrow breast. He can feel the charred ripped edges where the bullet penetrated cloth, and it makes him shiver.

“Watson? Say something, man.” Holmes leans forward, and there is just enough light to catch the furrow of his brow and the frown that pinches the corners of his mouth. He seems nearly as distressed as he did over his watch. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

And in that moment the whole scene is absurd: here he is, kneeling in a filthy alley with his hand over solid unbroken skin and his friend pouting (pouting!) over his broken pocket-watch, begrudging to ask if he was all right. Overcome in a sudden impulse, Watson reaches further and hooks his long arms around his friend’s thin shoulders and hauls him in, ignoring the strenuous protests as he embraces his friend, alive and spitting complaints, squirming like a captured cat, but tolerating the embrace for long seconds.

“You are, perhaps,” Watson says, “as well as the wisest, the most foolish man I have ever met, Sherlock Holmes.”

“Ah. Well.” Holmes gives him an indulgent look, the sort usually turned upon unruly children. “That’s all well and good. Would you mind letting me go?”

“I’d mind very much,” Watson says, and over Sherlock Holmes’ indignant sputtered protests, he squeezes to feel the narrow body against his own, and laughs out of sheer bloody relief.

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the color of red

Watson returns to their lodgings late in the afternoon–late enough that it could possibly be called evening, and his mood is pensive and quiet, enough so that Holmes glances at him above the paper and allows it to pass unremarked. Watson has to gently refuse dinner from Mrs Hudson before he retires to his own chair, chin resting on one hand, staring pensively into the fire.

Finally, after nearly an hour, he says, abrupt as a gunshot, “What do you think of the color red, Holmes?”

The man himself doesn’t answer for several minutes; a less clever man might have been mulling over his words, in order to pick the correct ones, but Holmes is merely being polite. Eventually, he says, “It is not an unpleasant color, though I’ve a preference for others over it. Unlike the lady in question.”

Watson sinks lower into his chair for a moment, his fingers pressed over his eyes. “We went to school together, did you know,” he said after a moment.

“I had wondered,” Holmes says, too carefully bland. Watson sees him move from the corner of one eye, long body uncoiling and recurling, shifted more towards him, eyes intent. “There are not many reasons a man will go to a woman’s funeral when she is not his blood-relation. Were you good friends?”

“Once, perhaps,” says Watson. “We lost touch some time ago, though we still exchanged letters every now and then. Still. None of our classmates wanted to work with a woman. It is an amazement she made it through with everyone biased against her. Even the dean of the school himself tried to persuade her not to take up the profession–she’d be better off as a nurse, that’s what everyone wanted to tell her. Instead …” He shrugs a little, wordless.

“You had presumed, as she had overcome those odds and survived every other disaster in that short life of hers, she would not die so soon, or so abruptly.”

“Correct,” Watson says, nearly a sigh, blown through his mustache. “After everything that has happened, I feel as if I should say, ‘thank God for the poor woman, she’s at rest!’ and yet I cannot quite bring myself to do so.”

“That is because you are an uncommonly empathic sort of fellow, Watson,” Holmes tells him, and his tone is nearly gentle. He reaches down and catches up his violin, though he does not yet set it to his chin; his long fingers move across the strings without producing any sound. “And I for one am grateful for that. Madame Red, however, cannot be glad or upset for your condolences now. She’s other business to attend to.”

“God rest her soul,” Watson says quietly.

Holmes says nothing else, but the song the violin sings is a quiet one–nearly a lullabye, more tender than his usual frantic practices, and Watson lets it lull him slowly to sleep.

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Five Times (Holmes realized he was touching Watson, and one time he didn’t)

-1-

There was the one time, very early in their partnership, where Watson–still new to this entire business and prone to overexcitement even now–had panicked at the sound of people approaching and shoved them both into a closet that was entirely too narrow to fit two grown men.

And yet, somehow, fit they did: miraculously so, with Holmes’ cheek smashed against Watson’s own and everything intolerably close. The good doctor had shaved that morning and nicked himself once (the dog’s fault: Gladstone was not especially given to barking, but one of Holmes’ concoctions–meant to silence the voice–had induced the most alarming series of hiccups that had startled Watson’s normally rock-steady hand); the stink of opium smoke was in his hair from their earlier visit to a particular den. His coat had been freshly-laundered as of the morning, but damp and stinking of river muck now. The contact only served to emphasize the discomfort of wet clothes, clammy and itchy in all the places where they pressed together. All of this paired with the doctor’s excited breathing as they waited for their unexpected interruption to pass made the experience most discomforting. Holmes disliked touch and avoided it where he could, and this from a stranger was all the worse.

Watson, damn his eyes, never once noticed. Once the footsteps passed, he’d spilled them both from their narrow hiding-space, eyes dilated and cheeks flushed. Ah, Holmes remembered thinking, here was a man for whom danger could become an excitement, and the lure of the chase could become an addiction. Perhaps, with proper training (for one: Holmes was not some rag doll to be tossed around willy-nilly for the sake of Watson’s delicate nerves), he would make an acceptable–if very occasional–partner. Holmes straightened his shirt and mustered what dignity he still had left to him, and returned to his lock-picking.

-2-

“If you would, please, your finger–here,” Holmes said. He did not wait for Watson’s reply, but instead reached out and grabbed the man’s wrist, dragging it over. To his delight, he didn’t have to actually coax Watson’s hand into the proper position; the doctor willingly places his index finger over the complex knot that Holmes is attempting to tie. The package will be sent as a present for a young lady that Holmes is courting for information about her father’s smuggling business; he does think the red ribbon is the perfect touch.

Under his hand, Watson’s skin was warm and dry, with a faint residue from his soap. (His fingers, later, would smell faintly of pine and rosemary.) His pulse beat steadily under the thin skin of his wrist; he laughed, and his breath, close to Holmes’ ear, smelled of his pipe tobacco. “Really, Holmes, do you think this will work? Miss Hargreaves is supposed to be notoriously difficult to impress.”

“Ah, but that is the challenge, then, isn’t it!” Holmes finished his knot with a flourish, which drags his fingers briefly against Watson’s sleeve. “I shall have to be so impressive that she cannot help it.”

Watson laughed again, and whatever he said in reply was tinged with sardonic good humor; Holmes made a humming sound of agreement–his actual words did not matter in this case–and watched the sunlight slanting into Watson’s hair.

-3-

The first time Watson caught him with the seven percent solution, he thought it was a dream at first: the light coming in through the window framed his dear friend, and though he was a man of science and of facts and learning–it was not very difficult to mistake the man’s appearence as something close to divine. He reached out with a drowsy languid slowness–or it seemed as such, anyway; the drug dulled the edge of his normally too-acute senses and allowed him to experience the world as he thought others must–and found his fingers brushing against the solid warmth of Watson’s collar. It felt surprisingly real, so he pressed harder, considering the sharp edge of bone softened under skin: an instrument finer than his own violin, that was the human body!

“Holmes,” Watson said, and he sounded too disappointed to be a hallucination–not that Holmes was terribly given to those, and so, he supposed, this must be real. His hand was taken and laid gently aside; he wondered a little at how he mourned the loss of contact. How far things had come, from that first uncomfortable time!

After Watson left, still disappointed and never looking back, Holmes sat until the sun had taken herself to bed, rubbing his fingers together and wondering at how touching Watson felt so much like another part of himself.

-4-

He woke before he opened his eyes. It took a moment to catalogue where he was: the stink of bodies and smoke, the sound of metal clinking and crisp booted footsteps across cobblestones and he thought ah, the police yard. His cheek was pressed against a hard warm surface, overlaid with linen and imbued with the smells of tobacco and antiseptic.

Ah, he thought, Watson.

He let his head fall forward and opened his eyes.

-5-

“For you,” he said. “You lost the other ring, didn’t you? I’ve noticed–you’ve been rather despondant, and checking your pockets for anything else you might pawn off, while all your belongings are packed and your checkbook is still in my desk.”

Watson’s eyes were steady, and there was a brightness in them that was unnerving. Holmes found he could not meet them for long. “Holmes …”

“Call it an apology,” he said. His lips twitched and pressed, not quite making it to a smile. “For my previous behavior. I suppose I’ve been rather dreadful, haven’t I?”

“Absolutely wretched,” Watson agreed, in the same even tone. “But that doesn’t explain how–”

“Just take it,” Holmes said. He grabbed Watson’s wrist and firmly pressed the ring against his friend’s palm, folding those long fingers firmly over their new burden. He can feel the faint healing scars from the explosion–Watson’s hands had mostly been spared, but there had been some gashes across the solid knuckles as well. His skin was cooler than normal to the touch: good, no infection. His inital doctor after the explosion might have been horrid, but there were none better than Watson himself, in Holmes’ opinion. “Give it to your Mary, and be glad with my blessing.”

-xxx-

“I am, as I have always been, grateful for your friendship,” says Sherlock Holmes. He clasps Watson’s hand with a firm grasp of his own, and his smile is a real thing–tiny, tremulous, and perhaps not something he himself is aware of, but Watson sees it, and recognizes it for what it is. “Do not doubt that, whatever else may happen.”

Long seconds pass without Holmes growing uneasy or snatching his hand away; that in itself is so unusual that Watson does not protest his friend’s strange behavior: he stands still, instead, and allows himself to be studied, as if he were one of those criminials that Holmes chases down–as if he were a case to crack open. He waits and waits and waits, and finally he is the one who pulls back and lets go, says that he must tell Mary where they are going, especially as it will be longer than simply a day for this particular case. Holmes nods and does not protest, but he watches Watson go the whole way; outside on the street, he glances up and sees he is still being watched.

Weeks later, at the funeral, he stares at the empty casket that is being lowered into the earth, and wonders why he ever retracted his hand.

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beauty and the beast

Once upon a time, in a little village near the Great Woods, there lived a girl who had been blind since birth.

She lived quietly with her grandmother and her grandfather and very rarely ventured out of her house beyond its sagging front step. Though she could not see, her fingers were slim and clever, so she spent her days spinning, sometimes in the cool shade of indoors, and sometimes in the warmth of the afternoon sun. People would bring her their wool, and it was said that there was no yarn finer than what the blind girl spun in the entire kingdom. In this way she was able to live, quietly with her grandparents, for many years.

When summer and market-season came, her grandfather loaded up their single donkey with the wool she had spun, and those that her grandmother had spun, and set off on the worn old trail, through the Great Woods and to the city that lay on the other side. Her grandmother stood in the doorway and waved him off, and the girl continued to spin the morning’s batch of wool, singing louder than normal, so that he could carry the sound of her voice with him for longer. Continue reading

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Grandmaster Draw

“Please, allow me to introduce myself,” the man says. He sweeps into a low bow–but not enough to hide the smirk that crosses his face, so wide it nearly splits in half. “Xerxes Break, at your service.”

“You’re the Lainsworth servant, aren’t you?” Vincent says. He smiles gently, matching Break’s with his own. “I remember, you were there when the Lady Sharon came to negotiate about us taking my brother in from the Vesalius. I’m indebted to her for that.”

“My lady is a gracious person,” Break says. His smile never wavers; it’s more perfect armor than anything else Vincent has ever seen. “And a softhearted one. When she heard of your plight, how could she do anything but offer her help? Especially since the Lainsworth has such a good relationship with the other Houses.”

“That’s true.” Vincent pushes away from the wall, walking on the balls of his feet, and leans forward until he is in Break’s space. Nothing changes in the man’s face or posture, not even to lean back, like most people would. It’s as much of a reaction as it *isn’t* one, which utterly delights him. “Why, one might say that without them, the rest of the Houses would have simply fallen apart through their own petty squabbles by now.”

“Such a thing to say about your own House!” says Break, who is now the very model of a concerned servant. His one eye is open very wide in the picture of sincerity. “What if your honored father heard you?”

“The honored Lord Nightlay has his own things to take care of, tonight,” Vincent says. He reaches up, his fingers not quite touching Break’s face, ghosting over the sharp edge of a cheekbone without ever quite touching. The skin is smooth and cool, like the porcelain of a doll. (A proper one, not the dressed-up raggedy thing perched on his shoulder.) “I’m free to do as I like, provided it isn’t anything too … outlandish.” He smiles again, sweet as the cakes that are being served at this little soiree. “What about yourself? Shouldn’t you be checking upon your Lady Sharon now?”

Without breaking eye contact, Break points. Vincent glances aside and sees that, unerringly, his finger is directed at the tiny heiress of the House Lainsworth. Tonight she is splendid in a dark blue dress, her long hair caught up in complicated artistic draping and pinned with seed pearl netting. She’s speaking to a member of the Barma family, poised and elegant despite her young age. He sees all of this in a moment, but when he looks back at Break, there is something that has subtly changed in the other man’s face. He’s still smiling, but there’s no longer anything even pretending to be friendly about it. One would have to be very close indeed to see that.

“Ah,” Vincent says gently. “As always, you serve your mistress well.”

“I always have,” Break says. This time, when Vincent leans into his space, he moves away just fractionally. Nothing else changes, not even the pace of his breathing. That’s very interesting.

“And I hope you’ll continue to do so, for a long time.” Vincent lowers his lashes and peers up at them; leaning forward as he is, he’s in a position to look up, coy as a maiden. “Your dedication is quite the inspiration for me.”

“Haha, is that so? The young master flatters me.” Break rubs the back of his neck, a calculated sort of embarrassed gesture. Anyone looking would only see a humble servant, embarrassed and pleased at the attentions of a young lord. “It’s my pleasure and my honor to serve the Lady Sharon, as I did her mother before her.”

“Your pleasure,” Vincent purrs. “How wonderful, to have such simple pleasures.” His hand trails lightly in the space just above Break’s shoulder, tracing the shape of it, sharp and angled. The cut of his clothes is very fine, better than most servants would be allowed–but he’s the manservant of the Lainsworth heiress, so perhaps he’s allowed a little more leeway with his budgeting. Vincent makes a note to buy Echo a particularly nice dress, the next time he goes into town. “Tell me, Mister Break, how deep does it go? Does your sun rise and set on her smile? If she touches you, is it something you feel all day? Right here–”

He reaches out. Before he can make contact, Break smoothly sidesteps him. It’s not awkward or out of place–instead, the movement is smooth and easy, flowing from his stillness without effort. Vincent is close enough to see what flickers just briefly through Break’s eyes, rippling through his pleasant smile. He doesn’t bother to drop his hand, standing there with it still outstretched, his own smile never changing.

“Oh,” he says. “Too close?”

“Those are rather personal questions, wouldn’t you say?” Break asks. He’s almost prim. “I’m sorry, Master Vincent, but I don’t believe I will be able to sneak away with you for any sort of tryst. Someone needs to keep an eye on the Lady Sharon, and if anything were to happen to her, even by accident …”

“She doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable,” Vincent purrs. He takes a half-step closer, and there is nothing polite or proper about the way he leans in close once more. Anyone looking would know immediately what’s happening. “After all, she could deal with my father and the head of the Vesalius family and not have them come to blows or blood. If you asked, I’m sure she’d let you go.”

“Then perhaps I should say that I don’t wish to ask,” Break says. He smiles sweetly now, and this time he doesn’t bother to hide what poison he feels. “You said so yourself, didn’t you? If my greatest pleasure is to be found at her side, why would I ever leave?”

“Why indeed,” Vincent says. He glances down, his lashes a fan against his cheek. “I apologize for any insult. I hope we can not let this become an issue between us.”

“Oh, hardly,” Break says. “I am but a servant, after all. I live to serve, though I am afraid that in this particular manner, and for you, I am not yours to ask for. If you’d like, I can recommend some discreet individuals who’d be more than happy to satisfy your whims tonight.” His one eye, jewel red and bright under the transparent fringe of his bangs, is dagger-sharp. There is a sudden and distinct distance between them; it’s no more than an arm’s length, but it might as well be the length of the entire ballroom. In spite of himself, Vincent can feel the corners of his mouth curling up wider. It gives away too much, but he thinks it must only be fair: he’s close enough to read so much out of Xerxes Break’s pale face. He wonders if even Shelly Lainsworth had seen this much of the man, who’d followed her everywhere like a pale ghost until the day she stopped appearing in public and her daughter stepped forward instead.

“Perhaps another time,” he murmurs. Like two dancers, they sidestep and move around each other so that it all looks very natural, and in the end Vincent is leaning against the wall again, watching as Break drifts back to Sharon Lainsworth’s side, drawn easily back into her orbit. She smiles more immediately and more warmly for him than anyone else she’s spoken to all evening–even from a distance, it’s quite easy to see. Ah, she’s still so very young, and he wonders if her contract froze more than just her physical age. He wonders how far he could push before he no longer could see Xerxes Break, just the Mad Hatter’s leering grin.

Vincent ducks his head and laughs quietly to himself. He rubs his thumb against the tips of his other fingers, then presses them to his lips.

“Ah, next time,” he murmurs, “I’ll skip to the queen herself.”

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pr(a/e)y

He wakes hungry.

There is a line of ice down his arm that’s so cold it burns; when he opens his eyes it’s twisted under him, the fingers twisted into claws. In the back of his head, an angry voice is murmuring.

He’s hungry. His belly growls and when he breathes he can smell something impossibly good, something that even the restless voice pauses for. It takes effort to swallow. He moves and bumps against something small and warm and curled against his side, and his breath is sour with wanting. His arm aches, his belly aches, his head–

“Frau,” the small warm thing beside him says, in a voice that is slurred and rich with sleep.

And he remembers.

+++

Even half-asleep and grumpy at being woken, Teito kisses like someone who still doesn’t understand life outside of fighting: hard and with teeth, leaning all his whipcord weight and strength into it, but he softens with certain touches–a hand threaded and petting through his hair, a mouth just under his ear, fingers sweeping a stroke against the tender skin of his inner elbow. He puts his arms around Frau’s shoulders and digs his nails in, makes startled, almost broken noises when Frau slides a broad hand under his back and pulls him up to a seated position, draped into Frau’s lap.

“Quiet,” he mumbles into Frau’s shoulder. “Capella’s …”

“I’m not the noisy one,” Frau says, which is true: Teito whines and yowls and mouths off, as if determined to take a more active part than his inexperience and impatience allow. He slides his thumbs into the waist of Teito’s pants and tugs them down easily; Teito squirms to help. “And that means if the kid wakes up, you’ll have to be the one to explain, brat.”

I’ll have to,” Teito says indignantly, and loses the rest of his protest in Frau’s kiss. He bites Frau’s bottom lip in retaliation, and Frau’s arm aches instead. He can feel pressure needling under his skin, so he kisses harder, more insistently, one hand on Teito’s back to brace him and the other wrapped around Teito’s cock, half-hard and quickly rising. The rest of Teito’s continued (muffled) diatribe melts into a strangled noise of pleasure, his back arching like a bow, bending further than really should be humanly possible. Frau works his fingers hard and fast and hard, Teito’s lower lip caught between his teeth, until Teito’s breath chokes and Frau’s fingers are damp and sticky.

He pulls away slowly, keeping his hand braced against Teito’s back, waiting until those huge green eyes blink into some semblance of focus. He smirks, and Teito goes red as a tomato.

“Wh–what was that for?! I thought you said we had to leave early tomorrow, you’re the one who said you wanted to sleep–”

“I changed my mind,” Frau lies. His fingers flex against Teito’s back, as if he could draw warmth out of that living skin. “Unless you’re done, brat, which I guess is understandable, someone like you–”

Teito growls and grabs his wrist. He spits into Frau’s palm, still damp and sticky, and he glares straight into Frau’s eyes and says, “Do it.”

Frau laughs, the sound low and thick, caught in his throat. He slides his hand down low on Teito’s back and presses to force him to tilt his hips up. “Maybe I should take it slow,” he says, as he brushes his damp thumb over Teito’s entrance, tightening his other fingers when Teito automatically flinches. “You’re young, aren’t you, brats like you could use it lots of times–”

“You’re a pervert,” Teito snaps, redfaced and trembling, his thin chest heaving. “Stupid pervert priest, always–this is–this is all you ever think about–”

Frau grins wide to show off all his teeth. “We could stop,” he offers. “Right here, right now, and go to sleep–”

“I’ll beat you up,” Teito growls, and his blush deepens. His skinny knees dig hard into Frau’s hips; his blunt nails draw red lines down Frau’s chest. With effort he lifts himself up, exhaling and trembling as Frau’s fingers work inside of him. His body is hot enough to begin easing the ache in Frau’s own. “Stupid–stupid perverted priest, what does anyone see in you, ever–”

“Ask yourself that question first, brat,” Frau says.

Teito growls again, digging in hard with his nails against Frau’s shoulder as he squirms and positions himself, and he stares straight into Frau’s eyes, unblinking, as he sinks down onto Frau’s cock. It is not the best prep job they’ve ever done–he sees the flinch that tightens the corners of Teito’s mouth, and he trembles a little too hard as he moves, but when Frau lets his hands simply hover over Teito’s hips, not touching, the brat continues shifting, relaxing in slow degrees until the movement is mostly smooth.

“Stupid,” he pants. “Stupid–pervert–ah–”

“As you see me,” Frau allows, though his own voice is strained; it feels good–it’s not enough to satisfy the full ache that gnaws at his belly, but it’s close enough to distract. When Teito’s eyes flutter closed, concentrating, Frau finally grasps his hips and holds on, not quite guiding or directing. He doesn’t not allow himself to close his own eyes–not completely–and the tiny, almost surprised gasps of Teito’s voice are almost enough to drown out that thing that’s murmuring to him the whole time.

(–want–need–hungry–)

Teito comes for a second time with a strangled noise, tossing his head back and exposing the line of his throat, distorted by his collar; only when he slumps does Frau let himself go, with a silence that he impresses himself with–for a few blessed moments, everything is quiet in his world.

Then Teito slumps forward against his chest, panting, warm, sticky, and Frau thinks about just rolling him off and over, but instead he puts an arm around Teito’s thin back and props him back up, using the sheet to clean them both off–in the cold, the inn’s provided them with two blankets, so at least there’ll be something left when they sleep. Teito makes a few grumpy noises, something along the lines of I can do it, and falls asleep before Frau’s halfway through. His breathing is soft and gentle on Frau’s shoulder.

His arm aches. He’s hungry.

Frau lifts his hand and alternates a few times between making a fist and relaxing. He frowns.

“That’s the most you get,” he says, refusing to acknowledge what he’s hearing, murmured soft and low–blood and seed and warm salty flesh and a crystal-pure soul–

Frau closes his eyes.

+++

He wakes hungry.

The light through the windows is gray and pale and sometime during the night the small warm weight against his left was joined by another smaller, warmer presence. He feels both heavy and light; the only thing that is clear is the hunger in his stomach and the icy burn that traces through the veins of his arm.

He remembers. And he wishes the taste of blood on his tongue, made when it slices against his teeth, was not his own.

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nighttime

It is long dark by the time Bastien returns to his rooms. The day has been a long one: Jio is making noises about promoting him soon, but he’s still holding out–it’s only another year before the exam, and while he hasn’t taken on an apprentice in years, there is one in particular that he’s interested in–

He pauses in the doorway to his room. He looks around slowly in the dark and frowns. He sighs, then walks over to the bed and takes a good double handful of his blankets–then gave a good hard yank. There’s a loud indignant squawk as a small body tumbles to the floor in a tangle of sheets. A moment later, a tousled blond head emerges from the mess, just visible in the silver of light that comes from the still-open door.

Bastien sighs and starts folding the blankets. “Frau,” he says sternly. “You’re breaking curfew.”

Frau sits with his shoulders hunched and his knees hitched up. It’s a posture that’s not unlike a wounded animal. He doesn’t look up, staring balefully at a spot somewhere past Bastien’s knees. “No one pays attention,” he mutters. “They saythere’s a curfew, but who’s even looking? You don’t even have a guard or anything.”

“Of course we don’t, Bastien says, placid. He puts the re-folded blankets onto the bed, then crouches down. “This is a church, not a prison.”

Frau’s eyes dart up towards his face for a moment, then away again. His jaw is set in an impressive scowl for his young child-soft face. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Bastien sighs again. He puts a hand on the ground to brace himself and moves from a crouch to a seated position–he’s not old yet, certainly, but his knees are protesting the movement more than they did even a year ago. He leans forward, but not so far that he crowds the boy, and he says, “Frau. Why would you say such a thing?”

“Nothing with this many rules isn’t a prison,” Frau mumbles. His voice trails off as he speaks, as if he can’t quite make himself finish the phrase. “Why wouldn’t I think that?”

“There are rules in every society,” Bastien says. “This is how we keep ourselves pure, so that we may set an example for the rest of the w–”

Before he can finish, something rockets forward, striking him center in the chest. Taken by surprise, Bastien falls back, thumping into the side of his bed, and Frau is kissing him, inexpertly and clumsily and more than a little violent; his startled indrawn breath tastes like blood. Frau shakes like a leaf in a storm, tucked into a tight ball in Bastien’s lap, and Bastien is so shocked that he lets it go for a few seconds before he very firmly puts his hands on Frau’s shoulders and pushes him back.

“Generally,” he says, still gentle, still unruffled, “if you want something like that, the thing to do is ask, first.”

Frau’s pale face is defiant. There is a smear of blood on the corner of his mouth. He’s still shaking. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” he asks.

“Hmm?”

“I’ve heard stories,” Frau goes on, trying so hard for cocky and sounding more like a lost little boy. It’s the worst he’s sounded in nearly a year, and that troubles Bastien. He sounds more like the boy who first came to the church, abandoned by his companions through death and trying so hard to pretend he didn’t care. “Priests like that sort of thing, don’t they? You don’t care about pictures or anything like that, so–so if it’s a real person, if it’s a boy–”

“Frau,” Bastien says. His voice is still gentle, but it’s still so absolute that Frau’s blustering cuts off immediately. “You are a beloved child of this church and a student whom I think very highly of. I think you could go very far, if only you tried. And–” he holds up a finger and affects his sternest frown, “it’s not a child’s position to presume how and where an adult spends his time. You’re still very young if you think something like that is enough to move me.”

For a moment, Frau just stares. His small face is so mobile, it’s astonishing; Bastien has never met anyone quite so expressive. He goes from shocked to disbelieving to–insulted–in the space of a couple of heartbeats. “Hey–hey! I’m not that much of a kid! I’m good at that, okay! I–”

“Yes, yes,” Bastien says indulgently. He gets to his feet, wincing a little when his knees crack. “I know. Let’s get you back to bed, all right?”

Frau looks at him and his outstretched hand. He squirms a little, going shift-eyed. “Mumblemumble,” he says.

Bastien continues to wait. “What?”

“I said, mumblemumblemumble,” Frau says. He glances up at Bastien’s patient face, then sighs loudly, squirming in spot. “… can I stay here … ?”

Bastien’s eyebrows both rise nearly to his hairline. “What was that?”

“Not like that!” Frau scowls fiercely. “I don’t mean like that! I just–I dunno, I thought–you know what, never mind! I’ll go! You didn’t have to complain so much!”

As he scrambles to his feet, Bastien sighs. “Only tonight,” he says. “You’re getting too old for this sort of thing. And you mustn’t brag about it, all right?”

Frau pauses. His back is framed in the light from the doorway, and his shoulders are still tense and unhappy. “Like I’d do that,” he mutters. “I don’t want–”

“If you kick or steal the covers, you’ll sleep on the floor,” Bastien says. He turns his back politely, undoing the heavy clasp of his outer robe, as he heads to the small wardrobe he keeps in the back of his room. “I’m getting changed.”

He takes his time deliberately. He hears the door close. When he turns and lets his eyes adjust to the dark, he can see a small lump curled on the right side of his bed. He smiles as he crosses over, and he slides into bed without disturbing his companion. It takes long seconds, but Frau finally unfolds, lying less like a defensive soldier, and more like a person ready for sleep.

“Good night,” Bastien says into the dark. “May you have good dreams.”

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ka i da n

Shhh, shh, shhhh, goes the wind in the trees. The sun is setting and turning the sky is turning into brilliant puddles of orange and violet and pink, and there is a breeze that makes fallen leaves rustle and whisper amongst themselves. The air is growing cool. In the distance, people are talking and laughing and singing, can you hear them? I’ll light a candle–hold it, if you would.

It’s a good night for stories. Here is one that my grandfather told me.

You know how they say when a cat lives to be a certain age, its tail splits into two, and it becomes a totally different creature? It becomes a demon that can make the dead dance and bow to its whims. There’s a faster way to do this, though, and bind the resultant creature to you. Take a black cat that is exactly three months old and not a second older or younger, and tie a ribbon around its neck. Red is the traditional color. Tie the other end of that ribbon to your wrist and lift it up. Let the cat hang. As it goes through its death throes, be careful not to let it scratch you; then you’ll have to start all over. While it dies, exactly as its last breath leaves its body, be sure to look straight into its eyes. Say its name (its true name, mind you, the one that is so difficult to get out of cats–they’re secretive bastards, worse than even foxes, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise) as it fades. Continue reading

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Valentine

In the end there is confusion and shouting, and though he folds himself around her and though she clings tight, they are torn apart. He sees her face in the light of day for the first and last time, stained with tears and shocked by the betrayal of her people and his. Everyone is yelling, filling the air with accusations, but he cannot look away from her, afraid to even blink.

“I will come,” he calls to her, through the noise.

Her lips tremble, then turn up into a smile. “I’ll die waiting,” she tells him, and is swept away.

+++

“Father,” she says. For just a moment she’s his little girl again, more precious than anything in his kingdom, trembling in fear of the dark.

He blinks. His hands are around her throat.

“Father,” she says again, softer now; she isn’t even trying to struggle. Deeply sinful child that she is, he feels a last tired spark of pride that she would accept his final command so willingly. The flutter of her breath is soft as a butterfly’s wing against his fingers. Her eyes are starting to dim.

“Sleep,” he says, crooning like the lullabies of long ago.

She does.

+++

Valentine watches her dance under hooded lids. His thin lips are set into a scowl and he strokes his fingers up and down the gold chain hanging at his neck. Now and then, he bares his teeth on a name he never once voices.

Valentine watches her dance, jealous as a lover, never blinking. Something flickers in his narrow eyes and quickly dies. The world could burst into flames and he would never notice, too preoccupied with the girl in silks and red velvet and the ghost that dances together with her.

Valentine watches her dance. And Ingway watches him.

+++

Fire and worse still rains down from the sky, but most of the screams have fallen silent when he crawls out from the under the Cauldron’s shadow. On his belly goes until he finds his sister, pale and still and sheltered. She is still wearing red silk. He touches her to make certain she’s real; his fingers brush her lips.

They’re soft. Her breath is warm against his fingertips. For a moment his heart pounds so loudly in his ears he can hear nothing else.

Like a man burned, he scrambles to his feet; he runs and never looks back.

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where morning has gone

We’ve been together since the day we were born. Before that, even. No matter what, if I reached out, your hand would be there to grasp mine in turn …

+++

There is a certain spot in the desert where rain never falls, even when the scattered clouds come to all other places; the locals call it the Mouth of Sheol and avoid even mentioning it. If you trick one into looking in its direction, they go pale and turn away as soon as possible. Most don’t even bother to pretend: they just close their eyes and the subject abruptly changes. Even if it was nothing serious to begin with. You learn to pick up the cues–and the clues–and piece them together as best as you can. No one wants to say whether or not they’ve seen Nick, but you’re willing to bet everything you’ve got that he’s been through. You saw the way the man at the gate looked at you when you arrived: pale and then red, angry and afraid, like he’d seen a ghost. Or worse. You know there are more frightening things in this world and the next. You’ll do whatever you can to push through.

Nick’s waiting. You’ve kept him long enough. Continue reading

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without, the thorns

“Oh, no,” Gyokuran says.

“Absolutely not,” Gyokuran says.

“Surely, you must be joking,” Gyokuran says.

The princess blinks at her in the mirror, wide-eyed and innocent as always. She is in the middle of plaiting one of the long tails of her hair for the evening, leaving the other to be brushed out by Gyokuran, first. “But it is quite so,” she says. “Father informed me of this just the other night, at dinner. We’ll be hosting him and his family next weekend. Do try to be nice to him, Gyokuran, I know how upset you get–”

“This is unacceptable!” Gyokuran wails. “Princess! How can you allow something like that? He’s not even royalty, he’s just–he’s just–!”

“He is an Oak, Gyokuran,” the princess says, unconcerned even when Gyokuran yanks a bit at her hair in distress. There is unusual steel in her voice–but something that is still quiet and gentle for that. And while sometimes she can be flighty and distracted, there are moments where she is every inch who she was born to be. Gyokuran looks in the mirror and sees a queen looking back. As always, the sight makes her breath catch and her heart flutter in her chest; she is a loyal servant of the Empire, of course, but before that, she is her princess’ devoted attendant. “That means he is more than suitable. Besides,” she goes on, and the illusion breaks: she’s just a young girl again, Gyokuran’s friend and mistress for so many years, “his cousin is very nice and clever, after all. Surely the whole family can’t be that bad.”

Gyokuran, in deference to her lady, waits until she is back in her own room before she starts throwing things and shrieking her response to that.

+++

It wouldn’t bother her as much, she knows, if Hakuren Oak wasn’t so damn smug about the whole thing. Oh, he acts innocent enough–he’s always unfailingly polite to the princess (which is perhaps the only reason why no one else seems to get it–even Kururu, faithful Kururu, is fooled by this man!)–and properly respectful of the Emperor, the few times they’ve interacted, but he’s a smug bastard, through and through. He’s an Oak. Gyokuran comes from a family born to serve the imperial line, and she knows Oaks very well, from both her own experiences and those that she hears from cousins who are in their employ. They are smug sly creatures, too obsessed with their own power to be truly kind. It galls her that she has to leave the princess alone with him for any reason–Kururu stays, of course, but Kururu is also seduced by the man’s damnable good looks; she’d probably just pretend to ignore anything that might be happening, if the princess just asked nicely–! She would bet anything that he is laughing about his triumph right now, behind his insipidly polite smile–maybe he won’t marry into the imperial line, borderline disgrace that he is, but he will still have power and influence that comes from having a close family member on the throne.

She can’t stand it! After all, if the Oaks are only good for the military and for politics–and if Hakuren Oak is the best that the political side of the famous Oak family can produce–what sort of bumbling oaf will a general’s son be like? And not only that, but an idiot who would have the princess and sit by her side and eventually succeed her father as Emperor–to think of her beloved princess, bowing her head to an idiot like that–!

Something must be done, she decides. Right away, before the idiot can arrive and ruin everything.

+++

The first thing that must be done, however, is the hardest. After all, she knows nothing of her coming enemy, and the best thing to do is research. No one else in the palace knows him very well, either; a handful know his father, whom is mentioned to be a doting jolly man, but that tells her nothing of the son he’s produced. There is no one who would know–no one except…

Ah, she consoles herself, as she stalks through the garden. Be strong, Gyokuran! Have faith, Gyokuran! You’re doing it for the princess, and that will be its own reward!

She finds him sitting under a tree and reading. Even though he’s left the church behind (and how ridiculous is that, really, an Oak in the church? she’s amazed it took over a year for them to throw him out again), he still studies their texts diligently. When he’s not with the princess (which to Gyokuran’s relief is still not even most of the time), he usually reads–though once or twice she has seen him go down into the lower city and speak with the people there. Sometimes he drops coins into the hats of beggars.

(“You know, maybe he’s not sooooo bad,” Ohruri had said once, in the middle of examining her drying nails. “He passed the exams, after all. Technically he’s a Bishop–they don’t let you get that far if you’re not a good person, right?”

“Ohruri!” Gyokuran had shouted. “Don’t be fooled by him! He’s just lulling you into a false sense of security–you’ll see!” Though months later Ohruri still didn’t see, and really, Gyokuran just despaired of ever really making her point known.)

But most of the time he can be found in the gardens, usually in the shade of the largest trees, reading. And that is exactly where Gyokuran finds him on this morning: with his silly little glasses perched so low on his nose she has to wonder if they do any good, and some heavy dusty book open in his lap. She takes a few deep breaths before she can make herself go up to him.

“You,” she says.

He looks up and adjusts his glasses. She wonders if he thinks they make him look adult, but they really just make him seem pretentious. “Ah, Miss Gyokuran,” he says. His tone is blandly polite, and that rubs up against the open sore of her irritation; she has to bite her cheek to keep the automatic retort from rising up. “May I help you?”

She clenches her fists, then forces them to relax. “I have some questions for you,” she says.

“About?”

Oh, she wants to throttle him so much! Through gritted teeth, she says, “Surely you’ve heard that Her Highness is betrothed?”

He raises an eyebrow and adjusts his glasses again. Really, he’s paid enough, couldn’t he afford any that fit him better? “Of course I have,” he said. “The Lady Ouka told me so herself.”

The title comes so casually to his lips. Gyokuran fantasies about throttling him again. “Well, of course,” she says. “Because the princess is a good and kind girl, she would want us to be prepared for this change that’s coming up in her life–”

“But?” His tone is dry.

But,” she goes on, glaring at him for good measure, “it does not help the fact that those of us in court have very little to go on about her fiance, other than his reputation.”

“Miss Gyokuran,” Hakuren Oak says slowly, “please realize that I have spent the last five years studying in the Seventh District to become a Bishop–I assure you, I am as much in the dark about any gossip surrounding the Lady Ouka’s suitor–”

“And his name,” Gyokuran goes on, raising her voice over his. She pauses for dramatic effect–she has been told before that she’s quite good at it–and she points an accusing finger at him. “Shuri Oak!”

What happens next is nothing short of amazing: Hakuren Oak’s eyes go wide and his mouth drops open. It is the first genuinely human reaction she has seen in him since he arrived, and really, if he could just do this more often, maybe she wouldn’t find him such an insufferable man! “What,” he says, and then, “You must be joking,” and then, “What were they even thinking–?”

“So you do know something,” Gyokuran says, basking in her triumph. “And you’ll tell me everything you know. Right here. Right now. At once.”

+++

She is grimly pleased when all her worst fears are confirmed. Hakuren Oak does, in fact, know his cousin–first cousin through their fathers, he tells her automatically, absently, when she deliberately makes a wrong wild guess–and everything he knows paints a terrible picture. The boy–no, the child–that is coming to marry her princess is spoiled and selfish, raised as the precious firstborn and only son of his rich and doting parents. Hakuren Oak’s face goes through a whole myriad of expressions that Gyokuran has only dreamed of seeing, all of them various levels of discomfort and defeat, as he answers her questions. In the end, she doesn’t know if she’s learned anything new–not that she thinks that that man would have anything really worth telling!–but she has confirmation at least, and now she’s forearmed with the knowledge.

Of course, a servant can’t just simply go barging into a royal meeting and demand an audience–and a servant most definitely cannot criticize the decision of the Emperor and his advisers. What she can do, though, is spread rumors–and so she tries, starting with Ohruri and Kikune.

“Hmmm, so he’s a lazy boy,” Kikune says. “Ah, but that’s all right, because the princess will not have to worry about him doing too much, then.”

“Ahhh, maybe Hakuren-kun’s jealous,” Ohruri says happily, clapping her hands. “Maybe he secretly likes the princess too! Wouldn’t that be so romantic?”

Ohruri!” Gyokuran yells, and Kikune yells with her, so that’s acceptable. She tries the cooks next, but they’re more curious about what sort of things the coming guest would prefer to eat. The footmen just laugh like it’s no big deal (she’ll make sure they regret that later). Some of the maids are sympathetic, but they are also far too accepting of the princess’ fate–Gyokuran decides it is because they don’t interact with her very often: of course they like her, because to know the princess is to like her, but they don’t know her know her, not like she does, or Ohruri or Kikune or Haku–

No, no, no! There’s a line she refuses to cross, and that’s it! Obviously this tactic is failing, but she refuses to give up! She’ll never give in! She–

“Gyokuran,” Ohruri trills, “isn’t he cute?”

Gyokuran blinks a few times. She looks at where Ohruri is and sniffs, resisting the urge to toss her head. “We must talk about your taste in men, later,” she says out of the corner of her mouth. The smile on her face makes it ache, it feels so stiff and unnatural; she’s surprised no one has called her on this yet. He doesn’t look like much–too much like that damnable cousin of his, with too-fine features and bright empty blue eyes–but he smiles like he already owns the entire place and struts like his head’s too heavy for his skinny body. He’s been nicely dressed for the occasion, the lines of his uniform pressed crisp and his boots polished to a glossy shine, and his hair is smoothly slicked back. He looks like a good match, but Gyokuran knows better.

Dinner is a strained awkward sort of thing: only Gyokuran is allowed to tend to her lady, as the senior maidservant, and she knows the princess well enough to see the faint signs of strain around her soft smiling mouth. That in and of itself is unusual–it’s so difficult to get the princess upset, and Gyokuran stares at that tightness and plots the newcomers slow punishment. He talks too loudly and enthusiastically about himself, and the princess just has to smile and nod and make occasional noises of agreement. Gyokuran simmers in her anger because her princess will not allow herself that, and it’s like physical pain to watch even that small hint of suffering. To the credit of his stupidity, the boy doesn’t even notice, and by the end of the evening, Gyokuran is almost–almost!–convinced that she should perhaps revise her opinion on Hakuren Oak, because even he isn’t insufferable as his cousin.

After the meal ends, and the princess says goodnight to her fiance (who just beams and babbles even more idiotic inanity at her, and Gyokuran has to restrain herself from slapping his smug mouth), and they’re heading back, Gyokuran says, “Princess–”

“I’m tired,” the princess says quietly. She stares at the ground, at the hem of her fine dress and the toes of her new elegant shoes (which Gyokuran had been sure to compliment her on) and she smiles. It’s strange and it’s distant and makes something in Gyokuran’s stomach twist. Someone less practical would call it longing; Gyokuran merely calls it foolish. “I think I will retire early tonight.” She lifts her head and there is the queen she will be one day again, ethereal as moonlight. This is someone very sad that lives inside of her princess, and Gyokuran thinks she would do just about anything to help.

Instead, helpless, she says, “Your highness–”

“Thank you for being with me, Gyokuran,” she says. “As always, you are a blessing.”

She continues on, and Gyokuran stares after her, her belly twisting again. She’s not sure how long she waits–long after the princess has disappeared–before she turns and she finds herself face to face with the princess’ fiance, Hakuren Oak’s cousin, the idiot Shuri Oak. His expression is a familiar one of haughty arrogance, well-suited to his delicate Oak features. He already sees himself as master, she knows, and all she can do is bite her cheek at that. It’s not too far from the truth.

“You,” he says. “You’re one of the princess’ attendants, right? Tell me, where is her room?”

Gyokuran narrows her eyes. “Why would you ask?”

“I wish to see her, of course!” he exclaims. His face twists for a moment, and he says, “It is a good idea for us to become more acquainted before our wedding, and we will have only a short time before I leave again.”

The words sound so coached that Gyokuran almost laughs in his silly face. She wonders who put him up to saying that–the general? one of the equally empty-headed servants that accompanied the retinue?–and puts her hands on her hips.

“She’s sleeping,” she says. “And no one is to bother her until tomorrow, by her express orders.”

It’s a lie, but only a small one; Gyokuran thinks she might well hate herself if she allows anything to disturb the princess at rest.

The boy looks surprised for a moment, and very young. She wonders how old he really is–if anyone’s ever told him no in his entire charmed life. She rather doubts it. “But,” he flounders, “I, I’m her–”

“And a good husband must be respectful of his wife’s needs!” Gyokuran jabs a finger into his chest with enough force to drive him back several steps. “You have to listen, but you can’t do just that, you have to pay attention! The princess is a good girl, she would never outright complain, so it’s your job to make sure she never needs to! Do you understand!”

Shuri Oak’s hands half-lift, fluttering uselessly. His blue eyes are huge and stunned. “I–but–don’t you know who I–”

“I’m a very good guesser!” Gyokuran draws herself up to her fullest height and notes with some satisfaction that she stands bit taller than him. “So you had better listen! I will not tolerate any disrespect for the princess, not from you, not from anyone! Do we understand each other!”

He squeaks, mouth open in a fishlike gape. Gyokuran decides she likes him better when he’s not blathering on about himself; the silence nearly makes him tolerable. Just in case he gets any ideas, though, she goes on: “I’m watching you, Shuri Oak, and you get just one chance. Are we clear!”

Eventually, very slowly, never once blinking, he nods. Gyokuran smiles, still standing as tall as possible. “Good,” she says, and pivots sharply on her heel to stalk towards her own rooms. As much as she wants to look back and see what sort of foolish look is on his face, she knows the value of a dramatic exit while she has one. She comforts herself with thinking that it must be quite funny indeed, with that sort of malleable stupid face he must have. As much as she hates to admit anything about that intruder Hakuren Oak, she will give him the dubious benefit of being more clever than his cousin.

Gyokuran sleeps well that night, better than she expected with a man like that under the same roof. In the morning, she goes about her daily ritual, eventually going to knock on the princess’ door before she lets herself inside. To her surprise, her lady is already awake, slowly brushing her hair and looking at a vaseful of roses on her vanity. It’s the wrong season for flowers, with the snow lying heavily outside, but each bloom is fresh and lovely. Hothouse flowers, Gyokuran thinks with some disdain, forced out of their natural rhythm and cut without second thought. Probably another coached move. Still, it’s better than she expected, so she swallows the disdain back and says, “Princess?”

The princess turns to her and smiles a little, her mouth twisting into a bemused moue. “Gyokuran,” she says. “These were delivered by Master Shuri himself this morning. One wonders why the sudden display. He seemed a little frightened.”

“Maybe he’s smarter than he first seemed,” Gyokuran volunteers. She heads to her lady’s side and takes the brush in one hand and half of the princess’ long hair in the other, beginning to brush out the plaits from the night before.

“Or perhaps someone put fear into his heart,” the princess says. She meets Gyokuran’s eyes in the mirror and her smile is less knowing than her eyes. “You had no need to put yourself through so much trouble for my sake.”

“I’m only doing my duty,” Gyokuran protests, because there’s no point in lying to her lady. “As your aid and your humble and most loyal servant, I have to do what I can to make you happy–”

“You only need make certain that I am cared for,” the princess says. She turns and catches Gyokuran’s wrists in her slim cool hands. Her smile is sweeter than the flowers on her vanity. “Happiness is not ever part of it.”

Gyokuran does not blush, though she can feel fluttering in the pit of her stomach. Ah, she thinks, this is something she will let no man take away, whether interloper or husband or anyone. This is a girl who will be a woman and the Empress, and the most important person of Gyokuran’s life. “Princess …”

“You have my gratitude,” the princess says, and lets go. “As always, Gyokuran, I am glad you are here.”

Gyokuran waits long seconds for the tingle in her wrists to fade, then begins to run the brush through the princess’ hair again, long and fine as silk. It whispers through her fingers as she lifts her hand up and up and watches its graceful slide.

“Wherever you go, my lady,” she says, “I, Gyokuran, will follow.”

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Birthday Mathoms — 2009

“You will be beautiful,” her new handmaiden says. Cool hands card through the ratty mass of her hair, easing a comb through it. “You already are beautiful, ma petite, though you may complain now.”

Himiko lifts her chin, staring at the reflection in the mirror. She sees a stick-limbed spot-faced twig of a little girl couched before someone smooth-skinned and pale even without paint; it’s like a bug bowing before a cherry tree in full bloom. With a sigh, she drops her head again.

“No, no, ma petite,” her handmaiden says. She slides two fingers under Himiko’s chin and tips it up, then leans their cheeks together. “I have *seen* this, and I see it now. You have a smile that will rival the light of the sun.” For a moment, that lovely face falters, something quietly grieving in her eyes–but then it’s gone, and her smile is brilliant as before. Her long hands rise up, fingertips pressing gently at the corners of Himiko’s eyes. “And I will teach you how to see that for yourself, along with everything else.”

+++++

He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for the Knight–pathetic thing that he is, lurking jealously behind the prince everywhere–but in the end, he’s not sure he’s any different. The prince’s attention should be for a princess, since this is a fairytale, but he hordes it anyway, jealously. He wonders if how it would be if he’d been a daughter instead–Odile to Tutu’s Odette. Would there be more light in the prince’s eyes, looking upon him? If he could properly dance the part of the maiden in the pas de deux, would he be able to fly–?

The girls of their class cluster and giggle nervously whenever his gaze happens to wander in their direction, but they all fall silent when they catch sight of him. Even the Knight doesn’t intimidate them half as much. Some of them like it better, actually, to watch him wind his arms around the prince’s neck and whisper in his ear. He can see the romances forming behind their starry eyes, clearly as if they were written across the pages of a book.

It makes him a little sick. In the end, there’ll be no room for him but as the instigator of tragedy: the Knight will be killed, the Princess will disappear with her love on her lips, and the Prince …

Rue tightens his arms around Mytho’s neck and kisses his cheek; the taste on his tongue is bitter as his own name.

+++++

It isn’t traditional, of course, but with her brother following in their father’s footsteps and her little sister too young to even begin considering options yet, she makes up her mind.

“It won’t be easy,” her father says, his face lined from years of work and smiling; his expression is solemn, but there is a twinkle in his eyes. “Are you sure?”

With a flourish, she draws herself up to ramrod attention, saluting him smartly, as she’s seen soldiers do in parades. Then she can’t maintain it any more and flings herself into the chair opposite of him, resting her chin on her hands. “I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t sure,” she says. “I really want to do this–I’ll be able to protect all of you, this way.”

Her father laughs. The sound is just a bit rueful. He reaches out and ruffles her hair; she leans into it happily. “Your mother will probably have other things to say,” he says. “But you’re a good girl, and your heart has never led you wrongly. You’re smart enough to match any man in the army, don’t let them convince you otherwise.”

“Even an Oak?” she asks, peeking at him from under her lashes. She’s grinning, a little–she’s only met the son of the Oak family a couple of times, but she’s heard enough of the rumors to know. Her father snorts and gives her head a gentle shove before he sits back.

Especially an Oak,” he says, and winks. “Not that you heard me say that.”

Mikage winks back. “Of course not,” she says. Excitement bubbles in her skin like a physical thing, and a moment later she’s out of the chair and bounding off to find her mother. In her heart, she’s already flying.

+++++

“Ara ara,” she says, fan fluttering just under her laughing eyes. “How improper, Hiromasa-sama! And when you have a princess to court!”

Hiromasa’s mouth remains half-open, his greeting strangled in his throat on the first syllable of Seimei’s name. She snaps the fan shut and points at him dramatically, and the smirk on her face is unmistakable. Somewhere in the gardens, hidden by the half-closed doors, Mitsumushi giggles.

“Broad daylight may be explained by one thing or the other, but this is this and that is that,” says Seimei. “What if your princess finds out?”

He continues to gape for a moment; his mouth moves several times before he can make sound come out. “S-S-Seimei! Wh, what are you talking about, this isn’t, this is–!”

“Business?” Seimei’s fox-eyes go wide and innocent. She could almost pass for a young girl. “Ara ara, what sort of business could that be! And at this time of night!”

Seimei!”

She laughs aloud and sits up; her long hair trails over her shoulder, unraveling from its customary blade. The unwelcome thought, as before, comes up: that Seimei is a very beautiful woman, and that if she simply tried, she could rival any woman of the court. He’s tired, though; it has been a long day, and every poem he has tried to compose has been little more than trash. He cannot imagine reciting it, especially in front of Fuji-hime.

“Quiet is sometimes the most precious thing, isn’t it,” she says, and there is something like sympathy in her voice. She pats the space beside her. “I have good sake and good company. Will you?”

Hiromasa hesitates. His fingers twist in their sleeves. He crosses the short distance and sits beside her, and watches as she pours sake for them both. “I have actual business,” he protests, before he drinks; it is cool and sweet against his lips.

“Of course,” Seimei says, and lets silence take over.

+++++

“HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW,” Horohoro wails, only it sounds more like HW WSS SPSD TNO with his face swollen as it is. He flinches when Manta slaps a final bandaid over his nose.

“We all knew,” Yoh drawls lazily. He’s lying on the floor, arms folded under his head. “I mean, it’s not like it wasn’t obvious. You should learn to knock before you barge into the bath.”

“But–but!!” Horohoro’s hands make cupping motions. “Her sister’s such a babe, and–she had–you know!!” His hands flex again. “And her mom, too! Chinese women aren’t really supposed to–you know! But they did, and their LEGS, and–!”

Lazy as a cat, Yoh rolls onto his side, facing away from Horohoro. “Ahhh,” he says, “good luck.”

“Eh? Ehh??” He looks around for a moment, confused–Manta has gathered up the first-aid kit and is scurrying away, faster than his little legs should, by all rights, move. “Ehh, what, what–”

Behind him, the door slides open. A killing aura fills the air.

“… She’s behind me, isn’t she,” Horohoro says, with some despair.

“Groveling works, sometimes,” says Yoh, before he turns up the volume of his headphones, the traitor. “But only after you’ve bled, first.”

+++++

They don’t pair her with Mytho, to her frustration. She’s too tall, too imposing–she needs a matching partner, one that suits her better than delicate, slender Mytho. In fact, the instructor says, clapping his paws, if they bind her small breasts down, she could easily play the role of knight instead of princess. Most of the other girls begin whispering behind their cupped hands at this; in their eyes she can see their imaginations at work. Like a flock of drab little birds they twitter and flutter. She ignores them and looks over the crowd.

Rue smirks at her, poisonously sweet and deceptively encouraging. Her eyes glitter like the edge of swords. Her lips move in words that Fakir doesn’t bother trying to read.

Mytho tilts his face up to look at her, so quiet and still. He says, when the instructor prompts, “You will be a good knight, I think,” and his tone is hollow as always. His eyes move dispassionately over her, then slide away like water. As always, he is courteous and distant, and she wonders if he even realizes what sort of defeat this is for her, to give up her place at his side–his protector and his guide and his guardian–to anyone else.

Fakir bites the inside of her cheek until she tastes blood, and just nods, accepting her assignment.

+++++

“Well, isn’t that peculiar,” the fox says. His green eyes glitter as he looks her up and down. The look in them irritates her: the instinctive lust of the young and male coupled with the exacting consideration of his kind. “You use fire, but you smell like ice. What’s that in your blood, anyway?”

She fixes him with her most withering glare. It only makes him grin back at her, showing all his teeth. “I’m just asking,” he adds. “Since it seems we’ll be working together, we might as well get to know each other, hm?”

“No,” she says, flat. “I don’t care to be friends with idiots.”

“Ah, I’m hurt,” he says sweetly, and she wonders how idiotic the humans in his life must be, to not see through that facade to the cold-eyed fox under the warm thin skin. “I’m wounded to the heart.”

“Assuming you have one,” she says, and leaves before he can reply–but she can feel his eyes tracking her the whole way, long after she knows she’s out of sight.

+++++

She made no sound, but he knew she was there long before she settled herself against his back, arms hooking around his throat. She smelled of dust and torn vegetation. She must have been out in the roses again. He tried not to respond to her presence, but his back stiffened regardless; if she noticed, she gave no physical indication.

“Brother,” she sighed into his ear. “You didn’t come home last night.” Her nose pressed into his hair, the point sharp against his scalp. “Ah, and you’ve been smoking again. It’s an unpleasant habit.”

Gil didn’t look at her. The inside of his mouth tasted like ash and blood from where he’d bitten the inside of his cheek raw. “I had a job,” he said. “Some of us have to work.”

“We don’t have to,” she corrected. Her lips pressed briefly against his temple as she spoke; her fingers carded through his hair. “There are others who can do that sort of thing.”

He shrugged abruptly, shaking her off, and took a few steps to put space between them before turning. She met his gaze evenly, her head listing to one side; she was dressed in frothy black silk today, the sleeves and skirt layered and flared out. Dark green ribbons had been braided into the long pale tumble of her hair, framing her pale lovely face. She looked like a doll plucked freshly down from a store shelf, in spite of the green stains on the fingers of her white silk gloves. She was lovely and so entirely viciously, jaggedly broken that even he could see the fractures.

Victoria’s lips curled into a smile. “Brother,” she said, and opened her arms. “Come kiss your sister hello.”

+++++

she can’t
breathe

it hurtsithurts it hurts it

(The man’s fingers are cold on her fevered skin and it almost feels good, but then they curl and her body twists at the sudden starburst of pain and rips through her. Her throat is too raw to scream, so she can only gasp for air, so cold that it tears at her lungs. The moon over his shoulder is red–or maybe there’s blood in her eyes, she can no longer tell–and then the knife-edge of his smile fills her vision entirely.

“Not exactly my type,” the man says, and she can feel characters erupt in burning lines on her skin, draining the strength away from her, “but it’s really remarkable, the resemblance–“)

hurts it

“–soka? Hisoka?”

She doesn’t scream when she comes awake, but it’s a near thing. Her eyes fly open and her hand lashes out, striking against something solid. A moment later, her wrist is enfolded in a careful warm grip, and then she actually looks, and it’s Tsuzuki’s worried face hovering just above hers. There’s a mark reddening on his cheek, but he just smiles at the shock on her face, something gently relieved in his eyes.

“Ah, good,” he says. “You were dreaming.” He lets go of her wrist and sits back so she can sit up. “Better now?”

Hisoka puts a hand to her throat. Each breath tastes raw and metallic as blood. But he’s looking at her with those big stupid puppy eyes, and something in her gut lurches. It feels nothing like those stupid novels that Wakaba reads on her breaks and daydreams about–it feels real, and raw, and too uncomfortable to look back. If she let him, if she showed any sort of sign at all, she knows he’d call this whole thing off, and it makes her angry–she doesn’t want to be seen as weaker, or in need of his coddling, no matter how recently Kyoto is behind them. She ducks her head.

“Yeah,” she mutters. For a moment she tightens her fingers at her throat, trying to breathe through it. “Better now.”

+++++

“Did you know, that thing in the brig thinks I’m doing all sorts of horrible things to you right now.” Elegant as a cat, the Master hitches one hip up onto the edge of the table, leaning forward until his forehead presses against the bars of the gilt cage. “Thousands of years old, and he’s still got this outdated notion of chivalry, of all things! He thinks I’m angry because you rejected me once, or something, like I’m one of your silly flings–I guess he’d know about that, wouldn’t he? You were quite pretty this time.”

The creature in the cage blinks slowly: once, twice, and says nothing. The Master laughs, his voice dropping to a more intimate tone, and he curls his fingers around the cage’s thin bars.

“You and I know better, though,” he said softly. “You remember, don’t you? You can’t hide it from me, Doctor.”

Within the cage, the creature sighs. “We were very young,” comes the final, breathy reply. “And very stupid.”

“Ran away and never stopped running,” the Master whispered. “Until you became mother and destroyer both. Tell me, Doctor, was your precious Earth thinking of you when they came up with that concept?”

There is no reply. He starts to hum, quietly, swinging the cage.

“Maybe it’s not wrong,” he says. “What that little pet freak of yours thinks. Maybe I am just jilted. What do you think of that?” He gives the cage a good hard shake, sending the fragile little thing inside stumbling. “Where were you, Doctor? Tell me? Where were you?”

His voice rises until it echoes off the walls; he snaps his mouth shut with a click of teeth and shoves the cage, so that it continues to swing wildly on its own momentum for long seconds. In the dark, he sees wide dark eyes staring back at him. Even shrunken and reduced down, there are traces of the classmate he’d once known–those eyes are still entirely the same. He meets them for a moment, unblinking as a cat.

“I was there,” he says quietly. “I saw everything that happened when you were gone.”

The Doctor says nothing at first. Then, very softly: “I’m sorry.”

A laugh breaks before he can quite stop it. “Sorry!” he gasps, tears of mirth in his eyes. “Sorry! No, Doctor–” he shoves at the cage again, sending it spinning wildly, “you’ll be sorry. I’ll show you–this time, you’ll see everything.”

+++++

On a certain Sunday, when Gilbert Nightlay was eighteen years old, he came to an epiphany about breasts: namely that one, he rather liked them, and two, he was apparently not horribly discriminatory about whose he liked, seeing as the open vee of skin exposed at Break’s throat, like an arrow pointing to the generous outward swell of her chest, had clearly and utterly captured his attention. At some point during the warm day she had tugged out the collar of her shirt without any real care about how public the park was. Gil sat with his knees pressed resolutely together and his fingers interlaced tightly, and tried not to look.

A lucky man could have gotten away with that–a few helpless sidelong glances, and that would have been the end of it.

Gil was not–and had never been–a lucky man.

“Ah! You’re peeking, you’re peeking!” a voice shrilled, and suddenly that damnable doll Emily was in his face, its stitched grin wide enough to fill his vision. “Gil’s a per~vert!”

He let out an undignified yelp, flailing backwards to get some space, but then Xera Break was looming before him, and that little triangle of skin he’d caught out of the corner of his eye before now mere inches from his nose. Another button had come undone at some point, and now he could see the shadowed curve where her breasts pressed together. She smelled a little like dust and lilac.

“Well, well,” she said. She caught his chin with one finger and pushed until he was forced to look up, straight into her one glittering eye. “Has Gilbert finally hit puberty?”

“We worried!” Emily squawked from her shoulder. “You’re such a worthless guy, Raven!”

“No, no,” Break tsked. “Just slow. Sometimes people take longer to develop than others!”

“Worthless! Totally worthless!”

“Now, now.” Break waved a finger, her expression sincere. “We don’t call valuable resources ‘worthless,’ Emily! For shame.”

Gil sank down low in his seat, covering his face with his hands. A moment later, he felt long thin fingers curl in his hair, pulling until he was forced to look up. Break smiled at him almost gently, though there was a glint in her eye that made his throat close up and his feet cold.

“However,” she purred, “should milady ever be troubled by your wandering eyes …”

She didn’t finish the threat; he rather thought she didn’t have to. She leaned closer, and now he could smell something metallic under the lilac perfume–something a little too much like blood to be anything else. Somehow the one finger under his chin had turned into several, nails pinched into his flesh. “Do we understand each other?”

He swallowed and nodded.

She leaned in as he remained frozen and slightly terrified and touched her lips to his eyelid. He flinched and felt her lips spread into a smile. “Good,” she said. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

+++++

“It’s not that I don’t understand,” Kagura said. “I do, really. A woman’s heart is a terrible thing to toy with.

“But,” she went on, folding her fingers together into position, “I’m a woman too, after all. And I share even less than you.”

The ghost wailed as it was exorcised, clawing viciously at the air, twisting in on itself until it vanished. Kagura watched until there was nothing but a faint twinge in her chest to indicate anything had ever been there. She rubbed a thumb between her breasts, counting heartbeats, then went outside. The barrier had shattered, and on the ground all around her, men were beginning to wake up–most of them, anyway; a few were too still and cold to ever move again. She went straight to Haruka’s side and crouched beside him.

“You know,” she said, “Haruka is veeery good about doing what Youko-chan teaches, but maybe–juuuust maybe–he should tone down the gigolo act, hm?” She leaned her chin on her hands and stared down at him.

He opened one eye and glared at her. “I only did it because you told me to,” he said. “I don’t know why I bother to listen.” He sat up and looked around. “Where did it go?”

“We had a little chat,” Kagura said. She smiled. “It won’t be bothering anyone else, any more.”

+++++

“I, uh,” said Eres. “Do we have any rags?”

Lucille looked blank. “Rags?”

“I. Well.” Eres rubbed the back of his head. “I sort of–need one.”

“The piano’s clean, though,” he said, still blank. “I mean, maybe Gwin has something?”

Eres stared. “Those’ll have varnish all over them, right?”

“Probably?” Lucille set his chin on his hands, blinking. “He probably has polish, too, though I don’t know why the piano would need anything like th–ow!”

Kohaku removed his fist from the back of Lucille’s head. “That ain’t what the brat’s askin’ for,” he said, then jerked his head to the side. “I got a few. You’ll have to get your own eventually, got that?”

Eres stared. “You know what I–”

Kohaku snorted. “Of course,” he said. “It’s that problem, isn’t it? That problem.”

“…” said Eres.

“That problem? There’s a problem?” Lucille looked from one to the other, a bit wide-eyed. “What problem, no one told me there was a problem, come on–”

“N-no,” Eres said, staring at Kohaku’s indifferent face long and hard. “There’s no problem at all.”

+++++

Shuri is eleven years old when she decides she wants to go into the military; she decides this while watching her mother adjust her father’s coat before a party, and he looks quite dashing, in her opinion. There is no man more handsome than her father in that moment–he looks respectable and wise and wonderful, all things an Oak should be. She wants that too, she decides, so her decision is made. She tells him that very night, and his eyes crinkle up with the force of his smile, so she knows she’s made a good decision.

“I was afraid,” he said. “Oaks are always politics or military, but Papa didn’t want to force you into anything you didn’t want, especially if you’d rather go Mama’s path into politics. But it’s in your blood, isn’t it? That love of order and your destiny for greatness.”

Shuri beams, proud of herself. Of course she wants to be lovely and gracious as Mama as well, always splendid in her fine dresses–but the uniform calls to her, with its shiny buttons and crisp lines. “Yes, Papa,” she agrees. “I’ll do anything I have to for our family! And for you!”

He laughs aloud, his voice deep and echoing; Shuri can hear the cheers of the people in the sound. “That’s my girl,” he says. “I’ll talk to Miroku. We’ll get you signed up, and you’ll show this generation just what it is an Oak can do.”

+++++

Two weeks after returning from Inaba, there is a letter without a return address. You open it late at night, after your parents have gone to bed: you recognize the handwriting, and it’s oddly similar to your own. (You wonder if that’s why your uncle suspected you, and for as long as he had.) You have to wonder where he got the materials to write this letter, or the time or ability to send it, but here it is, in your hands.

All it says is: “So you did find out the truth. I wonder what she thought of you. I still do.”

You wonder if he ever went to Izanami’s lair himself and what he might have seen there. A sudden impulse strikes, to write him back and ask him directly. It passes after a moment, and instead, you go to bed.

Exactly two weeks after that, another letter comes: this one has a dried rose pressed between the pages.

“Maybe if we’d met first, things would be different.”

You want to write him back and tell him no, you don’t think so: you can remember how he looked at Yukiko, how he’d watched Rise, how he’d been unable to look away from you the whole time you’d stood in Magatsu-Inaba, his eyes tracing along your throat, over the shallow rise of your breasts. Maybe if that stupid Konishi bitch hadn’t been so frigid, maybe if that Yamano whore had actually been compassionate, none of this would have happened.

You throw away the letter, but keep the rose.

Two weeks after that, you happen to be up late enough, and the TV is one. At precisely midnight, the TV screen fritzes into static. You look up, and there’s a human figure in the midst of all that white noise, waving slowly. The minute changes, and the shape is gone.

The day after that, Yousuke calls, excited and nervous, and tells you Adachi killed himself last night. Or that’s what Dojima-san says, guess he couldn’t handle being in prison; he used his sheets to make a noose and hang himself, serves the bastard right, don’t you think?

You think of the previous midnight, and say nothing.

+++++

Now I lay me down to sleep, he whispers, hands clasped. I pray the Lord my soul to keep.

He’s so tired these days, so tired that even breathing takes a heroic effort. He counts himself lucky that Yuri is so unobservant: he still thinks they’re just good friends and nothing else–it’s easy enough to laugh off the double-vision and the trembling of his hands as just regular travel fatigue. The others are beginning to suspect, but only Zhuzhen knows the whole truth. Alex prefers it that way: the less who realize, the better. If anyone knew–if anyone told Yuri–

Guard me Jesus through the night …

“I’m glad you’re here,” Yuri tells him, jostling him a bit with one elbow. His smile is the dearest thing Alex thinks he’s ever seen. “You gotta take me to meet this uncle of yours when things are over, okay? We’ve earned this vacation.”

He smiles a little, and in his heart of hearts, he hopes that he’ll see the rest of this quest through to that day. “All right,” he says. “But you will have to learn your manners. Domremy is a small town, you needn’t shock them.”

“I’m always a gentleman,” Yuri argues. “Have a little faith in me, okay?”

“I will when I see it,” Alex says, innocently, and doesn’t fall over when Yuri smacks him heartily on the back, though the blow feels like it rattles his heart in his ribcage.

And wake me with the morning light.

+++++

“You’re nesting,” said Connor. Surprise thickened his accent considerably. “Look at you! How many of those do you even have?”

Dana crossed her arms over her chest, meeting his gaze evenly. “There’s only the one,” she said. “I named him after you.”

It was almost worth the aghast look on his face, and the uncomfortable way he shifted his weight back towards the door. “Good lord, woman,” he said, “the Gathering’s near-upon us, and here you are, traipsing around you’ve got all the time in the world–”

“It’s been ‘upon us’ for nearly a century now,” Dana said. She raked a hand through her hair, leaving half of it vaguely on-end. “What’s wrong with wanting to be a little happy, before then?”

“What happens if someone comes for your head?” he snapped. Angry again (he’d been angry for years now, angry as he’d been the last time she’d seen him), he pushed off the wall, advancing. “What happens if you make a damnfool mistake and lose it? A family’s not ours to have, Dana; if it was, we would’ve died like normal people like the good lord meant for us to–”

Before he could get close enough to finish his point (she wasn’t sure he even knew, exactly, what he wanted to do), she had her sword out, the point resting against his throat. He stopped at once. They stared at each other for long quiet moments; she spared a moment to be glad that his namesake was such a heavy sleeper.

“He’ll be provided for,” she said quietly. “All my assets go to him, if I die.”

Connor’s eyes narrowed. “It’s still a stupid thing,” he said softly. “You haven’t changed your name in all these four centuries, Dana, and there’s hunters coming out of sewers like rats. I hope to God you know what you’re doing.”

She didn’t move, but he did, and the point of her blade nicked his neck. She watched the bead of blood well up and trickle down his throat, the injury healed by the time it reached his collar. “I do,” she said quietly. “God help me, I do.”

+++++

“Ehhhh, isn’t it difficult?” Kayo asks, her melting brown eyes wide and guileless. “Being a woman, traveling like that? Isn’t it scary?”

The medicine-seller only smiles. She doesn’t move from her perfect seiza position, long elegant hands folded in her lap. She’s a little like a doll, Kayo thinks, like the ones she’s seen in very fancy stores, and servant-girls can only peek inside. “It is what it is,” she says. “No more than that. No less.”

“So it’s difficult, then?” In spite of herself, Kayo inches closer. There are dreams crystallizing in her mind every time she blinks her eyes. “It’s really really difficult, but you persevere no matter what? Every day, every night, one lone woman against the world–!”

“Ah,” says the medicine-seller. Her voice is very quiet, but it feels almost like a physical shock, cutting through Kayo’s words and leaving her dumb with surprise. Under the pale fringe of her bangs, her eyes are beautiful and flat–really very much like a doll’s. Kayo looks into them and feels cold. The medicine-seller is talking now, and it takes her a moment to tune in: “… an ordinary humble medicine-seller. That’s all.”

“Hmmmmmm.” Kayo leans back a little. She feels oddly disappointed. “It’s not exciting at all?”

“No,” the medicine-seller says. She smiles again, and this time Kayo thinks she sees fangs in it. “Not at all.”

+++++

When she first realizes it’s jealousy she feels, part of her is horrified. Kairi is her friend–one of her best, and so much more understanding and sensitive than Sora. It’s still the crux of it, though: Kairi is one of her best friends, but Sora is the best, the only boy on the entire island who looks at how freakishly tall she is and isn’t afraid or stupid about it. Sometimes she despairs of his actually understanding anything, but he treats her like a person and like a friend, and she can’t help but be stupidly, desperately grateful for it.

And yet: they’re getting older, and instead of looking at her, Sora’s attention keeps wandering. He watches Kairi with a hopeful bright smile and brief shy glances, and hardly seems to notice when Riku is there until she’s in his face, impossible to ignore. Everything in him is focused on Kairi, Kairi, Kairi, and Riku feels the separation as keenly as a physical loss. She feels restless in her own skin, trapped within the limited possibilities within Destiny Island.

When the witch comes, whispering promises and prophecies, it’s the easiest thing in the world to take her hand.

+++++

The first time she meets her new boss, she has to admit, she does not think very much of him: he is small and nervous, with an unkempt mustache and nervous fluttering hands. She worries what sort of leader he will actually be, when he cannot even look her directly in the eye and mumbles his words until they slur together. His handshake has clammy palms, and he mumbles fatherland, fatherland over and over. He is not the first who made such a mistake about her, and he likely won’t be the last. All she can do is try to meet his eyes when he’ll let her and prove herself to be exactly as she says: his pride, his fatherland, all that he plans and hopes and dreams for.

And if there is madness in his eyes, the few times he can make himself look at her, then perhaps it’s only her imagination. She will choose to believe in him, and hopes in her heart that it will be enough.

+++++

She’s never been a good cook, despite the efforts of her mother and grandmother to teach her. She waits for too long, so things get crisped black, dried out, or both–food doesn’t speak to her the same way arrows do. The rhythms of archery and the practice range are entirely different from those of the kitchen, which is a mystery that continues to elude her. Her grandfather always just laughed at these failures: Shizuka is suited for other things. She’ll find her own place without forcing anything.

Years later, she unwraps the bento that Watanuki has packed for her: karaage chicken, kinpira gobo, gomae, everything deftly laid out for the perfect balance of colors, ignoring the ranting that comes from his mouth and instead paying attention to what’s hidden in the food. There is care and respect here, for the food as much as anything else.

She doesn’t smile, but she eats all of it: she thinks someday, he’ll realize what it means.

+++++

The most unfair thing is that, for all that it skulks in the shadows of society and operates outside of the rules set by the other Great Houses, the Nightlay family still has its own rules, and these will be never be broken. The family will always be led by a man–the Duke is the one who will attend meetings with the heads of the other Houses, who makes the assignments and decisions for the rest of the family, and there can be no exception. Ever.

So it means that the single trueborn child of the Nightlay family–the one who has direct blood connection to the ancestors–is stuck sent going to school to learn ridiculous unnecessary things (if there was any hobby more useless than embroidery, she didn’t want to know of it) while her birthright is handed off to an interloper, a fake, whose only asset is that he was born a man. And never mind the elder of that pair–the family doesn’t care that she wears trousers and carries a gun and is how Pandora keeps a leash on the family: she’s neither blood nor male, brought in and kept only to make sure the heir is satisfied.

And that’s what builds into the total unfair situation: that they brought in two when they needed one. Elena could train until her hands are worn and tough as leather from fencing, study until she knew the rules of society better than her father himself, and it would all come to nothing.

She slams her fingers down hard on the keys of the piano, and doesn’t move until long after the discordant echoes fade away.

+++++

“I think the best part will be when puberty comes,” Etna gloats.

“Eh? Why’s that?” Flonne blinks, cocking her head.

“‘Cause the Queen was, you know–” Etna makes a cupping motion at her chest. “She had a nice body. So in a few more centuries …”

Flonne’s eyes go wide. She covers her mouth. “Oh,” she squeaks. “Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes,” Etna beams. “I can’t wait.”

+++++

One winter day, the princess saddles her horse and goes riding. She leaves behind a note and takes only enough provisions to last the day. Down to the field she goes, her pace slow and easy. Under the steel gray of the winter sky, she dismounts and spreads out a blanket, sitting cross-legged atop the dry dead grass. She pours wine into two glasses; one of these she holds up and tips, until the liquid spills out into the cracked earth.

“I think this is enough of a happily ever after,” she says. In the chill, her breath steams faintly. “Till I die, anyway, and I’m not doing that for a while. Not even for you.”

A breeze cuts through the field, sliding tiny icy fingers through her hair, rustling through the corpses of grass. You’d be surprised at how patient the dead can be. Don’t be so arrogant, no one else would be willing to wait.

“I’ll be satisfied with that, then,” she says, and drinks her share.

+++++

“It will be a wonder,” she growls, “if my partner survives this exam.”

Razette trills, reaching up to pat her cheek with one small damp hand. She leans into it with a muttered sigh.

“The idiot can’t even be bothered to pay attention in lecture, let alone actually do any work,” she goes on. “I asked if he’d done any sort of studying lately, and he started rattling off the three sizes for the female acolytes–including mine!” For a moment she clenches her hand into a fist, and contemplates the memory of her partner’s smirking face. “I swear, if he tries anything more–”

“He will be spoken to,” a deep voice says behind her. She spins around in surprise, blinking up into Bishop Bastien’s serene face.

“Ah,” she says, not quite embarrassed. “Sir, I didn’t mean–”

“He’s still very young,” Bastien murmurs. “And very … fond of the idea of ‘sowing his wild oats,’ so to speak, before this exam.” He puts a hand over his heart, meeting her eyes directly. “I’m sorry, Trainee Castor. He’ll be dealt with.” He cracked his knuckles abruptly and turned his back. “I promise you that.”

“See,” she tells Razette, watching him go. “That is a true gentleman of the church. If Frau could be more like him, then …”

Razette folds her arms on the stone edge of the fountain and leans her chin against them. She flips her tail idly through the water, and makes no reply.

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